When You’re Tackled Out of Nowhere By Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I never saw it coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Problem With Hope

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Photo credit: Sharon Tate Soberon

We just finished up the Christmas season and are diving headfirst into yet another year. With that new year come the countless resolutions that people will make to try and improve their lives – lose weight, save money, let go of bad habits, rock the world.

We who follow Jesus as a teacher often look to Christmas as a time of hope; we see it as an annual event to remind us that a savior was born who came to confront the systems of the world and show us what God is really like. We reflect on the birth of Jesus in that quiet hidden place, the manger surrounded by calm, adoring animals, and we try to extrapolate our imaginations of that event on to our lives and our futures.  Jesus came, and all will be well.  We just have to keep holding on to our hope that things will be made right one day.  We just have to make it through whatever is going on right now.

I’m a big fan of hope – the idea that there are forces working alongside me and within me for my good – it’s certainly gotten me through some difficult times in the past.  However, I’m beginning to think that many of our current understandings of hope can get us into alot of trouble and maybe cause us unnecessary suffering in life.

Consider the following Bible passages that, at least in English translations, include the word hope:

  • Isaiah 40:31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
  • Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
  • Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
  • Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

These are just a few verses containing hope; there are many more.  Having grown up in the church, I am very familiar with the way these verses tend to get interpreted for our lives. Usually, it is along the lines of “Life may suck right now, but just hang on and God will bring better days.”  Or, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket but if we just hang on until we get to heaven all will be OK.”  Or, “Just hold it together through this period of [insert whatever life circumstance you don’t currently like – singleness, marriage, a bad job, potty training of toddlers, whatever], and God will bring something better, circumstances that you are happier with.

While we all want our futures to be brighter and “happier”, I really believe we get ourselves into trouble when we take on these kinds of attitudes of just trying to get through right now in order proceed to where we really want to be, or fervently believing that somewhere down the road all of our problems will suddenly be fixed, or believing that one day we will get our crap together and live in a state of static perfection.

Here are a couple of problems I see with this way of interpreting hope, where we perceive a God completely external of ourselves who we believe/think/hope will swoop in and save the day or change our situations:

  1. We are denying our humanity – Life is right here, right now. The past doesn’t exist, and neither does the future.  They are illusions, dream-spaces. We have no control over what happened in the past, and the future is just conjectures of what could possibly happen, created by our minds. The only thing that is real is this very moment that we are in.  When we are constantly thinking about what we want to happen tomorrow, or in a month, or in a year, we are not living our lives.  It’s like we step into a virtual reality game in our minds to avoid being fully present now.  If we spend all of our time constantly mulling over what has already happened or what we want to happen, we could very easily reach the end of this material life and discover that we never really lived it fully at all.
  2. There is no hard and fast guarantee that our life circumstances will improve- Some people seem to do everything right, and shit still happens to them. I’ve known several people in my life who I thought were really dealt a horrible hand – no matter what they did, it seems like they’ve been assaulted from all sides time and time and time again with really hard life circumstances.  It appeared so completely unfair that they could be struggling so much while other people I knew (who had questionable ethics) could be sailing along smoothly. But going back to the master teacher, Jesus – being a stellar human doesn’t guarantee an easy life. Just being good to others, and healing people, and living simply and unselfishly doesn’t ensure that you won’t be crucified at some point.
  3. When we sniff or moan at our current circumstances and focus only on escaping them, we are ultimately declaring that Life (God) is bad and we know better.  This is one of those difficult arguments to make because someone will invariably come back and be like, “Well, are you saying that slavery is good, or injustice to the poor is good, or abuse of children is good? Shouldn’t we strive to end them?” There are people who can definitely explain this argument far better than I, and may I humbly suggest reading works by Pema Chodron, Byron Katie, Ram Dass, and Thich Hhat Nahn on this idea.  But I’ll try here to explain how I see it:  in my mind, God is the Ultimate Reality, or Life, or simply, What Is.  I don’t believe that Life at its best is all about rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust.  Life is not about being ecstatic and comfortable every single moment.  However, I do believe that Life (God) is good, and that only by accepting everything that happens can we be in a solid place of understanding to institute change for the problems mentioned above. [Now, do I in practice accept everything that happens to me without complaining  – absolutely not, but I’m practicing a little more each day.)
  4. If you’re not happy with your circumstances right now, you won’t be happy with your circumstances when they change.  Buddhist teachings remind us that everything is temporal and relational. Nothing is static and everything will eventually change in form and expression.  And as Richard Rohr likes to say, “Its heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.” The point he is making is that if you can’t find happiness where you are right now, you won’t find happiness when you get the life situations you think you want.  You can find contentment and peace in any situation, or you can find hell and misery in any situation.  Which ultimately means that happiness is in your mind, not your external environment.  I don’t need to prove this to you – think of all the people you know who finally got that expensive car, or fancy house, or promotion, and are still just as miserable as before?  Or think of the people you may know who are dying slow horrendous deaths from disease and are still positive and joyful? It is not our situations that make us happy or sad, or bring heaven or hell – it is what we think and believe about them.

So, now that I’ve attempted to philosophize a bit, I will offer a tentative description of how I view hope: hope is not horizontal, but rather, vertical.

We tend to understand hope in a horizontal, linear, time-bound fashion.  But this, as I’ve described above, is not helping us out because it bases our happiness on what is going on outside of us or the changes we think we need to be happy. I think that hope should be understood vertically – maybe like a deep well within each of us.

Hope is our ability to look deep within ourselves, to our core, where we connect with the Divine, or Life, or God within us and know that all is well and all will be well.  It is the conviction that we are OK as we are now, and we will be OK when our external circumstances change.  It is the trust that what Reality brings us each moment is good and trustworthy. It is the belief that what we see with our eyes or perceive with our five senses is not the end of the story and is not the ultimate truth.

So, now, when I look at the Christmas season and remember the birth of Jesus, I don’t long to be gathered from this earth and carried to heaven. I have a different kind of hope – where I see how Jesus lived – not bound by the circumstances of his life – and recognize that the same can be true of my own life. His example shows that I can live well without feeling the need to manipulate and control everything around me. I can trust that what comes my way, no matter how difficult it is, will be for my good. This understanding, then, completely reframes how I read verses like Jeremiah 29:11, mentioned above. Plans to prosper me no longer means a guarantee that I’ll be financially successful, or have a brilliant marriage, or that everyone will love and respect me. Instead, it means that I can trust that everything that I encounter in my life is good for me and comes from the hand of God – that includes the hard stuff as well as the exciting and fun stuff.

Christmas, for me, is the reminder to stop wishing circumstances would change for me…to claim peace…and to relax into Life. 

“All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” – Julian of Norwich

How To Save the World All By Yourself

 

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Photo credit: _Teb holes

Yesterday, at church, I sat next to a dear friend whom I haven’t seen much lately because we both live crazy lives. As we hugged and she asked how I was doing, I gave the obligatory “Oh, I”m fine!”  I was raised in the South, this is what you’re supposed to say no matter what is really going on in life. My friend, on the other hand, was more honest and admitted life was really hard for her at the moment.

 

“You’re right, I’m not really fine, either,” I confessed.

“You do know what FINE stands for, right?” my friend asked me.  I shook my head.

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I laughed, because this is very true. We offer our “fines” when it doesn’t feel appropriate or sacred enough to drop f-bombs on Sunday morning, or when we’re trying to keep up the facade of “I’m rocking it at life right now, thank you very much” when the opposite really feels more authentic.

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Do you ever feel like you have to save the world by yourself, or at least die trying, in order to be accepted by God or to win at life or whatever?  I know with my higher level brain that this is not the case, but I swear I live my life every day like it’s all up to me.  I’m not really sure where I got this tendency; it might have had something to do with all the pressure I felt as a kid and young adult to get as many people to Jesus and heaven as possible.  Some preachers can really make it feel like the success of God’s whole agenda is in your court and you’d better not drop the ball because hell is on the line.

I’ve been watching myself very closely over the last few months, and specifically the mad driven-ness I have in certain areas of my life. Here is my list of craziness, things that plague me on a daily basis.  When you see me sitting around doing nothing, or at work taking care of people, or driving my kids somewhere, all of these things are simultaneously churning through my mind: [Note to self – maybe these are why I always have resting bitch face….I can never just relax and chill out]

  1. I have to eat plant-based perfectly because doing so is the best for the environment and our resources.  If I don’t eat vegan perfectly every day I will single-handedly be the tipping point that pushes our climate beyond redemption.
  2. I have to keep my home energy use significantly less than all of those around me because I don’t want to be the one who caused an electricity grid blackout or used the last remaining stores of propane on the Earth.
  3. If I don’t figure out how to parent perfectly then my kids will automatically become addicts, slobs, purposeless vagrants, or writhing heaps of fetal-positioned therapy clients who hate me because I couldn’t get it together as a mom.
  4. I must listen to NPR and all other credible news sources daily so I know what is going on at all moments in Zimbabwe, and Peru, and Liechtenstein, as well as the big news making countries that are constantly in the headlines. If I’m not aware of EVERYONE’s suffering, then I must not care for ANYONE’s suffering.
  5.  I must read every book ever written because I have to be cultured and be able to reference all of the experts so that I have something worthwhile to say.
  6. I have to be an activist – for EVERY worthy cause.  Civil rights, women’s rights, child slaves on chocolate plantations in West Africa, clothing makers in Bangladesh, migrant food workers in the Pacific Northwest, etc ad nauseum.
  7. I’m aware of my ego, and aware of the real “me” that lies behind that ego.  As such, I have to constantly be aware of all of my motivations and work as hard as possible to keep waking up.
  8.  And finally, for now at least, I have to be a super well-rounded person all of the time – working full-time, while freelance writing, while doing graduate school, while parenting three kids [one of whom is special needs], while trying to do all of the above list perfectly.

When I write all this down, it really seems ludicrous. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time.  But honestly, I don’t think I”m the only person in the world who is like this.  Yeah, I have my own special kind of crazy and ADHD and core wounds, but I know plenty of people who are out there thinking they have to save the world, too.

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The fact is, I can’t save the world by myself.  Whether or not I live perfectly vegan and plastic free, or have the tiniest carbon footprint ever, or be the most amazing mom that ever lived, life is really out of my control. When I have my wits about me, I recognize that I really only have the tiniest bit of control over the most trivial things. The big stuff is ultimately out of my hands.  I might be able to offer influence, but that’s about it.

It is very unlikely that little old me, or little old you for that matter, will ever be the tipping point for the climate, or political systems, or global food production.

And the fact that I obsess about this huge list of really big things on a daily basis begs the question: am I really trying to save the WORLD, or am I just frantically trying to save MYSELF?

Furthermore, what am I trying to save myself FROM? Am I really putting all my cash into this one pot of Earth, or do I think that life and meaning will extend well past whatever ultimately happens to this planet?

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I”m in another Eckhart Tolle phase.  I usually cycle back to him at least two to three times a year, and each cycle feels like a spiral.  I pick up something new from him that I wasn’t previously able to understand or grasp.

Right now I’m thinking about the spaciousness that he teaches on – how we need to accept what life gives and let there be space around those things. Because, it is this space from which new things can spontaneously manifest.

Another point of Tolle’s that I”m mulling over is how we don’t really do LIFE, LIFE does us.  Life is dancing US, Life is playing through US, not the other way around. Life is expressing itself through a variety of different forms, and we can see that through all that is created.

I don’t tend to leave much space in my life, mainly because I’m frantically trying to save the world. I’m going to run out of time, I tell myself. I get too caught up in forms (including the form of time), trying to make them perfect and thinking that we will be saved through the saving of form.

What would it be like I wonder, if my hero journey in life is not to set out and find the things I need to save, but let life bring them to me? Do I trust life to bring me what is mine to do, and trust that it will take to others what it has for them to do?

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There is a Jewish concept that I really like called tikkun olam. Now, preface here, I am not a Jewish scholar so don’t tear me apart if I misrepresent this a little. I love how it was once described by Rachel Naomi Remen in an episode of the podcast On Being:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

And then another quote:

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
― Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

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This idea of tikkun olam, as I understand here, changes everything. No longer is it about me trying to find EVERY SINGLE BROKEN piece in the world, sorting through them, and putting them all together.  The pieces are not outside us – I am a piece, you are a piece, and so on. We are looking for the light inside of each other – or, Namaste…the divine in me is recognizing the divine in you.

We as the broken pieces in humans and the broken pieces of creation are to come together and unite once again. But this can’t be done by us frantically running around smashing into each other and saying “By God, we will make this fit. This puzzle will come together right now in this way. This is what the one Light is supposed to look like!”

No, this is where Tolle’s space comes in. We must sit, be still, and allow the space, allow the brokenness that exists without fighting it. Then, perhaps Life will break through in the space and bring the right pieces to us, bring us to the other pieces that are right for us, and the Light will begin to concentrate.

I am one corner of the puzzle.  I can’t fit together all the pieces on the other side of the puzzle.  But I can be part of the healing in my little place; I can join with the pieces that the God/life brings to me.  And if I miss a corresponding piece the first time around, that same God/Life is trustworthy to bring it back again. [I’ve got more than enough evidence of this regarding tough life lessons.  :)]

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As one final thought, largely to myself. The greats in history, the ones I look up to and sit [figuratively] at the feet of, didn’t try to save the whole world.  Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and countless others…..they only did the work that was in front of them. They didn’t take on work that was not for them to do.  Yet, the willingness to piece together their little parts of the world enabled that piecing to spread outward.

So, how can you save the world by yourself?  How can I?  We can’t save the world. All that we can do is say yes to the Life that is dancing us, welcome it, let it lead.  That is the very most, and best, that we can do. And this joining with Life, and God, and Light…this is how we are saved.

 

 

 

Don’t Strive to Be Liked; Strive to Be Authentic

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Photo credit: Col·legi Oficial Infermeres 

Here’s a little secret about me. I still struggle with some big insecurities.

All of you who know me well are laughing right now because this is no secret to you. They come out the most strongly when I’m under alot of stress, or am facing something new or challenging. Almost all of my insecurities are rooted in my childhood fears:  am I enough?  Is there a place for me in this world where I truly belong?  Am I seen?  Am I loved?  And at my core:  am I likeable?

Thanks to alot of shadow work, therapy, and battling my demons, these insecurities have subsided to a level where I can function quite well in my daily life. The majority of the time I don’t pay as much attention when thoughts flood my head from these reservoirs of lack and “not enoughness” hidden away in my ego.

However, as I have grown into a skilled watcher of myself and the way my mind works, I have noticed a phenomenon about me.  When I am in brand new situations where I’m not completely confident in my skills or abilities, it is very easy for those insecurities to rise up and take over, and suddenly I am interacting with the world around me through my child-self once again.

Have any of you ever experienced the following:  you leave home as an adult, live life on you own as a competent, secure, confident person who stands up for what is important to you, and then……you go home to the people and places you grew up with and suddenly you regress to who you were back then?  It’s like a switch is flipped and this other personality, the one that you tried to rid yourself of for so long, comes right back out?  It’s like your family and people from your past still see you as that young, immature person you once were, and somehow them still perceiving you that way causes you to transform instantly back into that person?

I think this is a version of the Pygmalion or Golem effects in a way; it’s like how people perceive you in some circumstances literally controls how you view your own self and how you act in those situations.  And it’s maddening, frankly.

I’ve always wondered why this happens to me – why am I triggered by my family, childhood home, and new situations to revert back to someone that is no longer representative of who I am now, the real me at my core?  And am I getting some kind of subconscious pay-off by continuing to allow this to happen?

A couple of months ago I started working at a local hospital as a brand new nurse. Stressful, unfamiliar new situation for sure. And sure enough, some of these old insecurities rose up again and my timid, low confidence, defer-to-everyone else self took over. It was pretty frustrating because I would no longer typically describe myself to be the cautious, introverted person I used to be so much of the time.

I love this new job, but it has been alot to take in with so much to learn in a fast paced environment.  As the first several weeks passed and I was on the floor learning the ropes and taking care of patients, I could feel the strong pull within myself to shrink back, to be super nice to everyone ALL the time, to make sure everyone’s needs were put before my own (not talking about patients here, but fellow colleagues), treating myself as though I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no significant life experience.  Which, of course, is absolutely not true.  I may be new to nursing, but I am not new to life.

On one particular day, I had one of those periods of “If someone even looks at me I”m going to burst into tears.”  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and my ADD was seriously in overdrive. My preceptor would give me instructions and I swear my brain would literally stop – I would retain nothing and would have to retreat to quiet corners of the unit to help my synapses start firing again.

I listen to audiobooks everyday as I drive to work, and as I so often do, I turned to Brené Brown to get some insight into this spazzy little mouse I was regressing into. I’ve done some wicked hard things over the last few years, I thought. I am way stronger and more confident than I ever used to be – why is the job making me such a pansy that feels like I have to please EVERY SINGLE PERSON I walk by every moment of the day?

Brené didn’t really give me the cause of my deep insecurities, but listening to her book The Gifts of Imperfection made me realize that I was working way too hard at ensuring that I was well-liked by everyone instead of striving to live out my authentic self.

This is exactly what I did as a child and young adult. I wanted to be accepted, included, liked…and so I did what I thought I needed to to have that happen.  Which usually involved me trying to tame my quirky personality, be super Christian girl who never did any wrong, and be uber polite and gracious to EVERYONE.  Two things I have learned from this:  it is exhausting, and trying to be who everyone wants while trying to squelch who you really are inside usually ends up in disaster.  Either you die a little more on the inside, or you find that those people you were trying to make like you aren’t going to like you anyway.

So, to my point:  I realized [thanks Brené!] that this was exactly what I’ve been doing in my new career. Something, maybe the stress or exhaustion or my lingering fear of failing, had triggered me into reverting into my old ways of viewing the world and behaving. I had slipped back into that dream-state where I was convinced everyone has to like me and I have to be perfect in all of my interactions with other people. But all of this was at the expense of me, myself, and I.

After I had this audiobook epiphany, I went to work with the resolve that I would choose being my authentic self over my need to be liked.  And can I just say, that in the last couple of weeks, it has made all the difference,  Suddenly my ability to learn and retain information has improved, I said what I thought more instead of mulling over every little thing to make sure it was received well by everyone. and I refused to engage in conversations that absolutely did not resonate with me just so others in the group would think I was nice and had the same interests they do.

Yesterday I had to call a particular doctor about a patient – he and I had never spoken before, just walked by each other. Later, my preceptor told me that the doctor had asked if I was new, and said that he was going to “test me”.  The “me” from a few weeks ago, in my timid mouse moments, would have been upset and worried – what if I prove my incompetence and he thinks I”m stupid?  But instead, this time I thought – Punk resident! Bring it on! I’m not playing this stupid hospital game where techs, nurses, and doctors test and intimidate the new person. I will continue to do the best that I can and be my authentic self. I will not cower under someone just because they think they are smarter, or more skilled, or are more powerful than me.  That’s no longer who I am.

At the end of the day, it is way more important to me that I go to bed knowing I lived out my true, authentic self. I’ve worked so hard in the past to be liked by everyone, and in the process was taken advantage of, walked over, and demeaned by plenty of people.  I want to be in relationship with people who appreciate who I am because it is who I am, not because they find copies of themselves when they look at me.

Finally, I don’t want others to feel like they have to change themselves in order to be in relationship with me. Obviously, in this diverse world we are going to encounter people that we just don’t like and will never get along with. But I think that’s OK – I would much rather people be genuine and true to themselves than feel like they have to live lies and wear facades just so we can all not cause each other any discomfort.

I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am now. It’s taken alot of painful excavating to discover the real me. I’m not prepared to bury that all again just for the sake of someone who has opinions about how things should go but has no history or vested interest in me. I hope all of you will strive for and hold on dearly to your own authenticity, too. Don’t let others be the ultimate judge of your “enough-ness”, value, or place in this world.

 

 

Leaning Into Life’s Sharp Points

tightrope.jpg

My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.

I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby.  Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.

Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.

Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.

When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore.  Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.

The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths.  I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.

I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.

In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them.  They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment.  If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.

The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.

It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear.  As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.

I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward.  I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.

With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts.  Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me?  This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.

A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart.  The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.

Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare.  But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.

Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chodron

 

When You White-Knuckle Life…

peace

Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass

 

 

 

 

This Post Is All About B.S.

 

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Photo credit: Philip Edmonson

 

“You will find that you don’t need to trust others as much as you need to trust yourself to make the right choices.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

Anyone who has talked to me for very long knows I have a weird eye thing going on.

This is how I’ve always referred to it: my weird eye thing. I have nystagmus, so my eyes move abnormally fast, back and forth horizontally – even more so when I’m upset or tired. I also have a lazy eye that tends to veer off to one side occasionally. These two eye issues were the cause of a tremendous amount of shame in my childhood, and I still tend to cross my eyes ever so slightly when being photographed or talking to somebody, so they know that I’m for sure looking at them and not peering over their shoulder.

My parents strove to raise me well and pushed me in many areas, like academics, to challenge myself.  However, they didn’t understand how my weird eye issues affected my eyesight and tended to be wicked overprotective. When I was in elementary school, I longed to play Little League baseball on the town team like my brother.  My parents refused to let me join, convinced that a ball would come flying my way and slam into my glasses, permanently blinding me with shards of broken glass. Nevermind that I played baseball all the time at home and with my extended family, with no problem.

My stupid eyes got in the way again in junior high when it came time to sign up for the basketball team.  I desperately wanted to play basketball and asked my parents for permission to sign up.  I assumed they’d have no problem since I had been playing tennis for years and regularly had balls speeding my way on the courts.

I got a firm NO. When I pressed as to why, I got the same answer I’d been accustomed to getting my entire life: “We don’t know if you can see well enough to play, and you might get hit in the face, and your glasses will break, and you’ll be blinded, and basically the Apocalypse will be ushered in.” [Ok, the last clause in that sentence was mine.]

Burning shame.  It felt brutal being told I couldn’t do things that in my heart I knew I would be fine at.  I hated my eyes, hated my glasses, and for a time, hated my parents for not believing in me.

Then high school basketball came around.  I was already well behind my peers who had been playing basketball for two years, but I was determined this time to be allowed to join the team.  I asked my parents yet again for permission, and once again received a firm no.  But this time I was pissed.

“Bullshit,” I told myself and proceeded to flat out ignore my dad for the next three days.  I didn’t look at him, refused to speak to him, and didn’t acknowledge when he spoke to me.  I was NOT going to be the first to crack on this one.  And I didn’t.  He finally came to me with his consent to join the team.  In general, I sucked at basketball even though I loved playing, but I never broke my glasses, never lost a contact lens, and no one ever had to pull glass shards out of my eyes.

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Each of us creates stories about ourselves from early childhood, and these stories have the tendency to stick with us.  Some stories are good and helpful, but much of the time, they are stories about our faults and weaknesses, and they come dressed to the hilt in shame.

We don’t always know we hold these stories.  They can be unconsciously embedded in our psyches, but they are retold again and again in the choices we make, the people we decide to be in relationship with, our perspectives on life, and so on.

Don Miguel Ruiz, who wrote The Four Agreements, describes these stories we believe about ourselves as the dream. Our brains are always dreaming, and each of us is subjected to the dream of the planet, which includes rules, religion, culture, governments, and all of humanity’s collective constructs.  As Ruiz describes in his book, we are taught how to dream this way, how to behave on the Earth, starting at birth, from the adults and peers in our lives.

I think it’s necessary to have some measure of order or social norms and ways of doing things to help life run smoothly. Rules and societal structure can help protect individual liberties and set up good boundaries. But problems occur when we begin to believe that dreams, or stories, that are being told to us from childhood define who we are at our core.  We are, according to Ruiz, domesticated.  We allow ourselves to be tamed, we begin to doubt our own instincts, and we defer to what others want from us and our perceived need for the attention and acceptance of others.

There are constant voices speaking to us every day that are working to keep us in line, keep us domesticated and submissive. These voices might be speaking different dreams to each of us, but we all have forces telling us to just go with the flow, do what society deems acceptable, stop rocking the boat, and for God’s sake, don’t trust ourselves or our choices.

The voices usually aren’t malevolent; most of the time they are rooted in fear. In our domestication, we take on the fear of others and then perpetuate it. It is only when we learn to question the dream that we discover there was never anything to be afraid of.

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I think that in the last year I might have possibly met every woman in Indianapolis who recently went through a huge relationship breakup and is attempting to reinvent or completely overhaul their lives.   And it’s crazy to me how each of these women, including me, is having to claw and fight against the dream and stories we ‘ve carried for so long that convinced us we are not enough.

I went out for margaritas a few days ago with two of these amazing women, ladies that I’m thrilled to call friends.  Over chips and salsa, we discussed how things were going in our lives, what steps forward we were making, and how we still struggled with various things on a daily basis.  One friend was almost despondent at times, seeing only the hard things in her life and the very slow progress she perceived she was making.

Bullshit, I said.  She was listening to the story that society had ingrained in her about what success looks like. She could only hear what people in her past had insisted was true about her, so much so that she struggled to believe in herself, and believe that she was making good, solid choices for her life. She viewed herself and her worth largely through the eyes of a dream she was born into.

What I see in her is someone who moved across the country by herself, is creating a new, interesting life, and is pursuing goals she’s held onto since childhood. I see a woman who is courageous and is peeling back layer after layer of burdens once placed on her by others in order to find her real, authentic self.

My other friend had beat herself up as well, not so long ago, for having to move back home, take a new career direction in her 30s, and struggle to ignore the voices of friends and family who shamed her for not having a husband, family, and established vocation by now.

Bullshit, I’ve told her again and again.  She hasn’t failed, and she isn’t going to fail.  She’s listened to her heart, refused to make a choice that she knew would have suffocated her, and is moving step by step towards her goals, despite obstacles that have tripped her up.

Other friends and women I know tell me their stories of being called losers by their parents, being left high and dry by husbands and partners, being estranged from their children, being judged by their social groups. They beat themselves up and lower their gazes and apologize repeatedly for their faults.

Bullshit.  These women may have failed by society’s standards in many regards, but I know better. I know that they are the brave ones – they are the ones facing hard things head-on, learning to trust themselves, and discovering, as Rumi tells us, that our wounds are the places that the light gets in. They are learning to cast off the stories that have held them back, and are helping others recognize their own sabotaging stories.

I know better because I myself am breaking free of my old stories, the ones people and society have told me since I was a child:

Julie, you’re just a quitter.

Julie, you’ll never be able to manage a home and will always be a slob.

Julie, you’ll never be able to drive because of your eyes.

Julie, you just need to marry someone to take care of you.

Julie, you can’t survive on your own after a divorce and you’re going to screw over your kids.

Julie, you never make good decisions.

Julie, you’ll never be a “real” athlete.

Julie, you’ll never belong.

Julie, you’ll always just be a stand-in, a poor man’s Wendy (reference The Wedding Planner).

Now granted, I had alot of wonderful people speaking encouragement and praise into my life.  But, people tend to hang on to negative emotions and events far longer than positive ones, and so the horrible things said to me and about me have just had a way of sticking tight.

Fortunately, I’ve also had people in my life who were willing to call out the bullshit that I was believing about myself -women who had been through similar life struggles as mine who have broken off many of their old stories and so have the clarity to look at my life and help me parse through what is real and what is just dream haze.

The funny thing is, the more you’re able to cast off the things that have held you back, the more you’re able to see that it really is just bullshit.  You are shocked that you ever believed any of it, ever let it define your life.  You also start to find that there’s bullshit everywhere, holding countless back from finding out who they truly are.

As Rob Bell likes to say, “Once you see, you can’t unsee. And once you taste, you can’t untaste.”  Once you see bullshit for what it is, you can’t unsee it, in yourself or anyone else. Once you taste freedom from lies and negative stories you’ve believed for years, you can’t go back to the old bondage, and you don’t want anyone else to remain stuck there either.

“Let them judge you.
Let them misunderstand you.
Let them gossip about you.
Their opinions aren’t your problem.
You stay kind, committed to love,
and free in your authenticity.
No matter what they do or say,
don’t you dare doubt your worth
or the beauty of your truth.
Just keep on shining like you do.”
― Scott Stabile