Tag Archives: depression

Driving to a Funeral on Ash Wednesday

driving to funeral

On Ash Wednesday this year, I don’t go to church for the imposition of ashes, but I find a streak of the dirt-slush that’s been coating my van all winter on my blue jeans.

I notice the streak at the McDonalds in Mankato, Minnesota, where the Fillet of Fish advertisements reminded me that it’s Lent season now. I’d forgotten until that very moment, staring at the grey streak, two hours from home, waiting for my #2 Extra Value Meal – a late dinner on the way to Nebraska for my cousin Traci’s funeral.

Dust you are and to dust you shall return. Isn’t this what they say when they mark your forehead damp with ash? I’ve only experienced the ritual once, but I can still remember the feeling – grease and grit and love. 

*

Back on the road, all that’s left of the thin, February daylight is a scratch of dull orange light at the bottom of the horizon. Before I left home today, I put out my official book trailer for my new book, Night Driving, and now, ironically, here I am, driving in the night – two hours into the six-and-a-half-hour drive.

I’ve been crying all day. About my cousin, who died too young from cancer, leaving two young sons and a husband behind. About leaving my own kids, however temporarily, to drive six-and-a-half-hours to Nebraska. (What is it about tragedy, about darkness, that makes me want to circle the wagons, stay home, curl up on the couch with my family and medicate with wine and snuggles and bad TV?)

I’ve also been crying, let’s be honest, about the trailer video and the book it represents – this imperfect thing that’s on its way out into the world, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable, like I’ve gone walking in the winter world without a jacket.

Depression is a recurring theme in my life, and it gets bad for me always at this time of the year. I’m at that part of February where it feels like it might actually pull me all the way under.

I pick up my phone and try to take a picture of the end of the sunset with one hand. The flash is on though, and all I get is the windshield, pocked with that same ashy sleet that’s now on my jeans.

There’s such a thing as too much light, I learned during a long road trip once. It always seems counterintuitive, categorically untrue. Except that here is the photographic proof: too much light, and you can’t see the beauty. Can’t really see anything.

*

Three hours. Four hours. Five. 169 South turns to 60 W turns to I-29 South. There are almost no cars out on the road on this Ash Wednesday night, and the waxing crescent of the moon casts barely a sliver of light on the snow.

We didn’t observe Lent much in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, except for the Daily Bread Lenten Devotional, which appeared on the Information Desk in the foyer every year around this time. But I’m told that the forty days of Lent represent the days Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring temptation, preparing for ministry.

Wilderness as preparation. The concept seems about as unintuitive to me as the idea of too much light. Preparation, to me, seems like it ought to be more purposeful, more productive – less wandering and vague.

I turn on the new Cloud Cult album, The Seeker for approximately the 3600th time this trip.

God gave you brains, now don’t go and drown in your own thinkings.

God gave you hands so you could pick up your broken pieces.

God gave you feet so you could find your own way home. 

Iowa turns into Nebraska, and the wind lows against the windows. In the high-beams of the car, the snow blusters and fusses and finally settles, hemmed into so many fields of darkness.

*

I own one black dress, which I wear to the funeral with a pair of flats that hurt my feet. The sanctuary is full of flowers and tears and a hundred stories of a woman’s immense love and faith and hope.

The official word they chose for the obituary was determined, but we all agree that the word is actually stubborn. Stubborn faith, stubborn love – an unwavering belief in God’s goodness even as the darkness crept further and further in.

I sit there in my pinchy shoes and stare at the old Warner Sallman painting, “Christ at the Heart’s Door.” In that small-town sanctuary, I feel a desperate desire for the straightforward, hope-fueled faith that the eulogizers are describing from their spots in the pews. I’d like to listen to Christian radio and not feel angsty about the lyrics; I’d like to look at the “Christ at the Heart’s Door” painting without feeling irked about the fact that Christ has blue eyes.

If I could give up something for Lent, it would be my questions, my cynicism, my preoccupation with my own darkness. It sticks to me though like ashes on the forehead.

It’s February and it’s the beginning of Lent – forty days of wilderness – and here I am again, looking up at my faith from the muffled underwater world of my recurring Depression. And maybe this is not all that unlike my cousin’s determined faith – stubborn in its own particular way, still looking up.

*

In the church basement, church ladies serve cold cuts on dollar rolls, trays of veggies, and dessert bars that the Aunts baked last night in Grandma’s kitchen.

Three long tables fill the room end to end, and Grandma keeps putting her small wrinkled hands to her ears: “The acoustics in here are terrible,” she keeps saying, and since we can’t really hear each other talk, we just lean against one another, holding hands.

God gave you hands so you could pick up your broken pieces, the song says, and this is how it goes: hold hands with Grandma, hug the Aunts and the Cousins, touch the kids on the tops of their heads as they scoot by around the folding chairs.

Take a dollar roll. Eat.

Pour the coffee. Drink.

Do this in remembrance. Of her. Of Him. Of the cross and the ashes and the promise of all things made new.

When I leave to start the long trip home to Minnesota, Grandma kisses me on the forehead, and the feeling is not unlike the imposition of the ashes – grease and grit and love.

I walk out into the February wilderness and it smells like cattle and cold and almost, maybe, spring.

The funeral shoes pinch at my feet…the feet that God gave me, I remember, so that I might find my way home.

The Naming of Seasons

photo credit: IMG_3445 via photopin (license)
photo credit: IMG_3445 via photopin (license)

It’s fall now, officially, even though the trees are still mostly green and the afternoons have been muggy and I haven’t been able to put the shorts away yet or wear my cute new hat.

I can feel it coming though. The cottonwood leaves are curling, yellowing just a bit at the edges, dropping here and there onto the ground. There is a maple tree over on 147th with leaves that are so luminous and red and orange that you could almost forget that they’re in the process of dying.

Hoards of ducks settle into the pond every evening now. Our next-door neighbor puts corn out for them, and they waddle up from the water to eat it. They are insatiable in their hunger, growing fatter, getting ready.

Autumn, according to the Internet, is a fairly new word. It didn’t appear in English until the late 14th century, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that we started saying fall.

There was, of course, the recognition of harvest time – all that gathering, all that celebration and bounty – but not for the rest of it. Not for that slow, stunning silencing of the world. There was no English word for that season when the turtles burrow deep into the bottom of the pond, and when the fat-cheeked chipmunks eat sunflower seeds straight out of my sons’ hands.

There was no word for the sharp, cold beauty of all this loss. For that slow descent back into darkness. For the piles of brown leaves that we jump and play in until they disappear into dust.

Imagine.

*

It’s been a hard week for me for a thousand tiny little reasons – none of which are actually very good.

Things that Healthy Summer Addie would be able to brush off and let go are annihilating Autumn Addie. I am crying into my lobster bake at Stella’s, telling my husband that no one even likes me! I am reading too much into emails, losing my ability to focus and motivate, spending a lot of time curled into the fetal position on the couch, watching Grey’s.

And it’s not great. It’s not particularly fun for anyone involved (including my long-suffering husband, cracking lobster tails across the table, assuring me that They do, sweetie. I promise they like you).

But also – it’s okay. Because I know what this is. It’s just the depression talking again.

*

One of the best gifts that I’ve ever gotten was a name for this thing in me that keeps rearing up in my life no matter how I try to wrestle it back. 

The doctor diagnosed me eight years ago – clinical depression – and I spent a long time trying to make that label untrue. I took the drugs and I went to therapy and I got the light box and I bought special essential oils that are supposed to help with that sort of thing.

I still do all of those things, but I’m beginning to understand that though it doesn’t have to define me, this word matters. I need this name. It gives this darkness that I feel so acutely a set of boundaries. It recognizes all that complex emptiness and distills it down to one word. It frees me to live through it and to live past it. It gives me a framework to understand what is happening to me and to move forward.

It allows me to say to myself as I lie in bed at night, numb and empty and fearful and sad: This is not the truest thing. This is only the depression. Go back to sleep.

*

The etymology of the word autumn is vague, best as I can tell, but one scholar suggested that it could be understood as the “drying-up season,” and the Old Irish word for it means, literally, “under winter.”

In the suburbs, people are emptying out their pools and pulling in their grills and buying Campbell’s Tomato Soup in bulk. Last 80-degree day, we say to one another as we glance at the Weather app on our phones. Fall’s really coming.

And when we say fall, when we say autumn, we’re talking about the whole thing: the ducks and the chipmunks and the pumpkin carving and the harvest celebrations. We’re talking about dark mornings and cold feet and apple pies. About the beauty of transition…and also the cold, harsh jolt of it. All of it is true, all of it simmered down like cider to one, bare, single word. Autumn.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s fall now, officially. Pull your hat down over your ears and breathe deep. Let the beauty and the pain blow over you like the cold breeze.

Say the word. Autumn. Name it for what it is – one short season in the sprawling arc of time.

Drink your pumpkin spice latte. Be grateful and empty, gathered and dried-out. And then, let it go.

The Truest Thing About Me

pain is not the truest thing

The depression came back a few weeks ago. It was sudden and sharp, and it knocked me off my feet.

It wasn’t totally unexpected — I’d started a new medication and I knew that it was possible that it might throw off my fragile emotional balance. But when it happened, when I found myself flat on my back at the bottom of that dark place, unable to move — AGAIN — it surprised me anyway.

I’m tired of being a person who struggles with depression.

I’m tired of these fallbacks and setbacks. Of the mornings that come with a bleak sense of dread. I’m tired of the wary, watchful way I have to approach my sad days, waiting to see if it’s just sadness or if it’s something more sinister and dangerous. I’m tired of the way that these normal, negative emotions don’t pass for me…but rather pool into a sort of sludge that I find myself stuck in time after time after time.

I’m not trying to be overdramatic here. There are plenty of times when things are fine, when everything feels tentatively okay. Mostly, the medicine helps. Mostly, things are manageable.

But a couple of weeks ago, the depression came back, and lately, it feels like it might be the truest thing about me.

*

I’m reading an advanced copy of Emily Freeman’s beautiful upcoming new book, Simply Tuesday. When the depression comes back, it feels almost impossible to open my Bible, so I open books like this one — the kind that can take my by the hand and gently lead me toward Jesus. And right now, in this hard, dark space, Emily’s words have been exactly what I needed.

There is a part in the book when Emily describes an interaction between her friend Fil Anderson and theologian Brennan Manning at a conference. During the conference the two men met, and Emily tells a beautiful story about their interaction. During the meeting, Brennan gives Fil some Bible verses to read — the ones about coming weary.

After he read these verses,” Emily writes, “Brennan offered Fil this simple instruction: ‘Sit with these words until they become the truest thing about you.’”

The truest thing.

What is it about pain and struggle that makes it so defining? You lose someone you love. You get the diagnosis. You can’t get the job or crawl out of debt or find that person to spend your life with….and this pain, whatever it is, is ever-present and sharp and dominating. It feels like the truest thing about you.

*

I got up at three in the morning the other night and went into my office. I’d been lying awake for half an hour, listening to the voice of self-loathing whispering in my ear, reminding me all of the ways that I am failing. And then finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I got up and sat on the daybed and looked at the Bible on the end table next to me.

And I’m not sure if it’s the depression, or if it’s all of my Bible baggage, but it’s so hard to reach across that infinite gap between the bed and the end table to pick up my Bible.

But that night, I managed it somehow. I reached across that heavy gap, and I picked up that concrete-heavy book, and I managed to open it to Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.

He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.

And here in the slimy depression, the sinking mud feels like the truest thing about me.

But, of course, it’s not.

The truest thing is that there is a rock — a firm place to stand. The truest thing is that new song that God is weaving into the empty dark of my life, even when I can barely hear it.

Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, Psalm 42 says, and this is the truest thing — not the thin stagnant water of my pain, but these breakers, these waves, this sea-song of love, love, love sweeping over me.

And in the end, I suppose, the truest thing about me isn’t about me at all.

It’s Jesus.

*

I’m in the middle of switching medications again. I’m off that one that sent me sinking back in despair. I’m about to start a new one, and I’m nervous and wary and this is not something I’m going to minimize to make a neat point. I struggle with clinical depression. It is a hard, defining, true thing about me.

But it’s not the truest.

Sit with these words until they become the truest thing about you, Brennan Manning said, and so I am sitting here.

If I close my eyes and stay very still, I can almost hear the waves crashing, true and clear and constant, like love, love, love, love.

The Transition Time

spring ducks

I’ve been home from Armenia long enough now that I should be over the bulk of the jet lag…but I still feel like I’m lagging. I can hardly stay awake past nine; I can’t get up early to write; I can’t manage to get much of anything checked off my to-do lists. I’m slogging through my days, staring off into space a lot, forgetting a lot of really basic things, like brushing my teeth.

A week and a half later, I’m still just a little out of step with my own life.

There is an entire gamut of emotions that I imagine I should probably feeling after a trip like this: guilt over our excess and our waste. Newly realized devotion to changing the world…or at least changing our spending patterns. Quiet wisdom gleaned from those heavy, precious moments in the homes of Amasia.

I feel none of that…which makes me feel like, possibly, I’ve done this whole thing wrong.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather.

Daylight Savings came and brought with it the dry, brown beginnings of something that we’re tentatively calling spring. 

The snow is gone, and it’s been warm enough to sit outside on the deck in just a sweatshirt. This weekend, Andrew dragged the patio furniture out of the shed, and a few brave-hearted ducks flew back in, even though the bulk of the pond is still ice.

I don’t know how to feel about this weather. The last two years, we’ve had blizzards well into April. Winter, that cruel tyrant, is notorious for letting the first little seeds of hope begin to sprout…and then quashing the whole thing with ice and swirling gray snowstorms.

It’s warmer now, but the grass is still brown and the trees are still bare, and it’s only March. These transitions between seasons tend to be complicated and drawn out and full of heartbreak in Minnesota… and I’ve been here for more than a third of my life now. I’m just too jaded to hope that the worst is truly behind us.

*

On my trip two weeks ago, I wrote a lot about Armenia’s beauty and poverty and glory. I told you a little bit about the genocide and about that old beautiful church. But I don’t think I conveyed fully how in transition it is — particularly in the Gyumri area, where we spent the bulk of our time.

It wasn’t all that long ago, really, that the 1988 earthquake crumbled so many lives, killing 25,000 and leaving another 50,000 without shelter. And then, just a few years later, communism fell, and Armenia found herself on her own in the rubble, without the support she had grown accustomed to.

Transition.

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t understand extreme poverty. I have no personal context through which to filter the experience of the family living in a shipping container, spending their days searching for twigs and branches to keep their home warm. (This is me, tuning out the story of the parents’ struggle, doing puzzles with the children. Kids, I understand. Puzzles, I understand. Poverty? Not at all.)

Photo by Matthew Paul Turner
Photo by Matthew Paul Turner

But I do understand transition. I know about how long it takes, how painfully slow it feels, how you alternate between hate and nostalgia for The Way Things Used to Be.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus is the Solid Rock when the world you’ve lived your whole life in has cracked beneath you into a thousand pieces. You can’t tell if everything is still half-broken or if it’s half-repaired, and hope is a scary concept when life has been full of false starts and crushing disappointments.

Is it clumsy and irreverent to make this about me? To draw upon the metaphor of this country’s journey as a mirror for my own? Or is it worth seeing how the same we all are? That underneath the reasons and the dressings and walls and curtains, our hearts are made of the same stuff?

It happens in different ways for each of us, but at some point or another, the world we know shatters beneath us, and we’re lost in the endless gray chasm between What Was and What Might Be.

Transition

*

On our second day in Amasia, we met an old couple with a young son. I was taken by them all, but especially by the father, Andranik, who reminded me so much of my Grandpa-in-Law that I had to physically restrain myself from looping my arm through his and snuggling in.

If it were still the old days, he’d be retiring now. Instead, he’s shuffling with his wife and son several miles each way to clean other people’s  barns. “Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, and what do we earn?” he asks. 600 dram  — about $1.40 a day — for the whole family.

In the interview that the staff wrote up for us the week before we came, Andranik said, “I have lost my faith. I cannot believe in anything.” He said, “It is our time to die, but we are still living.”

But that day when we visited, he seemed to fill up the small shack. We crammed inside, and cameras kept flashing, and he looked proud as he pointed to the things he had made — a church delicately crafted from paper, a wooden carving, some photo-shopped pictures of his grandchildren. He showed us his goats. He stood tall and he smiled. He seemed to me larger than life, even in the smallness of his situation.

I told him he reminded me of a favorite grandpa; he said that I was his favorite granddaughter. I got my hug.

“He seemed more hopeful today than he did in the interview you wrote up,” I told the translator as we walked the snowy path back to the bus.

“It was you guys,” she said. “I think he was honored that you came to see him.”

And it seemed stunningly simple, miraculous that it could be true.

Of course. 

We can’t always ease each other’s transitions, but we can enter in to that lonely, gray space. We can stand under the sagging roof. Smile and listen and see and do our very best to understand. And in doing so, we bestow worth and beauty and honor. In doing so we say, You are worth seeing. And in doing so, we remind one another that there is something to hang on to. Something to believe in. Something to hope for.

Photos by Laura Reinhardt
Photos by Laura Reinhardt

*

Today it’s gray and the wind is harsh and cold and keeps flipping the lid of the recycling bin open.

The winter is a tyrant, slow to leave, constantly overstaying its welcome, and who knows when spring will actually finally come? Who knows how much longer we can take it?

All we can do is sit together in the dwindling cold, pull our sweatshirts tighter, and help one another wait it out.

^
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