The Art Of Staying Alive

I pour myself into the things that matter.

I try not to think too hard. I try not to FEEL too hard.

I try to lay every thought and feeling down at the feet of Christ.

I try not to pick back up anything that is a lie. Or anything that is too heavy for me.

I joke with my clients,

and I celebrate eighth grade graduations,

and I dare to let seemingly meaningless things, like new earrings, matter to me.

I feel the warmth of the sun as I lay out, my legs intertwined at the ankles.

I read a book under a tree, while pine needles periodically fall down around me like snow.

I smile at a little bird who found his way into a coffee shop where I was drinking a chai tea latte.

I am learning that it’s okay to pull people close, to grab their arm and lay my head on their shoulder, and let myself feel close and held and loved,

and I’m learning that even when I’m alone, I am still close and held and loved. I don’t need to hold so tight all the time.

I am saying no to pizza and brownies and yes to Mediterranean paninis and carrot sticks.

I am saying no to sleeping fourteen hours and yes to long walks in the fading sun.

I am laying it all down. The tightness in my throat. My sense of feeling disconnected from being alive. My fears and hopes and dreams. I am laying it down.

And I am grabbing tight of what is:

I am alive. My life matters. God doesn’t make mistakes. I am loved.

When You Come Back To Life

Something inside of me is coming back to life.

I say that hesitantly, like when a branch on a plant you thought was long dead takes on a faint hue of green. You hold your breath and you agonize over whether you’re going to squash the life right out of it if you water it too much or not enough, give it too much sunlight or too little.

I told my therapist recently, “People who have labeled me as depressed have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Whatever it is I usually feel, it’s so much bigger and deeper than depression. It’s deadness. Inside, I am dead and nothing feels worth it and nothing feels real, no matter how many eyes I look into or birds I hear chirp, none of it matters AT ALL. Constantly my brain is telling my heart: “This thing MATTERS,” but my heart can’t feel it.

That’s not depression. And I know that because I’m still depressed, but I’m far enough away from that place that I can say, “No, that wasn’t normal. How I felt back then isn’t part of the normal human experience.”

People tell you to try harder, or cope better, or just suck it up and accept that life is hard. No, that is shit advice. You can’t tell a sick person to get well. You can’t belittle them or tell them they are doing something wrong and that’s why they’re sick. I was sick. I was sick. And I’m still recovering.

At least, when I look at that sprout of green, I hope that’s what it means- I hope it means recovery. The process of blooming back to life.

I was driving the other night with Will and Gabe, and the golden glow of the setting sun was coming through the trees, and I thought, “This moment matters to me.” And my heart agreed.

Green.

I’ve laughed with coworkers, and while I still can’t fathom doing life indefinitely, I’ve distinctly been able to label the moment I’m in as “worth the fight.”

Green.

And even in my sorrow, when I choose to endure it and then hand it to God, when I choose to see things from the right perspective rather than through the lens of my pain, when I choose to go to bed and try again tomorrow rather than reach for the alcohol and pills… When I lay my head down at night and everything inside of me hurts, but I’m able to believe that maybe tomorrow will be better?

That, too, is green.

All The Painful Things

I am in a season of growth. Which means, ironically, that I am in a season of dying- dying to myself.

I think people hear that, the call to die to ourselves, and think that means growing up. Maturing our hearts. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and accepting that life is hard.

That’s not what it means to me.

Dying to myself is not the same as no longer believing in magic and hope and beauty. To me it means absolutely refusing to give up on those things, but trusting God with the outcomes of my life.

Dying to self means letting yourself be sad about something, without trying to force a solution.

It means lifting your heart up to God, holding firm to the “child-like” belief that life is, at its heart, good, (because HE is good), but letting Him decide what will be. Dying to self is surrender.

And surrender? I think it’s a process of grief. You have to grieve what isn’t, and grieve not having any control over what will be. Surrender is saying, through tears sometimes, “This hurts, but I trust You.”

It hurts.

But I’m reminded there have been many times in my life when I’ve caught myself in a moment and thought, “Nothing right now hurts. Everything, in this moment, is good. And I’m glad to be alive.”

Pain is a liar. It comes blabbing about “forever” and “unbearable” and “pointless”, but none of those words are words God uses when He talks about pain. Rather, He says something along the lines of pain producing endurance, endurance character, and character hope.

Pain, when handled well, causes us to choose surrender. And when we do, we are essentially speaking over our lives that we believe God is good.

And He doesn’t disappoint.

I don’t know how to get from where I am today to where I want to be, but I know that the only way to get there is by choosing to walk this road that God has me on.

I have to choose to engage in this process. Even when it hurts.

Our pain isn’t pointless.

Beauty and Awe

There was a mom and a little girl about three years old, standing amidst some wildflowers during my walk today. I watched the mom hold a flower up for her daughter to examine. “Isn’t it pretty?” she asked.

And I thought about how all good moms do that. They raise their children to be in awe of this world. From flowers to airplanes to puppies to sunsets, kids are being taught: “This world is magic.”

My mom told me when that before I could really talk in earnest, I would gasp, point, and say: “Ooooh, look! Preeeetty!” Did I really think the thing I was pointing at was pretty? I don’t know. Maybe. But mostly I was just mimicking my mom. I knew enough to know that there was beauty to be found in this world, and I wanted her to know I, too, was keen enough to spot it.

Why do we do that? Why do we raise our kids, teaching them to see beauty, if beauty doesn’t exist? If life is deadlines and depression and death?

Why do we read them stories about princesses and adventure, where individual people’s hearts and hair colors and dreams and courage MATTER? Why do we read them stories about hope and laughter and love? Do we do that so that they’ll grow up believing all of that is true to life, only to be crushed by “reality” as adults?

Do ADULTS believe that individual people, their individual stories matter? Do they believe life is rich with love and laughter, and that hope is life’s heartbeat? I think few do. And those that do are called idealistic or naive.

And yet, here we are, feeding our kids awe and wonder and magic. And we’re doing it from a place of deep, deep love.

So why?

I think because, on some level, we know that wonder and beauty and awe and the things of children’s books are true.

We grow up and a flower is just a flower. And sunsets aren’t a big deal anymore because they happen every night and there’s dinner to make and kids to get into bed and who has time to watch the sun go down?

We grow up and our hearts get broken, and dreams don’t always come true, and so we abandon hope.

We hold people loosely, not really trusting them again not to hurt us. And protecting ourselves from hurt? That hurts too. It’s lonely and scary. And yet we still call it love. We redefine love in our minds, believing that’s as good as it gets.

We stop pursuing our dreams, deciding instead that they’re silly and that adults don’t dream, they work and pay bills and that’s the responsible way to be an adult.

We go through life dull to the richness of possibility all around us.

And it hurts. But “that’s just life”. So we look forward to moments that don’t hurt. Barbecues and beer with friends and crawling into bed at the end of the night.

We go through life partially dead inside.

But just partially.

Because something inside of us still knows enough to look a three-year-old in the eye, hold up a flower for her to see, and say, “Isn’t it pretty?”

 

Love Wears Work Boots

I stood in the middle of a two-lane road today and screamed at someone.

I was trying to be thoughtful. I was trying not to inconvenience anyone. And it back-fired. (Yes, that is self-pity you hear in my voice.)

I was going for a walk, and I reached the road. I could’ve hit the crosswalk button, but then the cars would’ve had to stop, and I knew I could cross to the center median before the car to my left even came close, and that I could wait there a few seconds until the car to my right passed.

But instead, just as I was stopping at the center median, the car to my right slammed on his brakes and started screaming at me about not hitting the crosswalk button. He was irate and dropping f-bombs… and so what was there to do but defend myself in typical Tamara style? It’s the social worker in me. I can’t keep my ever-loving mouth closed when something feels unfair.

And so I faced him, moving deliberately out in front of his car, and I screamed: “I WAS WAITING FOR YOU!”

More f-bombs on his end, and then his tires squealed and he drove away.

And I resumed my walk.

Only it only took me a few minutes of processing before I burst into shoulder-shaking, hiccuping sobs. And I walked that way, crying, for the next fifteen minutes, making people uncomfortable while I passed.

And, admittedly, the driver was maybe not even wrong for being mad. I’m sure he thought I was going to cross the road in front of him.

But I also know a typical person, even one who was angry with me, wouldn’t have screamed like that and swore repeatedly at me.

I text messaged Laura after that. “I don’t think I’m feeling very ‘love wins’ today,” I said.

*

I was reading a book description last night.

“…finding strength and courage in the most unimaginable places.”

“Determined to dictate their own fate…”

“…give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive…”

“Brave and defiant…”

“…friendships that will both nourish and challenge her.”

“A beautiful testament to love, family, and the sheer force of will…”

“…a figure of abiding grace.”

If someone were to write a story about my life, I would want it described in that way.

I want to live a beautiful story.

*

I was talking with Pauline yesterday about fighting for truth, about not letting my emotions dictate my behaviors.

I told her how I felt, and then I said: “But the best thing I can do for [this person] is to set my emotions aside and fight for truth. And I want to do that.”

I do. I want to love well. I don’t want to make my emotions, (which, let’s face it, are often the product of lies and fears), the priority of every situation. I want to choose love. I want to choose them over me.

After I said all that, Pauline reminded me that she’s talked with me for a long time about fighting for truth. Admittedly, I have kind of rolled my eyes at it before, believing my emotions to always be the truest, most important thing.

Then Pauline said, “It strikes me that God knows you through and through. He created you. And He knew that, in order to commit to this fight, He’d have to put you face-to-face with something you really valued.” Then she paused and said, “And He knew you’d fight if it was for [this person].”

It’s so true.

God doesn’t put us in situations that hurt, but He uses them.

Our pain isn’t without meaning.

*

Love, love that puts the other person first, that shushes our own scream for comfort and security, it’s hard.

It’s a series of deliberate and conscious choices.

Whether it’s space or a hug, a night out or a long conversation, you show up (metaphorically or otherwise) in the name of love.

And, for all the ways you can’t make things better, you lift that person up in prayer. You plea and petition with the Lord to do for that person what you are incapable of doing.

You take a deep breath and you do the right thing. Over and over and over again. You tell your other emotions to sit down, and you call Love to the bat.

And you text a friend. You ask for prayer. Because Lord knows how hard it is to make smart choices, especially when your emotions are involved. You say, “Please pray with me for strength to make the right choices, and for my perspective to be based only on truth, and for my heart to be filled with peace and patience.”

Because we need each other. Loving well takes being loved well.

*

A few days ago, Pauline asked me how I’d like to be remembered when this life of mine ends.

And, without hesitation, I said: “She loved well.”

A Little More Wonder

I read recently: “God must be a pretty big fan of today, because you keep waking up to it.”

God’s perspective on today–the day as a whole, and the day that I am individually going to live–is positive.

My perspective is not. Even when I engage in mental gymnastics, trying to will my insides to cooperate, there’s something inside of me that is dead to life. Life doesn’t resonate with me anymore.

*

I was kayaking with my friend today. Good company. Nothing heavy on my heart. Sunny sky. Cool water. All was well. And yet, I looked around me, I took in the lily pads and the cottonwood floating through the air to land on the water around me, and I looked into the face of my friend, and I still could not understand how anyone chooses to live. How is anyone doing it?

And I paddled my kayak and silently willed the dead part of me to come back to life. I reminded myself that GOD HIMSELF CREATED THIS LIFE; there is goodness all around me. There are reasons to live all around me.

The bad doesn’t negate the good. The good is still here. And my inability to commit to living this gift? It isn’t because life isn’t worth it, it’s because something inside of me can no longer register the miracle of simply existing.

I can make a list of bad things and good things about life, but you know what? Neither of those lists carry much weight with me right now. My problem isn’t that life has too much bad or not enough good, my problem is that I can’t feel any desire to be here. I am disconnected from it all.

I need the Lord to teach me how to live. To take me back through a childhood and adolescence and young adulthood. To teach me about wonder and curiosity and awe, about what family and love and security should look like, to create in me a desire to use my life for something that will outlast me.

*

I was watching a medical show tonight, and I found myself wondering if it was fair for the medical team to treat a person’s body if they suspected brain damage. Is it fair to fight for a person’s body to live if their brain is dead? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for that. But I know what I’d want for myself, or for someone I loved.

Something inside of me is dead. And still, I am daily choosing life.

I am daily facing my giants of depression and dysthymia and panic and screaming aloneness and fear and grief and the desire to sleep forever. Every day I am choosing.

Every day, I show up for the battle, even though I don’t want to anymore. Neither I nor the giants have any desire to be looking each other in the eyes, and yet there I am, back for round two or twenty or two thousand.

But how do I fight for life when something inside of me isn’t even alive anymore?

I don’t know. You just choose, I guess. You choose and just hope you’re able to keep choosing well.

And today I chose to meet my friend to go kayaking. I chose to preach goodness to my soul by engaging in some of the best that life has to offer, even though I can’t feel it right now.

I laughed with my friend and I breathed deeply. I floated on the lake, dragging my hand through the water, and listening to the rustle of nearby trees.

And I prayed, “Lord, teach me how to live.”

All The Living Things

There’s a man sleeping on the sidewalk outside my office window.

Yesterday I watched a woman eat a sandwich, mayonnaise and saliva oozing down her chin.

Five days a week, I look into hollow eyes and watch people take pills and I wonder about life. I wonder about the significance of any of it. I wonder why some people sleep outside and numb their pain with needles and I wonder how they do it, how they keep doing life when it’s cold outside and they have no bed and all their friends are unshowered and swearing. And I wonder why them and why not me. And I wonder what if it was me? What if that became me?

*

Yesterday, under the fading sun, I played lacrosse with him. We laughed and ran through the grass barefoot and I thought, “THIS is why people live. For moments like this.”

I watched my friend play guitar, his pain and heart and perspective on life becoming art. And I marveled at that, at how some people can take this life, the bigness of it, and not be consumed by it, but rather use their voice to encourage and comfort and inspire others, putting truth on display in a way that isn’t scary but that reminds us we’re all in this together.

She looked into my eyes and kissed my head and hugged me and I thought, “I’d choose this moment over any moment with my biological family.” Moments like those? That, too, is why people choose to do life. The people in my life right now, they are the family of my heart. I lost my biological family, sure, but I didn’t really lose anything because, in exchange, God gave me so much more- people who see me and know me and look at me with love and promise they won’t leave.

*

I wonder if they’re catching on to me at work.

The RN was talking about a client the other day, and he said the client is taking more than the recommend amount of Advil. Then he told the team that he advised the client not to do that because “that will kill you.”

Reflexively, I said, “It will?”

A couple days later he was talking about a client with diabetes and how if his blood sugars get down to 40, he could go into a diabetic coma.

“Can anyone have such low blood sugar, or just diabetics?” I asked.

Even though I’m in a better place, my mind automatically goes there.

*

“You’re adorable,” she said to me, this stranger. And I wondered what people see when they see me.

Would I give up on this person I am? I am the only one who will ever have this voice and this heart and this smile. Would I give up on this person that God created with so much love and detail? Would I lay to rest forever these hands that have cuddled babies and lovingly stroked Arlow’s face and typed out words that resonated with others? Would I chose to put a “the end” in the middle of the story God is still scripting?

What if they left me? What if no one loved me or thought I was “adorable”. Would I give up then?

*

“I’m sad,” I told her. “I’m sad because I’m scared and I’m sad because I hurt and I’m sad because life is hard.”

In response, she said the only thing there is to say: “I don’t want you to be sad. I love you.”

And I thought about that. There are worse things to be than sad, I suppose. Like mean. I’d rather be tender-hearted and sad than cold-hearted and mean. Maybe there’s a blessing in the sadness.

*

“I feel like Cinderella,” I told her. “I feel like my carriage is going to turn back into a pumpkin.”

I’m scared.

But maybe the fear is a lesson. Maybe God is teaching me how to let love be what it is, to trust in it even when it feels uncomfortable.

I can’t grab on to people like I hold tight to my blanket. Life doesn’t work like that. Which means, until I learn to be a person apart from other people, and until I learn to trust people when they say they love me, I’m going to spend a lot of time feeling uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable is a gift, though. At least if we use it well. Uncomfortable is always the first step to growth.

You can’t define love. You can’t label it and pin it down and put it in a box or a chart or a graph or something tangible that keeps it permanent and immobilized and for sure. Love is a living thing, not a thing to be controlled. A thing to surrender to, to be swept up in, to let breathe. You can’t control it; you just have to let it be.