Home is…

Photo credit: Mike Finn

You ever just want to go home?

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

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

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

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

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Home As a Person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As a Place From Your Past

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

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

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

Dry Fio Canyon, Shockley Ranch, South Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home as Your Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home as An Aesthetic, Setting, or Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As The Earth and Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As What Comes Next

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

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

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

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

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

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Home As Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are already home.

Stay. Just stay.

Photo credit: Caleb Roenigk

If I ever come to visit you and I end up being late, it’s not because I got stuck in traffic or because I took too long getting ready. 95% chance it’s because I believed I was smarter than my GPS.

I’m a grown ass woman. I understand that in general computers give us good information. I know that GPSs are created to get us to where we want to go in the most efficient manner possible. I know it in my head, but I always believe in my HEART that I know the best, fastest ways to get places.

I’ll frequently plug my destination address into my GPS, look at the options it gives me, and then scoff in disdain, convinced that I have this brilliant route in mind or superior knowledge of the roadway system that will surpass any suggestions my GPS could offer. And EVERY SINGLE TIME, I’m wrong. But, I keep doing it. I know, insanity at its finest. I’ll probably keep doing it, too.

Now you’re forewarned for when you decide to invite me over. Probably tell me I need to be there 30 minutes before I actually do.

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GPS foolishness aside, sometimes in life there is no clear path forward. Or at least, there’s not always a path that you really get excited about taking. Sometimes no matter what choice you make you’re going to end up hurt or devastated or heartbroken. These situations are the worst. Open door A, you get pain. Open door B, you get pain. Oh, and not choosing one of those doors is not an option.

Per my last post about part of my life blowing up a while back, I was presented with one of these super fun choices of pain, or pain. I saw it coming from a long ways away and tried to do everything I could to find a happy ending, a way through that while maybe not pleasant, at least wouldn’t wreck me. Even as I saw what reality was, like the stupid game of trying to fool my GPS, I kept thinking I could conjure up a brilliant backroads detour to avoid the imminent suffering I saw looming ahead.

Dammit. Reality is just like my GPS. I can’t outsmart it.

So, I looked at my two painful options, and I picked one, and everything fell apart, and I fell apart with it.

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As my beloved “adopted” spiritual teacher Pema Chodron says, sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart. Although, if we’re truthful about it, things will often just fall apart without asking our permission first. This is the way of the world. So the real question then, is what are we going to do when everything does fall apart? When we feel like we are at the end of ourselves? When there is no hope? When we suddenly doubt everything about ourselves and are convinced we are unlovable and stupid and nothing good will ever come our way again, and we don’t know what to do next?

These are the places that terrify us, and we try desperately to run away from the horrible feelings that can overwhelm us when everything has fallen apart. We’re miserable but grasping and clinging for anything that can help us find our footing again, to ease the pain for just a moment. And so we drink, we shop, we binge watch Netflix, we search dating sites to find someone who might help us forget our broken hearts, we work relentless hours, we run too many miles when our bodies plead for rest, we ruminate in our minds and try in vain to change reality by thinking of all the should have’s, could have’s, would have’s – if we could just go back in time.

Staying in our broken places, with our hearts open, feeling our feelings and refusing to run away, is the hardest thing in the world, and the bravest thing that any of us could ever do.

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When I was growing up, meditation got a bad rap. This was primarily because the people talking to me about meditation had no clue what they were talking about. In all fairness, they had also been educated on the subject by other ill-informed sources. I was taught that meditation is a New-Age practice where we are supposed to empty our minds, and that’s a bad idea because it just leaves room for demons to jump in. People would often proof text that story from the Bible in the Gospel of Matthew:


“When the evil spirit goes out of a man it wanders through waterless places looking for rest and never finding it. Then it says, ‘I will go back to my house from which I came.’ When it arrives it finds it unoccupied, but clean and all in order. Then it goes and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself to keep it company, and they all go in and make themselves at home. The last state of that man is worse than the first—and that is just what will happen to this evil generation.”

I’m trying even now not to roll my eyes at the weird ways people can use sacred texts to push their own agendas or bolster their own fears.

Anyway, I was leery of meditation until I was in my 30s and started looking more deeply into contemplative Christian prayer and then Buddhist teachings. I finally found out the truth, something that would have been awesome to have learned as a child, that meditation is in fact not about emptying your mind. That’s kind of impossible anyway, unless you cut out your brain or knock out your neurological circuitry. Meditation is about learning not to cling and attach to the endless stream of thoughts that come down the pipeline. It is about learning not to believe all the stories you tell yourself about reality. And very importantly, it is about learning to sit with whatever IS, learning to accept it, know that it will eventually pass, and that none of it will kill you.

Meditation is hard. It’s simple really, but the actual doing of it is hard. I think this is why so many religions at lower levels love the traditional notion of prayer. It allows us to talk and talk and talk to whoever we think is out there listening, and we can complain and offer our wish lists and beg for things to change – basically it gives us a sense that we have a little say so in our situations, or at least a little arguing power. Listening prayer is a step up….we do a little less talking at God and wait for Them to give us direction or a word or inspiration. The thing about meditation though, is that the whole trying to get God to change things or to tell us what to do is not the focus. This is what makes it difficult to do, because we don’t want things the way they are right now. We want them to be different. We want God to fix them, to make our bad feelings go away, to help us feel better and yet again have a clear path ahead of us.

Meditation is about sitting with the way things are right now, not trying to change them. The goal in meditation, especially when everything has fallen apart, is to not run or avoid what you’re feeling. It is about teaching you to stay with the uncomfortable feelings, riding their waves of intensity, know that they are impermanent and will pass.

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I am very aware of the things I do to try to avoid pain, or things I can do to give myself that little pleasure kick of dopamine to feel better when I’m not happy with reality. During the morning it’s coffee, jolt after jolt. In the evening it’s a glass of wine to take the hard edge of sharp feelings off. It you see me post on FB a ridiculous amount within a short timeframe, it’s either because my FB friends are seriously curating quality content that particular day, or it’s because I’m trying really hard to avoid feeling something. I’m good at running non-stop with project after project so I don’t have to stop and feel the feels that hurt. I listen to podcast after podcast, or audiobook after book, to try to figure out ways to actively change my situation, instead of allowing myself to sit with it and accept it. None of these things are all that bad inherently, but they set me up for prolonged suffering and the illusion that I have control over more than what I do. And I usually just end up exhausting myself anyway.

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I was talking with someone I know the other day briefly about active mediation versus passive mediation. Some people prefer to meditate while moving – doing yoga or walking or something like that – because sitting meditation doesn’t appeal to them or it seems too “Eastern” and unfamiliar. I’m all about active mediation. I feel like biking long miles is a good place for me to focus. Swimming lap after lap is cathartic for me, and feels very meditative, because there is so much focus on the breath. Inhale, exhale, all in a rhythmic pace…necessary to make sure you don’t lose your breath. Just you and the water and breathing.

I also think that sometimes certain “adventure” sports are great meditative experiences because you have to focus so completely on what you’re doing that you can’t pay attention to you brain’s thought pipeline. Rock climbing for instance. Probably not the best time for you to ruminate about the past when you’re looking for that next solid foot or handhold that will save you from crashing from a fall.

But in the end, I think that active meditation has its limits because it still allows input from the person doing it. It still gives that since of “you’re doing something to contribute to the situation, to change.” Maybe we don’t have to fully accept things as they are then, we don’t fully come to the end of ourselves, until there is nothing left for us to do but just sit and feel and allow.

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Hmph. Listen to me, talking like I’m a meditation expert or something. I am most certainly not. I probably know just enough to get myself into trouble….but it also feels like I know just enough that it is helping to save me right now.

A few years ago I went to an 8 hour Buddhist-Christian meditation retreat. It was the first formal meditation I’d ever done in a group, and I think I slept for about four of the eight hours. I was very proud of myself, though, because I slept those four hours sitting up and I don’t think I ever let out any audible snores.

That experience was really painful for me though, because I didn’t know enough then about what can happen when you first start meditating. I didn’t know that when you first learn to get quiet, all the junk that you’ve been working so hard to stuff down for your entire life suddenly begins to float to the surface. I was so shocked when, sitting there peacefully before one of my intermittent naps, that memories and emotions were flying into my awareness like gangbusters, and it was OVERWHELMING. I left the retreat angry and agitated, and certainly not excited about meditation like when I arrived.

Later I learned that this was normal, and that meditation is all about letting whatever is going to arise, arise. You don’t fight it, you don’t try to figure it out, you don’t try to fix it. You just let it come, and then you let it go.

Pema Chodron tells a story in her book When Things Fall Apart about a childhood friend who had recurring horrible dreams where monsters were chasing her. In every dream she ran away from them, but was always pursued, and she would wake up after these dreams obviously upset. Pema asked her one time what the monsters looked like, and her friend replied that she didn’t know, she had never looked at them. Her back was always to them as she ran away. So, the next time she dreamed this dream, she turned around in the dream to face the monsters. They saw her turn, and stopped a ways away from her. They all looked different, just various monster types. And then, one by one, they faded away. And Pema’s friend never had this nightmare again after looking at the monsters head on.

This is what we are doing in meditation. We see what comes up, and we look at it headon. We don’t shirk from the feelings that come up in us. Because they will pass.

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I meditated a fair amount in the past and then gave it up. It felt more like something I “needed” to do to become woke, to become more aware, to move farther down the spiritual path. But lately, I have been drawn back to it again as a matter of desperation. I no longer want to endure pain in vain. I want the pain that comes my way to be transformed into something that benefits me and benefits others. And so while meditation once felt like a chore, it now feels like a comfort, a respite, a place where I can compassionately allow myself to feel all the hurt and despair with soft hands and an open heart.

And part of it is because I trust others that have gone down this path before me. As the author Susan Piver calls them, explorers of the shadows, the patron saints of darkness. Part of what has gotten me personally into so much trouble is that I’ve spent most of my life doubting myself and not trusting my own inner wisdom. I’m learning to do differently now, but I’m also smart enough to know not to reinvent the wheel of how to deal with suffering. Do I absolutely believe down to my core that therapy, and meditation, and trauma work, and good self care and all of these things will heal my broken places and get me to where I want to go? No, not yet. But I know the people that I can trust…the ones who have been through their own dark nights of the soul and made it out, who were able to transform their pain, the ones who can now help show me the path. There are certain GPS voices that I know most of the time better than to argue with.

Ultimately, I think the scariest thing you can do in life is to sit in your darkness….to just STAY….and let it teach you. It takes a crap ton of courage to befriend the hard things and take on your own suffering when you really aren’t sure you know how to do it or when/if it will ever end.

But going back to the options of pain I mentioned earlier. There are two kinds of pain, usually. There is wisdom pain (aka GPS pain). This is the pain that will take you where you want to go. It hurts like hell at the time, but it will transform you and heal you over the long term. And then there’s the pain that comes from you trying to avoid hard things, negotiate with life, and causes you to habitually make stupid decisions over and over. It’s the pain of being on a hamster wheel of reliving the same kinds of scenarios like Groundhog Day, only getting short term relief here and there from your coffee and wine and Netflix binges and dating sites, because you’re afraid to look at your big life monsters once and for all. (Here I go again, totally mixing metaphors). It’s the kind of pain that results when you keep going back to the same kinds of people that have repeatedly hurt you, instead of stopping to figure out what core thing you believe about yourself that is compelling you to do that.

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I’m trying really hard to sit in my “damn it, everything just fell apart!”-ness. To do it compassionately. I’m trying really hard not to find ways to distract myself. Although, I am a little miffed with the universe tonight, because I suspect it helped me unknowingly misplace my ID so I couldn’t buy the wine I wanted at CVS to take the edge off the big feelings I was feeling at the moment.

I am kind of proud of myself though. Because, for once, with something really important in my life, I took the route recommended by the figurative GPS. I picked the wisdom pain. I didn’t want this pain in the short term; I really wanted the other thing….the thing that I thought maybe I could manage to hold on to for a while by grasping and clinging.

But, I finally chose myself. And choosing myself meant choosing the right kind of pain. I decided at a certain point that I do not want to keep repeating the same life dynamics over and over and over, thinking that I could create a new ending, a new destination for the same roads I kept taking. I decided to stop and look at all the huge monsters in my life once and for all. I”m trusting all the great explorers of darkness that it is the right choice and that transformation will come if I just stay with all that has fallen apart, allow all the arisings, and remember that pain will come, and then it will go…right on time.

God in Pretty Boxes

Photo credit: Liz West

A post….in which… I am processing, meandering, and maybe not making a lick of sense. Here it is anyway.

Suffering is GRACE.

This sounds absurd…even more so as I type it out. And you’re probably thinking, Julie, that’s messed up. How can you say that horrible things happening to people is grace?

Well, first of all, I’m not the first person to say it. Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass’s guru, said it 50+ years ago in India, for one. And if someone can live in India and see the extremes of poverty and desperation that exist in places there and still say that suffering is grace, there must be some validity to it.

But…I don’t think suffering as grace is the end goal. I think suffering is the vehicle that moves us to greater freedom, greater love, and greater awareness of what matters…and because of that, it’s grace.

It sucks though. If I had been consulted in the beginning of all things….if there was a beginning to all things…I would have tried to pick a way to avoid pain and suffering to be the path creation must walk to awaken. That being said, I wasn’t consulted, so the best I can do is work with what appears to be the process and trust that there is a far greater intelligence out there that is wiser and can see the vaster picture of how everything is interconnected and everything belongs.

While I don’t necessarily like it, I agree with Maharaj-ji that suffering is grace. Because I have felt it in my own life and I’ve seen it in others’ lives. Granted, on the grand spectrum of suffering, I probably fall on the “lesser” side, but suffering is suffering, and trauma is trauma. It doesn’t matter what your external life looks like for you to be rocked to the core by things that happen to you, or PEOPLE that happen to you. It seems pretty clear to me that suffering is the trigger for transformation. If we didn’t face hard things….things that absolutely undo us….then we wouldn’t be so motivated to question the status quo, or search beyond ourselves, or be willing to do the necessary shadow work to get to a better, healthier place.

I don’t seek out suffering, though, for sure. And at some point, as Byron Katie teaches, I think that suffering (not pain or bad things, but chronic struggle can enshroud those things) is optional.

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Not all that long ago, a major part of my life blew up in my face. And it has wrecked me.

I saw this blowing up coming for quite a while, I knew that it was going to happen, and I knew it was going to hurt, but the exact moment and context in which it happened….I didn’t see that coming. I was blindsided.

It’s been one of the worst things I’ve experienced in my entire life, and in some ways, it brought me to the end of myself. I literally did not know what to do for a while, moment by moment. It has manifested itself as weeks of not depression, but something better described as sheer desolation….a feeling of a heavy weight sitting on me that I can’t rid myself of. A feeling of walking around with the wind chronically knocked out of me. A feeling of wishing I could get in the shower and scrub away my insides and all the uncomfortable feelings and pain that I don’t’ know what to do with. And with it that feeling of a raw, oozing wound where your skin has been ripped away. Because this big blowing up didn’t just unveil the dysfunction covering a short time frame of my life….it ripped wide open a big, deep, tunneled wound that has been with me since I was very little….a wound that I never knew was as extensive as it is. THE wound that has been influencing the trajectory of my life.

It was that kind of ripping open a wound where you can’t just shove the skeleton in the closet and ignore it anymore. (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, can’t help it. Work with me.) It was the big wound ripping where you either have to face it and recognize that you need to get some serious healing and make some big changes in how you operate in life, or…..the less favorable option….you go into absolute denial about it all and keep operating as normal, trying to pretend like that ‘thing” isn’t there and isn’t bleeding all over the place.

For a long while, and still part of the time, this does not feel like grace. It feels like deep, soul suffering. The kind where all your hurts and insecurities from your entire life just bubble up to the surface and you can’t escape them, and you feel completely betrayed and alone and lost all at once, and you really just want to tell absolutely everyone who ever hurt you to go fuck themselves.

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Life is messy. And hard.

When I was a kid, I hoped and believed if I just stayed the course, did everything the “right” way, stayed out of trouble, and tried to give my best to the people around me, I would get to adulthood where everything would suddenly make sense. It was kind of a disappointment, then, when I finally reached adulthood and realized that grown ups had their shit together far less frequently than I had imagined. Being the perfect Christian girl until my mid twenties only served me up to a point, as well.

The kind of religion I was handed for most of my life was the “God in pretty boxes” type. I was never really introduced to a solid theology of suffering. OK…well, in youth group and summer church camp we had graphic details about the suffering of Jesus on the cross thrust into our faces that shamed us into running down the aisles to apologize as quickly as possible and beg forgiveness for torturing someone before we were ever born. I can still recall all the times people have felt the need to describe in graphic detail what the experience of being whipped by a cat o nine tails and nailed to a cross is like, and exactly how death would come about. (Can we say spiritual abuse, trauma, and horrible manipulation to try to get people to ‘come’ to Jesus?) The memory of altar calls after viewing of the Passion of the Christ make me want to vomit. That is a twisted way of introducing people to Jesus.

Sorry, sidetracked there for a second by things that still really piss me off. Where I was going with this is that we learned about the suffering of Jesus, but we were never given a solid theology for how to allow suffering and pain to transform each of us individually. The lessons were mostly about 1)just pray more, 2)figure out where you’re sinning in your life because that is probably the root of your suffering, and 3) hang on tight because once you get to the sweet by and by all of the stuff that happens on earth will suddenly be irrelevant and you’ll feel better.

I do not like ‘hang on until Jesus comes back” theologies. This is God in a pretty box that is minimizing, propagates abuse, and is disempowering to people….implying that they should just wait for a rescuer instead of realizing the divinity and resources within, allowing themselves to be transformed, and creating change right here and now and instead of just assuming this life is a wash and there’s no hope in bothering to try for better.

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I’ve been doing ALL the things I know of to put myself back together…in a new way. Now that I know how big this life wound is, I don’t want to keep living with it. I’ve turned to my trusted spiritual teachers, my close friends and kindred spirits who have walked the difficult paths before and know the way, meditation, tapping, psychotherapy, improving my diet (OK, except there’s a little too much wine involved), exercising, sleeping, etc…all the things that I know to do to heal. I’ve found myself lately turning to the late teacher Ram Dass. His book Walking Each Other Home, which he wrote with Mirabai Bush, is one of my favorite books of all time. Now, this week, I just finished listening to his autobiography called Being Ram Dass. I was reminded of his saying about “Fierce grace”. Fierce grace is the grace that comes with it’s companion of pain, to teach you and radically transform you. It doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box or a pill that is easy to swallow.

The reason I feel desolated (barren or laid waste) and not depressed, is that somehow I can see that this blowing up of my life is fierce grace. I didn’t choose it, it hurts like unbelievable hell….but, it has revealed the big thing in me that has held me back my entire life. This pain is showing me the path forward. And in a really bizarre way, as I look a the timeline of what has happened, and the “uncanny coincidences,” and the knowledge that I’ve finally hit the motherlode of my broken places., and even though I’m miserable, I feel strangely loved. Like God said, it’s time Julie. You’ve done some good work up until now. You’ve done years of therapy, you’ve asked the hard questions, you’ve looked inside. Now it’s time to go all the way.

Another example of how God does not come in a pretty box. They make you feel like shit and yet abundantly seen and cared for all at the same time. How’s that for a weird theology.

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Working in infection prevention, I read about surgical site infections all the time. For one of my graduate classes, I did clinical hours in the wound care clinic of my hospital with my mentor and friend, our resident infectious disease doctor. The interesting thing about wound healing, is sometimes you have to injure to heal. You’ll find an area of tissue that looks suspicious, and you cut away the superficial layers to find necrotic, dying tissues underneath. So, you cut out the dead tissue. Wounds can get stuck in the first stage of healing and never improve, and so you have to cut away more, and even cause additional bleeding, to encourage new, healthy cell growth.

Debriding wounds is often painful. But it’s necessary for long term healing.

I feel this way with my life. God has been peeling back the layers, one by one, slowly, slowly…as I’ve been able to handle it…to show me the dead places, the places that had been damaged. And then, it seems, they decided it was time to just rip the last of it away.

It is time for me to bleed, so that I can heal. Paradox.

This is not a safe God. Or a tame God. It is the not the neatly wrapped God that is so often presented to the world, with the message “If you just accept Jesus, and pray more, everything will be fine and you’ll experience God’s blessings.”

Maybe this is the epitome of a loving God, though. A God that is not content to let me keep groveling along in the same hurtful life dynamics over and over and over.. A God that would rather see me experience excruciating misery for a short while so that I can get the real healing and security that I’ve always wanted.

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When I was little, growing up in church, so much was about appearances. We had to look like we had it all together when we showed up on Sunday morning. I used to hate Sunday mornings, because so often we did NOT have it together as a family. But once we hit the church pew, you’d never know otherwise. It was such an ego trip…trying to appear as though as good Christians we were trucking along just fine and not struggling with our humanity or doubts or temptations.

The God in a pretty box that was handed to me so often when I was growing up is that you get to God by doing it right. I think this is bullshit. You get to God by doing it wrong. Also , Richard Rohr says that, so expert witness there.

You get to God by being wrecked, and coming to the end of yourself, and knowing that there’s not a damn thing you can do to earn their approval or love. But, you have to dig away at all of those wounds, too, to cut away the beliefs and lies and misperceptions that haven’t served you.

The funny thing about pain is that sometimes it (the bad pain, not the pain that comes with healing) becomes familiar, and so you learn to stay with it, because the places and people that don’t cause you pain feel unfamiliar, and “other”, and therefore uncomfortable. I used to wonder why women in abusive relationships kept going back again and again instead of kicking that guy’s ass to the curb. I get it now….if abuse and being treated badly is all you know, and you believe you don’t deserve better or that you won’t be able to make it on you own, you settle for that abuse. It is familiar and comfortable, even if it is painful. I’ve got my own familiar places….the ones that feel like home because that’s what I’ve always known, how I’ve always been treated by certain people in my life….but those places are death. Just because something feels familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or loving, or good. And sometimes it take the fierce grace of ripping open a wound to help move you out of your ambivalence.

Sometimes the horrible, unfamiliar pain…is the healing kind.

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The thing about healing from trauma and emotional pain and abuse in your life is that at some point, you have to make a conscious choice to move forward. I know from experience that it is easy to spend years in therapy recalling every bad memory of every bad thing that happened to you, and every person who was behind it. But, this can only get you so far. I think if you’re not careful, and you insist on ruminating on these memories, or trying to conjure up every single bad memory you had for labeling purposes, it is too easy to self-identify as a victim. It feels good to the ego when you bring up another horrifying memory to your therapist and they sympathize with you and say how unfair that situation was. It’s a necessary thing for a while, especially as you are trying to figure out your core beliefs about yourself and identify your childhood wounds. But after a while, those memories are just memories, and hashing through each one and assigning blame, again and again, leaves you stuck.

One therapist I have seen in the past told me about a client she had (no privacy or patient identifier violations occurred) that had horrible PTSD from being in a house fire as a child. As they worked through her traumatic memories, sometimes the patient would go so deep into her PTSD that she would crawl behind and underneath the couch, completely reliving the horrible scenes from that fire. Apparently during one session, the client stayed behind the couch for an entire hour. My therapist told me about telling the patient that it was OK to go to that place for a while….to relive what had happened and try to feel safe in the midst of it, but she couldn’t stay there forever. At some point, she had to come out from behind the couch.

This is how I feel. The hurting part of me wants to cower and hide and not face the scary, painful things that have happened to me. I don’t want to look at the abuse. I don’t want to have to question my negative beliefs about myself. You have to pull things up to the light to do that, you have to cut away at tissue to bring bleeding and more healing….and that hurts.

But then I think about this idea of God or divinity or Source, or whatever the heck it is that I can’t seem to stop believing in. I remember many times as a child and teenager, praying fervently to my understanding of God at the time, to never let me pull away or stray. I would ask God to please help me stay close and pursue them no matter what happened in my life.

And while my theology and world views have dramatically changed, I cannot deny that there is this God-Being-Energy-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that has been with me relentlessly, who has shown up in the places that I least expected it. It has never been a God in a pretty box. Usually they show up with super painful circumstances in tow, and alot of hard lessons to learn. But I can say with certainty that they have honored my childhood request…they have always been there, and they have always offered me grace after grace….as undeserved and as fierce as it may be.

Life in the Deconstruction Zone

I think maybe the point to life is to take things apart, and then put them together again.

Either that, or it’s just my particular lot in life. All the things I once thought for certain in my teens and early twenties…..they’ve mostly all been torn down and are in varying stages of being recreated. I like almost all that I’m building, but dang, there’s usually a crap ton of pain and uncertainty that occurs in the tearing down and in between stages.

When I die and get to heaven or whatever happens after THIS, I’m going to ask God why they ordered things the way they did. Why did they allow immature people with little to no life experience give birth to children, and why do children have to spend the rest of their lives reacting to, healing from, and launching away from the hurts and patterns and beliefs they internalized when as little ones.

On one hand, it’s feels damned sadistic….another one of those cosmic games like the heaven/hell evangelical theology I’ve rejected. On the other hand, I can kind of get on board with the idea that to truly understand the Light, to truly love, to truly grow and become wise, there has to be darkness. And if I stretch my brain really really hard and squeeze my eyes as tightly as possible, I can almost imagine that maybe in the Big Picture….the BIGGEST PICTURE panned back as far as all things can go….maybe the darkness is not quite as terrible as it seems when we’re up close and personal. Like, maybe it’s the phrase that I love and tattooed on my arm….everything belongs. I think I have to believe that because if I didn’t, nothing would matter anymore. Ugh. It still feels cringy though.

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I was talking with a mentor doctor of mine the other day. He’s wicked smart, but he’s also gentle and wise. And when he tries to retire I’m going to sneak into the HR offices and totally mess up his employee file and resignation letter in some brilliant way so that he’s forced to stay on as long as I’m employed there. Please don’t warn him or HR of this.

He and I were discussing the challenges of getting through life well, and moving past the hard things that hurt you. His response was that everyone needs a handful of people, anywhere from about 3-5, throughout their life, that really step in and latch on and help show you how to carry your pain and transform it. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but this is my paraphrase through a Richard Rohr filter.

I agree wholeheartedly with him. I actually think I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve had more than 3 fo 5. Somehow, I’ve had at least 2 people walking me home through almost every stage of my life. Some of those stages had more people, some fewer. But I’ve never walked alone. It’s these people, who won’t agree to be pulled down in your pain with you, but who will repeatedly hold a hand out to pull you up, or to shine a light for your next step, or to run ahead laughing in their own joy while calling back over their shoulder to you that all manner of things will be well…these are the people that have make all the difference in a life.

Every single time I’ve had to deconstruct something big in my life….whether it was my theology, or my marriage, or difficult relationships, or my inner wounds, or my prejudices….people have been there to help lead the way, rooting me on as I started to reconstruct, lego block by lego block, my new understandings of the Divine, my new belief systems about myself, my new ways of being in the world.

These kinds of people help show you its not the end of the world when it feels like the end of the world.

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I have a bachelor’s degree from a billion years ago, in Missions….where I obviously took alot of Bible classes. One class that I took that completely rocked my world at the time was Revelation, with Dr. Ian Fair. Up until that time, I only knew of the premillennialist teachings of the Southern Baptist tradition that I grew up in….I just didn’t know the official term for it at the time. I remember the first day of class, and Dr. Fair told us to remember two specific names of Catholic theologians that had done tremendous work on breaking down Revelation and the Pseudepigrapha. A husband-wife couple, John Jay Collins and Adela Yarbrough Collins. Ha! Aren’t you proud of me for remembering those names from an undergrad class I took 21 years ago?

This class taught me that a literal reading of Revelation was only one basic way of doing it, and that there were multiple other views developed with ample scholarship behind them. I relished that class…it was fascinating to me. Mostly because I never completely bought into my church tradition’s understanding of Revelation…I thought it was kind of stupid and far fetched, but never had the guts to say so. As a result of this class, I quickly became an amillennialist with moderate preterist views. Or to put it succinctly….what was written about in Revelation wasn’t nearly as much about the end times for all of us, but was directly related to the plight of the Jewish nation under the Roman Empire.

Anyway, my view on Revelation is not at all why I bring this up. My whole point is that somehow….during this amazing class…I never retained the understanding that the world apocalypse, literally means “unveiling”. Oh. My. Word.

My friend Meagan pointed this out to me a while back at a point when I was literally coming undone. She referenced a daily meditation that was written by my beloved Richard Rohr. In it he talked about this unveiling, and how the apocalypse and laying bare all the things that really are as they are, can feel like the end of the world. Sometimes the truth is not soft and gentle and welcomed; it can hurt like a bitch.

But, what if this painful unveiling is really not the end, but the starting point. (Maybe also, this is what is meant about the idea of Jesus returning. Not that he’s going to separate the saints from the sinners, but the idea that when we think that all is absolutely lost and ready to burn, we will see the Big Reality, have understanding, and realize that nothing is lost and we’re just getting started.)

Richard Rohr always rocks my world, and he came through this time again. What if what I thought was an ending was really a beginning? What if seeing the truth about people and learning who they really are, or having to throw out beliefs that no longer serve you, or having to recognize that something you wanted is not going to come to fruition, are merely starting points?

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I’m amazed, even at my age, at how fucking cruel some people can be. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Which is funny because I’ve been intimately acquainted with cruel people at multiple times my life. I cognitively know that people can be terrible, but down deep I always have to convince myself that it really can be true. It blows my mind on a regular basis.

I’ve been knocked down hard, several times, by people being absolutely horrible. Cut deep.. Wondering what the hell I did wrong. I’ve lain on the ground, thinking “I might not get past it this time. This is too big; the truth is going to kill me; I’m going to bleed out”. This usually happens because I naively trust people I shouldn’t, or ignore the warning signs, or believe that love and grace can dramatically change things. All because of my difficulty in accepting that people can be cruel.

But I”m finally learning. I’m taking apart the logic that no longer adds up, piecing apart the hope that everyone is trying to move towards the Light instead of away from it; I”m allowing the painful truth to finally be unveiled, and I”m looking at it head on.

These are the deconstruction zones. When cruel people try to break you and you choose to change the patterns that allowed them to hurt you in the first place. When your theology no longer adds up. When your head is spinning and you can’t figure out which way is up but you are determined to do life differently. But taking apart your life, even voluntarily, hurts. It feels like seeking the truth is a dying.

This is the part where you have to face the pain and sit with it (or lie on the ground with it). I think this is akin to John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. When you don’t have any certainty about anything but you just make yourself stay…and keep staying….and finally learn that when you’re at rock bottom you will either be sustained or you won’t. And somehow, in a really weird way, you are sustained just by the fact of knowing that you have no control. You just accept what is. And you live. After a while of laying in that pain, you recognize that you can still feel yourself. Your breath is still moving in and out of you. You didn’t die. Despair paused at your doorpost for a moment and then passed by. And, you gain Truth that is bigger than the past little truths that your old life was built on.

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According to Rohr this deconstructing and reconstructing life, or as he terms it “order, disorder, reorder”, is a pattern that has to happen again and again in life. Sometimes this idea makes me crazy, because it seems appealing to think about getting to a place of perfection. The disordering part of the pattern is so painful. I like the nice, ordered parts where I understand how life works and where I stand.

But then, at the same time, I look back on my life, where I started from, and where I am now. I’ve done some significant tearing things apart, working through the pieces, and putting them back together, and I like the Me now a whole hell of alot more than the me of even five years ago. I think maybe I’ve learned that as painful as they can be, this pattern of dying to live ultimately results in more joy, results in more meaning. Fear gradually is replaced by curiosity. Its like you are suddenly more willing to do hard things that ask alot of you because it is more worth it for you to see what is on the other side than to stay where you are and never engage in life. You start trusting that you will be carried through the dark nights and the morning will come again at some point.

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I think anger plays a role in this cycle as well. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a space for anger. My anger was either minimized or I was patted on the head while someone laughingly said, “Look how cute Julie is, she’s mad!” Bible verses like “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” further cemented the fact that me being angry wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And so I learned to cope in other ways when I was wronged or hurt. As a child you do what you have to.

But as adults…yeah, sometimes I think we have to get crazy angry at the injustices done to us, whether intentional or unintentional. I don’t mean raging in a way that harms others, but true, righteous, motivating anger. Anger that says you will no longer allow yourself to be treated in certain ways, anger that calls out hurtful and bad behaviors that were perpetrated against you, anger that is motivating and says you’ll be damned if you’ll let others or situations make you a victim any longer.

Sometimes its this anger that will help you start deconstructing old patterns in your life. And then, sometimes it feels like you might be angry forever….at those people, at those things done to you, at those societal values that were pushed on you and hurt you, at those institutions and systems that repressed you. But after a while, with the help of that apocalyptic truth you discovered when you thought you might die, you start building again. Creating patterns and relationships and belief structures that resonate with you….and you thank anger for helping protect you and for serving you, and then you let it go because you don’t need it anymore…..or at least not until your next deconstruction project.

It feels like the cycles we see in nature. You die, you lay dormant a while, then you spring to life after that time of being quiet and still. The cycle repeats. Then there’s spiral dynamics at play, because in our lives every time we allow ourselves to go through that painful cycle of order, disorder, reorder, we keep growing and moving forward to places we haven’t been before. And every single time we survive one of these cycles, it takes something so much bigger to knock us down…..and we recover so much faster, with increased resilience after every blow….because we have learned that we will be sustained, and that there is always light after darkness.

All the Things in the Middle

I have this troublesome trait of tending toward all or nothing. When I latch onto things, I usually dive all in. I frequently experience big pendulum swings in how I approach new projects, ideals, and just about everything else. I can be wicked intense, too often for my own good.

I’ve been working really, really hard on improving this, because while fierce loyalty and commitment and doing deep dives are often necessary and can do alot of good when solid buy-in is needed, this steering wheel jerk hard to the right or left often causes me to be miserable and get stuck – both in relationships and in what I consider to be my responsibilities in life.

It seems pretty clear to me when parts of my life get stuck with my rigid thinking of this or that, black or white, all or none, I pay the price in specific ways. The following are a little of what I’ve been discovering and pondering over the years.

What Is Mine, and What is Not

The other day I was driving back country roads to work, listening to NPR. A story came on about how the concrete industry is contributing massively to the climate problem. My ears perked up (I kind of geek over environmental policy and stuff) as I listened to the reporters talk about innovative ways to make concrete while diminishing the deleterious effects on the atmosphere. Midway through the broadcast, I immediately began trying to formulate ways in my mind that I could help the process, that I could contribute something useful to the science of concrete manufacturing, and I was wondering how I could reduce my use of concrete in life.

Try not to roll your eyes so hard. I was really doing this. Earnestly.

This is just one of many examples in my life where I try to take on problems that are not mine to carry, and are not problems that I am even equipped to solve. And even if I dramatically reduced my concrete usage ( I have no clue how I would even do that), my miniscule efforts would have literally no impact on the overall global concrete usage. Yet, there I was, at 8 in the morning, stressing about how I was single handedly ruining the environment because I have a cement driveway and sidewalks in front of my house.

I have SKILLZ, y’all, in taking on what is not mine. But it’s not because I’m selfish or greedy or think I need more to be happy. My big problem has always been twofold, depending on the situation, although sometimes, both of the following have felt true: 1) I’m not enough, meaning that I have to make up for my deficits and prove that I deserve to have a place in this world, and 2) I’m too much for everyone, and so I have to help everyone deal with my intensity and “otherness” by making their lives easier and filling in whatever gaps I perceive in their lives that I could have possibly contributed to or could address..

If I can just make this problem go away, or if I can help this person and make his/her life better, then I will have earned my keep…or I will be less of a burden because I decreased their burdens.

This mentality developed over decades, and like so many things seem to do, they stem from beliefs and untruths that I internalized as a child. I love Jesus, but rigid, dogmatic religion didn’t help me much back then other than to make me neurotic while slapping labels on it that said “piety” and “spiritual”.

It’s kind of funny that just now, at age 41, I’m finally getting a decent sense of what is mine and what is not. I don’t really appreciate the fact that the Universe decided to fast track much of these lessons and compress them into the year of COVID, but…whatcha gonna do? I’m really grateful that I finally believe that it is not my responsibility to fix every problem that exists, and that, in fact, I don’t have to take any sort responsibility for every problem that exists. Stop snickering, you all know I’ve been a hot mess for a long time. There is SO much freedom in finally coming to the deep, true, gut knowing that I am only responsible for a doing my best in a very small chunk of life, and that it is NOT my responsibility to fix people or to single handedly overhaul the world’s broken systems and institutions. Because when you carry the belief your entire life, as stupid as the belief is, that you have to do this…it is WEARISOME. DEFEATING. Makes you just want to check out because it is all impossible.

If I’m honest about it, Life has only really given me a small little plot of people and tasks to tend. And, I’m not responsible for the outcomes. The point is to just live, and do the next thing, and when I know better, do better.

Setting Real Boundaries is a Pipe Dream…Or is it?

Years ago I read a book called Boundaries, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud. I really enjoyed the book, and loved the idea that you could create protective fences around yourself, so that you could moderate what and who you would accept into your personal life space and what you wouldn’t.

Even though I liked the book alot, and thought it would be so freaking amazing to have strong boundaries with people, I sucked at it. I used to have the absolute worst boundaries. Because the thing is, to have boundaries that stay put, you have to believe that you’re worth protecting yourself…that your wants matter as much as the next person’s….that you are not required to take on everything that people want to dump on you.

This is where alot of religion failed me. Or maybe, it was the interpretation and application of sacred texts that failed me. All those great stories about giving people your cloak AND tunic, or how no greater love exists than when you lay down your life for someone else, or how you should just keep turning the other cheek and allow yourself to be assaulted by people who were thoughtless or wanted to exploit you. Clear hyperbole there, folks….I know that’s not what the text said explicitly. But the problem is, when sacred texts are read without nuance and without a good healthy psychological foundation, you can teach people that accepting abusive behavior is loving. That sacrificing your dignity and desires and giving into what makes you uncomfortable for the sake of others’ comfort is virtuous. Misapplication of religious texts in general, and so freaking often, the Bible, is what leads to an absolute obliteration of healthy boundaries and creates codependent, abused, and exploited people….and it also empower those who are in a position to abuse and exploit.

Not all that long ago, I read a new book on boundaries. I picked it up because I kept having that nagging, soul feeling that I was being exploited by specific people in my life for what I could offer without an equal exchange in return. As I did the exercises in the book, I took a hard look at the boundaries in place at the time. And to my utter amazement, it was a STRUGGLE to identify good, solid boundaries. Now, I definitely had some hard core ones that I never waiver on…like “No one is allowed to put their feet on my dining room table, ever”, or “If you want to ride in my car, you put a seatbelt on.” You know, some of the big stuff. But when I looked at more of the specific boundaries, the ones that are more subtle in relationships…well….I realized that most of my fences were trampled down far enough that they could just be stepped over. Except they couldn’t be trampled because they’d never really been built properly in the first place. Because I believed from a young age that those fences were bad. “If we say no to things that come our way in life, then we are thoughtless. If we don’t give when people ask then we are selfish. If we are not vulnerable and transparent with everyone all the time, then we are frigid and uncaring.”

This time, when I read about boundaries, I actually had enough years of shadow work and therapy under my belt to lean towards believing that I”m worth getting to decide who and what comes into my space. Although it still blew my mind a while back when my therapist told me it was perfectly OK and legit to walk away from anyone the first time they wronged me and had not interest in recognizing they did so or trying to make amends. I was seriously like, “WTF? I can DO that? And it doesn’t make me a horrible person?” Pipe dream…(’cause y’all, with certain people, I’ve taken hundreds of hits, day after day, and thought I couldn’t walk away with a good conscience),….and yet, this has been one of the most liberating ideas that I have ever encountered.. That it is my right and freedom to not accept everything that comes my way, and it is my right and freedom to welcome and accept the things and people that I want to. Mind still blown.

By the way, if you want to read an amazing book on boundaries (but be forewarned, you may be like me and feel like someone was videotaping your life secretly and then actually writing a book about you), then check out Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free.

Life is Like a TightRope…but Really More Like a Slackline

I’ve dabbled a bit in Buddhist thought over the last decade, find myself returning to certain teachers again and again, especially in the time of COVID. Buddhism often refers to the idea of the Middle Way…where you avoid overindulgence on one hand, and asceticism and severe restriction on the other. Other philosophies teach, similarly, the ideas of moderation. Some of my favorite progressive Christian thinkers speak of the “both, and…”. Different scenarios in life also make me think of the gray areas that lie in between the polar opposites of black and white.

I’m a rule follower. I always have been, although now I would call myself a recovering rule follower. I like picking a side, whether it’s picking a sports team, or self-identity labels, or deciding clearly what is right and wrong. I like doing this because it lets me know where I stand; it gives me a sense of security, albeit an illusion. I like knowing the rules to play by because life can feel topsy turvy and chaotic when I don’t know the rules of the particular game of the moment.

But, polar extremes have sharp edges. They hurt people. They close our minds up and keep us small. They tether us on short leashes. The place of freedom is to walk the middle places, to know that everything belongs and multiple things can be true at once.

Staying in this middle place is like walking on a tightrope. Though, I actually think it’s harder than that, and is more like a slackline…because there is movement and non-rigidity in the middle paths. It takes concentration, and work, and letting go of judgements and fears and our need for control to stay there. Falling off to one side or the other is the easy route to take. And when we’re tired and beat up and uncertain of where we, and this world, and this life are headed, it can be tempting to just let our focus go, and collapse into our familiar, rigid, sharp places, no matter how deeply and often we and others get cut as a result.

The Problem of Living By Exception

I have learned that one of my greatest faults (as in the fault that hurts me personally the most) is my tendency to deal with people according to their exceptions. There are multiple people in my life that I can think of who have shown me on a daily basis for years exactly who they are, and yet I’ve failed to believe them. I have tended to latch on to those exceptions in their behaviors….where they actually were kind or thoughtful or generous, or even just acknowledged me in a meaningful way…and I held on to those moments, thinking they were signs that the person would change, or move my way, or understand my point of view finally.

These exceptions are polar extremes, and their edges are knife blade sharp.

This is a hard lesson for me to learn, and I’m not really sure why, but I’m working on it. Why do I spend so much time and energy on the people who will never change, who have no interest in changing.? Why do I go to the far ends of their behavior spectrums to find those isolated moments that felt loving to me and hold on to them for dear life? I know in my head that I need to pull back to the middle, and to work off the average of their behaviors and actions. It’s that damned tendency of mine again to fall off to the edges…

Paralyzed by Hope

I once thought that hope was a ALWAYS good thing. There’s my polar extreme thinking again. Because I’ve learned recently that hope can also keep you absolutely stuck and unmoving; it can pull you in to holding tight to people’s exceptions; it tells you to let people machete slash at your boundaries and treat you like shit, and all the while you take it because “there’s always a chance for redemption, right? People can change, miracles can happen, things can get better, one day they will see us for who we truly are.” Hope is what keeps us codependent, abused, exploited, overlooked, dismissed. Instead of allowing us to walk away in search of better, we wait just a little bit longer, rationalizing away our pain and our gut voices that are desperately trying to get our attention.

But, at the same time, you can’t just throw out hope, either, right? Because then, why bother getting up in the morning? We’d all just be despairing or completely emotionless because we would never expect anything to ever change for the better. This is my great pressing question these days: when do you hold out hope for people and when do you leave them where you found them and move on? When do you try to continually resurrect broken situations or worn out projects or fractured systems, and when do you let go of that last flicker of hope? And how do you approach the broken things in life without being directed by cynicism or the fear of exploitation?

The Middle Path of Holding to Ourselves

Glennon Doyle talks about how it is so important to disappoint others as often as necessary so that we don’t disappoint ourselves. This feels like the biggest slackline ever to try and walk. To choose myself before everyone else. To create that space around me that allows in what is good for me and does not allow what doesn’t feel right to my soul. While deep down, my gut tells me this is truth, my fears ask the following questions: “Isn’t this how a narcissist would live? Didn’t Jesus say we must die to ourselves? Don’t we have a responsibility and duty to give to the greater good and sacrifice our wants? What if people need you and you write them off because they don’t feel good to you?”

I have to tell myself repeatedly, often, that each of these statements has a little truth to them, but they are not individually the entire truth. I have to ask myself almost the polar opposite question to get myself somewhere aligned back in the middle. “If I were a narcissist, would I really even be concerned about any of these matters to begin with? And, didn’t Jesus mean that we need to die to our false selves, the illusions of ego and attachment to identity? And is it possible for us to give to the greater good if we are depleted or exhausted or in unhealthy and abusive places? And the biggest question for me, that I have to ask myself again and again and again….why do you have to sacrifice yourself every time for others? What makes their life worth more than yours? And why should you take more responsibility for someone else’s life and health than they do?

Settling

I realized this weekend that I”m really, really tired. There was a long time early in my adult life when I was miserable and depressed, and I didn’t do much. I was beaten up by others for it, and I beat myself up plenty. Now I have discovered that I swung to the other extreme. I’m curious and happy about life, and have taken on more and more. All good things, but way too many good things to fit in my one little plot. And, alongside my curiosity and excitement about all that I want to do and achieve (both out of healthy and admittedly unhealthy motivations), I’ve let myself become paralyzed by hope instead of believing what has been right in my face all along, instead of leaving things where I found them and passing by,

I’ need to come back to the all the things in the middle. The places of balance between rest and activity, work and play, catching and releasing without fear of missing out, knowing what is mine and what is not, and tending my little plot in life with fluid, flexible boundaries that allow in safe people and protect my heart and soul from those people and things that are careless and prone to dropping fragile things.

To Myself on My 41st Birthday…

Photo credit: Gerry Dincher

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

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

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

That’s What SHE Said…

Photo credit: [hailey]herrarasaurus

I’ve haven’t written any posts for a few months. There’s been too much going on…starting a new job, training for some distance running events, grad school, a huge upswing in COVID, trying to be a somewhat decent parent during the midst of all of that….

But I’ve been chewing on something for a while, and now is the time to get it all out in a post. As a warning, this piece is, per the title, going to be about sex. This is the kind of post I would have been mortified to consider writing even just a few short years ago. Now, however, talking about things that feel real and authentic from my perspective seems more appealing than trying to avoid some momentary embarrassment. Still, here’s your chance to bail if you so choose, before I dive on in.

Still here….OK! Final word: this is totally written from a straight girl’s perspective. I totally get and value that there is a spectrum of sexuality and that love and relationships exist in countless forms. But, I don’t have the experience or wisdom to speak to much of them, so I’m just gonna talk about what I know. Also, this is probably going to be a perspective that isn’t common to everyone. I grew up as a conservative Christian, which had a huge impact on the way I approached life for decades, but I think some of the dynamics and things I talk about here will resonate past religious circles.

I do not at all guarantee this post will flow in any linear path; it’ll more likely be a hodge podge mosaic of all of my swirling thoughts, feelings, and convictions about this topic at this point and time in my life. This might be a multi-post series eventually, and yes, there will be sarcasm, and a bit of hyperbole, just to try and get my points across.

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I spent the better part of my adult life hating sex. Seriously. I used to tell my therapist from almost 15 years ago that I would prefer a good slice of key lime pie any day over a roll in the hay. Sex was the biggest disappointment. It was built up in my childhood as something that girls should save themselves for; we were told that that under the umbrella of marriage it would be a gift and amazing and totally worth the wait.

That was not my experience. By any means. I remember thinking early on in my marriage, “Wait, you mean I read all those stupid I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and other similar books and I believed hook, line, and sinker that “staying pure” would be a good thing and well worth the wait?”

When I think back on the stories that I was fed and believed, I want to throw up a little in my mouth. Not because the people that told me the stories were ill-intentioned, and not because the fact that I was a virgin until I got married at 25 saved me from alot of heartache and potential STIs that can come with sexuality commenced in youth. No, I’m angry because sexuality and relationships were framed for me and so many like me in ways that only covered us in shame, a sense of inferiority, and the beliefs that we as women owe something to our male partners. And when you come to sex with this kind of framing, it’s no wonder that it might not seem so great. Sex is clearly physical, but for so many women, it is very, very much a head game as well.

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There is a thread that I see running through much of our culture, even our “advanced”, Western American culture. This dynamic, or pervasive belief, is the idea that somehow the sexualtiy of girls belongs to their fathers or the men in their lives.

You know that tired old cliche story about dads threatening to meet their daughter’s first boyfriend at the door with a shotgun? Or they might sit up waiting on the front porch, looking as threatening as possible, when the couple returns from a first date? We often romanticize this kind of behavior, and talk about how Daddy is being protective of his little girl. Men still frequently ask fathers for permission to marry their daughters, and fathers still admonish men to “take good care” of those same women.

Nope, nope, nope. This may be a form of protectiveness, but the root of this is in the idea of ownership, that girls belong to their daddies until they are given to another man in marriage, and the idea that women need to be protected by men from the other men in their lives. I literally can’t stand this. Have you ever seen a dad sit out on the front porch with a shotgun after his son comes back from a date, wanting to warn the girl his son went out with that she’d better not try anything? That would never happen. And I’ve never heard of a girl asking a woman permission to marry her son.

I was listening to an episode of the You Made It Weird podcast a while back where Pete Holmes interviewed Hannah Gadsby. (By the way, if you have not been introduced to Gadsby, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials Douglas and Nanette on Netflix. She is fabulous.) Somewhere toward the end of their conversation, Pete and Hannah were discussing female sexuality, and how some men cringe or change the subject or get defensive and want to pull out their shotguns when the subject comes around to their daughters’ sexuality. They try to avoid their daughters recognizing their sexuality for as long as possible, and then they try to be in a position where they get to approve or disapprove of the man that their daughter engages sexually with. Super strong ownership tendencies there. Bleh.

Pete made the comment during this episode that he doesn’t want to be that kind of dad when his young daughter grows up. He WANTS his daughter to have fulfilling, authentic sexual relationships with whoever she chooses without being bogged down or enslaved by male “overprotectiveness” or ownership. He also mentioned he just didn’t want to come across creepy by saying any of that, to which Hannah replied that it was not creepy at all as long as he personally didn’t get involved. I agree. 😀

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When I was growing up, I wanted to have a rodeo career and own a big ranch. The response I was given to this dream? Well Julie, You’d better marry a rich cowboy.

What the hell? This and other responses I got to similar ideas taught me that 1) certain dreams would never come to fruition on my own because I”m a girl, and 2) I need a man to take care of me.

I grew up in the Church and this thread ran very strong through it, it usually didn’t matter which denomination I was a part of at the moment. It was very, very clear to me that a woman’s status and citizenship advanced when she married. Married a man, that is. All the church singles group would talk about how amazing it was to be single and how you can do so much for the Lord as a single, and hustle while you wait, etc. But yeah, I could see right through it. Married women in the Church are much more esteemed. And if you start popping out babies, even better. And woe to those women who get divorced…you will fall right through the status floor and spend quite a while trying to crawl back to the level you were as a fresh, unmarred single virgin.

I grew up hearing the message from so many fronts, even if implicitly, that I needed to get hitched. I needed someone to take care of me, to rein me in, to make sure I didn’t do anything too harebrained. And because also….the only way you could legitimately have sex without pissing off God is to do so when you’re married.

So, I got married a couple of years out of college…and it was a disaster.

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When I was in high school and college, purity culture was going strong. At superficial glance, purity culture seems good and all. Don’t have sex until you’re married, keep yourself out of compromising situations, etc, and you won’t end up with an STI, an unexpected pregnancy, and you can maybe minimize some of the emotional heartache that comes with the end of romantic relationships.

I was a strong adherent to purity culture all through this time. It made alot of sense to me during that period of my life, but part of the reason it made alot of sense was that it served as a GREAT coping and defense mechanism against my own body and personality shame. I grew up as the black sheep of my family, and while I liked almost all of my peers, I got along so much better with people that were at least 10 to 20 years older than me. Not in weird ways; it was just that I wasn’t interested in the same kinds of things that interested my age group. I was also a little terrified of God and a little terrified of boys my age, and latching on to purity culture teachings gave me a great way to avoid wondering why the male gender was not knocking down my door….or at least even waving much through the window.

I bought into the purity ring ideal, and wore a simple gold band on my left ring finger from my senior year in high school until I was 25, when I gave it to my dad at my wedding. Sorry, but I”m throwing up in my mouth a little again. My sexuality was not my dad’s business. At all. (To be clear, my dad did not force a purity ring on me…it was my idea at the time based in my own insecurities and struggle to please God and whoever else I thought I needed to).

It was as though I thought I had achieved some great feat by staying a virgin and handing over the gold ring on my wedding day….. It wasn’t a great feat. It was actually a really simple accomplishment because I grew up being made to fear sexuality and it’s power, to be ashamed of my own body, to stifle my own sexual energy, and to protect myself as I struggled to deal with with the trauma of sexual abuse that occurred during my childhood. But staying a virgin until you find a man to marry doesn’t fix any problems. And if anything, I believe purity culture absolutely sets marriages up for failure, puts more expectations on marriage and romantic relationships than is necessary, and has contributed to the perpetuation of rape culture in our society.

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The way we read and interpret the Bible has a HUGE influence on the way we view women. Growing up in a conservative tradition that tended to read the Bible quite literally, women were viewed as the ones who fucked up pretty bad in the beginning, and were then relegated to trying to make it up for the rest of time by being the “helpmeet” for men and by having babies. As a woman, you’d be top notch if you were a virgin, and though you might drop a bit in status after losing that state of being, you’d come back up a bit if you proved to be an honorable wife and mother.

I’ve heard Proverbs 31 stated so many times as an ideal to live up to that I can’t stand it. Because it’s telling women….be this perfect female…the one who is super organized, and eloquent, and crafty, and all the other things that I am not. I’m a spaz most of the time. I have ADD. I would not necessarily say I am eloquent. And crafty…..I missed getting that gene. The Proverbs 31 women is put together, genteel, responsible. And she is prized for that. But she is not the ONLY type of amazing woman.

What about all of us women who are wild inside? Who want to attempt epic or outrageous shit? Who have tried really hard to live according to the ideals and conservative rules of others, but doing so kind of killed us inside? I’m SO FREAKING grateful for Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, released this year, that gives all women permission to be “whatever the fuck they want to be”, to live according to the drive that is within them and not according to society’s demands and beneath a patriarchal culture’s burdens.

In the Bible, it sure seems like male sexual energy is considered good, but female….not so much. And when we read the Bible in certain ways, we compound that sentiment. I think this is seen strongly in the emphasis on the Virgin birth. I don’t personally believe in the Virigin birth…it’s not something I’ll really get into an argument about, but the idea of a virgin having an immaculate conception is kind of boring to me. To me, it again objectifies women. Women are best in the pure state, not marred by having sex. Women have things forced upon them without them asking and they are honored WHEN they accept it without fuss or argument. Men don’t lose their holiness or saintliness or whatever by having sex, but women do.

The story of the virgin birth also feels to me as though some humanity is stripped from the beginning of the person we know as Jesus. I know alot of people will vehemently disagree with this idea, and that’s totally fine. But I also find it interesting that only two of the Gospels mention the Virgin birth. So, either it was folklore added on to the stories over the decades following Jesus’ death, or it wasn’t necessarily the whole point or crux of the Jesus story in the first place. And virgins don’t only appear in the Bible. They’ve been magical mermaids appearing in religious texts and stories for thousands of years. Anyway, my whole point about the Virgin Mary is that when the story is told that way, it seems to me like she was raped by God. Sounds like a familiar story that happens regularly to women, except for the God part. Sorry if I just pissed off half of Christendom and ruined Christmas….but this is how it feels to me.

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There is a teaching that I think I first heard from the Dalai Lama or another Buddhist teacher. It goes like this: Learn the rules very very well, so you will know how to break the rules very very well.

I followed the rules my entire life. All the way through adulthood and an 11 year marriage. And this is what I have concluded: Sometimes following the rules to a T every single time doesn’t get you jack squat.

Since getting divorced 4 years ago, I’ve started breaking rules. Oh come on, don’t get too excited, people, I’m probably still one of the most boring people you’ll ever meet. Maybe more than anything I have begun to break the internal rule structure that has dictated for decades how I live my life….that has held me entrenched in insecurities and shame. But now that I know alot of the rules so freaking well, I often know which ones can be broken and when. And for the rest of the time….well, I’m much more prepared to deal with the consequences of breaking rules because I’ve learned that living a perfect, pristine life does not always equate to a happy, contented life. (It helps when you let go of the Christian literal hell narrative, too).

When I was married, as I mentioned before, I HATED sex. I felt sick and repulsed during sex, unless I had alot of alcohol in me. I would try to avoid so many situations in my life that my husband would interpret as an opening to initiate sex. It was a constant stress, for 11 years, and it was a relief when he was on business trips. Not because he is a bad person, but because it was time when I could finally let my guard down and relax.) The worst part of it all was that my issues with sex were all made out to be MY fault. I was frigid, I was not being a submissive wife, I wasn’t in touch with myself, etc etc. A Christian counselor I saw early on in my marriage told me that it was God’s will for me to keep having sex with my husband while I was working through my issues with it, because the Bible says you can only stop having sex for a while if you’re setting aside time for fasting and prayer. And of course, I heard the usual spill about Christian sex from countless sources: women need to have sex with their husbands whenever they [the men] want it, “it only takes 5 minutes, ladies”, if you don’t keep your husband happy he’ll have ample reason to stray and look elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if you’re not attracted to your husband or you’re creeping from memories of your own sexual trauma…this is your responsibility as a wife. Fuck that shit.

Here’s the problem: I married young because unconsciously I knew it would improve my status as a woman in multiple circles of my life, I had lingering insecurities about whether or not I could in fact care for myself long term, and hey, you never know how many guys will come knocking at your door so it might be smart to take up the first promising guy that comes along. (Spoiler alert: ladies, don’t do this….don’t settle for something that looks good on paper if your heart is not completely convinced).

Now this probably sounds like absolute common sense to everyone reading this: it’s probably way more smart to get into a long term relationship with someone that starts YOUR tractor than just the person who impresses the other people in your life. You’re the one that has to live with that person, not all the onlookers in your life.

But this is what I did. I married someone that made logical sense, that gave my parents that sense of security about not having to be concerned anymore about what Julie would be up to next, someone that was safe and steady and was a “good” Christian. I married him without having sex with him, without having sex with anyone prior, wanting so badly to improve my status and feel like I really belonged in this world. I mean, after all, isn’t that what I had been taught from the Bible since my childhood? That I needed to be legitimized since I was so unfortunately born as a female?

It took me 11 years to learn to say no. No to having sex when I didn’t feel like it or want it. No to believing that in some weird Biblical way my body belonged to my husband. No to all the voices who had told me my entire life that you are required by God to stick with one man forever unless he died or was unfaithful. No to all of the voices who thought they had any right to offer me opinions about my sexuality in the first place without me asking for them. And NO to resigning myself to stay in a loveless, miserable marriage without the hope of ever experiencing good, completely mutual agreed upon, and loving sex.

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I, like countless other women, am sick of being ASSUMED upon.

People assume women were asking for it because of how they were dressed. People assume women were asking for it because they were flirty. People assume women were asking for it because they were out alone too late at night. People assume women were asking for it when they weren’t brave enough at the moment to fight for themselves.

And I hate it…really hate it…when people read the Bible assuming that the women in the stories did something wrong first.

Like John 4, and the woman at the well. Jesus meets a woman getting water at a well in town in the heat of the day and asks her to give him some water. I swear to God, I’ve heard a billion sermons on this text, and every time a man preaches about it he talks about the fact that this woman has been married multiple times, is now just living with a man, but it’s all OK because Jesus is forgiving and he’s going to show that harlot slut of a woman something that will make her happier than going from man to man. (Did you notice my sarcasm and hyperbole here?)

Has it ever occurred to people that maybe it was NEVER this woman’s authentic choice to be with ANY of these men? That she lived in a culture that didn’t always give much credence or rights to women, and that maybe it was husband after husband that treated her unjustly, divorcing her and passing her down the societal food chain until all she had left was to shack up with a final man just to try and survive?

Or what about the story from Mark where the woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet and he refuses to condemn her? Maybe it’s because he knew that she was forced into a marriage when she was but a child, and maybe, just maybe despite that she had found love with a man and for the first time in her life was able to be intimate with someone who saw her and valued her for who she was as a woman and not just a baby factory and piece of property. Maybe….when the text said Jesus was writing in the sand while the crowd waited for him to condemn the women…he was spelling out “Good on you, girl!”

************************************************************************************* I am happy to announce, that amazing sex REALLY DOES EXIST.

Many of you laugh, but you guys….for years I thought it was seriously some kind of made up conspiracy. to get people to watch movies and TV or buy stuff. Or that men were the only ones who had it good. Or maybe it was only for the super hot girls and women, a category of which I do not and have never belonged.

When I got married I was SO depressed and underwhelmed by sex. I read all the books, went to counseling, listened to seminars, did all the things you’re supposed to do in a good Christian marriage to liven up one’s sex life. Didn’t work….unless I was a little drunk. And how great does that make a girl feel to have to be shnockered to enjoy sex? Feels pretty crappy I’ll tell you.

The biggest thing that saved me in how I approach my purpose for being as well as my sexuality was letting go of this idea that God will send people to hell, or that Jesus died on the cross as a way to create forgiveness for all of my screw ups. When I came to the realization that God isn’t mad at me and was never mad at me or anyone, and that the idea of hell and sin as we often define it no longer makes sense to me, I was able to question everything else that had ever held me back in life. Sex being one of them.

I started believing, a while before I got divorced, that we as humans are much more judgy about who each other is sleeping with than God is. And I started questioning the hell out of purity culture. I once knew a pastor who refused to marry couples until they had had a really good makeout session and still felt great about the experience and each other afterwards. Nowadays, I feel the exact same way about sex. For most people, I don’t think you should even consider getting married unless you’ve had a good roll in the hay with the other person and are still inspired to go back for more.

I know what you’re all wondering….you’re sitting there trying to imagine exactly who and how many people Julie has had sex with since getting a divorce. Well, sorry, some details I will keep to myself. Not because I’m concerned about being viewed as a prude or a slut anymore, but because my sexuality is entirely mine to talk about, and the details of it are MY business, not everyone in the world’s.

But I will say this….I am everyday grateful that I walked away from a relationship where I was shamed and belittled for my issues with sex, where I as a woman was yet again expected to fix the problems, where I was responsible for my partner’s purity and ability to stay loyal to me. I’m grateful that I have since met men who have bent over backwards to avoid objectifying me, who are not threatened by my sexuality but rather embrace feminine energy, and who have been willing to show me that sex can be so so so much better than a piece of key lime pie.

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When Daddy Let Me Drive

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Photo credit: Rob Mitchell

*This post is in honor of my amazing daddy, for Father’s Day 2020

I love Jeeps, but they don’t love me.  In fact, the Jeeps of my childhood tried to kill me on a regular basis.  Even though I think they’re cool and look neat, I can just never buy one now.

One of the first vehicles I learned how to drive in, at the age of 6, was a little green 1970s model (I think…that was a freaking long time ago) Jeep.  I remember it had rusty floorboards and an old CB radio that we could never get to work.  My dad started out letting me sit in his lap to steer as we drove this old jeep back in the pasture to do odds and ends.  I remember the first time he let me drive it by myself, following him in on a tractor.  He had it down in granny gear and I think I was probably only going about 10 miles an hour, but I really thought I was something.

I had my first wreck in this Jeep.  I was seven years old, and my dad, a ranch hand, and I were cruising back to my house on the ranch.  This Jeep had drum brakes, and when they got wet from water crossings, they tended to….well….fail completely for a while.  In this case, I was in the driver’s seat by myself.  As we pulled around the side of my house to park, I pushed on the brakes and….crickets.  Nothing.  And so we slammed politely into the side of the big metal barn sitting parallel to the house.  My face also slammed into the steering wheel, and the ranch hand jumped out of the Jeep and took off, completely freaked out, before I even knew what happened.

My dad ran me into town to the doctor to make sure I was OK, but all that happened, in that case, was some bloody gums. The barn fared worse than I did, and that dent is still very much visible over thirty years later.  I don’t think anything happened to the Jeep. They made vehicles differently back then.

Maybe in retribution for running it into the barn, or maybe dumb luck, this same Jeep tried to kill me a few years later. My dad, brother Todd, and I were four-wheeling it across a mountain that separated two cow pastures on the ranch. As we were inching our way up to the top of that hill, still quite a ways from the crest, the Jeep’s engine died (or intentionally quit) and at the same time the brakes decided to fail.  We started rolling backward, and I started to panic.  My dad told my brother and me to open the passenger side door and jump out.  I was stuck in the middle and had no mind to stay there, so I promptly pushed my brother out (something he will never let go of, even after all these years.  I tell him that I saved him from his indecisiveness).

Todd and I jumped and rolled out onto the rocky side of that mountain as my dad, inside the Jeep, gained speed backward toward a cliff and a big drop off into the pasture from whence we had come. And wouldn’t you know…instead of jumping out himself and letting that cursed Jeep just go over the edge and destroy itself in a blaze of glory, my dad had to Indiana Jones it and whip the Jeep around sharply to the side at the last minute, getting it to finally stop.

I lost all trust in that Jeep from then on.  And my dad, God love him, had the nerve to try to convince me to get back in and continue on our way.  I refused to get in and told him I would rather walk over the mountain and the several miles back home than get in the blasted Jeep. (I was also a very melodramatic child). I had walked over the top of the hill and started down the backside when my dad finally convinced me to get back in for the rest of the drive.  Looking back, I should have continued to refuse…I don’t know how going headfirst downhill with failing brakes could be any better than what I had just experienced.  But, we made it home that day, and I continued to eye that Jeep suspiciously, never trusting it again, and refusing to drive it much.

I won’t even get into all the other stories now, like how when I was about three years old, sitting in the back of a Jeep on top of a mountain, and it slipped out of park while I was the only person in it….and someone managed to jump in just in time and save me before we careened off down the road…

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There’s a song by Alan Jackson that I think is one of my top five all-time favorite songs. The lyrics in this song fit, to a tee, my childhood experiences, and every time I hear it, I think of what an amazing thing it is to get to learn how to drive when you’re a little kid.

Driving early is one of those great privileges of being a farm or ranch kid.  You don’t just learn, though, for fun; you learn because it’s needed.  There’s so many times my dad needed to move a tractor and plow or hay baler to a different pasture, and if my brother or I didn’t follow behind in the pickup truck (or blasted, not-to-be trusted Jeep) he would have had to hoof it miles home…usually in the glaring, summer heat.

I remember sometimes at night, when the cool of the evening set in, we would gather as a family in the truck to go “see what we could see”. We’d head back into a pasture we’d randomly choose (I grew up on a 6,000 acre ranch…there were plenty to choose from) and my brother and I would hop into the bed of the truck and usually make silly fools of ourselves while my parents had adult conversation, nestled away from us, in the cab of the truck.

One day in particular…I think I was six or seven….I really, really wanted to drive, and my dad said no.  We were driving along in the East Clark pasture, and I laid my head down on the edge of the bed of the truck as we drove along.  I can’t remember if I was really sad, or if I knew at that age that I had my dad wrapped around my finger already and I just knew how to manipulate him into getting what I wanted.  🙂  Well, it probably wasn’t more than 10 minutes of him looking at me in the rear view mirror, all pouty and pathetic, that he pulled over and told me to climb in his lap to steer the truck.  My dad looks like a tough man on the outside, but he’s nothing but a softie deep down.

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The really awesome thing about my dad was that he never gave me hell about my terrible childhood driving record.  He teased me some, but he never got mad.  I was so adept at hitting things in the most stupid ways, or making really hair brained driving decisions on the ranch. ( I blame it on the fact that my prefrontal cortex hadn’t fully developed yet and it wasn’t my fault).  I would attempt to steer through gates that were wide enough to accomodate our big Ford tractor and plows, and I would still manage to drive squarely into a gatepost while trying to pass through.

One time in high school, I was backing our minivan out of the barn (aka, the party wagon that was bequeathed to my brother and me and was a constant source of shame and embarrasement), and the big, swinging, wooden barn door started to close on me. Instead of being a smart person and getting out to prop open the door, I had the super awesome idea of pushing the it open, while backing out, with my driver side mirror.  Let’s just say I was impressed with how deftly the barn door pulled off that mirror and broke the glass.  My dad didn’t yell, but instead reattached that side mirror and jerry rigged a replacement glass that didn’t look anything like the original, and let my exponentially raised embarrassemnt about that van serve as a lesson to me to not try to open barn doors with extensions of my vehicles anymore.  (Did I mention that my brother had already hit around four deer with that van, and so there were dents all over it, too?)

Then, not to be outdone by myself, later on in that year I backed squarely into my grandpa’s work truck.  My grandpa, who was amazing himself, had come over in the morning for coffee and had parked alongside the house behind my van.  I was heading into town to do something, so I went out and hopped into the van.  I couldn’t go forward, because the van was parked right behind my dad’s truck.  So, I reversed, and scared the living crap out of myself when I felt a solid slam.

OK, in this case I think maybe my dad did actually yell at me.  I really hadn’t seen my grandpa’s truck when I got in the van…my dad could not fathom this, and that’s totally understandable….I mean, the truck was literally two feet behind my van, and an obnoxious color of baby blue….an old Datsun with a metal frame my grandpa had welded onto the back.  The good part was, that my gradpa thought it was hysterical and never got mad at me.  I think the fact that he laughed so hard was probably how I got off easy with my dad.

I have more stories of driving as a child, but I think I’ll save myself the further embarrassment of recalling them.  As I got older, most of my driving debacles were mostly to blame on suicidal white tail deer and Russian hogs.

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The third verse of Alan Jackson’s song goes:  “I’m grown up now, three daughters of my own. I let ’em drive my old Jeep cross the pasture at our home. ”

And that’s me! But I have three sons and won’t let them drive a Jeep…you now know exactly why.  But the last time we were in Texas I let them drive my truck on the family ranch, sitting in my lap just like I used to do with my dad. It amazed me how driving with them pulled up all those great memories I have of driving with my dad, and I recognized for the billion billionth time how freaking privleged I was to grow up where I did, when I did, and to have the dad I did.

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I hope that when my boys are grown, they’ll also “reach back in that file, and pull out that old memory, and think of me and smile!”

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy!  Thanks for always putting up with my hair-brained shennanigans and for replying to them with more laughing than yelling!

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Look With Your Hands, Not Just Your Eyes

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Last summer, in late July, I made an impromptu, last-minute trip to Texas to visit my dad and extended family. Every time I go home I spend alot of time with one of my cousins, who is really more like a sister to me. At one point during my short visit, we went to the local HEB to grab a few groceries.  While there, I stopped by the hair care aisle, hoping to find some bobby pins.  (When you’re trying to grow out a pixie cut, you need all the help you can get to look presentable). I scanned the hangers of barrettes, pony tail rings, and bobby pins, but could not find what I was looking for.  I wanted short, brown pins that would match my hair.  All I saw, though, were long brown and black pins, and short black pins. In feigned exasperation, I gave up and turned to head to the checkout lane.  My cousin stopped me and exclaimed:  “Julie, you’ve got to look with your hands, not your eyes!”  Sure enough, she dug through the packs of pins and on the far back end of a hanger that held mostly pins I didn’t want, she found exactly what I was going for.

I was happy with the bobby pin find, but what thrilled me more at the time was the really good metaphor that she had just given me for how to do life.  In all fairness, she didn’t really come up with the saying; a friend of hers had told her the same thing once when my cousin had opened the fridge to find something and couldn’t spot it. Her friend had also told her, “Girl, you’ve got to move stuff around, and look with your hands and not just look with your eyes!”

It’s really easy to approach life in a superficial fashion; to go beyond the surface, and see the thing behind the thing….that takes effort.  But, I think it’s kind of like with the bobby pins….you’ve got to go deep to find what it is your heart, and sometimes hair, is really searching for.

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I totally got called out by a friend this weekend, and it was really annoying.  I had initially called HIM out on something, accusing him of being inconsiderate and for basically being a jerkface. But, in an unexpected twist of events, he turned it right back around on me and damn it if he wasn’t right, and the way I was acting was as dumb or worse than what I had been irritated with him about.

Don’t you just hate it when life so accurately and swiftly humbles you like this? And then YOU feel like the jerkface.

The basic premise of his argument, which to my utter chagrin was spot on, was that I get a narrative about certain things stuck in my head that I won’t let go of. Then, I respond and act out against that narrative, believing it’s true when a good deal of the time it isn’t. Ultimately, it’s laziness on my part.  Instead of asking questions with an open mind and probing to find understanding, I often take the easy way out and assume that the thoughts that come to my head about the situation are automatically true.

It’s so tempting, and easy, to get lazy with relationships we are in. We project our stories about what we believe about people onto them, and then we insist on interacting with those projections instead of understanding that those people are living, dynamic, nuanced humans. It’s easier for us, but doing this robs us of authenticity in our relationships and isn’t loving towards the other person.  And when we insist on responding only to our stories about people, we miss all the really good stuff that presents itself when we choose do the hard relationship work and embrace the mystery that each person brings to the table.

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One of my very best friends was officially ordained as a Mennonite USA pastor the other day. She is one of the most amazing, wise women I know.  She has worked long and hard to get to this point, and it is absolutely her calling and where she is meant to be.

Due to the COVID, her ordination ceremony was held on Zoom.  She invited so many of her friends and mentors to be a part of the ceremony, by offering blessings, presenting readings, or reflecting on her journey to this ordination.  One presenter referenced the passage in the gospels where Jesus told Peter to cast his nets on the other side of the boat, when Peter was having little luck dragging up fish. According to her, in the translation from the original text, Jesus was encouraging Peter to “launch out into the deep”.  She was making a different point when bringing up this phrase, but these words hooked me when I thought about the message Jesus always had for people.  In all of his parables and teachings, Jesus repeatedly urged people to look beyond what they saw with their eyes, to move beyond the superficial.  This is why he told parables, I think.  He wanted people to wrestle with life, to dig hard to unearth God’s mysteries, to search beyond the obvious, and to understand that being human and existing in this world is about so much more than just black and white.

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There’s a Facebook meme of a Glennon Doyle quote I saw the other day that feels spot-on for me.  It said:

“Stop asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”

In my weird, warped logic, I used to think that I had to take seriously pretty much any advice that people threw at me. These days, I am very picky about who I let speak into my life. To put this as politely as possible, this is because some people try to spout off about things when they have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about.  Of course, most people speak only out of good intentions, but sometimes when they haven’t gone through the thick and thin of dark things, they can just never understand the dynamics of what someone is going through.  In those cases, I think it’s way better to keep one’s mouth shut, and if you want to be helpful and loving, just offer as intense of presence as possible.

These days, I take most seriously the words of those who have faced the hard things head-on. I talk about post-divorce issues with people who are divorced. I see therapists who regular go to their own therapy sessions. When I’m tempted to listen to criticisms from people about my kids’ behaviors, I defer instead and listen to my fellow moms and dads who have also raised multiple kids, who have struggled with children who are amazing, yet also incredibly challenging. I take relationship advice from the people that I see who are working hard to improve themselves in their own relationships and who don’t let excuses keep them from jumping back into the game again and again after being hurt or rejected. I try to emulate the people who I see doing incredibly brave things, who are diving headfirst into their humanity…who are willing to both succeed and fail fantastically.  I take these people the most seriously because they are living life with their hands, and not just their eyes.  They recognize that most issues in life are complex and multi-dimensional, and cannot be described through pithy statements and platitudes.

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The reason I like this metaphor that my cousin offered me last year was because it describes two sides of truth, both of which are necessary, and which can’t stand alone. Looking with your eyes is about utilizing beliefs, facts, and logic.  Those bobby pins I was looking for were really supposed to be on a specific hanger just for that length and color. But looking with your hands speaks to the importance of life experience and walking the walk. I had to dig through those bobby pins, going beyond belief and logic, to find that they were in fact there…just not in the way I had expected.

Our eyes certainly have limitations.  We can’t “see” wave/particle duality.  We can’t “see” DNA.  We can’t “see” distant galaxies. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  We as humans have stumbled upon these other discoveries because we figured out ways to look without using the naked eye.  We use our eyes when they work for us, but realize that they can only take us so far.

Each of us as individuals is also limited in what we can understand about life when we stay on the periphery and don’t engage. Our beliefs can only take us so far; the knowledge that we get from books or other people usually can only address very specific situations.  It is when we choose to dig in with our metaphorical hands, release our entrenched narratives about things, work through our pain, and broaden our experiences…that’s when we really start to “see”.  And I think that’s when we can finally start finding what it is that we are really yearning for.

 

 

There’s Always Something Behind the Nothing

Dejan Hudoletnjak
Photo credit: Dejan Hudoletnjak

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

I sat with an old Indiana farmer this week who was suffering from complications related to COVID-19.  It occurred to me, while watching him sleep,  that I care for alot of old Indiana farmers, and they remind me so much of the old cowboys and ranchers that I knew and loved as a child growing up in Texas. The old men I would hear countless stories from, the old men who were some of my biggest heros, and then over time, the same old men I would visit in hospitals, nursing homes, and finally, in funeral services.

There’s something about old men…I’ve always resonated with them and made quick friends with them…not in a weird way, but in a friendly, “we get each other” kind of way.  Which seems kind of strange since I’m a young (now young-ish) female, but for whatever reasons, this is the way it’s always been.  It’s been funny to me, too, how many of these old men have told me that if they were 40 to 50 years younger and not married, they’d snatch me up without a second thought.  This makes me really laugh, because it seems it must take most men reaching the age of at least 65 to realize what a great catch I am.  If this trend continues, when I’m pushing 70 my love life is likely to be going gangbusters. 😀

Anyway, as I cared for this one old farmer, I thought of how quickly his life had changed. Just a couple of weeks ago he was still out and about, active, and managing his farm.  And then COVID knocked him off his feet in the matter of just a few short days.  Farmers and ranchers are kind of different in a way, it has always seemed to me.  Most of them grew up in the country, working hard from a young age, and so the land and the work is part of them, anchored deep in their bones.  The land, and the animals, and the sweat, and the long hours, and the one-ness with nature become part of their identity…part of how life makes sense to them. Then, inevitably for many, something will come along that rips this identity away from them…and they are sent to town to convalesce on a patio or in a bleach-cleaned hallway, sitting in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket across their legs to ward off chill, only left with stories of years gone by to share with those who are smart enought to sit at their feet and listen.

My grandpa was one of these men.  Until he was in his early 80s, he still went out every morning to dynamite rocks out of the hills on his South Texas ranch to build passable roads, and he still cared for his goats that he had loved dearly since his was a boy.  COVID didn’t knock him off his feet; in his case, he slipped while walking out in a wet pasture and slammed his cervical vertebrae onto a rock, effectively becoming paralyzed.  He lay there, unable to move, until my Dad found him hours later. Over the next few years my grandpa was largely resigned to hospital beds, in long-term rehab, then in his home, and finally in town at the local nursing home, until he died.

My father is pushing 70 now, and still walks the backcountry daily, checking snares and traps in places you have to take a 4-wheel drive to get to…running bulldozers to clear juniper brush…clearing pastures with controlled burns. I’ve asked him for years to retire, to start slowing down. He’s told me more than a few stories over the last couple of decades that scare me half to death, of things that happened to him while working alone….the time his bulldozer caught on fire and he had to drive it straight into the river, the time he was getting off the bulldozer and stepped on the track before it stopped moving so he was flung into a nearby tree,  another time he was bulldozing and he hit a beehive and again had to drive straight for the creek to get away…(do you notice a bulldozer theme, here?)  These are only a few of the many near misses he’s told me about.

And yet I know, while I ask my dad to stop, to just sit around and drink coffee on the backporch and tend his garden, that all these things that he does that scare the crap out of me are part of who he is, part of his identity.  He’s told me on more than once occasion that when it is his time to cross the river to glory, he wants it to be back in the hills, to happen in the places he’s known and cherished since boyhood.  And I understand him in this.I know that if I had to put my dad into a nursing home, his spirit would be broken.

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Since COVID came and knocked the wind out of all of us, we’ve been struggling with identity crises collectively. The things that we feel define our society have in many ways been put on hold, literally and figuratively. Our ways of communication and being community have had to shift dramatically. And many of us have been thrust into lonely places, beyond just isolation from other people.

Our country has always been one of action, of business, of running here and there.  We aren’t a society known for contemplation, solitude, and silence.  We wrap up our understanding of who we are in our consumerism, our ability to do this and go there, and our standings of how we compare to the rest of the countries in the world.

And now we’ve been blind-sided by a pandemic that changed our modus operandi overnight.  Our lives, in many ways, have slid to  a screeching halt. This leaves us with the question that life is forcing us to ask ourselves, whether we like it or not: if we don’t have all these things that we used to think defined us, if we lose much of it forever, who are we now?

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I have a couple of friends who seem convinced that their lives are basically over, or at least at a very long standstill, because their careers were taken away from them unexpectedly.  These people identified very strongly with their jobs and education, and now feel trapped because they can’t go backwards, and the path forward appears entirely uncertain.

I understand this trapped feeling.  Although the details of our stories have been different, I know exactly what it is like to feel as though all that you’ve worked for has vanished, in vain, and that there is absolutely nothing great to look forward to in the future. I know what it’s like to look all around you and feel so completely stuck and hopeless that every morning when you wake up, you’re like, “God, again??!  Another day of THIS?”  It’s like that clip from The Office, where Michael realizes that Toby is back, and he just can’t face the reality of it.

Man, have I been there.

But, I’ve also seen the other side of this dark place, and so I can say with some authority and credibility that it does not, will not last, forever…if you’re willing to let the pain and terribleness of it sit and be a while…realize that it is not going to kill you….and then you slowly, steadily look up and start finding the ways that you are not trapped, and the paths you can take to start making changes.

Now, to their sometimes obvious chagrin, I don’t accept the woeful resignation my friends try to offer me about how their lives are effectively over.  I empathize with them, and feel their struggle, but I will not give in with them.  Partly because I’m wicked stubborn, partly because these two people are brilliant and talented and have so much to offer the world, and largely because I’ve been to the dark places and back and know that the journey out of trapped places is possible.

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There’s a fundamental law that everyone learns in science class, probably starting around 8th grade:  the law of conservation of energy.  This basically states that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another.

I can’t help but believe this is the way life works.  As Eckhart Tolle has said, “Nothing that is of value, that is real…is ever lost.”  At first glance, this statement can seem trite, superifical.  But, if you work it over and wrestle with it, you’ll realize it is true.

I also strongly believe that there is always something behind what appears to be nothing.  I wrote about this idea several years ago in an essay for a graduate program.  Space, in whatever form it takes, is not void.  It contains the potential for new life, new ideas, new ways of being, new so many things….to spring forth.  If it can at all be said that COVID has brought any blessings with it, it is that we have been given the opportunity to reaquaint ourselves with space and and quiet and discover the good things that can be found there once we calm our frantic minds.

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I finished watching the TV show Little Fires Everywhere last week, and I love the quote from the top of this post.  Sometimes you just have to let it all burn down around you, and start over.  But in reality, the burning never destroys everything.  It actually burns away all that isn’t truly real or lasting. As someone who grew up on a ranch where we regularly did controlled burns across acre after acre of land, I know that sometimes a good burning is the absolute best thing that can happen to restore fresh life into a pasture.  If you just look at the scars on the land immediately after a burn, it can look ugly and barren…a wasteland of nothingness. But by next spring, with some good rains, that freshly rejuvinated soil will sprout of new, lush, green grass and the countryside will be transformed.

I think our lives are similar.  Sometimes we keep insisting on trying to make the past work….we want to keep what we had and bring it with us, whether or not it wants to come with us.  And through this relentless struggle, we suffer and despair.  We keep looking down and looking backward insstead of looking toward what we might have waiting for us.

We need to start looking at the scorched things around us in a new way.  We must stop gripping on so tightly to the things that are dead and gone, and develop new eyes to see the potential for newness that is everywhere around us, that is just asking to be grabbed a hold of.

COVID has changed us forever.  We will never go back to the way things have always been.  And while there’s some significant loss and grief present there, there is tremendous potential for good things that we couldn’t have imagined if our lives hadn’t been so violently disrupted. Right now is the hard part…the scorching, as it were. But I firmly believe all the best about humanity will survive this, and so much about us as a society that isn’t real will be burned away.

Finally, it is out of this nothing, this long period of isolation, that new things are already arising.  People are fabulously creative and are discovering new ways to help each other, to encourage each other, to laugh, to distill meaning out of life. These are the people to watch and follow….the ones who know that who they are doesn’t reside solely in their careers or where they live. These are the people with eyes to see the new paths that will lead us out of this trapped place, and who will teach us to see, if we are willing..