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).
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 Hurts. Sara’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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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,