Grief is a vehicle

I drive his 1985 Mercedes SEL on Sundays.

It feels right when I stop to consider that our shared faith was one of the more driving connections between the two of us, my grandfather– my “Papa”– and I.

When I felt the Lord tugging on my heart to follow Jesus to Alaska without rhyme or reason back in 2015, my family’s reactions were varied:

“Your getting too old not to settle down.”

“That lifestyle isn’t one for a respectable Hispanic woman.”

“You’re out of your damn mind.”

With him, it was different.

“Well kid, if that’s what you feel like He’s telling you to do, ya’damnsure better do it.”

Never one to mince words or be flustered by what his greater life experience had proven to be only a seasonal change, my grandfather was my sounding board, my strong backbone, and simultaneously the safest space my heart had for nearly twenty seven years.

Fifty two years ago, nearly three decades before I was even thought of, this man redefined the idea of family as I would one day inherit it. He and I never shared a bloodline, but rather became family through his choice to adopt my mother. With his quiet stability, he dared to interrupt a storyline and thereby changed the life of my mother, me, his “granddaurter”, and hopefully that of generations to come.

My dark features and string bean build may not emulate his sturdy German stock, but it’s unmistakable that my inability to sit still when music comes on is a trait of his I’ve carried in my body since he first enrolled me in piano lessons at the age of five and taught me how to tap my foot to the metronome atop his old piano.

After years of botched recitals and your standard small child temper tantrums, weekly piano lessons were abandoned and monthly jazz concerts took their place. The scratchy tulle of the dresses my mother would wrangle me into scraped the back of my legs and I would pretend to be far more irritated than I was. But there I would sit, in the second row of a jazz concert one Saturday a month, transfixed with the way the musicians’ fingers danced up their saxophones and across their basses. My Papa would close his eyes and drink it in, moving as many muscles as he could to dance in his seat without being noticed. But oh, how I noticed.

On Sundays such as this, I unlock his car and slide into the old burgundy leather seats. I run my fingers across his jazz tape collection and close my eyes for a moment before I drive. I can’t manage to get the old stereo to work to save my life, but some days in the silence as I drive, I swear I can hear him quietly humming Bucky Pizzerelli’s Stars in Your Eyes.

With every passing Sunday, I learn a little more deeply that maybe the grief that continues to come, even a year after losing my grandfather is just another vehicle. One constantly moving me closer to the heart of the One whom me grandfather taught me so much about, and imitated so well in word and deed.

So I wipe my tears and drive toward Jesus, just as my Papa taught me to do.

Intentional, boring bravery

How did this become my life? I wondered the other day as I sat in standstill traffic on I-70, listening to NPR and staring at the miles of cars and the western, afternoon sun before me. How did I get here? I mean, how did my life go from flying bush planes in the Alaskan wilderness and teaching English in floating villages in Cambodia to this? To being a principal, a disciplinarian? The consistent one in my students’ lives? An afternoon traffic NPR listener? How did I end up in this space where my not so fleeting thoughts consist of mortgages and long-term plans to settle into a city when just a little over a year ago I sobbed at the thought of living in America long-term? How did we get here?

One morning last September as I walked into the quiet school hallway, I nearly audibly heard the Lord tell me that my time in the classroom was coming to an end and that I would be moving into administration. I scoffed at the thought and let out a little laugh. An end? But Lord, I’m just now coming back to teaching… (Full disclosure: I scoffed at the thought for other reasons too. The greatest of these being that never, ever, in a million years did I want to become an administrator. Funny how the Lord, works, eh?)

A week or so later, the theme of “rootedness” began popping up in everything I listened to and read, in every quiet time or moment of mediation I took. I noted this theme in my journal and to a few close girlfriends, but brushed it off as a coincidence, or my own confusion– maybe a combination of both. After all, as one of my favorite songs goes,

“I’ve got dreams that keep me up in the dead of night telling me I wasn’t made for the simple life” (NeedtoBreathe, “Happiness”).

I’ve always been a hungry person. I was made for new, for more, for adventure.

I feel nearest to the heart of God when I’m suspended thousands of feet in the air.

I’m energized by the idea of being able to step into change.

Heck, I once stood on my metaphorical soapbox and shouted to the masses that I don’t think I’m a woman created to pay a mortgage. 

And yet, here I sit, staring at the afternoon sun day after day on my long commute home from work. With each day’s commute, I’m being pushed into this new, foreign season a bit more. One in which I know the Lord is calling me to be a stable, consistent, loving force for my students at DSS. I’m being called to be(come) a woman who keeps showing up in the hard places of my students’ lives at the Street School day after day, potentially year after year… and for some reason that’s more difficult for me than all of the jet lag, language barriers, transition and culture shock in my recent life experience combined.

Slowly, ohhhhh sooooo slowly, I am learning to be fully present here in Denver, where I’ve been re-planted.

I’m learning to give all of myself to the Lord in a place that really isn’t all that exciting or new. Even more slowly I’m realizing that doing so isn’t any less brave than the days where I was called to don my winter gear and hop into a plane to fly a few villages down and help mitigate domestic violence situations or assist with medical emergencies.

As the brilliant and wise Shauna Niequest says in her book Present Over Perfect,

“Sometimes brave looks more like staying when you want to leave, telling the truth when all you want to do is change the subject.

Sometimes obedience means climbing a mountain. Sometimes obedience means staying home. Sometimes brave looks like building something big and shiny. Sometimes it means dismantling a machine that threatened to overshadow much more important things.

We’re addicted to big and sweeping and photo-ready– crossing oceans, changing it all, starting new things, dreams and visions and challenges, marathons and flights and ascending tall peaks.

But the rush to scramble up onto platforms, to cross oceans, to be heard and seen and known sometimes comes at a cost, and sometimes the most beautiful things we do are invisible, unsexy…

Sometimes being brave is being quiet. Being brave is getting off the drug of performance. For me, being brave is trusting that what my God is asking of me, what my family and community is asking from me, is totally different than what our culture says I should do.

Sometimes, brave looks boring, and that’s totally, absolutely, okay” (p. 125-126).

Amen.

Today bravery in my world looks a lot like this view. Bravery means trusting that I’m meant to sit at this desk and tend to transcripts and curriculum in between shepherding my students (read: “hearding my teenage cats”).  IMG_0001

Bravery means trusting that Jesus truly is sovereign, and that He knew what He was doing when He called me out of my little Alaskan wilderness life and back to Denver on a (semi?) permanent basis, just as much as He knew what He was doing when He took me there. Bravery means trusting Jesus to do the work that seems impossible in my students’ hearts. Bravery means believing the resurrection and praying it over my loved ones when they still see it as folly. Bravery means responding in love when I’m cussed out at work, then cut off in rush hour traffic. Bravery means obedience to God in both place and perspective.

To my stay-at-home-momma friends, world-traveler-missionary friends, big-business-tycoon friends, in-the-trenches-judicial-department friends, full-time-ministry friends, Light-bringing-artist friends, and those of you whose vocation or occupation don’t fall into any of those categories– I beg you to look up, beyond this post. 

I’m going to venture to guess that whatever is beyond the screen you’re reading this on is your larger sphere of influence. I simply want to remind you that being there, being a consistent, loving, embodiment of Christ where He put you today is brave. And I applaud you for the ways you are changing the world.

Because in a time where the news headlines are teeming with stories of genocide and mass shootings, the world needs Jesus’ brand of brave Love and Hope– the one which He is working in and through you right where he has planted you for this season.

So press on, brave soul. Brave may feel boring to you today, but even in the mundane, our labors of and for Love are not in vain.

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain” for death has been swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:58, 54)

When the only path through grieving is… through…

On the heels of a year where the Lord taught me to live vulnerably in tight-knit community and through writing my heart out on this website, I came to a place at the beginning of last summer where words felt entirely inadequate to express the thoughts and emotions that flooded my body on a daily basis. In the span of two months, I had unexpectedly lost a dear friend, my “adopted little brother” in a motorcycle accident and a childhood friend to cancer. As I traveled last summer, I continued to journal and write privately, figuring that this lack of “words to share” would pass in due time.

When I resumed my “normal” life in Colorado in August, I felt strongly that I was being called into a season of silent processing with the Lord and I decided that a break from public writing was what I needed to do to respect that season of life. But as time here in Colorado wore on and transition turned to stability, my ability (and desire) to vulnerably share “where I was at” began to wane. Over time, I closed into myself, shutting nearly everyone else out so dramatically that most days I didn’t know how not to. (Aside: If I’ve done this to you, please, please, please know I didn’t mean to hurt you if I have. I want to sit down over a cup of coffee with you. I want to mend relationships. I want you to know that as much as it sounds like a cheesy relationship line or an excuse, “It’s not you. It’s never been you. It’s me. I’m a mess.”)

In the days that preceded the disappearance of my friends and our plane in December, I felt a shift occurring in my heart; I knew my season of silent processing was being called to an end. I knew I was supposed to start writing again. And yet, when the plane went down, a part of me went down with it. Obviously, the part of my heart that held Scott, Kyle, Zach, & Kaitlyn dear, but the articulate part of me was also lost that day.

For months, I’ve struggled with and through depression, trying and failing to express anything of real value without bursting into tears. Despite feeling the Lord pressing me to write or express my heart in whatever way I could, I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, as I’ve tried to write, I instead closed my laptop and retreated back into my own introverted brain.

In those moments, a part of me knew I was being disobedient to what God was calling me to in my grief. I knew closing myself off wasn’t a true solution to any of my problems, and yet in this complex season, I didn’t know how to stop.

Thus, I’ve spent my weeknights and weekends largely holed away from community, avoiding my laptop, and wrestling with the Lord in coffee shops and counseling, or while crying with my roommates on the Yarrow kitchen floor.

In the individual nights of these last few months I’ve felt the extent of just how little I have “it” together (whatever “it” is…). And to be honest? This realization of the extent of my weakness paired with this “calling” to be vulnerable in that weakness?? It’s scared the living daylights out of me.

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to say it. I don’t know how to not tell other’s stories while telling mine because they’re so intertwined. I’m scared of unintentionally drudging up pain for the people I love, those who are walking through this complicated season of grief too. I don’t want to be “that sad writer” or ever come across as though I’m seeking pity, because I beg you to realize, I’m not. 

I so desperately want to feel “normal” again. I want to stop crying. I want to stop grieving from the core of my being.

But that’s not where the Lord has me… 

Instead, I’m here in this weird in-between– the place where I thought I was finally “okay” enough to attend a symposium on gospel-centered grieving and most days am more hopeful than I am bitter with God.

I’m here, in the muck and the mire of loss and redemption, joy and grief.

I’m desperately seeking contentedness with God’s plan when in actuality? I feel like I can’t handle being content with this new reality without the people I love. And the mere thought of trying to do so spiraled me into a panic attack Friday night at said grief symposium where I ended up running out of the sanctuary and ugly crying/ snotting into a close friend’s hair on our church steps.

This season isn’t cute.

It’s rendered me a mess. One giant freaking paradox.

Yet daily throughout this season, I have heard the invitation of Jesus to the weary in Matthew 11– “Come to Me.” And privately, I have. Through His sweet grace that I know I possess and yet so desperately crave more of, I come to Him a little more each day.

Today’s come to Jesus moment has been through obedience and tears; it is through a long overdue introduction/ continuation to this convoluted season through writing although I’d much rather remain silent and still, alone with Him and my little blue journal.

It comes through breathing life back into this dusty, neglected blog and it comes in the same vein as the words I’ve read time and time again this year: “The only way out of grief is through.”

Part of me hopes that maybe writing again will be the beginning of the end of this messy chapter. Most of me knows that more than likely it’s not; but I simply hope am confident that somewhere in this mess, in this journey through grief, I will see more of Jesus and I pray somehow you do too…

{To be continued}

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

(Psalm 27:13)

Fireweed and God’s Faithfulness

I didn’t sleep that night in May.

Instead, I sat next to my best friend in Alaska and wept as she held my credit card and booked me a flight back to the Lower 48. I read and re-read the news articles that confirmed my worst fear. I deliriously walked circles around the village at 2 AM, and again at 4 AM, in the near-24-hours of summer sunlight. I wrote last minute goodbye letters while my laundry tumbled in the dryer. At one point that night, I knelt on Heather’s living room floor and sorted my belongings into three piles:

Books to ship to Colorado.

Clothes and gear to pack back into my suitcases.

Things that didn’t fit in my suitcases to burn.

Everything seemed surreal as panic attacks and and waves of uncontrollable crying washed over me. The text I’d gotten at exactly midnight that night had undone me entirely. It was the text that brought my time in Alaska to a close two weeks earlier than I’d anticipated and put me on a plane to Iowa to be with my “adoptive” family after an unexpected death.

In my final hours in Port Alsworth, I walked outside with my arms full of my “burn pile”– clothes that had been loved-to-death in Alaska, odds and ends that wouldn’t fit in my luggage, and books I couldn’t pawn off on anyone– and I threw them in a burn barrel. With tears streaming out of the corners of my eyes and freezing on my cheeks, I lit my torch and touched it to the items I loved. I watched the fibers of my once-favorite sweater smolder burgundy, then blue. I touched the flame to the corners of a few books that protruded from the side of the pile. As the wind shifted, the small fires slowly melded together to form one giant flame. I stood there mesmerized by the fire, overcome by another wave of panic and grief. I’m leaving Alaska. Today. This can’t be happening. This wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It really wasn’t. I’d planned to leave Alaska just before Memorial Day with a girlfriend of mine. She’d bought a car in Anchorage and I’d bought a map of Canada off of Amazon. We’d planned to road trip from Anchorage, down through western Canada, to Seattle. We had dreams of adventure and excitement, photo ops, camp outs, audiobooks and a lot of awkward car dancing. Kathryn and I had traced our route not three days before; we had a plan, but it seemed that God had another. And honestly, I hated this plan of His…

That’s all I could think as I stood there staring at the flame that had now engulfed my belongings, slowly turning them into a pile of ash and embers. 

I don’t know how long I stood there in a trance watching that fire. All I know is that a text from the friend who’d arranged my flight into Anchorage snapped me out of my delirium: You need to leave earlier than planned. ASAP. The weather’s getting worse. Can you come now?

I hugged the few people I crossed paths with on my way through the village. When I got to the plane, I huddled under its wing with the few friends and members of my team who’d gotten the memo of my earlier-than-early departure. We cried and prayed and hugged, and before I knew what hit me, the plane was wheels up, flying out of Port Alsworth while I ugly cried in the back seat. Thick fog hid the blue glacial water that my heart loved so much. When I looked back to see my Alaskan home for what felt like the last time, all I could see was a thin column of black smoke coming from the burn barrel that once held my belongings.

It’s probably the combination of sleep deprivation, shock, confusion, over-caffeination, grief, and loss, but most everything I remember from May 21st seems enlarged and uber traumatic– as if I survived a wildfire instead of an unceremonial burning of a few of my belongings and an unexpected move. And most of this summer was colored by that day and metaphor.

Months later, I sat with my roommate in Denver and sobbed. “I just feel like I’m on fire all the time… And ya know what sucks?! Even in the rare moments when I don’t actively feel like I’m on fire, I feel like I could spontaneously combust at any moment. I’m ready to stop grieving and crying and feeling all of these feelings. I’m sick of it. I’m done.” 

“God’s refining you, Kace. I know you’re sick of this season, but from the outside I can see the ways He’s working and it’s beautiful… even if it hurts and is a little bit, okay a lot, like He’s refining you with fire. ”

For months I’ve fought situational depression to feel more like myself and less like a pile of smoldering ashes left behind after a wildfire. And oooooh some days it has felt like I would never be myself again.

But in God’s infinite grace and goodness, He provided an opportunity (and the airline miles/funds) that allowed me to return to Port Alsworth this last week over my fall break to surprise the ones I love there so dearly.

This time around there were tears of joy as I said an unexpected hello instead of tears of sadness as we said an unexpected goodbye. I warmed my hands over campfires with friends instead of crying over burning belongings. At one in the morning, I stood on Heather’s guest bed next to her and looked out the window for the Northern Lights instead of sobbing on her floor as she booked me a flight to Iowa. There was simply so much sweetness and redemption in Him allowing me to spontaneously return to Port Alsworth. (I’m still overwhelmed by the way He loves me and cares about the simple desires of my heart.)

As I left Alaska on Saturday, a friend of mine (completely unaware of my five-month wildfire analogy) pressed a tiny packet of seeds into my palm and simply said, “You’ve said you feel like God is calling you to plant a garden and stay a while in Denver, right? Maybe that garden needs some Alaskan fireweed…”

I smiled and flipped the seed packet over in my hand. As I read the bold print on the back, I knew in an instant that she couldn’t have been more correct given what that little packet said:

Alaskan Fireweed

(Chamerion Angustifolium)

Alaskan fireweed is often seen as a symbol of life and rebirth in the Alaskan Native culture. Fireweed is often one of the first plants to grow in the ashes after wildfires in Alaska.

Anna_Fireweed.jpg
Photo credit: Anna Burrows

The Lord is faithful to bring beauty from ashes, even when His timeline is so clearly not my own. He is faithful to work all things for His glory and the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28)– Trial and sanctification by wildfire, transition, death, and grief included.

After all, there is nothing too permanent for the Lord to redeem, too far out of His reach or too big for Him to handle, or too burnt out to revive.

Thank you Jesus, for You continue to redeem my soul from the pit of emptiness.

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and ostriches for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.”

(Isaiah 43:18-20)

How WAS my day? [A call to prayer]

“Woah… Hey… How was your day?” My friend probably could’ve spared herself the question. I’m fairly certain the glazed over, crazy lady look in my eyes was a dead give away that today was, well… a day.

I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and onto the floor as I stared vacantly at my feet, trying to find the words to articulate how my day was.

Nothing seemed right.

Saying, “Good! My toughest group of kids finally fell in love with our novel and we read forty pages in class!” seemed like a really out of sorts introduction to the sentence that would’ve followed it: “Oh, and before 9 AM, I saw a bullet hole in one of my student’s legs from where he was shot this weekend.” Or, I suppose I could’ve said, “My day was a mixed bag, but thankfully I escaped to Cork & Coffee after school to lesson plan. Things had just calmed down when I overheard an altercation down the street and then had a man run toward me shouting, ‘Did you see a guy in a black hoodie?! He just stabbed someone!’ moments before an ambulance pulled up to take the victim to the hospital. So, that was weird.”

But to simply say that my day was a mixed bag would also graze over the fact that I spent two different passing periods today comforting various girls whose 17 year old cousin/friend/ex-boyfriend had been shot and killed late last week… And each of those tender moments had a fairly significant impact on the way my day had gone, so excluding them feels weird.

So, how was my day? Chaotic? But somehow, not really. In fact, it was a fairly orderly day by DSS standards.

Good? Meh. I wouldn’t go that far.

Hard? Well, yes and no. After all, I’m far more “used to” (or rather desensitized to) gunshot wounds and stabbings than I probably should be.

As I struggled for words to explain the rough edges of my day, it hit me that I honestly don’t have room to speak negatively about the way today went either. I mean, we made great strides in English; for the first time in my teaching career my kids didn’t want to stop reading AND they even wrote a two paragraph summary without gasping and splaying themselves against my classroom wall in disbelief that I could ask them to do such a thing. (You may think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. The wall splaying really, truly happened last Tuesday.) Oh, and my college and career guest speaker this morning? He was a hit! (Granted, his first few words when he walked into my classroom this morning were, “Uh, I think I just saw a drug deal go down in the parking lot across the street…” But such is Street School life.) Then there’s the fact that my art students crushed their assignment for the day and a few even stayed after school to continue their work. So. many. good things happened today in the academic realm. Yet that doesn’t negate the pain in my heart that caused my wide-eyed stare.

Thus, I return to my friend’s question: how was my day? After a few hours of trying to find words to explain the jumble that is my short-term memory, I’m essentially still without a verdict. Maybe that’s because I don’t think there’s a word in the English language that aptly describes what life as a Street School teacher is (or isn’t) or how our days with our students go.

The only way I can put it is that being back at the Street School is “all the things”; it’s academic celebrations with tears sprinkled throughout, bookended by the agonizing realities of gang warfare and darkness that my students come from each morning and return to each afternoon. Yet somehow it’s all covered in the glorious Hope of Christ that things can be different if my students come to Him. It’s weird, but it’s beautiful in the same breath.

Unlike most things I write, this post doesn’t contain a lesson from Jesus or a nice tied together ending. At least, not yet. And although it most certainly exists within the reality of my job, I swear I don’t write this for shock value.

No, I’m writing to give you a window into the reality of my students’ lives and to ask you to partner with me this year in prayer. Theirs is a reality that exists right within the heart of Denver and every city like it. A reality that can be found mere houses or blocks away from where the majority of you are reading this in your quiet, violence-free homes on the outskirts of suburbia. That quiet? That end-of-the-day peace that you’re probably experiencing right now? That is not the reality for many of my students. But oh, how I long for that to change.

So would you join me and our mildly shell-shocked Street School staff as we enter back into our students’ lives and pray for and with them this school year?

Would you join us in praying for:

  • Opportunities to share the gospel with our students. Very few of them would consider Christ to be the Lord of their lives, and even fewer have heard of the way He loves them with His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (The Jesus Storybook Bible). Pray that our students would be open to His Love and Truth. Pray that they would allow themselves to be swept off their feet by the sweet Savior Who has already come for them.
  • The Peace of Christ to reign in this city. Unless you’re weird like me and spend your free time reading graffiti on highway underpasses, it’s easy to miss the fact that there’s a thriving gang culture here in Denver. Due to a handful of recent events within a few local gangs, there has been a flare up of violence in our city. Pray that redemption and peace would prevail over retaliation. Pray for my students to have an iota of forethought and not get themselves involved in risky or violent situations.
  • Spiritual eyes for our staff to see what really matters. Sometimes that really, truly means English homework and sometimes that means setting aside our lesson plans and engaging in soul care instead of vocabulary lists. Pray that we, as a staff, would be loving, intentional, and wise in all of our interactions with our students.  

I’m eternally grateful for the love, prayers, and support you’ve covered me in these last few years as I’ve done life everywhere from the inner city of Denver to the very ends of the earth. As I seem to say at the beginning of every school year, I know the Lord is going to do miraculous, mind-boggling, earth shattering things this year. He has always been faithful to exceed even my biggest expectations for a school year and He has graciously called all of us to be a part of His plan.

Thank you in advance for joining in on what Jesus is doing in this beautiful city through prayer.

May the glory be to God– in the midst of the good, the bad, and the ugly of this school year.

xo,

Kace