Underdogs and tears, the One who perseveres (and redeems.)

For much of my growing up, I heard I was too sensitive, that I needed to get tougher and that even though I cared, sometimes it seemed as if I cared too much. I had so many emotions, in my teenage years, I am sure my parents and siblings felt like they were pretty consistently on a roller coaster. It was much later that I realized that it wasn’t just me, but actually a normal developmental stage for pre-teen and teen girls. I felt my excitement big, my fear bigger, had anxiety that stopped me in my tracks and sadness when others struggled. I am fairly certain that God was, all the while, shaping my sense of empathy; I just needed to grow up a bit in order to understand it.

While I would not change a thing as I look back on my life, at the time I felt like a little kid who did not have a clue how to manage feelings and certainly did not know about both/and. My parents are AVID Olympic fans, something they’ve definitely passed on (ice skating for me, my mom and sister – we all screech like owls while we watch, holding our breath and hoping that the leading US skater would land their axels, spins and salchows.) I still watch the Olympics like it is my job, staying up way too late, cheering and following the inspiring back stories of the elite athletes who make it ALL look so easy.

But even though we watched as a family and talked about the Olympics all the time, I couldn’t make sense the overwhelming awe, often times, sadness and something else it took me years to understand or begin to explain, even to myself: jealousy. I learned in time that there was a tangled knot of emotions, the beautiful and the hard. That’s how all of our experiences are though, as far as I can tell…the both/and in all of life.

When our kids were young, showing interest in new things, I was simply amazed at the way their bodies functioned, with ease, strength and the “normal” that I longed for. Our oldest tried ballet, tumbling and Girl Scouts.

One day I arrived to pick her up and found her troupe playing duck, duck goose to finish the days meeting. I watched, observing the fun of the chase. My experiences had been so different than this, the fear of getting picked because I must be a slow, deliberate runner; fear of tripping, get extremely embarrassed. But I was even more fearful of being “the goose” until I was age 20 because I couldn’t catch “the duck.”

Suddenly a sweet little girl got picked, “Goose!” She let out a breathy giggle as she stood up and threw her head back with laughter as she started chasing. Her long brown hair fell past her shoulders and her excitement at getting chosen simply stunned me.

I took a breath and felt my heart slam in my chest like a timpani drum, for just a few seconds. Along with her irrepressible smile, she ran while wearing medical equipment that was her lifeline, in a backpack. She had a somewhat familiar gait and a sense of wonder I had not encountered at that point in my life. Her mom helped but didn’t hover and little did I know then, the biggest cheerleaders in the duck and goose circle were her sisters, quadruplets.

Tears filled my eyes as the group cheered her on, yelling and encouraging, her giggle and joy nearly filling and bursting that whole room. I will never forget that first time seeing sweet Keyan and how she and her dear family teach me still about acceptance, sacrifice, family and joy. From what I know of her, she had no idea she was born an underdog in so many ways, but really, was anything but.

It’s happened many times over the course of our family life, tears filling my eyes as a teammate or another person “succeeds ” or a news story about someone hospitalized for an extended period, the staff clapping as they “graduate”; scrolling on my phone when a kid or adult who struggles in some way, only to reach the end of a race or goal and finish well, full of pride. My friend’s wheelchair rugby games or watching the elementary kid who participates in a running fundraiser while in a cast. If you have a minute, look up Rick and Dick Hoyt on YouTube…you will get the idea….

My family is not surprised to see me shed a few tears also as we watch different genres of tv, reality shows, athletics events or really, anything with a compelling story. But there are few shows that evoke tears quicker than I can wipe them away, my favorite being American Ninja Warrior.

Have you ever watched the discipline and athleticism with awe? Me too…. But I need to confess, I watch any and all sporting events that same way. Every single athlete who walks out on a field, braves getting across a wet pool deck, balances on starting blocks or diving boards, runs across a shiny gym floor or pole vaults in front of packed stands has in my mind, won a gold medal just for “doing.”

I unbashedly live vicariously through my kids events and events of their friends, not asking them to participate “for me,” but simply watching and soaking in every thing, as if I could somehow feel some tiny bit of team if I pay close enough attention. And the truth is, they ARE the definition of success to me, even before they start to play. For those who can’t even think about even the simplest part of being a part of a team for many different reasons, it is all a wonder, every single part. I really don’t have any frame of reference for how they accomplish so many different things…

Maybe that is why, in every story on ANW, I find inspiration. It is incredible to me, the dedication, strength and control. But it is also the the athletes who defy the odds, who fight their way through both literal and sometimes internal obstacles, who never fail to illicit the “good tears.” I love the achievements, especially when I know how much effort the little things take for so many people, not just as athletes. For some, dedication and strength is finding a way to get out of bed. The kid on the swim team, finishing the race after every other athlete, but does not give up and still finishes. The student who raises their hand in class as anxiety swirls and their stomach clenches because they just became the center of attention. Or the student who reports abuse at the hands of a family member, despite the waves of shock and conflict sure to ensue in the aftermath. Yes, the good and hard tears, most certainly….

I read a story recently in one of the Disney groups I follow, that if I can paraphrase, went a bit like this: A single mom who battles extreme anxiety and claustrophobia, saved for about a year to take her kids to Disney World, even though the idea of close quarters on the rides was utterly terrifying to her. She “didn’t want them to miss out because of her.” She got on a ride and began to experience a severe panic attack before the ride even began. She hastily got off and a cast member quickly made her way to her side. The cast member let her sit in an unused ride vehicle, then went on the ride with her, pointing out exits and “Easter eggs.” (details hidden throughout the ride to broaden the story and sometimes pay homage to designers.) The mom couldn’t stop crying as she made it all the way through the ride. So much bravery and strength. (Yes, I cried a bit, reading that story.)

In 2019, Kodi Lee made his way across the audition stage on America’s Got Talent, his mom next to him. He walked with a cane and his mom was beaming and steadfast. She described his early diagnoses, blindness and autism. She described him as “an entertainer,” how music saved his life…but silence after the introductions was palpable. There was a long pause, then Kodi began to sing, “A Song for You.” The judges and crowd were mesmerized, and I cried for both the struggle and the victory as the young man born with “differences” sang his heart out to thunderous applause. The judges and audience were also crying as he was given the coveted Golden Buzzer. I kept thinking, so well deserved, and likely so rare he would be celebrated, like this. (Spoiler…he went on to WIN that season, changing the minds and hearts of millions related to ability and talent. Videos from his performances are reported to be the “most watched in AGT history.” He plays nightly in Vegas. For a boy who could “barely string together words,” this is the underdog story…)

I am drawn to the underdog/ success stories in everything from March Madness to movies to real life; the grit, perseverance and the beauty wrapped up together. As I have spent time writing this piece and thinking through what it is that I want to convey, a realization hit me: as much as I love the image of conquering big battles and hard-fought victories, there is something else that I am drawn to as well. One of my favorite words is redeemed. Dictionary.com defines it this way: an act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake, or the state of being redeemed. deliverance; rescue.

Redemption and having audacious hope is what I love most about the God of Heaven, Jesus and this story – perseverance, passion, rescue and love for all, including all of us underdogs. It is a redemption story like none other, both victory and redemption we absolutely cannot wrap our minds around. And this is the truth that always brings me to tears. I am undone at the reality that Jesus died for me, (for all of us) when he did not have to, not for a second. God himself says that the last here on earth will be first in heaven. I can’t even fathom the beauty in that…or the fact that though I deserve, “underdog status,” God promises the biggest victory.

Until then, I don’t want to stop crying the happy tears, cheering with my whole heart and yearning for redemption of all things. I never want to lose the awe in all things. I want to celebrate movement, trying and trying again. I want to feel hope, wonder and take nothing for granted. And I always want to be thankful to the one whose heart, sacrifice and love is so much more than I could ever imagine. May we love well, those who feel unlovable, may we see those who feel invisible and may we love extravagantly like you do, Jesus, always.


Psalm 13

Sometimes, it is good to howl….

(Oh my heart…be brave my soul.)

“I can feel something welling up, deep in the pit of my stomach, a clenching I don’t have a name for. I have spent too many days, NOT caring for myself, AGAIN. Between family needs, schedules and even the joy, I have yet again, put my own needs on the back burner. As the days blur together, I can feel something building up inside me, something between anger, exhaustion and sheer overwhelming emptiness….”

“I don’t know the point in saying, “I am angry. Of course I am angry! It is endless. But it won’t change…I need to just get over it. Except, I can’t stop thinking about it, even when I say to myself, I am over it. I don’t understand it….”

“I will never be able to stop crying if I let myself start, it is too big, too painful. I will never stop. I just need to keep busy, keep going and keep working.”

“It was such a long time ago, it doesn’t matter anymore, right? I thought that if I just ignored the pain of what happened to me, I would forget. But I haven’t, I can’t. still, this many years later, when I close my eyes I can see and feel it all just like it is happening right now. I don’t know what to do anymore…..”

These sentiments are just a tiny glimpse into the daily life of brave clients…if these walls could speak, there is so much more.

Oh my heart….be brave my soul.

In this career I hold dear…(and maybe not just my career, but this very life), God has let me witness both so much tragedy and so much profound beauty. I don’t think I can truly describe it adequately.

Professionally, It came first in the form of children at my first internship when I supervised visitation between kids who had been removed from their parents care for a multitude of reasons. Even when the reasons for removal seemed the most legitimate, the kids AND the parents were doing their brave best in the most heart-wrenching situations.

Sometimes, all we can do is howl….

When I got my first job out of my undergrad, I began working with teens in a grassroots relational ministry. I was young, idealistic and introduced to the joy and heartache of life in ministry, earning the right to be heard while supporting teens and families in about every possible scenario over the course of 7 years. Standing with teens at a visitation of one of their beloved friends as they tearfully asked me, “what does she look like in that casket?” The gleaming dark wood casket was closed and raised up on the the opposite end of the funeral home. The kids moved slowly together, a dazed look, shock and pain raw, unable to wrap their minds around the sudden, tragic loss they were instantly thrust into.

Sometimes, you can’t do anything but howl…

I began my MSW program and came to understand the concept of family systems differently than ever before. I lost a dear friend one week after my program began and over the next year, learned what grief truly was. It was one of the hardest, growth years of my life. The the next year, after a lot of soul searching, prayer and the uncomfortable feeling of the right thing not always being the easiest thing, I began an internship at Hospice. I was changed in every single way, the holiness and tenderness of this calling – from my supervisor who taught me about peace and hope through her life, how to care for clients through her expertise and authenticity and boundaries through her intentional approach to nearly everything.

An unforgettable client taught us all about living while she was dying, gave us unique and needed perspective as we were stunned, huddling around TVs on my first day there, 9/11/2001. She sat on her small deck that morning, overlooking a pond, waiting for the temperature to rise enough to release the butterflies she had watched over from being caterpillars to beautiful, painted ladies. I will never forget her calm demeanor talking about war, global events and life experiences she’d lived through. She was sad, but not stunned as we watched the Twin Towers fall. She described “other, difficult things, saying, this too, shall pass.” Somehow, I believed her, even on this day.

Oh, my heart…be brave my soul.

I began my second internship at a counseling center, learning about resistance, court-mandated clients and how to let clients own their own problems and outcomes. My heart broke, while sitting face to face with a parent whose child had been removed after the child was hospitalized with a broken arm. The parent was “sure I haven’t done anything wrong.” I was distraught, faced with providing positive, unconditional regard and feeling this childs pain. I was also pregnant with my first child.

I sat across from many during those 6 years, learning as much in the pain as I did in the growth and change. I became a clinician, who has still, so much to learn. I learned to trust myself more, that many things will not be fixed or even made better. Sometimes, all I could do was witness a client’s painful truth and the difficulty it requires to exact lasting change. A boy who’d been in countless foster homes had such a difficult time coming, being vulnerable. Week after week, I asked my supervisor “how to help him.” She reminded me that often counseling takes a long time, which could mean years and most likely, I would not be the one to see it. She gave me the analogy of how one therapist might plant seeds, another watering the same seeds and another, seeing a flower bloom. At the time, I really wanted to be that person to reach my client (I wasn’t), but I have held that analogy close for many years.

I vacillated while becoming a mom of 3, between Hospice work and agency counseling. I met a widowed parent raising multiple teens who had “hoped it would all go away after the funeral.” Two years later, it still hadn’t and we needed to go back before going forward. We went through.

Another parent, in a moment, had to navigate shock, selflessness and courage while shifting very quickly into complex, traumatic grief and loss.

Sometimes, all we can do is howl….

In my life, outside of my career, I experience inspiration through everyone I meet…A young boy named Bill whose smile lit up a room; how he bravely fought a brutal, debilitating disease and his family showed me the meaning of grace in their care for him. Em, allowed me into some of her most vulnerable days and thoughts, taught me that CP was NOT all there was to me and the meaning of “rising above.” Les, who has for over 25 years inspired me by being the very definition of tenacity, fearlessness, loyalty and love. She and her spirited friend, Monica taught me sacrifice and the horror of gun violence in front of my eyes – so much worse than it seems in the movies. Mason and his beloved family, lesson after lesson in beauty, sacrifice and the love of Jesus. J and J, P and T who live out the redemption of dreams deferred and God’s sovereignty unfolding. My dear friend Shelly who teaches me more about the sacrifice of motherhood than I can comprehend. This list is not even the beginning…and there are so many, too many to list.

oh my heart…

In all the journeys, the pain, the beautiful and the in-between, I’ve learned this: the only way through, is through.

We used to read Going on a Bear Hunt to our kids, at least 55 times a day when they were little, until all 5 of us had it memorized.

“You can’t go over it…you can’t go under it, you have to go THROUGH it!” We would yell that refrain! It became a metaphor for both hard things in our family and in my clinical work. I even bought a small board book of Helen Oxenbury’s version and set it on the table for clients. It never failed to evoke an moment of understanding or even tears sometimes as the message became real.

Be brave my soul….

Psalm 13 (my very favorite and an amazing biblical both/and) says:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

Both the heartache and the praise, fear and trust. Yes, Lord God, be in, both, with and for us. Loss and hope, agony and trying to find something akin to joy. This is real and true, the purpose in the calling, at least for me. As I teach it in my work, learn it for myself and pray for the grace and mercy we all need, I also know this: holding the both/and is the truest path to peace I have ever come to. Because I know God understands AND loves me in both.

May we take care of ourselves: take a walk, call mom (or dad,) attend a class and learn new skills. Seek counseling. Breathe deep, smell the flowers, blow out the candles. Pray or meditate. Walk slowly, speak only kind words to ourselves. Lean into our people, the ones who know and love the authentic versions of us. And may we allow ourselves to go through.

“Crying releases stress hormones, swearing increases pain tolerance. Anger motivates us to solve problems. Silence and smiles aren’t the only way to respond to pain. Sometimes its good to howl.” Anonymous

I often close sessions with “be kind to yourself” and full disclosure, how my own therapist closes with me. Sometimes, I add this – howl if you need to, cry, and rest. Most often, those are the very paths that lead to the best parts of healing.


Psalm 13

Becoming 50

Tomorrow is a big birthday.

You know how you hear, “age 50” advice throughout your life? Some is well-meaning and sage, some definitely is NOT. Everything from, “tomorrow, it’s all over, Stacy. Your body starts to break down, you feel 80 from the minute you turn 50,” to “enjoy every moment, it all goes fast.” I think we all have pre-conceived ideas about certain numbers, birthdays and aging…at least that is what I hear in my office and in my relationships.

What I FEEL, strangely, is a bit excited and READY.

I have thought about this birthday for months, waiting for dread and “old” to descend upon me. Sitting here 1 day before the this birthday and all I feel is profoundly grateful. I am ever in wonder about my story, the way and why God chose this path for me: born early, the family I have, the experiences and heartaches. My career, beliefs and interests: the things that make up WHO I am. How God knows my love and I, these beautiful kids we have the privilege of raising, the stories I get to hear, the wonder I am allowed to experience.

It is not lost on me, the lives I interact with, the losses and pain shared with me, that I should not, (WILL not) take a moment for granted. I am humbled by the legacy of faith my parents have shown and that my greatest gift, EVER, is Jesus.

I am excited, standing on the edge of the next 50…how will our love story continue? What will the kids paths look like? How will I see Jesus and stay in wonder of it all? What I am going to do next, professionally and personally?

And yes, my fear of how my body will age with CP is real. But, I refuse to live in that fear. That used to be lens in which I saw most things. It is truly the hardest place to live. But acknowledging it is ok, reminding myself it will be ok, everything will unfold as it should, as a dear friend reminds me often.

My fear for our world and people is real also, as I look to my next 50. All I can do is speak and advocate for truth, kindness, love and hope, knowing that GOD IS SOVEREIGN and so good.

I remember watching Oprah, the day she turned 60, I think. She talked about all the negativity surrounding birthdays and something she said has stuck with me. “Consider birthdays a time to look back on your blessings of the year, celebrate those. Think about the people who’ve impacted you and be grateful for that, instead of the dreaded, I am another year OLDER.” This is most definitely a paraphrase, but the idea of a hopeful remembrance and celebrating who and how we are has stayed with me for sure.

To that end, I am so very thankful for this space, truly a gift to write and hear your feedback. I believe God gives us all stories to tell. How will you tell yours?

I am grateful for clients who bravely share who they are with me, and the ability provide a space that is safe, sacred and hopeful.

I am grateful for health, for continued awareness and light surrounding ALL of our differences in 2023 and pray that it continues, wider, deeper and kinder.

I am in awe of friends and family God has placed on this journey with and for me: a new church and wonder each time we attend, family who loves like no one else, the Word that makes me strive to be closer to The Lord each time I open it. Friends who know me authentically, love me still and are breathing examples of grace.

I am thankful for biking, movement and the daily understanding of how physical and emotional health really do heal and make way for peace and contentment.

For memories, and those who I will hold again in heaven and how they’ve taught me so much. You are loved always. Thanks Gram for all the “house cakes” on my birthday.

My goal is to hold this last 50 tenderly and enter the next 50 bravely; becoming less about me and more like my savior. I want to worry less, care more; Waste less, give and love extravagantly.

I know this sounds like a “Mr. Rogers ideal” and truthfully, it probably is. I know there is also so much pain for many, around birthdays and many other days. Praying love and hope over all. For me, this is the both/and – both my hope and gratitude going forward AND the knowing it is not always that easy.

Here’s to cake, ice cream, those we love, gifts of time, connection, sunshine (and a good bike ride) and always kindness and love for others and ourselves. EVERY day, not just on birthdays.