Monday, July 9, 2018

At first I didn't love you: a letter to my daughter

Photo by Mon Petit Chou Photography

i. the long slog to proper feelings

For the first 20 weeks you existed, I felt nothing of you, nothing towards you. I walked around in a haze of queasiness and exhaustion, I saw my belly growing, ignored the people asking me the same questions over and over again: “How are you feeling?” “Can you eat that?” “Are you allowed to do that?”

People told me you should talk to your baby when you’re pregnant. Talk, sing, send loving vibes. It was on a long list of things you should do, right up there with eating fish for the omega-3 fatty acids (but careful to avoid the 85% of fish that have too much mercury), finding a pediatrician, taking a birthing class, and forming an opinion about all things controversial: breastfeeding, doulas, screen time, and eating placentas.

For several months, all of these suggestions felt like a never-ending stream of demands. And the worst demand of all was the demand to be excited—to be in love.

I felt inadequate. I didn’t love you yet. I thought I must be too self-absorbed, or anxious, or unemotional, or cynical, or depressed. I thought I was not a real mother. Your father loved you then, already. He would wake laughing in the morning and say, “Are you excited for our future child?” And I would whisper silently inside myself how can I be when I’m not sure this is really happening? and all I feel is queasy, my body changing awkwardly, and the fear I will never be good enough to raise a loving, compassionate human. Then I’d sit up to prepare for another day of choking down foods and lying face down in the chaplain on call room, praying no one would call.

I’m telling you all this not to minimize my love for you—but because you should know the kind of mother you have. A mother who takes a little while to feel things, who never seems to have the right feeling at the right time. A mother who will be straight with you, who will not pretend to know everything. A mother who will try to hear your uncertainties, to hold them with grace.

ii. the moment you touched me
It was a March weekend I really started know you. I was weary of the hard work of holding other people’s pain as a chaplain; I was weary of being a me wrestling with depression; I was weary of keeping together a life and a faith and a pregnancy that never seemed to match to the expected norm.

That week, I had dragged my weary self to a conference, “Why Christian?,” which draws people who are very aware of all the reasons not to be a Christian. Doubts. Judgment. Racial injustice. Science. History of violence. Patriarchy. Capitalism. 81% of white evangelicals voting for Trump.

There we all were, a room full of cynical Christians who yet hold to their faith because of Jesus, because of grace. A slate full of speakers being real about their doubts and frustrations. A church of honesty. If anything could cut through my own cynicism, my own spiritual exhaustion, surely this room would be it. Surely God’s spirit could cut through. And yet I was still disconnected, impenetrable.

Then I felt your kicks for the first time, and like a surprise of grace was awakened to love, your touches like a massage on my belly, on my tired soul. You nudged me, urged me to remember that there just might still be miracles.

A friend once told me that motherhood for her was the reawakening her spirit needed, her overwhelming love for her son giving her the space to reimagine a love that perhaps approaches the love of God. I thought of how hard it has been for the last few years to pray earnestly, to profess faith unironically, to love purely. I thought of how sorely I am in need of a reconnection to love, to grace. And as I walked to communion in church that Sunday—to receive into my body some ordinary bread that brings salvation—a whisper slipped from my lips before I realized what I was saying. “Baby,” I whispered, “what about you? Can you save me?”

A tear or two pooled in my eyes and the bread caught in my throat as I swallowed it down. Is this what I have come to? It is an entirely unreasonable question to ask you, entirely unfair demand to place on your tiny being. Far too many parents count on their children for some kind of vicarious achievement, some kind of vicarious joy, some kind of salvation. It is never good for the children.

And yet—I have been saved by others before, others I was supposed to be “helping.” In 2007 I went to Tanzania out of a desire to save the world. And Tanzania saved me—awakened my faith, broke me out of depression and cynicism, reminded me what joy feels like. I think this is more akin to what I mean. I mean that maybe through you God can shake me up again, show me that I am not here alone, that I am bound to you and you to me, that we need each other. I mean I have hope for sanctification through sleepless nights, seeing the wonder of the world through your eyes.

I hope for that, but it’s still far, far too much to ask of you. So I ask instead with you, for God’s grace to come to us both as we navigate this world together, you and me.

iii. finishing pregnancy well
These days your movements are less like a massage on my belly, more like an escape maneuver. These days I don’t ask you if you’ll save me, or if we’ll be saved together. I ask you if you want to come in one week, or two or four, and wait for your wiggles in response. I ask you if you want to live in North Carolina or Maryland or Virginia, and hold my breath because there is so much that is up in the air for all of us right now.

If I were up on all the suggestions and demands, there would be meals prepped in the freezer by now, and I would have read the books about sleep. I wouldn’t have skipped the swim today, and you would have a name.

If I were more well-adjusted, less needy, I’d be using my conversations with you to sweetly discuss my eternal love for you, instead of what you think of my career options. I might be thinking less about my own Big Decisions and Major Transitions and more about the spiritual work that is becoming a mother.

But I’ve learned over the past eight-plus months that there is no perfection in pregnancy or parenthood. There are too many expectations, too many questions. In every other area of my life, where I strive so hard to be the perfect friend, student, employee, disciple, wife, I’ve been able to fool myself into thinking there was a right way; I've been convinced that if I pressed in hard enough, I might get close to that right way.

With pregnancy and parenthood, the expectations were so many and the task was so great, that there was never any chance I’d do it right.

So for today, finishing pregnancy well means telling the truth, confessing the weakness, and waiting for the grace that seems more essential and beautiful every day you’re with me. 

The grace that will be my only hope as I usher you into this terrifying, heartbreaking, God-loved world.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

We aren't meant to do this alone

Photo by Rebecca Siegel

January 2018, on a trip back to Maryland:
I’m sitting in friends’ living rooms, and we’re talking about Big Ideas: community and faithful living and hospitality and parenting.

Only, we aren’t just talking about ideas, because their fridge is full of homemade hazelnut milk and granola, their backyard has chickens and a garden, their guest room is occupied by an Ethiopian asylee, they are on the ground entering their kids’ world through some delicate balance of play and instruction, structure and freedom. These friends are imperfect yet living embodiments of the ideas; they are an invitation into an alternative way of being.

And as I drive back to my parents’ house that evening I’m thinking how something in me—some part of me that longs for this deep, hard work of faithful living—is awake.

It is, of course, not the first time that they have invited me in. These are the same people who were once roommates. Who taught me to bike to work by literally showing me the way, who taught me to garden by handing me a shovel and a fresh tomato, who taught me hospitality by letting in the Jehovah’s witnesses for a glass of water, who brought rhythms of community prayer and laughter to my life at a time I needed it.

I have been shaped by them and others like them.


It’s a point that sticks with me, especially this month, this year. Here we are: February now, the time when just about everyone has given up on those New Year’s diets and gym habits. And is it honestly any surprise? Trying to muscle change through on the strength of our individual will is, except in the rarest of cases, a futile effort.

A pointed example—we recently marked the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. And I think of all the chatter, the determination a year ago:

The morning after the election when my husband told me, “we might have to hide people in our home,” meaning immigrants in danger of deportation.

The pro-refugee rally we attended with a friend, and spent the whole drive back brainstorming an alert program that could notify people of an ICE raid, so that allies could flock to a home or business and put their bodies in the way, to block violence and dissolution of families.

The millions of desperate calls and letters I wrote—my senators on speed dial, calling once a week at first—determined to do something even though this didn’t feel quite like the something that could make any difference to anyone.

Now, it’s a year later and there is no one hiding in our home. There have been no recent rallies, and far fewer calls to legislators. Maybe I need to muscle up and push through. But if I’m honest, it’s not a different law I’m longing for, not a different governement that will bring the changes I seek, because it’s about spirit and community. It’s about something that has to be lived.

And by the sheer force of my own efforts, I just haven’t been able to keep up the energy.


When I talk about the need for community, this is not just a hippie commune idea. It’s the same reason monks live in monasteries, because who could pray the psalms all day long on their own strength? It’s the same reason we have AA or study groups or meetings for prayer or parenting. Because we are better in community.

Growing doesn’t come naturally. Most of the best changes in my life have been painful, like pruning. Which is why we need each other to become the people we want to be. God knows I do.

A Tanzanian host family taught me to give up my private “me-time” in exchange for the treasure of belonging over kerosene-lit dinners of ugali and greens—and my sense of family expanded. That first group house in Maryland inculcated in me the hard work and discipline it takes to bring about a garden and a daily practice of prayer—and I grew more open-hearted. My chaplaincy group this year has given me a devastatingly honest glimpse of myself and in the process taught me how to love better.

I’m grateful for all that. And now I’m longing for a new level of engagement. I felt something real and important last month as I saw the effect of one afternoon in Maryland, soaking in shared wisdom. I’m not sure exactly what this new engagement will look like, or who it will help me be. I don’t know if it means deepened engagement in a current community, or embarking on something new. And I don’t know if it will make climate change stop or save a single person still under threat of deportation or make me better at prayer or teach me to speak more gently when I’m tired.

One thing I do know is that there are a few characteristics all of these great communities in my life have in common:
-Some version--often explicit but sometimes implicit--of a covenant, a commitment to one another. For my group house, or the folks at a summer camp, it was written out. In chaplaincy, we negotiated our norms and expectations with one another.
-A shared vision or purpose. Neighborly life together. Deepened spiritual practices. Reducing our impact on the environment.
-Grace. For ourselves, and for each other, because it’s messy and we couldn’t get far without grace.

Commitment—vision—grace. All of this sounds an awful lot like church. What church could be, should be. Deeper than showing up on Sundays and abstract reflections on Bible passages. The vision that beckoned me to be a pastor.

I’m currently seeking a position as a pastor in a church. So it all comes together, somehow, and the hope and prayer is this: that I may be so lucky as to find myself in such a place of authenticity and growth. That I may have the discernment and courage to commit when the time and place is right. That I may play some part in helping to shape and be shaped by deep community.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Best of 2017

A slightly belated look back at (the good parts of) 2017.

#5. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
An intriguing, lovely, sad tale of twins and their family saga across three continents.

#4. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris
Tackles the learning and re-learning of Christianity and its Big Words with the grace and dexterity of a poet. I love this exploration of why the ancient, oft-misunderstood words of faith remain relevant, and how one might rebuild a vocabulary of faith and spirit when so many of the words have been used to hurt.

#3. The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson
This book is part racial history of Durham—and reminds me how good it is to know the story of the place where you live (how many of us truly do?). And it is part story of the transformational relationship between a former KKK member and a black community organizer who came together on school integration and became the best of friends. A timely read.

#2. The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief by Jan Richardson
While I'm sure my interest and love of these poems is tied to chaplaincy, I don't think it's limited to that sphere. There are a lot of reasons for personal and public grief these days, and this poet's simple but profound words bring life and hope into the honest mess of grief. You can find many of her poems on her website, The Painted Prayerbook.

1. Long Division by Kiese Laymon
Best novel I've read in a long while. It's a coming-of-age story about race, language, time travel, and love. Per its own character's commentary, it's a book written lovingly for and about black youth, so that I often felt like I was overhearing someone else's story. It's a fascinating, lovely overhearing that breeds rich reflection and contains powerful themes for all of us.

THE BEST TV/VIDEO  (forgive my very unoriginal contributions here)
Honorable mentions:
Movies- Imitation Game, The Post
TV- Stranger Things

#2. This is Us
This is just good TV, people. Family systems in action.

#1. Moonlight
As usual I'm a year late on movies, but-- WOW. One of the most emotionally powerful and beautifully filmed movies I think I've ever seen.

#5. Living in Durham as a non-student
Durham is a sweet little city, and it's been such a wonderful fall to walk, run, eat, drink, explore, and enjoy life without papers and exams. I'm especially grateful for the amazing friends I've made here and who have stuck around, and for the ensuing camping trips, ballet excursions, book clubs and more.

#4. The events of September 8-17
Because in one single week plus a couple weekends, I hiked the glorious hills of Yosemite with my dear friend and then got to experience the equally wondrous treasures of Ocean City Bike Week with my high school ladies.

# 3. Graduating from school FOREVER
That's right everybody. I finished divinity school in May, and although people keep telling me never to say never, I'm being bold: I never plan to enroll in any degree-seeking program ever again. I have a love-hate relationship with school; although I love reading and writing and learning, my mental health doesn't do too well with the combination of grades/scrutiny plus a feeling of abstraction or disconnect from the "real world." I'm very grateful for the time I spent at Duke Divinity and all I learned, but I was so ready to be done and put this degree to work.

# 2. Duke Hospital Chaplaincy
I've written already about how grateful I am for the chaplaincy program in which I currently work. I'm grateful for the process, grateful for the co-workers, grateful for the learning, and most of all grateful for the beautiful patients and families who are willing to let a complete stranger into the intimate moments of their lives. I see God everyday in this work.

#1. Return to East Africa
I started off the year with perhaps the most beautiful moments of it—which is not to say there weren’t many more as the year progressed! For the first time since living in Tanzania in 2009, John and I returned to see old friends last Christmas. It was so good to catch up in the flesh, meet all the children who have come into the world since we were last there, and be amazed at the relationships that persist across time, distance, and difference. I then proceeded to Uganda to live life for a week with a dear friend in Kampala. Finally, I got to attend Duke’s Great Lakes Initiative conference and be absolutely blown away and inspired by the courage of reconciliation workers from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, and others. Some people truly live out their faith even in the face of death, following the call to costly discipleship.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Therapy, part 2: seeds of growth

This is part 2 of 2. You can read the first half of this journey here.

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

On my first visit, I walked into my therapist's office sheepishly holding a filled-in PHQ-9, a commonly used depression screening. There had been a really bad week or two, but the last few days, things seemed more okay, so when I'd filled out the screening, I answered most of the questions from my okay state. Which meant: Did I really belong here? Would she give me a funny why are you here look?

I was lucky. She was kind and warm and immediately saw what I needed, saw what a long time coming this appointment had been. And she saw what seems obvious now, but what I couldn't see for a long time--that to want help is to need it. That regardless of PHQ-9 or diagnoses or medical coding, there was something deeper than I could control that was disrupting my life and relationships, preventing me from peace. And that was worth attending to.

From that day forward, she met me where I was, and that was enough.

She actually never told me how she diagnosed me. The diagnosis is not the point. Most of the time, I don’t think I meet the DSM criteria for depression or dysthymia. Or maybe I’m right on the line. If you read part 1, you might have noticed that the fog that has hit me so many times is not quite strong enough to get me flat on my back, or keep me there. You might notice that in seventh grade during the hurricane, apathy gave way to writing. You might notice that friends have at times been able to draw me out, that changing circumstances gave me hope at desperate times. 

Whatever semblance of depression or mood disorder I do have is still hard for me to claim, not because I'm ashamed but because I feel selfish to claim it. As I write all of this, part of me is apprehensive of overdramatization, knowing that my own mental health is mild compared with the struggles of many, and has certainly never been life-threatening.

But this is not about comparison. Each person's path to healing is her own. For me, the truth is that being functional, that having relatively mild and episodic symptoms, that being "less depressed" than others, that having no trauma to speak of—all these things have become excuses I make to myself for trudging on alone, for pretending I'm okay. In the end, no matter how well I can do the work and cook the dinner, no matter how many people fare better or worse than me, there is more wholeness and abundant life waiting if I am brave enough to get help.


Therapy, for me, has primarily been a journey in learning how to embrace and accept my feelings, rather than adding layer on layer of rationalization, apology, over-analysis, guilt, or control. It is important to say that to embrace or accept the feelings is not the same as embracing the injustices or sins that cause them. It is simply to be aware that to be alive can be sad and painful at times, and it is only human to let myself feel those things.

So I've been learning to lean in and explore the sadness, the pain, the loneliness.

There are times in my life that have been really, genuinely sad: My grandma died after a hard and beautiful year in and out of hospital and rehab. I’d poured my heart into being with her that year. As the weeks and months after her death passed by, I let myself cry. I did not put a timetable on my grief. I said no to social engagements when it seemed like they’d take too much energy. I was gentle and kind to myself in my grief. I somehow knew that there was nothing more I could have done for her. I knew that the grief was legitimate, real, something that had to be walked through.

More often, though, this is not how I respond to personal distress. If I feel lonely, I wonder about the ways it might be my fault. If I feel nostalgic about a distancing relationship, I think of how I might have tried more. If I feel anxious or angry, I push through and try to ignore it, until it builds up. That is, I’m usually not the best at being gentle and kind to myself.

The times I'm most upset look very similar. Sadness or failure rolls into self-shaming, and picks up speed as it heads down the hill. And then something or someone strikes that tender chord in me and suddenly I am shaking, crying the tears that are enough to make your chest quiver as you strive to catch your breath. I am thinking, I am not good enough. What if I am never good enough?


The first week of therapy, my therapist intuited much of this, I think. So she gave me a Self-Compassion Test. I failed. Okay, there’s no failure in therapy. I scored low.

Self-compassion, my therapist explained as I began to balk at any kind of self-care, self-love language (isn’t it against my religion to be selfish? am I good enough to deserve self-love?), is not about making excuses for yourself or trying to lower your standards. Self-compassion means that when you feel sad, you treat that sadness the way you would a friend’s sadness. You sit with it and listen to it and give it a pat on the shoulder; you don’t berate it. And after giving it plenty of time, you move on.

In other words, it is much more like the patience gave myself during that time of grief.

One week, as an exercise, my therapist gave me a sheet of paper called Loneliness. She asked me to act out my typical responses to loneliness. I can punch my loneliness square in the center, I can cower from it, I can crumple it in a ball and eat it, I can put it behind my back and pretend it’s not there, I can hang it in front of my face to further distance me from the world.

These are all the things I tend to do to complicate and increase my loneliness.

On the other hand, my therapist suggested, I can say to the lonely part of me, “You are doing the best you can.” I can pat it gently and let it stay at the table. I can fold it carefully and put it in my pocket, a persistent teacher in empathy and life in the world.


As I've slowly and fitfully learned to be more gentle with myself, I think it is even more slowly cascading out to the way I think about and treat others.

For example, as I look back on all the years and all the times I didn't get help, I see that I often and almost sub-consciously blamed my friends for my sadness. I have at times resented others for contributing to my isolation, or felt that if only I had more close friends, I would have been all right. The truth, of course, is that I have damn good friends in all the places I've lived, friends who have made me tea and picked me raspberries and called on my birthday and invited me to brunch or to live with them. The truth is that I have lived for the last five years with my best friend.

When I am sad and lonely, there is more going on beneath the surface, and it has not much at all to do with what deeper level of communion I desire or with adjusting to a new life phase or with moving from south to north or urban to rural or Africa to America. And it has everything to do with that kernel of thought I first remember thinking on a hotel bed in Colorado at thirteen, that I often don't like the me I inhabit, and that I have never known how to ask for help.

I see now that most of my life, help has only been a few moments away. And perhaps the more I grow, the more I will be able to extend compassion not only to my own feelings but to the many wonderful people in my life who are, just like me, not quite perfect but still ever so full of love and sincere effort.

All of this is progress, but all of it is slow. And it is really hard. There are so many times in therapy I've felt more like moving back instead of moving forward. I've had to entertain new ways of thinking that feel silly or sacrilegious . I've had to work harder than it seems one should have to work, often wondering if there is really hope for me after all since I will inevitably grow tired of the work, wondering if my previous sad but functional equilibrium is preferable to digging through so many layers of strange and awkward and painful. Even now I wonder with regularity, What if I never change? 

Perhaps I won't, or only a little. I've seen enough of humanity to know most of us move the needle only the tiniest bit throughout our lives. I will likely always wrestle with accepting grace, granting myself grace, believing deep down that God is grace.

But I know I'm gaining wisdom and perspective that will give me fuel for the wrestling.


This is what it has looked like for me, so far. I’m not fixed, and I still don’t think I’ll ever be good enough. I’m thankful now more than ever that God does not see me the way I see myself. And I’m thankful that the last few years have taught me to ask for help. Because as hard as it has been to stare down my weakness, it’s so much better than sitting alone in the dark.

Dear friends, I don’t think everyone needs therapy, but I do think we all need help sometimes. Whatever that looks like for you, I hope you will step into it when you need it, and keep reminding me to do the same.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Therapy, part 1: the times I didn't ask for help

Photo by Kristaps Bergfelds

I first recall the heaviness beginning to descend upon me fiercely the summer before eighth grade, on vacation in the Rockies with my parents and brother. The family reunion had been over for a couple days, and now the four of us were spending some time in the national parks. It was afternoon. We had come back from our hike, and dinner was not for another hour, and it all felt so underwhelming, so disappointing, so empty. I didn’t like the vacation or the food or the expectations or the loneliness or the ennui of summer, and most of all I didn’t like the me I inhabited.

A month later, a few weeks into school, the excitement of new classes and new friends and new activities beginning to wear off again, a hurricane rolled through Maryland that left us home from school for two days. Soccer was cancelled. Piano lessons were cancelled. And I lay in my bed for hours, writing in my journal and crying and feeling myself left alone with my thoughts far too long. The melodramatic short story I wrote in that hurricane, about a woman lost in a rainstorm, determined to carry on, is surely one of the great masterpieces of adolescent angst.


As long as I had been aware of my parents as real humans, I had begun to know the story of my dad’s depression, starting in childhood and most severe in his early thirties. I had come to know it as a story of the past, for it seemed, both in the way he spoke of it and in my own experience of my father’s humor, joy, and energy, that it was completely healed.

What happened next—years later, it seems—was that one day as I was talking to my father, he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that because of his own and his mother’s history of depression, he had been concerned that my brother or I might inherit this propensity. He had watched us closely since we were small and had discerned, to his delight, that we had not inherited this curse. Though certainly I did not suffer in the severe way he had as a child, his statement clanged a dissonance inside me. It didn’t feel true to my experience. 

Funny—that is how I remember it happening. But going through emails, I discovered recently that this is what really happened:

It was midway through college, I was at a break in a relationship and in the midst of a total re-evaluation of all I thought I knew. My faith in God, that solid rock that had brought me through every previous challenge, was now a one-handed grip on a fraying rope. I told my dad, and he sent me an email in which he asked, “Might you be depressed? Though I watched you closely as a kid and you never seemed to have inherited my cyclical major depression, I know mental health can affect one’s life and faith. It’s okay if you’re depressed, and it’s okay to get help.”

Funny how we hear the things we want to hear. Then, I wanted a quick fix for loneliness and doubts, not a lifelong journey with mental health. Now, I wanted to remember this story as a long history of voices telling me I was fine, I didn’t need help. Turns out it was my own voice all along. I have always been the one telling me I didn’t need help.


Later on in college, when that relationship ended for the final time, after friendships had become even more fraught and anger had replaced disbelief as the mode of my faith, I noted the quantity of my tears and the changes in my usually robust appetite, and I wondered if I should see a counselor. The google search “am I depressed” turned up myriad online quizzes and evaluations, and some said I might be mildly to moderately depressed, and some said I was fine. Some days I thought I was depressed, and some days I thought I was fine.

At the end of most every quiz, after all the questions about appetite and sleep and hopelessness and self-harm, there was a question worded something like this: “Have any of the above symptoms affected your ability to carry out the activities of your life?” And I would look at my grades and my work and my unchanged outward appearance, and I would check “No.”

I think part of me wanted to get help, find someone to talk to, explore the idea of therapy. But the other part told me that it was self-indulgent to go to a counselor when (according to the internet) I wasn’t even depressed.

Besides, I was still pulling up my pants every morning. And I had learned that to be functional is to be okay. I didn’t yet understand that in mental health, there is more than functional. There is healing and growing and maybe even some version of whole.

But functional has a power over me, and for several more years after that it wielded its scepter: I lived in Tanzania for a year, the year of gulping teary fits, thoughtless peanut-butter gobbling, the feeling of being utterly alone. But of course that was just what it was like to live abroad, right? And it went away when I sang with the girls in the evenings. I moved back to Maryland and there were months of desperate phone calls to college friends. But of course that was just reverse culture shock and learning to be an adult, right? And it went away when I found the new friends and the garden and the laughter.


Finally, I met my match. In 2012 in the course of one week I went from single to married, city to country, community to isolation, employed to unemployed. It was too much all at once, I suppose. My mother-in-law had bought us an expansive, welcoming brown couch as a wedding gift, and it opened each afternoon to swallow me. I would binge on Netflix and chocolate chips and watch the afternoon fade, too apathetic to get up and turn on the lights. And all of the things from before—the desperate phone calls to friends, the feeling of being utterly alone, the teary fits, the weariness of being me—they all came back at once and threatened to undo me.

They certainly undid some of me. But even as I found a functionality in Cherokee—a job, a way of writing and running to get by—I felt in my own self that this was different. This thing was deeper than just adjusting to marriage and a rural place that was hesitant to accept me. I waited, as weeks turned to months and beyond, hoping for a ritual or a garden or a new friend to rescue me out of it. When they did not come I blamed my own failure, a failure to be outgoing enough to make people love me or spiritual enough to conquer the dark.

We moved to Durham, and I started anew, and I hoped those feelings would depart with new routines and new friends and new purpose. And although slowly built a network of people I desperately love and trust, yet still I would leave the library each day angry at myself for not trying harder. Still I would end up at home feeling sad and lonely, unable to focus or even get off the couch. I would panic as I looked ahead to a weekend without social plans.

My second summer in Durham, I interned as a chaplain, an experience full of  meaning and friendship. And then one day in a group meeting, pressed to explain my emotions, everything all seemed to collapse around me and I found myself crying under a table, begging to be left alone, my mind repeating over and over "I just want to not be me. I just want to not be me."

And I finally admitted to myself that it was time to ask for help.

Want to know what happened next? You can read part 2 here.

Friday, November 24, 2017


I’m filled with gratitude today. Lest I create the impression of an instagram-filtered life: let me say that it's almost weekly that I cry or think “I can’t do this anymore,” and not just the work, the enormous task of living with hope in this world. And of course, the aches and pains of my life as a chaplain and human pale in comparison to the anguish, grief, and heartbreak of my patients and their families. I hope that the meaning and beauty I find in this work does not imply insensitivity to their experiences.

In any case, today I wanted to share a little of how I got into this job that is changing me, bringing me life and depth: through luck, and listening to my gut, and quite a lot of grace.

Photo by Guy Mayer

I’m grateful for the gut feeling.

My gut had been wrong about these things before. As a 20-year-old, after spending a month in Bangladesh, I boarded a plane for home, feeling deep down, "I'll be back." I haven’t been back.

So I was justifiably skeptical of my inner churnings on my last day of internship as a chaplain in the summer of 2016. And yet, the phrase kept playing in my head, "Chaplaincy isn't done with me yet."

Still, I put down that voice. I was on an emotional high, saying goodbye to colleagues and a summer of learning. Sure, I had loved and learned all summer long: I had been honored by the stories shared, been awed by the sacredness of grief, been surprised by the gratitude and hopefulness found in the hospital rooms of the sick and dying. But, I had not loved the group processing we had to do every week, rehashing our experiences and feelings ad nauseum with supervisors and peers. I had hated that moment I broke down in tears in front of the group—hated it so much I crawled under the table. I told myself it was too overanalytical, too touchy-feely. Better simply to do the work you're called to do.

I’m grateful that I drove by the hospital around 11pm, 36 hours before the application was due for Duke’s chaplain residency.

I thought about the patients sleeping, and the family members pacing in waiting rooms, and the chaplain walking down a quiet hallway, breathing slowly to mentally prepare herself for the teary family waiting for her. I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There was something more for me here.
Maybe. I threw together an application, "just to keep the door open." Probably I wouldn't be accepted, wouldn't accept anyway.

I’m grateful they nearly made me cry during my interview.

As I sat with a table of three interviewers I already knew, I shared about a patient I’d cared for the summer before, a patient who’d received life-changing news but seemed to want to put a positive spin on it all. I told them I’d tried to meet him where he was, while also letting him know it was okay with me if he needed to cry and scream. I tried to show—as one does in an interview—what a phenomenal and qualified candidate I was for this chaplain job.

Then they asked about my background. My personality. My ability to receive feedback. Questions grew sharper, and I felt anger rumbling in me. No, I wasn’t arrogant about my family. Was I?

One of the panelists stopped me. “Let me go back to your patient. You said he wanted to put a positive spin on it all. How is that like what you’re doing right here, right now, in this interview?”

I felt my face grow hot and tears rise. Seriously? Of course I am--I want you to hire me!

And then suddenly as it clicked, a desperately beautiful freedom. Unlike every other pretense-filled interview for every other pretense-filled job, this panel didn’t want me to act like I had it all together. They didn’t want a perfect employee. They wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to be real, to openly and bravely explore the unknown not only with patients, but with herself.

Being real intstead of perfect—being brave instead of put-together—these were the things that I wanted, too.

I’m grateful they let me in.

I’m grateful for that Tuesday evening.

I was sipping wine with John. I had been wrestling all week whether to accept the job. I had never wanted another 1-year transitional gig. It seemed that to do it I would have to put off big things—Getting a Real Job and Trying to Start a Family and Having a Plan.

But that evening I felt a clarity, so I took John out for a glass of wine and told it all. I told him I wanted to do this, because it felt real, because it felt like exactly what my perfectionist self needed, because it felt like a mysterious calling. I’d just had 3 grad school years focused on Achieving and Succeeding, and I live in a culture that measures worth by the Outcomes and Products and that identifies people by what they Do.

In the midst of all that, I wanted to focus on becoming. On who I am rather than what I do. On deepening instead of producing.

I am grateful that John caught the vision.

I am grateful to be here.

It’s all about Being and Becoming. I sit with people who are suffering and I have no fix to give. The only Skills I’m developing are silence and tears and an occasional willingness to look into my own darkness. I spend two hours a week pulling shards of my broken self out to put on display to my colleagues.

And it is one of the best things I have ever done.

I know it sounds crazy. So many people ask me a variety of the question, "How do you manage to spend so much time around dying people without sinking into despair?" Others, who know the intricacies of this type of program, wonder why I enjoy spending every Thursday morning in a room with six people I met only a few months ago, a processing time designed (I assume based on the evidence) to make at least one person cry every week.

But here’s the thing. These six other residents have been willing to bare their secrets and their fears to me. They have seen me at my best and my worst, taught me to see myself more clearly so that I can see—and love—others more clearly. And the patients and their families have shown me what it is to live and die, with grace, hope, and ferocity.

So no, I don’t manage it. I can’t always “enjoy” it.

But the whole thing is that I’ve learned I don’t have to. That I can be as I am, because my whole self, unmanaged and broken and even despairing at times, is constantly met and re-fashioned with grace. That the breaking and re-molding enlarges the space within me for empathy and even joy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A time to be silent and a time to speak

Hello, dear friends, after this long hiatus. Grad school is finally past, and I'm six months into a year-long chaplaincy gig, and today I wanted to share a little about my long silence here, about seasons for listening and seasons for sharing.

Photo by Garry Knight

It was 2016, I'd just spent a summer interning as a chaplain, and I was sitting around my parents' dining room table, eating eggplant caprese and catching up with old friends. They asked me what I had learned as a chaplain.

I answered the first thing that came to mind: less talking, more listening.

As chaplains, we're trained to support people's own journeys rather than to guide; we're trained not to answer people's questions but to help them explore for themselves. So when a tearful mother at the bedside of her dying child says-- "Can people who believe in God but don't go to church can still go to heaven?" or simply "What do I do now? Where do I go from here?"--90% of the time I do not answer. I ask the mother to explore her own beliefs and feelings and hopes. I listen to her wriggle around the abstract into the concrete. I watch the tears rolling down her face as she shares her great fear. I feel the strength rise in her voice as she realizes her opinion matters to someone else. I let her puzzle her own way to an answer, and her own journey to that point means more than anything I could say.

That summer, I had to listen. It was my job not to answer. And it taught me that most of the time it's more blessed to listen, even when you can speak.

These days, now halfway into a year-long chaplain residency, I still lean into the silence more than ever. I once stood silent by a bedside and stared at a dying patient for 45 minutes, while holding a box of tissues and occasionally patting family members on the back. I felt extremely intrusive, awkward, and incompetent not to be able to say anything to assuage their tears. At the end of it all the family said simply, "Thank you so much, for being with us at the really crucial moments."

Silence is more powerful than we know.


It is May 2017, I've just graduated, and my seminary is in national news for a situation involving a racial diversity training and a professor's resignation. I am discussing it all with a couple friends. We are all white. We recognize that we cannot really understand.

"I guess that's why I feel my place is to listen," I say, fumbling for some way to come to grips with years of inequity, to bear witness to the brilliance and testimony and complex experiences of my peers who are people of color.

But one of my friends challenges me. She wonders if sometimes listening becomes yet another wall we hide behind when we don't know what to say. If you have a voice and a platform, there are times when you need the courage to speak out loud. Even when what you say will be imperfect and might cause misunderstanding. Even when it you could be wrong. Even when you are still wrestling. Even when your speech may reveal your true colors as one who does not, cannot understand.

If you have been listening closely and you have a voice, maybe you have to take a risk. Maybe people are listening to you, and you could speak a sliver of truth and justice and meaning and connection.


A time to be silent:

There are so many compelling reasons to listen, to be silent:

When you are grieving, and people you love are grieving, and words are paltry.
When you are still listening and learning from the voices you've only just discovered.
When God can be encountered in the sound of a quiet whisper.
When the social media war is raging with words flung carelessly into an impersonal void, or (worse?) into an echo chamber that lets status updates pose as repentance and activism.
When you are gathering your thoughts and feelings into the sacred silence of your heart for awhile.
When you are a chaplain resident brimming with tears for the pain you are carrying, and to corral the deluge of your feelings into a single static word--"sad" or "angry" or "longing"--is to be dishonest to the complexity that is in you.

A time to speak:

And there is a time when the silence is no longer enough. Someone is hurting, perhaps, and it is time to sing, or wail, or say "Me too," or say "I see you," or say, "That is not your fault." It is time to say, "These are the small words I will offer along with my silence in hopes that grace will give them meaning for you, too."

Or you are in a close friendship, a community, a marriage, and the things you don’t say have piled up, have become a barrier preventing true communion. You have to say even the half-baked or bumbling or inconvenient thoughts that are within you, because it is in offering yourself, both the good and the ugly parts, that you will forge a path to more conversation.

Dear friends, for so long, I've scarcely written a thing here in this space. I've been nearly silent for three years during grad school, and then still for this first stage of chaplaincy. I've been tired, needing the fallow time to let the fields recover the life that is in them. And I've been scared of having nothing to say, scared of having too much to say, scared my words may be frivolous against the enormity of the world.

This post is an imperfect way back. I hope it is the first of many, one way into further conversation.

It has become time for me to speak again.