Today is Ash Wednesday. Three years ago on Ash Wednesday, I wrote this article about the renewal we can experience during Lent. I had no idea what was coming my way!
You may have heard of the idea of choosing one word as a theme for your year. You’re supposed to place this word around your home or on a bracelet, where you’ll see it regularly and be reminded of your intention, and it will inspire you and serve as a guiding principle. Maybe you make some collages or something based on your word, for further inspiration. Maybe you use it like a mantra for meditation. Some people tell stories of amazing growth that resulted from this simple choice.
It sounds like a fine idea, and in January of 2012, when several bloggers I read were writing about what word each of them chose, I found that a particular word came into my mind as a goal for my own life. The word was replenishment.
Almost a year earlier, during my church vestry retreat, I’d thought of replenishment as the one word that best expressed what I wanted for my church: We were worn out from years of struggle, and many people had left, so we were down to a small core of mostly old-ish people working really hard to keep our parish going. I prayed for replenishment of our individual souls and strengths to keep us working toward the replenishment of our parish with new people and new energy. It’s working!! Our church is growing and getting really wonderful now!
But as 2012 dawned, I realized that I could use some replenishment myself. Not only was I working really hard on the vestry, but I was still working my way out of being a migraineur, which is a deceptively elegant word for “chronic horrible headache victim” or, at least in my case, “person with a massively fucked-up tendency to allow her brain to malfunction and get some kind of bizarre power trip out of it.” My New Year’s resolution for 2010 had been to battle the headaches from every possible direction, and that really helped: I went from having about four headaches per week to more like two per month! But that battle had worn me down, what with various lifestyle changes and medical appointments and facing stuff in therapy and attempting to ask for what I need, so although I was suffering less pain, I was very depleted and had this awful sense of being so busy all the time yet never getting everything done.
So: 2012, my year of replenishment! I didn’t write the word everywhere or make a collage, but I prayed about it a lot and, when faced with choices about what to do, considered what would be the most replenishing choice. It was going pretty well for the first couple months, and then it was time for Lent, and I decided that I would fast from the idea, “I don’t have time to get things done.” Well, guess how that turned out?
Within the first three days of Lent 2012, my home was invaded by big strong destructive mice and my body was invaded by a totally unplanned pregnancy.
Six weeks later, half the storage boxes from our basement were piled in the living room, mice were running over our dining table every night and chewing into everything remotely edible, we had given up keeping the floors clean of the food the mice spilled and the dirt they dug out of the potted plants, I was dizzy and nauseated all the time and my house reeked of dirt and old cardboard, I was trying to train people to help me with a project at work but they kept objecting to my procedures and arguing to do things differently, a big deadline for that project was looming, and I kept falling asleep in my seven-year-old’s bed after reading his story and being awakened by his kicking me hours later and realizing that I’d lost all of the precious between-his-bedtime-and-mine time! Then my partner Daniel’s great-aunt died, and he was really upset, and the very next day I went for an ultrasound and was informed that my little embryo had no heartbeat.
So much for replenishment! Oh, yeah, then there was Easter, and that helped. There was lots of love and sympathy from my friends and relatives, and that helped. But it was just keeping me just barely afloat, not getting me anywhere near the improvement I’d envisioned. I didn’t miscarry naturally and had to have surgery, after which the nausea ended but I had weeks of bleeding and pain–during which I pulled an all-nighter at work to meet that deadline–and months of wrenching mood swings that I think were related to the hormonal disruption as well as the grief and guilt and self-doubt related to having lost a baby I wasn’t sure I’d wanted. Meanwhile, the mice plagued us for another two months, and we finally had to poison the stragglers and drag their rotting corpses out of inconvenient locations.
We tried to make up for the hard times by cutting ourselves some slack in our normally thrifty, green habits, and when I wrote about that, I claimed, “I’m really pretty much okay now.” Really, I was just trying to be brave.
I continued tentatively praying: “Hey, God, about that replenishment?” I remembered what my former priest once said about the story of Job: that God’s response boils down to, “I am God. You are suffering. I am still God.” I never once lost faith in the idea that God was still God and that there must be a reason for all this. But I was so tired of things going so badly, so exhausted, so frustrated!
In the summer, Daniel wanted to spend ten days at a group camping thing. He felt he deserved a vacation now that he’d vanquished the mice. Yes, but…what about me? I didn’t want to go camping, but how was it fair for me to go through a whole week of work, taking the kid to and from day camp, doing all the cooking and chores myself, plus two weekends of being the Parent On Duty the whole time, while Daniel got a vacation?! Well, but I could see that he needed replenishment, too. I gritted my teeth and tried to believe that my turn would come.
While he was away, I noticed something surprising: Although I had to do all the things he would normally do, as well as my own things, I didn’t resent it! I felt tremendous freedom and relief. I seemed to have lots of time in the evenings. I even cleaned out the one closet where we hadn’t yet removed all the mouse debris (augh, they chewed up my winter hat!?) and cleaned and reorganized the pantry. I missed Daniel, sure, and thought about him a lot and hoped he was having a good time, but I didn’t at all miss the sense of mutual resentment that I now realized had been permeating our life together.
On the Sunday we picked up Daniel from camp, first we went to church, where I was asked to read the Old Testament passage. It was 1st Kings 19:4-8.
[Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”
He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
I was blown away by this story. It seemed to be everything I needed to hear. I brought home the service leaflet and cut out that passage, and it has been tucked into the frame of my mirror ever since, so that I think about it every day.
Although I hadn’t really quite wanted to die at any point, I’d certainly been feeling like giving up, like I’d had enough, like I was not a particularly good or worthy person. I’d been asking God for replenishment like that was a magic word, but at some point I’d started thinking of it as meaning, “Take away all this bad stuff and make everything okay.” Yeah, well, God doesn’t do that so much. Replenishment is about resources, not about events. Replenishment would equip me with what I need to face the things that happen to me.
“Get up and eat.” I thought about the nights when I was pregnant and sick and knew that eating something would help, but I was afraid of the mice, or I was so tired and dizzy I couldn’t convince myself to get up, or, um, I hoped that if I kept sighing then Daniel would take pity on me and get up and take care of me. (That trick never works!) I had stayed under the broom tree, letting that journey be too much for me.
But that cake baked on hot stones, fresh and piping hot, ready for Elijah right there, with even a refreshing beverage provided in case the cake was too dry–it makes me think of all the things that are provided to me that I might take for granted, just eat and drink and lie down again, because I want to rest and have somebody take care of me. I love seeing that it was okay for Elijah to do that. He got a second chance. The angel came back and didn’t criticize him, didn’t take away the snacks, just reminded him: “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” Take what is provided for you. It’s for you. It’s okay. Take it. Take it and use it. You’re going to need it.
When Elijah did get up and eat and drink, he was replenished! He was strengthened and ready for the long walk to the next place God was calling him to go.
I thought about some of this as I drove out to the campgrounds to pick up Daniel, and I prayed that he would be replenished and ready to come back to our family life with new energy and purpose. And he was! The story of why Daniel’s week was so replenishing is a long one and is not my story to tell. The important thing is that he had some new perspective on himself and on how he relates to me, and that was wonderful! It replenished our relationship more than I’d even realized we needed! Being so happy also helped his relationship with our son Nicholas. The next few months were an amazing time in our lives.
Wrapping up 2012 so happily, I was pleased with my year of replenishment. But a few months of 2013 convinced me that this was not a neatly-finished one-year project! Various difficulties cropped up, and sometimes I handled them well, but other times I blew up, freaked out, blamed everybody, forgot to pray, skipped meals to punish myself, neglected injuries or headaches because I didn’t have time didn’t deserve didn’t–and then a few days later I’d look back and feel frightened at how crazily I’d behaved. I wasn’t having headaches often, yet it seemed that I was still falling under the influence of what I’ve often visualized as a little demon on my shoulder who convinces me that there is some sort of power in pain and hunger.
Lent came again. My church was not yet replenished enough to stay open late on Maundy Thursday to have people “watch and pray” in the chapel–but I have a key to the church. I let myself in and sat alone in the darkness for almost two hours, praying around my beads four times: I gave thanks for twenty-eight blessings; I set down twenty-eight regrets; I prayed for twenty-eight people; I asked for twenty-eight specific things and tried to believe that I could have them. (I also cried quite a bit.) I left feeling drained but hopeful. Very few of my requests were fulfilled; certainly nothing amazing came of it. The coming of spring lifted my spirits, some of the time, but at other times I still felt drained and despondent. I still had occasional dreams about losing my baby–realizing that my baby was supposed to be with me and looking everywhere for her, unable to find her, furious at my carelessness.
Sometime that spring I suddenly remembered that, for about six months before the surprise pregnancy, I’d been taking nutritional supplements that were supposed to reduce PMS, and that they did seem to help. I had switched to prenatal vitamins when I was pregnant, and then when I wasn’t pregnant anymore I’d chucked the prenatals and just not taken any supplements. It took me a while to recognize the pattern, that I was having more trouble coping when I was premenstrual. [EDIT: I’ve been asked how I had failed to notice this before, over two decades of menstruating. Well, prior to motherhood, PMS was an exclusively physical phenomenon for me; I almost never had mood swings. It wasn’t until Nicholas was about 3 years old that I began having premenstrual emotional problems, and they weren’t severe until he was 6.] I looked up premenstrual dysphoric disorder and was surprised by how unequivocally I met diagnostic criteria. Then I researched treatments and found an article (which is now gone, sigh!) suggesting supplements of magnesium, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin E. I filled up my 7-day pillbox and hoped to feel better next month.
Funny how most things only work when you actually do them. That demon on my shoulder often whispered that it would be okay to skip my vitamins tonight because I was really tired or because I’m so hard on myself that I ought to back off the rigid schedule and just be cool, man. This happened mostly in the premenstrual phase, so that I was taking less of the vitamins just when I needed them most! Feeling stupid about this self-sabotage didn’t help me stop it. I ruined my fortieth birthday by skipping vitamins so that an attack of cataclysmic PMS struck that day and I spent most of it crying and raging.
However, four days before my birthday, Daniel and I finally celebrated our anniversary as we’d meant to get around to doing for many years, by taking a day off work and going hiking in the wildflower reserve. A few weeks later, we talked about my feeling that it was unfair how he had gotten to take a child-free vacation and I hadn’t. We agreed that I should take a trip by myself and visit several long-distance friends. I had a really good time! I also managed to have an important conversation with one of the friends, in which we each apologized to the other for tensions that had gone unresolved long ago, so that was a huge relief. I felt like I was finally getting back into the adult life I’d enjoyed before Nicholas was born, and I wondered why I’d waited so long.
In the summer, I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which is not the greatest book but has some interesting stuff in it and inspired me to think consciously about habits and how they can be changed. After talking with Daniel (who has read a bunch of self-help books about effective habits) I wrote Vitamins will make me happier. on a card and propped it behind my pillbox. When I took my vitamins, I drew a smiley face on the card. This sounds dumb, but it was strangely motivating! It was like getting a gold star for my good behavior. And after a few days, when I opened the medicine cabinet I saw a whole group of smileys looking hopefully at me, and I didn’t want to let them down.
Replenished by vitamins, I had no major emotional meltdowns in two cycles, each of which was a couple days shorter than the one before. Then Daniel went to his camping thing again. It wasn’t such an amazing experience as the year before, but he had a good time, and we were very happy together the first week after he got home. I knew that it was almost time for me to be fertile again, but I decided to enjoy our reunion for just one more night…
…and then I was pregnant again! It was a big surprise. We didn’t take it very well at first. Daniel and Nicholas were having huge conflicts as Nicholas began third grade, and they were yelling at each other a lot and sometimes yelling at me too, so it didn’t seem like a loving, functional family in which to raise a baby. I was about ready to run away to a solitary broom tree! Instead, I insisted on family therapy; we went for months, and maybe it helped a little.
I rolled my eyes and put aside the whole replenishment thing. It obviously wasn’t going to happen while I was pregnant–which is so depleting–and with all this strife in the family, I’d better lower my sights to just surviving.
After a while, though, I realized that I was handling this pregnancy noticeably better than my first one. Back when I was pregnant with Nicholas, I was eating a mostly-vegetarian diet that was rather low in protein, fat, and calories; it wasn’t until I was breastfeeding him and losing weight at a startling rate that I began to eat more. Since then, I’ve improved my diet quite a bit. (Compare the way we were eating in 2002 with how we eat now.) Although I was plenty queasy while pregnant with Lydia, this time I knew from the beginning that the best response to the nausea is to get up and eat. I also saw different midwives this time (the one who delivered Nicholas had moved out of town) and they were diligent about my health. When I became anemic and increased my iron supplement but continued to get more anemic, they didn’t just shrug but sent me to a hematologist, who found that I was deficient in Vitamin B12. Taking a B12 supplement improved my iron absorption and gave me a lot more energy.
Many people had told me that I would recover from my loss “when” I had another baby–as if I could take for granted that I would be able to have another baby! I wasn’t banking on it. I think I was doing okay at healing, and another baby wasn’t required for my recovery. But my cheerful, thriving Lydia is replenishing me, not only from the loss of my second pregnancy but also from the awful two hours immediately after Nicholas was born, when the hospital people took him away without letting me see or touch him for even one second, to give him “respiratory therapy” that he probably didn’t even need! I will never forget those experiences, but I am so much less bitter about them now that I have my rainbow baby–the beauty after the storm. I gave birth to her and held her on my chest with the cord still attached, just like I always wanted, and didn’t let go of her for a whole hour, and in that time I knew that it was right to have her, that this “surprise” was really just what I needed.
Now that I’m not pregnant, I feel great! In a typical 24 hours, I spend about 6 hours in bed (during which I wake up once to nurse), I walk 4 miles (half of it carrying 25 pounds), I spend 8 hours at work, and I make a quart of milk–pretty demanding lifestyle, but I have enough energy and not a lot of aches and pains, and I am 41 years old. My body bounced back so quickly that at 4 weeks postpartum I was staring at myself in the mirror wondering if the whole pregnancy had been a dream.
Three years ago, I dragged through Lent and ended it with tragedy. Two years ago, I remembered that loss but tried to believe I was better off not having to take care of a baby at my age. One year ago, I celebrated Easter with an almost-ripe baby rolling inside me. Tonight, I will take my daughter to church for her first ashes on her forehead. Remember that thou art dust–but oh, my darling, from dust you are beautifully and wonderfully made!
After three years, I’m not done with replenishment. I still “forget” to take care of myself sometimes. I still have trouble asking for what I need. I’m going to have to be really attentive to my nutrition as Lydia weans so that I don’t go back to frequent headaches and/or PMDD. I’ve got a lot of work to do, still, and probably will always be a work in progress. But I’ve come a long way in the last three years. Getting up to eat and face the journey worked for me!