*This is a post I started a few years ago, and am adding to with one new insight each year that I’ve learned about life.
A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 3940 41 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.
You can’t choose who you love; you either do or you don’t, and you are free to love whomever even if they don’t love you back. And you can be OK with being loved back or not being loved back.
It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
Where you live doesn’t matter, and where you live doesn’t bring happiness. You can be just as happy in a little house in nowheresville as you can be in a big house in a happening place.
How other people treat you has little to do with you. They are dealing with their stories about you. Likewise, when you have a problem with someone else, it is really a problem within yourself. You are projecting your own baggage onto other people.
Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame. Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
God isn’t angry. He/she was never angry.
You don’t have any problems right now. Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
Cut yourself some slack when parenting. The things that scarred you are not the same things that will scar your children. Stop trying to extrapolate how every one of your mistakes will ruin your kids’ lives.
Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Generally.
Family is not always biological. They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
Working in the hospital can freak you out. Healthy people get sick. Get the flu shot. 2021 Addendum: AND the COVID vaccine.
Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything. Read the labels.
Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
Just buy the hammock.
Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
Surround yourself with people of all ages. Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
There is enough.
Sit with a dying person, and really SEE them. It might be the most meaningful thing you ever do, and it might be the only time they’ve ever really been seen for who they are and not what they do.
The obstacle is the path, and the Gospel is not the ability to avoid pain; it is the grace and mercy we are given to be able to hold pain, both in ourselves and for others, without being destroyed by it.
Pursue your authentic self with relentless abandon and don’t be afraid of the unknowingness.
I’ve haven’t written any posts for a few months. There’s been too much going on…starting a new job, training for some distance running events, grad school, a huge upswing in COVID, trying to be a somewhat decent parent during the midst of all of that….
But I’ve been chewing on something for a while, and now is the time to get it all out in a post. As a warning, this piece is, per the title, going to be about sex. This is the kind of post I would have been mortified to consider writing even just a few short years ago. Now, however, talking about things that feel real and authentic from my perspective seems more appealing than trying to avoid some momentary embarrassment. Still, here’s your chance to bail if you so choose, before I dive on in.
Still here….OK! Final word: this is totally written from a straight girl’s perspective. I totally get and value that there is a spectrum of sexuality and that love and relationships exist in countless forms. But, I don’t have the experience or wisdom to speak to much of them, so I’m just gonna talk about what I know. Also, this is probably going to be a perspective that isn’t common to everyone. I grew up as a conservative Christian, which had a huge impact on the way I approached life for decades, but I think some of the dynamics and things I talk about here will resonate past religious circles.
I do not at all guarantee this post will flow in any linear path; it’ll more likely be a hodge podge mosaic of all of my swirling thoughts, feelings, and convictions about this topic at this point and time in my life. This might be a multi-post series eventually, and yes, there will be sarcasm, and a bit of hyperbole, just to try and get my points across.
I spent the better part of my adult life hating sex. Seriously. I used to tell my therapist from almost 15 years ago that I would prefer a good slice of key lime pie any day over a roll in the hay. Sex was the biggest disappointment. It was built up in my childhood as something that girls should save themselves for; we were told that that under the umbrella of marriage it would be a gift and amazing and totally worth the wait.
That was not my experience. By any means. I remember thinking early on in my marriage, “Wait, you mean I read all those stupid I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and other similar books and I believed hook, line, and sinker that “staying pure” would be a good thing and well worth the wait?”
When I think back on the stories that I was fed and believed, I want to throw up a little in my mouth. Not because the people that told me the stories were ill-intentioned, and not because the fact that I was a virgin until I got married at 25 saved me from alot of heartache and potential STIs that can come with sexuality commenced in youth. No, I’m angry because sexuality and relationships were framed for me and so many like me in ways that only covered us in shame, a sense of inferiority, and the beliefs that we as women owe something to our male partners. And when you come to sex with this kind of framing, it’s no wonder that it might not seem so great. Sex is clearly physical, but for so many women, it is very, very much a head game as well.
There is a thread that I see running through much of our culture, even our “advanced”, Western American culture. This dynamic, or pervasive belief, is the idea that somehow the sexualtiy of girls belongs to their fathers or the men in their lives.
You know that tired old cliche story about dads threatening to meet their daughter’s first boyfriend at the door with a shotgun? Or they might sit up waiting on the front porch, looking as threatening as possible, when the couple returns from a first date? We often romanticize this kind of behavior, and talk about how Daddy is being protective of his little girl. Men still frequently ask fathers for permission to marry their daughters, and fathers still admonish men to “take good care” of those same women.
Nope, nope, nope. This may be a form of protectiveness, but the root of this is in the idea of ownership, that girls belong to their daddies until they are given to another man in marriage, and the idea that women need to be protected by men from the other men in their lives. I literally can’t stand this. Have you ever seen a dad sit out on the front porch with a shotgun after his son comes back from a date, wanting to warn the girl his son went out with that she’d better not try anything? That would never happen. And I’ve never heard of a girl asking a woman permission to marry her son.
I was listening to an episode of the You Made It Weird podcast a while back where Pete Holmes interviewed Hannah Gadsby. (By the way, if you have not been introduced to Gadsby, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials Douglas and Nanette on Netflix. She is fabulous.) Somewhere toward the end of their conversation, Pete and Hannah were discussing female sexuality, and how some men cringe or change the subject or get defensive and want to pull out their shotguns when the subject comes around to their daughters’ sexuality. They try to avoid their daughters recognizing their sexuality for as long as possible, and then they try to be in a position where they get to approve or disapprove of the man that their daughter engages sexually with. Super strong ownership tendencies there. Bleh.
Pete made the comment during this episode that he doesn’t want to be that kind of dad when his young daughter grows up. He WANTS his daughter to have fulfilling, authentic sexual relationships with whoever she chooses without being bogged down or enslaved by male “overprotectiveness” or ownership. He also mentioned he just didn’t want to come across creepy by saying any of that, to which Hannah replied that it was not creepy at all as long as he personally didn’t get involved. I agree. 😀
When I was growing up, I wanted to have a rodeo career and own a big ranch. The response I was given to this dream? Well Julie, You’d better marry a rich cowboy.
What the hell? This and other responses I got to similar ideas taught me that 1) certain dreams would never come to fruition on my own because I”m a girl, and 2) I need a man to take care of me.
I grew up in the Church and this thread ran very strong through it, it usually didn’t matter which denomination I was a part of at the moment. It was very, very clear to me that a woman’s status and citizenship advanced when she married. Married a man, that is. All the church singles group would talk about how amazing it was to be single and how you can do so much for the Lord as a single, and hustle while you wait, etc. But yeah, I could see right through it. Married women in the Church are much more esteemed. And if you start popping out babies, even better. And woe to those women who get divorced…you will fall right through the status floor and spend quite a while trying to crawl back to the level you were as a fresh, unmarred single virgin.
I grew up hearing the message from so many fronts, even if implicitly, that I needed to get hitched. I needed someone to take care of me, to rein me in, to make sure I didn’t do anything too harebrained. And because also….the only way you could legitimately have sex without pissing off God is to do so when you’re married.
So, I got married a couple of years out of college…and it was a disaster.
When I was in high school and college, purity culture was going strong. At superficial glance, purity culture seems good and all. Don’t have sex until you’re married, keep yourself out of compromising situations, etc, and you won’t end up with an STI, an unexpected pregnancy, and you can maybe minimize some of the emotional heartache that comes with the end of romantic relationships.
I was a strong adherent to purity culture all through this time. It made alot of sense to me during that period of my life, but part of the reason it made alot of sense was that it served as a GREAT coping and defense mechanism against my own body and personality shame. I grew up as the black sheep of my family, and while I liked almost all of my peers, I got along so much better with people that were at least 10 to 20 years older than me. Not in weird ways; it was just that I wasn’t interested in the same kinds of things that interested my age group. I was also a little terrified of God and a little terrified of boys my age, and latching on to purity culture teachings gave me a great way to avoid wondering why the male gender was not knocking down my door….or at least even waving much through the window.
I bought into the purity ring ideal, and wore a simple gold band on my left ring finger from my senior year in high school until I was 25, when I gave it to my dad at my wedding. Sorry, but I”m throwing up in my mouth a little again. My sexuality was not my dad’s business. At all. (To be clear, my dad did not force a purity ring on me…it was my idea at the time based in my own insecurities and struggle to please God and whoever else I thought I needed to).
It was as though I thought I had achieved some great feat by staying a virgin and handing over the gold ring on my wedding day….. It wasn’t a great feat. It was actually a really simple accomplishment because I grew up being made to fear sexuality and it’s power, to be ashamed of my own body, to stifle my own sexual energy, and to protect myself as I struggled to deal with with the trauma of sexual abuse that occurred during my childhood. But staying a virgin until you find a man to marry doesn’t fix any problems. And if anything, I believe purity culture absolutely sets marriages up for failure, puts more expectations on marriage and romantic relationships than is necessary, and has contributed to the perpetuation of rape culture in our society.
The way we read and interpret the Bible has a HUGE influence on the way we view women. Growing up in a conservative tradition that tended to read the Bible quite literally, women were viewed as the ones who fucked up pretty bad in the beginning, and were then relegated to trying to make it up for the rest of time by being the “helpmeet” for men and by having babies. As a woman, you’d be top notch if you were a virgin, and though you might drop a bit in status after losing that state of being, you’d come back up a bit if you proved to be an honorable wife and mother.
I’ve heard Proverbs 31 stated so many times as an ideal to live up to that I can’t stand it. Because it’s telling women….be this perfect female…the one who is super organized, and eloquent, and crafty, and all the other things that I am not. I’m a spaz most of the time. I have ADD. I would not necessarily say I am eloquent. And crafty…..I missed getting that gene. The Proverbs 31 women is put together, genteel, responsible. And she is prized for that. But she is not the ONLY type of amazing woman.
What about all of us women who are wild inside? Who want to attempt epic or outrageous shit? Who have tried really hard to live according to the ideals and conservative rules of others, but doing so kind of killed us inside? I’m SO FREAKING grateful for Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, released this year, that gives all women permission to be “whatever the fuck they want to be”, to live according to the drive that is within them and not according to society’s demands and beneath a patriarchal culture’s burdens.
In the Bible, it sure seems like male sexual energy is considered good, but female….not so much. And when we read the Bible in certain ways, we compound that sentiment. I think this is seen strongly in the emphasis on the Virgin birth. I don’t personally believe in the Virigin birth…it’s not something I’ll really get into an argument about, but the idea of a virgin having an immaculate conception is kind of boring to me. To me, it again objectifies women. Women are best in the pure state, not marred by having sex. Women have things forced upon them without them asking and they are honored WHEN they accept it without fuss or argument. Men don’t lose their holiness or saintliness or whatever by having sex, but women do.
The story of the virgin birth also feels to me as though some humanity is stripped from the beginning of the person we know as Jesus. I know alot of people will vehemently disagree with this idea, and that’s totally fine. But I also find it interesting that only two of the Gospels mention the Virgin birth. So, either it was folklore added on to the stories over the decades following Jesus’ death, or it wasn’t necessarily the whole point or crux of the Jesus story in the first place. And virgins don’t only appear in the Bible. They’ve been magical mermaids appearing in religious texts and stories for thousands of years. Anyway, my whole point about the Virgin Mary is that when the story is told that way, it seems to me like she was raped by God. Sounds like a familiar story that happens regularly to women, except for the God part. Sorry if I just pissed off half of Christendom and ruined Christmas….but this is how it feels to me.
There is a teaching that I think I first heard from the Dalai Lama or another Buddhist teacher. It goes like this: Learn the rules very very well, so you will know how to break the rules very very well.
I followed the rules my entire life. All the way through adulthood and an 11 year marriage. And this is what I have concluded: Sometimes following the rules to a T every single time doesn’t get you jack squat.
Since getting divorced 4 years ago, I’ve started breaking rules. Oh come on, don’t get too excited, people, I’m probably still one of the most boring people you’ll ever meet. Maybe more than anything I have begun to break the internal rule structure that has dictated for decades how I live my life….that has held me entrenched in insecurities and shame. But now that I know alot of the rules so freaking well, I often know which ones can be broken and when. And for the rest of the time….well, I’m much more prepared to deal with the consequences of breaking rules because I’ve learned that living a perfect, pristine life does not always equate to a happy, contented life. (It helps when you let go of the Christian literal hell narrative, too).
When I was married, as I mentioned before, I HATED sex. I felt sick and repulsed during sex, unless I had alot of alcohol in me. I would try to avoid so many situations in my life that my husband would interpret as an opening to initiate sex. It was a constant stress, for 11 years, and it was a relief when he was on business trips. Not because he is a bad person, but because it was time when I could finally let my guard down and relax.) The worst part of it all was that my issues with sex were all made out to be MY fault. I was frigid, I was not being a submissive wife, I wasn’t in touch with myself, etc etc. A Christian counselor I saw early on in my marriage told me that it was God’s will for me to keep having sex with my husband while I was working through my issues with it, because the Bible says you can only stop having sex for a while if you’re setting aside time for fasting and prayer. And of course, I heard the usual spill about Christian sex from countless sources: women need to have sex with their husbands whenever they [the men] want it, “it only takes 5 minutes, ladies”, if you don’t keep your husband happy he’ll have ample reason to stray and look elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if you’re not attracted to your husband or you’re creeping from memories of your own sexual trauma…this is your responsibility as a wife. Fuck that shit.
Here’s the problem: I married young because unconsciously I knew it would improve my status as a woman in multiple circles of my life, I had lingering insecurities about whether or not I could in fact care for myself long term, and hey, you never know how many guys will come knocking at your door so it might be smart to take up the first promising guy that comes along. (Spoiler alert: ladies, don’t do this….don’t settle for something that looks good on paper if your heart is not completely convinced).
Now this probably sounds like absolute common sense to everyone reading this: it’s probably way more smart to get into a long term relationship with someone that starts YOUR tractor than just the person who impresses the other people in your life. You’re the one that has to live with that person, not all the onlookers in your life.
But this is what I did. I married someone that made logical sense, that gave my parents that sense of security about not having to be concerned anymore about what Julie would be up to next, someone that was safe and steady and was a “good” Christian. I married him without having sex with him, without having sex with anyone prior, wanting so badly to improve my status and feel like I really belonged in this world. I mean, after all, isn’t that what I had been taught from the Bible since my childhood? That I needed to be legitimized since I was so unfortunately born as a female?
It took me 11 years to learn to say no. No to having sex when I didn’t feel like it or want it. No to believing that in some weird Biblical way my body belonged to my husband. No to all the voices who had told me my entire life that you are required by God to stick with one man forever unless he died or was unfaithful. No to all of the voices who thought they had any right to offer me opinions about my sexuality in the first place without me asking for them. And NO to resigning myself to stay in a loveless, miserable marriage without the hope of ever experiencing good, completely mutual agreed upon, and loving sex.
I, like countless other women, am sick of being ASSUMED upon.
People assume women were asking for it because of how they were dressed. People assume women were asking for it because they were flirty. People assume women were asking for it because they were out alone too late at night. People assume women were asking for it when they weren’t brave enough at the moment to fight for themselves.
And I hate it…really hate it…when people read the Bible assuming that the women in the stories did something wrong first.
Like John 4, and the woman at the well. Jesus meets a woman getting water at a well in town in the heat of the day and asks her to give him some water. I swear to God, I’ve heard a billion sermons on this text, and every time a man preaches about it he talks about the fact that this woman has been married multiple times, is now just living with a man, but it’s all OK because Jesus is forgiving and he’s going to show that harlot slut of a woman something that will make her happier than going from man to man. (Did you notice my sarcasm and hyperbole here?)
Has it ever occurred to people that maybe it was NEVER this woman’s authentic choice to be with ANY of these men? That she lived in a culture that didn’t always give much credence or rights to women, and that maybe it was husband after husband that treated her unjustly, divorcing her and passing her down the societal food chain until all she had left was to shack up with a final man just to try and survive?
Or what about the story from Mark where the woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet and he refuses to condemn her? Maybe it’s because he knew that she was forced into a marriage when she was but a child, and maybe, just maybe despite that she had found love with a man and for the first time in her life was able to be intimate with someone who saw her and valued her for who she was as a woman and not just a baby factory and piece of property. Maybe….when the text said Jesus was writing in the sand while the crowd waited for him to condemn the women…he was spelling out “Good on you, girl!”
************************************************************************************* I am happy to announce, that amazing sex REALLY DOES EXIST.
Many of you laugh, but you guys….for years I thought it was seriously some kind of made up conspiracy. to get people to watch movies and TV or buy stuff. Or that men were the only ones who had it good. Or maybe it was only for the super hot girls and women, a category of which I do not and have never belonged.
When I got married I was SO depressed and underwhelmed by sex. I read all the books, went to counseling, listened to seminars, did all the things you’re supposed to do in a good Christian marriage to liven up one’s sex life. Didn’t work….unless I was a little drunk. And how great does that make a girl feel to have to be shnockered to enjoy sex? Feels pretty crappy I’ll tell you.
The biggest thing that saved me in how I approach my purpose for being as well as my sexuality was letting go of this idea that God will send people to hell, or that Jesus died on the cross as a way to create forgiveness for all of my screw ups. When I came to the realization that God isn’t mad at me and was never mad at me or anyone, and that the idea of hell and sin as we often define it no longer makes sense to me, I was able to question everything else that had ever held me back in life. Sex being one of them.
I started believing, a while before I got divorced, that we as humans are much more judgy about who each other is sleeping with than God is. And I started questioning the hell out of purity culture. I once knew a pastor who refused to marry couples until they had had a really good makeout session and still felt great about the experience and each other afterwards. Nowadays, I feel the exact same way about sex. For most people, I don’t think you should even consider getting married unless you’ve had a good roll in the hay with the other person and are still inspired to go back for more.
I know what you’re all wondering….you’re sitting there trying to imagine exactly who and how many people Julie has had sex with since getting a divorce. Well, sorry, some details I will keep to myself. Not because I’m concerned about being viewed as a prude or a slut anymore, but because my sexuality is entirely mine to talk about, and the details of it are MY business, not everyone in the world’s.
But I will say this….I am everyday grateful that I walked away from a relationship where I was shamed and belittled for my issues with sex, where I as a woman was yet again expected to fix the problems, where I was responsible for my partner’s purity and ability to stay loyal to me. I’m grateful that I have since met men who have bent over backwards to avoid objectifying me, who are not threatened by my sexuality but rather embrace feminine energy, and who have been willing to show me that sex can be so so so much better than a piece of key lime pie.
I went down to Texas this last week to attend the funeral of one of my uncles. He had struggled for the last couple of years with T-cell lymphoma, a dreadful autoimmune cancer that caused him to itch relentlessly. Eventually, he was overcome by constant infections, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure. I tried to work things out so I get could to Texas just before he died, but I missed it. Thankfully, I was able to talk to him on Facetime and tell him that I loved him while he could still hear me. He died early on the morning I was planning on starting the long drive from Indiana to our family ranch.
My cousin/sister was my uncle’s full time caregiver during his battle with cancer. During that time she and I had so many conversations about death, about what quality of life means, and when it’s time to stop fighting and just rest. We talked about all of the family dynamics that have shaped us and influenced how we feel about death, about our loved ones, and our ability to grieve well. In the few weeks before my uncle’s death, I was apprehensive about how the end would play out, and I didn’t know what I would encounter when I arrived home. But to my surprise and joy, what I came home to was better than I could have ever hoped for. This hard, scary thing of death seemed to show what it truly can be, behind all the outer trappings of fear and suffering and unknowns…it was a calm, gentle river that carried my uncle to the other side, and members of my family to a new place of unexpected peace and acceptance.
During the days before my uncle’s funeral, my cousin and I discussed logistics of the services that were planned for him, as well as how we envisioned our own funerals one day. We both agreed that we want to be cremated, and our ashes spread over some place that is meaningful to us. Neither of us judge those who want a traditional funeral, casket, and graveside burial, but we know that we want to take up as little space as possible when we leave this world. Also, my cousin couldn’t bear the idea of her decomposing self ruining the inside of a coffin.
My cousin remarked that she wants her funeral to be a time of celebration of her life, not a time of crying and mourning. She made the absurd suggestion that we fill a hackey sack with her ashes and get after it. Or better yet, fill a bunch of bean bags with her ashes and have a rip-roaring match of corn hole. I nearly spit out my coffee when she threw out these suggestions, laughing so hard, but I thought they were brilliant ideas. My cousin and I can regularly border on the edge of morbid in our conversations, but underneath our ridiculous banter is a serioius undertone. In our jokes about being entirely irreverant with our ashes, we aren’t belittling our lives or the sanctity of life. We weren’t saying that we don’t matter or that dealing with death and grief should be silly and superficial. We are saying that we know our lives have held tremendous meaning, that we have overcome so much, and that death is just a transition to the next thing. It is not the ultimate finality to us. It is a moving on that can be accepted, and even welcomed, without terror and despair.
Now that I’ve joked about death, probably in a very inappropriate fashion to some, I’m going to switch back and say that I take death very, very seriously. In fact, I think that a huge part of life is learning how to prepare for death.
During the last six months, death has been on my mind even more than usual with the appearance of COVID. When I have sat next to dying patients in the hospital, separated from friends and loved ones by isolation rules, death did not seem very funny at all. It was no joke to feel sobered by the hope that by me holding the hands of these people…maybe I could serve as a shoddy substitute for the ones that they really needed by their side. It was no joke that I was hoping and praying that I could hold them up to the Light in my own individual way and have that be enough to carry them over the threshhold in grace. It was no joke having to call family members to tell them that their loved one had passed. And it was no joke to walk in on a patient in isolation, just to discover he’d died alone within the short time you stepped out to check on your other patients.
I may joke about death, but death itself is not a joke.
In recent weeks, graphics have been ciruclating around FB that attempt to visualize the overall impact of COVID on the United States using absolute numbers. Here’s are two examples:
May I just say that images like these freaking piss me off to no end. Not because I don’t like a good graph or statistics, but entirely because these posts reduce the value of life down to numbers, monetary value, and impersonal percentages. I’m all for showing people how their misperceptions of data can lead them to overblown conclusions, but I’m not OK with it when the data is spun in such a way that it causes further minimization and marginalization of hurting people.
It’s like that line in You’ve Got Mail where Joe tells Kathleen that “It wasn’t personal” when his mega bookseller pushes her small bookstore out of business. She responds with “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s *personal* to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?”
These kinds of graphics impersonalize COVID. They ignore the literal deaths and other deaths that coinicde with physcial deaths and can cause just as much trauma: loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of social networks, loss of safety, loss of anticipated gatherings/life rituals/memories, loss of long term health…and very importantly, the ambiguous loss described by Pauline Boss on the On Being podcast. All of these deaths MATTER and they are all personal.
These graphics, and this way of thinking, allows us to cavalierly say “COVID has not yet affected me in any significant way, therefore I will minimize it’s impact in my mind, and I will continue to live the way I want with little regard for how your life has been shot to hell or very much has the potential to be shot to hell by my actions or lack of concern.”
Note: the episode included below is an amazing chat with Pauline Boss on the trauma of ambiguous loss and the myth of closure. I welcome you to take the time to listen to it.
I’ve chatted with so many old folks who knew they were nearing the ends of their lives. When it feels appropriate, I often ask them how they look back on their life. Was it a good life in their opinion? Are they satisfied with what they’ve accomplished?
The answers I tend to get don’t expound on amazing adventures or huge successes or how they knew and interacted with powerful people. No one seems to mention the money they’ve made. Throughout my life, when I’ve had these kinds of conversations with people, they usually describe their lives in terms of who they loved, how they treated people, and whether or not they had done things (jobs or hobbies) that gave them joy and made them happy. The people that were able to tell me that they had loved well and been loved well seemed to be the most ready to go…the least afraid.
Death is complicated to talk about because of the complexity that surrounds it. Some people welcome death, while others feel it snatched away loved ones before it was their time. Some deaths are peaceful and calm, others are violent and horrific. And how we deal with the deaths we face can be paradoxical. On one hand, we need to celebrate lives well lived, and recall fond memories with laughter and joking. On the other hand, we need to hold space for ourselves and others to be able to grieve what we lost in those deaths, or the pain that those deaths represent…and we need to be able to grieve as long as necessary. As Boss said in the On Being episode, to hurry or pressure another through grief because of our own discomfort or impatience with it is nothing less than cruel. We must absolutely remember this wisdom in the time of COVID.
Life and death are a cycle, and grieiving is a cycle, and we must learn to accept each as they come to us, and let go when it is time for them to pass. But I totally believe we need ritual and grace for ourselves and others to accomplish this.
We need to allow ourselves to integrate within ourselves all that comes with death and not feel like we have to comparmentalize what is going on within us to make ourselves more palatable for those around us.
I’ve been to a billion funerals in my life. Ok, a bit of hyperbole there…but, I’ve been to A LOT. And it always seems to me that people are allowed to be really sad during the wake, during the funeral, and maybe even the mealtimes that follow a funeral, but then it’s time to snap out of it and rejoin the current programming of our lives. It’s like an on/off switch. You’ve cried…ok, now it’s time to put that stiff upper lip back on and jump straight back into the tasks of everyday life.
I’ve spent some time in West Africa, and one thing that they often do there that I like is postponed funerals. This used to kind of boggle my mind…like, why would you have a funeral a year after someone died? And, really, how could all of the people in the community come to a funeral so far after the fact and actually cry and wail and mourn the person? Well…I think it’s because, unlike many native-grown Americans, they understand that grief doesn’t end right after the funeral. And more importantly, they realize that grief is not only individual, it is collective.
I am very concerned about individuals in this time of COVID. The families that weren’t able to hold funerals because of location….the ones who couldn’t attend funerals because they personally were in the hospital with COVID…the families that were able to hold services but not in the way they really needed to, the way they hoped.
At some point, when this pandemic has subsided, maybe when a vaccine is available….we will so direly need a time of national and collective mourning. If we emerge from this pandemic and rush straight back into our mindless way of doing things, I’m afraid our country could in many ways be done for. If we can’t mourn in a meaningful way for those who have been devasated by COVID and recognize all that they have lost, then we have lost our collective soul as a nation.
I’ve returned from Texas now, following my uncle’s funeral, and I’m so grateful to have been able to go. Yes, there were annoyingly frustrating moments, like people wearing ill-fitting masks, or refusing to embrace my need for social distancing and forcing themselves upon me. But I was reminded that while the months and days leading up to death can be so scary and uncertain, death itself is just a crossing over, just a walking through a door, just a slipping through a veil. It can be a terrible event, but it can also bring about redemption and reconciliation in a family that is struggling with old wounds and hurts.
Life and death are so complicated. I think that’s all I can say with complete certainty after this long, meandering post.
I’m only 40, but I have lived a damned good life. I have loved others fiercely, and I have been loved fiercely. I have failed miserably so many times, but I’ve also triumphed over things that I thought would always conquer me. I’ve forgiven, and I’ve been forgiven to a greater extent. And while I’ve got alot of stuff left that I want to do, I’m OK when death says it’s my time.
My cousin and I talked about what we would want said at our funerals. I told her I thought it would be great to have an open mic, not just so that people could recall all the things they like about me, but also so people could talk about how much they disliked me, or how I had hurt them, or what a moron they thought I was. My cousin laughed, but I was serious. I want people to process any trauma I’ve caused them, be able to have their say without anyone arguing with them about why they shouldn’t feel the way they do, maybe remember a few of the good things about me….and then go out afterwards and kick a hackey sack full of my ashes…knowing that all is well, and I am well.
Someone told me today I that I was spewing bullshit.
And it probably seemed like I was to this person. But the thing is, I know I wasn’t.
I may be really stupid in some areas of life, but I don’t think I’m stupid in the things that matter the most.
If I’ve learned anything over my life, it’s that people are capable of way more than they think they are. And what they are capable of doesn’t end just because people on the outside say they’re done. It’s very much a mind game. I know this because I’ve let my mind push me around so many times. I’ve neglected to question my thoughts and beliefs and allowed myself to be held back so many times by voices external to me, as well as my own internal voice that used to scream relentlessly at me, telling me how pathetic and useless I was, how unseen by the world I would forever be.
But, the thing is, I had enough people in my small world start spewing on to me what I too once thought was bullshit…that I’m capable of whatever I set my mind to, that I’m smart, that I’m creative, that I’m worth something. And when you come to believe wholeheartedly that you ARE worth something, you can’t help but start to believe that everyone else is freaking amazing, too, and it’s impossible not to share it with them.
Sometimes I wish that people could see how I used to see myself, how wretched a person I believed myself to be, and how desperately low my self-esteem and self-confidence once was. Then maybe they would understand how I’m so completely convinced that if I can transform my life, there’s a very good chance that they can, too.
Maybe I AM just a huge spewer of bullshit. But I wouldn’t be where I am now if all those many people out there hadn’t spewed their own bullshit on me….bullshit about how amazing I am, bullshit about what I have to offer, bullshit about how other people’s stories about me are not my real story. These people’s bullshit, even when it made me angry to hear it then, even when I wanted them to agree with me about what a victim I was…these people were the catalyst of change for me.
One thing I’ve learned over time, that I believe in my gut, is that I can see potential in people even when they can’t see it in themselves. It’s like a sixth sense. And while I may be freaking annoying when I remind them of what I see, I just can’t stop. I won’t let people give into beliefs that they are hopeless, that they are a lost cause, that everything that matters is gone forever, that they were never or will never be loved. Nope. I choose to hope for people when they’ve forgotten how to hope. Call me a Pollyanna, call me naive. I know what I see.
I”m listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, this week. I adore his writing, and I love this book in particular. To anyone who says he is not a science writer, I say, “Posh!” I personally think that if every science class was taught by him, many fewer students would come away terrified of science because of his fantastic storytelling abilities. Right now in the audiobook, I’m in the section where he is talking about Einstein and the development of the theory of relativity. Einstein was such a cool person…especially in the fact that he once mentioned he seldom had novel ideas…but as we all know, when he had them, they were freaking fantastic. In his work, along with the famous formula E=MC2 (darn..I don’t know how to do a superscript in WordPress), Einstein showed that the speed of light is supreme and constant. There’s nothing else that we’ve discovered that has the power to overtake it.
Naturally, listening to this section of the audiobook reminded me of the words of Jesus in the gospel of John.
John 1:5 – “And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
It’s really easy to get stuck in the short term. To not see the big picture. To only observe what is right in front of us that looks impossible to deal with. But we are also caught in space and time and so have a warped view of what is going on around us.
As Bryson described Einstein’s formula, he put it this way: energy is liberated matter, and matter is energy waiting to happen. And their relationship is joined together by light.
This is what we are! We are humans, boundaried and sometimes beaten down by hard things…things we’ve never asked for or wanted…things that are dreadfully unfair… but when the Light gets in, we are liberated. And how does the Light get in? It seeps and then floods in when we stop and look at our brokenness and hurting and despair and ask what it has to teach us, and when we allow it to have its way with us.
“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen
Here’s another science metaphor: The law of conservation of energy – energy is never created nor destroyed but simply changed from one form to another.
I believe this about life. Nothing that is really real is ever truly lost. The only things that are lost are illusions, dreams, or our mistaken beliefs about reality.
I’ve quoted this from Richard Rohr many times before, so much so that I had it tattooed permanently on my arm: Everything Belongs. Because only the real things belong. I believe this because I believe that the dark can’t overcome the Light, and that Light will prevail in the end. If that’s the case, then nothing can be lost, nothing can NOT belong.
Maybe I’m full of it. Maybe I’m just bullshitting myself. But this is the way I see it; either I’m crazy and delusional, or what I’ve experienced in my soul is real.
I’ve been surprised by hope, where I once carried only despair. And it’s one of those things where when you’ve seen something…truly seen it…you can’t unsee it, no matter how hard you might try.
So this is my life intention, made clear today: I choose to be a spewer of hope, of Light, of goodness, of love… even when it is perceived as bullshit. I won’t get it perfect all the time, and sometimes the things I say probably really will be bullshit and it will be worth everyone’s while to tell me to shut up. But I refuse to stop believing in people, even when they can’t believe in themselves.
“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.” ― Ellen Bass
*This post is in honor of my amazing daddy, for Father’s Day 2020
I love Jeeps, but they don’t love me. In fact, the Jeeps of my childhood tried to kill me on a regular basis. Even though I think they’re cool and look neat, I can just never buy one now.
One of the first vehicles I learned how to drive in, at the age of 6, was a little green 1970s model (I think…that was a freaking long time ago) Jeep. I remember it had rusty floorboards and an old CB radio that we could never get to work. My dad started out letting me sit in his lap to steer as we drove this old jeep back in the pasture to do odds and ends. I remember the first time he let me drive it by myself, following him in on a tractor. He had it down in granny gear and I think I was probably only going about 10 miles an hour, but I really thought I was something.
I had my first wreck in this Jeep. I was seven years old, and my dad, a ranch hand, and I were cruising back to my house on the ranch. This Jeep had drum brakes, and when they got wet from water crossings, they tended to….well….fail completely for a while. In this case, I was in the driver’s seat by myself. As we pulled around the side of my house to park, I pushed on the brakes and….crickets. Nothing. And so we slammed politely into the side of the big metal barn sitting parallel to the house. My face also slammed into the steering wheel, and the ranch hand jumped out of the Jeep and took off, completely freaked out, before I even knew what happened.
My dad ran me into town to the doctor to make sure I was OK, but all that happened, in that case, was some bloody gums. The barn fared worse than I did, and that dent is still very much visible over thirty years later. I don’t think anything happened to the Jeep. They made vehicles differently back then.
Maybe in retribution for running it into the barn, or maybe dumb luck, this same Jeep tried to kill me a few years later. My dad, brother Todd, and I were four-wheeling it across a mountain that separated two cow pastures on the ranch. As we were inching our way up to the top of that hill, still quite a ways from the crest, the Jeep’s engine died (or intentionally quit) and at the same time the brakes decided to fail. We started rolling backward, and I started to panic. My dad told my brother and me to open the passenger side door and jump out. I was stuck in the middle and had no mind to stay there, so I promptly pushed my brother out (something he will never let go of, even after all these years. I tell him that I saved him from his indecisiveness).
Todd and I jumped and rolled out onto the rocky side of that mountain as my dad, inside the Jeep, gained speed backward toward a cliff and a big drop off into the pasture from whence we had come. And wouldn’t you know…instead of jumping out himself and letting that cursed Jeep just go over the edge and destroy itself in a blaze of glory, my dad had to Indiana Jones it and whip the Jeep around sharply to the side at the last minute, getting it to finally stop.
I lost all trust in that Jeep from then on. And my dad, God love him, had the nerve to try to convince me to get back in and continue on our way. I refused to get in and told him I would rather walk over the mountain and the several miles back home than get in the blasted Jeep. (I was also a very melodramatic child). I had walked over the top of the hill and started down the backside when my dad finally convinced me to get back in for the rest of the drive. Looking back, I should have continued to refuse…I don’t know how going headfirst downhill with failing brakes could be any better than what I had just experienced. But, we made it home that day, and I continued to eye that Jeep suspiciously, never trusting it again, and refusing to drive it much.
I won’t even get into all the other stories now, like how when I was about three years old, sitting in the back of a Jeep on top of a mountain, and it slipped out of park while I was the only person in it….and someone managed to jump in just in time and save me before we careened off down the road…
There’s a song by Alan Jackson that I think is one of my top five all-time favorite songs. The lyrics in this song fit, to a tee, my childhood experiences, and every time I hear it, I think of what an amazing thing it is to get to learn how to drive when you’re a little kid.
Driving early is one of those great privileges of being a farm or ranch kid. You don’t just learn, though, for fun; you learn because it’s needed. There’s so many times my dad needed to move a tractor and plow or hay baler to a different pasture, and if my brother or I didn’t follow behind in the pickup truck (or blasted, not-to-be trusted Jeep) he would have had to hoof it miles home…usually in the glaring, summer heat.
I remember sometimes at night, when the cool of the evening set in, we would gather as a family in the truck to go “see what we could see”. We’d head back into a pasture we’d randomly choose (I grew up on a 6,000 acre ranch…there were plenty to choose from) and my brother and I would hop into the bed of the truck and usually make silly fools of ourselves while my parents had adult conversation, nestled away from us, in the cab of the truck.
One day in particular…I think I was six or seven….I really, really wanted to drive, and my dad said no. We were driving along in the East Clark pasture, and I laid my head down on the edge of the bed of the truck as we drove along. I can’t remember if I was really sad, or if I knew at that age that I had my dad wrapped around my finger already and I just knew how to manipulate him into getting what I wanted. 🙂 Well, it probably wasn’t more than 10 minutes of him looking at me in the rear view mirror, all pouty and pathetic, that he pulled over and told me to climb in his lap to steer the truck. My dad looks like a tough man on the outside, but he’s nothing but a softie deep down.
The really awesome thing about my dad was that he never gave me hell about my terrible childhood driving record. He teased me some, but he never got mad. I was so adept at hitting things in the most stupid ways, or making really hair brained driving decisions on the ranch. ( I blame it on the fact that my prefrontal cortex hadn’t fully developed yet and it wasn’t my fault). I would attempt to steer through gates that were wide enough to accomodate our big Ford tractor and plows, and I would still manage to drive squarely into a gatepost while trying to pass through.
One time in high school, I was backing our minivan out of the barn (aka, the party wagon that was bequeathed to my brother and me and was a constant source of shame and embarrasement), and the big, swinging, wooden barn door started to close on me. Instead of being a smart person and getting out to prop open the door, I had the super awesome idea of pushing the it open, while backing out, with my driver side mirror. Let’s just say I was impressed with how deftly the barn door pulled off that mirror and broke the glass. My dad didn’t yell, but instead reattached that side mirror and jerry rigged a replacement glass that didn’t look anything like the original, and let my exponentially raised embarrassemnt about that van serve as a lesson to me to not try to open barn doors with extensions of my vehicles anymore. (Did I mention that my brother had already hit around four deer with that van, and so there were dents all over it, too?)
Then, not to be outdone by myself, later on in that year I backed squarely into my grandpa’s work truck. My grandpa, who was amazing himself, had come over in the morning for coffee and had parked alongside the house behind my van. I was heading into town to do something, so I went out and hopped into the van. I couldn’t go forward, because the van was parked right behind my dad’s truck. So, I reversed, and scared the living crap out of myself when I felt a solid slam.
OK, in this case I think maybe my dad did actually yell at me. I really hadn’t seen my grandpa’s truck when I got in the van…my dad could not fathom this, and that’s totally understandable….I mean, the truck was literally two feet behind my van, and an obnoxious color of baby blue….an old Datsun with a metal frame my grandpa had welded onto the back. The good part was, that my gradpa thought it was hysterical and never got mad at me. I think the fact that he laughed so hard was probably how I got off easy with my dad.
I have more stories of driving as a child, but I think I’ll save myself the further embarrassment of recalling them. As I got older, most of my driving debacles were mostly to blame on suicidal white tail deer and Russian hogs.
The third verse of Alan Jackson’s song goes: “I’m grown up now, three daughters of my own. I let ’em drive my old Jeep cross the pasture at our home. ”
And that’s me! But I have three sons and won’t let them drive a Jeep…you now know exactly why. But the last time we were in Texas I let them drive my truck on the family ranch, sitting in my lap just like I used to do with my dad. It amazed me how driving with them pulled up all those great memories I have of driving with my dad, and I recognized for the billion billionth time how freaking privleged I was to grow up where I did, when I did, and to have the dad I did.
I hope that when my boys are grown, they’ll also “reach back in that file, and pull out that old memory, and think of me and smile!”
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy! Thanks for always putting up with my hair-brained shennanigans and for replying to them with more laughing than yelling!
I’ve had so many conversations with a variety of people in the last few months about feeling “stuck”. The conversations range from people feeling stuck in dead-end relationships, to wanting to move forward in their careers but not knowing where or how to proceed, to people who feel like they’re living inauthentic lives who want to the find their true selves, to people who can’t seem to move past events that wrecked them or threatened their identities, to people who literally feel physically stuck by the stupid COVID situation.
I totally know what it feels like to be stuck. I went to therapy for years complaining to my therapist about how stuck I was. A mental image had developed in my mind over time, where I envisioned a bird trying to fly and explore, but there was a rope tied around its leg, keeping it from being able to move beyond a very small circumference of existence. Looking back, my mental metaphor was spot on….I had a very real leash holding me back that was built with multiple threads… self-doubt, critical voices (both real and perceived), controlling relationships, no sense of my true identity, and incorrect beliefs.
Fortunately, I no longer feel tied down and restrained by this invisible leash. My belief in my own self-agency has increased by leaps and bounds. This week, as I had some more conversations with several people about feeling stuck, I began to make a list of the things that I did that really made all the difference in radically changing and transforming my life. Maybe some of them will resonate with you, if you, too, are feeling “stuck” in life.
*Note: I recognize that traumas in people’s lives and mental illness can play a significant role in a person’s ability to get unstuck. My opinions here are not a substitute for quality therapy and mental health resources. I also recognize that I have a certain amount of privilege related to my ethnicity and socioeconomic status that I in no way want to minimize by what I write here.
So, here, in no particular order except for the very first step, are my 10 ways to pursue ‘unstucked-ness”:
1. Grieve what you’ve lost, and grieve what you needed that was never given to you.
It is SO easy for us to stay stuck in the past….to live off the exhaust fumes of our memories and all the what-ifs, what-could-have beens, and what-should-have-beens. The fact is, the past is dead and gone, and when we insist on dwelling on the past, we are just dwelling with ghosts – nothing real. The past can never be changed; it is what it is.
That being said, I understand the frustration of wishing that things had been different. For years I struggled with wishing I could have a complete college do-over. I was depressed so much during my undergrad years that it was really all I could do to put on a brave, happy face most days and try to get my schoolwork done. One of my greatest frustrations was my mediocre performance in organic chemistry. I wanted for years to retake that class and kick its ass. I wanted to redeem myself, show that I really did have the smarts to apply for medical school, and prove that it was just my dumb brain and low self-esteem that held me back.
I’ve also kicked myself so many times for decisions I made years ago. Why did I get into that relationship? Why couldn’t I have been brave and done that one thing that I really wanted to do? Why didn’t that person love me the way they should have?
But this is what I realized: there are so many lessons we can learn from the past that will help guide our future, but to constantly wrestle with the past wishing it were different is an exercise in futility and it only causes us unnecessary suffering. However, we can’t just walk away from these things and pretend they don’t matter. We must still take time to grieve them, which is different from arguing with their finality. It’s OK to mourn and cry over people and relationships that are broken and gone, it’s OK to be profoundly disappointed by opportunities that passed us by, it’s OK to recognize areas where different actions would have served us better.
In fact, I would say that the primary, foundational step in getting unstuck is to identify all the areas from our pasts where we hurt, face them head-on as we are able, and grieve the hell out of them. This is so especially true when we weren’t given the love and nurturing we needed from our parents and other loved ones. Determining the areas where they failed us, and mourning those, is OK…it’s not blaming them. It’s self-care for us to realize where we were hurt, and move forward to find healing for ourselves.
2. Stop the comparison game.
Being victimized is one thing, submitting to victimhood is another. One way that we stay stuck is to dwell on our personal situations and then compare them with those of others who we think have it better than we do. This kind of mentality gets us into trouble for SO many reasons, including: 1) We don’t know all the details of other people’s stories or how they got to where they are now. To do apples/apples comparisons between our lives is sort of dumb. 2) We are each unique individuals with different talents and gifts that we can offer – the world doesn’t need exact replicates of other people. 3). When we constantly compare ourselves and what we have with others, we will always suffer – it’s inevitable.
The only way to get unstuck here is to refuse to be a victim. People may do horrible things to you, they may treat you unjustly, they may abuse you or ignore you or neglect you…but how people treat you does not have to dictate how you respond to them or to what life gives you. People who hold tightly to a victim mentality will always see themselves from a place of lack, and that’s a really hard place to move forward from.
3. Take stock of inventory.
COVID sucks, there’s no way around it. That being said, it has offered many of us a subtle gift because while much has been taken away from us as individuals and society, we are able to recognize so much of what remains that we never paid attention to before.
So many spiritual teachers talk about how if we can’t accept and be content with the present, we’ll never be content when the future comes, because the future always becomes the present. A perfect future is ALWAYS an illusion…an unrealistic dream.
To get unstuck, we have to look at all we have….REALLY look at it, and appreciate it for what it is: our belongings and possessions, our relationships, our strengths, talents, weaknesses, failures….all of it. This gives you a baseline to work from, and inevitably, you’ll probably discover that you do have some really good things in your life that you might have been taking for granted while bemoaning your “stucked-ness”.
4. Decide which voices to stop listening to.
Everyone will have an opinion about how you should live your life…literally everyone. But most of these opinions are misinformed and won’t serve you well. So you have to be ruthless in deciding who of your current relationships you are going to allow to speak into your life, and then you have to start constructing hard and fast boundaries.
Many of us did not have the most encouraging voices speaking to us as we were growing up. I would say that most of the time the people behind these voices were simply doing the best they could with what they knew, but it doesn’t negate the fact that those voices had an impact on how we came to view ourselves and understand the world. We usually love and respect the people behind those voices – but we must recognize the ones that were, or maybe are still, hurtful and stop listening to them.
There’s a saying in the Bible about how prophets can never be honored in their hometowns. This is a pretty obvious dynamic: when people watch you grow up, they tend to create stories in their minds about who you are, and when you start changing, it’s hard for them to let go of those stories. So, they treat you the way they always have, and interact with you the way they always have, even if you have become, or are becoming, an entirely different person.
It can be really, really hard to leave behind the voices that held you back for so long, but it is critical do to so. It doesn’t mean that you stop talking to certain people, or that you stop loving them – it means that you compartmentalize at some level, and disallow access to specific areas of your life. Unfortunately, some people won’t respect your boundaries as you try to grow and become unstuck, or they may become angry and manipulative with you as they see you grow and move forward. When that happens, choose yourself. Don’t be held back by those unhealthy voices, even if they are motivated by good intentions.
5. Find your people.
Continuing from the last step…as you’re moving from being stuck, you can’t just go at it alone. You’ve let old voices go….but you need to fill that gap with people that are moving in the same direction as you.
One of the biggest….the biggest….helps for me when I decided it was time for a life transformation involved changing the people I interacted with and listened to. This was actually kind of hard though….I started moving WAY out of my comfort zone to meet and talk with people that I formerly would have never talked to. This really made all the difference…I can’t emphasize it enough. Meeting and becoming friends with wildly different kinds of people served to broaden my mind about EVERYTHING, introduced me to new ways of thinking and living, gave me new experiences, and ultimately helped show me that the life and human experience is much vaster, nuanced, and beautiful than my tiny world had ever been.
In this day of Internet and social media, finding your people is much easier than it used to be. Sometimes, when I haven’t been able to find the “in-person” support I’ve needed, I’ve found it through social media. I have online friends who I’ve never met in person, yet we’ve resonated on some topic or experience, and as a result we are still able to encourage each other and speak into each other’s lives.
Either way, however you find your people….again, be ruthless about these new voices and who you allow to speak into your life. This is YOUR life you’re crafting…no one has the RIGHT to offer opinions about how you live without trust, respect, and a genuine concern for your growth and well-being. And likewise, you are not obligated to take in opinions just because they are chunked at you.
6. Question everything you believe.
It seems to my that our beliefs about life tend to steer the ship. Our emotions and feelings often stem out of our beliefs, and our belief systems shape our self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. etc.
Most of us, I think, grow up assuming that our beliefs are true. We usually believe what our parents tell us, because…they’re our parents. This is all good and well when we are youngsters, because we need a solid, safe container to grow up so that we can develop an identity that we feel secure in. However, we aren’t meant to live in those small, child-size containers for the rest of our lives. Doing so will keep us small.
The greatest disservice of my childhood was being taught by numerous adults not to ask the really hard life questions or to dispute pat answers that are given when those questions are asked. It took me until I was 30 to be brave enough to start asking those nagging questions that had lingered in the back of my brain since adolescence. But then, and I can remember it pretty clearly, I finally got the courage to peer over the edge of the belief abyss and just ask ONE of my big questions….and it literally, and rapidly, began a shift in my life when I started looking to new people for answers, instead of allowing in the same, tired old answers I had gotten for years.
I also started doing things that I had been warned against by so many people for most of my life…nothing illicit or really illegal, but things that pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a good, wholesome, Christian girl. As I’ve mentioned in multiple blog posts, I was very unhappy in the entirety of my marriage, but it took me years to be brave enough to do anything about it. Things started changing with one dumb little action on my part. When we were a little over halfway into our marriage, I went and got a nose ring, against the explicit wishes of my ex, and not just a stud, but a gold hoop. Now, this may seem like the most trivial action to you guys, but it was a huge act of rebellion for the “me” that I used to be. I almost expected the ground to swallow me up, at the time. But it didn’t, and that one little action started making me brave, and it made me start questioning the heck out of everything I believed about everything.
7. Don’t wait for the perfect path.
It’s so hard to move forward into the unknown when you can’t see where you’re going. I personally much prefer to have a path laid out before me, and as an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs, I like to have closure on things YESTERDAY. This is, to my consternation, not the way that getting unstuck works. This, I think, is because life is not about being safe. It is about adventure, and living your humanness to the greatest extent that you can – however that may look. (I am not negating here the need for good, conscientious, steady people…but I think everyone has to take some real leaps and get out of their comfort zones to grow).
Every once in a while, the stars will align and you’ll be presented with a very clear, long-term path. But, in my experience, this doesn’t seem to happen very often. Or, you have to take that one big hairy, scary, step first before the alignment and path are revealed to you. Most of the time life seems to give a clear path for two, maybe three steps…which you have to take and then trust that the next two steps will become clear as you approach them.
Getting unstuck is going to take a heck of a long time if you insist on knowing the entire path from the start – life doesn’t play that game. Furthermore, if we knew from the start the exact way our paths would look, we would probably stay stuck because we wouldn’t like all the twists, turns, and pain that await us on our way to growth and joy. Sometimes it’s better to learn to trust that life will take us to the places that we need, and will show us how to endure the hard places we have to travel through.
8. But…wait for the gut shift.
I’ve been struggling for the better part of a year with a situation that I can’t decide is good or bad, helpful or not, long-term or not. I’ve wavered in my mind, going back and forth about whether or not I should walk away and move onto something new, or wait and see if something will come of the situation. People have offered their opinions, many of which I have agreed with, yet I was still completely indecisive. I felt like I needed to wait for that gut feeling…where my intuition released me to make a decision.
And this last week…I got it. I experienced a subtle but dramatic shift within myself that came with complete peace. The gut shift did not explicitly say “Julie, it’s time to shut this down and head out”, nor did it say, “Julie, you need to stick this one out for a bit longer” Instead, it gave me a clear “You can do whatever you decide to do and it will be fine, and you will be fine.” It has been kind of an amazing feeling actually, where I finally feel, with certainty, that either choice will be OK and good, and it is entirely up to me.
I’ve had this gut feeling at other times, and I’ve learned to rely on it. Because of my “I want closure” tendencies and impulsive nature, I can often jump into or out of things prematurely, even with unrest present in my soul. Sometimes I will do things with that unrest even when logic and people’s opinions all seem to agree with what I plan to do…but I’ve learned that doing the right or good thing at the wrong time is not always the right thing. Sometimes it’s good to stay in a situation a little longer simply because you have lessons to learn. This is where you must learn to trust and listen to your gut, to know if you still have learning to do or if it is time to move forward.
9. Start with the baby steps.
If you’ve been stuck for a while, it can feel really good to launch out and make huge changes all at once. But, if you’ve just started believing in yourself and are just starting to trust life a little, then these huge leaps can feel overwhelming and daunting. When I knew that I wanted to change my life trajectory, I started figuring out small things I could do to practice being brave and to build up my trust capacity in myself. Getting a tattoo and that nose ring were some of the first baby steps. Others were sending queries to those first magazines when I wanted to write and publish articles. I took my oldest son, who was 7 at the time, to West Africa by myself. I desperately wanted a divorce, but was scared that I couldn’t make it by myself, so I took the first small step of talking to a financial planner and meeting with a lawyer just to get information. And so many other baby steps….steps that got bigger and bolder as my courage and confidence grew.
Bravery is sort of like a muscle, in my opinion. The more you do scary things, the more you realize you’re capable of, and then suddenly, the things that used to terrify you are now as innocent as kittens. But when you start out, go easy on yourself. Pick baby steps where you might actually fail, but where the consequences of those failures won’t completely disillusion you from trying another step. A perk of this is that with small things, you’ll start to realize that it’s OK to fail, and that you won’t suddenly die or your world fall apart if you don’t succeed right away at everything you try. This beginning to feel comfortable with failure is a huge part of getting braver and braver.
10. Pick a theme song for your journey.
Music is and always has been a huge part of my life. Music and lyrics can have such a big impact on our emotions and motivation. You’ve probably all had experiences where the radio might play an old song that corresponded to a certain time in your life, and you were instantly transported in your mind back to that time and those memories, with accompanying feelings. There are those trigger songs, that you can’t listen to anymore because you associate them with an old love, or there are those songs that bring up nostalgic feelings about childhood. Then, there are those amazing songs that you incorporate on your exercise playlist because they are upbeat, make you feel like a badass for at least a few minutes, and encourage you to hang in throughout the workout.
About the time that I had that gut shift in my stomach, alerting me that it was time to move forward with a divorce, I discovered Alicia Keys’ song, “Girl on Fire”. It INSTANTLY became my theme song. I didn’t necessarily believe about myself all the things she sang about, but I decided to project them onto myself as a way to “fake it ’til I made it” in regards to bravery. I listened to this song non-stop over the next couple of months, as we prepared our house to sell, as I had difficult talks with my children about what was going to happen, as I worked to figure out where in Indianapolis I was going to move to, as I scoped out nursing schools, as I fretted about money and gulped at how expensive lawyers can be, as I made countless trips to donate stuff at Goodwill…I must have listened to it a hundred times, and sang it at the top of my lungs just as many.
Every time I doubted myself, I turned it on. Every time I felt guilty about blowing apart my family, I turned it on. Every time a friend or family member shamed my decision, I turned it on. And every time I made some badass decision and moved forward, I turned it on. And gradually, I found that I became exactly what Alicia was singing about.
When you’re moving towards unstucked-ness…a theme song is a MUST!
So, there you have it…10 ways that were essential for me getting unstuck. They’re not easy, and they can take time, but I’m pretty convinced they’re all worth it—no matter what kind of situation you’re trying to get unstuck from.
Last summer, in late July, I made an impromptu, last-minute trip to Texas to visit my dad and extended family. Every time I go home I spend alot of time with one of my cousins, who is really more like a sister to me. At one point during my short visit, we went to the local HEB to grab a few groceries. While there, I stopped by the hair care aisle, hoping to find some bobby pins. (When you’re trying to grow out a pixie cut, you need all the help you can get to look presentable). I scanned the hangers of barrettes, pony tail rings, and bobby pins, but could not find what I was looking for. I wanted short, brown pins that would match my hair. All I saw, though, were long brown and black pins, and short black pins. In feigned exasperation, I gave up and turned to head to the checkout lane. My cousin stopped me and exclaimed: “Julie, you’ve got to look with your hands, not your eyes!” Sure enough, she dug through the packs of pins and on the far back end of a hanger that held mostly pins I didn’t want, she found exactly what I was going for.
I was happy with the bobby pin find, but what thrilled me more at the time was the really good metaphor that she had just given me for how to do life. In all fairness, she didn’t really come up with the saying; a friend of hers had told her the same thing once when my cousin had opened the fridge to find something and couldn’t spot it. Her friend had also told her, “Girl, you’ve got to move stuff around, and look with your hands and not just look with your eyes!”
It’s really easy to approach life in a superficial fashion; to go beyond the surface, and see the thing behind the thing….that takes effort. But, I think it’s kind of like with the bobby pins….you’ve got to go deep to find what it is your heart, and sometimes hair, is really searching for.
I totally got called out by a friend this weekend, and it was really annoying. I had initially called HIM out on something, accusing him of being inconsiderate and for basically being a jerkface. But, in an unexpected twist of events, he turned it right back around on me and damn it if he wasn’t right, and the way I was acting was as dumb or worse than what I had been irritated with him about.
Don’t you just hate it when life so accurately and swiftly humbles you like this? And then YOU feel like the jerkface.
The basic premise of his argument, which to my utter chagrin was spot on, was that I get a narrative about certain things stuck in my head that I won’t let go of. Then, I respond and act out against that narrative, believing it’s true when a good deal of the time it isn’t. Ultimately, it’s laziness on my part. Instead of asking questions with an open mind and probing to find understanding, I often take the easy way out and assume that the thoughts that come to my head about the situation are automatically true.
It’s so tempting, and easy, to get lazy with relationships we are in. We project our stories about what we believe about people onto them, and then we insist on interacting with those projections instead of understanding that those people are living, dynamic, nuanced humans. It’s easier for us, but doing this robs us of authenticity in our relationships and isn’t loving towards the other person. And when we insist on responding only to our stories about people, we miss all the really good stuff that presents itself when we choose do the hard relationship work and embrace the mystery that each person brings to the table.
One of my very best friends was officially ordained as a Mennonite USA pastor the other day. She is one of the most amazing, wise women I know. She has worked long and hard to get to this point, and it is absolutely her calling and where she is meant to be.
Due to the COVID, her ordination ceremony was held on Zoom. She invited so many of her friends and mentors to be a part of the ceremony, by offering blessings, presenting readings, or reflecting on her journey to this ordination. One presenter referenced the passage in the gospels where Jesus told Peter to cast his nets on the other side of the boat, when Peter was having little luck dragging up fish. According to her, in the translation from the original text, Jesus was encouraging Peter to “launch out into the deep”. She was making a different point when bringing up this phrase, but these words hooked me when I thought about the message Jesus always had for people. In all of his parables and teachings, Jesus repeatedly urged people to look beyond what they saw with their eyes, to move beyond the superficial. This is why he told parables, I think. He wanted people to wrestle with life, to dig hard to unearth God’s mysteries, to search beyond the obvious, and to understand that being human and existing in this world is about so much more than just black and white.
There’s a Facebook meme of a Glennon Doyle quote I saw the other day that feels spot-on for me. It said:
“Stop asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”
In my weird, warped logic, I used to think that I had to take seriously pretty much any advice that people threw at me. These days, I am very picky about who I let speak into my life. To put this as politely as possible, this is because some people try to spout off about things when they have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about. Of course, most people speak only out of good intentions, but sometimes when they haven’t gone through the thick and thin of dark things, they can just never understand the dynamics of what someone is going through. In those cases, I think it’s way better to keep one’s mouth shut, and if you want to be helpful and loving, just offer as intense of presence as possible.
These days, I take most seriously the words of those who have faced the hard things head-on. I talk about post-divorce issues with people who are divorced. I see therapists who regular go to their own therapy sessions. When I’m tempted to listen to criticisms from people about my kids’ behaviors, I defer instead and listen to my fellow moms and dads who have also raised multiple kids, who have struggled with children who are amazing, yet also incredibly challenging. I take relationship advice from the people that I see who are working hard to improve themselves in their own relationships and who don’t let excuses keep them from jumping back into the game again and again after being hurt or rejected. I try to emulate the people who I see doing incredibly brave things, who are diving headfirst into their humanity…who are willing to both succeed and fail fantastically. I take these people the most seriously because they are living life with their hands, and not just their eyes. They recognize that most issues in life are complex and multi-dimensional, and cannot be described through pithy statements and platitudes.
The reason I like this metaphor that my cousin offered me last year was because it describes two sides of truth, both of which are necessary, and which can’t stand alone. Looking with your eyes is about utilizing beliefs, facts, and logic. Those bobby pins I was looking for were really supposed to be on a specific hanger just for that length and color. But looking with your hands speaks to the importance of life experience and walking the walk. I had to dig through those bobby pins, going beyond belief and logic, to find that they were in fact there…just not in the way I had expected.
Our eyes certainly have limitations. We can’t “see” wave/particle duality. We can’t “see” DNA. We can’t “see” distant galaxies. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. We as humans have stumbled upon these other discoveries because we figured out ways to look without using the naked eye. We use our eyes when they work for us, but realize that they can only take us so far.
Each of us as individuals is also limited in what we can understand about life when we stay on the periphery and don’t engage. Our beliefs can only take us so far; the knowledge that we get from books or other people usually can only address very specific situations. It is when we choose to dig in with our metaphorical hands, release our entrenched narratives about things, work through our pain, and broaden our experiences…that’s when we really start to “see”. And I think that’s when we can finally start finding what it is that we are really yearning for.
It snuck up on me again, as it does every year. I usually don’t think that I’m that great of a mom, so it feels kind of awkward and uncomfortable to be part of a day where I’m supposed to be recognized and gifted with stuff. If anything, I think Mother’s Day is a day where I should be buying my kids presents and cards and thanking Jesus they haven’t traded me in for another model yet.
This year is extra weird, though, because of the stupid coronavirus. My boys are staying at my ex-husband’s house since I’m working on a COVID hospital unit, and until we figure out a path forward since the COVID probably won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I miss them like crazy. I even miss….oh my God….the incessant bickering that comes with siblinghood. I miss my 9 and 11-year-olds still trying to sabotage my sleep every night by asking if they can crash with me in my bed. I miss the messes and the smart ass comments and even the groans about whatever is ending up on their dinner plates.
My three boys are troopers and have put up with this whole ordeal so bravely. They haven’t complained, they haven’t thrown fits, they have never guilted me about making a really hard decision that disrupted their lives in addition to how COVID already had with their school and social calendars. Every time I see them and take them treats, they tell me how generous I am, how I’m the best mom in the world, and remind me as I leave…loud enough for their entire neighborhood to hear…to go kick COVID ass. I adore them.
Every time I leave a visit with them, me on the sidewalk and them sitting six feet away on the grass, I wonder if I made the right decision for them…wonder if the majority of the decisions I’ve ever made for them were right. No one ever gave me a manual for motherhood, and the darn part of it all is that I don’t get any do-overs. This baby just comes out of you, and they hand it to you all slippery and sweet, and send you out the door for home only a couple of short days later with minimal instructions on how to keep a human alive…much less how to shape and craft good people.
I have been a mother now for 13 years, and while it has been incredibly rewarding, mothering has been the toughest thing I have ever done in my entire life. My journey as a mother has been quite the rollercoaster, has taken place across multiple states, and has morphed through a progression of philosophies and ideals. The kind of mother I am today is so dramatically different than when my first son was born. That poor firstborn child…he deserves mad props for all of my growing up that he has had to endure over the last 13 years.
When I was young, I used to be jealous of my friends who had stay at home moms. My mom was a career woman – a physics professor and educator who frequently jet-setted across the country to attend this or that meeting. Most of the time she never came to my sporting events or academic contests while I was in school. I used to resent that, but now I realize she was just too freaking exhausted to be able to keep up with everything we had going on, on top of her own daily responsibilities. She woke daily at 5 AM, and went to bed by 9 each night, teaching, maintaining a household, and commuting an hour and a half every day, back and forth to the ranch we lived on.
Somehow I got it in my head, maybe from me missing my mom when she was so busy during my childhood, that the best kinds of moms were the ones who devoted their entire lives to their children…the stay at home moms who drove their kids non-stop to extracurricular activities, kept the house spotless, made every meal from scratch, were crafty, either homeschooled or were super involved in the local school systems, and were patient in every aspect of parenting.
Oh, wait…I know how I got that idea in my head. It’s because it’s the one that our society totally perpetuates, even if it isn’t always said out loud or expressed explicitly.
I tried really hard for a very long time to be this kind of mom. And trust me, I know some moms out there who rock this role….they are freaking good at it, it is their passion, and I give all kudos to them. I homeschooled for a couple of years, I got super crunchy granola for a while and made yogurt in my crockpot, I obsessed with whether or not my house was clean enough, I got the minivan, I joined mom groups at local churches, I read all the books on mothering, I tried to make sure my kids were only exposed to the most wholesome things life could offer, I let me own career slide because I was terrified that maybe I wasn’t a good person if I sent my kids to daycare even though I totally supported other working mothers doing so, I tried to be the best wifey so that my kids would have a stable household to live in….
And finally, at a certain point, I quite literally said, (pardon my French): “Fuck that shit!”
Because…none of those things were bad….they were great ideals. And for some women, that is EXACTLY the type of mom that they are genuinely meant to be and the conditions in which they thrive. But they weren’t me. And the more I tried to be the best version of that kind of mom, the more I felt like I was withering away and dying inside. I tried to be what our culture idealizes about motherhood…I even believed myself when I told myself this was what I really wanted….to be the absolute best stay at home mom and wife ever…but it wasn’t the authentic me.
I’m not crafty. I have banned glitter and glue from my house. Baking drives me crazy ’cause you have to measure stuff. I spent a decade relentlessly cleaning my home as a married mom and am so sick of cleaning that I have since let my standards drop tremendously….and I just don’t care. I’m the furthest thing from an involved PTA mom that has ever existed. I let my boys swear occasionally according to a 3-tiered cuss word system we borrowed and adapted from The Simpsons. I stopped freaking out about every aspect of my kid’s education and instead focused on teaching them to learn to love to read and ask questions, trusting that those two skills will take them all the way. I stopped reading every parenting book that only led me to feel more neurotic and paranoid that I was screwing up my kids. And, I went back to school and back to work, picked my career back up again, and have a long term plan that I’m pursuing.
I feel, finally, like I’ve found the real mother in myself. My brand of mothering may look different from that of other women, it may be unorthodox sometimes, it may not always be squeaky clean and photogenic. But it feels authentic and real to me, and I feel like I’m finally showing and teaching my boys what is really important to me in life, rather than just mothering according to the prescriptions that I thought society and the Church had laid out for me.
It seems to me that being a woman and a mother are about two of the hardest roles out there. First, there are so many expectations on women from our culture…be sexy, yet not slutty. Make sure you’re feminine enough, but make sure you don’t come across like a ditzy flake. You’re pushing 30…why aren’t you married yet? Don’t you want to get married? You’ve been married for two years now….when are the babies coming? Don’t you want to be a mom? Don’t dress like that…it makes you look like an old lady. Don’t you know you’re pushing 40?- you need to bring that hemline down a bit. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be too assertive and confident or you might be labeled an icy bitch.
And then motherhood. We are burdened with social expectations and because of the dreadful insecurities that are dug up in us, we engage in mommy wars. Oh my God…you use formula instead of breastfeeding? You’re keeping your kid out of preschool this year…don’t you know they’ll be behind when they get to kindergarten and ultimately fail in life? Then, the homeschool versus public/private school battles. The whispered conversations about how quickly, or not quickly enough, that woman went back to work after having a baby.
And on and on and on. Sometimes all of these shoulds for women and mothers are brazenly thrust into our faces; other times, they are subtle, whispered, but felt just as strongly.
There’s a verse in the Bible that I have heard so many times, referenced by certain people about how we should parent. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he shall not depart from it.”
I kind of hate this verse, actually, because it’s been used to beat so many people over the head and shame them about their parenting outcomes. More times than not, this verse is used in relation to external parenting tactics….routines, methods of discipline, household rules, etc, and is treated as a cause/effect law. That is….if you mother properly, and do all the right things, your kids will turn out well. It’s like a social contract….you do x, y, and z as a parent, and voila! You have a perfectly crafted person as a result. Oh my word, the number of times I’ve seen mothers ridiculed and shamed by other people when their kids made big mistakes or “went wrong”.
Mothering is not a science. Not even close. It’s hard and messy and beautiful and terrifying and relentless. We don’t get to choose the kids we get, and our kids don’t get to choose us. We don’t get to know ahead of time if our personality is going to clash with that of one of our kids’. We don’t know ahead of time what challenges we’re going to face, what individual struggles each of our children might have, what emergencies and tragedies will pop up when we least expect it.
And we’re never trained for what might show up in ourselves after having kids. I thought I was fairly well adjusted before I had kids, and then that first one was born, and I realized that I was actually a goddamn mess with the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. How in the world could I do this kid justice?
Motherhood is not about being a put-together woman who wisely and calmly makes choices each day regarding her children from a place of confidence and contentment. (I”m very suspicious of people who are never, at least a little, afraid or concerned about their parenting abilities.) Nope, it’s a constant flying by the seat of your pants experience, recognizing that you are not equipped for the job, but by the time you’re a grandparent, you’ll finally…probably…know what you’re doing. Too late for your own kids. Oof.
It’s high time we collectively use our social imagination and rethink what motherhood is really about. It’s not about being the perfect woman who martyrs herself and loses her identity for the sake of her children. It’s not about having the perfect house or being a great event planner or chauffeur. It’s not about never yelling, or always making sure the kids get bathed every night. It’s not about ensuring that they never see anything even remotely disturbing or difficult.
In my mind, mothering is about providing a place of belonging for our children, a place of acceptance and love. It is about holding space for our children, knowing that they have alot of growing up to do but are already perfect as they are. It’s about meeting their physical needs, allowing them to face challenges in life, but protecting them fiercely when needed. It’s about helping them find what they’re passionate about and allowing them the freedom to pursue those things. It’s about allowing them teach US what is most important in life and growing US up as human beings.
Motherhood is NOT about getting caught up in all the externals or how we present to the world or having to get it right all the freaking time.
No mother is going to get it perfect, and all of our kids will likely need some therapy at some point in their lives. But, we need to let women be who they are without forcing prescribed roles on them, and then embrace all the mothering permutations that come out of that amazing diversity. I’m pretty convinced that when we women feel the freedom to be our true, authentic selves without having to apologize for what we want in life…this is when the best mothering will result. We will feel secure and accepted, drawing wisdom and love from our truest selves, and that is the best place from which to offer the same for our children.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
I sat with an old Indiana farmer this week who was suffering from complications related to COVID-19. It occurred to me, while watching him sleep, that I care for alot of old Indiana farmers, and they remind me so much of the old cowboys and ranchers that I knew and loved as a child growing up in Texas. The old men I would hear countless stories from, the old men who were some of my biggest heros, and then over time, the same old men I would visit in hospitals, nursing homes, and finally, in funeral services.
There’s something about old men…I’ve always resonated with them and made quick friends with them…not in a weird way, but in a friendly, “we get each other” kind of way. Which seems kind of strange since I’m a young (now young-ish) female, but for whatever reasons, this is the way it’s always been. It’s been funny to me, too, how many of these old men have told me that if they were 40 to 50 years younger and not married, they’d snatch me up without a second thought. This makes me really laugh, because it seems it must take most men reaching the age of at least 65 to realize what a great catch I am. If this trend continues, when I’m pushing 70 my love life is likely to be going gangbusters. 😀
Anyway, as I cared for this one old farmer, I thought of how quickly his life had changed. Just a couple of weeks ago he was still out and about, active, and managing his farm. And then COVID knocked him off his feet in the matter of just a few short days. Farmers and ranchers are kind of different in a way, it has always seemed to me. Most of them grew up in the country, working hard from a young age, and so the land and the work is part of them, anchored deep in their bones. The land, and the animals, and the sweat, and the long hours, and the one-ness with nature become part of their identity…part of how life makes sense to them. Then, inevitably for many, something will come along that rips this identity away from them…and they are sent to town to convalesce on a patio or in a bleach-cleaned hallway, sitting in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket across their legs to ward off chill, only left with stories of years gone by to share with those who are smart enought to sit at their feet and listen.
My grandpa was one of these men. Until he was in his early 80s, he still went out every morning to dynamite rocks out of the hills on his South Texas ranch to build passable roads, and he still cared for his goats that he had loved dearly since his was a boy. COVID didn’t knock him off his feet; in his case, he slipped while walking out in a wet pasture and slammed his cervical vertebrae onto a rock, effectively becoming paralyzed. He lay there, unable to move, until my Dad found him hours later. Over the next few years my grandpa was largely resigned to hospital beds, in long-term rehab, then in his home, and finally in town at the local nursing home, until he died.
My father is pushing 70 now, and still walks the backcountry daily, checking snares and traps in places you have to take a 4-wheel drive to get to…running bulldozers to clear juniper brush…clearing pastures with controlled burns. I’ve asked him for years to retire, to start slowing down. He’s told me more than a few stories over the last couple of decades that scare me half to death, of things that happened to him while working alone….the time his bulldozer caught on fire and he had to drive it straight into the river, the time he was getting off the bulldozer and stepped on the track before it stopped moving so he was flung into a nearby tree, another time he was bulldozing and he hit a beehive and again had to drive straight for the creek to get away…(do you notice a bulldozer theme, here?) These are only a few of the many near misses he’s told me about.
And yet I know, while I ask my dad to stop, to just sit around and drink coffee on the backporch and tend his garden, that all these things that he does that scare the crap out of me are part of who he is, part of his identity. He’s told me on more than once occasion that when it is his time to cross the river to glory, he wants it to be back in the hills, to happen in the places he’s known and cherished since boyhood. And I understand him in this.I know that if I had to put my dad into a nursing home, his spirit would be broken.
Since COVID came and knocked the wind out of all of us, we’ve been struggling with identity crises collectively. The things that we feel define our society have in many ways been put on hold, literally and figuratively. Our ways of communication and being community have had to shift dramatically. And many of us have been thrust into lonely places, beyond just isolation from other people.
Our country has always been one of action, of business, of running here and there. We aren’t a society known for contemplation, solitude, and silence. We wrap up our understanding of who we are in our consumerism, our ability to do this and go there, and our standings of how we compare to the rest of the countries in the world.
And now we’ve been blind-sided by a pandemic that changed our modus operandi overnight. Our lives, in many ways, have slid to a screeching halt. This leaves us with the question that life is forcing us to ask ourselves, whether we like it or not: if we don’t have all these things that we used to think defined us, if we lose much of it forever, who are we now?
I have a couple of friends who seem convinced that their lives are basically over, or at least at a very long standstill, because their careers were taken away from them unexpectedly. These people identified very strongly with their jobs and education, and now feel trapped because they can’t go backwards, and the path forward appears entirely uncertain.
I understand this trapped feeling. Although the details of our stories have been different, I know exactly what it is like to feel as though all that you’ve worked for has vanished, in vain, and that there is absolutely nothing great to look forward to in the future. I know what it’s like to look all around you and feel so completely stuck and hopeless that every morning when you wake up, you’re like, “God, again??! Another day of THIS?” It’s like that clip from The Office, where Michael realizes that Toby is back, and he just can’t face the reality of it.
Man, have I been there.
But, I’ve also seen the other side of this dark place, and so I can say with some authority and credibility that it does not, will not last, forever…if you’re willing to let the pain and terribleness of it sit and be a while…realize that it is not going to kill you….and then you slowly, steadily look up and start finding the ways that you are not trapped, and the paths you can take to start making changes.
Now, to their sometimes obvious chagrin, I don’t accept the woeful resignation my friends try to offer me about how their lives are effectively over. I empathize with them, and feel their struggle, but I will not give in with them. Partly because I’m wicked stubborn, partly because these two people are brilliant and talented and have so much to offer the world, and largely because I’ve been to the dark places and back and know that the journey out of trapped places is possible.
There’s a fundamental law that everyone learns in science class, probably starting around 8th grade: the law of conservation of energy. This basically states that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another.
I can’t help but believe this is the way life works. As Eckhart Tolle has said, “Nothing that is of value, that is real…is ever lost.” At first glance, this statement can seem trite, superifical. But, if you work it over and wrestle with it, you’ll realize it is true.
I also strongly believe that there is always something behind what appears to be nothing. I wrote about this idea several years ago in an essay for a graduate program. Space, in whatever form it takes, is not void. It contains the potential for new life, new ideas, new ways of being, new so many things….to spring forth. If it can at all be said that COVID has brought any blessings with it, it is that we have been given the opportunity to reaquaint ourselves with space and and quiet and discover the good things that can be found there once we calm our frantic minds.
I finished watching the TV show Little Fires Everywhere last week, and I love the quote from the top of this post. Sometimes you just have to let it all burn down around you, and start over. But in reality, the burning never destroys everything. It actually burns away all that isn’t truly real or lasting. As someone who grew up on a ranch where we regularly did controlled burns across acre after acre of land, I know that sometimes a good burning is the absolute best thing that can happen to restore fresh life into a pasture. If you just look at the scars on the land immediately after a burn, it can look ugly and barren…a wasteland of nothingness. But by next spring, with some good rains, that freshly rejuvinated soil will sprout of new, lush, green grass and the countryside will be transformed.
I think our lives are similar. Sometimes we keep insisting on trying to make the past work….we want to keep what we had and bring it with us, whether or not it wants to come with us. And through this relentless struggle, we suffer and despair. We keep looking down and looking backward insstead of looking toward what we might have waiting for us.
We need to start looking at the scorched things around us in a new way. We must stop gripping on so tightly to the things that are dead and gone, and develop new eyes to see the potential for newness that is everywhere around us, that is just asking to be grabbed a hold of.
COVID has changed us forever. We will never go back to the way things have always been. And while there’s some significant loss and grief present there, there is tremendous potential for good things that we couldn’t have imagined if our lives hadn’t been so violently disrupted. Right now is the hard part…the scorching, as it were. But I firmly believe all the best about humanity will survive this, and so much about us as a society that isn’t real will be burned away.
Finally, it is out of this nothing, this long period of isolation, that new things are already arising. People are fabulously creative and are discovering new ways to help each other, to encourage each other, to laugh, to distill meaning out of life. These are the people to watch and follow….the ones who know that who they are doesn’t reside solely in their careers or where they live. These are the people with eyes to see the new paths that will lead us out of this trapped place, and who will teach us to see, if we are willing..
The last little over a month has been tough for us in the US, hasn’t it? I remind myself, though, that this COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching thin the lives of millions of people around the world for much longer than it has ours. I’m, so far, one of the privileged ones who still has a job, whose family is healthy, who has a close network of loved ones and dear friends who check in on me daily, and who is well cuddled by two cats and a dog who seem to sense the crisis we’re in and insist on more snuggle time with me at day’s end.
I’m sure that I am no different from everyone else when I say that I’m bewildered by this whole pandemic. The logic adds up in my head about how it could arrive and throw us into absolute turmoil, yet COVID’s unexpected entrance didn’t seem to give us enough time to prepare and ground ourselves for what it was bringing with it. I daily get that odd sense of, “What if this is just a really extended weird dream, a Ground-hog Day-ish kind of experience, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be completely back to normal?” But then I wake up, after sleeping in ridiculously late because suddenly I can on many days of the week, and we’re still here in the same place of isolation and uncertainty.
There is so much fear, tension, and irritability that is present around us right now. But, as someone who is an apocalyptomist ( a word Facebook recently fashioned that fits my personality pretty well sometimes – where I believe shit is going to hit the fan and yet everything will somehow still turn out OK), I simply refuse to throw in the towel and give in to despair, even when I look at the data and it feels like the most realistic option. I choose to find joy wherever I can, whenever I can. And I’m learning more and more, especially now, that sometimes joy doesn’t look or necessarily feel like you would expect. It can only be found when you’re watching for it, and when you, at a gut level, believe that it wants to be found. Joy is subversive, because it has the power to completely change a situation from the inside out, unexpectedly. It can take the most bitter of moments and transform them into something that may still be painful, but can no longer overwhelm us.
Last night, twenty minutes before shift change, I slipped into the room of a patient of mine who was dying, to see if the last dose of morphine I had given was lessening their air hunger and to see if they were comfortable. I was tired, as every nurse is at the end of shift, even more so these days because of the emotional and mental fatigue that happens with constantly changing policies, wondering if we’re doing good enough at infection prevention, and constantly watching the patient assignment board to see how full or empty our unit has become.
My patient was breathing rapidly, shallowly…but peacefully. I pulled up a chair next to the bed, slumped into it, and sat, just breathing with them, until it was time to go give report to the night shift nurses. It blows my mind, that time after time when I sit with a dying person, how I feel like I received a gift in some way. Like….who am I to be able to witness the closing of the curtain on the hours of this one person who has never existed before and will never exists exactly like this again? It’s similar in a way, I think, to when a baby is born, and you’re in awe at the miracle of life and wondering what kind of life this little one will lead, and what they will experience. Sitting with the dying…I usually have no clue what kind of life they led. I don’t always know if they were a kind person, or a bitter person, an over-achiever or someone content with an average life. I don’t know if they ever felt seen, heard, or were well-loved. But there is the gravitas of knowing that they were a small bit of divinity incarnated for the briefest of moments in time, and that their life mattered no matter what form it took. The life finale of everyone should be held carefully and with reverence. I firmly believe this.
Somehow, in these kinds of moments, I am often surprised by joy. Not a happiness that they are dying or leaving behind loved ones. Not a superficial emotion that suddenly makes me feel like everything is all better. No, it is a deep, gratitude-awe state that I was allowed to be here, now, in this one moment where the life/death veil thins.
I have belly laughed more in the last month than I have in the previous six months combined, which really says alot because I usually laugh all the time. I have friends on The Facebook who regularly post tremendous content, but everyone has upped their game lately. One thing that I am particularly enjoying is that so many of the wonderful memes and jokes being posted are entirely irreverent and often over the top, but it’s like people are even more willing at the moment to lay aside their social inhibitions and lay it all out there to soften the blow of the coronavirus with humor.
Even on my unit, when we’re rushing around, hot and sweaty in our personal protective equipment, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the majority of our patients are COVID – positive, I’m amazed at how much I laugh on each shift. There is nothing better than having hard stops for laughter during crazy days when we’re all tired and frustrated. It’s the joy that sneaks in with that laughter that has the power to change the mood in a room, to give us all just a little more motivation to push through the day, to pause our griping for just long enough to remind us that we’re in this together.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how”. AND “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I’ve been thinking that the important ways to get through this COVID crisis emotionally intact are to reframe the way we see what is happening, to shift our perspectives, question everything, and fully embrace the silver linings when we find them. If we can only view COVID as an evil villain that has swooped in and is destroying our way of life and mercilessly killing us, then what else is there for us but to despair and be terrified of when the reaper might also come for us. But, best as I can tell, this is a very myopic way of looking at life, one that is devoid of the understanding of the power that joy can bring into any situation.
I’m a realist most of the time, and I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna. But I do believe almost everything in life is nuanced, and complex, and can’t be adequately described with simple labels. Although this may sound trite and horrifying to some people, I really don’t think that we can deny that COVID, despite its fury and swift progression, has brought us some real blessings if we choose to look for them. (I will also completely admit that I’m in a more privileged situation than many people, and am not sitting here having to worry about where my next paycheck or groceries are going to come from, or wonder if I”ll have adequate access to medical care despite my race or socioeconomic status. I, in no way, want to minimize the difficult and trying circumstances of others with what I’m writing here. ) Hasn’t it forced us to slow down from our breakneck pace of life? Hasn’t it forced us to reevaluate our priorities? Hasn’t it forced us to become very intentional about who we do life with and make us put real effort into finding ways to maintain relationships? Hasn’t it made us stop and look at those around us with a little more compassion and empathy? Hasn’t it forced us to become the best of our creative selves? Hasn’t it shown us that the world is small, we are a global community, and we must work together if we are going to get through this?
I don’t really understand life. I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got it figured out. I don’t REALLY know why we’re here on this spinning ball in a tiny little spiral galaxy amidst billions of other galaxies. But I am convinced that it does us well to try and find meaning and purpose in what we experience. For me, this exploring everything I encounter for meaning is a very selfish pursuit…I want to find the joy in everything. This is, for me, what makes life worth living. And so far, there really haven’t been many places in life where I haven’t been able to find at least a little joy. The thing is, joy is abundant when you learn how to find it, when you figure out the secret places it lies hidden in plain sight. Maybe learning to find this joy is part of the task of growing up as a person.
And while I certainly don’t believe God sent us COVID as retribution for anything, there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and maybe we can all collectively grow up a little more as we face the decision to either give up from despair or daily seek joy and meaning, moment by moment.
Here’s an important fact: Joy is a function of gratitude. You can take that one to the bank.
If I’ve learned anything in life, it is that if you can’t be grateful and if you can’t seem to recognize any of the areas where you are blessed or given things that you don’t deserve, then it’ll be really hard to find joy in much.
I’ve referenced this before in a different post, but Ann Vosskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is an excellent primer on learning to record the small things in life you are thankful for. The recognition of all these things, however trivial, have the power to spark joy. It takes practice, but if you look hard enough, you can find things to be thankful for in any situation. Gratitude is a wildfire; when you change your mindset to focus in on the little things that are good, the little things that make your heart beat a few paces faster, the little things that bring you a sigh of contentment and peace…then everything begins to change and you can spot things you are thankful for everywhere. And the realization that you carry more thankfulness than you had realized, and that good things exist all around you amidst the struggles….well, that’s joy.
In a recent On Being podcast, Krista Tippett interviewed the Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast. During their talk, he described joy as the “happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
This is exactly why joy has the power to change everything….because it can exist independent of circumstances. Joy can overthrow the tyranny and fear of institutions and pandemics through its existence as a choice. Life may seem like absolute hell, but we always have the freedom to find gratitude, and we always have the freedom to seek out joy. This is where the meaning in life is, and no one can ever take it from us; we can only choose to give those up ourselves.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Don’t waste this time of sorrow. Don’t come to the end of the COVID pandemic bitter and cynical about life. Let sorrow work its way through you, mourn and grieve what is being lost, and then choose to look up with new eyes to see the new things that are coming. Don’t just think about what is no longer here, what is being taken from you. Be overjoyed about the new spaces present within you, the new wineskins that are capable of holding big life and fresh joy.
The following is a song about joy, in my opinion. It was written as a song about faith, but I’m stretching the boundaries on it. Joy is the subversive power in life that can show us the beautiful, to fill us up again, to help us see everything with new eyes, and to experience a world that is bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than the superficial one we often limit ourselves to.