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I remember understanding what a brutal thing it is to be the bearer of truly bad news – to break off a piece of that misery and hand it to other people, one by one, and then have to comfort them; to put their grief on your shoulders on top of all your own; to be the calm one in the face of their shock and tears. And then learning that relative weight of grief is immaterial. Being smothered a little is no different than being smothered a lot. Either way, you can’t breathe.”

The Royal We, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

This insightful description of grief – and the heartbreaking process of dealing with the practicalities of death – stopped me in my tracks when I came across it this weekend. I was even more surprised to find it where I did: buried in the middle of a frothy, sassy chick lit novel.

Midway through The Royal We (which I loved, by the way), its narrator, Bex, loses someone important to her and has to fly from England back to her hometown in Iowa, to be with her family and to grieve. And while I have never (yet) lost a close family member, this description of grief hit me right in the chest – because I know what it’s like.

Nearly eleven years ago, just before my junior year of college, my friend Cheryl – a member of the group with whom I’d spent the previous semester studying abroad in Oxford – died in a car crash, the week before school started. It wasn’t the first time I had lost someone I loved, but it was the first time I’d had to deal with the sudden, unexpected death of someone close to me. And it was the first time I had to deal with the details of tragedy as an adult.

From the moment we found out about Cheryl’s death – late on a starry, sultry Texas evening, all of us congregating in the front yard of a house near campus – my Oxford group stuck together. We sat up most of that night telling stories about Cheryl and Oxford and our time together, finally drifting off to sleep, draped over futons and sprawled on the living room floor of a house shared by four of my girlfriends. The next morning, those of us who were able – including me – started making phone calls.

I don’t remember how many times I gave the bad news that week. I do remember the gasps of shock on the other end of the phone, the blatant disbelief, my reluctance to say the awful words. I wasn’t as close to Cheryl as some of the others were – but I learned, as Bex does, that the relative weight of your grief doesn’t matter. We were all hurting, and trying to bear the pain in our own ways.

We piled into a string of cars (including mine) to drive down to San Antonio for the funeral. We sat and watched the Summer Olympics in stunned silence, needing to be together, trying to come to grips with the loss of our friend. We wept, or clung dry-eyed to each other, and wondered how this could have happened to us.

Every time I lose someone I love, I flash back to those days in West Texas, and the awful responsibility of sharing the news with my friends, making travel plans, trying to handle questions for which I had no answers. I wasn’t at the center of that sorrow, but I remember how it felt to share it, to bear it together. So this passage from The Royal We made me say simply: Yes. Me too. I know what that’s like.

Not bad for a (mostly) lighthearted piece of chick lit.

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Over the past week, I’ve been watching the grief over two deaths unfold in real time. My college community has been mourning the loss of our friend Jeff McCain, and many people I know from Twitter and the blogosphere have been grieving the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams.

Both of them had cancer; both of them died far too soon. And in the wake of their deaths, many of their loved ones have taken to social media to express grief and to honor these two lives.

Jeff and I were friends before Facebook existed. (It came into being during our college years.) Our mutual friends are people we know in real life, from that patch of ground in West Texas where we studied, sang, laughed and cried together. My husband lived across the hall from Jeff our freshman year; my sister and her circle of friends all know him, too. And since we’re scattered all over the country and can’t gather to mourn in person, we come to Facebook to mourn together.

Dozens of people have posted brief sentiments or shared photos. Some of us, like me, wrote longer tributes and shared them as a way of marking Jeff’s death and, yes, celebrating his life. (He was, as I have said, a person who carried joy around with him. I have no doubt he’d approve of us recounting all the funny stories we can think of.) I’ve seen a similar trend with Lisa’s death – dozens of tweets and a fair few blog posts honoring her life, as well as mixed (but passionate) reactions to a couple of pieces in the New York Times.

Besides wishing we didn’t have to do this – because these deaths are fundamentally unfair and heartbreaking – I’ve been thinking about how we grieve together, in the age of social media. These sites where we share so much of our lives have become a new forum for public mourning. I’ve seen it happen after several tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, the events in Ferguson. We come together on social media to share our hurt, our outrage and our deep sadness.

It can be cathartic and helpful – a way to reach out to one another and say, “Me too.” It can also, eventually, become overwhelming. My husband and I have both felt the need to step back from Facebook at various times this week. We’ve sat at our kitchen table for hours, trading stories about Jeff and talking through our emotions. Eventually, we’ve needed to step away even from that. Grief has a saturation point, and it’s not something you work through in a couple of days.

I’ve also been turning back to a few beloved poems, including Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” But, fittingly, I discovered another poem this week via Twitter – “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. Its last lines sum up, for me, what this communal grieving is all about:

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
This. Always this. We should be kind, and careful to honor the tender places in each other’s lives, the wounds and blank spaces opened by grief. Sharing our sadness on social media is one way to do that. These sites can be loud and contentious places, but when they are avenues for sharing grief (and joy), they become beautiful – even holy – ground.

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katie jeff sing song 2006 acu

Last week, I found out my college friend Jeff was ill with late-stage lung cancer. On Monday, I found out he had died.

I hadn’t seen Jeff for years, maybe since we graduated from college. I don’t know much about his life in recent years, or the events that led up to his death. That story doesn’t belong to me. But what does belong to me – what I am remembering this week – is my friendship with Jeff, and the joy he carried around.

Jeff was one of those small, skinny guys with a big personality – effervescent, exuberant, larger than life. He was restless, energetic, constantly in motion. Maybe that’s how he managed a kind of magic trick: he seemed to be everywhere on campus, for four years. You could hardly walk across campus without running into him. And if there was a big event – Welcome Week for new freshmen, Homecoming, Spring Break service trips, Sing Song (our annual campus variety show), Jeff was there. Usually in a leadership role, and often in a wacky costume.

He had hundreds of friends – from every social group, every class, every academic department. He pledged a popular fraternity and loved those guys fiercely, but he never let his popularity become a barrier: he greeted everyone with the same level of enthusiasm. And it wasn’t fake enthusiasm but genuine joy: I knew he was always glad to see me, and I was always glad to see him.

Jeff dove headfirst into Sing Song as a freshman (he co-directed our class’s winning act), and his Sing Song fever never let up. He participated in seven different acts over four years. (The photo above is of Jeff and me before our senior show, when we and a hundred or so of our classmates dressed up as Jedi knights.) No one loved Sing Song – arranging music, sewing costumes, making up wacky, ACU-themed lyrics to popular songs – like Jeff.

He co-led the Spring Break service trip that ended up being my first visit to Boston. My husband (who was in the group too) and I still laugh about how Jeff made our group walk three miles – uphill, in the snow! – from Harvard Square to Fenway Park, because “it’s not that far on the map, guys.” He could be a flake and he had (obviously) no sense of direction at all, but it was impossible to stay mad at him.

Singing – not just Sing Song but singing a cappella hymns in daily chapel – is a big part of life at ACU. Jeff had a surprisingly deep bass voice, and we sang together in freshman chorale and on many praise teams over the years. He loved music and would burst into song at any opportunity. He sang – as he did everything else – with such joy.

As I said above, there’s a lot I don’t know about Jeff’s story: I know it’s darker and more complicated than what I’ve written here. I know there are others – his sisters, his close friends – whose grief runs deeper than mine. But I also know this: the world is a little less bright without Jeff in it.

My husband, in a tribute to Jeff on Facebook this week, said simply, “I always felt welcome when he was in the room.” I hope that wherever you are, Jeff, you are being made welcome, as you welcomed others. We’ll miss you.

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Early Decision

early decision cover lacy crawfordI read Lacy Crawford’s debut novel, Early Decision, soon after it came out last year. Well, first I read Lindsey’s glowing review. Then I picked up the book and was so glad I did.

Early Decision tells the story of Anne, a young woman working as an independent college admissions counselor in Chicago. Anne once had dreams of a literary career, but now she assists wealthy high school students (and their nervous, hovering parents) with the long process of applying to college and writing their essays.

On Saturdays, Anne volunteers with a group of lower-income students at a public high school, whose dreams (in most cases) are vastly different but no less ambitious. Yet while she helps her students (including a brilliant Guatemalan girl from that public high school) find their voices and take charge of their own lives, she’s stuck in a holding pattern, afraid to pursue a different career or find real love.

I have worked in academia for my entire career: first at my alma mater in West Texas, then at a liberal-arts-cum-performing-arts school in Boston, and now at Harvard. I agonized over my own college application essays more than a decade ago, and like Anne, I earned a graduate degree in English and then wondered what on earth to do with my life.

So I saw myself on so many pages of this novel – both in Anne and in her bright but hesitant students. They are radiant with potential, excited but terrified, firmly convinced that where they go to college will have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. (They’re not wrong about this, but as Crawford notes, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.)

Crawford’s writing is sharp, clear and insightful, peppered with literary allusions and keen insights about the current state of higher education (and the panic surrounding elite colleges) in the U.S. Her characters come alive through their essay drafts and emails, as well as through their conversations with Anne. And while Anne herself is frustratingly self-effacing at the beginning of the novel, she grows into herself by the book’s end, gaining the confidence to grasp – for the first time in years – a life she really wants.

Witty, heartbreaking and keenly observed, Early Decision is both a compelling story and a lovely meditation on learning to build a worthwhile life. (Also: Lacy and I are now Twitter friends, and she is lovely.)

This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for Early Decision. I received a complimentary copy of the book, but was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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Since it’s my birthday this week, I’m indulging in a little nostalgia. Here, some of the great moments from birthdays past:

1. The year I turned six, when we had a “makeup party” in the garage for all my girlfriends, a month early since we were moving away. My dad filmed it, and the highlight was him turning the camera on my mom and her freshly permed hair, and saying, “Here is Fifi.” And my sweet, reserved mother, who rarely clowns, looked into the camera and barked.

2. The year I turned 18, four days after 9/11/01. I wasn’t sure whether I could (or should) celebrate, but we did celebrate – with a mini-golf party at Green Acres, burgers at my house, wrestling on the trampoline, and a dog-pile photo on the couch. I’m in the middle, flushed and happy, surrounded by all my best friends.

3. The year I turned 24, in Oxford, when my sweet housemates (whom I’d just met) made me a cake and cooked me dinner, and we settled down for the first of many cozy girls’ nights in.

4. The year I turned 21, when Jeremiah planned the only surprise party I’ve ever been given, at his house with all my friends and a luscious dark chocolate cake. It was a triumph. (I was totally surprised.)

5. The year I turned 23, when Jeremiah planned to come over before work and cook me breakfast in bed. Instead, he stole the wrong key off my key ring, couldn’t get in the door, and had to wait until I woke up, found him sitting on my deck, and let him in, laughing. (He did still make me breakfast.)

What are some of your best birthday moments? I’d love to hear them.

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I’ve got a whole crop of friends who graduated from college this year. Many of them are part of our beloved small group from our Abilene church; they are smart, capable, kind, funny, utterly wonderful people. Some of them have plans, but a few are still waiting, sending out job applications, bunking with friends or family or staying in college houses for a while, crossing their fingers and worrying and hoping. And even those who have plans – for grad school or a first job or internships – aren’t entirely sure what’s around the next bend.

And I want to say to them, and to you, if you’re there: I remember how that feels.

I remember the last few weeks in my college house, after the flurry of tearful post-graduation good-byes, packing books and dishes and furniture, trying to keep Bethany laughing as we worked so neither of us would cry. I remember sending out dozens (which felt like hundreds) of job applications, to places like New York and Nashville and Austin, and walking every day to my student job on campus, because they were keeping me on for the summer, and I sure didn’t know what else to do.

I remember watching Bethany drive away in her yellow moving truck, so tiny in the huge high cab, back to Longview to stay with her folks while she job-hunted. I went into the house and sat in the empty living room and cried. And then I called my friend Stephen, and we went for a Cajun cone, and I tried to drown my sorrows in shaved ice with raspberry syrup.

I remember the tentative first few weeks in my sister’s house, living with one of her roommates and assorted other girls who stayed for a week or a month, and the unexpected joy of Bethany moving back to live with us for the summer, and the two of us relishing our “borrowed time” together. (With Leigh Anne, the roommate mentioned above, whom we quickly came to adore.) We did a lot of worrying and some weeping that summer, but we did far more laughing – and we watched movies and hung out at coffee shops and borrowed each other’s clothes, and held each other in that tender space of not knowing, of in between.

At the end of the summer, I moved in with friends – because I didn’t want to go home (which felt like admitting failure), and I still had no “real” job. I kept sending out applications, including one to a job on campus at ACU, even though I thought I didn’t want to stay in Abilene.

As fate, or God, or something would have it, I got offered that job, accepted it, and spent a very happy year working in the Bible department at ACU, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, making the odd transition from student worker to grown-up colleague, and laughing at the antics and witty comments of the faculty members I worked with.

It wasn’t the job I wanted to do forever. (I’ve never yet had a job that fitted that description – unless it was being a barista at the Ground Floor.) It wasn’t technically “in my field,” and it certainly wasn’t what I expected. But it was good. So good. And it gave me a year to grow up a little, to stretch my wings in the safe confines of Abilene, to breathe a little and get my feet under me before embarking on the next phase of my life and career (which turned out to be graduate school in Oxford). And the next phase, too, was good.

So to all new graduates, or others, who are feeling unsteady, like you don’t have a clue how to navigate this new grown-up world or use that shiny new degree: I know how you feel. Five years ago, I was there. (A little secret: I’ve been there many times since – and I’ve spent a lot of time there this year.)

But it’s all worked out okay for me, at least so far. I have a job, a wonderful husband, dear friends and family in multiple cities on two continents, and I still get to play with words all the time. Not bad, really, for an English major who spent a whole summer terrified that some or all of those things might not work out.

Where were you five years ago? Is it radically different from where you are today?

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(During last night’s class at Grub Street, I wrote about roommates during three different exercises. Which made me think about all the folks I’ve shared kitchens, bathrooms and general living spaces with over the years.)

1. Mom, Dad and Betsy, till I was 18. Lots of family dinners around the table, summertime road trips, Dad urging us to hurry before church on Sunday mornings, Betsy hollering for me to help her choose an outfit or type her English papers or bring her a washcloth in the shower.

2. Lindsey, during our first semester of college. Late-night laughter, pizza boxes, and so many bowls of ramen (left out to, ahem, ripen) that by Christmas I couldn’t stand it any more.

3. Akane, a quiet Japanese girl, during the spring of my freshman year. We didn’t talk much, but she never complained when I forgot to turn off my alarm clock in the mornings.

4. Jaime, in the fall before I went to Oxford. Red hair dye in the bathtub (freaking me out – I thought it was blood at first), and a few bonding moments over Friends and Saved By the Bell.

5. Joy, who shared my room, and 10 other girls, who shared our kitchen, in Oxford, spring 2004. So much cooking, traveling, laughing, crying, drinking of tea, sharing secrets and hopes and textbooks and recipes.

6. Joy and Bethany, junior year, in a little red-brick house on 16th St. in Abilene. (With Samantha, Joy’s beloved, snaggle-toothed dog.)

7. Kristin, Laura and Karen, in half of a Honolulu duplex, July 2005. We bought grapes for $10 a pound at Wal-Mart and tried to catch a gecko in Karen’s room and invited Scott over for breakfast on his birthday, and listened to Cole play haunting folk songs on his guitar.

8. Bethany, for our senior year in that same little house – repeated viewings of The Emperor’s New Groove, an impromptu party with no living-room furniture, playing Frank Sinatra before parties, and long evenings spent reading in the living room. (We were both English majors.)

9. Leigh Anne and Bethany (with brief appearances by several other girls), in my sister’s house the summer after college. Repeated viewings of Pirates of the Caribbean and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; lavender bridesmaid dresses and broken air conditioners; lots of freaking out about the future from Bethany and me; and Leigh Anne’s despair over having to read Beowulf.

10. Moose, Bryce, Nick, Nathan and Jordan, in the “dungeon” of 9 Canterbury Road, during my first semester of grad school. Oh, how I loved being the girl in that crowd of boys – and oh, how they loved everything I baked for them.

11. Casey, Jaclyn, Eryn, Jessica, Katie and Mary Kate, also in the dungeon, the following semester. A totally different dynamic, but an equally fun one.

12. Lizzie, Jo and Grace, in a wee chocolate-box house in East Oxford, during my year abroad. We watched chick flicks and did puzzles in the dining room, moaned about schoolwork and laughed at the Muppets, helped each other dress for dances and costume parties, and curled up late at night with cups of cocoa, to set the world to rights.

13. Jeremiah. For nearly three years now (our anniversary is next month), first in Abilene and now in Boston. Those five boys (above) prepared me well to live with this one. And I must say, he is an excellent roommate.

Who’s on your list?

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Scattered lovely, funny or astounding moments from yesterday’s Bible department Senior Blessing, which was truly a blessing to all involved – students, faculty and staff:

-Seven cases of water bottles, at least six cases of sodas, 16 bags of chips and half a dozen bags of grapes. And three six-foot Subway sandwiches! Mitch Halstead (one of the seniors), 10 minutes after walking in: “The feeding has begun.”

-A violent, intense, competitive, hilarious Spoons tournament, which Jeremiah almost won – he was the third-to-last one out. Soooo close!

-Stumbling upon Stephen Johnson playing “In Christ Alone” on the piano in the chapel, during a breakout quiet time. Beautiful.

-Sneaking around taking pictures and eavesdropping (a bit) during the prayer stations, which were rich and wonderful. And the prayer garden where they have the stations is charming.

-Robert Oglesby being serenaded to the tune of “I Want It That Way” by a group of students from his youth ministry class, who sang:

Tell me how to get the things from church for free
Tell me how to grow that required goatee
Tell me how to write a pretty resume
You said in class today…

You get the idea. 🙂

-Jack Reese, our esteemed dean, playing charades. Enough said.

-So many faces I adore – Bible department folks who are universally beloved. John Willis. Jeanene Reese. David Wray. Rodney Ashlock. Jan Hailey, who organized the whole shebang. My co-workers are the greatest.

-Randy Harris’s stories about awkward moments in ministry – from praying over a hospital patient who was already dead (!) to marrying a couple who had secretly eloped the week before (!!). And Rodney’s stories about a flying false nose and a “militant nursing mother”…oh my, oh my. 🙂

-Sweet Olivia’s words at the final blessing time: “I grew up frustrated with God because I wasn’t a boy. But I came here and realized that there can be places for women in the church, in ministry. Thank you.”

What a terrific day. Fun, food, games, laughs, hugs, letters, special words of prayer and affirmation and blessing. I’m relieved it’s over, but I’m mostly glad it happened.

Off to Midland with J in an hour. Happy weekend!

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It’s Sing Song time!

Scattered lyrics from this year’s host & hostess numbers, which, after 14+ hours at Moody this week, WILL NOT leave my head:

Left a good job in the city
Workin’ for the man every night and day
And I never lost one minute of sleepin’
Worried ’bout the way things might have been
Big wheels keep on turnin’
Oh, the proud Mary keep on burnin’
And we’re rollin’ (rollin’), rollin’ (rollin’), rollin’ on the river…
(The girls’ number)

It seems such a waste of time
If that’s what it’s all about
Mama, if that’s movin’ up
Then I’m movin’ out
(Jeremiah’s solo)

Well it goes through St. Louie, Joplin, Missouri
Oklahoma City looks oh-so-pretty
You’ll see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico
Flagstaff, Arizona – don’t forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Would you get hip to this timely tip
When you take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66
(The guys’ number)

I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along life’s pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me

He said it in His Word and I know that He walks with me
I know that He keeps His promises and He walks with me
Hold it in my heart, I believe Jesus walks with me…
(Everyone, plus SHADES)

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hands
You’ve never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm…
(Luke’s solo)

Baby, let’s cruise away from here…
And if you want it, you got it forever…
You’re gonna fly away
Glad you’re goin’ my way
I love it when we’re cruisin’ together…
(Jeremiah and Shaylee)

This joint is jumpin’ – it’s really jumpin’
Come in cats, and check your hats
I mean, this joint is jumpin’…
(Randy and Luke)

Everything changes
Nothin’ looks the same through the eyes of love
Everything changes
When you love some – love some – love someone
Everything changes…
(Everyone, plus all the clubs & classes – the finale)

When someone you love is totally absorbed in something, it necessarily becomes part of your life, too. This week Sing Song has been my life, in a totally new way. I’ve brought Jeremiah dinner up at Moody, taken tons of pictures, chatted with hosts and hostesses and costume-clad club people, and watched him dance and sing over and over again. And I’ll spend half the weekend doing the same. I am excited for Betsy and Leigh Anne and Jake and Whitney and all my other friends who are in the class and club acts – but this year, it’s all about my J. I have eyes only for him when he’s onstage. And I have never, ever been so excited to see ANYONE in a show.

T minus 7 1/2 hours until tonight’s show. It’s Sing Song time!

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Today’s day-makers

-Sunshine and BLUE SKIES after days and days of gray

-Pretty periwinkle Post-Its

-A surprise visit from J this morning

-Babies in the DBMM! Jack and Jeanene Reese brought their first granddaughter, Simone, up to see everyone (decked out all in pink, of course), and Derran Reese’s daughter Brynn also put in an appearance. Too cute!

-The flowers Glenn sent me after last week’s Freshman Blessing success, still blooming brightly on my desk

-Cracklin’ Oat Bran during the 3 p.m. slump

-Scoring an interview – finally – that will (I hope) help me on this article that’s been so absurdly difficult

-Laughing it up with Adam and Collin while working on the Visiting Committee booklet

-Lunch with Julie D at my flat, which she hadn’t yet seen, and walking to and from there with her in the sunshine

-Another surprise visit from J, just before he headed to choir and a loooooong rehearsal

Three more days to Sing Song. We’re gonna make it after all…

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