The Paradox of a Smile

I got a lot of interesting feedback from my last post.

Mainly bewilderment. I blame myself. I use this blog as a way to flex my writing muscles, but if you ever read one of my novels or my recent poetry, you’d notice a difference in tone.

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For instance, my current work in progress contains a character with PTSD. One of the ways I insert her struggles into the novel is by interrupting her thought process with flashbacks. When she’s triggered and begins to lose her grip on the present, I drop tiny hints at what she’s thinking. A sentence. A word. Little bits disrupt the narrative to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to have your mind revving up into the frenzy of a triggered panic attack.

Basically, my writing voice leans more abstract and poetic than I tend to be here. My last post felt normal to me but made many well-meaning people think I go to therapy for my acne.

I struggle with symptoms of PTSD, which I left too long untreated. Six months ago, the triggers multiplied, culminating in my inability to view my own face in the mirror. I don’t see me anymore. I see red blotches that echo past trauma. Makeup doesn’t help. The haircut didn’t help. I just can’t look at myself right now.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

~ Rachel Svendsen, Rosacea

I avoided treatment because I feared the outcome. I guess I needed to become ill enough that I wouldn’t care.

I just want to be well. I can hardly keep up with the few things I’m still involved in and dread adding anything new. I’m too exhausted to keep up with relationships or daily duties. I’ve questioned my will to keep trying.

I needed help. Part of that was a doctor prescribed mandate to eliminate as many triggers as possible. Some of those triggers were relationships. This move generally goes unsupported. People turn it on its head and the abused individual is forced to forgive in ways that permanently tie them to toxic relationships. You’re told to be stronger, to stop “making drama” or harboring hatred.

I questioned myself so much that my therapist actually bid me stop. He told me to imagine I was a soldier injured in battle. I’m now in hospital, fed, warm, resting, and hating myself for abandoning my comrades. I cannot obey the call of my guilt. I’m wounded. Things have changed.

Abuse changes things. It breaks relationships in a way that cannot always be mended into a happy ending for all.

In closing, one of the most confusing responses I received was people finding it impossible to insert my wild, tormented rantings into the mind of my smiling social media face.

First: I fear this is a danger in our Instagrammed society. Never, NEVER assume someone’s life is idyllic because of their social media. We’re programmed to just show the comfy parts to the world, a sort of emotional keep up with the Joneses we’ve been enacting since the beginning of the Facebook generation.

Second: Living with a mental disorder is to forever walk the line between okay and falling apart. Healthy people don’t understand how this feels. That’s why it’s so hurtful to tell a depressed person, “I get sad too sometimes.” Depression is more than that. That’s also why I write my abused and mentally ill characters semi-poetically. It’s my attempt to capture the jolt and jar of walking through the day with a fractured mind. That’s what my last post was about, so if it confused you, I guess it was almost meant to.

Third: Just because I’m ill and suffering doesn’t mean my life has no joy. The LORD has filled my life with loving, supportive people, essential to my survival during this time. I have a beautiful daughter who gives me endless snuggles and fills my ears with bubbling laughter. I have a warm, generous husband who holds me when I cry and scream. I have hope in a God who promised me Eternity in His healing presence.

A smile can hide brokenness, but it’s not always just an act. Sometimes it’s just a testament of survival and God’s grace.

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Photo by Katie Emma Photography
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Rosacea

 

I’m having so much difficulty, as of late, finding a way to vent my pain. It’s currently backed up in my head in the form of an endless scream. I drown it out with books and cooking shows and crushing candy. Plastic screens and magic black squiggles that envelope the here and take me anywhere else. The pages flip, the colored squares pop and for a moment I can make myself believe I’m accomplishing something instead of standing still.

If you bothered to pry me up, to shake me out of anywhere to here, I’ll admit I’m not okay. And if you make me stand in front of a mirror, you can watch me fall apart.

I dragged myself to my therapist’s office and blinked awake long enough to let the scream out for a diagnosis. Then I shut it back inside, handed the prescription to my husband, and took my diagnosis down to the place where the scream began.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

Yes, I could make a believer out of you. I could show you the madness that creeps around the edges of my I’m-just-fine. But nevermind, I’m just drama and attention wrapped in the paradox of attempting to live life unseen.

So I’ll swallow the scream and let you think what you want of the diagnosis, the prescription, and me. And I’ll wait for the day when the trauma is cool enough that I can take down the towels, look in the mirror, hear silence and see nothing except rosacea.

 

Book Review: The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry by Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens

 

I fell in love with Jane Tyson Clement’s poetry the first time I held it in my hand. Then I opened it and read the soft, soothing words she’d written that perfectly mimic the seaside she loved so well. I read them over and over, a warm comfort in any season.

Reading The Heart’s Necessities just gave me more reasons to love Jane Tyson Clement.

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Becca Steven’s collection of Clement’s poetry with the addition of lovely photographs taken by Clement’s son would be delightful in and of itself. Stevens added to this her own stories and reflections on Clements poems as well as biographical information on Clement. Knowing more about Clement’s life only deepened the meaning of the poetry I already loved.

Being a native Jersey Girl who spent summer vacations at the Jersey Shore, it’s no wonder that I immediately fell in love with Clement’s poetry. Now, in a collection that includes snapshots of the beaches I wandered as a child with the words I’ve come to cherish as an adult, Stevens has captured all I loved about Clement in an endearing love letter for us all to treasure.

Book Review: “When Spring Comes to the DMZ” by Uk-Bae Lee

Between the heavily guarded borders of the countries of North and South Korea lies a demilitarized zone (or DMZ). This stretch of land has become a home, a refuge for all kinds of wildlife, and stands a waiting bridge of peace between two countries in turmoil.

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South Korean author and illustrator, Uk-Bae Lee, originally wrote his book When Spring Comes to the DMZ as part of the “Peace Picture Book Project” organized by illustrators from Korea, China, and Japan.

This touching picture book is about the hope of peace amidst the ugliness of hate, told by showing how beauty and nature flourish between the heavily militarized borders of North and South Korea. The pictures are both beautiful and starkly unique, scenes of peaceful animals at play framed in barbed wire.

Not every children’s book needs or should be light or a half-joking lesson about sharing. I enjoy books that can assist me in bringing heavy topics down into understandable bites for children. I felt this book qualified for that. I loved how reading it with your child could open up discussions about peace, war, and the hope of reconciliation.

You can get your copy here.

My Top 10 Reads of 2018

If you follow this blog, you know I love reading. I beat my goal of 52 books this year and read over 90. That, despite my toddler and several bad bouts with depression, both of which make it hard for me to settle into reading. Below are my favorite reads this year.

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#10 – I Wrote this for You by pleasefindthis

That’s not a typo; pleasefindthis is the pen name for Iain S. Thomas. I discovered this gem through Prime Reading. It’s beautiful poetry with artistic photography scattered throughout. Definitely, my favorite poetry read this year.

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#9 – Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

No, I have not watched the Netflix series. I finished the book before they started running trailers for the show, which looks completely different from the book. My favorite part of Jackson’s eerie original was the crazy ending. Probably the most shocking ending I read this year. If you don’t mind a creepy read about a haunted house that attempts to drive its inhabitants mad, then this book is for you.

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#8 – Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

This short, convicting read discusses the sins the church has come to tolerate. Even though I took issue with Bridges’ lack of knowledge on certain subjects (e.g. mental health), I believe authors run into those problems whenever they attempt to write a book that covers a multitude of subjects without the assistance of a co-author. This book still made it into my top ten for the year, simply because it forced me to consider the things I let slip in my personal spiritual walk.

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#7 – Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I already did a full review of this earlier in the year, but since it made it into my top 10, I’ll just say, this book was a lovely marriage of nonfiction, fantasy, and myth with the readability of a novel.

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#6 – Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

This one almost didn’t make it onto the list, but only because I started it late in December. Its a beautiful memoir about pain, mental illness, and how storytelling can aid in healing. It’s written in luscious prose that reads like poetry. It’s heartbreaking and oh so lovely.

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#5 – The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

This book caught my attention when I read a review that compared it to Agatha Christie, whom I LOVE. The murder mystery aspect of it was definitely similar, with the added bonus of gorgeous atmospheric writing that made the book a darker, edge-of-your-seat kind of read. Her depiction of panic attacks was spot on, and I dare you to read it and not feel occasionally claustrophobic.

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#4 – The Unpleasantness at Baskerville Hall by Chris Dolley

Another book that made it into the top 10 that I’ve already reviewed. This blend of sci-fi and P. G. Wodehouse was one of the funniest reads I indulged in this year. I hope to read more of Dolley’s works in 2019.

*drumroll* And now my TOP THREE!

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#3 – Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

This book though! It was a delicious blend of sci-fi and fantasy. Martin discovers a computer file that can alter his world with only a line or two of code. He uses it to go back in time to Medieval England and trick everyone into thinking he’s a wizard. Such an inventive and hilarious storyline. The characters are lovable, witty, and quirky and the book had me smiling through almost the entire read. Meyer was one of several authors I discovered in 2018, and I intend to read the entirety of this series.

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#2 – A Hobbit Journey: Discovering the Enchantment of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Matthew Dickerson

This thought-provoking read looked into Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth. I learned so much about world building from Dickerson’s in-depth study of the themes within the Lord of the Rings. I recommend it to fans of Tolkien and writers of fantasy. Tolkien had the masterful ability to discuss his worldview without overtly mentioning his personal views on religion or politics, and, after reading Dickerson, I’m convinced this is one of the reasons Tolkien’s books stand the test of time.

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#1 – The Woodcutter by Kate Danley

Sometimes I have difficulty picking favorites when it comes to books, but this year I had no difficulty at all. I will never forget this book. I adore fairy tale retellings. This one was dark, poignant, and written in gorgeous poetic prose. The skill that Danley used to weave in multiple characters from myth, legend, and fairy tale while keeping the story fresh and unique was breathtaking. Love. Love. LOVED it.

I’m so excited to find out what new reads and authors I’ll discover in 2019! Comment and tell me about some of your favorite reads of 2018 and some of the new authors you discovered.

A Pastor’s Wife, A Millstone, and A Cup of Tea

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:27-31

One Sunday of my childhood, my mother pointed out a married couple and said with a shake of her head, “He could be so useful to the Lord if it wasn’t for his wife.” After that, whenever I heard him preach or pray, I would pity him. Just imagine what he could be if his wife wasn’t such a weight.

When my husband told me that he felt the Lord calling him into full-time ministry, I didn’t doubt for a minute that this was what the Lord wanted from his life. It was weeks later that I realized if the Lord was calling my husband, he was also calling me.

The church we attended at the time had a long list of requirements for pastor’s wives, including a demanding homemaker skill set that I still utterly fail to meet. I’ll never forget the disapproval they showed me after my husband announced he was going into seminary. One person cornered me to ask how I thought my nose ring would affect my husband’s ministry. They were upfront about how they felt, nearly telling me outright as my husband and I shuffled our way out the door on our last Sunday there.

I began to question what I brought to the table. “Nothing,” was my only answer.

I’m not a good teacher or public speaker. I’m insecure and easily overwhelmed. I’ve been suicidal and have issues with panic disorder and depression. People I loved emotionally abused me, so I’m wary of close relationships. I am an ugly sinner and a recovering Pharisee.

They were right. Even without a nose ring, I am not “Pastor’s Wife” material. I would be the weight that prevented my husband from being used by God. People were already shaking their heads at me.

I considered scrubbing myself up, but I’d spent the first 25 years of my life living an outward spiritual lie. I didn’t want to go back there. So I decided I’d just continue to read my Bible and quietly worry about how my insufficiencies might weigh down my husband.

We started attending Milford Bible Church during a turbulent period of my life. My messy pregnancy rolled into a slew of postpartum health issues that left me virtually bedridden. My husband fought to keep our family together while I watched from bed, more and more convinced that I dragged him down.

A millstone round his neck.

With the return of my health came opportunities for me to get involved at church, but more importantly, opportunities for me to help my husband. Once again, I cooked the meals, kept house, and cared for our baby. I hoped rhythm would return to life.

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My new equilibrium tottered when God led us to settle in PA. Leaving New Jersey wasn’t in my plan. I love it there. It’s less rural, there’s less snow, and my family is there. But God lit the path that led us to buy our first home in the Poconos. I comforted myself that he would continue to show me the same care he showed during the previous two years of struggle.

The week before Tim’s first Sunday morning sermon at Milford was a disaster. The house was in chaos from ongoing unpacking. The holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving to New Years holds multiple emotional triggers that make me tense and depressed. Monday I had a meltdown, sobbing myself into hyperventilation. I fell asleep, huddled and trembling beside my husband and got up the next morning already broken and tired. I prepped myself to blast through our overscheduled week, only to discover on Tuesday evening that the week would tax my physical health as well.

Saturday night, I’m sitting with my friend Debbie, swallowing my new antibiotics, and wishing I had a river I could skate away on. Her hand touched mine. She gave it a little squeeze and told me it was a blessing to be in my home.

Her laundry was in my dryer. I’d fed her pancakes for supper on paper plates. My sofa was covered in unfolded laundry, my counter with Thursday’s dirty dishes. Her only real company was a semi-comatose me, but still, she was thankful to be in my home.

I nearly cried as I confided to her my dream of having the kind of home people would feel comfortable stopping by on a whim. A safe place to run to when they’re hurting or lost. A place of comfort and joy and a warm cup of tea.

She told me it was those things to her.

Sunday came. I was so nervous for my husband that I nearly vomited. He took several deep breaths before he started, just enough to make me worry he’d never start at all. Then he opened his mouth. The Lord spoke to me through him, not for the first time, but for the first time from behind a pulpit.

He became a Pastor to me while I cried my way through his sermon. Debbie’s words fed back into my mind. Quietly in the pew, I felt the Lord confirm his calling to my husband and to me.

A young lady stopped me in the foyer and asked me what I thought it meant to one day be a Pastor’s wife. I blinked at her while memories of nose rings and suicide notes rolled through my mind, then said, “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Even with the confirmation of God’s call, I still don’t know what it means to “be a pastor’s wife.” Maybe it’s nothing more than being a support to my husband. But more and more, I think that something I add to our ministry is my brokenness.

I am so messed up. So sinful and slimy and God, please I need your grace! So when people come to me with mess, I get it, because of all the mess I’ve been through. I can show others the same patience I hope they use when dealing with me. And sure, someday I’ll probably get that tattoo, but the hurting people who need a hug or a cup of tea don’t care about the permanent semicolon on my wrist.

I’m not a millstone. I’m the shattered bits an artistic God can use in a mosaic. God uses broken things. It magnifies how awesome he truly is.

Now Im just a beggar in the presence of a King I wish I could bring so much more But if its true You use broken things Then here I am Lord Im all Yours - Matthew West

Thank You #NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers across the globe shoot to get 50,000 words of a new novel down before 11:59pm, November 30th.

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I first heard about it in 2015. That year I wrote the first draft of a middle-grade novel called Land of the Golden Raindrops. In 2017, I wrote the first draft of a YA novel His Brother’s Keeper. This year I took some old notes I’d written back in High School and decided I’d rework them into an adult fantasy novel.

I knew November would be busy, so I tried to plan ahead. I started my outline and made some character notes. I felt confident that I had a vision of where the story would go, at least, enough of one to be getting on with.

About a week in, I was stumped. The characters weren’t speaking to me, and even with all my old notes, I was beginning to realize that the story just had no point.

I spent a few days trying to digest what this meant. I recalled reading about bestselling authors who gave up on projects, things they’d started then realized just weren’t going anywhere. Or an early novel they’d tried desperately to publish, then put aside to write something new, only to discover it was their subsequent novels that people wanted to read.

I shrugged and said to myself, maybe this is just one of the projects I’m going to have to walk away from.

Since pregnancy, my writing time has been minimal. I decided to do NaNoWriMo 2018 because I thought it might help me work writing time back into my schedule. Now I was staring at a novel that I thought I needed to trash.

I didn’t want to quit. I wanted my 50,000 words.

I toyed with switching to another project, but I’d squeezed out a meandering 18k, and I was losing days. If I started over I might never finish.

I’d read before about the work part of writing. The “just get it on the page” days. I’d read a million quotes about how you can edit a crappy sentence but you can’t edit a blank page.

So, I sat myself down and turned my narrowed eyed stare into the heat of my glowing laptop screen. Get it on the page, I told myself. Just get something on the page.

I rambled for an hour. Asking myself questions about the setting and my characters and what the story was about. After two hours of writing, I had my first real scene. Not just a jumble of conversation or an explanation of setting, a whole scene with characters interacting and purpose and movement forward towards a potential plot.

The next night, I put the baby to bed, booted up my laptop, and did it again. Night after night I plugged away. I’d start by typing jibberish and end with full scenes. My characters woke up. My plot and story arch came into focus.

I realized what I was writing about.

I’ve heard some writers make fun of NaNoWriMo as a silly sort of exercise. That you could just be working on your novel at your own speed and don’t need to drop everything for a brand new project every November.

Personally, I love NaNoWriMo, because every time I do it, I find myself learning something new about writing. And even if this year’s novel does end up as an unused file on my hard drive, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from NaNoWriMo 2019.

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