Sometimes Anger and Disorder ARE The Path

tanyahart

 

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

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

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

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

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I thought I was done being angry. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was a bride married to amazement.

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

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

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

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

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

-Mary Oliver

Home is…

Photo credit: Mike Finn

You ever just want to go home?

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

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

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

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

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Home As a Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As a Place From Your Past

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

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

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

Dry Fio Canyon, Shockley Ranch, South Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home as Your Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home as An Aesthetic, Setting, or Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As The Earth and Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As What Comes Next

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are already home.

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.

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.

Spewer of Bullshit: A Manifesto of Hope

globalpanorama
Photo credit: Global Panorama

“Hope will never be silent.”  – Harvey Milk

Someone told me today I that I was spewing bullshit.

And it probably seemed like I was to this person. But the thing is, I know I wasn’t.

I may be really stupid in some areas of life, but I don’t think I’m stupid in the things that matter the most.

If I’ve learned anything over my life, it’s that people are capable of way more than they think they are.  And what they are capable of doesn’t end just because people on the outside say they’re done. It’s very much a mind game. I know this because I’ve let my mind push me around so many times. I’ve neglected to question my thoughts and beliefs and allowed myself to be held back so many times by voices external to me, as well as my own internal voice that used to scream relentlessly at me, telling me how pathetic and useless I was, how unseen by the world I would forever be.

But, the thing is, I had enough people in my small world start spewing on to me what I too once thought was bullshit…that I’m capable of whatever I set my mind to, that I’m smart, that I’m creative, that I’m worth something.  And when you come to believe wholeheartedly that you ARE worth something, you can’t help but start to believe that everyone else is freaking amazing, too, and it’s impossible not to share it with them.

Sometimes I wish that people could see how I used to see myself, how wretched a person I believed myself to be, and how desperately low my self-esteem and self-confidence once was. Then maybe they would understand how I’m so completely convinced that if I can transform my life, there’s a very good chance that they can, too.

Maybe I AM just a huge spewer of bullshit.  But I wouldn’t be where I am now if all those many people out there hadn’t spewed their own bullshit on me….bullshit about how amazing I am, bullshit about what I have to offer, bullshit about how other people’s stories about me are not my real story. These people’s bullshit, even when it made me angry to hear it then, even when I wanted them to agree with me about what a victim I was…these people were the catalyst of change for me.

One thing I’ve learned over time, that I believe in my gut, is that I can see potential in people even when they can’t see it in themselves. It’s like a sixth sense. And while I may be freaking annoying when I remind them of what I see, I just can’t stop. I won’t let people give into beliefs that they are hopeless, that they are a lost cause, that everything that matters is gone forever, that they were never or will never be loved. Nope.  I choose to hope for people when they’ve forgotten how to hope. Call me a Pollyanna, call me naive. I know what I see.

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I”m listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, this week.  I adore his writing, and I love this book in particular. To anyone who says he is not a science writer, I say, “Posh!” I personally think that if every science class was taught by him, many fewer students would come away terrified of science because of his fantastic storytelling abilities.  Right now in the audiobook, I’m in the section where he is talking about Einstein and the development of the theory of relativity.  Einstein was such a cool person…especially in the fact that he once mentioned he seldom had novel ideas…but as we all know, when he had them, they were freaking fantastic. In his work, along with the famous formula E=MC2 (darn..I don’t know how to do a superscript in WordPress), Einstein showed that the speed of light is supreme and constant. There’s nothing else that we’ve discovered that has the power to overtake it.

Naturally, listening to this section of the audiobook reminded me of the words of Jesus in the gospel of John.

John 1:5 – “And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

It’s really easy to get stuck in the short term.  To not see the big picture.  To only observe what is right in front of us that looks impossible to deal with.  But we are also caught in space and time and so have a warped view of what is going on around us.

As Bryson described Einstein’s formula, he put it this way: energy is liberated matter, and matter is energy waiting to happen.  And their relationship is joined together by light.

This is what we are! We are humans, boundaried and sometimes beaten down by hard things…things we’ve never asked for or wanted…things that are dreadfully unfair… but when the Light gets in, we are liberated.  And how does the Light get in?  It seeps and then floods in when we stop and look at our brokenness and hurting and despair and ask what it has to teach us, and when we allow it to have its way with us.

“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

Cracked people are my favorite kinds of people.

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Here’s another science metaphor: The law of conservation of energy – energy is never created nor destroyed but simply changed from one form to another.

I believe this about life.  Nothing that is really real is ever truly lost.  The only things that are lost are illusions, dreams, or our mistaken beliefs about reality.

I’ve quoted this from Richard Rohr many times before, so much so that I had it tattooed permanently on my arm: Everything Belongs.  Because only the real things belong. I believe this because I believe that the dark can’t overcome the Light, and that Light will prevail in the end.  If that’s the case, then nothing can be lost, nothing can NOT belong.everythingbelongs

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Maybe I’m full of it.  Maybe I’m just bullshitting myself. But this is the way I see it;  either I’m crazy and delusional, or what I’ve experienced in my soul is real.

I’ve been surprised by hope, where I once carried only despair.  And it’s one of those things where when you’ve seen something…truly seen it…you can’t unsee it, no matter how hard you might try.

So this is my life intention, made clear today: I choose to be a spewer of hope, of Light, of goodness, of love… even when it is perceived as bullshit. I won’t get it perfect all the time, and sometimes the things I say probably really will be bullshit and it will be worth everyone’s while to tell me to shut up. But I refuse to stop believing in people, even when they can’t believe in themselves.

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“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

 

The Subversive Power of Joy

paucal
Photo credit: Paucal

sub·ver·sive
/səbˈvərsiv/ – adjective: seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
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The last little over a month has been tough for us in the US, hasn’t it?  I remind myself, though, that this COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching thin the lives of millions of people around the world for much longer than it has ours. I’m, so far, one of the privileged ones who still has a job, whose family is healthy, who has a close network of loved ones and dear friends who check in on me daily, and who is well cuddled by two cats and a dog who seem to sense the crisis we’re in and insist on more snuggle time with me at day’s end.

I’m sure that I am no different from everyone else when I say that I’m bewildered by this whole pandemic.  The logic adds up in my head about how it could arrive and throw us into absolute turmoil, yet COVID’s unexpected entrance didn’t seem to give us enough time to prepare and ground ourselves for what it was bringing with it. I daily get that odd sense of, “What if this is just a really extended weird dream, a Ground-hog Day-ish kind of experience, and tomorrow I’ll wake up and things will be completely back to normal?” But then I wake up, after sleeping in ridiculously late because suddenly I can on many days of the week, and we’re still here in the same place of isolation and uncertainty.

There is so much fear, tension, and irritability that is present around us right now.  But, as someone who is an apocalyptomist ( a word Facebook recently fashioned that fits my personality pretty well sometimes – where I believe shit is going to hit the fan and yet everything will somehow still turn out OK), I simply refuse to throw in the towel and give in to despair, even when I look at the data and it feels like the most realistic option.  I choose to find joy wherever I can, whenever I can.  And I’m learning more and more, especially now, that sometimes joy doesn’t look or necessarily feel like you would expect. It can only be found when you’re watching for it, and when you, at a gut level, believe that it wants to be found.  Joy is subversive, because it has the power to completely change a situation from the inside out, unexpectedly. It can take the most bitter of moments and transform them into something that may still be painful, but can no longer overwhelm us.

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Last night, twenty minutes before shift change, I slipped into the room of a patient of mine who was dying, to see if the last dose of morphine I had given was lessening their air hunger and to see if they were comfortable.  I was tired, as every nurse is at the end of shift, even more so these days because of the emotional and mental fatigue that happens with constantly changing policies, wondering if we’re doing good enough at infection prevention, and constantly watching the patient assignment board to see how full or empty our unit has become.

My patient was breathing rapidly, shallowly…but peacefully. I pulled up a chair next to the bed, slumped into it, and sat, just breathing with them, until it was time to go give report to the night shift nurses.  It blows my mind,  that time after time when I sit with a dying person, how I feel like I received a gift in some way.  Like….who am I to be able to witness the closing of the curtain on the hours of this one person who has never existed before and will never exists exactly like this again?  It’s similar in a way, I think, to when a baby is born, and you’re in awe at the miracle of life and wondering what kind of life this little one will lead, and what they will experience.  Sitting with the dying…I usually have no clue what kind of life they led.  I don’t always know if they were a kind person, or a bitter person, an over-achiever or someone content with an average life. I don’t know if they ever felt seen, heard, or were well-loved.  But there is the gravitas of knowing that they were a small bit of divinity incarnated for the briefest of moments in time, and that their life mattered no matter what form it took. The life finale of everyone should be held carefully and with reverence. I firmly believe this.

Somehow, in these kinds of moments, I am often surprised by joy. Not a happiness that they are dying or leaving behind loved ones.  Not a superficial emotion that suddenly makes me feel like everything is all better. No, it is a deep, gratitude-awe state that I was allowed to be here, now, in this one moment where the life/death veil thins.

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I have belly laughed more in the last month than I have in the previous six months combined, which really says alot because I usually laugh all the time. I have friends on The Facebook who regularly post tremendous content, but everyone has upped their game lately.  One thing that I am particularly enjoying is that so many of the wonderful memes and jokes being posted are entirely irreverent and often over the top, but it’s like people are even more willing at the moment to lay aside their social inhibitions and lay it all out there to soften the blow of the coronavirus with humor.

Even on my unit, when we’re rushing around, hot and sweaty in our personal protective equipment, trying not to think too hard about the fact that the majority of our patients are COVID – positive, I’m amazed at how much I laugh on each shift.  There is nothing better than having hard stops for laughter during crazy days when we’re all tired and frustrated.  It’s the joy that sneaks in with that laughter that has the power to change the mood in a room, to give us all just a little more motivation to push through the day, to pause our griping for just long enough to remind us that we’re in this together.

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“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how”.  AND “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I’ve been thinking that the important ways to get through this COVID crisis emotionally intact are to reframe the way we see what is happening, to shift our perspectives, question everything, and fully embrace the silver linings when we find them.  If we can only view COVID as an evil villain that has swooped in and is destroying our way of life and mercilessly killing us, then what else is there for us but to despair and be terrified of when the reaper might also come for us. But, best as I can tell, this is a very myopic way of looking at life, one that is devoid of the understanding of the power that joy can bring into any situation.

I’m a realist most of the time, and I don’t think I’m a Pollyanna.  But I do believe almost everything in life is nuanced, and complex, and can’t be adequately described with simple labels. Although this may sound trite and horrifying to some people, I really don’t think that we can deny that COVID, despite its fury and swift progression, has brought us some real blessings if we choose to look for them. (I will also completely admit that I’m in a more privileged situation than many people, and am not sitting here having to worry about where my next paycheck or groceries are going to come from, or wonder if I”ll have adequate access to medical care despite my race or socioeconomic status. I, in no way, want to minimize the difficult and trying circumstances of others with what I’m writing here. ) Hasn’t it forced us to slow down from our breakneck pace of life?  Hasn’t it forced us to reevaluate our priorities?  Hasn’t it forced us to become very intentional about who we do life with and make us put real effort into finding ways to maintain relationships? Hasn’t it made us stop and look at those around us with a little more compassion and empathy?  Hasn’t it forced us to become the best of our creative selves? Hasn’t it shown us that the world is small, we are a global community, and we must work together if we are going to get through this?

I don’t really understand life.  I’m suspicious of anyone who says they’ve got it figured out.  I don’t REALLY know why we’re here on this spinning ball in a tiny little spiral galaxy amidst billions of other galaxies.  But I am convinced that it does us well to try and find meaning and purpose in what we experience.  For me, this exploring everything I encounter for meaning is a very selfish pursuit…I want to find the joy in everything. This is, for me, what makes life worth living.  And so far, there really haven’t been many places in life where I haven’t been able to find at least a little joy.  The thing is,  joy is abundant when you learn how to find it, when you figure out the secret places it lies hidden in plain sight. Maybe learning to find this joy is part of the task of growing up as a person.

And while I certainly don’t believe God sent us COVID as retribution for anything, there are lessons to be learned from this experience, and maybe we can all collectively grow up a little more as we face the decision to either give up from despair or daily seek joy and meaning, moment by moment.

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Here’s an important fact:  Joy is a function of gratitude.    You can take that one to the bank.

If I’ve learned anything in life, it is that if you can’t be grateful and if you can’t seem to recognize any of the areas where you are blessed or given things that you don’t deserve, then it’ll be really hard to find joy in much.

I’ve referenced this before in a different post, but Ann Vosskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, is an excellent primer on learning to record the small things in life you are thankful for. The recognition of all these things, however trivial, have the power to spark joy. It takes practice, but if you look hard enough, you can find things to be thankful for in any situation.  Gratitude is a wildfire; when you change your mindset to focus in on the little things that are good, the little things that make your heart beat a few paces faster, the little things that bring you a sigh of contentment and peace…then everything begins to change and you can spot things you are thankful for everywhere.  And the realization that you carry more thankfulness than you had realized, and that good things exist all around you amidst the struggles….well, that’s joy.

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In a recent On Being podcast, Krista Tippett interviewed the Benedictine monk, Br. David Steindl-Rast. During their talk, he described joy as the “happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

This is exactly why joy has the power to change everything….because it can exist independent of circumstances.  Joy can overthrow the tyranny and fear of institutions and pandemics through its existence as a choice.  Life may seem like absolute hell, but we always have the freedom to find gratitude, and we always have the freedom to seek out joy.  This is where the meaning in life is, and no one can ever take it from us; we can only choose to give those up ourselves.

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“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
― Rumi

Don’t waste this time of sorrow. Don’t come to the end of the COVID pandemic bitter and cynical about life. Let sorrow work its way through you, mourn and grieve what is being lost, and then choose to look up with new eyes to see the new things that are coming. Don’t just think about what is no longer here, what is being taken from you.  Be overjoyed about the new spaces present within you, the new wineskins that are capable of holding big life and fresh joy.

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The following is a song about joy, in my opinion.  It was written as a song about faith, but I’m stretching the boundaries on it. Joy is the subversive power in life that can show us the beautiful, to fill us up again, to help us see everything with new eyes, and to experience a world that is bigger, deeper, and more meaningful than the superficial one we often limit ourselves to.

 

 

When The Resurrection You’re Given Isn’t The Resurrection You Were Expecting

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A couple of years ago, the pastor of the church I attended at tbe time gave a brilliant sermon about Easter morning. In a quite unexpected shift, he spoke of that glorious morning a couple thousand years ago, how the stone was thrown away from the opening of the tomb where the Lord had been laid to rest, trumpets blaring, angels rejoicing in boisterous song, all of creation roaring wild and exuberant praise at the resurrection of Jesus.  This tale of Easter morning was quite the juxtaposition to the one I had heard all of my life.  It was the story one would expect to hear about the God-Man being raised from the dead…with victorious, indignant, middle-finger raised to death and suffering.

But a resurrection full of fanfare and celebration and trumpet blasting wasn’t what happened at all.  Rather, resurrection morning was quiet, secret, and revealed to only a small handful of people…and certainly not the people you’d think God would want to shove the glory of the resurrection into the faces of.  In fact, it took alot of convincing many of Jesus’ followers that the resurrection had even happened, much less the Romans.  In some ways, it kind of feels like death still won that day even though life managed to slip in through the backdoor, largely unnoticed. Whether or not you believe that an actual, physical resurrection took place…that question in some ways is irrelevant… why would the Gospel texts include a story of Jesus making a comeback that seemed so…lackluster?

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I attended Easter services on Zoom this morning, gathered with a beloved church family I used to be a part of when I lived in New York State.  I am now proud to be counted as a virtual member. The pastor of this group also happens to be one of my dearest friends, a person who is one of the wisest, kindest people I know, a woman who is fiercely loyal to me and constantly encourages me onward even when she sees me at my worst.

This morning she spoke of hiding, and how we who are staying at home instead of physically attending Easter church are in some ways similar to those who were hiding during the days surrounding Jesus’ death.  Both of our hidings are rooted in fear…the fear of what might happen if we venture out too far beyond our homes. Just as the disciples and other followers of Jesus faced an uncertain future, so do we not know exactly where our resurrection from COVID will come from and when, even if there will eventually be a resurrection of new life that feels safe and good.

This “hiding” is dreadful and lonely. I’m trying to keep a stiff upper lip about it, especially considering that when all is said and done, my situation is far better than that of so many people in the world right now. But today…I broke down and cried.  Cried because I hate feeling like a pariah among many people in my life because of what I may carry home from the hospital, who feel like they have to slather themselves in hand sanitizer after brushing something I’ve touched.  Cried because the lack of intimate physical touch by loved ones completely undoes me. Cried because I don’t know if I’m making the right decisions for my children during these times. Cried because I daily have multiple people asking me my opinion on what they should do regarding this or that COVID-related issue and I hope I give decent answers but most of the time I just don’t know.  Cried, because this hiding is a form of dying, something I write all the time about in this dumb blog that we need to learn to embrace so that we can wake up spiritually, but God damn, dying still hurts like hell and today I don’t feel like dying.

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That morning, a couple of years ago, as I listened to my pastor talk about how we would have expected the resurrection to burst forth wildly instead of how it actually did in relative anonymity, my mind began to explore how we sometimes view our mini-resurrections in life.

If we are honest about it, we don’t always like the resurrections we are given.  And sometimes that makes it really hard to want to die, because we don’t really know what we have waiting for us on the other side.

The author of Hebrews wrote that “for the glory set before him, Jesus endured the cross.”

Did Jesus REALLY know the full extent of glory that would be waiting for him on the other side of death?  Because I have a hard time believing he would have spent so long in the garden of Gethsemane praying, sweating, and reprimanding his followers for not staying vigilant if he had known that everything was going to work out well for him in the end.

We all want to know that our dyings will not be in vain, that they will be worth something and bring us to a better place.  I’m not talking about just a physical death where we’ll end up in the great by and by or the ultimate mingling of souls or whatever…but our daily dyings…those places where we let go of our ego attachments, where we sacrifice for the betterment of others, where we do hard things with the hopes that we will discover our truest selves. And right now, we all as a collective want to be reassured that staying home, going untouched, wrecking the economy, and trying to love each other through social media will not be in vain.

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There’s an old song sung by The Cathedrals, a gospel quartet that I grew up listening to, that I’m thinking of now.  It’s called Sunshine and Roses, and while the tune is catchy, I used to get so annoyed at the lyrics.  I’ll explain why in a second.  Here’s the song if you’re interested in taking it back a few years:

I USED TO SING A SAD SONG, FILLED WITH GRAY SKIES AND RAIN
I USED TO SING OF NO FUTURE, SAD DAYS WITH ONLY PAIN
NOW AS I LOOK BACK UPON THEM, SEEMS TOME THAT I FIND
THERE WERE DAYS IN THE VALLEY, NOW I’VE LEFT THEM ALL BEHIND

NOW IT’S SUNSHINE AND ROSES, ONLY A THORN NOW AND THEN
COOL STREAMS, WARM BREEZES, SINCE JESUS TOOK MY HAND
GREEN MEADOWS AND LAUGHTER, HOPE WITHIN A CRUMBLING TIME
IT’S SUNSHINE AND ROSES, ONLY A THORN NOW AND THEN

I NEVER MISS THE OLD WAYS, YET THINK BACK FROM TIME TO TIME
TO THOSE DAYS OF NO PURPOSE, WHEN MY LIFE HAD LITTLE RHYME
THOUGH THE WATERS DRUNK BE BITTER, THEY MUCH SWEETER MAKE THE TASTE, OF ONE DROP OF GOD’S BLESSING, BLESSING
GIVEN BY HIS GRACE

Oh my word!  Even when I was a kid, with little life experience, this song used to make me want to throw up in my mouth.  What a misrepresentation of Christianity and spirituality, in general! Since when did following Jesus become about sunshine and roses, cool streams, and warm breezes? I really don’t think Peter was whistling this tune as he was crucified upside down. I doubt as brave as Polycarp was,  he likely wasn’t dancing into the fire proclaiming, “Tis but a thorn!”

No, the real task of following the teachings of Jesus is a matter of dying every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and hoping to God that you’ll get a resurrection on the other end of it. And it’s a matter of trusting and sweating prayers, that the resurrection you get will make those deaths feel not in vain. Whoever is selling you “sunshine and roses Jesus” is feeding you snake-oil religion.

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Years ago I visited a leper colony in West Africa.  I remember walking down a line of men whose bodies had been grossly disfigured by the disease, shaking their hands and looking them each in the eyes.  And I remember how after they each took my hand, they would touch their foreheads and then their hearts.  I remember asking one of the local missionaries what this meant, and was told it was a traditional way of fully accepting one’s greeting into themselves.  I thought at the time that it was poignant and sweet, especially among a group of people that so often do not receive significant physical touch.  Now, after going for long periods without being touched and, when I am touched, feeling as though the people touching me are reticent to do so, I understand the need to accept fully into the body whatever touch is received…cherishing it….bringing it into the mind and heart and holding it carefully, recognizing that loving, meaningful touch should never, ever be taken for granted. Maybe I had to die in this way, to lose so much of the physical and emotional contact that I need and crave, to be able to never again underestimate the value of it for both me, and for others.

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I wonder if sometimes we have the wrong idea about resurrection.  Like, do we think that we are just supposed to be handed a nice resurrection as a thanks or prize for being willing to die to ourselves or for something greater than ourselves? Or is resurrection a process…not a one time event…that we are invited to be a part of?  Maybe we are co-creators in our resurrections?

What if the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the moment breath entered his body and the stone was rolled away from the tomb? And what if our ideas about the nature of resurrection are all wrong?  What if resurrection is not sunshine and roses, but it can still be resurrection even when struggle is present, when uncertainty exists?

What if resurrection is mainly about the springing forth of new possibilities that hadn’t existed before? What if it is life reimagining itself…not because it had been conquered by death, but because death was the gift…the catalyst…that was necessary for this imagination to blossom?

What if we don’t like the resurrections we are handed in life because we don’t see them for what they really are?  We wanted to be handed a finite package of perfection and bliss, when really, we are handed something far greater….the open-ended expanse of possibility and “what will we create out of this”-ness?

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I”m kind of excited now, as I write this because I”m seeing Easter morning in a whole new way. Maybe, just maybe….the calm, quiet, secret return of Jesus was from a God who was curious to see what we would do with this new possibility for life. If Jesus had burst forth from the grave in such a way that no one could ever doubt it,  and everyone was suddenly compelled to fall before him out of fear and reverence for his power….that would be a good narrative climax.  But an even better story is one where God offers a “create your own ending” by handing us endless possibilities wrapped up in a peaceful Easter morning, instead of a loud, triumphant, one-time event.

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Could it be that we have to be just as brave to resurrect as we have to be to die?

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EASTER BLESSING

“On this Easter morning, let us look again at the lives we have been so generously given and let us let fall away the useless baggage that we carry — old pains, old habits, old ways of seeing and feeling — and let us have the courage to begin again. Life is very short, and we are no sooner here than it is time to depart again, and we should use to the full the time that we still have.

We don’t realize all the good we can do. A kind, encouraging word or helping hand can bring many a person through dark valleys in their lives. We weren’t put here to make money or to acquire status or reputation. We were sent here to search for the light of Easter in our hearts, and when we find it we are meant to give it away generously. The dawn that is rising this Easter morning is a gift to our hearts and we are meant to celebrate it and to carry away from this holy, ancient place the gifts of healing and light and the courage of a new beginning.”

John O’Donohue
Dawn Mass Reflections at Corcomroe Abbey

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The Art and Science of Discovering Truth

phasechange
Photo credit: IBM Research; Phase-change neurons. A chip with large arrays of phase-change devices that store the state of artificial neuronal populations in their atomic configuration. 

*This is a processing post, going all over the place…I do not claim to have an absolute handle on truth or how to get to it…so hang with me.

“Science is a way of thinking, more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan

Last week I was chatting with someone about our college days and what we majored in.  He knew I had a science background but was unaware that I also had a degree in Missions from the Christian university I attended, eons ago it feels like.  He asked what that major was about, and I told him it likely would not interest him because it was basically about proselytizing around the world and trying to bring people to Jesus, with a bit of humanitarian work added in for good measure. I frankly am a little embarrassed these days to admit I have this degree, mainly because while I totally think people should explore who Jesus was and the rich spirituality that can come from Christianity, the last thing I want to do is to manipulate people into thinking they’re going to hell in a handbasket if they haven’t been “saved”. That being said, the degree was a valuable resource for teaching me to become more globally aware and less ethnocentric.  If I’m honest about it, the degree probably inadvertently helped lead me away from an evangelical bent because it encouraged me to be more open-minded and look beyond myself and the ways of living I grew up with. I gained alot of anthropological insights and cultural sensitivity out of those classes and “mission trips”.

The person I was talking with used to do research in a field called atomically precise manufacturing, and I’ve since decided after hearing him give a talk on the subject, that in my next life I am going to hunker down, force myself to take those additional calculus and physics classes that I avoided in college, and pursue a career in physical chemistry. Fascinating stuff, I tell you, and some of it dovetails with the analytical chemistry research I did as an undergrad.  Is it too late to change career directions, AGAIN?

As we talked about his work on APM, and how doing good science is important to both of us, it occurred to me that maybe the rigorous pursuit by scientists, academics, and researchers to get people to pay attention to science….basically proselytizing people to science… is really no different than when people from a faith tradition go out and try to get other people to join them by means of persuasion, guilt, or shaming. I didn’t really like to come to this conclusion at first, because sometimes I think of science as a little mini-god…well-done science as an absolute that can’t really be argued with…like if people would just use their brains they would all come to the same conclusions.  Then my self-arrogance-o-meter kicked in and I recognized that my thought train was a privileged one and that maybe I should think about this topic more.

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There is good science, and there is bad science.  But there is also good religion/spirituality, and there is bad religion/spirituality.  While it can sometimes be difficult to parse out the differences, both of these require a determination to avoid laziness and quick answers.  Good science is not churned out as quick responses when questions are posed, and good spirituality requires long spans of living out hard questions and refusing to grab on immediately to the fuzzy, feel-good platitudes of cheap, easy, and superficial religion.

There are alot of things about Christianity that I grew up believing that I now look back on with incredulity.  How did I believe some of those ideas for so long, and let them intimidate me into living a life that didn’t always feel real or authentic to who I am, fundamentally? It isn’t just a matter of me not agreeing with some of my old beliefs; I look back now and feel absolutely silly for viewpoints I once held so strongly to. How could I have ever come to some of those conclusions?  But I also realize that so many of those beliefs took root because in the area of spirituality and religion, I hadn’t been taught well how to think.  I was unintentionally taught how to blindly believe, read sacred texts super-literally, and accept being shut down when I asked the hard questions. It wasn’t until I reached the academia of religion through college, where I was taught about exegesis, hermeneutics, use of biblical languages, thinking about cross-cultural contexts, etc, that I began to build a toolbox of new paradigms and ways of thinking about how life and God might work. I also had to go out into the world and experience more to gain understanding with different eyes and a different mind.  So, looking back, I couldn’t do better spirituality because I didn’t know better at the time, and I didn’t have the tools I needed to do better.

It seems to me that doing science is much the same as the way I described my growing up spiritually process. I really like Sagan’s words about science as a way of thinking.  I think alot of the world misses this, especially in this day and age of arguing about fake news and how “my evidence is better than your evidence.” Aren’t we so good at proof texting scientific studies just as we are with Bible verses?  Well, this one study says drinking red wine leads to a decrease in relative risk of heart disease, so that clearly means it’s OK to down a bottle every day.  Or, this study shows that this number of people lost weight eating  an ultra-low-carb diet, so clearly, we need to down the fat-bombs and consume bacon with every meal to achieve optimal health. Or, to be a little controversial here, The President has a “good feeling” about hydroxychloroquine and there are some preliminary studies describing its use in COVID patients, so let’s just start throwing it like gangbusters at everyone who has tested positive.

It’s my study versus your study, my scientific news source versus yours, tit for tat, back and forth.  As though finding real truth is just a matter of learning a few facts and lobbing them at people, claiming we have figured out life.

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Going back to atomically-precise manufacturing guy.  Yesterday, we talked for a bit about a piece that just came out in the New York Times, where a principal investigator for the federal government’s COVID clinical trials cautioned that employing experimental drugs too broadly and too quickly could cause more harm than help because we are treating emotion instead of doing good science. We need the well designed clinical studies and data gathered over time. My question to him, APM guy:  is it morally OK to throw Hail-Marys at people at a time like this, or should we hold to the gold standards of research and wait until we have solid clinical evidence of safety and efficacy before we act?  His opinion: sometimes you just need both.  Sometimes you need to lob Hail Marys while maintaining the rigorous slower pace of good research at the same time…because at a time like this, people need answers and people need solutions.

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Is there a place for bad science?  Is there a place for bad spirituality? Can those two things be part of the bigger picture of TRUTH?

I think sometimes about that quote attributed to Karl Marx….”religion is an opiate for the masses”, which is apparently more accurately translated: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.

I’ve heard people use this quote in a derogatory manner….like those of us who are drawn to religion and spirituality basically are looking for something to dope ourselves up with in order to avoid reality. I actually think that is incorrect, although I have to say I’m doing bad science with that statement because I’ve never actually done drugs or used any drugs like LSD or ayahuasca that are purported to offer spiritually enlightening experiences. But it makes me wonder…maybe bad science or bad religion have their place even if they aren’t perfect or always done well, because they encourage us to engage our imaginations, at least to an extent, and think beyond what we see right in front of us.

When I was in junior high, and then again in college, I was dreadfully depressed.  There were so many times I just wanted to end my suffering, most of which I kept to myself. I wasn’t afraid of death, but at the time, because of my conservative Christian beliefs, I was terrified of the idea of having to get to heaven and stand before Jesus and tell him that I wussed out on him and on life.  Looking back, I think my theology during those years was not so great, but bad as it was, it gave me something to hang on to when I couldn’t see any other great motivator to keep trying at life.  That’s got to be worth something, right?

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I try really hard to remember that truth, in whatever form, can be subjective and slippery. I’ve had people try to convince me that they knew certain things to be absolutely true; I’m always very suspicious and skeptical when I hear those kinds of things.  I personally believe the only thing that I know to be absolutely true is that love exists.  However, I’m also aware that that could be my own subjective reality, and I don’t really want people to believe it just because I said it and that I believe it.

There are so many things that have seemed completely true at one time or another, and then we figured out that we were sometimes dead wrong.  The world feels flat from the vantage point of the earth’s surface, but we know that it is in fact, a big round ball of rock moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. We also used to take time for granted and assumed that it was a constant in life.  Well, apparently not. In physicist Carlo Rovelli’s words, time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space”. Or what about absolute zero…where we used to think the temperature was so low that atoms would cease to move. But scientists have been able to reach negative Kelvin scale temperatures in the lab thanks to quantum physics.

My whole point here is that truth about anything can be hard to put our finger on.  Even if like, in classical physics, things seem true on a certain scale, that truth might not always translate to a different scale…like how the rules for physics seem to change on the quantum level. We should probably all remain sobered and respectful of this in our pursuit of truth and our compulsion to tell everyone else what we believe to be true.

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Back to scientific proselytizing.  So many times we are trying to force people to take our word for it when we share scientific findings or theories.  We insist about DNA and quarks and dark matter and all manner of other things and shame people who don’t automatically believe us or our textbooks or our data sets.  But we as scientists can also get very annoyed at people who try to push religion on us, who are recounting their own personal spiritual experiences and pointing to references in sacred writings that we might not be convinced actually hold any weight.

We all seem to try to insist that others believe what we have seen and/or experienced, whether it is about science or spirituality. And we all get annoyed with each other sometimes when we are asked to accept things as true with blind faith…some of us will get annoyed when we are just told to trust that vaccines are safe because alot of scientists have said so, and alot of us will get annoyed when we are told we should just accept Jesus as a redemptive savior so we can go to heaven because alot of people believe we are otherwise damned to hell.

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OK, maybe besides love, one other thing that I believe is absolutely true is that we have to hold grace for each other, and we have to forgive each other. All of our individual pursuits to find truth are inevitably going to be on collision courses with each other. We have to recognize that for some people, pursuing truth is an art form, that needs to be felt out in subjective ways.  Others are going to believe in their bones that truth is objective and can be unearthed through good, well-designed experimentation.  And we have to be gentle with each other, and even amidst the frustrations that arise, honor that each person is on their own path and has the right the pursue truth in the way that feels authentic and correct to them. We are not entitled to get our own way by making everyone see and understand the world exactly as we do.

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A slight caveat to what I just said above…..we need to offer grace, but we need to also relentlessly pursue showing people and allowing ourselves to be shown, how to do good science and how to do good spirituality.  Maybe not in a manipulative proselytizing way, but through encouragement and with each other’s best interests in mind.

Didn’t Maya Angelou say, “When you know better, do better”?  In my mind, science is a way of thinking, and spirituality is a way of being.  Both can be improved upon, albeit in different ways. Both require us to lay aside laziness and acceptance of the status quo without ever attempting to engage or ask good questions.

This is the important part of truth-seeking that gives us the space and maybe permission to be able to offer our ideas to others.  Personally, I have no desire to take advice or criticism from people who have refused to wrestle with life, who have insisted on always playing it safe, who have avoided suffering and pain at every turn, who refuse to consider that they might be wrong. But the people who have survived really hard things and allowed their hearts to remain soft, open, and engaged with life….well, they can pontificate to me freely and I will be so much more likely to listen, even if I ultimately don’t come to the same conclusions as them. The people who refuse to gloss over the difficult questions, who work relentlessly to unearth the shadow parts of themselves, who strive to think critically, and yet are OK with not knowing all the answers to life…these are the people I want to learn from, because somehow I believe they might have the greatest grasp on absolute Truth, whatever that is.

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And a final thought:  fear can never be the ground of being from which we seek truth.  Maybe it is a necessary short term catalyst to get us moving, but it can never be the long-term motivation. I’m personally convinced, although I won’t insist on my correctness, that fear can never lead us all the way to Truth, either in science or in spirituality.  This is because it always has us looking over our shoulders, staying guarded, reluctant to take this one risk or chance that might actually be the one step that is ultimately needed.

Nope, the art and science in the pursuit of truth are marked by bravery and courage that insist on moving forward even when the fear threatens to overwhelm us. Fear keeps us small, fear keeps us afraid of hell, fear keeps us from loving others well…fear keeps us from doing anything, everything to find what is real, genuine, authentic, and lasting.

This is why I don’t like proselytizing of any kind, whether it be of the scientific or religious variety. Invitations, free from manipulation and fear, are better.  I think this is always true.

 

Oneing and Walking Yourself Into Peace

alvaroreguly
Photo credit: Alvaroreguly

I woke up today feeling a little sorry for myself. Here in Indiana, like so many other places, we’ve been ordered to shelter at home unless we go out for essential activities or to be in nature maintaining distance from other people.

This morning felt lonely.  My family lives states away from me.  My significant other and best friends live in other towns. My kids are currently with their dad, and once I start being exposed to COVID patients at the hospital, the plan is for them to stay with him indefinitely so I minimize exposing them as much as possible. I boarded my dog over an hour away the other day, to make things less stressful (he is adorable but like having a toddler) and so he wouldn’t have to be penned for over 12 hours every time I work.  I’m not entirely sure if a dog kennel constitutes an essential business, so I’m also wondering how easy it will be to retrieve him this weekend.

While I live on a cul-de sac, I don’t know my neighbors well and the old man at the end of the street literally thinks I’m a hillbilly because I sometimes leave my recycling dumpster on the curb for more than a day at a time, and because when the basketball goal gets knocked over by the wind, I don’t rush out to put it back up just to be blown back down again.

So I slept in, moped around, played the piano for a while, and then started watching Mad Men from the beginning season to distract myself. I couldn’t even find the internal umph to engage with a new TV show I’d never seen before. Halfway in the first episode, after my coffee had finally kicked in, I came to my senses.  I am not going to sit around and waste this gorgeous day on reruns or feeling sorry for myself. So, I laced up my Altras, and hit the pavement.

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I’ve been thinking alot lately about an idea that the mystic Julian of Norwich talked about hundreds of years ago.

“The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person,” and “In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person.”

The thing about mystics is they see the world in different ways than the rest of us, and sometimes what they talk about sounds ridiculous.  Until you sit with their words for a long time.  And then, you understand that they are revealing bigger truths than you ever knew.  What I’ve discovered is that with alot of these truths, you can’t mentally, cognitively work your way into understanding or believing them.  You have to experience them, to live them, and to be OK with the fact that sometimes they will seem like nothing short of a paradox on surface level.

Our world has become increasingly smaller over recent decades, and in some ways it has felt like we’re seeing ourselves more as a global population than a bunch of separate national entities.  However, at the same time, like here in America, there have been divides growing strongly and solidly between us.  Nothing has revealed this more clearly than the election of our current President. There is still a great undercurrent in this country of us seeing and interacting with each other based on labels and “otherness”.

As I’ve grown older, I’m seeing more of Julian’s “oneing” when I look at other people.  Sure, there are people that are hard to understand, people that I dislike intensely, or people that I’m gonna intentionally not do life with if I can help it.  But when it comes down to who we are fundamentally, we are all one.  I like the enneagram because it helps us see how we are all motivated by the same kinds of things.  We all have fears and insecurities. We all want to know that we’re OK and everything’s going to be OK.  And what I love, even when it looks like certain people could not be more different, are the words by Carl Sagan, that “we are all made of star stuff.” We all came from the same star dust, that initial universe expansion – the Big Bang or the Big Bounce or whatever physics description you want to refer to.  We were all originally one, and I totally believe, that in a spiritual and metaphysical sense, we are still one.

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Normally when I run, I turn to a playlist I’ve created that features alot of fast-beat, loud, empowering songs…ones that have the right cadence to get into a good running rhythm.  Today though, I felt the need to shut off the words for a while and run the music itself. So, it was Beethoven and Aaron Copeland. As the fog faded, the sun began to peek out, and the temperature steadily rose, Appalachian Spring provided the right running mood to pull me out of my woebegone state, reminding me that the coronavirus had not canceled springtime.

I ran a few miles, enjoying the sunshine and sweat, and then thought about turning back toward home. But then I changed my mind. I decided I was going to walk the back country roads outside of my town until I had walked the peace back into myself. I was not going to go home still stressed and concerned; I was going to stay in this springtime until all was well within me again.

Nature itself is a mystic. It cannot be understood or experienced through words or scientific descriptions of how it calms the nervous system.  Well, maybe you can try to talk about it in those ways, but just talking about it doesn’t do the trick.  You have to get out in it for it to work.  But the thing about nature is that it tells us alot about the “personality” of the universe.  Jesus talked in the Gospels about the sparrows and lilies of the field… Here is the passage from Matthew 6 out of The Message translation:

25-26 “If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

27-29 “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

30-33 “If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

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I really like the translation of that last verse:  give your entire attention to what God is doing right now…He/She/They will help you deal with whatever hard things come up.

This is about being here now, about insisting on staying present, about living in the moment. I’m not one to sit here and throw platitudes at you that we should just pray and God will just fix everything for us. No, I absolutely believe that we have some hard roads ahead of us, we will have to make some difficult decisions, and we are going to experience pain and loss.  I think it would be foolish to say otherwise.

That being said, I think it is also unwise to say that everything is doomed, and this is an area where nature has alot to teach us.

Life…this creative force that is pervasive throughout us as humans and this entire earth, has this remarkable, resilient, insistent urge to fight and claw its way back every single time. Something that I daily marvel at while working in healthcare is how hard our bodies work for us to keep us alive, keep us functional.  We can throw shit food at our bodies, refuse to exercise, make dumb hygiene choices and more…and our bodies (the life surging through our cells) takes whatever we throw their way and provide the best possible results they can for as long as they can.  Life is on our side, even when we refuse to be on our own sides.

Or think about areas where natural disasters occur…fires, volcanoes, whatever…and yet life manages to poke itself out of the dirt through some little creature of nature after everything has laid calm for a bit.

Or, like just today, on my run/walk, evidence of spring coming back again after a cold winter. What seemed dead and withered is suddenly rejuvenated.  The springtime abundance is a reminder that COVID-19 has not locked down life.  It has presented a huge challenge for us, yes, but it has not silenced life.

This is what I was reminded of as I walked mile after mile by the fields, over the streams, under the budding trees.  You have to stop and be here right now to know what is true.  There’s a great story in the Old Testament that illustrates this.  Elijah was being chased by his enemies and holed up in a cave to escape them and rest.  He was desperately trying to find where God was in the midst of his struggle.  Here’s the story from 1 Kings 19:

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

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The media and news are obviously necessary and can be very helpful as we try to regain our footing and find our way through these uncertain days.  But when we constantly listen to them, it can be easy to panic, lose our way, and become shaky. When we frantically try to find the voices that will solve this pandemic or listen to the fearful voices that are so loud around us….these are what will unsettle us.  We have to stop, calm ourselves, and listen for the whisper.

The whisper is not loud voices from the religious leaders that warn that the coronavirus is God’s retribution for us. It is not the politicians’ and stockmarkets frenzy about the economy and crashing stock prices.  These are the earthquakes.  These are the fire.

The Lord, or Source, or Spirit, or the Ground of Being, or whatever you want to call it, is the whisper that comes when we get really still, when we focus on what is handed to us right now, right here.  And from experience, I can say that the whisper seldom comes with words. Instead, the whisper is peace…a peace we can be brave in, a peace that we can move forward from, a peace that springs forward fresh creativity to solve problems, a peace that is ultimately what we’re all really looking for.

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It took me a little over 9 miles, but I walked peace back into myself. I had a keen, almost visceral sense, while walking of that oneing.  I belong to the world, and the world belongs to me. And my fear of being alone, my fear of isolation fell away.  I could never really be alone. I am connected to Source deeply, internally, and externally I am just the same as all of my fellow travelers…we are all stardust in this struggle together.

And I remembered that I know how to hold pain, traumas, and loneliness; I do not have to allow myself to be overtaken by it, overwhelmed by it. All the great ones who have gone before me and who have been my teachers have taught me for years how to do these things…how to move through pain without letting it consume me, how to live in joy through uncertainty, how to listen and empathize with others even when I’m afraid.

As a world, we are having to sacrifice personal freedoms, make hard decisions, and do things we would never have expected to be called to do. But I am already so impressed with how people I know are stepping up, developing brilliant ideas and problem-solving in fresh, intensely creative ways…people figuring out ways to serve others even while they themselves are in isolation…people insisting that all the things that make us human are still vitally important and cannot be given up even if we are physically separated from each other.

So this is what I’m leaving today with, having been reminded once again by the trees and the birds and the Sun…be here now, in every moment…do the next right thing in each moment without worrying about all the what-if’s that you have no control over…be merciful and gracious to those who are afraid even when they make dumb choices out of that fear…and learn to listen relentlessly for the gentle whisper that can calm your soul.

 

Don’t Panic Until You See “Them” Panic

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My middle son came to me last night at bedtime, concerned about all that he has been hearing about COVID-19 at school, and worried that his school district might be closed like the neighboring district. His sweet worried face wrecked me, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good to say, because I’m a scientist and a nurse and I know this pandemic is not just going to go away.  So I said what I could:

“Graham, do you see mama panicking?  Don’t panic until you see mama panicking.”

He seemed satisfied with that answer and went to bed, waking up happy this morning and ready to go to school.  But as I went to sleep myself last night, I lay in bed pondering at what point I might panic.

As someone who used to have prescriptions for Xanax and clonazepam with a diagnosed panic disorder, I know what terror and panic feel like. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re sliding down a vortex of despair and fear and there’s no rationalizing your way out of it. Granted, my panic attacks have always been about irrational things, but even so, fear is fear.

Ultimately, I thought about how I am a solid place for my kids…I’m supposed to be that bulwark that faces the biggest scary things in life for them so they know how it’s done.  But, who’s parenting me?  Who do I turn to when the world looks scary and I’m so tempted to join in with mass hysteria and panic?  And then it came to me…I know exactly who will show me the way.  It’s the same people that have been showing me the way for years, the same people who have taught me to trust my own inner voice and connect with Source deep within my own self instead of always in external places.

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You know that story in the gospels where Lazarus dies, and Jesus shows up after the fact?  And Mary and Martha were seriously like, what the hell, Jesus? You could have gotten here on time, you could have fixed this situation! Why are you crying now about him dying when this could have all been prevented?

I think maybe the key point here in this story is not just Lazarus’ resurrection, but the fact that Jesus didn’t panic. He didn’t come running in, blustering around, ready to cast away Lazarus’ illness and imminent death.  Nope, he took his time in coming, and he held space for things to happen, so that he could show Mary and Martha and all the village of Bethany an even greater, reality…a greater glory than what they had asked for and hoped for.

How do we hold space when a pandemic is spreading and everyone is scared and uncertain about the future, and we all are kind of convinced that life as we know it has shifted forever?

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Ram Dass died several months ago, and I have thought alot about how he would handle this strange new happening called the coronavirus.  Would he be fretting or stocking up on toilet paper or all the other things most of us are tempted to do in situations like this?  He and a friend wrote a wonderful book about death not long ago, called Walking Each Other Home, that has changed me deeply.  This book has parented me because it has shown me the things that really matter in life, and that death is nothing to fear. By learning to live well and trust life, there is no sting in death.

I recall a story I heard of something that happened with Ram Dass in 2018.  I can’t remember all the specifics, but in 2018 a false alarm was sounded in Hawaii that a missile was coming their way. Ram Dass lived in Hawaii, and so heard the sirens, along with his caretakers who lived with him. But instead of panicking that their lives were going to end, they remained calm, and they spent the time they thought they had left meditating.  They just were.  They didn’t fight what seemed to be reality.  They allowed it to just be.

Another person who has “parented” me is the Dalai Lama. I can’t even really say so much what words have come out of his mouth specifically that have changed me.  With him, it is about presence.  Back in 2014 or 2015,  the Dalai Lama came and spoke in Boston, and of course, I jumped on the train and rode into the city from where I was living so I could hear him talk.  There were thousands of us sitting in the stadium, and the environment was magic. We were all literally sitting on the edge of our seats, just wanting to hear the Dalai Lama laugh.  What he said was important, but what resonated the most was his laughter.  Because his laughter told us that all is well.  I’ve had a few people in my life, where when you sit at their feet you feel like you’re sitting with Jesus.  The Dalai Lama, even in a crowd of people, feels that way.  He laughs, and you hear divine love coming out of that laugh, and you know that everything will be OK.

I think of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Mooji and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and Michael Singer and so many others who have parented me, who have shown me what life is about, what matters and what is simply passing.  I trust them, they’ve shown me the way; they are my great cloud of witnesses pushing me onward every day to be better, to love better, to trust the universe and its ultimate goodness.

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I was listening today to Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed,  – please run out to your nearest bookseller and buy this or listen to it on Audible.  It has wrecked me from the first paragraph, because it is wisdom upon wisdom upon wisdom.  About halfway through the book she talks about the Hebrew word Selah that shows up in the Old Testament Psalms. She describes it as a word that means to stop, be still, and hold space.  It often came after a line of words in Hebrew poetry, and perhaps indicated that a moment of stillness was warranted…a time to stop, and just breathe, and know the words that had just come before.

And then I also thought about my life mantra that I shamelessly stole from Richard Rohr….”Everything belongs”.  For my 40th birthday coming up I’m finally gonna get this tattooed on my arm because it is what I live by.  It is how I hold all things together that don’t seem to go together.  But today I realized that one thing about this tattoo idea I’ve had forever for my arm was missing….I can’t just leave it at “Everything belongs.”  It has to be “Everything belongs….selah.”  Trusting that all is interconnected, everything has it’s place and it’s time, there is good in all things and all people, and then…..hold….just sit and breathe the truth of that. Live the questions without striving to find all the answers, rest in uncertainty, listen for divine laughter – wherever or whoever it may come from.

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I don’t know how this pandemic will turn out.  I don’t know if it will just be an inconvenience in my own personal life, or if it will rock my world and dramatically affect how my children and loved ones and I do life. But I’m choosing to not freak out.  I’m choosing to look to the wise ones that have never yet failed me. I choose to trust the ageless words of Jesus, not to worry about tomorrow.  Just focus on now, be here now, trust in the goodness of the universe.

Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m not grounded…that’s OK.  The ones I trust the most aren’t panicking.  So I choose not to panic. And hopefully my boys can look to their mama not panicking, and not panic, too.