Musings from a $1.50 retreat 

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. 


The point of the book is to intentionally carve out quiet time with God. I love that idea, but my prayers these days are often while I’m driving down the road with a million other things on my mind. 

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

Be strong!

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!

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!

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. 

Tattoos, Tributes, and the Harlow Family Seal

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.

Read all of Psalm 30 here. 

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, 

The Harlows

Confessions; just in case I’ve misled you

“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. 

Onward and upward, dear peeps. I’m signing off to clear clutter and eat chips. 

The power of intentional living

It’s true, most of my problems are merely first-world inconveniences. Yes, there are those valid emotional agonies and scarring life experiences that are universal, but all too often my stresses are self-imposed and stem from over scheduling and busyness.

So when our riding lawn mower had an extended stay in the repair shop, I was only slightly daunted by the task of tackling our overgrown yard with a non-self-propelled push mower.

Considering it takes three hours with the riding mower and someone else feeding our little urchins and wiping their noses and bottoms, using the push mower and being solely responsible for the kiddos at the same time made this look like an all-day affair.

Those who really know me know that I not Pollyanna by nature. I am selfish, cynical, critical, ungrateful and extremely impatient. (My husband is a little more gracious in his description of me.) None-the-less, I have to practice an attitude of gratitude. Living my life on purpose is the only way I can be and become the person I want to be rather than who I am. I decided to take this land-mowing opportunity to be intentionally grateful.

As I pushed the mower along, I became aware of the gift of walking. I breathed in the hot sticky air and was thankful for the gift of smell. I was truly aware of what was around, beneath and above me.

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Now I am more of a wildflower gal, so I don’t get who invented this lawn mowing business anyway. Metaphorically, well-manicured and perfectly tended lawns and lives seem a bit boring to me. Give me beauty all-naturale any day. But I consciously gave thanks for the gift of green grass that needed cut according to town ordinances and machine-powered mowers as I walked back and forth in the hot sun.

This evening, Lee and I are celebrating eight years together. While we have much to celebrate, cultivating our marriage has been intentional as well.

Together we have experienced the unimaginable grief of the death of our daughter, we’ve experienced job losses, and typical marital stresses. But by being intentional about caring for each other with mutual respect and commitment, these adversities have only fertilized and watered the lawn of our relationship and turned what could have been dry, dusty, brown and dying into lush beautiful and green.

I made an intentional effort to continue counting blessings throughout the morning, but as the sun grew hotter, the air stickier and combined with multiple interruptions to care for the babies, I had to become even more intentional. This was not a sprint, but a marathon and the excuses for quitting mounted with each passing swath.

As with anything in life, growing and cultivating takes time, perseverance, and doing and living on purpose.

But when the baby comes to me, clearly taking advantage of my in-attention by eating dirt, and offers me a hand-picked dandelion or our son uses his magic wand to turn the push mower into a rider, all the combined wealth of the world could not afford so rich a moment. The power of intentional living has the power to transform. It only takes a moment of purposeful intentional reflection to be reminded How. Blessed. I. Am.

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Us seven years ago on our 1-year dating anniversary

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Elsie Ray with her dirty face and beautiful dandelion

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Eli using his magic wand to turn my push mower into a rider

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Us this evening