It Is Not Well with My Soul, But I'm Trying (Part 2)
Some fragmented thoughts ahead of the first anniversary of my friend Rachel's death
The 51st Day of Coronatide*
Grand Rapids, Michigan
So I’ve started and stopped and scrapped and re-started this letter maybe half a dozen times. I guess I could have skipped this week, but that would have felt like running away and hiding. Surrender to paralysis. Cowardice.
One year ago today, I cooked the biggest meal of my life. This ten-course dinner (the “Chinese” part of the meal was served family-style) was the culmination of my Farminary thesis project. Every dish included at least one ingredient that I’d grown at the farm. The food was okay! Here’s an Instagram post with the menu:
At times during dinner, I just felt like laughing. The most incongruous, impossibly beautiful group of people was gathered around that table—Heather, whom I’ve known since junior high (oh, the stories); Noah and Nate, my brothers from the worst summer camp ever; my thesis advisers Kenda and Farminary Nate; my friend and prof Stacy, who helped lure me to seminary; St. Jan of Princeton, our campus minister; and my Tristan. How did a shy weirdo end up with so many wonderful humans in my life?
I also felt like crying. Throughout that meal, it never left my mind that a dear friend was in a coma. Then, three days later, I was on a plane to Nashville, to say goodbye to her. Some of you may know her as an author, others as a speaker, still others as RHE, that ridiculously gracious and outspoken person on Twitter who was relentlessly for justice and Jesus. To me, she was just Rachel, a beloved friend who changed my life.
Rachel Held Evans was already evangelical-famous by the time we met. She was brave and loving, blogging and tweeting with boldness. I was a full-time journalist in New York, unsure about my faith and passionately afraid of Twitter. (Who am I kidding? I am still passionately afraid of Twitter.) My book was about to debut. Somehow, she heard about it. Then, and this is the most Rachel thing ever, she wrote to my publisher to ask if there was anything she could do to help a person she didn’t even know.
The first three times we met in person, she got violently ill. We called it “the Jeff curse.” Still, she cultivated our friendship, welcoming me into her home and into her family’s life together. She pushed me onto stages to speak, and I don’t mean that figuratively. Eventually, she confronted me about my insecurities, telling me that she might have invited me to speak as a gesture of gaysian-targeted affirmative action once, but never twice and certainly not three times. She saw and heard things in my words and in my voice that I still struggle to believe are true, but I guess it would insult her to say that they aren’t. (I never argued with Rachel, because I knew I’d lose.)
This is the last photo Rachel and I took together, in San Francisco, a month before she died.
Rachel was the kind of friend who, on a random day, would text to say things like this: “You came to mind during my prayers this morning so I asked God to give you wisdom, clarity, and joy... and also to protect you in case you mystically came to mind because you were in grave peril.” She’d send pictures of the kids when she knew I needed cheer, or tease me about my nemesis (always risky, because then she knew I’d tease her about hers). When we moved, she was the first to ask for our new address, “so I can update my super-disorganized address book,” she claimed—and a couple days later, a gift card to a local restaurant arrived in our mailbox. That was Rachel.
The love of true friendship creates space—space to be, space to grow, space to imagine new possibilities. But it requires attention and care. It must be tended and nurtured. And when it is, who can even measure its generative power? Such love is never passive. At its best, love behaves less like a noun than as the most active of verbs—breathing life, stirring generosity, inspiring even more love. Rachel loved so well.
The night we said goodbye, a small group of friends and family said the Nunc Dimittis by her bedside. That’s the prayer, taken from Simeon’s canticle in the Gospel of Luke, that begins: “Now Lord, you let your servant depart in peace.” That English translation has always intrigued me. I think it’s the you that gives it an extra edge and a bit of ambiguity. Is this a request? Is it a demand? Does it express hope or expectation or something of both? The Nunc Dimittis also praises God for fulfilling God’s promise, and in the context of Jesus, I believe that’s true. Trying to say the prayer at Rachel’s bedside, though, I felt the bittersweetness of God’s already and not yet.
Then we sang “It Is Well with My Soul.” Actually, that’s a lie. Other people sang it. I didn’t. I know people sing songs they don’t believe for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s tradition. Sometimes it’s aspirational. Sometimes you have to sing yourself into conviction. But in that moment, I had no voice. I couldn’t form words. And since that night, I have not been able to sing that hymn, as much as I love to hear it.
It is not well with my soul that Rachel is not here. It is not well with my soul that I never got to cook her the dinner that we had planned; she was supposed to visit Tristan and me about 10 days before she died. It is not well with my soul that Dan and the kids don’t have her with them. It is not well with my soul that we miss her every single day. I miss her texts, which inevitably made me uncomfortable because she would always identify in me a writer, speaker, and human that I didn’t—and still don’t—see in myself. I miss the way she made space for so many people—absurdly hospitable space. I miss her incessant attempts to try to get Tristan and me to move to East Tennessee to farm the land that she and Dan had bought.
Nobody can give you an instruction manual for grief. I still don’t know how to grieve. I’m just trying to be attentive. I’m just trying… to try, all the while acknowledging that I can only grieve in my own imperfect way. Sometimes I’m angry with God. Sometimes I’m ungracious. For instance, I bristle every single time someone tells me that Rachel would have been proud of me or what Rachel would have said to me. Intellectually, I understand that others are grieving too. But what do I do with the friction at the intersection of our griefs? While their words might be well-intended, they’re no comfort to me. And I can’t stop myself from thinking that others have no right to put their thoughts in her mind or their words in her mouth or their selves in the midst of our friendship. Grieving can be bitter and sour.
And of course it is Rachel who returns me to the sweet. As ever, she gives me words. She urges me back toward grace and generosity. She reminds me not to shy from the complexity of the grief, or the gratitude that inspires it, or the love that fuels it. “If in an effort at self-protection, we numb ourselves to the pain of this present moment and to the inevitable grief that comes with [it],” she wrote, “then we will numb ourselves to all that remains beautiful and hopeful and good and wise and resilient.”**
What I’m Growing: It felt like the right time to plant flowers and more tomatoes.
What I’m Cooking(?): Though I barely leave home now, I still forget my sourdough starter. And as much as I like to cook, often I just want to sit on the couch, eat an entire bag of chips, and call it dinner. Cape Cod chips. Or the jalapeño Kettle Chips. Or cheddar and sour cream Ruffles. I don’t care. Except not Lays. Why are Lays?
Tragically, we don’t have any chips in the house right now. But we do have gin. The thesis-dinner cocktail was a California Collins, a spin on the classic Tom Collins that I concocted to honor my native state. It’s 2 ounces of gin (I used St. George Terroir, which was inspired by the summertime scents of the hills above Oakland, California); half an ounce of lemon juice; half an ounce of grapefruit juice; half an ounce (a bit more if you want it sweeter, a bit less if you don’t) of sage and rosemary simple syrup (see below—make it on a day when you’re mildly motivated); soda water to taste; and grapefruit and sage to garnish. As always, my measurements are suggestions, not rules.
To make the sage and rosemary simple syrup: Boil a cup of water with a cup of sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. (I prefer turbinado or Demerara sugar, which are slightly caramelly, but honestly, who cares—it doesn’t matter—white sugar is fine.) Throw in six or eight sage leaves and a couple of sprigs of rosemary, turn the heat off, steep until cool, and then strain out the herbs. I’m told the syrup keeps in the fridge for a month, but I’ve always used it all before then.
What I’m Reading: I went back the other day and re-read this from the wise and witty Kate Bowler. Please never tell anyone that God needed another angel. It’s not true.
When I am sad and struggling, there’s no preacher I’d rather hear or read than Barbara Brown Taylor. Here’s a nugget from a sermon that, aptly, I suppose, she preached at a Thanksgiving service: “I gave up my notions of the way life ought to be and recognized the obvious: that people do die, sooner or later, for all sorts of reasons, but they never die to the love of God, and that in between the cracks of that great truth there are a thousand reasons to say thank you to God and to one another, for the gift of every moment of love and life in this world and the next.” (You can find the rest in her sermon collection Mixed Blessings.)
What I’m Listening To: Coronatide means I get to talk with folks all over the country without leaving my study. That comes with pros and cons, obviously. (Pro: No coffee hour for this shy introvert! Con: No frequent-flyer miles!) A couple of weeks ago, I got to speak with Pastor Jonathan Bow and the people of Crosspointe Church in Cary, North Carolina. (You can find that conversation here, starting at about minute 22.) We discussed grief, and I talked about the invitation of Psalm 88, a poem filled with sadness and longing that notably does not end in praise. Their music minister, Stephen Claybrook, has a stirring setting of that psalm that might be a comfort to some of you:
I’m so glad we can stumble through this together. I’ll try to write more soon.
*I’m counting my days from March 10th, when my governor, Gretchen Whitmer—also known as That Woman in Michigan, First of Her Name, the Indefatigable—declared a state of emergency. May she continue to speak out in servant leadership. And for the love of God and the sake of our neighbors, may we continue to #StayHome.
**These lines are from Rachel’s opening remarks at Evolving Faith 2018.