When All Else Fails: a Year of Surrender

It’s been over a year since I published my last blog post.  I’m well aware of how such a long lapse violates every best practice in the world of blogging.  But I don’t really care…. In our world of constant (digital) connection, sometimes you need to retreat and make space to reflect, feel what you need to feel, and heal.  Disengage from the triggers of Facebook.  Engage in authentic human connection with those who matter most to you, those who accept and love you no matter what.   Write for no other audience than yourself.  Prioritize self-care.  Give yourself permission to FEEL and, eventually, to HEAL.

And that’s exactly what I needed to do in my own time and space, while trusting that I’d know when I was ready to share my heart and soul online.  Over the last year, I’ve been mentally crafting this post about my lessons in surrendering, appropriately titled “When All Else Fails.”  I’ve held off from publishing for a couple reasons.  Firstly, I don’t feel comfortable sharing all of the details, especially those related to my loved ones, so I’ve been experimenting with ways to share without oversharing.   Secondly, I haven’t felt up to the vulnerability hangover I experience with every post, yet I know how much freer I feel when I share and how connected I feel when I discover that I’m not alone.

So bear with me as I delicately dance around certain details from this year of surrender…..

Over a year ago, towards the end of 2015, life dealt us a few unexpected blows in a row.  There’s a saying that “bad things happen in three’s,” which is exactly how it all went down.  First, my husband’s company decided to end their Alaska ventures, effectively ending my husband’s and all of his co-workers’ assignments in Alaska.  We immediately knew this meant we’d be relocating much sooner than we originally anticipated, but we wouldn’t know for a couple months where or when we’d move.  Not long after this announcement, a few of our loved ones shared saddening news with us, which weighed heavily on our hearts.  And then, as the final sucker punch, we miscarried a perfectly healthy baby.  This was our 3rd loss, and last attempt at giving our son a sibling.

To say that I was an emotional mess would be an understatement.  Even now- a year later- I’m still grieving and trying to process what happened at the end of 2015.  At the time, I distracted myself with the day-to-day activities of caring for my then 3 year old, and preparing for our rather abrupt move to Houston.  I couldn’t bear to look at his baby clothes and gear, so, as part of our move prep, I gave most of it away, which was the emotional equivalent of throwing kerosene onto my open wounds and then lighting a match (=white-hot-searing-pain).  Our relocation, combined with the overlapping holiday season, forced me to fake my way through daily life and pretend like I was taking it all in stride.  Looking back at myself, I honestly don’t know how I managed to keep it together as much as I did.  But truth is that I was overwhelmed by intense emotional pain, covering me in a heavy blanket of grief laced with disappointment, anger, and deep–seeded shame.

With 2015 ending so painfully, I realized that my only option was to surrender….to completely let go and trust God’s plan for our lives.  As go-getter who has white-knuckled my way through life, I couldn’t imagine a greater challenge than handing the keys to my life over to God, climbing into the back seat and staring out the window at life’s passing scenery.  At first, surrendering felt like I was giving up… like I was stepping out of the driver’s seat of my car, waving my pathetic little flag, and then lying down in the middle of the road to allow car after car to drive over me.  I felt like a quitter:  beaten down, discouraged, and flattened.  A total f’ing failure.  Being someone who doesn’t give up easily, this isn’t how I imagined my story ending.

Until my coach, Cassi, sent me a short piece written by Liz Gilbert, I struggled to differentiate between quitting and surrendering.  I just didn’t get it until I read this piece and then the proverbial light bulb switched on.  Here’s an excerpt of what Liz wrote about surrender:

“Surrender is what happens when you come to the end of your power. Surrender is what happens when you have searched to the bottom of your soul and found out this truth — which is that you really can’t do this thing anymore. Surrender is what happens when you don’t have any more ideas for how to fix everything. Surrender is what happens when none of your survival strategies work anymore — and your playbook is out of pages. Surrender is what happens when you turn it all over to God. You release your grip on the thing. You stop white-knuckling it. You stop pretending things are great when things are actually horrible. You stop putting on a fake face, or glossing over the problem, or lying. You face the truth that you are not the most powerful force in the universe. You turn it over to fate. You exhale, and let go.

There is always grace in surrender. There is always truth in surrender. There is always a great deal of human dignity in surrender. And what happens next is often very beautiful. You crack open because you have stopped fighting and pretending, and once you do that…anything whatsoever can now occur. Sometimes your true fate can only find you after you have surrendered. As Richard from Texas taught me about cracking yourself open in surrender…well, that where God can rush in. The universe can sometimes only work through you once you have surrendered.”

 

Suddenly, after years of believing that surrendering was just a fancy word for quitting, I experienced my AHA! moment.  This mental shift enabled me to practice true surrender at a time when I had come to the end of my power, when I had run out of options, when ALL ELSE HAD FAILED.  I surrendered to this devastatingly dark place… to my broken, grieving heart… to the uncertainties of our future….to my powerlessness.  I chose SURRENDER as my theme for 2016, and decided to practice the art of surrender whenever possible, trusting everything would work out according to God’s plan.

As the saying goes, “life is a roller coaster,” and 2016 has been no exception.  At the end of 2015, I felt like my ‘coaster went off the rails and bottomed out in the pitch black.  My only option was to surrender to this darkness and trust that I’d eventually find my way back to the light.  As I’ve roller-coastered through 2016, I practiced surrendering to all of unknowns in my life, regularly repeating my mantra of “trust and let go, trust and let go, trust and let go.”  Of course, life continuously tested my ability to trust and let go…from moving to a new city without having a place to live or knowing how long we’d stay… to finding a new home/school/gym/church/social circle/etc… to setting boundaries with family members… to an ongoing dental drama (read: no front teeth!)….. to countless doctor’s appointments and multiple surgeries… to anxiously awaiting results from cancer screenings… to the unexpected ending of a friendship I hold dear… to touring over 70 homes before making an offer only to lose out to another buyer….to having this same house fall back into our laps 10 days later when the first buyer walked away without reason… to the disappointing election results… to planning yet another move over the year-end holidays.. my “surrender” list could go on and on!

Despite the abundant opportunities to practice, I’m still haven’t mastered the art of surrender.  I am–and will always be–a humble student in the “School of Surrender.”  But what I will say is this: There are moments– like the one captured in this photo taken on Disneyland Paris’ Space Mountain roller coaster earlier this year– where I am riding in complete darkness and I am fully present, where I am energized and open, where I am free and one with God, where I have complete faith that my ride will bring me safely back to the light. These moments are fleeting–few and far between–but I have experienced them, so I know they are within my reach when I simply let go and enjoy the ride.

Space Mountain, Disneyland Paris, May 2016

PS: I also surrendered to my inner poet, a voice I’ve silenced for many years but desperately wants to express herself.  So here goes…

The Arms of Surrender

She admitted,

without pause,

to be one of THOSE types

who clung to life like a tick to skin

She was known as

a control freak

a white-knuckler

a perfectionista

(and a micro-manager, according to some)

She was both adored and abhorred

for her attention to detail

for her ability to deliver

for her “dedication”

She clung so tightly because

she knew no different

As a girl, this is how she learned to survive

Her persistence even earned her praise

Until one day, she found herself hanging onto the very end of life’s rope

She had tried everything

And nothing had worked

She didn’t know what else to do

But to let go

While she wiped the sweat from her brow, she loosened her grip, just a bit

Lingering here for a moment

Relishing in the tension

Between doing and being

Then she let go

Completely

And as she fell

She released all of the beliefs

which had held her back

which had kept her clinging

to that tangled, knotted rope

She stopped trying so hard to please, to be perfect, to maintain control

She stopped forcing herself to be anything she wasn’t meant to be

She stopped blaming and shaming herself

She stopped feeling like she was damaged goods, broken and irreparable

She stopped believing she was unworthy, undesirable, unlovable

She fell freely,

evenly,

gracefully

through baby blue skies and bruise-colored clouds

through the sun’s strong rays and the moon’s chalky glow

through the Milky Way and the galaxies far far away

And when she landed,

she found herself

lovingly embraced by

the Arms of Surrender

— Christina Zini, June 2016

 


Want to know more about Surrendering?

Surrendering, as I’m learning, is a constant practice…. Like a daily (or even minute-by-minute) practice of letting go of my thoughts, emotions,  desires, anything and everything I’ve got a firm grip on.  It begins with truly experiencing my emotions, not avoiding them or disassociating myself from them, not telling myself that I shouldn’t feel anger/fear/grief/jealousy/etc..  I’ve learned a lot from reading Michael Singer’s books “The Surrender Experiment” and “Untethered Soul.”  I also enjoyed reading John Ortberg’s “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”  I’ve found practices like prayer, meditation, visualizations helpful. My nightly ritual of writing a “Love/Leave” list in my journal has helped me to capture whatever I appreciated or loved about the day and whatever I want to leave behind or let go of.  Thankfully, my “love” list is always longer than my “leave” list.  I’ve also found yoga, spinning and walking/running to help me release whatever is festering.  I’m also a HUGE believer in and consumer of therapy, acupuncture, and energy work.. but I wouldn’t have come this far in my surrender journey without the support and guidance of my fabulous coach, Cassi Christiansen!

 

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Mrs. Zini’s Final Lesson

 

Bonnie Marie Zini 9/26/1947-4/22/201

Bonnie Marie Zini
9/26/1947-4/22/2010

Five years ago, my beloved mom entered eternal life on April 22, 2010.  In memory of her life on earth, I decided to share her “final lesson,” which I wrote and delivered at her memorial service.  It’s not an eulogy- it’s a reflection of what I thought my mom would want me to share as we celebrated the end of her earthly life and the start of her eternal life.  Five years later and her final lesson still rings true for me… it’s so full of joy, hope, and promise.  Regardless of your faith, I hope this story brightens your day and brings you a little closer to God!

XOXO

Christina


 Mrs. Zini’s Final Lesson

Written by Christina Zini and delivered on 4/27/2010

Let’s begin with a prayer because that’s how my mom would have wanted us to begin…

Heavenly Father, thank You for this day and giving us the opportunity to celebrate my mom’s life together.  Thank You for the gift of Bonnie.  Thank You for her 62 years on earth, especially the miracle of the last 8 years.  Thank You for bringing such an amazing woman into each of our lives- we are so blessed to have known and loved Bonnie, particularly my Dad, Angela and me.  Thank You for bringing her home to You and giving her the gift of eternal life.  Although we miss her so much, we are comforted in knowing that Bonnie is in Heaven with You, free from pain and suffering, and full of infinite joy.  Amen.

Wow, wow, wow… thank you all for being a part of this special celebration of my mom’s life.  I’m deeply touched to see so many of you here today, and I know my mom is smiling down from Heaven upon us.

As you all know, my mom was an incredibly special woman with tremendous courage and enduring faith.  Although my mom had many talents, she was ultimately born to teach.  Not only did she teach a variety of subjects to her elementary school students, but she also shared her knowledge and abilities with her colleagues, friends, and family.  She taught us so many valuable lessons about life simply by being Bonnie– she was loving, kind, thoughtful, considerate, generous, courageous, trust-worthy, self-less, gentle, humble, fun, intelligent, artistic, vibrant, genuine, inspirational…I could go on forever about her attributes as she was one of God’s earthly angels!

Alas I do not intend to stand before you this afternoon and summarize the highlights of my mom’s life or tell you what you already know about this extraordinary woman.  Prior to my mom’s passing, my mom and I talked about what I would say at her memorial service.  This conversation took place less than two weeks ago in a rather unusual setting as we laid next to each other in the back of her car in the medical center’s parking lot.  My dad had his own medical appointment prior to my mom’s final appointment with her oncologist.  So, while we were waiting for him to return, I climbed into the back of the car and laid next to my mom for a brief, yet significant, mother-daughter chat. We rolled down the windows to enjoy the fresh spring breeze and stared up through the sunroof at the perfectly blue sky.  I curled up next to her, holding her hand and stroking her soft cheeks.  I told her that I knew she was going to Heaven soon. I told her that I was going to miss her terribly, but I accepted that God was calling her home.  I then asked her if I could speak here today and what she’d like me to say.  From that brief discussion, I then formed Mrs. Zini’s final—and perhaps most significant—lesson to share with you today.

First and foremost, my mom wants you to know and love our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  One of her favorite Bible versus is John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  If you are blessed to have one of her beautiful hand-made driftwood crosses, you will know that she wrote “John 3:16” on the back-side of each one as a reminder of God’s love for us and the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

My mom always encouraged me to talk with Jesus about anything and everything- she’d say, “Just talk to Jesus as you go about your day.  He’s listening and He will guide you.”  Whenever I turned to my mom with a problem, she’d tell me, “Just pray about it, honey.”  I must admit that this answer often exacerbated me, but I know that she was right.  Perhaps even more compelling than simply telling me to pray about my worries was witnessing how she responded to her own challenges in life.

My mom was the ultimate role-model for believing in God, casting her cares upon Him and trusting His plan for her life.  As the cancer spread through her body, her trust in the Lord grew even stronger.  She drew strength from Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” She held steadfast to her faith, and did not fear dying as she believed in God and His promise of eternal life.

Astonishingly, upon reading an essay she wrote after losing her father at the age of sixteen in 1964 and a letter that she wrote to Angela and me in 1974, I discovered that my mom possessed an uncommon life-long faith: she’d been turning to God since she was a young girl.  In her letter written in 1974, she wrote, “You should never fear death. Love life and live it as deeply as possible when it is your time, but think only of death as the birthday of your eternity.”  My mom continued on by writing, “We shall all be together in a bliss which only the blessed with God know.”

Mrs. Zini so very much wants all of us to join her in eternal bliss- she hopes that her unwavering belief in God will inspire all of us to get to know Jesus a little better each day so that we can join her in Heaven someday.

Secondly, beyond knowing and loving Jesus, my mom wants each of us to discover God’s purpose for our lives.  Now, you are probably thinking to yourself, “Easier said than done!”  But, in essence, discovering God’s purpose for your life is quite simple.  Think about your strengths, talents and knowledge.  Think about how you excelled as a child.  Think about your passions and interests.  Think about what makes you special and unique.  God blessed you with these attributes because He wants you to use them here on earth.  The best way you can serve the Lord is by sharing the gifts that God has given to you with those around you.  When we share our talents, God rejoices—and He opens up even more opportunities for us to shine.

Sometimes, God’s purpose for our life is related to our current circumstances.  He may choose to present us with seemingly insurmountable challenges, such as cancer.  As the expression goes, God never gives you more than He knows you can bear.  So, when you are given a heavy load to carry, that means that God thinks you are capable of confronting this challenge with courage, hope and perseverance.  He’s giving you the opportunity to lean on Him and strengthen your faith.

Again, my mom is a great example of a person who understood God’s purpose for her life.  My mom knew that God wanted her to be a teacher and blessed her with the skills, talents and knowledge to succeed. In turn, she had an uncanny ability to quickly identify her students’ strengths and encourage them to excel. In her Life Inventory, she wrote, “My life has been full of meaning and purpose because I have been able to love and serve my family, my students and my friends through the love of Christ.”

My mom also knew that God wanted her to be His witness here on earth as she bravely battled cancer.  Another one of her favorite versus was Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”  She knew that God gave her an incredibly challenging task, and she courageously accepted this mission.

Thankfully, I was able to understand my mom’s interpretation of being diagnosed with a terminal illness. When my mom was first diagnosed with stage III-C ovarian cancer, neither she nor I asked the usual question of “Why?”  We just knew that God wanted my mom to be His witness and an inspiration to those around her.  He trusted her with this critical mission.

In the words of Bonnie’s favorite Psalm, the Lord was her Shepherd and she followed Him accordingly.  My mom served in God’s Army here on earth by following His purpose of her life.  When her mission was fulfilled and God called her home, she fearlessly accepted the death of her earthly life and began her eternal life in Heaven.  My mom hopes that you too will discover God’s purpose for your life, embrace the gifts He’s given to you and bravely face the challenges He may place in your path along the way.

Now Ms. Zini would not be Mrs. Zini if she didn’t spread some joy during this final lesson….  I hear my mom’s voice saying, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice in God’s blessings. God is good!”  As she wrote in her Life Inventory, she wanted her memorial service to be upbeat and spiritually comforting because she is now- and I quote- “sitting at the feet of Jesus, free of Earth’s troubles and beginning my eternal life.” Always so positive and full of light, my mom saw the beauty in everything around her and considered herself exceptionally blessed.  My mom wants all of us to remember how blessed we are—even during toughest of times– and rejoice in God’s grace.

During that precious mother-daughter conversation less than two weeks ago, I asked her how she wanted us to remember her life.  She said, “Tell them I lived a kind, gentle life.”   A kind, gentle life—imagine what the world would be like if we all aspired to live a kind, gentle life?

In closing, I hope that you will always keep my mom’s spirit alive in your heart by remembering the special times you shared with her.  I hope that you will continue to rejoice in the blessing of Bonnie.  I hope you will feel inspired by her life and reflect on her desire for each of us to know Jesus and discover His purpose for our lives.

Let’s end with a prayer because that’s what my mom would want us to do…

Dear Lord, thank You again for blessing our lives with Bonnie- one of Your earthly angels who has taught us so much about You and how to serve You.  Lord, help each us to be more like Bonnie so that we too can know and love you, discover our purpose in life and enter your Heavenly Kingdom.  Help us to count our blessings and rejoice, even during tough times. Guide us in living kinder, gentler lives.  Amen.

Tis the season of grief?

I’m sitting down to write on this snowy evening while Toots is asleep in hopes that I can finish what I have drafted over the past few weeks.  I rarely find time to write, and, when I do, I tend to write in short, sprinter-like bursts.  Tonight I want to write like a runner on a meandering trail through the forest, with no one to impress and no “personal best” to beat.  I just want to speak my truth and let it echo through the trees.

………

mommy and me

My mama and me

 

This time of the year reminds me so much of my mom:

the start of a new school year followed by her birthday in late September,

crafts made from autumn leaves and pine cones and desserts filled with pumpkin and cream,

the silliness and make-believe of Halloween,

her childlike excitement over the first snow fall,

her way of bringing families together at Thanksgiving and how she would lead us in giving thanks,

and the way she celebrated the birth of her King at Christmas.

Whereas spring reminds me of my mother’s death, autumn and early winter remind me of her life, specifically HOW she chose to live her life.  As a teacher, an artist, a mother, a homemaker and a Christian, her spirit shined brightest during this season.   A glowing yet humble star adored by many, and especially by me.

Unsurprisingly, at this time of the year, I am just as aware of her absence as I am of her presence: that motherly love which transcends all boundaries.  Although we can no longer engage in an earthly mother-daughter relationship, I sense my mom’s spirit surrounding me, influencing my environment and my way of showing up in this world.  I hear her voice as I speak to Toots, using the same expressions she used when raising my sister and me.  I re-create my mom’s dishes using the recipe book she made for me before she died, one of the many gifts she made in anticipation of “that day.”   I buy the same household cleaners so my house will smell the same as hers did.  I bundle myself up in her bulky sweaters to feel her embrace, to fall back in time.   Every night, as I put on my frumpy yet oh-so-comfy pajamas, I catch glimpses of my mother’s body in the mirror: we share the same broad hips and fleshy thighs, passed down by our Scandinavian ancestors who farmed and birthed lots of babies with ease.  It’s impossible to despise your hips and thighs when they belonged to a woman you loved so very much.  As I pull on my pajamas- the same style she loved to wear- a fleeting, unanswerable question scampers through my mind:  will I also meet her same demise?

Despite feeling her love surrounding around me, I still long for my beloved mama’s earthly presence—to hear her voice, stroke her silky cheeks, feel the weight of her arms wrapped around me, rest my head on her shoulder, lay next to her in bed for a chat, brush past her in the kitchen as we make dinner, hold her hand in church, and so much, much more.   My heart aches that I cannot call her and have a two-way conversation, that I cannot ask her the millions of questions that I wished I would have asked her when she was still alive.  My heart aches that Toots will never know what it feels like to be held by her, to be loved by her as he grows up.  Although I take great comfort in knowing she lives eternally, the little orphaned girl inside of me finds her absence completely grievous.   This little girl is still sad–and frankly, pissed off– that her mama’s gone.  Like Toots when he throws a massive fit because I won’t buy him another Matchbox car at the checkout, my inner orphan SCREAMS for her mama and won’t settle for anyone else.  She wants the physical, tangible, earthly version of her mama, not a spiritual stand-in.

Why now, I ask? Why this tsunami of grief which has flooded my world over the past month? Just when I thought I was in a good place, finally feeling at peace after years of loss after loss.  Just when I was starting to get my professional groove back… Is my grief simply prompted by “the time of the year” with its traditions and holidays?  Or was I unexpectedly triggered as I read Cheryl Strayed’s account of losing her mother in “Wild” and found myself bombarded with memories of my own mother’s battle with the big C?  Or is this just part of the grieving process: a tidal wave, followed by still waters, followed by a tsunami, followed by still waters, repeat cycle until heart no longer aches? As much as I want to stop myself from this downward spiral, as much as I want to scream “I’m DONE,” as much as I want to silence my inner orphan, my heart says otherwise.  My heart tells me to let this wounded part of me throw a tantrum and grieve whatever it is she needs to grieve.   Give her time, space and an abundance of maternal love. Then let her go, just like everything else I’ve learned to let go.  INNNNHALE, EXXXXHALE.   Let GOOOOOOOOOOOO….

(Total side note: Is it just me or do you also hear that bloody “Frozen” song every time I write about letting go? Embarrassing and distracting. Blech!)

When I lie very still and quiet the constant mental chatter to deeply connect with Spirit,  I can hear my mom’s voice whispering that it’s okay to let my grief go, that it doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten her or don’t love her anymore.  I know my mother’s right (of course she is!), but I also know that my inner orphan isn’t quite ready to move on.  For the moment, this little orphan girl needs my love and acceptance.  She needs to know that I’m not going to shut her out or abandon her.  She needs me to honor her feelings, to hold her when she cries.  She needs me to trust the process.  With this simple acknowledgment of her needs, she rests her head on my shoulder in peace to soak up the maternal love she misses so much.

XOXO

Me