Walking Through the Valley (Or, For Dean and Naomi)

Image by Rosalind Chang via Unsplash

Death refuses to negotiate, that old son of a gun. It is a silent wanderer, coming and going as it pleases, and when it comes, there is no use bartering with it.

Still, we can’t help ourselves. We make an offer. We try to change its already-made-up mind.

* * * * *

I remember when he came into our lives. Dean was, and always has been, one of these people who is fiercely alive. He was at first the slightly older boyfriend of my cousin Andrea, but he never seemed older—he seemed like a kid. They married and he jumped into our extended family feet first, rivaling all of us when it came to athletic ability, courage, and competitive spirit (the last of which is saying something).

But there has always been something ineffably soft about Dean as well, so that when he talked trash over some outdoor game you knew that, at his core, kindness was somehow tangled up with his words. This softness became tangible when he had, first, his three girls, and then, tagging well on behind, his son, who I once saw him looking at with amazement, as if wondering, How could this remarkable thing have happened to me in my later years? When his youngest daughter battled cancer, I watched his eyes fill with love and sadness and slowly grow older, and when she came through it, he was still Dean, and Andrea was still Andrea, but they were something else, too, something more ordinary and more remarkable.

At a family gathering 18 months ago, I was talking with one of my cousins about the way my theology has changed in these recent years, how much of what I believe is crumbling or changing, and Dean, sitting at the other end of the table, heard us. He slid over to our end, leaned in, and listened. He asked a question here or there, but mostly he listened, his face intent and curious.

Dean died from Covid-19 this week. One of the last photos Andrea shared was of her and her kids looking up at the outside of the hospital from the sidewalk. The glass was reflective, so that they could not see Dean waving to them from his room. But he could see them.

Dean and Andrea and the girls live in Virginia and we did not see them enough. I tremble to think of the gap he leaves in his family’s life. And still we try to barter with death, as humans always do, have always done, perhaps, since the first death. I think of the last line of one of my favorite books, A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”

* * * * *

Earlier in the day we had learned that my Great Aunt Naomi had passed on, cancer being the vehicle. She was a writer; in another life, perhaps in a different culture (she grew up Amish) and under different circumstances, she would have been a famous author. Words meant a great deal to her, so that she didn’t waste them, or toss them here and there like too many of us do. She journaled as if her life depended on it; at times, perhaps it did. She lived with a kind of fierce courage, a deep foundation of grit and hard work and determination, someone from a different era completely.

When she saw me, it was always with eyes lighting up in a smile. She called me “Shawnee” and asked what I was writing. Once, she signed up for one of my writing classes and came to all eight weeks. She was around 70 years old at the time, and when she read her writing, we all listened, breathlessly.

* * * * *

And so in this Valley of the Shadow, we go about our ordinary lives that suddenly feel quite remarkable. Lucy makes an apple pie and Maile teaches her the intricacies of a flaky crust and we tell stories of the other great pie makers in the family, matriarchs who have gone on to that far green country. We play cards and the noise of the kids that normally scrambles my brain feels somehow like a balm. Leo has a tired tantrum and says through tears and a broken heart, “But I WANT to be annoying!” I wish Cade wasn’t at work.

It is the ordinary that becomes extraordinary in this valley. It is lying next to Maile in bed and holding her hand while reading Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall; hearing Lucy singing a Ray Lamontagne song in her bedroom for no one but herself; hearing the three chimes distant in the house as Cade gets home from work after nearly everyone else in the house has fallen asleep.

It is the crooning of Patti Griffin:

Where is now my father’s family
That was here so long ago?
Sitting round the kitchen fireside
Brightened by the ruddy glow

We shall all be reunited
In that land beyond the skies
Where there’ll be no separation
No more marching, no more sighs.

That song could be sung by my children now, in these latter days. I am the father now, and it is my family that’s leaving, my family who used to sit around the kitchen together, my extended family who we long to be reunited with.

* * * * *

I escape the light and warmth of home, take Winnie on a walk through the dark city. We stand in the open green together and take in the steeple that rises over the Lutheran church, and the Bethlehem star that still splits the skyline over Lancaster General Hospital. We walk the late-night sidewalks, and though it is only 9:30 p.m., we do not pass another soul.

And, after a time and an age, we come home through the alley. Winnie flinches at the gate. She always does. There is something about it that spooks her, so that I have to coax her through that narrow space of darkness. And I realize this is what we all must do—walk each other up to the gate of death, some of us balking more than others, some of us passing willingly, and help each other through.

Sometimes there is scratching and clawing and struggling, even a bit of panic, but eventually I calm her, and we pass.

Only one thing is certain—no matter how we barter with death, we will all have a turn to pass through that gate. But it’s not something to be afraid of.

Home is on the other side.

* * * * *

I woke up this morning, and I thought it was all a bad dream.

The Hard Thing that Happened Ten Years Ago

Photo by Lina Trochez via Unsplash

Ten years ago I was running a residential painting business, and I was in my van outside of a potential client’s house, writing up an estimate. The real estate bubble had burst the year before, but it took a while to filter down to little people like me. In any case, the summer had come and gone, business was much too slow, and as I sat in that van writing up the estimate, I was trying to figure out how to tell Maile that the worst-case scenario had arrived: I wasn’t making enough money. Our business was in a lot of debt. We needed to make a major change.

That second-half of 2009 lives in my mind like a long-ago series of unfortunate events.

I had co-written one book at that point and was deep in the writing of my second co-writing project.

After many sleepless nights, long conversations, the support of friends, and the overwhelming graciousness of our families, we decided it was time to hit reset. Start from scratch.

I remember how all of our friends came out to help us load the moving truck. I remember the long drive through the rain, 150 miles north to Lancaster. I remember how dark it was at my parents’ house, shuffling the kids down into the basement, getting them in bed, and then lying there, wondering how it had come to that. I was in my 30s, my family of six was living in my parents’ basement, and we were starting over.

Maile would later tell me how she was lying there, too, in the dark, when she felt God whisper, “Maile, this is a gift!”

And I remember her response to God, before rolling over and going back to sleep.

“Well, God, it’s a pretty shitty gift.”

* * * * *

Here we are, friends, ten years later. And it is good.

And it was a gift.

I can’t say the ensuing years were simply victory after victory, a constant upward trajectory. Nope. Nothing like that. And I’m not going to use our story to say that you should leave your job or chase your dreams so that you can live your best life now.

Nope.

Nothing like that.

But I will say this–if you’re living through a large shift in your life, and you’re more focused on learning from the journey than you are on any particular destination, then eventually you will see it for the gift that it is.

I know that’s a pretty sweeping statement, but I stand by it.

* * * * *

Last Saturday night, Maile and I were walking back from Luca, one of our favorite restaurants in the city. We had sat at our table and had a good-but-hard conversation about where we are, where Maile is, where we want to be, what we want to do with this “one wild and crazy life.” Maile was in tears at some point–I don’t think she’ll mind me saying. And I held her hand and listened. And the waiter was kind, even though it took us days before we were ready to order.

As we walked home, I said that to her, “Do you realize it’s been ten years since we left Virginia, since we moved here?”

We walked quietly in that realization, the late-night darkness all around us. The street lights seemed bright, and the air was cool. Fall had arrived. Someone had decked their front porch out for Halloween, and the scarecrow sitting in the lawn chair made me jump again, just as it had when we passed it earlier in the night.

I couldn’t see our future ten years ago: the two additional babies we would have, the 20 books I’d co-write, the novels I’d see published. All the words. All the new friends. The ways Maile and I would change, and grow, together.

I couldn’t see that incredibly hard thing for what it was: a gift.

“Ten years,” she said quietly. That was all. We each knew what the other was thinking.

Please Give Her Back! We Shall Keep Asking You

Photo by Cherry Laithang via Unsplash

“When we held Owen Meany above our heads, when we passed him back and forth — so effortlessly — we believed that Owen weighed nothing at all. We did not realize that there were forces beyond our play. Now I know they were the forces that contributed to our illusion of Owen’s weightlessness: they were the forces we didn’t have the faith to feel, they were the forces we failed to believe in — and they were also lifting up Owen Meany, taking him out of our hands. O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

* * * * *

The man stood in the middle of the lecture room, haggard and breathing oxygen through a small plastic tube perched under his nose. When he paused, we could hear that gentle wheezing in the microphone. The room was overflowing, so that many who had come to hear him sat on the floor behind him, or at his feet at the front, or stood in the corners, or listened from the hall once they stopped letting people in.

This man, Walt Wangerin, author of some of my favorite books, gave a long, wide-ranging talk that was part sermon, part poetry, part creative reading. He told us the story of his cancer diagnosis, the various reactions of his children, how one of them vanished into sadness, and what it was like to journey into this wilderness, a place the Bible referred to in the original language as “a nothing in a nowhere.”

“And when I die,” he said in a gentle voice. “I will become that nothing in a nowhere.”

Sobs broke out at various places in the crowd as we contemplated the death of this precious man. The silence was a blanket. There was loud sniffling as we pulled back tears.

“But then, in that deep darkness, Jesus will call out, ‘WALT,’ and I will be.”

* * * * *

I sit in stunned silence in front of my computer. Rachel has died.

* * * * *

I told this story once on Twitter, when I first heard that Rachel was in a coma, and I told it again yesterday on Facebook, when I heard of her passing. But I will tell it here for you one more time, if you will listen.

Eight or nine years ago,Rachel Held Evans was in Lancaster researching her second book, and a friend of mine was hosting her. So we all had dinner together at our house one evening. From the moment Rachel and Dan pulled up in their old clunky car, they were both so kind and generous. Rachel was full of life and eager to listen. Dan was quiet and kind and looked at her the way husbands do, when they are amazed that they have found themselves traveling through life with someone remarkable, someone who loves them more than they thought possible.

I know this look. I am always looking at Maile this way.

The next day Rachel and I had coffee together, and when she heard about all the books I had co-written, she looked at me with a smile and asked, “So when are you going to start writing your own books?” The question disarmed me. I can honestly say that question sparked something in me that I needed, an additional motivation to pursue my own writing. In the next few years, she allowed me to guest-post on her blog multiple times, even as her blog became more and more popular.

We didn’t stay in regular contact, but every so often she encouraged me on Twitter and Facebook to keep writing.

* * * * *

It seems that one of the things Jesus did on a regular basis was to call people into their true being. Waking the little girl who was “sleeping.” Asking the man if he wanted to be well. Naming Peter. Calling to Lazarus, deep in the grave, to come out and be.

I realize now that this is what Rachel did. Yes, she wrote and spoke beautifully. Yes, she is one of the smartest people I know. But these things alone were not what made her special – it was her ability to call us into being that was perhaps her greatest gift. Countless stories have emerged this weekend of people who Rachel, with some word, some act, some unlikely invitation, called into their true being. There were voices, previously unheard, who she propped up with her platform, and at no gain to herself. There were women, who after feeling Rachel’s nudge, pursued their calling to preach, to go to seminary. There were writers who had been silent for years, who she encouraged to pick up the pen.

So many of us responded to her gentle call. So many of us, deep in the darkness, feeling like a nothing in a nowhere, heard her voice encouraging us to be, and suddenly we were.

* * * * *

I am heartbroken today, mostly for Dan and their two small children, and also for those who were much closer to Rachel than I. I think of the words at the end of CS Lewis’s The Last Battle and have such a desperate hope that there is indeed a Great Story and that Rachel has finally entered into it. Could it be true that we will see her again? Could it be true that when that great nothingness comes for us, a voice will call our name, and we will, in some previously unknowable way, finally be?

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

* * * * *

Even now, those of us who knew Rachel even a little bit keep praying, O God — please give her back! We shall keep asking You.

An Update on Leo and Further Thoughts on Pain

Our crew, circa October, 2017. Yes, Poppy is chewing on a stick.

Leo looks at me nervously while I move to change his bandage.

“Wait, Dad, let me tell you something!” he exclaims, so I relent, and I listen (again) to some small thing he is using to delay the inevitable. Except the changing of the bandages doesn’t hurt anymore. But he’s still nervous about it, so he stalls. It is the memory of pain that scares him now, and it is as intense for him as the real thing.

When he’s finally ready to let me do what I have to do, he slumps his shoulders, worried. I move to change the dressings, and he says quietly, as if to himself, “Gently, gently.” This makes me smile. He grins, too, as the bandages come off, realizing (or remembering) that it doesn’t hurt anymore. It really doesn’t. That particular pain is behind us.

He looks up at me, smiling. “I really love you, Dad.” That gets me every time.

* * * * *

Since Leo’s surgery, I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, how being in its proximity (whether in proximity to our pain or someone else’s) will always change us, often at a very deep level.

The pain Leo experienced after his minor surgery, the emotional pain Maile and I went through in trying to help him heal, these are things that will not leave us for a long time, maybe never. Our relationship with him is fundamentally different because of the journey we’ve traveled over the last week. I’m not sure if “better” or “worse” are helpful words when describing how things change when pain is involved. I think I feel things deeper now, especially when it comes to my children.

I also have a different view of healing, the long arc we are all on when it comes to getting better, whether from disease or emotional pain or old hurts that linger. I have a lot of questions about the relationship between pain and healing. I need to think about it a bit more.

* * * * *

Maile is away this weekend, speaking at a women’s conference in Orlando, Florida, and I am so, so proud of her. If you’ve followed along in this space, you know our family has been trying to adapt to some changes (which I wrote about in my most-read post of all time, “In Which We are Beginning to Find Our Way”), trying to rediscover a new way forward. Like any birthing process, it has its own discomfort, pain, and a sense of disorientation.

Early yesterday morning, before the house had woken up, Maile kissed my face and said good-bye. She was off on her adventure. She said some other things to me, but I was too tired to really hear her. The door sensor rang three times when she walked out, and I went back to sleep.

* * * * *

The sun is out this afternoon, and spring is here. There’s no denying it. The trees are blossoming, daffodils are peeking up through the ground, and kids’ eyes are getting itchy. Every season, something new.

We’re entering a new season of life, and I’m not talking about spring. Maile is growing towards a new light, my writing is evolving, the kids are getting older. Our family is changing, but it’s a good thing, a necessary thing. I know there will be more pain, but for the pain there is always healing in some form or other. This is the hope I hold on to.

The Connection Between Pain and Healing, Singing and Dying

Our brave little boy, pre-op.

Nearly two weeks ago, we went to a funeral for our friend’s father. We took Leo and Poppy along because the other kids were at school and no one was available to watch them. They are four years old and two years old. We sat in the very back row, and during the service they mostly colored and played with some toys we brought and asked how much longer it would be.

Although I was not directly related to the man who had died, the church was filled with my people–first and second cousins, aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, close friends. Even though there were a few hundred people there, it would not have taken long to figure out how I was connected to nearly every person.

Maile leaned over and whispered into my ear, “There’s something really special about this community.” And she’s right. My ancestors have lived in this area for thirteen generations. I show up at gatherings and meet distant cousins I hadn’t met before. I feel connected to this place, this dirt, these fields and trees and churches and cemeteries.

In this community of Lancaster, death brings us together. Yes, we weep for those who have left us. Sometimes desperately. The sense of what has been lost can feel overwhelming. But when we come together to remember the person who has gone, and we sit there among so many generations, so many families, so many stories, there is a kind of healing that takes place. It is hard to explain, this aching wholeness.

The family whose father had died, they were a singing family, and at one point we all sang together.

I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

* * * * *

Later that night, I was putting Leo to bed, and he asked me if I was going to die.

“Probably not today. But we all die someday,” I told him quietly. It is hard to look at a four-year-old and imagine that this is true.

“But what happens when we die?” he asked, his voice tremulous, afraid to explore this new ground but helpless to turn away from his own curiosity.

“The Bible says that when we die, we go to be with God. We won’t be here anymore. We won’t be in pain. We’ll be with God.”

He sat there for a moment, very still, and then he looked at me with mournful eyes. “I don’t want to die. I like it here, with you. I like our house. I don’t want to leave.”

“You don’t have to worry about that today,” I said, but he wasn’t convinced. He pushed his face against my chest and said it again, this time in a whisper.

“I don’t want to die. I like it here.”

* * * * *

About a week after the funeral, Leo needed to have a minor surgery for which he would have to be put under with anesthesia. The night before the surgery I took him up to bed once again. I was feeling emotionally fragile in the face of our little boy going under the knife. I sang him his normal songs, and then he asked for his favorite.

“Dad, can you sing about the river?”

There is a river we must cross over,
When life’s sun goes to sleep in the west;
There’ll be a light for me at the crossing,
Guiding me to that home of sweet rest.

I could barely get the words out. I tucked my face in tight against his tiny shoulder and sang, the words catching in my throat. It is a beautiful thing, the ways that we comfort each other.

* * * * *

Fast forward two days after his surgery.

There is something that tears inside of you when your child is screaming in pain and you’re holding them down so that you can change the dressing on their wound. There is something unnatural about inflicting pain on your own child, even when you know it must be done, that it’s for their good.

Later, after we had all cried, after we sat in the new quiet still sweating from the distress, after the dressing had been changed and he was lying comfortably on the sofa hiccuping sobs, tiny bird sounds, Leo looked up at me.

“You had to put the bandage right at the top of my pain,” he said quietly. It was not an accusation. It was simply a statement of fact.

“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I said. “I don’t like doing that.”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I kicked mama. I’m sorry I screamed at you.”

* * * * *

Now, it’s Sunday morning, and a low gray sky has pushed away yesterday’s blue. Maile’s mom is in town, always a pleasure, and she is on the front porch with the kids, all of them drinking coffee, watching the cars go by on James Street. I am alone in the dining room. Soon, we will get ready for church.

There is something about the last two weeks that seems crucial, something about funerals and not wanting to die, surgeries and dressings over painful wounds that must nevertheless be changed, and trying to sing songs that catch in our throats. There is something about pain and life and lullabies that I’m beginning to grasp.

I feel it now in new ways, the connection between pain and healing, singing and dying. We are, all of us, trying not to die, trying to be okay with dying. We are, all of us, trying to heal, trying to avoid the pain of healing. I think we need to have more grace for each other. I think we need to try to remember that all of us carry our wounds with us into the world.

Keep Looking for the Good Stuff

When I was a nine-year-old kid living on a farm in central PA, my friend and I ran down the long lane past the apple tree and pear tree and cherry tree, across the empty back road, and into the church’s parking lot. Sometimes, we rode our bikes there, and in the late spring days the air was still cool enough to blur our eyes. The trees were a kind of new green, not the shadowy green they would become in the summer heat, but a lime lollipop color that was new and fresh.

We each pulled a penny from one of our pockets, got down on our hands and knees on the macadam, and looked for Fool’s Gold. If Wikipedia can be believed, this is actually something called Pyrite, but that didn’t matter to us back then. We wanted the shiny stuff. We’d look and look and look, and when we finally saw a piece, we’d dig it out of the ground with our penny, pocket the gold, and keep looking.

* * * * *

I’ve been reading through the Psalms in the Message—I love the creativity and poetic language Eugene Peterson uses. And the other day I read Psalm 106:

They traded the Glory

            For a cheap piece of sculpture—a grass-chewing bull!

As the story goes, when the Israelites thought they had been abandoned by God and Moses, they threw their jewelry into the fire, melted it down, and created a calf to worship. They were so desperate to have something tangible to lead them, something they could see and touch and feel, that they were willing to walk away from the God who had miraculously provided for them such a short time before.

They were willing to trade the Glory for a cheap replacement.

* * * * *

Whether or not you’re a Christian, there’s a clear application here: stop trading in the good stuff for meaningless crap. Keep going for the real, the true, the meaningful.

I know it can be hard to keep believing in the work you’re creating when it feels like there’s nothing on the horizon, no hope for a bigger audience, no real reason to keep going. It’s hard to keep going when it feels like you’re leaving a wake of failure behind you. Or maybe you’re having trouble finding hope when it comes to your spouse, your kid, your church, your business, your dream. Maybe you’re finding it hard to keep hoping in yourself. I understand this. When everything seems to have vanished, when our goals and dreams seem unattainable, we just want something we can touch. And we get to the point where we’re willing to trade in the good stuff we can’t see (even if it’s just around the corner) for just about anything tangible, even if it’s a cheap imitation of that beautiful, wonderful thing we’ve been chasing for such a long time. Even if it means walking away from the Glory.

We give up way too early, way too often.

The key is hope. Trust. Faith.

As Journey would say, Don’t stop beleeeeevin’…

So keep hoping. Keep going. Keep trying. One more day. Find someone who will encourage you to stay focused on the good, the beautiful, the true, the real. And don’t trade the good stuff in for Fool’s Gold. If you do, you might walk away with pockets that feel full, but it’s really just a pocketful of shiny junk. The good stuff is out there, waiting for you.

* * * * *

What’s the good stuff that feels elusive to you right now? What’s the Fool’s Gold you’re tempted to go after? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

* * * * *

As of Thursday evening, you can get the Kindle version of my first novel, The Day the Angels Fell, for only $4.70! Check it out HERE.