On Running, Grounding, and Exploring the Inner Landscape

Last week I went on a much-needed vacation with a good friend, to the middle of nowhere Indiana. The goal: to sit in an Air B and B, turn off my computer and electronics, read, walk/run, and listen to what my inner self might want to tell me. Like it has been for everyone, this COVID pandemic world has just gotten too big, and while the last year has been full of wonderful things, people, and experiences, I am just bone tired. Tired from trying to accomplish too much, tired from trying to find answers for existential questions, tired from trying to navigate moral dilemmas, tired from having the same conversations with myself in my head and never finding resolution, tired of people being so small-minded and hateful to each other.

Fortunately, this week away was exactly what I needed – my headspace quieted, I laughed, I ate really good food, and I explored landscapes….both in the external world and within myself. This post is my attempt to explore what I’ve been thinking about landscape in general, lately, and why these are features of life that we can’t afford to take for granted.

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I’ve been running for a bunch of years, but I finally identify as a runner. I guess I used to think that to be a “runner”, I had to run certain distances, or achieve certain paces, or look like a runner is supposed to look. I don’t feel that way anymore, and now think that if running resonates with a person in any way and they feel compelled to move forward at whatever speed and for whatever reason, they are a runner.

Running is hard alot of the time. I usually hate the first two miles of every single run, no matter what kinds of distances I’ve been able to master at that point. Those first two miles always require a working out of kinks, of warming up muscles, of opening the mind for the task ahead. Running is very much a mind game; we can physically run so much further than our minds believe and tell us. Those first two miles are always a period of settling, of the deep me telling my mind to bug off and be quiet for a bit – to lessen up on the rants about how cold it is, or windy, or how I’ve gained five pounds over the last year and I’ll have to put in 20 miles to try and stay thin and overwhelm sets in. As others have said, the mind is a great servant but a truly horrible master.

The thing is, I’ve discovered that if I can get past those first two miles, all will settle and I can usually hit a groove, and when I’m really lucky, the countless footsteps and miles pass in magic. There is also something about mile after mile of connecting my feet with the ground that feels right, feels solid, feels really human. Even when I hate running, I love running.

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I’m a fan of destination running and walking. Whenever I go on a trip somewhere, I really enjoy getting out and exploring with a run or a long, relaxing walk. I didn’t always do this, because I would let fear of the unknown and unfamiliarity with an area keep me from getting out, and especially because I typically can’t talk people into running with me and I didn’t want to venture out on my own. Now days though, my excitement about running in new places overshadows my tentativeness about the unfamiliar. I’ve learned from experience how much amazingness I would have missed out on in life if I let fear dictate all the time.

Running when I travel is a way for me to become acquainted with the landscape of whatever place I have found myself in. As I mentioned in other posts, I’ve really been digging into Celtic theology of late. It resonates with me so much because of it’s emphasis on the land and the sacredness of “place”. It seems to me, in our ever fast-paced world, that we take for granted the permanence and resilience of landscapes and nature. We zoom around in our cars to get to where we want to go….usually from one type of building or structure to another. Even our cars are fitted with shock absorbers and climate control which further separate us from what we are driving upon. We drive so fast from our starting places to our destinations that we miss so much of what we pass, and cannot really see or feel what is around is in the way that we can when we walk or run upon the land.

I’ve noticed on more than one occasion, that when I run or walk down familiar streets that I’ve ventured down countless times, that I will suddenly spot a new house that I had never seen before when I was driving, even though the house had always been there and driven by so many times. The same is with landscape….there are details and nuances that I completely miss when driving or riding as a passenger that I finally notice when I put my feet on the ground. When we don’t get our feet on the ground when moving from place to place, I think we lose a point of connection with the earth, and gravity, and of oneness with nature and all that is ancient.

In 2017, before he died, Celtic poet and theologian John O’Donohue spoke with Krista Tippet about landscape on the podcast On Being, and I loved what he had to say:

“Well, I think it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.

And I think that that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination — that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.”

This is what running (or long walks) helps me with – to feel the aliveness of all things and places, and to recognize that those things have lessons for me as well as a way to firm up my rightful belonging in this world, no matter where I may find myself. When we take the time to explore new places, fully present, we can discover that those landscapes are not dead, but are pulsing with life and personality and are so generous in sharing with us what they have to offer.

Humans are so young, having only existed for tens of thousands of years. You and I, individually, are younger still, our lifespans of 70 to 80 years only the most momentary flashes of existence on this Earth. But landscapes, and trees, and mountains, and rivers, and rocks….these are all the ancient ones. They have carried on the longest, and have seen what passes and what remains, and from that, have wisdom to impart to us if we’ll slow down enough to listen and receive it.

On my trip last week, over about 3 and a half days, I got in about 15 miles of running and walking….on back Indiana farmland dirt roads, in Amish country, and along the shores of Lake Michigan. These miles were a mix of me pondering questions, listening to music as I trotted by houses and barns and fields, and having deep conversations with my friend while keeping our feet just clear of the frigid tide lapping sand and pebbles on the lake.

There seems to be something about putting in those footsteps outside in nature and landscape, that helps work words and ideas deep within yourself. I enjoy strong, contemplative conversation more when walking with people outside then having the same talks while sitting inside in an artificial environment. Maybe it’s because it feels like we are working together toward something….moving forward physically while intermingling our thoughts and words and intentions, and carrying them toward their own destination.

I also think that there’s something different about the rest one gets after the walking and running as opposed to rest attempted following little movement, or being stuck inside. Our bodies were made for movement, and somehow, and I don’t know how, that movement seems to affect us at a soul level. And then, when we rest from the movement we were designed for, it feels easier to enter soul rest. Our minds, and souls, and bodies are connected….we do ourselves a massive disservice when we try to compartmentalize who we are as creatures, animals, interconnected sentient beings.

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I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was about 7. I’ve written about these before, so won’t go into great detail here. But, the short version is, I’ve always feared the idea of eternity, and this one long linear progression forward forever, and my imagined destination of ultimately being utterly alone. I had an intense experience during this vacation week – maybe I’ll write about it one day -that I think may have addressed this core fear that I’ve carried for decades. That’s super hopeful for me, but what I really want to talk about related to my panic attacks is the importance of getting a hold of oneself during them by getting grounded.

One of my best friends is a mental health and EMDR therapist, and she has helped me out on more than one occasion, in the middle of the night, when I’ve called her, shaking in absolute terror and unable to extricate myself from the grip of completely irrational thought and fear. Part of the trick to getting out of a panic attack is to reconnect the mind with the body. My friend taught me how to use different tactics to ground myself, to help my mind settle back down into me as it attempts to break out of my head and fly out on its own, leaving my body in a distressed state in the process.

She gave me a rubbery piece of plastic, made with short rubbery finger-like projections, to grab when I felt a panic attack coming. The type of plastic or what it was originally made for wasn’t the point….basically, she wanted to give me something to hold that had a unique and appealing texture, that would really engage my senses through my fingers and help my body and brain focus on what I was touching. Then, while having a panic attack, she would have me talk to myself, remind myself of who am I, where I am, and details about me.

“My name is Julie, I’m living outside Boston, it is 2016, I’m in my bathroom. I am safe, I am sitting here, I can feel the floor beneath me supporting me, and I can feel this piece of textured plastic between my fingers.”

And weirdly enough, doing those kinds of things would shock me back to myself, and usually, my panicked terror would subside as quickly as it arose. I also learned that intentionally turning on music while having a panic attack would make a huge difference…..violin and cello music are my heart instruments, and that type of music would soothe me. And quite interestingly, I discovered that if I listen to Ripple by The Grateful Dead any time I am having a panic attack, I will calm and fall asleep within minutes. The trick has always been to remember to play the song when in a frazzled state.

We need to make it a self-care practice to ground ourselves more, I think. We rush around all the time, get stuck in our heads, and forget that we are “whole” beings. Music, and art, and yoga, and mindful washing the dishes, and long walks, and runs….these aren’t just gratuitous luxuries…..these are crucial to our ultimate well being.

Side note: I love the Tarot depictions in this video. Tarot has become an unexpected and helpful companion of late.

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As I mentioned earlier, I am intrigued about Celtic theology’s discussion of external landscape. Having grown up on a huge ranch in South Texas, landscapes have always held tremendous meaning for me. However, as I dove further, I discovered, in a way that I never had before, that each of us have our own internal landscapes as well. The thing is, until we are aware of them, they can largely go completely unnoticed, which is a shame, because they are an important part of ourselves and our ways of being in the world.

O’Donohue wrote a book called the Inner Landscape, which I listened to on audio. It was one of those books where I just kept welling up with giddiness while listening, because it resonated as so very true to me. As I started paying more attention, I began to realize that other people I frequently draw from have also talked about the Inner Landscape. Here is a passage that I love:

“And at some point, I thought, well, I’ve been really lucky to see many, many places. Now, the great adventure is the inner world, now that I’ve spent a lot of time gathering emotions, impressions, and experiences. Now, I just want to sit still for years on end, really, charting that inner landscape because I think anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around—you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life. I thought, there’s this great undiscovered terrain that Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson fearlessly investigated, and I want to follow in their footsteps.” -Pico Iyer, from Becoming Wise with Krista Tippet

Our deepest inner selves are full of uncharted territory, because most of us never take the time to really get to know ourselves, or really even know that we really are more than an inch deep. As O’Donohue has said, our inner selves are full of mystery and contradictions and questions and wisdom. This is all begging to be explored, and is terribly important work for us to engage in:

“So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, how should I be?” -Meister Eckhart

We can’t know how to be until we truly learn who we are…when we gain a sense of where we came from and where we are going, what we love, what moves us, what stirs us. In fact, the older I get, the more I think that most people really have absolutely no clue who they are. We all keep looking around expecting everyone to show us and tell us who we are, and we try to copy what we see others doing hoping that it will all fit, and we risk coming to the end our lives never having truly met ourselves or lived authentically out of that knowing.

It is not only the ancient landscapes of our external world that can teach us how to live. There are depths within us that tap into the source of all existence with abundant offering if we would be brave enough to do those deep dives inward. The thing is, just as we can let fear keep us from exploring our external surroundings, fear can also dissuade us from exploring our rich internal landscapes. I think this is because of several things:

  1. Many of us just have a natural bent to only surround us with the familiar We may not like the status quo, but it feels familiar, and so, seems the safest option.
  2. We are taught so much by society and bad religion not to trust ourselves, not to listen to our intuition and gut wisdom. When some of us finally find the freedom to do so, it takes practice to reach that place of trust and living out of our own innate wisdom.
  3. Going inward does not result in reaching a final destination. Mystery is endless, and endlessly knowable, and the work of unveiling it doesn’t stop. As far as I can tell, one’s inner landscapes won’t be tidily mapped out after only a few years of exploration, but will continue until death, at the very least. This can be a daunting journey for people if they aren’t prepared for the long haul.
  4. And like running in new places that you’ve never been, doing the dive inward to explore those landscapes can be scary because you don’t always know what you’ll find. Will you discover that you’ll have to do the difficult work of releasing identities that you’ve carried for a long time? Will you discover that maybe you have areas that you need to work on, that maybe you’ve been ignoring? Will you unearth painful memories and traumas that are terrifying and unnerving to look at and address head-on? But to this I say….WHAT IF you discover the most amazing things about yourself….that you are good and resilient and deserving and divine? These discoveries might totally be worth the hero’s journey inward. I can say from my own personal experience that the inward journey is the hardest journey I’ve ever taken, but the most rewarding.

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I think about God and the Divine so very differently than I used to. Part of this has come because I’ve gotten braver about investigating both external and internal landscapes and finding that what I grew up being taught about Reality does not, in fact, feel very true to me.

The late theologian Paul Tillich used to describe God as “the Ground of Being, not personal, but not less than personal”. I love this so much and have clung to it for years. I totally identify as an atheist, not as one that thinks the universe is devoid of intelligence and magic and personality, but that it isn’t run by some being with human projections vomited all over it.

I love the idea of Grounding, and that God or whatever you want to call it that is behind everything that is, is supporting us, and providing a firm, solid place for us to “be”. Our external landscapes are a way for us to ground ourselves in our physical existence in this material world as animalistic humans, and our internal landscapes help ground the parts of ourselves that aren’t quite as physical….our consciousness, our spirit-selves, however you want to describe it. We exist in a reality that is ever changing and never static, but the requirement of permanence is not necessary for us to be OK. We can be grounded and connected and “OK” even in the midst of constant movement, and evolving relationships, and the exploration of mystery. I have no clue if I’m making any sense here with what I’m trying to say. We’ll go with it anyway.

So, what were my takeaways from my vacation week?

It was a reminder of how good it is to slow WAY down, turn off all the extraneous noise, eat nourishing food mindfully, breathe fresh air, do life with people that are important to you, and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Mostly it was a call to return to intentional grounding and connection with what is sacred to me, and to remember to listen to the wisdom of the ancient landscapes around me- to stop being swayed so much by what is artificial and young and brief.

To sum it it all up in O’Donohue’s wise words: To “stop traveling too fast over false ground.” It is time to let my soul take me back.

For One Who is Exhausted, A Blessing by John O’Donohue, published as Benedictus

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

Everyone Brings a Gift





Photo credit: Wajahat Syed

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

-Mary Oliver

When I got divorced almost five years ago, I moved back to Indianapolis for the third time in my adult life. I was NOT happy about it at the time; but, it seemed like the practical, expedient thing to do. I needed an affordable place to live, to go back to school, and to restart my career that had laid mostly dormant for the previous ten years. I was living just south of Boston at the time and felt completely at home in New England. Moving back to the Midwest – after living in Colorado, and Upstate New York, and Massachusetts -seemed dreadful. That time in my life felt like a huge, overwhelming death: death of my family, death of living in a place that spoke to my soul, death of the lifestyle that I was grown accustomed to living, death of the belief that I might be one of the few people that made it through life without being scathed by divorce.

It was death all mixed with the tiny glimmer of hope that there would be a resurrection on the other side that might possibly lead to a more abundant life than what I was currently enduring.

I was grumpy for the first year to year and a half that I was back in the Indy, wishing I could be so many other places in the country besides Indiana. I was convinced that, coming back to Indianapolis as an entirely different person than who I was when I had left it it five years before, that I would never find my people, or things, that I loved. It would be a matter of biding my time until my youngest graduated from high school and I could escape back to some much more interesting state or country.

Now, five years later, I feel so completely different about my situation than when I arrived. It almost feels like a lifetime ago that I left Boston, and where I once felt a tremendous loss, I now see that I not only brought with me all that was real and enduring from my time there, but I also gained, since then, so much more than I could have ever imagined. Gift after gift has come my way: some packaged in what first looked like loss, others in metaphorical boxes of free, unsolicited, undeserved joy. My time in Indiana over these last several years has helped to change my overall perspective on everything, and everyone, that comes into my life. I used to separate them into sheep and goats, good and bad, things I welcomed and things I would rather send on their way. Now, finally, in the fourth decade of my life, I am learning to welcome it all….the people, the circumstances, everything…that comes into my life. (My therapist still has to remind me weekly to let go of my rules-based approach to life, and to stop worrying about right and wrong all the time. It’s taking some time to undo these deeply ingrained patterns in me, but it’s gradually happening). Most of all, I have learned to welcome the people, because I have learned this one great lesson, even if I forget it from time to time…..everyone…EVERYONE… you encounter in life brings you a gift.

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A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The Gifts of Microrelationship. In it I talked about how I was discovering that relationships, of any kind, don’t have to last forever, or even be that long, to still be very meaningful and life changing. Just because a relationship ends, or doesn’t evolve to the depth you might have hoped for, doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. In the post I remembered some of the people who had slipped in and out of my life very quickly, but during their brief stay they had encouraged me or in some way influenced me to change my own way of doing things….or to open my mind just a little more….or to reconsider something. I still look back on these people as major game changers in my life, and since the time of writing that post I have added so many more people to the list. Many of these people are no longer in my life, they may have even forgotten about me, but I remember, and am grateful, for what they gave to me.

-the person who basically told me to stop goofing around and start taking my writing seriously, and be willing to risk putting myself out there

-the multiple people who influenced me to try to run a little further than I thought I ever could

-those coworkers so long ago who developed in me a love for road biking, when we would hit the road in 100 degree weather after the workday was over

-person after person who introduced me to their brand of art, or music, or writing and in so doing, broadened my own appreciation of how we each express ourselves and our experiences in the world

-specific people who engaged with me in conversations about science, and philosophy, and spirituality that helped me reframe a particular perspective or validated my own journey toward understanding and wisdom

-the handful of people who made me realize that maybe there is a little bit of poet residing in me, when i used to think I was too dull and bland to adequately paint with words

-the people who helped me find my love of music and playing piano again, after years of forced compliance had ripped the joy away

-the ones who have been showing the many different ways that relationships can exist and grow, and there is no one right way to do any of it

-the ones who told me that I had found my path, and my calling…that I was moving in the right direction

And so many more…too many to be listed here.

For someone like me, who attaches quickly and strongly to certain people I meet, the ending of relationships, or relationships that fizzle out quickly, or relationships that just never take off, feels horribly painful to me.

It’s not so much a “Man, I feel sad about that”, but, in all honesty, it feels like tangible pain…a real, substantial loss. I recognize that alot of this is probably melodramatic hyperbole resulting from my tendency toward anxious and disorganized attachments stemming from childhood, but it also results because I take people…and their stories….and what they bring to the world… very, very seriously. When I decide that I’ve found one of my people, I’m ALL in…and losing that, for whatever reason, feels like another death.

I always used to think that short relationships meant they had failed. Like, if you couldn’t sustain them for a long period of time, then their meaning was lost….they didn’t offer anything enduring. And most of the time I thought that when relationships ended, it was my fault or that I wasn’t compelling, or attractive or witty (insert whatever adjective here) enough to stay in a relationship with. There was something inherently broken about me that ran people off. Maybe I was too much for them, maybe I wasn’t enough. I was good enough until a better alternative showed up.

I still struggle with the voices that shout these things at me sometimes, but most of the time I understand that not every relationship in life is meant to be intense and “forever”. Every encounter with a person, every relationship…has a purpose. I’m not really trying to fall into the the “everything happens for a reason” sentiment, but I believe enough in the benevolence of the universe that Life brings us situations and people that will grow us, stretch us, and wake us up. But they don’t each have the same kind of purpose…either in timeframe or depth of substance.

I think one of the great lessons of life is to learn to not ascribe to relationships and people what WE think the purpose is. When we do that, we attach too strongly, can often become manipulative of the relationship, and then suffer when the relationship ends or evolves into something we weren’t expecting. The goal is to catch and release, touch but not grasp….to welcome what comes and stays but always let it be free to leave. I still suck at this on the regular, but at least these days I’m aware of it when I’m doing it and can try to work through my angst in healthier ways.

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One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that the gifts that are brought to us by people don’t always come in packages or timeframes that we welcome. In fact, alot of the time it is only through hindsight that we can recognize the gift that someone gave us, and that what felt terrible or cruel at the time was something that would eventually grow our pain cave or teach us to be brave or save us from going down a path that would never have been good for us or felt the truest for us.

Sometimes to be able to see the gift that we have been handed, we have to work through a crap ton of trauma, anger, grief, and sadness. I also think that being able to get the value out of whatever happened to us because of someone is based on our perspective and ability to reframe events that have happened in our lives. If I didn’t have the supportive, wise friends that I do, and if I hadn’t gone to alot of therapy, I’m pretty sure I’d still be absolutely stuck in certain memories and places of the past. But in reframing and through what I call sacred imagination (where I intentionally try to ponder how the Universe might be working things for my good), I can get to the place where even the worst thing that ever happened to me can be accepted as a gift…not in a flippant or trite way, not through a Pollyanna mindset…but acceptance that comes after working with the pain, affirming that what was done was wrong and not OK, but then refusing to remain a victim or allow that pain to be in vain.

So, honestly, when I look at things from this vantage point, I can begin to see that everything that comes my way in life is a gift. Every single thing that happens to us can grow us, reveal harmful patterns in our lives, broaden our minds, teach us how to empathize with and have compassion on others, delight us, etc. It just goes back to the quote from Richard Rohr that I have tattooed on my arm: Everything belongs. Meaning, that life doesn’t waste anything; everything, even the wicked hard, or scary, or terrible things, can be incorporated to growing your heart and keeping you open. And so in that way, everything is a gift….or, has the potential to be a gift in the future. I can’t help but think about a verse in Genesis that says “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” However you feel about the Bible or religion, I think the point here is that life can work what seems unworkable….it can transform evil into good…it can somehow help us keep moving forward in the chess game even when it feels like all we see is Checkmate.

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There are certain things that I struggle to convince myself are gifts. My crazy eye movements because of congential nystagmus doesn’t feel like a gift. Some relationships I’m in that are difficult and probably require necessary endings don’t feel like gifts. These constant quirks or struggles of mine that I still can’t seem to resolve after 30 years and alot of desperatel hard work, don’t feel like gifts. But, when I look back over the length of my life, I can’t help but spot gift after gift after gift that sprang up from the good things AND the bad things, the people who loved me AND the people who hurt me. And so, because of these, I have the hope that life will continue to transform these things and people I struggle with, and that what is painful and feels dead right now will one day bloom.

Artichokes, Dumbass Mistakes, and Waiting on the Emergence

I really screwed up at work a couple of months ago, but didn’t find out about it until recently. Fortunately, my boss has a REALLY good sense of humor, and instead of yelling at me, she couldn’t stop laughing for an entire day.

Because. I am a freaking idiot sometimes. With a terrible memory.

Long story short….with very good intentions and knowing the importance of data validation in healthcare, I signed us up to do some data collection through a branch of the CDC that was very time-intensive and required my boss and me to have to do extra work on the weekends. The thing is, I didn’t realize what I was signing us up for when I flippantly, and completely well-intentioned, agreed to an option that was presented to us.

The IT person, who discovered my “unintentional signing us up for a crap ton of extra work” move, could have thrown me under the bus for being an utter dumbass, but she very tactfully pointed out how I had signed us up via email for the data collection and then completely and absolutely forgot that I did so. So when said data collection time commenced, my boss and I thought it was a regulatory mandate and not me, the dumbass, voluntarily opting us in.

Sigh. I’m pretty grateful for the people that patiently deal with me.

Anyway, after my boss stopped laughing and I finally crawled out from under my desk, I shared with her a story about silver linings, and how I had made a huge, unintentional mistake in my first job after college. But, that mistake ended up yielding fantastic results , and maybe this data collection mistake of mine might actually prove to be an unexpectedly amazing decision.

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When I graduated from college I had NO clue what to do with myself. I didn’t know if I should go to grad school and if I did, I didn’t know what to major in. To say I was lost and floundering would be an understatement. So, I made the obvious choice and went to West Africa, pretty much without any kind of solid plan. Dumb decision making on my part, but fortunately it was a growing experience for me and I have some good Ghanian friends and adopted parents that kind of saved me until I came to my senses and back to the States.

Once I got back to the States, a semester after being out of college, I had even less clue of what I should do with myself. I randomly and half-heartedly applied to some graduate biochemistry programs without any good reason for why I was picking those programs. “Hey, let’s apply for grad school at Auburn, because…..why not? I’ve never been to Alabama!” Fortunately, I had the wherewithall to pass up an acceptance to Auburn; looking back, that would have been a disaster.

I landed a job in my hometown working for a university agricultural research station. I wanted any kind of job that was even remotely science-related, and my soon-to-be boss hired me because I had some experience running a gas chromatograph. So, in due time I had a job where I was half farmer and half chemist, and to my complete surprise, I realized that I loved horticulture and vegetable physiology research. (Funny thing is, I can apparently only keep plants alive if I”m being paid for it. Ever since that job, I can’t for the life of me grow or keep many plants in a happy, thriving state).

One of my boss’s dreams was to introduce artichoke crops to Texas. Artichokes had never been grown in Texas before, and he had a hunch that the area we lived in had the right soil and rainfall that would be amenable for them. I was tasked to be part of this plan, which I was excited about. The thing about artichokes is that when growing them from seed, they don’t produce their fruit on the first year. They are typically a two year crop, so you have to be patient to get a harvest. However, there is a process called vernalization, where you expose plants to really cold temperatures, to induce flowering.

So, not only did my boss want to introduce artichokes to Texas, he also wanted to take a stab at yielding a harvest on the first year of planting. My job then, was to start artichoke plants from seed, and once they were a few inches high, to expose them to refrigeration for several days before we planted them in the fields. They were to be my babies, and nothing could happen to them. Of course, with my luck and all, the refrigerator that I stored these baby plants in broke….and the temperatures that were supposed to hover just above freezing….fell below freezing. And I didn’t realize it for at least 12 hours.

To say that my boss was upset with me was another big understatement. I had, unintentionally and really through no fault of my own, frozen two-thirds of my baby artichoke plants. (My boss was really upset with me those last few months in general. I froze the artichokes and then I stupidly gave up the chance to do a PhD in vegetable physiology under his mentorship because of a guy. Who lived in Indiana. Who eventually became my husband. And eventually my ex-husband. But that’s another story for another day. Other than to say….ladies, don’t be a dumbass like me. Get the PhD. If he’s the right guy, he’ll wait for you.)

We ended up planting all those artichoke plants ou in the field, even the ones that I froze, just for grins to see what would happen. As it turned out, all the plants took root and survived. Not long after, I left that job and moved to Indiana. But about a year later I came back to visit, and my former boss took me out to see the artichokes. He was no longer angry with me, but especially not so because those artichoke plants that I had frozen? THEY were the plants that produced bumper crops that first year….not the ones who were vernalized at above freezing temperatures. Over a matter of many months, I had gone from being the artichoke villain to being an artichoke hero. And now we know that artichokes can grow wonderfully in the Wintergarden region of Texas.

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My whole point in telling my current boss this artichoke story? 1) To distract her from my current dumb assery, and 2) to show that I have a track record of doing things that initially appear to be moronic, but have unexpected silver linings. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a while for these silver linigs to reveal themselves, and the waiting period for them to arrive can be brutal and uncomfortable.

I think that much of the important stuff in life comes through the waiting. But we, especially in the West, are not good at waiting. We want instant results, we want to know what’s going to happen, we want certainty, and we want things to work out the “way they’re supposed to.” This is a dangerous way to live because we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment again and again. There is really very little overall that we as humans have control over, and when we constantly fight and strive for control, we just end up creating more suffering for ourselves.

We also tend to think that that “void” that comes with waiting periods is just a space of nothingness. Nothing good is happening there, nothing transformative, and it’s just something we have to grit our teeth and bear until the thing we really are after finally shows up. I’m very gradually changing my opinion on this, and starting to believe that the places of nothingness, the places of absence or void…..those places are absolutely brimming with life, and energy, and potential….and they are just as important, if not more, as the arriving.

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I’ve gotten into Celtic theology lately, and it is really rocking my world. I actually think that at the moment it is the one thing that is helping me keep a toe in my heritage of Christinaity. Because so much of the Christianity that I see around me in the world these days feels shallow, and literalistic, and detached from matter, and landscape, and the depths of our humanity.

Much of my dive into this theology has been through the writings of the late John O’Donohue. His writing and imagery….I can only describe as magical. The words he wrote resonate deep in my soul as true….truth that maybe I can’t cognitively and intellectually flesh out, but the kind that just brings deep peace and “yes!s” from my spirit.

O’Donohue wrote alot about aspects of the inner and spiritual life that can feel counterintuive or scary to us sometimes, but he was able to reframe them in ways that made them feel safe instead of scary. Two areas that I’m particiularly interested in are the ideas of darkness and the waiting. These are things that no human can ever escape; we all experience darkness at different times and at varying degrees, whether actual physical darkness or soul and emotional darkness where we can’t find our way forward. And we all experience periods of waiting…wanting the next thing to come but having little control over its coming. Some things we know will absolutely eventually arrive, and other things we wait for, with hope, praying that they do in fact come. Then, there is also the waiting that we desperately wish we could slow down; we know that something we don’t want will eventually be coming for us.

For me, the the concept of truth and all that word means are wrapped up in these ideas of darkness and the waiting. My goal in the next lines of this post is to kind of flesh out and explore how all of those intermingle in my mind, and the lessons I’ve been learning about them over the last few years.

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Darkness.

Why are little kids, and many adults for that matter, afraid of the dark? It’s because we can’t see in the dark. We don’t know what is coming toward us or leaving us….we can’t see wheere we are in reference to anything else….we can’t see the path to where we are wanting to go. We aren’t sure where the boundaries of anything are. And it’s really hard to come up with contigency plans of how to protect onself from imagined dangers when you can’t even see if those dangers are real.

We see the darkness as an enemy, because we don’t have control in the darkness, and we as humans generally crave control, even though most perceptions of haivng control are complete illusions. There is actually very little in life that any of us control. (Maybe that’s why parents get so weird and nutty with their kids, and try to choreograph and micromanage their lives. It’s like a dog that is afraid of water, trying to climb on top of his human companion out in the middle of a lake in order to feel grounded. Inevitably, the human companion ends up clawed and scraped up, just like our poor kids. It’s a pointless pursuit, but gives us the illusion of being stable and “in control” for just a minute).

O’Donohue wrote some wonderful lines about darkness, that I want to share here. I love them, because it is the reminder that just because we don’t understand something or can’t find answers doesn’t mean that we are in danger, or “not OK.”

Though you live and work in the light,

you were conceived and shaped in darkness.

Darkness is one of our closest companions. It can never really surprise us;

Something within us knows the darkness more deeply than it knows the light.

In the beginning was the darkness. The first light was born out of the dark.”

John O’Donohue

“I LOVE these ideas of darkness being our companion, the one that shapes us. Isn’t this true? It is the alone times, the moments of despair, our greatest sufferings, that mold us and grow us and make us rethink our belief systems. It is the medium that smooths out our sharp edges and our quick judgements and our selfish-ego driven parts, if we allow it to do its work. It is where we can find a safe place to hide away and mend when we are tired or at a loss.

I know what you’re thinking…..Julie, there’s a shit ton of horrible things that happen in the dark. The dark and hidden places are where people are abused and abandoned and left to pick up the pieces. I get this, for sure. But I don’t think it’s the darkness that itself is BAD….we just associate darkness with badness because it’s the place where broken and angry people can exploit its good qualities in order to hurt other poeple and do bad things.

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The waiting.

Like everyone, I’ve done alot of waiting in my life. And, most of the time I didn’t enjoy it. Also, like everyone, I’ve done things to distract myself from the waiting to try and make it feel like its going faster, so the thing I wanted would hurry up and get here.

This is what I’ve learned about trying to hurry up the waiting:

  1. This might be the most important one. When you try to hurry the waiting, or distract yourself from the now, you’re wasting the good and precious life that exists right here, right now. I actually wonder how many amazing experiences and friendships, how much love, how much rest….we completely miss because we don’t allow ourselves to be fully in the present. We leave a foot stuck in the past while grasping forward to yank open doors of the future. What would it look like if we could determine to suck every last drop out of each moment of life we go through?
  2. Some things just need to percolate for a while. I don’t really buy into the cliche that “time heals all wounds”, but in so many cases, things just need a little “time”. Indulge me for just a moment to reference the tiny bit of Koine Greek I remember from my college Bible classes. When I say “time” here, I don’t really mean chronological (Kronos) time, although that can be true. What I really mean is Kairos time….or the time when condiitons are right for something to come to fulfillment. Kairos time is “deep time”. More on this in a minute, pun intended.
  3. The times of waiting are the place for us to go inward, to discover who we really are, to find what we are rooted in, to learn what remains when all is lost. Waiting is part of the hero’s journey, and sometimes when we’re waitiing, and it feels like we’re about to absolutely die from pain or loneiness or heartbreak, we are able reach the end of ourselves and be completely transformed. The waiting can feel like nothingness, but it’s not nothingness. It’s a place where the invisible and great possibiities exist, and they are gathering themselves, ready to burst forth in due Kairos time.

I am an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs assessment, which means I crave closure on things. I want to know what is going to happen yesterday. Hanging around in states of ambiguity has historically been brutal for me. Alot of this plays into wounds from my childhood that were intermingled with the theology of my youth. I feel like I need to know where I stand. If I can have firm boundaries, and be able to put people and things into boxes with tidy labels, and know generally how things are going to play out….that’s when I feel most safe. After alot of work, I now know that these things are all illusions anyway, but seeking them out is my default modus operandi, and I have to actively work against them and learn to lean hard into groundlessness.

I think maybe that part of understanding the idea of ultimate Truth is that it is wrapped up in being OK with darkness and being OK with waiting. Sometimes Truth, and real understanding, can only emerge after the dark waiting.

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I want to meander off down a rabbit hole for a second, on the idea of emerging truth. Hopefully I can get down into words what makes alot of sense rambling around in my head. To keep myself on track, I’m going to put these thoughts into specific points.

  1. Honesty is important, but radical honesty, to the point of telling complete strangers every detail about yourself, is not really a way of living in truth. I grew up with the belief that I had to be completely honest about anything that anyone asked me about. I inherently hold telling the truth to be a paramount value, but I’ve realized over the years that I’ve taken this to an extreme in my life. I basically felt that even if I told a little fib or a white lie, I was a horrible person. It felt like I had an inner compulsion to always tell the truth in every single moment, even when it did me harm. I have since learned that while part of my need to tell the truth to such an extreme was rooted in my theological background, it was also firmly rooted in being called a liar so many times as a child by trusted adults, in cases where I absolutely was not lying. Thus, in my attempt to never be viewed as a liar, I would go over the top in my truthfullness. I have since come to learn that things can be true, but they don’t always need to be said. And, more importantly, if people are determined to stay convinced that you are a liar, when you’re not, that’s on them and you probably can’t convince them otherwise.
  2. There’s a passage in the Bible that talks about how you shouldn’t cast your pearls before swine. The idea is that you shouldn’t offer up what you hold to be valuable and sacred to people who will absolutely not hold those things dear….and will instead trample over those things. You should only offer up what is dear and sacred to people who will receive and carry those things carefully, and care for them because they care for you. This has been such a very hard lesson for me to learn. I try to be pretty transparent in life, because it is important for me to let people know that I’m the same Julie all the time….at work, at home, with this group of people, with that group of people. And I want people to know that I have good intentions and motivations, and that I really work endlessly to become a better person everyday. But big takeaway here: some people don’t deserve to hear your truth. They don’t deserve to hear the stories of your traumas, or the things in life that have wrecked you, or your most intimate secrets, or the things that delight you most in life. All of those things are glass, and some people will just drop them when you hand your most precious parts to them without people earning the right to hold them. Sometimes, I think, big TRUTH is about holding the important things close to yourself until the right kairos time has passed, and then you can reveal your truths to the right people who are safe.
  3. Which takes me to the point: something can be true for me in this moment, but it doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I think it was Richard Rohr who gave a good example about how something doesn’t have to be true for everyone at the same time to still be true. Let’s say someone comes to the door and tells your kid that they need to talk to you. The kid, because he knows you well and the fact that you hate solicitors, tells the person that you’re not available. (Even though you’re totally available, hiding behind the couch so the person doesn’t see you). But the part about truth here is: yes, you are available….for the right person. But you’re not available for the wrong person…in this case, the solicitor who set the dog off by ringing the doorbell. But reacting in this way doesn’t make you a liar. I’m sure this seems like a dumb example, but its a concept that has taken a while for me to wrap my head around….that I don’t have to tell my truth to every single person who asks….it is ultimately mine to give to those I want to. And it does not make me a bad person.
  4. And finally, going back to kairos time and emerging truth. I’ve written in the past about the idea of instimacy, where you get into a new relationship with someone and end up creating a false sense of closeness by revealing way too much about yourselves way to fast. Instimacy is hardly ever real, in my experience. I’ve met a handful of people that I instantly knew were ‘my people”, but it still took time to build trust and a strong relationship foundation, even though we knew we adored each other from the start. Sometimes, for relationships to grow well and strong, you have to reveal your truth slowly, over time, and after the other person has proven to be safe and trustworthy. This can be difficult, especially when you’re in a new friendshp or romantic relationship that you’re wicked excited about and you just want to go at it with abandon. But, I can say that I’ve pretty much never regretted revealing my truth slowly, and I’ve definitely regretted, so mnay times, handing my fragile, glass parts to people too quickly, who quite often either thoughtlessly or intentionally threw them to the ground and shattered them.

Big takeaway from that rabbit trail: People need to earn the right to hear and hold your truth. You don’t owe them jack squat, especially if they can’t or refuse to value what is precious to you. And vice versa. Other people don’t owe you anything until you’ve shown that you are careful and kind with what they offer.

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Now to attempt to come full circle with all these meandering ideas…..might not happen, but I’ll try.

I think there is an overarching, ultimate truth. And I think there are little, subjective truths.

I think that the ultimate truth in life can only be seen in bits and pieces, here and there. I think sometimes we have to wait on that truth to come to us. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it’s always accesible to us at all times. And I think that sometimes we have to learn to embrace the darkness and the long periods of hard waiting to be able to open doors for that truth to come to us. Maybe truth isn’t just a static “thing” out there, but also a process, or an outcome.

I think my main point that I’m trying to hone in on is that sometimes what may seem true in the short run is not really what is true in the big picture. I thought I had failed with those baby artichokes, and I beat myself up for months. But in reality, I had actually done exactly what those artichokes needed to produce an abundant harvest. There’s so many other times in life that I thought I had just completely fucked up and ruined everything, only to be shocked months or years down the road when I found that what I thought had been a huge mistake was actually the catalyst I needed to move forward in life, or learn a lesson, or heal from deep wounds.

Sometimes to get to that big truth, we have to hunker down in the darkness and trust that kairos time will eventually come to fulfillment. Isn’t this so much of what life is about? Learning to trust the process? Learning to trust that life is working behind the scenes for us in ways that might not always be apparent? Trusting that our epic, dumbass mistakes will be incorporated into our transformation and can ultimately be redeemed if we allow ourselves to remain workable?

I attached a song from Jose Gonzalez at the beginning of this post. I love the entire song, but I really like the lyric “there is a truth and it’s on our side…dawn is coming, open your eyes.” The dark will never last forever. The waiting will never last forever. But in the time that they are with us, they also will never be in vain if we can learn to rest in them, and to trust them. Truth will always eventually emerge, when the time is right.

A Little Bit of Everything

You ever hear a song for the first time, and it ends up being one that just rocks you…not because the melody is all that fancy or because the instrumentals are amazing, but because the lyrics are so deeply profound and resonate with your core somehow? And then, you listen to that song over and over, and have to sing it constantly to hear the words roll off your tongue because it feels like deep truth and the more you speak the lyrics the more you internalize them? Basically you work the song into yourself?

Maybe only I do this, and maybe I”m just weird. I dunno. Pretty likely. BUT, I first heard a song a couple of months ago that provoked this exact dynamic in me, and I keep listening to it over and over and over. I’ve thought about the lyrics so much that I felt like I might as well just go ahead and write about it, because there is so much to riff off. The song, A Little Bit of Everything by Dawes, is embedded here; give it a listen. Following the video are the lyrics.

With his back against the San Francisco traffic,
On the bridges side that faces towards the jail,
Setting out to join a demographic,
He hoists his first leg up over the rail.
And a phone call is made,
Police cars show up quickly.
The sergeant slams his passenger door.
He says, ‘Hey son why don’t you talk through this with me,
Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the mountains,
It’s the fog,
It’s the news at six o’clock,
It’s the death of my first dog,
It’s the angels up above me,
It’s the song that they don’t sing,
It’s a little bit of everything.’

An older man stands in a buffet line,
He is smiling and holding out his plate,
And the further he looks back into his timeline,
That hard road always had led him to today,
And making up for when his bright future had left him,
Making up for the fact that his only son is gone,
And letting everything out once, His server asks him,
Have you figured out yet, what it is you want?I want a little bit of everything,
The biscuits and the beans,
Whatever helps me to forget about
The things that brought me to my knees,
So pile on those mashed potatoes,
And an extra chicken wing,
I’m having a little bit of everything.

Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations,
To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall,
Her man says, ‘Baby, can I make an observation?
You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.’
She said, ‘You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size,
And rest assured that this is making me feel good,
I think that love is so much easier than you realize,
If you can give yourself to someone,
Then you should.’Cause it’s a little bit of everything,
The way you joke, the way you ache,
It is waking up before you,
So I can watch you as you wake.
So in the day in late September,
It’s not some stupid little ring,
I’m giving a little bit of everything.Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the matador and the bull,
It’s the suggested daily dosage,
It is the red moon when it’s full.
All these psychics and these doctors,
They’re all right and they’re all wrong,
It’s like trying to make out every word,
When they should simply hum along,
It’s not some message written in the dark,
Or some truth that no one’s seen,
It’s a little bit of everything.

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I think alot about what it means to be human. Why are we here on this planet, what is the point of everything, what are we supposed to learn, and how are we to learn those things? And, is the point to ever actually figure everything out, or instead, is it to just be and ask big questions and marvel at all that is around us and just try to learn to love the best we can while we are here?

Being human is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s not any one big thing or event that threatens to topple us, but rather, the constant onslaught of alot of little things. The first verse of this song is about a guy (I always imagine it’s a high school or college kid) who is wanting to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The reasons he gives the police officer are really interesting, I think. It’s the mountains. It’s the San Francisco fog. It’s all the bad news every day. It’s the death of the beloved pet. It wasn’t just one big thing that was undoing him….it was all the little things that added up, along with the angel reference implying that he believed he lived in a universe that was either impersonal or didn’t care about him.

I remember back in college when I had some periods of terrible depression, including a week I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted to escape life so badly. I was miserable and felt so utterly hopeless. But it was never just one single problem that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living; it was a ton of little things that just kept piling up and when they all hit at once it just felt completely suffocating and insurmountable. I think one of the worst feelings when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety like this, is when you try to describe what is going on to someone on the outside, and they’ll only consider each individual component of your burden and ask you what the big deal is. That little thing isn’t that big of a problem! They aren’t able to see that, of course, it’s not that ONE tiny thing that makes you want to die. It’s the cuts and pain that come from ALL the little things that just won’t let up. And then people tend to add one more “little thing” to your burden with a bunch of really unhelpful and shaming platitudes.

Trauma is a huge buzzword these days, and I believe rightfully so. There are so many traumatized people around the world, and so many of them don’t realize that they are carrying trauma in their minds AND bodies. One of the latest advancements in trauma research that I think is so very important is the idea of microtraumas. A person doesn’t have to experience one huge, horrible thing for them to be wrecked on the inside, be triggered by words or scenes or noises, or to be paralyzed and unable to cope with certain situations that come their way. The summation of tons of little traumas, microtraumas, can have huge and lasting impacts on people. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of trauma from multiple fronts and people to really build up and create a significant core wound in one’s life, or a belief pattern that holds them in bondage for years, or contributes to symptoms of ADHD, or so many other unconscious ways that people can be affected.

A decade ago I went to an Amen Clinic and had functional brain scans performed. Insurance was willing to cover it, and I was desperate to figure out if I was actually crazy in a way that could be seen with empirical evidence, or determine if I was just inherently broken. Years later I finally realized (and was validated by an amazing psychiatrist) that I, in fact, was not and had never been crazy or truly mentally ill. I was just jacked up because of some serious core wounds, terrible theology, and childhood trauma. When my brain scans and electrical (EEG) studies were complete, the Amen Clinic clinicians asked me if I had ever had some major, horrible event happen to me. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and inquired as to why they asked. They explained that the scans revealed that there was a function issue with a certain part of my brain which was typically associated with evidence of PTSD. At the time, I was flummoxed, and the scans only began to make sense years later when I learned about the impact of microtraumas , and also was finally able to come to grips with the fact that certain events in my life had actually been way more impactful and damaging than I thought.

So, big “what does it mean to be human?” lesson 1 from this song? Don’t discount the overall effect that can result when someone is slammed with a ton of little things. They may each individually not be substantial, but when they are all compounded together, especially when a person is lacking good coping mechanisms, those little things combine to become one massive burden.

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On to the second verse…..things that bring you to your knees.

I think this is one major part of the human experience….the idea that most all of us, at some point in our lives or maybe many times in our lives, will have at least one thing happen that will just completely knock the wind out of us, completely wreck us, and maybe even literally bring us to our knees. I’ve kind of come to believe that these experiences can either be transformational turning points in our lives, or we can allow them to go the other way and they harden our hearts and ingrain us further into prisons of suffering. But, I do want to add a caveat here that I in no way believe that it makes us a bad person if we can’t move past things and end up staying stuck. This life journey is hard and complicated and nuanced, and I’m not convinced that we have as much free will and free choice as conservative religion would have us believe. We’re all (mostly) just doing the very best that we can.

I’ve been brought to my knees a few times. The first significant times this happened were early on in my adulthood, and my plan was always to distract and avoid as much as possible. My solution during these crisis times was usually to eat myself into a food coma and watch a ridiculous amount of TV. This worked really well every day for about an hour, and then I would just feel like shit about myself the next morning…ever in a constant battle with my weight, despising myself, and still being saddled with the same, unsolved, unaddressed problems.

Things began to change in my mid twenties when I discovered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I hardly remember anymore what the book was about; I just remember that when I read it all those years ago a light when off in my head and it finally occurred to me that I actually did have control over things in my life and spirituality, and it was the very first inkling that maybe just because an idea floated through my head I didn’t have to latch on to it. That book created in me the first real sense of self-agency I’d ever had. And, it made me start to recognize that to fix problems and to overcome pain and suffering, you have to look them straight on and sometimes sit in it for a while and learn that you won’t die. At other times, you just have plow straight through the pain, determined as hell as to reach the other side.

The last time I was really brought to my knees was in April. Things that I hadn’t been able to see, and in some ways, I was unwilling to see, just completely blew up in my face in the most breathtaking way. For about three days, I completely crumbled. It was a hot, ugly mess….I mean, like uncontrollable, panicky, sobbing, hunkered down in the bathtub with the shower pouring scalding water on me, kind of ugly mess. A huge big puzzle piece that explained so much of the pain I’d ever experienced in life fell into place because of one big massive betrayal. Everything was laid bare, and for a short while, I could not see my way forward. It also didn’t help that that particular weekend I was doing pediatric sexual assault nurse training and felt simultaneously triggered and traumatized by it.

No amount of food coma, booze, pot, shopping, or any other kind of distraction was going to fix that weekend. I knew I was going to have to sit with it and face it all, head on, and see if it would kill me. Fortunately, by then, I was getting to the point where I trusted life enough to believe that all these things coming to a head were for my own good, and if I could just stay present and not try to fight and distract myself, that I would come out on top and it would be a major transformation for me.

So, I managed to stay with it. And a surprising thing happened. Even though it took some time beyond that weekend, I came away from the experience more joyful than when I went into it. Logically, I think I should have been wrecked for a long time when I finally put all the puzzle pieces together and saw clearly how terrible the betrayal and years of events leading up to it had been. But somehow, in looking back over the hard road that had brought me to that place, and then not dying during those three days, something in my mindset changed. Instead of closing up my heart to love and deciding I was never going to trust anyone ever again, or determining to harden and protect myself…..the opposite actually happened. I think I was broken open….broken open into a space of being able to love more deeply with a greater capacity for joy. All from facing the pain and sitting in it and discovering that it didn’t kill me. And in fact, I was finally able to start viewing that pain and betrayal as a gift that brought me to a better place.

Life is such a freaking paradox and it is so freaking beautiful.

*************************************************************************************************************************Third verse: Musings about what I have learned about love:

The lines in this section of the song make me stop and think about how love works, and how my opinions of it have changed over the years. Here are a few of my takeaways, or associations with previous conclusions that this song elicits in me:

  1. We make this matter of love so freaking difficult. Why do we do this? Love is about caring for and wanting the best for another person even if you don’t get that love reciprocated, or even acknowledged. And ultimately, loving people is a win for each of us individually, because when other people are benefited, doing well in life, and are happy, how can that NOT benefit and be good for us?
  2. You can’t help who you love. It just is what it is. Sometimes we love people in certain ways because of unhealthy patterns or trauma that has affected our lives, and maybe by trying to love those people out of our own traumas we end up hurting ourselves. But that doesn’t make our attempts any less meaningful. Trying to connect with people, trying to meet our own needs, trying to make other people happy….there is nothing wrong with this intention. Maybe we need to learn better ways to give and receive healthy love, but I think there’s something meaningful that exists when we attempt to love in the best we know how at the moment.
  3. A point on the line about the wedding and stupid ring: it’s NEVER about the wedding or the ring. And sometimes you have to go through a divorce and grow up a little to realize how they were never the point. Getting married or finding long term love with a person is never about finding the perfect person, having a fantastic celebration, and then staying in a static state of perfected union until one of you dies. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not about finding a person to fill your void and gaps and give you a ring so the whole world will know you’re not one of those pathetic people that is alone. The point is to find someone that you’re willing to grow with, to have all your own faults mirrored back to you, to be challenged, and to take in a little of everything that person has to offer….the good, the bad, the successes, the failed attempts….and to love them and want the best for them through it all.
  4. Sometimes the most difficult, but maybe the purest way to love, is when you care about someone so very deeply, and you are able to learn to stay in that place of wanting the best for them even if you’ll never see it in return. I never really used to believe this kind of love was possible, except for maybe on heartbreaking romantic movies. But now, I think alot about the line “Let everything go; see what stays”. Because if you can do this, you’ll know that whatever stays or ultimately finds its way back to you was not forced or manipulated, and is REAL. Learning to love without attachment is hard, ya’ll, but it’s the best way. You and I both know this.

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The last part of this song is what really gets me, because it’s about the uncertainty of life, the task of just doing the best we can, and the fact that no one has all the answers for everything.

The suggested daily dosage…..the psychics and the doctors who are right and wrong at the same time about multiple things…..

We can’t always say too much with absolute certainty. Science is always evolving and as we dig deeper and deeper we discover particles and bacteria quorums that radically change our understanding of the natural world. We detect dark matter that apparently makes up a higher percentage of “stuff” in the universe than the matter we can perceive with our senses. And as people learn to sit still and be present, we find that there is a deep magic, a Truth, an interconnectedness of all things, an ever knowable mystery that goes far beyond what our low level literal religion pontificates to us.

We’re all just doing the best we can to make it through this life in a way that we can overcome our fears and try to be happy. But I don’t think there’s one magic silver bullet that will get us all there to the “You Won Life” award. Being human, fully human, is about embracing and working with a little bit of everything that comes our way. And everyone is going to be given a different lot to work with.

I have learned to almost completely distrust and be suspicious of people who say they have everything figured out. The people who know EXACTLY what’s going to happen when we die, the people who seem to know EXACTLY who God loves and who God hates, the people who are always right about every topic, the people who are so rigidly dogmatic all the time. These are the people who I think maybe haven’t gotten out in life quite enough….maybe they still need to do some exploring and meet more kinds of people and figure out how to transform their own personal pain and discover the tiny things that can bring them great joy.

I mean really, isn’t this what life could ultimately be about? To taste a little bit of everything, to be completely present here and now, to learn how to love well, and to learn that in the end, it is all good?

I used to think that life was about finding the one path that was meant for you, getting on it, and taking it linearly straight to the afterlife without looking right or left. I know now that that kind of life is impossible, and we don’t give failure and mistakes enough credit. Sometimes, the absolute best thing for us to get where we’re going is to majorly screw up a few times along the way. All the twists and turns in life, all the things that bring us pain and bring us joy, all the ways we fuck up and then wildly succeed…these are what make us human. As Mary Oliver has said in a poem, I DO NOT want to just visit this world and life and barely get to know it.

I’ve learning to want all of life…the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. I want to take up great, overflowing armfuls of it, to taste and see a little bit of everything. I never want to take any of the next years of my life for granted, so that when my curtain closes, I can look backwards and say that I had a wild, passionate love affair with this world, and it was good.

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.