Dear Family of Origin

Perhaps it is strange that I write to the three of you in this format. But I realized this morning that I have a few things I want to say to you collectively. Part of my chaplaincy training was spent reflecting on my family of origin: what part I played in it, what parts you each played, and how my growing up within this family prepared me to deal with conflict, pain, joy, relationships, and countless other adult-life stuff. This process was enlightening, painful, and gratifying. I thought I would share with you some of my take-aways via my blog. (You can thank me later.)

First, we each bring a unique perspective to what it means to be part of this family. Our perspectives may overlap, and they seem to at times. And where they differ, I have the ability to see our family from a different angle or point of view. Our needs may differ. That is okay.

I recognize and affirm your thoughts, ideas and experiences regarding our family.

Second, beyond the four of us, no one can lay claim to being part of our family of four. That makes this group an elite one. Out of 7.5 billion people, only 4 of us make up the Peter-&-Carol-Flink-Party-of-Four. Certain situations remind me of the importance of this little family cult of ours. Neither time nor divorce nor death removes this fact for me.

I recognize and affirm the value of being part of this family.

Third, I am grateful to be loved by the three of you. You have known me longer than anyone else. Through good and bad, thick and thin, my good qualities and not-so-good qualities, you love me. Thank you for that.

I recognize and affirm the gift of being loved by each of you.

Fourth, you set the foundation for who I am today. I am keenly aware that Jennifer Potter – wife, mother, pastor, chaplain, blogger extraordinaire – originated as Jennie/Jennie Bugs/JB Flink – daughter, sister. Sometimes we try to splinter ourselves from where we came from, particularly when hurt is involved. But this seems to only result in the splintering of oneself. I am both Flink and Potter, each contributing so much richness and depth to my collective self. Exploring and appreciating that truth seems to bring together the best from each world I have lived.

I recognize and affirm the contributions you have made to my life, silly nicknames and all.

Fifth, as the only introvert in this group, I would like to point out how much communication I have endured and continue to endure. Seriously. You all love to call, text, and email, particularly the introvert who happens to be a damn good listener. It has taken me time to learn how to sustainably manage all of this. Thank you for understanding my decision to participate in approximately 42% of your communication. If I miss anything big in the remaining 58%, please let me know.

I recognize and affirm the ability for introverts and extroverts to healthily and peacefully co-exist.

Sixth, we as a family unit are a paradox. We are so very different from one another. We are so very much the same as one another. I am both giddy about and horrified by this truth. (You know what I’m talking about.)

I recognize and affirm our differentness and our sameness.

Seventh, we are a unit and we are individuals. This is a tricky one because the unit is so deeply engrained that acting within it is almost involuntary. I can be with one of you and the other two are somehow also in that room whether I am aware of it consciously or not. I can be in a room without any of you and am often impacted by this family unit nonetheless. This is the strength of a family of origin. It is also its curse. I am learning to be both myself, and one-fourth of this family. The first part of that learning was to make space for me as an individual. The second part has been to make space for each of you as individuals.

I recognize and affirm the space we each need to be our whole selves.

Finally, I am choosing to move forward holding this family unit with gratitude for who it was, is, and will be, warts and all. I learned that I have been carrying you with me throughout my life in so many ways. I find there is something important about consciously choosing to carry this family unit with me, in ways that are both appropriate and healthy. In doing so, I believe I take the best of what we as a family created and the important lessons learned along the way.

I recognize and affirm my gratitude for you, my family of origin.

Thank you. I love you.

With great affection,

me

 

Dear 2017

First you should know that I am feeling a bit vulnerable from 2016. While some claim that a year can have no power in and of itself, it still felt like a proverbial punch in the face. Critical thinking and common sense were in short supply, two traits I rely heavily upon and probably more so than I should. Progress turned out to not be quite so progressive. And self-preservation seemed to be the order of the day. Shame on me for not seeing the divides in full. Perhaps I did not want to see them until I was forced to. Maybe I am still not seeing them in full now. I am trying though in spite of my limitations, and I hope that I am learning from my mistakes.

So, 2017, please be gentle.

Second, I am tired. Figuring out what is real and what is contrived has required substantial effort. In 2016 I found myself regularly pinching my arm to see if, in fact, I was awake or rather stuck in a Christopher Nolan script. Facing the question of “What the hell is actually going on?” can be quite entertaining while watching a film but I DO NOT enjoy the experience in real life. Recalibration has been required regularly, and I am resisting the urge to disappear for awhile. Some days can feel like a lot of work – too much work. And some days I question whether the work is worth the effort. I wonder if I am doing the right kind of work, if I am even helping.

So, 2017, please be kind.

Third, I am busy. In light of all of the above, along with some assumptions exposed, hope has dimmed into the distance and I am working hard to reconfigure what hope looks like for 2017. Thankfully it has not dissipated, though there were days I was hard pressed to find it. As a “new normal” sets in, so does the work of discovering how hope works now, today, in light of what is. This is good work to do, keeping hope current, relevant, and active. But it is hard work. I cannot just proclaim hope as a theological concept. Jesus did not heal people theologically. He healed them physically which pointed to the theological. Proclaiming hope isn’t the same as living out hope. To live it out means to integrate it into what I know, understand, and experience in the darkest corners of life.

So, 2017, please be patient.

Finally, I am broken. I have navigated some personal difficulties this past year : shit that was just plain shitty. Life is always challenging, so I cannot really blame 2016. But nonetheless some things came to a head that required a lot of time, energy and difficult decision-making this past year. The decisions were often a matter of choosing the least shittiest possibility. Hurt could not be avoided for any who were involved. I try to live and love well, the best that I am able. But this can be excruciatingly difficult, namely because we, all humans, are imperfect and not always good at living and loving well.

So, 2017, please be loving.

All of this is to say, I know you, 2017, cannot be gentle, kind, patient or loving. I know that I, however, need to keep trying. And I need to be aware of the times when I am not strong enough, taking precautions to not do the opposite. I want to believe in the goodness of people. I want to see the goodness in people. And I want to be that bearer of goodness to others. But somedays it feels like impossible work.

So, 2017, whatever you can do to help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

me

To My Sweet 16 Baby Girl

In some ways, I can’t believe this day has arrived. In other ways, it has been a long time coming. You have been growing and changing and forming and challenging and pushing and loving and doing all sorts of other -ings as you are becoming the grownup you are meant to be. And I’ve loved nearly every minute of it. Well, at least a solid 80% of it. 🙂

A few years after having your brother, I remember thinking how much I wanted my second child to be a girl. I am not suggesting that your brother was a disappointment though I know that is how you would like to interpret it. I always figured I would have two kids and I unapologetically wanted one boy and one girl. Since my boy was already present and accounted for, I longed for a girl. With a 50/50 chance of that happening, I decided to wait until I was ready for whatever gender the baby turned out to be. That took about two additional years.

Finally the time arrived where I felt ready for child number two, any child. I was feeling pretty nonchalant even about getting pregnant. “If it happens, it happens” I remember thinking, and actually meaning it. Consequently, thanks to the flu and a few other factors, I didn’t realize I was pregnant until 11 weeks along.  What a gift to learn of your presence just as the fun part of the pregnancy was beginning. No longer was I suffering from morning sickness or fatigue, which I had mistaken for ongoing flu symptoms. I was carrying my second child.

I felt pretty relaxed about the pregnancy. I was also keenly aware of each milestone. I had taken those milestones for granted when I was pregnant with your brother. Six years later and having witnessed the loss others had experienced, I was more aware of what could go wrong. This didn’t make me nervous. It made me grateful. Each milestone felt like a gift. At the ultrasound appointment, the tech checked off her list. Everything about you was looking good, healthy and on track. I was thrilled. She then looked at me and asked, “Do you want to know the baby’s gender?” “Yes” I said as I held my breath. I knew that I really would be happy with whatever your gender was because I had learned you were healthy and well. “It’s a girl” she said. And I began to cry. “Are you sure?” I asked in disbelief. “Yes” she said.

When you arrived, on your due date no less, the doctor announced, “It’s a girl.” “Are you sure?” I asked, with tears filling my eyes. “Yes” she said. You were cleaned, wrapped, and placed in my arms. I know I loved you from the moment I learned of you. But that love was sealed the moment I saw you. My sweet little girl had arrived.

And now here we are 16 years later.

Liv & me

We’re both older and maybe a bit wiser. And I can’t imagine life without you. I’m not sure why my longing for a daughter was so strong. Maybe it wasn’t  just for a baby girl, but it was for YOU my heart longed. I have treasured the time I have had with you. I look forward to your transition into adulthood, needing me less as a parent and hopefully enjoying me more as a companion. You make me laugh and cry. You have turned some of my hair grey. But they provide some nice highlights in my darkening blonde hair so I don’t mind. Thank you for being you. And happy sweet 16!

Love,

Mom

Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,

Jen

To My Officially Middle-Aged, Sometimes Grumpy Husband

Then...
Then…
Now...
Now

Dear Jeremy,

Last year I finished the year by writing a letter to my dear friend I had lost earlier that year. It was cathartic and painful, reflecting while looking ahead. I have reread that letter several times because the reflection continued beyond the letter’s inception. Because of how valuable I found that process to be and because another year is coming to an end, I thought it would be good to once again close out the year by writing another letter. It didn’t take me long to choose its recipient. (Aren’t you feeling lucky right about now?)

2015 has been quite a year for us. Our oldest child turned 21. Our youngest child finished her first year of high school. We celebrated 25 years of marriage. You turned 50. We said painful goodbyes to four pets. We welcomed two new pets into our home. We sorta planned an anniversary getaway, only to instead send our son to Rome for a trip of a lifetime. Wow, what a year.

While the milestones easily come to mind, it is all the ordinary days of 2015 that probably had a more cumulative impact. It is the way in which we do life together – talk, argue, laugh, cry, love, ignore, listen, scream – that built the foundation upon which our milestones stand. Sometimes we worked together seamlessly. Other times not so much. On occasion you carried me. Other times I carried you. But we kept going. We kept talking. We kept working things through no matter how hard the work got. Well, except for the times we took breaks from working because we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. But we always came back.

What I have learned from 25 years of marriage is that a healthy marriage isn’t about being happy or having great chemistry or partnering well together, although those things are great. A healthy marriage is one that weathers all weather together, storms included. A healthy marriage requires the efforts of both involved. It would be easy for you to enable me, or me to enable you. And I’m sure we do that somewhat. But I love that you call me on my shit. That we can walk away angry and live with the discomfort for awhile. That we have gone to counseling when we needed it. That we still have so much fun together. That our marriage isn’t about a pretty exterior, but a rich, deep, complex, and real interior. Our marriage is as imperfect as we are. Maybe that right there is the point…

Thank you for putting up with my penchant to challenge. Thank you for tolerating my profanity. I don’t want to thank you for all the sports stories you share, but I do want to thank you for wanting to share them with me. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for always loving me. Thank you for liking me on most days. Thank you for being my biggest supporter. You can thank me for putting up with your occasional grumpiness, although now we know it’s a serious disorder. While our differences are often part of the challenge of doing life together, I now celebrate those differences because of the depth and breadth they have have carved out within my sometimes stone heart.

For 2016, I hope to be kinder and gentler towards you. I hope to be more grateful and less critical. I marvel at where we have been and I am excited by where we will go. While a shirtless Hugh Jackman might catch my eye, you, Jeremy, have my heart. Happy New Year!

With love,

me

Dear Catherine

It seems fitting that I write to you today. It was you who encouraged me to write, said that I had a way with words. You told me to write often, vulnerably and honestly. You said it would occasionally be painful, but that I would be a better person for it. With the end of 2014 approaching and a new year just ahead, it’s to you that I most want to write.

It’s been quite a year. I am writing at my kitchen table and imagining you sitting across from me. You purse your lips because you know I’m writing about you. I give you my best, “Do you think I care?” glance. You cackle and I laugh. How I wish this were really happening.

While this is a letter I would normally consider extremely private, I have learned that grief is deeply lonely. And so if my letter to you can help give voice to another person’s grief, then I think it is worth sharing.

I recall certain aspects of 2014 with clarity, intermixed with huge gaps of time that feel lost. I suppose the fog is normal. January and February were so busy for me with classes and physical therapy and traveling.  I remember the last time I saw you. It was the end of February and we had breakfast together. Afterwards we went to your house so that you could show me all you had done for your Etsy shop. Once again you floored me with your creativity and hard work. When it was time to go, I remember standing in your living room and saying, “I won’t hug you because I don’t want to get cat hair on you and make you sneeze.” I wish I had hugged you. I’m so sorry that I didn’t.

The day we lost you happened to be Ash Wednesday. How painfully appropriate to lose you on a day that begins a season of mourning. I find myself intentionally recalling that day in detail. It hurts to do so, but it’s become my lament for you. I speak aloud the day’s events to proclaim the day’s injustices and the loss felt by so many. Each tear is my crying out to God, both in sorrow and anger. Time has made the burden of losing you bearable, but time has not made your death acceptable.

Grief is such an intimate experience and can be navigated in very different ways. There have been moments of agony unlike anything else I’d ever gone through. And in its midst, irreverent moments broke through. I found myself laughing at you and your silly ways, perhaps because I was so tired of crying for you. I knew you’d understand. I knew you’d do the same. I realized that the one friend I needed most in dealing with my loss was you.

I hate having to choose between talking about you in present versus past tense. Past tense suggests that you are no longer you, or that you no longer matter. Present tense denies the loss of you and all the pain felt. Neither is fitting. It’s just one more thing that sucks about losing you.

I graduated in May with a degree that you regularly reminded me made no sense to you. “What are you going to do when you finish?” That never bothered me because most of the time I didn’t know either. Now as I move ahead with my work, I often wonder what you would say about all of it. Would you grow increasingly annoyed with me as I became busier with theology and church? Would you finally start to understand what I am trying to do? I remember the day you gave me Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things and said to me, “I think what she does in this book is what you could do for people regarding faith and God.” Now that I think about it, maybe you got it all along and were just waiting for me to catch up.

I have so many things I could share regarding our children. But those are their stories to tell. Let me just say that you’d be so proud of them all. Walking alongside them in their grief has helped me, sometimes even forced me to deal with mine. I’ve learned from watching them and listening to them. Where I have at times inundated myself with thoughts of what I should be feeling or doing, they have been much more patient with themselves, willing to accept who or where they are without judgment.  My logic has often made grieving harder by adding expectations or time limits to the process. The kids seem to more readily able to acknowledge what is real, set aside what they cannot deal with, and come back once they are ready, particularly when someone is there to “come back” with them.

I think the hardest part about looking into the New Year is facing a full year without you. It feels like another goodbye in this process, and goodbyes aren’t getting easier. Our friend framed your words from last New Year’s Eve for me, and they continue to resonate deeply:

Create a wish list – not a must do list. There are 365 days in which to try and make something on the wish list happen… Don’t rush it. Approach new things with the outlook of nothing ventured, nothing gained. What you gain may not be what you expected. Look forward to the surprise but know that some of the best gains are not tangible and cannot be measured. Be kind. Be generous. Be yourself.

I’m sorry you only got 64 days last year. It’s just not fair. Thank you for what you taught me. Thank you for believing in me. I will approach 2015 with courage and anticipation because that is what you would want. You lived your life quietly yet your absence continues to leave a deafening noise.

To you my friend, I love you.

Jennifer

IMG_8645