Forgiveness and the Experience of Accepting “What Is”

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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.

 

When You’re Raging in the Kroger Parking Lot

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Photo credit: Madstreetz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Expectations for Life and Why God Loves Rock Bottom

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Photo credit; Hugo Bernard

*I use a masculine pronoun for God in this post simply out of convenience.

A couple good friends and I closed down a Starbucks the other night, catching up after not being together for several months.  These are two of my people – the ones I can get REALLY real with, ask the deep questions with,  and speculate about the point of ALL of IT.

One theme that each of us has struggled with at different points in the last few years is having our expectations for the way life works completely thrown back in our faces.  We thought that if we only worked hard enough, played by the rules, were nice to everyone, and sacrificed ourselves….then, the kinks of life would unravel, we would suddenly find our true purpose and financial security, we would be treated well by all, and would live out the rest of our lives in relative ease and happiness.

Along the way, my friends and I have each discovered that life doesn’t play by the rules, at least not the rules that we were raised to believe. Rather, the best-laid plans can fall apart before our eyes. The people we struggled to understand and love often turned their backs on us or remained just out of our grasp.  Many goals we worked so hard to reach were finally achieved, but with a bittersweet taste left in our mouths as other troubles rose up to join the ones we thought we’d left behind. And when the quiet moments come, we wonder when the other shoe will drop. Was all of our striving for naught in the end? Is life only, as the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, a mere chasing after the wind?

We have each fought hard to cling to life, to let it dance us, to doggedly pursue hope time and again.  But as one of us asked the others, if working hard and doing all the right things doesn’t get one anywhere, what else is there?

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I once heard Anne Lamott say somewhere that God loves rock bottom.  Part of me hates this.  Like, what….God needs us to get suicidal before he can work with us? We need to be beaten down again and again as “punishment” for all of our good intentions and hard work?  And why is life so timely?  You barely start to crawl up from one clubbing only to be throat punched by some other trouble.

I guess if God loves rock bottom, he’s either absolutely hateful, or there is something good that can come from it.

But if I’m honest, the more God bloodies me, the more resilient I’m becoming.  It’s getting harder to knock me back down, and takes bigger blows to get me there.  This kind of battling makes one see what is really worth getting upset over, and it reveals my ego’s own pettiness in the past for getting so riled up over the dumbest of things. Every once in a while I get a little brave and Captain Dan-ish, screaming: ” Is that all you’ve got?  You really think that’s gonna bring me down?”, with a belligerent yet still timidly respectful middle finger held out in my mind.

Remember that praise and worship song from a couple decades back, Refiner’s Fire? I used to like the song, but now I laugh when I hear it because of how superficial it is.   It’s a lovely melody always sweetly sung about how we are simply delighted to be refined in God’s fire to become holy and pure. I can’t help but wonder if the writer of that song had ever suffered.  Suffering is not sung about in major chords to an audience of swaying and softly sobbing onlookers.  Real rock bottom with God feels like a shit-hole, like you’ve been abandoned and there’s no hope for much of anything. When God burns away parts of you that you thought were necessary for your identity and security….that freaking hurts like hell….especially in the dark nights when you’re not sure if he will rescue you when he’s had his way with you.  I think appropriate music for what God often takes us through is much more along the lines of minor chords and death metal, followed up by some mourning bagpipes once he has successfully broken us to pieces.

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Having expectations has never really helped me out much in life, though I still seem to latch on to them. Very few things or people have actually turned out the way I’d expected or hoped.  In fact, the more expectations I have, the more disappointed I end up being all the way around.  But we cling to our stories, don’t we, as though we had such great control over much of anything in the first place?

As I get older, expectations around fairness seem to be absolute folly even though I haven’t been able to rid myself of them.  Life isn’t fair, never claimed to be fair…yet we always put that demand on it. Where did we get that from?  Even the God of the Gospels wasn’t fair in how he treated people.  Maybe he was just, but he wasn’t fair.

It’s like that line from the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe….Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good.  God isn’t safe, but he’s good.  Life isn’t safe, but it’s good.

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How do we know that life is good, that the Divine big picture is working in our favor and not against us?

Though I hate to admit it, I’m coming to realize that rock bottom part is the only thing that can truly show us the inherent goodness of all things.  But it’s really hard, because if we fight against rock bottom, we are so blinded by our suffering that we can’t see anything but ourselves and what we “think” we’re losing. But if we breathe through rock bottom, and let the suffering shake us hard and then pass through, we can find that something pure, something real, remained. Our real selves. The divinely infused core that is connected to all things, is loved completely, and is well.

Even if it seems silly, I believe that from rock bottom springs forth deep magic.  It is the same resurrection magic that transformed the suffering of Jesus into hope and transcendence. Didn’t Jesus say all along that to truly live, to truly understand what is real and lasting, we must die to ourselves? (Or, in Julie’s commentary, we must die to who we think we are – our identities, our stories about ourselves and others, our illusions about the permanence of what is around us).

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So, maybe God really does love rock bottom…not because he wants to see us in pain, but because he knows it is the one place where we can finally be freed of facades, and all the games we play, and all the belief systems we construct, and all of our expectations for how life should work.  Maybe, as Don Miguel Ruiz says, we are born into this life and fall into a dream…and maybe we need a hard shake (or many hard, gut-wrenching, strip-us-bare shakes) to wake us up again.

My 2019 Must-Listen-To Podcast Picks

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I am addicted to podcasts.  In my opinion, the podcast is the best media form that has sprung up in recent years. Not only are they an avenue for disseminating quality information on various subjects, they are also an easy mechanism for even the most amateurish to generate conversation and introduce the world to people and ideas that we simply need to know about.

A few years ago, I did a graduate program at Johns Hopkins in science writing.  We briefly covered podcasts, and I remember one of the professors commenting that podcasts would not be a long term, viable option for generating enthusiasm and communication about science.  I scoffed at that statement then and still do. If anything, podcasts are a way to draw people into topics and ideas that maybe they’d never otherwise take a listen to.

So, without further adieu, the following list contains my favorite and go-to podcasts. Some I’ve listened to for years, others I visit only occasionally, and a couple are either new or ones that I recently stumbled upon and find fabulous.  I encourage you to give these a listen, and pass on any podcasts that I need to add to my listening queue.

  1. The Robcast – What can I say?  I love Rob Bell and his podcast for SO many reasons.  He started this podcast kind of as a lark based on someone’s suggestion and records in the “Back House” in his back yard.  He covers basically everything that delights and intrigues him, from theology to music to people he finds fascinating.  Some days he interviews people, other days he waxes poetic on whatever he is currently chewing on, and recently, he’s done a three-part running commentary series on all the books he’s written.  Bell’s ideas were a theological game changer for me starting about six years ago, and he’s just a crazy fun person to listen to. I am also beyond excited to see him live on his Introduction to Joy tour next month.
  2. Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me  – If you listen to NPR, you should have heard about this radio show/podcast.  If not, go immediately listen to an episode.  WWDTM is a news trivia show featuring some of the best comedians like Paula Poundstone, Mo Rocha, and others.  The show producers manage to find some of the most fantastical and ridiculous news stories to ask the panelists about. Some famous person is interviewed and then pulled into the trivia game as well.  This is my favorite lawn mowing and road trip podcast because it keeps me hysterically laughing for a full hour at a time. One day I will be so lucky as to make it the Chase Bank Auditorium in Chicago for a live taping.
  3. Newsworthy with Norsworthy – This podcast is hosted by Luke Norsworthy, a Church of Christ pastor in Austin Texas, who I happened to go to college with. I didn’t know him well at all, and honestly thought at the time that he was a never-serious, white boy with dreads, youth pastor type. Well, he has impressed me well with this podcast. He’s pulling in great people for interviews, covering a lot of Christian and theological perspectives.  Richard Beck, Shane Claiborne, Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, on and on and on.  And while Luke can be goofy and joke around on his show, he is definitely a deep thinker, and I humbly stand corrected about my first impressions of him.
  4. Sounds True-Insights at the Edge – This is one of the podcasts I’ve listened to for the longest.  I don’t even remember how I found it, but Tami Simon’s ability to bring in diverse spiritual teachers from all walks of life has really worked to stretch my mind. Some of the spiritual teachings that have most helped me were from people featured on this podcast. Pema Chodron, Don Miguel Ruiz, Caroline Myss, and so many others were first introduced to me here. Some of the interviews on this show can get pretty deep, and every so often I’ll listen to an episode where I just don’t buy the teaching at all.  But I very much credit Tami Simon with presenting us with so many spiritual paths to investigate and learn from.
  5. On Being with Krista Tippett – This podcast is another that is actually a radio show. Krista is a journalist who pulled away from her conservative Christian roots to find a broader, more encompassing spirituality.  She interviews theologians, artists, poets, journalists, social justice activists – all in the search of wisdom, meaning, and evidence of our greater interconnectedness.  If you want a podcast where spirituality, culture, and art intersect, this is a good place to visit.
  6. The Rich Roll Podcast-Rich Roll is an ultramarathoner and triathlete with an amazing story.  He was an alcoholic and unhappy lawyer who let the athleticism of high school and college go, finding himself overweight and out of shape. After an epiphany struggling to walk up a flight of stairs one day, along with the encouragement of his wife, Rich turned his life around. He became a vegan and began pursuing some amazing athletic feats, which he talks about in his book, Finding Ultra.  (I recommend reading or listening to this book….it’s really good).Now on his long-form podcast (think 1.5 to 2 hours per episode), he dives deep into conversation with others about fitness, nutrition, spirituality, leadership, self-development, sustainability, and so many other topics. If you want to be inspired to get off your couch and start making some serious life changes, check this podcast out.
  7. Good Life Project – This podcast has something for everyone. Jonathan Fields interviews basically anyone worth listening to these days.  I mean, SERIOUSLY. Brené Brown to Liz Gilbert to Seth Godin to Scot Harrison to Michael Pollan to Courtney Carver to Matthieu Ricard, and a BUNCH of other people that I still need to become aware of.  It’s a show that mixes inspirational stories with motivation to get out and the things that bring meaning and purpose in life. Ya just can’t go wrong with this one.
  8. You Made it Weird with Pete HolmesI first learned about Pete Holmes through Rob Bell.  The two of them are great friends. A couple of years back I was lucky enough to see them on tour together in Boston, and my small claim to fame is that I sat in like the third row of the audience. Pete is a comedian, and a quirky one at that – BUT, he has a deep side, too. He left the conservative religion of his youth but is reconstructing his spirituality now along the same spiritual teacher lines that I am – he name drops Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Richard Rohr, etc, all the time.  And yes, I’m jealous because he’s like the billionth podcaster I know who has gotten to meet and talk to Richard Rohr.  I think I’m going to start a podcast simply so I can try to bribe an hour of Rohr’s time.  Pete interviews a range of people, from theologians to comedians.  His style and sense of humor might not sync with everyone, but he’s worth giving a solid listen to.
  9. Awaken with JP Sears Show– I loved JP from the very first silly YouTube video of his that I saw. He makes fun of everything from eating vegan to using essential oils to “Prancer-cizing”, all to make very good points.  He points out bad logic or our inflexible ways of thinking through a ridiculous persona.  But, also like Pete Holmes, he has a serious side that he likes to express in very non-serious ways. Last year he started an Awaken with JP online community, consisting of weekly videos and a Facebook group.  I was a part of the group for a while (but left only because I needed to divert the membership fee to some other life crisis) and it was really good!  In fact, if you’re gonna join an online group to pursue spiritual awakening in the real world, I totally recommend it. I recently stumbled upon his podcast and have found it to be just another delightful outlet of his personality and what he has to offer the world.  Definitely check him out!
  10. Dance Floor Podcast– I go to a Mennonite church in Indianapolis, and this summer we suddenly had a new guy leading worship. As it turned out, his name was Clint Reed and he and I discovered we used to attend the same church for years but had never met. He and a friend of his, someone I also had mutual friends with but had never met, Larry Mitchell, started up this podcast.  This is a local goodie that opens up the conversation about our doubts, finding connection and meaning, and seeing what God might be up to.  May I especially recommend the episode where my friend, Bob Brown, talks about smashing the patriarchy.
  11. The MinimalistsThe pursuit of minimalism has dramatically changed my life.  And no one can pursue minimalism these days without hearing about Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.  They’ve written books, they go on tour, they have a documentary on Netflix, they have a podcast.  On their show they discuss all different aspects of minimalism, from philosophy to tangible tips to help reduce our consumerism.  The best part: they aren’t the minimalism police.  They’re real people who live in the real world who just want to show others that it isn’t “stuff” that makes us happy.
  12. Main Street VeganAnyone who eats plants should listen to this podcast.  Victoria Moran literally covers EVERYTHING about plant-based eating and vegan living. She talks to medical experts, plant-based athletes, theologians, chefs, clothing designers, animal rights activists, etc….basically every possible nuance of the vegan world.  If you’re plant-based already, or curious about it, give this how a listen.
  13. Another Name For Everything In honor of my birthday this year, Richard Rohr started a podcast.  Just kidding, I tell myself that to pretend like he even knows that I exist. I hope there really is a heaven just so I can finally meet him, since it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen in this life. Richard Rohr is probably one of the greatest single influences on my life, and he has no clue. If you haven’t read his books, like Falling UpwardEverything Belongsetc., you really, really need to.  I’ve been listening to his latest book, The Universal Christ, on Audible and think it might be his pinnacle work. However, if you don’t delve into his books, introduce yourself to him through his podcast, which is a 12-part conversation about the book.

A few other podcasts that I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past and still dip into:

Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and S-Town (I’m an NPR junkie, what can I say?)

The Enneagram Journey and The Road Back to You (great podcasts on the Enneagram, and Suzanne has the best soft-spoken Southern accent – I’d probably listen to anything she said just based on her voice.

The Fundamentalists with Peter Rollins and Elliot Morgan – Rollins is another great theologian (with a fantastic Irish accent) that I learned of thanks to Rob Bell

And finally……a podcast that I haven’t yet listened to but want to simply because the name is fabulous…….Persiflagers Infectious Disease PUSCAST!

What other podcats should I be listening to?

Coming Home to Yourself

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Photo credit: Tim Haynes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Myself On My 39th Birthday…Things I’ve Learned Over Nearly 4 Decades.

 

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Photo credit: Felix

A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 39 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.
  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.

When You’re Tackled Out of Nowhere By Grief

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My mom died just a little over five years ago.  It was one of those terrible situations to find yourself in, where you want a person to live but at the same time you know they’ve been miserable for so long that passing is the better option.

When she died, I flew down from New York to help my dad plan the funeral.  My sister-in-law was due to have her second baby at any time, so the decision was made for my brother to stay with her and not come to Texas.  I can’t even imagine how hard of a decision that was for him to make. I always wonder if he was able to get closure around my mom’s death.

In the days surrounding my mom’s funeral service, I jumped into high gear. I didn’t want my dad to have to worry about anything, and I strove to take care of all the little details that would cause him stress.  My best-friend/cousin Jeana and I put together programs and photographs, cooked meals, sorted through my mom’s things, and worked really hard to ensure my dad held together.

The service felt so surreal. The church was packed with people who knew, loved, and respected my mother and her many accomplishments.  We had dressed her in in a lovely blue dress that she had worn to my wedding years before.  And since the cancer had done a number on her hair, we adorned her head with a pretty brown bob wig that Jeana and I had bought her just a couple of weeks earlier.

In the years since her death, I visit her grave when I’m in Texas, and chat with her a bit.  I jog the two miles from my dad’s house to the Heard cemetery, and sit among the long line of my family’s gravestones, hoping to avoid hidden fire ant dens.  I only cried at her funeral, and then, only when I saw others cry for her. I assumed at the time that I had already grieved, that I was fine.

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My father recently remarried on a mild November day, in the same church that he had married my mother just over 40 years before. In an ironic switch, this time my brother was able to attend, while I couldn’t get away from work and obligations to make the trip from Indiana to Texas.

My father’s new wife is a lovely woman, a person I don’t yet know well, but am still entirely happy to have her as part of the family.  She made my dad happy again and gave him hope for a future once more.  That makes me supremely happy.  Coinciding with his marriage has been my dad’s gradual transition into retirement from over 40 years of managing the Flying J Ranch. He and Fiona moved into the house on my dad’s place that he has been building, meticulously, for almost as many years.  Out of the house that I grew up in, that my mother cooked meal after meal in, with the yard that she valiantly tried to raise rosebushes in, with the front porch boasting an amazing view of the hills and decorated with potted ferns grown out of Emma Heard Nelson’s cuttings.

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I’m now finding myself overwhelmingly, soul-splittingly crushed with grief.

I never saw it coming.

I always wanted my dad to remarry and encouraged him to consider the possibility. I had pushed and pushed for him to finish his house and move in, especially to honor my mother, who had dreamed of that house for their entire marriage and yet never got to live in. I badgered and pestered my dad to retire, telling him it was time that he have the chance to mend his own fences, putz around on his own property, and put an end to bulldozing, tractor driving, controlled burning, and all the crazy stuff he does on a ranch that doesn’t belong to him.

So it caught me completely by surprise when all of these changes began to come about and I was taken over by sorrow, not joy.  After dancing around the subject for months, I’m finally willing to look more closely at where my grief is coming from.

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I lost my human mother, and now it feels as though I’m losing another mother, and with it, my sense of home.

The land that raised me, that owned me in a sense even though I didn’t own it, is no longer mine. It’s been slipping away for years.  We’ve been loosening our grasp on each other since I left for college twenty years ago. I’ve always lived so far away that coming back to the ranch I grew up on became a less and less frequent event.

I always resonate with Wendell Berry’s poems because he knows what it means to be tied to the land and to the animals that live on that land. The bulk of my childhood memories are bound up in that 6,000 acre piece of land in the Texas hill country.

I remember swimming in the river below a field while my father drove a hay baler. I remember all the pasture roads trampled down as I learned to ride by hanging on for dear life to my dad’s feisty mare. I remember birthing calves in the pens with my dad at three in the morning. I remember every field and wood that my dad took me to hunt, where I used the little single shot rifle he bought me. I remember every bump gate and cattle guard, all the best swimming holes, all the amazing vistas that required 4 wheel drives to get to…

And on that huge piece of land, a little ranch house that I lived in for 18 years. A simple hunting cabin that was added onto several times until it grew into a house. It used to drive me crazy as a kid; all the rooms were lined up in a linear fashion and so everyone had to walk through my room to get anywhere. But now, the thought of that house sitting empty, yet still carrying all the memories of my mother, is enough to bring me to tears, and if I’m honest, a little panicky hyperventilation.

The house where my mother cooked the most amazing Thanksgiving meals. The house where I would sneak into the living room and watch old episodes of Cheers in the middle of the night with my dad. The house that my mom worked so hard to keep clean and presentable even with my dad tracking in muddy boots from the cowpen, or greased-covered clothes from fixing a broken down ranch vehicle.  The house, surrounded by cattle pens and tractor barns, grain bins,  and a mechanic shop…

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I think that part of my grief arises from the fact that I’ll never be able to pass any of this down to my own boys.  And I worry that I’m giving them a damn shabby childhood compared to the one I had. We moved so many times in the last 13 years that it’s hard to know where home is. And while Indiana suburbs are nice, they are benign and safe and unadventurous and tame. My childhood was none of these.  Truth be told, I’m lucky to have escaped alive from a  few events that happened back then.

It feels so unfair that I have never been able to really share with my kids the things that were always so important to me growing up. Even when I try, they are treated by others as “city” boys, patronized and shamed for not knowing the “country” way of life.

Now, I literally have less and less from my childhood that I can share with them, and I wonder – will their childhood be good enough?  Will it be rich and delicious like so much of mine was?

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So now I face this grief that tackled me from out of nowhere.  I try to console myself with words from those I trust, like this:

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”
― Rumi

I know that all things are passing, but it’s really hard to let go of attachments to those things that you rely on to ground you, that give you an anchor in life no matter where you go or what happens. I think this is part of the task of living – to let go of our anchors to places and things and the past. I think we sometimes believe when we let go of those anchors, we are denying what they’ve meant to us. And we struggle to believe that life will bring us more good and we will be able to find home again.

I’m trying to give myself space to really grieve now – my mother and the loss of a place so central to my childhood, but it’s hard. I’m afraid to face it head on, afraid that it will be bigger than I can handle.  It seems ironic…I’ve had so many loved ones die in my life, attended so many funerals, let go of so many other things….but this is different.  This feels like the closing of a door and having to admit-fully, completely-that the only thing permanent with me, is me.