How To Love When You’re Tired

Photo credit; David O’Leary

On Giving Away All Your Ducks

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

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

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

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

Xander: Mom, do you like audiobooks?

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

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

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

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

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

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On Giving Away All Your Other Kinds of Ducks

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

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

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

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What is Love, Exactly?

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

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

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

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

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Nurse Ethics and Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Empathy versus Sympathy versus ???

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

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

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

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

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

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Empathy and Sympathy Fatigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vicarious Trauma

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

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

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When Your Ducks Are Spread Too Thin

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

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

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

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

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

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

To The Things We Lost in the Pandemic: A Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything belongs. Selah.

Do Stuff Scared.

Photo credit: Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was an unbelievably verbose side note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Am I actually going to die from this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au contraire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imma do stuff, scared.

Stay. Just stay.

Photo credit: Caleb Roenigk

If I ever come to visit you and I end up being late, it’s not because I got stuck in traffic or because I took too long getting ready. 95% chance it’s because I believed I was smarter than my GPS.

I’m a grown ass woman. I understand that in general computers give us good information. I know that GPSs are created to get us to where we want to go in the most efficient manner possible. I know it in my head, but I always believe in my HEART that I know the best, fastest ways to get places.

I’ll frequently plug my destination address into my GPS, look at the options it gives me, and then scoff in disdain, convinced that I have this brilliant route in mind or superior knowledge of the roadway system that will surpass any suggestions my GPS could offer. And EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m wrong. But, I keep doing it. I know, insanity at its finest. I’ll probably keep doing it, too.

Now you’re forewarned for when you decide to invite me over. Probably tell me I need to be there 30 minutes before I actually do.

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GPS foolishness aside, sometimes in life there is no clear path forward. Or at least, there’s not always a path that you really get excited about taking. Sometimes no matter what choice you make you’re going to end up hurt or devastated or heartbroken. These situations are the worst. Open door A, you get pain. Open door B, you get pain. Oh, and not choosing one of those doors is not an option.

Per my last post about part of my life blowing up a while back, I was presented with one of these super fun choices of pain, or pain. I saw it coming from a long ways away and tried to do everything I could to find a happy ending, a way through that while maybe not pleasant, at least wouldn’t wreck me. Even as I saw what reality was, like the stupid game of trying to fool my GPS, I kept thinking I could conjure up a brilliant backroads detour to avoid the imminent suffering I saw looming ahead.

Dammit. Reality is just like my GPS. I can’t outsmart it.

So, I looked at my two painful options, and I picked one, and everything fell apart, and I fell apart with it.

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As my beloved “adopted” spiritual teacher Pema Chodron says, sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart. Although, if we’re truthful about it, things will often just fall apart without asking our permission first. This is the way of the world. So the real question then, is what are we going to do when everything does fall apart? When we feel like we are at the end of ourselves? When there is no hope? When we suddenly doubt everything about ourselves and are convinced we are unlovable and stupid and nothing good will ever come our way again, and we don’t know what to do next?

These are the places that terrify us, and we try desperately to run away from the horrible feelings that can overwhelm us when everything has fallen apart. We’re miserable but grasping and clinging for anything that can help us find our footing again, to ease the pain for just a moment. And so we drink, we shop, we binge watch Netflix, we search dating sites to find someone who might help us forget our broken hearts, we work relentless hours, we run too many miles when our bodies plead for rest, we ruminate in our minds and try in vain to change reality by thinking of all the should have’s, could have’s, would have’s – if we could just go back in time.

Staying in our broken places, with our hearts open, feeling our feelings and refusing to run away, is the hardest thing in the world, and the bravest thing that any of us could ever do.

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When I was growing up, meditation got a bad rap. This was primarily because the people talking to me about meditation had no clue what they were talking about. In all fairness, they had also been educated on the subject by other ill-informed sources. I was taught that meditation is a New-Age practice where we are supposed to empty our minds, and that’s a bad idea because it just leaves room for demons to jump in. People would often proof text that story from the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew:


“When the evil spirit goes out of a man it wanders through waterless places looking for rest and never finding it. Then it says, ‘I will go back to my house from which I came.’ When it arrives it finds it unoccupied, but clean and all in order. Then it goes and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself to keep it company, and they all go in and make themselves at home. The last state of that man is worse than the first—and that is just what will happen to this evil generation.”

I’m trying even now not to roll my eyes at the weird ways people can use sacred texts to push their own agendas or bolster their own fears.

Anyway, I was leery of meditation until I was in my 30s and started looking more deeply into contemplative Christian prayer and then Buddhist teachings. I finally found out the truth, something that would have been awesome to have learned as a child, that meditation is in fact not about emptying your mind. That’s kind of impossible anyway, unless you cut out your brain or knock out your neurological circuitry. Meditation is about learning not to cling and attach to the endless stream of thoughts that come down the pipeline. It is about learning not to believe all the stories you tell yourself about reality. And very importantly, it is about learning to sit with whatever IS, learning to accept it, know that it will eventually pass, and that none of it will kill you.

Meditation is hard. It’s simple really, but the actual doing of it is hard. I think this is why so many religions at lower levels love the traditional notion of prayer. It allows us to talk and talk and talk to whoever we think is out there listening, and we can complain and offer our wish lists and beg for things to change – basically it gives us a sense that we have a little say so in our situations, or at least a little arguing power. Listening prayer is a step up….we do a little less talking at God and wait for Them to give us direction or a word or inspiration. The thing about meditation though, is that the whole trying to get God to change things or to tell us what to do is not the focus. This is what makes it difficult to do, because we don’t want things the way they are right now. We want them to be different. We want God to fix them, to make our bad feelings go away, to help us feel better and yet again have a clear path ahead of us.

Meditation is about sitting with the way things are right now, not trying to change them. The goal in meditation, especially when everything has fallen apart, is to not run or avoid what you’re feeling. It is about teaching you to stay with the uncomfortable feelings, riding their waves of intensity, know that they are impermanent and will pass.

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I am very aware of the things I do to try to avoid pain, or things I can do to give myself that little pleasure kick of dopamine to feel better when I’m not happy with reality. During the morning it’s coffee, jolt after jolt. In the evening it’s a glass of wine to take the hard edge of sharp feelings off. It you see me post on FB a ridiculous amount within a short timeframe, it’s either because my FB friends are seriously curating quality content that particular day, or it’s because I’m trying really hard to avoid feeling something. I’m good at running non-stop with project after project so I don’t have to stop and feel the feels that hurt. I listen to podcast after podcast, or audiobook after book, to try to figure out ways to actively change my situation, instead of allowing myself to sit with it and accept it. None of these things are all that bad inherently, but they set me up for prolonged suffering and the illusion that I have control over more than what I do. And I usually just end up exhausting myself anyway.

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I was talking with someone I know the other day briefly about active mediation versus passive mediation. Some people prefer to meditate while moving – doing yoga or walking or something like that – because sitting meditation doesn’t appeal to them or it seems too “Eastern” and unfamiliar. I’m all about active mediation. I feel like biking long miles is a good place for me to focus. Swimming lap after lap is cathartic for me, and feels very meditative, because there is so much focus on the breath. Inhale, exhale, all in a rhythmic pace…necessary to make sure you don’t lose your breath. Just you and the water and breathing.

I also think that sometimes certain “adventure” sports are great meditative experiences because you have to focus so completely on what you’re doing that you can’t pay attention to you brain’s thought pipeline. Rock climbing for instance. Probably not the best time for you to ruminate about the past when you’re looking for that next solid foot or handhold that will save you from crashing from a fall.

But in the end, I think that active meditation has its limits because it still allows input from the person doing it. It still gives that since of “you’re doing something to contribute to the situation, to change.” Maybe we don’t have to fully accept things as they are then, we don’t fully come to the end of ourselves, until there is nothing left for us to do but just sit and feel and allow.

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Hmph. Listen to me, talking like I’m a meditation expert or something. I am most certainly not. I probably know just enough to get myself into trouble….but it also feels like I know just enough that it is helping to save me right now.

A few years ago I went to an 8 hour Buddhist-Christian meditation retreat. It was the first formal meditation I’d ever done in a group, and I think I slept for about four of the eight hours. I was very proud of myself, though, because I slept those four hours sitting up and I don’t think I ever let out any audible snores.

That experience was really painful for me though, because I didn’t know enough then about what can happen when you first start meditating. I didn’t know that when you first learn to get quiet, all the junk that you’ve been working so hard to stuff down for your entire life suddenly begins to float to the surface. I was so shocked when, sitting there peacefully before one of my intermittent naps, that memories and emotions were flying into my awareness like gangbusters, and it was OVERWHELMING. I left the retreat angry and agitated, and certainly not excited about meditation like when I arrived.

Later I learned that this was normal, and that meditation is all about letting whatever is going to arise, arise. You don’t fight it, you don’t try to figure it out, you don’t try to fix it. You just let it come, and then you let it go.

Pema Chodron tells a story in her book When Things Fall Apart about a childhood friend who had recurring horrible dreams where monsters were chasing her. In every dream she ran away from them, but was always pursued, and she would wake up after these dreams obviously upset. Pema asked her one time what the monsters looked like, and her friend replied that she didn’t know, she had never looked at them. Her back was always to them as she ran away. So, the next time she dreamed this dream, she turned around in the dream to face the monsters. They saw her turn, and stopped a ways away from her. They all looked different, just various monster types. And then, one by one, they faded away. And Pema’s friend never had this nightmare again after looking at the monsters head on.

This is what we are doing in meditation. We see what comes up, and we look at it headon. We don’t shirk from the feelings that come up in us. Because they will pass.

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I meditated a fair amount in the past and then gave it up. It felt more like something I “needed” to do to become woke, to become more aware, to move farther down the spiritual path. But lately, I have been drawn back to it again as a matter of desperation. I no longer want to endure pain in vain. I want the pain that comes my way to be transformed into something that benefits me and benefits others. And so while meditation once felt like a chore, it now feels like a comfort, a respite, a place where I can compassionately allow myself to feel all the hurt and despair with soft hands and an open heart.

And part of it is because I trust others that have gone down this path before me. As the author Susan Piver calls them, explorers of the shadows, the patron saints of darkness. Part of what has gotten me personally into so much trouble is that I’ve spent most of my life doubting myself and not trusting my own inner wisdom. I’m learning to do differently now, but I’m also smart enough to know not to reinvent the wheel of how to deal with suffering. Do I absolutely believe down to my core that therapy, and meditation, and trauma work, and good self care and all of these things will heal my broken places and get me to where I want to go? No, not yet. But I know the people that I can trust…the ones who have been through their own dark nights of the soul and made it out, who were able to transform their pain, the ones who can now help show me the path. There are certain GPS voices that I know most of the time better than to argue with.

Ultimately, I think the scariest thing you can do in life is to sit in your darkness….to just STAY….and let it teach you. It takes a crap ton of courage to befriend the hard things and take on your own suffering when you really aren’t sure you know how to do it or when/if it will ever end.

But going back to the options of pain I mentioned earlier. There are two kinds of pain, usually. There is wisdom pain (aka GPS pain). This is the pain that will take you where you want to go. It hurts like hell at the time, but it will transform you and heal you over the long term. And then there’s the pain that comes from you trying to avoid hard things, negotiate with life, and causes you to habitually make stupid decisions over and over. It’s the pain of being on a hamster wheel of reliving the same kinds of scenarios like Groundhog Day, only getting short term relief here and there from your coffee and wine and Netflix binges and dating sites, because you’re afraid to look at your big life monsters once and for all. (Here I go again, totally mixing metaphors). It’s the kind of pain that results when you keep going back to the same kinds of people that have repeatedly hurt you, instead of stopping to figure out what core thing you believe about yourself that is compelling you to do that.

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I’m trying really hard to sit in my “damn it, everything just fell apart!”-ness. To do it compassionately. I’m trying really hard not to find ways to distract myself. Although, I am a little miffed with the universe tonight, because I suspect it helped me unknowingly misplace my ID so I couldn’t buy the wine I wanted at CVS to take the edge off the big feelings I was feeling at the moment.

I am kind of proud of myself though. Because, for once, with something really important in my life, I took the route recommended by the figurative GPS. I picked the wisdom pain. I didn’t want this pain in the short term; I really wanted the other thing….the thing that I thought maybe I could manage to hold on to for a while by grasping and clinging.

But, I finally chose myself. And choosing myself meant choosing the right kind of pain. I decided at a certain point that I do not want to keep repeating the same life dynamics over and over and over, thinking that I could create a new ending, a new destination for the same roads I kept taking. I decided to stop and look at all the huge monsters in my life once and for all. I”m trusting all the great explorers of darkness that it is the right choice and that transformation will come if I just stay with all that has fallen apart, allow all the arisings, and remember that pain will come, and then it will go…right on time.

God in Pretty Boxes

Photo credit: Liz West

A post….in which… I am processing, meandering, and maybe not making a lick of sense. Here it is anyway.

Suffering is GRACE.

This sounds absurd…even more so as I type it out. And you’re probably thinking, Julie, that’s messed up. How can you say that horrible things happening to people is grace?

Well, first of all, I’m not the first person to say it. Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass’s guru, said it 50+ years ago in India, for one. And if someone can live in India and see the extremes of poverty and desperation that exist in places there and still say that suffering is grace, there must be some validity to it.

But…I don’t think suffering as grace is the end goal. I think suffering is the vehicle that moves us to greater freedom, greater love, and greater awareness of what matters…and because of that, it’s grace.

It sucks though. If I had been consulted in the beginning of all things….if there was a beginning to all things…I would have tried to pick a way to avoid pain and suffering to be the path creation must walk to awaken. That being said, I wasn’t consulted, so the best I can do is work with what appears to be the process and trust that there is a far greater intelligence out there that is wiser and can see the vaster picture of how everything is interconnected and everything belongs.

While I don’t necessarily like it, I agree with Maharaj-ji that suffering is grace. Because I have felt it in my own life and I’ve seen it in others’ lives. Granted, on the grand spectrum of suffering, I probably fall on the “lesser” side, but suffering is suffering, and trauma is trauma. It doesn’t matter what your external life looks like for you to be rocked to the core by things that happen to you, or PEOPLE that happen to you. It seems pretty clear to me that suffering is the trigger for transformation. If we didn’t face hard things….things that absolutely undo us….then we wouldn’t be so motivated to question the status quo, or search beyond ourselves, or be willing to do the necessary shadow work to get to a better, healthier place.

I don’t seek out suffering, though, for sure. And at some point, as Byron Katie teaches, I think that suffering (not pain or bad things, but chronic struggle can enshroud those things) is optional.

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Not all that long ago, a major part of my life blew up in my face. And it has wrecked me.

I saw this blowing up coming for quite a while, I knew that it was going to happen, and I knew it was going to hurt, but the exact moment and context in which it happened….I didn’t see that coming. I was blindsided.

It’s been one of the worst things I’ve experienced in my entire life, and in some ways, it brought me to the end of myself. I literally did not know what to do for a while, moment by moment. It has manifested itself as weeks of not depression, but something better described as sheer desolation….a feeling of a heavy weight sitting on me that I can’t rid myself of. A feeling of walking around with the wind chronically knocked out of me. A feeling of wishing I could get in the shower and scrub away my insides and all the uncomfortable feelings and pain that I don’t’ know what to do with. And with it that feeling of a raw, oozing wound where your skin has been ripped away. Because this big blowing up didn’t just unveil the dysfunction covering a short time frame of my life….it ripped wide open a big, deep, tunneled wound that has been with me since I was very little….a wound that I never knew was as extensive as it is. THE wound that has been influencing the trajectory of my life.

It was that kind of ripping open a wound where you can’t just shove the skeleton in the closet and ignore it anymore. (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, can’t help it. Work with me.) It was the big wound ripping where you either have to face it and recognize that you need to get some serious healing and make some big changes in how you operate in life, or…..the less favorable option….you go into absolute denial about it all and keep operating as normal, trying to pretend like that ‘thing” isn’t there and isn’t bleeding all over the place.

For a long while, and still part of the time, this does not feel like grace. It feels like deep, soul suffering. The kind where all your hurts and insecurities from your entire life just bubble up to the surface and you can’t escape them, and you feel completely betrayed and alone and lost all at once, and you really just want to tell absolutely everyone who ever hurt you to go fuck themselves.

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Life is messy. And hard.

When I was a kid, I hoped and believed if I just stayed the course, did everything the “right” way, stayed out of trouble, and tried to give my best to the people around me, I would get to adulthood where everything would suddenly make sense. It was kind of a disappointment, then, when I finally reached adulthood and realized that grown ups had their shit together far less frequently than I had imagined. Being the perfect Christian girl until my mid twenties only served me up to a point, as well.

The kind of religion I was handed for most of my life was the “God in pretty boxes” type. I was never really introduced to a solid theology of suffering. OK…well, in youth group and summer church camp we had graphic details about the suffering of Jesus on the cross thrust into our faces that shamed us into running down the aisles to apologize as quickly as possible and beg forgiveness for torturing someone before we were ever born. I can still recall all the times people have felt the need to describe in graphic detail what the experience of being whipped by a cat o nine tails and nailed to a cross is like, and exactly how death would come about. (Can we say spiritual abuse, trauma, and horrible manipulation to try to get people to ‘come’ to Jesus?) The memory of altar calls after viewing of the Passion of the Christ make me want to vomit. That is a twisted way of introducing people to Jesus.

Sorry, sidetracked there for a second by things that still really piss me off. Where I was going with this is that we learned about the suffering of Jesus, but we were never given a solid theology for how to allow suffering and pain to transform each of us individually. The lessons were mostly about 1)just pray more, 2)figure out where you’re sinning in your life because that is probably the root of your suffering, and 3) hang on tight because once you get to the sweet by and by all of the stuff that happens on earth will suddenly be irrelevant and you’ll feel better.

I do not like ‘hang on until Jesus comes back” theologies. This is God in a pretty box that is minimizing, propagates abuse, and is disempowering to people….implying that they should just wait for a rescuer instead of realizing the divinity and resources within, allowing themselves to be transformed, and creating change right here and now and instead of just assuming this life is a wash and there’s no hope in bothering to try for better.

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I’ve been doing ALL the things I know of to put myself back together…in a new way. Now that I know how big this life wound is, I don’t want to keep living with it. I’ve turned to my trusted spiritual teachers, my close friends and kindred spirits who have walked the difficult paths before and know the way, meditation, tapping, psychotherapy, improving my diet (OK, except there’s a little too much wine involved), exercising, sleeping, etc…all the things that I know to do to heal. I’ve found myself lately turning to the late teacher Ram Dass. His book Walking Each Other Home, which he wrote with Mirabai Bush, is one of my favorite books of all time. Now, this week, I just finished listening to his autobiography called Being Ram Dass. I was reminded of his saying about “Fierce grace”. Fierce grace is the grace that comes with it’s companion of pain, to teach you and radically transform you. It doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box or a pill that is easy to swallow.

The reason I feel desolated (barren or laid waste) and not depressed, is that somehow I can see that this blowing up of my life is fierce grace. I didn’t choose it, it hurts like unbelievable hell….but, it has revealed the big thing in me that has held me back my entire life. This pain is showing me the path forward. And in a really bizarre way, as I look a the timeline of what has happened, and the “uncanny coincidences,” and the knowledge that I’ve finally hit the motherlode of my broken places., and even though I’m miserable, I feel strangely loved. Like God said, it’s time Julie. You’ve done some good work up until now. You’ve done years of therapy, you’ve asked the hard questions, you’ve looked inside. Now it’s time to go all the way.

Another example of how God does not come in a pretty box. They make you feel like shit and yet abundantly seen and cared for all at the same time. How’s that for a weird theology.

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Working in infection prevention, I read about surgical site infections all the time. For one of my graduate classes, I did clinical hours in the wound care clinic of my hospital with my mentor and friend, our resident infectious disease doctor. The interesting thing about wound healing, is sometimes you have to injure to heal. You’ll find an area of tissue that looks suspicious, and you cut away the superficial layers to find necrotic, dying tissues underneath. So, you cut out the dead tissue. Wounds can get stuck in the first stage of healing and never improve, and so you have to cut away more, and even cause additional bleeding, to encourage new, healthy cell growth.

Debriding wounds is often painful. But it’s necessary for long term healing.

I feel this way with my life. God has been peeling back the layers, one by one, slowly, slowly…as I’ve been able to handle it…to show me the dead places, the places that had been damaged. And then, it seems, they decided it was time to just rip the last of it away.

It is time for me to bleed, so that I can heal. Paradox.

This is not a safe God. Or a tame God. It is the not the neatly wrapped God that is so often presented to the world, with the message “If you just accept Jesus, and pray more, everything will be fine and you’ll experience God’s blessings.”

Maybe this is the epitome of a loving God, though. A God that is not content to let me keep groveling along in the same hurtful life dynamics over and over and over.. A God that would rather see me experience excruciating misery for a short while so that I can get the real healing and security that I’ve always wanted.

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When I was little, growing up in church, so much was about appearances. We had to look like we had it all together when we showed up on Sunday morning. I used to hate Sunday mornings, because so often we did NOT have it together as a family. But once we hit the church pew, you’d never know otherwise. It was such an ego trip…trying to appear as though as good Christians we were trucking along just fine and not struggling with our humanity or doubts or temptations.

The God in a pretty box that was handed to me so often when I was growing up is that you get to God by doing it right. I think this is bullshit. You get to God by doing it wrong. Also , Richard Rohr says that, so expert witness there.

You get to God by being wrecked, and coming to the end of yourself, and knowing that there’s not a damn thing you can do to earn their approval or love. But, you have to dig away at all of those wounds, too, to cut away the beliefs and lies and misperceptions that haven’t served you.

The funny thing about pain is that sometimes it (the bad pain, not the pain that comes with healing) becomes familiar, and so you learn to stay with it, because the places and people that don’t cause you pain feel unfamiliar, and “other”, and therefore uncomfortable. I used to wonder why women in abusive relationships kept going back again and again instead of kicking that guy’s ass to the curb. I get it now….if abuse and being treated badly is all you know, and you believe you don’t deserve better or that you won’t be able to make it on you own, you settle for that abuse. It is familiar and comfortable, even if it is painful. I’ve got my own familiar places….the ones that feel like home because that’s what I’ve always known, how I’ve always been treated by certain people in my life….but those places are death. Just because something feels familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or loving, or good. And sometimes it take the fierce grace of ripping open a wound to help move you out of your ambivalence.

Sometimes the horrible, unfamiliar pain…is the healing kind.

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The thing about healing from trauma and emotional pain and abuse in your life is that at some point, you have to make a conscious choice to move forward. I know from experience that it is easy to spend years in therapy recalling every bad memory of every bad thing that happened to you, and every person who was behind it. But, this can only get you so far. I think if you’re not careful, and you insist on ruminating on these memories, or trying to conjure up every single bad memory you had for labeling purposes, it is too easy to self-identify as a victim. It feels good to the ego when you bring up another horrifying memory to your therapist and they sympathize with you and say how unfair that situation was. It’s a necessary thing for a while, especially as you are trying to figure out your core beliefs about yourself and identify your childhood wounds. But after a while, those memories are just memories, and hashing through each one and assigning blame, again and again, leaves you stuck.

One therapist I have seen in the past told me about a client she had (no privacy or patient identifier violations occurred) that had horrible PTSD from being in a house fire as a child. As they worked through her traumatic memories, sometimes the patient would go so deep into her PTSD that she would crawl behind and underneath the couch, completely reliving the horrible scenes from that fire. Apparently during one session, the client stayed behind the couch for an entire hour. My therapist told me about telling the patient that it was OK to go to that place for a while….to relive what had happened and try to feel safe in the midst of it, but she couldn’t stay there forever. At some point, she had to come out from behind the couch.

This is how I feel. The hurting part of me wants to cower and hide and not face the scary, painful things that have happened to me. I don’t want to look at the abuse. I don’t want to have to question my negative beliefs about myself. You have to pull things up to the light to do that, you have to cut away at tissue to bring bleeding and more healing….and that hurts.

But then I think about this idea of God or divinity or Source, or whatever the heck it is that I can’t seem to stop believing in. I remember many times as a child and teenager, praying fervently to my understanding of God at the time, to never let me pull away or stray. I would ask God to please help me stay close and pursue them no matter what happened in my life.

And while my theology and world views have dramatically changed, I cannot deny that there is this God-Being-Energy-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that has been with me relentlessly, who has shown up in the places that I least expected it. It has never been a God in a pretty box. Usually they show up with super painful circumstances in tow, and alot of hard lessons to learn. But I can say with certainty that they have honored my childhood request…they have always been there, and they have always offered me grace after grace….as undeserved and as fierce as it may be.

Life in the Deconstruction Zone

I think maybe the point to life is to take things apart, and then put them together again.

Either that, or it’s just my particular lot in life. All the things I once thought for certain in my teens and early twenties…..they’ve mostly all been torn down and are in varying stages of being recreated. I like almost all that I’m building, but dang, there’s usually a crap ton of pain and uncertainty that occurs in the tearing down and in between stages.

When I die and get to heaven or whatever happens after THIS, I’m going to ask God why they ordered things the way they did. Why did they allow immature people with little to no life experience give birth to children, and why do children have to spend the rest of their lives reacting to, healing from, and launching away from the hurts and patterns and beliefs they internalized when as little ones.

On one hand, it’s feels damned sadistic….another one of those cosmic games like the heaven/hell evangelical theology I’ve rejected. On the other hand, I can kind of get on board with the idea that to truly understand the Light, to truly love, to truly grow and become wise, there has to be darkness. And if I stretch my brain really really hard and squeeze my eyes as tightly as possible, I can almost imagine that maybe in the Big Picture….the BIGGEST PICTURE panned back as far as all things can go….maybe the darkness is not quite as terrible as it seems when we’re up close and personal. Like, maybe it’s the phrase that I love and tattooed on my arm….everything belongs. I think I have to believe that because if I didn’t, nothing would matter anymore. Ugh. It still feels cringy though.

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I was talking with a mentor doctor of mine the other day. He’s wicked smart, but he’s also gentle and wise. And when he tries to retire I’m going to sneak into the HR offices and totally mess up his employee file and resignation letter in some brilliant way so that he’s forced to stay on as long as I’m employed there. Please don’t warn him or HR of this.

He and I were discussing the challenges of getting through life well, and moving past the hard things that hurt you. His response was that everyone needs a handful of people, anywhere from about 3-5, throughout their life, that really step in and latch on and help show you how to carry your pain and transform it. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but this is my paraphrase through a Richard Rohr filter.

I agree wholeheartedly with him. I actually think I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve had more than 3 fo 5. Somehow, I’ve had at least 2 people walking me home through almost every stage of my life. Some of those stages had more people, some fewer. But I’ve never walked alone. It’s these people, who won’t agree to be pulled down in your pain with you, but who will repeatedly hold a hand out to pull you up, or to shine a light for your next step, or to run ahead laughing in their own joy while calling back over their shoulder to you that all manner of things will be well…these are the people that have make all the difference in a life.

Every single time I’ve had to deconstruct something big in my life….whether it was my theology, or my marriage, or difficult relationships, or my inner wounds, or my prejudices….people have been there to help lead the way, rooting me on as I started to reconstruct, lego block by lego block, my new understandings of the Divine, my new belief systems about myself, my new ways of being in the world.

These kinds of people help show you its not the end of the world when it feels like the end of the world.

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I have a bachelor’s degree from a billion years ago, in Missions….where I obviously took alot of Bible classes. One class that I took that completely rocked my world at the time was Revelation, with Dr. Ian Fair. Up until that time, I only knew of the premillennialist teachings of the Southern Baptist tradition that I grew up in….I just didn’t know the official term for it at the time. I remember the first day of class, and Dr. Fair told us to remember two specific names of Catholic theologians that had done tremendous work on breaking down Revelation and the Pseudepigrapha. A husband-wife couple, John Jay Collins and Adela Yarbrough Collins. Ha! Aren’t you proud of me for remembering those names from an undergrad class I took 21 years ago?

This class taught me that a literal reading of Revelation was only one basic way of doing it, and that there were multiple other views developed with ample scholarship behind them. I relished that class…it was fascinating to me. Mostly because I never completely bought into my church tradition’s understanding of Revelation…I thought it was kind of stupid and far fetched, but never had the guts to say so. As a result of this class, I quickly became an amillennialist with moderate preterist views. Or to put it succinctly….what was written about in Revelation wasn’t nearly as much about the end times for all of us, but was directly related to the plight of the Jewish nation under the Roman Empire.

Anyway, my view on Revelation is not at all why I bring this up. My whole point is that somehow….during this amazing class…I never retained the understanding that the world apocalypse, literally means “unveiling”. Oh. My. Word.

My friend Meagan pointed this out to me a while back at a point when I was literally coming undone. She referenced a daily meditation that was written by my beloved Richard Rohr. In it he talked about this unveiling, and how the apocalypse and laying bare all the things that really are as they are, can feel like the end of the world. Sometimes the truth is not soft and gentle and welcomed; it can hurt like a bitch.

But, what if this painful unveiling is really not the end, but the starting point. (Maybe also, this is what is meant about the idea of Jesus returning. Not that he’s going to separate the saints from the sinners, but the idea that when we think that all is absolutely lost and ready to burn, we will see the Big Reality, have understanding, and realize that nothing is lost and we’re just getting started.)

Richard Rohr always rocks my world, and he came through this time again. What if what I thought was an ending was really a beginning? What if seeing the truth about people and learning who they really are, or having to throw out beliefs that no longer serve you, or having to recognize that something you wanted is not going to come to fruition, are merely starting points?

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I’m amazed, even at my age, at how fucking cruel some people can be. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Which is funny because I’ve been intimately acquainted with cruel people at multiple times my life. I cognitively know that people can be terrible, but down deep I always have to convince myself that it really can be true. It blows my mind on a regular basis.

I’ve been knocked down hard, several times, by people being absolutely horrible. Cut deep.. Wondering what the hell I did wrong. I’ve lain on the ground, thinking “I might not get past it this time. This is too big; the truth is going to kill me; I’m going to bleed out”. This usually happens because I naively trust people I shouldn’t, or ignore the warning signs, or believe that love and grace can dramatically change things. All because of my difficulty in accepting that people can be cruel.

But I”m finally learning. I’m taking apart the logic that no longer adds up, piecing apart the hope that everyone is trying to move towards the Light instead of away from it; I”m allowing the painful truth to finally be unveiled, and I”m looking at it head on.

These are the deconstruction zones. When cruel people try to break you and you choose to change the patterns that allowed them to hurt you in the first place. When your theology no longer adds up. When your head is spinning and you can’t figure out which way is up but you are determined to do life differently. But taking apart your life, even voluntarily, hurts. It feels like seeking the truth is a dying.

This is the part where you have to face the pain and sit with it (or lie on the ground with it). I think this is akin to John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. When you don’t have any certainty about anything but you just make yourself stay…and keep staying….and finally learn that when you’re at rock bottom you will either be sustained or you won’t. And somehow, in a really weird way, you are sustained just by the fact of knowing that you have no control. You just accept what is. And you live. After a while of laying in that pain, you recognize that you can still feel yourself. Your breath is still moving in and out of you. You didn’t die. Despair paused at your doorpost for a moment and then passed by. And, you gain Truth that is bigger than the past little truths that your old life was built on.

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According to Rohr this deconstructing and reconstructing life, or as he terms it “order, disorder, reorder”, is a pattern that has to happen again and again in life. Sometimes this idea makes me crazy, because it seems appealing to think about getting to a place of perfection. The disordering part of the pattern is so painful. I like the nice, ordered parts where I understand how life works and where I stand.

But then, at the same time, I look back on my life, where I started from, and where I am now. I’ve done some significant tearing things apart, working through the pieces, and putting them back together, and I like the Me now a whole hell of alot more than the me of even five years ago. I think maybe I’ve learned that as painful as they can be, this pattern of dying to live ultimately results in more joy, results in more meaning. Fear gradually is replaced by curiosity. Its like you are suddenly more willing to do hard things that ask alot of you because it is more worth it for you to see what is on the other side than to stay where you are and never engage in life. You start trusting that you will be carried through the dark nights and the morning will come again at some point.

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I think anger plays a role in this cycle as well. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a space for anger. My anger was either minimized or I was patted on the head while someone laughingly said, “Look how cute Julie is, she’s mad!” Bible verses like “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” further cemented the fact that me being angry wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And so I learned to cope in other ways when I was wronged or hurt. As a child you do what you have to.

But as adults…yeah, sometimes I think we have to get crazy angry at the injustices done to us, whether intentional or unintentional. I don’t mean raging in a way that harms others, but true, righteous, motivating anger. Anger that says you will no longer allow yourself to be treated in certain ways, anger that calls out hurtful and bad behaviors that were perpetrated against you, anger that is motivating and says you’ll be damned if you’ll let others or situations make you a victim any longer.

Sometimes its this anger that will help you start deconstructing old patterns in your life. And then, sometimes it feels like you might be angry forever….at those people, at those things done to you, at those societal values that were pushed on you and hurt you, at those institutions and systems that repressed you. But after a while, with the help of that apocalyptic truth you discovered when you thought you might die, you start building again. Creating patterns and relationships and belief structures that resonate with you….and you thank anger for helping protect you and for serving you, and then you let it go because you don’t need it anymore…..or at least not until your next deconstruction project.

It feels like the cycles we see in nature. You die, you lay dormant a while, then you spring to life after that time of being quiet and still. The cycle repeats. Then there’s spiral dynamics at play, because in our lives every time we allow ourselves to go through that painful cycle of order, disorder, reorder, we keep growing and moving forward to places we haven’t been before. And every single time we survive one of these cycles, it takes something so much bigger to knock us down…..and we recover so much faster, with increased resilience after every blow….because we have learned that we will be sustained, and that there is always light after darkness.

All the Things in the Middle

I have this troublesome trait of tending toward all or nothing. When I latch onto things, I usually dive all in. I frequently experience big pendulum swings in how I approach new projects, ideals, and just about everything else. I can be wicked intense, too often for my own good.

I’ve been working really, really hard on improving this, because while fierce loyalty and commitment and doing deep dives are often necessary and can do alot of good when solid buy-in is needed, this steering wheel jerk hard to the right or left often causes me to be miserable and get stuck – both in relationships and in what I consider to be my responsibilities in life.

It seems pretty clear to me when parts of my life get stuck with my rigid thinking of this or that, black or white, all or none, I pay the price in specific ways. The following are a little of what I’ve been discovering and pondering over the years.

What Is Mine, and What is Not

The other day I was driving back country roads to work, listening to NPR. A story came on about how the concrete industry is contributing massively to the climate problem. My ears perked up (I kind of geek over environmental policy and stuff) as I listened to the reporters talk about innovative ways to make concrete while diminishing the deleterious effects on the atmosphere. Midway through the broadcast, I immediately began trying to formulate ways in my mind that I could help the process, that I could contribute something useful to the science of concrete manufacturing, and I was wondering how I could reduce my use of concrete in life.

Try not to roll your eyes so hard. I was really doing this. Earnestly.

This is just one of many examples in my life where I try to take on problems that are not mine to carry, and are not problems that I am even equipped to solve. And even if I dramatically reduced my concrete usage ( I have no clue how I would even do that), my miniscule efforts would have literally no impact on the overall global concrete usage. Yet, there I was, at 8 in the morning, stressing about how I was single handedly ruining the environment because I have a cement driveway and sidewalks in front of my house.

I have SKILLZ, y’all, in taking on what is not mine. But it’s not because I’m selfish or greedy or think I need more to be happy. My big problem has always been twofold, depending on the situation, although sometimes, both of the following have felt true: 1) I’m not enough, meaning that I have to make up for my deficits and prove that I deserve to have a place in this world, and 2) I’m too much for everyone, and so I have to help everyone deal with my intensity and “otherness” by making their lives easier and filling in whatever gaps I perceive in their lives that I could have possibly contributed to or could address..

If I can just make this problem go away, or if I can help this person and make his/her life better, then I will have earned my keep…or I will be less of a burden because I decreased their burdens.

This mentality developed over decades, and like so many things seem to do, they stem from beliefs and untruths that I internalized as a child. I love Jesus, but rigid, dogmatic religion didn’t help me much back then other than to make me neurotic while slapping labels on it that said “piety” and “spiritual”.

It’s kind of funny that just now, at age 41, I’m finally getting a decent sense of what is mine and what is not. I don’t really appreciate the fact that the Universe decided to fast track much of these lessons and compress them into the year of COVID, but…whatcha gonna do? I’m really grateful that I finally believe that it is not my responsibility to fix every problem that exists, and that, in fact, I don’t have to take any sort responsibility for every problem that exists. Stop snickering, you all know I’ve been a hot mess for a long time. There is SO much freedom in finally coming to the deep, true, gut knowing that I am only responsible for a doing my best in a very small chunk of life, and that it is NOT my responsibility to fix people or to single handedly overhaul the world’s broken systems and institutions. Because when you carry the belief your entire life, as stupid as the belief is, that you have to do this…it is WEARISOME. DEFEATING. Makes you just want to check out because it is all impossible.

If I’m honest about it, Life has only really given me a small little plot of people and tasks to tend. And, I’m not responsible for the outcomes. The point is to just live, and do the next thing, and when I know better, do better.

Setting Real Boundaries is a Pipe Dream…Or is it?

Years ago I read a book called Boundaries, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud. I really enjoyed the book, and loved the idea that you could create protective fences around yourself, so that you could moderate what and who you would accept into your personal life space and what you wouldn’t.

Even though I liked the book alot, and thought it would be so freaking amazing to have strong boundaries with people, I sucked at it. I used to have the absolute worst boundaries. Because the thing is, to have boundaries that stay put, you have to believe that you’re worth protecting yourself…that your wants matter as much as the next person’s….that you are not required to take on everything that people want to dump on you.

This is where alot of religion failed me. Or maybe, it was the interpretation and application of sacred texts that failed me. All those great stories about giving people your cloak AND tunic, or how no greater love exists than when you lay down your life for someone else, or how you should just keep turning the other cheek and allow yourself to be assaulted by people who were thoughtless or wanted to exploit you. Clear hyperbole there, folks….I know that’s not what the text said explicitly. But the problem is, when sacred texts are read without nuance and without a good healthy psychological foundation, you can teach people that accepting abusive behavior is loving. That sacrificing your dignity and desires and giving into what makes you uncomfortable for the sake of others’ comfort is virtuous. Misapplication of religious texts in general, and so freaking often, the Bible, is what leads to an absolute obliteration of healthy boundaries and creates codependent, abused, and exploited people….and it also empower those who are in a position to abuse and exploit.

Not all that long ago, I read a new book on boundaries. I picked it up because I kept having that nagging, soul feeling that I was being exploited by specific people in my life for what I could offer without an equal exchange in return. As I did the exercises in the book, I took a hard look at the boundaries in place at the time. And to my utter amazement, it was a STRUGGLE to identify good, solid boundaries. Now, I definitely had some hard core ones that I never waiver on…like “No one is allowed to put their feet on my dining room table, ever”, or “If you want to ride in my car, you put a seatbelt on.” You know, some of the big stuff. But when I looked at more of the specific boundaries, the ones that are more subtle in relationships…well….I realized that most of my fences were trampled down far enough that they could just be stepped over. Except they couldn’t be trampled because they’d never really been built properly in the first place. Because I believed from a young age that those fences were bad. “If we say no to things that come our way in life, then we are thoughtless. If we don’t give when people ask then we are selfish. If we are not vulnerable and transparent with everyone all the time, then we are frigid and uncaring.”

This time, when I read about boundaries, I actually had enough years of shadow work and therapy under my belt to lean towards believing that I”m worth getting to decide who and what comes into my space. Although it still blew my mind a while back when my therapist told me it was perfectly OK and legit to walk away from anyone the first time they wronged me and had not interest in recognizing they did so or trying to make amends. I was seriously like, “WTF? I can DO that? And it doesn’t make me a horrible person?” Pipe dream…(’cause y’all, with certain people, I’ve taken hundreds of hits, day after day, and thought I couldn’t walk away with a good conscience),….and yet, this has been one of the most liberating ideas that I have ever encountered.. That it is my right and freedom to not accept everything that comes my way, and it is my right and freedom to welcome and accept the things and people that I want to. Mind still blown.

By the way, if you want to read an amazing book on boundaries (but be forewarned, you may be like me and feel like someone was videotaping your life secretly and then actually writing a book about you), then check out Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free.

Life is Like a TightRope…but Really More Like a Slackline

I’ve dabbled a bit in Buddhist thought over the last decade, find myself returning to certain teachers again and again, especially in the time of COVID. Buddhism often refers to the idea of the Middle Way…where you avoid overindulgence on one hand, and asceticism and severe restriction on the other. Other philosophies teach, similarly, the ideas of moderation. Some of my favorite progressive Christian thinkers speak of the “both, and…”. Different scenarios in life also make me think of the gray areas that lie in between the polar opposites of black and white.

I’m a rule follower. I always have been, although now I would call myself a recovering rule follower. I like picking a side, whether it’s picking a sports team, or self-identity labels, or deciding clearly what is right and wrong. I like doing this because it lets me know where I stand; it gives me a sense of security, albeit an illusion. I like knowing the rules to play by because life can feel topsy turvy and chaotic when I don’t know the rules of the particular game of the moment.

But, polar extremes have sharp edges. They hurt people. They close our minds up and keep us small. They tether us on short leashes. The place of freedom is to walk the middle places, to know that everything belongs and multiple things can be true at once.

Staying in this middle place is like walking on a tightrope. Though, I actually think it’s harder than that, and is more like a slackline…because there is movement and non-rigidity in the middle paths. It takes concentration, and work, and letting go of judgements and fears and our need for control to stay there. Falling off to one side or the other is the easy route to take. And when we’re tired and beat up and uncertain of where we, and this world, and this life are headed, it can be tempting to just let our focus go, and collapse into our familiar, rigid, sharp places, no matter how deeply and often we and others get cut as a result.

The Problem of Living By Exception

I have learned that one of my greatest faults (as in the fault that hurts me personally the most) is my tendency to deal with people according to their exceptions. There are multiple people in my life that I can think of who have shown me on a daily basis for years exactly who they are, and yet I’ve failed to believe them. I have tended to latch on to those exceptions in their behaviors….where they actually were kind or thoughtful or generous, or even just acknowledged me in a meaningful way…and I held on to those moments, thinking they were signs that the person would change, or move my way, or understand my point of view finally.

These exceptions are polar extremes, and their edges are knife blade sharp.

This is a hard lesson for me to learn, and I’m not really sure why, but I’m working on it. Why do I spend so much time and energy on the people who will never change, who have no interest in changing.? Why do I go to the far ends of their behavior spectrums to find those isolated moments that felt loving to me and hold on to them for dear life? I know in my head that I need to pull back to the middle, and to work off the average of their behaviors and actions. It’s that damned tendency of mine again to fall off to the edges…

Paralyzed by Hope

I once thought that hope was a ALWAYS good thing. There’s my polar extreme thinking again. Because I’ve learned recently that hope can also keep you absolutely stuck and unmoving; it can pull you in to holding tight to people’s exceptions; it tells you to let people machete slash at your boundaries and treat you like shit, and all the while you take it because “there’s always a chance for redemption, right? People can change, miracles can happen, things can get better, one day they will see us for who we truly are.” Hope is what keeps us codependent, abused, exploited, overlooked, dismissed. Instead of allowing us to walk away in search of better, we wait just a little bit longer, rationalizing away our pain and our gut voices that are desperately trying to get our attention.

But, at the same time, you can’t just throw out hope, either, right? Because then, why bother getting up in the morning? We’d all just be despairing or completely emotionless because we would never expect anything to ever change for the better. This is my great pressing question these days: when do you hold out hope for people and when do you leave them where you found them and move on? When do you try to continually resurrect broken situations or worn out projects or fractured systems, and when do you let go of that last flicker of hope? And how do you approach the broken things in life without being directed by cynicism or the fear of exploitation?

The Middle Path of Holding to Ourselves

Glennon Doyle talks about how it is so important to disappoint others as often as necessary so that we don’t disappoint ourselves. This feels like the biggest slackline ever to try and walk. To choose myself before everyone else. To create that space around me that allows in what is good for me and does not allow what doesn’t feel right to my soul. While deep down, my gut tells me this is truth, my fears ask the following questions: “Isn’t this how a narcissist would live? Didn’t Jesus say we must die to ourselves? Don’t we have a responsibility and duty to give to the greater good and sacrifice our wants? What if people need you and you write them off because they don’t feel good to you?”

I have to tell myself repeatedly, often, that each of these statements has a little truth to them, but they are not individually the entire truth. I have to ask myself almost the polar opposite question to get myself somewhere aligned back in the middle. “If I were a narcissist, would I really even be concerned about any of these matters to begin with? And, didn’t Jesus mean that we need to die to our false selves, the illusions of ego and attachment to identity? And is it possible for us to give to the greater good if we are depleted or exhausted or in unhealthy and abusive places? And the biggest question for me, that I have to ask myself again and again and again….why do you have to sacrifice yourself every time for others? What makes their life worth more than yours? And why should you take more responsibility for someone else’s life and health than they do?

Settling

I realized this weekend that I”m really, really tired. There was a long time early in my adult life when I was miserable and depressed, and I didn’t do much. I was beaten up by others for it, and I beat myself up plenty. Now I have discovered that I swung to the other extreme. I’m curious and happy about life, and have taken on more and more. All good things, but way too many good things to fit in my one little plot. And, alongside my curiosity and excitement about all that I want to do and achieve (both out of healthy and admittedly unhealthy motivations), I’ve let myself become paralyzed by hope instead of believing what has been right in my face all along, instead of leaving things where I found them and passing by,

I’ need to come back to the all the things in the middle. The places of balance between rest and activity, work and play, catching and releasing without fear of missing out, knowing what is mine and what is not, and tending my little plot in life with fluid, flexible boundaries that allow in safe people and protect my heart and soul from those people and things that are careless and prone to dropping fragile things.

To Myself on My 41st Birthday…

Photo credit: Gerry Dincher

*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 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.

That’s What SHE Said…

Photo credit: [hailey]herrarasaurus

I’ve haven’t written any posts for a few months. There’s been too much going on…starting a new job, training for some distance running events, grad school, a huge upswing in COVID, trying to be a somewhat decent parent during the midst of all of that….

But I’ve been chewing on something for a while, and now is the time to get it all out in a post. As a warning, this piece is, per the title, going to be about sex. This is the kind of post I would have been mortified to consider writing even just a few short years ago. Now, however, talking about things that feel real and authentic from my perspective seems more appealing than trying to avoid some momentary embarrassment. Still, here’s your chance to bail if you so choose, before I dive on in.

Still here….OK! Final word: this is totally written from a straight girl’s perspective. I totally get and value that there is a spectrum of sexuality and that love and relationships exist in countless forms. But, I don’t have the experience or wisdom to speak to much of them, so I’m just gonna talk about what I know. Also, this is probably going to be a perspective that isn’t common to everyone. I grew up as a conservative Christian, which had a huge impact on the way I approached life for decades, but I think some of the dynamics and things I talk about here will resonate past religious circles.

I do not at all guarantee this post will flow in any linear path; it’ll more likely be a hodge podge mosaic of all of my swirling thoughts, feelings, and convictions about this topic at this point and time in my life. This might be a multi-post series eventually, and yes, there will be sarcasm, and a bit of hyperbole, just to try and get my points across.

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I spent the better part of my adult life hating sex. Seriously. I used to tell my therapist from almost 15 years ago that I would prefer a good slice of key lime pie any day over a roll in the hay. Sex was the biggest disappointment. It was built up in my childhood as something that girls should save themselves for; we were told that that under the umbrella of marriage it would be a gift and amazing and totally worth the wait.

That was not my experience. By any means. I remember thinking early on in my marriage, “Wait, you mean I read all those stupid I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and other similar books and I believed hook, line, and sinker that “staying pure” would be a good thing and well worth the wait?”

When I think back on the stories that I was fed and believed, I want to throw up a little in my mouth. Not because the people that told me the stories were ill-intentioned, and not because the fact that I was a virgin until I got married at 25 saved me from alot of heartache and potential STIs that can come with sexuality commenced in youth. No, I’m angry because sexuality and relationships were framed for me and so many like me in ways that only covered us in shame, a sense of inferiority, and the beliefs that we as women owe something to our male partners. And when you come to sex with this kind of framing, it’s no wonder that it might not seem so great. Sex is clearly physical, but for so many women, it is very, very much a head game as well.

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There is a thread that I see running through much of our culture, even our “advanced”, Western American culture. This dynamic, or pervasive belief, is the idea that somehow the sexualtiy of girls belongs to their fathers or the men in their lives.

You know that tired old cliche story about dads threatening to meet their daughter’s first boyfriend at the door with a shotgun? Or they might sit up waiting on the front porch, looking as threatening as possible, when the couple returns from a first date? We often romanticize this kind of behavior, and talk about how Daddy is being protective of his little girl. Men still frequently ask fathers for permission to marry their daughters, and fathers still admonish men to “take good care” of those same women.

Nope, nope, nope. This may be a form of protectiveness, but the root of this is in the idea of ownership, that girls belong to their daddies until they are given to another man in marriage, and the idea that women need to be protected by men from the other men in their lives. I literally can’t stand this. Have you ever seen a dad sit out on the front porch with a shotgun after his son comes back from a date, wanting to warn the girl his son went out with that she’d better not try anything? That would never happen. And I’ve never heard of a girl asking a woman permission to marry her son.

I was listening to an episode of the You Made It Weird podcast a while back where Pete Holmes interviewed Hannah Gadsby. (By the way, if you have not been introduced to Gadsby, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials Douglas and Nanette on Netflix. She is fabulous.) Somewhere toward the end of their conversation, Pete and Hannah were discussing female sexuality, and how some men cringe or change the subject or get defensive and want to pull out their shotguns when the subject comes around to their daughters’ sexuality. They try to avoid their daughters recognizing their sexuality for as long as possible, and then they try to be in a position where they get to approve or disapprove of the man that their daughter engages sexually with. Super strong ownership tendencies there. Bleh.

Pete made the comment during this episode that he doesn’t want to be that kind of dad when his young daughter grows up. He WANTS his daughter to have fulfilling, authentic sexual relationships with whoever she chooses without being bogged down or enslaved by male “overprotectiveness” or ownership. He also mentioned he just didn’t want to come across creepy by saying any of that, to which Hannah replied that it was not creepy at all as long as he personally didn’t get involved. I agree. 😀

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When I was growing up, I wanted to have a rodeo career and own a big ranch. The response I was given to this dream? Well Julie, You’d better marry a rich cowboy.

What the hell? This and other responses I got to similar ideas taught me that 1) certain dreams would never come to fruition on my own because I”m a girl, and 2) I need a man to take care of me.

I grew up in the Church and this thread ran very strong through it, it usually didn’t matter which denomination I was a part of at the moment. It was very, very clear to me that a woman’s status and citizenship advanced when she married. Married a man, that is. All the church singles group would talk about how amazing it was to be single and how you can do so much for the Lord as a single, and hustle while you wait, etc. But yeah, I could see right through it. Married women in the Church are much more esteemed. And if you start popping out babies, even better. And woe to those women who get divorced…you will fall right through the status floor and spend quite a while trying to crawl back to the level you were as a fresh, unmarred single virgin.

I grew up hearing the message from so many fronts, even if implicitly, that I needed to get hitched. I needed someone to take care of me, to rein me in, to make sure I didn’t do anything too harebrained. And because also….the only way you could legitimately have sex without pissing off God is to do so when you’re married.

So, I got married a couple of years out of college…and it was a disaster.

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When I was in high school and college, purity culture was going strong. At superficial glance, purity culture seems good and all. Don’t have sex until you’re married, keep yourself out of compromising situations, etc, and you won’t end up with an STI, an unexpected pregnancy, and you can maybe minimize some of the emotional heartache that comes with the end of romantic relationships.

I was a strong adherent to purity culture all through this time. It made alot of sense to me during that period of my life, but part of the reason it made alot of sense was that it served as a GREAT coping and defense mechanism against my own body and personality shame. I grew up as the black sheep of my family, and while I liked almost all of my peers, I got along so much better with people that were at least 10 to 20 years older than me. Not in weird ways; it was just that I wasn’t interested in the same kinds of things that interested my age group. I was also a little terrified of God and a little terrified of boys my age, and latching on to purity culture teachings gave me a great way to avoid wondering why the male gender was not knocking down my door….or at least even waving much through the window.

I bought into the purity ring ideal, and wore a simple gold band on my left ring finger from my senior year in high school until I was 25, when I gave it to my dad at my wedding. Sorry, but I”m throwing up in my mouth a little again. My sexuality was not my dad’s business. At all. (To be clear, my dad did not force a purity ring on me…it was my idea at the time based in my own insecurities and struggle to please God and whoever else I thought I needed to).

It was as though I thought I had achieved some great feat by staying a virgin and handing over the gold ring on my wedding day….. It wasn’t a great feat. It was actually a really simple accomplishment because I grew up being made to fear sexuality and it’s power, to be ashamed of my own body, to stifle my own sexual energy, and to protect myself as I struggled to deal with with the trauma of sexual abuse that occurred during my childhood. But staying a virgin until you find a man to marry doesn’t fix any problems. And if anything, I believe purity culture absolutely sets marriages up for failure, puts more expectations on marriage and romantic relationships than is necessary, and has contributed to the perpetuation of rape culture in our society.

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The way we read and interpret the Bible has a HUGE influence on the way we view women. Growing up in a conservative tradition that tended to read the Bible quite literally, women were viewed as the ones who fucked up pretty bad in the beginning, and were then relegated to trying to make it up for the rest of time by being the “helpmeet” for men and by having babies. As a woman, you’d be top notch if you were a virgin, and though you might drop a bit in status after losing that state of being, you’d come back up a bit if you proved to be an honorable wife and mother.

I’ve heard Proverbs 31 stated so many times as an ideal to live up to that I can’t stand it. Because it’s telling women….be this perfect female…the one who is super organized, and eloquent, and crafty, and all the other things that I am not. I’m a spaz most of the time. I have ADD. I would not necessarily say I am eloquent. And crafty…..I missed getting that gene. The Proverbs 31 women is put together, genteel, responsible. And she is prized for that. But she is not the ONLY type of amazing woman.

What about all of us women who are wild inside? Who want to attempt epic or outrageous shit? Who have tried really hard to live according to the ideals and conservative rules of others, but doing so kind of killed us inside? I’m SO FREAKING grateful for Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, released this year, that gives all women permission to be “whatever the fuck they want to be”, to live according to the drive that is within them and not according to society’s demands and beneath a patriarchal culture’s burdens.

In the Bible, it sure seems like male sexual energy is considered good, but female….not so much. And when we read the Bible in certain ways, we compound that sentiment. I think this is seen strongly in the emphasis on the Virgin birth. I don’t personally believe in the Virigin birth…it’s not something I’ll really get into an argument about, but the idea of a virgin having an immaculate conception is kind of boring to me. To me, it again objectifies women. Women are best in the pure state, not marred by having sex. Women have things forced upon them without them asking and they are honored WHEN they accept it without fuss or argument. Men don’t lose their holiness or saintliness or whatever by having sex, but women do.

The story of the virgin birth also feels to me as though some humanity is stripped from the beginning of the person we know as Jesus. I know alot of people will vehemently disagree with this idea, and that’s totally fine. But I also find it interesting that only two of the Gospels mention the Virgin birth. So, either it was folklore added on to the stories over the decades following Jesus’ death, or it wasn’t necessarily the whole point or crux of the Jesus story in the first place. And virgins don’t only appear in the Bible. They’ve been magical mermaids appearing in religious texts and stories for thousands of years. Anyway, my whole point about the Virgin Mary is that when the story is told that way, it seems to me like she was raped by God. Sounds like a familiar story that happens regularly to women, except for the God part. Sorry if I just pissed off half of Christendom and ruined Christmas….but this is how it feels to me.

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There is a teaching that I think I first heard from the Dalai Lama or another Buddhist teacher. It goes like this: Learn the rules very very well, so you will know how to break the rules very very well.

I followed the rules my entire life. All the way through adulthood and an 11 year marriage. And this is what I have concluded: Sometimes following the rules to a T every single time doesn’t get you jack squat.

Since getting divorced 4 years ago, I’ve started breaking rules. Oh come on, don’t get too excited, people, I’m probably still one of the most boring people you’ll ever meet. Maybe more than anything I have begun to break the internal rule structure that has dictated for decades how I live my life….that has held me entrenched in insecurities and shame. But now that I know alot of the rules so freaking well, I often know which ones can be broken and when. And for the rest of the time….well, I’m much more prepared to deal with the consequences of breaking rules because I’ve learned that living a perfect, pristine life does not always equate to a happy, contented life. (It helps when you let go of the Christian literal hell narrative, too).

When I was married, as I mentioned before, I HATED sex. I felt sick and repulsed during sex, unless I had alot of alcohol in me. I would try to avoid so many situations in my life that my husband would interpret as an opening to initiate sex. It was a constant stress, for 11 years, and it was a relief when he was on business trips. Not because he is a bad person, but because it was time when I could finally let my guard down and relax.) The worst part of it all was that my issues with sex were all made out to be MY fault. I was frigid, I was not being a submissive wife, I wasn’t in touch with myself, etc etc. A Christian counselor I saw early on in my marriage told me that it was God’s will for me to keep having sex with my husband while I was working through my issues with it, because the Bible says you can only stop having sex for a while if you’re setting aside time for fasting and prayer. And of course, I heard the usual spill about Christian sex from countless sources: women need to have sex with their husbands whenever they [the men] want it, “it only takes 5 minutes, ladies”, if you don’t keep your husband happy he’ll have ample reason to stray and look elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if you’re not attracted to your husband or you’re creeping from memories of your own sexual trauma…this is your responsibility as a wife. Fuck that shit.

Here’s the problem: I married young because unconsciously I knew it would improve my status as a woman in multiple circles of my life, I had lingering insecurities about whether or not I could in fact care for myself long term, and hey, you never know how many guys will come knocking at your door so it might be smart to take up the first promising guy that comes along. (Spoiler alert: ladies, don’t do this….don’t settle for something that looks good on paper if your heart is not completely convinced).

Now this probably sounds like absolute common sense to everyone reading this: it’s probably way more smart to get into a long term relationship with someone that starts YOUR tractor than just the person who impresses the other people in your life. You’re the one that has to live with that person, not all the onlookers in your life.

But this is what I did. I married someone that made logical sense, that gave my parents that sense of security about not having to be concerned anymore about what Julie would be up to next, someone that was safe and steady and was a “good” Christian. I married him without having sex with him, without having sex with anyone prior, wanting so badly to improve my status and feel like I really belonged in this world. I mean, after all, isn’t that what I had been taught from the Bible since my childhood? That I needed to be legitimized since I was so unfortunately born as a female?

It took me 11 years to learn to say no. No to having sex when I didn’t feel like it or want it. No to believing that in some weird Biblical way my body belonged to my husband. No to all the voices who had told me my entire life that you are required by God to stick with one man forever unless he died or was unfaithful. No to all of the voices who thought they had any right to offer me opinions about my sexuality in the first place without me asking for them. And NO to resigning myself to stay in a loveless, miserable marriage without the hope of ever experiencing good, completely mutual agreed upon, and loving sex.

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I, like countless other women, am sick of being ASSUMED upon.

People assume women were asking for it because of how they were dressed. People assume women were asking for it because they were flirty. People assume women were asking for it because they were out alone too late at night. People assume women were asking for it when they weren’t brave enough at the moment to fight for themselves.

And I hate it…really hate it…when people read the Bible assuming that the women in the stories did something wrong first.

Like John 4, and the woman at the well. Jesus meets a woman getting water at a well in town in the heat of the day and asks her to give him some water. I swear to God, I’ve heard a billion sermons on this text, and every time a man preaches about it he talks about the fact that this woman has been married multiple times, is now just living with a man, but it’s all OK because Jesus is forgiving and he’s going to show that harlot slut of a woman something that will make her happier than going from man to man. (Did you notice my sarcasm and hyperbole here?)

Has it ever occurred to people that maybe it was NEVER this woman’s authentic choice to be with ANY of these men? That she lived in a culture that didn’t always give much credence or rights to women, and that maybe it was husband after husband that treated her unjustly, divorcing her and passing her down the societal food chain until all she had left was to shack up with a final man just to try and survive?

Or what about the story from Mark where the woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet and he refuses to condemn her? Maybe it’s because he knew that she was forced into a marriage when she was but a child, and maybe, just maybe despite that she had found love with a man and for the first time in her life was able to be intimate with someone who saw her and valued her for who she was as a woman and not just a baby factory and piece of property. Maybe….when the text said Jesus was writing in the sand while the crowd waited for him to condemn the women…he was spelling out “Good on you, girl!”

************************************************************************************* I am happy to announce, that amazing sex REALLY DOES EXIST.

Many of you laugh, but you guys….for years I thought it was seriously some kind of made up conspiracy. to get people to watch movies and TV or buy stuff. Or that men were the only ones who had it good. Or maybe it was only for the super hot girls and women, a category of which I do not and have never belonged.

When I got married I was SO depressed and underwhelmed by sex. I read all the books, went to counseling, listened to seminars, did all the things you’re supposed to do in a good Christian marriage to liven up one’s sex life. Didn’t work….unless I was a little drunk. And how great does that make a girl feel to have to be shnockered to enjoy sex? Feels pretty crappy I’ll tell you.

The biggest thing that saved me in how I approach my purpose for being as well as my sexuality was letting go of this idea that God will send people to hell, or that Jesus died on the cross as a way to create forgiveness for all of my screw ups. When I came to the realization that God isn’t mad at me and was never mad at me or anyone, and that the idea of hell and sin as we often define it no longer makes sense to me, I was able to question everything else that had ever held me back in life. Sex being one of them.

I started believing, a while before I got divorced, that we as humans are much more judgy about who each other is sleeping with than God is. And I started questioning the hell out of purity culture. I once knew a pastor who refused to marry couples until they had had a really good makeout session and still felt great about the experience and each other afterwards. Nowadays, I feel the exact same way about sex. For most people, I don’t think you should even consider getting married unless you’ve had a good roll in the hay with the other person and are still inspired to go back for more.

I know what you’re all wondering….you’re sitting there trying to imagine exactly who and how many people Julie has had sex with since getting a divorce. Well, sorry, some details I will keep to myself. Not because I’m concerned about being viewed as a prude or a slut anymore, but because my sexuality is entirely mine to talk about, and the details of it are MY business, not everyone in the world’s.

But I will say this….I am everyday grateful that I walked away from a relationship where I was shamed and belittled for my issues with sex, where I as a woman was yet again expected to fix the problems, where I was responsible for my partner’s purity and ability to stay loyal to me. I’m grateful that I have since met men who have bent over backwards to avoid objectifying me, who are not threatened by my sexuality but rather embrace feminine energy, and who have been willing to show me that sex can be so so so much better than a piece of key lime pie.

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COVID, Corn Hole, and The Complexities of Death

Cornhole on the Beach
Photo credit: Chris Martino

I went down to Texas this last week to attend the funeral of one of my uncles. He had struggled for the last couple of years with T-cell lymphoma, a dreadful autoimmune cancer that caused him to itch relentlessly. Eventually, he was overcome by constant infections, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure.  I tried to work things out so I get could to Texas just before he died, but I missed it. Thankfully, I was able to talk to him on Facetime and tell him that I loved him while he could still hear me.  He died early on the morning I was planning on starting the long drive from Indiana to our family ranch.

My cousin/sister was my uncle’s full time caregiver during his battle with cancer.  During that time she and I had so many conversations about death, about what quality of life means, and when it’s time to stop fighting and just rest. We talked about all of the family dynamics that have shaped us and influenced how we feel about death, about our loved ones, and our ability to grieve well. In the few weeks before my uncle’s death, I was apprehensive about how the end would play out, and I didn’t know what I would encounter when I arrived home. But to my surprise and joy, what I came home to was better than I could have ever hoped for.  This hard, scary thing of death seemed to show what it truly can be, behind all the outer trappings of fear and suffering and unknowns…it was a calm, gentle river that carried my uncle to the other side,  and members of my family to a new place of unexpected peace and acceptance.

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During the days before my uncle’s funeral, my cousin and I discussed logistics of the services that were planned for him, as well as how we envisioned our own funerals one day. We both agreed that we want to be cremated, and our ashes spread over some place that is meaningful to us.  Neither of us judge those who want a traditional funeral, casket, and graveside burial, but we know that we want to take up as little space as possible when we leave this world.  Also, my cousin couldn’t bear the idea of her decomposing self ruining the inside of a coffin.

My cousin remarked that she wants her funeral to be a time of celebration of her life, not a time of crying and mourning. She made the absurd suggestion that we fill a hackey sack with her ashes and get after it.  Or better yet, fill a bunch of bean bags with her ashes and have a rip-roaring match of corn hole.  I nearly spit out my coffee when she threw out these suggestions,  laughing so hard, but I thought they were brilliant ideas. My cousin and I can regularly border on the edge of morbid in our conversations, but underneath our ridiculous banter is a serioius undertone. In our jokes about being entirely irreverant with our ashes, we aren’t belittling our lives or the sanctity of life. We weren’t saying that we don’t matter or that dealing with death and grief should be silly and superficial. We are saying that we know our lives have held tremendous meaning, that we have overcome so much, and that death is just a transition to the next thing. It is not the ultimate finality to us. It is a moving on that can be accepted, and even welcomed, without terror and despair.

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Now that I’ve joked about death, probably in a very inappropriate fashion to some, I’m going to switch back and say that I take death very, very seriously. In fact, I think that a huge part of life is learning how to prepare for death.

During the last six months, death has been on my mind even more than usual with the appearance of COVID.  When I have sat next to dying patients in the hospital, separated from friends and loved ones by isolation rules, death did not seem very funny at all. It was no joke to feel sobered by the hope that by me holding the hands of these people…maybe I could serve as a shoddy substitute for the ones that they really needed by their side. It was no joke that I was hoping and praying that I could hold them up to the Light in my own individual way and have that be enough to carry them over the threshhold in grace. It was no joke having to call family members to tell them that their loved one had passed.  And it was no joke to walk in on a patient in isolation, just to discover he’d died alone within the short time you stepped out to check on your other patients.

I may joke about death, but death itself is not a joke.

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In recent weeks, graphics have been ciruclating around FB that attempt to visualize the overall impact of COVID on the United States using absolute numbers.  Here’s are two examples:

Image may contain: text that says '47313,367 Tests Given USA COVID NUMBERS As of July 19, 2020 4,370,863 Cases 142,000 Deaths Numbers from edc.gov One Dot equals 100,000 citizens. Ohio Liberation'

Image may contain: text that says 'NEW POLL ASKED AMERICANS HOW MANY PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY HAVE HAD COVID-19 OR DIED FROM IT THEIR ANSWER 20% Americans have hadit 9% Americans have diedfrom # MapVisumlization: REALITY: 1% Americans have hadi 0.04% Americans have died fromi Unbiased America'

May I just say that images like these freaking piss me off to no end.  Not because I don’t like a good graph or statistics, but entirely because these posts reduce the value of life down to numbers, monetary value, and impersonal percentages. I’m all for showing people how their misperceptions of data can lead them to overblown conclusions, but I’m not OK with it when the data is spun in such a way that it causes further minimization and marginalization of hurting people.

It’s like that line in You’ve Got Mail where Joe tells Kathleen that “It wasn’t personal” when his mega bookseller pushes her small bookstore out of business.  She responds with “What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s *personal* to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal, anyway?”

These kinds of graphics impersonalize COVID. They ignore the literal deaths and other deaths that coinicde with physcial deaths and can cause just as much trauma:  loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of social networks, loss of safety, loss of anticipated gatherings/life rituals/memories, loss of long term health…and very importantly, the ambiguous loss described by Pauline Boss on the On Being podcast.  All of these deaths MATTER and they are all personal.

These graphics, and this way of thinking, allows us to cavalierly say “COVID has not yet affected me in any significant way, therefore I will minimize it’s impact in my mind, and I will continue to live the way I want with little regard for how your life has been shot to hell or very much has the potential to be shot to hell by my actions or lack of concern.”

Note: the episode included below is an amazing chat with Pauline Boss on the trauma of ambiguous loss and the myth of closure. I welcome you to take the time to listen to it.

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I’ve chatted with so many old folks who knew they were nearing the ends of their lives.  When it feels appropriate, I often ask them how they look back on their life.  Was it a good life in their opinion?  Are they satisfied with what they’ve accomplished?

The answers I tend to get don’t expound on amazing adventures or huge successes or how they knew and interacted with powerful people.  No one seems to mention the money they’ve made.  Throughout my life, when I’ve had these kinds of conversations with people, they usually describe their lives in terms of who they loved, how they treated people, and whether or not they had done things (jobs or hobbies) that gave them joy and made them happy.  The people that were able to tell me that they had loved well and been loved well seemed to be the most ready to go…the least afraid.

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Death is complicated to talk about because of the complexity that surrounds it. Some people welcome death, while others feel it snatched away loved ones before it was their time. Some deaths are peaceful and calm, others are violent and horrific. And how we deal with the deaths we face can be paradoxical.  On one hand, we need to celebrate lives well lived, and recall fond memories with laughter and joking. On the other hand, we need to hold space for ourselves and others to be able to grieve what we lost in those deaths, or the pain that those deaths represent…and we need to be able to grieve as long as necessary. As Boss said in the On Being episode, to hurry or pressure another through grief because of our own discomfort or impatience with it is nothing less than cruel. We must absolutely remember this wisdom in the time of COVID.

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Life and death are a cycle, and grieiving is a cycle, and we must learn to accept each as they come to us, and let go when it is time for them to pass. But I totally believe we need ritual and grace for ourselves and others to accomplish this.

We need to allow ourselves to integrate within ourselves all that comes with death and not feel like we have to comparmentalize what is going on within us to make ourselves more palatable for those around us.

I’ve been to a billion funerals in my life. Ok, a bit of hyperbole there…but, I’ve been to A LOT. And it always seems to me that people are allowed to be really sad during the wake, during the funeral, and maybe even the mealtimes that follow a funeral, but then it’s time to snap out of it and rejoin the current programming of our lives.  It’s like an on/off switch.  You’ve cried…ok, now it’s time to put that stiff upper lip back on and jump straight back into the tasks of everyday life.

I’ve spent some time in West Africa, and one thing that they often do there that I like is postponed funerals. This used to kind of boggle my mind…like, why would you have a funeral a year after someone died?  And, really, how could all of the people in the community come to a funeral so far after the fact and actually cry and wail and mourn the person? Well…I think it’s because, unlike many native-grown Americans, they understand that  grief doesn’t end right after the funeral.  And more importantly, they realize that grief is not only individual, it is collective.

I am very concerned about individuals in this time of COVID.  The families that weren’t able to hold funerals because of location….the ones who couldn’t attend funerals because they personally were in the hospital with COVID…the families that were able to hold services but not in the way they really needed to, the way they hoped.

At some point, when this pandemic has subsided, maybe when a vaccine is available….we will so direly need a time of national and collective mourning.  If we emerge from this pandemic and rush straight back into our mindless way of doing things, I’m afraid our country could in many ways be done for. If we can’t mourn in a meaningful way for those who have been devasated by COVID and recognize all that they have lost, then we have lost our collective soul as a nation.

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I’ve returned from Texas now, following my uncle’s funeral, and I’m so grateful to have been able to go.  Yes, there were annoyingly frustrating moments, like people wearing ill-fitting masks, or refusing to embrace my need for social distancing and forcing themselves upon me.  But I was reminded that while the months and days leading up to death can be so scary and uncertain, death itself is just a crossing over, just a walking through a door, just a slipping through a veil.  It can be a terrible event, but it can also bring about redemption and reconciliation in a family that is struggling with old wounds and hurts.

Life and death are so complicated.  I think that’s all I can say with complete certainty after this long, meandering post.

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I’m only 40, but I have lived a damned good life. I have loved others fiercely, and I have been loved fiercely.  I have failed miserably so many times, but I’ve also triumphed over things that I thought would always conquer me.  I’ve forgiven, and I’ve been forgiven to a greater extent. And while I’ve got alot of stuff left that I want to do, I’m OK when death says it’s my time.

My cousin and I talked about what we would want said at our funerals.  I told her I thought it would be great to have an open mic, not just so that people could recall all the things they like about me, but also so people could talk about how much they disliked me, or how I had hurt them, or what a moron they thought I was.  My cousin laughed, but I was serious.  I want people to process any trauma I’ve caused them, be able to have their say without anyone arguing with them about why they shouldn’t feel the way they do, maybe remember a few of the good things about me….and then go out afterwards and kick a hackey sack full of my ashes…knowing that all is well, and I am well.