Groundhog Day and Embracing Your Humanity: Part I

Remember that old Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. I no longer have horrible sleep attacks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. I don’t self-mutilate anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When People Don’t Finish Their Thoughts…

Photo credit: Tartantastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Myself on My 42nd Birthday…

Photo credit: Gerriet

*This is a post I started a few years ago, and am adding to with one new insight each year that I’ve learned about life.

A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 39 40 41 42 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.

  1. You can’t choose who you love; you either do or you don’t, and you are free to love whomever even if they don’t love you back.  And you can be OK with being loved back or not being loved back.
  2. It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
  3. Where you live doesn’t matter, and where you live doesn’t bring happiness.  You can be just as happy in a little house in nowheresville as you can be in a big house in a happening place.
  4. How other people treat you has little to do with you.  They are dealing with their stories about you.  Likewise, when you have a problem with someone else, it is really a problem within yourself. You are projecting your own baggage onto other people.
  5. Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
  6. Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame.  Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
  7. God isn’t angry.  He/she was never angry.
  8. You don’t have any problems right now.  Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
  9. Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
  10.  Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
  11. Cut yourself some slack when parenting.  The things that scarred you are not the same things that will scar your children. Stop trying to extrapolate how every one of your mistakes will ruin your kids’ lives.
  12. Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
  13. Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
  14. Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
  15. Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
  16. Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
  17. Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
  18. Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
  19. You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
  20. Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time.  Generally.
  21. Family is not always biological.  They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
  22. Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
  23.  It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
  24.  Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
  25.  Working in the hospital can freak you out.  Healthy people get sick.  Get the flu shot. 2021 Addendum: AND the COVID vaccine.
  26.  Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything.  Read the labels.
  27.  Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
  28.  Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
  29.  Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
  30.  Just buy the hammock.
  31.  Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
  32.  Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
  33.  Surround yourself with people of all ages.  Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
  34.  Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
  35.  Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
  36.  People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
  37.  There is enough.
  38.  Everything belongs.
  39. Sit with a dying person, and really SEE them. It might be the most meaningful thing you ever do, and it might be the only time they’ve ever really been seen for who they are and not what they do.
  40. The obstacle is the path, and the Gospel is not the ability to avoid pain; it is the grace and mercy we are given to be able to hold pain, both in ourselves and for others, without being destroyed by it.
  41. Pursue your authentic self with relentless abandon and don’t be afraid of the unknowingness.
  42. Stop putting other people on pedestals above you. Climb up on your own pedestal and be damn proud of it.

How to Birth Yourself

Photo credit; Amy, Glass of Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Better At Relationship, Through Relationship

Photo credit: Koen Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a beautiful, mysterious paradox.

We Are So Lucky

Photo credit: ME!!!

How did we get so lucky to live in a world where THIS happens?

Where so many millions of years ago a single bacterium and single archaea had an incredibly improbable love affair and the possibility for wild, abundant life sprang forth?

Where trees like this teach us every year how lovely it is to die, because nothing is ever really dead or lost forever, but simply hiding away for a time, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge and show us what resurrection is all about.

We are so lucky.

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.