Yesterday some amazing friends threw a little surprise shindig at my house in celebration of my 40th which is now only two weeks away. My dear friend, Julie, served as a decoy, having offered me only one date for which she was available to celebrate. So I took it because my boyfriend had already claimed he had a work commitment he was obligated to attend. Despite my suspicions, no one wants to be fully certain there is a surprise party in the works because, well, what if there isn’t? Regardless, I was happy to catch up with my friend, explore a few shops I’d been curious about and extend our late afternoon romp with a manicure and eyebrow wax. Maybe it was the eyebrows that set me thinking. I wasn’t going to re-post today, but this one was on my mind.

I am grateful beyond words for the friendships that have been balm to my wounded soul. And you know what? It doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. God is good.

Riding In Cars

I was afraid to look around me, afraid of what I’d find. Gathering my bearings, I can hardly recall climbing out of the car, which was upside down on the opposite side of the road from an embankment. Had the driver veered that way, I shudder to think of what horrible fate may have met me or one of the four other passengers riding in the SUV. As it was, his jerking of the wheel to overcompensate for our car’s loss of traction in the deluge of rain had left us hydroplaning off the road and flipping onto our roof along a desolate road in rural Ethiopia. The windows busted out, and one person remained in the front seat, unsure of how to unbuckle himself from his upside-down position. His wife, clinging to a tree, was frantic, wondering why he had not gotten out.

That night I shook uncontrollably, trying to get warm under the covers in a hotel we’d managed to arrive at after a group of Chinese engineers traveling on the same road gave us a ride. We needed to go to a hospital, but we were miles and at least a day’s ride away from reliable care. Other than a rug burn from landing on my knees on the ceiling of the vehicle for having not been wearing a seatbelt, there was no external evidence that I was hurt. Eventually, my back ache subsided, and I was seemingly recovered.

One evening, many months later, I rode in a van in Kenya to pick someone up at the airport. It was raining, and I wondered why I felt so nervous on the ride. Then I remembered the rain on that day when our car hydroplaned, fearing the same thing would happen again. After all, the variables were similar; it was raining, and I was not in control of the wheel nor the gas.

I read an article this morning that resonated with me and summed up the characteristics of how a “new normal” is found, following trauma. In ten, thoughtful points, the author highlighted several things to consider in light of finding one’s way through the unexpected blows that life may deal us, one being that we are forever changed. To that I would add that trauma is also permanently with us, sometimes buried deeply while at other times completely blind-siding us by the lingering effects of grief and loss or downright fear. What may seem like perfectly benign stimulus to one person propels another into all out panic because we now know, unlike before, what is possible. And we will never again take that for granted.

But does that mean I’ve stopped riding in cars? No. Perhaps to the chagrin of a few who’ve heard my plea to slow down in the rain or on a hairpin turn, I would occasionally interject my requests to whoever was chauffeuring me to the airport in Gambella, Ethiopia. Blazing up a dusty, gravel road at the mercy of a driver who had no idea, really, what the car was capable of, I couldn’t help but ask a driver to slow down in the months that followed our rainy day misadventure. That memory lingered in my mind even then, fueling anxieties that were often dormant until I was at the mercy of another driver in conditions that felt all too familiar to what had precipitated the accident I’d survived.

In much the same ways, the trauma of my life’s upheaval in the last few years following a painful divorce is still with me. While I have no doubt found my stride in the new normal, I don’t always know what will set off a bout of angst, upsetting my emotional equilibrium. I fear people are tired of my plight, and I lament that this ugly thing that happened never will, in fact, go away. But just like that rainy day in October of 2000, I am still here, and I am stronger for it. I am me, only different–weathered a bit and not so naive as to think I’m exempt from certain types of pain.

I’m not exempt from certain types of pain, and I’m also not immune to the adverses ways it might affect my personality at times. Trauma can permanently change us in both good and sometimes not-so-good ways. When considering some of the limitations placed on my life by my own set of difficult circumstances, I have to keep remembering that not playing the victim rests largely in my ability to keep identifying the choices that are within my reach. When I long for something that feels completely out of reach, I must stretch in the other direction and reach, instead, for what is accessible to me. I must keep making choices around the things that I do have some control, even if it is just repainting the bathroom.

Suffering is free range in this game of life. The hardest part perhaps is that we don’t get to choose what precisely will make our life in particular difficult. Life is tough; pain is what makes it tender and opens us up to seeing ourselves, our world and others in a new light. Only, we have to, at the very least, be open to the possibility that we can grow from our trauma. Otherwise, it’s just making mountains out of mole hills that never change the scenery for good. While trauma can make us better, it can also leave us bitter. Knowing what anchors you to hope is imperative for the journey. Thankfully, for me, friendship, laughter, faith and a good bit of exercise make good seatbelts. The ride will be bumpy, sometimes turbulent, but I’m going to keep riding.

Rally For Hope

Slamming the door to ensure it was closed tightly, I secured the lock and sat back in my velvety, maroon-colored seat. I was humbled by this responsibility, palms sweating at the tiniest bit of daylight that occasionally made its way through the sealed door. Dad shouted, “ALL CLEAR!” just before firing up the engine to get the propeller spinning on the front of the plane. We all sat in our usual spots; Dad in the pilot’s seat; my oldest brother up front as the co-pilot; me facing my youngest brother; who sat next to my mom, facing my middle brother who sat next to my right. We were boxed in and ready to go wherever Dad had planned–a business trip to Boston, New York City, a stop in Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa or one memorable journey crossing the expanse of water between the tip of Florida and the Keys.

The air plane was fodder for memories of childhood friends throwing up due to air sickness not previously mentioned before we took flight and the science of determining whether a winter coat doth a good barf bag make; for hypothetical ponderings about the harrowing landing I could pull off in the case of a mid-flight emergency; and the cold winter night, just before Christmas my dad let me have the controls as we descended into Tennessee to pick up my grandmother so she could come spend Christmas with us.

From one summer to the next, we packed our soft-sided luggage and flew from Missouri to Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Canada, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and so on for fishing trips, family camps, beach vacations, and, in the case of my family, many golf outings. And while I’ve received some degree of hassling over the years from my club-wielding family about my disdain for golf, one thing wasn’t lost on me.

Only a year or so prior to the purchase of our infamous Cherokee 2174 Sierra, as I remember it being called, my second brother had suffered from a near-fatal brain tumor that brought our family all too close to the edge of what could have been a tragic loss. For my parents, this would have been a third hit, in the wake of losing their first child just weeks before she was to be born and their second to a tragic drowning three weeks before his third birthday. My parents were all too familiar with such heart ache.

And much to the chagrin of the kids in my neighborhood who hailed us as being “rich,” the airplane was more of a way to shake our veritable finger at the suffering that life brings than any show of wealth. My Dad decided to seize the day; to be grateful for the resources that enabled us with the opportunity to do so by flying across the country on family vacations that we would not have otherwise taken and to live a dream that he had to be a pilot because, after all, each of us only has today. As life would have it, he sold the plane on the heels of losing his job my freshman year of high school, but the memories had already been made, good memories.

I was thinking of this mid-lunch today with a dear friend as we talked about life and the meaning of suffering, how basically, there is no meaning to be found in suffering alone. Instead, we impose meaning upon it–to get through it, over it, beyond it. We keep living in the face of pain and death, heartbreak and loss because life is still there to be lived even in loss, even in struggle.

She shared of the power we have to change our story as she had done herself. When facing the declining health and death of her brother in a way all-too-familiar to how she had lost her own father at a young age, she chose to change the story and the inner dialogue that she’d known the first time around. No longer was she a victim of life’s circumstances but, instead, a cancer-survivor herself who could lovingly support her nephews as they faced the loss of their dad. She recognized the power to change her story and re-wrote her response to the hardships that life was throwing her family’s way. Even recently, in her own recurrence of cancer, she shared of the presence of God with her when she had good reason to feel very alone.

There is no meaning in suffering, no meaning that arises alone. Meaning is made. Meaning is found by looking, not by passively letting grief and life’s disappointments settle in around us to take captive our dreams. We find meaning in reaching out to others outside of our pain to meet them in theirs. We rally for beauty to rear its head in the aftermath of our agony. We rally for joy to follow in the wake of our losses. There is light. At the end of the tunnel, there is still life. Everything doesn’t happen for just any reason. We are the reason for which everything happens, to awaken us to life in all its forms, even the life we find in death, in hardship, in loss and disappointments.

All of this circled right back around to the memory of my dad buying that plane, not your everyday purchase. We can each make a gesture, be it large or small, to live outside of our pain, to recognize the gifts that are right before us both in relationships and resources, to live life regardless of our circumstances. And in the moment we do this, we open the door to opportunities we cannot know until they are had. But they are endless; and they are beautiful. Rally for them.