39 Years Later…

I had a birthday last week. Thirty nine. I didn’t see it coming. I knew it’d come eventually, the way you know your parents are old or your grandparents will eventually die… everyone ages, so I will too, but not like them, right? I’ll be different, I’ll get older but I won’t age. 

I used to think the point of being a kid was to long to grow up, but while I was longing to stay up past my bed time or eat ice cream for dinner, I didn’t realize that along with adulthood not only came responsibility, but aging. Back aches, chin hairs, lines that start forming across my face like a road map. I wish I had more of an understanding of aging, not so much as a kid, but I would have liked to have been let in on the process much earlier than late thirties. 

Much like the first round of puberty and getting thrown to the wolves to figure it all out, the adult puberty of aging has been an uncomfortable and confusing process. Many have gone before me, many will come after, and so here are some things I wish I had known from my late teens to my early twenties, and how I maybe would have approached life a little differently with these insights.

  1. Your grandma will not always be around. It’s something you know in your head, but it will be hard to wrap your head around the reality of it until she’s gone. Spend time with her, as much as you can. Ask her about her life, her mom, her stories. She’s not just some old woman or even your mom’s mom, she’s a person who’s had multiple lives well before you were even a thought. While it may be your time to shine in your youth, don’t let your grandma’s light dim just because she’s old. She’ll grow into even older old woman, so regardless of what your relationship may have been like before, there is still room to love and grow and start completely over with a woman who survived multiple world wars, an abusive husband, a lost love and who’s heart has been softened by age. Let you grandma be a lesson to never treat someone as if they will always be who they used to be. The woman who you thought was a little too tough on you as a kid will be one of the most joyful older women you will ever meet. 

1a. Love the elderly. They matter, they matter, they matter. You will be surrounded by people who advocate for kids, which is great, but you’ll find few voices advocating for the elderly. Be one of those voices, they need it.

My Mommom.

2. You won’t always be cool. It’s not that you were ever one of the popular kids, you made your way around with friends fine enough, but being young gives you a mindset that compared to little kids and adults, you’re currently in the cool group. You’ll feel this way up until mid-twenties, when those little kids start becoming high schoolers. It will get worse as you get older, climbing your way into your thirties and kids you used to babysit are now making fun of you the way you used to make fun of your parents and their friends. Just when you start to realize that old people aren’t really that old (remember you thought 30 was old in high school), kids start calling you ma’am and new technology will come out that you don’t know how to navigate. You’re no longer the teacher of the latest technology, you’re the student, and you hate it. 

My advice, be kind to little kids, they’re the ones who are going to grow up and out-cool you. Be even kinder to your parents and their friends— you aren’t going backwards in age, you’re heading in their direction, so respect that they’ve already been where you are— just because they come from a different generation doesn’t mean they don’t know what it’s like to be a human trying to grow up in a world that “doesn’t understand the youth of today.” Every generation says that about their youth, you’re not special because you have technology, you’re more prone to awkward social interactions, so maybe appreciate the fact that your parents are trying to keep you human in a world that’s only going to get harder to live in. 

3. Believe in yourself. Even when you’re the runt in the group, the newcomer, the scrawny one, the less intelligent, the underdeveloped, the easily forgotten… believe that you are capable of more than you or anyone else knows. Believe that most people don’t even know what they’re doing or how to do it. Everyone on this earth is transitioning through life trying to figure out how each new season and decade works and no one has mastered all of it, and the ones who’ve have are dead, because only then is there nothing left to learn. 

Don’t act dead before you get there. Show up, try, be brave, cry, try again, believe in yourself, and do not give up on yourself. That meaning will change over the course of your life, sometimes to not give up will mean to keep going even when it’s hard. Other times to not give up means to learn to rest when necessary. It’s okay to say “no,” and even more so, “I don’t know.” You don’t have to know it all, except that you are worthy. Know that to your core. People will tell you you aren’t worthy… stand firm, respond kindly when you can, and know their words are about their own insecurities. Kindness first, followed by what is necessary to guard your own mental health. 

Figuring it out in a public space.

4. You will hear the things your mother says come out of your mouth. I don’t have much advice for this other than learn to laugh at yourself and think fondly of your mother. Perhaps maybe figure out if what is coming out actually rings true to you or if you’re simply repeating it because it’s been engrained. Cling to the puns and your mother’s sense of humor, you don’t know it yet, but it will serve you well in the future. 

My Momma.

5. There are no guarantees in life… including your parents’ marriage. This one’s gonna wreck you, probably longer than you feel like it should. Don’t “should” on yourself. Let yourself be sad  over something worth being sad about. Everyone will come out okay, but you’ll still have moments, even 10 years later, where you feel the sting of losing what you thought everything was supposed to be like. Your relationship with both of your parents will change, but will grow into something even deeper with the reality of life piercing the surface level of everything being “fine.” 

I love these people. With or without the matching shirts.

6. Speaking of marriage, it’s possible for it to be above and beyond anything you could imagine. It’s possible to be loved for you, all of your quirks and even your insecurities. You don’t need to morph and change ten times over in hopes that the current guy you have a crush on will notice you “just happened” to like the same things. You don’t need to prove to anyone that you deserve to be liked, loved, or even responded to… you are already enough, already loved, already worth it. Sometimes it’s not just the guy, but the timing. We all grow up at different times, don’t stunt your growth because a guy you like wasn’t ready to grow. Keep growing and trust the process. 

7. It’s okay to leave the church to get closer to God. Having grown up in the church and worked for the church, you’ll think you owe it everything. You don’t. The church is not God, nor is God the church. God is love, above all else. The church was never meant to show off the best of Christianity, the church was meant to love, help, and heal the broken-hearted. And just like we all mean well as humans, we all fall short. The church will too, after all, it’s made up of people. It will let you down, leave you out, forget about you, praise you, change its mind, and at the end of the day just when you need it the most, it will call itself a business and ask you not to take it personally. 

If there’s one thing the church should be, it’s personal. It’s okay to give up on what you thought the church was supposed to be. Go find God in nature, in creative endeavors, in your elderly neighbor. Don’t give up on God, or humanity, just reset your own expectations, knocking the church off it’s pedestal, realizing maybe it’s you who had the church ranked too high, for it will always be filled with lost people in need of a savior, which if they’re honest, is why they’re there. Forgive the church and take as long as you need to restore your connection to God, never again to confuse the two (God and Church) as the same, but not giving up on the people inside the church walls who may need more help than even they realize. 

This was on the chalk board of a youth group I showed up to work at.
Right then I knew there was a lot of work ahead.

8. Sometimes no matter how much success you have, it will never feel like enough. That’s just life and the human condition. It is essential to know in your core you are already and always will be enough. No accolade or sold out show will truly or permanently fill the void you’ll feel from time to time. The void, I think, is part of existing in a world humanity wasn’t truly meant for. Learn to live in the tension of functioning on this side of eternity. Rest in your restlessness for something more, trust you have all you need, and enjoy the moment, it’s all we really have.  

9. Not everyone will like you, ever, and that is okay. You’ll never win everybody over, so it’s best to just be yourself and let those who love who you for who you really are find you. You will want recognition for all your hard work, but don’t sell yourself out or buy more followers to get it. Maintain your sanity by recognizing that all the greats were misunderstood and under appreciated while they were alive. Unfortunately, most people have to die to be truly appreciated and for their work to be viewed as rare genius. As a result, some even opt out of life early by choice. But trust me, it’s not worth giving up on life, that’s not taking control, that’s giving other people power. 

People’s recognition of greatness is not what makes someone great, unfortunately social media will make you think otherwise. Don’t fall for it— the likes, the followers, the millions of views everyone else has. In all honesty, who cares!? They’re just as, if not more so, empty, some of them aware, some not, all still struggling to keep going viral or come up with the next hit. Keep your head down, work hard, look up, breath, and take in the joy of all your creations regardless of how other people view them.

In addition, be open to constructive criticism. Not to be confused with the online attacks from trolls trying to belittle people to make themselves feel better. Unfortunately, those people will always be out there, finding something to pick on you for, no matter how good, kind or neutral your material is. Give them what they deserve which is absolutely none of your time or mental space. Erase their comments if need be and erase them from your memory. 

Constructive criticism will come from safe people, who care about you, or at the very least care about how you’re coming across.

No one ever got better without the hard work of growth and coaching where they needed it. 

From wanting to be an olympic synchronized swimmer to stand up comedian! You’ve come a long way!

10. Hang in there. Don’t spend too much time waiting for life to get easier, the truth is, it won’t. The easiest day of your life will the the birthday you showed up into the world, by 39 more you’ll realize that while life is beautiful and fun, it can be really hard, and even more hard, sometimes, to care about it. Sometimes you won’t know why life is so hard, you probably won’t ever understand the meaning of it, and occasionally you’ll just want it to be over already. You aren’t alone. Where you fall short to care, know there’s plenty of other people out there who feel the same, and could use someone like you to show up and offer comfort without answers and company without agenda… just because, people are people and desire to be loved and seen just as much as you do.

I’m sure there’s more, and by 58 maybe you’ll add more, erase some or re-do the whole list all together. That’s the beauty of life, we learn as we go. The internet makes the process a little more dangerous because the world is not as forgiving as our past mistakes when they find them on online. BUT! Nothing will block your drive to live well, or your creative process to keep flowing, more than the fear of others and the fear of making mistakes. Somewhere along the way you’ll hear someone say “the mark of a true disciple is joy and bravery.” First try to remember who said it and write it down (you’ll learn more and more people want their credit). But mostly, cling to that… joy and bravery. May you have both, be both and spread both. 

Good luck!

💜 jj

The Corona Diaries

We got into Santa Barbara around 4pm yesterday. We flew in from Nashville, leaving the house around 4:30am to catch a 6am flight that routed us through Seattle, then Portland, then finally home after all direct flights were cancelled. Needless to say, I was exhausted. We got home in time to shower and start doing laundry, except I passed out before I could even get the clothes from my bag to the laundry basket.

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I awoke to my husband coming in the room to change clothes in a bit of a hurry, “I’m gonna run to the grocery store just to pick up a few things.” After traveling for two weeks we didn’t have much food in the house, I figured we’d go tomorrow but he said the governor had just ordered a lockdown on California— no one was to leave their house except to exercise, walk their dog or go to the grocery store. All businesses except health care providers were closing. “Stay home!” was the message.

Truth be told, after the stress of traveling in the middle of the Corona Virus spreading, I was looking forward to having to stay at home for a while without the pressure or expectation of having to be somewhere or be someone. 

In our travels we had made it to Michigan when things weren’t totally crazy yet, rumors of Corona spreading to California and Washington were starting to take place, but mostly we were just on the receiving end of text messages from concerned family members. I was aware that things were happening, but knowing my own self and need to remain mentally strong, I filtered what news I let in. Anxiety, panic, fear— All things I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars on therapy working through so they would not have a grip on me, crippling me from living my life. Mental strength will not make me immune to a virus, this I know… I still have to do my part to practice daily routines like washing my hands and taking my vitamins.

While mental strength will not spare me, it will keep me thriving and engaging in those daily routines that matter to get me through the tough times– to call loved ones, write letters, move my body and actually do the things that are being suggested we do to take care of ourselves during this weird time in history. 

I had two shows in Michigan, packed crowds and everything still seemed normal— a little panic around the globe, but it seemed far away and the audiences in front me seemed ready to laugh and not at all like they had to rush off to the grocery store to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

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The hoarding had not yet begun, that I knew of. My last show was on a Thursday night. I woke up Friday morning to the headlines: “The NBA is canceled. Broadway’s gone dark. Disneyland is closed.” I had one simple thought, “Oh crap.” That was the moment I felt the severity of it. I read a few things and checked my email, the rest of the comedy festival I had been a part of was canceling the rest of their shows. People were complaining they weren’t notified ahead of time, “how come the festival wasn’t more organized?” I’m sorry but what company, organization or hospital was totally prepared for a pandemic to hit in 2020, really? A few psychics claimed they predicted it, and who the heck knows, maybe they did, but I don’t think you’re going to find a comedy festival relying on a psychic to help them prepare for what to do in case of a disaster. 

“Grace, grace, grace,” I tell myself. We all need to extend more grace, or at least I do, hard as it is. Grace to the hoarders, they’re scared. Grace to ourselves as we figure out how much to eat, where to get soap, and how to be nice to people when we feel stuck and exhausted. And grace to the underprepared companies and organizations who are finding themselves in this type of a situation for the first time and are also trying to figure out how to navigate it. We all have a bunch of feelings right now. Minimal facts and lots of feelings makes for a scary combination– an “us versus them” mentality and that isn’t going to help anyone. I don’t have answers, but I have grace for the people who are also getting on my nerves as they spread anger, panic, fear and anxiety faster than the virus itself. 

We left Michigan and proceeded with our trip. We arrived in Nashville where I was meeting up with my potential manager. “Meeting up” turned into being quarantined at he and his wife’s house as more news reports broke that businesses were to close and people were highly urged to stay home. Prior to arriving we had plans to stay with a friend but she had gotten the flu, saying it was “just the flu,” and I thought to myself only right now would people be saying “JUST the flu,” as if it was no big deal. Even still, we did not want to risk getting sick in the midst of traveling, and again I had to mentally navigate what was no big deal and what was a harsh reality.

We arrived in Nashville on a Saturday and things were still a little on the normal side. We went out to dinner the first night and brunch the next morning. Not a lot of people were out, but places were still open, people were still active. The air seemed different, but not yet eerie. By Monday morning the atmosphere shifted. Shops were closing, restaurants were on a to-go order only system. My friend texted me that she went to Chipotle and a guy ran to the door, dropped her order outside and quickly shut the door. It sounded like a drug transaction. 

We spent days talking shop, sharing our stories and getting to know each other in a way we maybe wouldn’t have been able to otherwise given our situation. Tuesday night, Josh and I debated going downtown, just to get out of the house. Not everything was totally closed yet and one of our friends had wanted to meet up with us, the one who had the flu but was now better. I did not want to go, I didn’t feel comfortable going out knowing we might bring something back with us, especially when it’s something you can’t even see. Maybe if it had just been us, but staying in someone else’s home, who were older than us, not to mention, someone I wanted to manage me so I didn’t want to be the cause of his death before we even signed. I mean, I didn’t want to be the cause of anyone’s death at all (yes, my mind went there), but I was definitely looking forward to working with him in the long run. I also didn’t want to disappoint my husband or our friend, both who seemed eager to meet up in the midst of this chaos, and I struggled internally as we got in the car to make our way downtown. We weren’t even five minutes into the drive before the silence broke. We pulled the car over, talked it through and turned the car around. 

By Wednesday we at least needed to go for a walk, but with it raining outside we felt a little trapped. We finally decided on going to the mall just to walk around. “NO ONE TOUCH ANYTHING” was the rule. Almost every store inside the mall was closed except for the arcade and Chick-Fli-A. The arcade? Gross. Of all the places to be open, the arcade is germ central! Chick-Fil-A? Praise God. Waffle fries, please. And some of those anti-bacterial hand wipes. The mall was almost silent, save a few noises from the arcade, making it the perfect setting for a horror movie.

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We peeked in a grocery store on the way home just to see the empty shelves— no meat, cheese, bread, toilet paper, soap— entire aisles cleared out. The eerie feeling was in full effect. I had Lysol wipes in my pocket so if I had to touch a door or anything I was fully prepared. That was when it hit me, maybe Bob Wiley wasn’t so crazy after all, he was just before his time. (For reference, see movie “What About Bob?” with Bill Murray— a must watch during quarantine).

 

Wednesday night we sat around the dinner table, sharing jokes and memes we’d come across throughout the chaos of everything. At first I thought the jokes were hilarious, but by day four I just wanted to hear a joke that wasn’t about Corona. They all started to sound the same, and who came up with what first? Did that even matter? I would think of a joke or write a thought down and then I’d see it on someone’s Twitter or Facebook account. Dang it.

It makes sense, we’re all experiencing the same thing, and comedians are always looking for the punchline in a given situation, so everyone is coming up with the same stuff. “I feel like for comedians, once this whole thing is over it’s gonna be a race to see who can get to the stage first with all these jokes,” I said. 

 

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Almost every show I had booked up through April has been cancelled so far. I don’t mind if someone else gets to the stage first with the jokes, honestly, I’m already tired of hearing them. And yet still, I am a walking contradiction who in her exhaustion still thinks she needs to share her own jokes, or maybe fears she won’t be seen as having skin in the game if she doesn’t. Honestly, it’s a relief to know we all have to rest for a second. The stage can wait. 

By the end of the night we had gone over the rest of our business matters. My husband poured us a drink and we toasted as I signed with my new manager. The world felt like it was falling apart, and here we were planning our future, clinging to the hope that despite our current circumstances, our future would be bright and full, with plenty of toilet paper for the taking. 

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Josh and I woke up at 4am the next morning to pack our bags and head to the airport, which brings us back to where I started— after a long journey with two layovers and an attempt to do laundry, me waking up to my husband getting ready to go to the grocery store because the state of California was going into lockdown. “Do you want to come with me or do you want to text me what you need?” He asked.

I was still a little groggy, “I’m confused, why do you have to go right now? I’m so tired. Can’t we go tomorrow?” He said it would probably be worse by tomorrow and we just needed to get a few things. My husband is never chomping at the bit to go to the grocery store, so it seemed important. I said I would text him what I needed. “You don’t want to go with me?” He asked. I laughed, “do you want me to go with you?” He paused and smiled, “well, yea. I don’t know what to get, I’ll get lost in the cracker aisle and we’ll end up with cookies and crackers for meals.” I love him.

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As soon as we walked into the store I wanted to leave— the lines, the empty shelves, the sense of panic, I felt it all and I wanted to get away from it. I told myself to remain calm and walk slowly. Wait my turn, just breathe, I’ll be home soon. I’m not gonna lie, as a true introvert, I LOVE this whole social distancing thing. We saw two people we knew in the grocery store. My automatic response when I see someone I know in the grocery store— pretend I don’t see them. My husband’s automatic response— “HEY GUYS!!” Sure enough, he flagged down the people we knew. My only relief was that we did not have to hug hello and it was FINALLY socially acceptable! It was the rare feeling of “this is amazing” while out in public. 

Yes, I love to entertain people and I feel alive when I am on stage, that is very real, but functioning in everyday life is a much harder story for me. Sometimes my biggest fear when people meet me is that they’ll be disappointed that I’m not like what they see on stage or on screen. Which goes back to what I was saying prior to all this— anxiety, panic, fear are things I already struggle with, I have to work hard to push through them. I’m sure this narrative is true for a lot of people, I’m not unique in that way. That said, Introverts, now is our time! Stay home, don’t touch, limit contact— we’ve so got this! I suspect the extroverts will now get a dose of what it’s like for us to function on a daily basis in an extroverted world. Grace, grace, grace. 

Today we cleaned our house and then I called Richard, my 80-year-old (former) neighbor who lives in Ocean Beach, San Diego. Once a neighbor, always a neighbor. “Oh I’m so happy to hear from you,” he said, “you know I been worried about you— how are you? Are you feeling okay?” I told him I was great, mostly just tired from traveling. He kept telling me I needed to take care of myself, I told him the same thing. “What about you Richard, how are you doing?” I asked, “You need to be taking care of yourself!” I didn’t want to add anything about his age, knowing the elderly are some of the most vulnerable, they already hear that enough and I didn’t want to add to the weight of it.

Staying mentally strong is just as important for the elderly, or as I have recently learned, they like being referred to as “the older.” “Oh I’m fine, I’m doing great, don’t you worry about me. I’m still cancer free and it’s the best I’ve been in years. Plus I know what they’re saying about this thing and I don’t need to be worrying about me… I’m in my golden years, I can’t be thinking about how can I make it last longer, I’m gonna let someone else do that thinking. It’s you I’m worried about, you have a whole life ahead of you!” 

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I called to check on Richard because I was worried about him and here he was worried about me. I had to assure him multiple times that I was feeling great. He asked about my family and my husband. “I bet you sure are glad you got someone to be with during all this,” he said, and I agreed that it was such a gift. “Yea, it does make it better,” he said and he was quiet. I thought of him being alone and even though I knew he was “fine,” I worried about how and when he would get out to get food. I’d ask and he’d keep saying not to worry, he was doing fine and had enough. To my friends in Ocean Beach, please check on Richard.

Before we got off the phone he said “You know, there was this coach from North Carolina, Jimmy V., he had this quote ‘don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,’ and that’s what I want you to hear right now. Of course he died from cancer shortly after saying that, but that’s not the point.” We both laughed a little, not at him dying, but just the delivery of trying to motivate someone with “don’t give up” followed by “he died.” Maybe leave that part out in the delivery.

“But he didn’t give up,” Richard said, “and that’s what we gotta think, not to give up.”

What does it look like to not give up right now? With so many businesses closing, people begging people to support their company, their career, their art, their music— we’re all in the same boat. Most people are trying to figure out how to make this work, how to get financial support while they aren’t working. And honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answers are. I know that truck drivers, delivery workers and health care providers are some of the most important people in the world right now, more so than any celebrity, artist or musician. We NEED this over looked population of people. At the same time, people are connecting through music, movies and comedy, things to keep their minds clear in the midst of the struggle. I see people giving away free content online to keep people motivated— free yoga classes and couch concerts. The online community has become an important part of staying connected while social distancing. What gets created in these dark times has the potential to be very powerful.

After Richard and I got off the phone I googled Jimmy V. and found the speech he gave before he died. He said something very profound while battling cancer, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. But it cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul, and those three things are gonna carry on forever.” We cannot control a lot of what is happening right now, but we can control how it affects our minds, hearts and souls, which will greatly affect how we function and treat other people in the midst of this. 

As we continue to quarantine, while appreciating the connection of the online community and social media, may we leave time and space to just be present. I think this was one of the greatest things Coach Jimmy V. had to say, and so I’ll end my processing with this…

“To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

It may be so hard right now, but here’s to having something really special at the end of it. 

Hang in there.

carbonated holiness

I just got off the phone with Richard, my old neighbor— old as in I used to live by him, and well, yes, he is of an older generation.

I mailed Richard a copy of my book a few weeks ago. I wrote about him in the last chapter and I wanted him to read it, to know he’d been the kind of friend worth writing about. I had written about my Grandmother in the chapter before and I planned to give her a copy for Christmas but then she passed away on Thanksgiving. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I love the song but sometimes I hate that it’s true.

More and more I’m sad I didn’t send a copy to her sooner, to let her know she’d been the kind of woman worth writing about, something I don’t think she thought of herself as. It was after my Grandma passed that I knew for sure I needed to send Richard a copy, I needed him to know he was loved and missed, especially because I knew he lived alone and I didn’t know how often he got to hear those words anymore.

So a few weeks into the New Year, I mailed Richard a copy. Last week he texted me, “Thank you so much, it is so good, give me a call sometime.”

I called him tonight and he was elated, “I’ve read it twice!” he said, “the whole book!” I was shocked, was that even possible? I guess it’s not that long. He kept going as I pondered the amount of time he’s had it to be able to read through it twice, “I couldn’t stop reading it, oh I just love it. It’s answered a lot of questions, you know!”
“I bet,” I said and we laughed.

“You know, I loved very much that you called me your favorite neighbor, but you know, you made a big mistake in there.”

“I did?” I asked. (Oh no, what?)

“Yea, a big one. You called me your 70 year old neighbor, and I’m not 70…” he paused.

“Oh, you’re not!?” I said a little embarrassed, “how old are you?” Hoping I didn’t offend him.

He was quiet a second more…

“I’m 88!” And he let out a huge laugh. I was so relieved. “Boy, you really made my day with that one,” he said.

“Well see, Richard, there you go, you look great for your age, even better than I thought!” I laughed, still slightly shocked.

Richard just kept laughing, “oh that made me feel so good, I thought to myself ‘why, I outta go out tonight!’” And I could hear what sounded like him slapping the couch as he laughed. “Laughter really is carbonated holiness,” I thought to myself, something I read by Anne Lamott earlier in the week.

Richard has been getting cancer treatments the last 7 years and he told me he had his last one this past Wednesday. “I’m good now!” He said, and I tried not to cry as I told him how happy I was. He asked me repetitively if I was good and if I was happy, the same Richard I wrote about years before when I used to live by him.

“You know, I loved your book so much, I took it with me to my doctor and I showed him the part where you called me 70! He laughed and said ‘See, Richard, I knew we’ve been doing something right!’ Haha, can you believe it!?” And we both laughed at my “big mistake.”

He thanked me for calling him 70, he asked me to please stay in touch and he told me one more old war story. “I love you,” he said as we got off the phone. “I love you too, Richard,” I said as I tried not to cry again.

I don’t know the totality of what life is about, but I do know there’s these little portions of each day in which I get a glimpse of it, overwhelmed by the beauty of it and moved by the connection found in it. I know no other option, and so even on the hard days I move forward, thankful for these glimpses, these portions of day in which to laugh with an old neighbor and celebrate that “he’s good now!” That is all we really have— right now, and right now is what I am most grateful for. That, and carbonated holiness.

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More stories and adventures at: jjbarrows.com, and itscalledaspade.com

 

My Mommom

My grandmother passed away yesterday… on Thanksgiving. This isn’t exactly the hook line you’re supposed to start with to grab someone’s attention, but I realize this is less about how many people read what I write and more about taking the time to honor a woman I love who didn’t receive much honor during her lifetime.

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I recently published a book and I only say that to say I wrote a chapter about her, about getting to know her later in life and how much I had grown to love her (you appreciate so little when you’re young). My plan was to give her a copy for Christmas. She lived a quiet life, often afraid she hadn’t done enough or loved well. She was my mom’s mom, which is why we called her Mommom. My Dad’s dad (we just called him Papa cause DadDad sounds weird) passed away just before Thanksgiving about three years ago. His death was national news, and while only certain groups may have known his name, his name was in the headlines, highways in Charlotte, NC were closed during his processional, and hundreds upon hundreds of people attended his funeral.

Sometimes I think Mommom felt inferior to my dad’s limelight side of the family, but she never said so. A lot of people say I get my stage presence from my dad’s side of the family, especially my grandfather- he had it (as well as my dad). But I know for a fact I get my witty sense of humor from my mom’s side- not only my mom, but as I spent more time with my grandmother later in life, I realized my mom got it from her. She was so funny, so witty, even at 97 years old. Just before she passed on Thanksgiving she reminded my dad to wait until the turkey was cooled before he carved it. When asked how she was feeling she said, “at my age everything hurts, and if it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t working!” We laughed A LOT with Mommom.

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I mailed her pictures from when I got married this year and she beamed with pride. Josh and I went to visit her while back in South Carolina and she had our pictures proudly posted in her room. She called him my “lover boy” and said she was too short to reach his cheek so he’d have to bend down for a kiss.

With every visit we played cards and parcheesi and she was impossible to beat– at first it was like “go easy on her, she’s old,” but my siblings and I quickly learned she was ruthless and even in our best efforts to take her down in cards, she’d have none of that. I’ve only beaten her one time and I recorded it because I knew it would never happen again.

I wasn’t always as close with Mommom growing up. In fact it wasn’t until fall of 2015 that I really got to know my grandmother, as a friend, not just a relative. I’ve been going through old pictures and journal entries and I found this unfinished entry during that time…

Today I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs. Prior to this I don’t think I have ever touched my grandmother’s legs, be it because that’s normal to not go around touching an older person’s legs or because I never thought I had a need to, it struck me as odd that at 32 years old I didn’t even know what my grandmother’s legs looked like before today.

When I think about it, I guess I do notice much of the older population tends to stick to pants when it comes to getting dressed for the day. I remember my little sister crying in her bed one night. Mom and dad came rushing in, “honey, what’s wrong? what’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to get old,” she cried while my parents tried not to laugh, “why?” they asked. “Because then I won’t be able to wear shorts,” she cried, terrified of having old legs that needed to be hidden under pants. We still laugh about this incident.

I thought about that night as I rubbed lotion on my grandmother’s legs today. I noticed her getting fidgety in her chair. She was trying to take a nap in her lazy boy but she kept rubbing her legs as if they were aggravating her. She’s in her nineties and uses a walker to get around but the only places she gets to are the kitchen and the living room. She can’t hear very well anymore and doesn’t always feel great, but she credits much of that to a default of being alive for ninety plus years. She spends most of her days alone in the house as everyone is off at work, or in my case, finding something else to do since I’m visiting and don’t want to be cooped up in a house all day.

As the holidays have approached I’ve begun thinking about what I could do to help people, what could I do to step outside of myself? I’m better at helping people during the holidays, I’m not proud of it, in fact I don’t think I even realized it until I started writing this, but if I look at my track record, I’m much better at helping people during the holidays when everything feels all warm and fuzzy and the need seems to be more clear. It’s as easy as filling a shoebox with gifts or pulling a name off a tree, maybe showing up at a shelter to serve a meal.

Geez. I hate re-reading about my selfish nature sometimes, but at the very least at least looking at it helps me realize what needs to change. Things did change that Christmas. It was my first Christmas in two different homes as my parents divorce finalized. It’s still weird to process divorce as an adult, you think you’re supposed to be stronger than a child, not be as sad, but acting stronger doesn’t make you stronger, it wears out your energy until you’re weaker than you thought possible. Just let yourself be sad about stuff, it’s okay.

And that’s what I had to tell myself as I processed the death of a 97 year old woman that I knew was coming if for no other reason than age alone. But it doesn’t make it any less sad to lose a life, especially a life you didn’t feel got it’s due credit and that you waited much too long to know it’s value. I’m at peace with my Mommom and I’s relationship, I grew to love her probably more than she knew, but with death comes the thought, “if I had only sent one more letter or called one more time… I hope she knew how much she was loved.” More and more I want that for people, to know their worth and value, to know they are loved. I can’t be that person for everyone, I’m only one person and I’m still trying to figure out how to get good at it in my own family, but I still want everyone to know it to be true for themselves- you are loved. You are worthy.

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So today I honor my Mommom by sharing this chapter I wrote about her, because she’s worth reading about, whether by many or by a few loved ones, she’s worth taking the time to talk about, and perhaps that’s how I will let myself process my grief. Her death will not make national news, but that doesn’t make her any less important to those who knew and loved her. And I never got to tell her, “Mommom, I wrote a book, and you’re in it!” I’m sad about that too. I wanted her to feel a little bit of the limelight just once in her life, I wanted her to know her granddaughter loved and admired her.

 

“it’s called a spade” by JJ Barrows

My Mommom

We don’t have a Christmas tree this year. I suppose at 32 years old and with all that is going on in the world, it isn’t the biggest deal that we don’t have a Christmas tree this year. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t a big deal at all. Plenty of people either don’t have Christmas trees or have never had one, so who am I to complain?

And yet I’ve been thinking (shocker), if I can so easily dismiss my own feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, I can just as easily dismiss someone else’s feelings about not having a Christmas tree this year, which is to say I can easily dismiss their story without a care in the world as to the reason why they don’t have a Christmas tree this year, or maybe why they’ve never had one at all (if they do in fact celebrate Christmas).

Perhaps it’s not so much about the Christmas tree as it is about the why behind it. As with many things in life that may seem like “no big deal,” perhaps the small things are a big deal because there is a “why” attached to those small things, a story unheard due to assumption.

I’ve always been obsessed with Christmas. I was the kid who was preparing for the arrival of December 25th the day after Halloween, and honestly sometimes even before then. My goal was to turn our house into a winter wonderland no matter how tacky everyone else thought it to be. I hung lights anywhere my mother would allow it and spent any extra money I had on decorations.

As a preacher’s kid I understood “the reason for the season,” but as just your average kid, the manger scene was more of an epic center piece for Christmas dinner. I was grateful Jesus came to earth in the form of a tiny little baby, mostly because it gave us a reason to have Christmas- the ultimate birthday party.

When I was real young my gifts consisted of coupon books, ones that included free hugs, a three-minute back rub, being nice to my sister Betsy… stuff like that. When I got older the coupons got more serious; extended free hugs, ten-minute back rubs and kisses for the whole family even when I didn’t feel like kissing them. My mom still has the coupons.

In college my gift to my parents was my presence at home because like your average college kid, I was broke. But with my presence came my Christmas spirit and ability to decorate. I’d stay up late on Christmas eve (after the roles reversed and the parents were the first to go to bed) to clean the entire house, set and decorate the kitchen table for the Christmas meals, and prepare an overnight breakfast casserole to be served alongside Jesus’ birthday cake in the morning.

When I started working the presents came rolling in and without the excuse of being a kid, I lost complete sense of what Christmas was all about. I tried to make the day last as long as possible by getting as many presents as possible. The longer we all sat around the tree and opened presents, the better Christmas seemed. Maybe somewhere deep down it wasn’t so much about the presents, maybe it was just wanting my family to sit around together for an extended period of time in which they all seemed happy, and maybe without the presents, I didn’t know how else to make that happen.

The Christmas of 2006 was the worst Christmas I can remember, largely due to my eating disorder and inability to fix it with the Christmas spirit. I racked up a great deal of debt that season because shopping kept me from binging and purging on the Christmas cookies I made in abundance (because one batch of cookies is never enough for a bulimic). My old friend anorexia would sometimes come to visit and on those days I felt powerful and in control, but my newer friend bulimia liked the holidays more than anorexia, and so bulimia is who I spent more of my time with that holiday season. I tried so hard to make Christmas perfect that year, and all I can remember is how miserable I was.

After going off to treatment in 2007, it would be a couple of years before I returned home again for Christmas. In 2009 when I finally did go home I was unaware it was going to be the last Christmas in which my whole family would be together, my parents still living under the same roof. I was sick and slept through Christmas dinner. My boyfriend at the time had flown in from Chicago to surprise me but seeing as how I was passed out on the couch, he ended up spending most of his time talking to my grandmother, an often forgotten family member.

After moving to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2010, I spent the following Christmases out on the west coast with friends. Friends are often easier than family and much cheaper than a round trip ticket across the United States, so my excuses to stay away from home were valid.

Last year I returned home for Christmas and it was the first time members of my family would be celebrating in two different houses due to my parents’ divorce. I didn’t know how to feel about it. I tried to “make the best of it” as I was advised to do, but what about the reality of it being sad that we weren’t one family anymore? I mean sure, we were, but we weren’t.

I didn’t think I would be back home for Christmas this year. It was not a part of my plan, funny how that works. I’ve been living in San Diego, California over the past year and San Diego is perfect for escaping life’s problems, except for the fact that you never escape life’s problems no matter where you go. After going on a trip overseas with my mom and brother, I returned to South Carolina with them. That was in October and I’m still here… at Christmas.

I’ve spent the last few months helping my mother move out of our family home of 35 years. The house is on the market and if ever there were an empty nest, it is that house. Day in and day out my mother, brother and I have stripped the walls and packed everything away, taking car load after car load over to my mother’s new condo. It’s been a slow process and I’m exhausted. “Make the best of it,” I hear a voice play in the back of my mind, and so I’ve been trying to do that- make the best of it, offer help, cook food, be present, be strong, be 32 and not in need of a Christmas tree.

A couple of weeks ago I was in the empty house by myself. I turned on Christmas music and I let it echo through the empty halls. I danced and I was happy. Then I sat on the floor of the larger than life empty living room and watched memories flash across the walls as if they were movie clips, and I cried. For the first time since my family split up, I uttered the words “I miss my family.” I laid on the floor and I cried as I let myself miss my family. “I wish we had a Christmas tree,” I cried, but I knew it was about more than just the tree.

It’s no secret I’m an advocate for feeling your pain, in part because I’ve spent a good portion of my life avoiding it. But as of recent I’m sick of feeling my pain to the point of not being able to see other people. I’m still trying to find the balance of feeling your feelings without getting stuck in them. And so while I’m bummed we don’t have a Christmas tree because my mom’s condo is too small, our old house is too empty and I’m still not quite sure who to spend Christmas with or how, this doesn’t have to be the Christmas that gets remembered as the one without the tree.

In the middle of all the moving and family drama and stress of holiday expectations, there is someone I overlooked along the way, someone I’ve overlooked along the entire way, as in the span of my entire life.

My mother’s mother. Mommom, we call her. My grandmother.

My grandmother still remembers that boy who talked to her at Christmas dinner in 2009. She asked about him the other day and when I told her we had been broken up for five years and he had been dating someone else for the last three, she responded with “aww shame, I always liked him.” I found her response to be funny seeing as how she met him only once, but at the same time I knew why she felt this way. She felt this way because even if it was just for a short while on a night five years ago, she felt seen and noticed and paid attention to. No one forgets that feeling.

I have spent the last couple of months getting to know this forgotten member of my family, my grandmother. She was always present at holidays, providing shrimp on Christmas eve, gifting us with at least two dollars for each kid so we could “treat ourselves,” and snoring on the couch in the late afternoons. I have memories of her in the background, but for the most part that is all.

One morning I was trying to figure out how I could do more to help other people, to step outside of my own selfish head and meet the needs of others. I knew I was limited as to what I could do financially, but relationally I had something to offer, which is sometimes the harder thing to give. Handing someone money or a piece of pie is often easier than sitting down next to them and trying to figure out what to talk about, especially in this day and age where everyone has to be so politically correct that people are afraid to talk anymore, not to mention the distraction of cell phones which has left this generation of teenagers crippled from being able to make eye contact.

And let’s be honest, it’s not just the teenagers. I see kids playing at the park while their parents scroll through their Instagram or check their email on a park bench. I myself will sit next to my grandmother with my head buried in my phone, clicking like on pictures of people helping people while I’m ignoring the lonely woman beside me.

And such was the case that morning when I was admiring others on social media for do- ing so much for others while I sat on a couch next to my grandmother who was staring at the wall. I immediately started to look up ways I could volunteer, especially over the holidays. It did not cross my mind that sitting beside me was a woman in need of love and attention and eye contact just as much as people in the nursing home or on the street. The ugly truth is, it didn’t feel as good to help or even love my grandmother as it did to help or love other people I had no history with who would praise me for my efforts.

After spending the day looking up good causes, journaling, praying and trying to “get right with God,” I decided I would go for a run at sunset. It seemed to be just what I needed. As I passed through the kitchen to grab some water before heading out, I noticed my grandmother trying to cut an onion. I asked her what she was doing and she said she was trying to make dinner. My mom wouldn’t be getting off of work until around dinner time and Mommom sometimes tries to cook on designated nights to help out.

Assuming Mommom wanted to feel like she was contributing, I let her carry on. I so often function out of assumption, I think we all do but I’ll speak for myself. I’m embarrassed to say it, but multiple times I have walked past my grandmother trying to chop an onion in the kitchen while thinking to myself “good job, Mommom,” instead of, “hey, can I help?” And I get it, not everybody wants help, some people want to chop their own onions and show the world or at least their grandchildren that they are capable of chopping their own onions, which is great, chop away! But I think asking if help is needed, which is just initiating a conversation if nothing else, is worth the risk of your offer being rejected.

I grabbed my headphones and running shoes and walked back through the kitchen. I sat at the table and looked at Mommom, barely five feet tall, her white bushy hair giving her an ex- tra inch, hunched over the kitchen counter trying to chop an onion. I watched her as I put my shoes on. She moved slower than I remembered. I lingered for a second, which is sometimes all the time that is needed to grab your attention.

I wanted to offer her help because I knew it was the right thing to do, but truth be told, in getting back to the basics of calling a spade a spade- I didn’t want to offer help because it got in the way of my plans.

I didn’t want to offer help to my own grandmother. And even if we weren’t related, an elderly human being. And even if she weren’t elderly, a human being! In that moment of hesitating to offer her help, the content of my character was revealed and I realized I didn’t actually want to step outside of myself and help people. I wanted to feel good about helping people so long as they didn’t interfere with my plans. I still wanted life to be all about me. No matter how many times I learn the lesson, my wayward heart sets itself on myself and I forget that people matter.

Sometimes I forget that I matter and I wear myself out in an attempt to do everything for other people. And once I’ve burned myself out I jump to the other extreme, forgetting that other people matter, writing them off in an attempt to only take care of myself. I struggle to find the balance between the two. The simple balance of all people mattering- other people and myself.

I watched my grandmother struggle to chop an onion. I stood up, picked up my iPod, took a deep breath and set it back down. “Do you need any help, Mommom?” I asked, honestly kind of hoping she would say no so I could still go for a run and feel good about offering help. She didn’t respond. Between my hesitant attempt to gently offer help and Mommom’s hearing aides not always working, I realized she didn’t hear me. “MOMMOM,” I yelled, “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP!?”

Mommom turned around to look at me, “did you say something?” she asked. I laughed a little to myself, “YES,” I yelled, “I ASKED IF YOU NEEDED ANY HELP!”

Mommom’s face lit up, “ohhhhhhhh!” she said excitedly, “wow-wee, that would be wonderful. I can’t move as fast as I used to. We might never eat at the rate I’m moving.” I laughed but I also felt a few degrees more horrible for not asking before then if she needed help. I knew I wasn’t going to get my run in that day, but I also knew something else mattered more, even if (for as much as I hate to admit it) helping with dinner didn’t feel like it mattered more in the moment. I am selfish through and through, to the point of it blinding me to help the old lady struggling right before my eyes.

For some reason it’s easy to dismiss helping the old lady when she is my grandmother, assuming she will always be there and she can hold her own. But there will come a time when she won’t always be there and she can’t hold her own anymore, in which case I have to ask myself, am I going to run away because it feels better, or am I going to step into someone else’s struggle… just because.

I began to cut the onions, mash the potatoes and set the table, all the while making jokes with Mommom and repeating them louder so she could hear me. As I helped with dinner that night I knew a friendship was being formed, as well as the realization that even when I think I have nothing to give, I always have a helping hand to offer and a really loud joke to tell that could bring a smile to a weary soul.

At 32 years old my friendship with my grandmother began. We’ve always been related, clearly, but we’ve never actually been friends, in part because I had the shocking revelation that I’ve never actually sat down with my grandmother and said “tell me about you.” I began to ask my grandmother questions, first over time spent making dinner, then over time spent having tea in the late afternoons. Mommom would talk about her own mother with a smile on her face and it was clear she loved her mother very much. It was the first time I saw my grandmother as someone’s daughter and not just a distant relative.

As I began to see my grandmother as someone’s daughter, I realized I could relate to her because I was someone’s daughter. The more I listened to Mommom’s stories, the more affection I felt for her. I began looking for ways to help her, going out of my way to ensure her comfort, not just because she was an old lady but because she was my friend.

I didn’t hear Mommom say “I love you” very much while I was growing up, which isn’t to say she didn’t love us, some people just never learn how to express love, or they learn and then somewhere along the way of life throwing a few heavy hits, they forget. The few times I remember saying “I love you” to Mommom were only slightly less awkward than her reaction, “okay, you too.” Some people don’t know how to receive love either, and after you hear their story, it makes sense as to why.

As my affection has grown for my grandmother over the last three months so has my ability to communicate my love for her. “I LOVE YOU, MOMMOM,” I yell (so she can hear me) before leaving the house. In the beginning she’d respond with her awkward quiet whisper “okay, you too.” Over time she progressed to awkwardly whisper “love you too,” as if she were unsure she could say it or not. Whether or not I got the response I wanted, I continued to tell her I loved her because I did, and it mattered less and less what the response was. I’d rub lotion on her legs, drive her to the doctor, carry her meal tray to the table, put a sweet treat on her plate and looked for little ways to not just say “I love you” but to show her.

Over time those little things have added up, and Mommom growing more and more into knowing she is loved and cared for has begun to liven up in a way I didn’t see while I was grow- ing up; in part because I didn’t really see her, and in other part because some of her difficult experiences in life added up to her being unsure of how to give and receive love. Now before I leave the house Mommom yells with confidence, “I SURE DO LOVE YOU, JJ.” I kiss her on the cheek, look her in the eyes and say “I love you, Mommom.”

Love is hard, and I don’t mean that in a cliche way, although maybe it’s cliche for a reason- because it’s true. When you really stop (really, stop) and think about living out the task of loving someone no matter what the cost is to you or whether or not you get it back, and you do it day in and day out all the days of your life… love is hard. We all know by now that love isn’t a feeling, and I know people need things to be defined so they call love a choice (since it’s not a feeling), and yes it is a choice, choosing to act out love even when you don’t feel it, but I think love is even more than a choice. I think love is so much grander than we could ever imagine or hope to express or receive that quite simply there isn’t a category to put it in or another word to define it… it just is. Love is what it is- it’s love. Love surpasses all understanding, all realm of thinking, all reason, all logic, and honestly, makes no sense.

But for as hard as love is, I honestly believe it’s worth it. I believe that love is hard and life is good, and that love is good and life is hard. I believe that it’s both for everyone and that it’s okay for both to be good and both to be hard.

A few months ago I set out to travel and be adventurous and meet new people because to me that was the definition of life being good. Instead, I somehow managed to spend most of that time at home, my very definition of life being hard. But I found out that whether you are traveling or stationary, life is both good and hard, and wherever you go, there you are. While I haven’t traveled as much as I’d hoped these last few months, I did make a new friend I didn’t see coming- my grandmother, my Mommom. It has been since being at home that I’ve realized if you try to avoid the hard parts of life, you’ll end up missing out on the really, really good parts.

It’s not like everything is fixed at home, nor is it a Cinderella story of happily ever after, we still celebrate Christmas in two different houses, but it’s a hopeful story of no matter my circumstance or how hard life and love may get, it is well with my soul…

and well worth the journey.

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I actually say this when I’m performing and I mean it sincerely, I don’t normally “should” on people, but if you have elderly family members or friends, you should call them or go see them. They are way cooler than we think they are. It’s gets harder for them to remember things as they get older, so it never hurts to remind them that they are loved.

I’m so grateful for your life, Mommom, and I’m so glad I’ll always have your sense of humor and your stylish green sweater to always take with me. I love you. JJ

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Gettin’ Ice in Iceland

As I was about to post a recent update, I realized I never posted some of the most important life-changing updates. This week I’ll be keeping y’all up to date with some of the big stuff that happened this year.

Let’s start with Iceland Part 2, where everything changed…

Dust and Divine Breath

It’s been a weird two days. Life and death and everything in between. The other morning I woke up to multiple text messages from friends; some of whom I haven’t spoken with in years and some of whom are on my home team of life, you know, the thick and thinners, the ninth inning, the ones who are there for the whole game no matter what it holds. Though the familiarity with each of these friends was vast and wide, their messages were the same, “heard the news about Billy Graham, I’m so sorry, hope your family is well…” or something to that affect.

I had mixed emotions about the death of Billy Graham. To me he wasn’t just some evangelist who impacted the lives of many, wrote a bunch of books and preached a lot of sermons. To me he was “Uncle Billy,” and sure, more often than not he was a distant uncle, but given our family’s history, regardless of how I felt about what he and my grandfather did, I always understood him as Uncle Billy. I didn’t quite grasp the reality of who he actually was and the impact he had until later in life.

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Allow me to explain…

My Grandfather was Cliff Barrows, the choir director for Billy Graham since the very beginning. As I understand the story, my grandparents were on their honeymoon in North Carolina when they heard a preacher was looking for a musician because his choir director got sick. My grandmother (Nana) played the piano and my grandfather (Papa) had a booming singing voice and was well versed in multiple instruments. They both offered up their services and the rest is history. That preacher was Billy Graham and he and my Papa have been best friends since they were in their early 20s, even started the crusades together.

 

I used to avoid saying I was the granddaughter of Cliff Barrows because of my own issues with family and faith and trying to figure who I am and what I believe as an individual outside of all of the influence; but in this day and age with new generations who’ve never heard of Billy Graham crusades and the Kardasians actually being a thing to follow, I figure it’s not actually as big of a deal as I’ve made it out to be, it’s just my own stuff.
 My Nana and Ruth Graham (Billy’s wife) were best friends and for a time my mother not only worked as head of the women’s ministry for Billy Graham (well before meeting my father), but was mentored by Ruth as well.

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My mother used to say Ruth was her role model and she wanted to be just like her. She’d try and try and end up feeling frustrated that she wasn’t more like Ruth, more pleasant, more gracious, more kind, more loving, etc… My mother told me one day she was so sick and tired of trying so hard to be the perfect example she chucked her bible across the room and yelled out “that’s it, I can’t do it, God! I can’t be Ruth Graham, I’ll never be Ruth Graham!” In the stillness of her room she heard a quiet voice, a very gentle response from a very loving God,

“Good. Because I already have a Ruth Graham, I don’t want another one…

I want my Lydia.”

It was then that I realized for as good of an example as Billy and Ruth Graham may be to many people, as faithful and spiritual and generous and all that stuff, it doesn’t make them any better in God’s eyes, and I don’t have to be like them for God to value me. That was huge for me. Growing up in a sort-of limelight, a preacher’s kid in a small southern town and granddaughter to a music evangelist who prayed with or sang in front of numerous presidents since Harry Truman and even alongside my own personal favorite, Johnny Cash, my understanding of God for a long time was that I had to be good for God to accept me.

 

It’s not that those were the words that were spoken to me, but it’s sort of what I saw or experienced… Nana always in pearls and smiling, family get-togethers meant no crying or arguing, and as long as you had Jesus you could smile at the storm. While it might have been well intended, some of it just didn’t resonate with me. I understood that Jesus was a Savior, but nobody talked about what they needed saving from, other than the generic title of sin, which is a word I’m still wrestling with sometimes.

For me, that’s what my faith has been, a form of wrestling, of asking questions I wasn’t supposed to ask because I was somehow already supposed to know the answers as a preacher’s kid, or like I had a better understanding of God because of my family connections. On top of my own process of exploring faith, there’s the whole issue of a traveling evangelist and the fact that if he’s impacting the world, who’s at home with the family? While Uncle Billy may have been America’s preacher and my Papa America’s song leader, their own families didn’t really know them that well. I know later in life they both expressed wanting to do that part over if they could, and so I don’t say that to come down on them, but certainly to be real about the fact that not even America’s preacher got it all right, and not even his kids were perfect. Sometimes kids just need to figure things out apart from who their parents are.

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So the family connections run deep and I have spent time thinking I was cool, growing up going to crusades and meeting DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and all my favorites in the early 90s, to growing older and wishing I wasn’t related at all due to the pressure and expectation that came with it. For a long time I resented my Papa and his “job” that seemed much more important than his family, especially when people praised him for it.

Last year I got to speak at a women’s conference in Atlanta, Georgia and I shared about growing up in the family I did, the affects it had on multiple family members and learning to come to peace with it. When the conference was over a woman came up to me and asked if she could share a story about my grandfather. She proceeded to share that when she was little her father was a raging alcoholic and used to beat her mom and the kids. He would take apart the television set during the day while he was gone so they couldn’t watch it and put it back together at night when he came home.

One day her mom found one of the pieces he had hidden to the television set and figured out how to put it back together. When the television set turned on that first time there was a Billy Graham crusade on and they all sat in the living room and watched. She said she watched my grandfather sing and lead the biggest choir she’d ever seen. One day it was nearing dinner time and my grandfather came on and introduced a woman named Ethel Waters, an African American woman, which back then was controversial to have onstage leading a song.

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Ethel and my grandfather sang “His eye is on the sparrow,” and it was the first time this woman had ever heard the song. That night her father came home and found them trying to take apart the television before he got inside. He grabbed her mother and she screamed for the kids to run. The woman and her siblings ran out to the nearest field and hid. She said they could hear her mother screaming and together her and her siblings quietly sang “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches over me.” She said they just sang that line over and over again and she kept saying to her siblings, “God cares about the sparrows and he cares about us, He’s watching over us, it’s like they sang on the television.” She said she never forgot my grandfather after that.

It was unfortunately a long time before her mother eventually left her father and the foster care system got involved, but she said every time trouble happened they just sang to themselves “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches over me.”

She hugged me with tears in her eyes and said “I know you’ve had your own issues with your family and I validate that, I’m sorry there were times they weren’t there for you, but please know it wasn’t for nothing. We had to have faith for a long time before anything happened, but I truly believe we were given hope through that song we heard your grandfather sing.” I hugged her and thanked her for sharing her story, that I needed to hear it. I was grateful to have a glimpse from the other side, from someone who wasn’t related or personally affected by his absence.

“I know you may not want to hear this,” she continued, “but in the best way possible, I see a lot of him in you… you draw people in, you hold their attention, and that’s what he did, he was gifted… and so are you.”

 

 

For the first time in a long time I felt proud. My grandfather had recently passed away at this point and I didn’t get a chance to communicate that to him, but in my own heart and mind I made peace with him and the beautiful mess that is my family. It’s not that everything got all better, but I wasn’t so affected by the way things were or allowing resentment to dictate how I lived my life or responded to people.

At the end of the day, for as great of men as Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows may have been, I think they would be the first to say they were just human… men who no matter how hard they try, still fall short… we all do. No exceptions.

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I say this not to minimize their impact, but to address some of the negative comments I’ve heard swirling around the death of Billy Graham; some of them vile and hateful from strangers with opposing views, some of them with a more subtle sting from friends who have their own similar issues with their families they have yet to come to peace with.

I totally understand given the faith aspect and Billy’s sold out devotion to God and the Bible being ultimate truth, a lot of people not only disagreed with him but didn’t like him. We live in a day and age where it’s almost forbidden to have an opposing opinion, especially as a Christian, a word that doesn’t have the best reputation and I get why. I personally am sold out to Jesus, truly believing the way Jesus loved people is the way we were meant to love, but even in that I have a hard time associating as a Christian because of the awful things Christians have said and done in the name of Jesus. I think even Jesus is heartbroken over it.

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(a little humor always helps)

I don’t have all the answers, I just know that people are people. People are people… broken and beautiful, messed up and put together, dust and divine breath. We’re all made up of both, yet we’re so quick to point out the dust in others and divine breath in ourselves that we completely miss each other. I think it’s okay for there to be differences among us, we don’t have to make sure everyone gets along and feels good all the time, but we can still communicate our differences in a loving way, valuing the person even if we disagree with their choices.

Some of the comments were so horrible I didn’t think they were real because saying them to any human, especially in regards to their death, seems inhumane to say the least. The naysayers are entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, but the conditions of their hearts are being revealed and they are acting out of the very hate in their own lives. Some of them may truly believe Billy Graham was an evil man and I understand they are speaking out of their conviction (in the same but very different way Billy spoke out of his own conviction), but they are revealing their own evil by their response to him.

A person at peace with themselves, with God, with the world, a person who truly loves because it naturally pours out of them and not because they need to be loved back, that type of person doesn’t wish, hope or pray evil things upon another human being. That type of person may have a strong conviction about the life a person lives, but they still see the person as a person and value both the dust and divine breath within them.

Hate does not conquer hate.

Hateful comments toward or about a person making hateful comments doesn’t make you an activist, it reveals that you’re just as hateful and vile, only in a different way. People are standing on opposing sides of politics, religion and bathroom usage and using hate to communicate, which means no one is really hearing anyone because no one responds well to hate. On top of which, half the stuff people are arguing about isn’t even the point.

People are people. No matter how different your view, people are people, no matter how rich or poor, isolated or well known, religious or atheist, vegan or Texan… people are people.

We all started as someone’s kid, some of us had bad things happen to us, some of us not. We all have a story, a reason we act, think, function the way we do. To a degree we are a sum of our experiences but they don’t have to define us, we can choose how we respond to them and to the world. We don’t have to hate on people in the process, even if they hate us. So while I hate the things that have been said around Billy Graham’s death, I don’t hate the people who said them. I see very broken, hurt people who are responding out of their own lack of love and their blindness to it and I feel sad for them.

The crazy part to me is, it’s not like Billy Graham was known for hate speech. He may have had his own opinions on ways of living because of his faith, but he didn’t hate the people. He may have had to wrestle through some of his own understanding of God’s word and what it meant to him, but he didn’t hate the people. He was a huge force in de-segregating black and white audiences and refused to speak to any crowd that was segregated. He agreed to meet and pray with every president that would have him even if he didn’t see eye to eye with them politically, because even the President of the United States he saw as a person in need of being loved, which let’s be honest is no easy task.

If humanitarians, Christians, activists, feminists, whoever wants to say status doesn’t matter then let it not matter, don’t compartmentalize, let it not matter… from the poor to the president: love people… all people. Disagree all you want to, but show love and kindness toward the human. Dare I say it’s not so easy.

For me personally there’s something I highly value and respect about Uncle Billy that goes well beyond all the accolades; in this world where everything is about self gratification, sex and scandals, that man stayed tried and true to the woman he loved since his youth. I know they didn’t have the easiest marriage with his schedule and travel and the time and attention of five kids, but there’s not one scandal to his name regarding his marriage and devotion to his wife. He faithfully loved her not only to the end of her life, but to the end of his. She mattered too, and he knew it.

 

And while I think that is so, so beautiful, it’s also sad because of just how rare that is… faithfulness and doing well by the one you love, even when it doesn’t feel as good as the day you said “I do.” That man loved people, and not just in word, but in action. Believe me, if anyone understands that some people didn’t feel loved by him or his ministry, it is I! I get it, they didn’t do everything right, I’m speaking as someone who feels personally affected by it. But I still truly believe that this man and my grandfather were just two humans who tried the best they could with what they had, and again, no matter how great some people saw them, they would be the first to say they were still in desperate need of a Savior.

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I suppose that’s the difference between some of us who believe in a Savior and those who don’t, we are aware of the brokenness, able to see what needs to be mended. It’s not that hate is beneath me, it’s that I can see my own humanity and the vileness I am capable of, bring it before my Jesus and say “help me. I don’t want to live like this.”

I don’t want to be a person who hates the people who hate people, I would only be adding to the hateful masses.

To Lauren Duca and the humans full of hate out there… While you’ve made your dust abundantly clear, I choose to see the divine breath within you, cloudy as it may be, it’s in there. You were made to love, even if you don’t know it yet. It ain’t easy, but I love ya!

And love wins.

Breaking The Rules

When I was in fifth grade my little sister had her head bashed in by a gold club. I know, it sounds morbid, and it was but bear with me, the story ends well.

It was a Sunday afternoon. We had just finished lunch and prior to that we had just finished church. To this fifth grader, church was definitely something you wanted to finish so you could hurry up and get to lunch. Lunch was something you didn’t want to end because after lunch was nap. I never liked nap time, which strikes me as odd because now I couldn’t live life without one.

My parents told everyone to go to their rooms after lunch, my mom always said the same thing, “you don’t have to go to sleep, but you do have to be quiet.” Nap time was really more for my parents, they were smart to train us young for the Sunday afternoon nap. We always knew it was coming. “Whatever you decide to do for your time is fine so long as it’s quiet and it’s in your room.” The last thing I remember my mother saying before everyone departed the kitchen was “you are not allowed to go outside.”

I remember this because my two younger siblings (Bobby and Betsy) had decided this was exactly what they would do after mom and dad fell asleep. We all went to our rooms and they waited a little while before I heard them quietly sneaking back out. Bobby had a friend over that day and they decided to play with dad’s golf clubs. I find it important to note my dad has never been a golfer, still isn’t, but either because it was another hobby he tried to pick up and didn’t find entertaining (I don’t blame him, boring!) or someone gave them to him because people always randomly give things to their pastor (probably for good measure), we had golf clubs laying around.

Bobby and his friend Jamie each took turns swinging. Betsy was frolicking around the yard. I was peeking out of my window when I decided to go out and tell them I was going to tell mom and dad they were breaking the rules (yes, I made things my business that weren’t my business). Without paying much attention Betsy frolicked her way behind Jamie’s back hand swing when his 9 iron (that’s the big one for those of you who don’t play golf) smacked right into her forehead (which is the only reason I ever learned that was a 9 iron).

I wasn’t there right when it happened, I only heard Betsy screaming. I ran outside, Bobby and Jamie frozen dead in their tracks and Betsy holding her hands over her forehead. Because I didn’t see what happened, nor did I see any blood, I assumed Betsy was being dramatic, like a “Bobby pushed me” kind of cry. With there being four kids in my family we heard those a lot. “Don’t be such a baby,” I said to Betsy, “why are you crying?” I know, in retrospect I am not proud of how I approached the situation, but this was my first memorable lesson in never assuming you know everything.

Betsy couldn’t even speak, she just removed her hands from her forehead. For a split second I was silenced as a I experienced my first shock wave. Once the split second was up I screamed bloody murder for my mom and dad. I stood there, unable to move, looking at the inside of my little sister’s head. The hole was the actual size of the 9 iron. I remember thinking if she leaned forward her brains were going to fall out.

Mom and dad came running out of the house and to be honest, the rest is a blur. I remember them wrapping her in a blanket and rushing her to the hospital, but that’s it. She was in the hospital for a while, in part because the first time she was stitched up they failed to clean it out first so she was rushed to another hospital (with more credentials) to re-open her head, clean it out and sew it back up. She stayed on the children’s ward of the hospital for a long time. I remember all the toys and flowers that flooded her room. Truth be told, I remember being jealous, even almost wishing it had been me.

Maybe that’s a normal feeling for a kid, especially a middle child, when they see one of their siblings get all the attention (even if for unfortunate reasons), or maybe I was just that selfish from the get-go since my first word was “mine.” Either way, I was glad Betsy was okay, but I was tempted to remind everyone that she didn’t listen to mom about nap time.

I don’t know why I’ve always been worried there wasn’t enough love to go around, as if people were going to run dry if they gave it all to Betsy. I don’t know why I’ve always been more concerned about how I was going to be okay more so than other people. I don’t like this quality about myself, but it’s there, and I can’t change it if I don’t address it.

I’ve come a long way from the fifth grade girl who wanted to tattle on her sister who just had her head bashed in, but I still fall short in my efforts to look out for my own self.

I think it’s important to stand up for what’s right and have an opinion and voice an injustice (like say breaking certain rules), but I find it just as important, if not more so, to cater to the person who is hurting, to offer love and support and grace (even if rules were broken). People are really good at getting behind causes and campaigns, especially ones that draw attention, but I think people (myself included) fall short in the day to day individual ways they can offer love and extend grace to the very people in front of them.

To my fifth grade self and any other child or grown up kid out there, I just thought you might like to know there is plenty of love to go around, if only we’d be willing to extend it- no matter what, even if you don’t get it back the way you want it. You become a person of love when you practice love. And believe me, love takes practice.

As for Betsy, I love you sis, I always have, I just never expressed it very well. Little did I know how much more jealous I would be one day when Harry Potter made his debut into the world and the two of you shared the same scar. I don’t know if I ever said it then so I’ll say it now, I’m really glad you’re okay.

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a memory

A memory from October 5th, 2012.

Because sometimes I still need to remind myself that life really is good, problems included.

Today I found what I perceive to be the world’s largest sunflower. I wanted to tell a cool story about how I stumbled upon it, but all that really happened was that I walked down the sidewalk, saw this sunflower and said “holy freakin’ cow, that’s...

Today I found what I perceive to be the world’s largest sunflower. I wanted to tell a cool story about how I stumbled upon it, but all that really happened was that I walked down the sidewalk, saw this sunflower and said “holy freakin’ cow, that’s the world’s largest sunflower!”

Then I took a picture. And maybe I talked into for a while, like it was a huge microphone connected to Heaven, if Heaven were an “up there” kind of place. I had to stand on my tippy toes to reach the sunflower-turned-microphone, so it seemed only appropriate that Heaven was the audience as I requested to speak with God. I felt a proverbial tap on my shoulder, looked to my side and “heard” God say, “I’m actually right here.”

“Right,” I said. “Okay, THANKS ANYWAY!” I yelled back into the sunflower.

God and I talked about my problems for a while, then about how life isn’t all about me and my problems.

“Right,” I said. “Dang it.”

“Well, what are your thoughts on Harry Potter?” I asked. “Don’t burn books,” God said. “Awesome,” I said, “I’m on book four.”

I think God laughed.

All of that to say, this huge freakin’ sunflower reminded me of just how small I am, and that in the grand scheme of things I assume to be hard, life really is good…

and so is God.

 

really living

I watched a girl run back and forth from the ocean as it washed up on shore and retracted back. If you were to just see her and her alone you would think she was playing with the ocean’s edge. If you were to zoom out you would see another girl filming her, over and over again, trying to get just the right look for the picture or the video or whatever they were uploading to social media.

I watched them “do over” the picture multiple times, wondering what the caption would say, probably something to the effect of “playing at the ocean’s edge,” or “so happy to be at the beach.” The funny part to me in all of this was that neither seemed to be true. The girl wasn’t playing with the ocean’s edge, she was repeatedly trying to get the perfect looking picture. And I’m not so sure they were happy to be at the beach because they barely noticed it due to looking at their phones the entire time I watched them, even while they were walking. The vastitude of the ocean lay restless beside them and they barely noticed until they wanted it in the picture.

I got frustrated watching them. I got frustrated because they weren’t really living but giving the impression to someone somewhere that they were. I thought about the people who follow them on Instagram or Facebook who see the pictures of them “enjoying” the beach and wondered if those people would be jealous or feel lame for not adventuring out like them. I thought of people being jealous of a false reality and I got frustrated. I got frustrated because I know I’m one of those people who sees other people’s pictures and think I need to do more with my life, now wondering if those people really live out what they post or if they just repetitively try to get the perfect shot to make it look like they are really living.

I got frustrated too because the honest truth is, I have been one of those people who posts a false reality. It’s not malicious or intentional, it’s just too cool of a shot and I want to be admired for it. So perhaps when I got frustrated with those girls, I also got frustrated with myself. There is grace for them and there is grace for me, but I don’t want to abuse that grace by continuing the false reality.

I love capturing life, but it’s easy to get too caught up in capturing it that you begin posing it instead of living it. I want to really live and hopefully capture some memories along the way, not miss out on life happening around me because I’m trying too hard to get the perfect picture.

I went for a walk on the beach and I picked up sea shells. I stared at the water and the shells in my hand. I dug my feet in the sand and wrote words with my toes. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I took a picture in my mind. The water sparkled and I smiled, not because there was a camera but because I was really living.

dark blue

Tonight I went and sat under one of my favorite trees in San Diego. I have favorite trees all along the west coast. It’s not every day or even every year that I get to see them and climb them, but I know they are there waiting for me to return. They stand tall and firm, branches swayed only by the wind and roots that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I sit at the base before climbing up. I take in the strength along with the shade the tree has to offer. I lean against the trunk. I feel small but important. I look up at the branches above me and I imagine angels scattered among the limbs, dangling their feet, smiling, whispering, laughing. They watch me and I watch them. I can’t see them, but I watch them and I thank them for being there.

“You can come out,” I say sometimes hoping they let me see them, “I can’t see you but I know you’re there.” They laugh with each other and smile. They wave to me implying that maybe one day I’ll get to see them but not yet. I laugh too because I know how it sounds, or at least how it would sound to any passer-by who sees a young woman sitting at the base of a tree yelling at the limbs.

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I take a deep breath and look out at the water. The tree I sat under tonight is nudged up against the bay and the roots are almost long enough to dip their feet in but not quite. The sun was bright orange and I watched it slowly respond to the call of the water as it got closer and closer before disappearing beneath the bay.

I sat and I watched and I listened. Nothing profound happened. No answers to life’s questions, no angels revealing themselves. But in those few quiet moments just before the sun disappeared, I was okay being me. I had nothing to show for my time, save maybe a few bug bites, but my time was not wasted.

The gold sky turned dark blue and I knew it was time for ice cream.