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Some Pushback From Last Week’s Post & Thoughts On Setting Boundaries

28 Mar

I received some pushback on last week’s blog post, Why I Haven’t Been Going to Church. I asked the sender, who is a good friend and someone who has known me since I was a kid, for permission to share our conversation on my blog. I wanted to share this conversation for several reasons:

1) I thought he made some very valid points.

2) It’s a great example of respectful pushback, about which the entire internet could stand to learn a thing or two.

3) I’ve received several notes from pastors and educators, throughout the week, about how my post has sparked some discussion within their churches about millennials and pastoral care. I thought it might be helpful for others to see my response since I’m a millennial.

Our Conversation:

Neely, I love your blog that is circulating on Facebook now. There’s a lot I want to say about your thoughts. I like them very much. They give me insight I’ve never had before. I have lots of compliments.

But I want to push, too. If you were still a member of (church I used to be a member of), I would want to see you in church. I know it would be difficult. But I would want to see your face, to hug you and Dave, to get on my knees for Sophia to give me a high five. You’d get all the bone-headed, well meaning questions, etc. And I’m sure it would still make you ache. But we as a flock would be so much richer with you adding to our hymns of joy and lament. You’d help us keep it real. Your very presence might help us keep our feet to the fire of being an authentic community of faith.

I read your words, and I understand them as best an outsider can. But there’s another reality, too, that has to do with the localized body of Christ needing to be whole and that can’t happen until everybody is there.

I’m describing an other-worldly view, I guess, a “Places of the Heart” eschatology*, and yonder Jordan reality, but we’d be closer to that heaven-on-earth with you, Dave, and Sophia in a pew.

* Eschatology is the theological study of end times. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.

My thoughts on this are rough, and probably wrong. That’s why I’m sharing them privately in this message. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.

But I’m not in your shoes. And I believe I’d be more whole if I saw your shoes at church on Sunday. That’s how much you and your family are needed. That’s how much you are loved.

While I was taking time to think about his message, I responded:

Thanks for your thoughts. You are eloquent and wise as always.

His Response: 

Neely, I’m probably neither. I’m sometimes am an idealist when it comes to the church. I just see it as a safe place for broken people, which is one reason I’m in it.

I love your blog when you say you’re not madder than usual at God or Church. It’s a safe haven and God is a friend, except for the times when it’s not and he isn’t. Sometimes the church is a desperate institution trying to pay its bills, and God is, well, just God.

Well, I’m sure glad I know your family. Take good care.

My Response (I clearly went with the Socratic method. Geez, so many questions.): 

I’ve slept on it and had some time to reflect. Here’s my response:

You’re someone who has taken a sabbatical, right? Why take a sabbatical? Why go away to rest and study and be creative and be silent and listen to God? Why is that beneficial? Why can’t you do all those things in the presence of your congregation? Why create a special time that is set apart to grow and allow God to nourish you in new and different ways?

Why did Jesus go off into the wilderness by himself? Why did Jesus get on a boat to get away from the crowds? Why did Jesus stop worshiping and preaching in his hometown? (I’ve got an answer to this one. It’s because they wanted to throw him off a cliff, and he knew that he needed to live to fight another day.) Not that I am Jesus in this scenario. I’m just sayin’, there’s precedent.

I think the church is theoretically a great place for broken people even though it is filled with people who fear brokenness. I also think the church is a great place for workaholics, and an excellent environment for burnout because we want so badly to be Christ-like — for everyone to be Christ-like — we often try to convince ourselves and others to crucify themselves.

When my mom was first diagnosed she did a lot of reflecting on her life, and one of the biggest things that she regretted was that she had not done a good job of taking care of herself. She’d spent her entire life putting others before herself, and she wondered if that weren’t the reason she now found herself to be very sick. She wanted me to learn from her mistakes — we talked more about this during the days she was dying as well. She wanted me to learn to be good at self-care and setting boundaries because this is not something that the church or society teaches. I think this is especially true in the case of women. She wanted me to learn to be fierce with my boundaries and my self-care, and she wanted me to teach and model those things for Sophia. My family has a pretty extensive history of women who put themselves last, the results being early death, and institutionalization. My mother and I decided it was time to break that cycle, and model healthier behavior for future generations.

“The church” has asked me to crucify myself several times in the course of my life, but I keep telling it no, because I’ve got stuff to do.

I remain always a fan and admirer of yours.

Grace and Peace,

Neely

And lastly, a word from our blogger about setting boundaries:

This week, I have also received notes from readers around the interwebs giving me permission to take a break from church. This is nice and all, and I get that the basic sentiment is reaching out to offer empathy and support. But here’s the wonderful thing about boundary setting: I do not actually need your permission to do it. This sounds snarky, and I don’t mean it that way. I really don’t. It’s just that I would like to see people doing a better job of setting boundaries for themselves. I would particularly like to see women doing a better job of boundary setting. So, I think it’s important to say that setting boundaries is about giving yourself permission to take care of you.

When it comes to setting boundaries, ain’t nobody gonna do it for you, folks. That’s your job.

 

Why I Haven’t Been Going to Church

21 Mar

“Why haven’t you been going to church lately?”

It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently in one form or another. I even received it from an atheist friend not too long ago, which caused me to suck my teeth like an sullen teenager and say, “Who are you, my grandmother? What do you care whether I attend church or not?” The reply was something like, “It’s just strange, that’s all. I mean, you are a practicing Christian, aren’t you?”

Other questions run along the lines of:

Are you mad at God?

My reply: Not really. Not any more than usual.

Are you having a faith crisis?

My reply: I mean, faith is always kind of a crisis, isn’t it? So, I don’t know. Maybe?

Are you mad at “the church”?

My reply: Not really. Not any more than usual.

I’m always at least a little bit mad at God and “the church”, but that’s a tension I embrace and with which I am comfortable. It’s even a tension to which I often feel a sense of call. Perhaps it’s the millennial in me.

So, why haven’t I been going to church lately?

The short answer: I’m not ready to go back yet.

The long answer: Oh, jeez . . . it’s such a long story. But here it is.

See, my church situation is complicated. I am basically, for all intents and purposes, a PK, which is short for pastor’s kid. How does one explain the complex subculture of Presbyterian PKs and Presbyterian church professionals to someone who isn’t part of it? I have no idea, but I’ve often thought of basing a novel on this strange, strange subculture. Neither of my parents was actually a pastor, however both are often mistaken for pastors. They have even been imagined into graduating seminary classes. There have been times when I’ve tried to explain that my parents aren’t actually pastors only to be met with an insistent, “No. No, they are. They went to seminary with me. Didn’t they?” Nope.

While I was growing up, my father served six different Presbyterian Church (USA) organizations — three different camp and conference centers in three different states, followed by three homes for abused, abandoned, and neglected kids, also in three different states. I’m not great at math, but according to my calculations that’s six states. We moved a lot. The other question I am often asked is if I was an army brat. Nope. I’m a PK, sort of.

My mother was a Director of Christian Education (DCE). Factor in that I spent part of my career working professionally for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and what you’ve got is that I know a lot of people . . . a lot of Presbyterian people.

A couple of years ago while I was attending a writing conference in New York City, my critique partner who is also from South Carolina, was worrying over what we would do in the event one of us had an emergency so far from home. I immediately shrugged and said it was no problem, I had friends nearby who would help us if we needed anything. Then I listed five people I knew who lived right there in Manhattan where we were staying. Her eyes got big. “How do you know all those people?” she asked. “They’re Presbyterian,” I answered. The next day, while strolling through Times Square, I ran into a friend of a friend from West Virginia. We chatted for a while about mutual acquaintances and also about camp. Then parted ways. Totally normal Presbyterian PK experience.

In short, I didn’t grow up in any one church. I grew up in a bunch of them. I grew up in a church that wasn’t a building. I grew up in a church that was an expansive fellowship of people all over the country . . . the world even.

When my mom was first diagnosed with cancer we moved in with my parents, in part because we were in the middle of a big life transition, and in part because someone needed to be home to help take care of my mother while my father was at work. I’d had a baby 6 months prior to Mom’s diagnosis. I’d also been the family breadwinner 6 months prior to Mom’s diagnosis. But suddenly, I found myself the stay-at-home mother of an infant and the stay-at-home daughter of a very sick mother. That’s where my life careened wildly off of the path I had charted for myself, which was go to seminary and become an ordained Presbyterian pastor.

Eventually, my mom went into remission, my dad retired, my husband took a new job, and we moved out. My parents relocated to a town where a lot of people who have spent their vocations working professionally for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) go to retire. They congregate there because when you have spent your entire life moving from place to place within “the church”, your community isn’t local. It’s a vast group of people who have spent their vocational lives in a similar manner, with whom you’ve formed important relationships because you’ve been the Body of Christ for one another over the years as together you’ve witnessed both the ugliest parts of “the church” as well as the most beautiful. Nobody but those people can quite understand what your life has been. So, my parents moved there to take care of my mother’s health and to be among their community.

But my mom’s cancer eventually came back, and it came back with a vengeance. This time I wasn’t living in the same house with her. No. This time I was three hours away (six hours round trip). At first things were fine. We all felt really positive, and Mom’s cancer was manageable. She was active and healthy and pretty much lived a normal life, but as her health declined, more and more, I found myself needing to commute the six hours to help out. I did most of my commuting on the weekends, which meant I started to miss church at the local church we’d joined when we moved. For two years I had attended regularly, been an active youth adviser, and helped teach the Wednesday night children’s program, but with my mother’s health declining, I needed to step down from those responsibilities.

The real kicker came in April of 2012 when my mother had to have an ileostomy because of some cancer blockages in her abdomen. Allow me to explain this fresh hell that was my mother’s ileostomy. An ileostomy is when your small intestine is surgically rerouted to a large, painful, open wound a couple inches from your belly button. This open wound is swollen and raw and it really needs to heal. However, there is the added complication that it is also the new exit for the contents of your digestive system, which really should not be spread over an open wound. To complicate things even more, part of your small intestine has been removed, so your body no longer absorbs the amount of nutrients it needs. Keeping weight on and not becoming ridiculously dehydrated is now a constant battle. There are lots of people with ileostomies who live very happy, productive lives. However, my mother had one more added complication, which was that she was doing chemotherapy on top of everything else, and chemotherapy is like being slowly poisoned.

She needed round the clock care. She needed nearly constant infusions to keep her body hydrated and properly nourished. She was so weak and in pain she could barely do anything for herself, and there was complicated medical machinery to operate, blood sugar levels to be tracked, special meals to be prepared, etc., etc., world without end. Amen. It was too much for any one person to handle. So, I spent more and more time at my parents house helping my father care for my mother. And before I’m asked, why didn’t you just get home healthcare? (I’ve been asked this question so many times, as if it were a magical solution to all our problems that I was too dense to have thought of on my own.) Well, we did have some home healthcare, but it turns out that changing an ostomy bag is not something that just anyone can do. In fact, most nurses don’t know how to do it unless they’re ostomy specialists. Anyone want to take a wild guess about how many home heath nurses are ostomy specialists?

So, my father and I became masters at the art of changing an ostomy bag. How many times does an ostomy bag have to be changed? Well, that depends on how often it leaks or it breaks or it refuses to adhere properly. There were many days and many nights spent entirely on trying to change an ostomy bag. At this point, I would often stay at my parent’s house for over a month at a time, while my husband was three hours away because he had to go to work. Meanwhile, on any given night, I might be trying to bathe a three-year-old and changing an ostomy bag at the same time. Although, there were many times when I left my daughter at home with my husband, especially after she started preschool.

So, on the weekends that I was home, I didn’t go to church. I slept and spent precious hours alone with my husband and daughter, lapping up the time that the three of us got to be together. And thus, I sort of fell out of the habit of going to church. Although, I did attend my parent’s church now and then, which was great because it was a congregation that 1) knew my parents and what was going on with them, and 2) contained a lot of people who’d known me since I was a child. I could go there and not have to explain anything.

One weekend while I was at home, I decided to go to the church where I am a member. I hadn’t been in a long time, and was immediately greeted with, “We’ve missed you. Where have you been?” It was all perfectly innocent and kind and well-intentioned, but I found myself having to explain to people over and over again where I’d been. It was exhausting, and the way my life was going, I had no — and I mean ZERO — energy to spare. No one could really quite grasp what I had been doing with my time. No one could really quite grasp the horror that was my life. And as people do, they made stupid comments like, “Well, I guess if you have to be caring for your sick mother, there are worse places to be than the Western North Carolina mountains.” And. “You know, they say with cancer half the battle is staying positive. Is your mother staying positive?” When you are sleep deprived, running entirely on adrenaline, and the only thing you’ve seen much of for the past month is gore, an ostomy bag, and the inside of your mother’s bedroom, these comments can chafe a bit.

And hey! I get it. I do. Not long ago I was chatting with a woman who’d just found out she had a brain tumor. She was describing all the strange symptoms that had led up to her seeking out a specialist to find out what was wrong. I asked, “When you found out you had a brain tumor was it kind of a relief to know why you were experiencing those symptoms?” She gave me the most withering look humanly possible and said, “No, it wasn’t a relief. I have a brain tumor!” At which point I mentally smacked myself in the forehead, and called myself a dumb-ass. So, we all do it. We all say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It just happens, and that’s okay.

Not long after my mother made the decision to move into Hospice, her pastor, Shannon, came to visit her in the hospital. Shannon had been a wonderful support and trusted friend to my mother throughout her journey through cancer. The moment that Shannon walked into that hospital room is forever frozen in my mind. She came in, walked over to my mother’s bed, and said, “Hi Peggy.” My mom looked up at her and very solemnly said, “Shannon, I’m dying.” Shannon quietly said back, “I know.” Then she bent over, took my mother’s face in her hands, looked deep into her eyes, and said, “You have been so brave.”

I heard those words as if God, herself/himself, had spoken them.

It’s been six months since my mother died, and I still haven’t been able to return to church. It’s not that I’m any more mad at God or “the church” than usual. I haven’t been back to church because for four years cancer has defined my life. Not only am I processing my mother’s death and my own grief, I’m processing how truly goddamn awful it all was — not her death, but her cancer.

I am the daughter of two people who devoted their entire lives to a vocation within “the church”, which means I’ve done a lot of living outwardly within “the church”. There are parts of my life in “the church” for which I am profoundly grateful, and there are parts of my life in “the church” that have left scars. As I said earlier, the subculture of Presbyterian PKs and Presbyterian church professionals is complex, but the relationships I have from a lifetime spent within that subculture are invaluable, and they’ve helped me get through this dark time in my life.

Shannon’s words often echo through my mind these days. “You have been so brave.” That was so very true of my mother, but it was also true of my father and me. We were so brave for such a long time, and now I’m exhausted. I am resting. I have turned inward. I am taking a break from institutional church. I am taking a break from large crowds. I am taking a break from situations that completely zap my limited energy. I am practicing self-care, and putting the boundaries in place that I need in order to process and heal. I am also enjoying uninterrupted, cancer-free time with my husband and daughter, which is something we haven’t had in four years.

I didn’t grow up in any one church. I grew up in a bunch of churches. I grew up in a church that isn’t a building, but rather, is an expansive fellowship. There are a small group of people within that fellowship with whom I am intimate, who have cared for me and my family so tenderly and with such expertise. It’s not that I have walked away from “the church” or given up on it. It’s that, right now, I am allowing the people who most understand and love me to care for me.

*Note: The pastor at the church where I am a member is awesome. She checks in on me now and then in expertly non-obtuse ways. We’ve had the conversation about why I haven’t been coming to church. In short, she’s in the loop, and she’s a very calm, supportive presence.

A Little Whine With My Slice of Life

14 Jan

It [Grace] is unearned love — the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

– Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies; Some Thoughts on Faith

Yesterday sucked. I threw the new manuscript I’m working on against the wall because it sucks, and I have no idea how to move forward on it. All of the dishes in my kitchen are dirty. ALL OF THEM! EVERY LAST ONE! There is a pile of laundry living on my couch, and I’m not sure if it’s clean or dirty. Netflix has been working overtime to babysit my daughter, as of late, and I even let her watch “Barbie’s Dream House”. So, I’m a failure as a parent and a feminist! The bank account is a nightmare. My mother, who would have had wise words of comfort about these kinds of things, is dead. And I received a particularly ouchy rejection letter concerning my last manuscript!

So, I yelled at myself, “YOU’RE FIRED!” And myself yelled back, “YOU CAN’T FIRE ME! I QUIT!” Then I took to my bed like a frail character from a Jane Austin novel and announced that I would be taking my tea in my room today, thank you very much. Only, no one was home so I had to get up and get it myself.

When Dave came home, I informed him that I’d quit, but would stay long enough to help train my replacement. He smirked at me because apparently he’s used to my antics. Then he held up a catalogue that had come in the mail on which was a picture of a rather comely underwear model.

“Can we get her?” he asked.

“I don’t think we can afford her,” I told him. “She gets paid a lot more than me to be overly dramatic. There’s no way we can offer a competitive salary.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said. “Oh well.”

Then he kissed me on the forehead, went to the grocery store, and came back with a sugar cookie. The kind with rainbow sprinkles. I practiced brooding while I ate it. I tried to brood attractively like a book heroine, but unfortunately snot, messy hair, and sweat pants were involved. Dave made me a ham and cheese omelet for dinner and told me to watch sappy anime. So, I did.

When Sophia came in to give me a goodnight hug, she chirped happily about how she’d gotten to play Chip and Dale on the playground with a friend. I asked her if she meant the chipmunks or the male dancers. She stared at me blankly for a second, then quoted something from “Barbie’s Dream House.” I did a Google search to find out when the parent of the year awards are taking place.

Then, I flipped through Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies trying to find the quotation above, because I wanted to tell God something to that effect, but I couldn’t quite remember how it went. When I finally found it, I said aloud, “God, I have no bright ideas left. I’m empty and desperate and have discovered that my best thinking and my most charming charm have failed me.” God and I left it at that, and I went to bed.

This morning, I woke up and rehired myself, but only on a probationary basis.

The Painting Table — Guest Post and Giveaway

26 Nov

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Roger Hutchison is Canon for Children’s Ministries at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, SC. In his vocation, he has been privileged to gather around the Painting Table with those experiencing grief in a diverse variety of ways – everything from temporary housing, drug addiction, job loss, and poverty to the challenges and blessings of childhood and the elderly. In May of 2013 he was invited to Newtown, CT to paint with the children and families of Sandy Hook. Roger’s book, The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy, releases December 1, 2013 from Church Publishing, Inc. He invites you to pull up a chair and join him at the Painting Table.

* Roger is giving away a signed copy of the book. Read on to find out how to get your name in the drawing for The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy.

The Painting Table full rgb

The Painting Table

It’s the place where I go to pray.

It’s the place where I go to remember.

The simple oak table belonged to my grandmother.  It was the place where she served us beautiful vegetables from her garden or fresh fish from Goodson Creek.  It is the same table that I once turned into a fort by covering the table with quilts and blankets.  I would peer underneath the edge of the draped quilt and watch the feet of those I love move around the kitchen.  Meals were being prepared.  Stories were being told.  I felt safe.  I knew love.

I remember seeing the feet of my grandparents standing side by side in front of the sink.  She would wash.  He would dry.  It was a ritual as ancient as the stars.

He died before she did, and she’s been gone now for almost ten years.  Oh how I miss her.

I also remember my friend Suth. As a child, he escaped to America from Cambodia with his family.  I had no friends.  He had no friends.  We didn’t speak the same language, but we fished together, and pretty soon the friendSHIP set sail.  We became best friends.  We became brothers — the brown boy with dark, almond-shaped eyes and the white boy with a soft body and a soft heart.

I go to the table to remember my friend.  He, too, has been gone now for almost as many years as he was alive.  I miss him.

I am an artist, and my grandmother’s kitchen table is now my painting table.  I received it when she died.

Late one evening, as I was struggling to finish a painting that I had been working on, I reached such a level of frustration, that I took my brushes and threw them into the trash.  I took my hands and put them directly into the paint.  I began to swirl and blend the colors in ways that I could never have done with a brush.  It was a grace-filled moment that lasted deep into the night.  I met God face to face that holy night.

The table has become a Eucharistic symbol for me.  It is the place where I go to paint, pray, and remember.

Painting is the way I talk to God. I find joy when I move my fingers through puddles of color and across a blank canvas. I am always surprised – and blessed — by the conversation that takes place. It is as if a good friend has joined me for glass of wine and a time of catching up.

My painting table is an actual table, but the idea of the Painting Table is more than a wooden top with four legs.  It is about the invitation.  It is about sharing our own sacred stories.  It is a safe and holy space where conversation, prayer, and healing can take place.

While there is grief, sadness, and loss, there is also hope.  There is an opportunity for celebration as we gather together, break bread, talk, and are welcomed.  Whether it is through cooking, painting, or Eucharist, we come together to remember.

What was ordinary has become extraordinary.  The same simple oak table where my grandmother would serve us delicious meals from her garden was now my Painting Table – an altar of remembrance and healing, baptized with splashes of color and tears.

* To enter to win a signed copy of Roger’s book, leave a comment telling us about something that is a Painting Table in your life. You can tell us as much or as little as you want. I’ll enter the names in Rafflecopter to draw a winner. Below are some blurbs about the book.

– “With the playful spirit of an artist and blank pages with prompts Roger Hutchison gives us permission take time to dig deeply and let our very souls talk in a language beyond words.” – Jenifer C. Gamber, author of My Faith, My Life: A Teen’s Guide to the Episcopal Church and Call on Me: A Prayer Book for Young People

– “The Painting Table is a treasure for one person or a group experiencing the grief of loss and the sacred work of living beyond goodbyes. This book is beautiful in image and moving through word and silence. As a priest and a hospital chaplain, I have witnessed the multitude of emotions that accompany grief and loss. The Painting Table is a beautiful way to meet these unorganized and deeply personal emotions through art and reflection. Many people have experienced taking their own seat at a certain ‘story-drenched’ table, learning to grow as family through the sacred act of holding on and letting go – saying hello and goodbye. Roger Hutchison’s gentle, heartfelt telling of his own loss and treasured memories touches those deep and familiar places. A wonderful resource for all seeking a safe place to remember.” — The Reverend Carrie Craig, hospital chaplain

Dance in the Graveyards

31 Oct

 The dance sped up, and the dancers with it. Bod was breathless, but he could not imagine the dance ever stopping: the Macabray, the dance of the living and the dead, the dance with Death . . . Each of the dancers took a partner, the living with the dead, each to each. Bod reached out his hand and found himself touching fingers with, and gazing into the grey eyes of, the lady in the cobweb dress. – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

The last week of my mother’s life, she had a final request. She wanted me to read her my manuscript. She’d read every incarnation of it over the past three years; from its first really shitty inception to a version of it I’d completed last November, but she had not yet read the version I’d spent January to June rewriting because of an offer from a literary agent that I’d eventually decided to turn down. So, I sat beside my mother’s deathbed and read her my book. It was nice, this last activity between the two of us – like all the nights we popped popcorn and stayed up late watching movies. She even had me bring her an ice-cold Coke, which she sat sipping out of a straw as she listened attentively. And I told her then, if I ever got it published, I’d dedicate it to her. She smiled; possibly remembering the time when, after a dark period of my life followed by a major identity crisis, I’d tremulously told her that I thought I wanted to be a writer.

“Well, of course you do,” she’d said, as if surprised I was just now figuring this out. “That’s what you’ve always wanted.”

This story — my story — was the last story she would ever hear again in this life, and we both knew it. And what had I spent the last three years writing? A dark fairytale about death.

That was the first time it dawned on me that I’d spent three years writing about death. When asked, I tell people, “I wrote a ghost story, nothing more.” I tell them that I wrote it because I like ghost stories – they’re the last vestiges of a storytelling tradition that is slipping away. But as I sat there reading beside my mother’s deathbed, I realized my story was really me subconsciously grappling with death and grief in a fictitious way – slaying the goblins of cancer and loss, putting my hands on them and turning them inside out to see what they might be made of. I see that now, but I doubt a reader would. On its surface it’s just a story about a girl and a graveyard and a terrifying journey and some riddles and some ghosts and some monsters that know some secrets and a family that includes the living and the dead. At the end, there is resurrection and new life, but a lot of suffering and soul-searching has to happen first. My story opens, appropriately enough, in a graveyard on Halloween night. It starts with a girl, telling a story.

I have always loved Halloween. It’s my holiday. I like it so much better than Christmas with its neatly wrapped presents and its xanax-popping stabs at glittering perfection. Halloween is messy – messy without apologies. The darkness of it touches something deep within my soul that is sacred. I love the ghosts and goblins, witches and demons, zombies and Frankensteins. I love the jack-o-lanterns — those glowing orange skulls, grinning their toothy grins, and staring their candle-lit stares out of triangular, eyeless sockets. And let’s not forget the candy. I’m a big fan of the candy!

Halloween is a carnival of death and darkness, a caricature of life’s ugliness and grief. It’s a time when we drag our fears out of the closet, look them in the eye, and let them run amock. In a society that has trouble looking fear in the face, and sanitizes death, speaking the very word in whispers as though it were something shameful, I find this macabre celebration refreshing – honest. It is a holiday that frolics in the face of death, while at the same time acknowledging its gritty, loamy beauty. Sounds a lot like faith, if you ask me.

One of the images of death I carry within me is that of a slim, young woman in a black sheath dress, red shawl draped elegantly over her shoulders like rose petals or blood – haunted, dark eyes staring out of her pale face as she stands regal and ramrod straight beside the coffin of her deceased husband. She is painted against the backdrop of my mind’s eye as though she were a hybrid of the Madonna and Morticia Adams. Like a mantle, she wears grace, fierceness, defiance, and horror as elegantly as she wears the blood-red shawl. This is the image I carry of my dear friend Kelly as she stood beside her 34-year-old husband’s open casket shortly after his unexpected death. It’s a harsh and somber sight, but it’s one that is beautiful and real and honest and filled with love and strength. That last dark fairytale I read to my mother was the same way, and it was what we needed, because regular fairytales with their rainbows and unicorns are not appropriate for deathbed-reading.

Frederick Buechner writes, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us.” Which, of course, carries the echo of Romans 8: 38-39 “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”

Here is your life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. Let the goblins out of their closets. Let the bats fly free from their belfries. Let witches ride across the moon and zombies lurch and cry for brains. Look those beautiful and terrible things in the eye. Turn them inside out to see what they’re made of, and join the dance of the Macabray.

My Letter To My Congressmen

3 Oct

After the government shutdown on Tuesday, it took every ounce of self-control I possessed to squelch the fierce desire to throw a huge, ugly social media hissy fit. I sat on my hands for a while trying to figure out how to not feel quite so helpless and angry. Then it occurred to me. I am a writer, and a citizen. I will use my powers for good. I will channel all of my rage and anxiety into something productive and nonviolent, as is the democratic way. So, I wrote a letter to my state’s congressmen.

Do I expect it to change the course of world events? No. But I do feel that it is my moral obligation, as someone with a voice, to communicate. So I did.

Perhaps you would like to write to your congresspersons as well. Here’s their contact information: http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

And here is the letter that I sent:

Dear (Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Tim Scott, Representative Mark Sanford, Representative Joe Wilson,  Representative Jeff Duncan, Representative Trey Gowdy, Representative Mick Mulvaney, and Representative Tim Rice)

I am writing to express my extreme displeasure over your party’s participation in the government shutdown that began Tuesday, October 1, 2013. I do, in fact, feel that your party is holding the citizens of the United States hostage while you play political games and vie for power.

I do not support your continued attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed by the House of Representatives on March 21, 2010, and the United States Senate on March 25, 2010 with an amendment, which was agreed upon by the House that same day. It was signed into law by President Obama on March 30, 2010, and upheld as constitutional by the United States Supreme Court on June 28, 2012.

The ACA has received due process under the law and was passed fairly through the system of checks and balances put in place by our forefathers. For you to hold the ACA ransom while 800,000 federal employees go without paychecks is both uncouth and undemocratic.

My mother died at the beginning of this September after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was fortunate to have been covered by my father’s private health insurance at the time of her diagnosis. Had she not been covered by insurance at the time of diagnosis, her cancer would have been considered a pre-existing condition. My father reports that in one year alone, the cancer-related medical costs paid by their insurance totaled $270,000. This sum does not include what my parents paid out of pocket. Had she not been insured, my mother could not have afforded the medical treatment that she needed. Being insured gave her the tools to face the greatest battle of her life. My family and I are keenly aware that others are not so fortunate as we are. There are many who die everyday in this country because they cannot afford medical treatment. That is an unconscionably tragic bloodstain upon the hands of the wealthiest nation in the world. The ACA will help to prevent such injustice and give all people, regardless of race, creed, age, or wealth, access to the tools they need to be and stay healthy.

Additionally, under the ACA my immediate family will pay $434.27 a month less for our own health insurance. That is money that we can put toward paying off our student loans, paying off our mortgage, buying groceries, investing in our local economy, and saving for our young daughter to go to college.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The ACA passed both the House and the Senate, was signed into law by the President, and was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. Did these three noble branches of government not derive their just powers from the consent of the governed? And are not Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness for all people not interwoven with good health and thus good healthcare?

Gentlemen, I beg you to do your duty, let go of petty plays for power, and get 800,000 federal employees back to work as soon as possible.

Sincerely your constituent,

Neely Stansell-Simpson

*Friendly reminder: I delete comments from trolls. If you want to talk to me about this issue, you have to use your nice words. Thank you and have a nice day.*

Choreographing a Crisis

6 Sep

neelyssimpson:

This is a great post written by my friend, Ashley-Anne Masters, who lost her mother to cancer back in January. Ashley-Anne is a pastor and hospital chaplain, so she is very familiar with both grief and with keeping others company as they journey through grief. I personally think this post should be required reading for . . . well, everybody, but in particular those going through crisis, and those interacting with people in crisis. And let’s face it, that’s going to be all of us at some point or another.

In addition to Ashley-Anne’s words, I would add: It’s important to remember that some people, unintentionally, will try to make your crisis about them - their grief, their need to be needed, their past history surrounding loss, their ego. As with everything in life, it is important to set boundaries. Not only is it important, it’s healthy.

Originally posted on revaam:

As a chaplain and pastor, I am inevitably with folks during periods of crisis, trauma, and chaos.  One of my mantras that I repeat time and time again to families during such times is, “Your crisis. Your call. Your choreography.”

I say this because often folks try to please everyone else in their extended family, or attempt to do everything their friends tell them they should do. To be clear, community members are vital during crisis, trauma, and chaos, but those immediately impacted have the right to choose what they need and when they need it.

For example, I was with parents who were ready to withdraw life supporting apparatus after their child had been declared brain-dead, but were debating leaving all apparatus in place because extended family members said it was “too soon.” The parents were ready to “end the brutal suffering,” yet felt “guilty” after speaking with family…

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Gone From My Sight

3 Sep

This is my mother, Peggy Stansell. Today she is cancer-free. She died early this morning while holding my father’s hand.

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The Place Between Life and Death

29 Aug

She is mostly gone now, my mother. Monday evening she went into that death-sleep that dying people go into — our dear friend Karen Akin calls it cocooning — and I knew then that it was a sleep from which she was never going to wake. So now we are just waiting for her to make that last separation from her body.

It has been said that death is a lot like birth, and I’ve found this to be true of the handful of deaths I’ve been privileged to witness in my time. It’s true now, and while in her room at Hospice the grief doesn’t hit me. No, there is work to do in that room. My mom is trying to be born into a new life, and my father and I are her doulas. There is work to do. Sometimes Mom has pain, so we rub her arms, hold her hand, play music, talk to her, and repeatedly mash the call button to summon morphine. We tell stories, we laugh, and we wait. My husband is worried that at some point I’m due a huge emotional breakdown because I’m being too practical about all of this, and he is probably right. I do tend to have delayed reactions to things. So a huge emotional breakdown is probably in my future, but right now there is a task at hand, and I focus on that task: Birth Mom into a new life.

My mother always said that people tend to die as they live, which is a pretty good argument for not being an asshole if you think about it. My mom lived according to a deeply rooted belief in hospitality. She wanted people to feel comfortable, at home, loved, and valued. She wanted people to eat good food, laugh a lot, have meaningful conversations, and enjoy themselves. This past weekend her room at Hospice took on the atmosphere of a party. A number of my parent’s close friends gathered to laugh, tell stories, tease each other, share pictures, plan for the future, and enjoy themselves. My mom was all dressed up, wearing makeup, fully engaging with her friends — every inch the Peggy Stansell she’s always been. She laughed, talked, and wore a peaceful smile the entire weekend. My father and I agree that she was having fun, and dare we say it, she was happy.

Monday evening after a full day of live music she went happily to sleep and has not woken.

It is only in my parent’s house that the grief hits me. It is impossible to separate the house from her spirit, and that’s when I cry because she is not coming back.

In this place between life and death there is work to be done, there’s a life to birth out of this world. So, I got up this morning put on a bright yellow dress, clasped my mother’s butterfly necklace around my neck in anticipation of resurrection, and came back to work.

If Dying Well Were An Olympic Sport …

26 Aug

I don’t mean to brag, but if dying well were an Olympic sport, we would win gold.

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This is my mother’s Hospice room. Cecil is on fiddle, Sara is playing the hammered dulcimer in the middle, and I’m playing the one on the left. Both Sara and Cecil are long time friends of my parents.

On my 13th birthday, Cecil and his wife Julie (who took this picture, so she’s not in it, but she was playing guitar) took me to buy my first hammered dulcimer. Sara taught me to play. My senior year of high school I won the hammered dulcimer competition at the Fiddler’s Grove Fiddler’s Festival in Union Grove, NC. Cecil accompanied me on guitar. In that competition I beat Sara, my teacher. She sent me a dozen pink roses with a note telling me how proud she was of me. Both Cecil and Sara played at my wedding. Where would we be without sacred community?

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