Is There A Doctor On The Plane?

“Is there a doctor on the plane?” shouted the flight attendant in a panicky voice as she repeatedly patted my face. “Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me? You’ve fainted. Are you okay?”

I don’t really remember much before passing out on Flight 159 to San Diego. I do, however, vaguely recall suddenly feeling too hot and somewhat nauseous. I had grabbed the little airsick bag from the seat pocket in front of me. I contemplated navigating my way down the airplane aisle in order to puke in the bathroom. That way, I’d be able to avoid trying to discreetly hurl into the tiny target from my crowded seat. Which, by the way, seemed like a nearly impossible task. That way too, I wouldn’t have to push my service button light in order to beckon the flight attendant. To me, the thought of having to sheepishly hand over my barf bag just seemed way too humiliating.

So I never did throw up. Nope. Instead I passed out. Right there, sitting in my airplane seat. As I went unconscious, my body collapsed and my head fell forward, violently smashing into the seat in front of me. When I finally came to, the first thing I saw was a cluster of unfamiliar, highly concerned faces peering down at me like I was a specimen on a slide under a microscope.

“Ma’am, I’m Doctor Helen. I’m here to help. Can you tell me your name?” “Melissa.” “Can you tell me what month it is?” That’s when I knew something was really wrong. I couldn’t for the life of me recall it was November. I couldn’t even remember the names of any of the other months, either. It felt like my brain was frozen and somehow needed to thaw. “I … I … I really don’t know,” I answered, feeling confused and disoriented like in the middle of some surreal dream where everyone talked with the deep, distorted voices of a record being played at the slowest speed. I grasped the doctor’s hand, obviously concerned with why my body was responding so abnormally. I whispered faintly, “I can’t remember any of the months or what year it is.”

“Okay, we need to quickly get her lying down in the aisle!” ordered the doctor to the group that was surrounding me. My legs felt numb—too weak to stand. A burly man who had introduced himself as a firefighter effortlessly lifted me from my seat and onto the floor. “On her back, head flat, knees up,” instructed the physician. In a flash, a cool washcloth was placed on my head, a blood-pressure monitor on my arm, and a stethoscope on my heart.

“Do we need to make an emergency landing?” asked an anxious flight attendant. “Not yet,” replied Dr. Helen. “Give it just a little time. Can someone test her glucose?” Another stewardess appeared with a cup of apple juice. Kneeling down, she tilted my head forward and directed the straw to my mouth. “Today’s your lucky day, honey. This plane’s filled with doctors. They’re all heading out to San Diego for a big medical convention. You’re in good hands. If I were you, as soon as you get off the plane, go buy a lottery ticket. Lady Luck is smiling on you.”  At that very moment, I didn’t actually feel all that lucky, but her comment certainly explained why nearly everyone around me was wearing stethoscopes.

“Glucose level is normal,” reported another doctor after having pricked my finger for a blood sample. Dr. Helen nodded her approval, then, turning to me, she said, “Good. You’re looking a little better. The color is coming back to your cheeks. Now, do you have any medical conditions we should be aware of?” Feeling my brain fog starting to lift a bit, I answered, “No, none.” “Are you on any medications?” “No.” “How old are you?” “Turning 50 in January.” While answering her questions, I for the first time noticed the presence of the other passengers on the plane. A few were peering over at me, but most were looking straight ahead—almost as if out of respect, not wanting to intrude or distract from the seriousness of the situation. Silence blanketed the plane like the reverent hush that takes over when you enter a church or a hospital room. People weren’t talking. They were barely even whispering. My medical emergency hadn’t created waves of fear and panic, but instead, somehow the aircraft seemed flooded with a holy hush, ripples of peace and a deluge of unknowing wonder.

Another flight attendant appeared with a blanket and a pillow. “Doctor, we’ve emptied a row of seats so that she can lie down. For everyone’s safety, it’s protocol that this aisle must be cleared.” Doctor Helen, who seemed irritated that her authority was being usurped by the airline’s imposing safety etiquette, held up her hand and made the universal unspoken sign for, “Relax. Calm down. I’m in charge here. Give me a minute.”

“Melissa, your vital signs are all okay. We need to move you out of the aisle and up to the row of empty seats about ten rows down. You can lie down there.” I tried to sit up but instantly felt my body’s weakness—especially in my legs. “I don’t think I’m able to stand up yet. I’m still too weak.” The muscular fireman eagerly volunteered to pick me up and carry me to my seat. My body may have been feeble, but my brain instantly played out the potential scenarios of being heaved over this strapping firefighter’s shoulder and carried to my seat. In my mind’s eye, let me tell you, as heroic as that sounded, practically speaking, it was so not going to be a pretty picture! Sensing my obvious resistance, he quickly countered, “Or, you can scooch on your butt down the aisle.” I opted for the butt-scooching.

As I dragged my derriere down the airplane aisle, I considered that perhaps I should be feeling somewhat embarrassed for having made such a spectacle in front of all these people. I laid down across the three seats that had been cleared for me. A flight attendant buckled the seatbelt across me. Dr. Helen handed me a large water bottle, instructing, “Drink this down. It’s important to keep hydrated.” She then sat in the aisle across from me. I’m sure she was just checking to make sure I was coherent, but for about 45 minutes we had a captivating conversation. We talked about our travels, and about the importance of giving our kids international life-stretching experiences as well as a good education. (She had just returned from a medical service trip to Africa, where she’d brought her 20-year-old son along purely for the sake of exposure.) We were aligned on the importance of carving out time and space during our midlife years in order to break up the monotony of the “same-old, same-old” and to be open to the surprises of unexpected opportunities. After ping-ponging our thoughts, she eventually looked at me and said, “Well, I can honestly say this has been an unexpected delight. Thank you. I’m realizing I don’t have enough space in my life for these kinds of conversations. It’s been so nice talking with you, Melissa. And, I think you’re going to be just fine. Check in with your doctor when you get back home.” I thanked her for medical care as she disappeared to her seat behind me.

I sat for the rest of the flight replaying what had just happened to me. I was a bit blown away by the overwhelming sense of peace I had in the midst of my fainting ordeal. As others gauged whether or not to make an emergency landing, I remember thinking, Wow, this actually might just be it. I never imagined this would be the way my life would end. And yet, my spirit was at ease, light, prepared and unalarmed. I wasn’t flooded with regret or “what-ifs” and “should-haves.” I didn’t need to say final goodbyes or tell others I loved them. Mainly, I just felt an internal calm, a deep sense of being okay. I suppose one of the reasons I felt so peaceful was because over this past year I’ve consciously made a space in my life for death. I’m not surprised by it. In fact, I’ve actually come to expect it. This past year, I’ve chosen to think with intentionality about my death. At the risk of sounding too morbid, let me explain.

About a year ago, my younger brother died tragically at age 41 from a rare form of cancer. He had only five short months to live from the day he was first diagnosed. Having experienced the agony of losing someone I deeply loved changed me profoundly. As a professional Life Coach, the topic of mortality comes up frequently with my clients. Often, I hear stories of how utterly surprised or shocked people are by death, and yet it’s the one destination we all share. Since my brother died, I’ve spent much of this past year contemplating death and I guess even anticipating it. I’ve noticed at times that when the telephone rings unexpectedly, I internally brace and prepare myself for heartbreaking news. I say my goodbyes more intentionally now, with a clearer understanding that this just might be a final farewell. I pause more frequently to really focus on others, to take them in, to see them and wholeheartedly listen. I guess I want to be prepared. I’m beginning the journey of putting things in order and taking care of unfinished business.

You see, when you choose to be conscious of death, the reality of it begins to change you. When you start living as if you’re dying, everything begins to shift. Relationships become of highest importance. Priorities rearrange. Hugs last longer. Time becomes most precious and valuable. There is an intense internal nudging not to be wasteful with the days you have left here on earth, to use them wisely and purposefully. The words “I love you” are showered on others more freely and generously. You become much more forgiving and far less critical. You consider your legacy; what’s the mark you long to make on this world—how you want people to remember you. And your relationship with God becomes a high priority. When you expect death, your perspective on life is radically altered.

As I was sharing my insights from my airplane incident with my mom, she said knowingly, “Melissa, it sounds like the spiritual practice of memento mori. Are you familiar with it? Look it up.” I had no clue, so I Googled it. Memento mori is a Medieval Latin practice that, freely translated, means “remember that you have to die.” It’s different from the popular phrase “carpe diem” (“seize the day”), which is often associated with the live-it-up mindset of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Rather, the emphasis of memento mori throughout the ages, in religion and in the arts is reflection on one’s mortality, focusing on the fact that life on earth is transient. Many people think of memento mori, and some of the symbols associated with the contemplation of mortality as unnecessarily macabre. Images recalling mortality and death, such as skulls and the Grim Reaper, however, were used to remind us that our days here last only a short time. This spiritual discipline promoted reflecting on eternity and on the condition of your soul. Wow. What do you know? Without realizing it, I’d been quasi practicing a medieval spiritual discipline!

The other day, while coaching a client, our session started in an unusual way. “Melissa, before we begin, I need to ask you a very personal question. Is that okay?” I agreed as my client continued. “I was wondering if you—well—if you’re dying?” A little taken aback, I laughed and assured her I was fine. I told her the airplane incident had just turned out to be some weird fainting spell, most likely caused by my lifelong tendency of having too little sleep and pushing too hard. I let her know my doctor had checked me over and given me a clean bill of health.  “Oh, good,” she replied, relieved. “I was just wondering. You know, I’ve been watching you a lot lately. I see the things you’re doing on Facebook. The choices you’re making. The trips you take. I read your blogs. It ‘s almost like you’ve been crossing items off your bucket list or something. It just got me wondering if something bigger was driving you—like that maybe you were dying or something? At first I felt inspired, and then I started to get a little worried. I just had to ask.” We both chuckled at her concern. And again, I assured her that I wasn’t dying, that truly, I was fine.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the past two weeks. In fact, I’ve replayed it over and over again in my mind. A part of me wishes I’d answered her question quite differently. Perhaps a better, more honest response would have been something like, “Actually, yes … I am dying. In fact, the truth is, we all are.” Memento mori. Remember that you will die. For in the remembering, life truly becomes sweeter, deeper, more purposeful and more filled with abundant beauty and meaning. Memento mori.


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I Was Arrested In College

I was arrested in college. Handcuffed. Put in the back of a police car and hauled off to jail. Before I was locked in a cell, my mugshots were taken. (Admittedly, I was actually quite pleased with how they turned out. Really. The officers even took a few extra pictures just so I could bring them home for my scrapbook. Ah, so thoughtful and kind.) I was then allowed to make phone calls to find someone to come bail me out. I called my brother. No answer. I called my best friend (who later became my husband). Couldn’t reach him. Out of desperation, I finally called the “house phone” on my brother’s dorm floor. His RA answered. I must’ve sounded pathetic enough (or perhaps blond enough), because he immediately drove all the way from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to the Hamilton, Ohio police station, with enough cash to spring me from the slammer.

Now, I know they warn you never to post anything on social media that you might not want your boss to see. Oh well, too late. In my defense, however, the reason I was arrested is much less exciting than the actual fact that I was. You see, I’d been clocked speeding and neglected to pay my ticket. A court date was set for me to contest my case—plead guilty, pay the fine; plead not guilty, opt for traffic school—whatever. My court date rolled around and I didn’t show. By that time, believe me, it was completely off my radar. But because of that, legally I was in contempt of court—which, by the way, makes you eligible to be arrested. And so I was.

Ever since my brief brush with the law (I love saying that; it makes me feel just a little badass), I’ve found that whenever I get pulled over and handed a citation, I take it quite seriously. (I think it’s important to say, for the record, I’ve only a handful of tickets in my lifetime, so don’t get the idea I’m some maniac behind the wheel.) Now, anyone who knows me knows I don’t have an obsessive-compulsive gene in my body. I’m wired with the opposite DNA. I’m more of a creative type, a free spirit, easygoing, happy-go-lucky and yes … sometimes … sometimes also a bit organizationally challenged. Except when it comes to traffic citations. I guess my arrest in college scared me straight. Since then, I’ve always paid the fine promptly. I read the ticket’s fine print and even highlight it with different colors, noting due dates and any other pertinent information that, if missed, could land me in the clinker.

Except for my last ticket. Yes, with this last one, somehow I reverted back to my old neglectful ways. I received a ticket for turning left in a zone that prohibited doing so between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Somehow I missed the teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy, hard-to-see, visibly obstructed sign that informed me of these left-turn restrictions. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.) Anyway, I was given a citation by a female Robocop without an ounce of humanity running through her veins. (Again, not that I’m bitter.) My innocent mistake came with a nice whomping fine of $120.

Now, we all can relate to those times in life when it seems we’re bombarded by unexpected bills. Last month was that way for us. Our horse went lame and had to be taken to the equine clinic for treatment. Let me tell you, that bill alone was enough to put me in a catatonic state of shock! Then our Jeep needed new tires. Two thermostats went on the fritz and had to be purchased and installed in the horse barn before the freezing winter months. Our computer needed a new hard drive. Blah, blah, blah … yada, yada, yada. You get the picture. Anyway, due to our cash shortage, I put off paying my ticket until the last possible due date. Problem was, when I went to pay the fine online, my request was denied. I then opted to pay my ticket over the phone. Request denied again. With a twinge of anxiety, which sent me right back to flashbacks of my college lock-up, I grabbed my ticket and frantically searched for a clue. Hidden in the lower right-hand corner of my citation was a tiny little box, checked with black ink: “court appearance required.” And, okay, that’s the moment when I began to flip my wig. In utter disbelief, I screamed at the top of my lungs to my husband, “Doouuug! I’m in BIG trouble! Get down here fast!”

Doug came bounding down the stairs, obviously concerned that I’d cut myself, broken a limb, or was being attacked by a crazed intruder. Upon realizing I wasn’t in any physical harm, he put his hands on his waist and gave me the familiar Ricky Ricardo raised-eyebrow glare that said without saying a word, “Luuuccy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do!”

I shoved my ticket at him, waving it frantically in his face. “Will you look at this? Look! It says I have to appear in court tomorrow or the cops are gonna come get me and haul me off to jail. I don’t want to be arrested again! Waaaahhh!!!”

Immediately we drove to the local police station to find out why a minor traffic violation required a court appearance. We were told to contact the county traffic court. I sat in my Jeep outside the station and dialed. The kind lady in County Records began to search for my file. “Citation number?” I read her the bold black digits across the top of my ticket. “Hmm, interesting. Nothing’s coming up in the computer. Last name?” I told her. And of course, she, like many, just couldn’t keep from asking if I was related to Justin. I replied, “Yeah, right. He so WISHES!” We chuckled. She then informed me there was no record of my name in her system. “Birthdate?” Again, nothing. “Ma’am, there’s no record of your violation ANYWHERE in the system.” Perplexed, I inquired about my court date. “All I can tell you is there’s no record in the computer. Nothing’s indicating you have a date to appear in court either. Maybe you should go back to the police station and see if they can help.”

I walked back into the police station and explained my conversation with the county traffic court records department. I slid my ticket under the glass divider, and the officer disappeared to the back of the station, where, for about 15 minutes, she juggled phone conversations while searching her computer. She returned, shook her head, shrugged her shoulders and said, “We have absolutely no record of your violation. Guess you don’t need to think about this anymore. You won’t need to appear in court. There isn’t a court date on file. And you won’t need to pay the fine. We can’t locate any record of your citation. It’s somehow been erased. You record is clean. Consider it a gift.”

Crazy as it sounds, a part of me felt like a prisoner who had just been pardoned for some huge crime. An enormous wave of relief rolled over me. I felt elated, surprised and undeserving. And oddly, my tears began to gently flow. You see, over the past few months, I’d been doing deep journeying into the meaning of forgiveness. How remarkable to have the tangible experience of committing a violation, going in to pay the fine, and having my debt completely canceled! No record. Not a trace. Not anywhere. On a cognitive level, I’ve understood that this is exactly what happens with God. But somehow, this experience emotionally made it more real for me. For the next week, I continually pondered the depth of that simple statement: “There is no record of your violation.” No record. How remarkable is that?! As I truly begin to grasp what forgiveness means, it’s actually difficult to take it lightly. Forgiveness is a gift ornately wrapped in awe and reverence, relief, surprise and wonder.

As a Life Coach, I’ve noticed that sometimes the hardest one to forgive is ourselves. Why is it we continually dwell on the past and beat ourselves up for the mistakes God has already forgotten? When we constantly replay the major flub-ups, the immature mistakes and the shameful decisions we’ve made, we allow those things to define us. God wants better for us. So, so, so much better. Psalm 103:12 advises, “Stop remembering what God has forgotten.” This Christmas season, I’m doing the work of forgiveness. I’m learning to forgive myself. It’s the perfect time, don’t you think? The perfect time to let go. To stop carrying mishaps around. To move forward. To continue on. To get unstuck. To start fresh. To experience peace. To forgive ourselves.

God has no record of your mistakes. That’s forgiveness … the perfect gift. Unwrap it.


*If you’re interested in Life Coaching, as my gift to you, I’d love to offer you a free over-the-phone sample session. Life coaching is my passion and I’d love to work with you. To set an appointment, contact me at

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Our Capacity To Love

Loving with risk. That’s where I’m finding my challenge these days. Like never before, I can see God stretching my heart muscle in its capacity to truly, deeply, profoundly love.

When you’re a naturally loving person, (ahem…which yes, I most humbly admit, at times I’ve been told that I am) it’s actually pretty easy to do the basics–to meet the obvious needs, check those small acts of service off my list, be empathetic in the moment, serve a little here, help a little there, pray a little, call a little, and perhaps even pat myself on the back a little for what a caring, compassionate person I am. Certainly, for the most part, I love adequately enough. My love is satisfactory. It’s acceptable. It’s usually capable of fulfilling what’s needed in the moment. However, odd as it sounds, I’m beginning to realize how I often love in a way that doesn’t line up with my highest core values–doing things with excellence, with passion, with overwhelming commitment and intentionality. These last few months, I’ve been noticing this intense longing I have to grow my love capacity. I want to be better at this crazy little thing called love–to love in a way that takes chances and wholehearted risks. ( And no…not teeny weeny baby step risks either. Really. Enough of that already! As a professional life coach, I get a little bored with hearing others in my profession saying, “Let’s just take baby steps.” I refuse to use that phrase with my clients anymore. It just seems so belittling to our human capacity for growth.) No more baby steps for me. I want to experience gargantuan, heart pounding, soul-stretching risks. I want my acts of love to be solid and strong. I want to be able to risk expressing honest, raw vulnerability. I want the choices I make and the actions I take to leave me (and perhaps others) breathless. Gladly, of late, my capacity to love has been stretching.

In college, I remember working out to the ever popular Jane Fonda aerobics videos. (And yes, I know this little tidbit of information dates me.) When the workout would intensify~especially during the abdominal crunches~Jane would say, “Make it burn! Make it burn!” WIth sweat dripping down my face, and my cheeks as red as tomatoes, I’d think, “Yea, right, Jane! Are you kidding me?!” You know what I did? Confession time. I simply went through the “motions” of pretending to make my muscles burn. (Um..sorry, Jane. Truly I am.) Certainly, my workout partners were most likely convinced I was giving it my all. After all, I sweat like a pig, I grimaced and even let out a few appropriately timed workout grunts. But over and over again, I avoided “the burn”. I purposely chose to let myself off the hook. I didn’t want to feel the pain. Week after week, I was satisfied enough with just completing the workout rather then stretching my capacity, pushing through the pain, and feeling the satisfaction of strengthening my muscles. Unfortunately, all too often, I love in the same way. I go through the motions of loving but I avoid “the burn”.

With all honesty, I can tell you that these past 4 1/2 months have stretched my capacity to love beyond what I would have imagined possible. My youngest brother. Jeremy, has been diagnosed with Blastic Mantle Cell Lymphomia. I have painfully sobbed so deeply and frequently. I’ve been there with Jeremy a few times when he was in such critical condition that we almost lost him. In fact, often when I leave him in the ICU, I wonder if that will be my last time with my brother this side of heaven. I’ve pushed myself to be at the hospital which has required huge sacrifice and juggling. (Last week alone Doug and I together spent over 60 combined hours driving to and from and covering hospital shifts.) I’m learning the beauty of making relationships right, of confession, of living without regrets, of choosing forgiveness, of being so filled with exhaustion that your body aches and yet still choosing to hand someone an extra measure of grace during bumpy crises moments. Yes, I’m feeling “the burn”– actually leaning into it, being with it, and pushing through it. My capacity to love is growing as I continue to take risks in the ways I choose to love.

Recently, a sweet friend emailed me and shared some of the things she experienced when her mom died of cancer. One of the lines she wrote has echoed in my mind for the past two weeks. “Melissa, it literally takes my breath away when I think about the capacity we humans have to love another.” Isn’t that remarkable? Think of the impact we can have on others when we choose to love full-out? Not just going through the motions, faking the emotion, or avoiding the “burn’. Think about the impact of truly stretching our love capacity, of risking, of allowing ourselves to feel and lean into this remarkable ability we have. This, I believe, is what love is truly meant to be–absolutely breathtaking!

A few weeks ago, I was taking a night shift at the hospital. One of my brother’s friends, Phil, also stopped by that evening. Now, what is remarkable about this encounter was the timing of his visit. You see, Phil’s father had just died of cancer–only a few days earlier. Besides that, his mom had also recently had a stroke. In the midst of funeral arrangements, and everything else, Phil’s family has also been juggling taking care of his mom. And still–still Phil drove all the way down to Chicago to see Jeremy. Those moments in my brother’s hospital room had a profound impact on me. I sat on one side of Jer’s hospital bed as Phil sat on the other. Each of us held one of Jeremy’s hands as he slept. I remember being so keenly aware of Phil’s grief, of his pain, and his very deliberate choice to risk being there in spite of his excruciating circumstances. We sat in silence as Jeremy slept between us. I thought about how often we make excuses for why we don’t truly love. How often we convince ourselves that our circumstances are just too stressful, that our lives are too busy, that our grief is too much. Often we pretend to love. And sometimes we fake it. Like me, we avoid the “burn” that comes from stretching our capacity. Finally, I looked up at Phil and whispered, “Phil you’re such a good friend. Honestly, I don’t know too many people who would do what you’re doing in the middle of everything you’re facing.” Phil shook his head, and with obvious emotion, simply whispered back, “Jeremy would do the same for me if I was in his circumstances. He’d do the same.”

I don’t think I’ll forget that night for quite some time. It’s seared in my memory. I witnessed love at full capacity. This–this is how I want to choose to love. To risk, to show up, to be present even when my heart is raging from the burning of the stretch. This is what being raw and vulnerable love looks like. This is an example of the gargantuan steps I’m called to take. This–this is the kind of love that leaves me feeling breathless as I consider the enormous capacity we humans have to love.

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I Placed A Stone










I placed a stone on my brother’s grave today
One year ago, I said my heart-wrenching last goodbye
And now, here I am,
alone in the cemetery
on this cold, dark, rainy November morning
To pause, remember and simply be
With the powerful waves of grief
That still surprise and topple me

I placed a stone on my brother’s grave
As an offering to let others know
I was here
I remember
I care
I love
And, I won’t ever forget

When I picked up the stone and held it in my hand
It made an impression
Reminding me that I am continually moved by my brother
By his gusto, his compassion, his laughter, his faith, his voice, the sparkle in his eyes, his abundant love for others, his joy, and his purpose
When I put the stone down
on Jeremy’s grave
I knew that although he is not physically with me
The handprint of his life is on my heart
That, as a stone lasts throughout time, so does my love for him

I placed a stone on my brother’s grave today
And as I gather myself to leave
Wiping tears
Taking a deep breath
I suppose that often, in life,
it’s the smallest things
the placing of even the tiniest “pebbles”
(an empathetic look, a hug that doesn’t let go first, those unrushed moments shared over cups of coffee, a listening ear, a thoughtful text or phone call…)
that become profound markers
to also communicate
I’ve been there
You’re not alone
I remember
I care
You’re loved
I won’t forget

So I placed a stone on my brother’s grave today
As I leave, I pick up another
And put it in my pocket
To share with someone else

–Melissa Timberlake


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Cranky Curmudgeons

Confession: Over the past couple months, I’ve noticed that my husband and I have behaved rather curmudgeonly towards each other. Sure, almost 26 years of marriage can do that to a couple. I get it. But, truth be told, when I’m not just downright apathetic, I’m actually a bit concerned. From outward appearances, we have a beautiful life—two stunning, well-adjusted teenagers, a lovely home, successful careers, wonderful friendships, fulfilling opportunities, travel, companionship, adventure. There’s really not much more we could ask for. It’s just that, well … we’re cranky.

Marriage has worked well and easily for us. We’re actually a darn good team. We’re in sync. We want the best for one another. We’ve got each other’s backs. When the going gets tough, we pull together brilliantly. However, it’s during the daily ins and outs of life that we’ve fallen into this “odd way” of cherishing one another. You see, our relationship has an abundance of commitment, trust and love. Strangely, though, somehow it’s all tied together with a big bow of ill-tempered mood swings. On Doug’s substandard days, I feel like I’m living with “the Troll Under the Bridge.” Dare to cross his path, and you may just get eaten alive! And on my disagreeable days, I’m sure he feels like he’s married to a PMSing “Maleficent, the Mistress of All Evil.” At times we snap and snarl. We complain and curse. We fight and fuss. Believe me, there are moments when things just aren’t very pretty.

Last week, I was watching The Bachelorette. (I know, I know, absolutely SHAMEFUL. Mother, puh-leeze forgive me for admitting publicly that I indulge in such scandalous drivel. So, so sorry.) I think one reason I watch is because I’m intrigued with this deep universal longing everyone has to find true love, that one great romance, someone to spend the rest of our lives with, to marry and grow happily old together. I watch because I’m an over-the-top romantic. I get hooked by words like “kindred spirit,” “soul mate” and “lifelong love.” My heart not only desires to create epic love in my marriage, but it also longs to live an over-the-top, richly fulfilling life—one full of travel, adventure, romance, and, yes, breathtaking love. Still, after each episode of The Bachelorette ends and the final rose ceremony is over (when heartbroken saps are sent home packing), I’m always left wondering how it’s possible that my actual ”one true love” (whom I married nearly 26 years ago) and I get so cranky so often.

My husband Doug and I both turn 50 this year. Crazy what a sneaky thug time can be, isn’t it? He creeps up on you without warning, whacks you upside the head, and when you finally “come to,” you suddenly realize you’ve turned into a crusty old curmudgeon. Perhaps people get this way because they haven’t thought through what they really desire for the years ahead, for their second half of life. For Doug and me, everything just got so doggone busy. Looking back, it seems years were spent dodging the barraging demands that life relentlessly hurled at us—paying bills, keeping up with the loads of laundry and dirty dishes that reproduced like rabbits, focusing on advancing our careers, paying attention to our salt intake and blood pressure and cholesterol levels, raising the kids to be competent and productive, housetraining the dogs, mowing the lawn, running to hockey and basketball practices, going to church, feeding the horses, inviting neighbors over for cookouts. Too many years have been spent out of breath, huffing and puffing through it all just in order to jump the next hurdle.

I’ll never forget the time when I realized not everyone lives this way. Funny how it’s often the ordinary, most insignificant moments that create profound meaning for us to ponder. I was running late that day. Company was coming over in about an hour. I pulled up into my driveway and frantically unloaded groceries from the back of our Jeep. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my neighbor, Caroline, sitting on her porch, drinking a Bloody Mary. I remember instantly feeling irked that she looked so content, so serene, and, well … so freshly showered. She waved sweetly, calling over to me, “Hey, Melissa, got time for a drink?” What the heck? Was she completely insane? “No, no, sorry, Caroline. Can’t. Gotta hurry up and get dinner made!” As I lugged my pasta and produce through the front door, over my shoulder I inquired enviously, and with more than a hint of edginess, “What are you doing, anyway? Taking the afternoon off?” She smiled and said something that still perplexes me to this day: “Nope, I finished up everything on my to-do list about an hour ago. I’m just hanging out. Relaxing.” I won’t forget that encounter for some time. I think about it often. In fact, it still has me in a quandary. I mean, how is it possible that someone can actually finish up EVERY item on her list? I mean, really? You got EVERYTHING done? Is that even humanly possible?

For me, life seems to demand more than I’m usually capable of giving. I feel forever behind the eight ball. And somehow, somehow I guess I’ve gotten stuck in a reactive mode instead of a creative one. Somewhere between “I’ve had it up to here” and “Don’t push me, I’m on the edge,” perhaps I gave up a wee bit too much and compromised more than I care to admit. I let “survival mode” become the norm instead of just a crucial way of getting through another crisis.

As a Professional Life Coach, it’s uncanny how often I attract clients who are challenged by the very same issues I struggle with. For example, if you have difficulties with procrastination, most likely you’ll end up coaching someone on the importance of meeting deadlines. If you have problems with intimacy, no doubt you’ll soon be coaching a client’s sex life. If you wrestle with a low self-esteem, chances are you’ll have to challenge someone’s negative beliefs around worthiness. It’s part of the job. It comes with the territory. A month ago, I coached a client on … wait for it, wait for it … growing old gracefully. And yes, you guessed it—of course this is one area of my life that needs major doses of focused attention.

When you’re coaching on a topic that you also desperately need improvement in, one of two things happens: Either you paddle even harder up the River of Denial, or, out of integrity, you become convicted and inspired to dive in and really “do the work.” This, I suppose is one of the “perks” of being a coach: We glean great wisdom from our clients’ personal journeys. Our clients often inspire and inform us. They take our breath away with the courageous acts they choose in order to design better lives for themselves. (Can you tell I LOVE my job?) So for me, the past month has been all about looking myself squarely in the mirror and accepting my greying hair, the deepening wrinkles around my eyes, and those unwanted extra pounds that add cush to my butt and belly. But even more importantly, it’s been about figuring out what I want to create during this second half of my life. What does it truly mean for me to grow old with grace? For starters, I know for sure that I can’t go on cranking the way I’ve been!

Truth be told, this past year has been really rough; one of those relentless times that kicks the crap out of you and then just keeps right on pounding on you when you’re already down. I’m exhausted, and I’m also constantly aware of the pesky presence of sadness, who, like a true nuisance, shows up uninvited to family gatherings, birthday celebrations and date nights. The other day, Doug and I had an hour free in the middle of the day so we decided to run a few quick errands together. On the way to Home Depot, Doug suddenly veered the car in the opposite direction. “Hon, where you going?” He replied, “I’ve got a migraine coming on. Let’s go to the State Park. I need some fresh air.” As we entered Moraine Hills State Park, I instantly felt myself breathing a little more deeply. We drove past the gorgeous wetlands, filled with cattails beginning to green from the bottom up. Doug parked the car. We rolled down the windows and sat there in silence. It was a perfect moment. Sacred. Words seemed pointless, almost irreverent. A gentle breeze wisped and twirled the helicopter pods falling from the maple trees, which danced like whimsical little fairies descending from the heavens. Doug reached over and held my hand. My eyes flooded. Tears began to stream. He wiped them away with quiet knowing. More tears flowed, purging some of my suppressed sadness. Sunrays winked through the newly budding trees as birds sang a cappella. Then, as if The Almighty Himself had commanded the universe to “cue the birds,” not one but two blue jays (the first I’ve seen this spring) soared overhead, hitting their mark perfectly on the birdfeeder right in front of our car. Moments like these take my breath away.

Now, I’m a big believer in finding and paying close attention to the extraordinary moments in everyday life. So as we got ready to head back home, I curiously took out my iPhone and Googled the “symbolism of blue jays.” Here’s what it read: “In the spiritual realm, the blue jay speaks of vision, truth of the heart, and clarity of thought … of higher consciousness, of focus and of taking action.” Remarkable. This was exactly what I’d been longing to create in my life going forward: clarity, vision, truth and action. I’d been researching blogs on “aging graciously” and found most to be humdrum—droning on with the typical blah-blah of how getting regular exercise decreases the likelihood of dementia, or how crucial it is to keep well-hydrated to fight off afternoon fatigue. While it’s useful information, the concepts left me bored and uninspired.

“What comes to mind for you when you hear the phrase ‘aging gracefully’?” I asked Doug as we headed home. “Hmm … well, to me it’s all about self-awareness. Knowing who you are and being secure enough to stand in your own truth and not compromise.” Okay, good. Interesting start. Better than most of the palaver I’d been reading on the Internet, anyway. Doug continued on with his thoughts: “I think it’s also about learning to live fearlessly, about being done with toxic people, eventually becoming a rock-star grandparent, and continually surprising and challenging yourself.” Wow, my grumpy troll was starting to look a lot more princely! I treasure this remarkable ability we have to bounce around ideas, playfully tossing them back and forth like a ball of twine that grows bigger and bigger as it ravels up our thoughts, hopes and dreams.

This initial conversation has evolved into an ongoing dialogue over the past couple weeks. Together, for the first time, we’re beginning to consider what’s most important to us during our aging years ahead: travel, creativity, family, spiritual growth, boatloads of goofiness, fun and laughter. We’re starting to get back on the same page again. Sure, we’re still moving at lightning speed, juggling too many plates, with an endless to-do list, but we’re actually lightening up a little more as we design an emerging life-scheme for aging well. We’re getting unstuck. Life has evolved and morphed and changed. We arrived through the first half of life without overwhelming and excruciating heartbreak. I think we’ve been cranky because we didn’t know where to go from here. (And because we’re also really tired.) Anyway, now we’re starting to get a clearer picture. We’re creating a map. Personally, I want to do this aging thing well—really, really well. I want to age graciously with Doug, the wonderful troll/prince love of my life. You see, that to me is truly epic!

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My Shame List

I suppose this past year could be described as a baptism of sorts. We all face times when life breaks us open, forcing us to do the deep questioning, the lonely journeying, and the intentional healing. This past year, it was my turn: My youngest sibling was diagnosed cancer. Pipes froze, broke and flooded our basement. Our dog died. Long, heartbreaking hospital shifts in Chicago. The computer hard-drive crashed. A tree tumbled unexpectedly and demolished our paddock fence. The furnace broke. In the hospital, my brother battled for his life. Bills piled up. Our water heater went on the fritz. My brother died. Excruciating heartbreak and grief. His funeral. His burial. Our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without him. Money was tight. Deeper waves of loss. My uncle died. Another funeral. My mother tripped, hit her head and tore her rotator cuff. Freelance work got slim. Dad called to say the doctor found a large growth on Mom’s thyroid that may be cancerous … and the story continues on. No doubt, the past year proved more challenging than I could have imagined, demanding more from me than I felt capable of giving. It was as if life unexpectedly accosted me, violently wrapping its arms around my neck and plummeting me deep under its raging current. As I struggled for freedom, it held me firmly under water.

We often think that if someone’s drowning, they’ll thrash their arms above their head and shout for help. But more often than not, the drowning one can’t call out as their mouth sinks below the water’s surface. They simply don’t have time to exhale, inhale and yell. When drowning, one usually becomes quiet, going down unnoticed as they silently sink. That’s how it felt for me. I fought for months to keep my head above water. But I was exhausted with a weariness that ached from deep within my bones. I was fragile, with no margins or reserves. My abilities were clearly insufficient compared to the heart-wrenching circumstances I faced. My faith was bruised. That’s what it took for me to give myself over to what was a simple yet profound “defining moment.” I came to a crossroads of choice, one of those brief blips that hugely impact your understanding of life going forward. We tend to think it’s the major catastrophes that form our essence—the adversity, the challenges and the pain. Certainly those things mold us, but I’m seeing that it’s really more about the choices we make in response to the suffering that matters most. How I choose to respond to the really big stuff is what ultimately alters my mindset, my direction, my way of being.

I made a clear and conscious choice in that moment when I felt as if I was drowning. I remember it distinctly because in that instance, I resolved to stop resisting the struggle and surrender to it instead. The decision went against the core of who I knew myself to be. I’ve always been a fighter, someone capable of pulling myself up by the bootstraps and marching forward. In fact, one of the highest compliments I’ve received in my life was, “Melissa, you’re a real trooper.” And I was. When the going got tough, giving up wasn’t an option. I dug down deep and did whatever it took. Yet in that one instance, when I could hardly breathe (or eat or sleep or speak), I somehow came to the end of myself as I made the life-giving decision to stop resisting and to finally wave my white flag. Strangely, when I gave in and stopped fighting, the powerful grip that held me down loosened just enough to allow me to free myself and swim up toward the light glistening on the water’s surface. Only then was I able to push through the ceiling and gasp deeply as life began to fill my lungs again. My baptism immersed me into the depths, and I emerged with a growing ability to no longer oppose and battle life, but to accept what is.

As a professional Life Coach, I’ve been trained to “read” the subtext hidden beneath the words my clients speak. Often, the underlying message is their “resistance”—to failure, to another person, to a challenge, to success—or even to life itself. It’s been said that “what we resist, persists.” That is, if we struggle against something, pushing it as far away as possible, that problem will only continue on. It will persist. I believe this is true. In my own life, much of my struggle and suffering has been connected to my unwillingness to accept what was really true. It was actually through being “coached” that I began to stop hiding from others—and more importantly, from myself. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued with (and a bit envious of) people who are able to be unabashedly open about their messes, hanging them out in full view for others to see. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about the ones who do it for the sake of pity, to get attention, to manipulate, or to create shock and unnecessary drama. Rather, I mean those rare few who authentically share, without shame and embarrassment, who they are—the good and the bad. They are genuine, open, real, unguarded and remarkably unafraid. They don’t feel the need to exaggerate accomplishments or cover up flaws. Who and what you see is who and what you get.

During this past year I’ve been keenly aware of my internal resisting, my wanting to make things better than they are, my desire to hide and cover up. When life brings calamity, things don’t just go back to the norm before the crises hit. There are consequences that wreaked havoc, an aftermath that must be dealt with. I had survived the storms, but returning to normalcy would take time, and lots of it. And let’s face it: “Getting back to normal” is an illusion. “Normal” doesn’t happen after disaster, death, major loss and deep grieving. It doesn’t. Life as we once knew it will not be the same. Rather, as healing comes, a “new normal” begins to emerge. That’s exactly where I am, learning to function in my new normal, in a foreign place where the landscape is unfamiliar. Here it feels difficult to make progress, get traction, or create order. It’s a place where God feels a lot like Jackson Pollock, flinging His paintbrush and spattering His artistic disarray onto the canvas of my life.

Recently, I read a book that talked about the importance of confronting our “shadow sides”—those contradictions and failures we’ve intentionally kept unexposed. Isn’t it odd how long we allow ourselves to live with unhealthy patterns of resistance? And sometimes, it’s a seemingly minor incident that creates the tipping point that ultimately catapults us into action. That’s how it happened for me, anyway. I had fallen behind in making an appointment to have our farrier out to trim and shoe our horse’s hooves. One horse had actually developed a case of thrush, a common bacterial infection that occurs in the horse’s hoof. I was mortified. In the midst of dialing our farrier’s number, I became almost paralyzed with shame and fear and failure. I was embarrassed that I was overdue in scheduling this appointment. A wave of humiliation washed over me for being disorganized, unfocused and neglectful. And, as crazy as it sounds, I went behind closed doors and cried. I wept and wallowed and scolded myself for what an awful person I was. And then I coerced my husband into making the call and meeting with the farrier when he arrived at our barn!

Shame … shame was my shadow side that I continually pushed down and kept hidden behind a locked, tightly shut closet in the deepest corner of my soul. “What we resist, persists.” The dictionary defines “shame” as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Obviously, my reaction to calling the farrier was extreme; it was, however, an overarching “metaphor” that opened me up to what I’d been holding at bay and resisting all these years. My pattern had been that anytime shame showed up, I resisted, hid, denied it, or sometimes even white-lied my way around what was really true. However, this time was different as I decided once again not to struggle and fight but to surrender. I chose to unlock the real truth deep within in order to reveal and expose the secrets I’d kept hidden. That choice was a turning point for me.

That afternoon, I took out my notebook, shut myself in my bedroom and made a list of every possible realm of my life that somehow got tangled up by shame. For me, it seemed to be those icky, messy areas that have the tendency to paralyze me. I was surprised how long my list was as I penned my thoughts! Not only did I unlock the hidden closet, I tromped right on in and flung open every dresser drawer, rummaging around to see what had been stuffed down deep, hidden and forgotten. What a mess! And what an overwhelming and exhilarating relief! Interestingly, most of the items I discovered had nothing to do with moral flaws or sinful ways. Most were things I’d neglected or put off—getting my annual physical, paying back money I owed a friend, carving out time to commit to a regular exercise routine, getting my kids in for teeth cleanings, tackling the unpacked boxes in the basement, clearing through and organizing the disarray of bills, getting the spring cleanup done in the yard, plunging into the laundry that was overflowing into the hallway, reconciling with a friend over a misunderstanding, getting the cars detailed so they weren’t such garbage heaps, ordering a new prescription for my glasses, scheduling a mammogram, etc. These—these were the things that had continually “hooked” me. Time and again, I had given myself over to them and allowed them to become powerful enough to paralyze me and plunge me into shame.

Walter Anderson says, “Our lives improve only when we take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” I agree. There’s something extraordinarily freeing in facing your shadow side. Instead of struggling against the exhaustion of overwhelm, I surrendered to the truth. Choosing to “see” my shadow side actually took away much of its power. By writing down a list, I unknowingly designed a game plan for growth, empowerment, and living more fully. Sure, shame still tries to hook me, but when I feel the pangs to hide, I remind myself instead to move ahead with action. Make an appointment for my annual physical. Check. Get the pickup truck detailed. Check. Pay the electric bill. Check. Oil changed in the Jeep. Check.

It’s been said that integrity is telling yourself the truth, and honesty is telling the truth to others. I’m trying to do both. In fact, one of my new mantras is, “It is what it is.” It sounds simple, but it has deep meaning for me. I’m owning the essence of that phrase—speaking it forth, not denying what is, not apologizing or making excuses, and most importantly, not being overpowered by shame. This past year immersed me into deep, shadowy waters. I made a choice to stop struggling and resisting. Certainly I came to the surface spewing and gasping. However, I experienced baptism—the sacred ritual of transformational change. And perhaps even more importantly, this act of surrender then enabled me to take a truthful inventory of my life unlocking my bondage to shame. I’m not completely shame free, but I’m on the road to getting there. It is what it is.


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Home At Last

I was 5 years old.  It was one of those moments when I was quite certain I was going to die.  During my early childhood, there are only two times I can remember feeling as if death was looming. One was when I accidentally mistook my father’s tube of Head & Shoulder’s shampoo for toothpaste. Right before going to bed I loaded my toothbrush down with a generous glob. After a few scrubs on my pearly whites, I realized this paste didn’t have that familiar refreshing minty flavor of Crest. I was horrified! Not so much because it tasted bad, but because I was sure that I had lethally contaminated myself. I was convinced that at any moment the “poison” from the shampoo would quickly travel from my mouth, attack my brain, and leave me writhing and convulsing on the floor until my life ended in sudden and certain death. Concerned that my parents would be shocked and stricken with grief upon finding my dead body, I considered getting up and writing a note to explain my demise. However, instead I chose to lie as still as humanly possible. Consumed with fear, I tried to call out to my parents but my voice was not capable of producing a sound. I tried not to blink or to breath as I was utterly panic stricken, certain that even the slightest movement would further transport any residue of poison from my mouth to the rest of my body.  It all felt so unfair. I was much too young to die!

The other time I thought I was near death was when I was six, in fact, during my sixth summer. There are certain childhood memories that continually mark us, ones that call us back in order to be more deeply noticed, better understand, and further reminisced upon. For me, one of these memories was when my Grandmother, Dobbie, decided it would be a good idea for the two of us to venture off together to Des Moines to visit my Great Grandpa Butchie and my Great Grandma Zula. This was to be my first real trip away from my parents, from home, from what I knew and loved.

As we packed up the car, there was a rush of “Thelma and Louise” freedom and excitement. It was just the two of us, my grandma and me, on this journey from Illinois to the Hawkeye state.  There was a carefree bliss I felt as we drove together and talked and laughed while munching down egg salad sandwiches and windmill shaped cookies. My grandmother even packed foaming vitamin C tablets which, when plopped into a jug of cold water, instantly transformed it into “fizzy orange pop”—a true miracle to behold. The car was hot, so I rolled down the window and invited the wind to dance and twist about in my long blonde hair.  On the highway ahead, the heat from the pavement rose in mysterious waves of wonder. “Knee high by the fourth of July. That’s what they say. The farmer’s will most certainly be pleased with the corn crop this year, “ noticed Dobbie as we drove through endless miles of green, wide open space. Pink cotton candy clouds formed a blanket that invited the sun to snuggle up and tuck itself in after a long day.

Des Moines was filled with relatives who had faces of strangers.  “Missy, this is your great Aunt-so-and-so, and here’s your great Uncle such-and such”.  Each relation was friendly, gracious and hospitable. Most had glorious silvery white hair, which, to me looked distinguished next to their large, black, horn-rimmed glasses. They were happy to be together, engaged in laughter, telling the folklore that had, no doubt, been repeated over and over again throughout the years: how Great Grandma Cornelia was so tough that she actually smoked a corn cob pipe right there, in the open, on the front porch of her Southern home. Or, about Great Uncle Dewey and the business he had of installing lightening rods on top of roofs and how tragic it was when the neighbor kid he had hired fell to his death. Or about Great, Great Grandpa, Green Barry Burton, who, while driving his stagecoach through Kentucky, was robbed by the outlaw, Jessie James. The stories went on and on that evening, happy and sad, as if each narrator was throwing colorful snippets of people’s lives into the air like confetti, creating a celebration of what is known, what is true, what is home.

That night, we slept at Great Grandpa Butchie’s house. As I laid down in bed, my mind replayed the stories I had heard about people who were new and unfamiliar to me. Suddenly, without warning, a wave of intense longing whisked over me like a summer’s breeze that catches sheer curtains and tugs aggressively at them through an open window pane. I looked around the dark room for something to soothe the aching that was beginning to well up profoundly inside me. I didn’t know this space, this room, these people, or this home. I clung to my pillow as tears began to fall, to flow, to pour.  Sobbing shook me, causing me to trip and stumble over the natural rhythm of my own breathe. Somehow, my child’s heart sensed deep loss and desperate wanting. I didn’t want to be there, or anywhere else for that matter. I wanted to be home.

For three horrible days, homesickness came to me in waves of unexpected, uncontrollable sadness.  My heart was so broken and hurting that I honestly questioned whether I’d be able to survive the entire weekend visit. Once again, a part of me feared that I just might die. As a shy, obedient child, the last thing I wanted to do was make a scene, and yet that’s exactly what I did, over and over again. Great Grandpa Butchie tried to comfort me. In fact, one afternoon he took the car and left the house. I assumed he needed a break from the constant torture of a 6 year old’s continual state of weeping. I didn’t blame him. I mean, who wouldn’t need a break?  However, he returned with an elegantly wrapped box, complete with a flowing tulle bow.  Inside was the most gorgeous dress I’d ever seen, adorned with pink and white stripes and layers of crinoline underneath. It was a dress that truly beckoned me to dance, to spin and twirl as it’s puffy under layers gracefully flowed upward and outward just like a ballerina’s. Wearing the dress did help alleviate my homesickness ever so slightly, and not just because I felt beautiful in it, but perhaps even more so because it was a symbol of kindness, compassion and love. However, the pangs and the tears still flowed unexpectedly and freely throughout the rest of the visit.  And when they did, my great grandpa would do all he could to try and comfort me by saying, “No, no, Lovely.  You’re okay now. Everything’s going to be just fine. Here, little lady, take my hand and dance!”

I’ve thought about this memory often over the years and most especially over these past few months since my youngest brother recently died from a heartbreaking battle with cancer.  Certainly I can relate to some of the classic stages of grief. However, when asked how I’m doing, I often describe my grief by comparing it to how I felt as a homesick six year old. Even now, the quivers of emotion move unpredictably and freely.  I still find myself longing for what I once knew, for what felt safe, for my brother’s presence, for my family to be the way it was when he was alive. I’m charting new, unfamiliar territory, and as I do so I realize how truly homesick I am for what once was.  Interestingly, this word—homesick—has somehow grabbed my heart and tattooed its calligraphy onto my soul.

Now, more than ever, I find myself thinking about how to create “home” in every aspect of my life. Part of this process has been redefining my definition of home.  To me, home is no longer simply a place to decorate and make beautiful. It’s not just a place to sleep, play, work, or gather.  Home is a verb.  It is a way of living; a conscious way of being. I’ve been on a journey to discover what actually feeds the soul of our home: connection and conversation, music, laughter, forgiveness, honesty, humor, time to dream and explore, authenticity, spiritual growth, engaging in work that is centered around passion and purpose, affection, healthy and nurturing food, pets, nature, prayer. This is what is calling me. This, to me, is home.

Maya Angelou says, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”  On a universal level, I believe the world as a whole feels this chronic aching. Somewhere deep within the very core of our existence, together we’re suffering from an intense feeling of homesickness. Even those who have been raised in highly dysfunctional homes, have an ideal held within their imaginations that drives them to experience what it would be like to know security, protection, warmth, connection, happiness and true belonging. We all desire to make a home for our hearts. It’s how we’re wired.  It’s who we are.

It’s been said that home is actually a metaphor for our soul, for our spirit finding it’s true place of belonging. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve thought so much about being homesick as a child. This memory haunts me, begging me to pay closer attention to the longing God has placed on my heart to be truly at home with Him. Thomas Moore says, “There is a God-sized hole in all of us waiting to be filled.” This may be the very key that unlocks the door of meaning; to recognize that our hearts are always, always searching for a way to house our creator. It’s crucial to pay attention, as “home” is, no doubt, one of the basic needs of the soul. In fact, the experience of being at home is so intrinsic that when we taste it our hearts instantly crave more. When we finally arrive home, we can release our loneliness, our homesickness allowing our deepest longings to be met.

Recently, for the first time, I’ve felt a nudging to pray daily for my home. Early each morning, I bless the physical space, the shelter of my family’s daily life. And even more importantly, I pray that those who enter our doors will experience a deep sense of being “at home”. I bless these walls that contain us with peace, comfort, laughter, life, safety, joy, growth, meaning and belonging.  It’s amazing how often guests comment that they feel so at ease here, and that they wish they could stay longer to bask in the “warmth” of our home. A few have even joked that they wish we would seriously consider legally adopting them into our family!

We live in an old 1920’s renovated dairy barn that stands on eighteen acres.  We bought this property to create a “retreat house” from which my husband and I could do our personal and corporate life coaching. In our home, we also invite others to journey with us on spiritual and personal growth weekends.  One of the minor challenges was to decide upon a name for our home.  After considering countless options, we agreed upon “Turtle Creek Acres” as there is a creek that runs through our property that is the residence of box turtles and an occasional snapping turtle. For some time, I wondered what the deeper meaning was in the name we had chosen for our farm. Suddenly, it hit me that we’re all like turtles who carry their homes with them wherever they go, wherever they choose to venture. Truly, we never must quest far to find home.  If we’re aware enough, we’ll realize the profound truth that home is always with us.  Home is part of the true essence of our being.  Home, soul, spirit, place—whatever you choose to call it—will always guide us to ultimate belonging, to heartfelt meaning and open-armed acceptance.

On the front door of our home hangs a sign that reads, “The Timberlake Family”.  Underneath that, hangs another plaque with the phrase “Home at Last!”  Often when I read it, my spirit skips a little with a sense of comforting relief and happiness.  Ah, home at last, home at last!  This is also my prayer of blessing for you. Wherever your journey has taken you, whatever your heart is facing today, may you realize that home is truly in the deepest recess of your soul.  Welcome home.

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Mist on the River

There are certain moments in life that define us spiritually, brief instances that cause us to pause and notice as a divine meaning is branded into our memories forever. One such epiphany happened to me as I was returning home from a visit with my dying brother. You see, drives home from the hospital were typically my moments of greatest vulnerability.

Drives to the hospital, however, were focused on trying to get emotionally and spiritually grounded.  Those 1 1/2 hour treks afforded me time to prepare myself for whatever the day might bring–a dialysis treatment, a CAT scan, a dangerously high fever, surgery, vomiting, or worse yet, Jeremy needing to be put back on a ventilator.  Every day was different and I could never predict what new medical crises I’d be facing with my brother.   Before entering Jeremy’s room, I’d purposefully stand tall and imagine myself inflating with strength, courage, and positivity. It was important to me that my youngest brother didn’t feel responsible to care-take me in the midst of his agonizing 5 month battle with cancer.  I was surprised, however, how often Jeremy, even in his weakness and suffering, would whisper, “You doing okay, Miss?  You alright?” His remarkable concern always left me taken aback and misty-eyed. I’d swallow hard, regain my composure and shakily respond, “I’m fine Jer.  Don’t worry about me.  What can I do for you?”

Usually, what he most appreciated was when I helped him stretch his aching legs and gave them a good long rub down. At times, the days seemed tormentingly long. The hours crawled ahead at a turtle’s pace. My “shifts” lasted anywhere between 6 to 12 hours. Every once in awhile I slept overnight in the corner hospital chair. Regardless, I treasured these stolen moments with my brother…listening to his favorite music selections, laughing together at vintage SNL skits, or watching The Dog Whisperer in awe of Cesar Milan as he worked his miraculous dog-training magic. As Jeremy was bedridden, I’d assist him in sitting up and encouraged him to get a little exercise, acting as his spotter as he shuffled precariously around the cramped room. Jer loved being entertained with stories of his three little kids which he’d been separated from for far too long.  We spent hours talking about travel adventures, childhood memories, and hopes for the future. And much of the time we did nothing at all. We’d just “be” with each other silently, in his room or in a “holding room” waiting for yet another medical procedure. “Being with” someone is soul stretching–especially when that someone is dying. It requires a depth of spiritual capacity.

After visiting Jeremy, I’d walk to my car, get in, and just sit there in the hospital parking garage. My Jeep became my safe house of sorts–my secret sanctuary that shielded me from needing to explain my heart wrenching sobs to others. I’d grip the steering wheel as my body wilted with sadness.  This became a cleansing ritual which prepared me for my long drive home.  Drive time became my time to talk with God as I battled doubts, fears and exhaustion from witnessing the cancer erase, piece by piece, my brother’s  presence from us. I was disappointed with God. I could feel death looming like a circling hawk that has spotted it’s prey.  Often I interrogated God, questioning why He seemed so detached from our pain, so withdrawn and undemonstrative in His compassion. On Burton’s bridge, an insignificant small-town over pass, I received my answer.

I had slept over at the hospital the night before, leaving early in the morning as the sun was just beginning to tug open the curtain of darkness. The roads were still clear of traffic and I was grateful for the solitude. As I neared home, I drove over Burton’s bridge which crosses the Fox River.  That’s when I noticed something quite extraordinary. As I gazed at the beauty of the river, I saw that one side appeared crisp and clear, reflecting the tangerine sunlight. The other side had a heavy fog that blanketed the riverbed.  Mist was not only rising off the water, but it enchantingly danced and swirled creating an otherworldly vision of beauty.  I was so intrigued that I quickly veered into the parking lot of Kief’s Reef, a local biker bar known for it’s Friday night all-you-can-eat Fish Fry. The river beckoned me. I hopped out of the car and trudged up to the embankment to get a closer look.

As I stood taking in the view, I could feel a supernatural presence. The river felt steeped with God.  When I listened closely I could hear the reverence.  There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the “thin places” the distance is even smaller. Such places give us a glimpse into the awe and mystery of God’s presence. This unexpected moment felt that way to me…like I had entered into a “thin place”. Somehow, I knew it was possible to touch and be touched by God.  I stood there for quite some time savoring the mystery of it all.

There’s beauty in mystery.  Mystery creates wonder, curiosity and awe. I was oddly perplexed at how the river could look so vastly different from each side of the bridge. My inner voice answered my questioning, “Melissa, you may often feel that God is distant from your heartbreak and concerns, but realize, just as there are two ways to see the river, there are also many ways to see God. Look one way, and all will look ordinary, typical, unsurprising and common. But, if you choose to turn your head in the other direction, if you pause and really hope to see, you’ll experience His presence dancing, spinning and twirling around you.  It’s your choice.  Which will you decide?”

Life has a way of turning our heads away from the ordinary in order to see the divine.  Often it’s the deep trials that woo us into God’s presence. If we’re capable of turning our focus in a different direction, we’re then able to see God working in His mysterious ways. When we meet Him in life’s “thin places” there is a requirement to step from one direction to the other. I had been looking for God to answer my prayers, to heal my brother, and most importantly, to spare his life.  God did none of those things. And, I now realize that, quite honestly, I was looking in the wrong direction. God was obviously at work even though my brother was dying. He was dancing in the midst of our grief, twirling as he wove relationships together, spinning deeper meaning and understanding into my life, my purpose, and my grasp of His abundant love for me.  He had always been present. I’d been looking in the wrong direction.  My head was turned only to the obvious.  I hadn’t seen Him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven,  And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”  Now admittedly, blackberry picking is fun. However, been there, done that.  I guess I’m at a stage in my life where I long to see God ablaze in all His mystery and wonder.  In search of deeper meaning, I’m taking off my shoes, turning in a different direction, and entering into the “thin places” as I encounter God in uncommon, unusual ways.


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Life University: Insights from 2013


Obvious, right? Well, you’d think so. However, maybe, you’ve found yourself bored with the way people work so hard at convincing others that their lives are perfect — posting pictures of their immaculate homes, happy families, loving spouses and exotic vacations. Well, for me, 2013, like no other year, was soul stretching and laden with disappointment and heart wrenching loss. Often, I felt like a fraying sweater, unraveling as the fiber of my being was snagged by life’s overwhelming and unexpected challenges. At first, my worn edges weren’t noticeable to others, but time and circumstances didn’t allow me to conceal how threadbare I had become. I needed mending. My snagging was just too big to hide. 2013 demanded messiness of me. It required raw honesty, questioning, vulnerability, doubting and struggle. It was too much energy to try to fake it. More importantly, I made a conscious choice not to. This was truly a life changing decision. Friendships of new depth and understanding began to form . Choosing to be authentically real engaged others and became the fertilizer that blossomed forth intimacy, understanding, empathy, and loving kindness. Time and time again I’ve heard others say, “Thank you for being honest and for being brave enough to share your heart.” So, yes, I’m learning not to care about appearances, not to be ashamed of my “messes” and to truthfully let others know what I’m going through. I’m finally getting a handle on how senseless it is to try to prove to the world that I’ve got my act together.  Truth is, I don’t.  I struggle.  I fail. I fall. I learn. I pick myself up and I try again.  We all do. Perfection is way overrated. It holds others at a distance and forbids them to get too close.  Perfection is so 2013. For me, 2014 is all about authenticity and realness.


Confession: I’ve been truant for some of the significant happenings of life. Not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth. Often, in the past, when invitations came my way, my knee-jerk response was to come up with reasons why I couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t go. I’d spin an excuse like nobody’s business–many of which even had a smidgen of validity. I was either too tired, too stressed, had nothing to wear, felt uncomfortable, was behind in my deadlines, or under the weather. However, sometime during 2013, I became aware of how often I talked myself out of simply showing up. Truly, it had become a unconscious pattern of my existence. Worse yet, I often relied on my husband to “cover” for me. It’s as if I believed that if Doug showed up to my son’s hockey games, or to the neighborhood barbecue–then it somehow counted for both of us. Talk about enmeshment! Fortunately, I’m now becoming aware of how much I miss out on when I don’t show up. By simply showing up we create opportunities to build into important relationships. Through being present, we’re letting others know we value them, that what is important to them is important to us as well. So, I’ve adopted these two important little words–SHOW UP–into my everyday mantra.  Whenever I feel the urge to let myself off the hook or to talk myself out of a social obligation, I simply tell myself. “Show up, Melissa. Just show up!  It’s not that hard.” And it’s really not. I’m happy to say, I’m showing up for life much more consistently now. It’s nice to no longer be in a pattern of avoiding or playing hooky. I’m choosing to show up to birthday parties. To church. To see the sunrise each morning. To watch my kid’s basketball and hockey games. To the neighbor’s invitation for coffee. To funerals. To building into the relationships that matter most to me. I’m showing up.  And it feels good!


I spent many days over the months of 2013 in the hospital care-taking my dying brother. It was agonizing to watch Jeremy’s body be ravaged by cancer. However, over the months of his battle, death, and funeral, I experienced acts of kindness that literally took my breath away. Jeremy often described people’s benevolent acts as an “unbelievable explosion of love”. Kindness is such an underrated creator of meaningful connections. It used to be that, when first meeting others, I was instantly drawn toward people with magnetic personalities, fearless convictions, and passionate purposes.  I still find those qualities attractive, however, now, I believe kindness impresses me even more. Kindness shows a strength of character which often comes from experiencing loss. It reaches out from behind our self-absorbed existences, and through concern and care offers a bond of understanding. Whether it’s a listening ear, an empathetic touch, a home cooked meal, an errand run, a thoughtful note in the mail, or a phone call to check in. There are always opportunities for kindness! And yes, kindness is cultivated. Quite simply, we become more kind by practicing kindness. This year, I’m working on growing kindness in all areas of my life. In fact, I’ve decided to keep a Kindness Journal, recording each day one simple act I’ve done. Relational kindness or random acts of kindness…they all make a difference.  SImple acts of compassion and care can lift someone’s burden through letting them know they matter.  Being gifted by someone’s kindness is a treasure that may very well be remembered for a lifetime.



When you loose someone you love it causes you to reevaluate much of life. I spent a lot of time over these two months since my brother died considering what it is that is truly most important to me. You see, in 2013, my youngest brother was diagnosed with lymphoma and 5 brief months later he was gone. Life is short. Life is precious. Life has absolutely no guarantees. When you have to say goodbye so quickly to someone you love so dearly, it’s excruciatingly painful. The finality of death rocks your world. Last goodbyes force you to prioritize that which matters most. For me, bottom line, it all comes down to my relationship to God and my relationships with others…to be in deep connection with each. This is how I’m wired.  It’s how I’m divinely designed. I’m not meant to be isolated. Quite honestly, I’m not capable of doing this journey very well alone. I need others. In fact, I need them desperately. Did you know that this generation, because of social media, is the most isolated generation in history? Experts are describing our culture as “isolated tribes of individuals’. Loneliness has become so pervasive because people rarely interact face to face anymore. 2014 is a new year! I’ve committed to passionately pursuing my purpose of creating community through real, meaningful connection. No doubt about it: relationships matter most!






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Aaaaaaaggrrrhhh! Company’s Coming!

Here’s an inside peek at what it’s like at the Timberlake’s tonight, as we’re getting ready for company this Thanksgiving.

Samurai Housewife from Doug Timberlake on Vimeo.

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