31: memento mori & memento videre

Turning thirty-one offers a little relief in settling into true adulthood. Part of this means that if my idea of a good time is talking about latin catchphrases on my blog while my children “nap” (today this means “alternately fuss in their respective beds for an hour or so”), I can do that. I’m an adult now.

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these grew in my yard. happy birthday to me! 

So, memento mori and memento vivere are the words that come to me when I think about this past year.  “Remember your death” and “Remember to live.” Especially during Lent and Holy Week, I see how inseparable these are, kind of like twin mottos that uphold each other. Most of the lessons and highlights for this year fit neatly into this intersection.

Memento Mori & Household Stuff.
Around my birthday last year, my mom and her siblings moved my grandfather into a nursing home and sold their big iconic family house in the woods. I morbidly joked to Aaron that meant he wasn’t allowed to die in the near future because my early widowhood backup plan (raising the kids in that house) was now off the table. But a big part of that process, which I followed from afar, was clearing out the basement and closets, sorting trunks full of unlabeled pictures, and nearly continual donation trips to the neighborhood Goodwill. I’m pretty sure my mom still has loads of this stuff in her own basement now because it’s hard to sort through things when you’re so emotional. My grandparents were not hoarders by any stretch, just upper middle class Americans who had lived in the same house for 45 years. (Which is to say, the ideal best case scenario for my end of days, too.) I’d read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo before we moved here and implemented what I could from her discarding plan (especially the “joy spark” question) as we packed and unpacked, but I’ve been challenged to continually tackle the clutter battle as a way of life. Because really, memento mori: I’m going to die someday, and I’d rather have my kids talk about their memories of me or the words I left them than know they will be sighing about cleaning out my basement, which I am quite sure was just sighed over and cleaned out by the children of this home’s previous elderly owners before I bought it, too. With this in mind I passed out all the kid toys that made annoying sounds, recycled 80% of the professional photo prints from my wedding (no one is ever going to look at them!), and donated a whole extra van load worth of household stuff… And you know? There’s a lot more living in our home when there’s less picking up, so it’s worth decluttering in the spirit of memento vivere, too.

Memento Mori & Projects
I am always, always up for planning a new project. The number of possibilities (household! Diy! education! reading! church! writing! handcrafts! start five podcasts!)  rolling around in my head is absurd, and I’m humbled every time I open my binder of family recipes, because I see a note in my Grandma’s handwriting. “This is the first edition of the long awaited Niemi cookbook – more to follow.”

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Surprise! There were no later additions to this collection. And it’s not just because she got sick. It’s because life is what happens within limits and you can’t do absolutely everything. This is true for all the ideas in my head, too, and memento mori here means making peace with unstarted and unfinished projects (which are legion), because I’m going to leave a bunch of things undone when I die anyway. Abandoning ideas more quickly, even ones that already made it to a mid-project stage, doesn’t mean that perseverance and completion are unimportant. It just means I can have a clearer head to discern and finish the ones that do matter.

Memento Vivere & the St. Louis Climate
Maybe you have heard of “hygge,” the Scandanavian lifestyle ethos that is trending everywhere these days? It’s all about the quality of being cozy and hospitable, and as a knitter, a candle-lighter, a true woman of the north, I want to embrace this. I feel silly complaining about warm weather after experiencing two of the most brutal winters on record during the short time we lived in Minnesota. But man, it’s unbearably hot and steamy for four or five months out of the year here, and I’m not paying to join the neighborhood pool until the kids learn to swim. We’re going to be trapped inside for much of the summer as long as we live here. So I’m doing my best to memento vivere and ignore the siren call of the Hygge life during winter, embracing every sunny day we can get out for a zoo trip and bundling the kids for playground time now. Winter here is for living, not hibernating. This means we can fully embrace the vibrant splash pad scene here when it warms up. Maybe order some fun inside activity gear. Buy Tazo Passion Tea in bulk to DIY my favorite coffeeshop summer treat. And save excessive movie watching for August, as backwards as it seems.

Memento Vivere & Motherhood 
If my life is a memoir, the chapter I’m living right now is titled “Everyone Is Crying.” There are a lot of good days with the kids, especially now that nearly all outings are possible with both kids on my own, but it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into the belief that life is what will happen next – When they can procure their own breakfast so I can hide in the basement and write every morning until Aaron leaves for work; when we finally get the house projects done so I can get a piano again; kindergarten, glory.

But if I wasn’t waiting to start my life until the kids were born, I’m not waiting to start it now. I really don’t have enough time to do the things I want (and even need, really) to do for my own peace of mind, but remembering to live means figuring out how to fight for even a glimpse of peace in the middle of all this hustle. So maybe spending mornings at a gym with a nursery isn’t an option, but I can still grab the stroller for a walk or turn up fun music to have a “dance party” with the kids. (In doing this I have learned toddler interpretations of the lyrics to basically all my desired workout songs are definitely “explicit.”) Maybe I can’t sit down and write like I’d want, but I can play hard with the kids in the morning and let them watch a few shows after their nap so I can spend an afternoon lost in a book even when there are not enough solo hours to craft paragraphs myself. A little extra screentime isn’t as damaging as growing up with a crazy mom, you know.

This year memento vivere means that anything worth doing is worth doing even a little bit. Because if I have to wait until I can spend an hour at the gym or drink hot coffee alone or sit still long enough to create something beautiful in my journal or on a set of knitting needles to really live, I’m not going to be able to live contentedly with what God has given me. And that’s no life at all.

 

 

 

Sisu, sleeplessness, and the marriage supper

When my Grandma died last year, we experienced fully the forethought of grief, where you get to hang on to the tension and dread of a protracted, agonizing death. Sometimes it is like that. But sometimes death just happens, and all you can do is try to keep breathing when someone you love isn’t. The forethought of grief was not an option with my grandpa. The phone calls came quickly and suddenly this time: Falls. Heart murmurs. Bed sores. Hospice. Long naps. Soon. Maybe tomorrow? No, today.

And all of the sudden, Poppa is gone. This was expected because, of course, we’re mortals, and he’s an old man with heart defects and Alzheimer’s, ailed by who knows what host of other problems he couldn’t describe due to his memory problems. But it feels too fast, too soon, and too wrong. I suppose it never feels right to hear that news. Death is always a loss, always cutting against the grain of our eternity-bound hearts.

A robin flies into my window the next day, and the thump against my house drops it back dead on the porch. Seizing the opportunity to practice a hard teaching moment, I point out the front window and explain the bird’s death to my little daughter. She can’t understand it yet, can she? Still shy of her second birthday, she proudly tells her baby brother Thomas about this as soon as his nap ends: “Tho’as! Bird. Nap. S’eepy outside. No wake up. Dead. Icky. ‘ook, Tho’as.”

We need to walk past the bird to get in the van, to get to the mall for new black funeral shoes. Old shovel in hand, I swallow hard and can’t get the edge under the bird; I don’t really have the gumption to take control of the dead bird situation. When my scooping efforts fail, I let the bird slide off the porch into the flower bed. It lands between two overgrown boxwood, right next to a new bush Aaron planted. He’s so much like Poppa, with curious joy in watching new life spring forth from the earth. He can move the bird away later, and it won’t hurt us in the meantime. Still disconcerted by the sight of this poor robin in the bushes, I take the children around the back door anyway.

That night Aaron says he’s glad to hear the bird landed in the mulch. He needs to fertilize the new bush soon anyway. The best thing to do, he says, is just leave it. We go about our evening: My grandpa is dead, the bird is dead, and my children are miraculously full of even more life than usual after our trip to the mall. We sing cheerful songs before they sleep at night, because that dead bird monologue didn’t translate into actual understanding of my (and our) loss. Cheer and grief: what do I do with this dissonance?

The Lord liveth — though Poppa is dead.
Blessed be the Rock — since we are dust. 
Let the God of our salvation be exalted —
…while we lay someone low in the ground. 

The funeral, exactly a week before my sister’s wedding, finds me preparing to share a eulogy about Poppa’s humble beginnings, his love for the creation and the Creator, and his determined spirit. That sanctuary holds many special memories: My mom’s and aunt’s wedding pictures, my cousins’ baptisms, late Christmas Eve services, Grandma’s funeral last year. Poppa was there for all of these. We sing some of his favorite songs, like How Great Thou Art, and it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting in his row, belting it out alongside us. Since the minister’s homily covered most of my main points, I begin with a joke that my speech “got scooped.” Thankfully, a story as good as Poppa’s is worth telling twice. 

The tales of Poppa growing up as the child of unassimilated Finnish immigrants yet earning advanced degrees, serving in the Air Force, establishing elementary schools in Alaska and colleges in Michigan, traveling the world, and always, always gardening might seem disjointed, but their common thread is found in a little knowledge about his Finnish roots. My Poppa started elementary school speaking only Finnish and knowing just a few English words. I’m the opposite, because I just speak English, but the one Finnish word I know is sisu. It doesn’t fully translate to English, but it means grit, determination, valor, fortitude, sustained courage, and fighting with the will to win. Sisu is considered the true Spirit of Finland, and with this tenacity, Poppa’s life demonstrated that he kept the best of his Finnish heritage with a sisu drive for faithful effort in carefully chosen pursuits.

After talking about his life and the resurrection  – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again, Alleluia – we scoop potato salad onto our plates in the fellowship hall before moving outside to stand in the blazing sun, scooping earth over ashes. Grandma and Poppa are set there together, dust over dust. By their quiet faithfulness to the gospel and each other, my grandparents were, in so many ways, like trees planted by streams of water, like great Oaks of righteousness. We sow in tears, grieving that this is so final and awful and wrong. We sow in faith, believing boldly that God will reap them as His glorious harvest following the raising of Christ, the firstfruit of all who sleep.

When we have laid them to rest, we return to a full house since so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings stay for the week until Naomi’s wedding. We do not rest ourselves. No one ever wants to go to bed, and this is not just the kids cajoling for 5 more minutes. We’re adults who know we are dangerously exhausted, but still we turn on the movies and make snacks to procrastinate on our necessary wedding projects until the wee hours every day. Is it because we want to try keeping today long enough for a little more joy? Or because we know sleep is a mini-death? Maybe it’s because we want more time with Poppa, which we cannot have, so we hang on to every moment with these people who gives us a little bit of him and his memory.

Grief is exhausting because you just want to keep it at bay; if you keep busy, keep fighting to embrace what you have, maybe the memories of your loss will stay away longer. And you stay up late so you aren’t trying to will yourself to sleep with fewer defenses against the pain. You want to be too tired to pay attention to how bad it feels. If you lay there with any energy left, you will remember. It’s easier, in the short term, to fall apart from exhaustion than to be alert to what you have lost.

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Bill Niemi and Thomas Hummel. Poppa kept saying, “You can tell he really likes me!”

The Apostle Paul says that in death and resurrection, what is sown does not come to life unless it dies, planted like a bare kernel. Everyone who watched Poppa’s remains go into the earth (we who are now folding bulletins and altering bridesmaid dresses and spray painting table decor) also watched this happen in Poppa’s garden every summer. Just like we joyfully tasted the firstfruits of his garden labors, in ripe red tomatoes and long green beans and crisp cucumbers, we see the joyful fruit of his life among us. To say nothing of blessings among my cousins and the wider community of family and friends, my sisters and I all celebrate our new boys: I have Thomas, Beth is roundly pregnant with Ellis, Naomi is marrying Matt.  We live in the tension of loss and exponential increase this week especially, somehow starting to make peace with what we have heard and spoken about the resurrection: What God raises up out of death is greater than what existed naturally in the first place.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead:
what is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain.
– 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 58.

It makes a lot of sense that we spend our initial grief for Poppa in wedding coordinations, moving from funeral grief to marriage joy in that same church the next Saturday. We celebrate the seamless call of the gospel and the example of Poppa’s Finnish sisu, to abound and labor for good fruit by the finished work of Jesus. We persevere in preparations while Naomi and Matt open their hearts and arms to each other, in the shadow of Poppa’s life of diligence and devotion. We prepare to rejoice and feast in celebration of their new life together, echoing the eternal life Poppa revels in at the marriage supper of the lamb.

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wedding photos via  hello rose photography 

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb! -Revelation 9:9

William Jacob Niemi, Jr., passed away on July 17, 2016, surrounded by family. 

Strengthen Me According To Your Word

STRENGTHEN ME ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD: Scriptures to Read After Miscarriage. 

“My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word.” – Psalm 119:28

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I’ve been very humbled to walk in grief next to many friends after they have miscarried a baby, and I think the most common question they bring up has been, “Did you have any particular scriptures I should read? What does the Bible say to me about this?” (And others want to know how to help someone else, what they can say after their friend loses a baby, too.) While I’ve already written about the journey I took discovering [how the topic of miscarriage fits into the “big picture” of scripture] after my losses, the Bible does provide some additional encouragement here as well. Scripture is words of life for those in the midst of death. We don’t have to fumble for random and theologically troubling explanations outside of this!

On Grief & Broken Hearts

Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 
Psalm 31: 9 “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted with grief.” 

It is okay to be honest in prayer about the difficulty of grief; God never asks us to get our emotions under control or pretend like everything is fine before coming to him.

Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

It’s a gift that this doesn’t say:“Blessed are those who have bad things happen to them, for they shall be stronger than everyone else.” Everyone has difficulty in life, but not everyone actually mourns or allows themselves to grieve. God’s comfort comes to us while we’re working through difficulty, not by avoiding it or pretending something wasn’t a big deal.

On Hurtful Words & Difficult Relationships 

Psalm 31: 20 “You store them in your shelter from the strife of tongues.” 

The Lord offers refuge and healing in himself when other people’s words cut deeply.  When facing difficult conversation and remembering painful comments from others, rest in the shelter that God offers in himself. We can always keep running to him instead of reopening the wounds made by others’ thoughtless words.

Isaiah 53:3-4 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hid their faces, he was despised… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” 

[One of the most common responses to news of a miscarriage is “At least you weren’t further along, like my friend’s stillbirth,” or “At least you hadn’t been trying long,” or “At least you know you can get pregnant.” The message this sends: ‘Grief is a competition and lots of other people have it worse than you. You don’t deserve to grieve.’ That is a lie.] There is a time to empathize with others and get some perspective, of course. I wouldn’t approach someone whose children were killed by terrorists and say “You know, I had miscarriages so I know just what this is like.” No way! But when you are stricken with a personal tragedy, that grief is real and it matters.  Being dismissed by people who should have known better doesn’t make this less true: For a Christian, the only real “competition” for grief is Jesus. While bearing the weight of all sin and sorrow, he also felt the pain of messed up relationships. He was abandoned and misunderstood. He was hurt by people he trusted. His suffering was the worst because he took all our grief and sorrow to the cross, and in the resurrection he is victorious over all of it, too. Sin and suffering (which sometimes correlate, and sometimes do not) are not ultimate for us because of this.

On Weariness & Strength 

Psalm 31:7 “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul.”
Psalm 119:50 “My comfort in my affliction is this: your promise preserves my life.” 

For a Christian, the remedy for sorrow and weariness is found in the Lord. Not in a future earthly good (for example, having another baby after a miscarriage) or “moving past” the difficulty in question. When other people aren’t walking alongside you in ways you need, and those relationships feel very disappointing? You can rejoice in the steadfast love of God, who has known the distress of your soul. When you are afflicted and sorrowful? You can trust that God’s promise of salvation preserves your life.

On Sin & Shame 

Psalm 103:10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

A miscarriage is not punishment for sin, and a living baby is not a reward for righteousness. No one “deserves” a miscarriage for any reason, just like no one “deserves” a child. 

The Baby’s Life & Purpose 

Psalm 139:13-14 “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

When you really consider all that’s involved with conception and fetal development, it’s a wonder the human race has sustained this long. A 1st-trimester baby, even one with profound genetic deformities, is a pure miracle. Whether we have a “reason” for a miscarriage like that (which is supposed to be about 50% of losses) or not, we can praise God for his marvelous creation in the baby’s life. I’m still surprised by how many people told me, “There was probably something wrong with the baby,” as if that was supposed to lessen my grief or explain God’s purpose. My specific medical history indicates this was probably not the case anyway, but no matter what: God’s image was placed in the baby just as much as it was with any of us. Even the shortest of lives is a praiseworthy and mysterious marvel. 

Psalm 138:8 “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
Psalm 139:16 “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

I’ll admit, I’ve thought these verses were kind of unfair – why would God create a baby with a life only in the womb, even life measured by days more than weeks? What is the point of that? Why even create the baby in the first place?  Yet we can be comforted that God is not limited by time or human frailty; we are all like helpless children before God. That God can use my 30-year-old life and reasonably well-trained mind to fulfill his purpose is not less astounding than that he could do the same in the MUCH shorter life of a baby who died in the womb.

On God’s Love

Psalm 103:13-14 “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  

God’s love and desire for his children is even more powerful than the difficulty of a miscarriage or other loss. He isn’t surprised by weakness or failure, and he doesn’t expect us to summon supernatural strength apart from himself.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”

NOT: “For God so loved the miscarrying woman that he gave her a new baby of her own, that whoever believes in him will no longer miscarry, but have a pro-creative life.” We know God loves us because he gave us his son; we do not measure or prove God’s love for us by anything else.

Romans 8:38-39 “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

That “…nor anything else in all creation” includes your baby. Their life or death does not separate us from God’s love.

On Hope & The Resurrection 

1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 27 “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all died, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. …The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The true message of hope and encouragement in grief is in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and return. (And if this feels weird, it is. Y’all, Christianity definitely requires a little weirdness. There’s no Jesus Lite version to opt out of this stuff.)  Grief is one of the many places where the rubber of Christianity hits the road of real life. In many ways this is where you actually need the weirdness of Christianity most!

The poet John Donne, who grieved many profound losses (father, siblings, children, wife) reflected on these verses and wrote the sonnet “Death, Be Not Proud,” with an ending that says this better than anyone else: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ and death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!” The pain and loss of a miscarriage find their final remedy in the Resurrection, which destroys destruction and kills death.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ” But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 

This scripture is a particular treasure after a miscarriage because it doesn’t tell us not to grieve, it says we grieve differently than other people.
It doesn’t tell us that hope replaces grief, it shows that hope transforms our grief.
It doesn’t tell us we’ll be happy when we can “get over” the difficulty we face, it points to Jesus overcoming the difficulty in our place.
And it doesn’t tell us we will stop grieving at some arbitrary point in life, or even when we see our loved ones in heaven. It offers a better promise: that we will always be with the Lord.

reading round up 2.13.15

[What We’re Up To] 
This has been a fairly out-of-control few weeks. My grandmother recently passed away, so Annie and I spent over a week in Michigan for the funeral, and came  home with wicked colds. I’m still not entirely recovered, probably due to her waking up congested/crabby/hungry 4-6x every night for the past several weeks. We’re surviving, but we’re also wearing our pajamas for several days in a row and the house is a complete disaster. (As in, “it’s a good thing no one is calling CPS on us” dirty.) But! The disarray is also here because we’ve got stuff pulled out all over the place to prepare for installing the new floor in the whole upstairs starting this weekend! Then we’ll use a gift card and go out to eat, because making progress on DIY projects and not having to cook speaks love and romance to me in so many ways. Aaron is a good man and he knows this about me.

Annie is now six months old, so in celebration we presented her with an exciting, but not quite age-appropriate, toy. Max understands it better than she does. (And now that enough time has passed and I’m sure my thoughts on the whole thing are not crazy, or at least they haven’t changed with this much perspective, I may get brave/annoyed enough to share some *non-graphic* thoughts on the “birth culture” in America.)

[Valentine’s Reading]
My all-time favorite treatise on love and finding contentment with the simpler life is The Romance of Domesticity, written by the husband-half of one of my all-time favorite couples.
Despite a few nagging theological differences, I think a series on marriage from a while back at Like Mother, Like Daughter really hit the nail on the head for me. I was very encouraged to know we’re building something of spiritual value in marriage, even before we had kids, and even when building up marriage and each other comes at the expense of other “good” things. Now, this can be taken WAY TOO FAR, and I think the book below provides some balance to that, but there were some encouraging thoughts found here. 

[Books]
I’m reading You and Me Forever by Francis and Lisa Chan, which can be purchased on their website or downloaded free in PDF format. (I chose the free PDF.) I really appreciate the focus on the Kingdom of God instead of the glorification of marriage, which is what usually oozes out of stuff I read. If I hear one more thing about how the primary key to Christian life is “Building a Marriage-Centered Family” or something like that without this balance, I might scream. (It’s dangerous and idolatrous.) Instead, I’m finding this very refreshing:

You are more than a spouse. If you have been blessed with kids, you are more than a parent. You have a unique role in the Kingdom of God, and he has great works for you to do… For some of you, it isn’t about the “Christian Bubble,” it’s just the plain old idolatry of the family. I want you to seriously ask yourself: Do I spend more time focusing on being a good spouse and parent, or more time focusing on being a godly person?

[Science] 
This excellent Ted Talk asks, “Can You Feed 9,000,000,000 People?” and goes over much of the truth the “organic” crowd misses when they condemn GMO crops. I’d ask any of my friends to thoroughly examine these claims before condemning genetic engineering in crop science.

[Music] 
Mostly classical and nerdy this week…
The Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, BMV 565 by Johann Sebastian Bach.

[Fun]
One-Star Book Reviews are just plain fun. As I think about children’s literature, I can’t help but appreciate the kindly reviewer for The Flopsy Bunnies: “The focus on killing baby bunnies and fighting over what to do with their bodies once they were dead, wasn’t very child friendly.” Duly noted.
These New Titles For Children’s Books (Based Entirely On Their Covers) is providing much entertainment here. My favorites? “Whoever Is On That Boat Is About To Be Disemboweled,” and “When The Colorblind Decorate.” Maybe “Midget Girl Adopts Satan’s Puppy,” too.
Unrelated to kids’ reading, Elizabethan Superheros is also worthy of a few chortles.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and happy weekend!

knitting and kneading: the forethought of grief.

“Any day now, any day…” The words we have been hearing every day for over a month are starting to sound like a broken record. Only it’s not a record that’s broken, it’s my grandma: a vibrant, beautiful, brave, eternal soul suffering a cancer that steals her strength, and will entirely devour her mortal flesh soon. Possibly even before I hit “publish” on this post.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry says there is freedom from worry in considering the animals, who “do not tax their life with forethought of grief.” Aaron calls this poem a modern retelling of Matthew 6: Do not worry about your life, look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies, God will take care of you, and all that.  When fear for what our lives and our children’s lives may become grips us, it is wise to, basically, get some perspective, chillax, and stop thinking about what bad things might happen. My dog doesn’t do much worrying (except for the whereabouts of that blasted tennis ball lost in a snowbank outside the local elementary school), and he is a much happier creature than I. Sometimes it is good to learn from animals and quell anxiety. But I am not an animal, I am a person, and someone I have loved my whole life is dying in long-drawn agony. I have forethought of this grief because I am human, and because I am fallen. I suffer because I know there is pain now, and because there will be a empty spot for my Grandma in the rest of my entire life.

This forethought of grief subconsciously works itself out in my domestic endeavors. I must finish the baby blanket for my new niece, Margaret Belle, so I steal a few moments to knit a row here and there. Watching the yarn turn into a blanket is soothing: A long string that would tangle without care can become something lovely, meaningful, and warm. We’ve had a steady stream of freshly-baked bread in the kitchen for weeks and have eaten more homemade pizza in the last month than we had in all of 2014. It is such a simple thing to watch yeast dough rise, sprinkle flour on my counter, feel the springy dough folding under my hands. When you know how this works it doesn’t require much thought, and maybe that’s why I like it right now. My grandma showed me how to do this the first time, and knowing that my family now eats bread because she taught me to bake seems like an everyday testimony to the Resurrection: Life is just a portion of eternity, and death is not really a permanent end. She is a soul and her life continues in eternity. And because she spent her earthly life loving and building up others, the beauty of her life does not end with her death, either.

The fact that my day is full of fore-thought-grief doesn’t change the simple routines that close it: Later than we both would like, Aaron comes home. The dog licks and wags his tail, and then lays under the table. Bread, fresh and hot, dips into soup. The baby passes back and forth between our laps. She keeps reaching for our plates, enjoying the mushed up carrot and bread we offer her. She is kissed, tickled, fed, wiped down from head to toe, diapered, and snugly wrapped for bed. We spent years praying for her before she arrived, and at bedtime we still pray, asking God to give her health, growth, strength, and siblings.

My name is Abigail Rebecca, and I sing my daughter, Anne Rebecca, to sleep:

Jesus, Tender Shepherd, hear me
Bless Thy little lamb tonight
Through the darkness, be Thou near me
Keep me safe ’til morning light. 

I listen to hear her breathing. She’s congested and sometimes she struggles a bit to inhale. So I hold my breath along with her and wonder if I should just sit on the big chair with her all night? She might sleep better if I hold her upright. Her well-being is more important than my comfort or desire to sleep well tonight.

A full day’s drive away, in another home I know well, my mother, Katrina Rebecca, leans over her mother, Rebecca Belle, performing duties much like mine. We are both tasked with keeping someone clean, comfortable, and freshly changed, while receiving only grunts and moans for direction. She also listens to labored breathing and wonders how to provide the best care. Maybe she sings lullabies, too. But where I pray that my daughter will be healthy and well when I pluck her out of the crib tomorrow, we all hope that maybe Grandma will reach the safety of the eternal light before morning. Is that wrong? How much of this can a person bear?

That question was heavy in the news lately, when a younger woman suffering (in the most appropriate use of that word) from cancer proudly took her own life, in a misplaced effort to take back the control cancer had stolen from her.  Every death is awful and ugly, but I certainly think this must be one of the kinds that tops them all. How much of this can a person bear? How great will the suffering be? How long, oh Lord?

The modern euthanasia movement proclaims they advocate for “death with dignity.” They are wrong. In the English language dignity means having a high sense of propriety, of self-respect, and appreciating the gravity of an occasion or situation. So dignity is not found in control or comfort, but in respect for what is given, and appreciating all that it can become when handled rightly. 
A strand of yarn knit into a blanket.
A scoop of flour kneaded into a loaf of bread.
A cancer diagnosis faced and fought until the end.
This means even in profound suffering, dignity is not about valuing personal comfort above what is right. Dignity does not eschew the pain and embarrassments fraught in the process of dying. Instead, it loudly proclaims that all life is a gift and that suffering, no matter how great, does not diminish an iota of it’s value and beauty.

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Becca Niemi holding Annie Hummel, five weeks. September 2014.

Cancer will soon take enough to kill this woman. It would not make her death more dignified to take even more from her before then. Instead, the most dignified thing to do is to sink in to this grief, both before and after she dies, and honor a life conducted well in health and in illness. Though grief does tax, the right kind of grief can only clarify and increase the blessing of knowing a beautiful woman who personified dignity, demonstrating in the most tangible way possible that weakness and dishonor in death serves to magnify the glory and power of the Resurrection.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. …Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Corinthians 15. 


Rebecca Niemi died at home on January 27, 2015, during the writing of this blog post. Her obituary can be read here, and the audio of her January 31 funeral service is here.