Where I share a personal sketch of an extreme collision of life events. A few months ago, I briefly documented how our family moved from my son’s wedding to Christmas to my mother-in-law’s deathbed within the span of 18 days. Here, I pencil in details of my raw experience of those days, including the mysterious simlarity of birth and death, and a new sense of God’s whispered presence in the labor pains of entrances and exits.

[Content Warning: Contains description of death.]

 white dots


18 Days in December


Those days bleed together in my mind the way the blood slowly pooled in her body after her heart stopped. I sit at my writing desk and sift through recent piles of wedding programs, Christmas cards, and funeral notes. I sort the collision of occasions like an upturned puzzle of sons and mothers, vows and death all jumbled inside a frame of eighteen days.

Some things don’t go down tidy on a calendar until after the fact.

My sock feet slide slow and tired down the hallway in my quiet morning house of sleeping sons. My mind follows like a toddler at my heels offering handfuls of uninvited memories from the last three weeks like marbles from a small cup. “Look at this one. No, this one instead. Look.” I think about the bride’s sheer veil, my glittery mother-of-the-groom shoes, twinkle lights in pine trees, frigid wind and frozen tears, the granite gravestone. I pause at the laundry room window to check on the cold mountain sunrise and my eyes lock in an involuntary unblinking stare. For 15 seconds or a half hour, I think of everything and nothing at all.

I scoop up the pile of dirty laundry next to the washing machine. The floppy white sweater on top still smells like my mother-in-law, her hospital lotion and cold clammy arms. I remember foregoing a shower that morning. I see myself threading my arms into these sleeves and pulling the soft knit over tousled bed-head hair. When this sweater was clean, I thought we had weeks left, not hours.

All at once, the lingering death scent on my sweater throws me back to the uncomfortable chair beside her hospice bed.  My husband, her compliant Minnesota-born son, sleeps in the reclining chair of the hospice room.  My warm hand rests on her cool boney chest. My fingers feel the telltale lung rattle and racing heartbeat. The citrus scent of lotion wafts and mixes with her heavy breaths. Her open-mouthed gasps come up empty like a dragnet cast in shallow water, again, and again, and again. I lean in like a midwife to whisper, “You are almost done. You can do it. You are almost done. Today is a good day.”


I first met my husband’s mother when I was in college and she could still walk. She was a dutiful pastor’s wife with a long-term illness, a ready smile, and the open admiration of many for her refusal to complain.

The last time she walked without assistance was twenty-four years ago at my wedding. As the church organ played, she took her husband’s arm and cautiously stepped down the aisle. With neatly curled brown hair and a fresh blue mother-of-the-groom dress she stationed herself in the front row. She watched as I walked down the aisle in a white dress, my first son hidden in my newly pregnant belly. That day, I carried perishable flowers and a quiet shame that would take years to absolve.

She never spoke to me about the whispered scandal of fornication between two pastor’s kids. She avoided the subject of my sex sin with her son like an enforced contract, always shut down without question or response, as though history could be erased with the consistent and deliberate change of topic.

A few months after our wedding, my new husband awkwardly pulled on green surgical booties, scrubs and a ridiculous hospital hair net. Together, we monitored the aching patterns of my contractions. He leaned in to whisper, his large hand rubbing slow light circles on my chest, “You are doing great. You’re almost done. Today is a good day.” My breaths slowed then quickened, deeper and closer together until the warm gush of blood and water, the stretch of blue umbilical cord, the large round head with dimples in each cheek. I watched a clamp tighten on the cord of life between my son and me. Beating pulse stopped on the bridge between womb and infant, mother and child. The nurse wrapped our son in a tiny blanket.

Years passed unperceived like spinning rotations of the Earth around the sun. Every day we flew 800 miles per hour in porch swings and dining room chairs. Our house became a flying nest of brothers one after another, four altogether. Four umbilical cords snipped and tended into one outie and three innie belly buttons. We lived in a long fast succession of birthing, breathing, crawling, running, driving days. We moved through soul-feeding, heart-breaking, blissful, crumb-riddled, stretched-to-the-limit years.

And in one flutter of an eyelid, on the first of 18 days in December, my dimpled son stepped to the front of a church with a wedding ring in his hand.

My mother-in-law sat in a wheelchair at my son’s wedding. Freshly curled grey hair atop a heavy body of immobility, she smiled with happy approval. As a small boy, my husband believed his mother would die of Multiple Sclerosis any year, any month, any day. And yet, there she sat at her grandson’s wedding in an elderly woman’s dress wearing her deceased husband’s wedding ring, sized to fit.

White lights dangled from the ceiling like stars in the sky. My four sons stood together at the front of the little church in grey suits and men’s shoes. My husband sat next to me and held my hand and I felt a hot surge of unadulterated life, like childbirth without the labor. There in a twilight gathering of family and friends, with tears on my wet handkerchief, I came to know a full circle of redemption and forgiveness. With my mother-in-law down the row, I realized a new grace. My redeemed wedding shame had bloomed into a strong new groom speaking his own sacred vows,“’Til death do us part.

In that little log chapel a love song of redemption, grace and new life started to reverberate over the coming days like a big bang of invisible sound waves. Over the next days, similar echoes would repeat in music, whispers, and words like a lover’s voice calling over a canyon, “I am here … I am here …” 

Entrances and Exits

Wedding guests waved the new Mr. and Mrs. off into the cold dark night, and I traveled from wedding to Christmas in a whirlwind. My little family got caught up in the festivity of gifts and honeymooners returned. We reveled in the union of relationships and laughter in the kitchen.

Christmas Eve, we sat in a large congregation full of candles held high. “Silent Night” wafted through a room full of tiny flame stars shining for a savior, singing out to the promise of peace and eternal life. We listened to the story of Jesus, angels, unexpected birth and bleeding, a son wrapped in blankets, and sacrificial love of Emmanuel, God with us. And I felt the pulses across the universe echo God’s grace, redemption, and gifts of eternity. I heard the silent reverberation, “I am here.”

Days later, a nurse called from the nursing home. My husband’s mother was in transition.

The labor of death and birth share recognizable symptoms: the rise and fall of breathing, the struggle and release, the unknowable final moments. At entrances and exits we funnel in different directions through the same door.

Our family filed into her room. My oldest son sat with his new wife. Three younger brothers situated in stiff chairs. We waited, sat in silence, sang old hymns while squinting at iPhone lyrics, told stories, laughed too loud. We rotated in and out of the chair by her bed and sat in silence some more. My second son timed her periods of non-breathing like contractions in an obstetrics ward. Slower then longer between, seconds passed between silence and resumed breath. Time slowed as midnight approached. Her breathing showed no signs of change. So, each of her tired grandsons quietly said goodbye, wiped wet faces, and headed home.

My husband moved to comfort his mother the way he soothed me in birthing rooms with quiet whispers of assurance and tender pats. “You are doing great, Mom.  It’s going to be ok. You can go see Dad now.” Without ceremony he gently bent down, removed his father’s wedding ring from her finger, and put it in his pocket.

As my husband rested, I stroked her clammy arm and murmured, “You are almost done. Today is a good day.” Her son jostled awake just in time to see her eyes open one last time. Loud labored breaths stilled to peaceful silence.


The nurses arrived unannounced, like blackbirds on a fence waiting for permission. A giantess and a midget, they stood by the door and patiently watched for us to leave or stay.  In hushed tones they warned me twice, “You can just come back when we are done.” For some reason, it felt wrong to leave. So I stayed like a doula after birth and hovered at a distance.

The duo in nursing scrubs smoothed away the evidences of struggle and braced for the mess of involuntary reflexes. The large nurse explained details to me like a patient teacher, “After the heart stops, blood collects in puddles.” The unlikely team turned the body’s heft to reveal blue and purple pools of blood settled at the lowest places. I wondered at the hidden colors of death and the power of a beating heart.

Water trickled in a washbasin as the attendants wrung wash cloths and returned the body to a peaceful position. In the middle of her flat white stomach, I noticed the small mark of her infancy. I stared at the belly button, the last vestige of an umbilical lifeline embedded in a lifeless body, a reminder of clamped cords and new creations set free. And I felt the rumble of silent thunder. I sensed the divine echo that whispers through sanctuaries, birthing rooms and deathbeds, “I am here.”

The workers tucked sheets in around her clean body and confirmed the time of death. Just before sunrise on New Years Eve, my husband’s mother exhaled her last breath and was birthed from a bruised womb into the arms of an eternal father.

I turn the clicking knob on my washing machine. I stare as the streaming water churns into soapy suds and I think of the compression of our 18 days as a divine sloshing mix of brides and grooms, shame and redemption, birth and bleeding, final breaths and new life.

And I think I hear the whisper again, more felt than heard, “I am here.

I hold the soft sweater over the water, take one last whiff of that day in December, and let it go. Close the lid. We begin again.





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Circle Image, original acrylic canvas by 



I am linking up with Glennon Doyle Melton over at Momastery for the Messy Beautiful Warriors Project. You can find this post linked on the Messy Beautiful Warrior page on Momastery, with a host of other truth-telling writers, HERE.

Glennon is tiny in stature and a mighty on motivation.  I resonate with her heart to encourage others to openly “deal with the discomfort and messiness of being a human being.” A catch phrase among Momastery followers is “Life is beautiful and life is brutal. Life is brutiful.”   

I joined this project to tell my own brutiful truth about my journey with intimacy anorexia — with the hope that you might be freed to do the same.   


heart and barbed wire

First Step

We sat in a full circle of folding-chairs in an office lunchroom with other people’s coffee mugs drying by the sink. The fIrst meeting started and I stared at the papers in my lap. I didn’t want to say the sentence out loud in a group, or anywhere for that matter. I fiddled with my wedding ring and crossed my legs again. My foot bobbed up and down like a nervous metronome. Around the circle, one by one women offered their names and recovery issues. My heart raced as my turn got closer.  Closer. Closer. Stop. The room waited.

My whole life had led to these words, to that sentence, and so many other declarations of recovery, one statement of truth at a time.

“Hi, my name is Kelley. I am a recovering intimacy anorexic.”

Every week I drive down 2000 ft. of elevation through a winding canyon pass from my quirky little mountain town down to the city below. I travel a long way to sit beside my women with their 12 Step journals and stories of heartbreak and hope.  Each week, my sentence of introduction flows with more ease, like icy mountain streams in the melt and thaw of spring.

The more we speak our truth, the easier it gets.

Every human has a particular broken thing which warrants recovery and rescue. All addiction is about self-managing and medicating the emotional pain that comes with our broken things. We all have our ways to cope, to mask, to compensate for the ways we are imperfect.

My broken piece has a variety of names. Intimacy Anorexia is just one of many label like sexual anorexia, sexual abuse issues, sexual aversion disorder, or intimacy anorexia. For me, they are all different names for layers of the same onion. At the heart is a a fear of true intimacy.  I am addicted to self-protection in the form of withholding. I am in recovery from my addiction to self-preservation, to withdrawal, and withholding of sexual intimacy.

My husband used to say things like, “I just want your heart” and “Where did you go?” and “You are here, but you aren’t fully present.”  And he was right. But it took years for us to figure out why.

Barbed Wire

For years, I behaved well in my marriage, and hid the broken things of my heart. I starved myself from vulnerability and exposure from my husband, and from God.  In a sense, I spent a lot of time building barbed wire fences and setting land mines around myself, and my husband, for safety, to create distance. My subconscious mantra was “You can only come so close.’

At some point over 20 + years, Steve, my tall philosophic flannel-wearing husband, started to kill hope. He started to carry despair instead.  As mercy would have it, for a host of reasons, we hit bottom in the parking lot of Wal-Mart. One desperate night my compliant husband finally named the spade and demanded a change. He said he was afraid if we kept going as celibate room mates, that someone might come along and offer him what I wouldn’t. He admitted to feeling vulnerable enough to take the offer if it appeared.

To that point, we had lived a lifetime of false peace-keeping. We lived with an unspoken vow not to disrupt each other. We were silently co-dependent. I spent my times of crisis in the bathroom, quietly feeling hopeless and suicidal; he, in his own way, coping by killing all feeling.

We aren’t meant to be “nice’ at all costs. We are not supposed to ignore dysfunctions and cover up for each other. We are built to speak truth, with grace, in love. We are meant to be lovingly disruptive and step into the mess as truth-tellers. We are built to slop around in the healing together, to be known and loved in those messy places.

My husband’s bravery was the beginning of my recovery.


At the beginning of my meetings, introductions may include a variety of issues.

“Hi my name is So and So, and I …

live with a sex addict, I am married and alone.

am a sex addict.

am a codependent.

am an intimacy anorexic.”

Maybe that’s confusing. Why would I be in the same room with people who have such different sexual issues? So let me explain my issue in terms of eating disorders. Organizations like FindingBalance put really over-weight people and really under-weight people together in the same recovery process. Why? Obesity and anorexia may have visibly opposite symptoms but BOTH are using food to solve something profoundly broken. The person who is using food to over-eat and self-medicate and the person who is spending all their energy avoiding food share the same core focus. Both people are using food to mask a bigger shame at the core.  In my group, we are all addicted to misusing sex and intimacy.  We are all either binging or starving ourselves … or living with addicts who binge or starve themselves.

At the core is a shared fear of intimacy. In different ways, maybe that’s a vulnerability we all share as humans. Intimacy is the emotional moving toward, the choice to be vulnerable. Sometimes, the hardest thing is a step toward being known, instead of a step away.

I spent a lot of time in our marriage building walls and burying land mines in order to create a safe distance. I used withholding characteristics like:

  • Staying busy in order to avoid connection
  • Blaming instead of taking responsibility
  • Anger/Silence
  • Withholding sex
  • Withholding feelings

That’s my sobriety check list. Those behaviors are like my drinks lined up on a bar. They threaten my marriage and make my life unmanageable. They are indicators of dangerous withdrawal in my heart.

So, each week, I find myself in the same room with people who are dealing with obsession and aversion. At the root, our issues are all about the things of beautiful intimate union, broken and mending. We are a room full of re-set bones in casts and slings.  We are people emerging on the other side of a massive invisible wreck with our lives intact.

Sting wrote a song back in the 80’s. It’s the soundtrack for my journey out of intimacy anorexia:

Under the ruins of a walled city 

Crumbling towers in beams of yellow light.

No flags of truce, no cries of pity; 

The siege guns had been pounding through the night.

It took a day to build the city.

We walked through its streets in the afternoon.

As I returned across the fields I’d known,

I recognized the walls that I once made.

Had to stop in my tracks for fear of walking on the mines I’d laid. 


And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart,

Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire, 

Then let me build a bridge, for I cannot fill the chasm,

And let me set the battlements on fire.


~Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart, Dream of the Blue Turtles

I love this song because, ok, it reminds me of younger days riding in my car with the windows down and the music very very loud. One. But, two, it’s an empowering anthem. It’s my song to my husband, my God, and my people.


I still fight the urge to put up walls and create distance when I feel intimate fear. I am constantly tripping over old baited traps. I don’t instinctively want to move toward my husband when life gets disruptive to my heart.  I still struggle to stay in the room when my emotions get ugly. But I do, mostly, stay fully present.

I have been let out of the prison of my own design. I am not tempted by suicide anymore. Sure, I stress and feel anxiety, but those emotions are guides now. They point me to engage with my higher power, where Jesus leads to me to deeper truth and healing. I am learning that true intimate sex is a comfort and sweetness. I am learning to stay present and not run to busy avoidance; to chose disruption over false peace and hiding. I now believe these words like they are the newly formed scars of surgery:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.*

I am a woman in recovery, a clay jar with hope and power spilling out of the cracks. And I am willing to speak the extremity and the mess. I am learning to tell the truth and listen for it. Because truth leads us out of the darkness of secrets, fear, and control, into the light of freedom. The Big Blue Book claims: “We shall know a new freedom.”  And I like to think these ancient words are the source of that echo: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” 

Speak your truth, friend.

Let the frozen streams thaw into a cleansing flood.



What is your brutiful truth?






Intimacy Anorexia: Healing the Hidden Addiction in Your Marriage, Douglas Weiss, Ph.D.

Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred, Patrick J. Carnes Ph.D.

The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Dr. Dan B. Allender


Finding Balance Eat Well. Live Free.



*Quote Source: The Bible, 2 Corinthians 4:7

Image Source: Old barn wood heart by TheLonelyHeart via Etsy




Where I explain how some days my current book project feels a little like a tall invisible talking rabbit.
Harvey 3

“Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor,

and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”

James Stewart in “Harvey”, 1950


Manuscripts Notes

I resumed work on my book this week.  Sometimes when I say those two words “my” and “book” I have to fight the feeling that I am James Stewart describing his invisible 6-foot, 3-and-a-half-inch tall rabbit friend, Harvey, to dubious onlookers. Fortunately, most of my friends and family know the book actually does exist (in whatever rough form) and are very supportive. Yesterday two different friends in two different places asked me the same question, “So how’s the book coming?”  I may as well tell you what I told them, in case for some odd reason you were wondering, too.
My current project, working title “Felt Stories“, is creative non-fiction and based on my journey as a woman with intimacy issues. The frame of the book is a box of my Grandma Finney’s Sunday School flannelgraphs which I inherited from my mom.  Inside that frame is a winding tangle of stories about my struggle as a woman with regard to sex in marriage and intimacy with God. As I have wrestled my way to the bottom of a box of felt Bible stories, I have also been unraveling my own story of healing. It begins as my story as a pastor’s daughter who grew up in a suburb of Chicago, immersed in middle-class American Protestant culture, and winds through my years as a recovering wife and mom. In a larger sense, it’s a pretty universal story of wrestling with faith.


The flannelgraphs are pretty humorous. The logos and branding are clearly from the late1950’s.  I often describe the flannel backed paper props as Sunday School cartoons featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Charleston Heston in bathrobes.  Even though the Bible is obviously set in olive-toned, black-haired places like modern day Iraq, Iran, and Egypt, most all the main players in the flannel stories are light-haired, white northern Europeans. Flannel graph peopleThe folders of sequential storytelling instructions are to the point if not a bit dogmatic. And even if the pictorial casting was questionable at best or prejudiced at worst, the stories are true to form.

Altogether, one tale after the other, my box of felt stories plays out the troublesome ways of faulty people loved by a redeeming God.

Initially, I opened the box with a posture of disagreement. I was ready to argue with the flannelgraphs, with the way mainline protestant churches have often relegated women to typewriters, pianos, and children’s ministries; with the way the topic of true intimate sex has been silently avoided in sanctuaries and reduced to something which warrants whispers and caution. Bottom line: I brought my womanly baggage to the box and found something surprising in return.  It’s not a tidy ending … it’s just the beautiful mess of real life.


That said, the process of writing this story has been as much about my journey of recovery in marriage and faith as it has been about my path as a writer. I set the project down for a couple months to concentrate on other writerly things and recovery.  Inside of that, I started  going to a 12 Step group for recovering intimacy anorexics (read about that HERE). In doing the step work for my meetings, I inadvertently picked up a couple of crucial missing pieces for the book. When I sat back down to read over the draft and write, things started falling together in a new way. Honestly feels like divine timing.
So, April is my re-ignition month for Felt Stories.  New material. New day. New draft. This time next year (crossed fingers) I hope to have an actual completed manuscript. And hopefully, at some point, I won’t feel like I’m talking about an invisible rabbit anymore.

True For You, Too

Following a crazy dream requires more of us than we could imagine. This is what it feels like to walk an uncharted path without a map.  This is how the edge of the unknown feels.  And just in case you are facing a similar challenge in your own life, hear me say this: “Keep going friend. No matter the outcome, the process of pursuing your passion is worth it.”
harvery poster
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Because Your Story Matters

Next month I will be a storyteller in the simulcast event, (in)Real Life 2014 with (in)Courage.  I’m in great company with some of my favorite writer/bloggers like Ann Voskamp, Anne Marie Miller, Jenni Allen, and Amber Haines. For the event, I will be hanging around for a couple minutes with my friend Laura Parker to tell a sweet and true life experience we shared in community (you can see a sneak peak of the two of us about 2 minutes into the trailer below). The (in)RL event is all about stories and vulnerable connection. It’s just 1-2 hours over two days, the free event comes directly to your living room April 25 and 26th.

It’s Free.

If you are looking to connect with a community of women across miles and ages, this may be a great opportunity for you.  AND, if you have a vulnerable story to share chances are, others need to hear it. Really. We need your story. If any of those ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to go check out the details.

See the (in)RL Two Day AgendaHere
Register Free | Here
Full List of Speakers | Here

inRL2014-speaker-300x250 (1)

can telephones

The ‘Three What’ Rule

There’s a reason they are called Hearing Aids, not Hearing Healers. Sure, I hear so much more sound and music than I would without battery powered hearing instruments. And everyday I am grateful for better hearing. However, I am still hearing impaired, even when amplified. Clear words are still elusive if conditions are not perfect. Conditions are rarely perfect. And this is frustrating for me and anyone around me.

As a consequence, there is an unspoken rule between us, you and me. Even though you probably aren’t even aware, you have an internal quota of three “whats” per person per conversation. It’s the Three What Rule. “Whats” are a hearing impaired person’s most valuable conversational commodity. We have to use them sparingly. On average, I get three consecutive whats before total aggravation on the part of the speaker. After three, a choice has to be made. Consider this scene, a classroom in Roosevelt Elementary School, in my hometown:


(middle-aged, facing the chalkboard)

“Kelley what is the kmfonclr of righnirlms?”



(grade-schooler, sitting in a desk, looks up from her book.)




(still facing the board, with a hint of impatience)

“What is the kmdornkg of fdmilrn?”



(starting to feel nervous)




(speaks loudly in an aggravated tone while leaning down to pick up a piece of paper)

“What is the knoewlkd of slknf?”



(can’t see the teacher’s mouth, unable to lip-read)

“I’m sorry. What?”



(completely exasperated)

“Kelley. For pete’s sake, are you listening?!”

No matter how nice or long-suffering your friends are, for a hearing impaired person, three whats is the limit. On the other side of the third what is a raised angry voice or passive punishment. After the third what, especially from mumbling strangers, comes rolled eyes and looks of disdain or impatience. Before the fourth what comes, “What is wrong with you?” “Aren’t you listening?” or worse, the cut off, the conversational hang up where topics are changed and eye contact is lost.

As a general rule, except maybe in cases of conversations with people who speak a different language, there is no fourth what. The fourth what is the Bermuda Triangle, the Black Hole of conversations. Nobody ever goes there and comes back to talk about it.

I subconsciously measure my whats every day like calories. At home I use my whats rather freely and land myself on the third what in various conversations with my family throughout a day. But in other settings, I am more frugal. It’s all Cost vs. Benefit. The cost of a request to repeat isn’t usually worth the benefit of a joke or off-handed comment. But if a speaker has non-verbals which indicate a serious conversation, it’s probably worth cashing in on a what. In particularly loud settings or with especially quiet-spoken people, it’s easy to use up the three whats right off the bat. At that point it becomes imperative to explain my deficit. “I am sorry, I can’t hear you very well, could you speak up a bit?” Which often means, the person speaking will speak up for about 5 paragraphs and resume a quiet default. Unless it’s an extremely important conversation, I will usually quit asking for clarification and start pretending. I smile and nod and let others do the talking.

It’s hard to constantly admit you just don’t get what everybody else gets, for whatever reason. So, as impaired people, we guess. We look to others for cues. We decide not to invest in half-spoken conversations. We laugh at unheard jokes simply because everyone else is laughing. We pretend. We hide. We forfeit certain content of relationship because we fear the consequences of asking for help one more time.

The Root

Over time, my what-counting tendencies shaped the way I relate to people. The habit became a small reflecting part of a larger mirror. The third what was one piece of a larger belief that I didn’t measure up. For a lot of years, my only hope for meaningful relationship was based on my ability to perform well, to compensate and hide my impairments. Because, in a million other ways, I decided that there is a limit on how much can be asked of others, or even, of God, before inevitable negative relational consequence.

At the bottom of that fear, is an insidious and rooted correlation between performance and intimacy. If I believe my God or people will only love me if I perform well, there are icy relational implications. These are the roots of shame — insidious, half-true deep-reaching tendrils of false stability.

Maybe you relate in ways besides hearing issues. Maybe you have your own hidden impairments. When we choose to hide our impairments we suffer. When we choose to live in secret fear of rejection, we forfeit the deeper things of relationship.

Shame is the deceitful enemy of intimacy. It locks us in prison and shuts us out of life-giving conversation. Shame throws up barriers and puts on masks. And it’s always wrapped like a velvet choke collar around our most broken parts, whispering half-truths that make perfect sense at the time.

“Don’t rock the boat. This is better left unsaid.”
“There’s a limit to what people can stand.”
“You’ve used up your quota. Just smile and pretend.”
“Measure the risk and be afraid of the outcome.”
“Withdraw. Create distance. Avoid.”

In the end it’s all the same message: “Choose the safe prison over vulnerable freedom.”

Claiming the Fourth

In some ways, I was wrong about the third what. Yes, the Three What Rule is still a standing norm in social settings. And yes, I generally use my whats sparingly. But the third what shouldn’t be avoided because of shame.

I’ve decided to embrace the daily possibility of a fourth what. Why? Because relationship is based on more than my ability to avoid disruption. Because I am mostly ok with being flawed, the fourth what is now my opportunity to admit I am not perfect. In life’s bigger picture, it is my opportunity to offer the honest mess and beauty of living outside prison doors.

I still wear hearing aids, but I have been healed in other ways.  I’ve been rescued from a prison of shame. And that’s another long story for another time about my marriage, and church, and my relationship with Jesus. But for now I’ll just say, I believe in my gut that we don’t have a quota of ‘whats’ with God. Maybe you don’t agree, and that’s ok. But my experience has led me to believe that there is divine repetition unconditional, intimate, available at all times.

The noise of shame creates distance and barriers. But we can say, ‘I’m sorry could you repeat that” as many times as necessary and he repeats, patiently, again and again.

God echoes across time.  His redemptive messages whisper in morning skies, in sacred words, in music, in children’s artwork, in worship, in sacraments and in the sacrifices of everyday vulnerability. In unexpected ways, he repeats infinitely, because he desires to unlock the inmost prisons of our hearts.

In the quiet truth of our deepest impairments, I believe he loves. When we are deaf, when we hear, when we listen, even when we don’t … he loves, anyway and always.

He is the God of the fourth what.




Can Telephones by bourndesign, on Flickr

Where I describe the flood of sounds that come with a new pair of hearing aids.


Singing Bird ...


Test Drive

Windshield wipers silently swiped back and forth. I drove past rainy Illinois farm fields toward the audiologist’s office. After too many unheard whispers and missed cries for help from my sons, it was time.  For the first time in my life, I decided to purchase hearing aids.

The audiologist looked like a defeated version of Steve Jobs stuck in a boring day-job. Paper piles and random plastic ear molds lined either side of a narrow desktop path between his side and mine. He slid an instruction pamphlet toward me and polished his wire glasses on the bottom of his shirt. I felt nervous like a grade school band kid waiting for my first rental flute.  He carefully removed my new hearing aids from a little felt-lined black box. Batteries clicked into place, the aids started to squeal in his cupped hands. He forced a tired half-smile, “Ready to take them for a drive?”

Dr. Jobs was so procedural and matter-of-fact, I got the impression my first test drive with hearing aids would be like the easy flick of a light switch from off to on, dark to light.  I was wrong. After the long slow muting of a million tiny sounds, the sudden ability to hear is not at all like a simple light switch.  Re-amplification is more like an auditory tsunami.

Joy and Misery

The initial gift of hearing is both joy and misery wrapped with the same bow.

On the drive home, I found myself swimming in a flood of new sounds. Rain pinged and plucked on the windows.The turn-signal clicked and the windshield wipers swooshed.  My coat made a loud crackling rustle every time my arm brushed my side. The buckle on my leather shoe squeaked. Who knew?

I got out of the car and heard the crystal blue notes of a songbird in the redbud tree. I had completely forgotten that birds sing. I stood motionless with my head cocked to one side. Dumbfounded by the long-forgotten miracle, I felt a sudden compulsive need to tell someone, anyone, “Birds fly AND make music!”

Inside the house, wonder quickly turned to bewilderment. Our wood floors creaked like loud creeping skeletons. Plaster walls echoed the bang of toys and thunder of feet. Dropped pans exploded like gun shots. And a clock on the wall ticked mercilessly like a watery drip, drip, drip on my brain every second, every minute, every hour. I became irritable, snappy, short-fused. For the next days and weeks, I tossed and bobbed in an exhausting sea of un-muted sounds.

The frustrating flood of sound is not uncommon with new hearing.  A lot of people quit using hearing aids because of the annoyance at the start. In her amazing narrative collection, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, author Annie Dillard described a similar response among blind people who surgically regain sight.

For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning … The mental effort involved … proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.”

It’s not easy to suddenly regain what has been lost. The sudden acquisition of a new sense can be overwhelming. Sometimes, miracles of restoration require a whole lifetime of recalibration.

Muting the Noise

After a first fitting for hearing aids, two important things need to happen.  Mechanically, a few follow-up appointments are necessary to tweak the instrument levels and eliminate extreme highs or lows.  But more importantly, the brain has to re-learn how to hear and how to listen. The mental adjustment takes time.

In the first days of hearing, a whole host of sounds must be catalogued as noise. For example, at first the hiss and hum of a fluorescent ceiling light warrants attention. It’s a new sound, after all. But the light bulb is not as important as the little son who is pulling on my sweat pants quietly asking for me to pick him up and hold him. In the larger scheme of listening, the relentlessly ticking clock doesn’t warrant my attention; neither does the squeaking shoe, or the regular click of the furnace.  Instead, children’s whispers and door bells gain priority. Eventually an entire raging ocean of small noises is catalogued as background sound and a wide pool of sameness begins to differentiate. With the repetition of identification, noises mute and sounds with meaning amplify.

Seeking the Meaningful

In the practice of learning to hear, larger questions started to emerge about the stuff of my listening. Hearing is a mechanical practice.  But listening is a choice. Which made me wonder, “What do I listen to … what usually gets my attention?”

It wouldn’t make sense for me to decide that light bulbs and creaking floors require my daily attention over my sons. Nobody would advise me to listen to the washing machine over my husband’s couch conversation. And yet, the noisy clamor of tv and radio and iPhones often get first priority of attention in a room full of people. Often, the noise gets priority over the meaningful.

Listening is choice, all the time, everyday. Ultimately, my brain and soul will pursue what I listen to. It matters where my attention goes. Do I choose to pursue messages with meaning, to seek sounds that require interaction and response?  Or do I choose to give my attention to noisy distractions, and destructive messages?

Some days, when the noise of the world gets especially loud, I take out my hearing aids. I sit in the silence and listen to my heartbeat. I feel my lungs inflate with each breath. I remember that I am a spiritual being in a physical body. And something shifts. In the quiet I remember the God of the Universe who restores my sanity and heals my soul.  I listen for what matters.

And maybe that’s my biggest lesson from that first pair of hearing aids …

In a world full of clamoring sounds, we must all learn to sift through noise in order to hear what matters most.




“Seeing” by Annie Dillard (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, HarperPerennial, 1974).

Singing Bird Image by Of Shadows and Light, from Flickr

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Listening And Hearing

A Matter of Definition

I was on the debate team for a while in college. For tournaments, I donned stern librarian glasses and a corporate suit — odd for a normally frumpish thrift-store girl. I had a debate partner named Helmut. I can’t justifiably make fun of his name because at the time my last name was Gay. We both had name issues.
For a codependent middle-child like me, debate was a thrilling way to argue without hurting anybody’s feelings. I thrived in the regulated conflict and enjoyed my yellow legal pads and boxes of evidence cards. I wasn’t notable at cross-examination. I didn’t have a cut-throat drive to win. My closing arguments rarely won. But I loved the whole experience. Debate was my first script for engagement with head-on disagreement. The regular practice of opposition shaped my voice as a woman.
One key aspect of debate is an agreement of definitions. At the outset, both sides must agree on the resolution terms. Sometimes opposing teams will go back and forth, unwilling to concede that a certain word has a shared meaning. It’s important to clarify the meaning of pivotal words before entering a significant dialogue.
With that in mind, as we enter this series, Choosing to Hear, I’d like to clarify two words. Some of you may or may not agree with my definitions. And that’s ok. Let’s just decide I am describing what I know from my limited experience. As I wade into the spiritual and physical implications of hearing loss, for the sake of clarity let’s make a distinction between the words ‘listen’ and ‘hear’.

To Hear

Definition — to detect by perceiving sound through the ear

According to Miriam Webster —  HEAR, verb \ˈhir\ : to perceive or apprehend by the ear, to be aware of (sound) through the ear

To Listen

Definition — to hear and pay attention to someone

According to Miriam Webster – LISTEN, verb \ˈli-sən\ : to hear something with thoughtful attention, to pay attention to someone or something in order to hear what is being said, sung, played, etc., to hear what someone has said and understand that it is serious, important, or true


Both words are action words, verbs which indicate response to sound. However, there is nuance between the two. Hearing is the affect of sound in the ears. Listening is the affect of sound in the mind and soul. Used in a Sentence: When I chose to get hearing aids and improve my ability to hear, I still had a long way to go in my journey toward learning to listen. To hear is a mechanical response to vibrations and sound waves.  To listen is a posture of mental and emotional attention.

It is possible to hear without listening.  It is possible to listen without hearing.

In terms of relationship, the differences matter greatly.


When you think about the difference between hearing and listening, what strikes you?

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This is the first in a series based on my one word for the year: Listen.  And before I get to the business of listening, it seems right to start with the issue of my lifelong hearing impairment.

Background …

A whole generation of Baby Boomers are now turning up their TV sets and saying ‘what’ more frequently. Why? Because hearing loss is a very common symptom of aging for people over 50. Hearing aids (and bifocals) are natural additions to the later seasons of life. However, statistics indicate that a new generation of in-ear electronics users and concert goers are claiming hearing loss at staggering gains. A federal survey in 1971 estimated that 13.2 million Americans had hearing loss. Upwards of 36 million Americans now report lost hearing.* The doubling tide of hearing loss continues to swell. In the next decade, it is reasonable to expect hearing impairment to gain epidemic numbers and shared symptoms across age groups.

Even so, most hearing aid brochures still typically feature pictures of active grey haired couples in happy days of retirement. In general, I think our culture mistakenly expects only extremely young children with birth defects and older people with aging issues to need hearing aids. When I got my first pair of hearing aids, I was a young mom.



A Slow and Certain Muting

My hearing loss has been incremental like the constant melting drip of an icicle. I have degenerative and hereditary nerve loss and have worn hearing aids for the last 15 years. Currently, I only hear muffled words and general mid and low range sounds without assistance. My loss is expected to continue to worsen, like a master volume knob slowly turned down over time.
I didn’t just wake up one day without hearing. Like a tiny leak in a big ship, it mostly dripped away without notice. In the degeneration of sound between childhood and parenthood, I adapted to small losses again and again. I don’t know when I lost the singing of birds, or the whispers of prayer. They just evaporated one week, one year without notice. I didn’t discern the loss of high frequencies in music, or sirens approaching in the distance. I just leaned in closer to the source of sounds and started to use my rear view mirror more frequently. One day, at one point unremembered, I decided it was ok to miss large parts of conversation and chose instead to mentally guess and fill in the blanks.
On the day I got my first pair of hearing aids, I flipped through reading material in the audiologist’s boring waiting room and wished there were people my age on the pamphlets. Most hearing aid pamphlets feature pictures of active grey haired people. In an office full of senior citizens on wall posters it was apparent “older people” to need hearing aids. But I was in my early 30s. I still had babies and toddlers at home. Bill Clinton had just started wearing hearing aids. I didn’t want to feel as old as the President of the United States. I thought I was too young for hearing aids. But in my gut, I also knew that I had put off the inevitable for too long.

Undeniable Symptoms

At the core, hearing impairment is a barrier to relationship. Because of the incremental nature of loss, close friends or family members often notice the severity before an impaired person does. The people who are closest in relationship are usually best able to observe the changing signs. For me, some commonly observable symptoms included:

  • Trouble hearing on the phone.
  • A strain to understand conversations.
  • Frequently asking people to repeat themselves.
  • My children complaining that the television volume was too high.
  • Difficulty following discussions when two or more people are talking.*

My husband started to to compensate for my loss. He started unconsciously using his “yelling voice” in order to be heard. Over time, even the kindest yelling starts to feel like angry emotional weather. An unspoken tension hovered over our house. I had four sons ages 9, 7, 3, and 1. They rattled around happily in a loud old house full of bouncing sound waves on cracked plaster walls and bare wood floors. It was nearly impossible to discern their quiet ideas and excited stories through the noise. That auditory season was like the visual equivalent of living in a constant cloudy fog. I often retreated to the backyard garden, for mental and physical quiet.

The Inciting Incident

The final ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ is just one tiny weight on a larger pile of burden. In my case, the day of our final straw was one of many instances where I was unable to hear my sons. All four of my sons have personal stories of what it means to be unheard by their mother; unheard ideas, unheard fears, unheard joys. This particular bathroom crisis was just the last tumbling verdict.
I was on my knees out in the backyard pulling weeds in the flower garden when my three year old son decided to get off the swing set and head inside to the bathroom. Our 1910 mission-style house was full of a heavy wood doors with unreliable glass doorknobs. I didn’t hear my little round-headed son slam the back screen door, clunk across the creaky floors in his pudgy shoes or shut the bathroom door with a loud click.  When he attempted to re-open the bathroom door, the knob spun free without catching the latch.  He was trapped inside the house, alone.
I didn’t hear him calling me.  I couldn’t hear his little voice crying out.  He even climbed up on the toilet and attempted to open the window with his short fingers.  His urgent shouts for help carried across the neighborhood and fell on deaf ears.  Literally. I didn’t hear him. I was preoccupied with the silent company of daisies. And time ticked away, for however long, unnoticed.
My oldest son, Andrew, ran home from the neighbor’s house because at some point he heard Isaac screaming. He shouted as he ran past me,

“Mom!  Isaac is calling you.  Isaac is screaming.”

In an adrenalin rush, I followed and found my abandoned little boy, red faced, panicked and sad. Between hiccoughs and shutters he wailed,

“You didn’t come. I was calling you. You kept not coming.”

After much consolation and remorse, there was no question. Accumulated losses left unattended have accumulated impact. It was time to open locked doors and re-amplify my world. I needed to un-mute whispered secrets and cries for rescue.
Without hearing there can be no responding.
Next, the hateful adjustment to hearing aids … here.

 Anything strike you?

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Let me know what impacted you.
Hearing Loss Statistics | US Dept. of Health, Source, Web MD
Symptoms of Hearing Loss | National Institute of Hearing Loss, Source: Web MD
Glass door knob image by Marie Killen. Flickr.