24 June 2015

"Blessed are those who mourn..."

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” -Matthew 5:4
Yesterday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were awash with posts about a particular section of Joel Osteen’s 2004 book Your Best Life Now. I don’t know what happened that this came up again now, nearly a decade of the book was published, but the fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter. It deserves discussion.

A bit of background: In an anecdote that spans a few pages, Osteen describes a bereft couple – he names them Judy and Phil – who continue to grieve the loss of their only son 15 years after his death. He contends that the couple’s self-indulgence and self-pity are to blame when, after an initial burst of condolence and caring, their friends stop offering words and acts of comfort, and when the couple remains demonstrably grief-stricken despite a period of longing that he deems to be socially acceptable. By way of an explanation for their prolonged grief, he asserts that it is not genuine, but rather a carefully crafted attention-seeking device: “They relish the attention that it brings them. They’ve lived that way for so long, self-pity has become part of their identity.” He dismissively categorizes these parents as “people who thrive on self-pity” because they “like the attention too much” to stop grieving.

Despite my discomfort (to put it mildly) with Pastor Osteen’s words, I originally decided not to post or comment because as a person who has not experienced the loss of a child, I felt like it wasn’t my place and because I felt unqualified to offer meaningful or original insight.

I’ve reconsidered.

Unlike Pastor Osteen, I have stood in that most painful and sacred space with a bereaved parent, and I’ve listened. I have held the hand of a bereaved mother as she shared intimate details of her child’s brief life with me, and I have looked at the dear, sweet faces of babies who died before they learned to walk or talk or ride a bicycle, or before they were even born. I have opened my heart and my consciousness to loss, and in so doing, I’ve learned that no one – not doctors, clinicians, friends, family, or clergy – can dictate the manner or length of another person’s grief. From all of that, I have gained a clearer understanding of the bereaved parent’s experience, though I would never presume to claim that experience as my own.

Perhaps most importantly, I am also a Christian who is deeply disturbed by the decidedly un-Christian behavior of Pastor Osteen.

Here, I’m not talking about the words he wrote in his book. He wrote them more than 10 years ago, and it’s entirely possible that he’s now more educated, more circumspect, and less hasty in drawing conclusions about grieving parents. What disturbs me is his reaction – or perhaps lack thereof – to the community of mourners who have asked repeatedly for him to explain and, indeed, apologize for the hurt he’s caused. Comments to his Facebook and Twitter pages have gone ignored, but for the quick and decisive deletion of nearly every unfavorable comment. He also quickly blocks critical users from both pages.

Today, having apparently decided not to offer thoughtful comment, Pastor Osteen passively aggressively tweeted the following: “You only have so much emotional energy each day. Don’t fight battles that don’t matter.” Now, I obviously can’t know Pastor Osteen’s thought or intent in crafting this tweet. If it wasn’t responsive to those asking that he reconsider his perspective on bereavement, then it was tremendously inauspicious timing. If it was, though, then what message does that send? Certainly not one that I hope would be espoused by a person I trust to serve as my spiritual guide and leader. More importantly, it reinforces his earlier message that bereaved parents and their pain are inconsequential, if not to the world, then most definitely to him.

To Pastor Osteen, I would ask, “If you, God forbid, lost a child, how long would you grieve? How much of your life would be affected by that child’s absence? How often would you think of your dead child, wishing he or she were still with you? When would you ‘get over’ that profound loss?” To those questions, if he answered honestly, I suspect he would say, “Forever. All of it. Every day. Never.”

Of Pastor Osteen, I would ask the following: Please react openly, not defensively (Matthew 12:25). Please remember the power of your words – to encourage, to educate, and to harm (Ephesians 4:29). Please remember that when Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, he promised us that mourners will be comforted, and that The Father’s comfort comes without caveat and without an expiration date (Matthew 5:4). Please understand that when we ask you to explain, we do so hoping to engage, as God directed us, and not to accuse (Matthew 18:15-17). Please grant us the courtesy of an explanation (Hebrews 12:14-15). Please know that the grief and loss community offers more love and kindness than you can imagine because life has taught us the awful lesson of 1 Corinthians 13:8 – that “love never ends,” not even with death. Please do not dismiss us because we disagree, but rather open your heart and take a moment to consider things from our perspective (Philippians 2:4).

To read an open letter to Pastor Osteen from MISS Foundation founder (and my wonderful friend and mentor) Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, click here.

To view the page from his book referenced in this blog, click here.

If you are a bereaved parent, or a person seeking greater understanding of traumatic loss, please visit the MISS Foundation website here.

If you are a social worker, mental healthcare provider, psychologist, nurse, counselor, or other licensed professional who wishes to learn how to help those suffering from the traumatic death of a loved one, please click here to learn about the Compassionate Bereavement Care Certification offered by the Center for Loss and Trauma in partnership with the MISS Foundation and the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Family Trust.

23 November 2014

Being thankful, on purpose.

{2 Corinthians 12:9-10} But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

{Isaiah 43:2} When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

I took some hits last week - to my physical stamina, my professional self-confidence, and my faith that good always wins. Since this summer, I've been working on a violent sexual assault case, one of the worst I've encountered in my career. And for the first time in my career, a trial of mine ended in complete acquittal. 

On the most basic level, my pride was injured, but while another loss may just have left me indignant, this one left me disillusioned and heartbroken. I love trial. It's a rush, and satisfying to know that in the end, the truth wins. I am comfortable in a courtroom, maybe more than in any other space. I know what to do, or at least I've thought that I had a pretty good handle on it. I like wearing the white hat. I like being on the side of the broken and abused because I love watching as people find their voice and realize that they can heal and be strong and overcome. That being hurt is something that happened to them, but it's not who they are. 

I knew there were weaknesses in the case, but I felt like my co-counsel and I confronted them as best we could and helped the jury move past them. I say all the time that juries regularly surprise me but almost never in a good way, and that's never been more true than this case. I've never left a courtroom feeling like justice lost, like a criminal had escaped conviction, like a victim wouldn't see her tormentor held accountable...like evil won. It's not a good feeling. It feels very much like a death. 

The victim was so brave and so inspiring. I've read all the police reports so many times I've practically memorized them, and I've heard her tell her story before, during our trial prep meetings. Nothing prepared me, though, for watching as she told a jury of strangers what had happened to her on, as she describes it, the worst day of her life. As she testified, I actually struggled to maintain my composure, which has never happened to me during trial. I went home that night feeling physically sick because I couldn't stop thinking about what she had endured. This woman said repeatedly that she thought she was going to die. She talked to God and said her mental goodbyes to her babies, and she did her best to make peace with the fact that in that moment, her life was ending. 

And then after her testimony was all over, she hugged me and thanked me for believing her, knowing that we were days from the end of trial and from a verdict. She thanked me and she smiled, and then she left everything in my hands. 

I can't shake the feeling that I failed her, that there was something I should have done or said that would have made all the difference. At the end of the day, though, I can't pinpoint what it might have been, and my education and experience tell me that there's nothing substantive I missed. The proof was there, and for whatever reason, this jury just didn't believe her or didn't care about her. That makes me feel gross inside. And yeah, it makes me very angry. I keep repeating to myself the advice my dad gave me before my first trial: "Alane, the prosecutor never loses. The prosecutor presents the case and gives the victim her day in court. That is winning. That is everything." He's right, but that doesn't stop this from feeling very wrong. 

I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. This is meant to be a season of thankfulness, a time for taking stock of life's blessings and articulating them in a purposeful way. I'll admit, though, that this year, I'm struggling.

That's not okay. So, I decided to force a little thankfulness, and as so often happens, I forced it for about half a minute, and then suddenly realized I wasn't forcing it anymore. I'm much better at sorting through my thoughts by writing about them, and after days of being emotional and disconnected, it's reached the point where I have to process this experience somehow. Hence, this blog, and a list of things about this past week for which, in hindsight, I am grateful. 

1) A very supportive boss. He will mime vomiting if/when he reads this because he's no good at accepting compliments unless they're about his appearance, but I really, truly have a fantastic boss. He's funny and encouraging, and he took over most of the day-to-day tasks that I'm typically responsible for, without me even asking, because he knew I'd been doing trial prep around the clock for weeks. He stayed at work late on a Friday to wait with me on a verdict, and when it didn't go the way we wanted, he walked me to my car and didn't make me talk about it. That's a gift, folks. 

2) Really amazing friends. Two of my best friends in Phoenix sent me funny messages every single day, boosted my confidence even when I wasn't really feeling it, and distracted me from the worst parts of trial with baby pictures. Friends are family that you choose, and choosing them is one of the best decisions I ever made. 

3) More about friends. I'm lucky that my old boss is now my friend. She reminds me to take care of myself, and to take it easy on myself when work gets rough. She has listened carefully and given thoughtful feedback when I've asked her advice, and on Friday, she not only took the time to tell me I did a good job, but she also sent me a video of her littlest baby girl, covered in peanut butter, and chattering into the camera. She checked in on me over the weekend, and she did all of that while in the midst of facing the loss of her father-in-law, explaining that loss to her two very young children, and helping them learn to grieve for the very first time. I don't know how to ever thank her properly for that. 

4) My mom. Pragmatically, I don't tell her much about my cases beyond the bare bones (the basic charges, and maybe a few details just for reference). Despite that, she prayed for me and for our team, and she checked in multiple times a day, and when I called her so tired I literally couldn't string words into a sentence, she told me to hang up and go to sleep. And when I told her the verdict, she said she knew I had done my best. That without knowing the details, she felt confident enough in me to say that...well, it means the world. 

5) More about family. I spent most of yesterday with a cold washrag on my face because I had a horrible headache, probably due primarily to exhaustion from lack of sleep the preceding days. My cousin texted to check on me tonight and then sent me a bath-time video of her toddler telling me to feel better, complete with blown kisses. Love and laughter are the best balm for a bruised heart, and I'm thankful for those who take the time to send them along. 

There's more to say, and maybe I'll make it a point to add to this list later. For now, I'm thankful that I feel peaceful for the first time in a while, and I'm thankful for another night of rest before an abbreviated work week. 


09 May 2014

Happy Mother's Day

I don’t have children, but there are so many babies in my life whom I can’t imagine loving any more than I already do if they were mine biologically. I have celebrated their births and birthdays, their first steps and their first words and their first days of school. I have tended their boo-boos, dried their tears, sung them lullabies, and grieved more than a couple of heartbreaking losses and too-early deaths. I have watched their mothers endure difficult pregnancies, pain, exhaustion, and exasperation while prioritizing the lives and happiness of their babies above their own, and I have witnessed them do so without a second thought, without caveat, and without bitterness or regret. They have fought fiercely for the title of Mama, Mommy, Mom, Mum. Motherhood hasn't come easily or effortlessly, or without cost, to any woman I know. I proudly name these warrior mamas among my family, my closest friends, my most favorite people … my heroines.

For reasons that I cannot comprehend, it’s become posh to criticize motherhood. Mommy bloggers passive-aggressively insinuate themselves into positions of mock authority and through a computer screen, anonymously berate working mothers and stay-at-home mothers, mothers of only children and mothers of multiple children, mothers who breastfeed and mothers who don’t breastfeed, mothers who co-sleep and mothers who place their sleeping babies into cribs, baby-wearing mothers and mothers with strollers, mothers who are indulgent and mothers who emphasize discipline, home-schooling mothers and mothers who sacrifice to pay private school tuition. No mother is immune from their venom; no mother is ever good enough.

I would like for us to acknowledge collectively that being a good mother does not mean adhering to a singular chronology or design. Good mothers are everywhere, and they are just as perfect and just as imperfect as the children that they parent. I love that I get to celebrate mothers this weekend because now more than ever, it is my fervent wish that these women feel valued, respected, appreciated, and empowered. So here’s my message to all the mothers I love:

You are doing a good job. Your babies are fed. Your babies are sheltered and warm. Your babies are held and cuddled, loved and adored, and well looked after. Whatever choices you’ve made, don’t capitulate. You are doing everything right. You are a shining example of what a strong woman should be. You are a blessing to your children, and you show your children in a million ways that they are blessings to you. Your kiss heals in an instant, and your voice comforts the greatest fear. Your lap is a refuge from every storm, and your house will always be home. Your smile is “good morning, sunshine” and “good night, moon” and every sweet, timeless moment in between. Your hands offer the softest touch and the strongest support. With your hugs, your arms celebrate every victory and soothe the worst hurt, but won't do their most difficult job until later, when they let go. I think that you are spectacular, astounding, and miraculous. And I believe that if you ask your children, you will find that they think so, too.

04 February 2014


by Colum McCann

"I suppose one finally learns, after much searching, that we really only belong to ourselves."
I can't think of a better way to spend a sick day than covered in quilts, reading a great book.  I've been meaning to read McCann for a while now -- years, probably.  A friend from law school and I recently reconnected via Facebook, and then Goodreads, and when she told me that TransAtlantic was her favorite book from last year, I decided that it was time.  I'd planned to read TransAtlantic first, but as I was flipping through the first few pages of Dancer, I was hooked.

Now, here's the part where I admit that before yesterday at approximately 7:45 pm, I'd never heard of Rudolf Nureyev.  The first section of the book is a heavy and exhausting description of a Russian wartime winter.  It's mesmerizing, and disgusting and so beautifully written I nearly cried.  If it weren't for the title of the book and a few snippets of some Amazon reviews that I glanced through, I wouldn't have even known until quite a ways in that the plot centered on ballet, and if I hadn't recognized Margot Fonteyn's name about halfway through the book and then Googled, I probably wouldn't have realized at all that the central character is a real person, and that this novel (such as it is) is a fictionalized account of his life (it's not entirely fictional; I'd liken it more to a Capote-esque non-fiction novel).

It's difficult for me to articulate what McCann's strength is because I think he's good at everything.  He tells this story from multiple perspectives, sometimes first person and other times third person, and we hear from a variety of people -- sometimes an omniscient unknown narrator, but primarily the characters themselves:  Nureyev's teachers, his housekeeper, his lovers, even the man who makes his ballet shoes.  The chronology is clear, but it sometimes takes a few minutes to realize whose voice we're hearing, whose agenda or biases we're being expected to adopt.

We hear only once from Nureyev himself, and it's only in a group of carelessly written passages, mostly lists of tasks, practice schedules, reminders.  Sparse as it is, this section gives wonderful insight into how obsessive and driven he was about his craft.  Strangely, it's not from the artist himself but from those who surround him that we learn about his humanity, his kindness, his worries, and his greatest successes other than ballet.

I really loved this book, and yes, I then spent hours on YouTube watching Nureyev dance.  I know less than nothing about ballet, but when it comes to storytelling, McCann is definitely a master.

03 February 2014

Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan

Finishing Sweet Tooth was my consolation accomplishment for never having finished Atonement. It's a difficult book to categorize, but I did really enjoy reading it.

From the Amazon.com synopsis: "Cambridge student Serena Frome’s beauty and intelligence make her the ideal recruit for MI5. The year is 1972. The Cold War is far from over. England’s legendary intelligence agency is determined to manipulate the cultural conversation by funding writers whose politics align with those of the government. The operation is code named “Sweet Tooth.”

Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is the perfect candidate to infiltrate the literary circle of a promising young writer named Tom Haley. At first, she loves his stories. Then she begins to love the man. How long can she conceal her undercover life? To answer that question, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage: trust no one.

Once again, Ian McEwan’s mastery dazzles us in this superbly deft and witty story of betrayal and intrigue, love and the invented self."

I have to assume that part of the reason I liked this book was because it combines so many of my favorite things:  it's set in England and during an interesting time historically, there are various literary allusions, and there's a bit of mystery to it.  There is, of course, a little bit of a love story thrown in for good measure, but I found that the book's plot is driven more by tension than anything else.  

Now, while I was entertained, I wouldn't go quite as far as the Amazon reviewer.  I didn't find it terribly dazzling or superb; I did, however, enjoy the internal dialogue about the extent to which a person can reinvent herself and then find that, rather than helping to avoid a dilemma, her duplicity has instead caused a worse problem.  At the risk of sounding flippant, I will admit that I was just relieved that something -- anything -- happened in this book because Atonement was a study in fictive inertia if ever there were such a thing.

02 February 2014

Marula Oil

About two weeks ago, I replaced my nighttime moisturizer with Marula Oil at the suggestion of the Sephora employee who had to deal with my (quite evident) aggravation upon learning that they no longer carry REN skincare in-store.  Aggravation notwithstanding, I am so glad they didn't have it because I think this has been the most advantageous skincare change I've made since I started using REN cleanser a few years ago.  (I still use that cleanser, by the way, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  I also still use their amazing daytime moisturizer during the summer.)

Marula Oil is, I learned, the only naturally moisturizing oil that also contains natural antibiotic properties.  This explains, of course, how it manages to moisturize while preventing blemishes, decreasing pore size, and overall, improving my complexion.  It is not at all greasy; in fact, the reviews indicate that a substantial number of people use it as their makeup primer because it soaks in and mattifies within about 30 seconds.  I haven't tried that yet because inasmuch as I do believe that a high percentage of my recent breakouts were due to over-drying and over-exfoliation on my part, I'm still not yet comfortable with spreading layer after layer of moisturizer on my combination/oily skin.

I use Marula Oil in conjunction with philosophy's Miracle Worker eye cream and Astara's Blue Flame Purification Mask (about once or twice a week), and so far, I'm a convert.

The Oscars: Nebraska

For all my talk about how I didn't want to see this film, about how staring at Bruce Dern for two hours couldn't be anything but aggravating, about how black-and-white movies in the year 2014 are pretentious...I loved it.  In fact, it may be my favorite so far.  Bruce Dern isn't the least bit annoying, and June Squibb is just precious and delightful.

The acting was so genuine, and -- yes, I admit it -- so very unpretentious, that I forgot what I'd been dreading about it.  It made me miss my grandparents so much it still hurts.  There is a calm and simple sweetness that pervades every second of this film; I watched all the way to the end of the credits just because I wasn't ready to leave yet.

I can promise it'll make you cry, more happy tears than sad ones.  I can promise it'll make you appreciate your parents, even when they call you 12 times in a day to ask how to work their new iPad.  I can promise it'll make you hate those sweepstakes idiots even more than you probably already do.  I can promise that if you were raised in a small town, you'll find yourself yearning to move back there to raise your babies (this feeling may be more fleeting than the others; it was for me).

I can also promise that if you're under the age of 65, you'll be the youngest person in the theatre.  I was -- by several decades.

01 February 2014

The Oscars: American Hustle

I think we can all agree (at least, we ladies can all agree) that we'd watch a film consisting entirely of Bradley Cooper eating sunflower seeds for two hours as long as he occasionally gazed into the camera with those sky-blue eyes of his.  Likewise, I think that most of us would agree that Jennifer Lawrence could read the ingredients list on the side of a granola box, and there we'd be, enraptured, screaming for an encore.  Except it'd more likely be the ingredients list on a bag of Doritos, which is one of perhaps nine thousands reasons why we all want her for our best friend.

As such, I was completely devastated that I didn't love this movie.  I was prepared to inhale it, hang on every syllable, and find myself so addicted that I wanted to watch it again immediately.  That is not at all what happened.  I left feeling a little bit confused, a little bit disconnected, and a lot let down.

I can't really pinpoint what went wrong.  The cast list is impressive (except that I will admit that for as much as I loved Amy Adams in Junebug, I hated her at least twice that much in both The Master and Doubt, and for reasons wholly unrelated to the characters she was playing).  The costumes are hilarious.  Hair and makeup must have loved coming to work every day.  And the premise was good, not the least reason for which is the whole based-on-a-true story hype that worked so well last year for Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.

Part of the issue, I think, is that where Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were perceived as accurate yet entertaining, docudrama-esque retellings of pivotal American events, American Hustle just feels kitschy...like a cheap and flowery retelling of a story without a hero.  There's no one to cheer for in this film, and coming from a girl who prosecutes crime for a living, when you can't root for the cops, there's a problem.  And if you can't root for the cops, you should at least be able to root against them (The Town, Training Day, The Departed).

I didn't love it.  It's not Best Picture material.  I don't know what else to say.

The Oscars: August: Osage County

Wow.  I've seen Meryl Streep in everything from Death Becomes Her to The Bridges of Madison County, from Doubt to The Devil Wears Prada, and everything in between.  I have never seen her like this.  She is raw, mean, bigoted, selfish, and self-absorbed.  She is brilliant.

A family emergency, which soon turns into a family tragedy, brings a family together in their small Oklahoma home town, and it doesn't take very long to figure out that these are family members who are quite happy to remain apart.  Each of three sisters is complicated and struggling in her own way, which is of course exacerbated by sadness and their mother's illness and substance dependence.  The film begins on a dark and heavy note, and though there are glimpses of levity (Benedict Cumberbatch and an organ featuring prominently in one of them -- but my fixation with Benedict Cumberbatch is a story for a different day), it mostly remains there for the bulk of the substantial running time.

I'm not a huge Julia Roberts fan, and I haven't really missed her since she moved to Taos, had a bunch of kids, stopped making romantic comedies, and apparently forgot that prairie skirts are ugly (I say that because she's wearing one in 80% of the photos I see of her in tabloids).  That said, she was achingly good in this film, and I find myself hoping that she completely abandons any future films of the Oceans Eleven ilk in favor of more roles like this one.  She also has incredible skin, which I fixated on for most of the movie because though there are close-ups galore, she is mostly makeup free.

The Oscars: Blue Jasmine

Since the Golden Globes, where Woody Allen received some sort of lifetime achievement award, there's been a great deal of discussion about his alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow.  I say alleged because although Dylan remains steadfast in her accusations, no charges were ever brought against him.  I regretfully admit that until recently, although I knew in general that such allegations were made, I knew no specifics and generally took no position one way or the other.  That is to say, I watched his films (and love Midnight in Paris) and gave no thought to the abuse Ms. Farrow maintains that she suffered.

That changed today.  She penned an open letter that was published in today's New York Times.  In it, she details not only the abuse, but also its subsequent physical and psychological manifestations in her life, and as an adult -- arguably free of the influence that her mother supposedly wielded when she was a child -- Ms. Farrow bravely and clearly names Allen as her abuser.  Her words are concise and largely free of the vitriol to which I believe she's more than entitled.

So, about Blue Jasmine.  It's lovely, and Cate Blanchett is stunningly broken and fragile.  I found it to be an almost frame-by-frame modernization of "A Streetcar Named Desire," though Allen replaces Williams's allusions to promiscuity and sexual violence with an illegal white collar investment scheme.  I truly loved watching it, which I suppose is nice, since it's the last Woody Allen film I'll be seeing.