Chronic Pain and the Grace of “Redemptive Hygge”

He goes by Stephen now, but when I knew him best, he was just “Steve.”

I met him when I was fifteen and on fire, and we became unlikely friends. Him with his punk rock awesomeness; me with my eternal good girl persona.

In the following photo, you will note, he is rocking the frosted tips, Shaded Red visor, and some seriously awesome neckware. And I’m wearing the not-so-clear clear braces and my usual ponytail. I’m fairly sure that tucked under neath that gray undershirt is a necklace I’ve created entirely of tiny gold safety pins to try to embrace my own punk-rock alter-ego. (Not surprisingly, it did not work.)

steve and addie

I sent Stephen this photo today via Facebook while we were discussing this post. “Remember these wacky kids, on their way downtown to Acquire the Fire??”

“Ha!” He said. “I remember they had everyone go out to different corners of the arena for where in the world you wanted to be a missionary. I can’t remember where I picked, but they spammed me with phone calls and mail for a year or two.” Oh Teen Mania.

I haven’t seen Stephen since high school, but he is one of the best people I knew during my on fire days.

Soon after we graduated, he got married, and he and his wife moved to Denmark. He became a scholar and a teacher and the very best kind of “missionary.” He wrote a Master’s Thesis about how to educate young people without sending them to seminaries or discipleship schools. He had two beautiful kids; he was teaching and speaking and taking the most beautiful photos.

And then this happened:

[If you can’t access the video, here’s the gist: In August 2013 Stephen, husband and father of two, had 3 aneurysms bleed in his spinal cord. When doctors operated to stop the bleeding, the procedure damaged his spinal cord and left him an incomplete tetraplegic with a condition called Brown Séquard Syndrome — which includes chronic pain.]

 

I think a lot these days about the ways our lives go off the rails. We set out to do beautiful and incredible things, and then, with one swift tug, pain or tragedy or a surgery gone horribly wrong comes in and changes everything that we thought our lives were about.

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself in a new space in my life, in which I’m surrounded by friends who are experiencing chronic pain of their own. Not always physically, like Stephen’s…but just as tangibly. My friend Barb, who lost her 12-year-old son Jack two months ago today, and who feels him constantly, like a phantom limb, aching. Another friend battling cancer, another infertility.

And here’s the thing: I think that Christians tend to be great in a crisis. When the tragedy first happens, we are there with the a million frozen meals and cards and flowers and prayers. When there’s a funeral, we show up in earnest, and we cry and bring dozens of cookies. We’re good at being there…initially. We’re not great at staying.

To be honest, it’s not just a Christian problem. It’s a human problem. We get stir-crazy in one another’s pain, fear it, find ourselves speechless and awkward in the face of it. In a cultural — and Christian — ethos that’s so often about conquering and victory and getting through the valley to the other side, there’s little space for the people who find themselves walking in a valley that has no end in sight.

Fifteen years ago, when Stephen and I sat on that yellow school bus, taking an old-school selfie with an actual film-fed camera, on our way to learn how to ACQUIRE THE FIRE, I never would have dreamed that this is where we’d reconnect. And yet this too is holy ground.

This piece that Stephen wrote on his Facebook page recently made me think of all of you, all of us — of everyone who might be in pain, feeling lonely, waiting for joy. Please welcome him here, give him your encouragement, and then click over and support him in this hard, new journey that he finds himself on.

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One of my favorite public speakers is Brené Brown. Here is just one gem from her talks:

“When we start losing our tolerance for vulnerability, uncertainty, for risk — we move away from the things we need and crave the most like joy and love and belonging, trust, empathy, creativity.”

Some days ago I received a spontaneous text from a friend named Christian–a Norwegian artist living here in Copenhagen–telling me he would be done with work soon and that, if we wanted, he could “come over and hang out or help with anything for a few hours.” I say spontaneous because, in Denmark, most meetings are pre-arranged with calendars made days or weeks in advance.

I had recently opened up to him over a pre-arranged coffee date about how lonely it can be for people like us–those who suffer, have sicknesses or who are facing some kind of serious crisis. And we discussed many of the possible reasons why. There is one we centered on.

In Denmark there is a concept called “hygge” that is quite special and valued. There really isn’t a great translation although the closest word we have in English is “coziness”. But it is definitely the goal for most gatherings or get-togethers. And Danes have really learned how to create these cozy spaces. Dawn recently saw a sign in a shop that gave their attempt at a definition:

hygge (n.) a complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle soothing things

I shared with him how from now on, our lives and our story could never be that kind of hygge. And perhaps that is why we have felt so lonely. I said this because our family really needs some people who aren’t afraid to come into our home with all of the pain, stress, chaos, uncertainty, annoyances and sorrow. Friends who can meet us right here in our reality and yet find ways of drawing out experiences of joy, laughter, grace and hope. A “redemptive hygge” if you will.

I wrote back to him, “maybe… what were you thinking?”

He replied, “Since the weather isn’t all that, I was thinking I could bring a canvas and some paint, and we could make a big painting together”

To be honest, our kids were restless that day and had more than a few tantrums. My pains were pretty high. Our house was kind of a mess. We hadn’t planned on having anyone over. But I had been vulnerable and open with him just days before. Now he was being vulnerable and courageous enough to listen and act. Finally, we chose to be vulnerable and let our friend come over even though we were quite unprepared.

And then something amazing happened.

Christian showed up with a large canvas and his arms full of different kinds of acrylic paints. We got out a big white bed sheet, rolled back Hope’s rug, and we all began to paint. Hope got started with lots of pink. Esben became fascinated with making hand prints and covering his hands with blue and purple paint and making impressions. And Christian began to teach us all about layers and textures. His passion became ours. Two hours passed and we not only had a unique and I’d say beautiful piece of art — but we all experienced what we crave and need most as humans: joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We all came away transformed.

hygge

We washed off as much paint from our hands and arms as possible and then gathered around the table for some home-delivered pizza. We were all smiling. We were all laughing. All of the pain, fear, and anxiety had been muted by this one courageous act of “redemptive hygge”. As Christian gathered his things to leave for the evening he got more than a few hugs and kisses from our kids. But our two year old summed it up best when after his second to last hug he told Christian, “I love you!”

Later in the evening, Christian wrote about how touched he was when Esben said that, and added how much he enjoyed his evening with us (despite all of the seriousness of our suffering).

We have just over a month left in this campaign and we are far from our goal. Please keep sharing our story: http://youtu.be/3OwMCZ31VpU, our link to the campaign page: http://www.stephenfights.org and ask your networks to see if they’d be willing to offer a little end of the year donation. Ask if they would help by #standingwiththesandovals.

There is no question that the money raised has already helped us and has set us up to be able to pay for some vital things in the year to come. We definitely need more and we hope that with your help we can achieve it some how. But if we are really going to win this fight–if anyone that is suffering is going to “win” their fight–it will come from because of people courageous enough to be vulnerable enough to face their own pains and brokenness so that with empathy a “redemptive (and transformative) hygge” can occur. It’s something we all need in the end.

We look at our special painting every day. And it gives us hope. I hope this story from our lives can help you in some way.

Love, Stephen, Dawn, Hope & Esben

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I don’t often ask you guys to donate to causes or to open your wallets here at the blog, but I’m asking you today. Stephen and Dawn are not just some of the best people out there — they are also wise and insightful, and I think the world needs more leaders and voices and stories like theirs. Honest ones about pain. Beautiful ones about hope.

Please, stop by their GiveForward site, and give what you can.

Chick-Lit Church [at Deeper Story]

I know. I’ve been off the grid a little again. I’m working hard to finish my manuscript by Thanksgiving, and I’m closing in. I may be a bit quiet until then, but hopefully I’ll be back again full-force afterwards…just in time for that beautiful season of Advent.

In the meantime, I’m over at Deeper Story today, working out some of my angst with the Christian romance novel picture of “Church.” Here’s how it starts.

Girl could write a love story, and I was desperate for love.

It wasn’t so much the boy-girl variety that I longed for–I already had that–a dreamy college boy who would eventually become my husband. No, the kind of love that I was swoony for was the perfect church. The Christian friends-turned-makeshift family. The community I’d been wanting so desperately and hadn’t yet found. A group with whom I could sit on the deck and share all of my secrets and receive biblical wisdom and genuine prayer and all kinds of understanding and hope and love.

And Girl could write that love story better than all her others.

In her eight-book Glenbrooke fictional series, she concocted an entire town in love with God and with one another. At the front of each book, an illustrated map showed just how close everyone was to one another: Brad and Alissa’s house just off of Main Street. Kyle and Jessica up on Madison Hill. Seth and Leah out in the woods, and Shelly and Jonathan at Camp Heatherbrook. Every love story surpassed challenges and ended in another adoring, godly marriage. And then, inevitably, each of the couples became the best of friends, gathering for major holidays, baby-talking sweet things at one another’s children, grilling kebobs in the backyard at Easter.

[Continue reading at Deeper Story here.]

What I’m Into – October 2014 Edition

october

We have had the most amazing October.

I’ve complained enough about the Minnesota weather on this blog for you to know how completely awful it is for much of the year, but this October? Magical. Perfect fall temperatures all month long…and the colors!

It has been a full and beautiful month, and I feel very grateful for its gentle loveliness, easing us toward the cold slowly.

What I’m Reading:

I’ve been all over the place this month with my reading. Normally, I’m a finish-one-book-before-going-onto-the-next kind of girl, but this month I’ve been scattered. I’m reading bits and pieces of several different books.

books i'm reading

In the mornings, by my sad little light-box, I am going back between Levertov’s collection of faith-based poems, The Stream & the Sapphire (which is stunning) and Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds (which is completely brilliant.) I love both but can only read each in small bits because they give me so much to think about.

I’ve had a couple different opportunities this month to talk about the intersection of faith and art. It’s a conversation I’m so interested in…but haven’t thought much about lately. So I picked up an old favorite — Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on WaterRe-reading this is bringing me back to a sort of “home base” as I work toward finishing Book 2. Why I do this anyway. What it means to be a Christian and a writer. What it means to find cosmos in the chaos. Beautiful stuff.

I’m trying to read Kate Morton’s The House at Rivertonbut I’m having a hard time getting sucked in. And I can’t believe I still haven’t ever read The Joy Luck Club. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, but I just started it this month. I’ve only read a few pages, but I can already tell it’s going to be exquisite.

I’m hoping to do better with finishing books this month, and am hoping to play along with Modern Mrs. Darcy for her monthly Twitterature roundup — where you write super-short reviews of everything you’ve read lately on the 15th of every month. Fun right?

What I’m Watching:

I’m loving fall television, as usual. On my list of regulars: Scandal, Grey’s, How to Get Away with Murder, Nashville, (ahem) Vampire Diaries (ahem), and Marry Me.

I had high hopes for Red Band Society, but I lost interest pretty quickly. And I was super sad when they cancelled Manhattan Love Story. I thought that one had so much promise!

Andrew and I got all caught up with Parks and Recreation on Netflix. I keep hearing rumors that there’s one more season coming. Is that true?! Please tell me it’s true.

We also started watching The Blacklist, and though we can’t stop calling the main character Robert California (his Office name) instead of Reddington (his Blacklist name), we’re definitely sucked in.

When I’ve caught up on everything else and there’s still laundry/dishes/projects to do, I’m rewatching ABC Family’s Greek on Netflix, which I’m way too old for but which still makes me laugh.

What I’m Listening to:

This month, I discovered the gorgeous worship music of The Brilliance. I’ve only listened to their free live album, Road Recordings, from Noisetrade so far, but I’ll definitely be buying more soon.

I couldn’t stop myself from downloading a couple of songs from Nashville. (“Joy Parade” and “When You Open Your Eyes.”) I also grabbed a couple of song off of Andrew McMahon’s new album, In the Wilderness, (because Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate will always remind me of some of the best times of my life.) “Maps for the Getaway” is my favorite off the new album so far, with “Rainy Girl” a close second.

Other Things I’m Into:

– Leaves, leaves, leaves. Beautiful, crunchy, golden leaves and the boys who love to play in them.

fall collage- Green smoothies. I cannot believe I’m even saying this, but it’s true. I made a whole bunch of bags ahead of time this month and have been whipping them up every morning LIKE A REAL GROWN UP.

– Don’t worry. I’m still into McDonalds. And Diet Coke. And coffee. And wine. And gigantic piles of pasta. So pretty much all the goodness of the green smoothies are counteracted by the rest of my life. BUT STILL.

– A family trip to Duluth over a long weekend.

duluth collage

– Scraps of paper with carefully written “I love you”s from my kindergartener, who is so proud to be learning to write.

– Infinity scarves.

– Potato soup. I make this recipe exactly, except I add ham, and I cannot stop eating it. Seriously. I’ve probably made ten batches this month alone. So good.

– Bonfires with friends.

bonfire

– Carving pumpkins with my loves

pumpkin carving

– A kindergarten Halloween party (and parade) in which 6 of the 23 students in Dane’s class were dressed as Elsa.

– Apple cider candles

– The ducks on the pond in the evenings, making all sorts of lovely racket.

– Holding a chicken for the first time at a pumpkin patch. How cute is he?

chicken

Blog, Speaking, Writing…

I had the chance in October to speak at some really cool places, including Imago Dei church in Peoria (you can listen to that recording here if you want to) and the Emerging Artists Collective in Minnesota. I haven’t done much speaking since the Epic Road Trip last winter, and it felt good to get back out there. To say things out loud and to interact with real, wonderful people face-to-face.

Lately, the animosity of the Christian Internets has kept me from wanting much of a part in “The Conversation” happening around faith. (I wrote a little about that here). But being in those rooms, filled with genuine people, talking and listening to one another, I was reminded of everything I love about that Conversation. The honesty. The hope. The expectation. I was honored to be part of it.

speaking collage

I’m continuing to make slow (but steady) process on Book Two. Over the last couple of months I’ve turned a corner and am no longer deleting more than I write. So that’s a good thing.

I’m hoping to have a complete draft to my editors within the next couple of weeks. If you are the praying type, continue to pray for clarity, insight and attentiveness to God’s Spirit as I work to finish.

wine and writing

I bounced back into the Blog World this month after a pretty long hiatus, and it’s been so good. The post In Transit was my attempt to capture an incredibly meaningful spiritual insight I had at the airport on my way home from Peoria. One of my most unexpected and favorite days of this month.

I also started a series of Modern Psalms this month. So far, the ones I’ve done have been a way to honor hurting friends and to enter into their world — Psalm for a Lost Child for my friend whose son died last month, and Psalm for Wednesday Morning Chemo for a friend with cancer. Each of these posts has been deeply meaningful to me as I struggle to figure out what it means to enter into the suffering of others and wait.

I celebrated my book turning one year old and then I celebrated the simple beauty of One Day through an Instagram challenge with Hollywood Housewife.

It’s good to be back.

 

If you’re just finding me here, you can also follow me over here on Facebook or here on Twitter. Or on Instagram here.

As always, I’m linking up with the lovely Leigh Kramer for What I’m Into. So glad she does this fun linkup!

 

What about you? What have you been into this month?

Psalm for Wednesday Morning Chemo

For Melissa

I do not (as far as I know) have cancer. But, these days, I find myself living life alongside a dear friend who does. This is for her – and for anyone else who finds themself on this hard new journey: a psalm, a prayer, a simple grasp toward hope.

photo credit: limowreck666 via photopin cc

photo credit: limowreck666 via photopin cc

God of water and wilderness
and of hospital rooms, filled with IVs
smelling of antiseptic and latex:
To you we pray.

Glory. Glory.
Glory.

You have counted the hairs on my head,
so You know, too, about the ones falling out.
The way I feel every morning:
like I’m combing away a part of myself,
becoming someone I hardly recognize.

Still, I have to believe that you who number things like hair and stars
and the grains of sand of these ten thousand fall-frozen lakes
must know each of the 37.2 trillion cells in my traitor body.
Including the renegade ones —
those damn cancer cells, dividing, dividing —
Dividing my whole life into Before Cancer
and Now. Here.
Waiting.

I’ll admit, it’s hard to savor your goodness
when everything tastes like metal.
And if I’m having trouble trusting it, Lord,
It’s only because I’m afraid.

Here is what I know:
You are the God who sees —
not just the ocean’s surface
but every creature in its endless deep.
You who watch the jellyfish dance
and listen to the whale sing her mournful song
and know where the sea turtle
lays her eggs —
you see me too:
my heart, my fear, my hopes —
and even those odd-shaped cells
with their multiple nuclei
and their coarse chromatin —
and all their capacity for destruction.

Your eyes do not look away:
Not from the sparrow
falling.
Not from me,
as I sit here in Wednesday morning chemo.
The drugs are pumping
into the port they cut into my chest —
the place I held my babies when they were small.
The place where you say you’re holding me
now.

The weak fall light is straining through the windows —
and the trees —
they are almost entirely bare now.
They look a little haunted in the absence of leaves,
but I bet you know
exactly
how many leaves fell.
And I bet you’ve already planned it all out:
how many leaves
exactly
will grow there when spring comes back.

It always comes back.

And it’s Wednesday morning.
Again.
And all there is to do is sit.
The medicine courses, again, into my body,
and all I can do is
Receive.
All I can do is
Pray
to the God who sees it all:

Especially that which I
cannot. 

Glory. Glory.

Glory.