Losing a Visionary, Gaining a Vision

“I’m not a vision board kind of person,” I always said, most likely with a slight eye roll, when anyone mentioned the concept — until my sister asked last month if we wanted to create vision boards the weekend all three sisters were going to be at her house. There was some mention of our visit aligning with the spring new moon or something, I don’t know. I just figured it would be a fun way to spend a few hours, so I gathered what magazines I have laying around and brought them with me.

“I’m not a vision board kind of person” is, I now realize, both a false and entirely stupid thing to say. Do I try to be intentional about setting goals and growing as a person? Yes. Do I enjoy creative projects? Yep. Do I like visual reminders of the ideals I strive for in my life? I actually do.

The ironic thing is the vision boards never got made. We did spend an afternoon sipping cocktails and flipping through magazines, cutting out things that spoke to us while catching up on one another’s lives. But eventually it was dinnertime, and then other plans got in the way, and when it was time to hug goodbye two days later, my vision board was still just a pile of clippings and a mostly blank poster board. I brought it home and slid it under my bed, which is where it’s been gathering dust for a month. 

And then yesterday a writer and best-selling author I’d never met but greatly admired died, and my grief brought my vision board out from its hiding place and onto the kitchen table to finish. 

Rachel Held Evans was a brave Christian writer who wasn’t afraid to peer under the shiny layers of her religion and poke at its dark underbelly, to question its leaders’ judgments and explore the multi-dimensional sides to issues so many turn into rigid, simplistic proclamations of what’s “right” or “wrong.” Hers was an inclusive voice that called countless marginalized people back to the table for conversation, communion, compassion and faith. She made it OK to question the details of my childhood religion, to question my beliefs, to poke around inside my own soul for the truth. She made doubt, curiosity, discernment and speaking truth to power feel not only safe, but necessary. 

Rachel was 37, and left behind a husband and two children, ages 3 and almost 1. I was unexpectedly gutted by the news of her death; the world felt, quite simply, less kind and less tolerant without her. 

Also, as a writer, a mother and a human, I was overcome with the privilege and responsibility I have to wring out every last drop of passion and kindness and talent and love and life inside me while I can. Vision boards are not meant to be half-finished under beds. Essays and manuscripts are not meant to stay on my laptop (or rattling around in my brain) indefinitely. Trips are meant to be taken, not just daydreamed about. 

If my time on this planet in this body is over tomorrow, I will be leaving without having finished all that I came to do. It will have to be enough — what I’ve done, whom I’ve loved, what I’ve written, how I’ve tried so far. It will be up to those left behind to forgive my mistakes, to give the love I can no longer, and to hold onto the words and times and laughter I shared with them. With you.

Mostly, I hope you will say of me:  “She was a vision board kind of person.” 

“When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.” ~ Rachel Held Evans

“If same-sex relationships are really sinful, then why do they so often produce good fruit-loving families, open homes, self-sacrifice, commitment, faithfulness, joy? And if conservative Christians are really right in their response to same-sex relationships, then why does that response often produce bad fruit-secrets, shame, depression, loneliness, broken families, and fear?” ~ Rachel Held Evans

“My friend Adele describes fundamentalism as holding so tightly to your beliefs that your fingernails leave imprints on the palm of your hand… I think she’s right. I was a fundamentalist not because of the beliefs I held but because of how I held them: with a death grip. It would take God himself to finally pry them out of my hands.” ~ Rachel Held Evans

Shadowboxer

It’s been a hard-fought battle between two formidable opponents.

She, with the crippling self-doubt
vs.
Her, with the knowing self-confidence

She, with the billion ads, movies and mirrors taunting “you’re not”
vs.
Her, with the bullshit detector

She, with the desperate need to be validated
vs.
Her, with the compassionate self-acceptance

Jab, hook, uppercut.
Always a counter punch.

She, with the self-indulgence, muting feelings and masking pain
vs.
Her, with the journaling and therapy, the bold, sober facing of it

She, with the shame of cellulite, moles, crow’s feet
vs.
Her, with the appreciation of health, symmetry, sexuality

She, with the dwelling over past and future
vs.
Her, with the intentional presence in the right now

Chest heaving, sweat dripping
each making the other
alive with power and purpose


She, with the nightmares, the worries, the dark assumptions
vs.
Her, with the dreams, the optimism, the benefit of the doubt

She, with the clanking, whining skepticism
vs.
Her, with the quiet, steady faith

She, with the fear of being discarded, growing old alone
vs.
Her, with the fierce independence and delight in solitude

Crushing blows still leave Her disoriented, but
She is, in these later rounds, often on the ropes


She, with the stubborn determination
vs.
Her, with the same

She, with the weariness 
vs.
Her, with the same

She, with the beauty, the vulnerability, the strength
vs.
Her. With the same.

Exhausted, elated, 
She raises Her arms.
There is just one woman in the ring, 
and She know
s what doesn’t kill them makes Her stronger.

An Old Dog’s Appetite for Love

Sadie lifts her head off the towel and stares blankly toward the front door. It’s dark outside, and the blanket of snow muffles everything anyway. In years past this look would mean something—I’d hear a car drive past or a person’s voice rise up from the street 10 seconds after Sadie appeared to be listening to nothing. By then she’d be barking.

Sadie used to bark at any sign of an impending intruder. She’d bark with the same ferocity at a school bus lurching by or a dear friend we invited in and hugged hello. She could sound fierce, but really it was her only line of defense. I’ve spent years shouting pleasantries and reassurances about our timid pitbull mix sweetheart to whoever just entered the house: “Don’t worry, she’s just scared!” I’d shout as Sadie barked like hell and ran clear into another room to escape the stranger. “Just ignore her and she’ll settle down!”

Ninety percent of the time this directive was flatly ignored. “I’m a dog person! I love dogs!” they’d say, heading right toward her with a hand held out as she cowered and trembled and growled. “HI SADIE! COME HERE, SADIE!”

You can’t blame dog people, really. When you’ve felt the unconditional love of a dog, the endorphin high of a pup licking your hand and nuzzling into you, it’s a hard hit to pass up. But still.

“No, really, just ignore her!”

Now I never ignore her. Now I dote on her with the guilty conscience of someone who feels time growing short. Now I wish I had let her on the sofa or on my bed to snuggle with me every night. Now I yearn for another afternoon of throwing balls in the backyard or across a wide open field, back when she could chase them down like a wide receiver going long on fourth-and-forever.

Now I have an acute awareness of this sweet creature who’s offered us love and companionship without taking a day off for almost 16 years. She is the living being that has seen me weep more than any other, a quiet witness to all the times I’ve waited until the house was empty to break down.

But it wasn’t empty. It was the best kind of not-empty.

She’s the pet that welcomed and protected both our babies when we brought them to live in her house without even asking her. And as they made more noise than she did, disrupted all our lives and marked up her territory in a thousand irreversible ways, she did nothing but love them in return. They grabbed for her and sat on her and chased her and she never once nipped or bit or barked at them. Sometimes, though, I’d catch her sigh, and she’d get a knowing pat or a treat. I know, girl. They love you though. We all do.

Now she does growl at them sometimes, when she’s fallen again on their dad’s kitchen floor and Kostyn is dutifully trying to help her to her feet. She is protective of her lumpy body, the arthritis in her hips and the football-sized tumor on her right hind leg that slow her down. The cataracts over her eyes have turned everything into ominous shadows and patches of light, and it’s hard to discern friend from foe when hands reach out and grab you from behind.

When she whimpers in her sleep, we yell her name to try to rouse her but eventually have to shake her awake. I hope we are cutting short a nightmare, not prematurely ending a dream where she is young and strong and barky again. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, her equivalent human age will be 94 years old this spring. Ninety-four-year-olds sure do sleep a lot. They have earned the rest.

I watch her sleep on that towel that’s stretched out beneath a long table that holds a framed photo of her and I, and a smaller one of her as a puppy. Her brindled coat and sweet brown eyes made me fall hard and fast the day I picked her out to give to my ex, the birthday present he’d begged for. A rescue pup, the runt of the litter. Her back is still rich with stripes of orange and shades of brown, but her snout is gray now.

I tell the boys when she was younger she could throw her 45-pound muscular frame 6 feet in the air and grab a tennis ball right from our outstretched hands. They want to believe me, but it’s hard for them to remember her before how she is now, sleepy and leaky. Bladder control is largely a thing of the past.

I think she might have dementia. Sometimes she acts like she needs to be let out two minutes after she has just come back in. Don’t you remember you were just out there? I let her back out anyway, 20 times a day. She slides down the icy steps, walks a few paces and stands still, looking around as if she isn’t sure why she’s there. It reminds me of one of my very first hospice patients, who used to stand up suddenly, with purpose, in the middle of our conversation and stride across the room toward the kitchenette or her bedroom, before faltering.

“Sarah,” I’d say, “what do you need?”

She’d furrow her brow. “Well…”

Well.

Sadie stares off toward the snowy hill behind our house. She stoops over and sniffs her own poop. Does she know it’s hers? I wonder if she gets confused, whether the eight different backyards she’s lived in are blending together in her mind.

Her dad got a new puppy last summer. The puppy is cute and soft and growing fast; he has boundless energy and trips her up when she’s trying to get to her bowls. She is not agile and quick like him. The puppy’s scent confuses her, too, and she marks her territory where she shouldn’t, so now at his house she is relegated to just the kitchen floor or her crate. Her dad shoos her away when she wanders into the living room. “Kennel up, Sadie,” he says, and she backtracks toward her metal home, away from the boys she loves and from the other dog that is allowed on the carpets and the couch.

There is no crate here, though I have to change the towel, which has a protective lining under it, a couple times a day, sometimes more. Through tears I Google things like “signs a dog is dying” and read about a marked decrease in appetite that hasn’t come. She eats more than ever, and mostly that fills me with relief.

But other times I see the bowl empty again and I watch her move stiffly and sit so gingerly on a fresh towel I’ve just changed, I watch her slump her head down onto the floor and sigh and close her eyes, and my heart breaks open for all of us, for the life she lives now and for the end of it. I don’t know how in the world I’ll be able to let go, and maybe she knows this. Maybe she’ll just keep eating her roasted chicken-flavored dry dog food, the special one for senior dogs, maybe she’ll just keep acting like it’s the best thing I’ve ever fed her, until the moment she somehow knows I’ll be OK the next time I wait until the house is empty to break down, and it really is.

 

[Postscript: We lost Sadie on Monday, May 13, 2019, just after her 16th birthday. She will be loved and missed forever.]

A million thank yous, sweet girl.

I Carry It All


I am 5-feet-8-inches tall and I weigh 138 pounds. But I’m heavier than that because of the weight of what I carry as a woman.

In my eyes I carry the terror of being followed on a run by two men in a pickup truck. They drove by just as I was leaving my driveway and I saw them take me in as they passed. The running shorts, the tiny tank top. That wasn’t unusual because I am a woman and my body is a thing that is ogled, judged. But then I saw them again on the next street, driving slowly. And when I turned a corner, they did too. I cut through a churchyard into another neighborhood and my pulse was way up but they were gone and I felt smart — until I eventually jogged back home, and then every nerve ending in my body erupted. They had backed into the next-door neighbor’s driveway, which sat just behind our house.

What were they waiting for?

I had left the garage door up. I hit the button and it closed at a snail’s pace. I locked my sweaty, shaking body inside and then in a fresh panic strained to remember whether I had seen both men in the truck. I called my boyfriend at work. This was before cell phones. He told me to get a kitchen knife and go into the bathroom and lock the door, then he hung up and called the police. I remember chastising myself. Stupid garage door. Stupid tank top. The police came in minutes, my boyfriend right behind them. The men tried to pull out of the driveway as the cruiser pulled in; they were stopped and questioned. They said they were waiting for the homeowners, whom they couldn’t name.

In my eyes I carry the terror of knowing I can be watched, followed, caught. In my nerve endings I carry the feeling of being prey.

In my stomach I carry the trauma of being molested when I was a little girl. I do not remember what day it was or exactly how old I was. Five, maybe? Six? I didn’t know then that he was a longtime child abuser who had destroyed other girls before me. I remember the sound he made as he tickled me, and what that turned into. I remember staring at the sliver of light coming through the crack in the doorway to the spare bedroom where I lay, wondering why no one was coming in to check on me.

In my stomach I carry the feeling of being treated like an inanimate object, a pillow or a plaything, not a living being with tears and value. For much of my life that feeling was a black hole.

On my face I carry the indignity of being spit on by a jealous boyfriend. He followed me to a bar one night, a bar my friends and I had invited him to but he’d turned it down. He watched from afar as I ran into an old high school friend and shouted a few happy pleasantries above the din of the band. The friend asked if I was dating anyone. “Yes!” I said. “For two years now. I think he’s the one!”

He congratulated me and we hugged goodbye; I turned around to search for the friends I’d come with and there was “the one” suddenly coming toward me. My face broke into a smile because What a coincidence, I was just talking about you! And then he spit in my face. “You gonna go fuck him tonight??” he snarled, his baseless accusation dripping from my nose. A moment of humiliation and disorientation, and then absolute clarity. I knew I couldn’t react in anger or it would get worse. I wiped his spit off my face while people watched, their beers frozen halfway to their lips. I tried to turn away but he grabbed my arm and pulled. “We’re not done here” he said as he yanked me toward the entrance — and the bouncer. “Get your hands off her,” the beefy dude working the door said, and “the one” was kicked out of that place and out of my life.

Behind my forehead I carry the understanding that a man’s insecurities, general unhappiness or anger can be weaponized against a woman he “loves” with no justification or any real consequence to him. In my jawbone I carry the defensive will to defuse, not alight.

In my calves I carry the shock and shame of being sexually harassed by an employer. He came into the small office kitchen where I was stooped over the water cooler, one hand on my bottle, one hand on the tap filling it. My boss was the owner of the company; he was dating the newly divorced sales manager.

We were alone in the kitchen, and he suddenly bent down beside me and started rubbing my legs. “If you’re not ever gonna wear shorts or a skirt to work, I’m gonna have to feel what you’re hiding under these jeans,” he said as his hands slid up and down my calves and above my knees. I stood there paralyzed, pouring water. What? What is happening? It was over in a few seconds. “Damn, girl,” he said as he stood up. “You really should show those off.”

He had never said anything like that to me before. It was the first job I really liked. I was 23. I walked back to my side of the building, sat down at my desk and stared at my screen. Why didn’t I kick him? Why didn’t I pour water on his god damn head?

In my calves I carry the painful knots of objectification and disrespect in the workplace. In my hips I carry the weight of shame and second-guessing my responses to it.

In my shoulders I carry the trauma of having a man I care about take what he wants despite my wishes.

I cannot write about it yet, but I carry it. I carry the inner disappointment of not having been forceful enough with my words or my body.

We tried to watch a movie afterward but I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t sit next to him, this person I’d known so long and liked so much. I couldn’t sit still. I perched on the edge of the sofa, one leg bouncing up and down continually. I had an overwhelming desire to take a shower. I needed him to leave so I could take a shower. And when he started to cry and apologize for ignoring all my signals I shriveled up inside myself and said nothing, so he left. The next day I sent him an email apologizing for not being able to comfort him when he was feeling so sorry for what he’d done.

In my shoulders I carry the resignation I felt when a man’s wants superseded my needs. In my mouth I carry the bitter betrayal of my spirit and all the words that in a moment felt too powerful or too entitled for me to say.

In my heart I carry the enduring love I have for men, the gentle understanding that they bear their own set of unique burdens I can’t see. I carry the acute and abiding love for the men in my life who have treated me well, the men who have sheltered and cared for me, inspired me, challenged and pampered and really listened to me. The good bouncers and good officers and good boyfriends and good co-workers of the world. The men who have made me a better person and a better friend, a better writer and a better lover. The first man I ever trusted, whose big calloused hands still make me feel safe even as they grow wrinkled and weaker, and the two young men I carried in my womb who are making the world better because they’re in it.

In my heart I carry the love and hope and expectations I have for men, the young ones and the old ones who are doing the best they can every day, and the broken ones who desperately need less privilege and more accountability.

These things I carry are personal yet also universal. I am not unique, and these incidents are not rare. Some call me a victim, others say survivor, or just another melodramatic female who can’t let go of the past and writes long-winded blog posts. If you think that then you don’t understand how memories like these work, how they stay locked in your body, leaking out in weird sideways reactions when someone tries to tickle you, or your own precious baby suddenly sneezes on your face, or you hear the quivering voice of a brave woman in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing describe a dehumanizing trauma she suffered.

In those moments all the extra weight I carry is magnified and I can’t hold it anymore. It’s too heavy and it spills out in rage, tears, resignation and shame, confusing emotions I can barely identify that don’t seem appropriate. But they are.

Over the last several days this happened many times. And I know other women were similarly crushed by the weight of what they, too, carry silently all the time, along with the willful ignorance we are up against. So we acknowledge one another’s experiences. We listen, and we believe. We get back up; we always do. We share so that our burdens might enlighten, and be lightened.

I am 5-feet-8-inches tall and I weigh 138 pounds. But I am so much more than that. I am a woman.