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Bygones 

There was a time, fifteen or twenty years ago, when I took an average of 2000 photos a year. That might not be so impressive now, in the era of unlimited digital storage, but this was when we had to buy film, carry a camera, get it developed, and hope that the shot came out right. It was expensive, especially since I was paying for it with a minimum wage job while in high school and college. 

Since then, I have moved A LOT. Over and over, I’ve packed up albums and books and boxes of prints and taken them with me. All those boxes get heavy after a while, especially when those pictures don’t mean what they used to. 

They are a record of my life, and in that, they have value. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to only keep the happy, or the current. But at what point do I stop carrying those photos with me? 

What do you do with photographs of family members who have chosen to no longer consider you family? Or of former best friends who betrayed that trust? Or of religious celebrations and milestones along the path towards what was eventually abuse and cruelty? These people and places are part of my story. I don’t think I need to memorialize them anymore. 

So, little by little, I toss them out. When I have a brave moment, I sift through them and, if I feel only loss, bitterness, or sorrow when I look at it, I put it in the garbage pile. I choose which parts of my story to carry with me to the next place. 

Today has been one of those days. As part of a larger effort to take charge of some projects I’m always meaning to do, I sorted another album today. I have another stack of photos to toss. It’s always a terribly complicated feeling. I’m sorrowful for the way things ended, for the hurt caused. 

This time, though, I’m also sorry for them because they missed out. Life is pretty good now, and they chose to step away, not knowing who I have become. They never saw me so thoroughly happy. They will never meet my fiance. They don’t get to be a part of the adventures ahead. 

That sounds a little arrogant, I guess, but at least it’s honest. Maybe a different person would be more comfortable keeping so many old pictures. Maybe some day, I will regret it. What is more likely, I’m pretty sure, is that I would continue to carry them around, to wince when I see them mixed in with happier memories, that some day, I will find myself having to explain who the stranger is. 
Today, I made more room for more photographs. Photos of my upcoming wedding, honeymoon, anniversaries, parties, graduations, Christmases, and cats. There is a lot to look forward to. Even if it requires taking a few painful moments to let old memories go. 

The trash pile

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Bits and Pieces

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who found herself floating between worlds. Without any control over it, she wandered between homes, between patchwork families who all meant so much to her. These families lived all over the Midwest, and inevitably, when she was with one, as happy as she was, and as loved as she was, she missed the others. As she grew, so did the scope of her families. Fellow choir singers, college buddies, seminary partners, and assorted strays wandered in and sat down for a while. Life has a way of continuing to move onward, shifting shape as soon as she figured part of it out. As the shape of life changed, so did her heart.

Most people seem to experience this evolution as growth; hearts get bigger when there are more people to love. For this meandering fool, it is precisely the opposite.

E. E. Cummings famously wrote “i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart).” It’s a lovely poem, but the truer truth, for me, would be the inverse: “you carry my heart (you carry it in your heart).” Over time, I have come to realize that my heart does not primarily beat within my own chest. Instead, it has been willingly parcelled out into the care of people who love a piece of it. My heart beats within the hearts of so many others. If I were solely responsible for the care of my own heart, I would no doubt break it irreparably before sundown.

This means that my heart often beats in places far away from me. My life, my soul, my broken little brain all long for the times that I am reunited with these bits and pieces. I know no other way to describe how it is that to encounter some people is to also reconnect with a bit of myself.

For a few years now, one piece has been tucked away in Istanbul, safely held by my cousin, Vince. We were not particularly close growing up, and still, now, we don’t communicate like we should, but nonetheless, there is a bond. I worry for him like I do very few people. He is a mix of a tender spirit, an intense resilience, and quiet intelligence that I admire. He is the one who holds the title for Best Hug of my Lifetime, given on the Easter when I first saw him after his first tour in Iraq. With him, my anxious self is comforted and doesn’t fear vulnerability. It seems like our own experiences, though very different, seem to give us a slightly different understanding of both fragility and strength.

Tonight, I got to see him for the first time in several years. We did some catching up and then moved on to theology, able to discuss our churches and faiths like I seldom get to do. I wish we had had more time. He invited me to visit him in Istanbul, and now, I’m trying to figure out how to make that happen.

I am always bewildered whenever anyone seems willing to care for a piece of my heart, but I’m grateful that they do. It’s a relief to know that he holds onto a bit of it. When he said, as he was leaving, to make sure I talk to him if things get hard, I could have cried. I know without a doubt that he meant it. I know that, should (when) things darken, he will listen and remind me that all is not in peril because he carries a bit of my heart(he carries it in his heart).

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Bloom Baby

When she was born, my niece, Sarah, was itty bitty. She is a twin, and they were so early that she was this teeny little pink baby who was far too little for her pink clothes. Maybe that’s why I called her Sarahberry; she was such a little bit of shocking pink that stood out from her older and twin brothers.

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One of my very favorites. Just look at her eyes.

The only girl with three brothers, it’s no surprise that she ended up seamlessly floating between princess and tomboy. She played T-ball like her brothers but wore sparkles when she wasn’t in uniform. She discovered she liked soccer a lot more than baseball, so she eventually dropped the one for the other and she has stuck with it. Life with brothers is good training for the battle field that is soccer, and while she is still little, she is tenacious.

One summer afternoon, my younger sister, Noonie, and I took the kids to the neighborhood park. It was one of those afternoons that only happen in cereal commercials, where the weather is perfect, the kids behave, and every playful football spirals. At some point, Noonie made Sarah a clover crown. When we were in the kitchen, I took her picture with a bit of fear.

“Oh, baby girl, stay like this as long as you can. Don’t ever stop being the little girl with dirt on her knees and flowers in her hair.”

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Flower girl

I was afraid of what would be inevitable: the heartache and struggles that we all face as we grow up. I took the picture as proof to myself, and someday to her, that life was once as simple as summer tans and clover crowns.

Sarahberry is thirteen now, in so many ways. I often find myself saying that teens are the age group I understand the least. She’s proving me wrong, and I don’t mind it at all. Of course familiarity helps, but she really isn’t all that hard to understand: she likes soccer, “old people food,” learning how to cook and do crafts, bugging her brothers, and reading. She has never met an animal she doesn’t like and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. She is bright and beautiful, happy and generous. She never seems afraid to be herself.

A few weeks ago, she came to stay for a few days over spring break and we hung out. She doesn’t seem to think or care that I’m not cool, and we watched nerdy TV, went to see Cinderella, and walked around the mall where we looked at prom dresses.

She is not likely to get any taller than her present five feet, has fewer curves than I did at 13, and her bubbly self makes her seem even younger, so she has seemed like a bit of a late bloomer to me. We pointed out dresses we thought were pretty, which were garish, and which ones our fathers would hang us for wearing. To my delighted relief, she was quick to say that she had no interest in wearing “the slutty stuff.”

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At Pa's birthday dinner

We talked about everything, from her teachers to boys to what kind of veterinarian she wanted to be. We walked through racks of clothing and all I could think is You’re growing up too fast! Stop it!

It’s a horrible, wretched bit of wonderful misery to both love seeing her learn and experience new things while also wanting to hit pause and just enjoy this. Someday, she won’t be thirteen and all I will have is photographs and memories of this incredible girl. There won’t be choir concerts or games, and while there will be new things to enjoy, I so love the kid she is right now.

“I get my toes stepped on a lot because I’m a defender.”

A few weeks ago, Sarahberry tore her ACL at soccer, so she had surgery last Friday. On Tuesday, I went to keep her company and give her mom a chance to get out of the house. We watched Adam Sandler and she laughed like it was the funniest thing she’s seen. Later that night, I offered to paint her nails for her, but I have to say, her toenails were a challenge: tiny, oddly shaped, and sort of deep-set into her toes, and I ended up doing a pretty sloppy job. She told me that it was OK, though, because everyone has a hard time with painting them. Because of getting stepped on all the time on the field, her toes take quite a beating.

She was being literal, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. We are called to defend those who need it, and in doing so, we get stepped on. Sarah has a defender’s heart. She can’t help but love the wounded animal, give to the friend who has less, or help the old person who needs it. Her tenacity comes in handy here, because she doesn’t back down or give up easily. She is still young enough to not have had her toes stepped on too many times in the process, and as I kept painting her nails, I wanted to beg her: Do not stop defending. No matter how many times your toes are stepped on, or how much it hurts to keep walking. Keep your heart just like it is.

In a lot of ways, my Sarahberry is still, thankfully, the girl with clover in her hair. She is still usually covered in some combination of dirt and glitter. What I think I understand better now is that my darling Sarahberry is not becoming a new person but she is continuing to become her own person. What a beautiful and appropriate word “blooming” is for her. In every stage, she has been beautiful and captivating, and she will continue to be. I get to be one of the lucky ones who gets to be a part of that. I don’t know how I won that lottery, but dang, I’m glad I did.

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We're so classy. So very classy.

My Friends, the SuperHeroes

If I had to choose, it really wouldn’t be much of a contest between Marvel and DC Comics – Marvel would win just about every time. That said, I happen to be friends with a family of superheroes that would probably fit right in with the DC gang.

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SuperEwan being interviewed by the press on an Adventure Day!

Like every legend, it didn’t start out as a way to get publicity or notoriety; it started in the kind, epic heart of a little boy named Ewan, who wanted to help people who are homeless in Detroit, near where he lives. His parents decided to put Ewan’s heart into action, and through the magic of social media, it has become a cause that not only the family works on, but one that the community is helping make happen. Elderly widows, Boy Scout troops, and random strangers contact SuperEwan’s mom, Ange, and twice a month, they load up vehicles and take food, clothing, and other supplies to people who struggle. No questions asked. No names collected and turned into any agency. As far as I know, no one has ever been turned away.

SuperEwan is humble, silly, empathic, and smart. It’s no surprise that he is such an admirable kid when his parents are such welcoming, open-hearted people who continue to impress me with their honesty and grace. His younger siblings, a preschooler and a toddler, get in on it, too, packing baggies of toiletries and tagging along on “Adventure Days.”

If you haven’t seen his page already, pretty pretty please check out http://www.SuperEwan.org! There, you’ll find links to articles about their adventures, television interviews, and more. There are also ways for you to get involved, whether it’s a donation or reblog or other effort. There is a Facebook page, too, and he gets really excited about new likes/followers, do even if you can’t donate, a “like” will make him smile – and he has a great smile. SuperEwan is a nonprofit organization, meaning donations are deductible.

Patchwork

Today, I woke at an ungodly hour, loaded a few bags in the car, and headed off to a small town in Michigan to spend the holiday with family I’d never met and to whom I’m not related.

I don’t know how long ago I “met” my friend Ange in a Facebook group. It feels like I’ve always known her. Smart, funny, humble, and more than anything, loving, Ange has become like another sister. It’s no surprise that she invited me to come spend Thanksgiving with her and her family, but it’s quite a privilege.

I was really excited last night when I heard some other friends from our group would be here, too. Kelsie, Phil, Cassie, and Angela were here for Ange’s annual pre-holiday party, too, and though almost all of our communication has been through Facebook, it felt like seeing family.

One of the best parts of being an adult is the ability to pick my own family, to an extent. Somewhere along the way, my path crosses with someone else’s we unconsciously decide to “keep” one another, stitching ourselves together kind of like patchwork. Not the precisely tailored pieces that are so carefully planned out, but irregular bits of material that somehow fit together in ways that are sometimes unexpected.

Coming to Michigan has been good for my soul. It’s a real-time reminder of the support and love I have. It’s a welcome distraction from my daily thoughts about what is going to happen next. It’s fun to watch her 14 month old try to sneak another cookie from the table and it was exciting when the otherwise shy three-year-old decided I was OK to talk to. To get hugs and smiles and feel a little more alive again is well worth the drive.

For as long as I can remember, vacations have usually involved crashing on a couch or spare bed while I visit my patchwork family. Perhaps a huge bed with a zillion pillows would be more comfortable, but how lucky am I that I have people who welcome me into their homes like this? Not everyone gets to bunk with Feenie and fall asleep listening to Crosby giggles from downstairs.

Oh Freedom!

A week ago, while packing up the house as fast as I could, an old choir song popped in my head. If I remember correctly, it’s a South African anthem that is little more than a few lines sung over and over:

Oh freedom!
Oh freedom!
Oh freedom!
Freedom is coming: oh yes I know!

I was hurrying to leave an unhealthy situation, and it was like I was inches away from exiting the dark tunnel I had been in for years.

I knew leaving was the best decision for me. My health and safety depended upon it. Despite not being as perfectly timed as I would have liked, I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed out.

For the last week, I’ve been happier than I have been in probably a decade. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right descriptor. “Lighter” might be better. “Freer” is certainly true.

I haven’t been afraid for a week. That is EPIC for me. I haven’t had to take my anxiety meds for a week.

When I told my youngest nephew, who’s almost 6, that I don’t live far away anymore, he gasped and squealed. My oldest nephew, 17, gave me one really long hug Friday night AND a second one on Saturday. My middle nephew hugged me while at his middle school with his friends and then later paused his Xbox game and made his friend wait while he hugged me goodbye. Oh my gosh, friends! Wanting to be there for them and wanting them to know I love them are a few of the reasons I left, but these boys were there for me and let me know they love me. I haven’t seen my niece yet, but I’ve already heard about how happy she is, too.

The second day I was here, I got on the scale in my parents’ bathroom, and it said I’d lost 20 pounds overnight. Clearly I hadn’t, but I feel lighter without the weight of the world on me.

My family has noticed, too. I have had a few moments when I snapped too harshly at them when I was overly tired, but even with those moments, they have seen a happier me than they have in a long time. When my mother mentioned it Friday night, I told her that there was great freedom and joy in knowing that the people I feared, the ones who had intimidated me for years, couldn’t take anything away from me anymore.

I commented to a friend tonight that I almost feel like I “should” be more upset than I am. I have moments that are harder than others, but generally, I’m doing pretty well.

I was very worried that I would lose people when I left, but if anything, I’ve become more certain that I’ve kept the right group of people around me. The same people who loved me several weeks ago are the ones who are still cheering me on today. They are magnificent.

This week is more job hunting and hoping for a call back from the place at which I interviewed on Friday. I tried out a new church today and loved it, so I get to look forward to going back next week. I still haven’t really unpacked everything, so that’s on the agenda as well. Nothing earth-shatteringly new, except for this little bitty thing that is still new to me:

Freedom.

This Boy

I was seventeen when he came into my life somewhat unexpectedly. We were both blonde and chubby, although he was given a pass; infants are supposed to be chubby.

My eldest nephew, Pokey, was born on a cold November 10 morning. My sister’s first born, this darling boy managed his first heroic feat just by being; in ways I can’t articulate, he seemed to save my sister. She became a new person, like most women do when they become mothers. At the same time, she was the same person she had always been, since she was like a second mother to me and my younger siblings.

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Probably 2003

I changed, too. I became an aunt, the favoritest title I’ve ever had. I babysat, changed diapers, spent money earned at the video store on presents. I couldn’t help it. I adored him. My sister lived in the house next door to ours, so I saw Pokey every day. I got to play a bigger role than some aunts do in helping him grow up. I am so very lucky. 

April 24, 2000 was the first time he said he loves me. We were sitting at the table at my great-grandmother’s house and he suddenly said ‘I yuh you,” to which I said “You love me?” “Yep” was all he said and he went back to eating oyster crackers and watching PBS. He was 2 1/2.

I have countless memories of flag football, Saturday morning bowling, Halloween costumes, and squishy noses. I have stacks of pictures of Little League games, birthday parties, and candids.

The hardest part of moving away to college was knowing how far I would be from him and his eventual siblings. It was a million times harder than leaving my parents or anyone else. Coming home to see them was the highlight of any return trip.

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His nose is perfectly squishy.

One day, when he was eleven, I was in training, and we had a random day off of classes. I hopped on the Metra train and went out to my sister’s. When Pokey got home from school, he hadn’t been expecting me, so he didn’t think far enough to play it cool when he walked through the door. He squealed and jumped up and down. It was a moment when I felt so very loved.

He’s an incredible athlete, a great big brother, and exactly the kind of teenager people hope their kids will turn out to be. I was lucky enough in my ministry appointments to be near enough that I could still make it to the occasional football game or Easter dinner. He humors his old aunt, and for that I’m grateful. I love spending time with him, even if he is WAY cooler than me.

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Pokey with his best friend and youngest brother after a game

He turned seventeen on Monday. The same age I was when he was born.

Monday also happened to be the day I moved home, having resigned for the sake of my health and my family. As I drove the Uhaul home that night, I decided that this year, nephew gets his aunt back for his birthday. No more fearful, quiet, angry aunt, exhausted and unhealthy from a difficult work environment. He might be too old for Tickle Monster attacks now, but he can still laugh with me (and sometimes at me). I doubt that any seventeen year old kid is terribly excited about getting a geeky, slightly broken aunt for his birthday.

But tonight, when I got to my sister’s for the first time since being home, I hugged him in the basement after he turned on the Wii for his youngest brother. Instead of the too-cool-for-this hugs he usually obliges me with on holidays, he gave me a real hug. And he didn’t let go right away either. In those seconds, hugging this kid who is now taller than me even when I’m in heels, it felt like part of the world was made right again. I doubt that he has any idea what it meant to me. I don’t think he has a clue that he is part of why I am home. I’m not sure that he’s given my return a ton of thought (not because he’s careless, but because he’s a seventeen year old with a busy life), but I’m going to allow myself a bit of delusion and think that that hug meant a little more than the birthday hugs. I’m going to think that his arms around me, head on my shoulders, and solid almost-ten-seconds of a hug means that he is glad I’m home.

This boy who is almost a man has been in my life for half of my existence. I’m really looking forward to getting to be a bigger part of his life again, now that I’m home.

Riser

I’m a riser.
I’m a get up off the ground, don’t run and hide-er.
When pushin’ comes to shovin’, hey I’m a fighter.
When darkness comes to town, I’m a lighter.
A get out alive-er
I’m a fighter.
I’m a riser.
~ from Dierks Bentley’s “Riser”

Sometimes I wish that maternal names were passed down as readily as paternal names. It’s not that I want to change my name or that I am not proud to have my father’s surname, but in my family, women seem to have stronger personalities than the men. There is no doubt that my great-grandma, Nanny, runs things like the Godfather in a girdle.

As far back as I have heard stories, the women in my family were daring, and it would be nice to be able to say that’s from the _______ side, but the women all had two last names. The courage and wit that made them who they were was present before they got married, but to think of them using maiden names seems disrespectful to their eventual marriages and the women they became.

I’ve decided to use the maiden name of the farthest-back woman I know, my great-great-great-grandma, Mary Jonasson to say with pride that while I’m no less my father’s daughter, I’m also a Jonasson.

I just forget that sometimes. It’s been hard to remember that I’m a Jonasson lately. I’m weary and worn down by circumstances, and there have been more rough days than might be fair lately. So I forgot that I’m tougher than people think, that I’m smarter than my circumstances, and that I have a pretty strong history of succeeding in spite of being dealt a crappy hand sometimes. I’ve let myself feel defeated by insecure bullies because they seem to have found all my own insecurities to their great delight.

As of tonight, I’m done with being defeated. I’m not perfect. There are a LOT of insecurities and uncertainties hanging over my head. I’d wager that Mary Jonasson had them too, as she boarded a ship in Sweden and set off for America, which happened to be in the middle of a civil war, at the age of 18, all alone. But her fears are not why I admire her so. It’s her determination to succeed anyways. The same determination that got passed down through generations of women until it got to me.

There will be more challenging days ahead, but by God, I’m a Jonasson. And that gives me a good head start on those tough days.

A Kind of Homelessness

As I walked out one evening
To breathe the air and soothe my mind
I thought of friends and the home I had
And all those things I’ve left behind

A silent star shone on me
My eyes saw a far horizon
As if to pierce this veil of time
And escape this earthly prison

Will there come a time when the memories fade
And pass on with the long, long years
When the ties no longer bind
Lord save me from this darkest fear

Don’t let me come home a stranger
I couldn’t stand to be a stranger
Lord save me from this darkest fear
Don’t let me come home a stranger
I couldn’t stand to be a stranger

~”Don’t Let Me Come Home a Stranger” by Fernando Ortega*

To know and be known is one of the most intense desires we have. Nearly everything we do is an attempt to relate with one another in some way. Some of us do so broadly, wanting to connect with as many people as possible, seeing everyone as an opportunity to explore more of what it means to be part of the human race. Some of us are narrower in our focus, targeting fewer people but desperately hoping that those relationships will be deeper and deeper, getting to know the other while knowing ourselves. I tend to be in the middle, but trending a little more towards the latter. No matter where you fall, the goal is the same: to know and to be known.

In my denomination, we are placed into our congregations, with little control over where we are sent (though we are given an opportunity to give some input), and two months ago I was transferred to a different congregation about 100 air-miles farther away from home. I’ve moved a lot in my lifetime, and the hardest part is that when I move, I continue to grow and change, and everyone at home continues to grow and change, and that means coming home isn’t quite what it used to be. We have to go farther back in our memories to talk about “that one time when…” Our conversations are more like update sessions, like rehearsing the Christmas letter that people used to write, highlighting what has happened in the months since the last time we saw one another.

It’s not the same as it used to be.

The last time I went home was for Brandon’s birthday. It was just a few weeks after I’d moved to Iowa, and it was such a relief to go home to the Chicago suburbs. To drive the streets I know by heart, to breathe the air I used to breathe (poluted as it may be, at least it never smells like manure), and even more importantly, to feel my heart settle into the rhythm of home. When it was time to leave, I was composed until I got into my van in the hotel parking lot.

Then I lost it. I hate crying and don’t do it often, but I couldn’t help myself. I sobbed. I didn’t want to leave because every time I come back, I know I’m a little different. That home is a little different.

I am afraid of the day when home isn’t home anymore. I don’t have any blood-related family there anymore. The homes in which I grew up are now just houses on Hawthorne, no longer places where I am free to come and go as I please. The horse farms are gone, there’s a Target and Chili’s near the high school, and we are a little more like strangers than we used to be.

I have a townhouse to live in. A comfortable bed, running water, food in the fridge, and a snoring dog to keep me company. I am very grateful for these things. I just don’t know that this place will ever feel like home.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like I’m home again. That scares me. It causes me a lot of anxiety.

I don’t want to become a stranger, but I don’t know how to stop that, either.

Moments

When I don’t expect them, there are moments…

When my 12-year-old niece is excited to see me and leaves her friends to come say hi, either not knowing or not caring that I’m not at all cool and won’t improve her social image.

When my 5-year-old nephew spends hours playing game after game with me, mercilessly taunting me when I lose at a Mario-themed Wii baseball game, gloating as he does squealing victory laps around the basement.

When I look at the varsity football field and am stupified that the guy who just caught an interception is the nearly-grown-up version of the little nephew who loved A Goofy Movie and used to love attacks from the Tickle Monster.

When I am the one who is able to get a riled-up, sensitive, impulsive, amazing tween nephew to calm down and feel better about himself and the situation. When I watch as he annoys his older brother by wanting to be just like him, just like I did with his mom when we were growing up.

When I am not expecting them, there are moments that make me feel like being Aunt Cindy is spectacular and possibly the coolest job I’ll ever have. Few people, if any, may ever know my name, but someday, the world will know theirs, and I’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets to say, “I loved them first.”

When I’m not expecting it, I’m reminded that these kids are why the world goes ’round.