16 February 2011

Fully Alive

A couple of weeks ago, we returned from a beautiful and healing trip with good friends in Tennessee and in Florida. There's a picture James captured of me on the beach in Naples, Florida. The sun is setting in the background. I'm barefoot, the cuffs of my jeans rolled up. I had drawn a heart in the sand with my finger, the waves are rolling in, and I'm running away from them. Behind me, a bird in flight makes his way just above the water's surface.

When I posted it to Flickr, there was only one thing to say about it: It is good to feel alive again.

And it is. But I still have plenty of difficult days. There were baptisms at church this past weekend, and one of the mothers sat in the pew in front of me with her pink, round baby boy, smiling and beaming. I certainly did not begrudge her her happiness, as I knew that if I were the one bringing a child to the font that day, I would probably wear the same unmistakably happy expression, beams of light emanating from every pore. But seeing it was like a knife twisting in the gut, a reminder of one thing and all the others I had hoped for but didn't get to enjoy with Ewan. Holding both -- being happy for the mother who enjoys this day, but sad for myself and what we have lost -- is good for pushing a person to what feels like the outer edges of her sanity.

I cried through the whole thing.

And I thought of all the other days and nights like this one where it hurt to breathe and to wake, where I curled up in a ball on the bed, crumpled piles of used tissue accumulating on the floor. I thought of the night in the rocking chair where it felt like I might die of this sadness. I was alive then, too.

I look at that picture me on the beach and I can't help but remember how good it felt to feel the sun on my back and the sand between my toes and the damp ocean wind in my hair -- how good it was to embrace that moment and be present in it. What I realized is that I had already been in the practice of doing that before: taking in the reality that was present, and accepting it for whatever it was, wherever it was on that spectrum between misery and bliss. There was no excusing or dismissing it, no trying to put it off for later.

Grief and loss come for us all in one form or another sooner or later. No a single one of us chooses it, but I honestly believe we can make a choice in how we respond. We can sweep it under the rug, pretend like it never happened, like it doesn't faze us in the least, hoping we can hold our breath and duck our heads underwater until the storm passes. Or we can stare it in the face, welcome it, embrace it, because this is also what it means to be fully alive, to be one who loves.

And even though it might not feel like it at times, it won't last forever. There will be a day again where a smile crosses the lips unforced, where laughter rises in the chest with ease -- moments like I had on that beach. I really believe that the soul grows in its capacity for joy when it has also plumbed the depths of sorrow -- and there is no substitute for that. When I see that picture of myself on the beach, I remember that moment, and I remember what I've been through -- and I am amazed. Not all that long ago, that moment would have seemed impossible.