Liz Tichenor, THE NIGHT LAKE

Liz Tichenor, THE NIGHT LAKE

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Liz. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Night Lake.

Liz Tichenor: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Your subtitle is A Young Priest Maps the Topography of Grief. When I saw this whole cover and subtitle and everything, I was like, oh, my gosh, I have to read that. That must be really amazing. It was. Can you please tell listeners basically what it’s about, the period of time, and what happened? What made you turn your experience into a book?

Liz: I had been moving towards being ordained as a priest for a long time. When it actually came to pass, when it happened, my life was a really different landscape than what I had imagined it would look like at that point. My mom had been sick for a long time. She struggled with alcoholism for many, many years. It was just a couple of months before I was ordained as a priest that she died. She died by suicide. It was just awful and unexpected that it would end that way. Then a few months later, I was ordained. It was an unusual setup in some ways. I had decided to take an extra year in graduate school. I was ordained and then was continuing the academic year studying more. I began my first call splitting my time between a parish and a summer camp and conference center. My second child, a son, was born about maybe three months after I began at that parish. I started and was just getting my feet under me in this new job and not just a new place, but my role in doing that work. You learn everything in school, but it’s pretty different when you’re actually out trying to do the work and discover how you’re going to do that work. I went onto maternity leave.

Then forty days later, our son, Fritz, died suddenly, totally unexpectedly. He’d been this huge healthy — everybody said, he’s so big. Then all of a sudden, I was the parent of a dead baby. There are statistics, but I was young. I was healthy. I don’t think I had ever really considered that that would be the shape of my life, and maybe especially because my mom had just died. One of the things that people said to me, wait, but you just went through that. How can you be going through this now? It was not even a year and a half later. When I went back to work, it was maybe a month later after he had died. I was still learning how to do this job. There are a lot of different ways to inhabit it. It hasn’t been that long, really, that women have been ordained. It’s still a job, a role, that is so influenced by the many centuries of male-dominated leadership. What I came to see pretty quickly was that I actually couldn’t separate my grief and what I was doing there with authentically showing up. Yet my job was to lead people towards hope and to look for how the moral arc of the universe is bending towards justice and where we might find good news together. In some ways, that felt so at odds with the really dark and desperate place where I so often found myself in those days.

As I began sticking my toes in the water a little bit, I discovered the more that I showed up authentically, the more I was honest about where I was wrestling, the more it seemed to work, what I was trying to do in my job. The book is a sort of winding road through that process of grieving these two beloved people, of trying to discover how to survive that. There were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to come through on the other end or what that would look like. Then trying to both lead a community and also parent — my daughter was two and change when our son, Fritz, died. Wrestling, do we do this again? We wanted to raise siblings. How? How do we do that? It’s a story of, what is too much? and how we try to rise to that and live through it anyway. To the second part of your question, why I decided to write the book — I looked it up the other day. I was curious. Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, was published about two weeks after my mom died. There was this surge as that got traction. I found that book. A lot of people found that book. There started to be more conversation about this intersection between leading and being vulnerable. It’s not something that I saw a whole lot of. I was not taught to preach vulnerably. We’re taught to be really careful not to use the congregation as your therapist, and I totally support that. The other adage that I heard which I, to a certain extent, agree with is to preach from your scars not from your wounds. Don’t go up there and bleed all over everybody. That makes a lot of sense to me.

It breaks down when you’re in the midst of life. Life is happening. All these people knew that my mom had just died by suicide. They knew that I had just lost our baby totally unexpectedly. For me to get up there and unpack our sacred texts or try to point to different ideas leading us forward and not bring myself into it, it felt dishonest. Somehow, to the concern of some more traditional folks, I started doing that. I started being just real and sometimes raw in what I shared. It wasn’t for everybody. Not everybody is ready for that. The folks who needed it, the response was really stunning. I remember one day several years ago, someone who’s now a friend came to me after hearing one of these and said, “Okay, so when are you going to write that book?” She had been through some really tough stuff too, just a terrifying diagnosis and life unraveling and then coming back together on the other side of that. I couldn’t really get away from it. It felt like it needed to come out of me.

Zibby: Wow. This is such a powerful story. How did you maintain your faith in God after everything that happened to you?

Liz: It was really hard, honestly. There were some pretty bleak days and seasons. I think some of what made a difference for me was that my faith is not a one-on-one kind of thing. It’s not just me, Liz, and God, and we go back and forth and it all depends on that line. I believe that this happens in community. That’s a way that I have tried to engage it for as long as I’ve been part of a faith community. I found my way into the church as a teenager when things at home had gone really sideways. We had briefly plugged in as a family when I was eleven or twelve. Then my parents divorced. Everything sort of unraveled. I went back when I got my driver’s license and found this group of people who were ready to show up. I looked rather different then. I had, in various turns, a shaved head and bright green hair. They said, “Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here. Here, would you like to step up and lead this part? Do you want to come to this class?” It was amazing. That continued for me, especially in college. There was just an amazing crew of folks. We chose to be kin together. We could do this work of seeking, of wrestling really big questions that don’t have answers, of trying to discern what to do with our lives. We could do that in community.

Both when my mom died and when Fritz died, those were the people that showed up physically and also finding really creative ways to be with us from across the miles. They showed up again and again and again not with platitudes, not with, God needed another angel and blah, blah, blah, not any of that, but just, we’re with you. We’re letting our hearts break with you. We’re going to stay alongside. How I ultimately held onto my faith was allowing these other people to have that faith on my behalf when I couldn’t. There were longs periods of time when I felt like, maybe I want to pray or connect or listen, and I have no idea how to even begin to do that. I don’t know what those words would be. I knew that there were other people joining me there who could and would, who were doing that on my behalf. I think that’s ultimately how we can make it forward. We take turns. We don’t all have to have it figured out or steady every day all the time, but we can carry each other in that. I think that’s really what carried me through.

Zibby: Wow. It speaks to the power of community more than really anything. That image you just struck up of your walking through the door and feeling welcomed, I feel like at its core, that is what we are all looking for. Whether it’s online or in a church or in a recovery group, Weight Watchers, people are just longing for connection in any way. The fact that yours had the perk of having God attached is —

Liz: — Bonus.

Zibby: Yeah, bonus group member there. I think that’s beautiful, what you just said about being close to people who can maintain the faith when yours waivered. It’s just beautiful. I bet those people, now that you’re not necessarily on the other side but in a different place than in the depths of despair, must feel so proud of you that they’ve helped pull you through. I bet you’ll turn around and, if you haven’t already, you’ll be the one pulling them through whatever life throws their way.

Liz: I hope they know that. The key people who show up in this book have read it. I ran it by them. I wonder that sometimes. The ones who are especially generous and loving and just so thoughtful, they’re often also the ones who end up being the most humble. I wonder sometimes if they know how critical they were, how much of a difference it made. For me, there were times when I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t receive it. That was about as much energy as I had. I wonder. Sometimes you send things out into the void. You hope, maybe it’ll make a difference. You don’t know. I hope they know that.

Zibby: First of all, you can now play them this podcast when it comes out. Second of all, you should set aside half an hour this afternoon and just send a few emails or texts. Just tell them because I bet it’ll make their day. Not to give you more work.

Liz: That’s good work to do.

Zibby: Good work to do. There were so many parts of this book that were just beyond beautiful. I also loved the whole tradition you had of folding up the notes and then as the book went on, pulling out the little scraps of paper. Can you just explain that a little more and talk about the power of these little thoughts that women in your life had to impart over time?

Liz: Fritz was our second child. We had everything we needed. We did not care about dressing a boy in girl’s clothes. It was a baby. Whatever. At this point, we were living at the camp where we were working at Lake Tahoe. It was right on the shore of Lake Tahoe. We were living in a cabin that was, I think it was 340 square feet including the outside shed thingy that was attached. It was very cozy. We also really didn’t need more stuff. We did not want a baby shower. One of our neighbors who lived at the camp there just felt like, ritual matters. We need to mark this. We need to celebrate and welcome this baby. No, we don’t need to give you more things, but we need to do something. She gathered the women and girls who lived at camp. It was me and my best friend, Lori, who’s the chef there, and her two daughters — I’m not going to get their ages right; they’re maybe seven and nine, pretty little still — and my mother-in-law. We gathered in their home. The sun was setting over Lake Tahoe. Ate all kinds of wonderful food. The girls really sloppily painted my fingernails and my toenails.

What they decided they wanted to give me was not onesies and pacifiers, but their well-wishes and their intentions and their love in the form of these little notes. They were maybe three by two, not even that, two by one, very small pieces of paper. They wrote these wishes for me with the intention that I open them while I was in labor with Fritz and that that would give me strength and encouragement. I’d know they were with me and all that. They gave me them in this little bottle. Fritz was really late, really, really late. We tried, oh, my goodness, everything. I walked so many stairs with that baby trying to get him out. We were in Nevada, the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe where, at least at the time, there was not a whole lot by way of regulations. We were planning a home birth. Alice had been born at home with a midwife also. We came to the very last day that, even in Nevada, they would let us do this. He was twenty days late. As a last-ditch effort, I drank castor oil and the next morning woke up in just roaring labor. He was nine and a half pounds. It was wild. There was no stopping to read notes at that point. I don’t know if they even crossed my mind. Then we were in the baby fog, newborn, chasing a toddler, all that.

I don’t really remember, but I don’t think I really thought about them or noticed them until he died. He died at night. Getting up the next morning, there’s light everywhere, and there’s no baby. I just thought, how the hell am I going to do this? How do I even do this first day? I saw this bottle, this little green glass bottle sitting on the shelf next to the plates and stuff. I took it down and pulled a note out. I read it. I’m not going to remember. It’s in the book, which came when. I decided I was going to open one a day until they ran out. It got me through the first week. Then I strung a thread through them and taped them up in the window. They’re totally bleached out now. You can barely read the words anymore. It was just this connective tissue between the life that these beloved women and girls had wished for us and sent towards us and then unfolding in this entirely different way, but trying to trust that the love they offered to me and this child was still there.

Zibby: It’s so beautiful. By the way, I think that’s a really nice thing to do even for people who have lost someone recently. Maybe this will get you through a week. When you’re in that frame of mind, that’s basically as far as you can even see. Even that feels insurmountable. For everybody who’s like, “What can I do to help somebody who’s grieving? What should I say? What should I do?” putting like seven scraps of paper in a box might just be the most helpful thing you can do.

Liz: It’s a start to get you through those first days.

Zibby: It’s like the jumper cables on a car. It’s not going to fix the car, but it’ll get you to the shop.

Liz: I love that.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about writing this book. How long did it take you to write it? When did you find the time to do this? Where did you do it? All of it, the process.

Liz: Oh, geez. It had been sort of kicking around, that nagging that doesn’t go away. It was December 2017. I emailed a friend who has written many books and said, “Jane, okay, I’m ready, but how do I do this? Where do I even start?” We got together. She said, “How you start is, it’s way past the deadline, but I want you to apply for this writing fellowship anyway. Just do it.” It felt totally just, fell from the sky gift. I was able to join this writing fellowship. It’s this bizarro artist farm thing up between Palo Alto and the sea, this old ranch converted. I went that January in 2018 for five days with maybe ten other writers. I worked through all my old journals and made lists and started writing some of it. Then the shape of the program was that month by month I was supposed to turn in pages and get feedback back, which was so incredibly helpful. Writers who are listening, if there’s any way to build some kind of accountability in, month by month or whatever interval, that felt just incredibly helpful to have to put it out. I worked in whatever bits and pockets of time I could find that winter and spring. At that point, I had — let’s see, can I do math? Alice was six. By that point, we had had another child, Sam. He was turning three, so a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. I was working full time.

I remember hearing an author describe her process. Her way in was she had this amazing and elaborate ritual to get ready to write. I don’t know what it involves, a particular food and a way of making tea and some exercise and setting her — it took like two hours, she told us, to get ready. Then at that point, she had invested so much time in getting ready that she was compelled to write. That worked really well for her. Her book is incredible. It is so gorgeous. I was sitting there with a couple other moms listening to her describe this and trying so hard to be gracious and supportive because it was beautiful. It was really clever, frankly, how she worked this out. I was thinking, oh, my goodness, if I had two hours uninterrupted, I could write so much just in that time. I tried various things. I tried making recurring times on my calendar. I tried hard to write five days a week. Sometimes that would be for fifteen minutes. Sometimes I would get an hour. Sometimes I’d get nothing for weeks. It would be really hard to reset, but coming back to it again and again. Then, really, what made it possible was that summer in 2018, I had the gift of a sabbatical. I’d been in my new position for four years at that point. It was just a gift. I spent ten weeks. We traveled to spend time with various people that we love dearly and don’t see enough of. My husband, Jessie, would run with the kids in the morning. I would write in the morning. Then we would adventure the rest of the day.

I think especially because I had those chunks of three or four hours each morning and was not trying to produce creative work for my job, it was just gold. It was such amazing time. When we came back at the end of the sabbatical, I had a first draft. Then after that, it was just totally catch as catch can. I took a couple of weeks of vacation to charge through edits. There were a lot of late nights. It was a little over a year ago I got the book deal. There was some more rounds of edits. I had received the tentative schedule of how things were going to be going back and forth. I took a new job around this time last year. In April, we moved just a half hour away, but to a new house. I think it was actually on our moving day that I received the copyedited manuscript back and the request to turn it around in two weeks. I think I laughed and cried at the same time. We were just moving. Of course, in the depths of pandemic, there was no school, no childcare at all. I guess I’m not really going to sleep a lot. I wouldn’t recommend that as a sustainable practice. Once in a while, that’s how it happens. You find the time where you can. You get it done.

Zibby: Two hours uninterrupted for a mom is like striking gold. It’s amazing. I hear what you’re saying.

Liz: Last weekend, I had two hours. I was only interrupted every seven or eight minutes. Even that, right now, it was the best.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors aside from finding two hours of uninterrupted time?

Liz: Yeah, good luck with that. Even ten minutes, take what you can get. What feels most live for me to share or to encourage is to write what you can’t not write. If there is something that you really feel you have to put down on paper whether or not anyone else ever reads it, write that. If you understand why it matters, it matters. Find the people who get it. This probably won’t surprise you, but there are some people who really did not think this book was a very good idea. It was way too much sharing or way too sad. Who wants to read about a suicide and a dead baby? That’s fine. They don’t need to read it. I’m okay with that.

Zibby: I do.

Liz: That’s what I thought. I thought, well, I think most people actually are handed, at some point, loss or grief or confusion that is just beyond them. What do we do with that? Can we talk about that? I’d say try to find the people who understand that and are ready to run with you in bringing it out into the world. They’re there. Just ignore the people who aren’t ready for it. That’s okay.

Zibby: Amazing. Liz, thank you. Thank you for sharing your painful yet inspiring story of survival through the depths of despair and keeping the faith and just all of it. Thank you for your time and for your beautiful book which I truly — I feel bad saying I enjoyed it because it was so —

Liz: — No, you can.

Zibby: It was so upsetting too, but it was very meaningful to me and memorable. Thank you.

Liz: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Liz: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Liz Tichenor, THE NIGHT LAKE