When You’re Raging in the Kroger Parking Lot

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Photo credit: Madstreetz

One of my kids and I ran to Kroger this evening to grab a couple of things for dinner.  It was just one of those quick in and out trips that should have been uneventful.  As we were pushing our shopping cart to the back of my SUV to unload the groceries, I looked over to see the guy parked next to me loading up his truck with his own bags.  And then, I saw that his open truck door was firmly smashed up against my driver side door.  The door that I JUST got fixed when a driver backed her SUV into mine a couple of months ago. The exact same door that I had to take back to the body shop and have them redo the decorative metal strip because they apparently didn’t know to use a level when applying it, and instead of being parallel with the ground, it crept upward at an annoyingly obvious angle.

Of course, as it would turn out, the paint on my driver’s side door was damaged.  Chipped, not just a paint smudge that could be wiped off.  I was LIVID.  Livid at the man for knowing I was watching him and actively ignoring me.  Livid that the man knew his door was hitting mine and refused to do anything about it.  Livid that he decided not to take responsibility and at least apologize to me.  And livid, because what the heck?!  Why does life give you these freaking exasperating experiences when your week is already stressful enough?  It’s like God knows you are teetering on the edge of losing your mind and he thinks it would be helpful to offer you the last little shove necessary to finish the job…

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I know, you are reading this and thinking, wow Julie, you need some serious therapy.  It’s just a little paint chip.  And yes, it is just a little cosmetic flaw on a 10-year-old SUV.   In the grand scheme of things, it is a piddling little problem.   Except…..I was already angry.  Like…really, really angry.

In fact, for the last couple of months, I have been furious.  Deep, dark, seething anger that has risen up out of nowhere….or so I thought.

Now, don’t get all upset on me…I’m not homicidal or anything, and I’m not about to go ballistic on anyone.  The point is this:  I’ve realized I had some intense pent up anger that built up over a decade, and I now finally have the space to deal with it.   At least, that’s what the universe seems to be telling me.

Anger is a tough emotion to deal with.  Growing up a good Christian girl, I was always taught that anger isn’t OK….you’ve got to eradicate it before you go to bed at night, and geez….who can really do that?  It’s not exactly possible to have all your frustrations and wrongs addressed during daylight hours.  As far as I understood for years, the only justifiable long0term anger is righteous indignation, like when you’re angry about injustices that occur in the world.   I’ve noticed, however, that people usually have limited patience when individuals feel angry about injustices or wrongs personally done to them, and they aren’t able to get over their anger quickly enough.  We tend to be uncomfortable allowing others to grieve or be angry for very long.  We want them to fix it or get over it.

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I have a super wise therapist friend who once taught me that anger is a secondary emotion.  It really is a front for four or five other primary emotions:  fear, embarrassment and shame, guilt, frustration, etc.   One of my kids was having real struggles with anger a few years ago and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.  Once my friend explained this concept to me, it was much easier to ask my son the right questions, dig deeper, and find out the underlying cause of his anger.  And she was right. He was usually embarrassed about something when he became angry, or afraid of looking incompetent.

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I’ve been doing some digging now into my own anger.  I don’t like it honestly.  The raw, human part of me wants to feel and flesh out my anger because anger makes you feel validated, and justified.  But anger burns you away from the inside.  Frankly, it is also exhausting.

It became clear that I carried years of pent up anger from my 12-year marriage.  Like, ALOT of anger.  For the first couple of years after I got divorced, I was trucking along just fine, and then BAM!, a volcano of all kinds of vile emotions started pouring out from the recesses of my mind.  As you recall, I grew up a good Christian girl and I still have enough of that in me that it makes me control my outward behavior and I can present myself appropriately to the world.  🙂  But my best friends know my struggle – they know how I want to yell and rage and stomp and throw things, and that I’ve used the word HATE on multiple occasions, and all the shame that comes with that because good Christian girls aren’t supposed to hate anyone.

But this is real life, y’all.  Which is why it needs to be written about.  Because we all have situations like this. And we all get angry.

So why all the anger now? I think that this is part of the healing and grieving that comes from going through hard things in life.  God knows the dark parts locked away inside of us that need to be dealt with, even if our conscious minds don’t.  And God clearly knows that I have some stuffed up emotions and a big pain body locked away within. And until I deal with them, they insidiously poison me and control other areas of my life, limiting me from being the best me.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know I was angry for all those years, because I had developed coping mechanisms to survive.  We all do this at times in life.  If we are faced with difficult situations that we don’t think we can escape, we construct stories or ways of dealing with things to avoid the despair and frustrations that we don’t think can be resolved.  I know I felt this way.  For most of my life I thought divorce was wrong in pretty much every circumstance.  I knew I wasn’t happy, but I also knew if I was going to be married for the next forty years I had to figure out a way to make things work so I wouldn’t be absolutely miserable.

And so I justified, rationalized, created stories, overlooked wrongs, etc etc, etc, to try and cope with a life situation that I absolutely didn’t want.  I couldn’t be angry at the time because that certainly doesn’t help create an easy forty-year path.

But now, I am no longer in what felt like a seemingly hopeless situation, so all of that suppressed anger has come up.  And believe me, you can build up alot of anger over 12 years.

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Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk who you should absolutely acquaint yourself with if you haven’t already, wrote a book on anger called Don’t Bite the Hook.  Actually, I think its an audio recording of a talk she gave once. ( I have it on audible). In this book, she talks about learning to see anger as a teacher, not as an enemy. She offers that if we learn to work with anger and be open to it, it can teach us to be more compassionate and wise instead of just escalating on autopilot into aggression and violence.

There is a concept she discusses called shenpa.  Literally, it means “attachment”, but the idea behind it is the same as the theme of her book title:  “getting hooked.”  A review of her book in Tricycle magazine describes it well.  Something happens to you that you don’t like, and a shift happens deep inside you, and you’re suddenly hooked.  Or, as Eckhart Tolle describes it, the pain body, that was lying dormant within, suddenly wakes up and begins to arise, taking over your thoughts and emotions.   A couple of possible examples to illustrate: My ex-husband says something that irritates me and suddenly I tighten up inside and feel snarky. A colleague drops the ball and I have to do extra work, but instead of just letting it go and doing what needs to be done, I latch on to the “unfairness” of the situation and seethe until my ego is soothed.  Or, I come out of Kroger and find that a stranger wasn’t diligent with his own property and allowed mine to be damaged.  And, instead of giving grace for it, I clench my teeth and latch on to the angry emotions arising.  This is shenpa.

I’ve been thinking about Chodron’s idea of working with anger alot lately.  Other Buddhist teachers discuss similar ideas, like inviting difficult emotions in like they are good friends, not fighting against them. Apparently, when this practice is done regularly, those emotions begin to dissolve and don’t seem to be quite the toxic invaders they once were.

There are many emotions that are easier to sit with than anger.  Give me some sadness, grief, joy…  But anger is harder because you either want to feed it with delicious fantasies of getting revenge on the person or thing that wronged you, or it makes you want to retell your stories to everyone who will listen and revel in their assurances that you were treated terribly and you poor thing and how dare someone do that to you and…..you get the idea.  Shenpa, as the Tricycle writer wrote, is very much an itch that yearns to be scratched.

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If there’s one thing I know about life, it is that is it is very patient and generous in helping one learn lessons.  God will keep bringing the same lesson around again and again in different forms for you to learn until you finally learn it.  It is really, really aggravating.

However, since I’ve learned this, I’ve also gotten smarter and recognized that if I want to decrease my suffering, I might as well learn the lesson early on.  God has no problem waiting me out.   But, I’ve also learned that you can’t be sneaky with God.  My first tendency is to pretend I’m not angry about anything and act all kum ba yah with the world.  God sees right through that and will promptly allow something to happen that proves to me that my anger is still ripe and ready for picking.

My second tendency is to run straight to therapy and try to fix my anger asap:  a little EMDR, a little talk therapy, maybe even a little primal screaming.  Yeah, nope.  While therapy is brilliant, it is not a quick fix.  We have to do the hard work, and the hard work insists on sitting with things, creating space, and just allowing things to be for a while.

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So, I’m totally writing this post from an unenlightened state. But I’m giving myself a billion points for at least being aware enough and willing to admit that I’m really angry about alot of stuff that has happened over the last 15 years.  But I’m also giving myself another billion points for knowing that my anger really isn’t all about my ex-husband, or the Kroger parking lot guy, or any other person or event.  My anger is really rooted in all the stories I believe about life and myself.  It is rooted in underlying emotions of shame and feelings of incompetence and fear.

Welcome anger, come in and sit for a while. Teach me about the deepest places in myself. Tell me about my fears and insecurities. Help me to become more compassionate and wise. And may I enjoy a deeper sense of connectedness with every other person who has also struggled with their own shenpa and anger.

 

When Maslow’s Pyramid Tips Over…

You know how when you’re sitting on your back deck, drinking coffee before the hot of the day, listening to your favorite podcasts and audiobooks, and all of a sudden…BAM!!!!…..an idea suddenly hits you….a convergence of the many different voices and ideas that speak to you on a daily basis…and it feels kind of mystical?

I had one of these moments today – when I was jumping back and forth between Richard Rohr’s The Univeral Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Beleive the latest Robcast episode, and reflecting on my job as a med/surg nurse.  This is a regular “spiritual practice” of mine; my ADHD daily races along the rails of words and ideas, trying to make obscure connections between the most seemingly unrelated things…all the while trying to balance my left-brain scientific side with my sometimes “woo woo” right-brain spirituality. I’ll try to explain in the next little bit the “aha” moment I experienced this morning while enjoying the cicadas, a cup of coffee, my beloved shade trees, and a comfy Adirondack chair.

Two of the things that are constantly on my mind are what it means to be human, and the underlying connectedness of all things. Taking these concepts further, what is our responsibility to others while remaining true to ourselves?  How do we live out our true selves in a temporary space-time construct, while at the same time loving and serving all creation and all sentient beings?  (This is a rhetorical question: there are no tidy answers to neatly wrap this one up. I’m skeptical of those who try).

While I’ve always been a bit eccentric, with a bent toward spiritual and theological things,  I started out life like most people…trying to build a safe, secure world with comforts, toys, options, and defined goals to pursue. As Richard Rohr has so often said, the purpose of the beginning of our lives is to build up a “container”, to learn who we are and create an “external self”.   Rules, defined limits, and boundaries help create security and a sense of identity in life, according to Rohr, and are a necessary foundation to lay for the successful transition to the “second half of life”. (Side note: Rohr derived many of his ideas about the halves of life from Carl Jung).  As Rohr describes it, our first half of life, this building up all the things I just mentioned,  is a strengthening of the ego.  It is a way of grounding ourselves to this material world, which is a good and necessary step.  But, this ego and the first half of life can only take us so far. In the end, it offers only disillusionment because it is encouraging us to constantly chase what is really just vapor, simply the ghost of a non-existent reality, Only when we can begin to transcend our ego containers can we learn to taste what being a spirit-human is really all about.

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Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known, I think. It was discussed in almost every introductory psychology or health class I’ve sat in, ranging from undergrad liberal arts to counseling courses to nursing school.  You’re probably pretty familiar with it yourself, but just in case you’re not, here’s a graphic:

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Basically, Maslow is making the point that we as humans have fundamental needs in order to thrive, and those needs must be met in a sequential order to be able to move on to more and more abstract ideas….or to become our highest, most actualized, most creative selves.

There are certainly exceptions to this hierarchy, but in general, it really rings true with what I’ve seen and experienced in life. One particular area that I’ve thought alot about is back when I was in high school and college and I would go with my churches or other groups on mission trips to third world countries.  There were basically two camps of thought among the various leaders of these groups:  1) preach Jesus and salvation as paramount importance, because being “saved” is better than physical or emotional security in this life, or 2) meet people’s felt needs, because a hungry belly isn’t capable of listening to talk about the sweet by and by or admonishments to radically change ways of doing life in the here and now.

I’m no longer trying to proselytize or get anyone “saved”, but I do believe this:  it’s disrespectful and unfeeling to preach to people about anything if we aren’t willing to step into the grime and horrors of their lives and try to help them with their immediate hurts.

So all this to say, I’m totally on board with Maslow’s hierarchy…..except for maybe the idea that sex is a physiological need. I’ve still never yet met anyone who died from not having sex, although there have been plenty among us who insist it is true. (Tongue in cheek here).  Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, does seem in my mind to be a legitimate need in the love and belonging category.  OK, away from that rabbit trail and back to building my primary thesis…

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…..which is:  Maslow’s Hierarchy as we traditionally view it is only the FIRST half of the story.

Having now reached my 39th year of life and having done a bit of shadow work, I believe that Maslow’s upward rising pyramid of needs is absolutely necessary to build the first half of life container, per Rohr and Jung.  But, it fails to explain the second, and maybe most important half of life that not everyone reaches…..where the pyramid flips over. The needs that were so fundamental suddenly become the least concern. When we were once so worried about and centered on our environment and relationships, we now learn that true meaning, wellbeing, and joy spring forth from within us; we don’t ultimately achieve them from what is on the outside.

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Ann Voskamp, author of one of my all-time favorite books (One Thousand Gifts), uses the phrase “the upside-down Kingdom of God”. I love this; I think it describes succinctly how the divine works in the world – directly opposite of much of the conventional wisdom that we hold so tightly to.  This alternative way of looking at life says that the most important thing is for us to know who we truly are at our core, and to move, act, and live out of that inherent knowing.  However, the wisdom that most of us live by tells us that we must first build an external life and hinge who we are on it. We judge the quality of our lives by what we own, what we’ve done, and who we do it with.

What is so interesting to me, and what most of the great spiritual teachers I have read say, is that to get to this upside-down kingdom, you first have to live in reality as we currently experience it,  where things, success, goals, and safety are the most important.  Then, as if by moving through a worm hole into an alternate universe, something causes our perspectives and paradigms to change….we suddenly see that what we once thought was so damned important for our happiness really isn’t so necessary after all.   Sometimes this happens to people by methodically moving up Maslow’s hierarchy through socioeconomic and emotional development.  Others shoot through the worm hole rather quickly because of some intense suffering they have experienced that brought them to the end of themselves.  A few, like Rohr admits about himself, have somehow made this transition for no explainable reason other than a great insatiable thirst to know the truth of Life.  Still, many others never reach this transformation, never know it even exists. As a side note, this is the salvation that I firmly believe Jesus was offering: to tell those who were desperate, hopeless, and willing to hear…..that this upside-down Kingdom exists and is accessible to all who will learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

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As a nurse, formerly on an orthopedic floor, and now on a general medical unit, I love to watch and talk to patients.  I actually think I could never work on an ICU floor….patients on ventilators don’t tend to talk back to you. My interest in gabbing with patients and learning their life stories is my biggest time management issue: by the end of a shift I may be rushing to check off all of my tasks, but I can definitely offer a good commentary on my patients and their lives outside the hospital.

It seems to me that Maslow’s hierarchy is very tangibly experienced when people are in the hospital.  Here they are usually stressed, afraid, in pain, and overwhelmed.  As such, the level they are on seems to stand out.  If I pay close enough attention, I can tell which patients are most concerned with their physical environments and making sure their physical needs are met in just such a way. I can tell which patients are most craving solid relationships or struggling with how to do relationships well.  I can often tell which patients have deep-seated insecurities that are holding them back in life.  And then, there are the patients (usually elderly, but not always) whose pyramids have tipped over.  They know what is important in life and how to do life well.  They know what ultimately matters, and what is temporal and superficial.  These are the people I have the hardest time pulling myself away from; I may be nursing their physical bodies, but they are nursing my soul.

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I personally live a very wobbly existence.  What I believe to be true on my good days doesn’t always translate to my bad.  Some days I feel very in tune with the upside-down Kingdom, and other days I’m the most ego-driven, selfish person I know.  My pyramid will start to get a little top-heavy and tippy, and then some fear or insecurity of mine will cause it to come crashing back down with a resounding clunk, reminding me that there is much shadow work left to be done and that I have not yet fully escaped my first half of life container.

But I suppose this is the spiritual path.  Maybe instead of a one time all or nothing flip,  our pyramid of needs will turn back and forth like a magnet searching for true north. Rohr even discusses something along these lines: the stages of spiritual development, in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.  Or as Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others have described, spirituality and increasing consciousness is a spiral dynamic. Ultimately, I think the path is never a linear one, due to the extreme complexity of life.

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As a final thought here regarding all my pontificating in this post….

I am SO glad that my pyramid is tipping and threatening to permanently topple one day.  It is so freaking liberating to not be quite so tied up in all the things that I used to believe made life meaningful.  It is SO good to have experienced that being married, or having alot of money, or owning a nice house aren’t things that automatically bring happiness.  It is SO good to have learned, even if only to an extent, that having strong relationships is more important to me than my own safety, or looks, or possessions, or physical comforts.

However, I am equally grateful that I had people in my life that helped me build a strong first half of life container.  I am grateful that I’m learning to transcend and leave behind the things that haven’t served me well, and yet include those things from the past that are still serving me.

And most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom and time to sit on my deck under a canopy of shade trees to drink coffee, listen to some great teachers, and ponder life.

Coming Home to Yourself

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Photo credit: Tim Haynes

*I was inspired by the reflections of others at church today. This is my response to our collective conversation.

When I was young, I truly believed there was something wrong with me.  Something wasn’t right about me being here in the world. I recall, as a child, having moments where a feeling would pass over me – a tangible sense that I don’t belong here, that I’m not fully legitimate.  This feeling would come out of nowhere and usually last no more than a couple of minutes, but it was powerful and had a deep influence on how I viewed myself for a very long time.

A child isn’t usually well equipped to understand these kinds of phenomena, and I certainly wasn’t an exception.  I don’t think I ever mentioned these transcendent moments of gloom to my parents. I would simply try to shiver the feeling off like a chill up my spine and move on.  Eventually, and thankfully, these feelings stopped coming over me – probably about when I was in junior high.  However, beliefs about inadequacy and not fitting in were firmly entrenched in my psyche.

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In one of my last posts, I wrote about how it feels to lose one’s sense of home. You know that Bon Jovi song that was popular a few years back “Who says you can’t go home?”? The thing is, sometimes you really can’t go home back to a physical place, or even a group of people. Your family may move on from the house you grew up in. Maybe you’ve changed so much since leaving home that when you come back, there are only faint glimmers of recognition towards you in the eyes of those you once knew so well. Even those things that were part of “home” that once belonged to you might no longer be yours.

I’ve experienced this sense of “losing home” for years now, a little at a time, and then with increasing rapidity.  After moving around the country frequently over the last 13 years, I struggled to find a solid, physical home.  Who are my people? Where is my tribe? Is there a piece of land I can anchor myself to? Who am I without external labels of what constitutes home?

Others have told me that they consider home to be wherever their partner or spouse is, or where their kids are – physical locale doesn’t matter.  This has never been helpful for me – you can be married and still feel more lonely than at any time ever in your life.  Your kids can be snuggling up to you and telling you how much they love you, and still, you can feel lost and uncertain of where you belong.

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During this Lenten season, my church has been looking at the story of the prodigal son, from the Bible.  For most of my life, sermons I’ve heard about this parable have focused on the depravity and pure selfishness of the son who spurned his father and left home. The older son was always offered a mild rebuke for being callous towards his penitent sibling. However, as we took several weeks to take a longer look at this story, more and more grace rose to the surface as we threw the traditional interpretation of this story on its head.

As one of my pastors said so wisely today, sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home. She recalled how, as a new college graduate, she was so eager to jump off into her own life and away from her family. It took being away for months to begin to truly appreciate where and what she came from.

These days, I don’t judge the prodigal son much at all.  The fact is, we all do stupid, thoughtless things when we are young.  We are driven by our egos and we can become enchanted with the systems of the world. We are compelled to strive after those people and things that promise us happiness and meaning. This is just what we do as humans; we just vary a bit on how extreme we go.  In fact, I might argue that the prodigal son was living out an essential component of authentic spirituality – he had to come to the end of himself before he could find who he truly was and what truly mattered. Call me crazy or a heretic, but I’m convinced that sometimes the greatest grace we receive is God allowing us to become completely wrecked at some point in our lives.

*************************************************************************************I think that more important than establishing a physical home, or finding where we fit among a group of people, we have to find “home” in ourselves. As the mystics have said, “I” and “me” is all there really is.  Everything outside of me is ultimately my stories about the world and about people, based on my own beliefs and projections.  But, “I” am the only one who will always be there for me, even when everyone else and everything else is gone.  As such, it seems to me that if that’s the case, I should probably dig deep and find out who I really am.  We’re going to be spending alot of time together.

*************************************************************************************The great journey of this life is to seek after one’s authentic, real self – to move past illusions of what are around us and appear to be real, down to the purest ultimate reality.’Most of my  own life has been spent trying to be what I thought others wanted of me, and then failing miserably anyway. I didn’t explore the deepest realms of myself because the spirituality of my youth taught me not to trust myself, not to trust my instincts and gut reactions. When you think about it, not being able to trust yourself is a dreadful way to live.  Everyone, I mean everyone, in the world, will offer their opinions and judgments on what you should do with yourself, how you should act, who you should be.  But how do you know which of those people to trust to make your decisions? How do you discover the right path outside of yourself if you can’t trust your own reasoning?  It’s all a very circular mess.

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Coming home to yourself is a recognition, a learning, that you’re OK and you have all you need within you. When we are finally able to accept ourselves, love every part of ourselves – even the weirdness and quirks and cellulite and crow’s feet and all of our epic mistakes -this is actually the greatest freedom we could ever attain.  Coming home to yourself also brings the life-changing realization that the Source of Ultimate Reality, God, or whatever you want to call her, is within you – not somewhere “out there”.

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I have never been the prodigal in the popular sense of the word.  In fact, I resonate the most with the son who stayed behind with his father. But like the older son, I didn’t stay out of altruistic loyalty but out of fear of stepping too far away, crossing the wrong boundary, and losing God’s love and good pleasure. But I think the sons were alike in that both of them were seeking external affirmation for their lives.  One, the older son, was bound to an honor/shame code of what it means to be family, and the second was lured away by all the illusionary glitters of life that he thought would make him happy. Both needed to come home to themselves, to discover what made them tick apart from anyone else’s opinions, and to find the steady love of their father no matter their actions.

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As I am, step by step, coming home to myself, this is what I’m finding: my oldest, biggest fears are gradually falling away.  The questions and concerns that created those fears no longer seem so pressing or relevant. I’m discovering that every time I make a decision based on what is truly “me” and not based on someone else’s opinion of what I should do, there is continual grace for the outcome.

The best thing of all is that I enjoy being with myself now.  I used to be embarrassed by my very nerdy tendencies, my lack of interest in things that intrigues so many of my peers, and qualities in me that set me in stark contrast to much of my family.  Now, having given myself permission to be me, I have settled into a delicious relief – no more exhausting struggles to be someone that I’m not.

Yesterday in church a friend of mine shared something that her son said as a two-year-old, years ago, when his father was putting him to bed one night.  “Daddy, you be you, and I’ll be me.”  I LOVE this. Yes! This is what it’s all about.

You be you, and I’ll be me, and God will be all in all and there is grace for everyone and every moment.   Stop being afraid of all the “what-ifs” – just come home.

Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.

 

There’s No One Better to Take Care of Yourself….Than You

 

I just returned from a week-long vacation to Upstate New York where I used to live. I’m about to jump back in full time to the workforce and really needed a breather after nursing school.

I stayed with one of my best friends the whole time, and it was incredibly relaxing – alot of wine, alot of good coffee, shopping, touring the beautiful Finger Lakes countryside, and most importantly- sleeping in ridiculously late every morning.

One of the many reasons I enjoy being with this friend so much is she literally doesn’t think I can do any wrong. One day she’ll come to her senses and lose the biased filter she’s looking through, but until then I will continue to relish her encouragement and constant cheering on of everything I do.

Almost every time I talk to this friend, she says:  “Julie, I’m so proud of you. You are making such good decisions!”

Every time I hear her say this, my first instinct is to snort with laughter.  Me? Make good decisions?  And all the stupid choices I’ve ever made in my life flash before my eyes. She must have had a little too much Finger Lakes wine, I think to myself.

But then she’ll remind me of specific decisions that I’ve made over the last three years – really hard decisions, decisions that demanded sacrifice on my part, decisions that changed the course of my life forever, decisions where the end outcomes were entirely uncertain.  And yes, she’s right. I have been making good decisions.

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Lately, I’ve been using a neuroscience and mindfulness app to help me eat more mindfully. I’ve always managed to keep my weight within healthy limits, but its been a lifelong struggle. Even as a vegan or vegetarian, keeping the weight down isn’t easy when eating is one of your main coping mechanisms for life ‘stuff’.

As I was listening recently to one of the daily meditations, the app’s designer, a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, commented that ‘the best person to take care yourself – is you.’ I TOTALLY agree with this statement, but I think it takes some real convincing people to get them to trust in themselves.  Many of us are taught from a very young age not to trust our instincts, to receive external confirmation, and to rely on the experts.  This belief in the inadequacy of ourselves is a real disservice to us – it overlooks the divine within us and the fact that we know ourselves better than anyone else ever could.

It took me a long time to start trusting myself to know what is best for me. To reach this point, I had to get to a fundamental shift in how I viewed myself.

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When I was little, as young as 7 or 8, I remember thinking that I wished I could just push pause on my brain.  If I could just step out of my body and brain for 5 minutes, I would feel so relieved.  How I wish I had known about meditation back then, or even contemplative prayer as taught by Richard Rohr or Thomas Keating.

I thought that I was what I thought. Even as a youngster, I could conjure up thoughts that made me feel like a horrible person. And the constant stream of thoughts coming down my brain pipeline was relentless and overwhelming. Yet, I believed those thoughts and acted on those thoughts because I didn’t know there was an alternative.

Finally, in my 30s, I began to try out meditation, largely thanks to Rohr and Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. (I finally stopped believing that ridiculous notion suggested by a Frank Peretti novel that demons will stir up the soup of our minds when we try to empty them through meditating.)  I was astounded when I discovered through meditation that what I had desperately hoped for in early childhood was true, albeit in a slightly different way.

Inside me, there is the “me” I think I am and identify with, and then there is the “REAL ME.” This realization changed everything for me and started building the foundation on which I could trust myself.

I now know there is the ego, the false me – a ghost that thinks it really exists and will last forever.  It is the me that gets blown around by the circumstances in my life, that gets its feelings hurt, that feels it must have its way all the time.

Then, there is the REAL ME, the deepest part that is connected with the Divine and is eternal. This is the calm, still ME that isn’t afraid, that loves and accepts all, that knows that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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I really like the passage in the New Testament Gospels about the vine and the branches as told by Jesus (or I would interpret this as the Cosmic Christ, or Christ-consciousness). In the book of John (which I view as a mystical, post-resurrection view of Jesus), Jesus tells the disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches. If they remain in him, they will be fruitful, but if they aren’t plugged into that vine, they will wither away.

This idea makes so much sense to me now that I get the idea of there being two “me’s” – my false self, and my true self.  My true self is the vine – that divine part of me that brings life, and love, and creativity, and joy. It is the part of me allows me to make good decisions, decisions that aren’t rooted in fear and shame. The branches are my false self – the part of me that can look pretty and smart on the outside but doesn’t possess anything longlasting or of substance.

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We are complete and whole as we are.  We just miss this sometimes because we get so caught up in believing our false selves.  Yes, we are influenced and impacted by our environments, genetics, and so many other factors. But way deeper than any of that is who we really are.

Later in the New Testament there is a passage about the “priesthood of all believers.”  This is an area where Protestants grumble at Catholics. Whereas Catholics have priests in place for people to confess their sins, Protestants are adamant that we can serve as our own priests to go before God.  But I still think many Christians cut themselves a bit short in this realm. We believe we can enter the holy of holies, sure….but we usually crawl in on our hands and knees reminding God of how undeserving and wretched we are.   I think this is exactly what we shouldn’t do.  The holy of holies is the very deepest part of ourselves that is connected with all things, all creation, and the Divine. This is the place of original blessing that Matthew Fox speaks about (no, not the Party of Five guy). This is where real prayer and real connection with God happens.

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If the Vine is within us, and Blessing is within us, then it makes no sense to hang our entire lives on what other people think. Of course, there is nothing wrong with mentors and good advisors – they can help point out when we’re being driven by our egos and fear. But I’m convinced the more we start learning to separate the voices of our true and false selves, the more authentic we become and the more we can trust our decisions.

No more frantically running around trying to find the best book to tell us what to do.  No more making decisions after consulting a billion people so that if the decisions turns out to be a bad one, we can blame it on them. No more questioning our value and worth. No more feeling like we have to fit in with society or tow the party line.

The best part of all of this is: being able to hear and thank people for their opinions and advice, and then calmly being able to decide whether or not it resonates with you.  After all – you are connected directly to the Divine. You are connected directly to your eternal self. As such, you know yourself better than anyone, and ultimately, know better than anyone what is best for you.

Walking the Labyrinth

I walk in the circle of destiny

Winding road of twisting uncertainty

I start along this journey

Praying there is something waiting for me

Anxiety fades the lines; unclear beneath my feet

Unpredictable the turns; leaving no easy retreat

The road is one well traveled

Yet so much misunderstood

Why do I walk this lonely path looking for the one and only cure?

The crunch of sand beneath my feet, the deafening echo of progress

The rising moon over the tree breeds the light which lends to focus

Around the twisting turns, where control slips through my hands

I look up to the rising Goddess and continue to walk on the sand

I turn the familiar corner and look to the prize that awaits

Walking forward to the center, the conclusion of my pending fate

The reason I walk in the shadows, the reason I step through fear

In the center of this journey inward, suddenly it becomes so clear

I am the cure,

The answer is within my soul

One foot in front of the other,

The center was always the goal

The light of the moon looms above me and my feet are solid on the ground

For the power I was afraid to find, had already been found

I am the one I seek; I am the one I fear

In mirrors I see myself; in the labyrinth it becomes so clear

— Crystal Blanton

I Won’t Eat Animals But I Still Can’t Let Go of Lab Rats

 

ear mouse

I have some major cognitive dissonance going on in my brain.  It’s been there for quite a while, actually.  As I’ve gotten older and really tried to learn to look at both sides of every story, I’ve realized that there isn’t always a pat solution that will make everyone happy.  There isn’t always a clear path that will ensure justice for each party involved.

This is probably why I like Taoism so much.  Life no longer seems to consist of black and white decisions, or clear right and wrong choices. Taoism, as my Western mind understands it, says there are two sides to every coin and life must exist in a balance. As Alan Watts has written, “Seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other.”

I have two primary struggles with what balance should look like in life right now.  The first is the balancing act of conservation and walking lightly on the earth versus the amazing benefits plastics and single-use medical devices have given us, and the fact that the latter have led to landfills and plastic-filled bellies of fish and birds.  I’ll talk about that one a different day. The one on my mind today is how on one hand I refuse to eat animals anymore, but I value and am so grateful for the tremendous medical advances we’ve seen because of drug and behavioral testing performed on animals.

I feel like quite a hypocrite, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I gave up eating meat about four years ago, and with it I have worked hard to be as non-violent as possible with my life. I instruct my kids not to killbugs just because they can.  I refuse to set out mouse poison or traps anymore.  A couple of days ago I accidentally smear-killed a bug on my computer screen when I simply meant to flick it away….and I felt a twinge of guilt for flippantly ending a life that was only days long to begin with.

 

But on the other hand, I cannot deny that the sacrificial lives of so many mice, rodents, fruit flies, and pigs have led to the most incredible medical breakthroughs. (I should clarify here that I’m NOT talking about cosmetics testing on animals). In the last decade or so, a novel method in genetic engineering called CRISPR has been developed and has gone gangbusters in the biotech world. It is a method for editing harmful pieces of DNA sequence in genes associated with diseases. This technology is offering new hope for devastating diseases like Huntington’s, hemophilia, and malaria, just to name a few. But at the very heart of CRISPR and other gene therapies and almost all newly developed pharmaceuticals, there are countless animals who have suffered and given their lives. Their lives were taken so we could know when something was safe enough to try on a human.

 

You may be thinking I’m nuts.  They’re just mice. Or, they’re just fruit flies, they don’t mean anything. I used to feel this way. But now, when I see that we are all interconnected, that all of us came from the same stardust, I can’t help but wonder what gives us the right to cage and experiment on other beings.

I don’t have a solution to my dilemma, but I’m beginning to feel very strongly that just like indigenous peoples would pay respect to animals that gave up their lives to be food, so we in the medical and science communities should pay serious respect to all of the critters in creation who have suffered that we might not have to.

 

That just like patients are made aware when someone has donated blood or organs to them, they should be made aware of these other sacrifices made for them.

That when we do ridiculous yet groundbreaking feats like growing human ears on the back of mice, we offer thanks in humility.

That when we clone animals without completely understanding how they will live and age and die, that we still call their lives valuable.

That when our lives improve because of medical and drug treatments, we remember to not only be grateful for scientists and health care providers but also the animals those treatments were first tested on.

I don’t know if there is any harmony at all in the way we are striving so hard to stay alive and free of disease at the expense of other sentient beings. Is it possible to find some sort of balance in this?  I don’t really have any answers other than that I don’t believe at all that creation was simply handed to humans to do whatever they want with. And maybe this is all a part of the journey to increased consciousness. Maybe this is a struggle we must go through to reach the next planes.  Or, maybe there is no ultimate solution, no ultimate way to be.  Maybe the whole point is to be grateful, and humble, and to recognize on a daily basis that life is not all about us.

When You White-Knuckle Life…

peace

Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass