Summer of Endless Miles: The End Before the Beginning

The landscape is barren as the asphalt glides backwards under the tires. (Hello, West Texas.) Thousands of miles have accumulated, a few hundred more to go. We’re headed home. (And will have reached our destination by the time you read these words.)

It’s officially the last day of the #EpicBookTourTPD—the one-hundred-twelfth day, to be exact. Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d do. A four-month, forty-state road trip? With a total extrovert? No way.

To say that life has gone topsy-turvy over the last year is an understatement. So many layers of change—exhilarating change, traumatic change, anticipated change, unexpected change—have built up faster than I can process them. Because the positive changes are so interwoven with the negative change, it’s been difficult to write about them—much less celebrate them.

My sister’s death has cast a shadow over this summer. There’s no other way to slice it. It has shattered my heart into a million pieces again and again. I can’t imagine that will ever change.

(A plea: No canned platitudes in the comments please—well-intended or not, I’ve had about all of those that I can handle. And Jess is hard-rolling her eyes about it, too, I’m sure. If that offends your sensibilities, I’m probably talking to you. See my upcoming post on the most helpful words I’ve received concerning grief.)

One of the most ironic things about this summer of endless miles is the fact that Jess was the sister with permanent wanderlust. She’d been to Europe twice and planned to visit many other countries. The two of us had dreams of a cross-country trip someday, but it seemed quite intimidating to me considering my homebody tendencies. When I decided to accompany Anna on this trip (and finally convinced her that it was a good idea), Jess encouraged me to go. After all the adventures, she’d dragged a reluctant older sister on, she wondered what alien species had abducted me. I’ve wondered the same.

When things went downhill fast with Jess’ health, I had to choose whether to go home to S.C. or stay on the road.  There were many factors that played a role in this deeply personal process that I won’t address here. Ultimately, I felt that there would be no better way to honor my sister than to travel the country and see what she could not.

More than 23,000 miles later, I believe I made the right choice. Would I rather have taken this trip with my sister than for her? Of course. No question. But she’s been with me every moment and every mile—and I’ve had her own traveling mascot, Migrating Monty, to remind me of that. (A plastic green dinosaur as one of my most treasured possessions? Add that to the growing list of things I never thought would happen.)

Now that the trip is done, I’m ready to start writing about it—in all its overwhelming, exhausting, exhilarating glory–starting here, at the end, before making my way back to the beginning. First, I’ll need a few good nights’ sleep in my own bed.

Stay tuned.

Five Minute Friday: Comfort

I’m trying something new and joining in on the Five Minute Friday Party (#fmfparty),  a writer’s link-up hosted by Kate Motaung. Each Friday, she offers a single word writing prompt. The rules are to free write whatever comes to mind for five minutes using that one word as their prompt. No overthinking, no editing. Yikes! My friend Anna has “taken away” my delete key before–and I didn’t like it! We’ll see how this goes!

The water rushed over the cliff, dropping 186 feet into the natural pool at the bottom. We stood at the water’s edge, shaded form the July sun, a huge boulder at our backs.

Emotions rushed through my heart, thoughts flooded my mind, and tears dropped from the corners of my eyes.

The dam was beginning to break and I couldn’t stop it.

The grief that I’ve been holding back was cracking through the walls.

I turned around, facing the rock, and leaned into it, growling with frustration at my tears and the lack of comfort they brought me.

“Do you always snuggle up to rocks when there’s a person standing beside you??” she asked, holding out a hand.

This Silence Needs Breaking

It’s the ache of having had and now being without.

It’s the injustice of having been robbed of something dear, taken without your permission.
It’s the trauma of a moment, a diagnosis, a point of no return that wounds and scars your heart, your soul, your mind.

It’s the knowledge that nothing you could have done would have changed the outcome juxtaposed with the wondering if you did everything you could have done and should have done.

It’s the restlessness of not having any answers.

It’s the conflict without resolution.

It’s where I’m stuck.

It’s why I’ve been silent in words written and words spoken.

My body is in forward motion. The world still spins. Time still passes by the second, the minute, the hour, the day, the week, the month.

My feet keep moving, circling this uncharted territory. I’m left behind—no map, no reference point.

Yet,
my heart,

my mind,

my spirit,

my soul…

They’re all still.

They’re all silent.

I fear jostling any of them out of their reverie.

Of accepting the reality I’m still not ready to face.

To process.

To grieve.

To learn how to live with the absence that consumes my thoughts.

 

My words are still present tense.

I choke on past tense.

I can’t move her there yet.

If I do, I’ve lost something. Someone.
A vital piece of my own history, my own story.

Our shared story.

Our shared history.

So I sit. Silent. Holding myself in this shadowy valley, longing to turn back toward what was but is no more, unsure of what lies ahead and not ready to put forth the effort to start moving toward higher ground.

Denying the absence.

Questioning the reasons.

Stifling the anger.

Avoiding the breakdown.
The silence screams at me, willing me to break it, to find a balance between grief and joy, begging me to celebrate the good and process the ugly, to live in the light when everything seems dark.

It’s the dissonance where I reside.

It’s the silence that needs breaking.

My Forever Star

The last conversation we had in person, just the two of us, happened on an ocean-front balcony. We were watching the waves roll in, relishing the warmth of the late February sun on our skin. It was a Sunday. The next week would bring more clinic visits, hospital appointments, and my return to Texas, but for that one afternoon Jess and I talked about all the things sisters talk about. Clothes, shoes, and makeup were our focus; she was giving me all her best tips, tricks, and pointers for creating a travel-worthy wardrobe for my upcoming four-month road trip with Anna. She told me my current wardrobe screamed “tired teacher” and that she aimed to turn me into a “structured businesswoman.” I laughed at her, but made detailed notes nonetheless.

Two months later, almost to the day, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to the phone call I never wanted to receive. She was gone; my sister had slipped away during the night—she’d taken the “second star to the right and straight on til morning,”as Peter Pan says. In a hotel on the Las Vegas strip, my heart shattered into a million pieces that April morning.

When I’d texted Jess a few weeks before and told her we were adding a stop in Vegas to the itinerary, she replied, “yes to Vegas. Always yes to Vegas.” It was one of her top bucket-list destinations and we were both shocked that I’d make it there before she did. (Like Texas, Las Vegas was one of those places I had absolutely no desire to visit.) So when I woke up to the worst news of my life, it was sort of fitting that we were in Las Vegas.

As the new reality of living in a world without my sister settled over me, the desire to absorb the essence of who she is and was flooded every fiber of me. I couldn’t let her go; I couldn’t let her be forgotten; I couldn’t let her slip away completely.

Mid-morning, I rolled over on the bed and looked at Anna.

“I’m very seriously considering getting a tattoo while we’re here in Vegas.”
“Yes! Let’s do it,” was her response.

Enter our wise friend Jana who talked us out of spontaneously getting tattoos in Las Vegas. She talked us off that ledge and made us an appointment with her tattoo artist in Minnesota, buying us a few weeks to really think this through.

Back in March, my siblings ganged up on me in a group text and threatened to oust me from the family if I didn’t get on board with their idea for a sibling tattoo. Even so, I resisted. No way was I getting a tattoo. Nope. Not happening.

Now, there was no question in my mind. I was getting a tattoo and I was getting it to memorialize my sister. At first I considered a shooting star because Jess had been talking about getting a star tattoo for months and now I thought of her as a shooting star, streaking across the sky. But I’ve never actually liked the shape of stars.

When I flew home for the memorial service at the end of April, I still hadn’t decided on a design that would encompass the memory of Jess without being cliché—something she was certainly not. As I was looking through some of her things in her bedroom, I found it. Years ago, Jess spent a lot of time perfecting a logo for her photography business. Finally, she’d designed a logo that was a version of her first and last initials—JL—that didn’t look like her initials but rather a design akin to a fleur-de-lis. I found it drawn on a random piece of paper and knew that was my tattoo. Simple, meaningful, and something I could look at for the rest of my life.

It’s been emblazoned on my wrist for just six days, but the more I look at this tattoo, the more I see a star in it. Like a star, it has five points—all in the right spots. And that makes it even more perfect.


My sister was a star.

She was bright.

She was unique.

She was brilliant.

And I can only imagine that she is even more so now.

She is brilliant.

She is unique.

She is forever my star.

Stones Of Remembrance: A Book Review

Books and words have always been an integral part of my life. They are my second skin, my place of solace, my preferred activity. Lately, new forms of this passion have taken over—launch teams and eBooks—both of which were foreign to me a year ago. Really, if you don’t count #the4500’s rogue involvement in unofficially launching Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, I wasn’t even part of an official launch team until last November. And until now, I’ve just flat-out refused to read eBooks, because I’m stubborn and they are against my literary religion. Now? I’m on my fourth launch team in four months, and (gasp) just finished reading my second eBook of the year—Stones of Remembrance by Julie Presley.

I’ve had Stones of Remembrance on my to-read list for months—since I found out that Julie (who is a friend from #the4500) was an author, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. A few weeks ago, an email from Julie landed in my inbox—and in it was an eBook version of Stones of Remembrance. I started reading it that night. I don’t know what I expected from Stones of Remembrance, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as powerfully relatable as it was.

(FYI—any new subscribers to her email list get a copy of the Stones eBook. Go to her website, juliepresley.com, and give the woman your email address, people. She’s not spammy or annoying. Promise. You won’t regret it.)

Here’s the thing: I grew up on a heavy literary diet of Christian fiction. If it could be found on the inspirational or Christian fiction shelf of the library in the mid 90’s-2005, I’ve probably read it. As an English major in college, I dove into more classic literary works and found them so much more “meaty”—they made me think critically and view the world through different lenses. They became far more inviting than the glossy, easily-resolved Christian fiction I’d been accustomed to reading.

For me, the problem with typical Christian fiction is that it really doesn’t give room for characters to struggle with their faith. There might be an internal conflict or two, but it’s usually very brief and resolved quickly without much tension.

41g-gynckol-_sx371_bo1204203200_Not so in Stones of Remembrance. This story follows Allaya as she returns to her childhood vacation home for the purpose of reconnecting with God after being estranged from her family. Allaya wrestles with long-held pain, questioning God’s plan and seeking to reconcile her heart to His—and He talks back to her. The same is true for another central character, Finn—a childhood friend of Allaya’s who is trying his best to run from the voice of God. Yes, God has a speaking part in this book. And it is powerful. Over and over, as both Allaya and Finn bring their questions before their Heavenly Father, the response they hear is one of unwavering love and compassion. The back-and-forth nature of their conversations with God is sometimes agonizing—depicting the reality that God doesn’t always speak when we want Him to, or give us the answer we want right away.

Julie writes each scene with depth; her use of imagery pulls you into the story. She has found a perfect balance between believable characters and riveting plot lines. She builds in scriptural truths without sounding cheesy, old-fashioned, or pious. And when it comes to relational tension? She’s got that down, too.

Stones of Remembrance is edgy; it’s “not your mama’s Christian fiction.” It’s real. It’s honest. It’s authentic.

~*~

You can get your hands on a copy of Stones of Remembrance by joining Julie’s email subscription at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I’d love to hear what you think about the book if you read it!

Connect with Julie on Facebook.

You can also check out Julie’s latest project, Nor Forsake, here.

Rising From the Wasteland

Act One
I sat before the computer, awaiting the interview
with the Language Proficiency evaluator.
I was on my way to Gally U.
Then came the critic who said “don’t go.”
Fear crept in; I allowed it.

Act Two
Fear overtook anticipation.
I unpacked my bags, cancelled my plans,
left a chair in a classroom empty.
Retreated into darkness and defeat.
A dream deflated.
Wasted. Broken. Withered. Silenced.

Act Three
I am emerging from
the bramble and briars,
leaning on the One who
redeems and restores.
I have Joy.
I am Alive.
I have risen from the wasteland.
I am growing again.

 

 

A Pearl & The Cross: A Tribute To My Friend Susan

God knows I don’t understand His plan sometimes. But he does have one—one that doesn’t hinge on our earthly desires, but on His eternal righteousness. I’ve found this to be especially true in the face of watching my dear friend Susan leave this world earlier than we’d ever wanted or imagined. Last spring, Susan left this world and entered the presence of her Savior.

We probably all know of at least one person who loves others so fiercely that it oozes from their very pores. The kind of person who makes everyone feel warm and welcomed, loved and cherished, safe and appreciated. Susan was just such a person. Her soul mirrored the love of Christ, and poured out of her. His grace and mercy was evident even as she faced the end of her battle with pancreatic-turned-lung cancer. She fought more than a good fight—she fought a courageous, inspirational fight. Just two weekends ago, her family and friends gathered to celebrate her life at the memorial service she planned before leaving us. And it was such a sweet and precious gift to know that she had selected her favorite hymns and scriptures to comfort us—because that was exactly the kind of person she was—always looking to be a light to someone else in any way she could.

I met Susan when I was a sophomore in college. My friend Elizabeth, who was a senior preparing to student teach, had been Susan’s kids’ nanny for several years, but needed to focus on her workload as she neared graduation. She suggested to Susan that I might be interested—and I was. So in August 2006, I tagged along with Elizabeth for a day of meeting and caring for Susan’s two kids. I immediately felt welcomed in Susan’s home. I immediately fell in love with her six year old daughter and her seven year old son.

Through my years of nanny-ing for the family, Susan was a constant source of encouragement as I struggled to commit to a major, decide whether to stay at NGU, and whether to pursue teaching. Burned into my memory is particular conversation we had one evening when she and her husband returned from a date night. I was sitting at the breakfast bar in her kitchen, packing up my laptop. We were chatting about the possibility of me transferring schools to pursue a Deaf Ed/Special Ed degree.  Her daughter had recently begun attending a private school dedicated to providing an inclusive environment for students with autism. Susan relentlessly told me how she could picture me working as an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist with the school’s affiliate therapy program. Before I left that night, she gave me the number of the program’s director, saying, “Call him—you’d be perfect for this kind of work.”

I left that number stuck in my planner for two years; I never called the number, but I kept it. A few weeks after I graduated from college (with an English degree), I mailed a job application to the company and told Susan to pray. Two weeks later I had an interview. The rest, as they say, is history. I’m well into my sixth year at Project Hope Foundation—now as an Assistant Teacher in a classroom at the Academy. Susan was right—I absolutely love working with these kids. I have learned and grown so much in working as both an ABA therapist and a inclusion teacher—and I have Susan’s persistent encouragement to thank for that.

Just a few weeks before she left us, I had the privilege of sitting with Susan one Sunday while her husband took a break and tried to get some rest. An image from that day is forever burned into my memory. Most of the morning, Susan slept off and on in her recliner in the living room. At one point she awoke and mumbled something to me…but the only words I caught were “His eyes are on the sparrow.” Later, she rose and shuffled to the stairs. I met her at the bottom step and told her I was going to help her. She looked at me and started to argue; I firmly, yet gently told her I was going to help her. She looked at me with the most clarity I’d seen in her eyes that day and said, “Yes. I’m sorry, I forget.” As we started up the stairs, my arm tucked around hers, our fingers intertwined, I glanced down at our hands—hers frail and fragile, mine young and strong—and saw the rings I wear on my left hand juxtaposed against her fingers:

photo (2)

A cross and a pearl.

Two symbols that perfectly fit the life Susan led. She was a faithful follower of Christ, living out the freedom she found at the foot of the Cross, pouring the light of Christ on everyone around her. And she was a pearl of great price—a beautiful treasure that God created in His image, a gem that taught us more about grace and peace than many people can in the midst of great battle.

She’s not here with us on this earth anymore, but she is waiting for us at the throne of God. I can imagine her sitting at the feet of Jesus, soaking in His glory. And, in those moments, Heaven doesn’t seem all that far away.