Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgeman

We could not go far in the peapod. It wasn’t designed for distance, but it didn’t matter. Things were different on the water. Where Massachusetts had been my land and Maine, at least the land part, had been [my wife’s], the ocean and the little shelter islands that we could reach as our rowing arms grew stronger were new and neutral territory. I would stand up in the boat—because you really could do that . . . you really could break that rule, because the peapod would not tip or fail you—and I would scan the shore. Maine may be full of ambiguities, and its sky full of shades of gray. But it can also be blunt, and sometimes its metaphors can be a little on the nose. So I regret that I must write: I literally had a new point of view.

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 10.55.21 AMA typical outing would be to a little island, only a few oar strokes from shore. We would beach the peapod for a moment so that our children could get out. They would go off exploring on their own. You could walk the whole perimeter of the island in an hour, just strolling. But even when your children are older and have demonstrated common sense and physical and emotional resiliency due to your really incredible, award-worthy parenting, you still feel a pang of panic when they leave your sight. I would watch them disappear behind the trees as the shoreline curved off to the right, where they would scamper on slick wet rocks or fall or drown or meet an ill-intentioned stranger or whatever their fate might be.

And then my wife would also leave me, taking the peapod out on a solo row, following her deep, genetic Maine blood–calling to the ocean and misanthropy. I would watch her then disappear as the island curved around to my left, rowing her boat, utterly alone, the happiest I’ve ever seen her.

They would leave me on the beach, an only child once more, and I would take off my shirt and go swimming. By the end of that summer I had started swimming pretty frequently in the waters of Maine. I would not say that I learned to enjoy it. Even in August, when the water is at its warmest, it is still cold. But I did enjoy learning to endure it.

There are transitions in life whether we want them or not. You get older. You lose jobs and loves and people. The story of your life may change dramatically, tragically, or so quietly you don’t even notice. It’s never any fun, but it can’t be avoided. Sometimes you just have to walk into the cold dark water of the unfamiliar and suffer for a while. You have to go slow, breathe, don’t stop, get your head under, and then wait. And soon you get used to it. Soon the pain is gone and you have forgotten it because you are swimming, way out here where it’s hard and where you were scared to go, swimming sleekly through the new. That’s the gift of a Maine vacation: you survive it. (pg 237)

For my husband’s birthday in September, I gave him the gift of podcasts. You see, I had overplayed my hand at Father’s Day by giving him Apple AirPods, a present he had proved over the summer to be wildly successful by having one in his ear at virtually all times. After only two and a half months, I had no brilliant ideas to top that, so I did one of my least favorite things – research – to try to find new programs for him to listen to. As it turns out, even with all of the internet at my disposal, I’m garbage at research, so I turned to my friend Tiff, who’s fabulous at it, and she guided me to a list of podcasts he might like. That is where we discovered John Hodgeman.

My husband became immediately obsessed with his show, Judge John Hodgeman, and would often shove a headphone in my ear while I was trying to sleep because he knew it would resonate with me too. (To be fair, it always did, but as the parent of two young children, I will always choose sleep over being entertained.)

Fast forward to November, when my mother came to visit, and granted us a rare opportunity for a lunch and  bookstore date. We saw a copy of Vacationland on the Staff Picks table, and my husband flipped through it, chuckling and insisting I would love it. I ignored him because I was too busy drooling over all the recipes in the new Smitten Kitchen cookbook that I would never have the time (or talent) to make. He ended up buying it on Kindle later that day after lamenting leaving it behind, and a few weeks ago, while getting ready to fly to Sydney for work, he rediscovered it.

As it happened, I was between books at the time and decided to give it a shot. I ended up devouring it before he even left on his trip, often laughing hard and silently to myself as I waited for the baby to fall asleep. When I finished, I tried to convey to him how deeply the setting – Western Mass and Maine – resonated with me. I spent most of my own childhood vacations haunting those same fields and shores, and revisiting them through Hodgeman’s eyes was both accurate and hilarious.

I finally understood why he’d been tirelessly promoting this guy (who I usually think of as “that old correspondent for The Daily Show”) to me. Hodgeman is the person I would have become if I’d married someone exactly like my brother (whose address might be in NH but is a true Mainer at heart). It’s impossible to read this book and not see my family in place of his, to see my own neuroses and flaws in him. It gave me a wonderful, slightly morose feeling, glancing up from the page to see the past rush by, a tidal wave of happy hours spent in the sand, pointless pouts and arguments, rainy days in tiny motel rooms, productions of Shakespeare watched as the sun set and the mosquitos converged.

My husband seems to be enjoying it too, in case you were wondering, if not with quite the wistful nostalgia I experienced. Even after all these years together, I haven’t completely converted him from a peaceful Coloradan to a curmudgeonly New Englander, which is really for the best since I’ve grown to love my time rock hopping in the mountains as much as drowsing by the rocky Atlantic sands.


*A piece of site business: you may have noticed I’ve been MIA for about a month. It turns out that until both children are back in childcare, the demands on my time don’t permit regular posting. I’ll do my best to share the best books I’m reading until I can get back on track in a few months.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

The International Space Station is a remarkable achievement of technology and international cooperation. It has been inhabited nonstop since November 2, 2000; put another way, it has been more than fourteen years since all humans were on the Earth at once. It is by far the longest-inhabited structure in space and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. It’s the largest peacetime international project in history. (pg 23)

512ih0qk93lThis is the book. This is the book I’ve been reading over the course of the last month that I didn’t want to finish because I loved it so much. This is the book that has given my perspective a whole new sense of balance. This is the book that has helped me step back from my frenzied parenting and allow things to flow more naturally again. This is the book that spoke to the part of me from seventh grade that desperately wanted to go to space camp, even though I believed then (and still do now) that I didn’t have the right kind of brain to be an astronaut. This book is everything to me right now, and I know we’re only a few weeks into 2018, but I’m not sure there’s going to be another in the next eleven months that moves me as deeply as this one did.

What is it worth to see two former bitter enemies transform weapons into transport for exploration and the pursuit of scientific knowledge? What is it worth to see former enemy nations turn their warriors into crewmates and lifelong friends? This is impossible to put a dollar figure on, but to me it’s one of the things that makes this project worth the expense, even worth risking our lives. (pg 22)

Every night since the beginning of December, I’ve been portioning out this book for myself. I never let myself read too much at one time because I wanted the details, the danger, the scent of space to soak into my consciousness. I was feeling especially overwhelmed when I picked it up, and I needed to take a look at real worthwhile risk to reevaluate some of my own concerns. Yes, my kids have colds, but this man is taking an eleven hour spacewalk. Yes, I have to get everyone packed up for our Christmas travels, but what about the astronauts who were putting their lives in danger in order to for me to understand more about the universe, who were doing all this in hopes that one day, more people could fly among the stars, fulfilling one of my deepest dreams of childhood?

Today I am doing a Twitter chat, answering questions from followers “live.” Because my internet connection can be slow, I’m dictating my answers to Amiko and another public affairs person, and they are typing them into Twitter almost in real time. I’m answering the usual questions about food, exercise, and the view of Earth when I receive a tweet from a user with the handle @POTUS44, President Obama.

He writes, “Hey @StationCDRKelly, loving the photos. Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?”

Amiko and I share a moment of being pleased that the president is following my mission. I think for a moment, then ask Amiko to type a reply: “I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President, except getting a Twitter question from you.”

It’s a great Twitter moment, unplanned and unscripted, and it gets thousands of likes and retweets. Not long after, a reply appears from Buzz Aldrin: “He’s 249 miles above the earth. Piece of cake. Neil, Mike & I went 239,000 miles to the moon. #Apollo11.”

There is no good way to engage in a Twitter debate with an American hero, so I don’t. In my mind, I reflect on the fact that the crew of Apollo 11 spent eight days in space, traveling half a million miles; by the time I’m done I will have spent a total of 520 days in space and will have traveled over two hundred million miles, the equivalent of going to Mars and back. Only later, when the Twitter chat is over, do I have the chance to reflect that I just experienced being trolled, in space, by the second man on the moon, while also engaging in a Twitter conversation with the president. (pg 189)

It was impossible to stay angry or frustrated or anxious for very long when reading about Kelly spending a year orbiting the earth. Daily annoyances don’t compare to the wonder I feel when considering what that experience meant for Kelly, his family, and the world. (Before reading this book, I wasn’t aware of several facts: 1. Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, are both astronauts. 2. After spending a year in space, Scott has provided scientists with invaluable information that is used to compare the effects of long term space flight down to the genetic level between himself and his brother. 3. Mark Kelly is married to Gabby Gifford, and the shooting which fortunately did not end her life took place while Scott was in space, which gave me a vastly different perspective on that event, as well as how intensely painful it must be – how huge a sacrifice is made on a personal level – by every person who goes into space.)

I received about twelve books for Christmas – books that I’ve been wanting to read for years – and yet I’m finding it difficult to start any of them. I keep going back and rereading portions of Endurance (the fact that this book shares a title with another I’ve been meaning to read, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, is not lost on me). I find it grounding to read about the challenges and adventure of space travel and also find it comforting to think that, when spending a year orbiting the earth, there is also the mundane to consider. There are toilets to fix, repetitive menus, minor squabbles between crew mates. Space is magnificent space, and humans are, well, human, no matter where we go. That combination of the extraordinary and the flesh are unbelievably compelling. This is the book. This is my book of the year.

Dressed and ready for breakfast, I open the door to my CQ. As I push against the back wall to float myself out, I accidentally kick loose a paperback book: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I brought this book with me on my previous flight as well, and sometimes I flip through it after a long day and reflect on what these explorers went through almost exactly a hundred years before. They were stranded on ice floes for months at a time, forced to kill their dogs for food, and nearly froze to death in the biting cold. They hiked across mountains that had been considered impassable by explorers who were better equipped and not half starved. Remarkably, not a single member of the expedition was lost.

When I try to put myself in their place, I think the uncertainty must have been the worst thing. The doubt about their survival would be worse than the hunger and the cold. When I read about their experiences, I think about how much harder they had it than I do. Sometimes I’ll pick up the book specifically for that reason. If I’m inclined to feel sorry for myself because I miss my family or because I had a frustrating day or because the isolation is getting to me, reading a few pages about the Shackleton expedition reminds me that even if I have it hard up here in some ways, I’m certainly not going through what they did. (pg 76)

Nobody Told Me: Love in the Time of Dementia, S.R. Karfelt

AFTER MILLENNIA OF marriage and centuries of children, I thought I understood love. Dementia is teaching me so much more about it. It reminds me of that quote from Alan Bennett in The Lady in the Van, “Caring is shit.” It’s said while he’s fussing about the problems with the homeless woman living in a van in his driveway. Low brow as it might sound, I found it rather profound. Shit. You have to put up with a lot of it for love. You give it and you get it. Marketing and movies focus on the pretty parts of love, but there are all sorts of love and a whole lot of it isn’t pretty.

51dushu4z4l-_sx337_bo1204203200_Love is hiding in the lounge at assisted living and writing your mother-in-law’s name on her underthings so they can be sent to the laundry.

Love is Juan, after weeks of international travel, dragging his jet-lagged bones to assisted living and sorting through the hodgepodge of his mother’s clothes, teacups, and papers, and taking down all the wall art he spent hours putting up.

Love is Plan B or C or D or whatever we’re on now. It’s a Spartan plan. That means no decorations, just a couple boxes of pictures. 

Love is realizing that making Gummy’s new home like her old one was our ideal. We don’t know Gummy’s ideal, and she can’t remember it.

Love is realizing what used to comfort doesn’t anymore. Gummy’s been giving her teacups away. She doesn’t recognize that they belong to her. She hides them in drawers to keep them safe. Later she panics because they are disappearing.

Love is the nurses and aides who get hit and scratched by patients with dementia, and take it in stride.

Love is adult grandkids who get slapped by a grandmother who’s doted on them, and forgive, and comfort their grandmother in her dementia-fueled anger.

Love is people who take time out of their days to spend time with people who suffer from this disease. Especially those who give so much of themselves to Gummy.

I just love her, they say.

Maybe she can’t remember their names, but she remembers the love part.

Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are. People suffering dementia still need love. It doesn’t look anything like the Hollywood version; it looks like work. Feels like it too.

Real love is messy and hard sometimes, but it’s all we’ve got. Yes, we love her, and, yes, she’s giving us a hell of a lot of shit. (loc 1561)

My grandparents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (both grandfathers) and dementia (both grandmothers) way before anyone else we knew was heading down this particular medical rabbit hole. My parents – both only children – were under the crippling burden of caring for their parents just as all of their friends were enjoying becoming empty nesters. I got to witness, for over a decade, two of the very best people I know share a terrible weight as they watched the people they loved best in the world slip away in agonizing fits and starts.
As my mother sometimes jokes (now that the worst of it is over, and their parents have passed on to what I dearly hope is better than the hell that is dementia), “At least we got a book out of it!” And we did. It’s called Caring for Ourselves While Caring for Our Elders, and she and I wrote it in partnership with a psychotherapist named Leann McCall Tigert in 2007, when we were still in it neck deep with my grandmothers. In the book, my job was to document what it was like to watch the so-called Sandwich Generation deal with the enormous stress of caring for both parents and children. Spoiler alert: it’s tough. It’s not, however, anywhere near as difficult as being the person doing the caregiving (a fact I grasp much more fully now than I did ten years ago).
I often think about my grandparents, who were so integral to my life, as I watch my parents and in-laws with my children. I remember them as the vibrant people they were when I was a child, and I also remember them as the vulnerable, sometimes difficult people they were in their late eighties and nineties – the deaf (my father’s parents) and the blind (my mother’s), the memory deficient (all), and eventually, the frail. I loved them all fiercely, and I was also angry at them because caring for them aged my parents just when they were supposed to be free.
The worry was everpresent. Every time the phone rang, disaster lurked. Trips were few and far between. Vacations were nonexistent. It was very much like having a baby, except that it was heartbreaking. These intelligent, compassionate, fascinating people were left greatly reduced by dementia, and yet even at the very end, there was so much love and appreciation on both sides.
I’ve never read a book that conveyed the balancing act better than Karfelt’s did. I put off reading it for a few months because I didn’t want to be sad; when I finally started though, I couldn’t stop. I must have recommended it to twenty people by the time I finished. I put countless bookmarks in it. I highlighted. I laughed. I read passages aloud to my husband to explain why I was weeping. I called my mother up multiple times and told her, “This was you! She’s you!”
When I finished, I felt as though a piece of my soul had been seen and recorded. The loneliness of dementia – of caring for a person with it, of having it, of hurting as it erodes familiarity – she captured it all. She made me think again about what it must have been like for my parents, about how deeply loving and present they were for so many years, about what a gift that was to my grandparents, and to my brother and me, even when we struggled with it.
Because people are people and love isn’t forgotten, even when particulars are.

A Beautiful Work in Progress, Mirna Valerio

I love my children. I love being a mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend. I love that I have so many people who surround me with their love and their support. I love that as much as I lean on them, they also need me.

But. I’m also an introvert. I gain clarity, strength, and patience from being on my own. I get giddy when the door closes and I find myself alone in my own home, or sitting quietly at my computer in a coffee shop surrounded by others who are happy to be together but separate, or standing in the predawn light with my running shoes on and a playlist queued up.

511rwxq1f7l-_sy344_bo1204203200_At this particular point in my life, none of those things happen. I have a baby who refuses to take a bottle (completely unlike my first kid, who couldn’t have cared less where his meal came from as long as it was efficiently provided), which means the only time I’m physically alone is on the rare drive over to the recycling center five minutes away. (If you were going to suggest “the bathroom,” well, you’ll have to excuse me while I die laughing along with just about every mother in the history of mothers.) Five months in with baby number two, and I’m ready for a return to a little much-needed mental and physical personal space. For me, it’s a matter of self-care, and recognizing how difficult it is not to have that right now is one of the things that keeps me sane.

I’m not looking for a vacation from my life. My people are a special and loved part of who I am, but I can tell I’m becoming less of my best self because I don’t have that time away from doing for and listening to and being present for others. I especially miss my morning runs. Those workouts used to be the cornerstone of my mental health, not because I’m a gifted runner, but because they required a certain joyful grit to accomplish.

We have a saying in the world of education, more specifically in the area of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It’s an axiom to live by. With it, we will be able to weather many things—inconveniences, moments of shame, those times when we make huge mistakes, when we drop the ball, when our kids embarrass us (or we them), when some occurrence forces us far from our own personal boxes of emotional comfort and safety.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my diversity brain, the phrase means to embrace what is difficult so that you may progress. Welcome what makes you frightened and what makes your heart rate rise. Greet that sense of uncertainty into your life so that you may explore yourself more deeply.

Lean into the discomfort.

To my long-distance runner’s ears, this axiom means embrace the suck. A lot of long-distance running sucks. But what sustains runners are those moments of beauty, those instances where you feel weightless and unencumbered. We embrace the suck so that we can fully embrace what doesn’t suck, to fully receive it. (pg 286)

Finding this book (recommended to me by my mother after I mentioned how out of shape and frustrated I was feeling) has been a godsend. I wasn’t familiar with Mirna Valerio before reading it, although I know now that she has a popular blog (which I’m now getting caught up on) and has been featured in publications like Runner’s World. I honestly can’t believe I didn’t know about her before this. A plus-sized black ultra runner? She’s definitely an outlier in her field, but as a woman who doesn’t fit the lean, long-legged stereotype of a traditional runner, her memoir inspired me deeply.

It filled a void I didn’t realize existed. To read about a woman who doesn’t run to lose weight, but for the sheer joy of covering huge distances over difficult terrain – it was exactly what I needed as I try to map out the next few months of my life, as I shake off the exhaustion and excuses of the newborn haze and kick myself back in gear.

Of course, it’s easy to read a book like this one, to pore over it each evening as the baby is falling asleep in my arms and the toddler is talking himself down in the next room, and to feel that burst of energy that comes from getting out on the road. It’s another to actually do it. I can feel myself stuttering and shying away from how hard it will be to coordinate, to regain strength, distance, and speed, and to learn a new skill (running with a stroller – another experience my eldest child had zero interest in trying). I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to get back to where I was, or to get to someplace better, and that’s frustrating. I want to have a plan in place, but I’m feeling out this new territory one day, one step, at a time. At least now, I can imagine Valerio, out on a treacherous trail in the dark of night, doing the same thing. One foot, then another.

What we are now is not what we were. Where we are now is not where we will be, unless we want to continue existing in the same reality over and over again. (p 299)

You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds, Jenny Lawson

I’ve been reading The Bloggess (aka Jenny Lawson) for years now. My friend and I have even done our own dramatic readings of various passages from her blog (mostly to delight/terrify the kids in the youth group we were leading at the time). She is hilarious, irreverent, and even in the throes of her own not infrequent physical and mental pain, dedicated to the message the Depression Lies.  Her newest book, You Are Here, is a testament to that idea, and to the possibility that the coping mechanism a person privately uses to keep themselves alive might speak to a wider audience.

you-are-here-jenny-lawsonFor Lawson, her anxiety and depression are so severe that she often must keep her hands busy to prevent them from, in her own words, destroying her. She recognizes that she is her own most dangerous and unpredictable foe, and to combat her body’s desire to hurt itself, she draws. Her pen and ink sketches are as intricate and lovely as they are inspiring. In the year before this book became a reality, Lawson had shared a few of her drawings with her online audience and was surprised by how well-received they were. People were coloring them in and then sharing them back to the community, and each individual take on the original was a mini masterpiece in its own right – a whisper into the void of mental and physical illness that declared I am (still) here.

The drawing below is one of my favorites. Before I had time to read the whole book, I was looking through the pictures with my son, and we stopped on this because he’s obsessed with dandelions. He loves all things yellow, but especially flowers, and the weeds we find on our daily walks – the dandelions and the California bush poppies – are his favorites. He’s quite good at miming the blowing of dandelion seeds, although he’s neither dexterous enough to pick them from the dirt himself or breathy enough to dislodge any of the pods without the help of his fingers. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get tired of pointing out the fields of them growing near our house or watching when I pick one out to blow on.


I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion – those vivid yellow flowers that bloom in the cracks of sidewalks or abandoned lots. Anything that thrives in such strange, broken places holds a special kind of magic. It shines bright and golden for a moment before it withers, but then – when most have given it up for dead – it explodes into an elaborate globe of spiderweb seedlings so fragile that a wind or a wish sends it to pieces.

But the falling apart isn’t the end.

It depends on the falling apart.

Its fragility lets it be carried to new places, to paint more gold in the cracks.

I always thought I’d like to be a dandelion.

But I think, in a way, I already am. (p 59)

This book really found me at the right time. The last few months have been an onslaught of phone calls with friends who have received unexpected and advanced cancer diagnoses, unusual and unresolved test results for all manner of terrible health crises, and my own exhaustion/insomnia cycle that inevitably rears its head when I start to feel powerless to help the people I care about. It hasn’t made for the best start to the year, but reading this book and studying the images that literally saved the life of a person I greatly admire has been a powerful reminder. It’s not that the world is always good, or fair, or easy, but that each person in it – even those who seem beyond saving, or who sometimes wish they were beyond saving – have a place, a purpose, a unique voice capable of remarkable insight and empathy.

Today I changed everything.

Today I took a shower.

Today I kept breathing.

Circle any of the above that apply. They are all a celebration, y’all. (p 138)

Should I Still Wish, John W. Evans

I don’t know how the heart makes decisions. Maybe love is something born again in different bodies so it can keep moving forward. (loc 819)

It’s hard to write about a friend’s grief. John and I are not close, but I see him with his family often enough. His youngest son and mine went to daycare together for a few months. Practically a year before that, we were at a barbeque together in my neighbors yard, and all the boys – his three, our neighbors’ two – were running and screaming while the adults ate outside, me casting an ever watchful eye on the tiniest member of the wolf pack, who chose the moment right after my first bite to fill his entire bouncer seat with the kind of mess only the keepers of a bunch of boys could raise a glass of wine to, and laugh at.

51y1utsranl-_sx322_bo1204203200_He’s that kind of friend – a person I see at birthday parties and on Halloween, or occasionally when he’s picking up his kids from his mother-in-law, who lives just three houses down from us. I probably know her better than him now, since she often welcomes my wandering son into her home, overflowing, as it is, with her easy-going love and an abundant collection of dump trucks and stuffed animals. We don’t share close confidences or go on vacations together, but I enjoy both the John I see at the park or in an overcrowded kitchen and the one I encounter on the page. The one is boisterous and quick-witted, the other, neurotic and searching. When we stop to chat, he is confident – simultaneously the brilliant Stanford lecturer and the father of three bright, energetic boys. He is only overshadowed by his wife, who is one of the most straightforward people I’ve ever met. It’s hard to imagine her functioning at any level below excellence, and yet she makes me laugh and feel immediately comfortable and happy, a genetic disposition I envy, since I’m more likely to identify with the pen and ink sketches of John’s anxiety than with Cait’s welcoming competence.

Reading this book was an exercise for that anxiety. I simultaneously loved it and couldn’t stop thinking about whether I was intruding. Who am I to know how he and Cait fell in love, or how, eight years on, he feels when he has to enter the woods? Not a stranger, to enjoy the rise and fall of intermingled grief and joy from a distance, nor a close friend, who might already know these vulnerabilities scrawled so gorgeously across the page. I am in between. I think too much about it, and it makes me laugh because the John contained in these pages thinks too much too.

I suspect that people who know him better might gently urge that he live a little more in the moment, and that both of the women he loves, his first wife and his second, would not hold him accountable for either the highs or the lows he experiences. Such is the blessing of being loved by a non-writer. I can’t speak for painters or dancers or cinematographers, or their partners, but we writers are, in general, an overanalyzing breed. We run the bad connections on repeat as much as the good, our brains searching for what we missed, what we destroyed, what we could have done to make our lives easier.

My sister-in-law, a neuroscience post-doc, once simplified the science of it for me. She said, “You’re making the connections stronger, you know. Every time you rethink the memories, bad or good, you’re building them up.” And after that, I started a meditation practice for when the past crept up on me. I would instead imagine relentlessly a tree, or an expanse of sand, or a curled wave, until the urge to flagellate myself, or wallow, passed.

This works for me because I need it to – I need to live mostly on the peaks or trails right now, because becoming a mother has made my already thin skin translucent when it comes to the valleys of the world. There’s no room to punish myself for not knowing how to live perfectly in the past when the world is presenting, on a daily basis, a pain and degradation I could hardly have imagined even six months ago.

This spring, my son’s brother will be born into a different world, one overflowing with stories of grief rather than reconciliation – of John on the mountaintop paralyzed by tragedy instead of John on a street corner, raising signs of tolerance with his children and wife. We need both stories to remind us, however hard it may be, that we’re alive. Not every person we’ve loved, or every person who deserves to be, but us. We are here. We are a collection of the tragedies and exultations of existence. We are carved from the pain into a call for compassion, and we might fail a thousand times at joy, but it still exists, if we wish it.

Love Warrior: A Memoir, Glennon Doyle Melton

In the United States, we celebrate Thanksgiving today. For some people, that means a day of cooking, of family, of love or drama or both. For others, it’s incredibly lonely, whether they’re surrounded by people or not. Some will gorge themselves and watch football. Others will go hungry, or be forced to work at Black Friday sales that have bled over to the holiday. Some will be filled with gratitude while others are angry, frustrated, hurting.

love-warrior-fullc1There is no day, holiday or otherwise, with the overarching power to bring joy to all. Life isn’t like that. It isn’t fair. It doesn’t dole out goodness because the calendar demands it. That’s why – regardless of circumstance – we can all use a little of Glennon Doyle Melton’s wisdom today.

This is a gentle reminder that love and pain and grief are bundled together, that they are meant to coexist, and that you are not irredeemable if you feel more of the pain than you do the love right now. You are not broken. You are a warrior.

Fight on.

What my friends didn’t know about me and I didn’t know about my daughter is that people who are hurting don’t need Avoiders, Protectors, or Fixers. What we need are patient, loving witnesses. People to sit quietly and hold space for us. People to stand in helpless vigil to our pain.

There on the floor, I promise myself that I’ll be that kind of mother, that kind of friend. I’ll show up and stand humble in the face of a loved one’s pain. I’ll admit I’m as empty-handed, dumbstruck, and out of ideas as she is. I won’t try to make sense of things or require more than she can offer. I won’t let my discomfort with her pain keep me from witnessing it for her. I’ll never try to grab or fix her pain, because I know that for as long as it takes, her pain will also be her comfort. It will be all she has left. Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I loved well. Here is my proof that I paid the price. So I’ll just show up and sit quietly and practice not being God with her. I’m so sorry, I’ll say. Thank you for trusting me enough to invite me close. I see your pain and it’s real. I’m so sorry.

The Journey of the Warrior. This is it. The journey is learning that pain, like love, is simply something to surrender to. It’s a holy space we can enter with people only if we promise not to tidy up. So I will sit with my pain by letting my own heart break. I will love others in pain by volunteering to let my heart break with theirs. I’ll be helpless and broken and still— surrendered to my powerlessness. Mutual surrender, maybe that’s an act of love. Surrendering to this thing that’s bigger than we are: this love, this pain. The courage to surrender comes from knowing that the love and pain will almost kill us, but not quite. (p. 206)