Depression and the Gift of Grief

The world is loud and terrible this summer. It is as if the entire planet has tilted on its axis and dipped us all in nightmare.

The grass outside my bedroom window is dotted with yellow maple leaves. I don’t know if this is because summer is already ending or because the largest and oldest of the maple trees is dying. Perhaps it is both.

Land and growing things are broken, nations are broken, bodies and minds are broken. And we respond by shouting at one another.

 

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I indulge in shouting some days, but, mostly, I respond by retreating into silence.

When my children explode over cracked Legos and the last popsicle, I struggle to stay with them in the noise. I want only to slip away, to climb the steps to my bedroom, to sit in the curve of the bow window noticing yellow leaves on the lawn outside.

The world grows louder, and I grow quieter. Sometimes, this feels like wisdom, but I know it is also weakness.

It requires strength to share our stories. To risk being misunderstood.

It requires faith to tell small stories. To believe that what seems to be inadequate is of value.

When my fourth child was born, my body struggled to make milk for her. The hormonal peaks and valleys of that process seemed to switch a lever in my brain.

I became depressed.

I had so many reasons to be happy, but depression sucked all emotion from my mind and filled the emptiness with anxiety. I can remember sitting in my comfortable, soft rocking chair, holding my baby, and trying to remember why I had once cared about babies or repairing old farmhouses or ordering seeds for the spring garden or anything at all. I could no longer remember why it mattered if any of us ever got out of bed.

When I stopped trying to nurse my baby, and the last of my milk dried up, the depression lifted. A severe mercy.

It meant that I knew happiness again.

It meant that I knew sadness again.

Healing looked like a renewed capacity for both joy and sorrow.

This morning I read these words from Psalm 105:

Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;

make known among the nations what he has done.

Sing to him, sing praise to him;

tell of all his wonderful acts.

And I remembered what had happened to me after my daughter’s birth and knew that I did have a song of praise.

Thank you, Lord. Thank you for healing me enough to grieve.

 

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Our Stories Come From Hunger

Our Easter feast began the day before, on Saturday morning. One hundred or so neighbors. Two thousand or so eggs. Warm sunshine and hot coffee. Conversation and sticky children.

Or maybe it began earlier that week. When my sister and her four children tumbled, along with the crayons and crumpled napkins, from their minivan. A three-day road trip from Florida suddenly ended.

It is Easter, and we have feasted. On cousins sprouting like weeds and epic games of Monopoly. On baby chickens discovering bugs and grass and baby lettuces discovering rain.

We have feasted on hard-boiled eggs turned somewhat unappetizing shades of blue and my mother’s recipe for Greek chicken.

But mostly, we have feasted on time. On moments stretching into days spent at the table side-by-side with family.

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Family, for us, has always been feast or famine. Separated by miles, our mailing addresses like stars in a far-flung constellation, we do not relate casually. There is no dropping by. No Sunday lunches then home again. No Christmas gifts delivered in person. No grandparents to babysit for date night.

We have only not enough (telephone calls and emails) or too much (three daily cycles of the dishwasher and four of laundry just to keep the show running).

We know Lenten hunger, and we know Easter fullness.

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Feast days leave little space for story-making. Not storytelling. There is time for that as we sit at table. Storytelling is a necessary part of celebration.

But story-making is born of hunger rather than plenty. It is our longing that reveals the contours of new dreams and new stories. Because we hunger, because we do not have, because we suffer, we search for meaning like desperate sailors search for land.

We search for cool blue in desert wastes. We search for Kelly green in stubborn snow.

In winter, we toss in our sleep, and we dream of spring.

In spring, we sleep dreamlessly and wake refreshed.

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“For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Matthew 7:8

Lent: A Love Story

I thought there was only one way to tell the story. I was sure there was only one way to begin.

The beginning was the black page in my own little copy of the wordless book. The beginning was the black bead on the bracelet I made in Vacation Bible School. The beginning was the first bullet point in every gospel tract I’d ever seen. The beginning was that first brick on the Romans Road to Salvation: we all have sinned.

Sin, separation, estrangement: this is how the story always began.

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I thought I knew the story. I thought I had it right.

It began with a great debt. I owed this Christ everything. This is the story I was taught, and this is the story I believed.

This is the story that has shaped my whole life. And this is the story I still believe.

But I spent years crawling my way back to the beginning of the story. And ten years ago, I arrived. Desperate with pain and unmet desire, I let go of that black page. I let go of the blood-red, and I let go of the white.

I’d spent my whole life clinging to my own cleanness, my own goodness, trying to pay back the debt I owed, but it no longer mattered. The only things that mattered were these: was I known? Was I loved?

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When belief unraveled, when it no longer seemed to matter if I was good, I heard this: I see you.

God didn’t care if I was good. And he didn’t care if I believed. But he cared that I was hurting.

Because he loved me like I love my babies. And he held me like I hold my babies.

He held me until I could say, like Job, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

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It is Lent, and I am thinking about sin. I am thinking about the Love I encountered ten years ago.

My prayer these weeks has been the same every day. It is brief and simple: search me, O God, and know my heart. The result has been surprisingly straightforward. It has felt like God placing a mirror right in front of my face.

I can’t help but see what the mirror reflects, and I cringe. I see something ugly, something so buried I would never have discovered it on my own, and I feel the expected shame. I’d like, just for a moment, to forget what I’ve seen. But then another thought occurs to me: it takes such love to hold up that mirror. Thank you, God, I whisper. Thank you for loving me enough to show me this.

It’s as if God is the friend who won’t let me leave the house with spinach stuck between my teeth or toilet paper clinging to my shoe. What a relief it is to have a friend like that.

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And so, I have finally arrived at the black page. The black bead. The first brick. But I am not afraid. I am not ashamed. At least, not for long. Because I know what comes next. I know about the blood-red, and I know about the white.

And this story?

It is a love story.

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Because We Have Not Yet Arrived at the End

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

–          James Joyce, “The Dead”

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I want to write spring stories. I want to write glorious endings.

And why not? I am the storyteller. I am the one tap, tapping at this keyboard.

I know that others in this world are observing spring’s first blooms and taking walks on balmy nights. My snow-covered world is not the world in which everyone is living. I am winter-weary, and I want to move on to other themes.

But I have ceded control over my own stories. I have made a promise (to myself? To God?) to write stories rooted in my own particular place and this particular time.

And this place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

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On Saturday I walked the halls of a large art museum. I listened to echoes. I stared into the deep brown eyes of a woman who died in Egypt thousands of years ago. Her funeral portrait is lifelike. It hangs at eye level. She looked about my age. We might have been neighbors, I thought.

After that, each work of art seemed connected to some soul. The silversmith who worked the bracelet. The painter who held the brush. The model who sat for hours. The dancers portrayed in silk. The anonymous ones who wove the tapestry.

Each room revealed more of the vastness of our world. So many people live on planet earth today, I cannot even conceive of them all. But add in every life in every place and each time for all of history? My small mind struggles to believe there is a God who has known and loved each one.

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The end of the story is always the best part. It is the place where the messiness of the middle is resolved. The point where pain is redeemed and suffering fades into something beautiful. It is the place where I want to pitch my tent.

But I do not think we are always given that choice.

I keep seeing one particular crucifix. I encountered it in one of the museum’s rooms of medieval art. It was carved out of wood and out of anguish. The Christ figure was elongated and emaciated. Reaching tendrils of warm wooden hair seemed to say that this is pain without end.

This is suffering unfinished.

I drove long miles between the art museum and my house, and I thought about the crucifix. The carving was small enough to hold with one hand, but I wanted it to be bigger. I felt the heaviness of all those lives, like shades in every corner of the galleries. I wanted Christ crucified to be big enough to heal every soul for all time.

And I wanted it finished.

As I drove, snow began to tumble through the air. I could see it churning in the light of streetlamps and headlights. As it dusted rooftops and cornfields, I could feel winter settling back in for a longer stay.

***

We privilege endings, but we live in the middle.

This place is snow-covered.

And Easter is still a long way off.

 

Surprised By … Happiness

Are you visiting from Jennifer’s place today? You are welcome here.

I’m an English PhD who traded the university classroom

for an old farmhouse and a writing desk.

I write about dreams and desire, I write about family and faith.

I write to remember that life is magical.

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Her smile is even more dazzling in person.

Which means she stands out in this family. For the most part, we Purifoys are deep thinkers and deep feelers. Quick to notice trouble and pain, more than a little inclined to grumpiness first thing in the morning.

But not this one. We all dote on her because she’s the smallest, the cutest, but I think we dote on her for another reason: she is, more often than not, the happiest. She is a candle, a bouquet of flowers, a breath of fresh, spring air. Our happy, smiley baby girl.

And there’s a story behind that. A prayer, too.

I tend to pray vague, intangible prayers. They are halting, more than a bit ragged. But I think they are my best prayers. They are so full of holes, of all I don’t know and cannot quite see, there is plenty of room for God to come and live in them.

I know this because I once prayed for happiness.

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Sometimes we live with a story for quite a while before it occurs to us to share it. Sometimes we need a nudge. An invitation.

I am grateful to the writer and blogger Jennifer Dukes Lee for giving me that nudge. I am grateful for the invitation to share a story with her readers. Today, I’m sharing the story of this prayer. It was a surprising prayer with an even more unexpected answer.

I’d like to share this story with you, too.

Will you follow me here to read along?

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Advent (Day 10): Let Us Deck These Halls With Empty Space

On the first day of Advent, our church sanctuary was draped in evergreen.

Bare evergreen.

There were no shiny ornaments. There were no red or green ribbons. I looked at those unembellished greens and heard them say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

Our home looks much the same. Undecorated, except for the white pumpkin still sitting on the front steps.

It wasn’t intentional. Thanksgiving turned so quickly to Advent, all in a rush of visiting friends and family, that I couldn’t quite keep up. I found the advent wreath in the basement. The boys circled it with greenery. And that was all.

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The world outside our walls has thrown on the glitz and made room for the glitter and every other year I have been right there keeping time with that fast Christmas beat.

Not this year. Not yet.

For more than a week, I’ve sat with bare branches, four candles, and a pile of Christmas books. Every other year I have rushed to fill in the gaps, to embellish the plain, and to pile on more. This year the Advent cry Come, Lord Jesus, Come has echoed in bare corners and across empty tabletops.

And I have heard something in those echoes. Something that frightens me.

I have heard as if for the first time the story of how God came and his own did not recognize him. Of how he appeared in a story crowded with a greedy empire, an oppressed people, and long-whispered promises of deliverance and restoration. A good story. A true story. And yet …

Living within the density of their story, God’s own people were unprepared for the ways in which God himself would turn the story inside out and upside down. They were unprepared to meet the Truth face to face.

And this is what I have heard echoing in the empty spaces of my house: who am I waiting for? Will I know him when he comes?

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Year after year, I have rushed to fill the empty space of my fireplace with stockings. I have moved quickly to cover bare branches with ornaments. I have penciled in the calendar; I have filled the closet with gifts.

Year after year, I have greeted the Christmas season with everything I already know and all that I have figured out. I have said Come, Lord Jesus, Come to a face I find comfortingly familiar. A face with no more power to shock.

This year should have been the same, but a severe mercy and a difficult grace intended differently.

Without meaning to, I have decked these halls with empty space.

My prayer today remains the same. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. But this time, emptiness has made way for echoes. Bare corners have left room for the unknown and unseen.

And I prepare to have my world turned upside down by the King whose name I call.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

 

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