Disclaimer: I don’t claim this post will make sense. My world has been recently rattled by an emotional earthquake that registers as a 9.0 on the richter scale. Oh, the irony of my last post! Since then, my mother was diagnosed and then passed away from cancer. My last post is three weeks old. My last two weeks have been a complete blur.
My mother had hosted her whole family for Easter lunch. I had called, but not spoken to her the week following. The next Monday she went to the doctor, she was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer. Over the next few days it was revealed that she had a very aggressive, very rare form of cancer. She passed away a week later. I keep asking myself if I’m dreaming, but I don’t wake up.
On the surface it looks like I am holding together really well. But most people don’t see that I am up at 3 a.m. writing a blog post because I can’t sleep. They don’t know that about my quiet hours when the tears come in monsoon form. I’m completely on autopilot right now. I honestly do not even know what day it is. I’m relying heavily on my calendar at this point to try and figure my days out. Yes, the tears come and I allow myself to cry, a little bit. Then I take a deep breath, stand up, square my shoulders and tell myself I can’t fall apart, I have too much to take care of. I have four daughters who even during a normal week keep me hopping. Now I am trying to figure out my mom’s paperwork and make heads or tails out of notes she scribbled along the edge of pieces of paper. Many people have asked what they can do to help, and I honestly can’t give them an answer because I can’t think of anything.
I’ve been looking at a great deal of pictures of my mom in the past week. While doing so I found a picture that I had taken in a cabin Mom, my Aunt Andrea, Gillian and Katherine and I had stayed that said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” It is those moments when I fall apart. When I think of how she gasped when she saw my daughters ready for prom, or how I heard her hold her breath when Katherine slid across the stage during a dance recital, those are the moments the deluge of tears begin. My mom was my daughters biggest cheerleader. She was as excited about their ACT scores as they were, maybe even more. She lived for those moments with her granddaughters. When I think of what the next year will bring for my daughters: how she would have gasped as they walk across the stage for graduation, how she would have held her breath during Katie’s senior recital, how she would have screamed in excitement over Elle’s softball games, how she would have been so excited to see see Caroline perform, those are the moments that hurt the most. Those are the moments that still hurt when I think about what my dad is missing, much less my mom too.
I keep asking myself if I could do the past three months over again if I would do it differently, and I don’t think anything would change that would make much of a difference. I keep asking, “why?” I think it was said best at her memorial, “She had to leave us and go to heaven because [my dad] was up there pestering everyone about when was she going to join him.” This is probably true, and the thought gives me comfort.
I was asleep when my thoughts rudely awakened me. In my sleep I had remembered that yesterday morning, cancer stole another life. Our little, quaint town lost its mayor. I did not know him well personally. I knew him more by reputation and through the loving words of his wife. Through those things, I know he was a man who loved his family and God fiercely.
My sleepy, barely lucid thoughts wandered from thoughts of his passing on to the level of emotional grief his wife and daughters must be experiencing. My heart ached for them. In half a second I was thinking of him not getting to see his youngest daughter graduate high school. Then, I remembered. I remembered my own personal emotional scars from losing my father to cancer. I was now fully awake. I remembered the things my father was not getting to experience because cancer stole them from him. I began to think of how much my oldest daughters have changed in the past seven years, how they have grown up to become such amazing women. I began to weep. I wept for the things my father is not getting to experience, the milestones he is not here to witness. I wept for the absence of him in our lives. I wept for my mom. Dad would be so proud of her, how strong she is. I wept for the parents who have lost a child to cancer. I wept for the McCullough family who now has to walk this path. I looked over at the clock. It read somewhere in the 4 o’clock hour of the night. I couldn’t really make out the last numbers. My tears were falling in hot drops of grief by this point. I tried to keep my breathing steady as to not wake my husband. I was unsuccessful. Out of the darkness I heard him ask, “What’s wrong?”
I could not answer for a moment. Then I replied, “I hate cancer.” He placed his hand across me. I thought of the things he and I are getting to experience together: the tough things, the beautiful things, the ordinary things we take for granted. I thought of how we often do not see the preciousness of the moments we live because we are just trying to get through life and do it somewhat well. We try to do this together with four daughters. We muddle through, somehow. I am grateful that I get to do this life-thing with him. I am grateful to be the mother of each one of my daughters. I think they have beautiful souls. Life can sometimes try me to my wit’s end, but I am glad I get to have experiences with these people.
I stare into the mirror and a pair of brown eyes stare back at me. They are the eyes of my father and my father’s siblings. We all have those same brown, almond shaped eyes. I look deep into those eyes blinking, wondering who this person is staring back at me. I look at my whole face and I see an uneasiness, an uncertainty that should not be there.
A few weeks ago I came across a quote that said,
“Who you envision yourself to be is who you become.”
Once again, the question of “Who am I” started to haunt me. I began to ponder and I realized that my self image had slowly deteriorated over the past few years. No pin point answer as to why. I haven’t been overly depressed, nothing truly negative has happened in my life. In fact, some really great things have happened. I think it has just been the slow, monotonous drone of every day life that has worn me down. The constant needs for the laundry to be done, the dishes to be done, and the floors to be swept. . . again. All of which seems to be invisible work that the fairies do while I eat bonbons and surf Facebook. Then there are the emotional needs of myself vs. five other people in my household.
I began to reflect on how I defined myself. I began to realize that I felt much like the fall leaves that were being scattered by the wind. I had no control. I felt powerless and meek. I felt insignificant and tiny, overlooked. When I view myself in picture form, I visualize this small, timid person huddled up like she is trying to protect herself from the next blow. I realized that I had become quite the introvert over the past couple of years. I realized that fueling these feeling were the thoughts I have in response to everything negative that happens around me. Somehow I was twisting my thoughts into self guilt and that my needs didn’t matter. My husband calls it my Cinderella syndrome. I felt more like a Cinderella slave than a mother and wife who is part of her family.
Who you visualize yourself to be is who you become.
Think on it; take it to heart. I know that quote to be true in my own life. I have to visualize myself differently before anyone else can and I have to do it now. I can not see myself as that small, timid person who does not have a voice. I have to visualize boldness, fearlessness and joy. If I see myself as that person who is left out, then I will become that person who feels left out. If I see myself as rejected, I become too timid to speak up so that I don’t have to face that possibility. But if I see myself as a person who is loving, fun and willing to take chances, then I will become that person. Not overnight. But I will become.
I have always been one to push myself to the limits. I went back to college as a full-time student when my twins were four to obtain a degree in Music Business. One semester I pulled two consecutive all-nighters. In my early twenties, I trained horses and enjoyed role-playing scenario paintball events.
Now my life is usually chaotic because of after school activities with my teenagers, while simultaneously my elementary age kids are shouting, “mommy, mommy mommy!” I am teaching my teens to drive a car while teaching my little ones to ride their bikes without training wheels. The school needs volunteers, the church needs volunteers, the house needs to be cleaned, and healthy meals have to be made. My husband is busy working during the day and finishing up his MBA program in the evenings.
I was trying so hard to do it all and to do it all perfectly. Gradually, more and more things keep getting added to my to-do list– not just one time projects, but another extra-cirricular dance class, another after school club, the band has an extra rehearsal, youth group is meetings, another MBA class for the next few weeks. I was juggling all these plates, and I have just been waiting for them to start crashing down.
A couple of mornings ago I went out and the peach tree beside our driveway had a branch drooping to the ground. This is our second spring in our new house. Last year, we had a harsh, late frost that bit all the pink buds right as they were beginning to bloom. This year we were so excited to see the tree blossom and begin to make fruit.
Each tree branch is full of fruit, but to its own detriment. The fruit has become too much, too heavy and it is weighing the branches down until they are touching the ground. It is only late spring, and the fruit still has much maturing to do before it has fulfilled its growth cycle. The branches are not going to be able to withstand the weight of the fruit that it is trying to bear.
Too much and too heavy, the branches start buckling under its own weight.
My husband and I tried to prop it up to help support the weight, but it was no use. The branch began to crack and break.
All those plates I am juggling; I feel exactly like this peach tree branch. I have too much fruit I am trying to bear. There are too many things to do. I don’t have the emotional strength nor enough hours in the day.
Like the branch, I am getting very close to breaking. The beauty is that I realize this, and while I am still whole, I can trim some things from my life to make time for a less exhausted wife and mommy. I can take some time and remain whole. I can give myself grace for not being everything to everybody. Why do I think I have to say ‘yes’ to everything anyway?
I need to take some time for self-care. It is a simple concept, really. It is preventive maintenance. Maybe it is just me, but I have a really hard time taking care of myself before the needs of others. But I have to look down the road and decide where those choices are going to lead me. That makes the choice of taking care of myself a bit more justifiable. Learn to Breathe. Learn to give yourself Grace. Learn to do the things you enjoy for the simple pleasures of enjoyment. Learn to Rest. This is going to be a hard struggle for me.
I have often heard the wise words of “Be happy where you are.” The meaning of these words can be stretched out into a whole sermon series if one is creative and long winded enough. However, the basic sentiment is not to wait until you reach a goal in order to be happy. I will be happy when I get out of debt, when I retire, when I have a family or any other variety of when I __________. Although I usually think of myself content with my station in life, I also know that my life feels chaotic and hectic. During the day I feel stressed because I feel pulled in too many directions. We were out at a restaurant the other night. We had already ordered our selection and were waiting on our food to arrive. Youngest child was chattering away about who knows what. Middle child was urging me to play a game of tic-tac-toe on the children’s menu with her. One of my oldest was trying to ask me a question and then I suddenly became aware that my husband had just repeated my name about three times. I was overwhelmed with all the demands being placed upon me simultaneously. I looked everyone over very quickly and in a louder than usual restaurant voice said, “Everyone hush!” The whole family just looked at me. Then one at a time I tried to address their needs. I think my husband thought it was funny to see me frazzled. But this is a normal part of my life, not an isolated event. Because it is part of our family status quo, I stay frazzled more than I stay serine. I would choose serine. My happy goal is not one of I will be happy when I reach X goal. Instead, I think I will be happy when things are calm, everyone is quiet, and the chores are complete. Which is usually the five minutes between my head hitting the pillow and falling asleep. Then I will be happy.
A few evenings ago I was experiencing our normal chaotic life. I was trying to get my youngest kids ready for bed. I was trying to get them to brush their teeth, put on their pajamas, go to the potty and get ready for me to tuck them in bed. They were fighting over who was in the bathroom first, who could use the potty first, who could brush teeth first and calling “Mom, mom, mom almost more than I could tolerate with any amount of patience. I sent middle child to my bathroom to use the toilet when I heard her scream my name one more time. “Mom!”
What? I replied with a good amount of irritation.
“Look at the sunset!”
I love that they see amazing things in the everyday, truly I do, but the constant, “look at this, look at this” drains me after a while. So I was not expecting much. To my surprise, the sunset was absolutely STUNNING. I wanted to tuck them in bed and go enjoy it. I knew that sunsets only last about five minutes at peak. I had a choice: to go ahead with my routine, or be happy in the moment. I chose to be happy and live in the moment. I grabbed my camera and went outside.
This is what I captured:
I chose to be happy in the moment. I needed that reminder. Now only if I can keep it with me.
I struggle with feeling like God can use me for his Glory or to minister to others. I feel that I am too imperfect, I am deeply flawed. Not just broken, but I’ve been shattered. I take solace in knowing that some of the most prominent Bible characters were deeply stained. David, had an affair with Bethsheba. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Moses murdered a man, and Paul had many Christians murdered during the early church before his conversion.
In the last couple of blogs, I spoke of my fear of rejection. It is often that fear that keeps me from speaking up. I am going to share with you a couple of things that I need to take to heart:
I am reading The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning. Love his books. He has an excerpt from the book Toxic Faith:
Many fail to receive the blessings that come from ministering to others because of the belief that God uses only the perfect or the near perfect. . . .In my life as well as in Scripture I have seen nothing but the opposite to be true. God often uses those who have major flaws or who have been through a great deal of pain to accomplish many vital tasks for his kingdom. . . . No one is too messed up for God to use.
Just remember, God does not call the equipped, He equips the called.
Over the weekend I went to a Women’s retreat at my church. Overall, it was a positive experience. Usually retreats are a time to replenish your soul. I, however, did good just to sit through it and not bolt out of the door.
Everyone was seated at round tables. A couple of women were leading us in praise and worship. They promised the room we were in was a “safe place.” I wasn’t sure if I bought that. I sat there staring at the vibrant yellow paper that had been taped over the top as a make-shift tablecloth. There were words of encouragement written across it. A bucket of chocolate sat in the middle. The truth is I felt very unsafe. I felt very unsure of who I was, my place in the church, and if I would be accepted by my peers. I wanted to go home to my own bed where I knew I would be safe and not judged, where I knew I would not have to wonder, “what is wrong with me?” It was overwhelming social anxiety. These feeling came from a mixture of places. Because of my extreme anxiety, I was not able to enjoy worshiping. I kept looking at the door. I would look down at my purse and mentally plan my escape route.
As I sat there making my escape plan, I also sat there thinking about being a servant to everyone there. I know intellectually that everyone struggles with the very emotions I was struggling with. –Not being accepted and fear of rejection. I decided it was my mission to quit focusing on myself and to make others feel as welcome and wanted as I possibly could, considering my own level of insecurity.
I began to take notes and doodle my thoughts out on a note pad that was provided to us. At some point I doodled out,
“Let it go and begin the rest of your story.”
To begin again is a refreshing thought. Just start trying. As the retreat came to a close I doodled out, “Let Go and let God take Control.” But I still wanted to fix things.
I was still focusing on the things I had written down the previous couple of days during church on Sunday. Then we sang, “I Surrender All.” That was all I needed. It was the reminder I needed. In the A.A. program you are taught to surrender as part of the first three steps. Peace swept over me. I did not have to worry about this! If God wants me involved in something, it will happen. Wheels will turn. I don’t have to make things happen. Once again, I am reminded of what a control freak I am. I have a great deal of growing to do and learning to speak up. I don’t have to be in control of making things happen, I just have to relinquish myself to allow them to happen. In the meantime, I just need to work on my own growth.
Sweet Surrender; Blessed Peace.
Fear. We all experience it. A few nights ago my husband and I were out on our deck chatting. It was late, almost bedtime. We were looking at the stars and chatting about our day. The lights were on in the kitchen and I could clearly see one of my eldest daughters doing something at the sink. Suddenly, I ran up to the glass door and slammed my hands and face against it. As expected, my daughter jumped out of her skin. Then she did something I didn’t expect. She slinked down behind the countertop and disappeared. After I stopped laughing, I go in to find her. She was nowhere to be found. Somehow, without being seen, she managed to run up the steps to her bedroom and retreat to her own safe haven.
Recently, I have come to realize how fearful I am. I am scared stiff, paralyzed with it. I hate it, and yet, I allow it to be my best friend. I allow it to stay close to me because it keeps me safe. There are worries about life, money and what will happen tomorrow. That is not where my fear resides. I think God will take care of me in those areas. My fear is in personal rejection. I am so scared that if someone discovers who I really am, they will turn away and reject me. In order to keep me safe, I don’t allow anyone close. If you are close to me, then you have won a hard battle. I am scared to offer myself to help with anything, for fear that I will not be wanted.
Last weekend a member of our church admitted she was an alcoholic. Having shared a similar path, every instinct in me wanted to go embrace her and whisper words of encouragement to her. But fear kept me safe. I stood with my feet firmly rooted, because what if my words weren’t welcomed? How could I be the one over hundreds of other people to be encouraging or even helpful. For about an hour I stayed safe. Then I finally went to her. I stumbled over my words and told her not to feel alone.
This weekend there is a women’s retreat at our church. I had not planned on going. Why? Because I am afraid of being rejected and alone among a large group of women. So I wanted to stay safe, inside my own home, not giving anyone the option to reject or accept me. With my husbands encouragement, I nervously have decided to attend.
I don’t want to give people to opportunity to reject me, so I let fear keep my back. I let fear keep me safe.
I know that everyone struggles with feeling accepted. If I want to truly minister, I cannot do it from the safety of my own bedroom (except for this blog). I have to truly reach out, take the risk and ask, “How are you today?” I have to (gasp) let people get emotionally close to me.
I want to know what it would look like if I was not afraid. What kind of Kingdom work would I be able to accomplish? I know that fear is a snowball in itself. When I was a vocal student at Trevecca, I hated recitals where I had to solo. I hated them because I did awful at them. I did awful at them because I was afraid. It is not that I can’t sing, it is that I was scared of being judged on how I sing. Because I felt judged, my voice would wobble and get off-key and I would sound horrible. But it was because I was afraid that fear led to the very thing I was afraid of. So I have to ask myself, am I producing the very results I am afraid of?
What are you afraid of?
What holds you back?
Dream about what it would be like to be fearless.
It has been a long year without blogging. We moved last December. Nothing like trying to find your Christmas stuff and your kitchen all at the same time. I love our new house. We have a flat yard and a quiet street where our kids can play and ride bikes. It has seemed very surreal until recently. I felt like I was visiting a nice vacation condo and that tomorrow I would have to pack up and go back home. The transition, although it went smoothly, was very time consuming with all the packing and unpacking. We are now settled, so hopefully my blogging will pick back up. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until the last couple of days. I have missed taking the time to articulate the insights and my growth. Mostly, I have missed writing, and through such, ministering. So stay tuned!
As an artist, you are taught to use contrasting colors to define your positive and negative space within a work. Normally, you want to highlight the focus of the piece and shade the non-focal areas. You want to draw attention to the positive. I realize artwork is not always positive in the way of subject matter. That is not exactly what I am talking about. I am talking about the area to which your eye is drawn. In the picture to the left, there are two images, one in negative space in one in the positive. Do you naturally see one before the other? Usually it is the positive space. But the same is not true when I think of myself.
My husband and I were having a conversation while sitting on the couch yesterday morning. I mentioned some things I was struggling with emotionally. It seems I have had many struggles lately. Nothing overwhelming, just many small things that make my mind whirl. Specifically, I was talking about a hearing test I had recently that revealed I have low-frequency hearing loss. I guess my husband had had enough of my whining because he said, “Holly, I want you to think about something. You are letting all these negative things define you–whether it is your bipolar disorder or hearing loss or whatever else is wrong. I want you to think of the good things about yourself and let them define you.”
I was suddenly fighting back tears. The sad truth: I couldn’t think of anything positive about myself that defined me. I feel like I fall short on everything. I feel like I am failing my children because I don’t spend enough constructive time with them. I feel like I fail as a housekeeper because there is usually enough dust on my ceiling fans to plant corn. I fail as an artist because I have no time to invest. The same goes for being a writer. Other than knowing I am God’s Child, Redeemed, I can think of nothing.
This is something I desperately need to work on. I don’t have a resolution or a happy how-to ending for this blog post. Rather, I want to ask you, “What positive things define you?”