August is the month we get to welcome new full-time voices to the post calvin! Please welcome Alex Johnson, who is taking over India Daniels’ spot. Alex graduated with a degree in secondary education English and is navigating the murky waters of first-year teaching in Grand Rapids. When she’s not thinking about lessons, she listens to indie folk music and a variety of podcasts, tries to keep her coding skills sharp, and reads more young adult novels than she should. She’s always on the lookout for fellow intentional community living enthusiasts and more active Goodreads friends.
When seismic shifts happen in your life, you have to decide whether they define you or you define them.
Of course, that sounds like something written in a card given to you after your cat dies suddenly. Or something spouted by an influencer on a podcast where they dramatically describe an obstacle they overcame. Or something whispered intensely in a pep talk after your star quarterback suffers a grievous injury and the team doesn’t know how to move on (I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights, okay). And it sounds like a clear-cut decision: obviously you are going to define that seismic shift. We make our own destinies and write our own stories and consume our chosen media—we are going to get to also dictate how we digest events in our lives.
Well, as much as I want to say that I’ve taken control of the narrative of my mom’s sudden death, it has become a bend in my river that filters the rest of my life.
I thought I could own it in the first couple months. There was the shock and the crying and the whirlwind and the quiet and the return to normal life, and I rationalized that God wanted this to be my mode of life. Obviously I couldn’t be a teacher at the same time that Mom was, so God was helping me out by removing my safety net. I could tame this event like I tamed everything else in my life—by pouring myself into whatever I was doing. I neatly packaged away her death in “event meant to build my professional career” and threw myself headlong into student teaching.
I ignored other members of my family as they went in the opposite direction—becoming owned by her death. They began to view everything through Mom’s passing, or they crumbled without her support; they didn’t know where to go without her constant texts and messages. They got tangled in the labyrinth of grief that I sectioned off and stuffed into boxes.
If we are being real here, I kind of looked down on them. Sure, this was a traumatic life event that we all didn’t expect to have to face for at least twenty or more years. But I was able to pick up the pieces and decode what her passing meant. Why couldn’t they?
It’s not that simple, turns out. As much as I told myself that I was in control of the labyrinth of grief, it leaked out in my writing—the shock, the unanswered questions, the slack to pick up continually—and in the world I placed myself—reminders in podcasts about parental death or loving mothers, my sister’s remark that our house is a mess, conversations with my old teachers that used to center on our shared past now pivoted on our shared loss of a fellow educator. I believed that I knew what grief was and how I was going to do it, but I didn’t. I don’t.
I hesitated to write this piece precisely because I didn’t want to be defined by her death, christened as the woman who lost her mom recently, and I’m not. I’m also a recent college graduate, a nervous pre-service teacher, a forgetful but very passionate reader, and a casual yet competitive board gamer. But this piece and the other writing I’ve done has shown me that trying to pretend November 7 didn’t turn my world upside down is just untruthful. No matter what rugged individualistic American culture says, it hasn’t been wholly realistic to expect that I am going to run completely in the opposite direction and take control of this narrative.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe seismic life events don’t have to fit into a strict binary of something to overcome or something to drown us—maybe it’s just something that we learn to live through.
I’m trying to lean into the messiness, letting myself engage grief in the middle ground as something that informs my sense of self and colors my life rather than something to be ignored or hyperfocused on. Maybe her death’s narrative strand doesn’t have to be defined and carved into stone yet; maybe it never will.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.