There is spiritual treasure to be found in taking moments of holy pause, noticing and celebrating patterns of grace. There is a prayer form called the “Examen” which entails reflecting back at bedtime on the day’s moments, feelings, thoughts, and actions. You can ask yourself what in your day brought you closer to God. I keep a journal of “three good things a day.” Sometimes I’m stuck at two and a half. That’s OK. On a day when it’s hard to remember a good thing, I endeavor to see where something good came out of something bad. 

What does life-review look like from a longer perspective? We celebrate anniversaries of birth in a big way, especially when there are milestone birthdays. A family in my church wanted to demonstrate love for their mother/grandmother/great-grandmother as she was nearing 100 years old. Her birthday was in January and it’s too cold in Iowa for people to come to a party in January. So, in June, on her 99-and-½-year birthday, they had a delightful party. Family and community from miles around came to show her love. 

“Anniversary” Celebrations
Families who have adopted children celebrate “gotcha day” on the anniversary of their adoptions. I honored the anniversary of adopting my cat Helen of Toy with a catnip mouse and an extra serving of Fancy Feast.

In our grief, we can find meaning noticing the anniversaries of loss we have survived. I mark the anniversaries of both of my parent’s graduations to glory by making their favorite treats including ice cream and peach pie. To mark the anniversary of my brother David’s passing, I go through family photographs and savor good memories.

Just as trail blazers mark trees to guide themselves and others onto the right paths, we can choose symbolic life markers. To make the seal upon our hearts more tangible, we can use found objects to represent them. Jacob memorialized his vision at Bethel with a stone monument known as an ebenezer, as did Joshua commemorating Israel’s entrance to the promised land. Samual erected an ebenezer after God thwarted the Philistines’ attack. 

People in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous celebrate anniversaries of being clean and sober with a token called a chip. We recently celebrated our friend Sherry’s 33rd year of that accomplishment. She showed us the shiny medallion with “XXXIII” engraved on it. Our friend Becky thought up a wonderful way to celebrate with Sherry: she invented a non-alcoholic drink contest. Each guest at the party brings a small cup of the most delicious non-alcoholic drink they can concoct. 

Sherry is blindfolded so she doesn’t know whose drink she is tasting. Becky hands her each drink, one-by-one. Sherry smells the drink’s aroma, takes a sip, swirls it around her mouth. She is always enthusiastic in affirming each contest drink as delicious, but she finally makes the tough decision to rank the drinks best-to-least. Every participant chooses a prize from the prize table, but winners get to have first pick. I was fortunate to have my drink chosen for first prize. It was a mixture of cherry, pineapple, and lemon juices plus sparkling water. The prize I chose was a silk scarf with a turquoise and purple pattern that when you look closely, you see a woman looking toward you. Whenever I wear it, I will remember Sherry and her perseverance and determination to continue recovering from addiction.

The Journey of Mental-health Recovery
The victorious journey that I mindfully mark with “ebenezers” is one of ongoing mental-health recovery. I had an onset of mental illness as a teenager and became horribly lost, unable to find the path to recovery and getting stuck for more than 15 years in revolving-door hospitalizations. In June 1995, having finally found a diagnosis I could accept and a treatment that worked, I was discharged from locked psych wards for the last time. I have been in recovery without a relapse of needing to be hospitalized for 28 years. 

The years of freedom added up slowly like coins in a piggy bank. Sherry was one of the friends who encouraged me to choose a symbolic marker for those milestones. I pondered it, remembering how frustrating it was when I was an inpatient to see hospital staff with keys hanging from their belts. Those keys symbolized power, power I wanted restored to me. I asked my friends to give keys that they might have on hand. Some made duplicates of house or car keys. Others had antique keys to share. One friend had no keys, but offered me a finger nail clipper that you might carry on a keychain. My friends threw me a party to dedicate the keys starting in 2012 and have continued to do so each year. I display all 28 of them in a shadow box.

I pondered what key concept each key could represent. The first two had those of high priority for my mental health: Right Meds and Therapy. Particular to my psychosis symptoms are the keys: Say No to Negative Voices and Challenge Distorted Thinking. Speaking about my mental-health journey in public was a key I named This is My Brave, because doing so takes courage. After I spoke to nursing students who were studying mental-health care, their professor gave me the antique Key To The University Of Iowa Psychiatric Hospital Quiet Room. Having experienced the trauma of being strapped down and restrained in that “quiet room” made my now owning that key a symbol of stubborn courage. 

Another key reflected the need to feel my feelings: Let Tears Come. But balancing that concept, another key is Don’t Give In To Petty Frustrations. So when I catch myself saying something dark I substitute more poetic expression: I Wish I Were in Paris. The key Dignity of Work reflected something I am proud of: I worked more than 35 years as a hospital secretary. Oh, and that quirky fingernail clipper? I labeled it Think Outside The Box because it could pick a lock in a pinch. 

Some keys reflected care for whole mind/body wellness: Healthy Eating, Walking and Tai Chi. Other key labels include: Family, Friends, Kitties and Critters, Faith, Laughter, Hugs, Massage Therapy, Music, Ask for What You Need, Gratitude and Persistence

Story in a Dance
I tell the story of my keys hoping to find my way in the challenges that are surely ahead, and also clearing the path for my peers and their families and friends. And really, aren’t we all longing to be “transformed by the renewal of our minds?” (Romans 12:2).

In 2022, I was approached by University of Iowa dance professor Eloy Barragan who wanted to choreograph a modern dance ballet about schizophrenia, something a mutual friend told him I could teach him about. He recorded several interviews with me and had me meet with his dance students. On November 11 and 12 his dance titled, “Unfinished,” was performed at Hancher Auditorium. It was set to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Large keys that looked like the ones in my shadowbox appeared to float above the dancers. I named that year’s key, Dancing in the Dark, saying to myself, “What if instead of running away in fear from my illness, I danced with it?”

I named my 2023 key Sabbath, which I define as create, rest, repeat. The actual key is crystal, making it sparkle and sometimes cast rainbows. Of course, it is also fragile. I’ll be careful not to break the Sabbath.

I invite you to reflect on patterns of grace that repeat in your life. Mark the anniversaries of these moments of turning with something tangible to keep you from ever forgetting how far God has brought you. Share these holy bookmarks with the people in your life who can learn from you how to persevere. Storytelling saves lives—and life-saving grace deserves to be told and celebrated.

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