A cyclone threatened. We knew the devastation it would leave in its wake would be enormous. As it began, we had no idea what the consequential damage would be, but we knew that it could not be stopped, and we had to wait until it had blown through before we’d know whether repair was going to be possible.
This wasn’t a literal cyclone. My cyclone was the days before, during, and after I told my husband that I was in love with someone else.
I had spent months forming a deep emotional bond with another in preference to any sort of emotional connection with him. I didn’t want to remain married to him. Although I’d ended things with the other, I couldn’t promise that they would, in fact, be over for good. I didn’t believe that my husband liked me, let alone loved me. Years of smaller storms of life had left me feeling desperate, lonely, isolated, and unloved in our marriage, to the point where I’d intended to end my life and had it planned down to the smallest detail. However, as I worked through the scenario before carrying it out, I realised that some part of me didn’t want to die.
That thought alone had saved me.
I didn’t see how we could survive the cyclone. I was certain our marriage would end.
The cyclone raged as we attended marriage counselling and sat at opposite ends of a sofa, the damaging and damaged words making their way into the space between us:
“If it’s a choice between being able to work and being married to you, I choose work.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“We can’t even communicate about the most basic things.”
Sometimes we couldn’t speak to each other for a few days after each session. The words spoken in that one hour had ripped away previously held certainties and had blown into a tangle the things that we thought we knew about each other.
Gradually the winds began to ease. The cyclone became a storm. The storm became a squall. And then the stillness came.
We started going out for bike rides together. No conversation, but good, shared experiences. We planned a holiday for our family. I volunteered both of us to work on the same stall at a school fundraiser—our names written together on a board in the playground.
Bruised and exhausted. Having lost much, but still standing.
Today, we stand amidst the rubble of our lives. Behold, the old has passed, the new has come. For a time we thought that we had to clear all the rubble and try to find all the old things in the mess, in order to rebuild.
But no. We’ve been camping within the destruction for a little while. It gave us time to adjust to the reality of what has happened. We’ll never be able to clear away all the debris. Some of it will always be here.
But we will rebuild.
Everything we had has been stripped away and all that remains is the foundations. What we choose to rebuild will not resemble what was here before because that has gone. It’s not damaged; it’s gone.
We’re looking forward to once again, as we did right at the start of our lives together, building something completely new. We’re not who we were when we built the first time. We’ve changed immeasurably—life does that to you. There are children and we are older, but I think that we may now work better together than we ever did before.
We’ve taken the time, whilst camping in the rubble, to talk to each other about what really matters to each of us. We’ve written lists of new things we want to do and old things we want to do more of. We’re talking about our future, about mid-life career changes and travel dreams.
The best place to go to see the Northern Lights.
The cost of a Trans-Siberian railway ticket.
The sports coaching qualifications he wants to achieve.
The writing I want to do. We’ve both been reduced to our core selves through this experience—maybe our best selves.
With nothing around us anymore to hide behind we’ve both said, This is who I am. This is what I can give you. Do you still want me? And the answer is, Yes, yes, yes. A thousand times, yes.
I want you to hear this: you can survive a cyclone. Even if it destroys everything, it doesn’t mean you’re finished.
May 27, 2009. This is the day I learn I have cancer. Weird. I never thought I’d hear those words. I am still drowsy from anesthesia. The doctor just comes in, and she says, “Well, we thought it was hemorrhoids, but it’s not. It’s a tumor. It’s cancer.” Just like that. Now I am a person with cancer.
Tragedy strikes. No one is exempt. It comes swiftly, surprising those who are touched, leaving bewilderment and shock in its wake. As I get older I am realizing that tragedy is a normal part of the human experience. In the last month alone I have been aware of the following:
A four-year-old boy is diagnosed with a brain tumor.
A 38-year-old mother dies leaving a husband and three children.
A 48-year-old man is suddenly jobless after years of faithful work on the job.
A son commits suicide, leaving his parents devastated and questioning.
A young mother’s breast cancer returns with a vengeance.
A young preacher is killed in a head-on collision leaving his family fatherless and his church pastorless.
How do we survive these kinds of things? Where do we go with our grief? Where do we take our questions, our anger, our pain, and our fear? Who will answer the “Why?” that echoes across the universe? My cancer diagnosis can’t even compare to some of these other losses, but the one thing it has shown me is that God is real. He is here. He will never leave.
Eyes blinded by tears and heart split open, I find myself running. Running to the one who said He would catch my tears in his hand and dry every tear from my eye, the one who said he would never leave me or forsake me, the one who said he would turn my mourning into dancing. He’s the one who will see me through when tragedy strikes. He is the only one who can.
Deuteronomy 32:11 tells me “(God is) like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads is wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions.”
God stirs up the nest. It reminds me of the many times as a mother I’ve had to stir up the nest in the lives of my children: moving them so many times, taking them out of their culture into something different, leaving them in tears at the gate of another new school, watching them say goodbye, again, to their family, to their friends, to all they knew. Stirring the nest. And then one by one moving them into the dorm, hugging them fiercely and driving away. It is incredibly difficult and painful to stir the nest.
But God stirs the nest anyway. He knows it will be good. He knows it will produce growth and strength. He knows it will give me wings. And it tears His heart out just the same as it tore mine out. God knew cancer was coming. He knew the journey would be a challenge. He knew it would be painful. And He hurts too. I am overcome with the realization of His intimate knowledge of all I am going though and the fact that He hurts with me. That’s the God I have.
And He is here. He hovers over me. As I fall from the nest and struggle to take flight, He is right here hovering over me, just in case. His eye is focused on me. He is watching. And should I tire, or should I give up, should I come near to crashing to the ground, He will spread out his wings to catch me and He will carry me. Peace shrouds every question. God is intimately involved in this with me.
A couple of years ago I went skydiving. The most exhilarating part was the initial jump from the plane. We were free falling at 140 miles an hour and yet it felt like we were floating. That’s where I find myself now. I am in a free fall, but I have such an incredible peace and sense of beauty as I float to the ground knowing that God is hovering over me. Nothing can go wrong! His eye is on me. I can rest.
You can watch Laura’s book trailer here:
Laura Shook recently released her first book, Forever Hope, detailing her journey through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. You can purchase it on Amazon.
Laura is available for interviews and public speaking events. For more information contact Kristy Stark at kristys (at) communityoffaith.tv.
When I was married, I gifted with great ceremony white lilies to three older women that I loved. My blood mother. My stepmother. My mother-in-law. I carried the long and elegant stems across the pebbles toward their wooden folding chairs.
All three of them died young. Cancer, cancer, and a freakish surprise sort of thing called septicemia. I wish someone had told me lilies were the flower of the dead.
How does one go about honoring a woman, anyway? There’s a blank space here, in the instructions. Because honor which women? The ones who screamed and struggled and barely made it through? Or the pretty pictures on the mantelpiece?
Do I honor them alive? Or do I honor them dead?
I have backhanded real women in both directions. I have showed too much of the mud of their lives, and too little.
I don’t want to offer you a tale of diamonds, when the women I loved were worn by rocky lives and sun and cigarettes. I don’t want to hand you a picture of long stemmed flowers, when the women who taught me life wore pajamas all day and made people really, really mad at them…and survived.
But I don’t want to betray their silences, either. I don’t want to give the world any more ammunition for judgment or rebuke.
Women come into this world already compromised. Which one of a woman do you honor? The shell she wears for protection? Or the interior landscape, where her femininity is simultaneously strength and wound?
I was twenty-three when I was married, and making it all up as I went along. I wanted a romantic version of mother-to-daughter lineage. I wanted to honor it beautiful, and sweet, like a movie. I wanted to check it off like a thing on my list. “Honor your father and mother.” See? I did that. Right here. It’s in the program.
I was twenty-three when I was married, and also, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to put the older women in their place.
Thank God it couldn’t be done. The women who received my lilies were all troublemakers, every one of them, at some point or another. One of them defied her parents, another an abusive husband, a third basically the whole of polite society. They carried their children through and out of their own wounds. I wish I had them all right here, right now, I’d suck just a little more of the sweet energy of their powerful surviving.
Which one of a woman do you praise? The box society would keep her in? Or all the ways in which she fails to disappear?
Do you honor her dead? Or do you honor her alive?
I’d never leave another lily on my mother’s grave. I’d raise chickens there. I’d give her a blessing of goat pies. I’d collect 1000 signatures to protest a nuclear waste dump. For my stepmother, I’d clean the place within an inch of its life and feed every soul within five miles. For my mother-in-law, a carton of cigarettes and five pounds of peanut M&M’s.
Oh, but never mind. To tell the truth they were all three of them cremated. We’ll have to have the party at my place.
But party we will. I will honor first their living, second their surviving, and last or not at all the cages they endured.
This is how I will honor a woman. By raising her statue standing: hands raised, feet moving, mouth streaming voice instead of silence.
“White woman, why water full of sorrow flow from face?”
The young woman’s Chenglish needed no translation and neither did my tears as she poured rosewater into a wooden bucket to soak my feet. She was wearing a Louis Vuitton jacket, sequined sweater and rice hat: a fashion style as common in Kunming, China as polyester and panty lines at Walmart.
I pointed to my wedding band, and tried a phrase. “Wú zhàngfu bu sǐle.”
Either she understood that my husband left me or she thought I lost my luggage.
Yes, Mr. Death-Do-Us-Part announced he needed a hiatus from our fourteen-year marriage, an announcement horrible to endure in any language, but especially horrible while living light years from normalcy in Southwest Asia. I rewarded myself with a Chinese foot massage.
“Xie Xie,” I gave the kind woman a smile.
I walked out of the small salon and picked up some bootleg Ray Bans from a street vendor to cover my panda eyes, still dripping with mascara. I noticed another friendly face, the neighborhood recycler. He was a cross-eyed old man who pedaled around on a tricycle, hunting through the trash to give it a new life. He flattened boxes of every kind, stacking them on the flatbed behind his seat, then tied empty plastic jugs of oil to the sides with reused string. I marveled at his belief that anything can be repurposed, even rice bags. I realized that I belonged on his recycle-cycle. I had to reinvent myself into something new.
I learned a few lessons from the assorted objects on his vehicle that I’m recycling back to you.
Paper or Plastic?
In other words, know who you are and what you can be. Whatever you do, don’t focus on why you ended up in the recycle bin. Instead, discover what you are made of. It’s okay to spend fifteen minutes a day sobbing about your problems if you spend thirty minutes focusing on your strengths. They might be your creativity, your tenacity, your ability to put on a mommy face and get through the day. You are made of more than sugar and spice.
Remove the Labels
Even the ones that are harder to remove from a beer bottle. The word “separated” gave me false hope in a marriage that might not come back to life. I had to erase it from my mind and focus on my dreams and travel that path. If a repaired marriage is on that road, good. If it’s not, that’s good, too
Think Refrigerator Box Big
Every kid knows a refrigerator box is more fun the second time around. With a little imagination, it turns into a rocket ship or countless other things more amusing than packaging bearing manufacturer information. I could look at myself as middle-aged and alone or as someone with no strings attached and a taste for adventure
Beware of Tissue with an Issue
A friend learned the hard way not to buy a local brand of Chinese toilet paper because it wasn’t heat treated, the recycled fiber causing a nasty infection where the sun doesn’t shine. Lesson to be learned? Don’t carry around damaging thoughts of my past into my new life. That means no blaming future unhappiness on villains or circumstances of the past.
Embrace an Origami Outlook
There is an old Chinese proverb, “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.” In other words, now is the time to try something new. It could be a hobby, hair style, a class, or zip code. No matter why you are repurposing yourself, you can create a swan out of your circumstances. You have the option of crinkling it up into the trash or patiently folding your life into something beautiful.
I have returned to America with a wok and no tears, which makes me excellent at my current job: chief onion slicer in a community kitchen. And every time I see the triangular recycle symbol on a green trash bin, I think of the recycler on his tricycle in China.
I am made of stronger material than I originally thought.
I was fiercely fighting in forcing myself to stay.
To be the “bigger person” and rise to the occasion.
But after nine months, I just couldn’t do it anymore.
I had to break free.
And I was terrified it would be anything but a clean break.
Tears flowed by the buckets that weekend, all because of my fear in breaking away. Of being sliced by the jagged edges of a messy break. I tried to negotiate myself out of the choice I knew deep down I had to put feet to.
Working at church is not all glam. If you want to know the guts of a church, work as full-time staff. Because that’s where reality is at. That’s where you see the abundance of integrity or the severe lack of it.
In 2008, my husband and I were on staff at a large church, and after he landed himself in jail, I was temporarily thrown into living like a single mom. For the following nine months, I sucked it up and continued working with people who were hurt and mad as hell at him.
I had become the red-headed stepchild. I was a daily reminder to them of how this church temporarily had been tainted in a very public way. I was a stain. A problem to fix. I was to be engaged with at a distance regardless of the weight from all that I was processing with my husband’s choices and his arrest.
I wanted to create the cleanest break possible while keeping my integrity intact.
Looking back, I know they were doing the best they could at the time. But that didn’t negate how heartbreaking it was to hear classic church clichés from their mouths on Sundays, then behind closed doors experience anything but what they were speaking of.
After a very backhanded plan to move me into another area, I started thinking about why I was staying. There was no joy in the work any longer.
No one was in my corner. And much of my respect for leaders and the church was gone.
I needed to break away, but I didn’t want it to be messy. I wanted to create the cleanest break possible while keeping my integrity intact.
When I finally decided to start drafting my resignation letter and fully accepted the potential tidal wave of mess that would come with it, I realized sometimes people don’t need to know all the details of why you are making a break.
Some don’t have the right to all of your heart space.
Even if they are a church. Even if they did the best they could within their limits of staying in some sort of a relationship with me. They didn’t have the right to the entirety of my truth.
I tend to be loyal like Beyoncé, Monica Geller and Anna Bates. While shaking, I crafted my letter to leave a job that I never saw myself leaving.
So I was in for the long haul–or so I thought.
I decided these people just needed to know a slice of my truth. I was going to create my own clean break. I shared in my letter how I wanted to be home with my two little men, do the stay-at-home mom thing. Which was part of my reason for leaving.
But the other parts were the stink of religion I could no longer protect my nose and heart from, the exhaustion and heartsickness over their manipulation, the lack of integrity running rampant and how what was spoken on stage was not reality Sunday afternoon through Saturday.
The break ended up being very clean. I was able to leave on my own terms on a month’s notice. I was able to show respect and dignity to them and myself while making the clean break to my next adventure.
This is the first time I have shared about this clean break in depth because I never want to harm anyone with my story. But thanks to Anne Lamott, I’ve learned people have a choice in how they choose to show up in the weaving of my story. And to ignore this piece of my story in how I learned to create my own clean breaks in the middle of such chaos and toxicity judges my truth when it should be embraced with acceptance and celebration.
Sometimes we have to create our own clean breaks.
Sometimes clean breaks are not contingent on others, but on us and how we choose to unfold our truth.
Every time we leave, I always hope for a clean break, where you wince but then rip off the band aid and you’re okay. Where the pain is quick but then fades, and soon, you’re just left with a scab. Or I hope that if the pain does remain, it’s still beautiful in its own right, like the nice, neat little line on the x-ray of my son’s arm when he played a bit too rough.
But leaving is never clean, it’s always messy with pieces of you splintered off in the process. We hope we can wipe over the pain and hurt from leaving with a Clorox wipe and call it good. Or we stay so excited about the vision of the “next thing” that we band aid over the emotional tugging, where pieces of you are strung around the world.
Leaving always requires a big intake of breath before the words leave your lips: “We’re moving.” So again, much sooner than I thought, I find that familiar catching-in-my-throat breath because: we’re leaving the longest place we’ve ever lived since we’ve been married.
Leaving is never clean, it’s always messy.
And it hurts.
Home has crept up on us here. I never expected to fall in love with Salt Lake City. I expected hard work and feeling a bit like a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t expect Utah to feel like home. But it is. It started when I landed in the middle of a park, friendless and overwhelmed with a newborn and a toddler, and noticed the fun mom playing with her kids. No one had come up to talk to me before her because I didn’t look the part of the Mormon mom with my tank top and nose ring. I was drowning in the mundane, and she lifted me out with her joy.
Friends have gathered around me. Young friends from our college ministry, mom friends from my neighborhood, older friends, book club friends. And through the dailyness of our day—the to-ing and fro-ing from school, the biking around the neighborhood, the grocery shopping, the library story times, the blessedness of nights out and a drink with friends—we have created defining rhythms with one another. Rhythms and routes, inextricably linked. Rhythms where sometimes we are the melody and a friend harmonizes along with us; other times, we pick out notes together to sound out grief or panic or fear. This music of home is created through the geographies of our days.
And so, almost imperceptibly, these people, this place, has become my heart home.
I drive down the freeway and my jaw still drops as I’m surrounded by snow-capped mountains that glisten in the sunshine. Mountains that cannot help but call me to experience glory throughout the year.
Mountains that are so much other. We’ve hiked the trails and picked the wildflowers. We’ve been covered in its dust and dirt and with its snow in the winter. We’ve whooped and hollered with strangers as we all experienced the elation of a fresh powder day. We’ve hiked the same trails through the year and noticed the coming glory of spring that shouts through the small act of budding crocuses that: yes! all things will be made new.
I am struck at how hard this leaving is as I grow older.
After more than a decade of marriage and moving, uprooting seven times and adding four children, the idea of home grows layered. It has become much more muddled—both the idea of home and leaving the places and people who have become wedded to our story. We want to think that home is static. That it’s that place where I came from; or, that place where I grew up; or that place from which my ancestors originated; or the place I’ve lived the longest. But it’s all home.
What I cling to when I start missing the people and the place before I’ve even left is this: In the wider story of grace, the next place we move will also become home, bit by bit. The pieces I’ve left of me here in Salt Lake City will perhaps fester a bit in hard moments as I learn again to make new friends, invest in our community, and figure out what it means to live where we grew up, but this time as adults with our own family.
But that’s okay. It’s part of home-making. This life was never meant to be a clean break anyway.