On finding margin in a maddening world

I’m weary.

The last eighteen months have been unlike any others, and I just want to curl up in a ball with my dog until it’s over, especially in the face of more potential pandemic-related restrictions, new virus variants, and overwhelming uncertainty.

I suspect you feel the same.

Recently, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement launched a movement to make a concerted effort to ask patients what matters to them. In my current nursing role at a large city hospital, the responsibility for asking that question—what matters to you?—falls on me and my co-workers.

After interviewing tens of hundreds of patients over the last six months, overwhelmingly the answer to this question is, “going home.” No matter what the diagnosis–appendicitis, major abdominal surgery, cancer, or worse–the most important thing to patients is to be able to go home. 

I considered this in the context of our collective anxiety about the pandemic. Some of us have lost loved ones to the virus. Some of us have contracted the virus and survived. Others have lost jobs, goals, futures, and more. Our mental and spiritual hearts hurt just as much as hospitalized patients hurt physically. 

We just want to go home. 

Of course I am speaking proverbially since most of those reading this are likely at home, or will be home at the end of the day. But indeed, our hearts ache for a season wrapped in a quilt of peace, sitting beside a hearthside of certainty, nestled in a cozy room, familiar and safe and secure. 

Home. 

No one can say how long this pandemic will linger, how many viral variants we will face, or when–and if–things will return to “normal.” In the midst of that, we must find ways to live with hope in spite of our circumstances, to find a heart-home of peace that allows us the margin to find joy. Fortunately, the Bible has a lot to say about that. 

1) Home is peace.
While we are promised trouble in this world, we are also promised peace in the midst. Our secure dwellings may not be made of bricks and mortar, but indeed of something greater: peace in quiet resting places with the Lord. 

What does this look like in the midst of a global pandemic? I’ve been searching for that answer as well. Pushing aside the overwhelming onslaught of news and social media, I’ve found peace in the smallest of things: butterflies lighting on my coneflowers, abundance of zinnia blooms, a goldfinch visiting our feeders. Even more, I’ve found a comfort in the way light reflects from favorite books on bookshelves, the graceful slouch of an afghan over the arm of our sofa, of a counter full of snacks for our young adult sons. We are together and we are well. That is peace. That is home.


My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
Isaiah 32:18 ESV


2) Home is presence.
In the same way that peace is found in the cozy shadows and gardens of our physical houses, home is a feeling when the detritus of the world falls away and we can be truly present with our loved ones.

Since we know that our God is a God of community, we can also know that the pressure to isolate, whether physically or more subtly with masks and headphones, is a threat to the bonds God intended for us have in order to encourage each other. That’s not to say that masks and social distancing are not appropriate–as a nurse on a designated COVID hospital unit I acknowledge the importance of this more than most. What I propose is that we continue to be diligent in our friendships and community with others, so that together and with wisdom we continue to discover joy in the midst of all this hard.


By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. Proverbs 24:3-4


3) Home is eternal.

As I type, I’m sitting on my beloved back patio. Wind is rushing through the tree limbs, cardinals sing, and the last rays of sunlight dapple the world around me. I give thanks many times a day for the little home we’ve renovated and worked so hard to make our very own. At the same time, I know this bricks-and-mortar home is fleeting. Natural disaster, unforeseen financial difficulties, and anything in between could remove it from our lives forever. 

In the same way, the pandemic threatens all of us. Nothing is for certain. Not our earthly homes. Not our physical well-being. Nothing. Nothing except for the promise of 2 Corinthians 5:1, which assures us that our true home is eternal and in the heavens. 

This is a difficult concept to grasp, let alone surrender to, when faced with the horrific realities of life on earth in the midst of a pandemic. However, how much sweeter our fleeting time will be if and when we can realize that there is a hope–indeed a HOME–beyond all this, and a Father who longs to comfort us there for eternity.


For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Corinthians 5:1 ESV

***


I pray these three reminders–hope is peace, hope is presence, and hope is eternal–help redirect the anxiety in your heart toward the faithfulness of out Lord, and that you discover a heart-hope of peace as we navigate these uncertain days together.

In which I write about 2020 even though I don’t feel like it, favorite books of the year, 2021 TBR list, a new release, and my One Word.

New Year’s Day, 2021.

Outside, ice pelts the window and slicks the sidewalks, and the gray skies wrap my little world with a gloomy sort of comfort as I sit on my bed with my pup and my brand new calendar/planner.

The ambivalence of looking back over the unimaginable past year causes a wrench in my gut I’ve grown accustomed to…an ache of dread, my whole body overwhelmed with the lactic acid build-up of a year of bracing myself for whatever hell is looming around the next corner.

When my husband and youngest son and I watched the ball drop in Times Square last night, the relief felt strange and temporary. After all this time spent emotionally—even physically—hunkering down against the 2020 tsunami, I’m finding it difficult to straighten myself enough to look up, let alone ahead.

One of my all time favorite books is Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren Winner. In the chapter on grief, Lauren describes the Jewish tradition of praising God in the midst of grief and mourning, even and especially when you don’t feel like it. By continuing to speak truths about God’s goodness and faithfulness, we eventually come around to feeling that goodness and faithfulness again.

Today, I don’t feel like celebrating. I don’t feel like writing my annual turn-of-the-year blog post. My soul is just plain raw from being a healthcare worker in the midst of this pandemic, from the normal, everyday effects of this pandemic, from the heart-rending social unrest in our country, and from a few other significant and personal losses of 2020. And yet, my head knows God has been so good and merciful to me and my family through it all.

So I’m writing this blog today anyway.

I may not be steadfast, but my God is.

First off, my favorite reads of 2020.

Frustratingly, I fell far short of my 75 book goal for 2020. I read over 90 in 2019, so I thought 75 was modest and obtainable. But I only got around to 41. Even then, I regret that I didn’t even really like most of the ones I read. Maybe in another year I would have liked some of them better, but I doubt it. Picking up books in 2020 felt like picking chocolates out of a Whitman’s Sampler box and getting all the nasty ones.

They weren’t all bad, though. Seven stood out to me:

1. Cutting for Stones, by Verghese: This one actually made it to my all-time favorites list. Just so beautifully written and engaging and thought-provoking; even life changing.

2. The Dutch House, by Patchett: Beautiful, descriptive prose, and set in Brooklyn, NY, which I had the chance to visit on the verge of the pandemic. Loved the story. Love that city.

3. A Time For Mercy, by Grisham: Pure entertainment, consistent with his earlier and better work. Also, the return of Jake Brigance. how can you not love a book that makes you picture Matthew McConaughey as the protagonist the whole time you’re reading?

4. The Guest List, by Foley: Again, pure entertainment. A great mystery that kept me guessing. It’s rare that I find a book I can’t put down, and this was one for sure.

5. Such a Fun Age, by Reid: A solid story and enthralling plot that spoke convictingly to the societal, racial issues of today without being preachy. Loved it.

6. House Calls and Hitching Posts, by Hoover: A heartwarming read when I needed my heart to be warmed. The true stories of a doctor to the Amish that reminded me all over again why I love being a nurse.

7. You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Robinson. In a year in which book sellers bombarded us with must-read books on race (many of them very angry and not even written by POC), I found this one to be at once convicting, honest, and inspiring, because it really helped me see what life is like for POC. Robinson made me feel like she was talking to me as a friend, and at the end of the day, that is the kind of language that will help heal our nation.

These seven were definitely great reads.

I’m looking forward to more and better books in 2021…

…and here is my stack of priority reads on my bedside table. Strout, Robinson, and Kingsolver are three of my all time favorite authors, not to mention inspirations behind my writing.

I am continuing to read more books on race, and the parts I’ve read of Memorial Drive and I’m Still Here are really, really good so far. There are also a couple of nature books and books for research for a new novel I’m beginning to write.

This stack of books alone is good reason for me to look forward to 2021.

New book release!

What I’m most excited about is the release of THIS book in early June, 2021: 40 Days of Hope for Healthcare Heroes! I literally cried my way through writing this book of devotionals in the height of the pandemic this summer. It is a prayer and an offering to every health care worker I have ever had the privilege to work alongside, and I cannot wait until it hits the shelves! (Available for pre-order now from your favorite book seller!)

And finally, my One Word for 2021.

I enjoy the tradition of choosing a word as a sort of umbrella of conviction and inspiration for my year. For a long while I didn’t feel like I’d be able to identify one, but then RESTORE jumped out at me and I am clinging to it.

What better word for 2021, after all? The weariness is multifaceted for all of us, isn’t it? We long for restoration for our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our souls.

The best part of this word is that it just so happens to be the theme of my all-time favorite Bible verses, Joel 2:25:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm…”

Years ago I went through a dark time and planted a locust tree in our back yard as a way to remind me of this verse. Skinny and sparse at the time, it now provides shade across our entire patio, allowing us to sit outside in the heat of the summer.

The whole chapter of Joel 2 speaks to how God redeems a time that seemed irredeemable and inescapable for Israel. Not only does He redeem, he pours out His love and grace and peace out on His people on the other side of that time.

If you’re like me, maybe you don’t feel right now that any part of 2020 is redeemable. Maybe you feel like the doom and gloom of it are clawing at your heels in their attempt to cling and hijack their way into the new year.

But feelings are fleeting, friends.

Our God is faithful.

He will restore and redeem and renew.

So, happy new year, dear friends!

Praying peace and RESTORATION for each of you in 2021 and beyond!

Quarantine journals: April 30

When I was younger, I had a terrifying, recurrent dream. I can’t recall the circumstances, only that we were standing in a line at a school waiting for MREs, our only source of food. It was the sort of dream where your conscious is telling you in the midst that “it’s only a dream,” but you are so scared that you fight your way awake in the middle of the night.

This morning I drove by a local elementary school, and I was struck by how much it looks like the one in that old dream.

I know, it’s ridiculous, right?

We’re going to make it through this, right?

Some moments of my day, usually when I’m building or painting something, I don’t think about the virus. I don’t think about my patients at the hospital who were sick and anxious enough without COVID-19 to worry about. I don’t think about how so many of us are months, or weeks, or even days, of needing help to pay bills and get food.

But many moments–too many moments–I do think about it.

I wonder if my grandparents and great-grandparents felt like they were free-falling when the Great Depression hit. Because that’s how I feel–like I’m free falling. Like I’m in a dream and I know I’m in a dream, only this time, I can’t make myself wake up. I can’t make it go away.

I want to be able to get my nails done again. I want to get back to the treasured Saturday morning breakfasts out with my husband. I want to hug my patient who just received devastating news. I want to hug my friends again. I want to know that we aren’t headed toward bread lines and MREs and another Great Depression and things won’t get so bad that we’ll have to sell our house or go bankrupt or lose everything but the shirts on our backs.

I had anxiety and PTSD before all this, and I just wish it would all go away.

Now, I’m fully aware that a lot of the things I listed above are #firstworldproblems. By and large my family and I are doing okay. But everything is relative for everyone. A crisis to one person might appear as a blessing to another. We can’t judge the things that make each of us unravel.

We can only acknowledge that we are, each of us, unraveling about something in the midst of this madness.

So what can we do?

There are the obvious: acknowledge that your hurt and worry are real, and more importantly, valid. Seek mental help–most doctors are taking virtual visits, if not seeing serious cases in person. Do things–even one thing–to take care of your soul, whether putting up a bird house, reading a long-neglected book, trying a hobby you’ve been putting off, taking a bubble bath by candlelight.

One thing is for sure: We are not all in this together.

Some are suffering significantly more than others. Many–too many–are dying.

But we are all in this with God.

He has not changed.

He has not left us.

He has seen us through wars and famines and plagues. He has never promised us escape from these challenges, but He has promised us victory over them–either here on earth or in Heaven.

“…fear not, for I am with you;

be not dismayed, for I am your God;

I will strengthen you, I will help you,

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:10

The other day, I had the privilege of being at my cousins’ dairy farm when they opened the north pasture to grazing for the first time this season.

The gate opened, and the pretty jersey cows with their big, brown, puppy dog eyes just stood there, blinking, ankle deep in muck.

“Go on now,” the farmer hollered, encouraging them.

Still, they stood there and stared.

It’s as if they’d forgotten all the springs before and the freedom and sweet, honey taste of the emerald green pasture.

“Go out before them, walk all the way back over the bend of the hill,” my farmer cousin said to me.

The cows blinked some more, postures guarded, as they watched me walk farther and farther out into the pasture, my legs shin deep in the lush, green grass.

But then slowly, one by one, they walked toward the pasture.

They picked up their pace, little by little, until one, and then another, started to run–skip, really–their impossibly enormous frames light with glee when they finally realized what the farmer was offering them.

Freedom.

Honey sweet nourishment.

Goodness.

Love.

It was a Malachi 4:2 sort of day:

But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.”

The sort of day the Lord has in store for each of us, when this winter, this virus, this season lifts.

Be safe, dear friends.

Know you are loved and beloved.

Know that you are not alone.


 Lead Me Home is a novel inspired by my cousins’ dairy farm. It’s a story of two families and a town faced with immeasurable loss,  and how they find hope in the midst of it. You might like to give it a try, if you’re looking for the same: