This Is When It’s Time To Die

Photo credit: Hartwig HKD

An Easter morning post in which I start with theology, hit on the death and resurrection archetype a bit, and then explore how dying to what we’re most afraid of might be the crux of trauma healing.

(See what I did there….crux….cross….Easter weekend?)

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For someone who no longers really identifies as “Christian”, I think about resurrection alot. Every single Easter, whether I’ve been in church or not, it’s an event I ponder. Years ago, as a child, it was a story about divine magic….where a good person unfairly killed is brought back to life, and somehow Easter Eggs and bunnies are involved. As I grew older and had heard enough warnings about the straight-line trajectory towards hell I was on if I didn’t make some good decisions and fast, it was a story about someone who was half God-half man who had to die a barbaric death, but in doing so, he gave me a chance to escape hell and retribution from whatever horrible crimes I had unknowingly committed at that young age. My understanding of this story grew and morphed as I entered adulthood, and through the works of N.T. Wright, I came to believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection was less about appeasing a pissed off God the Father and more about breaking power and control held by forces opposed to God and Jesus as the ONE, TRUE, King. Then, gradually, I became an atheist. Not in the popular sense of the word, but rather taking on the belief not in a theistic sort of deity, but rather, Tillich’s Ground of Being….a source or energy or “Is-ness” that permeates and envelops all things. Once I got to that point, I was flummoxed on how to deal with the story of the resurrection or what it meant for me on a personal level. But I always felt that there was something deeper to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for me to gather up…..that goes way beyond someone physically dying and returning to physical life in this particular existence.

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Christians tend to think they have a monopoly on deities dying, even by crucifixion, and then being brought to life again. We also tend to think Jesus was the only virgin birth story. Not true. But people can get hung up on these misconceptions and then think that Christianity is completely true, above all other religions or faith systems. While Judaism and Christianity have unique offerings to give the world, they don’t hold a trump card on all things spiritual or ultimate truth. I’ve become pretty convinced that there are multiple paths up the mountain, and they all lead us to the same place at the peak. There’s some deeper metaphor present in that metaphor, but I’ll leave it be for now.

There are many ways to read and interpret religious texts, and to understand great religious heroes. For example, there is a literal reading of the text…where one believes that everything has happened or will happen literally and exactly as described within the pages. This, as many scholars have pointed out, is really the lowest level of approaching texts. Taking everything literally produces a very flat result that is applicable to only a small set of people, or it sets up a dualistic, exclusivist belief system.

The next levels are implied, allegorical, and hidden or mystical levels of meaning in a text. These levels of reading religious texts require more engagement on the part of the reader. The mystical understandings of texts require learning to see and understand in new ways, and often require one to sit with a passage for a long time before any kind of understanding comes. And it’s the mystical level of understanding where you can read many of parts of the Bible, and other texts, and suddenly realize….they’re all pretty much saying the same thing.

So, without diving too deep into alot of this, because also….I’m not an expert in this field, I want to look at a historical interpretation of what happened to Jesus, and then look more broadly at what his story means for each of us to do. And no, its not about saving us from a literal hell if we believe the right things.

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Jesus was born into a peasant class, nothing fancy. It appears he grew up with a penchant for spiritual things and was pretty wise as an adolescent. As an adult, he had some powerful mystical experiences that seemed to solidify his decision to help liberate people who were oppressed not only by the Romans, but by bad religion. He renounced worldly wealth and possessions, and went around tending to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. In so doing, he pissed off alot of people. The Jewish religious institution was angry because Jesus called them on their crap, and exposed their fake religiosity. The Romans were angry because people who are liberated, even psychologically, en masse, can be a real threat to the stability of a tyrannical empire. Like so many others who have walked similar life paths, the only way for them to deal with the problem of Jesus was to fabricate crimes that he supposedly committed and kill him.

So, Jesus was crucified….again, nothing terribly special about that…it was a common torture tactic used by the Romans. Did he actually rise from the dead….physically? Well, who knows. And honestly, that is kind of a boring question to me now. What is more interesting to me is honestly the fact that a Christian myth grew out of this, and myths often give insight into what is really the truest true. Richard Rohr talks about this alot….that something doesn’t have to be literally true to still be very true.

Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as an archetype…(an archetype is a pattern that periodically shows up among people, that carries alot of wisdom and can give us clues on how to move forward down the path of life.) The first main lesson that I think this story about Jesus is ultimately trying to teach is that even when the physical body dies, the “Is-ness” that was at the fundamental and most basic core of that person, is not destroyed but continues. Is-ness is like energy…or maybe we could actually just call it energy….it can’t be created or destroyed. It just “is”.

A second point of this story, I think, is to explain that overcoming….conquering in life over the things that most hold us back, requires a death. This isn’t a physical death, but rather, a death to the ego, a death to the belief systems we hold, a death to our dreams and all the ways we “think” the world should be, how people “should” have been. Although, I will say that I have personally witnessed this ego death occur in people just days before actual physical death. It was as though they realized what was inevitable, and they suddenly experienced a deep realization that there was no point fighting or grasping or clawing for what they wanted anymore, and so let it all go. When they were able to let go, they immediately become different people…full of peace, lacking any worry, and only able to offer love. Seeing this happen right before my eyes has been one of the most redemptive experiences of my own life.

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Easter came about right when I’ve been doing alot of thinking on trauma and how to heal from it. It’s so easy to suffer abuse or trauma of different forms and stay stuck in a victim mentality. It’s easy to blame others for how you’re struggling and use your pain as an excuse for not moving forward. It’s easy to cower behind our great individual fears and try to isolate ourselves away from every having those fears triggered. And I totally get it. I understand it. No judgment here.

In my personal experience, though, life isn’t about letting us just stay where we are. It won’t have it. Life, at least in my own situations, loves to bring the same lessons around again and again and again until I decide to change my responses.

The other thing about life is that generally speaking, bargaining doesn’t work. We like to treat life as though we are in a social contract….if we do x, then life should offer us y. But there is no contract with life, much to our consternation, other than a great invitation by life to stop clinging to our attachments and engage with whatever comes our way. The book of Job is another great archetypal story, and another book that I really don’t think should be taken literally. Who cares if there was an actual Job? There are a billion Job-like examples that have populated the earth since him and will continue to do so in the future. Job was a righteous man, was wealthy, had a big family, and generally had it made in life. Until everything fell apart and he lost it all, including his health. This book in the Bible actually attributes it to Satan asking permission from God to test Job and see if would turn away from God. (Let’s remember this was the worldview at the time, and not that Satan actually approached God, and God did not flippantly toy with a man’s life just for the hell of it). In my mind, the story of Job was a death and resurrection story just like that of Jesus. I don’t think Job was as concerned about losing all he lost as he was bewildered as to why it would all be taken from him if he had been a good man and had done all the right things.

If you haven’t read the book of Job, go back and read it. But as many will know, Job sat in the dust and ashes, confused and hurt and tormented. His friends tried to offer explanations for what had happened to him. (Many commentators consider his friends to be jerks, but honestly, they were just doing what everyone does….we try to figure out why bad things happen to good people….and often even a bad explanation feels better than no explanation). The book goes on for quite a while with alot of Job pining and his friends pontificating, until finally, God steps in and shuts it all down. And again….I don’t take the text literally. I don’t think God boomed down in an angry voice from heaven that Job had no right to complain because he was just a pansy human being. I think the poetry that describes God’s response was a mystical experience, where somehow, Job was able to let all of his anguish and “need to know” go. Again, this is not a new story. There are so many people who have experienced horrible tragedies and suffering, and at some point, they are able to let go of attachments and the need to understand everything to the nth degree….and they just let life come to them as it will, and they stop wrestling. Somehow they identify with their fundamental “is-ness” within themselves and it changes everything. I think Job had a resurrection on the other side of this death….the literal reading of the story makes it sound like he got all of his wealth back and had more children, but I’m pretty sure that that part of the story is also allegorical. I think it means he found everything he needed on the other side of his ego and attachment death….more of a spiritual and emotional wealth than physical wealth. At least, that’s the way I read the book of Job. Do with it what you will.

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Going back to trauma and core wounds. I’m pretty sure we all have core wounds, and I think trauma just exacerbates the hell out of them, often paralyzing us and cementing us into unhelpful archetypal patterns that we repeat over and over.

I’ve been going to therapy for a billion years, it seems, and have tried all kinds of stuff. The thing is, I know what my core wounds are, I know how they got there, I know what triggers me, I know my stupid patterned responses, and I know what I’m really afraid of in life. But the thing is, just knowing all of this information doesn’t always fix things….it doesn’t always help me make different choices or respond differently to stimuli. Knowledge in the head does not always translate immediately to transformation in the heart and body.

I’ve been realizing over time, that truly getting over trauma and core wounds requires dying. I’m sure I haven’t finished thinking this all through, but I think there are two bigs deaths you have to go through to get better. (I’m generalizing here, I’m not a therapist, and I’m processing myself in this post to work through my own crap….so I ask for grace if my logic doesn’t entirely add up).

  1. The first death, is the death of being able to keep going back into your past and hashing up every single memory of the people and things that hurt you, and trying to process every one. Now, having done therapy for said billion years, there is definitely a time and need to go into the past and look at things head on, acknowledging what was done to you and how it hurt you. But, as my current therapist and I have talked about, at some point in your journey, you have to let the past go. You have to let go of the urge to remember and process every horrible thing that had ever been done to you, or to gain more and more validation ammunition against your perpetrators for wrongs. At some point, doing this just stops being useful and it keeps you from moving forward. And, I’m pretty sure the ego begins to love it at some point and attaches to the dopamine hit of being able to pinpoint one more time when someone hurt you and you were in the right and they the wrong. Yeah, they were in the wrong….they hurt you, sometimes attrociously. But you’re not there anymore and you have this great invitation to live the life before you without paying those people any more mind. But, again, this feels like a death, for a while.
  2. A second death I see in healing from core wounds/fears is that I think we have to face out greatest fears by dying to our constant striving to keep them from happening. We have to allow those fears to actually potentially come about, and find out if we can make it to the other side.

I should say upfront, I don’t like this second point at all. But I am feeling more and more certain lately that this is the place I have arrived to in my own life. Here’s a little transparency. My greatest fears of all time are that people will abandon me/ forget me and that I will be alone (and in my mind, there is a belief that being alone is a bad thing). These two fears were totally exacerbated by trauma in my childhood, and so they have become these two big monsters I fight on a daily basis. I struggle hard with anxious attachment to people. I work way too hard with way too crazy of a schedule, sometimes doing ridiculous things, in hopes that if I keep doing things to prove my usefulness in the world, I won’t be forgotten. I can go way over the top doing things for people, inconveniencing myself tremendously without good boundaries, because I think if I provide some value to people I’m in relationship with, they’ll do a cost-benefit analysis and decide they’re getting too much good out of me to outright abandon me.

These are totally irrational fears, I know. The important people in my life….the ones that really love me, have not forgotten or abandoned me. The ones who have abandoned me, were never really there for me in the first place…..they were basically just ghosts in my life. But again, I know these things in my head….but they haven’t quite made it to my heart, yet.

I’ve been listening to an amazing podcast called This Jungian Life lately, and several of the episodes enabled me to have a come to Jesus meeting with myself. Basically, the conclusion was that all of my grasping and striving and working myself to the bone hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I can’t make people stay in my life if they don’t want to be there. Yet I do these things because the possibility of being completely forgotten or abandoned (OR WORSE: BEING BLOWN OFF OR COMPLETELY IGNORED), makes me think (albeit irrationally) that I will physically die. The second half of my conclusion was one of those deep gut knowings that it’s time for me to die to the grasping and striving. To let myself die to the fear of physically dying from being forgotten and left alone. Basically, the only way I can heal from my trauma and wounds is to give space for those exact fears TO HAPPEN. To allow myself to be forgotten. To allow myself to be abandoned. To allow myself to potentially be left alone. Right now, I can’t see any other way forward but to consciously make the choice to die to the ability to keep scrambling to protect myself and curate life the way I think it needs to be for me to be OK.

Ugh. I don’t want to do this. But, what I’m currently doing isn’t really working, I’m wicked exhausted, and if anything, my trying to avoid my traumas is only continuing to attract people who are more than willing to abandon me or ignore me.

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Transitioning back to the archetypal Jesus. Jesus knew that he was about to die….that it was an inevitable next step in his journey. And it was a painful thing for him to acknowledge as well, so I feel a little comforted. I mean, who likes to die, even if just figuratively. When he was in Gethsemane, he asked God that if there was any way possible, to please provide an alternative.

Then, as you all know, he was tortured and then crucified, and the Scriptures make it pretty clear that he felt the immense agony of having to face that death alone, and he couldn’t even find God in it. The familiar comfort, the Divine assurance he’d always had, was taken away.

This is a sub-archetypal story I’ve heard so many spiritual teachers allude to. These deaths….the deaths of ego and clinging to things that feel certain….these are the deaths you have to do alone. And sometimes you have to let go of any assurance that things will be OK in the end and you’ll resurrect on the other side. If I let go of my grasping, will I be forgotten? Will I end up alone for the rest of my life? Will my life even matter? Shoulders shrug.

So, this then, is my ultimate takeaway, mostly for myself, in this post on Easter Sunday: the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the hope, not that we will be spared from a literal hell or get to go to a literal heaven. It is the archetypal promise, offered by so many others as well, that the deaths we have to go through on our journeys are hard and painful and lonely, but they aren’t in vain. When we allow those things that scare us most to be possibilities in our lives, they lose their power and we resurrect on the other side with a greater knowing of our “is-ness”, and the ability to welcome, accept, and maybe even love whatever life brings to us because we know we’re going to be OK.

At least, this is what I’m pretty sure about. I’ve experienced alot of little resurrections in the past, so I’m doing my best to trust that I’ll come out OK on the other side of this things that feels like a huge, scary death to me. It’s my resolve this particular Easter to stop grasping and clinging, to allow the dying process to strip away what isn’t real, and to hope for that resurrection.

Groundhog Day and Embracing Your Humanity: Part I

Remember that old Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day?

Of course, you do. Everyone knows that movie. I only ask because I was probably the only person in the entire world who hadn’t seen it until last year, and so never appreciated its full relevance. I’m hoping maybe there is one other person out there who falls into my camp of not having seen all the “wait, you’ve never seen that movie?” movies.

In case that one person does in fact exist, the story is about a weatherman from Pittsburg who goes to a small town to forecast about the “weather rat”, which he is really not thrilled about. And lo and behold, he wakes up day after day in that small town, reliving the same day over and over, watching people do the same things again and again. He comes to believe he is doomed to live an eternity of that repeated Groundhog Day in that same little town. While watching the movie I almost had a panic attack on his behalf…..because….honestly, that movie portrayed pretty much what I used to think heaven was going to be like. Dreadful stuckness in the same thing over and over and over and over.

Anyway, this post is not about heaven or any of my waxing on about theology. In fact, it’s not about looking at all into what happens after we die, but squarely on what is going on with us right here and right now as we struggle in this existence called “being human.”

The last few weeks have sucked, to say the least. The kind of suckiness where stuff on the outside looks good enough, but my internal state was a mess. Where you have those occasional fleeting moments of wondering if absolutely anything is worth it. Is any progress being made? And thinking that maybe the whole state of being alive is just absolutely absurd, and to quote the book of Ecclesiastes, “Everything is meaningless, a chasing after of the wind.”

My life frequently feels just like the proverbial Groundhog Day. The details may be different, but damn it, sometimes it just feels like I”m repeating the same scenarios with the same kinds of people and the same kinds of situations with the same kinds of outcomes….over and over and over and over. It feels SO exhausting. Can I get an amen? Nothing can make me want to go crawl back under a rock more than this doomed feeling that I will never conquer my demons, that the wounds that have plagued me from childhood will never be healed, that I’m destined to keep repeating the same mistakes until who knows when. That is the feeling that will drive you to drink or never want to get out of bed or consider rummaging around in your old prescription pill stash.

I have this one little problem, though, that gets in my way alot. It’s called hope. I’m not entirely sure where I get it from, but it might be from my good friends who encourage me to try one more time, who remind me of things I’ve forgotten about myself, and who I’ve seen valiantly fight their own internal wars without throwing up the white flag. Hope makes me want to try something new, one more time. It makes me want to read one more self-help book, one more time. It makes me want to basically just get up and do the next thing, one more time.

I lost sight of hope for a while lately. All I could see were my Groundhog Day screwups, all I could hear were the thoughts in my head churned out by self-loathing rumination, telling me I’m exactly the same person I was decades ago and I hadn’t made any improvements or gotten anywhere. But then, kind of out of nowhere, I (assuming my truer self) asked myself if these thoughts were really true. Is it really true that over the last many years I have made no real progress in my life? People sometimes point to these things I’ve accomplished externally, but honestly, most of the time I just feel like I’ve gotten really lucky or been in the right place at the right time, so that kind of encouragement hasn’t always helped me feel OK about myself.

Anyway, in this moment of clarity where I decided to remember that my thoughts about my Groundhog Day doomed-ness might be wrong, I decided to actually sit down and see if I could think of any ways that I had tangibly grown as a person over the last couple of decades. To my surprise, a few things came to mind that I hadn’t considered before. After writing a Top 10 list, I realized I have in fact grown alot as a person. I’m spiraling upwards instead of downwards, and maybe my journey hasn’t been nearly as absurd as it sometimes seems to be.

Below is my Top 10 list…it’s me getting real and transparent, so that maybe it will somehow give you permission to be able to look at and one day talk, without fear, of your own dark places.

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  1. I no longer have horrible sleep attacks.

Since I was a child, until about 6 or 7 years ago, I used to have horrible sleep attacks whenever I got in trouble, or was yelled at by an adult, or generally felt strong, overwhelming emotions. Looking back now, it was a coping mechanism that I developed to protect myself, but it really incapacitated me over the years. There is nothing worse than feeling like you absolutely have to go to sleep when you’re in an environemnt where it is unacceptable to do so, or going to sleep will only bring on another onslaught of getting yelled at.

As an adult I was initially diagnosed by a sleep pulmonologist as having a form of narcolepsy. He prescirbed me meds that would keep me from being able to doze off, but did nothing to relieve those horrible attacks of sleepiness. Later, a sleep neurologist said she didn’t think I had narcolepsy, but I had an idiopathic sleep disorder. Meaning, there was something amiss, they just didn’t know what was causing it.

At some point about 6 years ago, as I mentioned, these attacks just went away. I can now sit in a day long conference or workshop and not doze off. I no longer feel like i need to take daily two hour naps. I don’t feel like I’m going to konk out when someone screams at me or otherwise voices their displeasure at something I did or said. I’m not exactly sure what caused the change….maybe it was finally the culmination of years of therapy, maybe it was going vegetarian, maybe it was relinquishing the limiting theology of my youth….I don’t know…I’m just so glad that this torturous part of my life has left.

2. I don’t stutter around strangers, or when I feel uncomfortable, anymore.

My grandpa had a stutter most of his life. The only time it went away was when he sang. When I was little, I never really thought anything about it; it was just how he was. My dad took forever to tell a story or finish a thought, and my grandpa struggled to get some of his words out.

When I got to be in high school, I guess it was, I started developing some sort of weird speech impediment when talking to strangers or people that I didn’t know well. It wasn’t a “true” stutter, but I would fumble and trip over words and end up just looking and sounding like a real idiot. It was so incredibly embarassing, and I never knew exactly when it would happen or how many sentences I had to force out for it to resolve. Honestly, I don’t know how many people even really noticed it, but it was so painful for me. Looking back, I think it stemmed out of uncertainty about what I wanted to say, and never feeling like I knew if what I wanted to say was competent or worthwhile, and whether it would be appreciated or rejected.

I’ve pushed and pushed through my fears of talking to people I don’t know, and talking in front of people. I’ve practiced really hard at learning to do small talk, dive into deep things, and generally be a good conversationalist. And it occurred to me a while back that I only have speech hiccups every once in a while, and I”m no longer terrified of looking like a moron when I open my mouth to say something. This feels huge for me.

3. I don’t self-mutilate anymore.

Y’all, this is something that only one, maybe two people, in the world have known about me. Because self mutilation, in whatever form it takes, carries so much freaking shame. Shame for hurting your body, shame of what people will think when/if they discover it, shame that you’re not even sure why you’re doing it, and shame that somehow physical pain makes your emotional pain lessen for just a little while.

My brand of self mutilation was easier to conceal than some forms others take, but the physical pain that came from it was brutal and would last for days. I started when I was in junior high and kept at it until right about 7 years ago (seems to line up with my sleep attacks a bit, huh?). I don’t even really understand how I was able to stop hurting myself, other than to realize that the urge has pretty much disappeared. All I can say is that this was a Groundhog Day nightmare that I am so very grateful has finally resolved itself. And side note: if you encounter someone who cuts or self mutilates in some way, show them some compassion. You have no idea how much pain and shame they are already carrrying around.

4. I no longer binge eat myself into food comas.

I don’t really want to delve into this topic all that deeply, other than to say that most of my life I’ve had a very disordered relationship with food. People often don’t believe this, telling me that I’ve never been all that heavy, even when I was about 20 pounds overweight. People will also tend to mnimize my excitement over losing 5 pounds, too. Not cool, especially when they’re just assuming I’m phishing for vanity compliments. One can be struggling in a raging battle against food all the time even when they’re at a healthy weight, so be kind. Also, stop offering snark to people who become vegetarian or vegan, and stop with all the damn meat jokes. Sometimes it’s changing to a different style of eating that saves yoyur life and helps you drop some of the shame load.

5. I no longer feel like I’m going to die, or literally want to die, any time that someone gets angry with me.

I have always really, really struggled with people being angry at me. It can undo me, even if I know they are completely in the wrong and really have no grounds for being angry at me. In the past, I just couldn’t handle it and would really have preferred to just to die and be done with it than having someone upset with me in any way. I think this is probably where my sleep attacks came in…I couldn’t actually die to escape the anger, so maybe escaping into sleep and unconscioiusness was the next best thing.

I still hate it alot when people are angry with me, but it feels survivable now. It feels more doable to apologize and move on if I was in the wrong, and also to not automatically assume that just because someone is angry at me, that I actually did anything wrong. I can now understand, and actually believe it, that dying is probably a very disproportionate response to being on the receiving end of someone’s anger. It’s really nice to believe that anger is temporary and not sure-fire evidence that I am inherently a horrible person.

6. I now have a level of body security I never had in my early 30s and before.

I’ve written about this some in past blog posts, so am not going to hash it out all again, other than to say that I now know I am just an average person. It is SO GOOD to just be average. The first three decades of my life consisted of me believing that somehow my body was jacked up (in what way I had no clue) and needed to be hidden away from the world. There is nothing worse than carrying around shame and you have no clue what you’re supposed to be ashamed of, and yet there it is anyway.

Take away from working in healthcare, doing sexual assault nurse examiner training, therapy, etc: We NEED to do a way better job of teaching our children that there are so very many different permutations of NORMAL in the human body….because we could save so many people years of shame and trauma if we did so.

7. I no longer panic when I have to speak in front of people.

This point is really ironic, because I’ve performed or spoken in front of people my entire life. I was on the debate team in high school and college and played piano in church and all of that. But I pretty much hated it the entire time. Everytime I had to get up in front of people I would have to plan on not eating for hours ahead of time, keep a box of immodium handy and be in eyesight of a bathroom, and be ready to bear the embarrassment of my chest and neck flushing bright red when it was my turn to “be on”. It’s weird, because sometimes I chose these activities, and other times I was forced into them by adults in my life. I think ultimately, I knew I wanted to be a good speaker, and I didn’t want to be afraid to get in front of people. And I’ve pretty much gotten there….but man, was it a painful road to travel in order to arrive.

8. I’m no longer terrified of doing things by myself.

For so much of my life, I avoided doing things that I really wanted to do because there was no one to do it with. It always feels like there’s safety when doing things with a partner or group, because if you end up looking like an idiot, at least you have people with you to help offload the burden of carrying the entire amount of idiiot-ness by yourself. But, I’ve learned that if you wait around for someone to do the stuff with you, you might wait forever and then end up missing out on some amazing experiences. I’ve also learned that sometimes doing things by yourself is just WAY better than doing it with other people. But even better than that is knowing you have the choice: you can do something cool or have an adventure by yourself….or you can do it with people….and both could end up being unique, amazing experiences.

9. I am now aware of most of my trauma responses in the moment, instead of recognizing what happened down the road.

I feel like the first three decades of my life were basically on autopilot. Things happened and then I reacted to them. Most of the time I don’t think I knew why I did have the things I did….the actions just seemed to be good ideas at the time and made sense in my head.

Now days I feel like there has been a major shift in how I approach life and what comes my way. In general, I have a pretty solid grasp on the things that hurt or trigger me, and why they hurt or trigger me. As I’ve alluded to in this post, not every trigger undoes my like it would in the past. And for the things that do undo me? While in the moment of being absolutely undone, I am able to observe what is going on and name it. I might not be able to do a damn thing about it in the moment, and I may feel powerless to respond in a different way, but at least I can see what is happening instead of identifying completely with the situation and my feelings and thoughts. Out of any of the ways I’ve grown over the last couple of decades, I think this has been the most important. Because….if I can recognize what is happening in the moment, I have more agency to be able to stop reacting to stimuli and start altering my responses.

I honestly hate alot of this. I hate how people and things can intentionally or unintentionally stab me in the most vulnerable places and still bring me to my knees. But, I’m so grateful that it’s no longer a battle that I have to fight completely blind. I know what my real enemies are, and I’m gaining a pretty decent arsenal of weapons to use in various situations to overcome these trauma beasts.

10. I am learning to let what brings me joy, bring me joy.

I’m a nerd. It’s just a fact. I also get super excited and giddy about some things that appear to have no effect on others. This used to really bother me. I felt like if something was really important to me, but didn’t do much for others, then maybe it was actually meaningless after all and I was dumb for allowing it to make me happy. Maybe I was just being juvenile and childish.

Now…I say, to hell with that. If something makes me happy and I want to get excited about it, then I am going to allow myself that joy even if everyone else thinks I’m a nut job. I am wired to find joy in things that other people might not be wired for, and that’s OK. And as I talked about in my last blog post, it could be argued that what is important is not so much the inherent meaning that something carries it, but rather meaning that is ascribed to it.

I spent a huge chunk of my life trying to be interested in the things that I thought I was supposed to be interested in, based on others around me. Nothing is worse for the creative soul than trying to force yourself to be interested in something that feels like cardboard to you, or stifling interest in things that make you want to get out of bed every morning…just because they aren’t interesting to the world around you. I’m finally learning to follow the words of Joseph Campbell, as recorded in a interview with Bill Moyers:

All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands coming all the time – namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

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So there you have it, my Top 10 list significant ways I really have grown, changed, and healed as a person. Making this list was really cathartic for me, and reminded me that it is really dumb to believe the negative thoughts coming down the pipeline, or to fall into an all or nothing mindspace when something goes wrong in life.

This post has been part of this idea that I want to talk about on embracing our humanity….to lay a foundation for what I plan to expand on in the next post…..1 degree changes, future grace, why hedonism has it’s place, and totally stealing and then repurposing (hopefully in a healthier way) ideas that I picked up years ago from John Piper. (Just hang with me , peeps….I’m not endorsing his theology). 😉

When People Don’t Finish Their Thoughts…

Photo credit: Tartantastic

Remember those “choose your own adventure” books that were really popular back in the 80s and 90s? I think maybe they’ve made a comeback now, too, because my kids know about them. I despised those books as a kid, scoffing at them as poor quality literature even while not knowing that’s what I was doing. I don’t read books to create my own ending, I would think to myself. I read the book so the characters in the book can tell me their story and show me how it ends. The end of the story is supposed to show me where the meaning and gravitas of the whole narrative really lay. I would rather, both then as a child and now as an adult, encounter a heartbreaking or absurd end to a story than being told I have to decide how it’s going to end. I think it puts an unfair amount of responsibility on me….I’ve hung with the characters through their adventures and struggle and suddenly I”m told that I have to carry their fate in my hands? What if I pick the wrong ending? I don’t want to play God with anyone’s life. And anyway, doesn’t having multiple possibilities to end the story make the bulk of the story meaningless in the first place?

As much as I hate “choose your own adventure” stories, I even more so hate the stories that leave you hanging, ending abruptly, without any closure or solid understanding of what just happened. I mainly hate these because they resemble so many of our stories in real life….where things that you thought were solid and going somewhere suddenly derail with little warning…and you can see no path forward, no way to tidily wrap up what happened, and you’re left once again to try and find meaning in all of it or resign yourself to the belief that maybe it was all just a bunch of random experiences strung together that didn’t ultimately mean anything at all. That’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to anyone in life, I think. When you live through something…maybe that you completely invested your heart and soul into….and then without warning a sinkhole opens up beneath you and you are swallowed into a black abyss of “did any of that matter or mean anything at all?”

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I”ve had multiple people pass through my life who are terrible about not being able to finish their spoken thoughts. Some of these people couldn’t finish a thought out loud about the most mundane or trite thing (ahem…my ex husband), while others could speak eloquently about the minutiae and superficial of life….but once the conversation went deep or became difficult….out came the dangling thoughts that went nowhere and left me grasping to understand what was being said. Some people will do this, having a complete thought ready to go in their brain…and then either can’t complete it for you out loud because they refuse to or because, I think, the finality of speaking their deepest selves out into the world scares the hell out of them. Some words, once released, can’t so easily be retracted…and the vulnerability that comes with that is too much for some people to bear.

At other times, people can’t finish their thoughts because inside their brains, the thought is tangled and rambling and can’t be laid out clearly into structured sentences. This makes me think of Michael Scott on The Office, with the following meme:

I know I’ve been guilty of this….where my ADHD kicks in, usually while I”m feeling a strong emotion, and I’m trying to express what I”m feeling and thinking but also don’t entirely know what it is at the time….so I just start talking out loud hoping I’ll eventually find my way. You know how some people who are really culturally insensitive will just start talking louder to others who don’t understand English….thinking that words at a staggering volume will suddenly translate meaning across the language divide? I think I do that when I’m emotionally rocked and trying to communicate and it’s clearly not getting received by the listener….so I get louder and louder until I discover I’m hollering and the whole thing has just gone to hell in one moment. Ugh. I so hate this about myself.

I never actually realized I was a verbal processor until last year. Most of the time I have to get things down on paper or spoken out into the air so that I can know what I feel and believe about something. This need can get me into trouble alot because 1) It’s sometimes difficult to be able to verbally process when the person I need to process with has to retreat into a silent cave within to process, and 2) When I’m processing out loud and figuring out what I think about something, people tend to believe what I”m saying is my conclusion or final decision about something, when it often is not at all where I am eventually going to land. Then the misunderstanding about all of my verbal rambling is often used against me later, when people are like….”but you said….!” And all the while I was literally just trying to think and work through something out loud.

Either way, the point I am getting at is that unfinished conversations make me crazy, especially when I’m trying desperately to understand someone and learn to speak their language so that I can communicate more effectively with them. Unfinished thoughts feel like carrots being dangled in front of me as I chase after them…in hopes that at some point I’ll be able to catch the whole thought, gain understanding, and the conversation or relationship will progress forward in a meaningful way.

The thing that sometimes undoes me is that you can’t make people finish their thoughts. You can’t make people come your direction if they don’t truly want to or if they are unable to for whatever reason. And, in fact, people that are determined to misunderstand you, will misunderstand you. You can try and make the path as smooth as possible for you to connect, you can try and try and try to use your best communication tools and practice new ones. But I think, maybe, sometimes in life certain conversations will remain unfinished, and as much as it pains you and as hard as you try to bridge the gaps, there’s not a goddamned thing you can do to resolve it.

And so you are left with the abruptly ending story, and the gut-wrenching question of whether or not there was ever any meaning or “real-ness” there at all.

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For much of my life, I always assumed that all the bad story endings in my life or the failed communication attempts were entirely my fault. This was actually a learned pattern because in the bulk of my familial and friend relationships early on in life, when there was a rift or break or argument, it fell to me to repair things and restore the relationship. In a huge chunk of those cases, especially within my family., I really had no clue what I had done wrong. But I would desperately want and need to resume connection with the person, and so I would search deep within to figure out what I had done wrong and then go apologize for it so that I would be drawn back into the fold, so to speak. The problem was, most of the time, as I mentioned, I could never actually determine what I had done wrong that incited anger or estrangement against me, and so I began to accept the belief that it was just inherently ME. I was bad. I was the problem.

Over the years, this belief became so entrenched within that any time a relationship strained or broke, I would assume the fault lay squarely on me. Even in the moments following arguments where I felt righteously indignant or justified in the belief that I had been wronged by another person ( or that there was shared responsibility for an issue), I would inevitably slip back into that old familiar neural groove that reminded me that I was the problem and that if I didn’t want to be alone I would have to figure out some way to prove to myself that I had entirely fucked the situation up single-handedly, and then go groveling back to the person I was at odds with so I could patch things up. Whew. Catching my breath. Sorry for that long sentence.

This belief that rooted itself in me did alot of damage along the way. Narcissists and others with those tendencies could spot me a mile away. Energy vampires loved me because I would always validate all of their personal tragedies, let them suck me dry, and then not complain when they would leave lying me empty and gasping for air on the floor. Then, of course, when I would voice my own needs and wants, I often got the “this isn’t a good time” or “I’ve got too much of my own stuff going on to focus on you” in response.

The thing is, it was easy to hang on to that belief about myself…that it’s all just my fault and I’m the problem….because, from a very close perspective, it made sense. It was the puzzle piece that could explain why my life functioned the way it did for so long. It ascribed meaning, or at least explanation, to alot of sucky experiences. To be a little melodramatic here…..”Julie went through this struggle, she tried to make things work and it failed spectacularly.” And the final line of the story…..” It all failed because Julie is too much for most people, or isn’t worthy of x, y, z, or Julie is just inherently bad.” It’s an unpleasant ending, for sure, but at least it’s an ending, right? One small thing in life that I can point to and be certain of?

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I’m not writing this blog post, nor do I write any blog posts, as a means to elicit sympathy or pity. I write about this stuff, and how I’ve struggled with being secure and safe in myself, because I know so very many other people who have struggled and still struggle with the same things. So many people are afraid to talk about these things out loud, or they can’t put the thoughts together to do so, or they’re worried that if they speak their truth they might piss off someone or ruin someone’s reputation.

And I write about this stupid kind of stuff to get my own self through each day. When a story ends that I was so invested in and I can’t find my way forward….I have to get all the thoughts out….to mold them and look at them from every angle, and wrestle with the wise words from my great cloud of witnesses that have carried me on their shoulders this far. Because….when I can’t find meaning in the hard things and tragedies and endings…I just completely despair.

Today, Malcolm Gladwell, of all people, is saving me. I’ve scarcely gotten out of bed the last day and a half after feeling broken and like a zombie for a week, and am wondering how I’m going to make myself go to work tomorrow, or parent my boys when they come back to my house from their dad’s, or actually cook the next meal beyond what comes out of the french press. Even the dog is despairing that he’ll never be walked again in this lifetime.

I signed up for Master Class almost a year ago and have successfully donated monthly to the cause without ever actually watching more than one episode. Today though, while debating on going to get a bottle of wine or retreating back to my safe cave beneath the covers, I flipped open Gladwell’s master class on writing on my phone. He began his lessons on writing with: jigsaw puzzles.

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Clearly, one has to pay for Master Class, so I’m not going to go into much detail on Gladwell’s content other than to expound upon one metaphor that he hit on. He was making the point that for alot of people (including me) jigsaw puzzles can be incredibly compelling and can really suck you in, even if other equally compelling entertainment might be around you….in his example, the awaiting French countryside. He went on to talk about how when we’re putting together puzzles, sometimes we can interlock two pieces together and convince ourselves for a while that they were a matching pair…until finally we have to admit that we can see a gap here and then also here, so they weren’t truly the pieces for each other. We are trying to achieve a complete puzzle….the one that matches the lovely picture on the puzzle box. But, Gladwell says, sometimes the most compelling metaphor…the one that should really be loooked at more closely and appreciated, is an imperfect puzzle.

Moving back into my broader ideas in this post about unfinished thoughts and story with the foundational metaphor of unfinished puzzles….Gladwell alluded to the idea that it’s these imperfect puzzles in life, the stories that leave you hanging and uncertain….these are the things that are actually the most interesting and compelling. And maybe, I’m telling myself, they are the things that actually bring meaning. Because if everything worked out perfectly every time, exactly as you were hoping and expected, what kind of meaning lives in that? Where you never have to wrestle or engage or search hard for what you’re really longing for?

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One of my greatest struggles in life has been trying to figure out the rules for the game. Evangelical Christianity worked for a while, until I finally threw up my hands in frustration with it’s breathtaking ability to stick it’s head in the sand and ignore crucial phenomena and facts. Science has appeased me at times, but it can really only speak to things that are objectively observable, and is only sometimes a decent finger pointing to the moon of the meaning of life that we are all searching for.

I keep trying to put all the puzzle pices that I have together, and I keep hoping that i’ll eventually stumble across that final puzzle piece that will make it all make sense. The problem is….the further I travel, the more puzzle pieces I think I’m missing, and that also, the puzzle pieces haven’t been cut to fit each other perfectly. There’s always gaps. The older I get the more I realize the less I know, the less I believe in with real certainty. I have no clue what is going to happen when we die. I don’t know for absolute sure if there is really a loving, intelligent whatever holding everything together, although I’m asymptotically close. Honestly, the only thing I think that I know for absolute sure is that I have been invited, by something, to either engage in this life and try to live into my humanity as fully as possible, or to just try to hang on and survive it until I die. OK, maybe I know one other thing: I’m trying really hard to learn to love people and love myself, as much as I royally fuck it up on the regular.

Point I’m trying to make here….I don’t think there is really a structured set of rules for this existence. And maybe striving relentlessly to discover those rules and create perfect explanations for everything is really what contributes most to our suffering. Maybe the whole point is to accept an imperfect puzzle with gaps and missing pieces because those are the ones that keep us moving forward and growing and living deeply into our humanity. Where things aren’t just handed to us in nice tidy packages, but must be sought out and uncovered and carefully considered.

And so maybe, too, unfinished thoughts and abruptly ending stories aren’t “nothing”, but are part of the imperfect puzzles that keep us engaged, and asking questions, and interested in what life is ultimately about.

Maybe when people don’t finish their thoughts or can’t be completely and fully present and open with you…you aren’t really being offered an either/or statement with only two choices: 1) keep pushing, prodding, and begging for answers, and 2) just saying “fuck you and fuck this” and storming off in anger and self pity. Maybe there’s a third option….one that isn’t neat and pretty…that doesn’t succinctly wrap up the experience or story or necessarily make you feel better quickly… but encourages you to keep looking for answers and finished thoughts in new places while listening to new voices. And maybe most imporantly, the third option is to discover your own unfinished thoughts where you’ve left yourself hanging, and unveil and release the words that your own voice has struggled to speak out of fear or uncertainty, and find ways to communicate clearly with your own self that is longing to be heard and validated and understood.

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Other than thoughts and stories, I really hate unfinished things in general. Really hate them. I get so angry at myself because I’m one of those people who is great at coming up with ideas and starting projects….but my ability to follow through and bring them to completion is dismal. So my life is a sordid display of numerous projects and relationships that are scattered around in varying degrees of “done-ness”. I think this is one reason why I get so frustrated with people I’m in relationship with who can’t speak their stories or communicate who they are, or when I get so frustrated at myself for not being able to communicate myself well….because it ends up being just one more incomplete thing in my life that started well and is now laying unfinished and dusty on the kitchen floor….and I never know which ones will be resurrected.

This all brings up yet another question within me….how do you know for sure when things are finished? How do you know when you should walk away with finality or try one more time? How do you know when projects or people or expereinces in your life have given you what they were meant to and now need to move on? How do you KNOW when you’ve reached a necessary ending? What are the rules for this? What do you do when those last puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together very tightly?

I could clearly keep at this, but I”m caught a bit in a cyclical argument of my own making. I’m trying to put together a puzzle and finish a story that can’t achieve perfect completeness in the way that I want. Malcolm Gladwell said, “If we can’t solve the problem, all we can do is digress.”

So, with that I’m going to leave these thoughts hanging, abruptly end this post, hope that maybe somewhere along the way we’ll find some meaning in it, and digress back to my safe place beneath the covers.

To Myself on My 42nd Birthday…

Photo credit: Gerriet

*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 39 40 41 42 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.

  1. 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.
  2. It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
  6. Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame.  Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
  7. God isn’t angry.  He/she was never angry.
  8. You don’t have any problems right now.  Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
  9. Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
  10.  Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
  11. 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.
  12. Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
  13. Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
  14. Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
  15. Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
  16. Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
  17. Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
  18. Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
  19. You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
  20. Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time.  Generally.
  21. Family is not always biological.  They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
  22. Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
  23.  It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
  24.  Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
  25.  Working in the hospital can freak you out.  Healthy people get sick.  Get the flu shot. 2021 Addendum: AND the COVID vaccine.
  26.  Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything.  Read the labels.
  27.  Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
  28.  Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
  29.  Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
  30.  Just buy the hammock.
  31.  Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
  32.  Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
  33.  Surround yourself with people of all ages.  Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
  34.  Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
  35.  Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
  36.  People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
  37.  There is enough.
  38.  Everything belongs.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. Pursue your authentic self with relentless abandon and don’t be afraid of the unknowingness.
  42. Stop putting other people on pedestals above you. Climb up on your own pedestal and be damn proud of it.

How to Birth Yourself

Photo credit; Amy, Glass of Water

I recently went to a party. It was a big one, with a ton of people I didn’t know. They were all milling around a huge mansion, very plantation-house looking, roaming from room to room, talking to each other, and sampling all the food that was spread out on tables. I joined the crowd and watched as the people did what people at big parties do, and I meandered around seeing what there was to see. At one point, I happened to pass into a room where I noticed a young woman in labor. She was crying in pain, clearly in the active stages of giving birth, and a small handful of people huddled around her, watching. Without thinking, I rushed through the group of people straight to her side and began to comfort her. I grabbed her hand and spoke in soothing tones to her to calm her panic. As it turned out, someone mentioned that she was suffering from placenta previa, (This is where the placenta either totally or partially covers the mother’s cervix, blocking the baby’s exit from her uterus.) The girl in labor was panicking and grasped on to me as I reassured her that all would be well. As I tried to calm her, I heard someone behind me say, “Oh, don’t worry about her…she’s just a prostitute.” Anger flared up in me, and I turned, seething, ready to lambast the asshole. To my surprise, the girl stopped crying long enough to say it didn’t matter….she wasn’t ashamed of being a prostitute. She chose that life. She just wished that people would make a small attempt to try and understand her.

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I didn’t really go to a party and help a stranger through the difficult process of having a baby. At least, not on this plane of existence. It was a dream I had a couple of weeks ago. It was an interesting dream, for sure, and I found it curious that I specifically knew that the girl was suffering from placenta previa….because while I”m trained as a nurse, I’ve never worked in labor and delivery, and so it is not a diagnosis that comes up frequently in my day to day doings.

My dream life is very active, and has been since I was a child. Mostly they just range from extremely vivid to a bizarre mishmash of randomness, but there have been occasions where I knew my dreams meant something. For example, I once knew something was seriously wrong with a good friend living on another continent, because of a dream I had about him…and turns out I was right. I dreamt that my grandmother was going to die just a handful of days before she did. I had recurrent dreams about escaping and starting over in a new life almost my entire marriage, until I finally got the nerve to divorce my husband….and those dreams instantly disappeared. Many of my dreams are entertaining or absurd. But most of the time, I don’t really search for meaning in them. That is, until lately. And I”m glad I decided to start paying more attention to them again, because of the dream I just recounted above.

One of my favorite podcasts is Metaphysical Milkshake, with Rainn Wilson and Reza Aslan. I think of it as “On Being Lite”, where they delve into existential and meaning of life questions, but maybe not quite at the cerebral level that Krista Tippett takes things. And Rainn and Reza are so cheesy and funny and quirky that I look forward to their newest episode every week.

A few weeks back, they had a dream psychologist on as their guest, and beyond speaking in a wonderful Scottish brogue, he had alot of helpful insights about dreams, including how certain dreams are incredibly common among all people, and how our dreams are often our subconscious trying to tell us something about ourselves. It just so happened that a few days after I listened to that episode, a good friend was talking to me about her own dreams and how our mutual therapist had also made the point that we should view the people in our dreams not as the people we know in real life, but parts of ourselves that are trying to get our attention. I found that idea fascinating….and it was also a good spin on the dreams I dread where my ex husband shows up…..now I can interpret those dreams not as it really being my ex husband, but my subconscious using some quality or behavior that I associate with him to communicate something to me. Either way, I still wake up from those dreams thinking “Thank you, Jesus….thank you, Jesus….it was just a dream, I’m not still married!”

Anyway, after that digression from my point…..these recent dives into dream interpretation made me stop and consider the dream I opened this blog post with. Was dreaming about a party with a girl giving birth just a random storyline created by my sleeping brain? Was it just what happened to be thrown together when my cerebral computer was defragging? Or was my inner, truest self trying to tell me something?

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I’ve concluded something right here on the spot while typing up this post. I haven’t thought it through or fleshed it out because I’m just thinking it right now…..but I’m pretty sure that our dream life may give us broad glimpses into a greater reality than we can typically perceive with our minds. And maybe overlooking our dreams, or dismissing them as neurological sleep static, might be doing ourselves a huge disservice.

Decades ago, following his first psychedelic mescaline trip, Aldous Huxley wrote a short book called The Doors of Perception. In it, he discusses the idea of our brains acting as reducing valves. Essentially, he says, our brains and nervous systems serve to filter and sort the massive reality around us to “protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.” And then he follows with…” To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large [reality] has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and the nervous system. What comes out at the other end is merely a trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us stay alive on the surface of this particular planet.” (p. 23-24, Harper Perennial, 1954).

To further quote Aldous Huxley, when I first read these statements in his book, I was instantly excited and remembered inwardly shrieking, “Extraordinary!”

Yes, of course! Ultimate reality is so big and overwhelming and beautiful that we in this human form can’t handle it all. Or maybe, if we were all hit with ultimate reality in everyday life, we’d be sitting around staring endlessly at bubbles in our glasses of water and marveling at how beautfiul they are, like people tripping on mescaline or mushrooms are prone to do. To survive in form, to make decisions and be able to think dualistically, as is required in this existence, ultimate reality has to be given to us in amounts we can handle…aka….passed through the reducing valves of our brains. This makes total sense to me.

But, what if our dream lives are moments where those reducing valves are opened up just a bit wider, and we have access to a little bit more of the greater reality, it’s just that we don’t always know how to look through that lens, and so we perceive our dream worlds to be randomness or just absurd abstractions created through neurochemical processes. And a bigger issue that people face….I think most people have no clue that there is a reducing valve in their mind to begin with. They think that what they perceive and feel and observe are the only reality. It’s easy to think that what one thinks is all there really is.

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I”m going to circle back around to my dream, because it is largely the premise of this post, but first I want to talk about some foundational ideas that play into the meaning of my dream, and also this idea of reducing valves. We are limited in perception abilities as humans, clearly, because of these “reducing valves” of our brains and nervous systems that Huxley describes. But then there are additional reducing valves that get placed on us that further restrict our ability to perceive reality. Or to flip that thought over….the stream of reality that we are able to perceive becomes thinner and thinner, and warped as it passes through the valves. Two big factors that further contract the flow through our reducing valves, it seems to me, are trauma and cultural training.

I’ve listened to two audiobooks lately that have really rocked my world. They are both worth repeated listens. The first is “The Way of Integrity” by Martha Beck, and the second is “What My Bones Know” by Stephanie Foo. I loved both of these books first of all because I recognized that the authors are my people. They are asking or have asked the same questions I”m asking, and have been on similar journeys, and so I can see myself in them and recognize that I can trust their wisdom.

Although her entire book was fantastic, one line from Beck really stuck out to me. Basically, she said that when your cultural training comes into conflict with your true nature, you have to throw that cultural training to the curb. This statement, which I just paraphrased, was a huge permission slip for me….one that was desperately needed, because as I’ve gotten older, what I’m discovering to be my authentic self is disagreeing with my cultural training more frequently and more vehemently. My problem is, I’ve always been a big rule follower. I’ve followed rules all my life that I thought were inherently stupid, mainly because I was afraid of the consequences of what would happen if I didn’t align….especially to arbitrary boundaries or norms described by society and Western, American culture. But I’m realizing that in many areas of my life, being a “rule follower” has required me to abandon my true self and what my deepest being believes to be true and right. As many of you will know, it is horrible to live a split existence….and to feel like you’re abandoning yourself in order to satisfy others. Furthermore, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that so much of our cultural training is about keeping people in line….maintaining the status quo….and creating cookie cutter followers that are consumers and don’t rock the boat too much. I started out as an adult doing the things that our culture says I should do, and I tried to want all the things our culture says I should want. I took each step in the American dream. It DID NOT make me happy.

Fortunately, I”m getting braver, and more willing to buck the status quo. I’m more interested in being authentic and genuine and unafraid than in appeasing all the “you should’s!” around me. The tricky thing, though, is learning to trust one’s inner voice and knowing that you’re firmly connected to your true nature. This is especially true because of the topic that the second book, “What My Bones Know”, was about: complex PTSD.

I binge listened to Foo’s book and was completely wrecked by it over the course of a weekend. Like, “I could barely function” kind of wrecked. Because while I’ve known for years that I’ve had trauma in my past to deal with, and have brain scans to corroborate that statement, I had never considered my issues to fall into the realm of complex PTSD. I’m too high functioning, I’ve thought….my life never completely fell apart as the result of things that have happened to me. I still have a hard time fully believing therapists and friends when they call “Abuse! Trauma!” when I recount certain memories. I’m mostly well adjusted, I say, and I always attempt to give other people outs for why they acted the way they did when they hurt me.

But then I read Foo’s words. Yes, I was never abused or hurt to the degree she was, but I recognized myself in her. When she described her struggles and fears and compulsion to fix everyone’s problems and her fear of abandonment….I knew exactly what she was talking about. When she wrote about struggling to learn as an adult to have healthy friendships and feeling like a huge shitshow when she constantly fucked up romantic relationships because of her insecurities and perceived unworthiness of love…..dang it….it resonated so deeply. That’s me. I’m so much better than I ever used to be, but there are days here and there that I still feel like a complete fuckup that will never get it right, never be a great parent, never be truly loved, and will never be able to completely trust myself.

Trauma from one’s past can really take one’s already reduced valve and wrench it into even worse shape.

Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I have a unicorn therapist who picks me up and dusts me off after I have difficult run-ins with my shadow self, reminding me that I am not what has happened to me. I am not the occasional screwball things I do nor the batshit crazy decisions I might sometimes make. I am not my flubbed up attempts to communicate with people I care about. And I am always worthy of love. And most importantly, she reminds me of all the good and all the joy that has come my way since I decided to stop believing every lie my past embedded within me and started trusting my own gut and inner wisdom, one choice at a time.

The thing that is kind of tough, though, about complex trauma is that it’s not a one and done therapy session to get over it. Sometimes (at least in my experience, and Foo’s experience), these amazing modalities like EMDR can help one process a big traumatic event. But they don’t always seem to work for the little cuts and stabs that accumulate over time…the little traumas that are confusing and often invisible to those around you….the ones where you ask yourself “was that even really abuse or trauma at all…or am I just being a drama queen or too sensitive?”

Nope, I’m pretty convinced, in my non-expert yet experienced opinion, that emerging from a long past of complex trauma, or even the task of deconditioning oneself from rigid cultural training or religious dogma, is a long, arduous, painful process of birthing oneself. You can’t just go to one therapy session or do yoga for a few months and suddenly be OK. I’ll liken it to the actual birthing process in real life. When you’re trying to heal from deep wounds and expand to become your truest self, the effort to break through an incredibly narrow reducing valve of beliefs and fears and perceptions of reality into a world of hope and freedom, is quite akin to a 10 pound baby squeezing through a 10 cm wide cervix. It is a helluva lot of painful work. It’s bloody and messy and there’s a good chance that you’ll be torn a bit in the process.

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So, I grew up in the church, got an undergraduate missions degree, and consider myself pretty well acquainted with the Bible, even if these days I look a little askance at most displays of Christianity. But, I only just now think I have the tiniest clue of what Jesus was talking about in John 3 when he met with Nicodemus and was talking about how one has to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God (or heaven, or perfect presence, or nirvana, or ultimate peace….insert whichever works for you here).

“Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.””

Most every teaching I have heard on this (and I’ve made my way through quite a few denominations and took a rigorous class on this gospel from a Duke University-trained theologian) describes being born of water as one’s physical birth, and being born of the Spirit as the moment one decides to commit to and follow God in some way. For many Christians, being born again is “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” For others, it is the act of baptism, either literally or symbolically, that equals being born into the Spirit. And for our charismatic/Pentecostal brothers and sisters, being born of the Spirit often comes with some type of external sign, or charisma, as proof that it happened. But ultimately, it is usually interpreted as some sort of intentional choice by an individual to follow God.

I think this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching is way too glib…way too easy….and is too shallow.. For most people, radical change does not come through one decision made in time. You can’t just heal all your shit at once, and most people (unless you’re anomalies like Eckhart Tolle or Byron Katie) are not suddenly going to wake up in the morning, woke. Being born into the Spirit (or rephrase this as Ultimate Reality), takes time, and effort, and struggle. It also requires immense surrender and allowing yourself to be carried by a force stronger than yourself….where you have absolutely NO control. It requires the recognition on some level that a reducing valve exists in your mind, and it requires you moving from a place where you think you know alot to understanding that you don’t really know jack squat about much at all. It requires sitting with your pain, and breathing through all the contractions, and not knowing where the process is going to take you, and somehow still trusting that grace is the vehicle that is carrying you….and also knowing that even if that grace fails you, you could never resist the birthing process….because there are things that you’ve seen that you can’t …and refuse…to unsee.

Jesus was not a namby pamby white dude….he invited people to not only resist empire through radical subversion, but he invited people to become aware of and break through the reducing valves of their shadow selves, that kept them small and quiet and fearful and certain that what they believed to be true must be accurate. This second invitation was really what was most subversive. That kind of subversion….the inentional allowing of your true self to be birthed out into this space and time….that is threatening, because that kind of freedom and love can’t be corralled or controlled. That, my friends, is why Jesus was killed. He scared the shit out of the powers that were because he was teaching people how to birth themselves and live who they truly were at their core.

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Now, after all of that theologizing, I’ll bring it back to my dream. When I reevaluated the dream through the paradigm of different parts of me trying to get my attention and tell me something, I immediately knew what the dream was about.

I was the one rushing to help the girl in labor, offering comfort and promising not to leave her alone. But I was also the girl giving birth. The placenta previa represented how freaking hard this process of healing and trying to bring forth my authentic self can be. In my particular case, and I won’t really go into much detail here, there are a couple of obstacles that seem to be blocking the process….they’re the wounds and fears that I feel I’ll sometimes never defeat….they’re the lingering things that always seem to impede my progress with becoming and learning to trust myself with abandon. But I keep pushing, rolling with the contractions as they come, often with massive tears and ugly crying….knowing that I’ll either eventually birth this thing or I’ll bleed out trying.

The ‘me as comforter” in this dream was the true me telling “girl in labor” me that I’ll never leave her. She may never get the external validation she thinks she needs from others. She may be called a prostitute and a fraud or any number of other things by people who lack understanding, but it doesn’t matter, because I will never abandon her. There may be people all around that don’t understand her process, who don’t care she’s trying to birth this hard thing into existence, who are happy to just sample the food at the party….but I know why she’s doing this. I know the journey she’s on. I know all the things she can’t unsee. I know that she can’t stay the same now that she’s aware of the reducing valve that is a part of her humanity. I know that she’s birthing ME.

Picking Your People: Avoid Green Teeth and Tennis Ball Lobbers

Photo credit: Martyn Fletcher

I want to explore relationship a little more, based on conversations I’ve had with people this last week and insights I’ve had about myself and how I’ve done relationship over the course of my life. I don’t expect I’ll impart any amazing new knowledge in this post, but I do want to play with a couple of metaphors that I’ve been mulling over quite a bit, that might be helpful to you as well.

I was talking to a friend of mine this last week who has been a therapist for a long time. (I love having friends who are therapists, because they just can’t help but leak their wisdom, and I get to soak it up by being in close proximity. I know there are some horrible therapists out there, but so far I’ve been pretty lucky in the ones that have orbited through my life). Anyway…..this particular person appears to me to have navigated life amazingly well. She has had plenty of her own difficult obstacles and tragedies, yet she has come out with this amazing certainty of who she is, what she wants, and what she is worthy of. Furthermore, she has a wicked awesome ability to see and call out those things in me,, and I come away from our times together always feeling like I just had a long, refreshing drink of cold water. She’s one of the game changers in my life, for sure.

This week I was asking my friend about romantic relationships she had been in, and how she seemed to be so good at finding the solid people who were capable of being in committed, generous , balanced relationships. She responded by using a metaphor of getting out on the dance floor. I wish I had recorded her so I could write out verbatim what she said, because it was really good. Basically, she told me that if you sit on the side of the dance floor and wait for someone to ask you to dance, you’re going to get alot of the guys (or women, depending on your personal leanings) with green teeth to ask you to dance. And if you keep saying yes over and over to the guys with green teeth, that’s all you’re going to end up dancing with, and you’ll end up in this constant cycle of frustration…with bruised toes and a strained back. So, she said….first, you’ve got to stop waiting for the people to come ask you to dance, and get the hell out there and start dancing on your own. Second, when the guys with green teeth come up to ask you to dance, you’ve got to stop accepting their requests. And finally, if you get out on the dance floor and show the world you can dance like hell solo, the people who can also dance well on their own will see you and come to dance with you.

This visual made me pretty happy, and I think my therapist friend is right. And she’s done well because she’s extremely picky about which men she’ll bother to dance with, and if no one asks her to dance, she has no reservation about staying out on the dance floor busting wicked moves all by herself. She might be the most empowered woman I know. What a badass.

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After my friend gave me this metaphor, my mind immediately went to another metaphor….which is actually kind of funny because it is seemingly unrelated to her comments. My brain works in mysterious ways. I tell myself this ability to connect completely unrelated ideas adds to my charm. 😀

I really love to play tennis. I mean LOVE to play tennis. Out of all the sports I’ve played or been involved in, tennis is the one that I’m probably the best at. Which is still setting the bar pretty low. Nevertheless, I can generally hold my own, and I’ve had a pretty decent serve at times. The problem is: it has been SO hard to find people to play tennis with. I have no clue why this is, unless most people in my demographic just don’t play tennis anymore. The people I do know who are willing to play with me live towns or states away and so setting up a regular schedule is impossible. For one short summer when I lived south of Boston, I met my best friend weekly in the city to play…that was a really good summer….never mind the hot muggy weather, or having to mind my three little boys in between volleys as they ran around the park.

Since it has been so hard to find people who enjoy tennis, I’m not always that discriminating when it comes to who I’ll agree to play with. If they have a little bit of interest, and a modicum of skill, I’m up for a match. BUT….I do have one strict rule when choosing an opponent: I do not play against ball lobbers. By that I mean, if every other shot they make catapults over the court fence, or even flies over my head into the fence behind me time after time….nope. I have no patience for that. Anyone I play tennis with has to be able to keep the ball at a reasonable altitude and within the court at least 75% of the time.

This lobbing issue is where my metaphor comes in: there are people who are skilled at navigating and being in relationship, and then there are the lobbers. This is not a statement of judgment, but just of stating facts. I would venture to say that most of us are probably lobbers at certain points in our lives, or in certain areas of our relationships from time to time. And, we are all at different points in our journeys and have all had our own struggles, so I’m not judging the lobbers. I will straight up front say that I was a hard core lobber for at least the first 30 years of my life….not at all because I wanted to be a lobber that annoyed the hell out of or hurt others, but because I just didn’t have good relationship skills for a lot of reasons.

Maybe I should back up a bit and explain what I mean by a relationship lobber. I haven’t exactly mapped this out, so I’ll just toss out a few ideas that come to mind when I think of this. Relationship lobbers are people who have very little sense of who they are, and so they rely on external validation the majority of the time. They need other people, and their relationship partners, to constantly reinforce that they are OK. Lobbers also are so focused on their own needs that they either can’t see the needs of the person they are in relationship with, or they have no capacity to try and meet those needs, and so the relationship ends up being completely unbalanced. Lobbers can be people who will love bomb the hell out of you and do grand romantic gestures, but they aren’t capable of showing up consistently or when it really counts.

Lobbers can be people who keep relationship boundaries vague and ambiguous because they don’t really know what they want, and so you are running around the relationship court frantically, constantly, trying to catch up with shifting court lines, never knowing if you are in or out of bounds….or even if you’re actually involved in a match. Lobbers can be people who have so many needs, demands, and expectations of their own that also keep you running frantically from one side of the court to the other, like you’re playing against one of those automatic tennis ball launchers that has gone haywire. And they can often be very good at convincing you that they need you to fix them or meet all their needs.

The worst relationship lobbing, though, is when the ball is rocketed high and over the fence, and you are left to chase after it. ESPECIALLY when your partner is content to laze on their side of the court while you run off to find and retrieve the ball that THEY slammed into orbit. These are the lobs that require us to really abandon ourselves…where we forget who we are, our personal values, and what we want….to go chasing after something in a vain or misguided attempt to “prove ourselves” or “save the relationship” or “make them stay.”

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Why and how do we end up in relationshp with green teeth guys and tennis ball lobbers? In my “ahem”, expert, opinion…it’s because of poor attachment styles from our childhoods, thinking we can’t “do” better, being addicted to people pleasing, and somehow being really adept at attracting people who are in pain. Especially if you are an empath and hate to see people hurt…..hurting people can spot you from a mile away and if they’re not emotionally healthy, they come running.

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid tennis ball lobbers even if you want to. Sometimes they’re just hot or charming or interesting….or you’ve been in a stagnated relationship lull for a long time and literally no one decent has come along, so you lower your standards…..or the worst case scenario: you can see their potential and so you hang around indefinitely, chasing ball after ball that is launched over the fence, exhausting and frustrating yourself, while you wait for them to improve.

The thing about tennis is that it’s true you need to play with stronger players in order to improve. But, you also have to put in alot of your own individual time in order to build fundamental skills….like hitting balls against those damn, wooden walls over and over, or hitting serve after serve to perfect your aim and velocity, or allowing yourself to be objectively coached from the side of the court by people watching your stance and swing.

The same is with relationship. Like I talked about in my last post, you have to practice in relationships to get better at relationships. But more importantly at times, you have to do the hard, behind-the-scenes work on yourself, your weaknesses, and your pain in order to see improvement in the actual relationship….and to make yourself a partner worth the other person’s time.

Lobbing balls across the fence occasionally happens in good relationships. Life can get overwhelming and stressful, and we always have our own hurts and issues that need to be worked on. And sometimes, for short periods of time, relationships will shift from a place of mutual 50/50 giving to 20/80 or 80/20. But they can’t stay like that to be sustainable or healthy. One person can’t be chasing all the balls all the freaking time. During those times of imbalance, the person who isn’t in a place of balanced giving has got to be actively owning and working on their stuff. At some point, the imbalance has to shift back to a midline.

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Another one of my friends and I have discussed how you should evaluate relationships you’re in based on how they affect your life. She has asked me in the past: “Is this relationship worth letting go of your peace and solitude?” Meaning, is any stress or anxiety or whatever that you’re dealing with in this situation worth it? Or, would the peace that comes from the solitude of not being in this situation be a better thing? I think we are all way to quick to give away our peace, and often we stay in unbalanced relationships because we are afraid of solitude. Chasing lobbed tennis balls on a never ending basis, where we only get an intermittent reward of a solid, returned volley….I’m pretty convinced the anxiety and exhaustion that comes with that is way worse than the fear or boredom that can come from being alone. I just tend to forget this fact occasionally.

I think the tennis metaphor can also apply to good, healthy relationships. Strong relationships will help both people grow, keep them moving, and require work from both parties. It might even be a little bit of controlled chaos. But they won’t be a matter of one person constantly having to bear the burden of lobs going this way and that.

This is hard, I’m an expert. I’ve said yes to green teeth guys because I didn’t think anyone else would ask me to dance. And I”ve agreed to play with lobbers because they showed up dressed in all the right gear and “looked” like they knew what they were doing. I’ve also been lonely enough in the past that I was desperate to play with people that would just show up. We should NEVER be in relationship with people just because they are there and nothing better has come along. That is the first step that happens in a slippery slope of abandoning ourselves.

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So there you have it. My two latest, favorite relationship metaphors offered through my informal, off the cuff, pontification. And with them, a call to myself and all of you….to stop abandoning ourselves to go chase after other people’s lobbed tennis balls all the time, or accepting dance requests from people that are not well matched with us because we are too afraid to light up the dance floor alone. If we are willing to put time and effort into our own shadow work and relationship skills, then by God we have the right to only choose to be in relationship with people who are doing their own work and who honor our work, evidenced by how they show up for us, and communicate and interact with us.

If it’s something you’re not willing to accept on the tennis court, then DON’T accept it in your close and romantic relationships.

Getting Better At Relationship, Through Relationship

Photo credit: Koen Jacobs

I’ve got three boys….one is a teenager and the other two aren’t far behind. They are by far three of the best things that have ever happened to me. But, they are also the hardest things that have ever happened to me. Like so hard, that I will say that if I had known all those years ago how hard parenting would be, I can’t honestly say I would have chosen it. That’s not saying that I don’t love my boys to the moon and back, and it’s not saying that they aren’t amazing people. It’s saying that the human-est side of me is not always as woke as I’d like to be, and being a parent involves sacrifice, difficult decisions (meaning having to pick the least of several terrible options sometimes), and it’s a wicked painful experience of these little people holding up a mirror to you and pointing out all the stuff about yourself you’d really rather just avoid or pretend wasn’t there.

The damned thing about parenting is that you have to parent to learn how to parent.

There are some really great parenting books out there (there are also a plethora of shitty ones), and there are wonderful people that have mentored me along the way and shared from their own parenting journeys. But the thing is, no one ever has the same type of kids, and every parent is trying to parent from their own individual backgrounds, which includes all the good and bad stuff. So, there has never been and will never be a one size fits all approach to parenting. Parenting is all about general principles, I think. And every so often one of those principles is to tell everyone judging your parenting to fuck off while you keep doing what you feel your gut is telling you is best for your kids. A key point is learning when it is appropriate to fall on this principle and when you’re just fooling yourself.

Like the dumb FB meme says about adulting: Parenting is like flying a helicopter. I don’t know how to fly a helicopter.

When I was in college, I was required to take two semesters of organic chemistry for my science degree. I liked the class in general, but most of the concepts took a while to actually click in my head. On so many occasions I would finally “get” the material, but it usually happened after I had already bombed a test and the ink of my grade was then dry in the gradebook. This is the way I frequently feel about parenting. I learn how to do things better way after the fact, and by then, there is little to do but store it in my back pocket for the off chance I end up being a grandparent, or when some younger parent comes to me desperate for any kind of advice. But I feel so bad for my kids….and everyone’s kids for that matter….that the universe evolved in such a way that children are raised by people who are trying to grow up themselves. (As a side note: I don’t trust parenting books written by anyone with kids under the age of 10. I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who were super enlightened and rocked it from day one, but I’m pretty suspicious about all that. Sharing anecdotes or routines or whatever…that’s cool, but claiming to have a corner on parenting before puberty even hits….nope. Don’t buy it at all.)

Parenting means having to make spur of the moment decisions for things that you never saw coming or weren’t sure you were equipped to speak well to. Like the time my youngest barfed on one of those moving walkways in the Boston airport. Or the time I didn’t have a diaper bag and my kid pooped inside a covered slide at a playground…leaving poop behind on the actual slide. Or when one of my kids came to me questioning his sexuality and needing support. Or having to help the one kid struggle through public school that wasn’t designed for souls like his. Or trying to comfort a son who locks himself into the dog crate crying after you tell him that you and his dad are getting a divorce.

And so many other questions and dilemmas….do I push hard on this? Do I let it go? How do I handle it when an angry child yells at me and says I’m a fucking piece of bullshit? When do I let my kids experience failure, and when do I save them? This learning to parent while being a parent is so very hard. I’m starting to think that at some level you absolutely have to let go of outcomes in order to save your sanity….because there’s no way to parent perfectly, or even at a certain point, know how you’re doing as a parent. Although, this is what many spiritual teachers and Zen Buddhists would say is the point of everything….to give yourself wholeheartedly to the process at hand, but detach from the outcomes. Easier said than done, for sure. Ultimately, I just hope I’m a “good enough” parent.

***********************************************************************************************************************This post is meant to be a bit of a sequel to the last post I wrote, titled Bass Notes, Resonance, and Additive Relationship. It’s likely going to be a meandering mess. I ponder relationship all the time because it’s one of those core fundamentals of existence and not something we can entirely avoid, nor do I want to. But, I recognize that I grew up with some really jacked up relationships, learned some horrible ways to be in relationship, and then unconsciously created my own unhealthy relationship patterns while stumbling along trying to cope and deal with the life situations that were handed me. Just like everyone else.

And like I mentioned above, I’m trying to parent and teach my kids how to do relationship well, right when I’m trying to learn how to do relationship well. God help them.

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BUT….I am now, thankfully, aware that I don’t have to keep living the same patterns and hurts over and over and over again, so I’m doing my darndest to unearth and examine all my neuroses and unhealthy patterns so that I can make necessary changes and continue to improve in my relationships…with the aim of loving people well and hurting them AND me less.

***********************************************************************************************************************The older I get, the more that it feels like life is full of paradox….two or more things that are true at the same time, and it seems impossible for them to be true at the same time, and yet, there it is. I’ve decided that learning to be comfortable with paradox is one of the big secrets to making it through this life with less suffering. When we insist on only one option being correct all the time, we end up just bloodying ourselves senseless with confusion and anxiety, because we are arguing with reality. Reality always wins. Always.

Beyond the idea of paradox is the concept of living on “the edge”. By that, I don’t mean that you’re necessarily living dangerously or out in the margins of society or something….but rather, that you’re constantly trying to balance on a razor-thin way of being, because that thin place is truest, most life-giving place to be at. And within this itself is a paradox….because to live on this razor-thin edge takes alot of work, but that work typically consists of letting go and accepting what is. This is exactly the type of work that most of us are terrible at because we want to logic and willpower and intellectualize our way through everything. Buddhists talk about the Middle Way, away from extremes, and Jesus talked about how the true path is a narrow way. I totally don’t interpret that as a path as a means to heaven and not hell, but rather that way of doing things that gives life, but you have to search for it, and it does not always come easy.

So, why am I even talking about paradox in this post? It’s because I think that relationship is, at it’s core, a matter of two things being true at once, and to do relationship really, really well, maybe we have to walk a razor thin edge where it is easy to slip and fall one way or the other….it requires awareness and extreme presence. I don’t know……maybe this just feels like a razor thin edge to me, and it comes easy to everyone else.

The paradox I see is that we (each of us and the people we are in relationship with) both need each other, and at the same time we are complete in ourselves, each as individuals. We are unique waves, but we are all part of a bigger ocean. And the line we have to walk when we do relationship with people is to not fall one way into codependence, and yet to also not fall the other way into ultra-indepedence.

Interdepedence is a key word. Humans are interdependent on each other; we need each other at some fundamental level….even those people who say that they hate all things peopley. This has been proven just on the level of basic science…..do a quick google search about babies and young children who were isolated when they were young and denied affection and genuine attachment. The outcomes for those little ones is never great. But even beyond that, the COVID pandemic has helped alot of us remember how very important quality relationship and human interaction is. During those early months of the pandemic, I had plenty of days where I ugly cried because I missed genuine, authentic relational interactions with important people in my life. And now, even though the pandemic is still with us, I have eschewed housework and other responsibilities so many times for chances to hang out with friends and loved ones. The pandemic made it abundantly clear how very imporant they are to me.

Relationship and interdependence is a big theme in much of both spirituality and science. Things exist in relation to each other, and many times can’t really be spoken of or described when they are separate. We in the West like to think of things in a causal, linear fashion, but this concept breaks down at some points. Subatomic particles are a good example of this. Classical Newtonian physics would say that with the right equipment, we should be able to measure all the variables of a particle. But quantum mechanics, at the atomic and subatomic levels, reveals the uncertainty that arises in one variable of a particle when we try to definitively measure a different variable. You can really only understand the system when you look at it as a relationship. And on a more psychological level, we can’t really talk about the Self in isolation from others. The Self doesn’t really exist by itself, as Alan Watts has said. We can only see it and describe it based on it’s relationship with other “Selfs”.

One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, wrote a book several years back called The Divine Dance. In it, he discussed the Christian concept of the Trinity, and the relationship that lies therein. People can get really hung up on (and angry about) this notion of one God but in three persons. I think there’s all kinds of interesting cultural and theological rabbit trails concerning that I could explore, but I’ll save those for another day. Point being, the idea of the Trinity explains how existence is about relationship. We are inidivudal, yet we are not. We are all interconnected, and yet we have our own individual qualities when in physical form. Life is about this dance that we do with each other….indepedent and yet depedent. Since this is my blog and I get to say what I want, I’ve decided that my definition of the Trinity is not really about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I like to think of it more in terms of Truth, Action, and the “Magic Sauce”. All of these have to be present, or things in life go awry. And while I no longer believe in a theistic Christian God, the concept of the Trinity still completely works for me, especially based on my definition. I might explore all of this another time in another post.

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So, going back to learning how to do relationship while being in relationship….

When you grow up not knowing how to do relationship well, things can get pretty painful, and there is the real temptation to take one of two easy ways out:

  1. You just completely check out and insist on minimizing interactions with people entirely, or you put up huge walls in your relationships to protect yourself from further hurt. Either you only let people that are closest to you have access to very select parts of you, or you refuse to commit, or you leave yourself wide-open escape routes in case things start to go south.
  2. You start to feel hopeless that things will get better, so you just turn the tables and start doing relationship with the arbitrary rules you learned growing up, getting whatever you need out of relationship even if you have to exploit others to do it.

The third option, which is really difficult to do, is learning to ask the right questions, uncover patterns and hurts and belief systems, and to endeavor to sit with the pain and tough feelings and try again and again in hopes that things will improve. The third option is the hardest, because it asks you to be vulnerable over and over again, to keep your heart soft, and to attempt to trust people that come into your life. As you who have relationship PTSD know, those trust triggers die hard….and when you are hurt to your core by people you love and trust, trying again with new people is freaking scary.

There’s a concept called the wheel of samsara, or the wheel of suffering. This is an area that I really have no business talking about, but I’m going to appropriate it anyway for my purposes of needing a metaphor. The basic concept, as I understand it, is that the wheel is the cycle of birth and rebirth to work out old karma, until you eventually spin off into Nirvana. I only bring this up because it came to mind the other day when I was talking to my therapist about these relationship cycles I seem to go through. It seems like, espeically in romantic relationships, I repeat the same damn cycles again and again, only each time I do it with better people (by better, I typically mean kinder or more awake) or I do it with someone who helps me learn a particiular lesson. I was bemoaning this to my therapist, and she surprised me by saying that this was sort of the point. You have an insight about yourself, or learn a lesson, and so you go back and try again at a relationship….either with the same person (if they are safe and open and also wanting to grow), or with someone new. Theoretically, at some point, maybe one would spin off the wheel? Doubtful probably, but maybe you get to the point where you spin yourself into a solid, healthy relationship with a safe person.

My therapist affirming this pattern of spiraling cycles, instead of voicing concern, was really helpful for me. I realized that I had slipped into this mindset where I believed that if I just did all the right work beforehand, if I met the right person I could just slam dunk it and immediately have a great relationship free of my old neuroses. But like parenting, that doesn’t make any sense. You don’t entirely learn to be a parent by reading the right books or babysitting other people’s kids once in a while. You have to jump in and actually truly parent yourself….doing the practice….to improve. The same thing with other kinds of relationships: you take what you have learned, and you keep practicing until it gets easier to do the hard things and you are able to replace unhelpful patterns and dynamics with new, healthy ones.

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As a slight segue to my last point, I just want to talk about the importance of safe people. NOT everyone is safe. Some people may think they are safe, but they are not safe. Some people may pretend to be safe, but aren’t really. Some people are absolutely not safe and make no attempts to hide it….but these are the people we typically know right away to stay away from. Ultimate takeaway: we don’t have to….and shouldn’t….try to learn how to do relationship with unsafe people. We don’t owe them anything, and we do owe it to ourselves and deserve to be in relationship with people that genuinely care about us, want to be present with us, and are working on growing themselves.

The problem with growing up surrounded by and involved in dysfunctional relationships is that you don’t always stop to think about whether or not someone is truly safe, or even what that actually means. Sometimes we confuse “safe” with “famliar”. And we like famliar and tend to stick with it even if it is not really “good” for us. It took me a very long time to realize what safe people look like, and every once in a while I still get fooled. This has required alot of therapy on my end, and learning what healthy relationships are supposed to look like.

Here is my personal definition of what safe people are. It is not formal or referenced from anyone smart. A safe person is somone who:

  1. Will stay in the room with you when things get hard and communication feels uncomfortable, but growing the relationship feels more important to them than escaping discomfort
  2. Will attempt to communicate even when they don’t really know how, or fumble their words
  3. Will accept your own fumbles at communication, and assume you’re coming with good intentions, no matter how your words come out
  4. Recognizes that they are hearing you through a filter and vice versa, but really attempts to hear and understand you
  5. Wants what is best for you and does their best to not exploit you to serve their own purposes
  6. Is willing to wholeheartedly apolgize and make amends for when they’ve wronged you or see that you’ve been hurt by them in some way

Maybe it would be easier to point out safe people by pointing out what unsafe people do (and I can say these from having experienced and trusted plenty of unsafe people). Here are just a handful:

  1. Someone is unsafe is they gaslight you or keep you constantly questioning what you thought to be true, or making you feel crazy all the time
  2. Someone is unsafe if they are forever telling you how you should feel about things, or that you don’t have the right to feel certain ways
  3. People who refuse to sincerely apologize or acknowledge their part in anything, are unsafe
  4. People who constantly ditch you when a better “alternative” is available, are unsafe
  5. People who are constantly badmouthing other people when they are with you, are unsafe. Because they are more than likely talking about you behind your back, too.
  6. People who are constantly popping your balloons (i.e. poo-pooing your successes or excitements or dreams or great ideas) are unsafe.
  7. If someone repeatedly comes at you aggressively with a blaming “You” statement, you should probably be wary of their ultimate safety.

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On the flip side of learning to spot unsafe people, is the important job of learning to be safe people ourselves This is where, for me especially, walking that razor thin edge is important. I’m pretty sure that I’m not unsafe for people in a malevolent way. I do my very best to not hurt people. But, we can also unintentionally be unsafe towards those we are trying to do relationship with when we are blind to our own hurts and unconscious patterns.

When I was growing up, I was immeshed in multiple codependent relationships…through really no fault of my own. I was a kid employing coping mechanisms to try and just get by. But, I’m also a 2 on the enneagram, meaning I naturally tend toward people pleasing and way over the top self-sacrificing. And let’s just be honest….I can play a great martyr role when I really want.

I know from my weird attachment styles and codependent dynamics as a kid that I can slip into those roles again with people if I’m not careful. I have to be very mindful that I’m not grasping onto anyone out of my own insecurities or sense of unworthiness. And yes, to a degree we all do this to each other all the time….being in relationship with people that make you feel good about yourself, but I personally have to be really careful not to abandon myself and become too reliant on others. I’m prety convinced that being overreliant on someone, espeically for emotional needs and if they aren’t able to set up their own strong boundaries, is just as unsafe for them as actually being mean and hurtful. But again, this is walking that narrow path….attaching and committing to people, and being interdepdent, without going too far in an unhealthy way.

************************************************************************************************************************I’ve probably rambled on enough incoherently about this topic. My big take-away, my own personal “aha!”, is that learning to do rleationship well is like everything else…..the obstacle is the path. You can’t learn how be in relationship in a vacuum from reading a book or watching others from the sidelines. You have to jump in yourself and just do it. And then do it again with someone else. And then someone else. Only through these interactions do you really have mirrors that help show you who you are, which are necessary to help you grow and let go of attachments, and actually realize that you are whole and complete apart from being in relationship. It’s like the saying: “you have a guru to teach you that you don’t NEED a guru.”

We need each other to learn that we are just fine on our own.

It’s a beautiful, mysterious paradox.

Bass Notes, Resonance, and Additive Relationship

Photo credit: Me

One of my best friends is a bass player, of both the bass guitar and upright bass varieties. Watching him play is amazing, and there is nothing like feeling a good deep note vibrate away from the instrument and right through your body.

I’m a very amateur musician and don’t quite have the language and vocabulary to speak all that intelligently about music, but I have always believed that bass notes are what ground it….they keep it from being too superficial and safe from flying off into the unicorn land of pretty melodies that sound nice but lack real substance. Rob Bell, one of my other best friends (who I’ve never actually met in person or ever talked to and in fact he has no clue that I even exist) frequently talks about many things/people/etc having too much treble and not enough bass. The first time I heard him use this analogy on his podcast, I loved it and now I frequently reference it. So many things in life aren’t well rooted in anything, aren’t grounded, lack wisdom, are unbalanced, or are a mile wide and inch deep, as the saying goes. Bass is essential; like the deep roots of a great old tree, it holds us steady and firm.

A couple of months ago I was listening to my friend jam with some other musicians in an informal setting…him on his upright, a saxophonist, and a drummer. They didn’t seem to have a plan in place when they started to play, and the saxophonist took the lead, and then the drummer and my friend followed on their instruments. The impromput jazz that resulted for the next 45 minutes was mesmerizing. As someone who has played piano since I was nine, and led my church congregation in hymns on the piano for 5 years as a young adult, I had never spontaneously jammed with anyone. Most of the time, I’m one of those people who has to be told what key we’re playing in, and I’m not great at improvisation. So, I was amazed when this little group of musicians started playing jazz and there was no discussion ahead of time of what key was going to be played, or what direction the music was going to take.

Later that evening, after the show was over, I asked me friend how he knew what key to play in, when it was the saxophonist who took the lead but never specified this detail. My friend told me it was hard to explain, but that when they started playing, they would just kind of “find each other”, and thus, land on the same key. My heart broke wide open when I heard him say that, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. People finding each other and the right key on instruments by listening and being sensitive and paying attention to each other. Which then led me to thinking about moments when people will meet each other at just the right time, in just the right place, sometimes completely unexpectedly. Or how people might pass by each other in life for a while, as acquaitances or friends, but then something happens that interwines you at some deep level and you know that you and that person are going to somehow be bonded forever. Which led me to thinking about standing waves and resonance and how sometimes magic happens out of nowhere with people…and there’s no real explanation for any of it, and all that is left is it to just be grateful that it happened and receive the lessons and gifts it has brought with its arrival.

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So, super quick physics lesson. On standing waves. Don’t groan….there’s a reason I’m bringing this up, and I think it will help better illustrate a point I want to make later, which is basically the crux of this whole blog post.

A standing wave occurs when two waves going the opposite direction, that have the same frequency, superimpose on top of each other through interference. They just line up and fit each other perfectly. The end result is that they either completely cancel each other out, or they add to each other. When this happens, it oftens creates an illusion that the wave is standing still, which is where “standing wave” comes from. While you may not off hand recognize what I’m talking about, you’ve experienced a standing wave when you pluck a guitar string. If you want to geek out a bit and really understand the point, watch this video:

We often use the phrase “I resonate with that” or “I resonate with that person”, meaning that we ‘get’ or feel like we fundamentally connect with “that person”, or what was just said. Something about whatever we resonated with feels true to us at more of a core level….our frequency of being seems to match up with the frequency that that person or thought is operating from.

Finding resonance, especially with people, is kind of magical, and it feels like, at least to me, that in those moments I’m a little more connected with everything outside of me and I feel a little less alone in the world. Sometimes, it is so strong that it feels like life is standing still, just like those standing waves. It is such a good thing to feel understood, and to think that, at least to a certain point, you really understand another person in a meaningful way. When you meet someone who plays a bass note, figuratively speaking, that you’re also playing….when your values, or goals, or things that bring you deep joy, or even life pain, match up with that person and you feel “okay-er” because now you know you’re not out alone by yourself in the universe… when you’re not the only one playing that particular bass note.

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Photo credit: Me, requisite blog photo eye candy

My understanding of relationships, especially romantic relationships, has evolved significantly over the last twenty years. For much of my life, although I don’t think I always consciously knew how strongly I believed it, I thought that a big factor in women reaching their full potential and happiness was to find partnership and contentment in relationship with a man. But, because of my religious background, this understanding was pretty skewed. Eve screwed up in the garden, which pretty much tainted the rest of female-dom, and it was now our job to redeem ourselves by becoming Proverbs 31 women, raising perfect children, and supporting our men. I’ve written about this before, but in churches I was a part of, there was definitely a sense of lower class citizenship if women were unmarried, and if, God forbid, you got divorced, you fell to a negative status, even below that of spinsters or not-yet married virgins who hadn’t landed a man yet. Yes, a little hyperbole and snark here, but hopefully you get my point.

After I got married and had been married for quite a number of years, my understanding of husband/wife relationships shifted…away from the idea of the wife needing to submit and be a helpmeet ( “Ugh, I despise that concept now”) to her husband who was supposedly appointed by God to be the head of household. I moved to more of a complementary mindset that was being propogated by slightly more progressive Christians….basically saying that men and women bring their own strengths to the relationships and create a “whole” by the uniqueness that they each contribute. Thus, the marriage becomes complete by the two parts brought to it. I am not intending to jump into theology much here, and I clearly do not hold to traditional marriage concepts in many ways, or think that marriage or committed relationships are only for men with women. I’m bringing this up simply as a foundation for a later point.

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Photo credit: Me, more requisite eye candy. Also, squirrels are awesome.

I definitely grew up with a sense that I was not fundamentally OK, and I have been working my way out of this state of being since I was a child. I remember, from the age of about 4/5 to around 11, I would be doing normal life things and suddenly an invisible energy would come over me and kind of paralyze me for a minute, and I would get this horrible, uncomfortable sense that I didn’t belong….that things were not right in the world….that I wasn’t OK for being here. I have no clue what triggered these experiences, other than that they usually happened when I was alone. I also don’t know what eventually made them stop coming, but it was definitely good riddance. Each time I experienced that energy, I would literally want to crawl out of my skin. Next to panic attacks, they were some of the worst things I’ve ever exprienced in life. Thankfully, they typically only lasted about 30 seconds to a minute at a time.

For so many other reasons, which I’ve probably blogged about ad nauseum in the past, I grew up so wicked insecure and untrusting of myself. I always needed external validation to feel OK, I needed an outside committee to help me make any major decisions, and I clung so tightly to rigid rule-based paradigms because, while I hated being a rule-follower, doing so made me feel safe.

These insecurities naturally extended out to my relationships with people. When you don’t feel like you’re inherently good and worthy and deserving, you don’t particularly want to be around people but at the same time you absolutely want and need to be around people so that maybe some of them will make you feel OK. Or, you search like crazy for the person who will fill the gaps in you, or complete you. And then, when you try and try and try to get valiation you need, and people won’t offer it to you for whatever reason, or you finally realize that outside validation isn’t actually as satisfying and fulfilling as what you once thought…it can all feel like a hopeless, damn mess.

I felt like a hopeless damn mess for the first 30 years of my life.

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A good friend of mine recently reminded me of a Shel Silverstein book I first read years ago and then forgot about. When I reread the story this time, it hit me hard, and I finally “got” it in a way that I never had before. As a prelude to that book, watch this video on another of his books first.

If you skipped over the vidoe, take the time to watch it. It’s clearly dramatized for kids, but it is brilliant. The incomplete circle is constantly searching for it’s missing piece, only to be discouraged or rejected. And then, finally, it finds a missing piece that fits it perfectly, and actually want to fit it, and they end up combining, thinking that at long last, they had reached fullfillment and that they were both now complete and OK. But, as it turned out, this sense of finding completeness in each other, and relying on that other person to HAVE to be there in order to be complete, was stifling. And the incomplete circle ended up discarding something that actually was probably not a bad thing for him simply because too much was put on that piece to carry and be responsible for.

But then!!!!!! Silverstein’s brilliant message comes across in this next book, the one my friend reminded me of. In this case, it is from the perspective of the missing piece, not the incomplete circle.

OH my GOD I love this story so much. It really resonates me with me. (See what I did there?). Starting with the desperate search to find the piece that would complete me, then finding what I thought was that peice when I got married only to discover that my missing piece didn’t want to grow with me and DID NOT like the directions I was growing….to the parts about feeling so completely stuck and incapable of movement…..to meeting a handful of people who were complete in themselves and encouraged me that I could be, too…..all the way to me finally getting brave, flopping over a couple of times, and starting to wear off the hurt, sharp edges of myself…..and beginning to learn to feel more OK in myself, a complete circle on my own.

OK, now I want to try to bring all of these ideas full circle (see, I did it again. :D) and tie in what it means to be complete, and experience resonance with someone, but in an additive and not subtractive way.

Like I talked about earlier, finding deep resonance with a person can be magical, and it can definitely make the universe feel a little more personal, a little more connected. But one thing I know of myself is that it can be easy to grasp hard on to that resonance…to be like, “Look! I found my missing piece! Don’t you see this resonance we have?!” And there’s nothing wrong with finding resonance and connecting deeply with someone. But where we, (I) can get into trouble is when we see that resonance as a source of validation that we are fundamentally OK, or when we start to lose ourselves in that resonance permanently.

Standing waves have two types of points called nodes and antinodes. Nodes are where the passing waves intefere with each other in a way that they cancel each other out. Antinodes are the places where the two waves create constructive interference, resulting in an increase of amplitude….they become additive together to what they were individually. I really like nodes/antinodes as a metaphor for what can happen when we are in a deep, bonded relationship with someone. If we lose ourselves in the relationship, or think that it completes us, then there is the potential to completely cancel out any of the power and good things that come from the relationship. But, if you can stay in the relationship in such a way that you recognize you are complete and the other person is complete and there is no sense of grasping, then your energies can combine in a beneficial and healthy way.

I hope I’m making a little sense. This all makes sense it my head, but it’s hard to get out into words.

Photo credit: Me. Even more requisite eye candy.

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I had a conversation a few weeks ago with my therapist about some of these ideas I’m writing about here, especially Silverstein’s books. I told her that after rereading the Big O story that my friend reminded me about, I was simultaneously both in love with it and also extremely uncomfortable. I explained that the idea of rolling along through life BY someone, but never actually physically or deeply connected as the story implies, felt so paralyzingly lonely to me. Parallel play, with two people in their own little boxes/worlds, is all I could envision from the story. I don’t want to be codependent with anyone, but strong, deep, safe, trusting, meaningful connection is so very important to me.

Right there on the spot, my therapist came up with a metaphor that helped me tremendously. I value her opinion so much because at age 70, she has lived an abundant life, is a freaking badass, and I want to be just like her when I grow up. She explained that a healthy relationship with someone in who you find resonance, is like a set of train tracks that merge together for a bit, but then split back apart to run parallel to each other, only to merge together again. It’s a constant coming together and moving apart

Photo caption: Terence Tay

My therapist’s metaphor and helpful words were the bass note I needed. Being whole and complete isn’t about ultra-indepenence or never committing and connecting intimately with another person. And resonating with someone on a deep and meaningful level isn’t about merging together so tightly forever that you completely lose yourself in each other.

Real love….real, authentic, meaningful relationship is about having the freedom to come together and move apart without fear of grasping or being rejected….without the NEED to have someone with you every moment so that you’ll feel validated, but WANTING that person there often because you see their presence in your life ( and vice versa) as additive and not complementary. And beyond all of that, real love, even with someone whom you resonate deeply with, doesn’t grab and cling and despair when one of you wants to leave the relationship….because being complete in yourself means knowing that the lack of that other person may be sad and you may grieve hard, but it’s not going to invalidate you as a person, or make you any less, or break you. I also think, as I’ve mentioned in other blog posts….when you bond strongly with someone in a healthy, good way that is additive to both of your lives, you’re never truly going to lose that person….you will always be connected in some way, and the love will never just go away.

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Yep, feeling these things deeply today. None of this comes easy. It’s not like you can just wake up one day and say, “Well, hey! I feel super complete in myself and I will no longer strive to find my missing piece, and if I meet someone who resonates strongly with me I promise to never grasp or cling!” So much of this involves learning about the attachment styles that formed you when you were growing up, and rerouting your neural grooves in you brain so that you can start operating out of new belief patterns. It involves allowing yourself to get really uncomfortable for a while, facing your feelings and biggest fears.

I’m not a Big O yet. I don’t roll smoothly along next to people. I still get stuck sometimes and do more of an awkward flip-flop motion than cruising breezily along. But these big bass note lessons have been working their way into me over the past many years, and they’re finally starting to take.

May we all know that we are good and worthy and complete, just as we are. May we be able to “find” our way to the people that we can resonate deeply with. And may we all learn to love well, and be loved well.

On Running, Grounding, and Exploring the Inner Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what were my takeaways from my vacation week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone Brings a Gift





Photo credit: Wajahat Syed

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

-Mary Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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