INTERVIEWS & BOOK-TALK
A feature in Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle
The review write-up from Publishers Weekly
A Father’s Day weekend radio chat on WXXI (Connections with Evan Dawson)
Other Questions Folks Ask
WHY WRITE A book on something so private and Personal, Like grief?
I wrote it because I couldn't not write it. I’ve always been a scribbler, mostly writing short stories and very bad poems. But the first summer after Dad died I kicked into overdrive. I was writing so many things down. I'd work four shifts a week at the local Ground Round, serving burgers and nachos and chicken salads, and then I’d hole up in my room and write the rest of the evening. I've known nothing so exotic and frightening as that season of sitting alone in the dark with a blinking cursor.
To an extent, those nights were a way of me sorting out my own heart, but at some point, they flowered into something more. The writing took on a different tone, and I realized I was actually writing to someone else. It wasn’t journaling; it was facing outward.
I should also mention that after Dad died I struggled at the library trying to find the right books. There was so much, and yet so little. This was 15 years ago, now, before memoirs (especially spiritual memoirs) were white-hot, and before it became so fashionable in religious circles to unpack your baggage and let it flap on clothesline. That is very "in" right now, that kind of candor, but this was a decade ago, when people were slightly more buttoned up, and it all felt daring to me. It felt raw and unvarnished and honest enough to maybe actually connect, to maybe really speak something helpful into this private and awkward and clammy thing we call grief.
How is Broken different from other grief books?
Well, to circle back to the library: I noticed the books skewed two ways: Prescriptive, plotting out grief in suffer-through stages (interestingly, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross never meant her stage-theory to be a roadmap for bereaved people; it was an attempt to describe patterns she saw in terminal patients who were coming to grips with their own illnesses).
So there were those: The treatment manuals.
And then there were the religious books, the ones that tried to frost over the broken cake, and so many didn't seem to do a very great job. So many books talked so chirpily, about heaven, and hope, and peace, and in some unintended way, they seemed to take away the one thing I needed most: the permission to hurt.
I wanted to create something in the middle. I wanted Broken to read like a permission slip, giving the reader room to feel what she need to feel. I wanted it to reflect all the fleshy, emotional circuitry that goes into this being-human business. But at the same time...I also hoped it could be a tool for directing those feelings (mine and the readers's), because I believe this is the hallmark of true faith: It grounds us. It provides panoramic perspective that keeps our feelings from drifting too far. It keeps us anchored to bigger truths.
Was All the HONESTy worth it?
Most days, I'd say yes. ;) But it is terrifying to put so much of your heart on page. Unfortunately, I'm a Myers-Briggs INFJ, which means I'm afflicted with a foggy mind (one easily dizzied by feelings). I can have a hard time sussing out what I think until I work it all out on paper.
I will also say this: So many conversations between fathers and daughters are left unspoken. They’re assumed, but never actually said. I think there are a lot of things that Dad and I intended but never verbalized...and in some ways this book is a way of exploring that, and trying to finally say what I meant.
The writing was such a raw and special time. I was squinting hard at the world and finally admitting how hurt it was (and how hurt I was). In one hand, here I was holding what I now knew of sorrow--and then, in the other, here was my Christian faith. And this book was looking hard at both and asking, “Ok, so now what? How does this all work together?”
And the more I held out both things, really looked at them, the more I became convinced that we are just so terrible at grief. As a culture, even sometimes as the church. We have such a hard time being honest about this planet, how it’s terminal. About our bodies, how they’ll fail. Sorrow is real, sorrow is uncomfortable, and yet we dance around it. We dance, when what we need is to be brave and talk about it because sorrow isn't an anomaly, or something that only happens to some of us: Sorrow is the undercurrent. The world's broken.
HENCE THE TITLE?
Yeah. Because that's the truth. We cover it up with a good sale on ankle boots or a peppermint latte or a Downton Abbey Netflix binge, but at our very hearts, we know. And we spend our lives trying to distract ourselves and forget about it. But we can't.
I am so, so convinced that talking and thinking about sorrow is the starting point of real wisdom and purpose and bravery. I believe, believe hard, that grief is just about the biggest way you can grow up. I think it’s the teacher you never wanted, but the one you are so glad you had: it’s a real-life practicum more powerful than getting married, or dethroning yourself for the sake of your babies, or holding down a job that bleeds you out.
How did your faith change with your dad's passing?
I don't know that my faith changed, so much that I learned how it worked. What it did. What it didn't.
Let me give an example. You know how when you're on the tarmac, waiting for your plane's turn at takeoff, and the flight attendant is using the mic to do the seatbelt drill? Promises that the oxygen masks will drop down, and halfway inflate? That the emergency windows pop out over the wings? She swears you your seat doubles a flotation advice, and maybe, if you are like me, you're thinking well, how in the world would I get the seat cushion off? Is there a lever? Can we practice?
Most people are reading the in-flight magazine, but I am sitting there wanting to get up and practice!
That was what happened, though. Figuratively. Dad died, I yanked myself out of school, and suddenly the plane was nosing down toward the water. I was going to see if the seat really floated. I was going to find out. One of the parts of the book that got cut is a line I was so fond of, because it relayed this idea: It talked about how my faith before was "a poor, pretty thing, but she'd never been pushed in the deep end; she'd never had to tread water very long."
What do you hope people walk away with? What is the gift of this book?
Honestly, I just hope people walk away feeling a little less lonely.
PROVERBS 14:10 says.
"Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy."
And it's too true. If grief is anything, it's lonely. It has so many ingredients, it is so individual...how can it not be? Hearts have so many caverns.
You wrote the book over THE COURSE OF a decade?
Yes, on and off. I'd work on a draft, set it aside, then come back and blow the dust off. That's another gift of this book, I hope: There are parts I penned while the wounds were fresh and hot—and some words I could have only written years and years later. I hope it’s a conversation people can return to again and again. I didn’t plan it that way; I would have published it so much sooner. Probably too soon.
You say that grief can almost be a gift?
Ooh, this is a delicate thing. It isn't a gift in itself, but it can impart things that come to be seen as gifts. I think that's the difference between pain and its fruit. Suffering bears fruit.
One fruit is this: Grief keeps us uncomfortable, and I mean that in a good way. Grief is like walking around a beautiful woods with a wet sock or a bad knee. My mother-in-law and I went on a two or three mile hike over Thanksgiving, and she has a bum knee, and forgot her brace, and as much as I knew she liked being outdoors (it was an absurdly perfect late fall day, sun filtering though the trees, thermometer brushing 60 degrees) she was ready to be done, too.
Grief does that: It keeps you eager for the walk to be over. Not in a grouchy way, but in an honest way. It's an ache that points due north, nudging us toward the truer country. It’s the same idea C.S. Lewis loved to write about so much, that German concept of sehnsucht, a rumbling hunger that reminds us that this world fits us wrong. Whatever we really need, we can't find it here.
That longing is the gift, because it works like a tuning fork. It reminds you to be generous and spendy in love, now. It has a funny way of making you put others first and pursue things that don't make any sense on paper.
Is it depressing to write about loss?
Almost the opposite, actually. I think grief's a missed opportunity. It's one of only a few things that brings life to a screeching halt. It feels like you've pushed some cosmic pause button, and suddenly everything just seems so vapid and empty and pointless. I remember buying a funeral dress, and walking the mall, and thinking, Really? This is the best thing you can do with your life right now, go shopping? Go buy stuff? Soy candles?
That sounds wonderfully judgmental, and of course, it is (what did I do last Saturday?). But that's how grief works; you're suddenly jolted wide awake, and it's like everyone else is sleepwalking. Scales fall from your eyes, there's such rude clarity. You can't help but start asking all the right questions. Urgent ones, like WHERE IS GOD?, and IS HE STILL GOOD?, and: IF HE IS ALL-PRESENT and ALL-POWERFUL and ALL-GOOD, well, THEN WHY THIS?
The hard part, I've learned, is is that these big rumbling questions rarely lead to clean diagrammed answers. But they might lead us somewhere better: they might lead us to see, at the very least, that God does care. That our sufferings also grieve him.
These questions--if we're willing to honestly follow wherever they lead--often lead right to the feet of Jesus, the "man of sorrows," the God who wept and almost oozed incidental healings. Really: people constantly interrupted him, even clawed at his robe, and he couldn't look away; he could not not pay attention to their pain. He'd meet their eyes, and something in him must have actually throbbed and ached. Follow the questions, follow that ache, and you'll watch as it all bubbles up and over to the point that he silently shoulders a cross. You'll see him love you much that he bleeds out. You'll watch him give you something far better than an answer: he'll give you himself.
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