Episode 36 — Refining Fires (And Saltine Crackers)

Craig Gross
Nov 5, 2019 · 8 min read

“There’s no bridge for bypassing crucifixion.” — Levi The Poet

Pain is an incredible teacher.

If only it didn’t hurt so much.

It occurred to me while reimagining all of these journal entries for this project that I haven’t written much about my mom.

The definition of “take for granted” is to fail to properly appreciate (someone or something), especially as a result of overfamiliarity. If the truth is that I’ve taken advantage of my mom, it certainly wasn’t intentional, but it’s painful, nonetheless. It’s crazy to think that something as incredible as “overfamiliarity” could result in anything other than acknowledgment, appreciation, and praise. And yet, I sometimes wonder if it is precisely because of her consistent presence in my life that I haven’t given her the credit she deserves.

She has been, simply, a given.

My mom lived with us for a while during a particularly painful season in our family’s life. She needed to get out of the situation she was in, and we furnished the back house at our property in Pasadena to accommodate for her stay. I am thankful for that time, despite the circumstances, because it allowed me to love and serve my mom the way that she’d watched me love and serve my dad.

I hadn’t realized, up until recently, that the relationship my dad offered to rekindle simultaneously sparked jealousy inside of my mom that made her feel as though I had chosen sides, and she’d been the one found wanting.

Again, it wasn’t intentional, but it happened.

They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Like the way that, once we decided to move, my mom and I didn’t talk for months. I think we hurt one another in our silence. A mentor of mine asked if I remembered the same lesson I’d been paying forward ever since my dad called to reconcile before he died: pick up the phone.

It’s amazing the way that a simple phone call can be such a catalyst for renewal. She’s been down to visit a few times since then. She got to see Elise dance to our song. We’ve been able to discuss family trauma, redeem past pains, reconcile differences, and understand one another.

When I consider my relationship with my mom, I inevitably jump to my relationship with my kids. What pain will I pay forward that we’ll need to work through when they’re my age? Jeanette and I have done so much work lately when it comes to breaking familial patterns. We know that all parents leave some sort of imprint on their kids — for better or worse. Will I have done my job well enough that they take me for granted due to overfamiliarity?

Surely that is at least one definition of a job well done?

The opposite of familiar is foreign. Unacquainted. Unknown and unknowable.

How many mothers are unfamiliar to their children? I see Jeanette’s pain as a result of her parents’ absence, and my mom’s constancy — her availability — shines brighter. I’ve always heard people say that motherhood is a thankless job. I wish it weren’t so. I suppose this is an attempt at redeeming my silence.

After all, thank God I have a mother to thank.

This year, Levi decided that he was going to run a half marathon. He trained for months leading up to his race, and on the day of — at the end — he told me that his mom stood standing at the finish line, cheering.

Immediately, I knew, “that’s it.”

She’s always been there, and she always will be.

My mom has had a funny way of showing it, at times. I remember the first morning I appeared on Good Morning America to talk about XXXchurch. She didn’t say, “Good job, Craig.” She said, “What’s wrong with your hair?”

Either way, she’s still been there for every “race,” whether or not I’ve appreciated her commentary-even today. My mom was the first person to join the Christian Cannabis Facebook Group and Street Team.

She wrote to me the other day to say, “My thought is that if you believe in something, you never let fear stop you. Case in point: XXXchurch. And now: Christian Cannabis. You always go for it. As your mom, I sometimes cringe, but I know that it’s something God has put on your heart. I know you will succeed.”

I’m losing friends, business, and ministry partners left and right. Meanwhile, my mom wants to give me the last of her money to help invest in my next vision.

I suppose I’ve been fascinated by this idea of looking backward to go forward. My friend Dave treated me to a session with his breathwork coach not long ago. Even there, the instructor encouraged me to curl up into a fetal position, saying, “This is how you were for nine months in your mother’s womb.”

Return to it. Remember who you were and who she was before ego and all of this other garbage began to cake on top of your authentic selves.

It wasn’t the only time, as of late, that the fetal position has reminded me of my mom.

During the past few months, I’ve experienced bouts of debilitating stomach problems. I’ve had to get a scope, clonic, and cleanse.

The pain there taught me something, too: not all physical pain is the result of physical problems. Sometimes, psychological turmoil manifests itself in bodily symptoms. I’ve flipped my entire world upside down over the past few months, and the stomach problems only started to subside with the resolve of all of my mental clutter.

It was as though the Lord was saying, “Dear Mr. Craig Brain, listen not just to your head, but also to your spirit and your gut-your whole body is telling you something.”

So, I’ve tried to pay attention. And a few short days after the breathwork calm, I found myself back in the fetal position. This time, writhing and nauseous on the floor of a public bathroom. And it was while listening to my whole body that I was reminded of the purity of the relationship that is a mother’s love for her son.

I thought of saltine crackers.

I lay on the cool of the tile in the bathroom stall for over two and a half hours with the worst stomach ache I’ve ever experienced in my life, crying and in pain unlike any I’ve ever known. I thought I was in hell. And when I saw myself doubled-over like that, I thought of being a kid in my parents’ house, and the way my mom would care for me when I was sick.

I thought, “My mom would bring me saltine crackers in a heartbeat.” And then I thought, “What would it be like if that wasn’t a given?”

If you didn’t know your mom would drop everything she’s doing to bring a box of crackers, red Gatorade and a pan to your bedside?

If you didn’t think your mom would show up at your race to cheer you through the finish line?

If you didn’t have the luxury of taking your ever-available mom for granted?

At forty-three years old, curled up on a bathroom floor, I still just wanted my mom. And gratefulness overwhelmed me when I knew that, at forty-three years old, she’d still come if I called.

That realization does something to you. And I can only imagine that thinking (or knowing) you don’t or haven’t had that kind of support does something to you, as well.

That experience taught me compassion.

I knew then and there that I had to dedicate this project to my mom. Ideally, I’d rather have learned these lessons without having to shove my finger down my throat in an attempt to get the poison out of me, but I suppose pain is a better teacher than comfort. At the very least, it is an empathy-creator.

Growing up and getting old seems to shatter your preconceptions about the world. About what life is. About who your parents were, or are. The more I’ve suffered as one myself, though, the more anger has been replaced with empathy.

Levi writes a lot about suffering. He’s experienced too much of it. One of the recurring themes that accompany his work–like a backbone–is the way that Christ describes himself as someone who can understand our plight, namely, through suffering. He often brings up Hebrews 4, where Jesus is described as a suffering, sympathetic servant. Even when you look up the word “passion,” one of its definitions is the suffering of Christ. How else could He claim to relate to us had He not walked in our shoes?

Levi has a line in one of his poems that seems to fit well with my learning experience, so I thought I’d share it here:

You’ll make it through. After your heart can no longer stomach the torture or the way the pain always expands to a weight that collapses on itself when gravity betrays the attraction of youth for the undress of age, you’ll be able to breathe again.

The thing is, there’s no bridge for bypassing crucifixion.

That last line rings true. It reminds me of the way that people have to “go through the fire to be refined.”

I’ve written plenty about my family’s brokenness throughout this season. My mom has been through the fire. As I go through my own, I see that more clearly. But I’m not sure I would have had it not been for the pain that teaches and unites us.

I have to believe that suffering is not pointless. Left unresolved, I know that it rots and robs us of joy. It can make us forget who we are and what we were made for. But worked through and learned from?

That process can transform us forever.

Perhaps that process is the culmination of what all of this has been for me. All of Craig Brain. All of the years between my Alaska Pilgrimage and The Hoffman Process. All of the search for medicine. All of the pursuit of quiet. All of the learning to listen inside of it. All of the trying to find me. All of trying to understand my parents, and who I am in light of who they were. All of trying to give my kids something different. All of reconciling differences between myself and my friends. All of learning what I am good at. All of letting go of what I am not. All of inviting Levi into this journey and asking him to clarify my intent. All of relocating and pushing for a better relationship with my wife and my family. All of understanding the pain beneath the surface and working on learning from and letting go of it. All of searching for God. All of allowing Him to redefine who I thought he was.

What is your pain teaching you?

And mom, thanks for always standing ready with saltines in hand, like water to douse the flames. I love you.


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Craig Brain

Craig Brain is not your brain or my brain, but neither must…

Craig Brain

Craig Brain is not your brain or my brain, but neither must unity be predicated upon uniformity. This is an invitation for you to take a peek inside the gross (pun intended), squishy, alien matter inside of my brain.

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