I covered the phone receiver in my hand and whispered to my co-worker, “Is ballet a sport?” Clearly I knew nothing about ballet or sports. (When I was asked to cover my first county-league baseball game my completed article had little to do with the action on the field and everything to do with the community feel at the park. It ended up a cover for the weekly community paper instead of in the sports section as originally intended.)
But I digress.
I was trying to keep the caller inquiring about an article on her ballet studio from hearing my howling coworker laughing at my gaffe. “Ballet is ‘the arts’ Regina,” she gasped between breaths, “not sports.”
Being raised in the Old Order Mennonite faith, all dancing was taboo. Other than witnessing occasional polka dancing at my dad’s non-Mennonite family functions and uninhibited childish hopping when our “worldly” friend played the accordion for us, dancing wasn’t even in our vernacular. But oh I felt music in my soul.
Mom’s nickname for me was the Pennsylvania Dutch word for clumsy, and I lived up to that like a bull in a china shop. I did enjoy the Monday night square dances on the deck of the lodge at Deer Valley Ranch the summer I worked there, but no one seemed to mind my lack of coordination.
Imagine then, I birthed a daughter that lives and breathes dance! She was two when I took her to see the spring recital of a parishioner who owned a dance studio. I was so out of my comfort zone, I chose a seat near the back exit of the auditorium. Our little girl had never seen “professional” dancing before, and she was mesmerized. She got down from my lap and in the dark at the back of the room, she followed every move the dancers made on stage. From that moment on, all we heard was dance.
She was determined to attend their summer dance camp, and when I told her she needed to be potty trained to participate we had instant success. Really! Since then she has taken ballet and tap, and this year she is loving acro.
I’ve shared before about my health issues this spring and summer, and once it was determined that my Psoas muscle was being problematic, my chiropractor suggested I find activities to strengthen my core. Since that initial “just going to support a parishioner” dance recital, the studio owner has become one of my best friends. When I was talking to her about the chiropractor’s advice, she suggested I try an adult lyrical ballet class as part of my therapy.
I never once considered a dance class for myself. Ever. But something about the idea stirred my soul. I asked our daughter if she would like mommy to take a dance class too, and she was ecstatic. Yes!
Imagine the young dance teacher trying to instruct this extremely insecure, totally inhibited, self-conscious non-dancer to stretch my non-dancing body like bubble gum. No finesse, no aplomb, more like a chicken after meeting its demise on mom’s block in my childhood years. But this date with other women, all with their own stories, has fast become one of my favorite spaces in my week.
I still don’t know much about ballet, or sports for that matter, but the day I stop learning is the day I stop living. Ballet has been the most unexpected productive therapy I have participated in, stretching me literally and figuratively in ways I never imagined. These words of Bob Marley sum it up for me, “Forget your troubles and dance.”
Sometimes gifts come in the most unsuspecting ways, like several weeks ago when I picked up a book for $1.50 at a thrift store. I was taking my mother-in-law to an appointment and she loves to stop by thrift stores along the way. The last thing I need is more books, but that section inevtiably sucks me in like a gnat to vinegar. This round of treasures included “A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton” by Esther de Waal.
Waal’s opening recognizes that taking a weekend or week alone is nearly impossible for many of us, yet we still need to create spaces of quiet time with God. For some that might be smaller amounts every day and for others perhaps larger spaces of time once a week, depending on our individual circumstances.
“… if I am to take myself seriously,” Waal writes, “to respect the whole of myself, body, mind, and spirit, and acknowledge how essential it is to nurture myself, I know that time apart is essential. It is essential to find time to stand back, to draw breath, not only for my own sake but also for my relationships with my family, colleagues, friends, and above all for an ever deepening relationship with God.”
As an extroverted introvert, I am often misunderstood as someone who functions best by being constantly surrounded by people. My chaotic schedule itself would be proof enough to some that I must always be doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I absolutely love people and relationships and caring for others, I get overwhelmed in crowds and am uncomfortable in large groups. I crave time alone, yet I’m regrettably negligent in making that priority.
“The reason why we don’t take time is a feeling that we have to keep moving,” Merton says, “This is a real sickness. Today time is a commodity, and for each one of us time is mortgaged… we are threatened by a chain reaction: overwork – overstimulation – overcompensation – overkill.”
Guilty. Right here. Those words are for me. And I try to pay attention to where that drive comes from for me. Ultimately, I believe, it is because I buy into the lie that I am never enough, can never do enough, be enough, care enough, accomplish enough. Always striving, but never arriving. I buy into the lie that solitude is selfish, there is too much to be done to rest.
I memorized this poem by Maltbie Davenport Babcock at a young age and have too long kept it a personal mantra.
Be Strong by Maltbie Davenport Babcock
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift;
We have hard work to do and loads to lift;
Shun not the struggle, face it, ’tis God’s gift.
Be strong, be strong, be strong!
Say not the days are evil—who’s to blame?
And fold the hands and acquiesce—O shame!
Stand up, speak out, and bravely, in God’s Name.
Be strong, be strong, be strong!
It matters not how deep entrenched the wrong,
How hard the battle goes, the day, how long;
Faint not, fight on! Tomorrow comes the song.
Be strong, be strong, be strong!
I still love the message, but one cannot be strong without addressing one’s weakness. I cannot truly offer compassionate care to others without first offering it to myself. In solitude with God I can recognize and own my weaknesses and rest in His strength and sufficiency. It is in solitude with God that I more fully experience His love for me and mine for Him.
“We have to remember that we look for solitude in order to grow there in love for God and in love for others,” Merton writes. “We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them: we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them, but to find out the way to do them the most good. But this is always a secondary end. The one end that includes all others is the love of God.”
In that time of personal retreat, the prayer and Scripture and reflection bring everything else into refreshing focus. Merton sums up the rejuvenation of Scripture-reading with the following, “By the reading of Scripture I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a purer, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green, light is sharper on the outlines of the forests and the hills and the whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music in the earth under my feet.”
It is only in intentional retreat with God, that I can truly revel in the wonderful aspects of my life and find strength within the difficulties. In that time I am reminded of God’s love in every celebration and concern of life and see that God is with me in it all.
“It is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain,” Waal says. “It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God’s love that feeds me also by hungar and fasting… It is God who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood.”
In intentional retreat with God I am reminded of my uniqueness as a person and the specific tasks to which I have been called. I have never bought into the “I’m special and God has a great plan for my life,” teaching that makes everyone feel like they will produce profound and wonderful accomplishments for the Kingdom of God. My personal belief falls more in line with this quote from Waal. “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him… The more a tree is like itself it is like Him. This particular tree will give glory to God by spreading out its roots in the earth and raising its branches into the air and the light in a way that no other tree before or after it ever did or ever will do.”
There are many trees in this world, some of which will never be beholden by human eye or evoke awe in those who see it, but they are nonetheless unique and praising God as no other tree before or after. Our names, our life’s work may never be noticed by others or recognized beyond our family and friends, and yet we can still give glory to God by being who we’re created to be in Him and living for what we are called to do.
“If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task that I am performing,” Waal writes. “To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work. In this way I become His instrument. He works through me.”
I am still working my way through this sweet little gem of a book from the thrift store, but I am so thankful for a this personal retreat for the price of $1.50. The price for not taking this to heart is much costlier.
I’ve started this post a hundred times and simply couldn’t get it out. It feels so vulnerable, but for others who need to learn these same lessons, I must share.
My husband, our children, and my mission through the Sadie Rose Foundation are, without a doubt, the things I love most in life, secondary only to my love for God. Who knew my deep and unwavering love for them could cause physical pain?
The past few years have wreaked havoc on my health and after many tests, the underlying “diagnosis” was a real wake-up call. Nearly two years ago, I “lost” my voice and was diagnosed with a hemorrhagic nodule on my left vocal chord. I use my voice in many ways, including singing, public speaking, conducting meetings, conversation, and of course, “mommy voice,” so this was a big deal to me.
My Ear, Nose, Throat specialist prescribed, even ordered, silence in order for the nodule to heal. With the addition of a foster placement during that time, and our family’s entire routine upended, the children needed mommy’s reassurance and stability more than ever. No talking and only whispering when words were absolutely necessary seemed an impossibility, but I took the orders very seriously. Nearly a year later my voice returned to its normal strength and range.
That experience was my first indication that my body was trying to tell me something.
This spring I began having pain in my left side and my right foot. After nearly two months, I went to the doctor. The nurse practitioner believed the pain to be muscular. I was also diagnosed with a common infection that cleared quickly with antibiotics, but the underlying pain persisted.
Another visit to the doctor led them to believe I should have more tests, just to “rule out scary stuff.” In the meantime the pain became unbearable and warranted a trip to the ED. A CT scan showed a few areas of possible concern and I tested positive for strep.
(A few weeks earlier I had a trip to the ED for a trout bone that had lodged in my throat.)
In the meantime, I did all I could to keep up with my family, our non-profit, my church responsibilities, and helping care for a beloved family member.
At some point I realized I had nothing left to give. I drove into the church parking lot for a meeting and the gas light in my vehicle came on. I realized at that moment that the gas light in my life was glaring at me. I was “on empty,” and without refueling, I could not continue.
Tests were coming back normal and negative, which was great except that I needed answers. I set up a counseling appointment (my first ever) and began seeing a chiropractor. I started noticing improvement with my first visits to both. I have known for a long time that I needed to find a way to release the pain, grief, and concern I carry for others, but I didn’t realize that not doing so could ruin me.
Where there is love, there is vulnerability to pain. Laura Ramirez
I had dubbed myself “a sacred painholder” somewhere in my journey of walking with those grieving the death of a child, but I needed to learn how to be a “pain-releaser.” Connecting with new families for me always means that their miracle never came, there was no happy ending, it means that a child has died.
This is heavy stuff. I held their pain so closely, it became my own. I was imposing my anxieties on my family, frightened with every small pain or problem that they were going to die too, because “I knew someone who…” Besides the weight of grief growing ever-heavier, my daily life became ever-busier. I had over-extended every area of my life, and my body started paying the price.
My Psoas muscle (termed by some as the “muscle of your soul,”) was the cause of the pain in my side and my other complications seemed to stem from that. Some would say the Psoas muscle is where we hold stress, tension, and anxiety, and I was holding plenty of all three.
As of several weeks ago, the last remaining tests came back clear, I’m seeing significant improvement from counseling and chiropractic care, I’m deliberately saying “no” to many good opportunities so I can savor the most precious ones more fully, and I am returning to hobbies I have loved in the past and trying something totally new.
Ballistics and Ballet
One of my favorite hobbies and stress relievers years ago was target and skeet shooting. My husband and I have bonded more in returning to that hobby then I could have dreamed. I also signed up for an adult ballet class! That stretches me (literally and figuratively) far out of my comfort zone, but it is helping me rebuild my core strength and is forcing me to confront a myriad of insecurities.
I’m taking time out and time off from many “extracurricular things” to return to the those that refuel me. I am purposefully praying for myself, something I do well for others but have neglected on my own behalf. I am finding refuge and peace in the constant relentless love of God and in these words from His Word.
Psalm 139:7-10 7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.
Philippians 4:6-7 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
Matthew 11:28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Barefoot o’re the dusty pathway
Through the pasture, was the rule
Skipped the girl with brunette pigtails
As she hurried off to school
Ah, the summer filled with daydreams
Hailed her with its final call
Breezes yielded July’s sweetness
To ripened hints of early fall
Deep inhale, she sniffed the pencils
As the sharpener ground the wood
Buried nose into her textbooks
Smelling knowledge to be learned
Classroom chatter all around her
Catching up on summer fun
Couldn’t rival her excitement
Of a new school year begun
Bother math, it still confounds her
Language arts, she wanted more
Reading, writing, singing, playing
Timeless knowledge didn’t bore
Oh those sacred childhood memories
Held forever in her heart
Well from deep within her being
As her own, their school now start
I’ve learned to ask for stories behind tattoos. Many are in tribute to a life or a belief, while others have no real thought behind them. In the child-loss community, some have initials, angel wings, or even actual pictures, foot prints or echocardiograms of their child.
I’m not a tattoo person myself, but at our Sadie Rose Grief Retreat, hearing all the meaningful stories and seeing the unique expressions of tattooed tributes to their loved ones, I began to wonder if I was missing out.
What I came up with instead of a tattoo is the Harlow Family Seal; a symbol that encompasses our story of life, death, adoption, and hope, that can be used as a stamp, a letterhead, on a t-shirt, or made into pins and buttons.
De profundis is Latin and means, “from the depths. A heartfelt cry of appeal expressing deep feelings of sorrow or anguish.”
We knew de profundis when our daughter died.
SEEK are the initials of our four children, Sadie, Eli, Elsie, and Korana.
From the depths, SEEK joy!
Psalm 30 is a personal favorite that speaks of God rescuing from the depths, turning weeping into laughter and sorrow into joy.
Psalm 30 NIV Translation
1 I will exalt you, Lord,
for you lifted me out of the depths…
2 Lord my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
3 You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit…
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning…
10 Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
Lord, be my help.”
11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
From the depths, de profundis, from the anguish of the death of our sweet Sadie Rose, the joy of our beloved Eli, Elsie, and Korana is that much sweeter. We will always miss our first born, the one who made us parents. Our arms always ache for Sadie’s presence. Tears still slip from my eyes and there are days I still struggle to function, even ten years later. Yet we love more deeply, savoring moments more fully with each other and our living children, because we know all too well the frailty and brevity of life. Truly de profundis, from the depths, we SEEK (Sadie, Eli, Elsie, and Korana) and have found joy!
The cross in the middle of the seal symbolizes the faith that has carried us through it all. Only God in his great love and mercy could turn our weeping to laughter and our sorrow to joy. Bittersweet as it is, we are grateful for laughter and joy.
The bottom of the symbol carries an H for Harlow and a c for Cyzick, weaving Lee and I into the circle and the story.
When you see this symbol, we hope you’re also encouraged to seek joy de profundis.
From our hearts to yours,
“You have the perfect life,” she said, “a great husband, beautiful children, doing what you love for work. I dream about your life.”
Wait! What?! I nearly spit out my tea.
“You know, what you post on Facebook,” she added, “Your life is perfect.”
First off, I admit, my life is filled with many wonderful things. My husband is loyal, devoted, rock-solid awesomeness. Our children are adorable, have mostly great behavior, and are respectful, caring, compassionate little humans. I am in awe that I get to live my passion of being there for others in grief, even though that calling was birthed through my own dark night of the soul.
Additionally, I am generally a “look on the bright side” kind of gal, so even when life’s suck-o-meter hits red hot, I hurt, shake my fist, and with almost every scenario, find a way to see the positive. (There are exceptions.)
I decided a long time ago a life of gratitude is much sweeter than constant comparisons. I’ve never wanted or intentionally tried to pretend my life was perfect. Sharing my shortcomings and chaos helps me connect to others, but I also don’t want to complain or come across as whining. Ask my children, I loathe whining.
So here’s some real-life relatable blackmail material for you.
I can eat nearly a whole bag of Lay’s BBQ potato chips in one setting, especially when paired with chunks of yummy cheddar cheese. Sometimes I have ice cream for lunch. As much as I enjoy exercise, I’ve been dealing with an excruciating bout of plantar fasciitis for months and just being on my feet is extremely painful. Exercise is pretty much impossible until this improves. So much for rockin’ 40 in August, but I guarantee I still will!
Those adorable wildlings that steal my heart create monster messes (shhhhh, so do their parents) and I’d rather write and read than clean. People, hear me when I say my house is nearly always in disarray. We have an endless cycle of laundry; dirty, drying, unfolded. The counter is a catch-all for school projects, art projects, and cooking projects to the point it becomes a science project. Once, a friend for whom I had set a place for supper said, “Wow, I’ve never seen this end of your kitchen table.” He probably hadn’t.
Sometimes the children fight and the baby cries to the point I give up on cooking supper and we eat cereal instead. My husband gets mad at me. I get frustrated with him.
I have skeletons in my closet. I have family whose skeletons are currently curing. Even when their choices become maddening and hurtful, the decision to love and wrestling with what that love looks like continues to shape and mold me. I fail. Often.
Hopefully this will change soon, but most all of my work is volunteer so we are always trying to make ends meet financially. I spend too much money on groceries.
I deal with anxiety and situational depression. Many days I feel like I don’t do enough, am never enough, can never catch up, never measure up, and wonder if anything I do truly makes a difference. I shoulder the weight of the world, even when it doesn’t ask me to. I am not prone to compare myself with others materialistically, but I am my own worst competition when it comes to making a difference.
I worry about ridiculous things, and our pediatrician can tell you I worry obsessively over our children. Although my Facebook posts might be positive, they are more often a statement of faith than anything else.
So yeah, I love cooking and eating healthy, but am an emotional eater. I love happy kiddos, but ours are still typical stinkers. I love family, even when they make terrible choices. Our struggles might come in different forms, but ultimately we are all living our own vida loco.
We all get lemons, I just much prefer lemonade and will go to great lengths to find the sweetness.