Last weekend I flew to Washington, D.C. to speak at a women’s retreat. The theme of the retreat was Finding God in the Storm.
In one of the sessions, I talked about my experience of going through breast cancer treatments in my 20’s, when everything I cared about fell apart, and a lot of people I loved disappeared on me. I know it can be overwhelming when someone you love is going through a really difficult time — and I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to say, or what to do, so instead, they say nothing and they do nothing. And it feels like they dropped out. Like they disappeared.
After the session, I had a lot of people ask me what they can do when someone they know is hurting. And this was my answer: just show up.
The story of Job has become a well-known account of a man who lost everything but his life. While he was grieving the loss of his children, his servants and his estate, he also got painful boils all over his body. He ended up sitting in a trash heap close to death. And then three of his friends showed up.
The friends get a bad rap because they spend about 40 chapters of the Bible trying to figure out why Job is suffering. They try to place the blame on everything and everyone, and it isn’t helpful at all.
Job’s friends are often cited as an infamous example of how unhelpful people can sometimes be when we’re suffering. But here’s the deal. Job’s friends only made one mistake: They opened their mouths.
(This is a piece I wrote that was published October 2014 by Huffington Post.)
My friend went to a cocktail party in New York City a few weeks ago. She introduced herself to a shy, well-dressed woman who was wearing a silk scarf around her neck, standing in the corner. My friend said, “I just wanted to tell you — that scarf is gorgeous.”
The woman fidgeted with the fabric and said quietly, “I’m just wearing it until I can afford to get my neck fixed.”
She said she was embarrassed about the wrinkles that had appeared along her neck in the five-plus decades of her life. So embarrassed that she was covering them up, waiting until she had the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost for a neck lift.
When my friend told me this story, I thought it was an isolated incident, an extreme example of what happens to women in our culture of beauty where youth is an asset and age is a liability.
But then a few days later, I was walking down the main street of Santa Barbara when a young man pulled me into a brightly-lit shop, sat me down on a white leather stool and began applying products to half of my face.
When he finished, he handed me a mirror and asked me to compare the two sides of my face. On the product-influenced side, the lines under my eyes were subtly less noticeable than on the other side.
Because of this “amazing difference,” he urged me to buy a line of skin care products. He laid out four small bottles side-by-side. For the beauty regimen he suggested, it was close to $700. For a three-month supply.
I quickly did the math. Close to three thousand dollars a year to make a few lines around my eyes slightly less noticeable.
I told him no, thank you.
As I’ve traveled around and talked about The Invisible Girls, and about my own journey of faith, I’ve often been asked why I keep going to church. When God sometimes seems to hide, when people are not the best versions of themselves (and, worse, do it in God’s name), when it deprives you of a good Sunday morning spent in bed, when “organized religion” imposes more rules than are necessary……. why go?
I’ve asked myself that question. A lot.
I’ve been going to church since I was about a week old. Seriously, my dad is a pastor and my parents took me to church right after I was born, and I’ve been going ever since, with the exception of the seven months when I was going through treatment for breast cancer.
Why do I keep going?
I think I keep going to church because it’s familiar to me. I like singing old hymns, flipping through the thin pages of my Bible, hearing someone talk about beloved sacred stories.
I keep going because even though sometimes in church I’ve seen people on their worst behavior, I’ve also seen them at their best. I’ve seen them donate money to national and international causes. I’ve seen them give soup to hungry people and shelter to people who otherwise would be left to sleep on the streets. I’ve seen them bring my family meals when my little sister was in and out of the hospital with multiple heart surgeries.
I keep going because it grounds me. Hearing the same message of God’s love and vision for the world keeps my focus on the bigger picture. It keeps me wishing and praying and hoping and working for a better world. Or, as Jesus said, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
But there’s another reason that keeps me coming back: Communion.
In honor of the 31 days of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, here are 31 things to remember if you know someone with breast cancer.
1) Don’t spend a lot of energy crafting “the right” thing to say. There is no right thing to say except maybe “I’m so sorry” and “What do you need?”
3) Stop talking. She doesn’t need you to carry the conversation; she just needs you to listen.
4) Don’t tell her about your friend or relative who had breast cancer and died of it. That’s not helpful. At all.
Yesterday I moved out of my apartment. For the foreseeable future, I’m taking a leave of absence from my job at an urgent care clinic. I sold everything I own except for some books and clothes, which all fit into my little Scion car. I’m sleeping in 8 different beds in the next 21 days, thanks to speaking venues that are putting me up in hotels, and friends who are lending me their spare bedrooms. After that I’ll be an artist-in-residence in Germany for a month, then staying with family so I can finish writing my next book.
Most people spend their lives working for things like houses and cars and clothes and furniture and high-def TV’s, and if they ever ended up living out of their car at 35 years old, it would be because they made some really, really bad decisions. They went into credit card debt. Their house was foreclosed. They impulsively quit a good job. They gambled their savings away.
But I am 35 years old, and I am living this way on purpose. Not because I made a series of bad decisions, but because I made a single choice. I want to let go of things so I can grab ahold of people.
KNOW WHAT YOUR MEMOIR IS ABOUT
Like I wrote about in the previous blog post, How To Ruin Your Memoir in 10 Easy Steps, you’re writing a memoir, not an autobiography, which means that there are details and events and seasons of your life that don’t belong in your memoir — no matter how interesting they might be. So anything that doesn’t support the big story has to go.
MAKE A STORY MAP
Some people use outlines; I use a story map that has each of the big scenes in my story. And then I write from one event to the next. I think of the big events as train depots and the words in between as the tracks. It’s helpful for me to plan out the route before I start writing so I go in a consistent direction and don’t get too far off track.
USE LITERARY NONFICTION TECHNIQUES
One of the best writing trends that occurred in the last century was the idea of literary non-fiction, which borrows fiction techniques to tell non-fiction stories. Joan Didion and the writers of her generation were the inventors and masters of it. When you’re telling your story, think of how the events fit into fiction’s “introduction –> complications –> crisis –> climax –> resolution” arc. Think of how to develop your character, how to use description and plot-pacing, etc. It’ll make your memoir feel more like a story instead of a news article.
I’ve had the chance to teach some writing workshops lately, which has forced me to think about my writing process, to remember writing advice I’ve been given, and to remember all the things I tried that haven’t worked.
So I decided to do some blog posts about it. (I’m talking about memoir writing because that’s my forte, but most of these apply to any kind of writing.)
Today we’ll talk about how to ruin your memoir. Then in the next blog post, we’ll talk about how to improve your memoir. If you have a question, or if there’s something I didn’t address that you want to hear about, leave it in the comments section.
Ok. Here we go!
10 WAYS TO RUIN YOUR MEMOIR by Sarah Thebarge
WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR
This means, of course, that you’ll have to know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography is a chronological account of someone’s life, where no single event is given any more importance than another. The only people who should write an autobiography are famous people, because everybody wants to know the details of their lives. If you’re not famous, you should not write an autobiography. Instead, you should write a memoir — which is a book focused on a particular experience or facet of your life.
Today’s the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, when people around the world will remember with sad hearts the unexpected violence that occurred that day.
We’ll also remember the violence that continues around the world today. Sex trafficking, beheadings, child labor, homicide, domestic violence…the list is depressingly long.
Over the past few months, as the hellish summer unfolded, I’d listen to news reports on the radio and find myself asking two questions:
“Jesus, how can this be?”
And, “Jesus, what am I supposed to do — especially when none of this is my fault?”
As I look at the world, I feel completely helpless, as I suspect most of us do. No one I know is in a position to negotiate truces between warring countries, or reason with terrorists, or rescue victims who are abused and killed by their captors.
The easiest position I’ve found is to stand enlightened on a hill overlooking the rest of the world, shaking my head and thanking God that I’m not capable of, and not culpable for, the evil that I see.
But today as I woke up and meditated and prayed for the world, the words of Jesus came to mind. In Matthew 5, he makes a series of statements, “You have heard it said…but I say…” And in these few verses, he ups the ante. He doesn’t let those of us who have never murdered or committed adultery or other “serious” sins to go free.
Instead, he transcends the (relatively low) standards that most of us have been holding ourselves to.
This week I’ve been closely following the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black teenager, was shot to death by a police officer on Saturday. Several witnesses say that the police officer started the altercation and that Brown was backing (or, some say, running) away when the police officer shot him multiple times. (The incident is still under investigation.)
The fallout since has been as dramatic as anything I’ve seen unfold in our country in a very long time. Citizens held protests nightly and then, on Wednesday night, tensions mounted as police took to the streets with riot gear, rubber bullets and tear gas. The police yelled for journalists to turn their cameras off, and even arrested two reporters.
For a few hours that night, there was no live news coverage of the event because all the reporters had been chased away from the scene. But on the social media sites Twitter and Vine, it was a different story. People who were at the protest captured pictures and video clips and shared them with everyone who was following the hashtag #Ferguson.
I was glued to my Twitter feed. I watched the images of the protest in disbelief of the anger, the fear, the grief, the violence, and the denial of First Amendment Rights (namely, the right for peaceful assembly and the right to free speech.)
I stayed up way too late, and woke up tired yesterday morning. But I had to work a 12-hour shift in the urgent care where I’m on staff as a physician assistant. I arrived at the clinic, put on a large pot of coffee, and donned my white coat. A few hours into the morning, I was taking a sip of coffee from my mug when I accidentally spilled it and it splashed onto the lapel of my white coat.
There’s a drought in California right now. The drought’s been going on for a while now. It’s the worst one California’s had in decades. In January, the governor declared a drought emergency and asked residents to reduce their water consumption by 20% (which, for the average household, is about 72 gallons a day.)
I moved here in March and now, five months later, the water levels in the reservoirs are still dropping and it has rained maybe nine drops of rain since I arrived.
There are radio ads and public service announcements suggesting how to decrease your personal water consumption. The top tips are…
Let your lawn “go brown” instead of watering it, or switch your landscape to drought-resistant plants that thrive on lots of sun and little water.
Don’t wash your vehicles with your hose.
If you boil pasta or vegetables, don’t pour the water down the drain; use it to water your plants.
Take 5 minute showers and, some even suggest, shower together as a family.
And, the ever-famous, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow…” because the average toilet uses 3.6 gallons of water per flush.