Guest Blog

17191794_10211972892381522_696044197707358754_oToday I have an important guest blogger, my husband Bill.  He has a story to tell that is important.  In fact, it is one of the things that has been swept under the rug at our house for years, as we have been in survival mode. It is where so much of our lives together have been formed. In this current season of unraveling and looking back to go forward, we have started to dissect some things from the past. We have decided not to suffer in silence any longer.  I cannot tell you how proud I am of this man, and how much love I have for him.  He is amazing and I thought it appropriate to share this first part of his perspective of how brain injury affects him, on our 31st anniversary.  This is taken from conversations we have had together while hiking, or sitting over coffee, or driving in the car.  It is the tip of the iceberg. We are thinking of compiling our experiences for a book, at some point in the future.  It is kind of random and raw at this point while we are processing.  He shares and I write it down for him so he can concentrate on expressing his experiences.  I can tell you this, marriage with a TBI has been a hard road, still is, but I have a heart bond with this man.  Most couples do not survive TBI, we understand why, but we also are deeply committed to be one of the couples who does.  If I had known 31 years ago on our wedding day, what was in store in a year’s time, I still would have married this man I love.  Happy Anniversary!  

 My Hidden Permanent Disability

as told by Bill Gunnin

How do you overcome a disability you cannot see? I wonder how many of my perceived character flaws are really a symptom of my TBI?  It’s been so long ago, but they say TBI is forever. What if my character is not flawed as I think it is, but my TBI has redefined my life? It is like a living nightmare to be unable to do things, but to have no idea why I cannot do them.  An invisible force prevents me, and it is as if I am boxing an unseen enemy who I cannot identify, and I cannot defeat.  It has the advantage over me because not only is it hidden to others, who only see outward appearances, it is imperceptible to me, from inside myself.

There is a long list of symptoms and I have many of them, but I don’t always know. I have to have someone else tell me. There used to be more, but these are the ones I still have trouble with sometimes:  Impulse control, memory, ability to attend, focus, brain hyperarousal, agitation, irritability, egocentrism, denial, selective obsession, depression, lack of motivation, social immaturity, social dependency, inability to make decisions, logorrhea (excessive talking), panic, anxiety, frustration, mental fatigue, impatience, being hypercritical, hopelessness, decrease of social interactions, disinhibition (loss of filter), intolerance, inflexibility, setting priorities, word retrieval, and decision making.

It’s embarrassing.  People think I am one way because they cannot see the injury.  I want to be the person they think I am, instead of who I actually am.  I am embarrassed of myself, within myself. When I talk about my deficits and a possible job, I think ‘who would want to hire someone who has all these deficits.’  I don’t want to talk about it.  I know I can do the job, at least I think I can, so why talk about possible limitations? But I may not be able to do what I think I can do.  I don’t know if I can or not, so should I say something and risk not getting the job at all?  It’s discouraging and depressing.  I have trouble making decisions.  I can’t direct myself to what needs to be done now and what needs to be done later, because of that sometimes I can’t do anything.

I’ve been told of deficits and I’ve read about them.  I am more aware of the ones that affect me, after they happen than when they are happening, any recognition I have about myself is all in retrospect. Just now, I realized something, but then I went to get paper to write it down and forgot it. I want to just be me, but I feel I am not acceptable as I am.

Impulse control. Delayed gratification. I cannot delay wanting something.  If I want a milkshake, I go get it.  In the early days after the accident, this happened in outbursts of anger or other feelings. I could not control my temper, or my tears.  I felt things and they just came out.  You don’t realize how much your brain helps you to be socially acceptable with your feelings by allowing you to hold them in or let them out appropriately.  It is not as much controlling emotions now for me, only when I am tired or overwhelmed, but I can hold them back better.  For me, it is more external things for comfort that I cannot seem to stop.  I guess it is what some people would call will power.  I lack that in some areas. For example, impulse control in conversation…I can’t hold back my thoughts, so I interrupt constantly, and even go in different directions in the conversation. I don’t know it though, not at the time. It requires review after the fact for me to see it. It frustrates my family, or people I am talking to for me to do it, but because I don’t say everything that comes into my head (believe it or not) I think I am doing well.  I don’t always see the frustration on someone’s face or pick up on social cues, so I just keep talking.  My kids will tell me, or my wife will nudge me under the table, but I don’t see it myself really.  So I think I have more control than I do.  Like right now, the music that is playing is bothering me while we are talking. I don’t want to hear a song where I recognize the melody, because it pulls my attention away from trying to talk about this with you. I just jumped off topic because of my external environment and my inability to filter it out. If I am in a loud place, like a crowded restaurant it is overwhelming to me. I will stop talking because I cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in there and carry on a conversation too.  It also tires me out, so when I leave there I need to go rest so my brain can calm down again.

Memories are a tricky thing. I don’t trust that I am remembering it correctly.  When I try to analyze things I can’t, especially under stress.  I get agitated when I have to deal with external stressors.  A lot of regret about not handling things well…after the fact. Or not being able to remember things that I know I should know.

Symptoms are sporadic and sometimes I can do things…other times I cannot.  I hate these problems.  They have no solutions.  It’s not clear cut…like needing hearing aids, or my knee is hurt, so I cannot walk. Those are direct and easy to understand at least. For me, sometimes I know the issues, and sometimes I can’t see them.  So much of it depends on external circumstances that are beyond my control, and it prevents me from showing what I can do.  For example, I had a job interview recently.  I was in the lobby filling out some short answer type questions where I had to write.  There was a baby in the room and there was some confusion as to who was keeping the baby between the two adults there, so one of them could leave. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was writing because of the distraction, but also because I was worried about the baby and the situation even long after they had solved the issue. It’s like it got stuck in my brain. They came and got me for my interview but my questions were not finished, which made me feel like I did something wrong. Employers don’t have any idea what it means to me to say, you can finish it later.  I went from the lobby, and my unfinished questions with my feelings of being inadequate, directly into a room with a panel of people asking me about how I would handle made up scenarios.  I thought the interview went great, but now looking back at it I can see I totally messed it up and my answers were not good because I could not think clearly. I talked too much, because I do that when I am stressed. When I interview they probably think I can’t handle stress.  They think about how those little things, like a baby in a room while writing affects them, not me.  I can handle a job, but I never get the chance to show it.

This transfers to other areas, it is easy for me to be critical of other people, but impossible for me to understand what pain they have from their own experiences.  People who are discriminated against for color, or religion, no one truly knows what they have been through in their lives.  I have the same type issue with my hidden disability…no one knows.  It’s invisible. Saying you understand is different than my gut level experiences with rejection.

I have compassion for people who are having trouble, like the elderly, or disabled people. My limitations have taught me patience and given me empathy. I like for the elderly to feel their own autonomy in the small things, like which trash bags they want or other things when they are shopping.  I could just pick some things, but I want them to feel they have some control over their lives still. Sometimes they are like children with an intellect.  I understand how that feels. I can guide while still letting people feel they are in control. I want to be someone who comes from where they are.  No assumptions on my part, instead I want to show empathy.  If they are angry and cranky, they don’t have evil intent, they are just frustrated.  Cranky old people are misunderstood, the problem is they are losing themselves and it makes them unhappy. I get that.  I say let them be who they are.  Interesting people.  I want someone to let me be who I am, too.   Nothing I can do can change what older people think or feel, and just because they are old, people nod and smile and understand them, give them patience.  I want people to give me that same kind of understanding.

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The New Normal

humility“You will find a new normal.”  I have heard the phrase many times, and in fact, I have said it to others in trying circumstances. The new normal seems like a goal, a hidden place where all things line up once again.  However, what no one talks about is the strong longing for the old normal…before.  Before my arms ached for a baby who was alive.  Before my husband changed to a different person.  Before the scars from cancer marred my body. We all have our befores. Before death. Before disease. Before dysfunction. They are right, you do adapt to the new normal and learn to cope with losses.  With each loss, I learn to deal with a different reality than I previously had to consider.  But that doesn’t stop me from grieving the old normal.  I know people who have endured unimaginable losses.  Many of them have sent me notes as my last two raw blogs were published.  Some are dealing with diseases and the limitations they bring.  Some have lost children and have gaping holes in their hearts the size of the Grand Canyon.  Some have walked through divorce and are facing single parenthood, alone and scared.  Some have lost friendships that have ruptured their souls.  Others have loved ones who have died, or children who have turned their backs. Dysfunction has claimed families to the point there is no reconciliation.  Abusive behavior of a spouse, a sibling, or a parent has caused self-doubt and condemnation to rise up. And still, people say, “You will get used to the new normal.”

I want to spit on that phrase because it denies the truth of the loss.  It says, ‘just get used to it’ or the other common phrase ‘just get over it,’ as if it is ME who is the problem, not the circumstance.  The root of the finding the new normal is acceptance of whatever the loss is.  I have never been one to blindly accept things until have understanding, until I work through what a monumental loss means to me.  I used to ask why, but I long ago realized that is the wrong question, because it leads nowhere and has no answer.  It leads me around in circles, taunting me in my attempts to sleep and it puts all the reasons for calamity firmly in my court.  I didn’t DO something right.  If I had been better this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened to me.

Instead of why, a better question is what now?  What do I do now that my life is no longer normal?   I am an optimist…or I try to be.  I look for the silver lining because there always is one.  But sometimes I wonder in trying to look on the bright side all the time if I sweep too much under the rug.  In my effort to avoid being a victim of my circumstances, have I pushed the perceived pain away, or I have I simply denied it exists? The problem with burying the hard stuff is that it doesn’t really go away.  You end up, in a place like I am in now, where the rug is mountainous thus preventing movement. It is time to pull it back and examine the pieces I have swept under there so I can be truly rid of them rather than just pretending they aren’t there.

It is times like these where I can relate to the Children of Israel in the desert.  Going in circles is tiring.  It brings out the worst attitudes.  We look at the provision of God for them and think, ‘How could they not see God’s hand protecting and providing for them?  How could they complain against him in the midst of the miracle of manna? What whiners they were!’  Now I am the one in the desert who cannot see the promised land.  Now, I get it.  How long will I wander?  How long will the promises be withheld from me?  I gather manna daily.  I have for nearly 30 years.  I watch the cloud, the hand of God, cover me and I see the pillar of fire light my steps. I depend on him for everything because I have no other choice.  I worship him in the desert, but I also do not understand why I must stay here.  If I were Moses I would have beat the rock to death out of frustration.  I can so relate to why he didn’t do what God told him to do. I am sure it felt good to hit that stone, and once he got started he just couldn’t help himself.  Meanwhile, the cynicism of the people grew to the point that once they got to the land, the giants loomed larger than God. The daily hardships overshadowed the promise.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, it also clouds the eyes.  Hope becomes an enemy who never keeps a promise. The other shoe always drops, and the light just goes out internally as a means of self-protection. It hurts too badly to hope for a different normal.  The longing for milk and honey is overwhelming.  The loss of dreams never to be fulfilled is painful.  The dichotomy of those two is unbearable.  Instead, I find a “new normal” which denies my hurting heart expression.  I adapt.  I cope.  All while the mess under the rug gets bigger and bigger, until one day I am trapped in a room with a mountain that blocks my way out.  A day like today.  A day when life has to take a backseat to healing and where wholeness becomes a priority above all else.  A day when I decide to go retrieve hope from the old normal and bring it into the new.

In the Dirt

solitudeWhen I was a little girl, my dad used to take me on walks in the woods.  We would traipse around our property, sometimes not even on trails, just walking and seeing.  It wasn’t far, but to my little legs it seemed like miles and miles.  I learned a lot on these walks, not because he taught me exactly, but because I watched him.  I learned you can chew sourwood leaves in the fall, like gum.  I found out if you put your watermelon in a mountain spring it would be ice cold in time for the picnic the next day.  I realized to follow a stream provides water, as you walk through and underneath trees, which provide shade on hot summer days.  He taught me to be aware of snakes when I stepped over rocks and logs, and that not all snakes are poisonous.  He let me slide on a slick rock overhang into his arms over and over again.  Those lessons were learned through time together and shared experiences.

On the way back up the mountain, however, I was less likely to be enamored by the stroll through nature, because it had become a climb.  My little legs screamed to stop and my lungs agreed.  Dad used to carry me, but once I got too big for carrying, I had to stop and rest along the way.  I remember begging him to carry me, and I did not have the best of attitudes about it. I was tired and weary which translated into irritable, tearful, and cranky.

Fast forward to walks with my own children.  Going down the trail to a waterfall was all skipping and laughter.  Wading in the ice cold stream brought giggles.  Bill taught them about skipping rocks, and we picked wildflowers along the way.  Once we were at the bottom in the waterfall mist, their faces lit up at the magnificence and power of the water spilling down into the valley.  Then it was time for the climb back up. The trail was a switchback so there was steep incline followed by some more gradual slope, giving the illusion that it wasn’t exactly straight up.  However, little legs are not fooled by illusions.

Going into the second steep section the whining began, but there were four of them and only two of us.  They had all outgrown the baby backpack we had when they were little.  Carrying was not an option.  We encouraged, held their hands, and tried distraction techniques to get their minds off of the pain, “Was that a woodpecker over there on that tree?” or “Look at that beautiful orange flower.” To no avail.  By the next steep section, meltdown mode commenced for one of them.  No amount of, “we’re almost there” helped.  There was no consoling.  It was a sit-down-in-the-trail-refuse-to-go-any-further moment. Tears rolled down the face like the waterfall ran down the mountain and the frustration spilled out like a thunderstorm in the summer.

Desperate to keep the other three moving forward without incident (these types of outbursts can be extremely contagious in a family with four little ones), I moved on with the other three, while Bill waited for the first to cry himself out.  It was all that could be done.  He could not see the end of the hike was near.  He could not make his legs go any further.  He was weary and angry we wouldn’t carry him.  He was not climbing another inch.  Bill sat down in the trail next to him, while he flailed around in a full blown tantrum.  A father, just waiting, trying to soothe his child. In the midst of his tantrum, my son was not even aware that his father was sitting next to him in the dirt.  Once he became aware of it, he wanted nothing to do with him.  Every effort Bill made towards him was rejected out of anger.  It wasn’t until the patience of the father, sitting next to him, was evident that he finally relented and allowed a gentle calming hug.  Holding him, wiping the tears, quenching his thirst…not just for water, but for acceptance and understanding which only unconditional love can bring within the hard places.

Sometimes life is overwhelming.  Just like a child on an uphill climb, sometimes it feels impossible to continue.  It feels like God is not for me…and might even be against me…if he exists at all.  These dark nights of the soul are places where nothing is for sure.  All the neat and tidy spiritual explanations fall flat.  The heavens are brass, and my prayers blow silently away on the wind.  I am not the only one to ever experience this seemingly never ending dark place where brokenness is a companion.  I know others who walk here, who wonder and wait, and shake their fists at God at the same time they cry out to him.  I am a little girl who doesn’t want to walk one step further up this mountain I feel forced to climb. I want to yell and cry and kick and scream, “NO MORE!!” until I am carried, consoled, and soothed.  I realize that in order for peace to come, I have to allow my feelings to work themselves out. The volcano, which has been dormant for years, has erupted and it will release the built up pressure…once the explosion is over.

The complexities of emotions layered one on top of the over make it tricky to get to the root, which is the feeling that God has abandoned me.  What feels like a forever climb has left me in the dirt, wallowing around like a 2-year-old, unable to see my Father sitting next to me waiting.  Brokenness is a messy, ugly, dark place…but it is a real place.  People live here, not by their own choice, but by circumstances outside of their control.  That’s the rub with this place…there is no control here. Death, abuse, disease, rape, injury, loss, divorce, heartache…no one is immune from the pain of life. Life=loss. When my legs will no longer hold me up, I fall and cry out to God for rescue.

I am double minded, believing I am abandoned by him, while still receiving provision from his hand. I feel alone, despite his presence right next to me. I try to block him out since I no longer believe in him, only to find myself praying with desperate cries that he really exists.  I feel I cannot function, all while continuing to put one foot in front of the other. The dark night is a pretty mixed up place.  It is not depression, nor is it despair. It is more like losing the core of who I am, and questioning everything I have ever known…all while still knowing it.  Kinda.  I am rambling, in search of words and talking in circles.  Sorry about that.  One thing I know (maybe) is that when I am in one of these dark broken places I find out things…truths, that I might never grasp had I not sat down in the first place. So while I am groping around now, there will come a time (I hope) when my tears will be dried and my thirst will be quenched by the Father who sits next to me…in the dirt.

Explanation

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI probably never should have pushed the publish button at 3:00 a.m. I do not usually share these kinds of deep places…until after the fact.  My usual pattern is to pull away and sit in silence, waiting for the sun to come up and the lesson to make itself known.   But this time, I know that isolating myself is not healthy.  Hence, my lament last week went public. Don’t you hate it when people put vague but heart wrenching stuff out there, but never explain it?  I do.  It caused quite a stir and I learned two things from it.

  1. I have a multitude of people who love me. I did not intend to scare anyone with my post. (Bill called it my suicide note…I promise it was NOT.) I rarely publish the hard places publicly because of this very thing.  However, the calls and notes I received have brought a measure of healing along with the acknowledgement there are people I can call when I am in a painful place.
  2. There are many, many people who are hurting. Along with exposing my pain, I unknowingly exposed the pain of others who have/are walking in difficult places. They reached out with compassion, not trying to fix it for me, but just holding space to allow me to feel.  Only those who have walked in brokenness can fully grasp what it means to have someone who gets it. Thank you.

Grief is an odd companion.  There are stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I have found, in my life, that these stages are not linear, rather they jump around like frogs in a rainstorm.  Just when I think I have found acceptance, tears reappear.  Or when I know I am no longer in denial, I find another area that has been hiding in the corners of my heart.  Recently, a confluence of circumstances triggered some pain I thought was long ago dealt with.  I would have said I had full acceptance of this loss, but in reality, I was in denial.  Funny how that works.

It seems going back is my way forward these days.  Unresolved pain, from the TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) days 29 years ago, is washing over me like the waves at the sea.  I walked the stormy beach last week in Fl. and watched waves crash over and over again like an aching metaphor of TBI life. The ancient pain festered and cried out reminders that there is still unfinished business of the heart back there which is effecting me, even now.  It is like an onion, that is peeled back one layer at a time until the core is all that is left, and like cutting an onion, the tears flow unchecked and uninvited.  Long past days of survival cry out to be heard from the depths where they have lived stuffed for years.  Loss unimaginable refuses to be relegated once again to the back burner, and so every event brings pain gushing forth to overflowing.  A movie rips the scab off of wounds currently tender.  A change in plans undoes me.  No one gets it.  I don’t even get it.  But I am in pieces, and all I know is that it is like beating my head against a wall over and over again. I want to curl up in the fetal position and cry for days.  All the prayers in the world cannot bring back what was lost to us on that day so many years ago.  All the cheerful-look-on-the-bright-side words cannot change what I am dealing with, even though I appreciate them and I wish they could.

Sarah Bessy, one of my favorite authors, put it this way,

“All of this has reminded me of how trauma sometimes sleeps in our souls, too. We can carry our trauma – whether it’s betrayal or hurt or abuse or loss or something else entirely – for a long time before it surfaces. Often it is when we feel we’re making progress that we discover reawakened old pain and then we have to deal with that now, too. I talk to a lot of people who have what we might call soul trauma. Sometimes they are so grateful to be alive that they feel it’s wrong to admit that they’re still hurt, that some days are harder than others, that they need help. They survived – the rest is details, right? But I’ve learned along with these brave souls that God is in the details.”

Soul trauma. It is a time for me to grieve the details.  A time to try to find the illusive acceptance which seems always just out of reach.  Somehow to let go of the shattered dreams, to stop trying to glue things together, and to recognize our lives are impaired. I cannot explain what it is like to see your barely recognizable husband tied to a hospital bed. I cannot describe days of bedside vigil praying that he would live only to wonder why I prayed that way, when he awakened as a strangely different person.  I cannot define the feeling of teaching him how to walk, eat, and dress himself again. No one can understand what it is like to live 30 years trying to regain your dreams, only to realize they are unattainable. The frustration, the heartache of watching the man you love, try so very hard to recover all that he lost, on one day, in one minute. Walking beside him for years and watching the struggle that is so very real every day. We have lived with the residual issues of a damaged frontal lobe from the day of the accident till now.  My charming, gregarious, fun-loving, hilarious husband is too wonderful for words, but he has some limitations.  TBI is a stealer of stability, and I hate it for that.  Jobs come and go, and because of the frequency of that fact, they are also hard for him to find.  There is no understanding of how many friends fall by the wayside, how many jobs slip through the fingers, how many attempts it takes to do the most basic things like making decisions, or remembering where you put your stuff.  Unless you have done so, you cannot know what it is like to live in a before and after world.

Nevertheless, there is a fierce love which does not give up.  It is deeply rooted in stubbornness and tenacity, and we have it…have always had it, through TBI, miscarriage, cancer, fire, illness/death of a parent, and surgeries.  Nothing bonds hearts together like shared trauma. Our relationship is like steel. But recently a straw broke my camel’s back and my brittle heart is fragile. The contrast between past and present is difficult to reconcile. I seem to have a foot in each. The NOW part of me struggles with a faltering faith that is shaken to the core. Going around the same jobless mountain, back in survival mode yet again. The PAST part of me knows that holding on to God is the only way through the tough stuff. The broken part of me sits down and cries, “Where are you God?”  The part who has walked through hellish times before knows he is never far.

I am like a child having a temper tantrum because I do not get what I want. The grief is in realizing I will not get it. Meanwhile, God waits quietly for me to cry myself out. All I know is that he might be waiting a while, because nearly 30 years of survival mode has pushed me to the brink. All the pent up, buried, painful grief I have silenced for years is demanding to be heard.  I have people who listen and guide me in these kind of times. My family has carried me so many times, we would not have survived without them. There are others who have walked along side us for years and know just what to say and how to pray.  I do not want it to sound as if I am not grateful for my life…I am.  I have been blessed beyond measure, I am just very tired.

I Wish

 

shafts of lightI wish I could tell you I am always strong, but that would be a lie.  I wish I could say that I never have doubts, or tears, or fear, but that would be untrue.  I wish I could say my heart is whole and healthy, but it’s not.  It has been pummeled more times than I can count.  Crushed beyond what I can bear and it has left me a pile of shattered pieces.  Shards that are painfully deep, like splinters which, if not removed, turn into a festering mess of bitterness and resentment.  My attempts to glue it all back together are woefully inadequate.  Instead of creating art, I cut myself and bleed.  Instead of molding wholeness, I simply keep rearranging the same old pieces into forms which highlight just how broken I am.  Until now my faith has held me together through the unending traumas of life, but this time I am not even sure there is a mustard seed left.  Brokenness is exhausting.  Trying to muster up belief that overshadows the depth of my pain is not possible.

So here is the truth, I am NOT a strong woman.  I am NOT full of faith.  Sometimes I don’t want to pray because it doesn’t seem to do any good.  Sometimes I just want to quit. This is a raw place I am in, but it is also a real place.  A place in which my weaknesses are front and center.  A place where God is silent and I am so very tired.  I know the clichés.  I can quote the scripture, but sometimes sackcloth and ashes is more appropriate.  Sometimes grief and loss are companions that will not let me go.  They sing me to sleep, only to wake me in the night.  They whisper to me what could have been, and abandonment chimes in to remind me that whatever I do, I do it alone.  The weight of such thoughts banishes sleep and pumps my heart in crazy rhythms.  My palms sweat and my breathing becomes shallow.  I find myself back where I have always been, holding on for dear life.  It is not pretty.  I am not holding it together very well.  I am searching for my secret place to no avail.  I am lost to it, groping in the dark, trying to find peace that eludes me.  Dare I pen such a place?  Dare I speak it aloud? Should I put it on paper? It is easier to pretend all is well and all will be well.  It is easier to say what I want to hear, that everything will be fine.  It will all somehow work out like it always does.  But underneath those pretentious thoughts I wonder if it is true.  Will it ever be true?

Hard places.  Deep waters.  Struggling to breathe.  Just to breathe.  Sinking beneath the waves.  I cannot even cry out.  I am silent with my tears…which are the only prayers I have at the moment.  No words.  Pressure that has been my companion for years rises in my throat and sits on my shoulders. This is my lament.  It is my burden.  I know the sun will come up eventually.   I have lived long enough to know it is true. Light always follows darkness.  I simply have to hold on until it does, but this time I am not holding on…I am letting go.

The Land of Opportunity

This is a repost of a blog I wrote four years ago…right after I returned from Thailand to visit Hannah while she was on her mission trip around the world.  It is still accurate.

IMG_9772 I have spent the last year learning about the world. Through the eyes of my daughter, I have seen amazing and sometimes heart wrenching stories of poverty, slavery, and abandonment. I have gone half way around the world to see them for myself. Looking into hopeless eyes causes you to see things differently. They are like mirrors which show you your own reflection. What I saw there was disheartening to me. My ungratefulness for my blessings, my assumptions, the opportunities I have squandered away, all of it became crystal clear in the midst of the futility that blankets the red light district in Thailand. The traps, cycles, and living conditions are beyond anything I have ever seen.   To the people who live along this street it is how life is. There is no striving to make a different way. There is only life as they have known it, life as it is.

The ‘Land of Opportunity’ took on a whole new meaning for me this year. I guess I never thought about what the lack of opportunity would look like. It is built into our culture that you can be whatever you want to be if you work hard enough. You are only limited here if you lack vision. In other countries, you are born into your life. There is no question as to what you will do. To break away and do something different is rare. I have seen some beautiful stories of resilience among the poverty, but they are the exception not the rule. It is hard to describe how much appreciation this gave me for my own country. Don’t get me wrong, I know we have our problems…our divisions, and poverty, and social issues. I get that, but the choices we have are unending. We argue with one another because we are allowed to think for ourselves. We are a part of the process of deciding how we live our own lives. We have a say. Poor people here have TVs, bathrooms, and refrigerators for the most part. Our children are not usually sold into slavery. We do not have their kidneys harvested for money. We do not abandon them to the streets. Little girls are not forced to have sex night and day while being held captive. There is a chance that if you are born into poverty here you can get out of it. Hope lives here.

ImageI see why America seems like a beacon of light for so many who long to move here. They love our country without even knowing it. In America, we are free. In America, you can be anything. America is powerful. America is the Land of Opportunity to anyone who dares to dream of such a thing. People flock to see the “Americans” when you walk down the street in other countries. You have superstar status just because of where you are from. They ask questions about our clothes, our homes…our lives. They dream of having what we have…not necessarily in a material sense, they know well how to live without…they long for the freedoms we have. To speak freely. To pursue happiness. To gather. To worship. To be whatever they choose.

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All of this made me wonder what have I done with the opportunity I was born with. It also made me so very grateful for those men and women who have fought to keep us free. Have their sacrifices been wasted on me? Has the blood they spilled been in vain? It is Memorial Day…a day to honor those who died in battle, or as a result of their service. This year I get it. I have always attempted to pay my respects, but this year I see the true cost…and the benefits I have reaped my entire life from the price that was paid. My eyes are open in a new way. I cannot tell you how blessed we are. I cannot tell you how different life could be if I had been born in a different place on the globe. I cannot tell you how petty many of my complaints are, and how childish I am for not fully grasping how amazing our country is. Today I thank God for my country…and for those who knew this long before I did…and gave their lives in hopes that one day I would SEE it.

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God, bless those men and women…bless their families. Strengthen them. Show them the fruits of their sacrifices. Thank you for this land of opportunity. Thank you for hope, and choices, and freedom. Thank you for the men and women who died to give them to me…even when I didn’t get it. Amen.

Happy Aaron Day!

michelle-in-front-of-yonahI miss birthday parties.  Now that my children are grown, there are no more themed celebrations with cake, ice cream, and favors.  No more little voices screaming, laughing, and playing.  I remember the exhaustion at the end of the day after planning and pulling off a party.  I remember doing four of them a year.  Now, on birthdays it is quiet here.  They don’t live here anymore, and though sometimes that makes me melancholy, it is as it should be.  I take a moment to look back at their lives through pictures to celebrate their amazing births and their growth over the years.

IMG_0363Today is Aaron’s Day.  I look at the pictures of his birth and remember the trauma for both of us.  It was a difficult delivery due to his 10lbs. 5 oz. self.  We worked together, even back then to make it to his first breath.  In the pictures we both look exhausted, but content to have completed our first mission together.  In his first birthday pictures, there is a scab on his nose from learning to walk.  I remember thinking I might be tagged for child abuse with as many bumps and bruises as he had.  On his 9th birthday he had 36 some odd stitches in his face from running into a brick column.  There are other memories from the time he got into a yellow jackets nest and was stung over 56 times.  When I consider these snippets of his life, I wonder how he has made it to 26!

IMG_0348Not all the pictures are of near death experiences.  There are swim parties with lots of smiles and watermelon.  The dinosaur party, where having a dinosaur egg hunt was a huge hit.  A cookout at the lake, a trip to the space center, and looking for alligators in the Okefenokee Swamp are in the scrapbook as well. Dressing as Bill Nye and having a science party where experiments were in abundance is in there too. (Will the items sink or float?)  Adventure.  Curiosity.  Experiments.  Those have always been a part of Aaron.  I might not get to see him this year on his birthday since he is on a cross country adventure, but I celebrate him anyway.  I am always looking both behind and ahead to know that God has a plan for my son…has always had one.  I am glad I was chosen as his mom to be a part of it.  Happy Birthday Aaron!

Rainy Sunday Morning

The rain is falling, gentle but steady.  Slow enough the birds are still singing and the herbs in my garden still have their faces raised.  There is a squirrel on a branch just a few feet from where I sit on my porch.  He has found a clump of leaves just over his head and he is still as a stone, crouched underneath his tail, which he uses as an umbrella. On occasion he flips it down to remove the accumulated water, but then it is right back up over his head.  A crow is laughing at the rooster, who crows in the distance.  The drips fall on my roof, inviting me to a lazy Sunday morning of reading, writing, and sleeping.  A chatter erupts to my right and it sounds as if two birds may be in battle over a worm.   The trees are full of leaves as spring moves into summer and the greens deepen, which causes all the light on my back porch to have a green tint to it.  It is a cool morning, and damp but still peaceful.

Here I wait on words to come.

There are none of any consequence.

Just the sounds of the rain, trees, and animals wooing me and calling me to listen.  All nature worships… even when I cannot seem to find that place…

Survival

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How to survive the last two weeks of school:

  • Smile and nod.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Restock your chocolate supply.
  • Wear jeans every day.
  • Drink coffee every morning.
  • Drink wine every night.
  • Take more deep breaths.
  • Make it through field day without killing anybody.
  • Smile and nod some more.
  • Do creative projects.
  • Include glitter and glue to keep them interested.
  • Keep them busy.
  • Pack up your room as a geometry lesson.
  • Sign 1,000,000 year books.
  • Give 1,000,000 hugs.
  • Accept gifts of coffee cups and candy with a smile.
  • Store the handwritten notes in your filing cabinet.
  • More deep breaths.
  • Refuse to pull your hair out or beat your head against the wall.
  • Enjoy your students one last time.
  • Do cartwheels as the buses pull away on the last day.

Thank you for all you do, teachers!  Enjoy your summer!!

Blackberry Winter

michelle-in-front-of-yonah

I stepped out into the cool morning.  “Brrrrr.  It’s chilly this morning.” I said under my breath.

“Blackberry Winter,” came a friend’s reply as she crossed the parking lot.

Two words which, anywhere else but rural Georgia, would need an explanation.  Here, no other words needed to be spoken.  A simple nod of acknowledgement and I was on my way.  As if to confirm the statement, the blackberry bushes along the roads on my way home held their faces up in full bloom. The 50-degree temperature settled in my bones.  Sure ‘nuff it was Blackberry Winter.

In case, you’re not from around here, Blackberry Winter is when spring days, which feel colder than a milkshake, come around just when you think it’s fixin’ to be summer.  For some reason, they sneak up on you like a cat ‘bout to pounce.  You’ve put your sweaters in the cedar chest thinkin’ you’re done with ‘em, when out of nowhere, bam! Winter again.  This happens each year right around the time the blackberries are in bloom.  Hence the term, Blackberry Winter.  Some ol’ timers may tell you that it helps ‘em grow like a weed, however, since they are already weeds it’s hard to tell if the cold snap is the culprit or if they would grow that fast anyway.  All I know is they tend to take over a place if you aren’t tendin’ to ‘em.  Before you know it those bushes will be bendin’ low under the weight of the berries.

When I was a young girl, I ‘member going berry picking in the pasture.  I pulled on my cowboy boots to protect my ankles from real live snakes in the grass.  I braided my hair into two pig tails to keep it from gettin’ tangled in the briars.  Slipping into a long sleeve shirt, I rolled the sleeves all the way down, even though it was hotter than Hades in the summertime.  I grabbed my bucket and off I went.  Startin’ on the outside of the patch and working my way in towards the middle, I grabbed only the sweetest berries.  They had to be plump, and all the way black, any red on them and they would make you pucker up to kiss your grandma.  The best way to find the ripe ones was to put on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth.  If the explosion of sweet juice was like fireworks inside your mouth, it was ready.  If the juice dripped down your chin you knew it would be totally worth the purple fingers and briar scratches that looked like you’d fought with a bobcat.  The gnats you consumed while picking, were an appetizer to the main event, which was blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

As I’m driving down the road in the drizzly cold, a smile like a Cheshire cat creeps onto my face at the thought that all this rain and cold are just getting the berries ready for summer. They say not to count your chickens before they hatch, but no one ever said not to count the blackberries before they ripen!