How To Live a Fragmented Life

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*Warning: this is a processing post. I’m disclosing with this preface that I may not come to any spectacular conclusions about anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in this boat alone.

This last week I was finally able to put my finger on something that has been driving me crazy for quite a while. I’ve been living with an underlying current of unease or stress, and could not figure out with actual language and thoughts what was feeling so off. But this week, as I was constantly changing gears and rushing off to the next thing, it finally hit me: my life is a mish-mash of disconnection that I have to figure out every week how to fit together into some semblance of a “whole” life.

Let me try to explain. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was married for just shy of 12 years. During that time I had three kids. I worked as a lab scientist part of the time during those early years of being a mother, but gradually transitioned into being a full-time stay at home mom, a role I functioned in for the better part of nine years.

When you’re married and a stay at home mom of children, everything in life just naturally becomes about family.  And everything feels pretty integrated. Other than the occasional girls’ night out or solo run to Barnes and Noble to try and regain some weeknight sanity through solitude and books, most everything I did revolved around my husband and my kids.  Even if they weren’t directly involved in what I was doing, there was still the coordinating of care for them, making sure that we touched based numerous times each day, and we came back together in the same house each night for bed….except for when business trips interfered and I was solo mom-ming it.

Even if life wasn’t necessarily “happy”, there was flow.  There was a pattern to things that I could generally count on. Where I went, the kids went.  Where the kids went, I went. All the different spheres of my existence somehow included my husband and my kids, and I felt like I understood my role as a person in those years because it was rather continuous and fairly predictable.

Those roles and that continuity have changed so very dramatically over the last several years.  It probably started five or so years ago as I began to gradually unhinge myself from my marriage, and my ex and I became roommates who shared kids, more than functioning partners in a relationship. But my responsibilities, and my kids, and my friends, and the things I did every day were constants that made me feel grounded in some sense.

It occurred to me the other day that my life is nothing short of fragmented. This epiphany helped to suddenly shine some light on this background stress frequency that permeates my life.  There is little continuity in my life these days, and that is something I keep striving for. This flying by the seat of my pants from one thing to another, day after day, feels so hard, and I’m constantly wondering which ball I’m going to drop, or which particular role I’m going to be shitty at on any given day.

Yesterday someone told me they think I’m very settled.  I inwardly rolled my eyes.  Stuck maybe, but not settled.  They later said I’m a very steady person.  That made me inwardly laugh really hard because I usually feel about as steady as a fainting goat at any given moment. My life is chaos all the time. And I’m realizing, especially through my “aha” moment, how much of it I do to myself.  The big question is: why?

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I have determined that I have at least five realms of existence in my life, and much of these realms don’t overlap. It’s a really bad Venn diagram of a life where the circles don’t touch, which makes going from one thing to the other a matter of alot of hard stops and abrupt changes of direction.  Here are some of the realms I’m alluding to:

  1. I have my kids only so many days each week, and every other weekend.  When they are with me, my focus is parenting, trying to hit off items on their to do lists, reconnect with them when I haven’t seen them for a while, and actually cook at least two decent meals a day. But, because of the weird dynamics I have with their father, it’s like when they’re not with me, I suddenly lose them and there are these big “kid-holes’ in my life…very abrupt snatching away of that realm of parenting. Thank God now they have phones and we can stay kind of connected through texting.  I hate this, though.  I feel like a mom half of my life, and the other half…I don’t know what I am.
  2. I’m in online graduate school doing a program that is relatively new to the discipline of nursing, so nobody else I personally know in life is pursuing or has pursued this degree.  I interact with my professors and classmates via email, text, and Zoom; they are a chunk of life I interact with a few times a week over the web. Nothing about this portion of my life interacts much with any other portion, so again, it feels very disconnected and abrupt when I enter and exit this realm.
  3. I go to work about 3 times a week at the hospital as a nurse. I love my job, where I work, and all the people I work with.  But this is another separate chunk of life.  Nothing about my job or the people that I know there spill over into my personal life…other than that my work friends post some freaking amazing FB content that gives me alot of joy.
  4. Most of my friends are spread out all over Indianapolis and surrounding areas. So I go to one town to see one friend, then another town to see another friend.  Up to 86th street to see that person, and down to Bloomington to see that person.  Straight into Broad Ripple to see that one person, and off to Chicago to see that one other person.  If I’m really lucky I’ll occasionally be able to get two of my friends in the same place at one time, and that’s just because I’ve been very rigorous about trying to introduce all of my friends to each other because 1) I know they’ll hit it off, and 2) I need a little more connection between the people in my life, and 3) I think I know half of the divorced women in Indiana and I recognize that we all need each other.
  5. I’m not really hitting up church on Sundays much these days, but for the last several years I had another chunk of life through a congregation I attended and was a part of. I valued it greatly, but it was just another disconnected aspect of my life; it was another hard stop and direction change to go to church and then head back to a different Venn circle in my life. It’s strange to pursue Mennonite values so hard when only a small piece of my life pays attention to those values in any real way.
  6. And then finally, at least I think, my actual extended family is a chunk in my life. But they are spread across Texas and Missouri and I probably feel most disconnected from them and un-integrated with the rest of my life. It’s hard to stay integrated with and know/be known by people you see twice a year.

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So, this is what I realized:  my life has become, not a continuous daily journey with the same people doing much the same things, but a constant jumping from one thing to another.  Something that has hurt me in this, I’m realizing, is that I don’t have very good processes in place to help me transition from one Venn circle to the other, and so I’m constantly feeling disoriented, and very…unsettled.

I don’t think this problem is unique to me.  I have several divorced female friends whose lives have been upended and are trying to piece together a meaningful and joyful existence as I am, while earning a living, parenting, and pursuing the things we are passionate about.  I also think some of these friends are also rocking it so much better than I am.

I pontificate all the time that I’m so glad I’m not tied down in a marriage like I was before, but this is one thing that I’m recognizing:  I do miss some of the certainty, security, and stability that comes with having a family dynamic that is predictable and steady. It’s hard having completely different routines every single day because of the nature of my life and roles; it’s really hard going to sleep one night with a kiddo snuggled up next to me knowing that my other two are dreaming on the other side of the house, and then the next night, I”m sleeping cold and alone in an empty house…hoping maybe at least the cat will come and snuggle with me.

It’s hard trying to talk to people about things in my life when all of those people aren’t involved in other areas of my life and have little clue what I’m talking about and so struggle to relate. The last three years have really been the very first time in my life when the bulk of the people in my life didn’t fit into more than one of my Venn circles.

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I’ve started exercising like crazy again.  I was running, swimming, and cycling alot a couple of years ago, but pretty much dropped them when I started my first nursing job and did nothing but cry and think I was going to die for a solid six months. But, now, I no longer consistently cry and I’ve realized that I can, in fact, work out on days that I work, and it has become a real lifesaver.  I think I’ve figured out why: these long periods of running, or swimming (not biking yet because I haven’t worn a good enough callous on my hiney yet for long rides) are a way to help me transition during all of these hard stops and role changes in my life. It feels kind of like EMDR…that psychotherapy modality where trauma victims are helped to process traumatic memories through bilateral eye movements or bilateral body stimulation. The exercise becomes a meditative experience that helps me physically work out the stress and makes me feel like I can move on to the next thing in a more whole-bodied way.  That may sound really stupid, but I think its legit.  And probably why then, exercise has become so addictive over the last six to eight months….sometimes I feel like its the only thing that is actually keeping me grounded.

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So, what I’m trying to figure out now is how to live an integrated, whole life when you struggle with dissociative lifestyle disorder.  When the people, things that I’m involved in, and things that are important to me are so widely varied and unrelated to each other….how do I hold this all together?  Is it even worth it to try and hold all of these things together in one existence?  My great fear in life is that in the attempt to manage all of these things and people that I hold dear, I’m inevitably going to drop the ball and fail someone miserably. Or, in my whole-hearted attempts to do everything well, the end results will simply be alot of half-assed outcomes.  How do you really know what to keep and what to let go of?   I really hate it when people tell me to make lists and prioritize. My brain does not work that way. Everything, everyone….is important to me.

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I always feel a little self-conscious about the fact that I have some crazy and out of control ADHD.  This contributes alot to the fact that my life fragments so much – I get interested in everything and everyone and so constantly fly off in different directions and say yes to too much and try to do everything right NOW. In my crazy running around I make to-do lists and then forget I made them, I start projects that I hope I’ll eventually finish, and every day becomes a process of making up things as I go along.

My nursing career coach told me the other day that his own therapist’s opinion is that people with ADHD might actually be primed to be the most healthy people in today’s nutty world with too much information and stressors and activity because we can flit superficially over things and not get too bogged down.  I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I trust his opinion, so I’m tentatively going with it.

Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. Yes, my life is fragmented, and definitely messy, but maybe it’s just because my life is big and I’m blessed to have good people and good things happening in every direction I turn. There are some adventure and thrill to the unpredictability of my life, and I am certainly never bored.  I’m finally getting to do things I’ve always wanted to do that I never thought were possible or would actually happen.

And yes, I may be a hot mess express the majority of the time, but I’m definitely not sitting back and letting life pass me by.  I’m not letting my fears control what I do or get involved in. I’m trying really hard every day to grow as a person and become better, and be more authentic than I was the day before.

But, it gets exhausting, feeling like on almost a daily basis I’m teleporting from one alternate universe to another.  It’s frustrating sometimes to be the only common denominator between a bunch of Venn circles, knowing that I’m doing all the transitions by myself, knowing that it’s up to me to hold my world and life together.

So, look, as I promised, no fantastic, helpful conclusions! But if anyone out there knows what it’s like to live a fragmented life and has somehow remained or achieved integration, please….please….share your wisdom.

The Other Shoe Will Inevitably Drop, And It’s Ok.

 

seaI had a rough day this week.  It came out of nowhere, really.  I woke up and knew within a few minutes that an old familiar cloud was hanging over me…Churchhill’s black dog that used to hound me on a regular basis had come for an unexpected visit.

I hardly ever get depressed anymore.  It’s such a sweet relief after years and years of a cycling battle against despair and anxiety. When days come like the one I had a few days ago, I am made so much more grateful for the hope that has learned to float in me.

The thing about these days when I do get depressed is that it’s usually not rational; I can sit there and tell myself all day long that I’m not being rational, and that all is well, but it’s not always possible to talk myself out of places with logic and words.  I’m so very thankful for the people I have in my life that hang with me on the dark days that I do have, and remind me of truth and peace that seem a bit fuzzy and evasive to grasp at the time.

On this particular morning, I woke up missing my mom dreadfully. She and I had a complicated relationship, and we could bicker and pick at each other like nobody’s business, but she was my mom.  She was a constant that I had known for 33 years, a soft place of comfort, someone who always came back even after we had another stupid fight, someone who would shoot the bull with me on the phone and never fail to answer when I just wanted to chat or have a shopping partner.

Next came a wave missing of other people in my life that are now dead and gone.  The dreadful part about loving people deeply is that eventually they will die on you and then you have to spend the rest of your life with a terrible missing-them-ache in your heart.  I’ve been fortunate in this life to have loved deeply and been loved deeply by wonderful people, and many of them left me long ago….left me with many years to remember and miss them.

And finally, my dark day brought fear…not a sharp terror, but a dull blanketing ache of apprehension that everything was going to fall apart and I would be helpless to avert it. As I’ve written about before, the last three and a half years have been about me stepping out of all of my safety nets, trying to do brave things, trying to make up things as I go along while not really knowing what I’m doing, trying to walk on water.  On this day I remembered that I am only one person with alot of limitations, alot of things that I don’t know I don’t know, living in an uncertain world….and fear of losing everything rose up and threatened to choke me as I externally tried to look chill and calm while internally panicking, struggling to push the fear back down.

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Looking back with a little perspective, I was probably hormonal that day.  But hormonal or not, fear is fear and trying to rationalize your fear away with a “hormonal” label never works, and will usually piss off every woman when you tell her this even if she knows it to be true. But I made it through the day, got some sleep, and the next morning the cloud had lifted and the fear had abated, and in its place I found joy and peace and quick laughter again.  Thank God for the recalibration and recentering that can happen with a good night’s sleep.

I’ve been reflecting on how I felt that day, processing it, wondering where it came from, and considering how I can avoid days like that in the future. Days where you’re holding your breath, afraid that the other shoe is about to drop.

Then it occurred to me….something that feels like truth to me that I’ve never consciously thought out before:  the other shoe is inevitably going to drop, but it’s going to be OK.

Most of us spend so much time trying to build security around ourselves, whether it be material goods, wealth, or people that will stand with us for the long haul.  And then we spend so much time and effort worrying about how to keep them.  Our lives become about building and building, amassing and amassing….it’s not even necessarily about gaining luxury and comfort, but just trying to construct life bubbles that make us feel safe and not alone.  We in the Western world are extra great at trying to build these big, safe, static lives where we get to a place of security and then try to brick off its boundaries so it will always be there.

But this is such an illusion, such a cause of extra suffering for us when we try to blockade ourselves off from what “could” happen, when we try desperately to avoid losing what we value, when we dread the potential end of all those things our identities become wrapped up in.

Who will we be when we lose that job or career?  How will we survive if that particular person dies or leaves us? What if our external world crumbles and we have nothing extra special to differentiate ourselves from everyone around us? What then?  What will become of us? Will we simply slide off into an abysmal forgottenness?

I honestly think that one of humankind’s greatest fears is that of nihilism or irrelevance. We are afraid of losing ourselves and becoming unseen, and we unconsciously fear this happening when we lose the external selves that we have worked so hard to create over our lifetimes.

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Buddhism teaches us that all things are impermanent and passing. In fact, so many of the things we believe to be solid and stationary are really just illusions. Everything exists in relationship to each other; quantum physics shows us this, with atomic particles all moving in space and time around each other. Isn’t it remarkable that the specific combination and proximity of the right kinds of atoms and molecules with these relational particles can somehow create a chair that will hold us up?

I think one of our greatest shortcomings is to strive endlessly for perfection…perfection as in a static state where nothing goes wrong and there’s no pain and nothing will ever jump out and surprise us. I grew up believing this is what heaven is supposed to be like, and I remember thinking that it sounded as boring as hell and I might as well just exist as a fork if that’s what I had to look forward to.

As much as we hate to admit it, joy and peace and thankfulness are functions of a greater whole, a bigger picture….where the dark and loss and constant change are necessary. Otherwise, “being” would be flat and shapeless, and probably not worth having.

I think a better way to define perfection is not the goal of reaching a blissful, unchanging realm of existence…but rather, a state of “wholebeing-ness”, where we are always fully where we are, knowing that each moment will pass and change into something new and different, and that fundamentally we are still there, still loved by whatever it was that created and is still creating us, and that we will be well.

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If you stop and think about it, the shoe is eventually going to drop at some point….we just don’t always know when that point is.

Find the love of your life….you’re going to lose them at some point.  They may walk out on you tomorrow, they may die of cancer in five years, they may outlive you and die of a ripe old age.  But, you’re going to “lose” them at some point. Or, they will lose you first.

Build the perfect career and gain a stellar reputation in your field.  Write books, publish papers, dazzle audiences with your charisma.  It will all eventually fade away and at some point, you will be laid off, or some other bright and smart youngster will come up with greater ideas and your accomplishments will no longer seem so glorious, or you will reach the age where retirement looms and you are too tired to trudge into work each day. You will eventually “lose” your vocation and career.

Build a big house; it may burn or be hit by a tornado or be foreclosed on. Or your toddlers will render it an unlivable shambles.

Have children and raise them the best you know how: they may move states away or refuse to speak to you or become so absorbed in their lives that they forget to call.

Save all your money for travel after you retire and then receive the dreadful diagnosis that suddenly drains that travel bank account dry before you’ve stepped foot on the tarmac to fly off to an exotic location.

Have amazing beauty, or athleticism, or sex appeal and charm:  we’re all going to get old or ugly at some point, and no measure of lotions, creams, or exercise will save us from all that telomere shortening and DNA fraying and cells deciding they’re too tired to keep replicating.

The shoe IS going to drop at some point, and the things we don’t want to happen are going to happen. I just can’t see any other way around it.  Where we run into certain trouble is when we try to convince ourselves that we can avoid the shoe-drop, or that we can control it and postpone it to our liking. We can’t…and attempting to do so just causes us fear, and stress, and suffering.

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It feels increasingly clear to me, as illuminated by my black dog day this week, that most things are pretty much out of our control.  This could seem scary, but I think if we reframe it, it might seem better.

We don’t have much control over the hard things that come into our lives, but when you think about it, we don’t really control the good things that come into our lives, either….yet those good things still come.  We are also so quick to label everything and every event that comes our way:  this is good, that is bad, I like this, I hate that.  We look at individual data points instead of overall trends. This shortsightedness and rush to draw conclusions doesn’t serve us so well.

I can look back on so many times in my life where something didn’t go the way I wanted, and I thought it would be better to just lay down and die because life had passed me over.  And then, down the road a ways, I would look back and thank the sweet Jesus that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted in that moment…or I could see so clearly how that terrible moment had brought me to something so much better now, or had grown me into a bigger and better person.  Sometimes….sometimes….what we need most is for that shoe to drop.  Sometimes the shoe drop is the vehicle that can carry us forward into the joy and peace and new life that we didn’t once think possible.

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There’s a great parable that makes the point that we should be careful to label what happens in our lives as blessings or curses.  My experience has shown me that this tale is true.  The version I found was from Max Lucado, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard similar stories from Buddhist writers, too. Here it is:

The Old Man and The White Horse

There’s an old parable about an old man and his white horse. In this parable, the old man has a beautiful white horse. He could sell it and amass a large fortune.

The old man chooses to keep it in a stable and never sells the horse, His neighbors think he is crazy, telling him that there will come a day the horse is stolen and the man will have nothing.

That day came. Waking up one morning, the horse was not in its stable and was nowhere to be found.

The man’s neighbors were right all along and they rushed to tell the man he was now cursed because he had lost everything.

The man’s response is profound: “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”

The people were offended by what the man said. “How can you say this?” they asked, “it is clear that you are cursed no matter what your perspective might be.”

The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”

What a fool the neighbors thought.


After several days the horse returned, he’d not been stolen, but ran away. On his return, he brought with him a dozen wild horses.

Now the neighbors had to come out to tell the man that he was right all along and in fact, he’s a blessed man because now he has a whole herd of horses.

The man responds again: “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”

The man’s neighbors found it hard to argue with this. “Maybe he’s right,” they said. But deep down they knew the old man was wrong. He had one horse now he has thirteen — how could he say he isn’t blessed?


The old man had a son — his only child. The son went to breaking these wild horses when one of them flung him off, landing he broke both of his legs.

The neighbors were awestruck at the man’s wisdom. “He was right we were wrong,” they thought. The old man, being too old to do much on the farm, no longer had his son available to work the land. With no one tending the farm, he would likely lose his income.

Not long after this, a war broke out in the old man’s country. All young men were called up to serve in the army where most would perish, leaving many fathers without their sons.

This was true for the old man’s neighbors who had sons that were to never return home. They went to the old man weeping, “you were right, we were wrong.”

“Your son’s accident is a blessing and while his legs are broken you will have many more years with him,” they said, “We will not, our sons are gone. You are blessed, we are cursed.”

The old man responded once again: “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this. Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”

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I think the whole point of the parable above is that the best way to live life is to take what comes to us, accept it, and stop our incessant labeling of every, single thing that happens.  This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grieve the hard things we face (and I have more thoughts on this in a future post), but we cause ourselves more hurt when we insist that we know how life is supposed to be all the time.  We DON’T know.  Our lives are so infinitesimally short; we are a blip on the cosmic timeline, and REALLY, what do we know and truly understand about all the great and unimaginable things going on all around us in our galaxy and beyond.

Finally, I think we have to learn to go inward as well as very far outward to know that we are OK when our shoes drop. If we only look at our lives with what our five senses can perceive, it can seem terrifying and difficult, cruel and often pointless. It can feel like nothing and nobody is in control, and the whole world is just a goddamned mess.

This is where we must learn from the mystics, those who have different eyes to see. The mystics are the ones who have survived the shoe drops and can tell us what lies on the other side. When my soul is in distress, I turn to Rumi again and again for comfort, to remember how to see things in a new way when my physical eyes are burdened with all the pain, unfairness, inequity, and grief that people are experiencing around me.  I love these words….these are soul words:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

Let the shoe drops come; don’t fear them, don’t fight them, because we don’t know what lies on the other side; we can’t say if we will encounter a blessing or a curse. What we have is now, and now, and now.  I, for one, want to enjoy the hell out of each of my now’s, catching and releasing, and resting in that field where we don’t have to label every single thing and we don’t even have to understand every single thing.  We are just free to be, and be loved, by this life that keeps bringing itself to us, day after day.

Relationships Are Not “Clean Your Plate” Clubs

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Photo credit: Dan with PieLab

When I was growing up, my family very much pushed the whole “clean your plate” value.  I frequently recall my mother admonishing me to “remember the starving children in Armenia!”  I had no clue at the time where Armenia was and why the children were starving there.  I think by that point perhaps her imperative was a little dated.

My dad grew up as a son of poor hill country ranchers, so he definitely was not one to turn up food, even if he didn’t like it.  He pushed this ethic onto my brother and me, especially the importance of being careful with how you dole out food so you don’t waste any or take more than what is rightfully yours.

I remember one time we were eating a meal with HEB BBQ sauce.  I particularly liked BBQ sauce, and this night, in my enthusiasm, I accidentally poured half the bottle of the sauce onto my place. My dad, in an effort to teach me proper bottle holding and sauce pouring, made me eat that plate of BBQ sauce.  Questionable parenting tactic, perhaps, but I guarantee you I never poured out a sauce or condiment from a 90-degree angle ever again!

In general, I was not a picky eater, and in general, I really like food. That being said, there were a few foods that I just had no appetite for.  I wasn’t a fan of cooked broccoli until high school, and olives (especially, when my mom ruined her amazing chicken spaghetti by adding them), just didn’t do too much for me.  But the most God-awful thing my mom ever made was boiled eggs sliced over cooked spinach from a can.

Now, I grew up outside the Wintergarden region of Texas, where basically an Eden of produce exists.  Why my mom felt the need to serve us nasty canned spinach when there was inexpensive, lovely, fresh spinach abundantly available, I’ll never know.  But even with this dish that I despised, my family’s “clean your plate” club rule was enforced.  I would stomach down that nasty spinach and eggs, praying I wouldn’t gag and resupply my plate with what I had worked so hard to get in me.

I know I’m not the only person that grew up in this kind of household.  While there are definite harms that can be done by forcing children to eat what they don’t want and and when they feel the sense of being full, it is also important to learn not to waste what we are given, and to tread lightly on the Earth by only taking what we need.

A friend of mine, while not a card-carrying member of the “clean your plate” club, is pretty emphatic with her kids that what ends up on their plates is really not up to them.  Her kids taught my boys the following sing-song response they had become so accustomed to hearing from her:  “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!”

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For most of my life, I believed that people and relationships were sent my way directly via Providence.  Which meant, I was to accept them and all that came with them, including their opinions of me and words about me.  As a result, I never had very good boundaries until recently.  In fact, I rather think I used to approach relationships and friendships like “clean your plate clubs”:  I was to take all that was offered without throwing a fit.

For whatever reason, I have always been terrible about internalizing what people say to me. It’s like I trusted their opinions about me more than I trusted myself.  I don’t’ really know how I got to this place, but it’s definitely hard to learn to fight against this tendency.

I can think of so many stingers that people have thrown at me over the years that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker:  “Julie, you’re lazy.  Julie, you’re a quitter.  Julie, you’ll never succeed at such and such.  Julie, that’s a really stupid idea. ”  Etc, etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to question what these people were saying, to think that maybe they were the ones who were completely wrong and not me.

I think one of the biggest game-changers for me was when I finally began to learn how to say, metaphorically speaking:  “You are not my parent, I am not five, and this is not the dinner table.  I do not have to choke down anything that you believe about me, even if it is true.  I have the freedom to accept or reject what I wish from you.”

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One of the “clean your plate” club categories that seems to most plague many of us is when people slap broad labels on to us, like “SELFISH”, or “HATEFUL” or “LAZY” or “STUPID” or “CLUMSY” or “QUITTER”.  It’s these labels that tie themselves to our identities and hurt and immobilize us the most; it is much easier to swallow condemnations on individual behaviors that we exhibit than who we fundamentally are as people.

The crazy thing is, we often, without thinking, believe whatever people tell us.  Like we don’t stop and question our own thoughts, so do we frequently fail to actually question what people are saying to us.  Is what they are saying actually accurate?  Has the person who is saying something to us actually even earned the right to speak into our lives? Is the person simply projecting their own hurts and fears and insecurities onto us?

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I”m old enough to know now that no relationship or friendship is going to be perfect.  Everyone is beautifully flawed, and everyone is going to say and do stupid stuff at times.  But I firmly believe that we can fully accept a person we are in relationship with without accepting everything they try to give us or push on us. In fact, I now also believe that we don’t have to be in relationship with every single person that comes our way, which good grief, it only took me like 33 years to learn.

Here are my qualifications for how relationships should ideally work, and how we should know which people to keep close and which we should distance ourselves from:

  1. Relationships should always be a give and take.  This may not be equal 50/50 all the time, but if you’re constantly putting all the effort in the relationship and the other person is just taking and taking without offering anything useful in return….you have probably fallen into the “clean your plate” club.
  2.   If a person in your relationship is constantly slapping labels on you that negatively speak to your identity as a human being, shove that plate away and push back from the table. Insist that people express “I” statements about how they feel, not pointed “You” statements that throw all the blame for their feelings onto you.
  3. This one is big for me:  if a person can never, ever offer a sincere apology for wrongs they have committed against you….this is probably not someone you want in your life, or at least in your inner circle.  Each of us screw up from time to time, and real love is able to honestly convey to our loved one that we are wrong and want to make amends.
  4.  As Maya Angelou ( I believe) said, if you are only an option to a person, and not a priority, then be very careful what advice and words you are willing to receive from them. You are under no obligation to accept their opinions or criticisms of you.
  5. If someone also attempts to gaslight you, and twist words and situations to place the blame squarely on you all the time…again, push back from the table and walk away.
  6. If someone feels the need to opinion vomit all over you, but they have not shown themselves trustworthy in your friendship, and they are making no attempts to work on their own shadow selves….yep, scrape that plate straight in the trash.

So, then, who are the kind of people that we want to keep around…the people whose opinions are nourishing and good eats for our souls?

  1. Keep people that know you have shit you struggle with but who choose to focus on your strengths.
  2. Listen closely to the people who are willing to shut their mouths and listen.
  3.  People need to earn trust and respect; save your deep stuff and your traumas for the people who have proven they are willing to hang with you for the long haul.  Like it says in the Gospels….don’t throw your pearls before swine.  Don’t reveal your big heart hurts to those who can’t handle them carefully.
  4. Keep close to the people who know where you are now, but can dream with you about where you one day can be.  These are the people who have a vested interest in you and will help pick you up again when you fall down.
  5. Keep the people near you, who may completely fuck up but apologize and keep working on their stuff, getting up again and again…these are the people who can empathize with you when you yourself completely fuck up.
  6. Hold tight to the people who understand that life is mostly about love, and forgiveness, and grace…not things, success, and status.

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I think one of the markers of “growing up” as a human is the realization that we don’t have to automatically receive whatever is handed to us in life. We have the agency to accept or reject people’s opinions, beliefs, and words about us. It is this realization that really has the power to start transforming the way we live because it breaks chains in our minds that hold us stuck in certain thought and behavior patterns.

I used to absolutely fall apart when someone said something really awful about me, because I assumed that somehow, it must be true.  I have been so pleasantly surprised with myself lately to discover that those kinds of harsh words tend to bounce off me much more rapidly than they used to…it’s like I have some kind of Kevlar protection on my outside that keep hurtful labels form penetrating me.

Relationships are no longer a “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” kind of dynamic.  Maybe I don’t need to throw fits, but I can certainly refuse to engage in hurtful, toxic relationships because that is my right.  I can also choose to engage in difficult relationships that take alot of work and hard communication because that is also my right.  No one has the right to say how I, or you, are to engage in relationships.  We don’t just have to accept whatever appears on the plate in front of us.  This, I believe, is what develops the best, truest, most loving relationships:  where we come freely, giving, receiving, and never forcing anything on anyone.

And as a final note, just don’t ever buy spinach in a can.  Seek out good quality nourishing relationships, and consider yourself valuable enough to eat fresh greens.

 

The Challenge of Committing to Others and Making Promises to Yourself

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The other day I was listening to a recent episode of On Being, where Krista Tippett was interviewing the folk singer Joe Henry.  They were discussing how important his marriage was to him, how he saw being married to his wife as natural to who he was…it is part of his identity as a person and foundational to his human-ness.

The podcast episode, in general, was fantastic, but it caused me to stop and think for a while about the idea of commitment to others…both in romantic partnerships as well as committing to do life with specific people.  I actually sat down immediately and emotional verbiage vomited out an entire blog post, which I promptly lost because it didn’t autosave and I forgot to hit the update button. Honestly, that was probably the universe’s way of telling me that all ya’ll didn’t need to read that messy, unedited Julie-overload. This redo post is still me heavily processing ideas, and could still be a bit on the mental barf spectrum.

For whatever reason, this episode made me suddenly stop and decide to rethink marriage.  The truth is, I have been very grumpy about the institution of marriage for a very long time.  It took me years to be brave and leave my own marriage, so when people ask me about getting married again sometime in the future it’s almost all I can do to either not smirk or respond with a “Why the hell would I do THAT?!”

Of course, I’m always impressed when I meet couples who have braved the odds or have been married for decades.  I’m usually never against other people getting married. But, it left a really bad taste in my own mouth.  I’ve said so often in the last few years that I never again want to be legally tied to someone, that I never want my finances to be intermingled with another person’s, that I never want to be dependent on a man again. And until this last week, I thought all of my spouting off came from a place of self-awareness.  I have since been questioning this and thinking that maybe my “self-aware” attitude was really just my undealt-with fear attempting to appear enlightened.

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I definitely grew up with some deep-seated notions of what marriage was supposed to be about. (What I’m about to say is what I believed mixed with a healthy dose of sarcasm and generalization, just so you’re warned). What I internalized was that women, thanks to being created second and thanks to Eve’s colossal screwup in the garden, relegated us to second-class citizenship in the eyes of God. We were to submit ourselves to our husbands and help them succeed, being all that God had intended for them.  Seriously, I can’t believe I ever believed any of this, and these days the words “helpmeet” or “helpmate” make me throw up a little in my mouth. I used to believe that the man was supposed to be the spiritual leader of the house, and make the final decisions, and a whole lot of other ridiculousness….like how wives should be available for sex pretty much any time the husband wanted.  I’m eye-rolling so hard right now.

My rebellion against marriage is not just a pushing back against my own less-than-great 11-year experience, but a HARD push back against the belief system that I grew up with. I have associated marriage with a really icky feeling – suffocation mixed with feeling less than and the perception of not being able to make it through life as a complete and thriving person without a man to steer the ship.

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Byron Katie is one of my favorite spiritual teachers because she teaches me to question everything, and not assume that what I perceive as reality is always true. She is an amazing person who has this uncanny ability to not attach to outcomes, and as a result, she is free from suffering when things don’t turn out the way she would have expected or hoped for.

Katie is married to Stephen Mitchell, a well-known writer and translator of sacred Eastern spiritual texts. She has told a story several times about how her relationship with Stephen works.  Basically, when they got married, they did not promise to love each other until one of them died.  Instead, she promised to love Stephen until she didn’t love him. And he vowed the same to her.

I have always found this amazing because it implies that both parties have absolute freedom to stay or leave; they are not in the relationship out of manipulation or obligation, but simply because they love the other person and want to stay.  Why would anyone want a traditional marriage when they could have this kind of understanding….the kind that says “I love you and want you to stay, but if you want to leave I love you enough that I will help you pack your bags.”

It’s a shocking, scandalous kind of love, isn’t it? I want to be able to love others that way.

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As I was pondering this question of whether or not the idea of marriage could ever not be an icky topic for me, I began to think of the other people I have committed to in my life, and why I’ve committed to them.  Some of my best friends live states away from me.  A few friends and I have chased each other all over the country in the last couple of decades, but we stick out our friendship even when it’s hard.  We make a point to keep talking, to keep connecting, and to travel to see each other because we value this thing we hold between us.

But why? Why do I do this with some people, but not want to do it with others?

As I was thinking about this last week, a friend had a movie going on in the background, that caught my attention with a line one character asked another.  Granted, I later found out the movie was Midsommar, a dark and creepy movie whose ending totally weirded me out.  But the line stuck with me.

“Does he feel like home to you?”

And, yes!  This is why I stick with certain people, even when the logistics don’t make sense, even when there are ridiculous hurdles to keep crossing to maintain a relationship, even when we might go weeks without connecting.  I commit to these friends because they feel like home to me. They are the ones who make me feel like I am safe in the world and belong, even if they aren’t physically next to me.

I’m a very “feely’ person.  Being an XNFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I do so much of my life based on how it feels.  I buy houses based on feel, I choose towns to live in based on feel, I make impulsive decisions based on feel,  I, unfortunately, eat too much comfort food based on how it makes me feel, …. and…I choose people to commit to and do life with based on how they make me feel.

I didn’t always do this.  For much of my life, I based my relationship commitments on obligation, duty, and, a little selfishly, on those I thought might help make things a little easier, bring me more respect, or ensure me more security.  I’m glad I’ve learned to change that because now my relationships seem much more authentic. Nowadays, I want to be in relationship with people who feel like “home” to me, and where I, reciprocally, feel like “home” to them.

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I’ve known people who have intentionally committed to “do life” with other people beyond the scope of marriage or family.  This has varied in how it looked; some have lived next to each other on the same property with a communal money pot and shared business endeavors.  Others simply promised each other that they would intentionally stay living within certain geographical boundaries so that they could regularly meet with each other, encourage each other in goals, and hold each other accountable to whatever principles and values were important to them.

This kind of commitment seems really cool to me, but it takes some serious sacrifice. It’s about people choosing to accept the personalities and quirks of others in close proximity physically and/or emotionally, in the pursuit of some common goal.  It also accepts the fact that there may be struggle involved, and maybe the whole relationship structure will fail at some point. What makes people do things like this? And,  what are they getting out of it?  Is living in intentional, committed community with people a good thing all the time?  Is it always better than being able to freely move about without expectations from others? These are questions I think about alot.

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I should point out that I recognize that the Western world has a unique understanding of marriage, and that it has not always been about falling in love.  I get that in history marriage was frequently a way to create allies, and forge bonds between families and people groups to help secure peace. I also know that in so many places arranged marriages were the deal for years, where matchmakers or parents picked who someone was going to marry.

I have adopted parents (C and L) in West Africa who had an arranged marriage.  They have been married for decades and I’ve always marveled at how well partnered and suited for each other they seem to be.  I asked C once what he thought about his marriage.  He told me that when he was young, L had been pointed out to him as a potential mate, and after taking a good look at her, he was good with the deal. (He had a big grin on his face when he told me this). Though the marriage was arranged, they forged a friendship and bond that worked very well, raising great kids, and they have always seemed really happy and content with each other.

The idea of an arranged marriage feels freaking scary to me; I think you REALLY have to trust your parents in that area when the partner picking is happening. And I can see, in situations like that, you need a solid, formal commitment by both parties to be the glue that will hold the relationship together. There has to be some real sense of obligation, I think, to make an arranged marriage successful.

But, we don’t have that kind of society anymore. So, do we really need the formal commitments and legal boundaries of traditional marriage?  Getting into formal marriage is some ways, in my opinion, WAY too easy, when it is so freaking hard, stressful, and expensive to get out of those marriages.  I kind of think that if the State is going to be involved, then they need to make it harder for people to get married on the front end so maybe we’ll all stop and think a little harder before signing on the dotted line.

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I discussed this topic with a friend of mine after I completely lost the blog post that I had furiously typed out and then lost in a matter of seconds.  This person made a couple of good points.  When I said that I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of being tied so tightly to someone I was romantically involved with, and didn’t want the mess and stress of limiting myself legally and financially, they reframed it for me, saying “If you’re intentionally leaving yourself all of these strategic exits and backdoor escape routes in a relationship, then how committed are you really to the relationship in the first place?  And is that even really a legitimate, authentic relationship?”

That one stung a bit, to be honest.  If I want to be loosely tied enough to a person that I can escape when I start getting uncomfortable, is that really much of a relationship worth being in?

This person then made a second point that I think is noteworthy.  Why is it that we think the marriage ceremony is where, BAM!, all the commitment happens?  Isn’t it better to progress slowly in relationship with someone to the point to where we one day wake up and realize that we that we have worked ourselves into solid commitment with each other, and THEN have the marriage ceremony simply to acknowledge that recognized commitment?  It’s a subtle, but I think, important, difference in the way to view marriage.

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This week I had an epiphany while I was driving to work.  I was thinking about my own marriage ceremony and the vows that my ex-husband and I made to each other all those years ago.  Vows that didn’t keep.

It occurred to me that during that ceremony, I was making vows to another person, but I wasn’t making vows to MYSELF.  I was repeating the words that are expected in traditional marriage ceremonies, words that I thought were the magic and glue to make commitment suddenly appear and stick.  And then, I realized that making vows to other people will never work…not forever at least….because in making vows only to the other person, you’re forgetting an integral piece of the relationship….YOU.

If we can’t make promises to ourselves….if we can’t commit to ourselves….then how the heck do we think we can commit to some other person for who knows how many years? But don’t we do this all the time in marriage ceremonies?!  We promise to love our future spouse until we die, when we don’t really even know how to love ourselves.  We promise to stick with them through good times and bad, when we so frequently, we fail ourselves, judge ourselves, limit ourselves.  We promise to cherish each other, when so often, we can hardly stand ourselves, much less cherish ourselves.

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I think there are two main reasons I squirm around the idea of marriage these days.  The first is because for so long marriage was wrapped up in how God viewed me, and my identity, worth, and status were bound up in this institution. Marriage was very much a place of feeling trapped and controlled for me; it never felt like a place where certain freedoms were set aside for the sake of pursuing something greater. I felt worse about myself when I was married than when I wasn’t.  (I should point out this is not an ex-husband bashing post…I’m alluding to the unfortunate dynamics that were present in my marriage, not throwing all the blame on the other person).  But I really think now that part of the reason the whole thing was a failure was that I had never made vows to myself – I had never promised to treasure myself, I had never promised to hang tight with myself through whatever life brought me. Instead, I believed that I had to give someone else all the things that I had never yet learned to give myself.

The other reason I squirm about marriage is that I’m not sure we are always, absolutely meant to meet someone and stay with them FOREVER.  I think it’s fantastic when this happens, but….what do you do when you and the person you are married to completely outgrow each other?  When you suddenly have NOTHING in common, when even your value systems are polar opposite? The stigma of divorce here is so damaging to people who are just trying to be their authentic selves, and we shame them for being true to themselves and pursuing the things that are life-giving to them.  I think it’s a really bad idea to try and put one-size fits all templates of marriage on everyone and assume that we all know what is going on behind closed doors, and I really, really think its a horrible idea to bring God into the equation and start telling people that God wants their marriage to look like this or that.  I can personally attest to trauma received by people doing that to me in some terribly hurtful ways.

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So, what am I trying to say in all of the rambling of this post?

First, my ego has been knocked down a tad bit because I realized that my repugnance towards marriage again was not enlightenment and amazing self-awareness, but rather, me pretending that I don’t still have hurts and fears to process and work through.

Second, I don’t want to be the person that avoids real, loyal love because I need to keep backdoors open when I start feeling the heat and getting uncomfortable. Isn’t doing so exactly what I blog all the time about trying to avoid?  Don’t avoid pain and suffering, I always write!  Embrace the hard things!  This is where the growth and the real stuff of life is!  I’m spoonfeeding my own words back to myself right now.

Third, maybe marriage for me just needs to be completely reframed.  It definitely can have some legal and financial perks to it, to be sure.  But instead of viewing it as a static moment in time where people suddenly commit to each other, maybe it should be viewed as the culmination of commitment that been building over a long time….maybe it should be more of a celebration of that commitment rather than the sudden shaky start of commitment that hasn’t gotten it’s sea legs yet.

And fourth, what would it look like if we became more serious about making vows to ourselves WAY before we made these crazy, impossible-to-promise vows to another person?  What if marriage could be a fluid state where we were entirely committed for that period in time, but then we’re free and blessed to leave if our vows to the other person started causing us to break our vows to ourselves?  I know I don’t want to be with anyone who feels like they have to be with me out of obligation. I want someone to be with me because they feel like they can be their best self when they’re with me. And, I want to want to love people so much that they know they can come and go and they will always still be loved.  This is super hard to do in practice, but a worthy goal, I think.

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When I began questioning all the theological beliefs I grew up with, I had to undergo a deconstruction.  For a couple of years I was MAD at Christianity, MAD at the Church, and MAD at myself for believing things that helped keep trauma firmly embedded within myself and kept me pinned down in a trapped, small life. But over time, the anger faded, I was able to reframe my perspectives about my life and past, and I reconstructed a faith that is still deeply rooted in Christianity, that feels authentic and real to me.

As I’ve written this post, I’m thinking that the same is going to have to happen for me regarding the idea of marriage and long term commitments to anyone.  Maybe I needed to be really angry for a while, separate myself completely from the idea of committing hardcore to someone, and allow myself time to reframe my understanding of relationships, while gradually reconstructing a new paradigm for how I want future relationships to look.

Marriage doesn’t have to be BAD or a means of trapping myself or another person into staying. Committing to other people doesn’t mean that I have to lose myself or suddenly become subservient in different aspects of my life.

I’ve said this before in posts regarding spirituality…..as Ken Wilbur and others have talked about, I want to “transcend and include.”  I don’t want to throw out things in my life completely just because they were hard or didn’t well. I want to be able to take the good things with me, and use them to construct new ways of thinking and being. I think maybe I’m making small steps in that direction now as I’m finally willing to take another look at long term commitment and relationship with others.

 

 

How To Cut Yourself Off From Joy

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Photo credit: Melinda Shelton

As I have grown older, I am recognizing more and more that there is a huge difference between happiness and joy. I’ve heard about this difference since I was little, ’cause joy is discussed alot in churchy environments. However, I never really could make a distinction between the two in a real way until the last five or so years.

But now, I KNOW what joy is, and I totally get what Jesus meant when he talked about the peace that passes all understanding. Happiness is about the things that you enjoy in life, the things that bring you pleasure, the pleasant feeling of satisfaction with whatever is currently coming your way. The Office makes me happy.  Key lime pie makes me happy. Stupid Facebook memes make me REALLY happy.  Joy, on the other hand, is the deep soul resolve to keep waking up every morning with hope, determined to let life dance you moment after moment even in the midst of shitstorms. Joy is the grit, the resilient knowing, that, as Thomas Merton said, “Everything that is, is holy.”  Joy is the choice to love what is, even when that “what is” is paradoxical, painful, and hard because you know that there is a redemptive power coursing through life that is vibrating grace into all things….even the terrible and impossible things.

I’ve been thinking alot about my own joy lately, especially because of conversations that I’ve been having with people about the hard things in their lives, the things that God dammit! refuse to be resolved, the pain that won’t go away, the lingering resentments and fears and loss of big dreams. There is clearly so much in the world that threatens to rob us of joy. It takes daily vigilance and intention to hold onto it, to pursue it with abandon.

I remember when I first moved back to Indiana in the process of getting a divorce. My ex and I had split custody of the boys from the start, and twice a week I would send them to him on his designated days. Up until that time I had hardly spent many nights away from my kids other than to attend an occasional conference or travel to visit family. Now, I was regularly sending them away from me, for up to four nights at a time.  The pain of having to put my kids in his car, often when they were crying and begging to stay with me, made me absolutely want to die. During those first few months, I would crawl back into my house, lay on the living room floor, sometimes getting myself plastered drunk, because….how had I gotten to this place? This was not how life was supposed to be, not the kind of parent I was supposed to be, even if I had chosen this path and the end of my marriage. It would take all I had to get into bed in an empty, quiet house each night, and then get up each morning and face another breakfast alone, hating this void of my kids not being with me.

And yet, paradoxically, I did not despair.  Because while there was this horrible thing that hurt my heart so terribly, there was the possibility of hope. This hope rising, the hope that had made me brave enough to change my life, to listen to my gut for once, to trust myself…told me that I would get through this “I just want to lay down and die” pain of what I was going through with my kids. Each day, something would happen that would grow this hope, and as time went on I realized that I, in fact, was not going to die from pain, and my kids were not going to die from pain, and that everything was going to be OK.  I found that I could take pleasure and solace in things even when my heart ached for my children. I began to explore all the things in life that intrigued me even though I still had fears and hurts and unknowns that I had no clue how to deal with.  I could laugh and cry, and I can still laugh and cry, at the very same moment. This is joy.

Rumi said, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”  I totally believe this.  When you approach life by listening to the voice in your soul, your gut feeling, your instincts… even when hard, difficult things are required of you… you can sense this joy river within, and it begins to carry you, where fear and despair were once the currents that directed your life.

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Too many people are biding their time in life without any joy. Life becomes about checking off the next box, or climbing ladders, or creating external appearances that will garner laud and approval from others whose opinions really don’t matter anyway.

I hate that so much despair exists in the world, even in first world countries like the United States, where we live in relative ease and luxury.  How easily we forget that life is freaking magical, and how quickly we forget to be in absolute awe of the amazingness around us! I was talking with a friend the other night about our cell DNA and how I heard a fact about it that made me physically giddy and childishly excited.  If you took all of the DNA from al the cells in the average human being and stretched it out end to end in a linear fashion, it could go to the Sun and back 300 times!!!  Come on!!!  I mean, do you even need to believe in God to not be freaking amazed and overjoyed by the wonder of that?!  Doesn’t it dazzle you to imagine how far DNA would stretch if we took all of the genetic material from the 7-something billion people in the world and laid it out end to end?

We lose our joy because of how we frame life, because of the things we choose to focus on, and because we forget to wake up every morning with fresh eyes and open hands, willing to receive whatever life has for us.  I am in no way denying that events and people in life can be monstrous, shitty, and, well….evil.  But I am so completely soul-convinced that, as the Gospel of John said, the darkness cannot overcome the Light.

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I like practical, and I like lists.  So, here are listed, based on my life experience, six things that will absolutely cut yourself off from joy in life. So, if you don’t want joy, revel in these.  If you want to cultivate joy and peace, strive to fight against these tendencies, however possible.

1. Believe all of the thoughts in your head. In fact, believe that you ARE your thoughts.  There is plenty of scientific research out there that shows our brains have a greater affinity for negative thoughts than positive ones. And somehow, we all seem to grow into the belief that whatever comes down our thought pipeline must automatically be true…AND…those thoughts must be us because they came from our brains, didn’t they?  Nope!  You are not your thoughts, and just because your brain churns out an idea doesn’t mean that you even have to pay attention to it.  There is a REAL YOU that is a witnesser, a watcher, of all the thoughts that come into your brain.  It takes time and practice to separate the real you from the personality you, but it can happen.  I cannot recommend Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie highly enough for teaching you how to find the REAL YOU within.

2. Refuse to believe that the obstacles are the path. If you think that the only meaningful life is one that is rosy and blemish-free, then you will absolutely never have any joy. The obstacle IS the path!  REAL life, the real experience of being human, is being and accepting where you are and what you have now.  There can be no other way.

We learn to love and to grow through things not being easy, by not going our way….because….we learn that we don’t have to have things go our way to have joy, to be content, to love well. The obstacles teach us that it is not the externals that make us or break us….it is how we work with those obstacles and let them refine us.

3. Assume that all you see and perceive with your five senses is really all that exists. On one hand, I am very analytical and data-driven. On the other hand, I’m about as woo-wooey as they come.  I am absolutely convinced that the cosmos is enchanted, and any time someone tells me its just a matter of time before science figures everything out, I secretly smile to myself and say, “We’ll see.”   To me, God, the Divine, the Universe…is a mystery.  And, as Rob Bell has said, “mystery is infinitely knowable.” Which means that the spirit in everything will always be enchanted.  Try and convince me otherwise.

There are too many things that are unexplainable by just using our “5” senses.  Those senses can’t explain love.  They can’t explain how people can dream things that actually happen. They can’t explain the spiritual connections we feel with some people in our lives. And they can’t explain JOY.

But, if you think that the only things that actually exist are what you can hear, taste, touch, smell, and see….well, you might be occasionally happy but you’re going to miss out on some of the real mystery of all things and the deepest meaning of existence.

4. Identify strongly with your roles in life. The other day, in the hospital, I randomly had a patient ask me if I was a runner.  I was so pleased because, while I run and enjoy the heck out of it, I don’t exactly have a runner’s body and I’m not terribly fast or nimble.  So, to have someone recognize just by my body mannerisms that I am a runner simply please me to no end.

However, this identification as a runner made me think of the other roles in life I identify with.  I’m a mother, I’m an intellectual, I’m this or I’m that.  And while it’s great to have things that we are passionate about in life, over-identifying with anything can ruin joy for us….because we can get lost when the role we identify with is taken away from us.  The key to joy is to recognize that we all wear hats, we are all passionate about certain things….but those things are not who we are at our core. It is this recognition that helps us get up off the floor and keep living life when we are wrecked by devastating events. We are so much more than what is happening to us.

5. Stay in relationship with and in close proximity to people who treat you like crap. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will rob you of joy like negative people that tear you down…or even those who make minimal to no effort to encourage you. This is something I’ve discovered in the last several years:  life is TOO short and there are too many amazing people out there in the world for you to continue to do life with people who treat you like shit.  FOR REAL.

We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because they’ve been in our lives forever.  We don’t have to be in relationship with people just because they are family. We don’t have to stay in relationship with people just because we feel guilty or codependent or lonely.  Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud – go buy this book and read it.

If you want joy in your life, seek out the people who are joyful. Seek out the people who notice your faults and weaknesses, but would much rather talk about and spotlight your strengths. Seek out the people who are literally willing to go in the trenches with you; not the ones who keep telling you why you’re such an idiot that you ended up in the trenches in the first place. Seek out the people that make you a priority, not an option. Follow the people that spread joy in their wake.

6. Avoid pain at all cost.  This is one of those, “trust me on this” things.  I don’t know why the universe is set up like this. God didn’t ask me for my input when They were making the rules.  But, for some reason, pain so very often comes before joy.  I’m not a huge fan of pain…but I’m gradually learning not to avoid it because I know that when handled properly, pain is often the gateway to joy. When we choose to avoid pain, emotional and sometimes physical, we may remain safe….we may remain comfortable…but there’s a very great chance that our lives will be much less rich and joyful than they could be if we had faced our pain head-on.

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I would much rather live a life drunk on joy and be thought of as a fool than to plod through life complaining and griping and feeling fatalistic and hopeless while being considered wise by the world.

To quote Rumi again…. “ 

Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance…

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Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,

No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.

Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.

Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.

The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires, The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;

The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;

To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,

With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.

-Walt Whitman

I’m almost three and a half years out from my divorce. It kind of amazes me how fast that time flew, and all the big changes and events in my life that have happened between then and now.  Something I’ve alluded to in previous posts over those years is that dating after being out of the game for over a decade of marriage is no joke. Alot of this is because I’ve changed so much as a person, and the old dynamics of the way my dating life used to go don’t fit anymore.  Furthermore, the kind of people I’m interested in is so vastly different than when I was in my twenties. I’m much less driven by my fears and childhood wounds than I used to be. Also, I ain’t got time or patience for unnecessary drama.

I have a dating policy that I implemented about two and a half years ago. It’s something I take pretty seriously. : my policy states that barring really, really dreadful first dates, I will always go on at least two dates with a person.

Why?

Because so much can be weird and go wrong on the first date that isn’t representative of who the person really is. Nerves play a big role in feeling comfortable, it takes time sometimes to figure out a conversation flow, maybe you or the other person is still hung up on someone else and isn’t completely present. And, if you’ve been texting the person for a while after meeting them online, it takes some time after meeting the “real” them to undo the stories in your head that you’ve created about who they are.

I actually think first dates really shouldn’t count for much unless there is a glaringly obvious red flag or sign that makes you know with a gut feeling certainty it’s not going to work.  I’ve only had one date like that in the last few years, but I went on a second date with him anyway because that’s how important I think my policy is.

I hate being judged on how I come across the first time I meet people.  Some days I can be incredibly charming and things click right away.  But other times, when I meet people, I can be stressed or insecure, and I have this horrible problem of looking ticked off and angry when I’m really just concentrating hard on something.

Once, in college, a girl who later became a close friend, told me that when she first met me in an English composition class that she thought I was one of those super shy people that won’t dare say anything to anyone because God forbid they might answer me back.  Too bad for her, she realized soon enough that there are plenty of times where I’m not capable of shutting up.

Another person, more recently, who became my workout buddy, thought after our first very quick conversation, that I must be a bitch.  Apparently, in my shyness and insecureness about the new unfamiliar situation I was in, I came across as quite the snark.  Fortunately, she soon figured out that I’m actually a pretty decent person and we became good friends. I will admit that I was horrified, as a strong 2 on the Enneagram, that anyone thought me a bitch.  If only people could see inside my head and know right away what I was thinking, my good intentions and sincere motivations, how I genuinely like most people, and……this is exactly why romantic interests (and potential friends for that matter) need second date chances….because I clearly cannot read their minds or immediately perceive their motivations either.

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I just started up the latest semester of graduate school.  Currently, I’m taking an advanced forensic nursing class.  During the introductory video, my professor made what I consider to be a fantastic connection between trauma-informed care and a well-known approach to disease within healthcare.

In healthcare, there is something called “universal precautions.” This makes the assumption that every person we encounter potentially has some sort of pathogen that could be spread via contact or airborne droplets, so gloves, face shields, masks, and gowns are used as safety measures to prevent unnecessary transmission of disease.

A central tenet of forensic nursing is trauma-informed care….that is, when we work with victims of violence or social injustice, we are mindful that they could have been traumatized by their other people or experiences in their life and are carrying around the effects of those traumas in their minds and bodies.

Here’s the connection and point she made…which I love:  We should extend the idea of universal precautions to trauma; when we encounter anyone new, we should automatically assume that there is the possibility that they are carrying around unseen traumas that we don’t know about and we should mind how we treat them through that lens.  This doesn’t mean that we need to handle every single person we meet with kid gloves, but we should remember that a person’s past influences who they are now, how they communicate, how they interact with others, how they present themselves, etc., and we need to offer them grace for those moments when they aren’t so great or don’t immediately impress us.  Our responses likewise need to be gracious, because we don’t know how we can trigger old wounds or dig them into deeper holes of despair through our thoughtless words or callous treatment of them.

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The thing that strikes me funny about people is that Life clearly never gave us a manual, yet we always judge the hell out of each other and point fingers and categorize the people we think are doing life right compared to those we think are completely screwing up. When you stop and think about it, the way we harp on each other all the time is really stupid and never gets anyone anywhere.

I really hate it when parents get all judgy with each other.  Moms are so good at doing this; we pit ourselves against each other all the time, comparing working moms versus stay at home moms, this parenting style against that parenting style,  “my kid always looks amazingly cute and stylish” versus “thank God my child has pants on today.” We rarely seem to stop and give consideration to the fact that we all grew up in different environments with different degrees of nurture, so clearly, we are going to approach life and parenting differently.

I remember, before I had kids, I could be judgy of moms who didn’t seem to have their shit together in public places, or the ones who seemed to make little effort to discipline their unruly kids, or OMG, the ones who unashamedly fed their kids ice cream for dinner.  Nowadays, after having been through the trenches myself with three boys, I ALWAYS try to give those kinds of parents a second chance…..because, well…..I’ve been there too.  There have been days I’ve been so tired that I bought them fast food for each meal of an entire day.  There have been days when I’ve reached the end of myself and locked myself to nap in my bedroom while my kids sat on their butts in front of the TV while watching grown men doing stupid stuff on YouTube all day. I’ve yelled at my kids in front of people at Target, seethed through my teeth at them at the grocery stores, made ridiculous threats like, “I swear to the living God, if you do “…” one more freaking time, I’m taking away every piece of electronics in the house until you’re 25!!!” at the top of my lungs.  There have been days where I thought I might run away if I had to wash one more piece of pee-soaked laundry, or had to rewire one more electrical socket that somehow got poop in it, or had to dig around in the recesses of the minivan to find that one-month-old sippy cup of soured milk that was stenching up everything to high heaven.

Parents really, really need to be offered second chances.  Never underestimate the traumas they have experienced in raising children.

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I don’t really give up on people. Sure, there are people I don’t want to be around, people that I don’t trust, people whose hearts I think have really become hardened over time for whatever reasons. There are people that I intentionally refuse to do life with.  But I don’t believe anyone is ever lost forever.

And actually, when we reach the point where we completely write off a person as hopeless….I think that might be when we are in our own hell…because we have lost faith in the redemptive creativity of life. When we think anything real or good can ever truly be lost, that’s when love has gone.  On the flip side, I think heaven is about realizing that nothing is set in stone forever, that even those who seem the farthest gone can be rescued.

I’ve seen radical changes in people that, for decades, looked like would never, ever happen. I’ve personally experienced shifts in myself that I could have never imagined, out of beliefs and perceptions that I thought at one time were absolute truth and concretely ingrained in me. And, because I no longer believe in a linear progression of life and death where we get this one infinitesimally short shot at life and then go plunk ourselves down to sit for an eternity in heaven or hell….it seems to me there is all the time in the world for hope and love to work their magic.

I can hear some people’s responses here.  Julie, people are CHOOSING not to change. It’s through their own fault and their own poor choices that they are where they are right now.

Maybe, maybe not.  I think that we actually have far less agency over the trajectory of our lives than we automatically assume.  I don’t think everyone consciously makes all the stupid decisions they make, and I think we often unconsciously and unintentionally make really good choices.  My overall point here: we can’t cavalierly judge that everyone’s lives turn out the way they do because of their conscious thoughts and choices and that all of the responsibility for that should fall squarely on them.

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To give people second chances, we need to be willing to listen to their stories.   I think about this alot working as a nurse in the hospital.  I’ve had so many patients who, at the start, came off as completely disagreeable, unpleasant, and unlovable. But to my constant surprise, in almost all of those people, when I took the time to listen to their stories and showed that I cared, I would begin to notice the soft parts in them, the hurts that they carried, their fears and insecurities. And through that simple act of genuine listening, the dynamics between us would change, trust would build, and our interactions from then on would be completely different. We would find commonalities between us, and my perceptions of them would shift.  Maybe they’d still drive me nuts with their particular quirks, but I would be able to see them through alot more grace and much less frustration and irritation.

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I mentioned earlier that I don’t tend to give up on people all that easily. This is maybe one of my few good strengths, but it has also gotten me hurt on more than one occasion. Something interesting, and kind of sad, is that frequently some people don’t know what to do with people that won’t give up on them. I’ve had people push me away because they couldn’t believe that they could be cared about by someone who had no ulterior motives, no manipulative agenda in place. I’ve known people who revealed to me they were never really sure if they had ever been loved by anyone before, and felt pretty confident that no one had ever truly “seen” them.

These, I believe, are the people that are most in need of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances.  Everyone, I fervently believe, deserves to been seen in life.  Everyone deserves to know that they have been deeply loved by at least one other person, that their existence matters, that their worth is not based on what they look like, or what career they have, or their social status, or how clever and witty they might be.

In general, I think the people that are most hurtful to other people have never really felt seen or loved. Those who lash out at others, or withdraw from relationships out of fear, or those who are constantly in the comparison game trying to prove they are better than others….these are the ones in greatest need of more grace and second chances. These are the ones with the biggest heart wounds and the greatest disconnection with their true selves. Instead of hate and disdain, they need our compassion.

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In the Gospels, when asked by his disciples how mnay times forgivness toward a person was required, Jesus replied “seventy times seven.” Not literally 490 times, but rather, forgiveness after forgiveness after forgiveness. Grace upon grace upon grace. We ALL need it.

Whether it’s a first date, or a new friendship, or an encounter with a complete stranger…let’s all make the attempt to let go of our stories about people and really see who they are, forgiving them when they don’t meet our expectations or impress us or fail to give us what we think we need from them. Forgive the quirks, forgive the awkwardness, forgive whatever possible, because we’re all just doing the best we can, trying to make it through a world where there are no clear rules but there is alot of hidden trauma.

 

 

 

 

Bleeding Bowls and The Things We Can’t Fix

 

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Photo credit: Mate Marschalko

“Said if the last thing that I do
Is to bring you down
I’ll bleed out for you
So I bear my skin
And I count my sins
And I close my eyes
And I take it in
And I’m bleeding out
I’m bleeding out for you…”

-Bleeding Out, Imagine Dragons

Things get passed down through families.  We pass down physical characteristics, heirlooms, social habits, prejudices, and so much more. Our families of origin determine so much of who we end up being, and influence in so many ways how we approach life.

Some of the things that people pass through their families make me laugh.  I had a discussion with some coworkers the other day about how mattresses can stay in a family for decades.  One of these friends told me she still had and used a mattress that was over 60 years old. (Granted, it was one of those mattresses you could rotate and flip over). I promptly grossed out everyone at the lunch table by musing about the sheer weight of skin flakes and mites that had accumulated in the mattress during that extensive time period.  But in all fairness, I had to have a talk with my own parents about 15 years ago regarding a 30 year old mattress they thought was still a viable bedding option.  I explained that mattresses were never meant to attain vintage status, and when they can no longer maintain their shape, it’s time to let them go. My parents very begrudgingly (and with a little resentment towards me) sent that particular mattress to the dump….but they kept their other 25 year old mattress.  You’d think I was asking them to toss out the family silver or something.

Another item that families have passed down in past centuries, which I find fascinating, is bleeding bowls. The practice of bloodletting is at least 3,000 years old, and only with in the last couple of hundred years has it really finally been understood as a bad idea except in a couple of instances – like polycythemia vera where there is an overproduction of red blood cells, or when iron levels in the blood need to be kept in balance, in the case of hemochromatosis.  Way back when, illness was understood to result from the imbalance of humors in the body (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood) of which blood was believed to be the strongest.

The history of bloodletting is rather interesting, and there are some stories of well-known people who suffered from its deleterious effects, brought on by well meaning doctors. Fortunately, scientists like Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur helped change the mindset that diseases were caused by imbalances, with the advent of Germ Theory. Still, I think this idea of letting unhelpful and harmful things out of our bodies still has some truth to it…and the process of letting out those things is no less shocking and disquieting than draining out our own physical blood stores.

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Years back, when I had different theological and ontological perspectives on the cosmos, I believed wholeheartedly in generational curses – spiritual consequences that are passed down through families as the result of sinful acts or habits, which can take root and affect generation after generation until broken off in some miraculous way.  I don’t have this fatalistic view anymore, where our external actions tragically screw us over, but I certainly believe that, somehow, traits and phenomena get genetically coded and can be passed down through families.  And I’m not talking about genetically inherited diseases, like something springing out of a gene mutation that is propagated through offspring. Although….it would be really interesting if certain gene mutations could create very specific trauma responses…

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

I’ve had panic attacks since I was about 7 or 8.  They are freaking dreadful….the worst fear I could ever imagine, and I can’t logic or rationalize my way out of them. They only happen at night, (thankfully now only every great once in a while) usually when I wake up to go to the bathroom and my mind is suddenly like, “Hey, Julie, this is a prime time to ponder the universe, God, and what eternity is!” And I quickly spiral into sheer terror, until I have the wherewithal to ground myself with some brilliant trauma technique given to me by my therapist best friend.

I’ve blogged about this phobia of eternity before:  it has a name (Apeirophobia), and is a legit THING, which makes me feel alot better about myself.  For years, I thought I was the only person in the world weird enough and neurotic enough to be afraid of existing forever.

But then, when I was already over 30, I found out that my mom had the exact same panic attacks about the exact same thing.  We got to talking one night and she described her apeirophobic fears, what triggered them, and what she experienced, and they were SPOT ON with my experiences. I was literally bowled over that this could be, because we had never discussed our panic attacks before.  Years after she passed, my dad told me more details about her panic attacks, that were again, exactly like mine.

How could my mom and I have the same panic attacks, based out of the same phobia, with the exact same trains of thought when there was nothing in our environments to create them, no one else we knew had these kinds of panic attacks, and she and I developed them independently from each other without talking about them? The only conclusion I can logically reach is that somehow they passed down from her to me. The whole process still blows my mind, and it has made me take very seriously the passing down of family patterns and dynamics through people that have absolutely nothing to do with environment or nurture (referencing the whole nature versus nurture debate).

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There’s that old saying that everyone has probably heard: Ignorance is bliss.  Sometimes I think this is absolutely true. Sometimes it’s really nice to not know what you don’t know…because then, you’re not bothered when you can’t fix something that you know is broken.

I blame alot of my mental struggles on Scott Peck…I read his book The Road Less Traveled over a decade ago and now there are things I just can’t unsee that on certain days I wish I could. Damn him, meant in the very nicest of ways. He was one of the first writers that revealed to me that I was in control of alot more of my life than I thought, that I could dig in and figure out some of the dynamics that seemed to be ruling me, and that I could make new choices and take a different path than the one I was currently on.

But this is where the problem lies in becoming more self-aware:  there are things, that no matter how freaking hard I try, I CANNOT fix!

I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve uncovered my childhood wounds, I’ve taken tests regarding Myers-Briggs, the DISC, the Four Color Personality, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, the Enneagram, and more.  I’ve gone to church and other faith communities for over thirty years. I’ve taken depression, anxiety, and ADHD inventories, and I’ve taken plenty of SSRIs, sleep meds, Xanax, and Adderall. I spent a weekend in Reston, VA laying in a brain scanner and had my hair gooped up with electrodes and ultrasound gel for an EEG just to try and better understand what my brain was up to. I took part in a horribly claustrophobic sleep study that just gave me a wicked migraine and a diagnosis of idiopathic non-cataplexic narcolepsy and not much else. I’ve read a billion self help books, I’ve questioned my beliefs and questioned my theology. I’ve talked to really brilliant and enlightened people.  I’ve meditated (although in all fairness I think I slept through at least a third of one of the 8 hour meditation retreats I went to).

And the result of all of this?  The same damn things that I used to struggle with are the things I still struggle with. Except now I’m so much more aware of the complexities and triggers behind them.  I’m very aware of my weaknesses, my faults, and my fears….and sometimes there is nothing worse than being aware of these things and feeling helpless to actually be able to fix them once and for all.

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Maybe I’m being a little over dramatic…I mean, I have changed alot over time.  I’m much braver and more open-minded, I’m alot quicker to apologize, and I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of healing from some of my worst childhood traumatic experiences. I’ve been able to forgive people for events and words that I thought I would never be able to offer that grace to.

What I am most afraid of are the broken places in me that might somehow get passed down to my kids or affect those around me who I love. I’ve already partnered with my kids’ dad to pass on a tendency for anxiety and ADHD. What if one of my kids also develops my phobia of eternity? I’m terrified just thinking of that possibility. What if my kids also have days so dark that they wished to God they could die, as I once did?  What if my kids internalize in themselves that they aren’t lovable and that they must perform so that others will accept them?

I wish, so badly, that all of these places in me that I can’t make right could have been bloodlet out of me before they were conceived and born…so that their lives don’t have to be colored and influenced both genetically and environmentally by the imperfect in their mom. I’m trying hard, but often unsuccessfully, to trust in the universe’s plan to have people grow up through the process of parenting…kids really get the shitty end of the deal here on alot of days, being parented by moms and dads who are still trying to find their own way.

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A friend of mine told me years ago, when my oldest was a baby, that we’ll be successful as parents if we introduce our kids to God and teach them how to contact a therapist. I guess I’m doing OK, then.  I’m trying hard to show them how magical and enchanted life is, and we’ve already logged plenty of therapy hours.

But my heart was torn this morning when I dropped one of my sons off at school, and while moving through the car rider lane, he expressed to me how frustrated he was that he’s been working on a particular struggle for three years and it hasn’t resolved yet.

Oh kid, I told him, I’m still working on some of the same things I was working on twenty years ago.

I’m not sure if he was relieved or horrified by that.

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I don’t know if other people are similar to me in this, but I’ve realized lately that I carry a belief that everything needs to be resolved and all loose ends tied up by the time we die…like, we have to end this one life with all the games pieces tidily placed back in the box.  Where did I get this idea? Probably from the linear worldview I grew up with that we are dealt this one hand at life and if we don’t get it right that’s our last chance.

The idea of reincarnation or multiple existences in different forms actually makes more sense to me these days, but my other belief sets haven’t kept up with the evolving pace of this one. I still tend to live through benchmarks and milestones – markers to let me know if I’m on track.  Which is stupid because I’ve learned that those benchmarks don’t mean jack squat in the grand scheme of things.  I mean, I graduated high school, went to college, got married, bought a house, had kids…bam, bam, bam…all like you’re supposed to per the American dream, and the process of ticking those things off wasn’t always that great.

I wonder how I would live out each day if I believed…like, really believed…that I had an infinite amount of time to engage with these things in me that I can’t fix. What if eternity, that seemingly terrifying construct, is really not about reaching a state of perfection and then sitting there bored as hell for eon after eon, but more about having endless grace-filled space to keep changing, evolving, and growing without any time constraints being put on us?

I think if I could get to this place, it would change everything. The stupid things that stress me out on a daily basis would be so inconsequential….like the messy house and pee on the bathroom floor, the fact that I did not inherit a handyperson gene, the fact that I can’t read my own handwriting two seconds after I write anything, the fact that I get so completely panicked during the holidays.

And then, the big things…the traumas that have influenced how I approach life, the people that I can’t seem to get over or can’t quite forgive, and the glaring faults I perceive within myself…they wouldn’t have to be fixed RIGHT NOW. I would have time and grace to work on myself and allow changes to occur at a relaxed and safe, rather than frantic and obligated pace. Maybe then, too, I could offer my own boys the time and grace they need to grow and change, without the need to be perfect right away.

What if letting go of the belief that everything has to be changed and fixed RIGHT NOW is one of the best ways to avoid propagating trauma and fear in my kids and those around me?  What if the whole point is not to radically bloodlet everything bad out of ourselves, but to learn to be comfortable with the imbalances and know that there is not some divine timer out there ticking away and threatening an imminent end of our game of life if we can’t get our shit together promptly?

What if we have more time and grace and space and love then we ever imagined?  This could change EVERYTHING.