Hope Hunger

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops–at all.
~Emily Dickinson

“Life sucks.” This from a friend whom I love more than my luggage. And yep: stuff happens. Read my blogs about ankylosing spondylitis and domestic violence. But the implication that we’re stuck in our muck gnaws at my grace-girl instincts.

“My daddy is my worst place in my life,” Eli says. A four-year-old struggles to wrap his one heart around shards of family glass scattered at feet once rooted in perceived safety. Even in its fragility, the glass castle his shadow-father made was still familiar. “Because my dad is always angry with me,” Eli explains. “He keeps messing me up.”

“Monster feet time,” I tell Eli as we prepare for shadow-father’s post-Christmas arrival. (My child resists hard. He dons furry, green slippers with soft, orange claws.)

Eli’s eyes, two dark-chocolate wells hugged by doll lashes, fill. His thin shoulders slump. He laments one home and two parents with the courage to repair. Whenever Eli revisits shadowland, he begs to remain home “for every sleep.” My boy lives between mother and father–between brought up and broken down–and when familiar fades, he clings to blue walls, fairy lights, a brown corduroy duvet, and a plastic wand that whooshes with the touch of a button.

His SPD in full bloom, Eli holds the wand’s base like a baseball bat–one hand above the other–and grips magic hard. The wand’s tip casts purple into his dark.

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photo: Harper Green

“Kill them,” Eli says about shadow-father and grandmother with whom father lives. He slides his fingers across the slick fabric of his black Batman cape as we discuss endings, beginnings, and angels who guard children in between. My heart cracks open wider as I hold my son’s raw in arthritic hands.

I cradle Eli’s new hurt in sacred silence before promising to leave his pillow kingdom as it is until he returns home: thirty-two pillows placed carefully atop a king-sized bed with room for three.

Eli ponders beige bedroom tile. He struggles to sustain eye contact with most everyone but me. “I’ll always forgive ya, Mommy,” he says softly before I ask. “We’re attached.”

Eli gingerly places the last throw pillow–red and green plaid with spots rubbed sheer–atop a throne he built just for me. Then he removes plaid and rubs its soft against broad forehead and delicate nose for one beat before tears kiss flushed cheeks, and we walk hand in hand to a blue hatchback parked at the curb because shadow-father can’t step onto my personal property after arrest warrant, smoke detectors dismantled in secret, and shattered glass.

My son suffers from hope hunger. Hope was the thing with feathers that perched in his soul and mine. Hope sang dreams in spite of, and it sang still together into sheets of glass. Hope didn’t stop until we did. Our hope flew into gray when our family broke. Its song stopped when we couldn’t reach forward–when our in spite of and still together faltered.

In the community college classes I teach, I quote Booker T. Washington ad nauseam:

The circumstances that surround a man’s life are unimportant. How that man responds to those circumstances is the ultimate determining factor between success and failure.
Character, not circumstances, makes the man. (Or woman, as the case may be.)
Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.

I curl up inside what feel like solidly American notions about upward mobility and interior landscapes, about possibility and honest effort. Washington’s optimism washes me with a certainty that we can overcome. Integrity trumps hardship. Hard begets worthwhile. Washington’s focus isn’t our inevitable human struggle; it’s what we do about it and why.

My inner John Keating longs to whisper encouragement into fractured fairytales: Go on. Lean in. Listen. You hear it? Carpe… Hear it? Carpe… Carpe diem. I want to sing to son, to students, to you, to my own broken heart, Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary. We have ample time and plenty of chances. I promise: there’s a way out of every broken. You needn’t thirst for truth nor hunger for hope. Hold hope’s magic hard. An abundant life is within your grasp.

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image: mentalfloss.com

But what to say to a child living in between? Are big dreams worthwhile? Is anything possible?

Eli’s frame is slight; he’s all saucer eyes, gangly limbs, and bird bones like me at age four. We share ginger hair and dimpled chins. We’re contemplative, imaginative, creative, goofy. We laugh at ourselves. Fair skin and unfenced empathy mean we burn easily. We fret. Eli’s eyes aren’t green like mine. His sweet little nose is uniquely his own, but physically, from bowed legs to knobby knees, Eli is his mama’s child. He owns a darker hue of shadow-father’s brown eyes, but Eli will not become shadow-father; he’s not a narcissist or a bully. He’s not mean. I worry about the softer traits Eli inherited from me.

I’m a liar. This reality–framed kindly–pierced me when Eli’s play therapist, a bubbly brunette with a gift for patching child wounds, suggested that I rethink my responses to Eli’s broken. I didn’t know to hold his hurt in silence until Ruth taught me. Oh, but your father loves you, Eli. Your father makes bad choices like everyone else. The truth: your feelings are valid, son. Your father’s actions are not love. I’m sorry. You matter.

“Don’t try so hard to shelter Eli from hard truths,” Ruth said. Don’t gloss over his fear or sadness or righteous anger. Don’t suggest that any kind of abuse is any kind of love. Do hold son’s hand. Hear. Acknowledge.

So there are cakes and pillows and colors galore, but underneath this more obvious patchwork quilt are places like a quiet room where you can go and hold someone’s hand and not have to say anything. Give no story. Make no claim. Where you can live at the edge of your skin for as long as you wish. ” ~Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

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photo: Harper Green

As I navigate the ashes of divorce and domestic violence, I’m learning that there is a time to hold and a time to tell. Eli needs me to hold his truths so I don’t diminish them. He also needs safe spaces wherein his heart story can replenish his hope.

Stories are meaning-makers; stories have the capacity to heal because we use them to make sense of our otherwise nonsensical lives. Our shared histories mature until they become tangible truths. 

Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. ~Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

In meaning-making moments, I teach Eli the Story with the power to restore broken. Jesus can clean our dirty, busted up family even if we live under two roofs. He’s in the hope business and does what this fallible mama can’t: fill life holes with hope eternal.

Problems persist: what to do about hope and dreams and possibility right now? On a practical level, how do I give a four-year-old hope when my own hope falters? There’s the challenge of what to do about our busted circumstances today. I know why: a ginger, Batman-loving old soul with a dimpled chin, a gentle heart, and a pillow kingdom that represents his familiar and a flickering trace of hope.

“My pillow kingdom is my home,” Eli says. “Every pillow is attached.” A pillow “fence” surrounds his kingdom, and he melts into madness if a single pillow falls, “breaks,” or “ruins.” His pillow kingdom breaks me.

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photo: Harper Green

Life blood drains “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (I Cor. 15:52). We’re here for a blink, then vapor. At the moment, Eli views his life as a series of partings. For a season, his shadow-father pulled him from the only city, home, school, and church he’d known. As our legal journey ends, I’m left with the bone-hard task of piecing together what’s left. Awful things happened to Eli. His circumstances sucked, and they’re already shaping the man he’s becoming.

At age four, Eli resents father and clings to mother. One day, when he’s an adult who speaks for himself, he may, like me, walk away from family shadows that torment. The thought of a son growing up and away from a man who shares his DNA saddens me, but parents have only so long to solidify healthy, lasting relationships with their children. Kids are intuitive. They know what’s what.

I remind myself that none of us were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs with the purpose of being tethered to another human being. We’re spiritually hard-wired to leave earth’s nest and return to the Father who stays. He’s our Hope, and his hope is the grand, big-picture variety, but God’s hope well is also everyday inspiration. 

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photo: Harper Green

Hope is a pillow kingdom that affords mother and son opportunities to talk about our broken and to learn to solve problems as a team of two. Hope is a healthy attachment to a healthy mother whom Eli is learning to depend on when shadow-father clutches pride.

I can’t know for sure what damage occurs in Eli’s heart when he’s beyond my protection. I have an idea because he comes back from shadowland with new scars, and he leaves home anguished. I fret about my inability to protect my son from the strange dark. Then I remind Eli that God protects all of his children. Nothing can separate lost lamb from faithful Shepherd. We’re never beyond his protection. God does his best work in the dark.

God is the hope in Eli’s pillow kingdom. He’s the hope in Eli’s leaving and in his coming back. Grace words of fixed hope flow from book and pulpit into Eli’s hunger and mine. God’s hope is his word, and it’s Steel Magnolias, Booker T. Washington, Dead Poets Society, and The Lovely Bones. Hope resides wherever possibility births holy inspiration. Like love, hope thrives in the everyday details of our busted lives. Hope needs replenishing, but He waits for us in our broken places.

God uses our ordinary experiences to pour Hope into lives made extraordinary and abundant because they’re filled by Grace. God doesn’t promise earthly abundance; in fact, he guarantees the opposite: lives necessarily infused by shadow more than light. That’s because God’s presence is most easily evident in the unholy spaces that undo our peace. Perhaps it’s just easier to see hope when we need it so desperately. I don’t know, but I trust that Hope is within my grasp and yours. Always. Even when we fail to look.

Our days are fleeting. I may never get around to becoming an olympic figure skater. I might not publish my crazytown memoir or purchase a black-bottomed pool that is equal parts tranquil and terrifying. To seize the day–to really and truly grip time’s magic hard with two blessed hands–is to see Hope in our muck. The best days are the ones we sink into with intention; they’re a cup of joe with a friend, a game of tag with a giggly child.

To hope is not to overcome. To hope is to live and breathe with a divine purpose when we can’t overcome unholy, human circumstances beyond our control. Hope is carrying on in faith.

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To the friend whom I love more than Clairee loved Ouiser: circumstances suck. Life doesn’t. Life is a gift. Like Grace, our lives flow freely in spite of because of still together; because of purple, little-boy magic in the muck; and because of big, unstoppable dreams winged Hope affords every grace-seeker with a song to sing.

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photo: Emily Taylor Tirado

Yesterday Eli’s shadow-father delighted in the knowledge that he was taking our son out of state without my awareness. In this moment, I don’t know where my brave dreamer rests his weary head, but Hope still nestles right into my broken soul and Eli’s. I believe for two.

Love and light,
Harper

It’s not about you.

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:9-13). 

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photo credit: Harper Green

Today I stand redeemed: by a legal system that held shadow-husband accountable for his dark and by a Judge and Father who covered Eli’s head and mine in our final day of battle.

Eli’s father held our family hostage in a divorce and custody war that spanned seven months. Prior to this week’s successful mediation, I was often asked how I overcame abandonment and abuse. How did I circumvent sorrow? The simple truth: I didn’t.

I didn’t warrior through unspeakable: child from mother, grief like quicksand, wounds that domestic violence casts upon families. I’m not a supermom, and I’m not immune to uncertainty’s grip on my heart. If you envisioned a woman warrior marching, allow my truth stripped bare to reveal my broken. I’m a scarred survivor, not a haloed victor.

Last week my four-year-old said I should kill myself. This after the bitch is back sung with innocent glee at our bathroom sink. This after months of liar, fat, lazy, stupid, loser, and crazy. After bad mom. Eli’s words tumbled out: a waterfall of language absorbed by little ears. My son has been singing “Jekyll and Hyde” by Five Finger Death Punch since age two.

I adore Ralphie’s Old Man in A Christmas Story. (No, really. One Christmas I hung a string of leg-lamp lights; they fell and burned a hole through my comforter.) But Eli’s words are clear. A child speaks ideas his mind can’t unravel, and I struggle to mitigate the damage.

Words wield power. When fueled by jagged emotions, words sink souls, or they whisper comfort. Rarely will a word fall in between to the ears of an impressionable listener. 

I can’t push through Eli’s burn or mine. I’m powerless over life’s stubborn pull. The morning after shadow-husband unveiled his plan to divide, the sun glowed golden. Warmth ascended into a cloudless, too-blue sky and expanded in the face of our calamity.

As I stood frozen, my only child snuggled into my tight embrace, light flowed into our broken. “Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.” ~Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Last weekend the horror was a family-sized bag of Lay’s potato chips. I explained to Eli that we didn’t need a family-sized bag. Before I could lasso them back, the words hovered heavy over my son’s broken, and he crumbled. His tears remained after I placed a smaller yellow bag into our race-car buggy, his favorite shopping cart since he was old enough to drive up front, groceries and amused mama in back. Hurt demands to be felt.

I’m recovering my voice, but some moments still undo me. I want to cry into a chip aisle: “If  you believe the way you say you do, oh then why am I unlovable to you?” (Plumb). Why father’s pride before son’s heart? Why broken? Then I taste the truth I learned from faithful women I won’t greet on this side of broken: it’s not about me

I met Sara Frankl when I stumbled upon her book, Choose Joy: Finding Life and Purpose When Life HurtsSara’s blog breathed hope into my AS battle; her words resurrected my joy. At age 38, Sara died of complications of ankylosing spondylitis. Her disease process was swifter and more acute than mine. At the peak of my AS (now in remission), my gray didn’t touch Sara’s black. I never experienced the allergy complications that rendered her unable to leave her Iowa condo. Sara was allergic to air when she journeyed Home.

Pre-remission, I struggled to plant popsicle sticks and pinwheels in Eli’s garden: a wooden and metallic wonderland rooted in a patch of green beneath a red oak my mother planted when he was born. The air inside our home was thick with oppression then. I couldn’t see that the dense was not my AS. In my abuse fog, I heard Sara Frankl’s words:

I don’t have a lot of distractions between me and God. I don’t have a hurried existence. I don’t have a job and husband and children and errands or just plain old life to distract me…I would like to have those things filling my world. But in this way, in this I-have-no-one-around-me-but-Jesus way, it has allowed me to have a connection to God I don’t know that I would otherwise have. It has become as natural for me to connect with Him as it is for me to blink my eyes (Choose Joy, 108-9).

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Before physical distance and bone-hard soul work untethered me from shadow-husband, I struggled to see God in the every day. I was like Ann Voskamp whose book, One Thousand Gifts, bent my heart towards thanksgiving: “I am a wandering Israelite who sees the flame in the sky above, the pillar, the smoke from the mountain, the earth open up and give way, and still I forget. I am beset by chronic soul amnesia. I empty of truth and need the refilling” (106).

Domestic violence is more menacing than forearm, neck, not love. Domestic violence can morph soul amnesia into a terminal condition. Abuse empties the walking wounded until we lose the truth of who God intends us to be. We need refilling. 

But then we’re all the walking wounded, aren’t we? All of us parched. Last week Angel, a soft-spoken, gentle mama from group, escaped her shadow-husband’s reach; she secured a secret, one-bedroom flat and fled with four babes while her abuser cradled drugs. One of my most humbling life experiences was discovering my father stocking groceries at Safeway at night because he wanted more than fried Spam for our red-dirt family. My strawberry-blonde, whimsical mother crocheted love into colorful, handmade clothes she crafted just for me. A child’s open heart sees.

I find myself looking at every moment and opportunity differently now. Life isn’t about what I am in the mood for or what can fit into my day. Life is about being open to what He may need from me…I am a survivor. Not because I am strong or willful or unique. I am a survivor because God has intentions for me…He saw that I would be sick. He saw that I would be devastated. He saw that I would feel weak–but He put me in this life because he also saw I would fulfill all He intended (Choose Joy, 148-9).

Sara Frankl’s illness, obedience, and perspective positioned her to see the face of Jesus: “All I have to do is remember that this life isn’t about me. It’s about His intentions for me” (149). Sara’s story defines community; it exposes Homegrown, infectious joy that won’t bow to circumstance. Gratitude birthed Sara’s joy. Intention set her course. 

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photo credit: Harper Green

Like Sara Frankl, Joey Feek reminds me to live life intentionally. In frantic, why me? moments when I gasp for grace, I hear Joey’s life song. I crank up the speakers in my Honda mom-mobile, and I inhale this mama, wife, and artist whose story–and whose tender relationship with her husband and musical partner, Rory Feek–softened me during my AS battle and during my legal war with shadow-husband’s Puppetmaster.

Joey’s cancer battle ended when she was 40. Her daughter, Indiana, had just turned two. Rory chronicled his wife’s journey, and he continues to document life with Indy on their Tennessee farm. Rory helped his love slip away. Together he and Joey celebrated still here. They grieved soon gone. Joy and agony, side by side. In his blog, Rory writes, “I show up. God does the rest.” Joey Feek’s bones rest beneath a handmade cross. She didn’t glimpse her girl grow into a woman. Rory still maintains that God gave his family “a great story.”

The greatest stories–the ones that lend breath to the heartsick and linger after their characters depart–are not the ones we write ourselves. These are the stuff of Grace.

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Joey Feek showed up in her own grace story. She showed up for her family and the community who held them. She understood that her life was not about her; Joey’s life was about the Author who gave her an intentional song and the voice to sing it in tune.

Before Plumb, Ann Voskamp, Sara Frankl, and Joey Feek, I clung to author and blogger, Kara Tippets. I listened to this mama’s grace story while anterior uveitis, close cousin of ankylosing spondylitis, rendered me unable to read. A fellow professor frequented my home and read my college students’ essays aloud. Kara’s audiobook anchored me in an eternal perspective at a time when my outlook was skewed by disease, pessimism, doubt, and their bold intrusions into the chaos of abuse that claimed my peace and Eli’s.

A world stood with Kara when her open letter to Brittany Maynard went viral. Like Sara Frankl, Kara passed away when she was 38. Following her cancer battle, she left behind a pastor husband, four children, and a community who learned from her how to “die well.”

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Kara didn’t want to leave her Colorado home, but she wasn’t afraid to return Home. She wrote, “When you come to the end of yourself, that’s when something else can begin.” What began for Kara Tippets was another “great story.” Like Joey Feek, she faced cancer with deep humility. She understood that her life, as precious as it was, wasn’t about her.

Cruel diseases and painful partings aren’t beautiful. If you’ve witnessed the shape of cancer, you know its ugly, formidable outline and its ability to wreck flesh and family and to steal hope. What Kara teaches is grace in suffering. Grace doesn’t come from within. Grace is a gift. It’s light washing over our weaknesses. It’s a strong, singular Voice in the bitter wilderness.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness

I am not Sara Frankl, Joey Feek, or Kara Tippets. I’m not Plumb or Ann Voskamp. But I am broken. I know my way through my familiar friend, sorrow, and these women are the giants whose voices encouraged me to persevere. If I rose above my circumstances at all, I did so on their shoulders and due to their collective reminder: it’s not about me

Even shadow-husband’s abuse is not about me. It’s not about him either. It’s about Him who walks with us in the worst of our worst. As I sat in mediation, our son’s future dangling in a fickle legal wind, I was unmoved, but not because I was courageous or brave.

Peace poured in from everywhere: from my pastor who prayed before mediator and attorneys danced; from texts, phone calls, emails, and social media posts from loved ones as well as strangers possessing mere snapshots of my family’s breaking; and from promises that held my broken.

Steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds 

My shadow-husband and I sat in separate rooms. A tough-as-nails female mediator navigated two spaces, two attorneys, and two polar opposite ways of raising a child and being in the world. I recognized this woman’s heart before she spoke. I donned a plaid Christmas scarf, a black peacoat, and leather shoes, appearing normal but feeling other–like a meandering spirit floating in wait. The mediator glimpsed my open Bible, neatly-bound documentation, and letters of support from my community. She held my mama’s gaze. She listened. Heard.

Then this spitfire of a mediator spent the bulk of her time with shadow-husband. While I sat still, an extraordinary, holy war unfolded in an ordinary meeting room complete with uncomfortable office chairs, fluorescent lighting, and a centerpiece of green grapes and oatmeal cookies. Earth. Eternity. Justice and Grace unleashed by a Voice who shakes lose the evil that binds his wilderness wanderers.

Mother redeemed. Son returned. New dawn and old, unfailing Love. Peace

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So here I am, friends: a renegade mama blogger who writes about uncovering the you in yourself, and I’m saying it’s not about you or me. This life is about service. Lives lived without community and willing brokenness are lived without intention. Without grace. Your broken is real, but it is not unique. We’re all broken: all of us aching to be held.

My challenge to you, the walking wounded–to my community of broken: be the holder as much as the held. Where earthly pains reside, eternal opportunities flourish. Your broken is an opportunity to be held by the One who reframes and restores every heartache. Your neighbor’s broken is an opportunity to hold a heart in the stead of Christ.

Walk into the eye of a neighbor’s “unspoken broken“–carry her hurt for one tender beat–and you will see the face of Jesus. You’ll feel and fulfill pierced hands and feet and sacred intention’s reliable pulse. You’ll be joy in sorrow, rest in unease, and hope in despair.

I didn’t overcome shadowland and abuse. I rested in words that whispered comfort into my wounds. And yeah: I wallowed. I got angry, and I got real about my broken. But by God’s grace, I didn’t get bitter or even. I never gave up. Instead, I fell to my knees and gave up my struggle to the Maker who knitted Eli together in my womb. I replayed the grace words of survivors stronger than me. I woke one morning and realized that the whole of this blog is a letter to my child. My “Letters to Eli” aren’t birthday letters, cards, or construction-paper hearts.

My “great letter” to my son is my life, and this blessed life is not about me. 

Although his family broke wide open and apart, and that brand of breaking leaves scars, I pray Eli grows to embrace my life’s verse, which I quoted at the start of this blog. Tonight the same pastor who prayed righteousness into my mediation explained the Psalm 139 passage this way:

There is no hour of joy or despair in which we are removed from the knowledge of God…These words are the words of one who has been made acutely aware that he is neither independent nor self-sufficient. Rather he is fully the work of God who holds his life at all times. For the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, the scared, the lonely, the broken, these are words of hope and joy. For the prideful and conceited, these are maddening words because they deny independence to the Old Adam (Rev. Kurt Ulmer).

Words of hope and joy. My job as Eli’s mother is to flood him with words of hope and joy–much like the words my old-soul son has shared since he began talking.

There are so many things we have
You’re the one who stays with me

I’ll be the friend you never lose
I surrender to the sky
You show me Jesus
You’re gravity
God hears us

Recently Eli rose before dawn. He stood on our back porch, faced his red oak, and summoned winter warmth. “Rise up, oh glorious light-catcher!” he said. And rise up the sun did. Just like that. With a broken, intuitive heart, my boy flies freely on mornings’ wings.

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photo credit: Harper Green

Eli, like all of the broken-hearted, carries scars in corners he may never reveal, but in the crux of who he was knitted to be, I already see that the dark is not dark to my greatest earthly gift, my son. Eli holds every moment, and every person, in awe, and somehow, in some otherworldly, not-about-him way, my boy seems to view life as this open, wondrous opportunity to give.

Our lives simply aren’t about us. If we live intentionally, our lives are about what we can do for our hurting brothers and sisters, and sometimes the kindest thing a soul can do is call upon the Light. We “overcome” when our voices sing Truth in harmony.

Love and light,
Harper

Write your heart story.

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photo credit: Harper Green

“My daddy messes me up.”

When Eli first told me how he felt about his father’s choice to move Eli out of our family home, I wept. Not in front of Eli, but alone, in a too-quiet, two-story house along a lush greenbelt where Eli once danced happy, his red hair ablaze under an accepting sun. My son’s confession came in the early beats of shadow-husband’s divorce and custody abuse.

My four-year-old boy couldn’t comprehend why he couldn’t stay in the only home he’s known. His tender heart couldn’t wrap itself around an abrupt move to his paternal grandmother’s house–to a cramped space defined by chaos and dark. Eli went from his open bedroom–blue walls, twinkle lights, and glow-in-the-dark stars–to a makeshift bedroom housing litter boxes. My only child walked blindly into filth and madness.

Readers, if you parent a child of divorce, you know the shape of my ache. If you’re “a product of divorce,” you know that Eli’s soul confusion threatens to linger into adulthood. Even amicable, necessary divorces leave stubborn scars.

To divorce is to split open. Divorce is breaking up and breaking down. It divides.

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photo credit: annvoskamp.com

I cringe whenever I hear the language “product of divorce,” and I wonder: how do I ensure that Eli is a product of love and not divorce? How Pollyanna-ish am I to consider this possibility at all? Maybe “product of…” expressions are simple, unavoidable certainties: we’re all products of our environments.

Today I came across a blog by Rachel Anne Ridge. In her blog, Rachel makes a case for facilitating emotional safety for children through storytelling. She writes, “We are the ones who provide our people with tools to grow, and narratives to make sense of a world that can be hostile and frightening.” Rachel encourages parents to cocoon their little ones in the therapeutic embraces of good, relatable, and timely stories.

I call these stories heart stories because these narratives heal hearts young and old. They’re the stuff of big ideas, compassionate world views, and paths to recovery. 

As a writing professor and practicing writer, I’m in the story business. In my community, I lead sensory storytimes for children with SPD. When I write this blog about my broken life, I’m acutely aware of the transformative power of words.

A single sentence has the capacity to heal. One word can spark a revolution.

For example, early in my blog, I referred to my abuser as “Shadow.” In “Ice Queen,” my “Shadow” became but one “shadow” among many. This person who bullied, threatened, and isolated for over a decade became powerless in a mind revolution that resists and rises above a legacy of abuse. My shadow-husband became a lost, compassion-worthy lamb.

Because of broken words, and the whole that God breathes into them, I stand changed. I am changed because of the grace, freedom, and insight that my new, soul-true narrative affords.

The tricky bit is bringing story’s transformative power to a fragile four-year-old living in a toxic environment I can’t control. However, I’ve been doing the crucial work of storytelling all of Eli’s life. In my letters to him and in prayers and conversations with and around him, I’ve been shaping my miracle child’s life story without being consciously aware of every penned or shared chapter.

Eli may not read my letters until he’s older, but they exist: words of celebration and comfort just for him.

When we speak Truth into our children, we shape the narratives they use to make sense of their broken circumstances. When we speak worth into our children, we prepare abundant lives lived whole. When we tell meaningful stories, we teach our children that they mean something to us and to the communities we serve. They are loved.

A book that seems to be helping Eli is Be a Friend by Salina Yoon. My son is different. He struggles to fit in with other kids. This book tells a powerful story applicable to everyone: be you. Rather than dissolve into someone else’s idea, be beautiful you. Love will always find you. Infinite Love has already found you. He built you with intent and for a specific purpose. So be held.

The heart stories with the greatest capacities to heal are really quite simple. These narratives, like God’s faithful words of redemption, reinforce that we belong. In a world that abuses, frightens, and alienates, we are never alone.

The fairy lights in Eli’s blue bedroom twinkle in the night even in this season when he’s away from his birth home. I do my best with the sacred mama moments entrusted to me by God. I envelop my boy in peaceful respite. We snuggle and watch Charlie Brown. We sip hot chocolate and play in the greenbelt until a Texan sunset casts pink and gold across our sky. We use every minute we have together to search for our white mermaid, our purple wizard, and the space rocks and metallic pinwheels that our secret garden grows.

Every shared moment is an opportunity for meaningful connection.

We talk magic. We sing silly songs, and we laugh. Eli and I cocoon ourselves in truths spoken, written, and read over us, and we love. Because of our shared eternal story, our good narrative is already imprinted upon our hearts.

“I love you, little mama,” my son said to me this week. “You’re gravity.”

I pray that Eli is the product of the safe, welcoming environment that God creates for grace-seekers. Readers, my prayer is also for us. May we seek, find, and craft powerful heart stories that make us whole. May we serve each other at the foot of a wooden cross. May we love wild into sunlight. 

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” ~Jeremiah 29:11-13

Love and light,
Harper

New Bait, Old Hook

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Beavers Bend River

A red-dirt child, Snoopy fishing rod in reluctant hands, I was a dreadful fisher-girl. As an adult, I still can’t stomach seeing a fish hooked. Catch and release? I don’t get the allure.

A hooked mouth hurts. What’s relaxing for a fisherman is unpleasant for a fish gutted, split into a fillet, and stabbed by a dinner fork.

I like to think that salmon and tilapia magically appear at my butcher’s counter for my consumption. I’m squeamish about pain.

My hesitance about blood and guts and torture make the fact that I contemplated going under a knife nonsensical. I considered a “mommy makeover” and weeks of recovery that would follow the cutting and tugging.

I planned to mitigate back pain caused by my Ankylosing Spondylitis, which was not in remission at the time. I hoped to gain by taking away. I ached to release the heavy, and I longed to attract shadow-husband.

I never craved his cruel touch; however, trapped in an isolation he orchestrated to ensure my silence, I sought validation. Because not pretty. Because not wanted after months of bed rest and a five-pound baby boy not strong inside and outside of my broken womb. Because not enough

When I discussed my mommy makeover idea with shadow-husband, I couldn’t have known that he had already filed for divorce. He had set into secret motion his final abuse: a child taken from mother to secure power and a paycheck. He encouraged me to get the mommy makeover and more. Whatever improvements your surgeon recommends, he said. My shadow-husband reckoned I had more to fix about myself than I thought.

Soon after makeover talk and heart sink, he made false allegations at our temporary orders hearing, one of which was that I pre-paid for thirty-five thousand dollars worth of plastic surgery. In family court, shadow-husband pretended he hadn’t urged, supported, and insisted. He acted as if my body was enough as it was, and he recoiled at the alleged financial imposition I placed upon our family.

I wish I had any amount of disposable income because, as a hard-working teacher with a passion for people and not for money, I don’t make or need much on the whole. If I had money right now, I’d use it for legal fees. I’d invest more blood in a four-year-old whose life and future are at stake because of a broken father whose personality patterns leave him spiritually disabled. Emotionally handicapped, shadow-husband seems unwilling to love anyone more than he admires himself. Sadly, his hard heart appears to be bent on inflicting hurt upon hurt. Tethered to his father’s shadow, Eli stands to lose the most.

After witnessing shadow-husband unravel into bitter in the months leading up to mediation, I wonder if he can love. My mama’s heart weeps for my child because Eli needs healthy examples of masculinity and sacrifice. He needs to learn from his father how to treat women–and all human beings–with due respect. Eli needs a daddy’s real and present love.

What I remember most vividly about the night shadow-husband finally revealed his divorce and custody scheme with sing-song glee: new bait, old hook.

I had just sung our son to sleep, and shadow-husband waited for me on our blue gingham sofa. Cloaked in shadow in our dimly lit living room, he demanded that I prove my “love”/devotion to him. Again. Always with specific examples.

All I could muster that weary night before its shocking finale: I’m here. After ten years of soul fire and four years of perverse threats to take our child to live with your mother, I’m here: living beside you, paying our family’s expenses, and supporting Eli’s three half-sisters. Innocent girl children abandoned under a desert moon.

After shadow-husband exposed my legal undoing, he laughed. He cried. He applauded my mouth agape. He screamed primal like a wolf drunk on his own power, his moment-by-moment emotional shifts likely fueled by muscle juice that drowned two families. By wild, unchecked pride.

Then he braced for the breaking: my mommy makeover was a comical waste of his time and my effort. Like putting new bait on an old hook, he said. You’ll always be an old hook. Used up no matter how hard you try to be beautiful. Broken no matter what.

My shadow-husband tilted his head back and howled victorious while my defenseless, four-year-old miracle baby stirred unknowingly in the next room.

I didn’t understand why the fishing analogy cut more than cockiness about his professed ability to pass a lie detector test. More than arrogance about how easily he could take Eli from our child’s family home and raise our son in shadow-husband’s mother’s house. The bait/hook revelation stung even more than his “I got you”–more than “I’m a hundred steps ahead,” and I’ll win pawn-child in court.

Today time and distance inform my understanding of the trauma shadow-husband inflicted: he was merely saying, as he boasted every time I sought freedom from fire, that no one could love me. Not even–and especially–the son who clung to my hip since birth.

The basic “truth” that I was nothing and shadow-husband was everything held me hostage for over a decade; behind closed doors, his lie rooted me in abuse soil.

No lie is more dangerous than the lie shadow-husband sold. Readers, if another human being claims to be the only one who can possibly love you, run. Run into the arms of the One whose love colors you beautiful. Embrace your birthright: grace, mercy, and a fixed, eternal worth that no abuser can shake. Sprint towards Truth.

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Beavers Bend River 

I decided against burdening my “old hook” with unnecessary adornments.

I’m as flawed as anyone else, but I’m beautiful as I am, and while I certainly don’t judge any mother who opts for a mommy makeover, I urge women to rethink making over their bodies or minds–or giving up their basic rights as human beings–for another person.

Friends, know who you are–and who you have every right to be–before changing a single thing about your loved self. Remember that you are more than enough as you are, and resist shadows that taunt from lack. A shadow’s laugh is powerless over a spirit rising–over a survivor who won’t allow another person to dictate her worth. 

~~~

“After a While”
adapted from Veronica A. Shoffstall

After a while, you learn the subtle difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul, and you learn love doesn’t mean leaning, and company doesn’t always mean security.

And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts, and presents aren’t always promises, and you begin to accept your defeats with your head up and your eyes ahead with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child.

And you learn to build all your roads on today because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain, for plans and futures have a way of falling down mid-flight.

After a while, you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much, so you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure, that you really are strong, and you really do have worth. And you learn, and you learn. With every goodbye, you learn.

~~~

The old hook is shadow-husband. As long as he strives to fulfill his worth by hooking or controlling women with unholy bait, he’ll starve on a lush riverbank. The simple answer to his bottomless lack is within his reach, in the open God waters of baptism and redemption. The Fisherman loves him, too; he welcomes all of us who fish for unconditional love and acceptance.

“Wounds are what break open the soul to plant the seeds of a deeper growth.” ~Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

With every goodbye to shadow lies, we learn the soul truths that really do free.

Love and light,
Harper

photo credits: Harper Green

Ice Queen

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Ice queens were first girls broken by fire. Women don’t enter the world holding icicle bouquets for their future partners. No one is born frozen.

A black man, wooden cane in hand, limps his way to the coffee shop entrance where I wait. He feels like my grandfather after stroke and bibs and overalls my grandmother stitched by hand: kind, slow, in need. His hand replaces mine, opening the door wider. “Somebody didn’t raise you right, young lady.” He smiles as rain washes us.

Newborns emerge from the womb shivering and hungry and pissed off, but new babies are intuitively receptive. From the moment they greet light, they yearn for warmth and community. Babies communicate before they speak words. They insist on begin held.

My son was born an old man: a purple, wrinkled ball whose perfection was evident to everyone in the operating room but Shadow. Eli’s father seemed stuck on our howling child’s white skin and ginger hair; he had specifically ordered a mini him, complete with rugby ball. To save my life and Eli’s, our baby was cut from my body and whisked to a NICU where he ate through a feeding tube in his nose. From my wheelchair, I cradled my five-pound ball of contempt until love and pink and blue receiving blankets warmed him.

Shadow didn’t smile at Eli’s birth. He picked a fight before and was silent after. I told myself that he was tired because of the workout he left. I told myself he loves.

The tricky bit about warmth is that it comforts and scalds; source and intent dictate its healing and destructive properties and whether or not girls, in particular, are cloaked in protection or danger or by something in between. Campfire. Fourth of July. Inferno. Cozy. Exciting. Terrifying. Fires flicker before they blaze against the wind.

We sit at the Corner Bakery. Over my chicken salad and his sweet tea, Shadow describes the book he could write about how to kill his ex-wife. He lays out its chapters. I can pass a lie detector test, he says. My gut sinks. My face flushes hot. I tell myself that his humor is dark. During our lunch date, Shadow is still married to his ex-wife, but he’s broken up with the girlfriend he kept at the gym where he works less and less because of his devotion to me.

Fires flicker before they blaze against the wind. 

Long before Shadow’s words cast me as an ice-queen wife and mother in family court, his words wounded. Charm morphed into darkness whenever our front door closed. In our home, Shadow waged a deliberate war against my dignity until little of my spirit remained.

His words linger still.

Eli will love you, but he’ll love me more, he said. Healthy competition, he said to first-time mom tears. To make you a better mom. I was pregnant with my first child and his fourth. Too busy and too many doctor appointments, he said about missed sonograms. During the months when I bled and lived in a hospital bed: You know I don’t like hospitals. Tired of concrete and gray skies, I closed my blinds. I spent most days and every night alone, and I befriended the nurses who fed and loved and stayed. Eli’s grandparents brought us strawberry ice cream. Shadow had few words until Eli and I were home.

Then Shadow’s words tumbled out. Eli is not Harper; he is all Shadow and no light. I was reminded, in ways too shadowed to write here, that I was unworthy of time, commitment, or mercy. Broken dishwasher, mangled marriage, fictitious legal claims: my fault because I was not beautiful. Not lovable. Not enough. Accusations and resentments danced and blended until they became every ice queen’s song.

On bad days, Shadow was my judge and jury; he swore and pranced and laughed at my fear. On good days, I was his afterthought; he sulked and ignored. I was our blue gingham sofa or our red recliner. Forgettable. Unseen. Nothing at all in front of little ears that heard, little eyes that saw, and a big heart that remembers.

Shadow charmed before he intimidated. Charm works easily on girls turned women turned shadowland ghosts. A compassionate man offered to love me more than Shadow wanted to possess me, but I chose the charmer who “needed” me. I paid for Shadow’s food and shelter and for birthday gifts for three abandoned girls. I paid with soul credit. Convinced that girlhood shadows deemed me undeserving, I stumbled away from true love. My green eyes were open when I walked into fire.

If I could go back, I would choose me. I would give my younger self permission to discover her place in eternity. I would encourage her to chase community rather than men. I would give younger me the stack of books beside my bed today. I would teach her about God, marriage, motherhood, and vocations. I would be her overprotective parent. I would insist that she understand how committed relationships were designed to work before committing to anyone.

I would tell younger me that faithful kings needn’t belittle their queens. The King of heaven and earth determines her worth. He calls her daughter. Ewe lamb. Loved. The Author of Truth points to a carpenter on a wooden cross and calls her enough. Confidence grows in service to others; it doesn’t announce its bravado to the world. 

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Shadow breathed fire from behind closed doors. Finally, in a penultimate act of destruction, he fired blows from beneath the flourescent lights of an open courtroom. He planned our roles: I was the ice queen who didn’t want or deserve a child, and he was the devoted husband and hands-on father whose love for his flawed wife was “steadfast.” His evidence was a photo of B-12 syringes and his word.

No amount of love or devotion or weary wishes upon distant stars can unravel personality patterns or make another human being whole. Only God redeems what is broken.

I wish I wasn’t so thick-headed. I wish it didn’t take me so long to understand that God doesn’t need me to meet him halfway in his renovation efforts. Now that my home is still and free of egg shells, I see God’s presence and sovereignty throughout every season of my life–and within every fire–and I am humbled by his willingness to chase me.

In the worst of my worst, God heard my pleas and shed tears over my broken. He saw my body curled into a ball beside my grandmother’s piano while Shadow ate dinner and watched football. God heard threats to take child from mother and laments about unrequited devotion. God saw and heard perversion and reactivity and was not deterred by Shadow’s capacity for destruction. God saw a puffed up bully burn hot at the center of a wife’s icy, egg-shell world, and he longed for us to seek Love in the ashes. 

Today I revisit my memory of squandered, unplayed music, and I realize that God held me when I was curled into that ball beside my grandmother’s old piano. I write from a place of empathy and understanding. I love the young wife whose AS was not yet in remission, and I love my son’s father. I may not desire an unholy union with Shadow, but I love because of a carpenter and because of a boy child whose parents didn’t ask his permission when they chose this chapter for his family.

Now I see that Shadow is not my adversary; my adversary is the puppeteer pulling his strings. Shadow is just another angry child lost in the dark. I suspect that swollen muscles mask a pain deeper and more eternal than scars soothed by God’s safe, true words: by warmth written and spoken just for me. For Shadow. For all of us who lack.

Perhaps ice encases Shadow’s hurt like it protects any ice queen’s wounds. Ice makes a terrible shield, friends. Icicles break easily, and even ice thick enough to skate on melts under an angry sun. Ice isolates its kings and queens. 

Pink. Angel. Ninja. The ice queens I know from group are mostly fragile, lonely ladies. There’s nothing frigid or regal about unchecked power and beauty set ablaze. These women struggle to trust that their scars were redeemed in Golgotha. I’ve been coming to group for two weeks. Ninja has been a part of this community for eight years. I get being too fearful to speak to a stranger with a notepad. I understand brains hesitant to speak truths to hearts that break. Our bodies are hard-wired to protect us from harm.

My name is not Harper. My son is not Eli. I omitted the darkest details of my struggle because these puzzle pieces feel too sacred. I don’t blog to expose a bad spouse or to indulge my own melancholy; I write to expose the One who works every detail for my good and his glory. 

I write this meandering Tuesday night blog–cluttered with an abundance of metaphors that I don’t have time to edit–because this morning a women’s advocate spoke to ninth and tenth grade girls in my community. My friend asked these students if love should hurt. Fifty percent of the girls raised their hands. I’m not okay with this statistic. These girls are every girl. Pink, Angel, and Ninja are fictions names of real women with stories like mine. Every color. Every shade and texture of life experience. All of us the same.

I believe we advocate for mankind when we advocate for our girls. No one should be raised to anticipate a love that hurts. The human experience hurts. Love never hurts. Love is daughter, ewe lamb, loved.

Basic Rights in a Relationship:

The right to emotional support.
The right to be heard by the other and to be responded to with courtesy.
The right to have your own point of view, even if it differs from your partner’s.
The right to have your feelings and experiences acknowledged as real.
The right to live free from accusation and blame.
The right to live free from criticism and judgment.
The right to live free from emotional and physical threat.
The right to live free from angry outbursts and rage.
The right to be asked respectfully, rather than ordered.
Adapted from Patricia Evans, 1992, The Verbally Abusive Relationship

I pray that shadow-husband, Eli, and our broken world learn to chase Love rather than icicles. I pray that God gives my little story wings to fly. I pray for peace in your home and in mine, and I pray that when he’s older, Eli opens the door for a stranger in the rain.

“My own busted heart’s got nothing to give. But I don’t need to have things together before I can offer a cup of water, open the door, my hand, or reach out to help those outside. I don’t need to not be thirsty myself; I only need to know I thirst too.” ~The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp

Love and light,
Harper

photo credits: Harper Green

You matter.

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That’s all I have to offer today. I’m grateful for you, dear reader. If I could reach through my laptop and hug your neck, I would. By reading my little blog, you’re standing with me in a difficult season, but I don’t write about suffering and redemption in a vacuum or as a testament to my unique brokenness. Wouldn’t that be boring?

Writers need readers, and readers need writers (crazy how that works), but more than that, human beings need community. We navigate seasons of our lives that require more or less bravery, and bravery is always easier in community. Divorce. Cancer. Partings.

Every shadow walk, every valley, and every flavor of overcoming is enhanced by relationship and its living purpose: to facilitate grace gifts between broken souls. 

The greatest grace gift we can give or receive is love. Everyone needs to love and be loved. Welcome to humanity and God-breathed hard-wiring.

Common sense, right? Then why is it so hard for some of us (cough) to walk in loving relationship with our neighbors? I suspect it’s because we don’t know (and/or live out of) our worth, and we’re stubborn. We try to do life solo even though none of us create beauty from ashes outside of community. I carry these suspicions because the challenges listed above are my daily travels.

All of this to say: you matter. 

I’m glad you’re here. I hope to know you better. Certainly you will get to know me if you keep reading my blogs. I don’t need to know your name to pray for your healing. I don’t have to see your face to know you’re praying for me, too. I feel braver and more loved because of you. As our friendship develops, I hope you feel braver and more loved as well.

We’re in this thing–whatever the thing is–together. Disease. Depression. Beginnings and endings and everything in between. I don’t know the precise shape of your struggle, but I’m here to write hope and truth to you–even if the only truths I can write about with any conviction are birthed from my limited experiences.

Love thrives in broken spaces. Pockets of grace exist where mercy flows down just for you. Because you matter.

I care about you, dear reader, and I thank God for your kindness, your story, your unique brave. Together we’re creating beauty from my ashes and yours. We’re learning to live, laugh, and love through the bitter. Some days the best we can do is encourage each other to keep breathing–to hold on for one more life beat and then another–and that’s okay.

No one said we have to do this thing perfectly or quickly. Failure is a key ingredient in the only recipe I know for doing life well and in community with others.

Love. Fall. Be willing to be held. 

Together we’re the broken rising: a community of grace-seekers and grace-dwellers walking through the hard with heads held high because we have worth and purpose and because we do not have to walk alone.

Love and light,
Harper

image credit: Ann Voskamp
http://www.aholyexperience.com

Shadowland

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photo credit: Harper Green

Girl child. High school student. Undergraduate. Before I was a survivor, I was a statistic. Traumas cloaked my beginnings.

When I was in the ninth grade, a truck struck the passenger side of my mother’s red Nissan: mangled metal, shattered glass, gurney. Plastic surgeon caught in rain. Blood, gauze, waiting. More blood, more gauze. Needles in open forehead. Awake. I breathed survival into my wounds: Notre Père qui es aux cieux… I tried impressing a blond paramedic with my beginner’s French before red faded to black, and white pierced black.

The collision wounded my body, but I was otherwise okay. Mother slept on my bedroom floor and woke me whenever her alarm beeped. “The doctor said,” she urged. “In case.” Feeling guilty because she didn’t see a speeding truck, she stood watch over my concussion.

Traumas: external events that inflict wounds. It would be lovely if our responses to traumas followed this tidy cause/effect relationship, but they don’t. Traumas’ shadows linger. Brainiacs in white lab coats don’t understand precisely how or why. I don’t have a neat definition for the aftermath.

What I know: the physical effects of some traumas are less menacing than the “invisible” psychological, emotional, and spiritual shadows that traumas cast. 

Soul-deep shadows are impossible to unpack quickly. Some remain unpacked because our brains instinctively protect us. Brilliant, able minds, unable to reconcile the damaged dark, bury bruised remnants of unspeakable hurt; our minds submerge secret shadows in black and blue neurons that slumber unaware until awoken by time, circumstance, or object.

I was an adult when I found my high school coat, a black suede 90s number boasting more fringe than should be legal in any decade, hanging in plastic in the back of my closet. I fingered the still-soft fringe before pulling a tissue from one pocket and a business card from the other. Body builder. Mowing service. I was a married adult when I discovered a crumpled Post-it and the black-ink signature of a muscular marine recruiter.

I still don’t remember portions of my childhood. I recall one day of Kindergarten and an inflatable “Mr. M.” Perhaps that balloon sparked my love of words and the imaginary worlds that grow them. The memory’s significance is a mystery.

That I kept evidence of traumas untold is a mystery. Why did I hold onto those names? Today I struggle to remember names. I’ll remember your hazel eyes and your complete life story, but I’ll forget your name the moment you utter it. Maybe my younger self anticipated my selective forgetfulness. And who hoards size-zero throwbacks and sticky notes?

Apparently this broken girl turned renegade blogger and woman rising.

When I write about the complicated relationships between traumas and the shadows they cast upon our lives, I don’t write as an expert, but I do write from a place of intimate familiarity. Shadows beget shadows, and fresh blows force forgotten fractures into everyday light.

You see, new friends, before Shadow and the grace story I’m learning to live out breath by breath by sacred breath, I was just another female draped in dusk.

But girls and women and any human being draped in dusk, believe with me: our dusk needn’t define our dawn. 

I know Shadowland’s shape and the lies it perpetuates until spirits cave, but my traumas’ shadows don’t house my eternal address. Shadow himself is but a frame for a new, unbound narrative. Shadow preyed upon my cloaked beginnings–and the boundary confusion that tumbled out of them–but he sits powerless over a sunlit present and a future that will flourish because it doesn’t depend upon him.

Girl child. High school student. Undergraduate. Wife. Mother. Redeemed.

I needn’t recall or pour over every trauma or its shadow to get that I was born broken. I needn’t prove myself courageous in the deep dark to welcome dawn’s glow or to recognize infinite, shadowless Grace when He shines upon me, my son, and our journey out of Shadowland.

Love and light,
Harper