Grateful….For All of It….

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Photo credit: Sharon Sinclair

I was running a Thanksgiving day race this morning with my friend Bobbi. While we were trotting along she told me a funny story about a friend of hers welcoming some Indian friends to Thanksgiving by throwing open the door, enthusiastically saying “Welcome to America!’ and pointing the way to the shots.

Having had a friend who worked in the wine business, I realize that alcohol is a big seller at Thanksgiving. It struck me as ironic….we set aside this day to remember what we’re grateful for, but then many of us cover up that remembrance with enough alcohol that we can’t remember what we were originally grateful for.  Or, maybe we don’t think we have much to be grateful for so we drink to make ourselves feel better.

I’ve started a tradition with myself that every year at my birthday I write down something new that I’ve learned that year.  In a few short months, I’ll post the forty life lessons that I’ve intentionally made a point of recording and referring back to.  This year I’ve decided to think of the number of things I’m most grateful for right now. A sort of concentrated, mini, “One Thousand Gifts“, if you will.  I want to remember to not forget to be thankful for all the good things that come my way, all the good people in my life, and the daily gifts that are handed to me – unexpected, undeserved, but hopefully not unnoticed.

I was also thinking about the word “grateful” and how saying you’re “full of grates” doesn’t really seem to work.  Things that “grate” are things that rub us wrong, that irritate us, that are painful and maybe harmful.  Maybe they are raspy and annoying, or maybe things that grate make us feel like we’re being run through a meat grinder and torn apart.   But, the more I sat with this, the more I realized that some of the things that have grated me most…somehow…resulted in the things I am most grateful for in life. The grateful came from the grates.  The good came from reframing the bad.  Changing perspectives attracted new life.

I’m a big Josh Groban fan, and I love the song “99 Years”.  In the bridge between the verses and chorus, there are some great lines that really speak to me:

So let’s look forward to you and I looking back
To 99 years
Of nothing unspoken
With every day hoping
That when we feel broken
Our scars make us golden

I’m grateful for the things that hurt me in the past, the hard things I endured and still endure, all those that I loved and lost….because they have brought me to where I am. I have remarked to a few friends lately that it blows my mind how I can be a walking paradox: on one hand, I am deliriously happy all the time, and on the other, I’m a few feet from falling off the cliff of despair.  But I am grateful for this paradox, and the ability to fully feel as a human, to embrace a vast array of emotions, and to still be thankful for it all.

Right now, I am so grateful for:

  1. 80 hours of labor and 3 C-sections that brought me three of the most precious little boys who are loving, kind, curious, and ready to fight for justice and fairness in the world and who still think that I’m a badass mom.
  2. Meeting people, at an ever-increasing rate it seems, who see who I am at my core and are willing to invest in me and my wild ideas and big hairy dreams.
  3. The people in my life who are healing me from all of my past traumas and shame…those who do so willingly and freely without asking for anything in return.
  4.  Yats, and the fact that they stay open late enough so that I can get a fix even after a long shift at work.
  5.  My silly little dog Charlie, who chews on everything and everyone, but is always so delighted to see me.
  6. The turquoise paint a friend gifted me that transformed my bathroom walls.
  7. Richard Rohr, who unknowingly broke open my soul and let the light in….or maybe, showed me how to let the light that was already in there, out.
  8. How my mom still comes to visit me in my dreams.
  9. How I’m not afraid anymore.
  10.  How I found a home in Indiana when I thought leaving Boston was going to kill me.
  11. Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, Ken Wilbur, and all of the greats who help me stay optimistic about the world and humanity.
  12. How life is so much bigger and richer and deeper than I once imagined.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone…..I’m ever grateful for all who take a few minutes to read my musings and quirky views. You are very welcome here.

Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable

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Credit: Xavier Verges

I suffer from a chronic disorder.  It’s called: “Making Other People Comfortable At My Own Expense-osis”. The tricky thing about this ailment is that it typically presents first in childhood, and unless quickly nipped in the bud, it can wreak havoc on one’s ability to manage life well in the adolescent and adult years.

Symptoms of MOPCAMOE-osis include:

-a persistent weakening of personal boundaries and self-care constructs in order to accommodate another person’s desires or preferences

-an inability to feel completely comfortable in social situations because of the fear that somehow you are imposing on someone’s else comfort, even if you have no clue how you might be doing that

-a tendency to over-apologize for everything, and a tendency to offer a quick “That’s OK!” when a person has wronged you but throws out an insincere and thoughtless apology with impeccable timing

-a deep inclination toward hard and fast rule-following so that you can ensure you don’t break any social mores, workplace norms, unspoken relationship expectations, or arbitrary guidelines devised by others in your life for how you can interact with them.

-a reluctance to initially be too outgoing or “yourself” in case you’re not enough for people, or worse….too much for them.

-the insane urge to always explain yourself so that others understand your motives and that you never intended to make them uncomfortable when you were being yourself

As you can see, this is quite a serious condition to suffer from because it impacts every single area of one’s life. We who have it don’t develop it through any fault of our own, but the consequences can range from an inability to stand up for oneself and be authentic all the way to being outright traumatized by hurtful people.

My own case of MOPCAMOE-osis has regressed significantly over the last ten years, thanks to therapy, doing alot of shadow work, and learning to take the advice of the great actor Shah Rukh Khan: “Don’t Take No Shit from Anybody”….a line he so eloquently offered in a speech a few years back at the University of Edinburgh.  Ahhh….I adore him.

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Our society, it seems to me, does alot of teaching us at a young age to make others’ comfort a priority over our own. And not to be male bashing at all, but girls and women are certainly groomed in this fashion, much more in some contexts than others.

One of the first examples of this comfort prioritization that comes to mind is how we work with our children.  There was a post on Facebook yesterday covering an article about how girls should not be pressured to give out hugs during the holiday season.  I didn’t read the article because the headline said it all.  No child should be compelled to have any physical interaction with anyone that they don’t want to. But we are so conditioned to push them to do these things, aren’t we?  Billy, hug your great aunt that you’ve only met one time in your life. Sarah, let Bob (elderly friend of the family) give you a kiss on the cheek. Oh come on, Katie, it’s (insert whoever you want here)! You know them!  Give them a hug (or kiss, or handshake, or whatever other physical contact is being asked for). I can recall so many times as a child that I felt obligated to engage in some kind of harmless physical contact with an adult that I didn’t want to…but I knew the repercussions would be hurt feelings and disappointment.   While I was a very affectionate child, there were times my creep-o-meter went off strongly, but I believed that the other person’s comfort was more important than mine, so I ignored my personal boundaries and did what was asked of me anyway.

As a young mom, I initially fell into this same trap with my kids.  When I knew someone in their lives wanted a hug or kiss, I would encourage the boys to be friendly and do it.  Now days, though, NOPE.  I leave it entirely at my kids’ discretion.  If they want to hug someone, it is completely up to them.  If they want a kiss on the cheek, it is up to them. And other than offer a polite “hello” to a new acquaintance, I don’t insist on any interactions from them that they don’t feel comfortable with.   Kids need to learn early on that their boundaries matter, and their comfort level is no less important that those of other people. We need to be especially careful of this with our children who have a temperament that is prone to the development of  MOPCAMOE-osis. I also believe that we need to pay attention to the fact that our kids’ creep-o-meters might be more sometimes sensitive than ours as adults.

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It seems pretty apparent to me that in our society we unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, groom our daughters to believe that their job is to make other people comfortable.  This obviously is harder to do for girls with certain strong personalities and temperaments, but for others, this teaching is swallowed up whole and internalized.  I’m totally thinking of Type 2s on the Enneagram here, a group in which I happen to be a card-carrying member.

I grew up in the Church and have moved through numerous denominations and individual faith communities over the years.  Something that I have witnessed again and again is how prevalent rape culture is in these.  I’m not Christianity or church hating – far from it – but some of this just needs to be called out for what it is so we can all grow and heal from it. Rape culture happens when women are told that our job is to ignore our discomfort alarms going off to make sure that men feel at ease, that they get what they want, that their needs are more important.

Women in the Church, and in contexts of society that are influenced by “Christian values” are very frequently told what a little girl, grown woman, and wife should look like.  We need to be cute, feminine, calm, hospitable, nurturing, selfless,…the list could go on and on. I know it could seem like I’m slapping huge labels on this and broadly stereotyping, but I think if you look at overall patterns and the big picture, what I’m alluding to rings true.

Rape culture can sound harsh, too, I know.  But here are some examples, in no particular order, that I’ve seen or experienced in my own life that make me know that it is present.

1. As I mentioned quite a while back in a post on divorce, women in our culture know, either consciously or unconsciously, that marrying a man (and in some cases just being in a relationship with one) offers them a step up in status. This was externally very true in the recent past, but it is still true regarding how we are perceived by others. I personally experienced a dramatic up-tic in the respect I got from others in all spheres of my world when I got married. I’ve met a ton of women who know this happens, and who have admitted that they pushed aside their discomfort and married, not because of love, but because of the social benefits it brought them.

2. I went to a marriage conference once, years ago, by the authors of the well-known Love and Respect book authors.  I know these are good people with good intentions to help marriages, but I will unreservedly denounce the message in this book and all the other ones like it.  It irks me to no end that people can take a few lines out of a letter written almost two thousand years ago, from a patriarchal society, and use it to definitely outline how men and women should interact with each other today – especially when they are telling women to make themselves uncomfortable so that the men in their lives feel respected.  Disgusting.  During the conference, during a special breakout time for just the women, Sarah Eggerichs (the author’s wife), admonished all of us to just give our husbands sex whenever they wanted, because it “only takes a few minutes, ladies!”  This talk went on to include that men didn’t need to “earn” our respect….we have to treat them “respectfully” so that they can, in turn, be capable of giving us the love that we want.  Again, it all comes down again to women stroking men’s egos and making them comfortable, all the while having to weaken our own boundaries.

3. Why is the onus always put on women to moderate men’s behavior through our own actions and behavior?  Still, so frequently, when women are assaulted they are asked what they were wearing to provoke the attack?  Or, had they had a little too much to drink?  Or, were they out running late at night? Or, were they overly flirtatious?  In so many churches I’ve attended, girls and women are told to dress certain ways so that they don’t tempt men or cause husbands to stray.  The men can’t help the way they feel, and can’t control themselves because of their biological constitution. These kinds of statements blow my mind, because amazingly enough, I know SO MANY good men who are entirely capable of controlling themselves around women. And when did it become the responsibility of all females to protect the virtues of men? I’m pretty sure it goes back to a mythical story about the inherent sinfulness of a woman named Eve who caused her man to do wrong.  When we allow our girls to be taught this kind of logic, we are only perpetuating rape culture and giving men a scapegoat for their inappropriate behavior.  We should not be teaching girls how to dress to make other people comfortable.  We should be teaching our girls to dress in ways that make them comfortable, that gives them self confidence, that makes them feel self-respected.

4. Sex trafficking is a huge problem in this country, but one that doesn’t just happen in a bubble. There are real societal dynamics that help support it – dynamics that are rooted in so many of our “traditional values” and bad theology. All of us need to be careful that we don’t promote and normalize the dynamics that directly enable the sex trafficking industry.  Consider the following:

“But I don’t make rape jokes!”

While rape jokes are the most obvious example of rape culture, they are not the only things that perpetuate rape culture. Things like :

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

https://encstophumantrafficking.org/rape-culture/

And while I know this song/video isn’t perfect and it makes women look a little weak and in need of saving, I still love it:

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In this post, I’m not trying to make the point that we as individuals should live our entire lives in a completely comfortable state.  I’m a huge believer that discomfort and obstacles are the paths that lead to change and growth.  In many cases, we have to learn that we ultimately don’t have control over much, and we have to learn to let go of our attachments to things. However, I believe our comfort surrounding our individuality as persons, our emotional health, and our physical wellbeing are things that we should hold as top priorities.  We are not obligated to make other people feel emotionally better. We are not obligated to give anyone physical contact. We are not obligated to ease another’s discomfort when it hurts us.  If we possess the self-agency to choose to do those things, that is another matter entirely. But the important point is that we have to be able to “choose” and have our “yes” or “no” respected. Every. Single. Time.

Other people may become angry or hate us for not putting out what they think we should. They may tell themselves stories about our motivations and who we are. But this ability to maintain autonomy is, I believe, one of the most important parts of being human.

It’s really hard for me personally, to put my own comfort level above others’. Part of it’s my personality and childhood wounds, part of it is the messages I’ve heard from people, the Church, and society, part of it is because I genuinely care about how other people feel and want them to be happy.  And, part of it is a lack of practice in strengthening the belief muscle that I will in fact not die if people think I come off as a bitch or cold or self-absorbed when I’m firming up my boundaries.

But I now know, where I once didn’t, that my boundaries as just as valid as others’. I have the same right to exist and feel safe and pursue my dreams as every single other person does. I am a legitimate part of the universe and existence.  I have the right to say what is OK for me and what is not. And so do you.

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After all this on maintaining your own comfort level, it needs to be said that we need to respect the comfort of other people and their physical and personal boundaries. Though so much of this seems like common sense, we seem to miss the mark again and again. We make excuses about why it’s OK to step over boundaries and invade others’ personal space.

There is a great video that was made several years ago using the analogy of making someone tea to getting consent for sex. The video is simple and brilliant, and it applies to SO much more than sex.  Respect the personal boundaries of others, let their “no” be no, and don’t force others to become uncomfortable so you can get what you want.  It’s pretty basic, really.

Anyway, check out the video, and better yet, pass it on to your kids when they’re old enough to understand it. Maybe even pass it on to the adults in your life who think that what they want is more important than the things that make you uncomfortable.

 

 

The Songs That Undo Me

Music is my heart language.  I think in song lyrics (and can always provide a good song lyric for any situation I find myself in), and music is always running through my head.  I’ve had the unfortunate experience, on several occasions, to have a boss stop me in the middle of what they were saying and ask, “Julie, are you really humming (or singing) while I’m talking to you?!”  To my horror, I would realize that I was, in fact, humming or singing without realizing it, all the while completely listening to what they were saying.  I just can’t help it.

I’m one of those people who can get physical chest pain from an emotional experience elicited by a song or good lyrics.  I also think there is really nothing better in the entire world than speeding down a two-lane country road with the windows down while belting out a really good song at the top of your lungs.

I had a couple of conversations this last month with friends about songs that I feel define my life….the ones that undo me every time I hear them. There are five songs in particular that I call my “life songs”…the ones that resonate with me on a heart level. These are the songs I tell my best friends they should make sure and play at my funeral. Not because I’m morbid or anything, but because they speak to who I am and what got my attention in life; they speak to the human experience.  And also because I want it to be clear that I don’t want any “I’ll Fly Away” rapture style hymns sung when I kick the bucket.

So, listed in order of my favorites with a little commentary included for each, here are my life songs:

  1. Falling Slowly from the Once movie soundtrack

This song….OMG.  Gets me every. single. time.  My friend Jemima first introduced it to me about five years ago. The movie was wonderful and sweet, but the song lyrics are just amazing.  To me, it’s all about hope, making choices to change direction in life, to stop doing the same things that have always and only resulted in suffering. It’s about being seen and understood by someone who really knows and accepts you, and both of you offering hope to each other.  It’s a song about redemption, of having space and time to truly find ourselves and start anew.  This will forever be my heart song.

2. Holy Now by Peter Mayer

I still remember where I was the first time I heard this song.  My theological scaffolding was crumbling, and I was questioning everything Christian.  One day, about five years ago, I was in the sunroom of my house outside Boston, running on the treadmill, and listening to a podcast.  The podcast host mentioned this song, so I went and looked it up and listened.  I was completely bowled over.  I think I must have listened to it ten more times in the next hour that day.  This song represents EXACTLY how I feel about life now.  Once, I thought that the Earth was destined for the burn barrel and that miracles happened only here and there to other people.  Now, because of so many changes that have happened in my life, I am overjoyed at the goodness and grace I experience on a regular basis, even when life is hard. While I adhere less to “rules” for how to live life, I feel like I approach life with a gravitas I didn’t have before. EVERYTHING is holy, everything is sacred.  And this makes life worth getting up for every day, even when shit happens.

3. Human, by Christina Perri

This week every single area of my life blew up in my face. I was completely knocked on my ass and forced to remember that I am not invincible and that I have limited capacity. This is the song that reminds me that while I can do alot, I’m still just a human.  I have boundaries, I can be hurt by people, I can be overwhelmed.  Being human is OK; it’s who I am in this life, and I need to remember that margin and self-care and boundaries that protect my heart are good and necessary things. This is the song that comes to mind when I’ve reached my end and all there is to do is cry and reach out to my people who stand beside me when I have nothing left.

4. Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, sung by Pentatonix

Is this not one of the absolute best songs ever written? It sums up so much of life and what it means to love, and how hard and devastating that can be. “Love is not a victory march; it’s  a cold and broken hallelujah.”  Agh!  Yes! Most love does not come easy.  Most love is painful, wrenching, heartbreaking and so often that love is not returned. But we do it anyway because love is good and right even when it doesn’t come easy.  We are baffled by life and love and all of those who we try but do not understand, and because of grace, we can say hallelujah anyway, even when we are spurned or facing death or feeling utterly broken.

5. Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol

When it comes down to it, don’t we all just want to know we’re not alone?  We don’t need to have all the answers, we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t require alot of stuff. At a heart level, I think most of us just want to know that we are seen and heard and accepted. Will someone be there if we crash and burn? Is there someone who will join us in the mindless things of life just because they want to be with us? Will anyone join us in our misery and just be with us when we aren’t able to actually offer anything in return? This is what I hear every time I listen to this song…the human desire to not be left alone.

 

What are YOUR life songs, and why?

I’m Drawn To Those Who Ain’t Afraid…

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Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those who ain’t afraid
I remember that time you told me,, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely  you touched mine ’cause
Part of you pours out of me
in these lines from time to time….

A Case of You, Joni Mitchell

I’m on vacation this week in Upstate New York, where I used to live. I come back here every year in the fall…to soak up the autumn colors, post a ridiculous number of photos to Facebook and Instagram, spend time with a best friend, and give myself permission to take a long pause from life, work, parenting, and all the things that wear me down.

The nice part of having these few days to myself is that I can ponder and reflect with few interruptions; there is silence and stillness without responsibility, and it feels like these trips literally save me and make me useful to others and hopeful again for the coming year.

This trip I’ve been thinking about the people that have come in and out of my life – some for days, some for years – and how they’ve helped create who I am now. In my last post, I talked about how I want my life to be influenced and colored by others who are brave and creative. I’m constantly amazed at the people that swoop into my life…people that I never could have seen coming, people that I never fathomed could actually exist in the world, people that brought me gifts with their presence, people that showed up right at the moment I needed them – even when I didn’t know I needed them.  This, again, is grace…when you’re given what you need before you knew you needed it.

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Another thing about people that I’ve been thinking about, but which I don’t entirely like, is that sometimes, you can outgrow them.  Or, maybe you don’t outgrow them, but you grow off in opposite directions, and no matter how much you hash through things with them and try to come back to each other, you can never understand each other again. This growing away from people does not feel like grace, although it probably is in the long run.

Sometimes, the voices that you once trusted implicitly are no longer safe voices to speak into your life – they have become the devil, the accuser. And, it’s not because those people are bad or have ill intentions, but it’s because your paths have veered off in different directions and you lose the resonance that you once had with them.  You’re vibrating at different frequencies and when you try to merge together like you used to, the result is clanging dissonance. Maybe the flip of that is also true….your voice becomes the devil for them, as well.  You can no longer understand the path they are taking, and so all of your words, suggestions, and encouragements are useless and unhelpful.

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Not long ago I met with someone who once knew me very well, someone who I allowed for years to speak into my life because we were on the same path.  But this time, I realized how far we had moved from each other.  It was like we were complete strangers talking past one another, and there was no point in agreeing to disagree because we were already too far gone.

I told my story of the last five years, in the same way that I tell most people that come into my life these days.  To my complete surprise, though, I was wrecked by this person’s response. I came away from the meeting believing for a few minutes that I was a selfish asshole who had really fucked up my life.  Why was I working so hard on my writing career?  Why was I going to grad school when my children are still little?  Why didn’t I just ask my ex-husband for more child support?  Maybe I’m just not cut out for marriage or committed relationships in the first place. Did I not realize I’m treating my children like bowling pins in the pursuit of my own self-expression and fulfillment and joy?  Was it not apparent that the path I’ve pursued is surely devoid of empathy and compassion towards others? 

I believed for a few short moments that what I thought was being brave might actually just be folly rooted in my own self-centeredness.  I questioned hard the joy and peace I feel most days now, where once I had little joy and no peace. That meeting was an encounter with my devil, my accuser….a voice that sided with the lingering insecurities hovering around my mind.

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I’m so intensely attracted to people I see in the world who are being brave – not necessarily the ones who are doing nutty things that are dangerous – but the people who are ruthlessly pursuing themselves and searching for meaning in life even if means they risk losing everything.  When I come across these kinds of people, it’s almost all I can do not to grovel and beg them to let me just be around them once in a while.  Their stories help me to be brave, and there’s really nothing good that has come out of my life that has not been painted on or sculpted in places by these people.

After my momentary deep dive into depression and certainty that all of my decisions over the last five years were impressively horrible, I ran to a different voice – one who is resonating on my wavelength and has every right to speak into my life because she knows me and understands me, and somehow, I can do nothing wrong in her eyes.  [Side note:  EVERY SINGLE PERSON deserves a friend like this, where everything you do and say and dress like, plastered or sober, is accepted with love.  Grace, I tell you.]  I brushed away my tears, pulled myself together, and actively remembered who it is I WANT to be.  I don’t want to be a person who plays life safe and lives according to platitudes and rules.  I want to be a person who does hard things, and loves people easily and quickly, and shows my boys that sometimes the very best life is not the easy one – but the one with challenges and difficult decisions and a mom that will do anything to find herself, so that they can one day know how to really find themselves.

I want to keep chasing after the brave people and beg them to let me be in their lives, to show me how it’s done, to reveal more of the joy that I haven’t yet seen, to love me despite my fear and faults and failures.  I want to keep resonating with the amazing people I already have in my life who show me on a daily basis what it’s like to live wholeheartedly and authentically, even when they are still afraid.

I don’t know…maybe I am selfish.  Maybe it is selfish for me to try to squeeze every little bit of joy and glory out of life that I can, even when it looks irresponsible to some people. But I know there are people who resonate with me, who GET IT, who know that there are things you can’t unsee, places you can’t go back to, and ways of being that you can’t unbecome.

 

Is There a Protocol For This?

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Photo credit: Sharada Prasad CS

I have recently come to the awareness that I have taken handmade pottery for granted my entire adult life.  I’ve always been one to go to craft fairs in Vermont and New York and scope out the pretty coffee mugs and egg white/egg yolk separators, and I’ve known a couple of people here and there who made pottery as a hobby. I also remember back in junior high when we would take those clay Christmas trees [you know what I’m talking about, right?], scrape the seams off with scalpels, toss them into kilns, and Voila!, out came ceramic decorations that we felt compelled to pull out every year and plug-in somewhere with plastic lights to sparkle and gather dust until we repacked them away in March.

But I never really stopped and considered the process and hard work of creating enough product to market, sell, and make a living on, all the while trying to maintain a balance of creating good art but doing so in an efficient manner.  I have also learned that apparently pottery is not as romantic as portrayed by Demi Moore, in Ghost. I hear the real thing is alot more like chronic back pain, frozen fingers, sweat dripping into the clay, and feeling like you’re sticking your face into the Sun when you’re checking all your baking goods in the kiln.  I’m really, really wishing I could get SNL to do a spoof off of that Ghost scene now.

Another interesting and lovely find lately is to discover that there are potter-philosophers out there in the world who write some really amazing stuff.  I guess this shouldn’t surprise me; there are plenty of other artists who view the world through their craft.  Anyway, I was delighted to stumble upon this phenomenon.

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Working as a nurse, I frequently use protocols. They are basically an easy way for us to proceed in patient care without having to obtain doctor’s orders for things that are relatively straight forward and common.  So, for example….keeping a foley catheter in a person longer than necessary or without good reason is a surefire way to give them a urinary tract infection.  So, there are protocols for nurses to decide if that foley should stay put or if we should pull it. Or, if someone has imbalanced electrolytes, there are protocols to tell us which potassium and magnesium supplements to give, when to order blood redraws, and target values that let us know the protocol is complete. Basically, these protocols are step by step instructions for following a process to achieve a desired end result.

Sometimes I wish life had protocols.  Step by step instructions on how to get to where we want to be. Do this and do that until you arrive at your goal.  Be this and then that, and it will bring such and such into your life. I used to think life DID operate according to protocols.  It was called fundamentalist religion and contract theology.  It only took me 30 years of following all those prescribed rules to realize that God doesn’t really play by that game.  The Bible isn’t really a handbook for living, as much as people have told me throughout my life that it is.  If anything, the Bible is a guide for what NOT to do in life. I think the same is true with alot of other sacred literature.

The universe doesn’t seem to operate by a “you do this and I”ll respond in such and such a way” fashion much of the time.  This realization can be really hard when you’re coming out of a protocol-style faith tradition because it feels like you’ve lost ground to stand on and you no longer know the rules of how to play the game…..or if there are any rules at all.

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One of these potter blogs that I’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks is written by Carter Gillies; it’s definitely worth your time to look at. He writes the kinds of things I have to reread multiple times to really “get”, and he’ll throw out passages that can bring me to a hard stop.  Here’s one that I read yesterday:

“There is much more to the world than the ‘given’, and it is art’s duty to not only explore this but show the magnificent expanse beyond the merely existing and leaden ‘facts’. We don’t just receive the world, we bring it into existence.” -from Sisyphus, November 10, 2018

OMG!  So good!  This got me to thinking about the idea of being co-creators with God (or universe, or insert whatever word works for you here.).  How often do I sit around and demand life to bring me what I want, to avoid doing the heavy lifting, to refuse to see beyond the superficial? I want someone to hand me the rules and teach me how to play the game so I can get to the goal that culture and society tells me is the whole point.

But….what if….we are the ones that are making the rules?  What if there is no preordained goal imagined by the universe and we have the creative power to design our own ends?  What if the world and what exists before us are our paints and brushes, or our clay and glazes, and our job is to bring more life into existence with them? We belong to the world, but the world also belongs to us and comes into existence through us.

Carter says in all caps:  EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST.  Wow, what would life be like if we all really believed that?

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I definitely think there is a biochemical basis for depression, but I’m convinced that our beliefs play a strong role, especially when it comes to our sense of control.  If we believe we have no control over anything, and life is simply done TO us…well, that IS pretty depressing.  But, if we believe we have no absolute control over anything but that we DO have the power to reframe our perspectives, exert influence, and use our creativity to express ourselves in new ways and bring into existence things that once weren’t there….what’s depressing about that?

Protocols don’t leave any room for creativity or thinking outside the box.  This is one reason it was so freeing to walk away from fundamentalist Christianity. That God was boring, small, petty, and type A. There was little room for anything new and glorious because it was all labeled and judged as good or bad.  A protocol-less God/universe is freedom, grace, and space to make alot of mistakes with the knowing that there is always room and time to try anew.

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I had a conversation with a new friend the other night about my goals as a floor nurse, and then later, as a forensic nurse.  He asked me what was most important to me when I cared for patients  Good question on his part, and I knew my answer right away.  More than worrying about whether or not my patients walk out of the hospital cured or pain-free, I want them to feel heard and seen. This is an area where protocol doesn’t completely fly.  Yeah, it’s great to get all the technical details right in healthcare, but I’ve met plenty of people who technically received amazing care and still recalled their hospital stays as lonely and terrible.  On the other hand, I’ve had patients tell me I was the best nurse ever, even after all I did was pass meds and sit and talk with them.  Which shows me….most people don’t care about protocol and the details of their medical care nearly as much as they want to be known and validated.  And so, I work really hard to ask my patients the good questions, to listen to their life stories, to empathize, and Lord knows I cry alot with them.

So, my friend pointed out…..maybe your style of nursing is also art? I’m bringing into existence something that wasn’t there before….something that couldn’t have existed if I had just stuck to the rules, and gone step by step through the guidelines created by some hospital committee somewhere.

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Going back to the idea of everyone being an artist and my previous immature appreciation about the hard work of creating pottery.  I think we all want to have the sense that we know what we’re doing, and that what we’re doing matters.  Life feels safer that way.  But it’s also sterile and boring when we’re told what our lives are supposed to look like.  Are mass-produced lives, where we all follow similar paths adhering to the pursuit of the same life goals because someone told us to….really worth living? Is it really all that great to spend our entire lives consuming and never creating?

No, I want a life that I’ve helped create, not one that I’ve just passively accepted.  And I want a life that is influenced by other people being brave and putting their creations out into the world.  This gives me hope too; that the world will never remain just as I understand it at this very moment, because there are brave people out there who are constantly seeing with new eyes, creating their art whatever it may look like, and offering it without any stipulations for how it may be received or where it will end up.  People refusing to live inside boxes and according to checklist protocols are what contribute to the enchantment of all things.

The Power of a Solid Faceplant

good life
Photo credit: Victoria Nevland

“I would rather have 30 minutes of something wonderful, than a lifetime of nothing special.” – Julia Roberts, Steel Magnolias

I’ve officially been a nurse for an entire year.  It still kind of blows my mind, especially since 3.5 years ago, the prospect of actually going to nursing school seemed so incredibly impossible. At the time, I was living south of Boston and faced long train commutes into the city to reach a school with an accelerated program.  Then there was the problem of all the prerequisites I had to take since I’d been out of college for more than seven years.  Really? I have to retake Introduction to Chemistry when I was a BIOCHEMISTRY major and actually worked in jobs where I used it?  Then, there were all the logistical problems of being a wife and mom to three, with responsibilities and extracurricular activities and dinner to make and a house to clean….and goats to take care of.  ‘Nother story there for another time.

So, I did what any sane person would do….I made the situation entirely more difficult by getting a divorce and moving to a different state to start all over.  It was a complete jumping off a metaphorical cliff.  I had no idea if any of my best-laid plans would fall into place, if I could actually survive independently as an adult after letting go of a career for nine years, and if I could, in fact, make it through more school and start working as a nurse.

Turns out, it all worked.  Somehow I still have money in the bank, I am a year into grad school, and people actually want me to work for them, both as a nurse and a writer.  My kids still think I’m a badass mom. I have the best friends a girl could ask for.  I apparently stuck that landing.

Other landings I have not stuck so well.  I’m actually well acquainted with completely effing things up, usually because I get in too big of a hurry, or I don’t trust my gut, or I’m trying too hard to make other people happy rather than do what I need to for myself. But despite a stream of periodic catastrophes trailing behind me, I think that sometimes the absolute best thing we can have happen to us in life is a solid, smackdown faceplant….a colossal screwup if you will.

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There are a bunch of variations of the following meme these days on FB that really make me laugh.

go big

As a natural introvert, holing up in my house by myself is one of my more favorite activities.  But I’ve learned that it’s also my kryptonite. It’s easier to stay home where it’s safe, where my only interactions are with those who are kind of required to accept my quirks and eccentricities because they’re called “my kids”, and not push myself out into the world to try new things and potentially face having more of my rough edges worn off in some exquisitely painful way.

I’m so much better now at actually making myself show up for things, even whenever everything inside me is screaming “Go home to your couch and Netflix! Don’t face rejection.  Don’t have yet another conversation with a complete stranger. Don’t try another thing that you may be horrible at.” It seems that when I ignore this voice and go do things that feel really hard to me anyway, that’s where the magic sauce is.

I remember years ago, one of my friends talking about how she could never be as brave as me.  I recall laughing so incredibly hard at that.  She had never seen me at my worst, never really knew the depth of anxiety and fear I have fought against since my childhood.   She never knew how many times I put on a “mask” and pretend I’ve got everything under control, when secretly I wish a big hole would open up and swallow me.

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The tough thing about choosing to do hard, scary stuff in life is that you can never really know for sure which ones are going to result in faceplants. Some change direction mid-course too…..what once looked brilliant suddenly takes a nosedive, or what seemed doomed from the start unexpectedly becomes amazing. While I’m writing this I”m thinking of some of the things I’ve done in life that scared me the most, and how they ended up turning out:

  1. Going on a medical trip to Honduras my freshman year in college with a bunch of people I didn’t know – This one turned out pretty well, and I made some good friends. It also solidified my desire to end up in healthcare.
  2. Joining the college debate team – Yeah, I pretty much sucked at this compared to my decent high school debate showing, but I had alot of fun hitting up Lousiana and Arkansas IHOPs with my debate team.
  3. Spending a summer in West Africa to fulfill my degree requirements: Probably one of the most life-changing and scary things I’ve ever done. Africa gave me malaria but lovingly sent me home with new family and lifelong friends, and an invitation to come back and faceplant again.
  4. Choosing between a PhD program I had just gotten accepted to or move to another state for a guy I met online – Everything seems like a good idea at the time, right? I chose the guy, which ended up becoming a string of faceplants that grew the hell out of me and paradoxically probably ended up being a very good life decision, painful as it has been.  Getting three great little kids out of the deal does not constitute as a faceplant, though.
  5. Submitting that first query letter to a magazine – Nothing is scarier than facing rejection about something that you are passionate about, like writing. Many of my first queries were total faceplants, but then, I got an article accepted for a legit magazine with a substantial readership, and then suddenly all my previous writing failures seemed worth it.
  6. Trying to have a kid without pain medication –  My body ultimately faceplanted here, but I did learn that I have the capacity to do active labor for 30+ hours without pain medication, twice.  That was empowering, even if I still required C-sections.
  7. Turning in a graduate paper on Sayyid Qutb for my Islamic Theology class – this might seem like a dumb thing to be scared about, but I really loved my professor and I really loved the subject….and so did not want to appear completely incompetent.  I think I got an A, and I’m still good friends with the professor. I’m probably not great at Islamic theology overall, though.
  8. Getting a divorce and starting ALL over – This has been a continuing series of small wins and small faceplants.  By far the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and by far the most worth all of my faceplants.
  9. Starting my first nursing job –This was faceplant on repeat.  When you’re learning all that you don’t know, trying to navigate asking intelligent questions while not pissing off doctors for accidentally asking stupid ones, while trying to do good time management and avoid going home two hours after your shift ends, while trying not to look like you’re on the di-la-la yourself from pure exhaustion while handing out Dilaudid to patients…. 
  10. Dating again post-divorce – I think this goes without saying. Dating after being out of the game for over ten years is no joke. I think I’ve committed plenty of faceplants I’m not even currently aware of. But, I pick myself up, reapply makeup to said faceplanted face, and do it again.

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So, why do anything that might potentially result in a faceplant?  Because, as Julia Roberts said in one of the greatest movies of all time, it’s better to have short moments of truly amazing and breathtaking, than spending an entire lifetime on this earth without experiencing anything really wonderful or meaningful. And as unfair as it may seem, life sometimes requires us to work for the really good stuff.   There’s plenty of grace out there, but vulnerability is often the key to getting the greatest gifts.

I would much rather faceplant and make a fool of myself on a daily basis then die and have to tell whoever it was that made me that I wussed out on life because I was too scared to live it, or let it live me….whichever it is.

All of my epic life faceplants have made me who I am today, and they have revealed more of who I am as my authentic self by sometimes ruthlessly peeling off all my protective layers.  Faceplants are proof that you are out there trying, attempting hard things, and growing as a person.

I continue to risk faceplanting because I want my kids to be brave in life and not be afraid to really go for it and give it all they have. If I live too carefully, they might be more likely to approach it timidly as well. I want them to live as fully human as they can, to try all the things that they are passionate about, to refuse to be held back by “what if’s” or “shoulds” or arbitrary rules telling them to play it safe all the time.

Most of all, I want to be able to look back from my deathbed and be able to say, “That was a damn good life.”  Actually, I think I’m one of the lucky ones….my 39 years, faceplants and failures and all,  has already been a damn good life.

 

Forgiveness and the Experience of Accepting “What Is”

forgive
Photo credit: Stefano Corso

My life has not turned out the way I had expected.  Not even close.  In fact, I have learned to never say “never” because when I do, I most assuredly will do the thing I swore to never do.

Way back in high school, I swore I would never be a chemistry major; this was related to PTSD I’d sustained in my junior year chemistry class.  Lo and behold, I somehow graduated from college with a biochemistry degree.

I told myself in college that I never really wanted to have kids.  Now, I have three.

I had planned on going to medical school, moving to some developing country, and NEVER living in the suburbs.  I’ve failed miserably at this last one.  All I’ve done for the last 15 years is live in the suburbs.

I had never planned on marrying someone just to have an unhappy marriage and finally get divorced.  I had never planned on staying in Indiana forever….good grief, I keep ending up back here. I had never planned on waving goodbye to so much of the faith and religious practices of my childhood.

Some days, when I’m really tired, stressed, and overwhelmed, I think: “My life wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I didn’t do it right. I made some of the dumbest choices years ago and can I please get a do-over?!”

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(In this section, the pronoun “they” is used to maintain maximal ambiguity about the person I’m writing about.)

I took care of a patient in the hospital recently whose life did not turn out the way they had expected. This person lay motionless in bed, hour after hour, their body ravaged by a neurological disease that left them contracted and rigid; the only movement this person was capable of was talking, chewing, swallowing and opening their eyes.

As my shift went on and I spent more time with this patient, they told me of all the plans they had made with their spouse to travel around the world and see all they could in their retirement.  Instead, all the funds the couple had saved up was being spent on hospital bills and ambulance rides and home health nurses.

As my patient talked about these things, they cried.  Silent, but hugely expressive weeping, with tears I wiped away with a tissue because they couldn’t move their arms to do so on their own.  I fed this patient their dinner on this shift; bite after bite of minced up ham, then bite after bite of applesauce, and cottage cheese, and pudding.  Forty-five minutes of small spoonfulls they could tolerate without choking.

Through this shift with this one patient, I finally got what Eckhart Tolle means when he talks about extreme presence.   I’ve cared for people before who were completely immobilized – people missing half their skulls from being slammed into by cars, people who were breathing the death rattle of their final hours – but this patient was the teacher that helped me really get it.

This was a time when platitudes wouldn’t do.  There was no point in saying “Everything’s going to be OK”, because everything, in fact, is not going to be OK. There was no use in saying, “Well, at least you can still do….”.

This patient was trapped in their own body and there was not a damn thing that was going to change it. There would be no magic cure. There would be no hope of a different ending to their life. Life had committed to taking this person by restricting what they physically could do at a frightening pace, all the while leaving their mind completely intact.

It seemed so completely unfair, so completely wrong of the universe to jack with a person like this, to completely rip their dreams away from them. These are the moments when it seems quite right to say, “What the fucking hell, God?! What did this person to deserve a death like this?”

Arguing with reality is futile.  This is what Tolle tells us: that fighting against what is, by refusing to accept it...this is what causes our suffering.  But I think sometimes people need others to sit with them in their harsh realities to help make it a little more palatable, a little less lonely.  Ten years ago, sitting with a patient like this would have made me extremely uncomfortable. What do you do for a person that can’t do anything? What do you do when you can’t fix the problem?  What do you do when there are no solutions to try? What do you do when God isn’t offering you decent answers for why this has happened?

There’s a program across the United States called No One Dies Alone, or NODA, for short. This is a program in hospitals where volunteers come and sit vigil with a person who is dying alone, without family or friends at the bedside. I volunteer with NODA at a local downtown hospital, and have sat for hours with the dying. In these cases, there is only one thing to do: not try to “fix” the patients, not try to reach into their unconscious states and convince them not to be afraid of what lies ahead….the only thing necessary, and the only thing possible, is just to BE with them.

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Growing up in the church, I’ve heard all sorts of definitions of what it means to forgive.  However, most of the examples have been complicated and hard to wrap my head around, especially when it feels like the offending person gets off with a free pass. And, most of the explanations are packaged in a theology that doesn’t sit right with me.  But just as hard as trying to understand how to forgive others is learning how to forgive myself for my countless dumbass choices, thoughtless words, selfish actions, and inability to move past so many of my insecurities and neurotic tendencies.

I was walking the dog a few days ago, listening to teachings by Eckhart Tolle on accepting reality. Out of nowhere, I had the realization:  this is what REAL forgiveness is – the acceptance of what has happened and what is happening without struggling against it.

To accept what is means to not fight against what has already happened, saying it shouldn’t have happened, or constantly thinking backward to how you would change things if you could just do them over, or playing through memories again and again about the wrongs people did to you or you did to people.  When we do that, we enter the world of illusion because the past doesn’t exist anymore.  And in fact, what has happened, happened, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.  Fighting against that is just a means of bloodying ourselves against a wall needlessly. Wrestling with the past, and trying to wrestle with the future before it happens, are what cause our mental suffering.

I think back about some of the people in my life that hurt me the most, the ones who gave me lots of mental and emotional baggage to drag around for years. For me to constantly dredge up that pain is useless…what’s done is done.  Trying to outline all the ways they were wrong or horrible or thoughtless does absolutely nothing to change where I am now, and trying to do so leaves me stuck, unable to be fully present right now.

So, this is what I think real forgiveness is: letting what is, be. Refusing to look back and say “If only…..” or “If so and so hadn’t done such and such”….or “It shouldn’t be this way…”.  The fact is, in this present moment, IT IS THIS WAY.  When you think about it, this takes away so much of the burdens we carry around ALL the FREAKING TIME.  If we accept this present moment as it is, and forgive the past by not arguing with it, we are free to do what we can with the present moment.  Either we let it be as it is, or if we feel a change needs to occur, we evaluate our options at that moment and proceed forward after we’ve already accepted what is currently going on.

Forgiveness like this is not a matter of condoning what people do or the difficult circumstances life deals us; instead, it is all about of freedom to live fully right now and not in a dream world of should have’s and could have’s.

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There are a couple of Jesus’ teachings that I’m thinking about here, relating to the past and the future.  In one place in the Gospels, he tells people to come and follow him.  They reply that before they can follow him they have to bury their father. Jesus tells them to let the dead bury the dead.  He’s not being cruel here; he’s making the point that what is dead and gone is in the past….it should not keep you from living in the present moment and doing what you are being called to right now.

In another story, Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about tomorrow, because it will bring its own troubles.  Today, this moment, has enough going on already.

And again, he tells of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and how they do not worry and fret over everything, yet they are cared for, moment by moment.

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At some point, I think we all need to forgive life for not being what we told it to be. We live these short little lives but believe we understand how reality should operate.  We think we know what is best for us, and best for everything around us, and we decide what is good and right for everyone in every situation.

Life smiles, and keeps giving us new moments….now, and now, and now, and now. And really, we have absolutely no control.  Forms come, and forms go; everything is passing.  Clinging to anything is pointless and only causes us hurt.

It’s exhausting to try to cling to the past, present, and future all at once….I know, because I try on a regular basis.  In fact, trying to “figure out” your life and how all the puzzle pieces fit together is an exercise in futility and literally impossible.  There’s absolutely no way that we can understand it all and how we can fit into the great cosmic picture.  Sometimes we can look back and see traces of how life might be guiding us, but even then, we have to be careful to not cling to where we then conjecture life might be leading us.

All there is is now.  To be truly here, right now, we have to let go of our ideas of all that has happened….to forgive it by letting it be and not arguing with how it should have been different, so that we are free to be really alive right now in whatever is currently happening.

When I think about my patient trapped in their body….I think that part of our task is also to help be with people who are in situations so difficult that they might not be able to forgive life on their own. By sitting with them, truly present in whatever circumstances are there, showing them they are not alone in this moment.  Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush wrote a wonderful book called Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Death and Dying, where they talked about dying and how to prepare oneself for death.   I’ve listened to the audiobook multiple times, but I think the title really says it all.  All there really is in this world that we can know for sure, is that we are to walk each other home – not walking each other toward some ethereal heaven that is set in chronological, linear time – but to walk each other into ultimate being and helping each other stay present in every moment of reality, no matter how challenging it is.

When I look at life and forgiveness in this way, they seem so much easier and seem to ask so much less of me than I always tend to think.   It’s like Ram Dass famously says, “Be here now,” and then be here now, and then be here now.