*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 3940 41 years, from people, books, and my own experience. These are my rules to live by.
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.
It is never too late to stop, turn around, and go in the other direction.
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.
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.
Eat less. Eat unadulterated food as much as possible. Plants. You’ll just feel better.
Try to never make decisions rooted in fear, guilt, or shame. Choose what you want in your heart and stand by your decision.
God isn’t angry. He/she was never angry.
You don’t have any problems right now. Your “problems” are either in the future or the past, and those are just illusions.
Do whatever necessary to protect your sleep rhythms. It heals you.
Don’t forgive people to make them feel better. Do it simply to liberate yourself.
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.
Two glasses of wine in one sitting is enough.
Sometimes radical self-care looks like complete irresponsibility in the eyes of others. Just carry on. You know what you need.
Pay attention to your dreams; they can tell you alot about yourself, and sometimes offer glimpses into the future.
Let your children be your teachers: they reflect back to you who you are.
Welcome whoever life brings your way, but intentionally choose who you do relationship with.
Give away most of your stuff. Only keep what brings you joy.
Don’t wait for the perfect temperature; go outside and play anyway.
You can do more than you think you can; it’s all really just a mind game.
Your parents did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Generally.
Family is not always biological. They are sometimes found in the most unexpected people.
Find what you’re really passionate about and pursue it with abandon.
It is possible to find at least one commonality with every single person you meet.
Jesus was totally right when he said to find yourself you must first lose yourself.
Working in the hospital can freak you out. Healthy people get sick. Get the flu shot. 2021 Addendum: AND the COVID vaccine.
Cheese and corn syrup are in literally everything. Read the labels.
Sometimes you need to plan diligently, deliberately. And sometimes you need to be bat-shit crazy impulsive.
Community is important, whatever that looks like for you.
Sometimes the scariest option is the absolute best option.
Just buy the hammock.
Don’t avoid doing what you really want to do just because no one is there to do it with you.
Live your questions; don’t demand answers for everything.
Surround yourself with people of all ages. Babies and the very old usually have the most sense.
Don’t hit. Ever. It won’t bring the results you want.
Don’t punish yourself for making a bad mistake by living with that mistake forever.
People will exploit you only as far as you will tolerate their behavior.
There is enough.
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.
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.
Pursue your authentic self with relentless abandon and don’t be afraid of the unknowingness.
I’ve haven’t written any posts for a few months. There’s been too much going on…starting a new job, training for some distance running events, grad school, a huge upswing in COVID, trying to be a somewhat decent parent during the midst of all of that….
But I’ve been chewing on something for a while, and now is the time to get it all out in a post. As a warning, this piece is, per the title, going to be about sex. This is the kind of post I would have been mortified to consider writing even just a few short years ago. Now, however, talking about things that feel real and authentic from my perspective seems more appealing than trying to avoid some momentary embarrassment. Still, here’s your chance to bail if you so choose, before I dive on in.
Still here….OK! Final word: this is totally written from a straight girl’s perspective. I totally get and value that there is a spectrum of sexuality and that love and relationships exist in countless forms. But, I don’t have the experience or wisdom to speak to much of them, so I’m just gonna talk about what I know. Also, this is probably going to be a perspective that isn’t common to everyone. I grew up as a conservative Christian, which had a huge impact on the way I approached life for decades, but I think some of the dynamics and things I talk about here will resonate past religious circles.
I do not at all guarantee this post will flow in any linear path; it’ll more likely be a hodge podge mosaic of all of my swirling thoughts, feelings, and convictions about this topic at this point and time in my life. This might be a multi-post series eventually, and yes, there will be sarcasm, and a bit of hyperbole, just to try and get my points across.
I spent the better part of my adult life hating sex. Seriously. I used to tell my therapist from almost 15 years ago that I would prefer a good slice of key lime pie any day over a roll in the hay. Sex was the biggest disappointment. It was built up in my childhood as something that girls should save themselves for; we were told that that under the umbrella of marriage it would be a gift and amazing and totally worth the wait.
That was not my experience. By any means. I remember thinking early on in my marriage, “Wait, you mean I read all those stupid I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Lady in Waiting, and other similar books and I believed hook, line, and sinker that “staying pure” would be a good thing and well worth the wait?”
When I think back on the stories that I was fed and believed, I want to throw up a little in my mouth. Not because the people that told me the stories were ill-intentioned, and not because the fact that I was a virgin until I got married at 25 saved me from alot of heartache and potential STIs that can come with sexuality commenced in youth. No, I’m angry because sexuality and relationships were framed for me and so many like me in ways that only covered us in shame, a sense of inferiority, and the beliefs that we as women owe something to our male partners. And when you come to sex with this kind of framing, it’s no wonder that it might not seem so great. Sex is clearly physical, but for so many women, it is very, very much a head game as well.
There is a thread that I see running through much of our culture, even our “advanced”, Western American culture. This dynamic, or pervasive belief, is the idea that somehow the sexualtiy of girls belongs to their fathers or the men in their lives.
You know that tired old cliche story about dads threatening to meet their daughter’s first boyfriend at the door with a shotgun? Or they might sit up waiting on the front porch, looking as threatening as possible, when the couple returns from a first date? We often romanticize this kind of behavior, and talk about how Daddy is being protective of his little girl. Men still frequently ask fathers for permission to marry their daughters, and fathers still admonish men to “take good care” of those same women.
Nope, nope, nope. This may be a form of protectiveness, but the root of this is in the idea of ownership, that girls belong to their daddies until they are given to another man in marriage, and the idea that women need to be protected by men from the other men in their lives. I literally can’t stand this. Have you ever seen a dad sit out on the front porch with a shotgun after his son comes back from a date, wanting to warn the girl his son went out with that she’d better not try anything? That would never happen. And I’ve never heard of a girl asking a woman permission to marry her son.
I was listening to an episode of the You Made It Weird podcast a while back where Pete Holmes interviewed Hannah Gadsby. (By the way, if you have not been introduced to Gadsby, stop what you’re doing and go watch her Netflix specials Douglas and Nanette on Netflix. She is fabulous.) Somewhere toward the end of their conversation, Pete and Hannah were discussing female sexuality, and how some men cringe or change the subject or get defensive and want to pull out their shotguns when the subject comes around to their daughters’ sexuality. They try to avoid their daughters recognizing their sexuality for as long as possible, and then they try to be in a position where they get to approve or disapprove of the man that their daughter engages sexually with. Super strong ownership tendencies there. Bleh.
Pete made the comment during this episode that he doesn’t want to be that kind of dad when his young daughter grows up. He WANTS his daughter to have fulfilling, authentic sexual relationships with whoever she chooses without being bogged down or enslaved by male “overprotectiveness” or ownership. He also mentioned he just didn’t want to come across creepy by saying any of that, to which Hannah replied that it was not creepy at all as long as he personally didn’t get involved. I agree. 😀
When I was growing up, I wanted to have a rodeo career and own a big ranch. The response I was given to this dream? Well Julie, You’d better marry a rich cowboy.
What the hell? This and other responses I got to similar ideas taught me that 1) certain dreams would never come to fruition on my own because I”m a girl, and 2) I need a man to take care of me.
I grew up in the Church and this thread ran very strong through it, it usually didn’t matter which denomination I was a part of at the moment. It was very, very clear to me that a woman’s status and citizenship advanced when she married. Married a man, that is. All the church singles group would talk about how amazing it was to be single and how you can do so much for the Lord as a single, and hustle while you wait, etc. But yeah, I could see right through it. Married women in the Church are much more esteemed. And if you start popping out babies, even better. And woe to those women who get divorced…you will fall right through the status floor and spend quite a while trying to crawl back to the level you were as a fresh, unmarred single virgin.
I grew up hearing the message from so many fronts, even if implicitly, that I needed to get hitched. I needed someone to take care of me, to rein me in, to make sure I didn’t do anything too harebrained. And because also….the only way you could legitimately have sex without pissing off God is to do so when you’re married.
So, I got married a couple of years out of college…and it was a disaster.
When I was in high school and college, purity culture was going strong. At superficial glance, purity culture seems good and all. Don’t have sex until you’re married, keep yourself out of compromising situations, etc, and you won’t end up with an STI, an unexpected pregnancy, and you can maybe minimize some of the emotional heartache that comes with the end of romantic relationships.
I was a strong adherent to purity culture all through this time. It made alot of sense to me during that period of my life, but part of the reason it made alot of sense was that it served as a GREAT coping and defense mechanism against my own body and personality shame. I grew up as the black sheep of my family, and while I liked almost all of my peers, I got along so much better with people that were at least 10 to 20 years older than me. Not in weird ways; it was just that I wasn’t interested in the same kinds of things that interested my age group. I was also a little terrified of God and a little terrified of boys my age, and latching on to purity culture teachings gave me a great way to avoid wondering why the male gender was not knocking down my door….or at least even waving much through the window.
I bought into the purity ring ideal, and wore a simple gold band on my left ring finger from my senior year in high school until I was 25, when I gave it to my dad at my wedding. Sorry, but I”m throwing up in my mouth a little again. My sexuality was not my dad’s business. At all. (To be clear, my dad did not force a purity ring on me…it was my idea at the time based in my own insecurities and struggle to please God and whoever else I thought I needed to).
It was as though I thought I had achieved some great feat by staying a virgin and handing over the gold ring on my wedding day….. It wasn’t a great feat. It was actually a really simple accomplishment because I grew up being made to fear sexuality and it’s power, to be ashamed of my own body, to stifle my own sexual energy, and to protect myself as I struggled to deal with with the trauma of sexual abuse that occurred during my childhood. But staying a virgin until you find a man to marry doesn’t fix any problems. And if anything, I believe purity culture absolutely sets marriages up for failure, puts more expectations on marriage and romantic relationships than is necessary, and has contributed to the perpetuation of rape culture in our society.
The way we read and interpret the Bible has a HUGE influence on the way we view women. Growing up in a conservative tradition that tended to read the Bible quite literally, women were viewed as the ones who fucked up pretty bad in the beginning, and were then relegated to trying to make it up for the rest of time by being the “helpmeet” for men and by having babies. As a woman, you’d be top notch if you were a virgin, and though you might drop a bit in status after losing that state of being, you’d come back up a bit if you proved to be an honorable wife and mother.
I’ve heard Proverbs 31 stated so many times as an ideal to live up to that I can’t stand it. Because it’s telling women….be this perfect female…the one who is super organized, and eloquent, and crafty, and all the other things that I am not. I’m a spaz most of the time. I have ADD. I would not necessarily say I am eloquent. And crafty…..I missed getting that gene. The Proverbs 31 women is put together, genteel, responsible. And she is prized for that. But she is not the ONLY type of amazing woman.
What about all of us women who are wild inside? Who want to attempt epic or outrageous shit? Who have tried really hard to live according to the ideals and conservative rules of others, but doing so kind of killed us inside? I’m SO FREAKING grateful for Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, released this year, that gives all women permission to be “whatever the fuck they want to be”, to live according to the drive that is within them and not according to society’s demands and beneath a patriarchal culture’s burdens.
In the Bible, it sure seems like male sexual energy is considered good, but female….not so much. And when we read the Bible in certain ways, we compound that sentiment. I think this is seen strongly in the emphasis on the Virgin birth. I don’t personally believe in the Virigin birth…it’s not something I’ll really get into an argument about, but the idea of a virgin having an immaculate conception is kind of boring to me. To me, it again objectifies women. Women are best in the pure state, not marred by having sex. Women have things forced upon them without them asking and they are honored WHEN they accept it without fuss or argument. Men don’t lose their holiness or saintliness or whatever by having sex, but women do.
The story of the virgin birth also feels to me as though some humanity is stripped from the beginning of the person we know as Jesus. I know alot of people will vehemently disagree with this idea, and that’s totally fine. But I also find it interesting that only two of the Gospels mention the Virgin birth. So, either it was folklore added on to the stories over the decades following Jesus’ death, or it wasn’t necessarily the whole point or crux of the Jesus story in the first place. And virgins don’t only appear in the Bible. They’ve been magical mermaids appearing in religious texts and stories for thousands of years. Anyway, my whole point about the Virgin Mary is that when the story is told that way, it seems to me like she was raped by God. Sounds like a familiar story that happens regularly to women, except for the God part. Sorry if I just pissed off half of Christendom and ruined Christmas….but this is how it feels to me.
There is a teaching that I think I first heard from the Dalai Lama or another Buddhist teacher. It goes like this: Learn the rules very very well, so you will know how to break the rules very very well.
I followed the rules my entire life. All the way through adulthood and an 11 year marriage. And this is what I have concluded: Sometimes following the rules to a T every single time doesn’t get you jack squat.
Since getting divorced 4 years ago, I’ve started breaking rules. Oh come on, don’t get too excited, people, I’m probably still one of the most boring people you’ll ever meet. Maybe more than anything I have begun to break the internal rule structure that has dictated for decades how I live my life….that has held me entrenched in insecurities and shame. But now that I know alot of the rules so freaking well, I often know which ones can be broken and when. And for the rest of the time….well, I’m much more prepared to deal with the consequences of breaking rules because I’ve learned that living a perfect, pristine life does not always equate to a happy, contented life. (It helps when you let go of the Christian literal hell narrative, too).
When I was married, as I mentioned before, I HATED sex. I felt sick and repulsed during sex, unless I had alot of alcohol in me. I would try to avoid so many situations in my life that my husband would interpret as an opening to initiate sex. It was a constant stress, for 11 years, and it was a relief when he was on business trips. Not because he is a bad person, but because it was time when I could finally let my guard down and relax.) The worst part of it all was that my issues with sex were all made out to be MY fault. I was frigid, I was not being a submissive wife, I wasn’t in touch with myself, etc etc. A Christian counselor I saw early on in my marriage told me that it was God’s will for me to keep having sex with my husband while I was working through my issues with it, because the Bible says you can only stop having sex for a while if you’re setting aside time for fasting and prayer. And of course, I heard the usual spill about Christian sex from countless sources: women need to have sex with their husbands whenever they [the men] want it, “it only takes 5 minutes, ladies”, if you don’t keep your husband happy he’ll have ample reason to stray and look elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if you’re not attracted to your husband or you’re creeping from memories of your own sexual trauma…this is your responsibility as a wife. Fuck that shit.
Here’s the problem: I married young because unconsciously I knew it would improve my status as a woman in multiple circles of my life, I had lingering insecurities about whether or not I could in fact care for myself long term, and hey, you never know how many guys will come knocking at your door so it might be smart to take up the first promising guy that comes along. (Spoiler alert: ladies, don’t do this….don’t settle for something that looks good on paper if your heart is not completely convinced).
Now this probably sounds like absolute common sense to everyone reading this: it’s probably way more smart to get into a long term relationship with someone that starts YOUR tractor than just the person who impresses the other people in your life. You’re the one that has to live with that person, not all the onlookers in your life.
But this is what I did. I married someone that made logical sense, that gave my parents that sense of security about not having to be concerned anymore about what Julie would be up to next, someone that was safe and steady and was a “good” Christian. I married him without having sex with him, without having sex with anyone prior, wanting so badly to improve my status and feel like I really belonged in this world. I mean, after all, isn’t that what I had been taught from the Bible since my childhood? That I needed to be legitimized since I was so unfortunately born as a female?
It took me 11 years to learn to say no. No to having sex when I didn’t feel like it or want it. No to believing that in some weird Biblical way my body belonged to my husband. No to all the voices who had told me my entire life that you are required by God to stick with one man forever unless he died or was unfaithful. No to all of the voices who thought they had any right to offer me opinions about my sexuality in the first place without me asking for them. And NO to resigning myself to stay in a loveless, miserable marriage without the hope of ever experiencing good, completely mutual agreed upon, and loving sex.
I, like countless other women, am sick of being ASSUMED upon.
People assume women were asking for it because of how they were dressed. People assume women were asking for it because they were flirty. People assume women were asking for it because they were out alone too late at night. People assume women were asking for it when they weren’t brave enough at the moment to fight for themselves.
And I hate it…really hate it…when people read the Bible assuming that the women in the stories did something wrong first.
Like John 4, and the woman at the well. Jesus meets a woman getting water at a well in town in the heat of the day and asks her to give him some water. I swear to God, I’ve heard a billion sermons on this text, and every time a man preaches about it he talks about the fact that this woman has been married multiple times, is now just living with a man, but it’s all OK because Jesus is forgiving and he’s going to show that harlot slut of a woman something that will make her happier than going from man to man. (Did you notice my sarcasm and hyperbole here?)
Has it ever occurred to people that maybe it was NEVER this woman’s authentic choice to be with ANY of these men? That she lived in a culture that didn’t always give much credence or rights to women, and that maybe it was husband after husband that treated her unjustly, divorcing her and passing her down the societal food chain until all she had left was to shack up with a final man just to try and survive?
Or what about the story from Mark where the woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus’ feet and he refuses to condemn her? Maybe it’s because he knew that she was forced into a marriage when she was but a child, and maybe, just maybe despite that she had found love with a man and for the first time in her life was able to be intimate with someone who saw her and valued her for who she was as a woman and not just a baby factory and piece of property. Maybe….when the text said Jesus was writing in the sand while the crowd waited for him to condemn the women…he was spelling out “Good on you, girl!”
************************************************************************************* I am happy to announce, that amazing sex REALLY DOES EXIST.
Many of you laugh, but you guys….for years I thought it was seriously some kind of made up conspiracy. to get people to watch movies and TV or buy stuff. Or that men were the only ones who had it good. Or maybe it was only for the super hot girls and women, a category of which I do not and have never belonged.
When I got married I was SO depressed and underwhelmed by sex. I read all the books, went to counseling, listened to seminars, did all the things you’re supposed to do in a good Christian marriage to liven up one’s sex life. Didn’t work….unless I was a little drunk. And how great does that make a girl feel to have to be shnockered to enjoy sex? Feels pretty crappy I’ll tell you.
The biggest thing that saved me in how I approach my purpose for being as well as my sexuality was letting go of this idea that God will send people to hell, or that Jesus died on the cross as a way to create forgiveness for all of my screw ups. When I came to the realization that God isn’t mad at me and was never mad at me or anyone, and that the idea of hell and sin as we often define it no longer makes sense to me, I was able to question everything else that had ever held me back in life. Sex being one of them.
I started believing, a while before I got divorced, that we as humans are much more judgy about who each other is sleeping with than God is. And I started questioning the hell out of purity culture. I once knew a pastor who refused to marry couples until they had had a really good makeout session and still felt great about the experience and each other afterwards. Nowadays, I feel the exact same way about sex. For most people, I don’t think you should even consider getting married unless you’ve had a good roll in the hay with the other person and are still inspired to go back for more.
I know what you’re all wondering….you’re sitting there trying to imagine exactly who and how many people Julie has had sex with since getting a divorce. Well, sorry, some details I will keep to myself. Not because I’m concerned about being viewed as a prude or a slut anymore, but because my sexuality is entirely mine to talk about, and the details of it are MY business, not everyone in the world’s.
But I will say this….I am everyday grateful that I walked away from a relationship where I was shamed and belittled for my issues with sex, where I as a woman was yet again expected to fix the problems, where I was responsible for my partner’s purity and ability to stay loyal to me. I’m grateful that I have since met men who have bent over backwards to avoid objectifying me, who are not threatened by my sexuality but rather embrace feminine energy, and who have been willing to show me that sex can be so so so much better than a piece of key lime pie.
*This post is in honor of my amazing daddy, for Father’s Day 2020
I love Jeeps, but they don’t love me. In fact, the Jeeps of my childhood tried to kill me on a regular basis. Even though I think they’re cool and look neat, I can just never buy one now.
One of the first vehicles I learned how to drive in, at the age of 6, was a little green 1970s model (I think…that was a freaking long time ago) Jeep. I remember it had rusty floorboards and an old CB radio that we could never get to work. My dad started out letting me sit in his lap to steer as we drove this old jeep back in the pasture to do odds and ends. I remember the first time he let me drive it by myself, following him in on a tractor. He had it down in granny gear and I think I was probably only going about 10 miles an hour, but I really thought I was something.
I had my first wreck in this Jeep. I was seven years old, and my dad, a ranch hand, and I were cruising back to my house on the ranch. This Jeep had drum brakes, and when they got wet from water crossings, they tended to….well….fail completely for a while. In this case, I was in the driver’s seat by myself. As we pulled around the side of my house to park, I pushed on the brakes and….crickets. Nothing. And so we slammed politely into the side of the big metal barn sitting parallel to the house. My face also slammed into the steering wheel, and the ranch hand jumped out of the Jeep and took off, completely freaked out, before I even knew what happened.
My dad ran me into town to the doctor to make sure I was OK, but all that happened, in that case, was some bloody gums. The barn fared worse than I did, and that dent is still very much visible over thirty years later. I don’t think anything happened to the Jeep. They made vehicles differently back then.
Maybe in retribution for running it into the barn, or maybe dumb luck, this same Jeep tried to kill me a few years later. My dad, brother Todd, and I were four-wheeling it across a mountain that separated two cow pastures on the ranch. As we were inching our way up to the top of that hill, still quite a ways from the crest, the Jeep’s engine died (or intentionally quit) and at the same time the brakes decided to fail. We started rolling backward, and I started to panic. My dad told my brother and me to open the passenger side door and jump out. I was stuck in the middle and had no mind to stay there, so I promptly pushed my brother out (something he will never let go of, even after all these years. I tell him that I saved him from his indecisiveness).
Todd and I jumped and rolled out onto the rocky side of that mountain as my dad, inside the Jeep, gained speed backward toward a cliff and a big drop off into the pasture from whence we had come. And wouldn’t you know…instead of jumping out himself and letting that cursed Jeep just go over the edge and destroy itself in a blaze of glory, my dad had to Indiana Jones it and whip the Jeep around sharply to the side at the last minute, getting it to finally stop.
I lost all trust in that Jeep from then on. And my dad, God love him, had the nerve to try to convince me to get back in and continue on our way. I refused to get in and told him I would rather walk over the mountain and the several miles back home than get in the blasted Jeep. (I was also a very melodramatic child). I had walked over the top of the hill and started down the backside when my dad finally convinced me to get back in for the rest of the drive. Looking back, I should have continued to refuse…I don’t know how going headfirst downhill with failing brakes could be any better than what I had just experienced. But, we made it home that day, and I continued to eye that Jeep suspiciously, never trusting it again, and refusing to drive it much.
I won’t even get into all the other stories now, like how when I was about three years old, sitting in the back of a Jeep on top of a mountain, and it slipped out of park while I was the only person in it….and someone managed to jump in just in time and save me before we careened off down the road…
There’s a song by Alan Jackson that I think is one of my top five all-time favorite songs. The lyrics in this song fit, to a tee, my childhood experiences, and every time I hear it, I think of what an amazing thing it is to get to learn how to drive when you’re a little kid.
Driving early is one of those great privileges of being a farm or ranch kid. You don’t just learn, though, for fun; you learn because it’s needed. There’s so many times my dad needed to move a tractor and plow or hay baler to a different pasture, and if my brother or I didn’t follow behind in the pickup truck (or blasted, not-to-be trusted Jeep) he would have had to hoof it miles home…usually in the glaring, summer heat.
I remember sometimes at night, when the cool of the evening set in, we would gather as a family in the truck to go “see what we could see”. We’d head back into a pasture we’d randomly choose (I grew up on a 6,000 acre ranch…there were plenty to choose from) and my brother and I would hop into the bed of the truck and usually make silly fools of ourselves while my parents had adult conversation, nestled away from us, in the cab of the truck.
One day in particular…I think I was six or seven….I really, really wanted to drive, and my dad said no. We were driving along in the East Clark pasture, and I laid my head down on the edge of the bed of the truck as we drove along. I can’t remember if I was really sad, or if I knew at that age that I had my dad wrapped around my finger already and I just knew how to manipulate him into getting what I wanted. 🙂 Well, it probably wasn’t more than 10 minutes of him looking at me in the rear view mirror, all pouty and pathetic, that he pulled over and told me to climb in his lap to steer the truck. My dad looks like a tough man on the outside, but he’s nothing but a softie deep down.
The really awesome thing about my dad was that he never gave me hell about my terrible childhood driving record. He teased me some, but he never got mad. I was so adept at hitting things in the most stupid ways, or making really hair brained driving decisions on the ranch. ( I blame it on the fact that my prefrontal cortex hadn’t fully developed yet and it wasn’t my fault). I would attempt to steer through gates that were wide enough to accomodate our big Ford tractor and plows, and I would still manage to drive squarely into a gatepost while trying to pass through.
One time in high school, I was backing our minivan out of the barn (aka, the party wagon that was bequeathed to my brother and me and was a constant source of shame and embarrasement), and the big, swinging, wooden barn door started to close on me. Instead of being a smart person and getting out to prop open the door, I had the super awesome idea of pushing the it open, while backing out, with my driver side mirror. Let’s just say I was impressed with how deftly the barn door pulled off that mirror and broke the glass. My dad didn’t yell, but instead reattached that side mirror and jerry rigged a replacement glass that didn’t look anything like the original, and let my exponentially raised embarrassemnt about that van serve as a lesson to me to not try to open barn doors with extensions of my vehicles anymore. (Did I mention that my brother had already hit around four deer with that van, and so there were dents all over it, too?)
Then, not to be outdone by myself, later on in that year I backed squarely into my grandpa’s work truck. My grandpa, who was amazing himself, had come over in the morning for coffee and had parked alongside the house behind my van. I was heading into town to do something, so I went out and hopped into the van. I couldn’t go forward, because the van was parked right behind my dad’s truck. So, I reversed, and scared the living crap out of myself when I felt a solid slam.
OK, in this case I think maybe my dad did actually yell at me. I really hadn’t seen my grandpa’s truck when I got in the van…my dad could not fathom this, and that’s totally understandable….I mean, the truck was literally two feet behind my van, and an obnoxious color of baby blue….an old Datsun with a metal frame my grandpa had welded onto the back. The good part was, that my gradpa thought it was hysterical and never got mad at me. I think the fact that he laughed so hard was probably how I got off easy with my dad.
I have more stories of driving as a child, but I think I’ll save myself the further embarrassment of recalling them. As I got older, most of my driving debacles were mostly to blame on suicidal white tail deer and Russian hogs.
The third verse of Alan Jackson’s song goes: “I’m grown up now, three daughters of my own. I let ’em drive my old Jeep cross the pasture at our home. ”
And that’s me! But I have three sons and won’t let them drive a Jeep…you now know exactly why. But the last time we were in Texas I let them drive my truck on the family ranch, sitting in my lap just like I used to do with my dad. It amazed me how driving with them pulled up all those great memories I have of driving with my dad, and I recognized for the billion billionth time how freaking privleged I was to grow up where I did, when I did, and to have the dad I did.
I hope that when my boys are grown, they’ll also “reach back in that file, and pull out that old memory, and think of me and smile!”
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy! Thanks for always putting up with my hair-brained shennanigans and for replying to them with more laughing than yelling!
Last summer, in late July, I made an impromptu, last-minute trip to Texas to visit my dad and extended family. Every time I go home I spend alot of time with one of my cousins, who is really more like a sister to me. At one point during my short visit, we went to the local HEB to grab a few groceries. While there, I stopped by the hair care aisle, hoping to find some bobby pins. (When you’re trying to grow out a pixie cut, you need all the help you can get to look presentable). I scanned the hangers of barrettes, pony tail rings, and bobby pins, but could not find what I was looking for. I wanted short, brown pins that would match my hair. All I saw, though, were long brown and black pins, and short black pins. In feigned exasperation, I gave up and turned to head to the checkout lane. My cousin stopped me and exclaimed: “Julie, you’ve got to look with your hands, not your eyes!” Sure enough, she dug through the packs of pins and on the far back end of a hanger that held mostly pins I didn’t want, she found exactly what I was going for.
I was happy with the bobby pin find, but what thrilled me more at the time was the really good metaphor that she had just given me for how to do life. In all fairness, she didn’t really come up with the saying; a friend of hers had told her the same thing once when my cousin had opened the fridge to find something and couldn’t spot it. Her friend had also told her, “Girl, you’ve got to move stuff around, and look with your hands and not just look with your eyes!”
It’s really easy to approach life in a superficial fashion; to go beyond the surface, and see the thing behind the thing….that takes effort. But, I think it’s kind of like with the bobby pins….you’ve got to go deep to find what it is your heart, and sometimes hair, is really searching for.
I totally got called out by a friend this weekend, and it was really annoying. I had initially called HIM out on something, accusing him of being inconsiderate and for basically being a jerkface. But, in an unexpected twist of events, he turned it right back around on me and damn it if he wasn’t right, and the way I was acting was as dumb or worse than what I had been irritated with him about.
Don’t you just hate it when life so accurately and swiftly humbles you like this? And then YOU feel like the jerkface.
The basic premise of his argument, which to my utter chagrin was spot on, was that I get a narrative about certain things stuck in my head that I won’t let go of. Then, I respond and act out against that narrative, believing it’s true when a good deal of the time it isn’t. Ultimately, it’s laziness on my part. Instead of asking questions with an open mind and probing to find understanding, I often take the easy way out and assume that the thoughts that come to my head about the situation are automatically true.
It’s so tempting, and easy, to get lazy with relationships we are in. We project our stories about what we believe about people onto them, and then we insist on interacting with those projections instead of understanding that those people are living, dynamic, nuanced humans. It’s easier for us, but doing this robs us of authenticity in our relationships and isn’t loving towards the other person. And when we insist on responding only to our stories about people, we miss all the really good stuff that presents itself when we choose do the hard relationship work and embrace the mystery that each person brings to the table.
One of my very best friends was officially ordained as a Mennonite USA pastor the other day. She is one of the most amazing, wise women I know. She has worked long and hard to get to this point, and it is absolutely her calling and where she is meant to be.
Due to the COVID, her ordination ceremony was held on Zoom. She invited so many of her friends and mentors to be a part of the ceremony, by offering blessings, presenting readings, or reflecting on her journey to this ordination. One presenter referenced the passage in the gospels where Jesus told Peter to cast his nets on the other side of the boat, when Peter was having little luck dragging up fish. According to her, in the translation from the original text, Jesus was encouraging Peter to “launch out into the deep”. She was making a different point when bringing up this phrase, but these words hooked me when I thought about the message Jesus always had for people. In all of his parables and teachings, Jesus repeatedly urged people to look beyond what they saw with their eyes, to move beyond the superficial. This is why he told parables, I think. He wanted people to wrestle with life, to dig hard to unearth God’s mysteries, to search beyond the obvious, and to understand that being human and existing in this world is about so much more than just black and white.
There’s a Facebook meme of a Glennon Doyle quote I saw the other day that feels spot-on for me. It said:
“Stop asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”
In my weird, warped logic, I used to think that I had to take seriously pretty much any advice that people threw at me. These days, I am very picky about who I let speak into my life. To put this as politely as possible, this is because some people try to spout off about things when they have absolutely no clue what they’re talking about. Of course, most people speak only out of good intentions, but sometimes when they haven’t gone through the thick and thin of dark things, they can just never understand the dynamics of what someone is going through. In those cases, I think it’s way better to keep one’s mouth shut, and if you want to be helpful and loving, just offer as intense of presence as possible.
These days, I take most seriously the words of those who have faced the hard things head-on. I talk about post-divorce issues with people who are divorced. I see therapists who regular go to their own therapy sessions. When I’m tempted to listen to criticisms from people about my kids’ behaviors, I defer instead and listen to my fellow moms and dads who have also raised multiple kids, who have struggled with children who are amazing, yet also incredibly challenging. I take relationship advice from the people that I see who are working hard to improve themselves in their own relationships and who don’t let excuses keep them from jumping back into the game again and again after being hurt or rejected. I try to emulate the people who I see doing incredibly brave things, who are diving headfirst into their humanity…who are willing to both succeed and fail fantastically. I take these people the most seriously because they are living life with their hands, and not just their eyes. They recognize that most issues in life are complex and multi-dimensional, and cannot be described through pithy statements and platitudes.
The reason I like this metaphor that my cousin offered me last year was because it describes two sides of truth, both of which are necessary, and which can’t stand alone. Looking with your eyes is about utilizing beliefs, facts, and logic. Those bobby pins I was looking for were really supposed to be on a specific hanger just for that length and color. But looking with your hands speaks to the importance of life experience and walking the walk. I had to dig through those bobby pins, going beyond belief and logic, to find that they were in fact there…just not in the way I had expected.
Our eyes certainly have limitations. We can’t “see” wave/particle duality. We can’t “see” DNA. We can’t “see” distant galaxies. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. We as humans have stumbled upon these other discoveries because we figured out ways to look without using the naked eye. We use our eyes when they work for us, but realize that they can only take us so far.
Each of us as individuals is also limited in what we can understand about life when we stay on the periphery and don’t engage. Our beliefs can only take us so far; the knowledge that we get from books or other people usually can only address very specific situations. It is when we choose to dig in with our metaphorical hands, release our entrenched narratives about things, work through our pain, and broaden our experiences…that’s when we really start to “see”. And I think that’s when we can finally start finding what it is that we are really yearning for.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
I sat with an old Indiana farmer this week who was suffering from complications related to COVID-19. It occurred to me, while watching him sleep, that I care for alot of old Indiana farmers, and they remind me so much of the old cowboys and ranchers that I knew and loved as a child growing up in Texas. The old men I would hear countless stories from, the old men who were some of my biggest heros, and then over time, the same old men I would visit in hospitals, nursing homes, and finally, in funeral services.
There’s something about old men…I’ve always resonated with them and made quick friends with them…not in a weird way, but in a friendly, “we get each other” kind of way. Which seems kind of strange since I’m a young (now young-ish) female, but for whatever reasons, this is the way it’s always been. It’s been funny to me, too, how many of these old men have told me that if they were 40 to 50 years younger and not married, they’d snatch me up without a second thought. This makes me really laugh, because it seems it must take most men reaching the age of at least 65 to realize what a great catch I am. If this trend continues, when I’m pushing 70 my love life is likely to be going gangbusters. 😀
Anyway, as I cared for this one old farmer, I thought of how quickly his life had changed. Just a couple of weeks ago he was still out and about, active, and managing his farm. And then COVID knocked him off his feet in the matter of just a few short days. Farmers and ranchers are kind of different in a way, it has always seemed to me. Most of them grew up in the country, working hard from a young age, and so the land and the work is part of them, anchored deep in their bones. The land, and the animals, and the sweat, and the long hours, and the one-ness with nature become part of their identity…part of how life makes sense to them. Then, inevitably for many, something will come along that rips this identity away from them…and they are sent to town to convalesce on a patio or in a bleach-cleaned hallway, sitting in a wheelchair with a crocheted blanket across their legs to ward off chill, only left with stories of years gone by to share with those who are smart enought to sit at their feet and listen.
My grandpa was one of these men. Until he was in his early 80s, he still went out every morning to dynamite rocks out of the hills on his South Texas ranch to build passable roads, and he still cared for his goats that he had loved dearly since his was a boy. COVID didn’t knock him off his feet; in his case, he slipped while walking out in a wet pasture and slammed his cervical vertebrae onto a rock, effectively becoming paralyzed. He lay there, unable to move, until my Dad found him hours later. Over the next few years my grandpa was largely resigned to hospital beds, in long-term rehab, then in his home, and finally in town at the local nursing home, until he died.
My father is pushing 70 now, and still walks the backcountry daily, checking snares and traps in places you have to take a 4-wheel drive to get to…running bulldozers to clear juniper brush…clearing pastures with controlled burns. I’ve asked him for years to retire, to start slowing down. He’s told me more than a few stories over the last couple of decades that scare me half to death, of things that happened to him while working alone….the time his bulldozer caught on fire and he had to drive it straight into the river, the time he was getting off the bulldozer and stepped on the track before it stopped moving so he was flung into a nearby tree, another time he was bulldozing and he hit a beehive and again had to drive straight for the creek to get away…(do you notice a bulldozer theme, here?) These are only a few of the many near misses he’s told me about.
And yet I know, while I ask my dad to stop, to just sit around and drink coffee on the backporch and tend his garden, that all these things that he does that scare the crap out of me are part of who he is, part of his identity. He’s told me on more than once occasion that when it is his time to cross the river to glory, he wants it to be back in the hills, to happen in the places he’s known and cherished since boyhood. And I understand him in this.I know that if I had to put my dad into a nursing home, his spirit would be broken.
Since COVID came and knocked the wind out of all of us, we’ve been struggling with identity crises collectively. The things that we feel define our society have in many ways been put on hold, literally and figuratively. Our ways of communication and being community have had to shift dramatically. And many of us have been thrust into lonely places, beyond just isolation from other people.
Our country has always been one of action, of business, of running here and there. We aren’t a society known for contemplation, solitude, and silence. We wrap up our understanding of who we are in our consumerism, our ability to do this and go there, and our standings of how we compare to the rest of the countries in the world.
And now we’ve been blind-sided by a pandemic that changed our modus operandi overnight. Our lives, in many ways, have slid to a screeching halt. This leaves us with the question that life is forcing us to ask ourselves, whether we like it or not: if we don’t have all these things that we used to think defined us, if we lose much of it forever, who are we now?
I have a couple of friends who seem convinced that their lives are basically over, or at least at a very long standstill, because their careers were taken away from them unexpectedly. These people identified very strongly with their jobs and education, and now feel trapped because they can’t go backwards, and the path forward appears entirely uncertain.
I understand this trapped feeling. Although the details of our stories have been different, I know exactly what it is like to feel as though all that you’ve worked for has vanished, in vain, and that there is absolutely nothing great to look forward to in the future. I know what it’s like to look all around you and feel so completely stuck and hopeless that every morning when you wake up, you’re like, “God, again??! Another day of THIS?” It’s like that clip from The Office, where Michael realizes that Toby is back, and he just can’t face the reality of it.
Man, have I been there.
But, I’ve also seen the other side of this dark place, and so I can say with some authority and credibility that it does not, will not last, forever…if you’re willing to let the pain and terribleness of it sit and be a while…realize that it is not going to kill you….and then you slowly, steadily look up and start finding the ways that you are not trapped, and the paths you can take to start making changes.
Now, to their sometimes obvious chagrin, I don’t accept the woeful resignation my friends try to offer me about how their lives are effectively over. I empathize with them, and feel their struggle, but I will not give in with them. Partly because I’m wicked stubborn, partly because these two people are brilliant and talented and have so much to offer the world, and largely because I’ve been to the dark places and back and know that the journey out of trapped places is possible.
There’s a fundamental law that everyone learns in science class, probably starting around 8th grade: the law of conservation of energy. This basically states that energy is never created or destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another.
I can’t help but believe this is the way life works. As Eckhart Tolle has said, “Nothing that is of value, that is real…is ever lost.” At first glance, this statement can seem trite, superifical. But, if you work it over and wrestle with it, you’ll realize it is true.
I also strongly believe that there is always something behind what appears to be nothing. I wrote about this idea several years ago in an essay for a graduate program. Space, in whatever form it takes, is not void. It contains the potential for new life, new ideas, new ways of being, new so many things….to spring forth. If it can at all be said that COVID has brought any blessings with it, it is that we have been given the opportunity to reaquaint ourselves with space and and quiet and discover the good things that can be found there once we calm our frantic minds.
I finished watching the TV show Little Fires Everywhere last week, and I love the quote from the top of this post. Sometimes you just have to let it all burn down around you, and start over. But in reality, the burning never destroys everything. It actually burns away all that isn’t truly real or lasting. As someone who grew up on a ranch where we regularly did controlled burns across acre after acre of land, I know that sometimes a good burning is the absolute best thing that can happen to restore fresh life into a pasture. If you just look at the scars on the land immediately after a burn, it can look ugly and barren…a wasteland of nothingness. But by next spring, with some good rains, that freshly rejuvinated soil will sprout of new, lush, green grass and the countryside will be transformed.
I think our lives are similar. Sometimes we keep insisting on trying to make the past work….we want to keep what we had and bring it with us, whether or not it wants to come with us. And through this relentless struggle, we suffer and despair. We keep looking down and looking backward insstead of looking toward what we might have waiting for us.
We need to start looking at the scorched things around us in a new way. We must stop gripping on so tightly to the things that are dead and gone, and develop new eyes to see the potential for newness that is everywhere around us, that is just asking to be grabbed a hold of.
COVID has changed us forever. We will never go back to the way things have always been. And while there’s some significant loss and grief present there, there is tremendous potential for good things that we couldn’t have imagined if our lives hadn’t been so violently disrupted. Right now is the hard part…the scorching, as it were. But I firmly believe all the best about humanity will survive this, and so much about us as a society that isn’t real will be burned away.
Finally, it is out of this nothing, this long period of isolation, that new things are already arising. People are fabulously creative and are discovering new ways to help each other, to encourage each other, to laugh, to distill meaning out of life. These are the people to watch and follow….the ones who know that who they are doesn’t reside solely in their careers or where they live. These are the people with eyes to see the new paths that will lead us out of this trapped place, and who will teach us to see, if we are willing..
I’ve been thinking a little lately about the churches that have continued to have services en masse in person, while this COVD-19 pandemic is raging. Part of me is furious at these church leaders for disregarding mandates and the wisdom and warnings from scientists and public health experts. However, on the other hand, I understand implicitly this need to gather in community and hold tightly to the traditions that we have trusted in and feel sustained by. It’s scary to be alone when it feels like the sky might be falling, and I know that many would rather bear the curse surrounded by a throng of loved ones than to suffer in terror in isolation.
It’s easy to think that maybe we’ll only see God in religious institutions, in the practices that externally define our faith traditions, in the rituals that we have carefully tended to for years and years. But, as far as I can see, this has never really been the way of God. Sure, I totally believe that all things are sacred and infused with God-being, but in my experience, and through what I’ve seen in many sacred texts, is that divinity shows up most powerfully in the quiet places, the dark places, the abandoned places, the completely unexpected places.
I’m listening to John O’Donohue’s book Walking in Wonder at a lightening pace this week because it is the most marvelous volume of words I’ve heard in a while. It’s a book to get soul-fed through. In one place in the book, O’Donohue references William Blake and Blake’s statement that “Christ is the imagination.”
Bam. Mic drop.
When we think of Christ and God as the boundaried vessels that often result from a literal reading of the Bible, it can sometimes be really hard to find them all around us, and especially in the dark, scary shadows. But if we choose to believe that maybe the most real things that exist are the art of possibility and good questions that rise out of imagination, then we can unearth the Christ in everything we encounter. It takes a bit of risk and bravery, to step out of our binary, superficial ways of thinking…to lay aside our scientific categorization and analysis of everything…to realize and believe that our fears stem from the stories we tell ourselves.
I’m unsettled by this corona pandemic, but I am not undone. This is because I’m gradually, over time, learning to use this gift of imagination to see the Christ in everything. Not the little Christ, the human that lived and died thousands of years ago, but the cosmic Christ, the consciousness, creativity, and love that infuses all things and sustains all things.
Here are specific places that I’ve seen God lately. Maybe they’ll resonate as God to you, maybe not. But I encourage you to stop, quiet yourself, and reflect/imagine through today and previous days where you have seen the Divine appearing…now here…now there. I guarantee you, if you stop and breathe and look carefully, you’ll see that God has not absconded. One of the easiest ways to tell if you’ve stumbled upon God is when you feel even the tiniest spark of joy over anything…or forgot your fears for a quick moment because something brought forth a belly laugh you couldn’t repress…or you were suddenly caught off guard, gasping in awe at a beautiful scene, or kind gesture, or taste of amazing food…or through your own tears, you recognized and held compassion for the tears of another.
Where I’ve seen God over the last few weeks – in no way a comprehensive list:
-when my manager called to tell me one of my elderly patients, who was terrified of dying in the hospital from not being able to breathe, came back as COVID-19 negative, and I literally could not wait to run down the hall and tell her the good news and get her out of there.
-when my firstborn, my little rock who always stands by me and makes me want to be a better person, called me to ask if he could help make face masks for all of the staff on my unit
-when a good friend offered to send me wine and soup from the other side of Indianapolis when I was having a dark day, even when she couldn’t personally bring it to my house.
-when a hospitalist/board member at my hospital recorded for the hospital staff the most moving video of encouragement and humility that I’ve seen in a long time, and I felt just the tiniest bit braver as a result.
-when I stood in the hallway of my unit last week, getting ready to gown up and go into a patient room, and I was frozen for a moment when I glimpsed, surprised, the brilliant pink-orange of a clear morning sunrise rising up over the horizon.
-when a friend saw a picture of me a few days ago in all of my tired, sunburnt, frazzle-haired, sweaty, post-workout messiness, and still said I am beautiful.
-when I’m rescued from the sometimes caving in walls of isolation from friends who say, “Let’s Facetime!”
-when the universe seems to hit me from all around for weeks with references to John O’Donohue, and I finally get the message to pay more attention, and his words bring me fresh life.
-when I see both people that I know and don’t know, rise up to the challenge of this difficult time, and offer the most marvelous, creative ways for us to stay connected on meaningful levels, bringing us the best of their hope and humanity
-when I see people who are scared and uncertain and concerned for their families, get up and go to work as healthcare providers, first responders, and essential workers anyway.
-when I see people, whose first thought is not to protect themselves but to remember the marginalized and disenfranchised among us who are usually the most forgotten.
-when I see people and organizations giving away free food, and coffee, or completely overhauling their manufacturing processes so they can help the causes, even when it will likely hurt their bottom line.
Where do you see God? Where is the joy coming from that is getting you through each day? What is the pain that you are holding and yet not being defeated by? What have you seen or heard that is giving you fresh hope? Help me see the Divine through your imaginations, too.
I had a rough day this week. It came out of nowhere, really. I woke up and knew within a few minutes that an old familiar cloud was hanging over me…Churchhill’s black dog that used to hound me on a regular basis had come for an unexpected visit.
I hardly ever get depressed anymore. It’s such a sweet relief after years and years of a cycling battle against despair and anxiety. When days come like the one I had a few days ago, I am made so much more grateful for the hope that has learned to float in me.
The thing about these days when I do get depressed is that it’s usually not rational; I can sit there and tell myself all day long that I’m not being rational, and that all is well, but it’s not always possible to talk myself out of places with logic and words. I’m so very thankful for the people I have in my life that hang with me on the dark days that I do have, and remind me of truth and peace that seem a bit fuzzy and evasive to grasp at the time.
On this particular morning, I woke up missing my mom dreadfully. She and I had a complicated relationship, and we could bicker and pick at each other like nobody’s business, but she was my mom. She was a constant that I had known for 33 years, a soft place of comfort, someone who always came back even after we had another stupid fight, someone who would shoot the bull with me on the phone and never fail to answer when I just wanted to chat or have a shopping partner.
Next came a wave missing of other people in my life that are now dead and gone. The dreadful part about loving people deeply is that eventually they will die on you and then you have to spend the rest of your life with a terrible missing-them-ache in your heart. I’ve been fortunate in this life to have loved deeply and been loved deeply by wonderful people, and many of them left me long ago….left me with many years to remember and miss them.
And finally, my dark day brought fear…not a sharp terror, but a dull blanketing ache of apprehension that everything was going to fall apart and I would be helpless to avert it. As I’ve written about before, the last three and a half years have been about me stepping out of all of my safety nets, trying to do brave things, trying to make up things as I go along while not really knowing what I’m doing, trying to walk on water. On this day I remembered that I am only one person with alot of limitations, alot of things that I don’t know I don’t know, living in an uncertain world….and fear of losing everything rose up and threatened to choke me as I externally tried to look chill and calm while internally panicking, struggling to push the fear back down.
Looking back with a little perspective, I was probably hormonal that day. But hormonal or not, fear is fear and trying to rationalize your fear away with a “hormonal” label never works, and will usually piss off every woman when you tell her this even if she knows it to be true. But I made it through the day, got some sleep, and the next morning the cloud had lifted and the fear had abated, and in its place I found joy and peace and quick laughter again. Thank God for the recalibration and recentering that can happen with a good night’s sleep.
I’ve been reflecting on how I felt that day, processing it, wondering where it came from, and considering how I can avoid days like that in the future. Days where you’re holding your breath, afraid that the other shoe is about to drop.
Then it occurred to me….something that feels like truth to me that I’ve never consciously thought out before: the other shoe is inevitably going to drop, but it’s going to be OK.
Most of us spend so much time trying to build security around ourselves, whether it be material goods, wealth, or people that will stand with us for the long haul. And then we spend so much time and effort worrying about how to keep them. Our lives become about building and building, amassing and amassing….it’s not even necessarily about gaining luxury and comfort, but just trying to construct life bubbles that make us feel safe and not alone. We in the Western world are extra great at trying to build these big, safe, static lives where we get to a place of security and then try to brick off its boundaries so it will always be there.
But this is such an illusion, such a cause of extra suffering for us when we try to blockade ourselves off from what “could” happen, when we try desperately to avoid losing what we value, when we dread the potential end of all those things our identities become wrapped up in.
Who will we be when we lose that job or career? How will we survive if that particular person dies or leaves us? What if our external world crumbles and we have nothing extra special to differentiate ourselves from everyone around us? What then? What will become of us? Will we simply slide off into an abysmal forgottenness?
I honestly think that one of humankind’s greatest fears is that of nihilism or irrelevance. We are afraid of losing ourselves and becoming unseen, and we unconsciously fear this happening when we lose the external selves that we have worked so hard to create over our lifetimes.
Buddhism teaches us that all things are impermanent and passing. In fact, so many of the things we believe to be solid and stationary are really just illusions. Everything exists in relationship to each other; quantum physics shows us this, with atomic particles all moving in space and time around each other. Isn’t it remarkable that the specific combination and proximity of the right kinds of atoms and molecules with these relational particles can somehow create a chair that will hold us up?
I think one of our greatest shortcomings is to strive endlessly for perfection…perfection as in a static state where nothing goes wrong and there’s no pain and nothing will ever jump out and surprise us. I grew up believing this is what heaven is supposed to be like, and I remember thinking that it sounded as boring as hell and I might as well just exist as a fork if that’s what I had to look forward to.
As much as we hate to admit it, joy and peace and thankfulness are functions of a greater whole, a bigger picture….where the dark and loss and constant change are necessary. Otherwise, “being” would be flat and shapeless, and probably not worth having.
I think a better way to define perfection is not the goal of reaching a blissful, unchanging realm of existence…but rather, a state of “wholebeing-ness”, where we are always fully where we are, knowing that each moment will pass and change into something new and different, and that fundamentally we are still there, still loved by whatever it was that created and is still creating us, and that we will be well.
If you stop and think about it, the shoe is eventually going to drop at some point….we just don’t always know when that point is.
Find the love of your life….you’re going to lose them at some point. They may walk out on you tomorrow, they may die of cancer in five years, they may outlive you and die of a ripe old age. But, you’re going to “lose” them at some point. Or, they will lose you first.
Build the perfect career and gain a stellar reputation in your field. Write books, publish papers, dazzle audiences with your charisma. It will all eventually fade away and at some point, you will be laid off, or some other bright and smart youngster will come up with greater ideas and your accomplishments will no longer seem so glorious, or you will reach the age where retirement looms and you are too tired to trudge into work each day. You will eventually “lose” your vocation and career.
Build a big house; it may burn or be hit by a tornado or be foreclosed on. Or your toddlers will render it an unlivable shambles.
Have children and raise them the best you know how: they may move states away or refuse to speak to you or become so absorbed in their lives that they forget to call.
Save all your money for travel after you retire and then receive the dreadful diagnosis that suddenly drains that travel bank account dry before you’ve stepped foot on the tarmac to fly off to an exotic location.
Have amazing beauty, or athleticism, or sex appeal and charm: we’re all going to get old or ugly at some point, and no measure of lotions, creams, or exercise will save us from all that telomere shortening and DNA fraying and cells deciding they’re too tired to keep replicating.
The shoe IS going to drop at some point, and the things we don’t want to happen are going to happen. I just can’t see any other way around it. Where we run into certain trouble is when we try to convince ourselves that we can avoid the shoe-drop, or that we can control it and postpone it to our liking. We can’t…and attempting to do so just causes us fear, and stress, and suffering.
It feels increasingly clear to me, as illuminated by my black dog day this week, that most things are pretty much out of our control. This could seem scary, but I think if we reframe it, it might seem better.
We don’t have much control over the hard things that come into our lives, but when you think about it, we don’t really control the good things that come into our lives, either….yet those good things still come. We are also so quick to label everything and every event that comes our way: this is good, that is bad, I like this, I hate that. We look at individual data points instead of overall trends. This shortsightedness and rush to draw conclusions doesn’t serve us so well.
I can look back on so many times in my life where something didn’t go the way I wanted, and I thought it would be better to just lay down and die because life had passed me over. And then, down the road a ways, I would look back and thank the sweet Jesus that I hadn’t gotten what I wanted in that moment…or I could see so clearly how that terrible moment had brought me to something so much better now, or had grown me into a bigger and better person. Sometimes….sometimes….what we need most is for that shoe to drop. Sometimes the shoe drop is the vehicle that can carry us forward into the joy and peace and new life that we didn’t once think possible.
There’s a great parable that makes the point that we should be careful to label what happens in our lives as blessings or curses. My experience has shown me that this tale is true. The version I found was from Max Lucado, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard similar stories from Buddhist writers, too. Here it is:
The Old Man and The White Horse
There’s an old parable about an old man and his white horse. In this parable, the old man has a beautiful white horse. He could sell it and amass a large fortune.
The old man chooses to keep it in a stable and never sells the horse, His neighbors think he is crazy, telling him that there will come a day the horse is stolen and the man will have nothing.
That day came. Waking up one morning, the horse was not in its stable and was nowhere to be found.
The man’s neighbors were right all along and they rushed to tell the man he was now cursed because he had lost everything.
The man’s response is profound: “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”
The people were offended by what the man said. “How can you say this?” they asked, “it is clear that you are cursed no matter what your perspective might be.”
The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”
What a fool the neighbors thought.
After several days the horse returned, he’d not been stolen, but ran away. On his return, he brought with him a dozen wild horses.
Now the neighbors had to come out to tell the man that he was right all along and in fact, he’s a blessed man because now he has a whole herd of horses.
The man responds again: “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not? You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of one phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?”
The man’s neighbors found it hard to argue with this. “Maybe he’s right,” they said. But deep down they knew the old man was wrong. He had one horse now he has thirteen — how could he say he isn’t blessed?
The old man had a son — his only child. The son went to breaking these wild horses when one of them flung him off, landing he broke both of his legs.
The neighbors were awestruck at the man’s wisdom. “He was right we were wrong,” they thought. The old man, being too old to do much on the farm, no longer had his son available to work the land. With no one tending the farm, he would likely lose his income.
Not long after this, a war broke out in the old man’s country. All young men were called up to serve in the army where most would perish, leaving many fathers without their sons.
This was true for the old man’s neighbors who had sons that were to never return home. They went to the old man weeping, “you were right, we were wrong.”
“Your son’s accident is a blessing and while his legs are broken you will have many more years with him,” they said, “We will not, our sons are gone. You are blessed, we are cursed.”
The old man responded once again: “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this. Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”
I think the whole point of the parable above is that the best way to live life is to take what comes to us, accept it, and stop our incessant labeling of every, single thing that happens. This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t grieve the hard things we face (and I have more thoughts on this in a future post), but we cause ourselves more hurt when we insist that we know how life is supposed to be all the time. We DON’T know. Our lives are so infinitesimally short; we are a blip on the cosmic timeline, and REALLY, what do we know and truly understand about all the great and unimaginable things going on all around us in our galaxy and beyond.
Finally, I think we have to learn to go inward as well as very far outward to know that we are OK when our shoes drop. If we only look at our lives with what our five senses can perceive, it can seem terrifying and difficult, cruel and often pointless. It can feel like nothing and nobody is in control, and the whole world is just a goddamned mess.
This is where we must learn from the mystics, those who have different eyes to see. The mystics are the ones who have survived the shoe drops and can tell us what lies on the other side. When my soul is in distress, I turn to Rumi again and again for comfort, to remember how to see things in a new way when my physical eyes are burdened with all the pain, unfairness, inequity, and grief that people are experiencing around me. I love these words….these are soul words:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense. The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don’t go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don’t go back to sleep.”
Let the shoe drops come; don’t fear them, don’t fight them, because we don’t know what lies on the other side; we can’t say if we will encounter a blessing or a curse. What we have is now, and now, and now. I, for one, want to enjoy the hell out of each of my now’s, catching and releasing, and resting in that field where we don’t have to label every single thing and we don’t even have to understand every single thing. We are just free to be, and be loved, by this life that keeps bringing itself to us, day after day.
When I was growing up, my family very much pushed the whole “clean your plate” value. I frequently recall my mother admonishing me to “remember the starving children in Armenia!” I had no clue at the time where Armenia was and why the children were starving there. I think by that point perhaps her imperative was a little dated.
My dad grew up as a son of poor hill country ranchers, so he definitely was not one to turn up food, even if he didn’t like it. He pushed this ethic onto my brother and me, especially the importance of being careful with how you dole out food so you don’t waste any or take more than what is rightfully yours.
I remember one time we were eating a meal with HEB BBQ sauce. I particularly liked BBQ sauce, and this night, in my enthusiasm, I accidentally poured half the bottle of the sauce onto my place. My dad, in an effort to teach me proper bottle holding and sauce pouring, made me eat that plate of BBQ sauce. Questionable parenting tactic, perhaps, but I guarantee you I never poured out a sauce or condiment from a 90-degree angle ever again!
In general, I was not a picky eater, and in general, I really like food. That being said, there were a few foods that I just had no appetite for. I wasn’t a fan of cooked broccoli until high school, and olives (especially, when my mom ruined her amazing chicken spaghetti by adding them), just didn’t do too much for me. But the most God-awful thing my mom ever made was boiled eggs sliced over cooked spinach from a can.
Now, I grew up outside the Wintergarden region of Texas, where basically an Eden of produce exists. Why my mom felt the need to serve us nasty canned spinach when there was inexpensive, lovely, fresh spinach abundantly available, I’ll never know. But even with this dish that I despised, my family’s “clean your plate” club rule was enforced. I would stomach down that nasty spinach and eggs, praying I wouldn’t gag and resupply my plate with what I had worked so hard to get in me.
I know I’m not the only person that grew up in this kind of household. While there are definite harms that can be done by forcing children to eat what they don’t want and and when they feel the sense of being full, it is also important to learn not to waste what we are given, and to tread lightly on the Earth by only taking what we need.
A friend of mine, while not a card-carrying member of the “clean your plate” club, is pretty emphatic with her kids that what ends up on their plates is really not up to them. Her kids taught my boys the following sing-song response they had become so accustomed to hearing from her: “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit!”
For most of my life, I believed that people and relationships were sent my way directly via Providence. Which meant, I was to accept them and all that came with them, including their opinions of me and words about me. As a result, I never had very good boundaries until recently. In fact, I rather think I used to approach relationships and friendships like “clean your plate clubs”: I was to take all that was offered without throwing a fit.
For whatever reason, I have always been terrible about internalizing what people say to me. It’s like I trusted their opinions about me more than I trusted myself. I don’t’ really know how I got to this place, but it’s definitely hard to learn to fight against this tendency.
I can think of so many stingers that people have thrown at me over the years that I swallowed hook, line, and sinker: “Julie, you’re lazy. Julie, you’re a quitter. Julie, you’ll never succeed at such and such. Julie, that’s a really stupid idea. ” Etc, etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to question what these people were saying, to think that maybe they were the ones who were completely wrong and not me.
I think one of the biggest game-changers for me was when I finally began to learn how to say, metaphorically speaking: “You are not my parent, I am not five, and this is not the dinner table. I do not have to choke down anything that you believe about me, even if it is true. I have the freedom to accept or reject what I wish from you.”
One of the “clean your plate” club categories that seems to most plague many of us is when people slap broad labels on to us, like “SELFISH”, or “HATEFUL” or “LAZY” or “STUPID” or “CLUMSY” or “QUITTER”. It’s these labels that tie themselves to our identities and hurt and immobilize us the most; it is much easier to swallow condemnations on individual behaviors that we exhibit than who we fundamentally are as people.
The crazy thing is, we often, without thinking, believe whatever people tell us. Like we don’t stop and question our own thoughts, so do we frequently fail to actually question what people are saying to us. Is what they are saying actually accurate? Has the person who is saying something to us actually even earned the right to speak into our lives? Is the person simply projecting their own hurts and fears and insecurities onto us?
I”m old enough to know now that no relationship or friendship is going to be perfect. Everyone is beautifully flawed, and everyone is going to say and do stupid stuff at times. But I firmly believe that we can fully accept a person we are in relationship with without accepting everything they try to give us or push on us. In fact, I now also believe that we don’t have to be in relationship with every single person that comes our way, which good grief, it only took me like 33 years to learn.
Here are my qualifications for how relationships should ideally work, and how we should know which people to keep close and which we should distance ourselves from:
Relationships should always be a give and take. This may not be equal 50/50 all the time, but if you’re constantly putting all the effort in the relationship and the other person is just taking and taking without offering anything useful in return….you have probably fallen into the “clean your plate” club.
If a person in your relationship is constantly slapping labels on you that negatively speak to your identity as a human being, shove that plate away and push back from the table. Insist that people express “I” statements about how they feel, not pointed “You” statements that throw all the blame for their feelings onto you.
This one is big for me: if a person can never, ever offer a sincere apology for wrongs they have committed against you….this is probably not someone you want in your life, or at least in your inner circle. Each of us screw up from time to time, and real love is able to honestly convey to our loved one that we are wrong and want to make amends.
As Maya Angelou ( I believe) said, if you are only an option to a person, and not a priority, then be very careful what advice and words you are willing to receive from them. You are under no obligation to accept their opinions or criticisms of you.
If someone also attempts to gaslight you, and twist words and situations to place the blame squarely on you all the time…again, push back from the table and walk away.
If someone feels the need to opinion vomit all over you, but they have not shown themselves trustworthy in your friendship, and they are making no attempts to work on their own shadow selves….yep, scrape that plate straight in the trash.
So, then, who are the kind of people that we want to keep around…the people whose opinions are nourishing and good eats for our souls?
Keep people that know you have shit you struggle with but who choose to focus on your strengths.
Listen closely to the people who are willing to shut their mouths and listen.
People need to earn trust and respect; save your deep stuff and your traumas for the people who have proven they are willing to hang with you for the long haul. Like it says in the Gospels….don’t throw your pearls before swine. Don’t reveal your big heart hurts to those who can’t handle them carefully.
Keep close to the people who know where you are now, but can dream with you about where you one day can be. These are the people who have a vested interest in you and will help pick you up again when you fall down.
Keep the people near you, who may completely fuck up but apologize and keep working on their stuff, getting up again and again…these are the people who can empathize with you when you yourself completely fuck up.
Hold tight to the people who understand that life is mostly about love, and forgiveness, and grace…not things, success, and status.
I think one of the markers of “growing up” as a human is the realization that we don’t have to automatically receive whatever is handed to us in life. We have the agency to accept or reject people’s opinions, beliefs, and words about us. It is this realization that really has the power to start transforming the way we live because it breaks chains in our minds that hold us stuck in certain thought and behavior patterns.
I used to absolutely fall apart when someone said something really awful about me, because I assumed that somehow, it must be true. I have been so pleasantly surprised with myself lately to discover that those kinds of harsh words tend to bounce off me much more rapidly than they used to…it’s like I have some kind of Kevlar protection on my outside that keep hurtful labels form penetrating me.
Relationships are no longer a “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” kind of dynamic. Maybe I don’t need to throw fits, but I can certainly refuse to engage in hurtful, toxic relationships because that is my right. I can also choose to engage in difficult relationships that take alot of work and hard communication because that is also my right. No one has the right to say how I, or you, are to engage in relationships. We don’t just have to accept whatever appears on the plate in front of us. This, I believe, is what develops the best, truest, most loving relationships: where we come freely, giving, receiving, and never forcing anything on anyone.
And as a final note, just don’t ever buy spinach in a can. Seek out good quality nourishing relationships, and consider yourself valuable enough to eat fresh greens.
“Said if the last thing that I do
Is to bring you down
I’ll bleed out for you
So I bear my skin
And I count my sins
And I close my eyes
And I take it in
And I’m bleeding out
I’m bleeding out for you…”
-Bleeding Out, Imagine Dragons
Things get passed down through families. We pass down physical characteristics, heirlooms, social habits, prejudices, and so much more. Our families of origin determine so much of who we end up being, and influence in so many ways how we approach life.
Some of the things that people pass through their families make me laugh. I had a discussion with some coworkers the other day about how mattresses can stay in a family for decades. One of these friends told me she still had and used a mattress that was over 60 years old. (Granted, it was one of those mattresses you could rotate and flip over). I promptly grossed out everyone at the lunch table by musing about the sheer weight of skin flakes and mites that had accumulated in the mattress during that extensive time period. But in all fairness, I had to have a talk with my own parents about 15 years ago regarding a 30 year old mattress they thought was still a viable bedding option. I explained that mattresses were never meant to attain vintage status, and when they can no longer maintain their shape, it’s time to let them go. My parents very begrudgingly (and with a little resentment towards me) sent that particular mattress to the dump….but they kept their other 25 year old mattress. You’d think I was asking them to toss out the family silver or something.
Another item that families have passed down in past centuries, which I find fascinating, is bleeding bowls. The practice of bloodletting is at least 3,000 years old, and only with in the last couple of hundred years has it really finally been understood as a bad idea except in a couple of instances – like polycythemia vera where there is an overproduction of red blood cells, or when iron levels in the blood need to be kept in balance, in the case of hemochromatosis. Way back when, illness was understood to result from the imbalance of humors in the body (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood) of which blood was believed to be the strongest.
The history of bloodletting is rather interesting, and there are some stories of well-known people who suffered from its deleterious effects, brought on by well meaning doctors. Fortunately, scientists like Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur helped change the mindset that diseases were caused by imbalances, with the advent of Germ Theory. Still, I think this idea of letting unhelpful and harmful things out of our bodies still has some truth to it…and the process of letting out those things is no less shocking and disquieting than draining out our own physical blood stores.
Years back, when I had different theological and ontological perspectives on the cosmos, I believed wholeheartedly in generational curses – spiritual consequences that are passed down through families as the result of sinful acts or habits, which can take root and affect generation after generation until broken off in some miraculous way. I don’t have this fatalistic view anymore, where our external actions tragically screw us over, but I certainly believe that, somehow, traits and phenomena get genetically coded and can be passed down through families. And I’m not talking about genetically inherited diseases, like something springing out of a gene mutation that is propagated through offspring. Although….it would be really interesting if certain gene mutations could create very specific trauma responses…
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
I’ve had panic attacks since I was about 7 or 8. They are freaking dreadful….the worst fear I could ever imagine, and I can’t logic or rationalize my way out of them. They only happen at night, (thankfully now only every great once in a while) usually when I wake up to go to the bathroom and my mind is suddenly like, “Hey, Julie, this is a prime time to ponder the universe, God, and what eternity is!” And I quickly spiral into sheer terror, until I have the wherewithal to ground myself with some brilliant trauma technique given to me by my therapist best friend.
I’ve blogged about this phobia of eternity before: it has a name (Apeirophobia), and is a legit THING, which makes me feel alot better about myself. For years, I thought I was the only person in the world weird enough and neurotic enough to be afraid of existing forever.
But then, when I was already over 30, I found out that my mom had the exact same panic attacks about the exact same thing. We got to talking one night and she described her apeirophobic fears, what triggered them, and what she experienced, and they were SPOT ON with my experiences. I was literally bowled over that this could be, because we had never discussed our panic attacks before. Years after she passed, my dad told me more details about her panic attacks, that were again, exactly like mine.
How could my mom and I have the same panic attacks, based out of the same phobia, with the exact same trains of thought when there was nothing in our environments to create them, no one else we knew had these kinds of panic attacks, and she and I developed them independently from each other without talking about them? The only conclusion I can logically reach is that somehow they passed down from her to me. The whole process still blows my mind, and it has made me take very seriously the passing down of family patterns and dynamics through people that have absolutely nothing to do with environment or nurture (referencing the whole nature versus nurture debate).
There’s that old saying that everyone has probably heard: Ignorance is bliss. Sometimes I think this is absolutely true. Sometimes it’s really nice to not know what you don’t know…because then, you’re not bothered when you can’t fix something that you know is broken.
I blame alot of my mental struggles on Scott Peck…I read his book The Road Less Traveled over a decade ago and now there are things I just can’t unsee that on certain days I wish I could. Damn him, meant in the very nicest of ways. He was one of the first writers that revealed to me that I was in control of alot more of my life than I thought, that I could dig in and figure out some of the dynamics that seemed to be ruling me, and that I could make new choices and take a different path than the one I was currently on.
But this is where the problem lies in becoming more self-aware: there are things, that no matter how freaking hard I try, I CANNOT fix!
I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve uncovered my childhood wounds, I’ve taken tests regarding Myers-Briggs, the DISC, the Four Color Personality, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, the Enneagram, and more. I’ve gone to church and other faith communities for over thirty years. I’ve taken depression, anxiety, and ADHD inventories, and I’ve taken plenty of SSRIs, sleep meds, Xanax, and Adderall. I spent a weekend in Reston, VA laying in a brain scanner and had my hair gooped up with electrodes and ultrasound gel for an EEG just to try and better understand what my brain was up to. I took part in a horribly claustrophobic sleep study that just gave me a wicked migraine and a diagnosis of idiopathic non-cataplexic narcolepsy and not much else. I’ve read a billion self help books, I’ve questioned my beliefs and questioned my theology. I’ve talked to really brilliant and enlightened people. I’ve meditated (although in all fairness I think I slept through at least a third of one of the 8 hour meditation retreats I went to).
And the result of all of this? The same damn things that I used to struggle with are the things I still struggle with. Except now I’m so much more aware of the complexities and triggers behind them. I’m very aware of my weaknesses, my faults, and my fears….and sometimes there is nothing worse than being aware of these things and feeling helpless to actually be able to fix them once and for all.
Maybe I’m being a little over dramatic…I mean, I have changed alot over time. I’m much braver and more open-minded, I’m alot quicker to apologize, and I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of healing from some of my worst childhood traumatic experiences. I’ve been able to forgive people for events and words that I thought I would never be able to offer that grace to.
What I am most afraid of are the broken places in me that might somehow get passed down to my kids or affect those around me who I love. I’ve already partnered with my kids’ dad to pass on a tendency for anxiety and ADHD. What if one of my kids also develops my phobia of eternity? I’m terrified just thinking of that possibility. What if my kids also have days so dark that they wished to God they could die, as I once did? What if my kids internalize in themselves that they aren’t lovable and that they must perform so that others will accept them?
I wish, so badly, that all of these places in me that I can’t make right could have been bloodlet out of me before they were conceived and born…so that their lives don’t have to be colored and influenced both genetically and environmentally by the imperfect in their mom. I’m trying hard, but often unsuccessfully, to trust in the universe’s plan to have people grow up through the process of parenting…kids really get the shitty end of the deal here on alot of days, being parented by moms and dads who are still trying to find their own way.
A friend of mine told me years ago, when my oldest was a baby, that we’ll be successful as parents if we introduce our kids to God and teach them how to contact a therapist. I guess I’m doing OK, then. I’m trying hard to show them how magical and enchanted life is, and we’ve already logged plenty of therapy hours.
But my heart was torn this morning when I dropped one of my sons off at school, and while moving through the car rider lane, he expressed to me how frustrated he was that he’s been working on a particular struggle for three years and it hasn’t resolved yet.
Oh kid, I told him, I’m still working on some of the same things I was working on twenty years ago.
I’m not sure if he was relieved or horrified by that.
I don’t know if other people are similar to me in this, but I’ve realized lately that I carry a belief that everything needs to be resolved and all loose ends tied up by the time we die…like, we have to end this one life with all the games pieces tidily placed back in the box. Where did I get this idea? Probably from the linear worldview I grew up with that we are dealt this one hand at life and if we don’t get it right that’s our last chance.
The idea of reincarnation or multiple existences in different forms actually makes more sense to me these days, but my other belief sets haven’t kept up with the evolving pace of this one. I still tend to live through benchmarks and milestones – markers to let me know if I’m on track. Which is stupid because I’ve learned that those benchmarks don’t mean jack squat in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I graduated high school, went to college, got married, bought a house, had kids…bam, bam, bam…all like you’re supposed to per the American dream, and the process of ticking those things off wasn’t always that great.
I wonder how I would live out each day if I believed…like, really believed…that I had an infinite amount of time to engage with these things in me that I can’t fix. What if eternity, that seemingly terrifying construct, is really not about reaching a state of perfection and then sitting there bored as hell for eon after eon, but more about having endless grace-filled space to keep changing, evolving, and growing without any time constraints being put on us?
I think if I could get to this place, it would change everything. The stupid things that stress me out on a daily basis would be so inconsequential….like the messy house and pee on the bathroom floor, the fact that I did not inherit a handyperson gene, the fact that I can’t read my own handwriting two seconds after I write anything, the fact that I get so completely panicked during the holidays.
And then, the big things…the traumas that have influenced how I approach life, the people that I can’t seem to get over or can’t quite forgive, and the glaring faults I perceive within myself…they wouldn’t have to be fixed RIGHT NOW. I would have time and grace to work on myself and allow changes to occur at a relaxed and safe, rather than frantic and obligated pace. Maybe then, too, I could offer my own boys the time and grace they need to grow and change, without the need to be perfect right away.
What if letting go of the belief that everything has to be changed and fixed RIGHT NOW is one of the best ways to avoid propagating trauma and fear in my kids and those around me? What if the whole point is not to radically bloodlet everything bad out of ourselves, but to learn to be comfortable with the imbalances and know that there is not some divine timer out there ticking away and threatening an imminent end of our game of life if we can’t get our shit together promptly?
What if we have more time and grace and space and love then we ever imagined? This could change EVERYTHING.
I’m a huge audiobook buff and am regularly listening to multiple titles at any one time. I especially love historical non-fiction, specifically when the progression of scientific topics are written about through a biographical or narrative lens. One of the most interesting books I’ve listened to in the last couple of years…which was really long but oh so worth it….is The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee. There’s really nothing better, in my opinion, than when a great science writer can take a complicated topic like genetics and transform it into a fun and educating read that the general public can grasp.
Right now I’m listening to an audiobook by Bill Bryson, one of my all-time favorite writers, called The Body: A Guide for Occupants. I have a friend who insists Bill Bryson isn’t really a science writer, but I beg to differ and offer this book as proof. Either way, if you haven’t read any of his stuff, you are really missing out and I suggest you pause reading this blog post and go discover his writing. It is well worth your time.
While listening to The Body yesterday driving up to Chicago from Indianapolis, I learned a story from Bryson about the discovery of penicillin that I’d never heard before. Of course, I’ve known for years that penicillin was the first antibiotic that was discovered, but I didn’t know the details of how that happened. (Either that or I had zoned out that particular day in biology class.) The best part of this discovery that helped change the face of medicine? It was completely by accident! Here’s the story:
Fleming was working on antiseptic research in the 1920s with our good old bacterial friend staphylococcus. At one point, when he left on a two-week vacation, he inadvertently left a petri dish of staphylococcus cultures sitting on the lab bench instead of putting them in the incubator. Somehow….SOMEHOW….the temperature and humidity conditions were just right that year, and preparation of the culture had let an air-traveling Penicillium mold spore from somewhere around the lab settle into the dish….and when Fleming returned, he found that bacteria were dying where the mold was present. Fleming called this Penicillium powerhouse “mold juice”, which I find hysterical. He wasn’t able to figure out how to isolate this antibiotic in his own work, and it took the medical community a while to understand the immense breakthrough this discovery was. But, eventually, two other scientists furthered the work on penicillin and were able to mass-produce it just in time for use in World War II.
Here’s a statement he made later in his life:
“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
Takeaway? Sometimes the very best things in life happen by complete accident! But, they happen when we pay attention to the mundane, and when we pay attention to the details.
As I am steadily marching through the last few months until my fortieth birthday, I have finally fully embraced the fact that I have some serious quirks. So much of the weirdness about myself that I once tried to burn away in order to make myself more palatable to others….I say TO HELL WITH IT now. At my core, I’ll always be a little weird, cooky, and eccentric and I am OK with it. I find myself much more interesting to me this way.
Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed something about aging that I did not expect. (Or, maybe it’s not necessarily related to aging per se, but more to alot of great therapy and shadow work.) I’m becoming more intensely curious about life – about people, about quantum physics, about gene therapy, about the cosmos, about music…about everything. Even when life is busy and stressful, I wake up wondering what I’m going to learn about that day. This is such an odd juxtaposition to how I woke up each morning for almost 2/3rds of my life…where I would groan to myself and be like, “Again? I have to get up and do this again? When will it be over, already?!” It is an amazing feeling to actually WANT to get out of bed each morning when you’ve never been used to experiencing that.
Our world has been changed time and again by accidental scientific discoveries. Think about x rays – that medical imaging technique we use thousands of times each day in hospitals and clinics across the globe, used in everything from mammograms to the diagnosis of pneumonia and broken bones – discovered when physics professor Wilhelm Roentgen was putzing in his lab in 1895 trying to determine if cathode rays could pass through glass.
Or how about the saccharin sweetener found in products like Sweet ‘N Low….that ubiquitous sugar alternative found in grimy condiment holders in diners and eating establishments everywhere. Constantine Fahlberg was working in a lab at Johns Hopkins in 1879 and made the ill-advised but serendipitous decision to eat lunch without washing his hands first. He had unknowingly spilled a chemical on his hands while working, which he later tasted while chowing down. That chemical was saccharin, and our fake sugar addictions owe him thanks.
Or the slinky…originally designed to be a support for delicate equipment on ships.
Or the microwave, first created in the 1940s….thank God they aren’t 750 pounds anymore.
Or LSD, again accidentally discovered by a scientist researching a fungus that grows on rye, once more as the result of poor handwashing hygiene. Whether or not LSD changed the world for the better is controversial, but it certainly had a significant impact on things.
Or…. a myriad of other discoveries made by people who were in the right place at the right time, who paid attention to details and took the time to investigate further.
*************************************************************************************I have this one big strong voice in my head that I’ve fought against most of my life. It’s the one that daily torments me, telling me that I’m a quitter, that I’m good at starting but never finishing, that I have no follow-through. The annoying thing about these voices is that they usually get their start with a particular person in your life, a person you love and respect enough that you believe the stupid things they say to you at their not-so-great moments…and there is usually enough truth in what is being said that you internalize it and then generalize it across the entirety of your life.
I’m so painfully aware of the big things in life that I’ve quit. I’ve usually had really good reasons for quitting various endeavors, but sometimes I have quit things simply because I did not have enough faith in myself. It’s a terrible cycle….you don’t have faith in yourself to succeed at things you try, so you quit, and then you feel shittier about yourself, and the cycle continues. That cycle spins faster when you have those external voices talking to you, too, assuring you that you are indeed a quitter.
That being said, I also have grace-filled voices in my life who help me reframe all of these negative beliefs about myself. What would it look like, Julie, they say, if you stopped labeling your ADHD as a disorder? What if your ability to start well is a strength, and the trick is to team up with people who aren’t great at starting but who are great at finishing? Others remind me on my bad days how I keep getting up again and again, and never quit at life even though there were times in the past where it was all I wanted to do.
I love talking to people who have done a billion different jobs in their lives, and those who have a wide range of hobbies. They are some of the most interesting people. These are the kinds of patients I care for in the hospital that get me into the most trouble regarding time management because I want to sit and hear their stories and how they transitioned from one path to another and how all those paths created and changed them.
When I look back on my own life, I’m kind of amazed at some of the stuff I’ve gotten to do, places I’ve been privileged to travel, and the wicked awesome people I’ve met. Despite my struggle over the years with depression and anxiety (which finally lifted a few years ago), I’ve lived a very full life.
But, something that I am most in awe about is that so much of the randomness of the first three decades of my life…where there seemed to be so much disconnection, irrelevance, and moments of epic quitting things and jumping ship for new paths…is that there is suddenly a magical convergence of all of these things. Everything in my past mattered, and it was like I had to get tho this particular point in life to see that EVERYTHING BELONGS and if we are patient and pay attention, it will all come together.
I’m probably being a little obscure here, but that’s because recounting my entire life story in one little blog post would be overkill. But here’s a brief outline of what I”m trying to say:
Where I currently am….as a nurse pursuing an MSN in forensic nursing and building up a significant writing side hustle…all pretty much happened by accident, but totally as the result of me being curious both about myself and about the world. Here and there over the years, I paid attention to important details; it was those details that made the difference, even though I didn’t know at the time how they would be important.
Here are a few of accidents that happened early on in my life that I paid attention to and extrapolated upon, in no particular order:
I recognized my own brokenness and trauma…instead of ignoring it, I started digging in and learning about my inner self and why I was such a damned mess.
I was interested in science, so did chemistry research throughout college. This gave me some random skills that are serving me well now. I then worked in what seemed to be fairly random science-related jobs post-college – like blood sugar meter test strip research, blood filtration research, and vegetable physiology research.
I thought I would like working in healthcare, so I did overseas medical trips in underdeveloped countries where I got a glimpse of how much so much of the world lives.
I like to write…so I kept trying to get braver and do more of it while actually marketing myself.
My mom told me I could major in anything in college as long as it was chemistry, physics, biology, or engineering. Hopefully not biology, and math would probably be acceptable. So, I went with biochemistry.
I did weasel in a second major of missions; which helped provide me with a good foundational understanding of cross-cultural learning and sensitivity. Anthropological and cultural studies never get boring.
I had amazing people come into my life, all at the right times and for various reasons, through no credit of my own. But to my credit, I’ve managed to not run all of them off.
These, and so many other details that seemed insignificant when they occurred contributed to the magic that is happening in my life right now. Where I am now happened because of so many little accidents, so many unintentional jaunts into new territory, simply out of my own curiosity after noticing something small but interesting.
What I also find interesting is that this magic wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t done ALOT of quitting. So take that you dumbass persistent voice in my head! If I had stayed the course on so many of my endeavors, I wonder if I would have had all these awesome life experiences that I have had? I can’t help but believe that if I hadn’t quit things and taken some major detours out of my familiar comfort zone, I would have remained alot more narrow-minded and self-centered.
Life isn’t over until it’s over. I’m so glad I know that now, and that I didn’t give up on it twenty years ago when I would lay in bed, miserable, for days on end. There is always time for new things to spring up out of everything that seems irrelevant, useless, or dead. It is just a matter of holding everything that happens, allowing them to be, and trusting that we live in a benevolent universe that will raise up new life out of dry bones.
Sacred accidents rise out of the mundane, like penicillin from mold in a petri dish. Recognizing them just takes curiosity and a willingness to look closely at the details most people would simply pass over without a second glance. However, hand-washing before eating meals will forever be a good practice.