Why Are We Telling Each Other to Breathe?

The first time I remember telling someone to breathe I was following the teenage son of a friend being wheeled into the emergency room several hundred miles away from his family.

I was on staff at a camp and Wesley was playing 3 on 3 basketball. The competition was physical between the older teens, all of them 6′ and more. Wes and an opponent went up for the ball when the other guy fell down on top of Wesley’s foot. His 6′ 3 frame crumpled to the ground.

The hospital was in a nearby town. It was an agonizing ride for Wesley. He was placed on a cart to wheel him into the ER. He bent over his foot holding it in silent agony. I realized in his pain he was holding his breath and I said firmly, yet as calmly as I could, “Breathe, Wesley”.

Today we see that word on memes, mugs and T-shirts. We have it on our phones. We choose it as our word for the year. Breathe

My cousin gave me this necklace as a reminder

My cousin and I have been texting it, writing it and saying it to each other for a few years now.

Why do we have to tell each other to do something we’re already doing? We are all breathing or we wouldn’t be alive.

Just like I noticed Wesley holding his breath when he was suffering we hold our breaths in a figurative sense.

Grief cripples us and our breath becomes shallow. We are trying to hold back the pain.

A hurricane demolishes a community and the effects continue long after the rest of the country has forgotten. Our breathing becomes angry gasps.

Divorce, job loss, miscarriage, empty nest…..they take our breath away. We gulp for air to stay alive but we aren’t breathing in real life-giving breath.

And we say to ourselves and to one another, “breathe“.

To do this we have to loosen our grip around the pain.

Wesley’s pain didn’t go away until he got medical attention. Some of us might need to start with appropriate medication to help us loosen our grip on what’s holding us.

When Beki tells me to breathe I know the she means slow down. Be in the here and now. Stop thinking about the what ifs and what was and what should be. Stop thinking about the unknowns and start with slowing down my mind. When I do that my breath follows and they are in rhythm together. 

The thing I’ve learned is I have to repeat this day after day. My mind is ready to race away with anxiety and worry. When it became overwhelming I sought professional help. While that has brought some relief, it doesn’t release me from needing to create practices that will help my mind and breath find a healthy rhythm.

I often find that healthy pace in the creative process. I read, journal, spend time with people who are healthy and not afraid to remind me to breathe when they see me gasping. I have faith in a God who loves me and restores my breath.

As my son has reminded me, let people help you. It’s how God has always worked in my life – through the hearts and hands of others.

Breathe, friends. Breath in deeply and exhale peace.

“Fragile” – Handle With Care

The boxes are stacking up in our garage. It started well. Boxes of books, cd’s I’m afraid to part with (hey, vinyl came back), extra linens. We packed like items together and marked clearly on the box.

Then we had a box with a little space at the top to fill and contents are now marked “MISC”. Basically, a little of this and little more of that.

More than one box is marked FRAGILE. Pottery and glasses have been wrapped with bubble wrap. A favorite cookie jar and old mason jars are packed carefully.  

One of the boxes marked fragile will have a carefully wrapped tiny ceramic cow. My husband has glued its tail and one leg back on. It still doesn’t stand without leaning it against something. My son paid a quarter for it at a rummage sale when he was in middle school. His small act will forever be precious to me.

As we continue to sort through photos, papers, and trinkets I’m reminded at how fragile I’ve felt during this period.

For every note, recognition and photograph we’ve packed we’ve found joy and sadness in both. Happy memories of the celebrations and sadness of the years passed.

One day I’m energy-filled to get this room packed up and cleaned out and the next day I’m mourning. It’s enough to have me going down the bi-polar check off list in my head.

This is life: a mixture of strength and fragility.

This is a life well lived and well loved.

In the poetic words of Bono, “A heart that’s broken is a heart that’s open”. (Cedarwood, 2014)

When my heart feels fragile I remind myself it’s because it’s open to love and joy. Just as you can’t numb the bad without numbing the good an open heart is often a broken heart. It feels the lows as deeply as it feels the highs.

Have you read the Psalms? Read the ones attributed to King David and you will find joy and anger mingled together.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. and my place of safety 3 I called on the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and he saved me from my enemies. Psalm 18:2-3P

In Psalm 22 David starts with these words:

“My God, my God, why have you rejected me?”

This is life. One day we are praising and moments later questioning.

Some days I’ve felt like that tiny ceramic cow that can’t stand without leaning on something. Parts of me are broken and need mending.

Not every period in life has felt this fragile. For now, I’m trying to wrap the tender places with grace. I’m walking in the thin space between what was and the unknown of what is ahead. But, I am not walking alone.

God continues to make His presence known in my life with caring family and friends; with good doctors and counselors. He is my provider.

And a heart that’s broken, is a heart that’s open. Open, open.

Compassion Fatigue in Ministry

How do you tell them you’re tired? That your smiles aren’t as real as they use to be? That, many days, you have to make yourself show up.

This isn’t suppose to happen. Not to us. Not to people who are the ones who hug you when you’ve come back after your last relapse. Not to people who are grace-givers and hope-peddlers. 

This isn’t suppose to happen.

But it does. It has and I don’t know what to do with my tired heart and pretend smile.

In the early days I held a little distance between these men with their addictions and lives I knew nothing about. I watched and listened and let God soften my words and make wise my heart. I walked carefully into this new ministry, a foreign world on home soil. 

I let their stories pierce my heart and I let the tears fall when one didn’t return home because we want this place that houses 100 men to be a home for them. We want this to be the home that loves and cares about their comings and goings, a home where they can know love and grace and mercy and that love and mercy don’t exclude rules for communal living.

God was using this community of residents and staff to show me that grace was more than a prayer said before a meal. Yes, I’d grown up in the church and sang Amazing Grace but this, this acceptance of the guy who was holding a sign on the side of the road yesterday, this was grace.

This was compassion and mercy and love and they will steal your heart and leave you empty and tired with no more tears to cry for the next one. 

We pull away, we take vacation, we have creative endeavors, we do all of the things that should keep us healthy and our souls fit for caring one more day. But now, my tears are from feeling numb to it all.

I want to feel like I did a dozen years ago, when it was fresh and I was learning about the disease of addiction and finding my place in this story of recovery and relapse and grace. Now, it seems like the same song on repeat. 

Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue

Where is the renewal of my soul? 

One of the perks about our ministry is the competent counselors on staff.  What could be better than a licensed mental health counselor, who I also consider a friend, just down the hall from my office? So I told her. I told her I’d lost it. I’d lost the passion and energy and that I had to make myself show up.

She looks me in the eye, listening to my words as well as my heart. Her voice softens and she asks me, again, ‘What about you? You’re a nurturer but are you taking care of you? What are you doing that’s for you?‘ 

You know I am, Marian. You know I’m taking a photography class and that I write. You know I do those things for me.

She pressed on, ‘But who are your friends? Your girlfriends? The ones you do things with, not your husband, yourfriends?

Ah, yes. The ones who live in other states. Those friends? The story gets complicated and our talk grows quiet as she knows I’ll walk out her door and nothing will change.

We are wired to tend to the needs of others while ignoring the weakening pulse in our heart. The bible is full of verses about putting others first and serving the least and how the last will be first in the Kingdom. These verses of works walk hand in hand with the faith on which they are built. One without the other is dead so we carry on until we slowly die on the inside.

There is that one verse. The one I like reading in the Message, the one that makes me think of music and the ocean and the graceful rhythms of both.

It’s as if Eugene Peterson was reading my mind when he wrote this paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out ? Burned out on religion?” 

Well, yes. Yes, I am.

“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30

Sometimes keeping company with Jesus looks like a phone call with a girlfriend, a heart to heart with my sister or laughing at an eleven-year old’s joke. These are life breaths to suck in deeply, slowly and remember that I’m refreshed and walking in the rhythms of grace-land. 

Naming the Losses – Embracing Hope

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

From my art journal

The word I chose for this year is embrace. I want to be mindful to take hold of what is in front of me be it change or grief.

One of the tangible things I’ve begun as I process my grief is to name things I’d lost. My hope is that specificity would help me name what my feelings represent.

Two specific areas have impacted my life: frequent moving and the loss of parents.  Here’s what I wrote several months ago.

Loss (as it pertains to moving)

  • Schools
  • friends
  • familiar place
  • doctors and dentist
  • hair salon
  • stores
  • knowing where you’re going
  • belonging
  • culture of place
  • sense of history
  • knowing where you’re from

The loss of a parent:

  • confidence
  • cheerleader
  • shared history
  • teacher
  • one who has known you all of your life
  • family stories
  • wisdom
  • encouragement
  • stories you’ve yet to ask them

Recently I’ve added these losses:O

  • Youth
  • position
  • titles
  • recognition
  • job
  • pets
  • home

Moving has had as much impact on me as my parent’s divorce. Perhaps it’s because their divorce created and accelerated the moving to once every 6 months during my high school years.

Moving, no matter the circumstances, is considered one of life’s major stressors. By the time I was 17 I had lived in 13 cities, 7 states and attended 13 schools from grades 1-12.

I think there is value in naming our loss. I believe it helps validate our feelings. It reminds me there is a legitimate reason for my feelings. I don’t have to stay in mourning but there are reasons grief looms like a shadow in my life.

If grief is going to be my faithful companion I’m going to do my best to learn what it has to teach me.

I’m going to let it move me to the point of tears but I’m also going to let it move me through the tears. 

Yes, grief is the process of sorrow. People will say you’re so brave to go through this. Grieving isn’t the brave part. Having hope is brave

Feel your way through the grief and embrace the hope of a new beginning.

My Faithful Companion

My husband is a dog guy. We’ve had several in our 40+ years of marriage but the last was the best. He was a young pup when we got him from the shelter. He liked to get himself around Henry’s feet as if to say “don’t leave me”. We named him Tripp because he couldn’t walk without tripping over him. As Tripp grew to over 70 pounds he remained at Henry’s side. He was his constant and faithful companion.

Over the last dozen years grief has been my faithful companion. It will leave for months or even a year at a time but it always returns.

In these 10 years or so we’ve lost all of our parents and a dear uncle. That is enough to cause the feelings of loss and sadness to come in and out of my life. Add to that realizing more and more the loss of youth and working in the unpredictable world of addiction. Actually, addiction is predictable: some will die.

It only hurts when you care and at times it seems I care too much. Of course that’s not true but those I love, I love deeply. The family I’ve lost have all left lasting imprints on my life.

The ones we’ve lost to addiction are the most painful, yet, where I guard my heart the most.

I’ve been public with my grief in hopes it’s helpful to those who are struggling or just haven’t found their voice to sing the chorus of lament.

I write to dispel any shame associated with sorrow or sadness.

In the church, we have a habit of celebrating death. We try to avoid the pain of loss by jubilantly celebrating their eternal life in heaven. We talk about the suffering that is no more. Yes, I believe that. But let me feel their loss. Let my soul mourn their absence. Let me express my sorrow.

Grief has also become a teacher. I’ve learned that it’s not only associated with physical death but it also arrives on the heels of change.

It’s not that I don’t like change. If I’m the one creating it I’m all for it. But imposed change like getting old(er) or moving or retirement? My faithful companion is at the door of my heart again.

Grief shows itself in different ways to each of us. For me, it looks like a combination of anxiety and depression. It often means unexpected tears for apparently no reason like a commercial. Or a fictionalized story of a family going through a hard time. It was a good book but I was bawling as if they were real people!

My anxiety also showed up with physical symptoms like lack of concentration, excessive worry, change in sleeping patterns and, at times, what felt like heart palpitations.

This was the point I realized I needed help beyond caring family and listening friends.

A quick Google search will tell you there are 7 or 5 stages of grief. I’m choosing 5 because who needs two more stages!

You’re probably familiar with them but here’s a reminder: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

I’m pretty sure I breezed through denial and went straight to anger and then completely skipped bargaining. Our lives aren’t text books. Sometimes we’ll repeat a stage and feel like we’re on a hamster wheel of grief.

Recently, I’ve sought medical help for the second time. I’m fortunate to have been directed to a psychiatrist I’m comfortable with. After consultation she’s put me on medication to help alleviate the anxiety. I’m also going to start therapy, which will be a first for me.

I think I’m moving out of the depression stage but I’m not sure if it’s because of the meds or I’m moving into acceptance. I don’t know that it matters. I do know my balance is still wobbly. I also know I’m loved, cared for and I have hope.

Hope is what I want to share. Sometimes it starts with a phone call to a doctor or a stranger writing a blog.

Yes, pain is real but so is hope.

Moving On or Moving Forward?

This man is talking about grief and one month and one day ago my sister-in-law, sitting in front of me, leaves the room. Her eyes are red with tears ready to spill. She has this thing about tears being weakness and not showing tears to anyone. Ever. But they flood her eyes.

I know that line of defense and it doesn’t work. Tears are often beyond our control and aren’t about weakness at all. The first part I know from experience. Tears come at the worst times and you can only blame allergies or contacts so many times before people catch on. 

The second part, that tears aren’t about weakness is what I want to believe. I think it is true. But. To not be in control always feelsweak, so tears are visible signs of weakness. This is what is ingrained in my being and what I’m fighting to dispel.

“Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead.” ― C.S. LewisA Grief Observed

Dr. Pue is talking about grief and it’s the third time this month we’ve been in the room with the grieving. The children and grandchildren, the spouse, friends…we’ve stood alongside, hugged close and listened to their stories.

At its best, grief spills out in stories. The grieving smile and laugh and for a moment the heart is not weighed down by loss and sorrow. In the quiet, in the alone time when visitors and family have left, the same stories that brought laughter bring tears and an ache that won’t be soothed.

“Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?” ― C.S. LewisA Grief Observed

People want to remind us it’s time to move on. It sounds cold and the words sting as how can we move on from love?

Dr. Carson Pue reframes this thought as he describes it this way:

“There’s a difference between moving on and moving forward. Moving on, implies we leave the other behind but moving forward…no, moving forward leaves no one behind.”

The time to move forward will come. And we can do this without fear or sorrow when we remember we move forward together.

Love is never left behind. 

When Grief Feels a Little Like Being Lost

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

The first time I felt literally lost was on a red dirt road in the middle of Arizona with my husband and two young children. If I could choose two people to be with in an emergency, my husband would be one of them. That combined with knowing the need not to alarm our children are the only things that kept me from panic. I immediately thought about the cooler of ice we had that would provide us water should we be stranded in the desert over night. Mom thinking. 

A few years ago my husband and I went hiking with some extended family. To this day the men won’t acknowledge we were lost but when you ask other hikers for directions you’re lost. It was frustrating. The map was useless as were our “smart” phones that were out of signal range in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trail, such as it was, wasn’t marked or at the least, not marked clearly. The moderate 2-hour planned hike turned into a frustrating 3 hour search of the trail we had apparently lost.

Lost is not a good feeling. I get impatient with others. I shut down except to utter a few sharp words. 

The kind of lost I feel today is worse. I know where I am. I am not in danger of the elements. My phone has a signal. I know the landscape, the streets, the faces. I just don’t know where I’m going. I am adrift, caught in the in-between. This is the place where emotions can take you under. And they are rising up in my eyes day after day.

It would be understandable if there is no faith to tether your fears to. But what is said of one who claims a faith in a God who cares? Yes, I play that through my mind. Do I think God to be a liar? His word says he cares for me – all of me. I know the counsel that friends and scripture give. I know the songs but this lingering feeling of being without purpose and aim haunts me like looming shadows. 

I wrote those words in my journal last summer. That’s when the emotions of grief began to hit hard again.

I was in my 40’s before I realized grief could be brought on by more than death. Our life had taken an unexpected turn that had us moving from the state I’d lived in for 30 years and plopped us into a ministry that left me wondering how I would fit.

Since then, grief has often been my unwelcome companion.

There was leaving our son a long two day drive away with our next move. My father-in-law’s death. Family concerns and heart break. Then mama’s obvious memory lapses that eventually confirmed dementia. The following succession of deaths of a dear uncle, my mother-in-law and eventually mama.

It’s been a long 12 years and one that has found grief waiting at every turn.

This time it comes with the anticipation of retirement. Another surprise. Not retirement but the grief I didn’t know it would bring.

For months I was trapped with the thoughts of everything I would lose. I began to mourn the loss of place (this is home), position, the known for unknown but mostly I sensed the loss of purpose.

The tears came and I was overwhelmed with a sense of loss. The kind of loss you feel when you don’t know where you are. Like being on a dirt road with no signs in the middle of Arizona.

I journaled. I made a list of things I will miss about this place. I daydream about furnishing our retirement home and being 20 minutes away from our daughter and granddaughter. But I still feel an ache in my heart. I still wake in the middle of the night feeling a little lost.

Mostly I’m holding on to these words written by another familiar with grief:

“God was faithful before; God will be faithful now. 

We weep for that which we have that is so good. We don’t diminish how desperately we will miss it. We let ourselves feel the ache because grief is good and necessary. And mixed in with the grief is gratitude for the undeserved goodness to have the gift of this life, this place.” Gina Butz, SheLoves

Let me feel my grief and cry my tears. It’s okay, I’m okay. God was faithful before and He will be faithful now.

Tell Me a Love Story

We sat on either side of our granddaughter, her rapt attention focused on the screen in the theater. We were watching the newest Cinderella and she was captured by the story she knows so well. 

Our children liked The Princess Bride. It held a different kind of charm but its characters were endearing. There was a bit more in questioning in this tale and more humor but they are among our family’s favorite love stories.

A friend of mine has one of those love stories. She was a history teacher in Georgia, USA leading her class on a tour in France. She took a fall and needed a doctor. She and the doctor communicated after she returned to the states and within a couple of years she moved to France and married him.

Hers is the most romantic story of people I know. It’s got the “made for movie” ingredients.

Sadly, after two children and twenty years of marriage it unraveled until it came completely apart.

I know other love stories of a different kind. They are stories of a Savior who loves us when we can’t even love ourselves.

We work and move among men living in a residential rehabilitation program.  It’s a free program run by an organization that would cause many to think it’s a homeless shelter. There are no private rooms and six showers to be shared by 100 men. There are rules. They live with curfews and restrictions, a dress code and requirements to see a counselor, attend meetings and participate in work therapy. 

It doesn’t sound much like love but it is a place where love is offered and sometimes love is found.

We know this because we see the change. We see it when they start to love themselves, when they recognize grace and when they accept that God loves them no matter what.

It’s a lot to believe for all of us.

This is the real love story. Not a sappy, happy all the time imitation of love but real love that hurts and resists but never gives up.

We are learning together, these men who share little in common with me but inside we are so much the same.

We’ve been hurt by what we thought was love. We’ve discovered love has more fakes than Rolex and we’ve been duped.  Duped by parents and boyfriends and spouses and friends.

We’ve bought the movie version and every shade of gray offered and found them empty and ourselves searching for more.

Eventually, we find the only love that matters is the kind described in 1 Corinthians 13  “Love puts up with anything and everything that comes along; it trusts, hopes, and endures no matter what.”

If genuine love can be found in a facility for addicts, alcoholics and those who’ve lost their way in life, if this love that’s born from compassion can be shown in simple acts of kindness and hospitality then maybe we can know love. Maybe we can understand it’s not about feelings but actions. That honest love wants nothing in return only to be accepted and shared.

This is my love story.

“My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”1 John 4:7-10 Message

It’s Yours Not Mine

After nights of waking at 3 AM, of going out to the couch so i won’t wake him, of laying there sleepless with the usual trick of reading to lull me back to sleep, with even that failing me, you’d think I’d learn. 

You’d think I’d learn that the thoughts that wake me and occupy my mind, you’d think I’d learn those concerns are yours not mine.

The employee issues at work, the fatal overdose that was so unexpected of one with much promise, the grief that has become a silent companion, these are your cares, your concerns your problems, not mine.

But I will take them from you. Again. And again. I will hold them tight-fisted and I will lose sleep and depression will attempt to return because I’ve got this God. Life needs another flesh and blood life to take charge and step up and do the hard things. I mean, where are you but in the shadows of our prayers? 

I know the words about giving our cares to you. But tell me, how, exactly, does that work again? Because I still see a world that is filled with hate and greed and threatening to implode. I see addiction and disease taking our young and weak. And I’m one of the weak. I am so weak.

I see death and lies and rude people who don’t even know how to say excuse me. I just don’t see you. And I need to see you, right here. Because I believe you are. 

I wonder if giving all of this stuff to you is seeing you? I meant it when I said I’m not sure how that works because I’ve been holding your stuff for a really long time. We’re in this together right? I want to help and it’s hard to realize you don’t need my help. The lines get blurry between that whole faith and works thing because I’ve got the works down pretty good.

I like the notion of your will not mine. but honestly, when do I really let it be your will?

Step One: admit that you are powerless to do the right thing and that your life is unmanageable. 

I’m not an alcoholic. Not an addict. But I’m drunk on caring for things that are out of my control. I’m enticed by control, my drug of choice. All the things in neat little rows working as they should. Life, as I would have it. 

Instead of the familiar verses about casting my cares on the Lord because he cares for me, I find my comfort in the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, principles built on the bible, for wayward souls like me.

5 Good Things

1. sons
Our second child was a boy. It’s nearly incomprehensible how much joy both of our children bring. I delight in the differences between daughters and sons. We have been through challenging times with this boy. Perhaps that is what makes the joy so full.


2. breakfast
I’ve always been a breakfast person even when it meant a carton of chocolate milk picked up at the convenience store. Most of my life it’s been little more than cereal and milk. The past few years it’s become a more intentional menu. After visiting Israel I came home eating yogurt most days for breakfast. Greek yogurt, nuts, honey and hot tea, preferably Tazo Organic Chai…..yum!


3. community worship
I’m lousy at personal worship. I’m impatient and self-conscious and all of that. But coming together with others and seeing their expressions is where I find a deeper appreciation.


4. rhythm
I like complicated beats. The kind that aren’t always expected. A syncopated rhythm or at least one with with hesitation. It draws me in. Makes me notice. But the subtle rhythms of life are the ones that trip me up. I don’t know what takes me so long to notice them and make the connections they are drawing in my life.


5. old things
An old manual typewriter sits not far from where I sit now. It doesn’t work well. You can’t get a piece of paper in it because the paper wheel doesn’t grab properly. But I like seeing it. The record player across the room isn’t as obvious. It plays vinyl but it’s not old. It’s made to look like a replica and has a few modern hookups. I learned to type on a manual but one perhaps not this old. I asked for a record player for my 15 birthday and had one until getting the new things called c.d. players in the 80’s. Today even the younger ones are turning back to what is old. They wear wireless headphones while listening to needles glide across vinyl records. Amazing.

The best old things are friends.