On Running, Grounding, and Exploring the Inner Landscape

Last week I went on a much-needed vacation with a good friend, to the middle of nowhere Indiana. The goal: to sit in an Air B and B, turn off my computer and electronics, read, walk/run, and listen to what my inner self might want to tell me. Like it has been for everyone, this COVID pandemic world has just gotten too big, and while the last year has been full of wonderful things, people, and experiences, I am just bone tired. Tired from trying to accomplish too much, tired from trying to find answers for existential questions, tired from trying to navigate moral dilemmas, tired from having the same conversations with myself in my head and never finding resolution, tired of people being so small-minded and hateful to each other.

Fortunately, this week away was exactly what I needed – my headspace quieted, I laughed, I ate really good food, and I explored landscapes….both in the external world and within myself. This post is my attempt to explore what I’ve been thinking about landscape in general, lately, and why these are features of life that we can’t afford to take for granted.

******************************************************************************************

I’ve been running for a bunch of years, but I finally identify as a runner. I guess I used to think that to be a “runner”, I had to run certain distances, or achieve certain paces, or look like a runner is supposed to look. I don’t feel that way anymore, and now think that if running resonates with a person in any way and they feel compelled to move forward at whatever speed and for whatever reason, they are a runner.

Running is hard alot of the time. I usually hate the first two miles of every single run, no matter what kinds of distances I’ve been able to master at that point. Those first two miles always require a working out of kinks, of warming up muscles, of opening the mind for the task ahead. Running is very much a mind game; we can physically run so much further than our minds believe and tell us. Those first two miles are always a period of settling, of the deep me telling my mind to bug off and be quiet for a bit – to lessen up on the rants about how cold it is, or windy, or how I’ve gained five pounds over the last year and I’ll have to put in 20 miles to try and stay thin and overwhelm sets in. As others have said, the mind is a great servant but a truly horrible master.

The thing is, I’ve discovered that if I can get past those first two miles, all will settle and I can usually hit a groove, and when I’m really lucky, the countless footsteps and miles pass in magic. There is also something about mile after mile of connecting my feet with the ground that feels right, feels solid, feels really human. Even when I hate running, I love running.

***********************************************************

I’m a fan of destination running and walking. Whenever I go on a trip somewhere, I really enjoy getting out and exploring with a run or a long, relaxing walk. I didn’t always do this, because I would let fear of the unknown and unfamiliarity with an area keep me from getting out, and especially because I typically can’t talk people into running with me and I didn’t want to venture out on my own. Now days though, my excitement about running in new places overshadows my tentativeness about the unfamiliar. I’ve learned from experience how much amazingness I would have missed out on in life if I let fear dictate all the time.

Running when I travel is a way for me to become acquainted with the landscape of whatever place I have found myself in. As I mentioned in other posts, I’ve really been digging into Celtic theology of late. It resonates with me so much because of it’s emphasis on the land and the sacredness of “place”. It seems to me, in our ever fast-paced world, that we take for granted the permanence and resilience of landscapes and nature. We zoom around in our cars to get to where we want to go….usually from one type of building or structure to another. Even our cars are fitted with shock absorbers and climate control which further separate us from what we are driving upon. We drive so fast from our starting places to our destinations that we miss so much of what we pass, and cannot really see or feel what is around is in the way that we can when we walk or run upon the land.

I’ve noticed on more than one occasion, that when I run or walk down familiar streets that I’ve ventured down countless times, that I will suddenly spot a new house that I had never seen before when I was driving, even though the house had always been there and driven by so many times. The same is with landscape….there are details and nuances that I completely miss when driving or riding as a passenger that I finally notice when I put my feet on the ground. When we don’t get our feet on the ground when moving from place to place, I think we lose a point of connection with the earth, and gravity, and of oneness with nature and all that is ancient.

In 2017, before he died, Celtic poet and theologian John O’Donohue spoke with Krista Tippet about landscape on the podcast On Being, and I loved what he had to say:

“Well, I think it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.

And I think that that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination — that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.”

This is what running (or long walks) helps me with – to feel the aliveness of all things and places, and to recognize that those things have lessons for me as well as a way to firm up my rightful belonging in this world, no matter where I may find myself. When we take the time to explore new places, fully present, we can discover that those landscapes are not dead, but are pulsing with life and personality and are so generous in sharing with us what they have to offer.

Humans are so young, having only existed for tens of thousands of years. You and I, individually, are younger still, our lifespans of 70 to 80 years only the most momentary flashes of existence on this Earth. But landscapes, and trees, and mountains, and rivers, and rocks….these are all the ancient ones. They have carried on the longest, and have seen what passes and what remains, and from that, have wisdom to impart to us if we’ll slow down enough to listen and receive it.

On my trip last week, over about 3 and a half days, I got in about 15 miles of running and walking….on back Indiana farmland dirt roads, in Amish country, and along the shores of Lake Michigan. These miles were a mix of me pondering questions, listening to music as I trotted by houses and barns and fields, and having deep conversations with my friend while keeping our feet just clear of the frigid tide lapping sand and pebbles on the lake.

There seems to be something about putting in those footsteps outside in nature and landscape, that helps work words and ideas deep within yourself. I enjoy strong, contemplative conversation more when walking with people outside then having the same talks while sitting inside in an artificial environment. Maybe it’s because it feels like we are working together toward something….moving forward physically while intermingling our thoughts and words and intentions, and carrying them toward their own destination.

I also think that there’s something different about the rest one gets after the walking and running as opposed to rest attempted following little movement, or being stuck inside. Our bodies were made for movement, and somehow, and I don’t know how, that movement seems to affect us at a soul level. And then, when we rest from the movement we were designed for, it feels easier to enter soul rest. Our minds, and souls, and bodies are connected….we do ourselves a massive disservice when we try to compartmentalize who we are as creatures, animals, interconnected sentient beings.

****************************************************************************************************************

I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was about 7. I’ve written about these before, so won’t go into great detail here. But, the short version is, I’ve always feared the idea of eternity, and this one long linear progression forward forever, and my imagined destination of ultimately being utterly alone. I had an intense experience during this vacation week – maybe I’ll write about it one day -that I think may have addressed this core fear that I’ve carried for decades. That’s super hopeful for me, but what I really want to talk about related to my panic attacks is the importance of getting a hold of oneself during them by getting grounded.

One of my best friends is a mental health and EMDR therapist, and she has helped me out on more than one occasion, in the middle of the night, when I’ve called her, shaking in absolute terror and unable to extricate myself from the grip of completely irrational thought and fear. Part of the trick to getting out of a panic attack is to reconnect the mind with the body. My friend taught me how to use different tactics to ground myself, to help my mind settle back down into me as it attempts to break out of my head and fly out on its own, leaving my body in a distressed state in the process.

She gave me a rubbery piece of plastic, made with short rubbery finger-like projections, to grab when I felt a panic attack coming. The type of plastic or what it was originally made for wasn’t the point….basically, she wanted to give me something to hold that had a unique and appealing texture, that would really engage my senses through my fingers and help my body and brain focus on what I was touching. Then, while having a panic attack, she would have me talk to myself, remind myself of who am I, where I am, and details about me.

“My name is Julie, I’m living outside Boston, it is 2016, I’m in my bathroom. I am safe, I am sitting here, I can feel the floor beneath me supporting me, and I can feel this piece of textured plastic between my fingers.”

And weirdly enough, doing those kinds of things would shock me back to myself, and usually, my panicked terror would subside as quickly as it arose. I also learned that intentionally turning on music while having a panic attack would make a huge difference…..violin and cello music are my heart instruments, and that type of music would soothe me. And quite interestingly, I discovered that if I listen to Ripple by The Grateful Dead any time I am having a panic attack, I will calm and fall asleep within minutes. The trick has always been to remember to play the song when in a frazzled state.

We need to make it a self-care practice to ground ourselves more, I think. We rush around all the time, get stuck in our heads, and forget that we are “whole” beings. Music, and art, and yoga, and mindful washing the dishes, and long walks, and runs….these aren’t just gratuitous luxuries…..these are crucial to our ultimate well being.

Side note: I love the Tarot depictions in this video. Tarot has become an unexpected and helpful companion of late.

**********************************************************************************************************************

As I mentioned earlier, I am intrigued about Celtic theology’s discussion of external landscape. Having grown up on a huge ranch in South Texas, landscapes have always held tremendous meaning for me. However, as I dove further, I discovered, in a way that I never had before, that each of us have our own internal landscapes as well. The thing is, until we are aware of them, they can largely go completely unnoticed, which is a shame, because they are an important part of ourselves and our ways of being in the world.

O’Donohue wrote a book called the Inner Landscape, which I listened to on audio. It was one of those books where I just kept welling up with giddiness while listening, because it resonated as so very true to me. As I started paying more attention, I began to realize that other people I frequently draw from have also talked about the Inner Landscape. Here is a passage that I love:

“And at some point, I thought, well, I’ve been really lucky to see many, many places. Now, the great adventure is the inner world, now that I’ve spent a lot of time gathering emotions, impressions, and experiences. Now, I just want to sit still for years on end, really, charting that inner landscape because I think anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around—you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life. I thought, there’s this great undiscovered terrain that Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson fearlessly investigated, and I want to follow in their footsteps.” -Pico Iyer, from Becoming Wise with Krista Tippet

Our deepest inner selves are full of uncharted territory, because most of us never take the time to really get to know ourselves, or really even know that we really are more than an inch deep. As O’Donohue has said, our inner selves are full of mystery and contradictions and questions and wisdom. This is all begging to be explored, and is terribly important work for us to engage in:

“So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, how should I be?” -Meister Eckhart

We can’t know how to be until we truly learn who we are…when we gain a sense of where we came from and where we are going, what we love, what moves us, what stirs us. In fact, the older I get, the more I think that most people really have absolutely no clue who they are. We all keep looking around expecting everyone to show us and tell us who we are, and we try to copy what we see others doing hoping that it will all fit, and we risk coming to the end our lives never having truly met ourselves or lived authentically out of that knowing.

It is not only the ancient landscapes of our external world that can teach us how to live. There are depths within us that tap into the source of all existence with abundant offering if we would be brave enough to do those deep dives inward. The thing is, just as we can let fear keep us from exploring our external surroundings, fear can also dissuade us from exploring our rich internal landscapes. I think this is because of several things:

  1. Many of us just have a natural bent to only surround us with the familiar We may not like the status quo, but it feels familiar, and so, seems the safest option.
  2. We are taught so much by society and bad religion not to trust ourselves, not to listen to our intuition and gut wisdom. When some of us finally find the freedom to do so, it takes practice to reach that place of trust and living out of our own innate wisdom.
  3. Going inward does not result in reaching a final destination. Mystery is endless, and endlessly knowable, and the work of unveiling it doesn’t stop. As far as I can tell, one’s inner landscapes won’t be tidily mapped out after only a few years of exploration, but will continue until death, at the very least. This can be a daunting journey for people if they aren’t prepared for the long haul.
  4. And like running in new places that you’ve never been, doing the dive inward to explore those landscapes can be scary because you don’t always know what you’ll find. Will you discover that you’ll have to do the difficult work of releasing identities that you’ve carried for a long time? Will you discover that maybe you have areas that you need to work on, that maybe you’ve been ignoring? Will you unearth painful memories and traumas that are terrifying and unnerving to look at and address head-on? But to this I say….WHAT IF you discover the most amazing things about yourself….that you are good and resilient and deserving and divine? These discoveries might totally be worth the hero’s journey inward. I can say from my own personal experience that the inward journey is the hardest journey I’ve ever taken, but the most rewarding.

************************************************************************************************************************

I think about God and the Divine so very differently than I used to. Part of this has come because I’ve gotten braver about investigating both external and internal landscapes and finding that what I grew up being taught about Reality does not, in fact, feel very true to me.

The late theologian Paul Tillich used to describe God as “the Ground of Being, not personal, but not less than personal”. I love this so much and have clung to it for years. I totally identify as an atheist, not as one that thinks the universe is devoid of intelligence and magic and personality, but that it isn’t run by some being with human projections vomited all over it.

I love the idea of Grounding, and that God or whatever you want to call it that is behind everything that is, is supporting us, and providing a firm, solid place for us to “be”. Our external landscapes are a way for us to ground ourselves in our physical existence in this material world as animalistic humans, and our internal landscapes help ground the parts of ourselves that aren’t quite as physical….our consciousness, our spirit-selves, however you want to describe it. We exist in a reality that is ever changing and never static, but the requirement of permanence is not necessary for us to be OK. We can be grounded and connected and “OK” even in the midst of constant movement, and evolving relationships, and the exploration of mystery. I have no clue if I’m making any sense here with what I’m trying to say. We’ll go with it anyway.

So, what were my takeaways from my vacation week?

It was a reminder of how good it is to slow WAY down, turn off all the extraneous noise, eat nourishing food mindfully, breathe fresh air, do life with people that are important to you, and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Mostly it was a call to return to intentional grounding and connection with what is sacred to me, and to remember to listen to the wisdom of the ancient landscapes around me- to stop being swayed so much by what is artificial and young and brief.

To sum it it all up in O’Donohue’s wise words: To “stop traveling too fast over false ground.” It is time to let my soul take me back.

For One Who is Exhausted, A Blessing by John O’Donohue, published as Benedictus

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

Everyone Brings a Gift





Photo credit: Wajahat Syed

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

-Mary Oliver

When I got divorced almost five years ago, I moved back to Indianapolis for the third time in my adult life. I was NOT happy about it at the time; but, it seemed like the practical, expedient thing to do. I needed an affordable place to live, to go back to school, and to restart my career that had laid mostly dormant for the previous ten years. I was living just south of Boston at the time and felt completely at home in New England. Moving back to the Midwest – after living in Colorado, and Upstate New York, and Massachusetts -seemed dreadful. That time in my life felt like a huge, overwhelming death: death of my family, death of living in a place that spoke to my soul, death of the lifestyle that I was grown accustomed to living, death of the belief that I might be one of the few people that made it through life without being scathed by divorce.

It was death all mixed with the tiny glimmer of hope that there would be a resurrection on the other side that might possibly lead to a more abundant life than what I was currently enduring.

I was grumpy for the first year to year and a half that I was back in the Indy, wishing I could be so many other places in the country besides Indiana. I was convinced that, coming back to Indianapolis as an entirely different person than who I was when I had left it it five years before, that I would never find my people, or things, that I loved. It would be a matter of biding my time until my youngest graduated from high school and I could escape back to some much more interesting state or country.

Now, five years later, I feel so completely different about my situation than when I arrived. It almost feels like a lifetime ago that I left Boston, and where I once felt a tremendous loss, I now see that I not only brought with me all that was real and enduring from my time there, but I also gained, since then, so much more than I could have ever imagined. Gift after gift has come my way: some packaged in what first looked like loss, others in metaphorical boxes of free, unsolicited, undeserved joy. My time in Indiana over these last several years has helped to change my overall perspective on everything, and everyone, that comes into my life. I used to separate them into sheep and goats, good and bad, things I welcomed and things I would rather send on their way. Now, finally, in the fourth decade of my life, I am learning to welcome it all….the people, the circumstances, everything…that comes into my life. (My therapist still has to remind me weekly to let go of my rules-based approach to life, and to stop worrying about right and wrong all the time. It’s taking some time to undo these deeply ingrained patterns in me, but it’s gradually happening). Most of all, I have learned to welcome the people, because I have learned this one great lesson, even if I forget it from time to time…..everyone…EVERYONE… you encounter in life brings you a gift.

************************************************************************************************************************

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The Gifts of Microrelationship. In it I talked about how I was discovering that relationships, of any kind, don’t have to last forever, or even be that long, to still be very meaningful and life changing. Just because a relationship ends, or doesn’t evolve to the depth you might have hoped for, doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. In the post I remembered some of the people who had slipped in and out of my life very quickly, but during their brief stay they had encouraged me or in some way influenced me to change my own way of doing things….or to open my mind just a little more….or to reconsider something. I still look back on these people as major game changers in my life, and since the time of writing that post I have added so many more people to the list. Many of these people are no longer in my life, they may have even forgotten about me, but I remember, and am grateful, for what they gave to me.

-the person who basically told me to stop goofing around and start taking my writing seriously, and be willing to risk putting myself out there

-the multiple people who influenced me to try to run a little further than I thought I ever could

-those coworkers so long ago who developed in me a love for road biking, when we would hit the road in 100 degree weather after the workday was over

-person after person who introduced me to their brand of art, or music, or writing and in so doing, broadened my own appreciation of how we each express ourselves and our experiences in the world

-specific people who engaged with me in conversations about science, and philosophy, and spirituality that helped me reframe a particular perspective or validated my own journey toward understanding and wisdom

-the handful of people who made me realize that maybe there is a little bit of poet residing in me, when i used to think I was too dull and bland to adequately paint with words

-the people who helped me find my love of music and playing piano again, after years of forced compliance had ripped the joy away

-the ones who have been showing the many different ways that relationships can exist and grow, and there is no one right way to do any of it

-the ones who told me that I had found my path, and my calling…that I was moving in the right direction

And so many more…too many to be listed here.

For someone like me, who attaches quickly and strongly to certain people I meet, the ending of relationships, or relationships that fizzle out quickly, or relationships that just never take off, feels horribly painful to me.

It’s not so much a “Man, I feel sad about that”, but, in all honesty, it feels like tangible pain…a real, substantial loss. I recognize that alot of this is probably melodramatic hyperbole resulting from my tendency toward anxious and disorganized attachments stemming from childhood, but it also results because I take people…and their stories….and what they bring to the world… very, very seriously. When I decide that I’ve found one of my people, I’m ALL in…and losing that, for whatever reason, feels like another death.

I always used to think that short relationships meant they had failed. Like, if you couldn’t sustain them for a long period of time, then their meaning was lost….they didn’t offer anything enduring. And most of the time I thought that when relationships ended, it was my fault or that I wasn’t compelling, or attractive or witty (insert whatever adjective here) enough to stay in a relationship with. There was something inherently broken about me that ran people off. Maybe I was too much for them, maybe I wasn’t enough. I was good enough until a better alternative showed up.

I still struggle with the voices that shout these things at me sometimes, but most of the time I understand that not every relationship in life is meant to be intense and “forever”. Every encounter with a person, every relationship…has a purpose. I’m not really trying to fall into the the “everything happens for a reason” sentiment, but I believe enough in the benevolence of the universe that Life brings us situations and people that will grow us, stretch us, and wake us up. But they don’t each have the same kind of purpose…either in timeframe or depth of substance.

I think one of the great lessons of life is to learn to not ascribe to relationships and people what WE think the purpose is. When we do that, we attach too strongly, can often become manipulative of the relationship, and then suffer when the relationship ends or evolves into something we weren’t expecting. The goal is to catch and release, touch but not grasp….to welcome what comes and stays but always let it be free to leave. I still suck at this on the regular, but at least these days I’m aware of it when I’m doing it and can try to work through my angst in healthier ways.

********************************************

One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that the gifts that are brought to us by people don’t always come in packages or timeframes that we welcome. In fact, alot of the time it is only through hindsight that we can recognize the gift that someone gave us, and that what felt terrible or cruel at the time was something that would eventually grow our pain cave or teach us to be brave or save us from going down a path that would never have been good for us or felt the truest for us.

Sometimes to be able to see the gift that we have been handed, we have to work through a crap ton of trauma, anger, grief, and sadness. I also think that being able to get the value out of whatever happened to us because of someone is based on our perspective and ability to reframe events that have happened in our lives. If I didn’t have the supportive, wise friends that I do, and if I hadn’t gone to alot of therapy, I’m pretty sure I’d still be absolutely stuck in certain memories and places of the past. But in reframing and through what I call sacred imagination (where I intentionally try to ponder how the Universe might be working things for my good), I can get to the place where even the worst thing that ever happened to me can be accepted as a gift…not in a flippant or trite way, not through a Pollyanna mindset…but acceptance that comes after working with the pain, affirming that what was done was wrong and not OK, but then refusing to remain a victim or allow that pain to be in vain.

So, honestly, when I look at things from this vantage point, I can begin to see that everything that comes my way in life is a gift. Every single thing that happens to us can grow us, reveal harmful patterns in our lives, broaden our minds, teach us how to empathize with and have compassion on others, delight us, etc. It just goes back to the quote from Richard Rohr that I have tattooed on my arm: Everything belongs. Meaning, that life doesn’t waste anything; everything, even the wicked hard, or scary, or terrible things, can be incorporated to growing your heart and keeping you open. And so in that way, everything is a gift….or, has the potential to be a gift in the future. I can’t help but think about a verse in Genesis that says “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” However you feel about the Bible or religion, I think the point here is that life can work what seems unworkable….it can transform evil into good…it can somehow help us keep moving forward in the chess game even when it feels like all we see is Checkmate.

*********************************************************************

There are certain things that I struggle to convince myself are gifts. My crazy eye movements because of congential nystagmus doesn’t feel like a gift. Some relationships I’m in that are difficult and probably require necessary endings don’t feel like gifts. These constant quirks or struggles of mine that I still can’t seem to resolve after 30 years and alot of desperatel hard work, don’t feel like gifts. But, when I look back over the length of my life, I can’t help but spot gift after gift after gift that sprang up from the good things AND the bad things, the people who loved me AND the people who hurt me. And so, because of these, I have the hope that life will continue to transform these things and people I struggle with, and that what is painful and feels dead right now will one day bloom.

Artichokes, Dumbass Mistakes, and Waiting on the Emergence

I really screwed up at work a couple of months ago, but didn’t find out about it until recently. Fortunately, my boss has a REALLY good sense of humor, and instead of yelling at me, she couldn’t stop laughing for an entire day.

Because. I am a freaking idiot sometimes. With a terrible memory.

Long story short….with very good intentions and knowing the importance of data validation in healthcare, I signed us up to do some data collection through a branch of the CDC that was very time-intensive and required my boss and me to have to do extra work on the weekends. The thing is, I didn’t realize what I was signing us up for when I flippantly, and completely well-intentioned, agreed to an option that was presented to us.

The IT person, who discovered my “unintentional signing us up for a crap ton of extra work” move, could have thrown me under the bus for being an utter dumbass, but she very tactfully pointed out how I had signed us up via email for the data collection and then completely and absolutely forgot that I did so. So when said data collection time commenced, my boss and I thought it was a regulatory mandate and not me, the dumbass, voluntarily opting us in.

Sigh. I’m pretty grateful for the people that patiently deal with me.

Anyway, after my boss stopped laughing and I finally crawled out from under my desk, I shared with her a story about silver linings, and how I had made a huge, unintentional mistake in my first job after college. But, that mistake ended up yielding fantastic results , and maybe this data collection mistake of mine might actually prove to be an unexpectedly amazing decision.

************************************************************************************************************************

When I graduated from college I had NO clue what to do with myself. I didn’t know if I should go to grad school and if I did, I didn’t know what to major in. To say I was lost and floundering would be an understatement. So, I made the obvious choice and went to West Africa, pretty much without any kind of solid plan. Dumb decision making on my part, but fortunately it was a growing experience for me and I have some good Ghanian friends and adopted parents that kind of saved me until I came to my senses and back to the States.

Once I got back to the States, a semester after being out of college, I had even less clue of what I should do with myself. I randomly and half-heartedly applied to some graduate biochemistry programs without any good reason for why I was picking those programs. “Hey, let’s apply for grad school at Auburn, because…..why not? I’ve never been to Alabama!” Fortunately, I had the wherewithall to pass up an acceptance to Auburn; looking back, that would have been a disaster.

I landed a job in my hometown working for a university agricultural research station. I wanted any kind of job that was even remotely science-related, and my soon-to-be boss hired me because I had some experience running a gas chromatograph. So, in due time I had a job where I was half farmer and half chemist, and to my complete surprise, I realized that I loved horticulture and vegetable physiology research. (Funny thing is, I can apparently only keep plants alive if I”m being paid for it. Ever since that job, I can’t for the life of me grow or keep many plants in a happy, thriving state).

One of my boss’s dreams was to introduce artichoke crops to Texas. Artichokes had never been grown in Texas before, and he had a hunch that the area we lived in had the right soil and rainfall that would be amenable for them. I was tasked to be part of this plan, which I was excited about. The thing about artichokes is that when growing them from seed, they don’t produce their fruit on the first year. They are typically a two year crop, so you have to be patient to get a harvest. However, there is a process called vernalization, where you expose plants to really cold temperatures, to induce flowering.

So, not only did my boss want to introduce artichokes to Texas, he also wanted to take a stab at yielding a harvest on the first year of planting. My job then, was to start artichoke plants from seed, and once they were a few inches high, to expose them to refrigeration for several days before we planted them in the fields. They were to be my babies, and nothing could happen to them. Of course, with my luck and all, the refrigerator that I stored these baby plants in broke….and the temperatures that were supposed to hover just above freezing….fell below freezing. And I didn’t realize it for at least 12 hours.

To say that my boss was upset with me was another big understatement. I had, unintentionally and really through no fault of my own, frozen two-thirds of my baby artichoke plants. (My boss was really upset with me those last few months in general. I froze the artichokes and then I stupidly gave up the chance to do a PhD in vegetable physiology under his mentorship because of a guy. Who lived in Indiana. Who eventually became my husband. And eventually my ex-husband. But that’s another story for another day. Other than to say….ladies, don’t be a dumbass like me. Get the PhD. If he’s the right guy, he’ll wait for you.)

We ended up planting all those artichoke plants ou in the field, even the ones that I froze, just for grins to see what would happen. As it turned out, all the plants took root and survived. Not long after, I left that job and moved to Indiana. But about a year later I came back to visit, and my former boss took me out to see the artichokes. He was no longer angry with me, but especially not so because those artichoke plants that I had frozen? THEY were the plants that produced bumper crops that first year….not the ones who were vernalized at above freezing temperatures. Over a matter of many months, I had gone from being the artichoke villain to being an artichoke hero. And now we know that artichokes can grow wonderfully in the Wintergarden region of Texas.

************************************************************************************************************************

My whole point in telling my current boss this artichoke story? 1) To distract her from my current dumb assery, and 2) to show that I have a track record of doing things that initially appear to be moronic, but have unexpected silver linings. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a while for these silver linigs to reveal themselves, and the waiting period for them to arrive can be brutal and uncomfortable.

I think that much of the important stuff in life comes through the waiting. But we, especially in the West, are not good at waiting. We want instant results, we want to know what’s going to happen, we want certainty, and we want things to work out the “way they’re supposed to.” This is a dangerous way to live because we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment again and again. There is really very little overall that we as humans have control over, and when we constantly fight and strive for control, we just end up creating more suffering for ourselves.

We also tend to think that that “void” that comes with waiting periods is just a space of nothingness. Nothing good is happening there, nothing transformative, and it’s just something we have to grit our teeth and bear until the thing we really are after finally shows up. I’m very gradually changing my opinion on this, and starting to believe that the places of nothingness, the places of absence or void…..those places are absolutely brimming with life, and energy, and potential….and they are just as important, if not more, as the arriving.

************************************************************************************************************************

I’ve gotten into Celtic theology lately, and it is really rocking my world. I actually think that at the moment it is the one thing that is helping me keep a toe in my heritage of Christinaity. Because so much of the Christianity that I see around me in the world these days feels shallow, and literalistic, and detached from matter, and landscape, and the depths of our humanity.

Much of my dive into this theology has been through the writings of the late John O’Donohue. His writing and imagery….I can only describe as magical. The words he wrote resonate deep in my soul as true….truth that maybe I can’t cognitively and intellectually flesh out, but the kind that just brings deep peace and “yes!s” from my spirit.

O’Donohue wrote alot about aspects of the inner and spiritual life that can feel counterintuive or scary to us sometimes, but he was able to reframe them in ways that made them feel safe instead of scary. Two areas that I’m particiularly interested in are the ideas of darkness and the waiting. These are things that no human can ever escape; we all experience darkness at different times and at varying degrees, whether actual physical darkness or soul and emotional darkness where we can’t find our way forward. And we all experience periods of waiting…wanting the next thing to come but having little control over its coming. Some things we know will absolutely eventually arrive, and other things we wait for, with hope, praying that they do in fact come. Then, there is also the waiting that we desperately wish we could slow down; we know that something we don’t want will eventually be coming for us.

For me, the the concept of truth and all that word means are wrapped up in these ideas of darkness and the waiting. My goal in the next lines of this post is to kind of flesh out and explore how all of those intermingle in my mind, and the lessons I’ve been learning about them over the last few years.

**********************************************************************************************************************

Darkness.

Why are little kids, and many adults for that matter, afraid of the dark? It’s because we can’t see in the dark. We don’t know what is coming toward us or leaving us….we can’t see wheere we are in reference to anything else….we can’t see the path to where we are wanting to go. We aren’t sure where the boundaries of anything are. And it’s really hard to come up with contigency plans of how to protect onself from imagined dangers when you can’t even see if those dangers are real.

We see the darkness as an enemy, because we don’t have control in the darkness, and we as humans generally crave control, even though most perceptions of haivng control are complete illusions. There is actually very little in life that any of us control. (Maybe that’s why parents get so weird and nutty with their kids, and try to choreograph and micromanage their lives. It’s like a dog that is afraid of water, trying to climb on top of his human companion out in the middle of a lake in order to feel grounded. Inevitably, the human companion ends up clawed and scraped up, just like our poor kids. It’s a pointless pursuit, but gives us the illusion of being stable and “in control” for just a minute).

O’Donohue wrote some wonderful lines about darkness, that I want to share here. I love them, because it is the reminder that just because we don’t understand something or can’t find answers doesn’t mean that we are in danger, or “not OK.”

Though you live and work in the light,

you were conceived and shaped in darkness.

Darkness is one of our closest companions. It can never really surprise us;

Something within us knows the darkness more deeply than it knows the light.

In the beginning was the darkness. The first light was born out of the dark.”

John O’Donohue

“I LOVE these ideas of darkness being our companion, the one that shapes us. Isn’t this true? It is the alone times, the moments of despair, our greatest sufferings, that mold us and grow us and make us rethink our belief systems. It is the medium that smooths out our sharp edges and our quick judgements and our selfish-ego driven parts, if we allow it to do its work. It is where we can find a safe place to hide away and mend when we are tired or at a loss.

I know what you’re thinking…..Julie, there’s a shit ton of horrible things that happen in the dark. The dark and hidden places are where people are abused and abandoned and left to pick up the pieces. I get this, for sure. But I don’t think it’s the darkness that itself is BAD….we just associate darkness with badness because it’s the place where broken and angry people can exploit its good qualities in order to hurt other poeple and do bad things.

************************************************************************************************************************

The waiting.

Like everyone, I’ve done alot of waiting in my life. And, most of the time I didn’t enjoy it. Also, like everyone, I’ve done things to distract myself from the waiting to try and make it feel like its going faster, so the thing I wanted would hurry up and get here.

This is what I’ve learned about trying to hurry up the waiting:

  1. This might be the most important one. When you try to hurry the waiting, or distract yourself from the now, you’re wasting the good and precious life that exists right here, right now. I actually wonder how many amazing experiences and friendships, how much love, how much rest….we completely miss because we don’t allow ourselves to be fully in the present. We leave a foot stuck in the past while grasping forward to yank open doors of the future. What would it look like if we could determine to suck every last drop out of each moment of life we go through?
  2. Some things just need to percolate for a while. I don’t really buy into the cliche that “time heals all wounds”, but in so many cases, things just need a little “time”. Indulge me for just a moment to reference the tiny bit of Koine Greek I remember from my college Bible classes. When I say “time” here, I don’t really mean chronological (Kronos) time, although that can be true. What I really mean is Kairos time….or the time when condiitons are right for something to come to fulfillment. Kairos time is “deep time”. More on this in a minute, pun intended.
  3. The times of waiting are the place for us to go inward, to discover who we really are, to find what we are rooted in, to learn what remains when all is lost. Waiting is part of the hero’s journey, and sometimes when we’re waitiing, and it feels like we’re about to absolutely die from pain or loneiness or heartbreak, we are able reach the end of ourselves and be completely transformed. The waiting can feel like nothingness, but it’s not nothingness. It’s a place where the invisible and great possibiities exist, and they are gathering themselves, ready to burst forth in due Kairos time.

I am an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs assessment, which means I crave closure on things. I want to know what is going to happen yesterday. Hanging around in states of ambiguity has historically been brutal for me. Alot of this plays into wounds from my childhood that were intermingled with the theology of my youth. I feel like I need to know where I stand. If I can have firm boundaries, and be able to put people and things into boxes with tidy labels, and know generally how things are going to play out….that’s when I feel most safe. After alot of work, I now know that these things are all illusions anyway, but seeking them out is my default modus operandi, and I have to actively work against them and learn to lean hard into groundlessness.

I think maybe that part of understanding the idea of ultimate Truth is that it is wrapped up in being OK with darkness and being OK with waiting. Sometimes Truth, and real understanding, can only emerge after the dark waiting.

************************************************************************************************************************

I want to meander off down a rabbit hole for a second, on the idea of emerging truth. Hopefully I can get down into words what makes alot of sense rambling around in my head. To keep myself on track, I’m going to put these thoughts into specific points.

  1. Honesty is important, but radical honesty, to the point of telling complete strangers every detail about yourself, is not really a way of living in truth. I grew up with the belief that I had to be completely honest about anything that anyone asked me about. I inherently hold telling the truth to be a paramount value, but I’ve realized over the years that I’ve taken this to an extreme in my life. I basically felt that even if I told a little fib or a white lie, I was a horrible person. It felt like I had an inner compulsion to always tell the truth in every single moment, even when it did me harm. I have since learned that while part of my need to tell the truth to such an extreme was rooted in my theological background, it was also firmly rooted in being called a liar so many times as a child by trusted adults, in cases where I absolutely was not lying. Thus, in my attempt to never be viewed as a liar, I would go over the top in my truthfullness. I have since come to learn that things can be true, but they don’t always need to be said. And, more importantly, if people are determined to stay convinced that you are a liar, when you’re not, that’s on them and you probably can’t convince them otherwise.
  2. There’s a passage in the Bible that talks about how you shouldn’t cast your pearls before swine. The idea is that you shouldn’t offer up what you hold to be valuable and sacred to people who will absolutely not hold those things dear….and will instead trample over those things. You should only offer up what is dear and sacred to people who will receive and carry those things carefully, and care for them because they care for you. This has been such a very hard lesson for me to learn. I try to be pretty transparent in life, because it is important for me to let people know that I’m the same Julie all the time….at work, at home, with this group of people, with that group of people. And I want people to know that I have good intentions and motivations, and that I really work endlessly to become a better person everyday. But big takeaway here: some people don’t deserve to hear your truth. They don’t deserve to hear the stories of your traumas, or the things in life that have wrecked you, or your most intimate secrets, or the things that delight you most in life. All of those things are glass, and some people will just drop them when you hand your most precious parts to them without people earning the right to hold them. Sometimes, I think, big TRUTH is about holding the important things close to yourself until the right kairos time has passed, and then you can reveal your truths to the right people who are safe.
  3. Which takes me to the point: something can be true for me in this moment, but it doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I think it was Richard Rohr who gave a good example about how something doesn’t have to be true for everyone at the same time to still be true. Let’s say someone comes to the door and tells your kid that they need to talk to you. The kid, because he knows you well and the fact that you hate solicitors, tells the person that you’re not available. (Even though you’re totally available, hiding behind the couch so the person doesn’t see you). But the part about truth here is: yes, you are available….for the right person. But you’re not available for the wrong person…in this case, the solicitor who set the dog off by ringing the doorbell. But reacting in this way doesn’t make you a liar. I’m sure this seems like a dumb example, but its a concept that has taken a while for me to wrap my head around….that I don’t have to tell my truth to every single person who asks….it is ultimately mine to give to those I want to. And it does not make me a bad person.
  4. And finally, going back to kairos time and emerging truth. I’ve written in the past about the idea of instimacy, where you get into a new relationship with someone and end up creating a false sense of closeness by revealing way too much about yourselves way to fast. Instimacy is hardly ever real, in my experience. I’ve met a handful of people that I instantly knew were ‘my people”, but it still took time to build trust and a strong relationship foundation, even though we knew we adored each other from the start. Sometimes, for relationships to grow well and strong, you have to reveal your truth slowly, over time, and after the other person has proven to be safe and trustworthy. This can be difficult, especially when you’re in a new friendshp or romantic relationship that you’re wicked excited about and you just want to go at it with abandon. But, I can say that I’ve pretty much never regretted revealing my truth slowly, and I’ve definitely regretted, so mnay times, handing my fragile, glass parts to people too quickly, who quite often either thoughtlessly or intentionally threw them to the ground and shattered them.

Big takeaway from that rabbit trail: People need to earn the right to hear and hold your truth. You don’t owe them jack squat, especially if they can’t or refuse to value what is precious to you. And vice versa. Other people don’t owe you anything until you’ve shown that you are careful and kind with what they offer.

************************************************************************************************************************

Now to attempt to come full circle with all these meandering ideas…..might not happen, but I’ll try.

I think there is an overarching, ultimate truth. And I think there are little, subjective truths.

I think that the ultimate truth in life can only be seen in bits and pieces, here and there. I think sometimes we have to wait on that truth to come to us. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it’s always accesible to us at all times. And I think that sometimes we have to learn to embrace the darkness and the long periods of hard waiting to be able to open doors for that truth to come to us. Maybe truth isn’t just a static “thing” out there, but also a process, or an outcome.

I think my main point that I’m trying to hone in on is that sometimes what may seem true in the short run is not really what is true in the big picture. I thought I had failed with those baby artichokes, and I beat myself up for months. But in reality, I had actually done exactly what those artichokes needed to produce an abundant harvest. There’s so many other times in life that I thought I had just completely fucked up and ruined everything, only to be shocked months or years down the road when I found that what I thought had been a huge mistake was actually the catalyst I needed to move forward in life, or learn a lesson, or heal from deep wounds.

Sometimes to get to that big truth, we have to hunker down in the darkness and trust that kairos time will eventually come to fulfillment. Isn’t this so much of what life is about? Learning to trust the process? Learning to trust that life is working behind the scenes for us in ways that might not always be apparent? Trusting that our epic, dumbass mistakes will be incorporated into our transformation and can ultimately be redeemed if we allow ourselves to remain workable?

I attached a song from Jose Gonzalez at the beginning of this post. I love the entire song, but I really like the lyric “there is a truth and it’s on our side…dawn is coming, open your eyes.” The dark will never last forever. The waiting will never last forever. But in the time that they are with us, they also will never be in vain if we can learn to rest in them, and to trust them. Truth will always eventually emerge, when the time is right.

We Are So Lucky

Photo credit: ME!!!

How did we get so lucky to live in a world where THIS happens?

Where so many millions of years ago a single bacterium and single archaea had an incredibly improbable love affair and the possibility for wild, abundant life sprang forth?

Where trees like this teach us every year how lovely it is to die, because nothing is ever really dead or lost forever, but simply hiding away for a time, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge and show us what resurrection is all about.

We are so lucky.

A Little Bit of Everything

You ever hear a song for the first time, and it ends up being one that just rocks you…not because the melody is all that fancy or because the instrumentals are amazing, but because the lyrics are so deeply profound and resonate with your core somehow? And then, you listen to that song over and over, and have to sing it constantly to hear the words roll off your tongue because it feels like deep truth and the more you speak the lyrics the more you internalize them? Basically you work the song into yourself?

Maybe only I do this, and maybe I”m just weird. I dunno. Pretty likely. BUT, I first heard a song a couple of months ago that provoked this exact dynamic in me, and I keep listening to it over and over and over. I’ve thought about the lyrics so much that I felt like I might as well just go ahead and write about it, because there is so much to riff off. The song, A Little Bit of Everything by Dawes, is embedded here; give it a listen. Following the video are the lyrics.

With his back against the San Francisco traffic,
On the bridges side that faces towards the jail,
Setting out to join a demographic,
He hoists his first leg up over the rail.
And a phone call is made,
Police cars show up quickly.
The sergeant slams his passenger door.
He says, ‘Hey son why don’t you talk through this with me,
Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the mountains,
It’s the fog,
It’s the news at six o’clock,
It’s the death of my first dog,
It’s the angels up above me,
It’s the song that they don’t sing,
It’s a little bit of everything.’

An older man stands in a buffet line,
He is smiling and holding out his plate,
And the further he looks back into his timeline,
That hard road always had led him to today,
And making up for when his bright future had left him,
Making up for the fact that his only son is gone,
And letting everything out once, His server asks him,
Have you figured out yet, what it is you want?I want a little bit of everything,
The biscuits and the beans,
Whatever helps me to forget about
The things that brought me to my knees,
So pile on those mashed potatoes,
And an extra chicken wing,
I’m having a little bit of everything.

Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations,
To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall,
Her man says, ‘Baby, can I make an observation?
You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.’
She said, ‘You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size,
And rest assured that this is making me feel good,
I think that love is so much easier than you realize,
If you can give yourself to someone,
Then you should.’Cause it’s a little bit of everything,
The way you joke, the way you ache,
It is waking up before you,
So I can watch you as you wake.
So in the day in late September,
It’s not some stupid little ring,
I’m giving a little bit of everything.Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the matador and the bull,
It’s the suggested daily dosage,
It is the red moon when it’s full.
All these psychics and these doctors,
They’re all right and they’re all wrong,
It’s like trying to make out every word,
When they should simply hum along,
It’s not some message written in the dark,
Or some truth that no one’s seen,
It’s a little bit of everything.

************************************************************************************************************************

I think alot about what it means to be human. Why are we here on this planet, what is the point of everything, what are we supposed to learn, and how are we to learn those things? And, is the point to ever actually figure everything out, or instead, is it to just be and ask big questions and marvel at all that is around us and just try to learn to love the best we can while we are here?

Being human is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s not any one big thing or event that threatens to topple us, but rather, the constant onslaught of alot of little things. The first verse of this song is about a guy (I always imagine it’s a high school or college kid) who is wanting to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The reasons he gives the police officer are really interesting, I think. It’s the mountains. It’s the San Francisco fog. It’s all the bad news every day. It’s the death of the beloved pet. It wasn’t just one big thing that was undoing him….it was all the little things that added up, along with the angel reference implying that he believed he lived in a universe that was either impersonal or didn’t care about him.

I remember back in college when I had some periods of terrible depression, including a week I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted to escape life so badly. I was miserable and felt so utterly hopeless. But it was never just one single problem that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living; it was a ton of little things that just kept piling up and when they all hit at once it just felt completely suffocating and insurmountable. I think one of the worst feelings when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety like this, is when you try to describe what is going on to someone on the outside, and they’ll only consider each individual component of your burden and ask you what the big deal is. That little thing isn’t that big of a problem! They aren’t able to see that, of course, it’s not that ONE tiny thing that makes you want to die. It’s the cuts and pain that come from ALL the little things that just won’t let up. And then people tend to add one more “little thing” to your burden with a bunch of really unhelpful and shaming platitudes.

Trauma is a huge buzzword these days, and I believe rightfully so. There are so many traumatized people around the world, and so many of them don’t realize that they are carrying trauma in their minds AND bodies. One of the latest advancements in trauma research that I think is so very important is the idea of microtraumas. A person doesn’t have to experience one huge, horrible thing for them to be wrecked on the inside, be triggered by words or scenes or noises, or to be paralyzed and unable to cope with certain situations that come their way. The summation of tons of little traumas, microtraumas, can have huge and lasting impacts on people. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of trauma from multiple fronts and people to really build up and create a significant core wound in one’s life, or a belief pattern that holds them in bondage for years, or contributes to symptoms of ADHD, or so many other unconscious ways that people can be affected.

A decade ago I went to an Amen Clinic and had functional brain scans performed. Insurance was willing to cover it, and I was desperate to figure out if I was actually crazy in a way that could be seen with empirical evidence, or determine if I was just inherently broken. Years later I finally realized (and was validated by an amazing psychiatrist) that I, in fact, was not and had never been crazy or truly mentally ill. I was just jacked up because of some serious core wounds, terrible theology, and childhood trauma. When my brain scans and electrical (EEG) studies were complete, the Amen Clinic clinicians asked me if I had ever had some major, horrible event happen to me. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and inquired as to why they asked. They explained that the scans revealed that there was a function issue with a certain part of my brain which was typically associated with evidence of PTSD. At the time, I was flummoxed, and the scans only began to make sense years later when I learned about the impact of microtraumas , and also was finally able to come to grips with the fact that certain events in my life had actually been way more impactful and damaging than I thought.

So, big “what does it mean to be human?” lesson 1 from this song? Don’t discount the overall effect that can result when someone is slammed with a ton of little things. They may each individually not be substantial, but when they are all compounded together, especially when a person is lacking good coping mechanisms, those little things combine to become one massive burden.

************************************************************************************************************************

On to the second verse…..things that bring you to your knees.

I think this is one major part of the human experience….the idea that most all of us, at some point in our lives or maybe many times in our lives, will have at least one thing happen that will just completely knock the wind out of us, completely wreck us, and maybe even literally bring us to our knees. I’ve kind of come to believe that these experiences can either be transformational turning points in our lives, or we can allow them to go the other way and they harden our hearts and ingrain us further into prisons of suffering. But, I do want to add a caveat here that I in no way believe that it makes us a bad person if we can’t move past things and end up staying stuck. This life journey is hard and complicated and nuanced, and I’m not convinced that we have as much free will and free choice as conservative religion would have us believe. We’re all (mostly) just doing the very best that we can.

I’ve been brought to my knees a few times. The first significant times this happened were early on in my adulthood, and my plan was always to distract and avoid as much as possible. My solution during these crisis times was usually to eat myself into a food coma and watch a ridiculous amount of TV. This worked really well every day for about an hour, and then I would just feel like shit about myself the next morning…ever in a constant battle with my weight, despising myself, and still being saddled with the same, unsolved, unaddressed problems.

Things began to change in my mid twenties when I discovered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I hardly remember anymore what the book was about; I just remember that when I read it all those years ago a light when off in my head and it finally occurred to me that I actually did have control over things in my life and spirituality, and it was the very first inkling that maybe just because an idea floated through my head I didn’t have to latch on to it. That book created in me the first real sense of self-agency I’d ever had. And, it made me start to recognize that to fix problems and to overcome pain and suffering, you have to look them straight on and sometimes sit in it for a while and learn that you won’t die. At other times, you just have plow straight through the pain, determined as hell as to reach the other side.

The last time I was really brought to my knees was in April. Things that I hadn’t been able to see, and in some ways, I was unwilling to see, just completely blew up in my face in the most breathtaking way. For about three days, I completely crumbled. It was a hot, ugly mess….I mean, like uncontrollable, panicky, sobbing, hunkered down in the bathtub with the shower pouring scalding water on me, kind of ugly mess. A huge big puzzle piece that explained so much of the pain I’d ever experienced in life fell into place because of one big massive betrayal. Everything was laid bare, and for a short while, I could not see my way forward. It also didn’t help that that particular weekend I was doing pediatric sexual assault nurse training and felt simultaneously triggered and traumatized by it.

No amount of food coma, booze, pot, shopping, or any other kind of distraction was going to fix that weekend. I knew I was going to have to sit with it and face it all, head on, and see if it would kill me. Fortunately, by then, I was getting to the point where I trusted life enough to believe that all these things coming to a head were for my own good, and if I could just stay present and not try to fight and distract myself, that I would come out on top and it would be a major transformation for me.

So, I managed to stay with it. And a surprising thing happened. Even though it took some time beyond that weekend, I came away from the experience more joyful than when I went into it. Logically, I think I should have been wrecked for a long time when I finally put all the puzzle pieces together and saw clearly how terrible the betrayal and years of events leading up to it had been. But somehow, in looking back over the hard road that had brought me to that place, and then not dying during those three days, something in my mindset changed. Instead of closing up my heart to love and deciding I was never going to trust anyone ever again, or determining to harden and protect myself…..the opposite actually happened. I think I was broken open….broken open into a space of being able to love more deeply with a greater capacity for joy. All from facing the pain and sitting in it and discovering that it didn’t kill me. And in fact, I was finally able to start viewing that pain and betrayal as a gift that brought me to a better place.

Life is such a freaking paradox and it is so freaking beautiful.

*************************************************************************************************************************Third verse: Musings about what I have learned about love:

The lines in this section of the song make me stop and think about how love works, and how my opinions of it have changed over the years. Here are a few of my takeaways, or associations with previous conclusions that this song elicits in me:

  1. We make this matter of love so freaking difficult. Why do we do this? Love is about caring for and wanting the best for another person even if you don’t get that love reciprocated, or even acknowledged. And ultimately, loving people is a win for each of us individually, because when other people are benefited, doing well in life, and are happy, how can that NOT benefit and be good for us?
  2. You can’t help who you love. It just is what it is. Sometimes we love people in certain ways because of unhealthy patterns or trauma that has affected our lives, and maybe by trying to love those people out of our own traumas we end up hurting ourselves. But that doesn’t make our attempts any less meaningful. Trying to connect with people, trying to meet our own needs, trying to make other people happy….there is nothing wrong with this intention. Maybe we need to learn better ways to give and receive healthy love, but I think there’s something meaningful that exists when we attempt to love in the best we know how at the moment.
  3. A point on the line about the wedding and stupid ring: it’s NEVER about the wedding or the ring. And sometimes you have to go through a divorce and grow up a little to realize how they were never the point. Getting married or finding long term love with a person is never about finding the perfect person, having a fantastic celebration, and then staying in a static state of perfected union until one of you dies. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not about finding a person to fill your void and gaps and give you a ring so the whole world will know you’re not one of those pathetic people that is alone. The point is to find someone that you’re willing to grow with, to have all your own faults mirrored back to you, to be challenged, and to take in a little of everything that person has to offer….the good, the bad, the successes, the failed attempts….and to love them and want the best for them through it all.
  4. Sometimes the most difficult, but maybe the purest way to love, is when you care about someone so very deeply, and you are able to learn to stay in that place of wanting the best for them even if you’ll never see it in return. I never really used to believe this kind of love was possible, except for maybe on heartbreaking romantic movies. But now, I think alot about the line “Let everything go; see what stays”. Because if you can do this, you’ll know that whatever stays or ultimately finds its way back to you was not forced or manipulated, and is REAL. Learning to love without attachment is hard, ya’ll, but it’s the best way. You and I both know this.

************************************************************************************************************************

The last part of this song is what really gets me, because it’s about the uncertainty of life, the task of just doing the best we can, and the fact that no one has all the answers for everything.

The suggested daily dosage…..the psychics and the doctors who are right and wrong at the same time about multiple things…..

We can’t always say too much with absolute certainty. Science is always evolving and as we dig deeper and deeper we discover particles and bacteria quorums that radically change our understanding of the natural world. We detect dark matter that apparently makes up a higher percentage of “stuff” in the universe than the matter we can perceive with our senses. And as people learn to sit still and be present, we find that there is a deep magic, a Truth, an interconnectedness of all things, an ever knowable mystery that goes far beyond what our low level literal religion pontificates to us.

We’re all just doing the best we can to make it through this life in a way that we can overcome our fears and try to be happy. But I don’t think there’s one magic silver bullet that will get us all there to the “You Won Life” award. Being human, fully human, is about embracing and working with a little bit of everything that comes our way. And everyone is going to be given a different lot to work with.

I have learned to almost completely distrust and be suspicious of people who say they have everything figured out. The people who know EXACTLY what’s going to happen when we die, the people who seem to know EXACTLY who God loves and who God hates, the people who are always right about every topic, the people who are so rigidly dogmatic all the time. These are the people who I think maybe haven’t gotten out in life quite enough….maybe they still need to do some exploring and meet more kinds of people and figure out how to transform their own personal pain and discover the tiny things that can bring them great joy.

I mean really, isn’t this what life could ultimately be about? To taste a little bit of everything, to be completely present here and now, to learn how to love well, and to learn that in the end, it is all good?

I used to think that life was about finding the one path that was meant for you, getting on it, and taking it linearly straight to the afterlife without looking right or left. I know now that that kind of life is impossible, and we don’t give failure and mistakes enough credit. Sometimes, the absolute best thing for us to get where we’re going is to majorly screw up a few times along the way. All the twists and turns in life, all the things that bring us pain and bring us joy, all the ways we fuck up and then wildly succeed…these are what make us human. As Mary Oliver has said in a poem, I DO NOT want to just visit this world and life and barely get to know it.

I’ve learning to want all of life…the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. I want to take up great, overflowing armfuls of it, to taste and see a little bit of everything. I never want to take any of the next years of my life for granted, so that when my curtain closes, I can look backwards and say that I had a wild, passionate love affair with this world, and it was good.

Sometimes Anger and Disorder ARE The Path

tanyahart

 

I’m not the same person I used to be.  At all.  Or, maybe I AM the exact same person, it’s just that I’m no longer trying to cover up the “real me” with facades to please or pacify people around me. As I’ve talked about this extensively in blog posts over the last four years, I have been working pretty continuously to unearth the most authentic Julie and to shift my life trajectory towards a direction that I really want to go.  Because….I’ve discovered….life is actually worth living and I want to do it as fully as possibly and come to the end of my time on Earth with the conviction that maybe I messed up here and there, maybe I endured some pain, but I didn’t waste the time I have been given…..that I somehow left this world better than how I entered it…whatever that may look like.

The path to waking up (becoming the realest YOU possible) is not easy.  And, more often than not, the path asks you to do what is counterintuitive, what feels the least comfortable.  The path frequently asks you to do exactly opposite of those things that have been ingrained in you since childhood.  In fact, I think this may be why so many people stick with the status quo and don’t try to find themselves or to heal the dark places….because the journey can really feel like you’re abandoning yourself and the YOU you’ve identified with for decades or more.  This is very much the dying to oneself that Jesus and other spiritual teachers talk about….to live you must first die.  You have to die to the identities you’ve attached to, to the belief systems that you took up from your earliest years….you have to come to terms with the fact that maybe the way people treated you or the things they told you about yourself were never really true at all.  And so while you may be glad to rid yourself of certain belief burdens placed on you by others, letting those things go can still leave you in a place of wondering:  “If I’m not THOSE things after all, then who am I?”

Sometimes it’s easier to stay in the dark places where you can grasp onto an identity….false as though it may be… in doing so, you know your place in the order of things.  

************************************************************************************************************************

So, speaking of order….Richard Rohr talks alot about the idea of order, disorder, and reorder.  The idea that you have a container for how you do life….a paradigm for understanding how things work and how you fit into the grand scheme of all around you.  But then, you start embarking on this path of asking the hard questions, of recognizing that maybe reality isn’t really the way you’ve always perceived or the way that others have told you it is.  And so you start deconstructing your life scaffolding and question everything….your theology, your family dynamics, the way you approach institutions and societal norms/behaviors, the meaning of life….everything.  After you’ve taken things apart, though, you can’t stay like that….you have to re-create a schema for how to approach life.  (Side note:  I think this is where some people can really get stuck….they begin to question everything in their lives and the world, but they aren’t able to put the pieces back together in a cohesive way, and so they become depressed or despondent).  I am all about spontaneity, and impulsiveness, and magic…but at some level you’ve got to have a sense of order in your life, because sheer chaos without a sense of a foundation in anything…..I think long term might be just as horrible as hanging on to unhealthy belief systems.

************************************************************************************************************************

I thought I was done being angry. 

I thought that I had examined everything deeply enough and thoroughly deconstructed my belief systems enough that it would be relatively smooth sailing from now onward, and all I had to do was to reconstruct well….you know, start implementing those strong boundaries that I now believe I deserve, starting to only do relationship with people that I WANT to be in relationship with, to paint in my mind a picture of the loving Universe I now believe in and leave behind the old images of an angry, spiteful, manipulative God.

I thought I had dealt with, or at least sufficiently acknowledged, the big traumas in my life that have jacked me up.

But as life so patiently does, it will bring things back around to you again and again and again until you learn the lesson you need to learn. And, it will make sure that you learn each lesson to completion.

I have realized in the last few weeks that I still have so much pent up anger within myself that needs to make itself known.  I didn’t know the anger existed to the depth it still does.  But, when you’re doing shadow work, you go layer by layer by layer to get down to the real you, and sometimes when you get to a certain layer, you peel it back and it’s like you unknowingly opened a pressure valve.  Emotions that you had no idea you were suppressing just explode outward out of nowhere, and you usually are caught off guard and wondering where the hell this all came from.  It can be really frustrating…..especially when you thought you had dealt with all those hard emotions a long time ago and they were resolved. 

Then, you are faced with the choices: 1) am I going to pretend like “Everything’s fine, I’m fine!” and suppress them again, 2) allow them to completely take me over and create a bitter, ever-raging monster, or 3) am I going to face these emotions, listen to what they are trying to tell me, and learn their good lessons so I can move forward in joy and freedom?

I’m always trying to choose choice number 3.  But sometimes…that pressure valve can burst so hard that its like an oil well that can’t be capped and the anger or sadness just keeps coming and coming and you feel like it will never let up.  I’ve recognized that I’m in that place this week.  I pulled back layers on some memories, and feelings that I have suppressed for decades just blew right up in my face. Fortunately, this isn’t my first rodeo in shadow work, so I understand what is happening, but it sometimes “feels” like I might be completely undone and never recover.

It’s funny and yet tragic how stuff from our childhood can continue to hurt us decades later.  When we’re smart and have fully developed prefrontal cortexes and can at least logic to a certain extent….yet the traumas and beliefs that were ingrained in us at a pre-verbal level can just continue to rock us to our core and unconsciously influence our actions, our relationships, how we show up in the world, and how we perceive everything around us.

***********************************************************************************************************************When I was growing up, I was generally taught that anger is bad.  Of course, I learned there is self-righteous anger and indignation against injustices in the world that are justified, but those must be tempered in order to be effective.  Ephesians 4:26 was an oft-quoted verse by adults in my life: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” And even the ability to be angry without “sinning” seemed to be stifled…it was like, you can be angry, but go off and be angry by yourself so no one else has to deal with it.

I’ve since realized that I developed an unhealthy relationship with anger because I didn’t know how to be angry in a productive way, and I really didn’t know what anger was for. Why would we have this powerful emotion within us if we could only use it for a max of 24 hours (if you take the Ephesians verse literally?).  I definitely developed a “stuff and then explode” approach to anger.  I would repress and push down all of my angry emotions, thinking that I was “bad” for being mad or upset, and then those undealt with emotions would eventually blast out everywhere in unproductive ways.  Then, of course, my outbursts would be viewed as completely over the top by those who experienced them, and on more than one occasion as an adult, I would be basically be labeled as struggling with female emotional hysteria. That would usually piss me off even more, and then I would start crying, which of course, would make me even madder and…

I was so often told that I didn’t have a right to be angry, that my frustrations weren’t valid.  I was also gaslighted very effectively while growing up, and so I came to believe that I was usually the core of whatever problem happened to exist at the moment.  I became very good at being super apologetic any time I was genuinely upset, because, I reasoned, it was most likely my faulty reasoning and own inherent “badness” that made me feel angry in the first place.

I now know this is a load of bullshit.  I have ALOT of good reason to be angry about my past.  I’m not being hyperbolic or attention seeking when I say that some fucking horrible things were done to me, and they came with a healthy dose of shame…..the kind of shame that takes hold and messes with you for years.

Another thing I learned as a child was that you aren’t supposed to talk about the bad things that happen to you.  You’re supposed to protect people’s’ reputations, not air dirty laundry, let bygones be bygones, all of that. I did just this for decades.  I kept all of my secrets to myself….other than telling my therapists and a few friends a small smattering of the things that wrecked me.

I have since changed my view on this.  There’s an idea that someone told me about, that they attributed to Maya Angelou.  It basically goes like this:  if people want to be remembered by you or spoken of by you better, they should have acted better.  This was mind blowing to me when I first heard it.  Of course!!!  Why should I have to carry secrets, and make excuses for people’s bad behavior, and always give them outs, and sacrifice my own emotional and mental health just to maintain their reputations?  When they are the ones doing the hurting and acting poorly?

I’m not into letting anger and rage run unbridled in such a way that I retaliate against people that hurt me and, in doing so, cruelly take revenge.  I’m not into what could be perceived as outright slander, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life.  BUT, I’m at the point in my life where I NO LONGER WANT to have to minimize myself or to be unable to speak about my own hurts just to help someone save face.  I want to be able to speak my truth in a way that helps me heal and move on, because that is my right as a human being.

***********************************************************************************************************************

It was NOT OK to have iodine poured into deep arm cuts I sustained as a 6-ish year old when I got a hold of a razor and wanted to try it out….to TEACH me a lesson so that I would never touch a razor again.  I was a freaking 6 year old for God’s sake!  I can still remember exactly where I was as that iodine was poured on my bleeding arm, and I stood screaming as it seared , relentless burning pain, deep into me.  I am so angry.

It was NOT OK for me to be slapped or hit out of nowhere as a child when perceived infractions on my part were suddenly remembered and imminent corporal punishment was deemed necessary. I am so angry.

It was NOT OK for my beloved kitten to be kicked and shot to death in front of me, to teach me  not to play with unvaccinated feral cats, when I was a little girl who loved cats more than anything in the world.  I am so wicked angry.

It was NOT OK to be given passive aggressive, shaming,  silent treatment in public for playing a stupid Amy Grant instrumental piece on the piano at a secular function.  How was I, as a junior high kid, to know that doing such things could potentially be offensive to God and makes me a horrible person?  I am so angry.

It was NOT OK to be handed dark secrets as a child, when I was too young to be able to shoulder that kind of pain and responsibility for others. I am so angry.

It was NOT OK for me to be sexually, verbally, and emotionally abused by adults in my life and to be called a liar more times than I can remember. I am so incredibly angry.

It was NOT OK for the Church to use patriarchy and purity culture and really poorly exegeted Biblical texts to make me feel like shit about myself as a woman for decades, and to then manipulate me into allow myself to accept feeling like sexual property for years within the institution of Christian marriage.

It is not OK for these and so many other things that happened to me, to happen. It doesn’t matter if they occured as random isolated incidents.  They still jacked up my life. It doesn’t matter that so much of my childhood was indeed privileged and idyllic.  Sometimes that made it worse because people didn’t believe me when I tried to hint to them about the bad things that I didn’t know what to do with.

It doesn’t matter what happened in the pasts of those who did these things to me.  We all have bad things happen to us, but that NEVER justifies the perpetuation of those bad things onto others.  Just because I had shitty things happen to me in my own childhood does not give me a pass from trying to be the best parent I can be and not hurt my children.

************************************************************************************************************************

Richard Rohr has been brilliant in helping me learn how to deal with anger, and understanding that anger is absolutely necessary at times.  Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be so completely, freaking angry that you are finally willing to fight for yourself…..that you finally realize that you have worth and deserve to be treated well….that you deserve to exist in the world…..that you deserve to have you boundaries honored and respected.

But like anything powerful, anger needs to be harnessed appropriately in order to be effective and not steamroll other people in the process.  It is through Rohr’s teachings that I’ve learned that I can totally be furious at something for a while and hold space for that anger all the while tearing that thing apart in my mind….and eventually the anger will cease and be replaced by love, acceptance, and a transcendence above what is no longer serving me while bringing along with me the things that do.

This is where I’m currently at.  I am so completely angry about certain things right now, mainly the memories that I listed above that I have finally allowed myself to look at and feel completely, entirely to my bones…..angry .enough that when I think about them it is quaking emotion that is felt down to my core.  But I know that I won’t be angry forever.  I’m not afraid of my anger anymore because I know it is part of the path forward. It won’t consume me. Being angry doesn’t make me a bad person. I need to pay attention to my anger so that I can keep deconstructing certain places in my life and be able to rebuild them in a healthy way. And…learning to let myself be really angry about the past is what is helping me learn when to become appropriately angry at things that happen to me as an adult.  This is a process…I’ve put up with some abusive shit from people as an adult, but as the years go by, I can spot it quicker and am tolerating it less and less.

But…I’m not only angry about things that have happened to me.  I am angry because I have dear people in my life who are still enslaved by manipulation, and shaming, and lies that they believe about themselves because of abuse that happened to them starting in their childhoods.  They are shamed into submission, shamed into secrecy, gaslighted constantly and convinced that THEY were always the problem…that THEY are the ones that need to be “FIXED”, to start acting better, to confess their wrongs.  And then, when they feel their justified anger start to rise up within them, they become paralyzed because they too were taught that they didn’t have a right to be angry about anything. They aren’t able to take that step forward in the path of deconstruction and allowing disorder to happen, because they are convinced that expressing their own anger will prove that they are bad people.

************************************************************************************************************************

This post is not really about me trying to air dirty laundry or gripe about things that have hurt me, even if it sounds like that.  I’m trying to make the point that we can’t ignore the ugly stuff in life to move forward.  We can’t label some emotions as good, and some as bad.  They all belong, and they all are there to tell us about what is going on inside of us.

Maybe I’m trying, in my own small way, to be a bit of a  bodhisattva……working to heal my own pain and broken places is a a good goal for myself, but more than that, I want to do the hard work and then talk openly about the journey so that others who have walked the same dark places know that they are not alone. Moving through life feeling alone and unheard and unknown and having your feelings dismissed, I think, are the true definition of hell. I don’t want anyone to feel that way.  

The path to awakening and becoming our authentic selves requires that we observe and honor all the parts of ourselves….to not shy away from the things that feel uncomfortable or overwhelming. We can’t just embrace the happy moments, or console ourselves in our grief, or simply accept depressions as they arise.  We must also acknowledge the hot, scary emotions and learn the lessons they have to teach us.  They are also part of the journey, and if we ignore them, or try to tamp them down because they are not as socially acceptable or they may get us into hot water with people in our lives who want us to keep protecting secrets, then we are denying a significant portion of who we are, and are in effect, abandoning ourselves.

I will no longer abandon myself, or any of the parts of myself. I will show up for myself and welcome ALL of me….the angry parts, the sad parts, the joyful parts, the parts that are afraid. Inviting in each of these in and listening to their voices are what show me the way.  They are the path.

When it’s over: I want to say, all my life.

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

-Mary Oliver

Home is…

Photo credit: Mike Finn

You ever just want to go home?

We toss out this word so much, in different ways, much the way we use the word “love”. I’m ready to go “home” after the baseball game in the same way that I “love” chocolate. Or, “home” is Texas just like I “love” but maybe don’t like that one family member. Or, YOU feel like “home” in the same way that I “love” YOU.

We apply “home” to many different contexts, but it seems to me like we’re all searching for the deepest, truest manifestation of it in our lives. And while we often know what it feels like when we catch glimpses of home, we can’t always put our finger on it, or craft the perfect algorithm to achieve it or find it when we want. Yet, the need for belonging and being accepted completely, for the us that we truly are, is our deepest desire, I think. I’m not even necessarily referring to the wish to be accepted by people, but also by our environments and the cosmos and the things that we hold most dear.

We have sayings about what constitutes home, and we write songs and books about it. But still, sometimes we really struggle to land in a solid space of “home” and what that means. Sometimes we think we’ve reached out and grabbed ahold of home only to have it just as quickly slip from our fingertips and we’ve lost it again.

This post is going to be a meandering hodge podge of my own musings on home and what that means, as well as what I’ve learned over my 40 some-odd years of journeying after it. I may be completely full of it, but I think that I’m finally….gradually….landing on an understanding of what true “home”: is for me….one that is more lasting and meaningful and is not quite so influenced by external factors and subjectivity. Maybe some of this journey of mine will also resonate with you.

************************************************************************************************************************

Home As a Person

“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.”
― Stephanie Perkins, Anna and the French Kiss

Yesterday my three boys and I drove up to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to spend a day on the beach, swimming and digging in the sand. We make a point of doing this at least once every summer; it is one of those important benchmarks that determines if it was a successful year or not in the way of vacations and travels. My first choice for beaches is almost always the North Atlantic; I love the coasts from Rhode Island northward to Maine and will always choose them over tropical destinations. Since moving away from Boston over four years ago, I haven’t been able to get back to the chilly waters and rocky coastlines that I adore. But I’ve discovered that Lake Michigan makes me almost as happy, and so away we trucked yesterday to plant ourselves in the sand and listen to blue waves crashing over a pebbly shore.

As we were driving to the lake, my boys and I got into a deep conversation about relationships. We talk about everything, and usually it’s free game with everything allowed on the table. (Side note: This I have learned, is a secret to parenting. Talk about EVERYTHING; yes, keep it age appropriate, but in general, never tell your kids that something isn’t their business. The more you talk over what they ask you about, the more they will come to you with their own life issues and troubles instead of hiding them.)

My boys have very strong feelings about a person I dated for a long while, a while back, and during the first leg of our journey they proceeded to tell me all the things they despised about him. In all fairness, I pretty much agree with their synopsis. He was generally an all around asshole, and I put up with that asshole-ish-ness for far too long. Explanation and point on that to come soon. (Side note: second parenting freebie – kids are often a very good judge of character. Keep this in mind).

I’ve gotten to the point in my parenting life that I would much rather embarrass myself and not seem like the completely put together parent that I would like to appear as, in order to save my boys from alot of the needless pain that I’ve gone through. So, I tell them about my stupid mistakes, I tell them about the childhood wounds I struggle with, I tell them about the insecurities I have in hope that it will help them understand why sometimes I probably come off as batshit crazy. I try to do this in a good way; I don’t want to cause vicarious trauma. However, I really want them to understand that I don’t consider myself to be a perfect parent, I’m not into authoritarian parenting, and I want them to learn and know the REAL me – not the fake parental facade that so many grownups present to their kids for decades.

We talked about this stupid relationship choice of mine and how it taught me so much about myself and reinforced other things I already knew but had ignored for a time. My boys’ primary question was along the lines of “Why did you put up with that shit for that long? You deserved so much better?!” And so, I told them the truth. I told them (in kid appropriate language) about the places in me that were wounded very deeply when I was little, and how it has taken alot of time, therapy, and some stupid relationships to heal those places. I told them that sometimes you can believe something in your head, cognitively, like the fact that you do deserve better….but it can take a while, and maybe some EMDR or brainspotting, to allow those beliefs to seep all the way into your heart and deepest core.

These are the two main takeaways from our conversation, and similar things that I have been thinking about alot, related to trying to find “home” in a person:

  1. Don’t look for a person to complete you or become your home. My oldest has just started high school, and the conversation surrounding him starting to date has come up a few times. (I don’t have a ton of rules around my boys dating other than that I won’t drive them places or pay for their dates. I figure this one simple rule will buy me some time. They’ll need a car for most things, and a job to pay for stuff). Anyway, I explained to the boys that our society pushes a false understanding of relationships on us through movies and story….telling us that if we can just meet that one right person, suddenly everything will make sense, life will blossom, and we’ll live happily ever after. And it’s such a load of bullshit.

Now, I’ve met people in my life before where I wholeheartedly believe that some sort of deep magic was involved. I totally do believe that sometimes you can meet people that will radically alter your life trajectory, and you are meant to do life forever with them in some way. But….I don’t think it’s smart to plan your whole life around hoping to discover these people. Because….while you’re waiting to stumble across one of these people, you risk letting your life pass you by. There is also the factor to consider that sometimes you meet people in a certain space and time that fit you perfectly, and then, eventually, they either outgrow you or you outgrow them, and necessary endings arise.

Or….maybe you do find the perfect person, all the stars align, you fall in love…. and after some amount of time, tragedy strikes. They die, or develop dementia, or suddenly decide that you are not their person anymore, for whatever reason. It seems to me that if you look at things with this perspective it becomes clear that to base the stability and happiness of your own existence on these uncertain external variables is not smart. To be sure, I am totally in favor of being on the lookout for “my people” and the prospect of finding deep, genuine, enduring love….because I DO believe in and have experienced the universe as enchanted….but I am no longer prepared to risk the life I want to live by placing all of my hopes and dreams squarely on one, or a handful, of people. People cannot be our singular source of home.

2. Sometimes our perception of what home is…is a little jacked up. It only took me until about my third decade of life to realize that maybe I didn’t really understand what home is at all, and that maybe what I thought was home was actually based in a trauma response. Oof…this is a hard, but necessary, lesson to swallow.

Another, quite difficult pill to swallow, is that so many of my life responses up until the last several years, were trauma responses. This is not me whining about my life; this is me telling my therapists random stories about my life and having them respond with “OMG, Julie….you DO realize that that was not OK, right?” and “You developed that response as a coping mechanism for something you had no control over.”

Going back to my kids’ question about why I allowed a guy to treat me so terribly? Well, simple answer was that alot of the time I thought he felt like home, and I didn’t realize for quite a while that my perception of what “home” is was pretty messed up. Insert life lesson here: just because something feels familiar and normal, does not always mean that is is healthy or good.

For anyone who ever wonders why women go back to their abuser again and again, or why people deal with codependent, life-sucking family members for decades, or why sometimes we don’t make choices that would seem to be the obviously smart ones to the rest of the world…keep in mind that as humans we often tend to do what feels familiar to us, because in an odd way, that feels safer than branching out to do the unfamiliar, uncomfortable thing.

My whole point here is this: sometimes you might need to do a little trauma work if you keep trying to find “home” in people that treat you horribly or far less than how you deserve. Maybe they do feel familiar, and maybe they even feel a little safe, but if someone doesn’t treat you well and doesn’t legitimately try to make amends when they wrong you….I’d wager you’re probably acting out of old coping mechanisms and trauma responses.

And, if your kids ever look askance at someone in your life….that’s probably worth paying attention to.

************************************************************************************************************************

Home As a Place From Your Past

“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”
― William C. Faulkner

I’ve written about home as places in my past, before, in a handful of blog posts. Having grown up on a huge ranch in the hill country of South Texas, I fostered a deep connection to the land. My dad was the foreman of the ranch of my childhood, although we owned our own property a few miles down the road that butted up to my grandfather’s goat ranch. The land of my childhood was owned by a family from East Texas, but the land was really mine. Or, maybe I belonged to the land, I’m not sure which. But it definitely felt like home.

In that part of south Texas, the landscape has abrupt topography shifts. The hills of the canyon that these ranches were nestled in quickly smoothed out into miles and miles of flat, mesquite dotted pasture and farmland after driving only 15 minutes or so southward from my house. There is a county ranch road that winds deep into the canyon, starting as a 2-lane hardtop, then shifting into caleechie, and eventually dead-ending in a ranch at the base of a mountain at the far end. On the front end of the canyon, this ranch road begins as an intersection with Hwy 83, and marks the entrance to what I considered home. No matter where I traveled as a child….whether just the 40 minute drive to school or the grocery store….or a two week road trip to British Columbia or other foray into the Western United States….once I hit the beginning of that ranch road and the mouth of the Dry Frio Canyon….I was home.

Dry Fio Canyon, Shockley Ranch, South Texas

Almost every single mile of that canyon holds memories for me. Those were all the water crossing that were flooded and impassable so many times. I remember all of the exact places where people flipped their cars, or drove into trees, or took out my dad’s barbed wire fence when trying to master a corner too fast. I’ve been on the majority of the properties in that canyon at least one time in my life, and in a huge chunk of the houses. I know all the bumps and turns on the entire stretch of road – when I was a child and riding in the car with my eyes closed, I could always “feel” how close we were to my house based on how the road “felt”. I know the families and the stories behind ranch after ranch in that piece of Texas.

I’ve now lived outside of Texas for almost two decades, and I’m losing the sense of home that comes with it. The house that I grew up in and returned to until I was in my mid -30s? It has been remodeled and a new family and ranch foreman live in it. My mother, who makes up so many of the memories of that ranch has been dead and buried for eight years, and my father moved to his own house on our family property five miles down the road. I no longer have any legitimate claim to the land of my childhood.

This realization used to make me despair. I felt that if I lost the land that raised me, it was as though I was losing a part of me. If I could no longer go “home” in the same way that I used to , I had an uncomfortable feeling of nihilism creeping up on me. Even as an adult, when my ex-husband and I used to move from house to house and state to state so frequently, the constant leaving behind of things and land dearly loved would undo me. In some cases, I would try to return those those places and recreate what was there before, usually to no avail.

Buddhist thought has helped me tremendously in this area. Nothing is permanent, everything is passing. I knew this to be true on some level, even as a child. The ranches and land that I grew up on are in some ways nothing like the way they were 30 years ago. Ranching families have left and new have arrived, folks that I’ve known since I was a baby have grown old and died or will soon pass. Barns have rusted and lay abandoned, fields that once grew hay and alfalfa now are overgrown with thistles and Johnson grass. New roads are constantly being changed and cut across the river based on the most recent flood. But, just because the land is always changing doesn’t make all that has happened before meaningless. It ALL means something, and all the unknowns that are yet to come will also be meaningful.

The last time I went down to South Texas I felt released in a way that I have never experienced before. My life is no longer there. The chances of me living in that part of the world every again are slim. But I no longer felt the need to grasp and claw and hang onto something from the past that is no longer mine. Of course, I took pictures of all the things I love, and went to the places that have always been special to me…but in less of a panicked way; it was much more of an appreciation that for at least one more time, life allowed me to experience these good and true things that I have always loved. And, perhaps this may sound silly, I felt as though the land was telling me that it had raised me well and had sent me off and it was fine to make my way in the world without needing to hang on to tightly to the past….and that all the lessons and love that I have brought with me will forever be meaningful, because they are a part of me now….and THAT is enduring.

Road just off Bell Brook, Flying J Ranch, Dry Frio Canyon

************************************************************************************************************************

Home as Your Family

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
― Robert Frost

One of my cousins and I talk frequently about how what you’re taught about family can really influence you as an adult. We feel like we grew up with a very strong “respect your elders” ethic, one where family ties are extremely important, and the need to present to the world with a cohesive, unified front is paramount.

My grandpa and his father first bought land for our family ranch way back in the 40s….when land was cheaper and you could by hundreds of acres of rocky hill country and scrape out an existence with a small herd of cows, goats, or sheep. He and my grandmother moved out to that land in the Dry Frio Canyon in Uvalde County and raised four children. As young adults, three of those siblings moved away and worked elsewhere, though one remained. But now, over 40 years later, they have all come back home. Those siblings all live within about 8 miles of each other, on pieces of land that are all a part of or butt up to the original Monroe family ranch. My grandmother and grandfather have been gone for years, yet each of their children have doggedly hung on to the land…land that has become so much of a part of our family’s identity and what has tied us together for so long.

I love my family. They are tough, cantankerous at times, hard working, and rugged. They are intelligent, proud, and have been good caretakers of the land for all of these decades. And I suspect sometimes they probably wonder where the hell I came from. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier…the one that made them scratch their heads and ask “What is Julie up to now?” and “Why is she doing THAT?”

I used to really struggle with how I fit in with my family. While in so many ways I definitely hold to the good South Texan country girl mentality, in other ways I don’t fit in my family AT ALL. (Except for my cousin-sister….she is one of my people and “gets” me most of the time. Even when she doesn’t, she accepts me.) My family and frequently butt heads when it comes to politics or ideologies, definitely religion…and I guess like most families experience….there are certain conversations that just should never be brought to the table because they will always result in discord. Until well into adulthood, I felt like it was my job to figure out a way to “fit” into my family….to try to learn to see the world their way or to devise some brilliant plan to help them understand the beat that I march to. Because of the way this third generation of Monroes was brought up, I felt it was my responsibility to always please my family, to work hard to garner their approval and favor in all that I did, and to never push back hard when I disagreed with them on various topics.

I don’t think I am unique in this; I’ve met so many people who have struggled to decipher the dynamics that run through their extended families and figure out what their responsibilities therein are. And when we are taught from a young age how important the concept of family is, we can feel a strong urge to constantly try to foster the sense of home in our family. The idea of not having a strong foundation of family to return home to can feel like we’ve lost our base, our footing, our sense of origin in life.

Families all vary. Some families do relationship really well and provide a solid, healthy upbringing for their children that helps them launch out into the world successfully. And other families are…., well, let’s just say it…..rather shitty and abusive. Most families probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

But ultimately, because families are not static and consistent and are subject to death, and tragedy, and varying dynamics between each contributing individual…..I don’t think it’s safe to rely on them as our ultimate “home” either. No matter how wonderful family can be, they won’t be there forever. At some point we will be separated….by distance, or disagreement, or death.

************************************************************************************************************************

Home as An Aesthetic, Setting, or Feeling

“Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark.”
― Pierce Brown, Golden Son

Have you ever been minding your own business doing whatever, or you travel to a particular type of place, or you’re engaging in an activity with someone or a group, and suddenly a sense of peace and “all is well” comes over you, maybe for no good reason?

These kinds of moments….I think they are wrinkles in time and space….where maybe we are touching a truer reality beyond the ones that we normally experience. I’ve decided that maybe these moments are a closer representation to what “home” really is.

I was talking with a good friend a month or so ago about how going to certain kinds of places….it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a specific geographical space on a map…really does something to us and helps us reconnect with our sense of what “home” means. For my friend, it is all about trees. She told me about a certain region of a state in the northern Midwest that feels like home to her, even though when she was growing up she didn’t really live in that particular area. But every time she takes a trip to that region, she feels home.

For this friend, it was more than an aesthetic…more than an appreciation of the landscape and the forests and foliage…..she remarked that she has become a literal tree hugger, because when she hugs these tree that she loves so much, she physically experiences a sensation of grounding, and peace, and home.

I feel this way about mountains. I lived in Denver for a few years, in the foothills of the Rockies. Every time I would drive toward my little village nestled in the base of those hills, and I would look out over the vista of pastures that lay before them, my breath would catch and I would marvel at how I had the opportunity, even if for just a short while, to live in such a breathtaking place. The Green Mountains of Vermont does the same thing to me. For multiple years in a row when my children were younger, we would go as a family to central Vermont to run a particular road race and spend a week in a rented VRBO house outside Waitsfield or Stowe. While running those mountains or driving through the lush countryside my heart would literally hurt with how beautiful it was and how it fed my soul. There are several other places in the United States and globally (Scotland….OMG….it undoes me like nothing else) that just wreck me and create that sense of home within me.

But this sense of home doesn’t always have to come from anything visual. Certain types of music and instruments take me home, every time, too. I’ve decided that the cello is my heart instrument. I dearly love other instruments….the mandolin, the banjo, the violin, etc….but when I hear a cello, especially when it builds to a crescendo in a beautiful piece of music and the deep, thick waves reverberate through my gut and my body takes on the music in a physical way……Damn. There is nothing like that. I know that to have music that is audible, there must be time and space, but I’m convinced that music, especially cello music, transcends everything. Change my mind. And while you’re considering how, listen to this:

************************************************************************************************************************

Home As The Earth and Cosmos

“The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.”
Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

Depending on how you’re raised, and depending on what kind of religious or spiritual background you come from, you’re likely to differ in how ‘belonging” you feel on this Earth. If you’re raised with the beliefs that the physical world has been corrupted by sin and that in general humankind is a goddamned mess, you’re probably not going to feel the strongest kinship with all that you see when you look out the window. It won’t resonate as home.

The sentiment that was perpetuated by many when I was a child and younger adult? “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through….” And things along the lines of “when Jesus comes back this world is gonna burn.” And lines from the New Testament like “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Meaning….you’re stuck here for the time being, so just deal with it as best as you can and bank on things being better after you die and make it to heaven….if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Never mind that a better English translation of such passages in the Bible would read something like “Don’t get caught up in the world’s systems and unhealthy, imperialistic institutions”, and never mind that much of what Paul wrote was more mystical in nature and not be understood from a blatantly literal standpoint.

I used to be terrified of the cosmos and living forever and wondering if I belonged (I’ve written about this plenty in other posts). During most of my childhood, I felt as though what I had to offer the world was pretty paltry, I felt shame from being part of the gender that allegedly destined all humankind and creation to the pit and fires of hell, and my authentic self quite often seemed to be too much for those around me. I sure didn’t feel at home on this earth, yet wasn’t too keen on hurrying to the next world (heaven) and discover that I didn’t belong there, either.

Thank goodness I have discovered thinkers and writers (many who are proudly Christian), who have helped me lay aside this fear of not belonging. Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, John O’Donahue, David Whyte, and so many other people that I have encountered beyond the words on pages, have revealed to me that the Divine is so much bigger and greater and wonderful than the small, petty, angry God that I knew as a child.

I’m convinced that the cosmos is enchanted. That there is some great loving, impersonal but not less than personal energy that grounds it and sustains us. It’s the magic that happens at the intersection of science and all that can’t be explained by methodic questioning and rational data. But even if I didn’t believe in some sort of fundamental spiritual reality, the words of Carl Sagan and hard, literal scientific fact convince me that this galaxy is our legitimate home and that anyone who arises into this existence of space and time absolutely, without question, belongs and has been invited to be here:

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Referring back to my earlier point of art and music and physical settings that create a feeling of home, the way some people are able to use words can catch my soul. My favorite movie is A River Runs Through It, based on the book by the same name. Norman Maclean writes in such a way for me that words and cosmos intertwine, and every time I hear Robert Redford narrate this movie, I am overcome with a sense of belonging, and nostalgia, and peace, and connection with all things. It is weird, and pretty unexplainable. I call it magic.

Here are some of my favorite quotes, that stir up a cosmic or earthly sense of home for me:

“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”

“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”

“To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”

“As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.”

************************************************************************************************************************

Home As What Comes Next

I have no clue what happens when we die and leave this place world. For many years I thought we would go to the great by and by….a traditionally evangelical or Protestant understanding of heaven. These days I think that the idea of reincarnation is just as likely and probably makes more sense. I cringe at the notion that the Divine would be so heartless to give us one lonely shot at getting life right and then base the rest of our eternity on whether or not we did in fact get it right or believed the right things. Never mind that he wouldn’t take trauma into consideration, or the fact that a billion people existed before the human Jesus ever showed up; and never mind that to deal with this problems Christians would have to contort themselves senseless to try and fabricate theories about how God would get the message of Christ to every single person in the world in some way so that they could believe, even if they never encountered anyone or any text from the Judeo-Christian lineage.

I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in nihilism. I honestly don’t like that option at all, and kind of wonder if 1)people that believe this have ever experienced magic or enchantment in their lives, and 2) if they have experienced these things, how do they adequately and scientifically explain their existence?

The place that I’m currently at on all of this….and I reserve the right to change my mind….is that when we die, the “stuff of our selves”, soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it….melds back into a great unity….the unity of all things. And maybe we get to choose if we want to come back and do life over to learn new lessons. I don’t know. I’m not honestly super concerned about this anymore.

But since there is no way for us to FOR SURE know what’s going to happen when we die, I don’t think we can base our understanding of “home” on it either. Mary Oliver asks us what we are going to do with our one wild, precious, and wonderful life? I don’t want to waste mine assuming that the good stuff only starts in the next life.

Along those same lines, I don’t want to waste this current part of my life by trying to hurry and get to the more palatable or easy parts that I anticipate might lie ahead of me…..the next relationship, the next house, when I’m an empty nester and no longer have endless piles of laundry to attend to, retirement…any of those things. None of what I can imagine about my future is guaranteed, except for the inevitable death part, and I don’t even know what the details of that will look like. But this is what I’ve learned in my first 41 years: getting that next bigger house does not make you happier. Bringing in that bigger paycheck does not make you happier. Driving the fancier, more expensive car does not make you happier. Some of the most miserable people I know live in fancy houses, drive fancy cars, vacation in expensive destinations, etc….and I wouldn’t trade my life with theirs for anything. And once again, ALL of those things can be taken from us.

************************************************************************************************************************

Home As Yourself

“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”” -Herman Hesse

Now that I’ve sorted through all of this, all I can conclude is that “home” must absolutely be found within yourself. You are the only constant in your life; You are the only reality that you are able to understand at the deepest levels. Even when you feel incredibly close and connected to another person, you are still understanding them through your own filters, and they are mirroring back so much of you, to you.

Wherever you go, there YOU are. You are always with you. Therefore, YOU must become YOUR home.

This can be a scary conclusion, because alot of us don’t like ourselves, much less love ourselves. Or, we haven’t learned to be our authentic selves. We haven’t learned to dig inside and appreciate what’s there, acknowledging that there is work to be done but that we are fundamentally OK and good. But the thing is, if we can get to this place….a place of knowing that we belong and are enough and are all we need….then nothing can be taken from us.

Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush wrote a wonderful book called Walking Each Other Home. It is largely a book about death and dying, but it is also a book about learning how to come home to yourself. This, I think, is the ultimate point of all good religion and spirituality……to show us how to come back to ourselves…..to find the universe and divine and source that is within us. When we do so, then we can live outwards in love, with the ability to create real and lasting change in the world, with the ability to be a safe and welcoming person for others. And when we find that ground of being within ourselves, we will always be home. No more frantically searching for it or trying to create it outside ourselves. Then, whatever we are doing will be “home”. Whoever we are with with be “home”. Wherever we go will be “home”.

This, I think is the true way to live in the present….to be here now as Ram Dass always put it. To live eternity right now.

We are already home.

How To Love When You’re Tired

Photo credit; David O’Leary

On Giving Away All Your Ducks

I’ve always loved my kids immensely, from the moment I knew I was carrying them. Which was always pretty quick, because morning sickness kicked in with each of them within about 3 days, and I knew well before those positive pregnancy tests that I was going to be a mom again. I loved their baby months, and hearing their giggles and laughs as toddlers and preschoolers, and all the growing phases of childhood. But I think now, when they are preteens and teens, is one of the funnest times in being a parent. They are really coming into their own identities and discovering what really makes them tick, and it is so amazing to watch. And….they make me laugh SO hard, all the time. I feel like we are constantly talking about the silliest things and laughing until our bellies hurt and tears are running down our cheeks. My children blow me away: I have no clue how I got so lucky.

On the daily, my kids teach me so much. And they share such good advice with me…because, clearly, I need some of it. Here are some solid words I received from my ten year old a few months ago (I don’t typically let me kids swear freely, but this is truth, he was very emphatic about it, and it is something every girl should know):

“Mom, if a guy treats you like crap and denies you of your basic rights, don’t take that shit!”

My oldest son surprises me on a daily basis with his wisdom, patience, and responsibility. He’s only 14, but he regularly is the one reminding me to calm down, to stop overthinking things, to remember good self care, and to get some things off my plate. Not all that long ago I was stressed about something in life, and as he and I drove around town running errands, he told me about a book that he had been reading that he felt like I could learn something from.

Xander: Mom, do you like audiobooks?

Me: I LOVE audiobooks. (Where is he going with this?)

Xander:  There’s a book I’ve been listening to that I think you should also listen to. It’s called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Duck.

Me: (familiar with a book with a very similar title). Is your DAD aware that you’re listening to this book? (My eyebrows raised)

Xander: No way. But it’s a good book. It’s about how you only have so many ducks in life, so you need to be careful about who you give them away to.  It makes a lot of sense. 

I love this kid so much. He cracks me up and yet straightens me out all at the same time.

************************************************************************************************************************

On Giving Away All Your Other Kinds of Ducks

Just last week I had a conversation with a friend about this same topic; however, since we are grownups, we used the original version that starts with an F, and is the basis of the actual book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I still haven’t read the book, and am not sure if I will, but I think the title really says it all. If you are a people pleaser, or still paralyzed in various types of shame, or toxic beliefs…learning to not give a flip about certain people or situations is quite the endeavor. Because, as many of you will know, we kind of people want to be “good people”, and we inherited the belief early on in life that to actually be good people, we have to love everyone, be friends with everyone, be emotionally invested in everyone,…all of that stuff. We give way too many fucks about too much stuff. And so learning to not do that anymore is akin to an art form.

This friend that I was chatting with agreed with me when I told him that I’m at the age now where I realize that some things are just not worth wasting energy on. And looking back, there are some situations and people that I just spent WAY to much time and energy on, at my own expense. So many times certain people were very happy to drain me of my energy, resources, whatever I was willing to give them…and offer absolutely nothing in return. My friend told me that he feels like at his age, he is done playing games with people. He says what he wants and doesn’t want, and chooses intentionally where he expends his emotional and physical energy.

I think this makes ALOT of sense, but it’s still hard for me…a recovering codependent, people-pleasing, emerger from childhood shame. But, I am getting better at it and it is really liberating. It’s also nice to not feel exhausted all the time by this insane inner urge to be all things to all people….while trying to save the environment, and be a minimalist, and a super parent, and all those other things I’ve neurotically fallen into but are still good goals to strive for. This is where it really is a subtle art to learn not to give a fuck….because you have to learn yourself really well and figure out what is most important to you. Then you have to evaluate yourself and really understand your strengths and weaknesses. Next, you have to learn to parse all that out in the people and life circumstances that come your way. This is tricky, because most of the time you don’t just encounter a person and know from the very first moment that you are totally ready to invest in them for the long term and are willing to give them some of your precious ducks. (I have met about five people in my life, who I knew from the first instant I talked to them that they were my people, but this is a rare occurrence.) Usually, you have to try people on for a while, watch them in interactions with other people, see how they respond to different environments, etc, to determine if they are people you want to align with. And sometimes, you meet people that you are CERTAIN are going to be your people, and you start investing hard in them, only to be horribly disappointed down the road. Either they weren’t who they originally presented themselves to you as, or they decided you weren’t worth sharing their own ducks with. It’s an art for sure to figure this all out. And maybe a dance, too…the kind where you’re learning the steps only after you’ve gotten on the dance floor with a partner.

************************************************************************************************************************

What is Love, Exactly?

My goal in life is to try to love people as well as I can. I fumble this up quite often, and I know there are so many times when I’m really self-centered and short sighted. But, most of the time, I try my darndest to find commonalities with every person I meet, to truly see them as an individual human being even if for just a split second, and to do to my best to honor and recognize their inherent worth.

Something that is really interesting to me, though, is that so much of my understanding of what love is has been wrong….or maybe not wrong, but misguided…for most of my life. Many of my beliefs about love have largely been unconscious, so thank you God for therapy to help unearth all of this stuff that hasn’t been serving me so well. Some of this will be a tad bit hyperbolic, but in general, I thought that love was about always sacrificing or inconveniencing yourself for other people, never doing or saying things that would make other people uncomfortable, never ever saying blunt, direct truths, never standing firm to have your own needs met, never walking away from people even as they begged you to stay, letting you own boundaries slide in order to make other people happy, etc, etc. I believed that love was a verb, an action, but I definitely had a skewed understanding of it….the verb was always in relation to action towards another person, never an action in the direction of myself and what was actually best for me.

This faulty understanding of love is exhausting. Because it requires you to always be giving, always bowing down, always having to be hyper vigilant about the needs of others, always having to tell yourself to stop feeling resentful and selfish when people wasted YOUR time, YOUR resources, YOUR affection, etc.

I’ve been listening to a great audiobook lately called Not Nice: Surrender the Approval Quest. In one of the chapters, the author made the point that in most cases, being the nicest, most accommodating, pushover who is always deferring to the wants and needs of others is not, in fact, a very loving way to exist in the world. And, it actually comes across to others as repulsive at times. I was driving when I heard this line, and almost stopped dead in my tracks, but had the wherewithal to allow traffic to keep moving. It had never occured to me that the definitions that I had carried of love for much of life are probably some of the least loving ways to be in the world. Having firm boundaries, knowing your worth as an individual, and then interacting with people and situations out of that strong identity might actually be the most loving thing you can do in life. Mind blowing…..that maybe real love is not about giving away all of your ducks all the time to everyone, but in learning the art form of being very picky and deliberate with who you give those ducks to. Well, now.

************************************************************************************************************************

Nurse Ethics and Empathy

I’ve been a nurse now for about two and a half years. It has freaking flown by. I remember five short years ago, trying to face the daunting task of getting divorced and starting nursing school at the same time, and it all seemed like an impossible task. And now, somehow I’ve done all of that and will be graduating with my masters degree in nursing in a few short weeks. Crazy how life just works itself out sometimes.

One thing that is really being pushed in nursing education is how nurses are to be empathetic and supportive, invested caregivers to patients. We are supposed to be advocates, educators, care coordinators, physical caretakers, hand holders, strong listeners, etc….all while being extremely empathetic. Nursing, as many have said before, is both an art and a science. Nurses do some fantastic work, and so very many of them are heroes in their own right and have literally changed people’s lives for the better.

That being said, I will never apologize for saying that some of what we as nurses are taught to be is not healthy and is comes at our own expense. It is strongly implied that we sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of our patients, that we calmly and patiently take abuse and manipulation and understaffing and that one extra responsibility because this is what nurses do. And, all these things that are strongly implied and encouraged for us to do and be comes with a side of ” don’t screw up because you could lose your license.”

A thing I’m convinced about nurses, and I’ve read this elsewhere so it’s not just me making up stuff, is that a huge chunk of nurses are already people-pleasing codependents to begin with. Taking care of people is what we do. It’s how we’re wired. So then, when we are placed into environments where we are told our job is to be superhero empaths that sacrifice our own needs for our patients, every time, we accept it…hook, line, and sinker. Because this is what we believe makes us good people, good healthcare workers. It’s even stronger when the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics gets handed to us in nursing school.

This is not at all a Julie rant against nursing. I LOVE being a nurse, and nurses fill at huge role at the healthcare table that is still being developed and explored in new and innovative ways. But…when nurses give up their own health and self care for others….ALL THE TIME….is that really loving, or even ethical itself?

A topic that has been coming up alot more in recent nursing research are the ideas of compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious trauma, and stress injuries. Nurses know all about these on a practical level, but the research literature is really just starting to understand how impactful these things are. And while empathy has been touted as a big buzz word lately for teaching people how to interact with others, I have decided that the pursuit to be empathetic all the time is also not the most loving thing to do, and it can be wicked exhausting, too. Because…being empathetic with everyone you encounter, especially as a nurse, requires one to give away entirely too many ducks.

************************************************************************************************************************

Empathy versus Sympathy versus ???

The freaking amazing Brené Brown has written and spoken alot about empathy. She gave a talk on the difference between sympathy and empathy, which was uploaded to youtube in the form of a super clevel animation. Watch this:

This video is really good, and it definitely distinguishes the difference between sympathy and empathy for alot of people that need to hear it. The problem is…when people that are already very far leaning on the empathy side of the spectrum, it just makes us feel even more guilty about not being empathetic and connecting enough with people

Did you notice that Brené referenced a NURSING scholar? Yeah, we know alot about empathy. She listed four components that are part of empathy: learning to take the perspective of the other person, coming to that other person in a non-judgmental way, recognizing emotion in other people, and being able to communicate in the recognition of that emotion. Or, as she then succinctly put it, empathy is FEELING with people. It is about reaching into yourself and finding that feeling within yourself that resonates with what the other person is feeling, and allowing that to be a point of connection.

I love empathy. I love it when people empathize with me. I love it when we connect on a deep level of “I totally understand the shit you’re going through because I have been there before.” But…NO ONE CAN EMPATHIZE WITH EVERY PERSON THEY MEET! Unless, of course, you want to die of utter exhaustion both from actually empathizing with everyone and then also trying to find some kind of connection with people you don’t understand AT ALL and are struggling to find that commonality that will help you to empathize.

There is a reason that nurses frequently crawl out to their cars after every shift and then sleep all day on their days off. It’s partly all the physical work involved, but it’s also because their brains and emotional selves are deplenished from having spent 12 hours straight trying to provide quality, unbiased, empathetic care to patients under the umbrella of a code of ethics that tells them it is their moral duty to do this.

************************************************************************************************************************

Empathy and Sympathy Fatigue

A couple of months ago I took a quick weekend trip up to Chicago to see one of my best friends, who is a mental health therapist and also one of the wisest people I know. (She has also walked beside me through so many hard things in life….she is one of my people, forever) We ate some amazing food, hit up lake Michigan for some early summer kayak therapy, and talked about deep things. Because she and I don’t do small talk. We go straight for the good stuff , every time.

This friend has taught me so much about being authentic and learning how to love people well. So, after our bellies were full and our arms were worn out from rowing, I brought up to her my struggle with empathy, wanting to hear what she thought about it all.

My friend pointed out that empathy and sympathy are opposite ends of a spectrum, and when people only speak of those two ideas, they are leaving out a crucial concept: compassion.

Before she even really started to explain herself, it clicked in my head. My mind went straight back to the Gospels (the Bible was my native language after all, even if I don’t read it much now). There is a story in Matthew 9, where the translated text states that Jesus had COMPASSION on the multitudes. This is what it says:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

The connection that my brain made here was that Jesus felt compassion for the people, he understood their plight and struggles and pain, but he did NOT get personally involved with every single broken or hurting person around him. He recognized that it was not his task to save every single person, but that other people were meant to join in the job. (This may be the worst exegesis ever, but work with me here. Also, I know that the text says he healed every sickness, but clearly, he was not erasing every plight that the masses were experiencing).

As my friend and I talked, I recognized that there is a place in the middle….a very loving place….that is not completely detached and platitudinous, like sympathy can be…and yet it is not fully “all in” emotionally invested, like empathy requires. Compassion lies in between…in a space that is real and loving and meaningful, yet doesn’t require you to deprive yourself of self love and self care by demanding all of your ducks all the time. Compassion fills that gap where you wish you had something substantial to give, but you know you don’t. And yet, it’s so much more than just “thoughts and prayers”. Because compassion requires some mental and emotional effort, but it also recognizes that it is not your individual responsibility to single-handedly save the whole goddamn world.

************************************************************************************************************************

Vicarious Trauma

So, I now think that compassion fatigue is a complete misnomer. It should be called empathy fatigue. Because compassion is about caring for people, and loving them at a fundamental level and wanting the very best outcomes for them, but at the same time realizing that you are not in the position to do a deep dive into their lives and pain and help them find a way out. Empathy fatigue is what burns people out. And while I am absolutely not an expert in this area, I think that maybe it is empathy fatigue that most often leads to vicarious trauma. Empathy, at some level, as described in Brené’s video, requires us to get down in the dark places with people This can be OK if we each personally have the resilience and emotional strength to not be overcome by that darkness and pain. But, if we haven’t worked through our own struggles in life or faced our own demons, or have a strong resilience and identity, I think that trying to be empathetic can just about wipe us out if we’re not careful. We can end up being traumatized by seeing or hearing about someone else’s trauma, termed vicarious trauma. There’s something about compassion as an alternative, though, that lets us maybe see what’s going on from a distance, and care very much about it, but not have to climb down into every person’s pain with them. It helps us recognize that we have the capacity to sit in pain with a few people in our lives and be able to survive, but we can’t do that with everyone. And then trying to do so would not be loving either toward them or ourselves.

I hope I”m making the tiniest bit of sense here.

************************************************************************************************************************

When Your Ducks Are Spread Too Thin

As my kids let me know on a regular basis, I usually have too much on my plate. This mainly happens because life is so dang interesting and I want to do it ALL. Read every book, listen to all the music, meet all the people, do all the interesting research projects stored up in my head, try all the new adventures I’ve never tackled before. The problem is, when I try to do all of these things at once, I don’t do any of them very well. And when I attempt them out of a place of exhaustion, the results end up being even shittier.

I was thinking today about a freelance job I had several years ago. I was editing wedding photos and running a photo blog for a woman who owned a destination elopement company. And, OMG, if I ever get married again, that is the way to go. Have someone else plan an amazing, low key wedding in a fabulous part of California or Colorado, and all you have to do is look pretty and show up…..sign me up!

Anyway, I loved doing this blog, and I had a pretty good eye for picking out and arranging the best photos sent from the photographers for each wedding. But, because I was in nursing school and trying to do so many other demanding things at the time, my work and adherence to my client’s preferences started sliding. I didn’t have time to read all of her emails, and I missed cues about what she was wanting because I was so tired and stressed out about other things going on in my life. I was way too overloaded. So, she fired me from that freelance gig, rightfully so. It was a painful lesson to learn, to know that sometimes you have to only do a few things at one time in life to be able to do them well.

The same goes for people. Even though I am naturally an introvert, I have learned to be an extrovert. You know…actually, I might retract that here on the spot. Maybe I thought I was an introvert because of all of my shame issues, and maybe I”m just now learning that I’m really an extrovert since I”m letting that shame all fall away. I don’t know. It’s really neither here nor there. The point I want to make is that I want to be in deep relationship with all the great, fantastic people I know…which is alot of people. But I can’t do all those relationships well when I try to do them at the same time. I have a limited capacity both in time, physical energy, and emotional energy. I only have so many ducks to give.

So, the great lesson I am learning these days, especially when I am so tired from work, and trying to finish up this grad degree, and all the other great things going on in my life, is that I have to be intentional about when and who I give my ducks to. But, in rationing out those ducks, it doesn’t mean that I love all the other people any less, or care about their wellbeing and what is going on in their lives any less. It’s about seasons in life too, right? Like right now, certain people in my life need my ducks more than others (like my kids), and as life shifts, those ducks can be spread out to other people.

But most importantly, I’m learning that where I give out my ducks comes down to joy. Which people and things in my life bring me joy? Those are the places where the ducks should be directed. Because being a loving person in the world isn’t just about loving other people, but loving myself. Because I am just as important as every other individual in the world.

To The Things We Lost in the Pandemic: A Blessing

To the wise ones we lost, who slipped away quietly as the oxygen dipped, breath falling shallow. We remember you.

To the little ones, those who we thought were the safest, whose health was broken by young immune systems only fighting to protect them. We remember you.

To the health care providers who now can’t unsee and struggle to unfeel the fear, the unknown, the death and darkness of those early months, and now bear the exhaustion that follows. We remember you.

To those who feared every moment, not knowing who or what to trust, voices calling from every direction, saying, “Follow me, this is the way.” We remember you.

To those whose dreams shattered, irrecoverable, with no corporate grief available to be a salve for their souls. We remember you.

To the plans, and the trips, and the slumber parties, and the prom nights that were ripped away from children and young adults, who just wanted to live out milestones and rites of passage, but were denied these. We remember you.

To those who remain, we are still here. Still. Here. Not everything has been lost. Hope remains. Memories remain. Love persists. And grace carries it all.

May grace and love and hope be felt by all who have endured the weight of this pandemic, and may we seek to hold each other up, and never dismiss the pain of others.

Everything belongs. Selah.

Do Stuff Scared.

Photo credit: Me.

My kids and I just recently returned from a week long road trip to Texas to my family ranch. Being that it is wicked hot this time of year in Texas, we made sure to hit up the best swimming hole of my childhood. It’s one of those great swimming holes that is fed by underground springs, so even when it hasn’t rained much in recent months, the water in that particular spot still flows with chilly currents and stays about 9 to 10 feet deep. It just so happens that this particular swimming paradise is bordered by a couple of great rocks for jumping off. And like I loved to do when I was a kid, my boys saw them and immediately wanted to jump off them, too.

There’s something about jumping off a rock or high dive, as a kid, the first time after having not done if for a long time. You remember doing it before, maybe the previous summer, but once again, the first jump of this season is scary. And even though you “know” you’re really only jumping a few feet into water, it takes a while to build up the courage to just go ahead and take the plunge. But then, once you finally do it, you remember that the jumping was totally worth the risk, and so you keep coming back for more.

One of my boys really struggled with that first jump into the swimming hole in Texas. He would just about convince himself to do it, and then shy away from the edge right before he was going to leap off. He wavered back and forth for a while before he finally worked up the nerve to do it. The whole time, as I watched him, I could see his mind working…trying to get rid of the fear so that he could jump. If he could just convince himself that everything would be fine, before he jumped, then the jumping would be easy. But he could clearly never talk himself out of not being afraid. Eventually, he committed, still scared, and half actively, half passively, fell off the rock. But the point is, he did it. And that changed everything.

************************************************************************************************************************

I’ve been having alot of conversations with multiple people lately about fear, and the incessant inner urge to people please, and the self doubt that can really hold us back in life…from showing up fully, from becoming who we really want to be, all of that. As a recovering people pleaser, I am so intimately acquainted with these dynamics. The first several decades of my life were motivated so strongly by fear and the angst caused by disapproving comments or looks from people . Making decisions out of fear, constantly wondering if you’re measuring up, and incessantly calculating your risk of being abandoned by people….Is. So. Freaking. Exhausting. It is NOT a good way to live and I highly recommend against it. Do whatever you have to do…all the shadow work, the expensive therapy, cutting ties with specific people in your life, scrutinizing healthy people in your life to learn from them…..all the things that you must and have the resources to do to escape as much of that driving fear as possible.

Maybe I should back up a little and lay some groundwork before I start my pontificating so early on. I mentioned a while back in a different post that there are two types of pain. The first is wisdom pain, or the kind of pain that becomes the vehicle that will take you where you want to go. It is transformative and refining. The second type of pain is the pain that comes from avoiding difficult things, repeating the same defeating patterns in your life, allowing the same kinds of toxic people to manipulate and use you, and the kind of pain that convinces you that life is simply being done to you and you have no say-so about anything all that significant.

I also think that there are two kinds of fear that are directly related to these types of pain. Now, I’m not a therapist or psychologist, so I’m sure my thoughts here will be woefully simplistic, but they make sense to me so we’ll go with it. I also realize there’s a ton of nuance to fear, especially as it relates to trauma in one’s past, or histories of traumatic brain injuries. I”m not going down those complicated paths today.

The first type of fear is healthy fear. This is the fear that is rooted in our prefrontal cortexes, where we can logic out common sense and determine generally what kind of consequences might await us if we make certain choices. This fear is what keeps us safe and alive, generally. It tells us not to do certain stupid things because there will be unfavorable outcomes. I’m reticent to actually list examples here, because every example I”m thinking of…I’m like…nope, I know someone who chose to do that…with varying results. (Not everyone has a healthy sense of “this is what you do to stay alive” kind of fear). But I think you get my point.

The other type of fear is the one that isn’t rooted in lack of common sense or having an underdeveloped frontal lobe in your brain (aka, teenagers and young adults). It’s the fear that comes from deeply rooted beliefs about yourself that usually began to take hold during childhood…that you don’t belong in the world, that you aren’t enough, that you are too much, that you aren’t worthy, that no one will appreciate the authentic you, that you are inherently broken….all the beliefs that make you feel like the problem with the world is YOU.

This second type of fear is the most paralyzing, immobilizing fear. Or at least, it can be, when you identify way too strongly with it. Actually, I think we get into SO much trouble anytime we take on one of our emotions as who we are as a person, even if we do so unconsciously. A scared person. An angry person. A depressed person. A crazy person. I don’t like these at all. Because each of us, at our core, are so much more than our emotions or the things that happen to us.

The thing is, this kind of fear can be overcome. Maybe not all at once, maybe not to the nth degree in its entirety, but it is workable fear. It is not absolute, it is so very often based on subjective data and misinformation, and more importantly, it is not WHO WE ARE as our truest selves. Sometimes it takes years or decades to separate from the fear. This is where the writing of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie have been so invaluable to me. Once I learned that all the thoughts that pass through my brain are NOT ME, and all the feelings that I feel at any particular moment are NOT ME, then I could see how the fear was workable. Because I could watch, as an observer of myself, the fear within myself and how it influenced my thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.

This all may sound nuts to you….the idea that there is a real, unmovable, true, healthy YOU behind the you that you have known your whole life. Give it time. Sit with it. Question everything that comes into your mind. Make friends with the fear that is there.

************************************************************************************************************************

The Fear Behind the Fear: As a short side note, I want to mention the problem of having fear behind the fear, or fear of the fear of something. This fear is the worst, mainly because it’s a ghost, an illusion, but it sure can be paralyzing.

Fear behind the fear happens when you know you’re afraid of something, and then when you think of that particular something, you become afraid of the fear you know you’ll experience when trying to do or confront that something.

Here’s an example: when I was about 9 years old, my dad was teaching me how to shoot rifles because I wanted to join him deer hunting. Up until that time I had learned how shoot a short, little .22 rifle and had no problems with it. It wasn’t that powerful and didn’t produce much of a kick when it was fired. However, in order to hit a deer at 50 to 100 yards, my dad wanted me to learn to shoot his .44 magnum rifle. He took me to the shooting range that was on our ranch, out on the edge of a hay field, that had targets set up on a wire fence about 50 yards away, backed up by a brushline. The first few times I shot the rifle, I was shocked by the powerful kick it gave to my right shoulder, but because of the adrenaline from getting to shoot, I didn’t pay it too much mind. But, pretty quickly, something in me began to fear that reaction kick…I’m assuming this happened because during one of my shots I likely didn’t have the butt of the rifle firmly enough up against my shoulder and it probably whacked me in the side of the face or something. Either way, I suddenly became afraid to shoot the rifle and would refuse to. No matter how much my dad reminded me that it wasn’t hurting me, or showed me once more how to properly hold the rifle to minimize the kick, I just wasn’t having it. I would sit there holding the gun, aimed at the target, trying so hard to work up the courage to pull the trigger. And then I would start shaking….that relentless, uncontrollable shaking that is seen by people going into shock or whose sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive for whatever reason. With that shaking I felt shame and frustration with myself for not being able to just shoot the damn gun, when I wanted to so badly and knew at a superficial level that I would be just fine.

And then…I began to fear the fear of shooting the gun…It was as though shooting the gun was scary, but being afraid to shoot the gun, and all the physical symptoms that came with that, was actually worse than the actual shooting of the gun. So, I finally refused to have anything to do with that rifle and I haven’t shot it since. Fortunately, my dad had mercy on me and went and bought me a little 223 single shot that had a minimal kick and was a reliable hunting rifle.

Here’s a second example: I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I struggle with a bizarre fear of eternity. If you want to know more about the strange inner workings of my psyche, you can read about it here. If you don’t want to, I can’t blame you. Anyway, I’ve had this fear of eternity and living forever since I was about seven years old. Since then, I’ve had periodic panic attacks….horrible terror-filled minutes of the worst imaginable fear….that grip me at night, usually when I wake up after a deep sleep and am still disoriented. When I was a teenager and in my 20s, I used to struggle frequently with these panic attacks, and I felt so alone in them because almost no one I knew could understand them or why the idea of living forever would be so troubling to me.

These attacks would usually last no more than 5 to 10 minutes, but they are the worst things I have ever experienced in life. Like….they are so bad you literally want to die to escape them, but then dying would just accelerate you straight toward the thing you’re panicking about. As a kid, I very quickly became afraid of the fear surrounding these attacks. I would be so terrified of my brain slipping and thinking about thinking about having a panic attack.

I call this kind of fear anticipatory fear. (Actually, I’m sure someone brilliant out there has already named this the same thing, but I haven’t read it yet so I’m claiming originality.) Anticipatory fear gets us into so much trouble because it frequently assumes that the future will always be like the past, which is certainly not true. It keeps us from being able to more objectively evaluate situations that we are in and make different choices than we did in the past.

That was an unbelievably verbose side note.

************************************************************************************************************************

Risk assessments. These are a big part of my job in infection prevention and control. On at least a yearly basis, I have to look at data from the previous years, our community demographics, hospital resources, etc, and determine our risk for things like tuberculosis cases showing up in the hospital ( or other potential epidemics/pandemics), issues related to possibly having too much cardboard in various areas of the hospital, etc, as well as our overall ability to mitigate these and handle infection-contributing factors.

While these risk assessments are somewhat subjective, they are put together by combing through data and our environment and critically thinking about our resources and what is in our power and control to change. Clearly, no healthcare facility can rid itself of all risk entirely, but we can definitely help ourselves by carefully examining data, best practices, and learning from other organizations.

The thing about risk assessments is that they only give helpful output if the data and facts you use to compile them are reasonable. For example, if I just wrote one up on tuberculosis based on my daily experiences, my risk assessment would be completely flawed. This is because I don’t typically interact with people who are at high risk for tuberculosis to being with. If I determined that the hospital was at a super low risk of having TB cases because I don’t personally interact with people that tend to fall into TB populations, then my conclusions would be all wrong. So, to create a more well-balanced, accurate picture, I pull TB data from the facility over previous years, I look at Indiana-wide TB data, I run reports in the medical records to see how many people were tested for TB by our organization during certain timeframes. And then I come away with a much better understanding of TB prevalence in the county, and the ability to make much better recommendations about how to move forward.

I have a point with this medical analogy, I promise.

I think we make unconscious risk assessments about our lives on a daily basis. And, if you’re anything like me, which I know some of you are, your risk assessments about your life or things that you really badly want to attempt, might sometimes be faulty. I’ve become much more intentional about my life risk assessments, and have learned to start asking myself questions to gather accurate data for making decisions, even if I don’t do so in a formal way.

************************************************************************************************************************

Random Questions to Ask Yourself When Fear is Holding You Back:

  1. Am I actually going to die from this?

This is not really meant to be a sarcastic question. It’s legit. Because, so many times we really FEEL like doing a particular thing, or talking to a particular person, or going to a particular place may actually kill us, even if we know on a cognitive level that it most certainly won’t. I’ve told my therapist on more than one occasion of scenarios in life where I literally would actually rather die than have to do a particular thing. And, fortunately, because I have an awesome therapist, she reminds me this is a trauma response, we work through it, and I eventually come to the conclusion that there are better, more workable alternatives than dying over something that I’m afraid to confront.

But this is an important question to ask, and sit with. Is this “thing” really….really….as bad or threatening as how it appears in this moment?

2. If I survive, what will the outcome be? Will this take me closer to where I want to end up?

Related to the last question, this is an important one to ask in a personal life risk assessment. Because just like hospitals know, you can’t mitigate all risk, and you always have to weigh in a cost-benefit analysis. Will the outcome you get outweigh the discomfort you have to endure right now?

I asked this question ALOT before I decided to move forward with a divorce years ago. I was so freaking terrified, and really couldn’t know what life would look like on the other side. But I could IMAGINE positive scenarios containing outcomes I wanted, and I could calculate that there was a reasonable chance that some of those scenarios might actually be able to come to fruition. I knew if I survived the divorce and the rebuilding time afterwards, that I might actually have a shot at getting to where I wanted to be…and that shot was so important to me.

3. Who or what am I most afraid of right now?

My problem in life is that I have mostly been afraid of hypothetical people that I haven’t even met yet, or I am afraid of people who had a really loud bark and not much bite. Or, they were people that I was told I should be afraid of or intimidated by. Fortunately I’m learning that hypothetical people are like anticipatory fear….they are illusions. They don’t exist in the now.

If you can pinpoint exactly what or who it is you’re afraid of, without ambiguity, the situation also becomes more workable. Usually because by concretely defining the problem, you can ask yourself super direct questions to get to the bottom of why you’re afraid of that person/thing.

4. What do I believe about the Universe, ultimately? Is it benevolent, ambivalent, or malevolent?

I will also insist that what one believes about the Universe will directly influence how live your life. It wasn’t until I made the conscious choice to believe that the Universe is benevolent did my responses to things and ways of living life changed. Making this choice didn’t suddenly erase all of my deep seated fears, and it has definitely been a process to peel away lingering harmful beliefs steeped in bad religion and toxic people, but when you start believing that an energetic life force is on your side, possibilities and hope burst forth.

5. If I get to the end of my life, whenever that is, and die without trying “…fill in blank….”, will I really be OK with that?

I used to believe in an evangelical Christian version of heaven. Now….meh…I don’t know. I think reincarnation is more likely than that small view of heaven. I’m pretty sure I don’t buy the idea of nihilism. Maybe we all just merge back into a great Cosmic oneness. Who knows?

All I know for sure is that we live this life and then we die. And I sure as hell do not want to waste this shot at this great and wonderful life. Because as much horror and poverty and hate and hopelessness as I’ve seen, I’ve also seen elegance, and tremendous hope, and undeniable mercy and grace, and exquisite beauty, and extravagance, and joy….and I want to keep getting and giving out as much of that as possible until I pass on into whatever comes next. I may fuck it all up in the end, but I’m going to do my best to heal my wounds and pursue life with abandon, and be able to die with as few regrets as possible. I DO NOT want to skimp on this life because I am afraid of the unknown that comes next.

6. If I could suddenly let go of my fear and voices yelling “should” in my head, what would my life look like?

My current therapist has asked me this question alot. I remember the very first time she asked me, and I was stunned into silence. All I could eventually say in response was that, if this was truly possible, it would be the most amazing freedom and liberation I had ever known….and it sounded like JOY. To just life my life….doing the next thing, and living out of my authentic self, and not having to apologize for taking up space in the world.

I’ve got a very long ways to go with this, but I’ve managed to tamp down many of the voices in my head, and I can say with certainty that I’m finally, finally, after four decades, starting to show the REAL Julie to the world again.

7. What are the small things that I’m afraid of that could be baby steps to propel me forward into tackling those bigger fears?

I’ve had a couple of people in my life over the years who have made comments to me that are similar to this: “I can’t do that like you, Julie, because I’m not brave enough, or I had this terrible thing happen, or because I have this situation in my life, or….”

I get it…I’ve done this to other people in my life, too. But, when people say things like this to me, I have to chuckle on the inside because they are accidentally making HUGE assumptions about me, and that I must have just been born into the world in the same package as I present now. SO. NOT. TRUE.

Which is probably why I’m too transparent sometimes, and tell people way too much about the shit I’ve struggled with or still struggle with. Because I want them to know and remember that it’s all a journey, and we are all at different places.

Here’s an example. I frequently have people tell me that they aren’t as brave as me to get up and talk to people in public, and that they could never do it. They just assume I was born with the confidence to gab away in the front of a room before strangers.

Au contraire.

Learning to be comfortable with public speaking has been the longest journey EVER for me, and it was full of fear and pain along the way. I still don’t consider myself all that dynamic or charismatic of a speaker, either, so there’s more road here to travel down.

So I tell these people who think that they could never get to a place of comfort in front of crowds:

I used to tremble, literally, with fear, year after year during every piano recital; I was coerced into playing piano every single Sunday at church for over 5 years and I was terrified every week for the first four of those years; I was the worst debater in high school, but half chose to keep doing it and was half manipulated into doing it…even though I was nauseated before every single debate competition; In college I made myself try debate, and even though I sucked at it and probably lost every round, I learned a few things and knew I wanted to become as good at public speaking as some of my friends on the team. In college I had a great research professor who pushed me to give presentations of my research, and I gradually gained more confidence. I also had a great communications professor whose class taught me alot, even though my speeches that semester were so amazingly awful. Along the way I had jobs where I was forced to cold call strangers on the phone, and times when I had to make presentations before the higher ups.

The point is….it was a long hard journey to get to this place of being comfortable. I didn’t just wake up overnight, suddenly loving being in front of people. It took ALOT of baby steps, alot of failure, alot of really looking stupid and sounding incompetent, alot of boxes of Immodium, etc, to get to where I am now.

The absolute same happened with my writing and freelance success. I had to bomb really badly many times before I finally started trending upwards.

But I did it….and I did it everytime, scared.

***********************************************************************************************************************

And so now, after all of that rambling, I finally arrive at my overall point.

Scott Jurek, the great ultramarathoner, wrote that sometimes in life you just do things.

I will add to that idea: sometimes in life, you just do stuff scared.

You do it because there is no way to make everything completely safe before you move forward, there will never be sure fire guarantees about everything, and because the most important lessons in life are learned when we come to the edge of ourselves and we choose to not let that be a boundary even if we don’t know if we’ll survive moving past it.

Doing stuff scared is usually (in my humble opinion) where you find the best stuff. The most meaningful stuff. The realest, truest stuff. The growth and progression that you want. The life without regrets.

I found a lyric the other day, from the band Colony House, that really resonated with me: “I found a life that gave me a reason to live.”

For me, personally, I didn’t discover this life until I started, in earnest, going after what I wanted even while still being terrified and very unsure of myself. Then I realized that attempting certain things, with the possibility of achieving them, might actually be more important than to me than worrying that I might die in the process.

I’m still scared of SO MUCH. But its way less than the number of fears that used to keep me small, and quiet, and so very apologetic, and mousey.

To answer Mary Oliver, and her poetic question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’m going to keep showing up for people. I’m going to keep pursuing authenticity in how I show up. I’m going to insist on laughter all the time, and pursuing what brings me joy. I’m going to keep learning about all the things that fascinate me, and keep digging away and healing the old wounds that still need tended to. I’m going to go places, and meet people, and do all the things.

Imma do stuff, scared.