Pruning is Painful, but Glory Remains

So when we bought our house back in 2003, one of my favorite things about the yard was this gorgeous Japanese maple tree perched lovingly in the front of the Bay window.  I have no idea of its age, but if I had to speculate, I would say it’s about 20 years old or so.   Each spring I marvel at its transformation, from stark barrenness and limbs of almost charcoal with wiry cherry tips, to forked buds of deep forest green, yearning for permission to lunge forward and grasp the crisp pale yellow sun.

By this time of the summer, the leaves have begun their fall ensemble, and incredible hues of greens and reds line the tree from trunk to treetop.  The visual unveiling is an emotional undertaking, and I feel blessed to have a front row seat each season to all of God’s bounty.

For several reasons, that tree has become the focal point of the yard.  There are no other trees in our yard, and the children knew from an early age this tree was very special.  ‘We don’t play on this tree,’ you’d hear the children tell their friends.  Just about every single ‘First Day of School’ photo and every other special occasion photo centers around that tree.  It’s like a member of the family, plain and simple.

In October of 2011 we had an early and extremely severe ice storm that wreaked havoc and devastation across much of New England.  Power lines were dropped to the ground like threads; large long-standing oaks were snapped in half like twigs; roofs collapsed from the tremendous weight of this ice – the damage figures soared into the millions.

As you can imagine, my precious sole standing maple took a hit – one of its two main branches cracked under the weight of the ice it was forced to bear.  The crack did not sever the limb, however, but left it crippled and limping…in need of swift attention.  In my absence, the decision was made to sacrifice the limb in order to attempt to save the remaining tree.  When I saw what had happened, and the choice that was made, I was initially destroyed.  A flood of emotions filled me: anger at the destruction, mourning at the loss of such beauty, disappointment at the decision made.

It was a very difficult winter, and I could no longer bear to gaze out my window at my beloved tree that once held so much joy.  Cloaked in my anguish, as spring approached, I missed all the little signs that were sent for my benefit – signs of new life, rebirth.  That tree wasn’t just surviving, it was thriving.  Even with the loss of half of itself, it was shining in the face of disappointment.  It was staring its critics down, and being all that it could be, despite the odds against it.

And today, even though it remains one of the smallest trees on the block – it is missing its entire left side and it is completely devoid of leaves on its backside – it is still the most beautiful.  Other bigger, taller, seemingly stronger trees have fallen despite their best attempts to the contrary.  This tiny Japanese maple – it stands victorious – all because no one ever told it it could not.

I was looking at my dear tree this morning, and thinking just how parallel this tree is to my life lately.  I experienced an ‘amputation’ of sorts a few years back, and though it might not have been my choice at the time, looking at my standing compared to the rest of the block, I am thriving and standing the tallest I have ever stood.  I haven’t physically grown an inch, but my soul and spirit have surpassed Shaq for sure.

Pruning, though often not our first choice, many times saves the life of what is being trimmed.  The process is painful, as dead or dying parts are cut away, without the benefit of anesthesia.   We can be left bewildered, wondering why we have to experience trimming at all.  But once completed, as new growth begins, we can see why the process was necessary, even critical.

John 15:2 states “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”  God’s goal is to make us as fruitful as possible; to bring forth our best so that we thrive; most of all, to bring Him glory.

This is a picture of my tree these days:

And this is me:

We’re both a shadow of our former selves; lean, mean fighting machines; little engines that could.  Just try and get in our way.


“I Will Not Give What Costs Me Nothing”

‘But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them.’                        -2 Samuel 24:24

This has been an absolutely fantastic week for me.  Starting last Saturday I spent the better part of my day donating time to a Back to School event my church sponsored, partnering with a local Elementary school in need.  We as a group were able to provide backpacks & supplies, games, activities, lunch, and a tiny piece of Jesus – all in the 90+ degree temperatures that soared throughout the day.  I had done a table offering special education advocacy, and though I’ve been away from public advocacy for several years now, it felt just like home to offer up my gifts to those who might be in need.  Even though it was ridiculously hot and the work was long, I left there feeling blessed and rejuvenated.

By Monday a wild idea began to circle through my brain.  I’ve been feeling really good, both physically and mentally lately.  I thought it might be time to raise the stakes and take on a new physical task, if my doctor approved, of course.  As luck would have it, I had an appointment that very day, and my check-up came back as glowing as I felt.  I asked permission to participate in the Hartford Marathon coming up in October, deciding that I just might be able to complete walking the Half Marathon in the allotted time.  Of course, I’m not looking to win any medals – I simply want to challenge myself to do more than I’ve done before.  I’d basically been walking a 5K every other day as it was, so this seemed like the next logical step.

Looking back over the last few years, I’ve lost 110 pounds and had 8 heart procedures.  The fact that I can walk at all and still breathe should bring God glory…and that’s my job.  My mother dropped dead with no warning of this same heart disease I have, 4 years younger than I am now.  My father struggled for every single gasp of breath as he died almost 4 years ago.  I know countless people who are obese and can barely move, who have COPD and can barely breathe; while I can, you better believe I am going to move.

So Monday night I hit the track, not exactly sure what my plan was.  I just knew I needed to get moving, farther and faster than I had been.  The race is 13.1 miles…my current average was 3.  Monday night I walked 6 miles, and I didn’t die.  Tuesday I woke up, not dead, and went back to the track, where I walked another 6 miles, this time faster.  I was breathing, I was singing, I was talking and I was laughing (maybe a little too much…some of those young chippies started to stare!)

Wednesday I took the night off, got dressed up and went out to laugh with a friend – a great night.

Thursday I pushed myself back to the track.  It was a little harder to get going, but once I was underway, I walked 7.5 miles.

As you can imagine, as I’m walking I have plenty of time to think – about all kinds of things.  I think about this decision I’ve made to try this Marathon.  I like saying the word ‘Marathon’ in conjunction with my name.  I am no athlete.  I was the little smart fat girl growing up.  Heck, that’s who I’ve been most of my life.  I’ve watched from the sidelines at my kids sporting events: soccer, football, basketball, baseball – mostly in amazement at the way they and the other athletes can move their bodies through space.

Several years ago I started taking karate with the kids, first in their ‘kid’ class with them, and then joining the ‘adult’ class, but even then I certainly was not athletic.  I could never find my center of gravity, my balance is awful, and my learning style is multifaceted, so merely watch-then-do does not work for me – I am currently a purple belt as my classmates have far surpassed my level long ago.

But like this Marathon, and much like my life, no one else runs MY race besides me.  I was given all the tools I ever needed to complete MY race.  Some days MY race will be slow, more of a shuffling pace, and I may not cover much ground.  Other days, MY race will look more like a sprint, and all you will see of me is a blur of curly red hair flailing in the wind.  I’ve learned with time and experience that I cannot phone it in.  Though my talents look different than others, that in no way diminishes my responsibility to use them.

That brings me to the title of this piece.  In May I was visiting my family in South Carolina, and heard a lyric from a song in church that resonated with me.  Tracking it down, I find it’s from Desperation Band’s latest album, a song called ‘Break Open.’  In the song, they’re speaking of offering empty sacrifices to God.  He knows what He’s gifted us with, and He knows what our best looks like – in all things.  He doesn’t ask for sacrifice because He needs it – He asks for sacrifice for obedience sake.  If we’re only willing to give God what we have left over, that’s a direct slap in the face to our Creator.  He wants our best, our first, our everything.

As I do my laps on the track, lost in my countless thoughts, calculating how many of the 13 miles I might actually complete in the 3 hours allotted before the medical support dissipates, I start to contemplate what my best effort would look like, instead of simply enough.  I realize I’ve been looking at this whole thing all wrong.  If I focus on doing my best, giving my best, and asking for strength to turn in my best, that is exactly what I will do.  Nowhere are we promised that getting there will be easy.  Anything worth having – better relationships, better health, lasting values – always costs us something.  If we are not willing to sacrifice, the ‘prize’ most likely is short-term.  I’m so much more into hitching my wagon onto things that are made to last.

I can’t wait to see what training next week brings…

Keep On Keeping On

“Someone once asked me how I hold my head up so high after all I’ve been through.  I said, it’s because no matter what I am a survivor – NOT A VICTIM.”

There are many traits about myself that I am not crazy about.  I am exactly five feet tall – no more, no less.  I have the shortest legs of anyone I know.  I cannot run to save my life, literally.  My heart physically fails me many times.  I have physical scars and bruises that aren’t that attractive.  My posture is atrocious.  My mouth gets me into trouble more than I’d care to share.  My upper body strength is shameful.  But all of these pale in comparison to this undeniable, unfathomable fact: I am a childhood trauma victim.

For the longest time I thought this label – this yoke around my neck – was nothing more than a delineation between me and other kids growing up.  Heck, I didn’t even think that for years.  I honestly believed that my life was a variant of normal – that all the girls experienced what I did; this was how Daddys showed their daughters love, and I was so very special and so very loved.

In my teen years, I didn’t want to be different, special in any way.  I wanted to be loved the right way, by the right guy…but at that point I was simply powerless to stop the momentum that had existed for so long.  So instead I made a decision:  I wasn’t special; I wasn’t different; and I certainly wasn’t a victim.

Once everything was exposed, and the ugliness began – the circles of blame and hurt feelings and raw emotions and bitterness – I sealed off that section of myself; blow-torched the edges and didn’t look back.  And it was settled…there was no damage, there was no problem, and there was no discussion necessary, period.  But I was so very wrong, for just because I had issued forgiveness for my Father, I had never ever forgiven myself, and it never once occurred to me that I was in far more need than he would ever be.

Since I had sealed off that portion of my life, I had never truly walked through how that experience changed me, formed me into the adult I became.  I entered a marriage still broken but functioning, in complete denial that the events of my trauma would ever touch another relationship.  In the early years of our marriage, my husband did make a valiant attempt to reach me, but he never possessed that capacity to fix what I had no cognitive knowledge was so vastly distorted – no one man could have taken on that task without my support and professional assistance – of this I am now keenly aware.

Also, because I had not examined how I was impacted by my trauma, my choices of relationships continued to be impacted, as our marriage stumbled and ultimately faltered, from a combination of both of our shortcomings.  I sincerely believe it took this event – the destruction of my marriage – to bring me to my knees, emotionally, spiritually, physically – before God and finally seek the answers within myself that had always been there, but that I had not been prepared before then to reveal.

As I’ve spoken of before, this heart work is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it is the most critical work I will ever do – for the health of myself and those around me.  I cannot be the best me I can be without finding the cause of my pain, identified or not, and choosing to walk through that.  Simply identifying the issues, past and present, but refusing to make the necessary changes is not going to bring about the healthiest version of you.  It is in the walking it out that you find who you really are, who you were meant to be, and the you that God desired for you to become.  This is the critical piece.

I also believe I’ve discovered there is no completion to this work; it is a process we must continue daily.  Though I have come a long way in deciphering why I make the choices I make, and where some of those bad choices have taken me, there are still choices to be made – each and every day.  Though I can now recognize behaviors that seem familiar and safe and remember that those aren’t working for me any longer that takes a conscious decision each and every time, choosing the better path laid out before me.

I would still contend that I am not a victim, but rather a survivor.  In fact, I loathe the word ‘victim.’  The implication is helplessness, hopelessness, and weakness.  I am certainly none of these things.  I am strong, wise, and loved.  I have a pep in my step that has been missing probably forever.  I walk with my head up instead of looking down because of unworthiness.  I am a Princess, and I won’t be diminished by titles lobbed at me by this world.  And while I can’t grow any taller, I can lengthen my gait by keeping on this new path, this healthy path, and realizing that when I stumble, I can reflect on where I’ve come from to get me on track again.

You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!

I have this gift – it can be viewed as a blessing or much, much less, depending on your perspective.  I never forget anything.  Even the tiniest of things with no significance to some, I remember.  Yesterday was a date of some great importance.  Two years ago yesterday, my supposed ‘normal’ life was altered forever.  My 22 year marriage stopped existing as my spouse informed me it no longer did.  I wasn’t asked for my input, there was no discussion, there wasn’t even an argument – just the announcement of the end.

As I reflect on these 2 years, my initial thoughts are that it seems so very long ago.  While the words still sting like a fresh wound, I hardly remember what I felt in those first moments.  I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing – but other than my tears, I have no idea what was in my head as the longest relationship of my life was ended in 5 words.  It’s funny how I can remember September 11 like it was yesterday – where I stood, paralyzed by fear, glued to the television as the images came across, the gasps and the tears as the first Tower fell, the longing for my family to be whole and home immediately so I knew they were safe, the complete numbness as the second Tower fell, the inability to turn away from the news coverage for days afterwards.  But this inner destruction, this attack on my person, my family…happened right in front of my face…and yet the feelings and emotions were lodged so deeply inside that it seemed that they might never see the light of day.  Instinctual mode broke free and took hold, and my motions became robotic – protect my children, show no weakness, do not become broken.  Going through the motions, really…not feeling a thing.

Time is the enemy of numbness.  Just like going to the dentist, eventually the Novocain wears off, and the residual pain breaks through.  This is when the real work begins…learning to feel those feelings, meet them head on, one at a time, acknowledge their value and purpose, realize that you can survive the process and come out on the other side, stronger and wiser.  But it is just that…work…and it’s hard and painstaking, and you have to want to get through it and see what you’re made of.  For me, that meant a lot of soul-searching and a phenomenal therapist who never once judged me, told me what I felt was wrong or inappropriate, and helped to guide me through everything I was experiencing.

The biggest piece, though, was that I was ready to get healthy and whole – for me.  You can’t experience any kind of traumatic event and then walk it out for someone else.  Sure, you can try that – but the results come back hollow and meaningless – because you’re trying to walk your journey to please another, and that never, ever works.  You can’t live your life to please someone else, and you certainly can’t sift through your junk to suit their needs.

The entire 2 years haven’t been rosebuds and raindrops.  Divorce, I have found, is a very despicable word.  I never realized just how ugly people who once loved each other can become when pushed to their breaking points.  Battles over possessions, property and payments cannot be made kind.  And when children are involved, one parent has to be annihilated to make the other one more appealing – there is no simpler way to put it.  The number of times I have sat in that Family Court in the last 2 years has embarrassingly made me an expert on something I take no pride in knowing about.  And I can say this in all truthfulness – God stands outside that Courthouse, as the feeling of evil upon entering envelopes you like a heavy wool blanket each time and you know you need to be washed clean when you leave.  Love was never intended to be this way…ever.

As I’ve moved forward in my process of healing, I’ve decided that I have a small responsibility in his healing too.  Not in his process, his choices, or his actions – but solely in how I choose to treat the man I once loved.  If I continue to treat him with disdain in my heart, and yet intend to show Jesus to strangers, aren’t I being a hypocrite?  How can I show any less than the love of Jesus to him?  This is certainly not to say when he is hurtful I am just to accept it openly.  That person is gone – the one that allowed herself to be quashed for years, silenced by emotional abuse that I was embarrassed to reveal.  But I do not have to allow myself to be baited by his hurtfulness.  I am stronger now, and I am secure in who I am.  I won’t be confused about that ever again.

So what does all of this mean?  Because I am healthier, I can lead my children in a much better way.  They don’t have to be confused or afraid of what is happening in their own home.  We all are prospering – a word I wouldn’t have dreamed to use even a year ago.  Each of the kids has a path they are on, and they are making their way.  And their Mama?  For the first time in a long, long time…she’s happy and making plans to enjoy the days in front of her.  I am done looking back…my ‘new’ is ahead and it’s waiting for me to discover it.  I can’t wait!