I haven’t written a blog in about a month. That has to be some sort of record. It does not mean, however, that I haven’t had thoughts or even half-formed “outlines” for entries. Indeed, I have. I just haven’t had the energy to write what I needed to say and, frankly, I didn’t care too much. Inevitably, though, the pen began to whisper my name, slowly, but more and more insistently. Hence, I’m back. Before you get too excited, I should warn you that, because it’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog, I have a gazillion things running through my head and the thoughts are likely to come out jumbled. Before I get to a point, I might run and run and run in a direction that seemingly makes no sense. I don’t “plan” my blogs, I write them just as I would a traditional diary entry. But isn’t that the way most of us think? We’re driving down the road, see a billboard and suddenly remember a poignant memory; seconds later, we’re crying or laughing. Thoughts are fleeting and fast, gold nuggets that are quickly forgotten unless we collect them.
It is Spring. Usually, that conjures up joy in and of itself. When the leaves turn green and the air turns warmer, I start planning trips to orchards to pick apples, peaches and strawberries. Water begins to beckon. Children begin to count the days til the end of school, teens anxiously anticipate and plan for Prom and graduation ceremonies. The sun feels like a friend and backyard picnics become more and more frequent. Spring leads to summer, which, in my mind, means more time with my family with road trips and special holidays like the Fourth of July. Don’t get me wrong—I love winter, it’s technically my favorite season of the year. Both my girls have Winter birthdays, it snows and my all time favorite holiday, Christmas, takes place in the dead of Winter. I’d much rather be cold than hot. Winter is special. And yet, by the time hints of Spring begin to come, I find myself rejoicing, walking barefoot in the rain, buying dozens of pairs of flip flops for the girls and I, enjoying the bright colors of the kids’ Spring clothes and the smell of flowers that are suddenly everywhere. Everyone knows that a classic definition of Spring is hope and I’m not exempt. I feel it too—that bubble of air that gets stuck in my soul, that small inhalation of excitement over the possibility of something wonderful, new and refreshing.
I find it fascinating tonight that Spring, the season of hope and new beginnings, comes alongside of Easter, the highlight of my faith, a story that involves some of the darkest moments in history, some of the most atrocious acts of torture on one man that can be fathomed. I spent Holy Week this year submerging myself in the pain Christ felt His last week on earth. I went to Maundy Thursday services and participated in the foot washing. The most impactful service, though, was Friday’s service, the tenebrae service.
For those that don’t know what a tenebrae service is, let me explain. Tenebrae means shadows, or darkness. It focuses on Jesus’ time on the cross. Nails are distributed. Seven candles are lit in the front of the church. Seven readers come up, one by one, and read one of the last things that Jesus said, beginning with “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” and ending with “It is accomplished.” After each reading, one of the seven candles are extinguished. As each candle is extinguished, the church lights are dimmed further and further until, finally, the church is thrust into complete darkness and silence reigns. In my church, after several long minutes of silence, one candle is lit as a symbol of hope and people solemnly and quietly leave. Our piano player began playing “Amazing Grace” and the congregation, as one, seemed to start humming the tune. It is a sad service. I don’t know that there was a dry eye. Yet, it is probably my favorite ceremony of the year. It was especially poignant for me because it reminded me that Jesus wasn’t superhuman: he did feel pain. He does understand, not because he’s magical or mystical, but because He, too, felt pain.
When I walked into the tenebrae service, my heart was broken. Merely being in the church at all was enough to spark tears. I’m good at guarding my heart, I’m good at building impenetrable defenses. Except I didn’t build them that night. I wanted to go unnoticed, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I didn’t want to be seen, I just wanted to be there. After all, He suffered pain because of me. The least I could do was acknowledge what He went through to get to the ascension. But it was hard. All I really wanted to do was get in a bed and stay there, with the covers pulled up over my head and my arms wrapped around a pillow, legs pulled up to my chin. I wanted to disappear. I was only a day or so into the heartbreak; it would take a solid week or more for the tears to stop inexplicably coming every few minutes; squashing the urge to hide completely would take awhile. I did not feel very close to Spring. The shining of the sun didn’t feel me with hope or optimism. Frankly, the world didn’t seem to be brighter than it had been in the middle of January.
I have this pajama shirt that has the word “exhale” written on it. When I am hurt, it’s like I take a deep internal breath—and hold it. When you take a deep, deep breath in and hold it, you instantly can feel your lungs expanding. When you hold your breath, every moment is precious, and every moment seems to last a lifetime. When I was in elementary school, my two friends and I would compete to see which of us could hold our breath the longest. I always won, though it wasn’t a competition I particularly enjoyed. While at first the sensation of my lungs expanding is pleasant, I quickly become hyper aware of everything around me, particularly the tightness in my chest that is my organs demanding oxygen. Time begins to slow and my focus narrows inch by inch until all it is concerned with is the fact that my chest is starting to ache, my nose itching to breathe in. Holding my breath longer than ten seconds is challenging. Holding it longer than thirty seconds is very difficult. Holding it longer than a minute is painful.
Yet, it’s what I do whenever I’m hurt. I breathe in—and hold it. Holding a breath is like freezing time. If I’m not moving, I can’t get hurt. That’s the subconscious idea on the days when I don’t care that tomorrow will be a new day, and the intellectual knowledge that things always improve doesn’t help. Instead, all that matters is moving from one minute on the clock to the next, trying to do and say the least that I can so I don’t upset the waters anymore. I know better than to lay down in the bed. My head is still above the water—but the waves are crashing at my chin. So I inhale—and forget about exhaling.
You inhale—but that’s only part one of breathing. I forget that, while you inhale to live, you also exhale to sustain life. Have you ever noticed that, just before you do something particularly scary, a sharp inhalation usually precedes the act? For example, when I went zip lining, I inhaled sharply before allowing myself to fall off the ledge. I usually exhale upon completing the act—the moment before I fell, I exhaled. Exhaling, then, is the release: the release of fear, the release of control, the affirmation that life goes on. Inhaling makes me tense, cautious. Exhaling forces a relaxation of my body that allows me the freedom with which to move. Inhaling is walking a balancing beam, a tightrope. If I hold that breath a minute too long, and my life is in danger. Exhaling is trusting that the next second, the next minute, is safe,
After Holy Week and Easter Sunday, small things began happening. A young man I mentored years ago sent me a random message on FaceBook that totally surprised me, and made me smile. A few days after Easter, I took the girls on an impromptu trip to Chattanooga. As I drove, we past the mountains and, at the sight of the mountains surrounding me on either side, a small part of me fell into place. I exhaled and felt energy again. I received an e-mail from a soldier whose life was positively impacted by something I wrote, making me feel both respected and important. This morning, at church, a child with autism in my class made me feel loved and remembered. I got to play with my girls, and sing with them. Exhaling is permission to let go.
The trees are brighter now, I can see again that the sky is really blue. Thoughts of strawberry picking are crowding my head. Spring is in full bloom, and the flowers are beautiful. As wonderfully moving and powerful as the tenebrae service was, it was all the more significant because I know that the story didn’t end there. Three days later, He rose. My children are happy. When my feet aren’t barefoot, they’re clad in flip flops. Thoughts of gardening return. Spring is here.
And I will exhale.