To husband ourselves

“We are all body, mind, and spirit, and we need to husband ourselves on those levels.”

Barbara Braver shared this thought at a writing retreat I attended last week as part of Walking on Water: The Madeleine L’Engle Conference.

(Braver is a poet and writer who for several years shared Madeleine’s Upper West Side apartment during the week as she did work for the Episcopal Church in New York City.)

I paused for a moment when she said this because I’d never heard the word husband used in that context before—as a verb, rather than a noun. My pen hovered over the page as I transcribed the sentence into my notebook…

“Maybe I misheard her,” I thought. “Did she say tend instead?”

But no. She said “husband.”

So, like any good student, I wrote down what I heard and looked it up later when I got home.

According to Merriam-Webster, husband means, of course, a male partner in a marriage. But as a verb, it means “to manage prudently and economically.”

To continue down the definition rabbit hole, prudently means “marked by wisdom” and economically suggests care and efficiency. Even further down the hole, efficiency points to something that produces the “desired effects.”

So, to rephrase Braver…

“We are all body, mind, and spirit, and we need to wisely manage ourselves with care on those levels to produce the desired effect.”

That sucks the poetry right out of Braver’s original statement, but staring at that dissected sentence hits me with a wallop.

My body, my mind, my spirt all need managing—a managing born from wisdom and care with the aim of helping each of those elements produce the desired effect, helping them do what they are supposed to do.

What they are Designed to do.

To neglect one of those levels is to neglect part of my Design.

I’m glad I didn’t convince myself she said tend.

Dave

In 2014, my friend Dave died in his house that was just a couple blocks from mine.

I only know about the location of his home from the invoices he’d submit sporadically to the online news magazine where I served as editor and he served as contributor—our most unreliable contributor when it came to deadlines but our most reliable when it came to page views. Whatever Dave wrote, people read—partly because he was the frontman for GWAR. And partly because (I think) everything he wrote was totally over-the-top nuts…and good.

I was Dave’s editor for a couple of years. We emailed and texted weekly, but we never met in person. He was the lead singer of a heavy metal band, and I was a work-from-home mother of a toddler. I read the pieces he’d composed on tour buses crossing Australia during my breaks from folding laundry and (re)reading of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Our lives didn’t exactly line up.

But he was my friend.

In between his apologies for missed deadlines, he would always ask how our son was doing. He’d sign-off on text exchanges with things like:

“Have a good day with the kid, lil mama!”

or

“I know I put you through a lot of shit! You’re the best! Thanks for putting up with me!”

(He rarely ended a sentence with anything other than an exclamation point.)

But I wasn’t putting up with him. I liked Dave a lot. To me, he was a this big, loud tornado of a person—and I only experienced him over the phone or through the screen of my laptop. I can’t imagine what he would’ve been like in person.

I wish I’d gotten the chance to find out.

Fellow feeling

Q: Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be man?

A: It was requisite that the Mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.

(Westminster Standards, Larger Catechism #39)

A fellow feeling.

The power of my infirmities has felt unbeatable lately. I keep wondering what life would be like, how things would be different were it not for my mental illness. What would it be like to not live in this fog?

But what a comfort to know that Jesus, the Mediator, knows what to do with me when so many don’t—when I don’t.

What a thing. What a gift. What a God.

A prayer for Annabelle

May your heart be always full,

My your hair alway be red.

May sleep come to you quickly

When you snuggle into bed.

May your brother show you kindness,

May you give to him the same.

May you both always remember,

To honor your shared name.

May you know God’s love so deeply,

May you know His grace as true.

May you carry this forever:

He made you to be just you.

(With love, Queenie)

Just the one

I always thought we’d have two or three.

But here we are—and we are all here, I’m sure—three of us, sitting at the dining room table.

Three of us, taking up just a little bit of space in the pew.

Three of us, fitting fairly comfortably in a queen-sized bed to read or tap at screens.

Three of us, eating at Wendy’s for less than $25.

For a while there was a hole in my heart that I thought another baby would fill. Over time, God filled and closed that up with a great big love for and from our growing boy.

But there’s a tiny scar there. It holds whispers of what-ifs, of who-ifs…a delicate etching of a little girl’s face.

Bring babies to my funeral

When the time comes…

May the moment of silence break with the rattle of snack cups.

May pink bows and light-up sneakers pepper the sea of black.

May happy babbling mix with tears of remembrance.

May the scent of baby shampoo and Wet Wipes linger alongside the roses and lilies.

May hiccups and giggles join the chorus of the songs sending me Home.

Let me.

Anxiety prickles at the base of my neck. It spreads—hot, rushing—out to my shoulders and down my spine.

My brain and my heart want to make things right. They bring my body into the mix.

I clench my jaw, my hands. I’m holding my breath.

Open.
Exhale.

I want to fix it. My insides are screaming to call her, to explain, to do the work for her. Again.

But something else happens this time. A firm, loving pressure claims the space where the anxiety has gathered.

Something outside of me—but also inside—whispers.

Wait.
Watch.

The Spirit moves…and tells me not to.

I squirm. I refuse the comfort.

Let me.

The song of the psalmist replaces the taunting chorus of worry and guilt and anger in my head.

“Be still, and know that I am God.”

I open. I exhale. I wait. I watch.

New prayers of release—not hopelessness—find their way from my mouth.

Tears of spring water—not vinegar—pool and pour.

Jesus tells me, “Behold, I am making all things new!”

Yes, even this. Yes, even her. Yes, even us.

Liturgy

Having a chronic illness is like trying to take a relaxing stroll through a muddy path.

I feel held back, always. 

Always.

I’m forever moving a bit slower than I’d like because my thoughts are so focused on how I feel—not necessarily that I feel bad, just gathering data. What would it be like to not feel this heaviness in my chest and on my shoulders, always slowing my steps?

My pastor says often to “trust the liturgy.” Sometimes when you come to church, you’re just not feeling it. You don’t want to talk to anyone, you don’t want to sing, you don’t want to pray. As you trust the liturgy—say the words, stand up, sit down, bow your head—the hope is your heart will catch up to your body. 

Over the last year, I’ve been trying to apply his advice to my life outside of the sanctuary, in my work towards being well.

Coffee in bed.

Stretching when it’s time to get up.

Greeting my son with kind words every single morning, no matter what kind of mood we’re both in.

Reading at least one thing I don’t “have” to when I first sit down at my desk at work.

Pausing mid-day to close my eyes, plant my feet on the floor, sit with my hands open, and breathe.

Refilling my water cup at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm.

Making sure “I love you” is that last thing my son and husband hear from me before they go to bed.

Taking my medication.

Stretching again.

Reaching for my husband’s hand and whispering the Lord’s Prayer when I feel that precious fog of drowsiness roll in.

I’m building a liturgy of my days that I can trust and lean into (or fall onto, sometimes) when things feel hard. And even when they don’t.

I’m clearing the mud path for my body and heart.

Make room

I fill the space with things: tasks to finish, books to read, emails to answer, texts to send.

They aren’t bad things. But the human heart has a way of twisting perfectly fine, necessary things and making them everything.

“Make room,” He whispers—a whisper that travels up my spine, taking root at the base of my neck.

“Make room for me.”

It’s not just the margins He wants. He wants front row seats, the prime real estate in the heart He created.

“Make room,” He says again. It’s louder this time, coming to me through conversations over His Word, through His prophet Hosea.

“For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more.”

He’s not here to rearrange things; He’s here to purge. Maybe not to remove the things taking up space, but to remove their power—their hold over me.

“Make room for me, Valerie.”

My chest aches, my back—there’s warmth. His Spirit settles into my heart, stretches and rolls like an infant in the womb. The spiritual meets the physical; they become the same thing.

He is making room.

Sights and sound

She has shifty eyes, but not in the way that phrase usually works. She isn’t shifty; she expects everyone else to be.

Even in—especially in—moments of deep conversation, when souls and secrets spread out, her eyes dart from point to point. She’s always looking, searching for something to anchor her outside of the moment.

Despite this air of constant wariness, her smile is quick and her laugh loud and sudden. The sound seems to surprise her more than anyone.