This is a post I started a few years ago, and each birthday I am adding a new insight that I learned that year or some idea that helped carry me through.
A random assortment of things that I’ve picked up over 38 394041 4243 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.
Stop putting other people on pedestals above you. Climb up on your own pedestal and be damn proud of it.
The pain is there to show you something, to teach you something. It is a gift to save you from endless suffering if you can be brave enough to let it be your teacher.
I probably come by some of this naturally,, having grown up in the South…where exiting from a family or community gathering is an event in itself, usually culminating in an hour of chatting by someone’s car, with at least one car door opened for that entire time. Sometimes this extends even further….with passengers finally all in the car, but leaning out rolled down windows to chat for just “one more minute”, car engine running.
If the extent of my leaving problem was just about being reluctant to leave a good time, it wouldn’t really be an issue. But it’s a problem because I struggle hard with leaving the situations that aren’t serving me and the people that hurt me. Fortunately, I’m not the only person that wrestles with these things, and I have some good friends who have been journeying with me over the last several years to face our fears, figure out what is making us stay when we shouldn’t, and learn this Everest climb to pursue what is best for us will not, in fact, kill us like we often think it will.
The trigger that made me really decide to dig furiously into this struggle of mine was the process of trying to extricate myself from a year-and-a-half-long relationship with a full-blown narcissist alcoholic. Looking back now, I seriously cannot believe why in the hell I ever went on a second date with that man, much less let him treat me cruelly as he did for so long. But at the time, walking away felt like an insurmountable feat, and it took alot of good friends, a fantastic therapist, and alot of ignoring my gut-wrenching despair to get out.
When I finally escaped that relationship, I was determined to figure out how I got into it in the first place, and learn to never abandon myself like that EVER again. Well, the shadow work involved in unearthing all the reasons why is about as gut-wrenching as being in the terrible relationship itself. And, I’ve learned that you never just stop abandoning yourself cold-turkey. It’s a matter of taking baby steps, and making small choices that start leading you in new directions, and none of it comes easy.
I’ve have grown so much in the last several years, and while I still have a long way to go in learning to be true to myself, and no longer apologizing for what I want and need, I have stockpiled many lessons that explain so much of the trajectory of my life and help me offer myself a little bit of grace for not always walking away right when I should have.
I know just enough about trauma theory to get myself into trouble, and I”m not a therapist. And sometimes I suck at taking my own advice. But these lessons ring true with me, and are helping me carve out and curate the life that I want.
Before I jump straight into my list of lessons, I have to give a little background on my understanding of how childhood trauma can set you up for failure in adult relationships, as best as I understand it and based on my own personal experiences.
When you’re a kid, and trying to figure out the world and how it works, you defer to the grownups in your life and assume, for at least a while, that they know what the hell they’re doing and have a general grasp on reality. But then, if you have adults in your lives that neglect you or abuse you in some way, then as a child you’re faced with what can feel like an irreconcilable conundrum: either the adults have to be “bad” or “wrong”, or you do. (I’m oversimplying what I’m talking about to make a point, so just go with it). When kids are faced with this conundrum, I think there are two general directions they feel like they can go. Either one, they decide the adults in their lives are dumbasses or nuts or whatever, and they rebel in some way. Or, the kids make the leap in their minds that adults have more life experience, are “supposed to be loving and good” and, and thus conclude that they [the kids] are wrong, or bad, or the problem.
The latter was the leap I took in my mind, from a very young age. I think, looking back, that it occurred when I was about five, based on my memories, and it had a dramatic impact on my life. My understanding of reality came to be that if someone was angry or upset with me, it was because I did something wrong. In order to restore relationships and be OK, I had to do the work to fix things. I learned very quickly that with certain people I was constantly being punished when I had no clue what I had done wrong, and so I learned to be uber viliglant with people’s non-verbal cues and to read their vibes as a means of self-protection and to preemptively stave off any surprise attacks.
The thing about being in volatile or unsafe situations as a child is that you can’t just leave. You depend on the grownups in your life for your every need, and so ultimately, you have to develop copning mechanisms that help you survive toxic situations and keep the peace. You learn to apologize for everything you do, you settle and learn to become ecstatic about receiving crumbs, you start to create a worldview that helps you be OK with the situation you’re in, and you somehow limp along until you reach adulthood, telling yourself this is all normal….and you tell yourself if you could ever just get your shit together and stop being a bad or unworthy person, people would treat you better.
And so, with that really quick background setup, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned, and am still learning about how to leave anything as a grownup.
Oh man, this is something that my therapist jumps on every time with me. Periodically, I will tell her I ADORE “so and so”, and she’ll get this very specific look on her face and ask me “Why? Why do you adore so and so?” Then, she will sit and wait for me to list all the reasons why I adore that person. I hate this. Because, she will inevitably point out some flaw in my thinking, such as how the person I adore was just doing something that a decent person would do…it was nothing exceeptional like I had made it out in my head to be.
There are basically two problems with adoring people, my therapist has told me. The first is that that kind of thinking sets up a hierarchy where you view that other person as better than yourself. And when you start viewing someone as better than yourself, you are in danger of losing your own sense of worthiness and are much more likely to settle for that person exploiting you or treating you in ways that are less than you deserve.
The second problem with putting people on pedestals, is that once you wake up and realize that you’re just as good as the other person, they will often resist strongly and throw a fit when you want to renegotiate your relationship contract….whatever kind of relationship you’re in. People love being adored, and alot of those people don’t like it when boundaries suddenly show up that weren’t there before.
Value people, observe and appreciate their talents, gifts, and unique offerings to the world, but stop adoring them.
2. You can walk away from beautiful people.
This lesson is very closely related to the last one about not adoring people. I have this tendency to stumble across people in my life that I just think are freaking beautiful. They don’t even have to have their shit together. They can be floundering and trying to figure things out and not have any clue which way is up, and yet I look at them and am mesmerized by “the beautiful” in them. (I’m never melodramatic about anything). I’m not just talking about physical looks….it’s some quality that certain people have that I have the darndest time walking away from. For all of you reading that and mumbling “trauma-bonding, much?” under your breath, I good naturedly lift my middle finger to you. I stand by what I said. Some people are just beautiful and that’s all I know.
And who doesn’t want to stay right smack dab next to what feels beautiful? Except….sometimes just because someone is beautiful doesn’t mean that they are good to be in relationship with. There’s a saying that comes to mind, related to consumerism, but I think it applies here: You can admire it, without having to acquire it.
If someone is beautiful, but being with that person is hurting you or you are getting too caught up in self-abandoning adoration, sometimes you just have to love that beautiful person from afar. That doesn’t make your love for them any less meaningful. It just means that you get to love them without getting hurt. Maybe things will change and you only have to distance yourself for a while. Or, maybe you will have to distance yourself forever. But you yourself are also too beautiful to endure hurt all the time in the effort to love someone who can’t love you back.
3. You don’t have to demonize someone to leave them.
I had a HUGE epiphany a few weeks ago, when I was thinking about the various relationships in my life that I finally was able to walk away from or to at least erect significant boundaries. This was related to me wondering why it takes me so long to walk away from people when I had a good feeling I should have left long before.
Don’t gag, but it goes back to those coping mechanisms and childhood trauma responses. I suddenly realized that one of the primary reasons it takes me forever to walk away from people, or situations, or institutions when I should is….that I have to figure out a way to make THEM bad, so that I don’t have to be the bad party. And since, historically speaking, I haven’t always held the highest opinion of myself, I have to wait for something pretty wretched and unforgivable to appear so that I can confidently feel I’m justified in walking away and don’t have to potentially carry all the fault within myself.
This is a terrible way of doing things, ya’ll!!! I’ve eventually walked away from alot of people using that way of thinking, but by the time i had left some terrible things had been done and said to me. Furthermore, where does that leave me when a situation just isn’t serving me but isn’t necessarily abusive or cruel….and I end up hanging out in ambivalence for the rest of my life, unable to move on to something better because I feel extreme guilt?
Now, some people that i have walked away from were legitiamtely demonized in my mind….they had tangibly and intentionally wronged me…..and I needed to finally step up and name what had been done and flat out called it the abuse that it was, and place the fault firmly on them where it belonged. But not all relationships need to end because one of the parties is a horrible person. Sometimes the timing isn’t right, or the people involved want incompatible things, or a myriad of other reasons.
I’m finally learning to stop and ask myself…..what is best for ME right now? And I get to be OK with making a choice that feels right for me, no matter how much it pisses someone off, or how much they might want to throw the blame back on me. Or, even in circumstances that aren’t volatile at all, I can choose to go in a direction that I want, simply because that is my perogrative, and it doesn’t have to mean anything about my character, or whether or not I care about other people. I know this is a really simplistic train of thought, but depending on how your brain was molded in childhood, it really can be a completely novel concept.
4. You might have to leave in baby steps…and that’s OK.
It took me FOREVER to work up the chutzpah to leave my ex-husband. Like, years. And when I finally did leave, it was more of a situation where I sort of fell off the proverbial cliff rather than confidently striding over the edge. I was able to do just enough work with just enough bravery to gain the momentum needed to finish the deal. There were a few times during the process that I lost my nerve and wanted to stop, but by then, the train had left the station and so I had to stay on for the ride. It ended up being the absolute best decision I’ve ever made as an adult, but it was by far the scariest one, too.
To my own chagrin, I am way too often a very black and white person. I fight against this constantly, but it’s my default mode. And so, when I can’t make a change cold turkey, or instantly cement a new habit within myself, or just immediately walk away from a person or situation, I feel like I’ve failed. For anyone who has ever tried to leave a relationship, especially if it’s toxic and you have a trauma background, you’ll know how defeating and shaming it can feel when people around you just throw out platitutdes and get impatient or even angry with you for struggling and not being able to make a decisive, clean cut. People who don’t get it are the ones who so callously ask questions like “why would that woman go back to her abusive husband?” or “Doesn’t she know deserves more than that jackass? Why does she keep settling?”
People that have grown up in families with secure, healthy attachments don’t realize that for those of us who didn’t, changing our coping mechanisms and belief systems feels like a literal, physical battle within our minds. And honestly, it is. We have to carve new neural grooves and pathways in our brains to be able to think in new ways and draw new conclusions. We have to do the hard task of facing the terrorizing fear that if we choose a new path, the other shoe could drop and we could really be screwed. We have to reconcile the fact that often what feels normal and familiar is in fact, not OK or safe, and have to learn to trust that the things that often scare us the most might ultimately be good and safe and healthy.
You can’t change your brain and habits and beliefs and fears overnight. It takes facing this one small fear, and then resting, and then trying this one new thing, and then resting, and maybe taking several steps backwards before you ever see progress. That’s OK. There are no rules for how you personally need to heal what feels like broken places within you. And the same goes with people….you can leave people how you need to leave them. If it takes you a few tries, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. (Within reason, people….please don’t read into this ridiculous notions like staying in something where you or your kids are in iminent danger. That’s not what i”m talking about).
Take however freaking many baby steps you need to, to find your way back to yourself. And don’t apologize for them.
5. You can save yourself now, and walking away isn’t always final.
Per my statement about being a black and white person so often….I can’t stand finality. I always want to leave the door open for hope. I still believe in miracles and magic. On one hand, this tendency gets me into trouble alot because I often stay in relationship with people based on the potential I see. (This is another thing my therapist harps on….”Look at reality, Julie. What is staring you in the face? Stop thinking about ‘what could be’ all the time.” My therapist can be annoying sometimes. And I wouldn’t trade her for a million dollars.
Here’s another throwback to traumatic childhoods: When reality is too difficult to bear, but you know you’re stuck, there are basically two options for how to deal. 1). You do whatever you can to fix the situation and make it better, even if you are putting in all the work to make it better. 2). You zone out into fantasies, imagining what could be or imagining some glorious future where someone will come and save you.
When you carry this “fix-it’ mentality into adulthood, it is way easier to stay in relationships for WAY longer than you should, expending way more energy than you should. And while there’s nothing wrong with hoping for good things in the future, living in a fantasy world about how great things will be if you can finally just get this one thing fixed, just sets you up for disaster. Especially if the other person isn’t interested in investing in fixing anything with you.
Something I learned about myself way too late was that I have the power and freedom to walk away from things; I DON’T HAVE to try and fix them if I don’t want to. But this requires another one of those neural groove pathway carvings in the brain I mentioned earlier. It’s hard to actually believe this for the first time when it goes directly against what you’ve believed your entire life. I have this analogy in my head that illustrates the way I approached life as an adult for way too long. For whatever reason, I accidently touch a hot burner on a stove. So, I scream in pain and cry and beg for the person next to me to come turn off the burner, or I wait for someone to come save me and pull my hand off the stove. When really, all I have to do is pick up my hand…MYSELF. This is all so juvenile, but if you grow up with a mindset of being trapped and always hoping for a savior that never comes, it is REALLY hard to suddenly change your perspective and realize that you can save yourself now.
But back to the finality part…I don’t like to leave people. I get attached to people quickly and easily, and I tend to be overly loyal. And I’m always afraid that when I walk away, that it means forever. For some people that are so very important to me, that thought of forever feels viscerally painful and unbearable to me. This is the important thing, though: with some people, that walking away will be forever, and that will be the healthy thing. But for others, it might just mean a walking away for right now. A walking away until we can both do the work we need to do on ourselves. A walking away so we can find each other down the road in a new capacity. When I despair about walking away from someone I care about, assuming that everything is final, that is me once again arguing with reality and living in a fantasy. I have no clue how the story will end….and the goal is to remain curious in that not knowing.
I hate leaving people, even those necessary endings. I hate having to lay down loyalty to relationships and organizations or institutions that I have valued for a long time. But now, finally, at age 42…I’m realizing that I’m tired of staying in things that feel painful, when I don’t have to. I’m not a little kid anymore. I don’t have to rely on anyone for surivival. I can walk away from things, even when it’s hard, and I’ll be OK, and it’s through walking away from the hurtful things that room is left for the good and healthy things to enter.
For someone who no longers really identifies as “Christian”, I think about resurrection alot. Every single Easter, whether I’ve been in church or not, it’s an event I ponder. Years ago, as a child, it was a story about divine magic….where a good person unfairly killed is brought back to life, and somehow Easter Eggs and bunnies are involved. As I grew older and had heard enough warnings about the straight-line trajectory towards hell I was on if I didn’t make some good decisions and fast, it was a story about someone who was half God-half man who had to die a barbaric death, but in doing so, he gave me a chance to escape hell and retribution from whatever horrible crimes I had unknowingly committed at that young age. My understanding of this story grew and morphed as I entered adulthood, and through the works of N.T. Wright, I came to believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection was less about appeasing a pissed off God the Father and more about breaking power and control held by forces opposed to God and Jesus as the ONE, TRUE, King. Then, gradually, I became an atheist. Not in the popular sense of the word, but rather taking on the belief not in a theistic sort of deity, but rather, Tillich’s Ground of Being….a source or energy or “Is-ness” that permeates and envelops all things. Once I got to that point, I was flummoxed on how to deal with the story of the resurrection or what it meant for me on a personal level. But I always felt that there was something deeper to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection for me to gather up…..that goes way beyond someone physically dying and returning to physical life in this particular existence.
Christians tend to think they have a monopoly on deities dying, even by crucifixion, and then being brought to life again. We also tend to think Jesus was the only virgin birth story. Not true. But people can get hung up on these misconceptions and then think that Christianity is completely true, above all other religions or faith systems. While Judaism and Christianity have unique offerings to give the world, they don’t hold a trump card on all things spiritual or ultimate truth. I’ve become pretty convinced that there are multiple paths up the mountain, and they all lead us to the same place at the peak. There’s some deeper metaphor present in that metaphor, but I’ll leave it be for now.
There are many ways to read and interpret religious texts, and to understand great religious heroes. For example, there is a literal reading of the text…where one believes that everything has happened or will happen literally and exactly as described within the pages. This, as many scholars have pointed out, is really the lowest level of approaching texts. Taking everything literally produces a very flat result that is applicable to only a small set of people, or it sets up a dualistic, exclusivist belief system.
The next levels are implied, allegorical, and hidden or mystical levels of meaning in a text. These levels of reading religious texts require more engagement on the part of the reader. The mystical understandings of texts require learning to see and understand in new ways, and often require one to sit with a passage for a long time before any kind of understanding comes. And it’s the mystical level of understanding where you can read many of parts of the Bible, and other texts, and suddenly realize….they’re all pretty much saying the same thing.
So, without diving too deep into alot of this, because also….I’m not an expert in this field, I want to look at a historical interpretation of what happened to Jesus, and then look more broadly at what his story means for each of us to do. And no, its not about saving us from a literal hell if we believe the right things.
Jesus was born into a peasant class, nothing fancy. It appears he grew up with a penchant for spiritual things and was pretty wise as an adolescent. As an adult, he had some powerful mystical experiences that seemed to solidify his decision to help liberate people who were oppressed not only by the Romans, but by bad religion. He renounced worldly wealth and possessions, and went around tending to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised. In so doing, he pissed off alot of people. The Jewish religious institution was angry because Jesus called them on their crap, and exposed their fake religiosity. The Romans were angry because people who are liberated, even psychologically, en masse, can be a real threat to the stability of a tyrannical empire. Like so many others who have walked similar life paths, the only way for them to deal with the problem of Jesus was to fabricate crimes that he supposedly committed and kill him.
So, Jesus was crucified….again, nothing terribly special about that…it was a common torture tactic used by the Romans. Did he actually rise from the dead….physically? Well, who knows. And honestly, that is kind of a boring question to me now. What is more interesting to me is honestly the fact that a Christian myth grew out of this, and myths often give insight into what is really the truest true. Richard Rohr talks about this alot….that something doesn’t have to be literally true to still be very true.
Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as an archetype…(an archetype is a pattern that periodically shows up among people, that carries alot of wisdom and can give us clues on how to move forward down the path of life.) The first main lesson that I think this story about Jesus is ultimately trying to teach is that even when the physical body dies, the “Is-ness” that was at the fundamental and most basic core of that person, is not destroyed but continues. Is-ness is like energy…or maybe we could actually just call it energy….it can’t be created or destroyed. It just “is”.
A second point of this story, I think, is to explain that overcoming….conquering in life over the things that most hold us back, requires a death. This isn’t a physical death, but rather, a death to the ego, a death to the belief systems we hold, a death to our dreams and all the ways we “think” the world should be, how people “should” have been. Although, I will say that I have personally witnessed this ego death occur in people just days before actual physical death. It was as though they realized what was inevitable, and they suddenly experienced a deep realization that there was no point fighting or grasping or clawing for what they wanted anymore, and so let it all go. When they were able to let go, they immediately become different people…full of peace, lacking any worry, and only able to offer love. Seeing this happen right before my eyes has been one of the most redemptive experiences of my own life.
Easter came about right when I’ve been doing alot of thinking on trauma and how to heal from it. It’s so easy to suffer abuse or trauma of different forms and stay stuck in a victim mentality. It’s easy to blame others for how you’re struggling and use your pain as an excuse for not moving forward. It’s easy to cower behind our great individual fears and try to isolate ourselves away from every having those fears triggered. And I totally get it. I understand it. No judgment here.
In my personal experience, though, life isn’t about letting us just stay where we are. It won’t have it. Life, at least in my own situations, loves to bring the same lessons around again and again and again until I decide to change my responses.
The other thing about life is that generally speaking, bargaining doesn’t work. We like to treat life as though we are in a social contract….if we do x, then life should offer us y. But there is no contract with life, much to our consternation, other than a great invitation by life to stop clinging to our attachments and engage with whatever comes our way. The book of Job is another great archetypal story, and another book that I really don’t think should be taken literally. Who cares if there was an actual Job? There are a billion Job-like examples that have populated the earth since him and will continue to do so in the future. Job was a righteous man, was wealthy, had a big family, and generally had it made in life. Until everything fell apart and he lost it all, including his health. This book in the Bible actually attributes it to Satan asking permission from God to test Job and see if would turn away from God. (Let’s remember this was the worldview at the time, and not that Satan actually approached God, and God did not flippantly toy with a man’s life just for the hell of it). In my mind, the story of Job was a death and resurrection story just like that of Jesus. I don’t think Job was as concerned about losing all he lost as he was bewildered as to why it would all be taken from him if he had been a good man and had done all the right things.
If you haven’t read the book of Job, go back and read it. But as many will know, Job sat in the dust and ashes, confused and hurt and tormented. His friends tried to offer explanations for what had happened to him. (Many commentators consider his friends to be jerks, but honestly, they were just doing what everyone does….we try to figure out why bad things happen to good people….and often even a bad explanation feels better than no explanation). The book goes on for quite a while with alot of Job pining and his friends pontificating, until finally, God steps in and shuts it all down. And again….I don’t take the text literally. I don’t think God boomed down in an angry voice from heaven that Job had no right to complain because he was just a pansy human being. I think the poetry that describes God’s response was a mystical experience, where somehow, Job was able to let all of his anguish and “need to know” go. Again, this is not a new story. There are so many people who have experienced horrible tragedies and suffering, and at some point, they are able to let go of attachments and the need to understand everything to the nth degree….and they just let life come to them as it will, and they stop wrestling. Somehow they identify with their fundamental “is-ness” within themselves and it changes everything. I think Job had a resurrection on the other side of this death….the literal reading of the story makes it sound like he got all of his wealth back and had more children, but I’m pretty sure that that part of the story is also allegorical. I think it means he found everything he needed on the other side of his ego and attachment death….more of a spiritual and emotional wealth than physical wealth. At least, that’s the way I read the book of Job. Do with it what you will.
Going back to trauma and core wounds. I’m pretty sure we all have core wounds, and I think trauma just exacerbates the hell out of them, often paralyzing us and cementing us into unhelpful archetypal patterns that we repeat over and over.
I’ve been going to therapy for a billion years, it seems, and have tried all kinds of stuff. The thing is, I know what my core wounds are, I know how they got there, I know what triggers me, I know my stupid patterned responses, and I know what I’m really afraid of in life. But the thing is, just knowing all of this information doesn’t always fix things….it doesn’t always help me make different choices or respond differently to stimuli. Knowledge in the head does not always translate immediately to transformation in the heart and body.
I’ve been realizing over time, that truly getting over trauma and core wounds requires dying. I’m sure I haven’t finished thinking this all through, but I think there are two bigs deaths you have to go through to get better. (I’m generalizing here, I’m not a therapist, and I’m processing myself in this post to work through my own crap….so I ask for grace if my logic doesn’t entirely add up).
The first death, is the death of being able to keep going back into your past and hashing up every single memory of the people and things that hurt you, and trying to process every one. Now, having done therapy for said billion years, there is definitely a time and need to go into the past and look at things head on, acknowledging what was done to you and how it hurt you. But, as my current therapist and I have talked about, at some point in your journey, you have to let the past go. You have to let go of the urge to remember and process every horrible thing that had ever been done to you, or to gain more and more validation ammunition against your perpetrators for wrongs. At some point, doing this just stops being useful and it keeps you from moving forward. And, I’m pretty sure the ego begins to love it at some point and attaches to the dopamine hit of being able to pinpoint one more time when someone hurt you and you were in the right and they the wrong. Yeah, they were in the wrong….they hurt you, sometimes attrociously. But you’re not there anymore and you have this great invitation to live the life before you without paying those people any more mind. But, again, this feels like a death, for a while.
A second death I see in healing from core wounds/fears is that I think we have to face out greatest fears by dying to our constant striving to keep them from happening. We have to allow those fears to actually potentially come about, and find out if we can make it to the other side.
I should say upfront, I don’t like this second point at all. But I am feeling more and more certain lately that this is the place I have arrived to in my own life. Here’s a little transparency. My greatest fears of all time are that people will abandon me/ forget me and that I will be alone (and in my mind, there is a belief that being alone is a bad thing). These two fears were totally exacerbated by trauma in my childhood, and so they have become these two big monsters I fight on a daily basis. I struggle hard with anxious attachment to people. I work way too hard with way too crazy of a schedule, sometimes doing ridiculous things, in hopes that if I keep doing things to prove my usefulness in the world, I won’t be forgotten. I can go way over the top doing things for people, inconveniencing myself tremendously without good boundaries, because I think if I provide some value to people I’m in relationship with, they’ll do a cost-benefit analysis and decide they’re getting too much good out of me to outright abandon me.
These are totally irrational fears, I know. The important people in my life….the ones that really love me, have not forgotten or abandoned me. The ones who have abandoned me, were never really there for me in the first place…..they were basically just ghosts in my life. But again, I know these things in my head….but they haven’t quite made it to my heart, yet.
I’ve been listening to an amazing podcast called This Jungian Life lately, and several of the episodes enabled me to have a come to Jesus meeting with myself. Basically, the conclusion was that all of my grasping and striving and working myself to the bone hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I can’t make people stay in my life if they don’t want to be there. Yet I do these things because the possibility of being completely forgotten or abandoned (OR WORSE: BEING BLOWN OFF OR COMPLETELY IGNORED), makes me think (albeit irrationally) that I will physically die. The second half of my conclusion was one of those deep gut knowings that it’s time for me to die to the grasping and striving. To let myself die to the fear of physically dying from being forgotten and left alone. Basically, the only way I can heal from my trauma and wounds is to give space for those exact fears TO HAPPEN. To allow myself to be forgotten. To allow myself to be abandoned. To allow myself to potentially be left alone. Right now, I can’t see any other way forward but to consciously make the choice to die to the ability to keep scrambling to protect myself and curate life the way I think it needs to be for me to be OK.
Ugh. I don’t want to do this. But, what I’m currently doing isn’t really working, I’m wicked exhausted, and if anything, my trying to avoid my traumas is only continuing to attract people who are more than willing to abandon me or ignore me.
Transitioning back to the archetypal Jesus. Jesus knew that he was about to die….that it was an inevitable next step in his journey. And it was a painful thing for him to acknowledge as well, so I feel a little comforted. I mean, who likes to die, even if just figuratively. When he was in Gethsemane, he asked God that if there was any way possible, to please provide an alternative.
Then, as you all know, he was tortured and then crucified, and the Scriptures make it pretty clear that he felt the immense agony of having to face that death alone, and he couldn’t even find God in it. The familiar comfort, the Divine assurance he’d always had, was taken away.
This is a sub-archetypal story I’ve heard so many spiritual teachers allude to. These deaths….the deaths of ego and clinging to things that feel certain….these are the deaths you have to do alone. And sometimes you have to let go of any assurance that things will be OK in the end and you’ll resurrect on the other side. If I let go of my grasping, will I be forgotten? Will I end up alone for the rest of my life? Will my life even matter? Shoulders shrug.
So, this then, is my ultimate takeaway, mostly for myself, in this post on Easter Sunday: the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the hope, not that we will be spared from a literal hell or get to go to a literal heaven. It is the archetypal promise, offered by so many others as well, that the deaths we have to go through on our journeys are hard and painful and lonely, but they aren’t in vain. When we allow those things that scare us most to be possibilities in our lives, they lose their power and we resurrect on the other side with a greater knowing of our “is-ness”, and the ability to welcome, accept, and maybe even love whatever life brings to us because we know we’re going to be OK.
At least, this is what I’m pretty sure about. I’ve experienced alot of little resurrections in the past, so I’m doing my best to trust that I’ll come out OK on the other side of this things that feels like a huge, scary death to me. It’s my resolve this particular Easter to stop grasping and clinging, to allow the dying process to strip away what isn’t real, and to hope for that resurrection.
I’ve got three boys….one is a teenager and the other two aren’t far behind. They are by far three of the best things that have ever happened to me. But, they are also the hardest things that have ever happened to me. Like so hard, that I will say that if I had known all those years ago how hard parenting would be, I can’t honestly say I would have chosen it. That’s not saying that I don’t love my boys to the moon and back, and it’s not saying that they aren’t amazing people. It’s saying that the human-est side of me is not always as woke as I’d like to be, and being a parent involves sacrifice, difficult decisions (meaning having to pick the least of several terrible options sometimes), and it’s a wicked painful experience of these little people holding up a mirror to you and pointing out all the stuff about yourself you’d really rather just avoid or pretend wasn’t there.
The damned thing about parenting is that you have to parent to learn how to parent.
There are some really great parenting books out there (there are also a plethora of shitty ones), and there are wonderful people that have mentored me along the way and shared from their own parenting journeys. But the thing is, no one ever has the same type of kids, and every parent is trying to parent from their own individual backgrounds, which includes all the good and bad stuff. So, there has never been and will never be a one size fits all approach to parenting. Parenting is all about general principles, I think. And every so often one of those principles is to tell everyone judging your parenting to fuck off while you keep doing what you feel your gut is telling you is best for your kids. A key point is learning when it is appropriate to fall on this principle and when you’re just fooling yourself.
Like the dumb FB meme says about adulting: Parenting is like flying a helicopter. I don’t know how to fly a helicopter.
When I was in college, I was required to take two semesters of organic chemistry for my science degree. I liked the class in general, but most of the concepts took a while to actually click in my head. On so many occasions I would finally “get” the material, but it usually happened after I had already bombed a test and the ink of my grade was then dry in the gradebook. This is the way I frequently feel about parenting. I learn how to do things better way after the fact, and by then, there is little to do but store it in my back pocket for the off chance I end up being a grandparent, or when some younger parent comes to me desperate for any kind of advice. But I feel so bad for my kids….and everyone’s kids for that matter….that the universe evolved in such a way that children are raised by people who are trying to grow up themselves. (As a side note: I don’t trust parenting books written by anyone with kids under the age of 10. I’m sure there are plenty of authors out there who were super enlightened and rocked it from day one, but I’m pretty suspicious about all that. Sharing anecdotes or routines or whatever…that’s cool, but claiming to have a corner on parenting before puberty even hits….nope. Don’t buy it at all.)
Parenting means having to make spur of the moment decisions for things that you never saw coming or weren’t sure you were equipped to speak well to. Like the time my youngest barfed on one of those moving walkways in the Boston airport. Or the time I didn’t have a diaper bag and my kid pooped inside a covered slide at a playground…leaving poop behind on the actual slide. Or when one of my kids came to me questioning his sexuality and needing support. Or having to help the one kid struggle through public school that wasn’t designed for souls like his. Or trying to comfort a son who locks himself into the dog crate crying after you tell him that you and his dad are getting a divorce.
And so many other questions and dilemmas….do I push hard on this? Do I let it go? How do I handle it when an angry child yells at me and says I’m a fucking piece of bullshit? When do I let my kids experience failure, and when do I save them? This learning to parent while being a parent is so very hard. I’m starting to think that at some level you absolutely have to let go of outcomes in order to save your sanity….because there’s no way to parent perfectly, or even at a certain point, know how you’re doing as a parent. Although, this is what many spiritual teachers and Zen Buddhists would say is the point of everything….to give yourself wholeheartedly to the process at hand, but detach from the outcomes. Easier said than done, for sure. Ultimately, I just hope I’m a “good enough” parent.
***********************************************************************************************************************This post is meant to be a bit of a sequel to the last post I wrote, titled Bass Notes, Resonance, and Additive Relationship. It’s likely going to be a meandering mess. I ponder relationship all the time because it’s one of those core fundamentals of existence and not something we can entirely avoid, nor do I want to. But, I recognize that I grew up with some really jacked up relationships, learned some horrible ways to be in relationship, and then unconsciously created my own unhealthy relationship patterns while stumbling along trying to cope and deal with the life situations that were handed me. Just like everyone else.
And like I mentioned above, I’m trying to parent and teach my kids how to do relationship well, right when I’m trying to learn how to do relationship well. God help them.
BUT….I am now, thankfully, aware that I don’t have to keep living the same patterns and hurts over and over and over again, so I’m doing my darndest to unearth and examine all my neuroses and unhealthy patterns so that I can make necessary changes and continue to improve in my relationships…with the aim of loving people well and hurting them AND me less.
***********************************************************************************************************************The older I get, the more that it feels like life is full of paradox….two or more things that are true at the same time, and it seems impossible for them to be true at the same time, and yet, there it is. I’ve decided that learning to be comfortable with paradox is one of the big secrets to making it through this life with less suffering. When we insist on only one option being correct all the time, we end up just bloodying ourselves senseless with confusion and anxiety, because we are arguing with reality. Reality always wins. Always.
Beyond the idea of paradox is the concept of living on “the edge”. By that, I don’t mean that you’re necessarily living dangerously or out in the margins of society or something….but rather, that you’re constantly trying to balance on a razor-thin way of being, because that thin place is truest, most life-giving place to be at. And within this itself is a paradox….because to live on this razor-thin edge takes alot of work, but that work typically consists of letting go and accepting what is. This is exactly the type of work that most of us are terrible at because we want to logic and willpower and intellectualize our way through everything. Buddhists talk about the Middle Way, away from extremes, and Jesus talked about how the true path is a narrow way. I totally don’t interpret that as a path as a means to heaven and not hell, but rather that way of doing things that gives life, but you have to search for it, and it does not always come easy.
So, why am I even talking about paradox in this post? It’s because I think that relationship is, at it’s core, a matter of two things being true at once, and to do relationship really, really well, maybe we have to walk a razor thin edge where it is easy to slip and fall one way or the other….it requires awareness and extreme presence. I don’t know……maybe this just feels like a razor thin edge to me, and it comes easy to everyone else.
The paradox I see is that we (each of us and the people we are in relationship with) both need each other, and at the same time we are complete in ourselves, each as individuals. We are unique waves, but we are all part of a bigger ocean. And the line we have to walk when we do relationship with people is to not fall one way into codependence, and yet to also not fall the other way into ultra-indepedence.
Interdepedence is a key word. Humans are interdependent on each other; we need each other at some fundamental level….even those people who say that they hate all things peopley. This has been proven just on the level of basic science…..do a quick google search about babies and young children who were isolated when they were young and denied affection and genuine attachment. The outcomes for those little ones is never great. But even beyond that, the COVID pandemic has helped alot of us remember how very important quality relationship and human interaction is. During those early months of the pandemic, I had plenty of days where I ugly cried because I missed genuine, authentic relational interactions with important people in my life. And now, even though the pandemic is still with us, I have eschewed housework and other responsibilities so many times for chances to hang out with friends and loved ones. The pandemic made it abundantly clear how very imporant they are to me.
Relationship and interdependence is a big theme in much of both spirituality and science. Things exist in relation to each other, and many times can’t really be spoken of or described when they are separate. We in the West like to think of things in a causal, linear fashion, but this concept breaks down at some points. Subatomic particles are a good example of this. Classical Newtonian physics would say that with the right equipment, we should be able to measure all the variables of a particle. But quantum mechanics, at the atomic and subatomic levels, reveals the uncertainty that arises in one variable of a particle when we try to definitively measure a different variable. You can really only understand the system when you look at it as a relationship. And on a more psychological level, we can’t really talk about the Self in isolation from others. The Self doesn’t really exist by itself, as Alan Watts has said. We can only see it and describe it based on it’s relationship with other “Selfs”.
One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, wrote a book several years back called The Divine Dance. In it, he discussed the Christian concept of the Trinity, and the relationship that lies therein. People can get really hung up on (and angry about) this notion of one God but in three persons. I think there’s all kinds of interesting cultural and theological rabbit trails concerning that I could explore, but I’ll save those for another day. Point being, the idea of the Trinity explains how existence is about relationship. We are inidivudal, yet we are not. We are all interconnected, and yet we have our own individual qualities when in physical form. Life is about this dance that we do with each other….indepedent and yet depedent. Since this is my blog and I get to say what I want, I’ve decided that my definition of the Trinity is not really about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I like to think of it more in terms of Truth, Action, and the “Magic Sauce”. All of these have to be present, or things in life go awry. And while I no longer believe in a theistic Christian God, the concept of the Trinity still completely works for me, especially based on my definition. I might explore all of this another time in another post.
So, going back to learning how to do relationship while being in relationship….
When you grow up not knowing how to do relationship well, things can get pretty painful, and there is the real temptation to take one of two easy ways out:
You just completely check out and insist on minimizing interactions with people entirely, or you put up huge walls in your relationships to protect yourself from further hurt. Either you only let people that are closest to you have access to very select parts of you, or you refuse to commit, or you leave yourself wide-open escape routes in case things start to go south.
You start to feel hopeless that things will get better, so you just turn the tables and start doing relationship with the arbitrary rules you learned growing up, getting whatever you need out of relationship even if you have to exploit others to do it.
The third option, which is really difficult to do, is learning to ask the right questions, uncover patterns and hurts and belief systems, and to endeavor to sit with the pain and tough feelings and try again and again in hopes that things will improve. The third option is the hardest, because it asks you to be vulnerable over and over again, to keep your heart soft, and to attempt to trust people that come into your life. As you who have relationship PTSD know, those trust triggers die hard….and when you are hurt to your core by people you love and trust, trying again with new people is freaking scary.
There’s a concept called the wheel of samsara, or the wheel of suffering. This is an area that I really have no business talking about, but I’m going to appropriate it anyway for my purposes of needing a metaphor. The basic concept, as I understand it, is that the wheel is the cycle of birth and rebirth to work out old karma, until you eventually spin off into Nirvana. I only bring this up because it came to mind the other day when I was talking to my therapist about these relationship cycles I seem to go through. It seems like, espeically in romantic relationships, I repeat the same damn cycles again and again, only each time I do it with better people (by better, I typically mean kinder or more awake) or I do it with someone who helps me learn a particiular lesson. I was bemoaning this to my therapist, and she surprised me by saying that this was sort of the point. You have an insight about yourself, or learn a lesson, and so you go back and try again at a relationship….either with the same person (if they are safe and open and also wanting to grow), or with someone new. Theoretically, at some point, maybe one would spin off the wheel? Doubtful probably, but maybe you get to the point where you spin yourself into a solid, healthy relationship with a safe person.
My therapist affirming this pattern of spiraling cycles, instead of voicing concern, was really helpful for me. I realized that I had slipped into this mindset where I believed that if I just did all the right work beforehand, if I met the right person I could just slam dunk it and immediately have a great relationship free of my old neuroses. But like parenting, that doesn’t make any sense. You don’t entirely learn to be a parent by reading the right books or babysitting other people’s kids once in a while. You have to jump in and actually truly parent yourself….doing the practice….to improve. The same thing with other kinds of relationships: you take what you have learned, and you keep practicing until it gets easier to do the hard things and you are able to replace unhelpful patterns and dynamics with new, healthy ones.
As a slight segue to my last point, I just want to talk about the importance of safe people. NOT everyone is safe. Some people may think they are safe, but they are not safe. Some people may pretend to be safe, but aren’t really. Some people are absolutely not safe and make no attempts to hide it….but these are the people we typically know right away to stay away from. Ultimate takeaway: we don’t have to….and shouldn’t….try to learn how to do relationship with unsafe people. We don’t owe them anything, and we do owe it to ourselves and deserve to be in relationship with people that genuinely care about us, want to be present with us, and are working on growing themselves.
The problem with growing up surrounded by and involved in dysfunctional relationships is that you don’t always stop to think about whether or not someone is truly safe, or even what that actually means. Sometimes we confuse “safe” with “famliar”. And we like famliar and tend to stick with it even if it is not really “good” for us. It took me a very long time to realize what safe people look like, and every once in a while I still get fooled. This has required alot of therapy on my end, and learning what healthy relationships are supposed to look like.
Here is my personal definition of what safe people are. It is not formal or referenced from anyone smart. A safe person is somone who:
Will stay in the room with you when things get hard and communication feels uncomfortable, but growing the relationship feels more important to them than escaping discomfort
Will attempt to communicate even when they don’t really know how, or fumble their words
Will accept your own fumbles at communication, and assume you’re coming with good intentions, no matter how your words come out
Recognizes that they are hearing you through a filter and vice versa, but really attempts to hear and understand you
Wants what is best for you and does their best to not exploit you to serve their own purposes
Is willing to wholeheartedly apolgize and make amends for when they’ve wronged you or see that you’ve been hurt by them in some way
Maybe it would be easier to point out safe people by pointing out what unsafe people do (and I can say these from having experienced and trusted plenty of unsafe people). Here are just a handful:
Someone is unsafe is they gaslight you or keep you constantly questioning what you thought to be true, or making you feel crazy all the time
Someone is unsafe if they are forever telling you how you should feel about things, or that you don’t have the right to feel certain ways
People who refuse to sincerely apologize or acknowledge their part in anything, are unsafe
People who constantly ditch you when a better “alternative” is available, are unsafe
People who are constantly badmouthing other people when they are with you, are unsafe. Because they are more than likely talking about you behind your back, too.
People who are constantly popping your balloons (i.e. poo-pooing your successes or excitements or dreams or great ideas) are unsafe.
If someone repeatedly comes at you aggressively with a blaming “You” statement, you should probably be wary of their ultimate safety.
On the flip side of learning to spot unsafe people, is the important job of learning to be safe people ourselves This is where, for me especially, walking that razor thin edge is important. I’m pretty sure that I’m not unsafe for people in a malevolent way. I do my very best to not hurt people. But, we can also unintentionally be unsafe towards those we are trying to do relationship with when we are blind to our own hurts and unconscious patterns.
When I was growing up, I was immeshed in multiple codependent relationships…through really no fault of my own. I was a kid employing coping mechanisms to try and just get by. But, I’m also a 2 on the enneagram, meaning I naturally tend toward people pleasing and way over the top self-sacrificing. And let’s just be honest….I can play a great martyr role when I really want.
I know from my weird attachment styles and codependent dynamics as a kid that I can slip into those roles again with people if I’m not careful. I have to be very mindful that I’m not grasping onto anyone out of my own insecurities or sense of unworthiness. And yes, to a degree we all do this to each other all the time….being in relationship with people that make you feel good about yourself, but I personally have to be really careful not to abandon myself and become too reliant on others. I’m prety convinced that being overreliant on someone, espeically for emotional needs and if they aren’t able to set up their own strong boundaries, is just as unsafe for them as actually being mean and hurtful. But again, this is walking that narrow path….attaching and committing to people, and being interdepdent, without going too far in an unhealthy way.
************************************************************************************************************************I’ve probably rambled on enough incoherently about this topic. My big take-away, my own personal “aha!”, is that learning to do rleationship well is like everything else…..the obstacle is the path. You can’t learn how be in relationship in a vacuum from reading a book or watching others from the sidelines. You have to jump in yourself and just do it. And then do it again with someone else. And then someone else. Only through these interactions do you really have mirrors that help show you who you are, which are necessary to help you grow and let go of attachments, and actually realize that you are whole and complete apart from being in relationship. It’s like the saying: “you have a guru to teach you that you don’t NEED a guru.”
We need each other to learn that we are just fine on our own.
One of my best friends is a bass player, of both the bass guitar and upright bass varieties. Watching him play is amazing, and there is nothing like feeling a good deep note vibrate away from the instrument and right through your body.
I’m a very amateur musician and don’t quite have the language and vocabulary to speak all that intelligently about music, but I have always believed that bass notes are what ground it….they keep it from being too superficial and safe from flying off into the unicorn land of pretty melodies that sound nice but lack real substance. Rob Bell, one of my other best friends (who I’ve never actually met in person or ever talked to and in fact he has no clue that I even exist) frequently talks about many things/people/etc having too much treble and not enough bass. The first time I heard him use this analogy on his podcast, I loved it and now I frequently reference it. So many things in life aren’t well rooted in anything, aren’t grounded, lack wisdom, are unbalanced, or are a mile wide and inch deep, as the saying goes. Bass is essential; like the deep roots of a great old tree, it holds us steady and firm.
A couple of months ago I was listening to my friend jam with some other musicians in an informal setting…him on his upright, a saxophonist, and a drummer. They didn’t seem to have a plan in place when they started to play, and the saxophonist took the lead, and then the drummer and my friend followed on their instruments. The impromput jazz that resulted for the next 45 minutes was mesmerizing. As someone who has played piano since I was nine, and led my church congregation in hymns on the piano for 5 years as a young adult, I had never spontaneously jammed with anyone. Most of the time, I’m one of those people who has to be told what key we’re playing in, and I’m not great at improvisation. So, I was amazed when this little group of musicians started playing jazz and there was no discussion ahead of time of what key was going to be played, or what direction the music was going to take.
Later that evening, after the show was over, I asked me friend how he knew what key to play in, when it was the saxophonist who took the lead but never specified this detail. My friend told me it was hard to explain, but that when they started playing, they would just kind of “find each other”, and thus, land on the same key. My heart broke wide open when I heard him say that, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. People finding each other and the right key on instruments by listening and being sensitive and paying attention to each other. Which then led me to thinking about moments when people will meet each other at just the right time, in just the right place, sometimes completely unexpectedly. Or how people might pass by each other in life for a while, as acquaitances or friends, but then something happens that interwines you at some deep level and you know that you and that person are going to somehow be bonded forever. Which led me to thinking about standing waves and resonance and how sometimes magic happens out of nowhere with people…and there’s no real explanation for any of it, and all that is left is it to just be grateful that it happened and receive the lessons and gifts it has brought with its arrival.
So, super quick physics lesson. On standing waves. Don’t groan….there’s a reason I’m bringing this up, and I think it will help better illustrate a point I want to make later, which is basically the crux of this whole blog post.
A standing wave occurs when two waves going the opposite direction, that have the same frequency, superimpose on top of each other through interference. They just line up and fit each other perfectly. The end result is that they either completely cancel each other out, or they add to each other. When this happens, it oftens creates an illusion that the wave is standing still, which is where “standing wave” comes from. While you may not off hand recognize what I’m talking about, you’ve experienced a standing wave when you pluck a guitar string. If you want to geek out a bit and really understand the point, watch this video:
We often use the phrase “I resonate with that” or “I resonate with that person”, meaning that we ‘get’ or feel like we fundamentally connect with “that person”, or what was just said. Something about whatever we resonated with feels true to us at more of a core level….our frequency of being seems to match up with the frequency that that person or thought is operating from.
Finding resonance, especially with people, is kind of magical, and it feels like, at least to me, that in those moments I’m a little more connected with everything outside of me and I feel a little less alone in the world. Sometimes, it is so strong that it feels like life is standing still, just like those standing waves. It is such a good thing to feel understood, and to think that, at least to a certain point, you really understand another person in a meaningful way. When you meet someone who plays a bass note, figuratively speaking, that you’re also playing….when your values, or goals, or things that bring you deep joy, or even life pain, match up with that person and you feel “okay-er” because now you know you’re not out alone by yourself in the universe… when you’re not the only one playing that particular bass note.
My understanding of relationships, especially romantic relationships, has evolved significantly over the last twenty years. For much of my life, although I don’t think I always consciously knew how strongly I believed it, I thought that a big factor in women reaching their full potential and happiness was to find partnership and contentment in relationship with a man. But, because of my religious background, this understanding was pretty skewed. Eve screwed up in the garden, which pretty much tainted the rest of female-dom, and it was now our job to redeem ourselves by becoming Proverbs 31 women, raising perfect children, and supporting our men. I’ve written about this before, but in churches I was a part of, there was definitely a sense of lower class citizenship if women were unmarried, and if, God forbid, you got divorced, you fell to a negative status, even below that of spinsters or not-yet married virgins who hadn’t landed a man yet. Yes, a little hyperbole and snark here, but hopefully you get my point.
After I got married and had been married for quite a number of years, my understanding of husband/wife relationships shifted…away from the idea of the wife needing to submit and be a helpmeet ( “Ugh, I despise that concept now”) to her husband who was supposedly appointed by God to be the head of household. I moved to more of a complementary mindset that was being propogated by slightly more progressive Christians….basically saying that men and women bring their own strengths to the relationships and create a “whole” by the uniqueness that they each contribute. Thus, the marriage becomes complete by the two parts brought to it. I am not intending to jump into theology much here, and I clearly do not hold to traditional marriage concepts in many ways, or think that marriage or committed relationships are only for men with women. I’m bringing this up simply as a foundation for a later point.
I definitely grew up with a sense that I was not fundamentally OK, and I have been working my way out of this state of being since I was a child. I remember, from the age of about 4/5 to around 11, I would be doing normal life things and suddenly an invisible energy would come over me and kind of paralyze me for a minute, and I would get this horrible, uncomfortable sense that I didn’t belong….that things were not right in the world….that I wasn’t OK for being here. I have no clue what triggered these experiences, other than that they usually happened when I was alone. I also don’t know what eventually made them stop coming, but it was definitely good riddance. Each time I experienced that energy, I would literally want to crawl out of my skin. Next to panic attacks, they were some of the worst things I’ve ever exprienced in life. Thankfully, they typically only lasted about 30 seconds to a minute at a time.
For so many other reasons, which I’ve probably blogged about ad nauseum in the past, I grew up so wicked insecure and untrusting of myself. I always needed external validation to feel OK, I needed an outside committee to help me make any major decisions, and I clung so tightly to rigid rule-based paradigms because, while I hated being a rule-follower, doing so made me feel safe.
These insecurities naturally extended out to my relationships with people. When you don’t feel like you’re inherently good and worthy and deserving, you don’t particularly want to be around people but at the same time you absolutely want and need to be around people so that maybe some of them will make you feel OK. Or, you search like crazy for the person who will fill the gaps in you, or complete you. And then, when you try and try and try to get valiation you need, and people won’t offer it to you for whatever reason, or you finally realize that outside validation isn’t actually as satisfying and fulfilling as what you once thought…it can all feel like a hopeless, damn mess.
I felt like a hopeless damn mess for the first 30 years of my life.
A good friend of mine recently reminded me of a Shel Silverstein book I first read years ago and then forgot about. When I reread the story this time, it hit me hard, and I finally “got” it in a way that I never had before. As a prelude to that book, watch this video on another of his books first.
If you skipped over the vidoe, take the time to watch it. It’s clearly dramatized for kids, but it is brilliant. The incomplete circle is constantly searching for it’s missing piece, only to be discouraged or rejected. And then, finally, it finds a missing piece that fits it perfectly, and actually want to fit it, and they end up combining, thinking that at long last, they had reached fullfillment and that they were both now complete and OK. But, as it turned out, this sense of finding completeness in each other, and relying on that other person to HAVE to be there in order to be complete, was stifling. And the incomplete circle ended up discarding something that actually was probably not a bad thing for him simply because too much was put on that piece to carry and be responsible for.
But then!!!!!! Silverstein’s brilliant message comes across in this next book, the one my friend reminded me of. In this case, it is from the perspective of the missing piece, not the incomplete circle.
OH my GOD I love this story so much. It really resonates me with me. (See what I did there?). Starting with the desperate search to find the piece that would complete me, then finding what I thought was that peice when I got married only to discover that my missing piece didn’t want to grow with me and DID NOT like the directions I was growing….to the parts about feeling so completely stuck and incapable of movement…..to meeting a handful of people who were complete in themselves and encouraged me that I could be, too…..all the way to me finally getting brave, flopping over a couple of times, and starting to wear off the hurt, sharp edges of myself…..and beginning to learn to feel more OK in myself, a complete circle on my own.
OK, now I want to try to bring all of these ideas full circle (see, I did it again. :D) and tie in what it means to be complete, and experience resonance with someone, but in an additive and not subtractive way.
Like I talked about earlier, finding deep resonance with a person can be magical, and it can definitely make the universe feel a little more personal, a little more connected. But one thing I know of myself is that it can be easy to grasp hard on to that resonance…to be like, “Look! I found my missing piece! Don’t you see this resonance we have?!” And there’s nothing wrong with finding resonance and connecting deeply with someone. But where we, (I) can get into trouble is when we see that resonance as a source of validation that we are fundamentally OK, or when we start to lose ourselves in that resonance permanently.
Standing waves have two types of points called nodes and antinodes. Nodes are where the passing waves intefere with each other in a way that they cancel each other out. Antinodes are the places where the two waves create constructive interference, resulting in an increase of amplitude….they become additive together to what they were individually. I really like nodes/antinodes as a metaphor for what can happen when we are in a deep, bonded relationship with someone. If we lose ourselves in the relationship, or think that it completes us, then there is the potential to completely cancel out any of the power and good things that come from the relationship. But, if you can stay in the relationship in such a way that you recognize you are complete and the other person is complete and there is no sense of grasping, then your energies can combine in a beneficial and healthy way.
I hope I’m making a little sense. This all makes sense it my head, but it’s hard to get out into words.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with my therapist about some of these ideas I’m writing about here, especially Silverstein’s books. I told her that after rereading the Big O story that my friend reminded me about, I was simultaneously both in love with it and also extremely uncomfortable. I explained that the idea of rolling along through life BY someone, but never actually physically or deeply connected as the story implies, felt so paralyzingly lonely to me. Parallel play, with two people in their own little boxes/worlds, is all I could envision from the story. I don’t want to be codependent with anyone, but strong, deep, safe, trusting, meaningful connection is so very important to me.
Right there on the spot, my therapist came up with a metaphor that helped me tremendously. I value her opinion so much because at age 70, she has lived an abundant life, is a freaking badass, and I want to be just like her when I grow up. She explained that a healthy relationship with someone in who you find resonance, is like a set of train tracks that merge together for a bit, but then split back apart to run parallel to each other, only to merge together again. It’s a constant coming together and moving apart
My therapist’s metaphor and helpful words were the bass note I needed. Being whole and complete isn’t about ultra-indepenence or never committing and connecting intimately with another person. And resonating with someone on a deep and meaningful level isn’t about merging together so tightly forever that you completely lose yourself in each other.
Real love….real, authentic, meaningful relationship is about having the freedom to come together and move apart without fear of grasping or being rejected….without the NEED to have someone with you every moment so that you’ll feel validated, but WANTING that person there often because you see their presence in your life ( and vice versa) as additive and not complementary. And beyond all of that, real love, even with someone whom you resonate deeply with, doesn’t grab and cling and despair when one of you wants to leave the relationship….because being complete in yourself means knowing that the lack of that other person may be sad and you may grieve hard, but it’s not going to invalidate you as a person, or make you any less, or break you. I also think, as I’ve mentioned in other blog posts….when you bond strongly with someone in a healthy, good way that is additive to both of your lives, you’re never truly going to lose that person….you will always be connected in some way, and the love will never just go away.
Yep, feeling these things deeply today. None of this comes easy. It’s not like you can just wake up one day and say, “Well, hey! I feel super complete in myself and I will no longer strive to find my missing piece, and if I meet someone who resonates strongly with me I promise to never grasp or cling!” So much of this involves learning about the attachment styles that formed you when you were growing up, and rerouting your neural grooves in you brain so that you can start operating out of new belief patterns. It involves allowing yourself to get really uncomfortable for a while, facing your feelings and biggest fears.
I’m not a Big O yet. I don’t roll smoothly along next to people. I still get stuck sometimes and do more of an awkward flip-flop motion than cruising breezily along. But these big bass note lessons have been working their way into me over the past many years, and they’re finally starting to take.
May we all know that we are good and worthy and complete, just as we are. May we be able to “find” our way to the people that we can resonate deeply with. And may we all learn to love well, and be loved well.
Last week I went on a much-needed vacation with a good friend, to the middle of nowhere Indiana. The goal: to sit in an Air B and B, turn off my computer and electronics, read, walk/run, and listen to what my inner self might want to tell me. Like it has been for everyone, this COVID pandemic world has just gotten too big, and while the last year has been full of wonderful things, people, and experiences, I am just bone tired. Tired from trying to accomplish too much, tired from trying to find answers for existential questions, tired from trying to navigate moral dilemmas, tired from having the same conversations with myself in my head and never finding resolution, tired of people being so small-minded and hateful to each other.
Fortunately, this week away was exactly what I needed – my headspace quieted, I laughed, I ate really good food, and I explored landscapes….both in the external world and within myself. This post is my attempt to explore what I’ve been thinking about landscape in general, lately, and why these are features of life that we can’t afford to take for granted.
I’ve been running for a bunch of years, but I finally identify as a runner. I guess I used to think that to be a “runner”, I had to run certain distances, or achieve certain paces, or look like a runner is supposed to look. I don’t feel that way anymore, and now think that if running resonates with a person in any way and they feel compelled to move forward at whatever speed and for whatever reason, they are a runner.
Running is hard alot of the time. I usually hate the first two miles of every single run, no matter what kinds of distances I’ve been able to master at that point. Those first two miles always require a working out of kinks, of warming up muscles, of opening the mind for the task ahead. Running is very much a mind game; we can physically run so much further than our minds believe and tell us. Those first two miles are always a period of settling, of the deep me telling my mind to bug off and be quiet for a bit – to lessen up on the rants about how cold it is, or windy, or how I’ve gained five pounds over the last year and I’ll have to put in 20 miles to try and stay thin and overwhelm sets in. As others have said, the mind is a great servant but a truly horrible master.
The thing is, I’ve discovered that if I can get past those first two miles, all will settle and I can usually hit a groove, and when I’m really lucky, the countless footsteps and miles pass in magic. There is also something about mile after mile of connecting my feet with the ground that feels right, feels solid, feels really human. Even when I hate running, I love running.
I’m a fan of destination running and walking. Whenever I go on a trip somewhere, I really enjoy getting out and exploring with a run or a long, relaxing walk. I didn’t always do this, because I would let fear of the unknown and unfamiliarity with an area keep me from getting out, and especially because I typically can’t talk people into running with me and I didn’t want to venture out on my own. Now days though, my excitement about running in new places overshadows my tentativeness about the unfamiliar. I’ve learned from experience how much amazingness I would have missed out on in life if I let fear dictate all the time.
Running when I travel is a way for me to become acquainted with the landscape of whatever place I have found myself in. As I mentioned in other posts, I’ve really been digging into Celtic theology of late. It resonates with me so much because of it’s emphasis on the land and the sacredness of “place”. It seems to me, in our ever fast-paced world, that we take for granted the permanence and resilience of landscapes and nature. We zoom around in our cars to get to where we want to go….usually from one type of building or structure to another. Even our cars are fitted with shock absorbers and climate control which further separate us from what we are driving upon. We drive so fast from our starting places to our destinations that we miss so much of what we pass, and cannot really see or feel what is around is in the way that we can when we walk or run upon the land.
I’ve noticed on more than one occasion, that when I run or walk down familiar streets that I’ve ventured down countless times, that I will suddenly spot a new house that I had never seen before when I was driving, even though the house had always been there and driven by so many times. The same is with landscape….there are details and nuances that I completely miss when driving or riding as a passenger that I finally notice when I put my feet on the ground. When we don’t get our feet on the ground when moving from place to place, I think we lose a point of connection with the earth, and gravity, and of oneness with nature and all that is ancient.
In 2017, before he died, Celtic poet and theologian John O’Donohue spoke with Krista Tippet about landscape on the podcast On Being, and I loved what he had to say:
“Well, I think it makes a huge difference, when you wake in the morning and come out of your house, whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you, but in a totally different form, and if you go towards it with an open heart and a real, watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you.
And I think that that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination — that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape — landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence, where you can truly receive time.”
This is what running (or long walks) helps me with – to feel the aliveness of all things and places, and to recognize that those things have lessons for me as well as a way to firm up my rightful belonging in this world, no matter where I may find myself. When we take the time to explore new places, fully present, we can discover that those landscapes are not dead, but are pulsing with life and personality and are so generous in sharing with us what they have to offer.
Humans are so young, having only existed for tens of thousands of years. You and I, individually, are younger still, our lifespans of 70 to 80 years only the most momentary flashes of existence on this Earth. But landscapes, and trees, and mountains, and rivers, and rocks….these are all the ancient ones. They have carried on the longest, and have seen what passes and what remains, and from that, have wisdom to impart to us if we’ll slow down enough to listen and receive it.
On my trip last week, over about 3 and a half days, I got in about 15 miles of running and walking….on back Indiana farmland dirt roads, in Amish country, and along the shores of Lake Michigan. These miles were a mix of me pondering questions, listening to music as I trotted by houses and barns and fields, and having deep conversations with my friend while keeping our feet just clear of the frigid tide lapping sand and pebbles on the lake.
There seems to be something about putting in those footsteps outside in nature and landscape, that helps work words and ideas deep within yourself. I enjoy strong, contemplative conversation more when walking with people outside then having the same talks while sitting inside in an artificial environment. Maybe it’s because it feels like we are working together toward something….moving forward physically while intermingling our thoughts and words and intentions, and carrying them toward their own destination.
I also think that there’s something different about the rest one gets after the walking and running as opposed to rest attempted following little movement, or being stuck inside. Our bodies were made for movement, and somehow, and I don’t know how, that movement seems to affect us at a soul level. And then, when we rest from the movement we were designed for, it feels easier to enter soul rest. Our minds, and souls, and bodies are connected….we do ourselves a massive disservice when we try to compartmentalize who we are as creatures, animals, interconnected sentient beings.
I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was about 7. I’ve written about these before, so won’t go into great detail here. But, the short version is, I’ve always feared the idea of eternity, and this one long linear progression forward forever, and my imagined destination of ultimately being utterly alone. I had an intense experience during this vacation week – maybe I’ll write about it one day -that I think may have addressed this core fear that I’ve carried for decades. That’s super hopeful for me, but what I really want to talk about related to my panic attacks is the importance of getting a hold of oneself during them by getting grounded.
One of my best friends is a mental health and EMDR therapist, and she has helped me out on more than one occasion, in the middle of the night, when I’ve called her, shaking in absolute terror and unable to extricate myself from the grip of completely irrational thought and fear. Part of the trick to getting out of a panic attack is to reconnect the mind with the body. My friend taught me how to use different tactics to ground myself, to help my mind settle back down into me as it attempts to break out of my head and fly out on its own, leaving my body in a distressed state in the process.
She gave me a rubbery piece of plastic, made with short rubbery finger-like projections, to grab when I felt a panic attack coming. The type of plastic or what it was originally made for wasn’t the point….basically, she wanted to give me something to hold that had a unique and appealing texture, that would really engage my senses through my fingers and help my body and brain focus on what I was touching. Then, while having a panic attack, she would have me talk to myself, remind myself of who am I, where I am, and details about me.
“My name is Julie, I’m living outside Boston, it is 2016, I’m in my bathroom. I am safe, I am sitting here, I can feel the floor beneath me supporting me, and I can feel this piece of textured plastic between my fingers.”
And weirdly enough, doing those kinds of things would shock me back to myself, and usually, my panicked terror would subside as quickly as it arose. I also learned that intentionally turning on music while having a panic attack would make a huge difference…..violin and cello music are my heart instruments, and that type of music would soothe me. And quite interestingly, I discovered that if I listen to Ripple by The Grateful Dead any time I am having a panic attack, I will calm and fall asleep within minutes. The trick has always been to remember to play the song when in a frazzled state.
We need to make it a self-care practice to ground ourselves more, I think. We rush around all the time, get stuck in our heads, and forget that we are “whole” beings. Music, and art, and yoga, and mindful washing the dishes, and long walks, and runs….these aren’t just gratuitous luxuries…..these are crucial to our ultimate well being.
As I mentioned earlier, I am intrigued about Celtic theology’s discussion of external landscape. Having grown up on a huge ranch in South Texas, landscapes have always held tremendous meaning for me. However, as I dove further, I discovered, in a way that I never had before, that each of us have our own internal landscapes as well. The thing is, until we are aware of them, they can largely go completely unnoticed, which is a shame, because they are an important part of ourselves and our ways of being in the world.
O’Donohue wrote a book called the Inner Landscape, which I listened to on audio. It was one of those books where I just kept welling up with giddiness while listening, because it resonated as so very true to me. As I started paying more attention, I began to realize that other people I frequently draw from have also talked about the Inner Landscape. Here is a passage that I love:
“And at some point, I thought, well, I’ve been really lucky to see many, many places. Now, the great adventure is the inner world, now that I’ve spent a lot of time gathering emotions, impressions, and experiences. Now, I just want to sit still for years on end, really, charting that inner landscape because I think anybody who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to move around—you’re traveling in order to be moved. And really what you’re seeing is not just the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall but some moods or intimations or places inside yourself that you never ordinarily see when you’re sleepwalking through your daily life. I thought, there’s this great undiscovered terrain that Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson fearlessly investigated, and I want to follow in their footsteps.” -Pico Iyer, from Becoming Wise with Krista Tippet
Our deepest inner selves are full of uncharted territory, because most of us never take the time to really get to know ourselves, or really even know that we really are more than an inch deep. As O’Donohue has said, our inner selves are full of mystery and contradictions and questions and wisdom. This is all begging to be explored, and is terribly important work for us to engage in:
“So many people come to me asking how I should pray, how I should think, what I should do. And the whole time, they neglect the most important question, which is, how should I be?” -Meister Eckhart
We can’t know how to be until we truly learn who we are…when we gain a sense of where we came from and where we are going, what we love, what moves us, what stirs us. In fact, the older I get, the more I think that most people really have absolutely no clue who they are. We all keep looking around expecting everyone to show us and tell us who we are, and we try to copy what we see others doing hoping that it will all fit, and we risk coming to the end our lives never having truly met ourselves or lived authentically out of that knowing.
It is not only the ancient landscapes of our external world that can teach us how to live. There are depths within us that tap into the source of all existence with abundant offering if we would be brave enough to do those deep dives inward. The thing is, just as we can let fear keep us from exploring our external surroundings, fear can also dissuade us from exploring our rich internal landscapes. I think this is because of several things:
Many of us just have a natural bent to only surround us with the familiar We may not like the status quo, but it feels familiar, and so, seems the safest option.
We are taught so much by society and bad religion not to trust ourselves, not to listen to our intuition and gut wisdom. When some of us finally find the freedom to do so, it takes practice to reach that place of trust and living out of our own innate wisdom.
Going inward does not result in reaching a final destination. Mystery is endless, and endlessly knowable, and the work of unveiling it doesn’t stop. As far as I can tell, one’s inner landscapes won’t be tidily mapped out after only a few years of exploration, but will continue until death, at the very least. This can be a daunting journey for people if they aren’t prepared for the long haul.
And like running in new places that you’ve never been, doing the dive inward to explore those landscapes can be scary because you don’t always know what you’ll find. Will you discover that you’ll have to do the difficult work of releasing identities that you’ve carried for a long time? Will you discover that maybe you have areas that you need to work on, that maybe you’ve been ignoring? Will you unearth painful memories and traumas that are terrifying and unnerving to look at and address head-on? But to this I say….WHAT IF you discover the most amazing things about yourself….that you are good and resilient and deserving and divine? These discoveries might totally be worth the hero’s journey inward. I can say from my own personal experience that the inward journey is the hardest journey I’ve ever taken, but the most rewarding.
I think about God and the Divine so very differently than I used to. Part of this has come because I’ve gotten braver about investigating both external and internal landscapes and finding that what I grew up being taught about Reality does not, in fact, feel very true to me.
The late theologian Paul Tillich used to describe God as “the Ground of Being, not personal, but not less than personal”. I love this so much and have clung to it for years. I totally identify as an atheist, not as one that thinks the universe is devoid of intelligence and magic and personality, but that it isn’t run by some being with human projections vomited all over it.
I love the idea of Grounding, and that God or whatever you want to call it that is behind everything that is, is supporting us, and providing a firm, solid place for us to “be”. Our external landscapes are a way for us to ground ourselves in our physical existence in this material world as animalistic humans, and our internal landscapes help ground the parts of ourselves that aren’t quite as physical….our consciousness, our spirit-selves, however you want to describe it. We exist in a reality that is ever changing and never static, but the requirement of permanence is not necessary for us to be OK. We can be grounded and connected and “OK” even in the midst of constant movement, and evolving relationships, and the exploration of mystery. I have no clue if I’m making any sense here with what I’m trying to say. We’ll go with it anyway.
So, what were my takeaways from my vacation week?
It was a reminder of how good it is to slow WAY down, turn off all the extraneous noise, eat nourishing food mindfully, breathe fresh air, do life with people that are important to you, and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Mostly it was a call to return to intentional grounding and connection with what is sacred to me, and to remember to listen to the wisdom of the ancient landscapes around me- to stop being swayed so much by what is artificial and young and brief.
To sum it it all up in O’Donohue’s wise words: To “stop traveling too fast over false ground.” It is time to let my soul take me back.
For One Who is Exhausted, A Blessing by John O’Donohue, published as Benedictus
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic, Time takes on the strain until it breaks; Then all the unattended stress falls in On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.
The light in the mind becomes dim. Things you could take in your stride before Now become laborsome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit. Gravity begins falling inside you, Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out. And you are marooned on unsure ground. Something within you has closed down; And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time. The desire that drove you has relinquished. There is nothing else to do now but rest And patiently learn to receive the self You have forsaken in the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken And sadness take over like listless weather. The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have traveled too fast over false ground; Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight, Taking time to open the well of color That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone Until its calmness can claim you. Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit. Learn to linger around someone of ease Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself, Having learned a new respect for your heart And the joy that dwells far within slow time.
When I got divorced almost five years ago, I moved back to Indianapolis for the third time in my adult life. I was NOT happy about it at the time; but, it seemed like the practical, expedient thing to do. I needed an affordable place to live, to go back to school, and to restart my career that had laid mostly dormant for the previous ten years. I was living just south of Boston at the time and felt completely at home in New England. Moving back to the Midwest – after living in Colorado, and Upstate New York, and Massachusetts -seemed dreadful. That time in my life felt like a huge, overwhelming death: death of my family, death of living in a place that spoke to my soul, death of the lifestyle that I was grown accustomed to living, death of the belief that I might be one of the few people that made it through life without being scathed by divorce.
It was death all mixed with the tiny glimmer of hope that there would be a resurrection on the other side that might possibly lead to a more abundant life than what I was currently enduring.
I was grumpy for the first year to year and a half that I was back in the Indy, wishing I could be so many other places in the country besides Indiana. I was convinced that, coming back to Indianapolis as an entirely different person than who I was when I had left it it five years before, that I would never find my people, or things, that I loved. It would be a matter of biding my time until my youngest graduated from high school and I could escape back to some much more interesting state or country.
Now, five years later, I feel so completely different about my situation than when I arrived. It almost feels like a lifetime ago that I left Boston, and where I once felt a tremendous loss, I now see that I not only brought with me all that was real and enduring from my time there, but I also gained, since then, so much more than I could have ever imagined. Gift after gift has come my way: some packaged in what first looked like loss, others in metaphorical boxes of free, unsolicited, undeserved joy. My time in Indiana over these last several years has helped to change my overall perspective on everything, and everyone, that comes into my life. I used to separate them into sheep and goats, good and bad, things I welcomed and things I would rather send on their way. Now, finally, in the fourth decade of my life, I am learning to welcome it all….the people, the circumstances, everything…that comes into my life. (My therapist still has to remind me weekly to let go of my rules-based approach to life, and to stop worrying about right and wrong all the time. It’s taking some time to undo these deeply ingrained patterns in me, but it’s gradually happening). Most of all, I have learned to welcome the people, because I have learned this one great lesson, even if I forget it from time to time…..everyone…EVERYONE… you encounter in life brings you a gift.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The Gifts of Microrelationship. In it I talked about how I was discovering that relationships, of any kind, don’t have to last forever, or even be that long, to still be very meaningful and life changing. Just because a relationship ends, or doesn’t evolve to the depth you might have hoped for, doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. In the post I remembered some of the people who had slipped in and out of my life very quickly, but during their brief stay they had encouraged me or in some way influenced me to change my own way of doing things….or to open my mind just a little more….or to reconsider something. I still look back on these people as major game changers in my life, and since the time of writing that post I have added so many more people to the list. Many of these people are no longer in my life, they may have even forgotten about me, but I remember, and am grateful, for what they gave to me.
-the person who basically told me to stop goofing around and start taking my writing seriously, and be willing to risk putting myself out there
-the multiple people who influenced me to try to run a little further than I thought I ever could
-those coworkers so long ago who developed in me a love for road biking, when we would hit the road in 100 degree weather after the workday was over
-person after person who introduced me to their brand of art, or music, or writing and in so doing, broadened my own appreciation of how we each express ourselves and our experiences in the world
-specific people who engaged with me in conversations about science, and philosophy, and spirituality that helped me reframe a particular perspective or validated my own journey toward understanding and wisdom
-the handful of people who made me realize that maybe there is a little bit of poet residing in me, when i used to think I was too dull and bland to adequately paint with words
-the people who helped me find my love of music and playing piano again, after years of forced compliance had ripped the joy away
-the ones who have been showing the many different ways that relationships can exist and grow, and there is no one right way to do any of it
-the ones who told me that I had found my path, and my calling…that I was moving in the right direction
And so many more…too many to be listed here.
For someone like me, who attaches quickly and strongly to certain people I meet, the ending of relationships, or relationships that fizzle out quickly, or relationships that just never take off, feels horribly painful to me.
It’s not so much a “Man, I feel sad about that”, but, in all honesty, it feels like tangible pain…a real, substantial loss. I recognize that alot of this is probably melodramatic hyperbole resulting from my tendency toward anxious and disorganized attachments stemming from childhood, but it also results because I take people…and their stories….and what they bring to the world… very, very seriously. When I decide that I’ve found one of my people, I’m ALL in…and losing that, for whatever reason, feels like another death.
I always used to think that short relationships meant they had failed. Like, if you couldn’t sustain them for a long period of time, then their meaning was lost….they didn’t offer anything enduring. And most of the time I thought that when relationships ended, it was my fault or that I wasn’t compelling, or attractive or witty (insert whatever adjective here) enough to stay in a relationship with. There was something inherently broken about me that ran people off. Maybe I was too much for them, maybe I wasn’t enough. I was good enough until a better alternative showed up.
I still struggle with the voices that shout these things at me sometimes, but most of the time I understand that not every relationship in life is meant to be intense and “forever”. Every encounter with a person, every relationship…has a purpose. I’m not really trying to fall into the the “everything happens for a reason” sentiment, but I believe enough in the benevolence of the universe that Life brings us situations and people that will grow us, stretch us, and wake us up. But they don’t each have the same kind of purpose…either in timeframe or depth of substance.
I think one of the great lessons of life is to learn to not ascribe to relationships and people what WE think the purpose is. When we do that, we attach too strongly, can often become manipulative of the relationship, and then suffer when the relationship ends or evolves into something we weren’t expecting. The goal is to catch and release, touch but not grasp….to welcome what comes and stays but always let it be free to leave. I still suck at this on the regular, but at least these days I’m aware of it when I’m doing it and can try to work through my angst in healthier ways.
One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that the gifts that are brought to us by people don’t always come in packages or timeframes that we welcome. In fact, alot of the time it is only through hindsight that we can recognize the gift that someone gave us, and that what felt terrible or cruel at the time was something that would eventually grow our pain cave or teach us to be brave or save us from going down a path that would never have been good for us or felt the truest for us.
Sometimes to be able to see the gift that we have been handed, we have to work through a crap ton of trauma, anger, grief, and sadness. I also think that being able to get the value out of whatever happened to us because of someone is based on our perspective and ability to reframe events that have happened in our lives. If I didn’t have the supportive, wise friends that I do, and if I hadn’t gone to alot of therapy, I’m pretty sure I’d still be absolutely stuck in certain memories and places of the past. But in reframing and through what I call sacred imagination (where I intentionally try to ponder how the Universe might be working things for my good), I can get to the place where even the worst thing that ever happened to me can be accepted as a gift…not in a flippant or trite way, not through a Pollyanna mindset…but acceptance that comes after working with the pain, affirming that what was done was wrong and not OK, but then refusing to remain a victim or allow that pain to be in vain.
So, honestly, when I look at things from this vantage point, I can begin to see that everything that comes my way in life is a gift. Every single thing that happens to us can grow us, reveal harmful patterns in our lives, broaden our minds, teach us how to empathize with and have compassion on others, delight us, etc. It just goes back to the quote from Richard Rohr that I have tattooed on my arm: Everything belongs. Meaning, that life doesn’t waste anything; everything, even the wicked hard, or scary, or terrible things, can be incorporated to growing your heart and keeping you open. And so in that way, everything is a gift….or, has the potential to be a gift in the future. I can’t help but think about a verse in Genesis that says “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” However you feel about the Bible or religion, I think the point here is that life can work what seems unworkable….it can transform evil into good…it can somehow help us keep moving forward in the chess game even when it feels like all we see is Checkmate.
There are certain things that I struggle to convince myself are gifts. My crazy eye movements because of congential nystagmus doesn’t feel like a gift. Some relationships I’m in that are difficult and probably require necessary endings don’t feel like gifts. These constant quirks or struggles of mine that I still can’t seem to resolve after 30 years and alot of desperatel hard work, don’t feel like gifts. But, when I look back over the length of my life, I can’t help but spot gift after gift after gift that sprang up from the good things AND the bad things, the people who loved me AND the people who hurt me. And so, because of these, I have the hope that life will continue to transform these things and people I struggle with, and that what is painful and feels dead right now will one day bloom.
I really screwed up at work a couple of months ago, but didn’t find out about it until recently. Fortunately, my boss has a REALLY good sense of humor, and instead of yelling at me, she couldn’t stop laughing for an entire day.
Because. I am a freaking idiot sometimes. With a terrible memory.
Long story short….with very good intentions and knowing the importance of data validation in healthcare, I signed us up to do some data collection through a branch of the CDC that was very time-intensive and required my boss and me to have to do extra work on the weekends. The thing is, I didn’t realize what I was signing us up for when I flippantly, and completely well-intentioned, agreed to an option that was presented to us.
The IT person, who discovered my “unintentional signing us up for a crap ton of extra work” move, could have thrown me under the bus for being an utter dumbass, but she very tactfully pointed out how I had signed us up via email for the data collection and then completely and absolutely forgot that I did so. So when said data collection time commenced, my boss and I thought it was a regulatory mandate and not me, the dumbass, voluntarily opting us in.
Sigh. I’m pretty grateful for the people that patiently deal with me.
Anyway, after my boss stopped laughing and I finally crawled out from under my desk, I shared with her a story about silver linings, and how I had made a huge, unintentional mistake in my first job after college. But, that mistake ended up yielding fantastic results , and maybe this data collection mistake of mine might actually prove to be an unexpectedly amazing decision.
When I graduated from college I had NO clue what to do with myself. I didn’t know if I should go to grad school and if I did, I didn’t know what to major in. To say I was lost and floundering would be an understatement. So, I made the obvious choice and went to West Africa, pretty much without any kind of solid plan. Dumb decision making on my part, but fortunately it was a growing experience for me and I have some good Ghanian friends and adopted parents that kind of saved me until I came to my senses and back to the States.
Once I got back to the States, a semester after being out of college, I had even less clue of what I should do with myself. I randomly and half-heartedly applied to some graduate biochemistry programs without any good reason for why I was picking those programs. “Hey, let’s apply for grad school at Auburn, because…..why not? I’ve never been to Alabama!” Fortunately, I had the wherewithall to pass up an acceptance to Auburn; looking back, that would have been a disaster.
I landed a job in my hometown working for a university agricultural research station. I wanted any kind of job that was even remotely science-related, and my soon-to-be boss hired me because I had some experience running a gas chromatograph. So, in due time I had a job where I was half farmer and half chemist, and to my complete surprise, I realized that I loved horticulture and vegetable physiology research. (Funny thing is, I can apparently only keep plants alive if I”m being paid for it. Ever since that job, I can’t for the life of me grow or keep many plants in a happy, thriving state).
One of my boss’s dreams was to introduce artichoke crops to Texas. Artichokes had never been grown in Texas before, and he had a hunch that the area we lived in had the right soil and rainfall that would be amenable for them. I was tasked to be part of this plan, which I was excited about. The thing about artichokes is that when growing them from seed, they don’t produce their fruit on the first year. They are typically a two year crop, so you have to be patient to get a harvest. However, there is a process called vernalization, where you expose plants to really cold temperatures, to induce flowering.
So, not only did my boss want to introduce artichokes to Texas, he also wanted to take a stab at yielding a harvest on the first year of planting. My job then, was to start artichoke plants from seed, and once they were a few inches high, to expose them to refrigeration for several days before we planted them in the fields. They were to be my babies, and nothing could happen to them. Of course, with my luck and all, the refrigerator that I stored these baby plants in broke….and the temperatures that were supposed to hover just above freezing….fell below freezing. And I didn’t realize it for at least 12 hours.
To say that my boss was upset with me was another big understatement. I had, unintentionally and really through no fault of my own, frozen two-thirds of my baby artichoke plants. (My boss was really upset with me those last few months in general. I froze the artichokes and then I stupidly gave up the chance to do a PhD in vegetable physiology under his mentorship because of a guy. Who lived in Indiana. Who eventually became my husband. And eventually my ex-husband. But that’s another story for another day. Other than to say….ladies, don’t be a dumbass like me. Get the PhD. If he’s the right guy, he’ll wait for you.)
We ended up planting all those artichoke plants ou in the field, even the ones that I froze, just for grins to see what would happen. As it turned out, all the plants took root and survived. Not long after, I left that job and moved to Indiana. But about a year later I came back to visit, and my former boss took me out to see the artichokes. He was no longer angry with me, but especially not so because those artichoke plants that I had frozen? THEY were the plants that produced bumper crops that first year….not the ones who were vernalized at above freezing temperatures. Over a matter of many months, I had gone from being the artichoke villain to being an artichoke hero. And now we know that artichokes can grow wonderfully in the Wintergarden region of Texas.
My whole point in telling my current boss this artichoke story? 1) To distract her from my current dumb assery, and 2) to show that I have a track record of doing things that initially appear to be moronic, but have unexpected silver linings. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a while for these silver linigs to reveal themselves, and the waiting period for them to arrive can be brutal and uncomfortable.
I think that much of the important stuff in life comes through the waiting. But we, especially in the West, are not good at waiting. We want instant results, we want to know what’s going to happen, we want certainty, and we want things to work out the “way they’re supposed to.” This is a dangerous way to live because we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment again and again. There is really very little overall that we as humans have control over, and when we constantly fight and strive for control, we just end up creating more suffering for ourselves.
We also tend to think that that “void” that comes with waiting periods is just a space of nothingness. Nothing good is happening there, nothing transformative, and it’s just something we have to grit our teeth and bear until the thing we really are after finally shows up. I’m very gradually changing my opinion on this, and starting to believe that the places of nothingness, the places of absence or void…..those places are absolutely brimming with life, and energy, and potential….and they are just as important, if not more, as the arriving.
I’ve gotten into Celtic theology lately, and it is really rocking my world. I actually think that at the moment it is the one thing that is helping me keep a toe in my heritage of Christinaity. Because so much of the Christianity that I see around me in the world these days feels shallow, and literalistic, and detached from matter, and landscape, and the depths of our humanity.
Much of my dive into this theology has been through the writings of the late John O’Donohue. His writing and imagery….I can only describe as magical. The words he wrote resonate deep in my soul as true….truth that maybe I can’t cognitively and intellectually flesh out, but the kind that just brings deep peace and “yes!s” from my spirit.
O’Donohue wrote alot about aspects of the inner and spiritual life that can feel counterintuive or scary to us sometimes, but he was able to reframe them in ways that made them feel safe instead of scary. Two areas that I’m particiularly interested in are the ideas of darkness and the waiting. These are things that no human can ever escape; we all experience darkness at different times and at varying degrees, whether actual physical darkness or soul and emotional darkness where we can’t find our way forward. And we all experience periods of waiting…wanting the next thing to come but having little control over its coming. Some things we know will absolutely eventually arrive, and other things we wait for, with hope, praying that they do in fact come. Then, there is also the waiting that we desperately wish we could slow down; we know that something we don’t want will eventually be coming for us.
For me, the the concept of truth and all that word means are wrapped up in these ideas of darkness and the waiting. My goal in the next lines of this post is to kind of flesh out and explore how all of those intermingle in my mind, and the lessons I’ve been learning about them over the last few years.
Why are little kids, and many adults for that matter, afraid of the dark? It’s because we can’t see in the dark. We don’t know what is coming toward us or leaving us….we can’t see wheere we are in reference to anything else….we can’t see the path to where we are wanting to go. We aren’t sure where the boundaries of anything are. And it’s really hard to come up with contigency plans of how to protect onself from imagined dangers when you can’t even see if those dangers are real.
We see the darkness as an enemy, because we don’t have control in the darkness, and we as humans generally crave control, even though most perceptions of haivng control are complete illusions. There is actually very little in life that any of us control. (Maybe that’s why parents get so weird and nutty with their kids, and try to choreograph and micromanage their lives. It’s like a dog that is afraid of water, trying to climb on top of his human companion out in the middle of a lake in order to feel grounded. Inevitably, the human companion ends up clawed and scraped up, just like our poor kids. It’s a pointless pursuit, but gives us the illusion of being stable and “in control” for just a minute).
O’Donohue wrote some wonderful lines about darkness, that I want to share here. I love them, because it is the reminder that just because we don’t understand something or can’t find answers doesn’t mean that we are in danger, or “not OK.”
Though you live and work in the light,
you were conceived and shaped in darkness.
Darkness is one of our closest companions. It can never really surprise us;
Something within us knows the darkness more deeply than it knows the light.
In the beginning was the darkness. The first light was born out of the dark.”
“I LOVE these ideas of darkness being our companion, the one that shapes us. Isn’t this true? It is the alone times, the moments of despair, our greatest sufferings, that mold us and grow us and make us rethink our belief systems. It is the medium that smooths out our sharp edges and our quick judgements and our selfish-ego driven parts, if we allow it to do its work. It is where we can find a safe place to hide away and mend when we are tired or at a loss.
I know what you’re thinking…..Julie, there’s a shit ton of horrible things that happen in the dark. The dark and hidden places are where people are abused and abandoned and left to pick up the pieces. I get this, for sure. But I don’t think it’s the darkness that itself is BAD….we just associate darkness with badness because it’s the place where broken and angry people can exploit its good qualities in order to hurt other poeple and do bad things.
Like everyone, I’ve done alot of waiting in my life. And, most of the time I didn’t enjoy it. Also, like everyone, I’ve done things to distract myself from the waiting to try and make it feel like its going faster, so the thing I wanted would hurry up and get here.
This is what I’ve learned about trying to hurry up the waiting:
This might be the most important one. When you try to hurry the waiting, or distract yourself from the now, you’re wasting the good and precious life that exists right here, right now. I actually wonder how many amazing experiences and friendships, how much love, how much rest….we completely miss because we don’t allow ourselves to be fully in the present. We leave a foot stuck in the past while grasping forward to yank open doors of the future. What would it look like if we could determine to suck every last drop out of each moment of life we go through?
Some things just need to percolate for a while. I don’t really buy into the cliche that “time heals all wounds”, but in so many cases, things just need a little “time”. Indulge me for just a moment to reference the tiny bit of Koine Greek I remember from my college Bible classes. When I say “time” here, I don’t really mean chronological (Kronos) time, although that can be true. What I really mean is Kairos time….or the time when condiitons are right for something to come to fulfillment. Kairos time is “deep time”. More on this in a minute, pun intended.
The times of waiting are the place for us to go inward, to discover who we really are, to find what we are rooted in, to learn what remains when all is lost. Waiting is part of the hero’s journey, and sometimes when we’re waitiing, and it feels like we’re about to absolutely die from pain or loneiness or heartbreak, we are able reach the end of ourselves and be completely transformed. The waiting can feel like nothingness, but it’s not nothingness. It’s a place where the invisible and great possibiities exist, and they are gathering themselves, ready to burst forth in due Kairos time.
I am an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs assessment, which means I crave closure on things. I want to know what is going to happen yesterday. Hanging around in states of ambiguity has historically been brutal for me. Alot of this plays into wounds from my childhood that were intermingled with the theology of my youth. I feel like I need to know where I stand. If I can have firm boundaries, and be able to put people and things into boxes with tidy labels, and know generally how things are going to play out….that’s when I feel most safe. After alot of work, I now know that these things are all illusions anyway, but seeking them out is my default modus operandi, and I have to actively work against them and learn to lean hard into groundlessness.
I think maybe that part of understanding the idea of ultimate Truth is that it is wrapped up in being OK with darkness and being OK with waiting. Sometimes Truth, and real understanding, can only emerge after the dark waiting.
I want to meander off down a rabbit hole for a second, on the idea of emerging truth. Hopefully I can get down into words what makes alot of sense rambling around in my head. To keep myself on track, I’m going to put these thoughts into specific points.
Honesty is important, but radical honesty, to the point of telling complete strangers every detail about yourself, is not really a way of living in truth. I grew up with the belief that I had to be completely honest about anything that anyone asked me about. I inherently hold telling the truth to be a paramount value, but I’ve realized over the years that I’ve taken this to an extreme in my life. I basically felt that even if I told a little fib or a white lie, I was a horrible person. It felt like I had an inner compulsion to always tell the truth in every single moment, even when it did me harm. I have since learned that while part of my need to tell the truth to such an extreme was rooted in my theological background, it was also firmly rooted in being called a liar so many times as a child by trusted adults, in cases where I absolutely was not lying. Thus, in my attempt to never be viewed as a liar, I would go over the top in my truthfullness. I have since come to learn that things can be true, but they don’t always need to be said. And, more importantly, if people are determined to stay convinced that you are a liar, when you’re not, that’s on them and you probably can’t convince them otherwise.
There’s a passage in the Bible that talks about how you shouldn’t cast your pearls before swine. The idea is that you shouldn’t offer up what you hold to be valuable and sacred to people who will absolutely not hold those things dear….and will instead trample over those things. You should only offer up what is dear and sacred to people who will receive and carry those things carefully, and care for them because they care for you. This has been such a very hard lesson for me to learn. I try to be pretty transparent in life, because it is important for me to let people know that I’m the same Julie all the time….at work, at home, with this group of people, with that group of people. And I want people to know that I have good intentions and motivations, and that I really work endlessly to become a better person everyday. But big takeaway here: some people don’t deserve to hear your truth. They don’t deserve to hear the stories of your traumas, or the things in life that have wrecked you, or your most intimate secrets, or the things that delight you most in life. All of those things are glass, and some people will just drop them when you hand your most precious parts to them without people earning the right to hold them. Sometimes, I think, big TRUTH is about holding the important things close to yourself until the right kairos time has passed, and then you can reveal your truths to the right people who are safe.
Which takes me to the point: something can be true for me in this moment, but it doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I think it was Richard Rohr who gave a good example about how something doesn’t have to be true for everyone at the same time to still be true. Let’s say someone comes to the door and tells your kid that they need to talk to you. The kid, because he knows you well and the fact that you hate solicitors, tells the person that you’re not available. (Even though you’re totally available, hiding behind the couch so the person doesn’t see you). But the part about truth here is: yes, you are available….for the right person. But you’re not available for the wrong person…in this case, the solicitor who set the dog off by ringing the doorbell. But reacting in this way doesn’t make you a liar. I’m sure this seems like a dumb example, but its a concept that has taken a while for me to wrap my head around….that I don’t have to tell my truth to every single person who asks….it is ultimately mine to give to those I want to. And it does not make me a bad person.
And finally, going back to kairos time and emerging truth. I’ve written in the past about the idea of instimacy, where you get into a new relationship with someone and end up creating a false sense of closeness by revealing way too much about yourselves way to fast. Instimacy is hardly ever real, in my experience. I’ve met a handful of people that I instantly knew were ‘my people”, but it still took time to build trust and a strong relationship foundation, even though we knew we adored each other from the start. Sometimes, for relationships to grow well and strong, you have to reveal your truth slowly, over time, and after the other person has proven to be safe and trustworthy. This can be difficult, especially when you’re in a new friendshp or romantic relationship that you’re wicked excited about and you just want to go at it with abandon. But, I can say that I’ve pretty much never regretted revealing my truth slowly, and I’ve definitely regretted, so mnay times, handing my fragile, glass parts to people too quickly, who quite often either thoughtlessly or intentionally threw them to the ground and shattered them.
Big takeaway from that rabbit trail: People need to earn the right to hear and hold your truth. You don’t owe them jack squat, especially if they can’t or refuse to value what is precious to you. And vice versa. Other people don’t owe you anything until you’ve shown that you are careful and kind with what they offer.
Now to attempt to come full circle with all these meandering ideas…..might not happen, but I’ll try.
I think there is an overarching, ultimate truth. And I think there are little, subjective truths.
I think that the ultimate truth in life can only be seen in bits and pieces, here and there. I think sometimes we have to wait on that truth to come to us. Just because something exists doesn’t mean it’s always accesible to us at all times. And I think that sometimes we have to learn to embrace the darkness and the long periods of hard waiting to be able to open doors for that truth to come to us. Maybe truth isn’t just a static “thing” out there, but also a process, or an outcome.
I think my main point that I’m trying to hone in on is that sometimes what may seem true in the short run is not really what is true in the big picture. I thought I had failed with those baby artichokes, and I beat myself up for months. But in reality, I had actually done exactly what those artichokes needed to produce an abundant harvest. There’s so many other times in life that I thought I had just completely fucked up and ruined everything, only to be shocked months or years down the road when I found that what I thought had been a huge mistake was actually the catalyst I needed to move forward in life, or learn a lesson, or heal from deep wounds.
Sometimes to get to that big truth, we have to hunker down in the darkness and trust that kairos time will eventually come to fulfillment. Isn’t this so much of what life is about? Learning to trust the process? Learning to trust that life is working behind the scenes for us in ways that might not always be apparent? Trusting that our epic, dumbass mistakes will be incorporated into our transformation and can ultimately be redeemed if we allow ourselves to remain workable?
I attached a song from Jose Gonzalez at the beginning of this post. I love the entire song, but I really like the lyric “there is a truth and it’s on our side…dawn is coming, open your eyes.” The dark will never last forever. The waiting will never last forever. But in the time that they are with us, they also will never be in vain if we can learn to rest in them, and to trust them. Truth will always eventually emerge, when the time is right.
You ever hear a song for the first time, and it ends up being one that just rocks you…not because the melody is all that fancy or because the instrumentals are amazing, but because the lyrics are so deeply profound and resonate with your core somehow? And then, you listen to that song over and over, and have to sing it constantly to hear the words roll off your tongue because it feels like deep truth and the more you speak the lyrics the more you internalize them? Basically you work the song into yourself?
Maybe only I do this, and maybe I”m just weird. I dunno. Pretty likely. BUT, I first heard a song a couple of months ago that provoked this exact dynamic in me, and I keep listening to it over and over and over. I’ve thought about the lyrics so much that I felt like I might as well just go ahead and write about it, because there is so much to riff off. The song, A Little Bit of Everything by Dawes, is embedded here; give it a listen. Following the video are the lyrics.
With his back against the San Francisco traffic, On the bridges side that faces towards the jail, Setting out to join a demographic, He hoists his first leg up over the rail. And a phone call is made, Police cars show up quickly. The sergeant slams his passenger door. He says, ‘Hey son why don’t you talk through this with me, Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”Oh, it’s a little bit of everything, It’s the mountains, It’s the fog, It’s the news at six o’clock, It’s the death of my first dog, It’s the angels up above me, It’s the song that they don’t sing, It’s a little bit of everything.’
An older man stands in a buffet line, He is smiling and holding out his plate, And the further he looks back into his timeline, That hard road always had led him to today, And making up for when his bright future had left him, Making up for the fact that his only son is gone, And letting everything out once, His server asks him, Have you figured out yet, what it is you want?I want a little bit of everything, The biscuits and the beans, Whatever helps me to forget about The things that brought me to my knees, So pile on those mashed potatoes, And an extra chicken wing, I’m having a little bit of everything.
Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations, To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall, Her man says, ‘Baby, can I make an observation? You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.’ She said, ‘You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size, And rest assured that this is making me feel good, I think that love is so much easier than you realize, If you can give yourself to someone, Then you should.’Cause it’s a little bit of everything, The way you joke, the way you ache, It is waking up before you, So I can watch you as you wake. So in the day in late September, It’s not some stupid little ring, I’m giving a little bit of everything.Oh, it’s a little bit of everything, It’s the matador and the bull, It’s the suggested daily dosage, It is the red moon when it’s full. All these psychics and these doctors, They’re all right and they’re all wrong, It’s like trying to make out every word, When they should simply hum along, It’s not some message written in the dark, Or some truth that no one’s seen, It’s a little bit of everything.
I think alot about what it means to be human. Why are we here on this planet, what is the point of everything, what are we supposed to learn, and how are we to learn those things? And, is the point to ever actually figure everything out, or instead, is it to just be and ask big questions and marvel at all that is around us and just try to learn to love the best we can while we are here?
Being human is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s not any one big thing or event that threatens to topple us, but rather, the constant onslaught of alot of little things. The first verse of this song is about a guy (I always imagine it’s a high school or college kid) who is wanting to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The reasons he gives the police officer are really interesting, I think. It’s the mountains. It’s the San Francisco fog. It’s all the bad news every day. It’s the death of the beloved pet. It wasn’t just one big thing that was undoing him….it was all the little things that added up, along with the angel reference implying that he believed he lived in a universe that was either impersonal or didn’t care about him.
I remember back in college when I had some periods of terrible depression, including a week I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted to escape life so badly. I was miserable and felt so utterly hopeless. But it was never just one single problem that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living; it was a ton of little things that just kept piling up and when they all hit at once it just felt completely suffocating and insurmountable. I think one of the worst feelings when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety like this, is when you try to describe what is going on to someone on the outside, and they’ll only consider each individual component of your burden and ask you what the big deal is. That little thing isn’t that big of a problem! They aren’t able to see that, of course, it’s not that ONE tiny thing that makes you want to die. It’s the cuts and pain that come from ALL the little things that just won’t let up. And then people tend to add one more “little thing” to your burden with a bunch of really unhelpful and shaming platitudes.
Trauma is a huge buzzword these days, and I believe rightfully so. There are so many traumatized people around the world, and so many of them don’t realize that they are carrying trauma in their minds AND bodies. One of the latest advancements in trauma research that I think is so very important is the idea of microtraumas. A person doesn’t have to experience one huge, horrible thing for them to be wrecked on the inside, be triggered by words or scenes or noises, or to be paralyzed and unable to cope with certain situations that come their way. The summation of tons of little traumas, microtraumas, can have huge and lasting impacts on people. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of trauma from multiple fronts and people to really build up and create a significant core wound in one’s life, or a belief pattern that holds them in bondage for years, or contributes to symptoms of ADHD, or so many other unconscious ways that people can be affected.
A decade ago I went to an Amen Clinic and had functional brain scans performed. Insurance was willing to cover it, and I was desperate to figure out if I was actually crazy in a way that could be seen with empirical evidence, or determine if I was just inherently broken. Years later I finally realized (and was validated by an amazing psychiatrist) that I, in fact, was not and had never been crazy or truly mentally ill. I was just jacked up because of some serious core wounds, terrible theology, and childhood trauma. When my brain scans and electrical (EEG) studies were complete, the Amen Clinic clinicians asked me if I had ever had some major, horrible event happen to me. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and inquired as to why they asked. They explained that the scans revealed that there was a function issue with a certain part of my brain which was typically associated with evidence of PTSD. At the time, I was flummoxed, and the scans only began to make sense years later when I learned about the impact of microtraumas , and also was finally able to come to grips with the fact that certain events in my life had actually been way more impactful and damaging than I thought.
So, big “what does it mean to be human?” lesson 1 from this song? Don’t discount the overall effect that can result when someone is slammed with a ton of little things. They may each individually not be substantial, but when they are all compounded together, especially when a person is lacking good coping mechanisms, those little things combine to become one massive burden.
On to the second verse…..things that bring you to your knees.
I think this is one major part of the human experience….the idea that most all of us, at some point in our lives or maybe many times in our lives, will have at least one thing happen that will just completely knock the wind out of us, completely wreck us, and maybe even literally bring us to our knees. I’ve kind of come to believe that these experiences can either be transformational turning points in our lives, or we can allow them to go the other way and they harden our hearts and ingrain us further into prisons of suffering. But, I do want to add a caveat here that I in no way believe that it makes us a bad person if we can’t move past things and end up staying stuck. This life journey is hard and complicated and nuanced, and I’m not convinced that we have as much free will and free choice as conservative religion would have us believe. We’re all (mostly) just doing the very best that we can.
I’ve been brought to my knees a few times. The first significant times this happened were early on in my adulthood, and my plan was always to distract and avoid as much as possible. My solution during these crisis times was usually to eat myself into a food coma and watch a ridiculous amount of TV. This worked really well every day for about an hour, and then I would just feel like shit about myself the next morning…ever in a constant battle with my weight, despising myself, and still being saddled with the same, unsolved, unaddressed problems.
Things began to change in my mid twenties when I discovered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I hardly remember anymore what the book was about; I just remember that when I read it all those years ago a light when off in my head and it finally occurred to me that I actually did have control over things in my life and spirituality, and it was the very first inkling that maybe just because an idea floated through my head I didn’t have to latch on to it. That book created in me the first real sense of self-agency I’d ever had. And, it made me start to recognize that to fix problems and to overcome pain and suffering, you have to look them straight on and sometimes sit in it for a while and learn that you won’t die. At other times, you just have plow straight through the pain, determined as hell as to reach the other side.
The last time I was really brought to my knees was in April. Things that I hadn’t been able to see, and in some ways, I was unwilling to see, just completely blew up in my face in the most breathtaking way. For about three days, I completely crumbled. It was a hot, ugly mess….I mean, like uncontrollable, panicky, sobbing, hunkered down in the bathtub with the shower pouring scalding water on me, kind of ugly mess. A huge big puzzle piece that explained so much of the pain I’d ever experienced in life fell into place because of one big massive betrayal. Everything was laid bare, and for a short while, I could not see my way forward. It also didn’t help that that particular weekend I was doing pediatric sexual assault nurse training and felt simultaneously triggered and traumatized by it.
No amount of food coma, booze, pot, shopping, or any other kind of distraction was going to fix that weekend. I knew I was going to have to sit with it and face it all, head on, and see if it would kill me. Fortunately, by then, I was getting to the point where I trusted life enough to believe that all these things coming to a head were for my own good, and if I could just stay present and not try to fight and distract myself, that I would come out on top and it would be a major transformation for me.
So, I managed to stay with it. And a surprising thing happened. Even though it took some time beyond that weekend, I came away from the experience more joyful than when I went into it. Logically, I think I should have been wrecked for a long time when I finally put all the puzzle pieces together and saw clearly how terrible the betrayal and years of events leading up to it had been. But somehow, in looking back over the hard road that had brought me to that place, and then not dying during those three days, something in my mindset changed. Instead of closing up my heart to love and deciding I was never going to trust anyone ever again, or determining to harden and protect myself…..the opposite actually happened. I think I was broken open….broken open into a space of being able to love more deeply with a greater capacity for joy. All from facing the pain and sitting in it and discovering that it didn’t kill me. And in fact, I was finally able to start viewing that pain and betrayal as a gift that brought me to a better place.
Life is such a freaking paradox and it is so freaking beautiful.
*************************************************************************************************************************Third verse: Musings about what I have learned about love:
The lines in this section of the song make me stop and think about how love works, and how my opinions of it have changed over the years. Here are a few of my takeaways, or associations with previous conclusions that this song elicits in me:
We make this matter of love so freaking difficult. Why do we do this? Love is about caring for and wanting the best for another person even if you don’t get that love reciprocated, or even acknowledged. And ultimately, loving people is a win for each of us individually, because when other people are benefited, doing well in life, and are happy, how can that NOT benefit and be good for us?
You can’t help who you love. It just is what it is. Sometimes we love people in certain ways because of unhealthy patterns or trauma that has affected our lives, and maybe by trying to love those people out of our own traumas we end up hurting ourselves. But that doesn’t make our attempts any less meaningful. Trying to connect with people, trying to meet our own needs, trying to make other people happy….there is nothing wrong with this intention. Maybe we need to learn better ways to give and receive healthy love, but I think there’s something meaningful that exists when we attempt to love in the best we know how at the moment.
A point on the line about the wedding and stupid ring: it’s NEVER about the wedding or the ring. And sometimes you have to go through a divorce and grow up a little to realize how they were never the point. Getting married or finding long term love with a person is never about finding the perfect person, having a fantastic celebration, and then staying in a static state of perfected union until one of you dies. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not about finding a person to fill your void and gaps and give you a ring so the whole world will know you’re not one of those pathetic people that is alone. The point is to find someone that you’re willing to grow with, to have all your own faults mirrored back to you, to be challenged, and to take in a little of everything that person has to offer….the good, the bad, the successes, the failed attempts….and to love them and want the best for them through it all.
Sometimes the most difficult, but maybe the purest way to love, is when you care about someone so very deeply, and you are able to learn to stay in that place of wanting the best for them even if you’ll never see it in return. I never really used to believe this kind of love was possible, except for maybe on heartbreaking romantic movies. But now, I think alot about the line “Let everything go; see what stays”. Because if you can do this, you’ll know that whatever stays or ultimately finds its way back to you was not forced or manipulated, and is REAL. Learning to love without attachment is hard, ya’ll, but it’s the best way. You and I both know this.
The last part of this song is what really gets me, because it’s about the uncertainty of life, the task of just doing the best we can, and the fact that no one has all the answers for everything.
The suggested daily dosage…..the psychics and the doctors who are right and wrong at the same time about multiple things…..
We can’t always say too much with absolute certainty. Science is always evolving and as we dig deeper and deeper we discover particles and bacteria quorums that radically change our understanding of the natural world. We detect dark matter that apparently makes up a higher percentage of “stuff” in the universe than the matter we can perceive with our senses. And as people learn to sit still and be present, we find that there is a deep magic, a Truth, an interconnectedness of all things, an ever knowable mystery that goes far beyond what our low level literal religion pontificates to us.
We’re all just doing the best we can to make it through this life in a way that we can overcome our fears and try to be happy. But I don’t think there’s one magic silver bullet that will get us all there to the “You Won Life” award. Being human, fully human, is about embracing and working with a little bit of everything that comes our way. And everyone is going to be given a different lot to work with.
I have learned to almost completely distrust and be suspicious of people who say they have everything figured out. The people who know EXACTLY what’s going to happen when we die, the people who seem to know EXACTLY who God loves and who God hates, the people who are always right about every topic, the people who are so rigidly dogmatic all the time. These are the people who I think maybe haven’t gotten out in life quite enough….maybe they still need to do some exploring and meet more kinds of people and figure out how to transform their own personal pain and discover the tiny things that can bring them great joy.
I mean really, isn’t this what life could ultimately be about? To taste a little bit of everything, to be completely present here and now, to learn how to love well, and to learn that in the end, it is all good?
I used to think that life was about finding the one path that was meant for you, getting on it, and taking it linearly straight to the afterlife without looking right or left. I know now that that kind of life is impossible, and we don’t give failure and mistakes enough credit. Sometimes, the absolute best thing for us to get where we’re going is to majorly screw up a few times along the way. All the twists and turns in life, all the things that bring us pain and bring us joy, all the ways we fuck up and then wildly succeed…these are what make us human. As Mary Oliver has said in a poem, I DO NOT want to just visit this world and life and barely get to know it.
I’ve learning to want all of life…the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. I want to take up great, overflowing armfuls of it, to taste and see a little bit of everything. I never want to take any of the next years of my life for granted, so that when my curtain closes, I can look backwards and say that I had a wild, passionate love affair with this world, and it was good.
We toss out this word so much, in different ways, much the way we use the word “love”. I’m ready to go “home” after the baseball game in the same way that I “love” chocolate. Or, “home” is Texas just like I “love” but maybe don’t like that one family member. Or, YOU feel like “home” in the same way that I “love” YOU.
We apply “home” to many different contexts, but it seems to me like we’re all searching for the deepest, truest manifestation of it in our lives. And while we often know what it feels like when we catch glimpses of home, we can’t always put our finger on it, or craft the perfect algorithm to achieve it or find it when we want. Yet, the need for belonging and being accepted completely, for the us that we truly are, is our deepest desire, I think. I’m not even necessarily referring to the wish to be accepted by people, but also by our environments and the cosmos and the things that we hold most dear.
We have sayings about what constitutes home, and we write songs and books about it. But still, sometimes we really struggle to land in a solid space of “home” and what that means. Sometimes we think we’ve reached out and grabbed ahold of home only to have it just as quickly slip from our fingertips and we’ve lost it again.
This post is going to be a meandering hodge podge of my own musings on home and what that means, as well as what I’ve learned over my 40 some-odd years of journeying after it. I may be completely full of it, but I think that I’m finally….gradually….landing on an understanding of what true “home”: is for me….one that is more lasting and meaningful and is not quite so influenced by external factors and subjectivity. Maybe some of this journey of mine will also resonate with you.
“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.” ― Stephanie Perkins, Anna and the French Kiss
Yesterday my three boys and I drove up to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to spend a day on the beach, swimming and digging in the sand. We make a point of doing this at least once every summer; it is one of those important benchmarks that determines if it was a successful year or not in the way of vacations and travels. My first choice for beaches is almost always the North Atlantic; I love the coasts from Rhode Island northward to Maine and will always choose them over tropical destinations. Since moving away from Boston over four years ago, I haven’t been able to get back to the chilly waters and rocky coastlines that I adore. But I’ve discovered that Lake Michigan makes me almost as happy, and so away we trucked yesterday to plant ourselves in the sand and listen to blue waves crashing over a pebbly shore.
As we were driving to the lake, my boys and I got into a deep conversation about relationships. We talk about everything, and usually it’s free game with everything allowed on the table. (Side note: This I have learned, is a secret to parenting. Talk about EVERYTHING; yes, keep it age appropriate, but in general, never tell your kids that something isn’t their business. The more you talk over what they ask you about, the more they will come to you with their own life issues and troubles instead of hiding them.)
My boys have very strong feelings about a person I dated for a long while, a while back, and during the first leg of our journey they proceeded to tell me all the things they despised about him. In all fairness, I pretty much agree with their synopsis. He was generally an all around asshole, and I put up with that asshole-ish-ness for far too long. Explanation and point on that to come soon. (Side note: second parenting freebie – kids are often a very good judge of character. Keep this in mind).
I’ve gotten to the point in my parenting life that I would much rather embarrass myself and not seem like the completely put together parent that I would like to appear as, in order to save my boys from alot of the needless pain that I’ve gone through. So, I tell them about my stupid mistakes, I tell them about the childhood wounds I struggle with, I tell them about the insecurities I have in hope that it will help them understand why sometimes I probably come off as batshit crazy. I try to do this in a good way; I don’t want to cause vicarious trauma. However, I really want them to understand that I don’t consider myself to be a perfect parent, I’m not into authoritarian parenting, and I want them to learn and know the REAL me – not the fake parental facade that so many grownups present to their kids for decades.
We talked about this stupid relationship choice of mine and how it taught me so much about myself and reinforced other things I already knew but had ignored for a time. My boys’ primary question was along the lines of “Why did you put up with that shit for that long? You deserved so much better?!” And so, I told them the truth. I told them (in kid appropriate language) about the places in me that were wounded very deeply when I was little, and how it has taken alot of time, therapy, and some stupid relationships to heal those places. I told them that sometimes you can believe something in your head, cognitively, like the fact that you do deserve better….but it can take a while, and maybe some EMDR or brainspotting, to allow those beliefs to seep all the way into your heart and deepest core.
These are the two main takeaways from our conversation, and similar things that I have been thinking about alot, related to trying to find “home” in a person:
Don’t look for a person to complete you or become your home. My oldest has just started high school, and the conversation surrounding him starting to date has come up a few times. (I don’t have a ton of rules around my boys dating other than that I won’t drive them places or pay for their dates. I figure this one simple rule will buy me some time. They’ll need a car for most things, and a job to pay for stuff). Anyway, I explained to the boys that our society pushes a false understanding of relationships on us through movies and story….telling us that if we can just meet that one right person, suddenly everything will make sense, life will blossom, and we’ll live happily ever after. And it’s such a load of bullshit.
Now, I’ve met people in my life before where I wholeheartedly believe that some sort of deep magic was involved. I totally do believe that sometimes you can meet people that will radically alter your life trajectory, and you are meant to do life forever with them in some way. But….I don’t think it’s smart to plan your whole life around hoping to discover these people. Because….while you’re waiting to stumble across one of these people, you risk letting your life pass you by. There is also the factor to consider that sometimes you meet people in a certain space and time that fit you perfectly, and then, eventually, they either outgrow you or you outgrow them, and necessary endings arise.
Or….maybe you do find the perfect person, all the stars align, you fall in love…. and after some amount of time, tragedy strikes. They die, or develop dementia, or suddenly decide that you are not their person anymore, for whatever reason. It seems to me that if you look at things with this perspective it becomes clear that to base the stability and happiness of your own existence on these uncertain external variables is not smart. To be sure, I am totally in favor of being on the lookout for “my people” and the prospect of finding deep, genuine, enduring love….because I DO believe in and have experienced the universe as enchanted….but I am no longer prepared to risk the life I want to live by placing all of my hopes and dreams squarely on one, or a handful, of people. People cannot be our singular source of home.
2. Sometimes our perception of what home is…is a little jacked up. It only took me until about my third decade of life to realize that maybe I didn’t really understand what home is at all, and that maybe what I thought was home was actually based in a trauma response. Oof…this is a hard, but necessary, lesson to swallow.
Another, quite difficult pill to swallow, is that so many of my life responses up until the last several years, were trauma responses. This is not me whining about my life; this is me telling my therapists random stories about my life and having them respond with “OMG, Julie….you DO realize that that was not OK, right?” and “You developed that response as a coping mechanism for something you had no control over.”
Going back to my kids’ question about why I allowed a guy to treat me so terribly? Well, simple answer was that alot of the time I thought he felt like home, and I didn’t realize for quite a while that my perception of what “home” is was pretty messed up. Insert life lesson here: just because something feels familiar and normal, does not always mean that is is healthy or good.
For anyone who ever wonders why women go back to their abuser again and again, or why people deal with codependent, life-sucking family members for decades, or why sometimes we don’t make choices that would seem to be the obviously smart ones to the rest of the world…keep in mind that as humans we often tend to do what feels familiar to us, because in an odd way, that feels safer than branching out to do the unfamiliar, uncomfortable thing.
My whole point here is this: sometimes you might need to do a little trauma work if you keep trying to find “home” in people that treat you horribly or far less than how you deserve. Maybe they do feel familiar, and maybe they even feel a little safe, but if someone doesn’t treat you well and doesn’t legitimately try to make amends when they wrong you….I’d wager you’re probably acting out of old coping mechanisms and trauma responses.
And, if your kids ever look askance at someone in your life….that’s probably worth paying attention to.
“How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.” ― William C. Faulkner
I’ve written about home as places in my past, before, in a handful of blog posts. Having grown up on a huge ranch in the hill country of South Texas, I fostered a deep connection to the land. My dad was the foreman of the ranch of my childhood, although we owned our own property a few miles down the road that butted up to my grandfather’s goat ranch. The land of my childhood was owned by a family from East Texas, but the land was really mine. Or, maybe I belonged to the land, I’m not sure which. But it definitely felt like home.
In that part of south Texas, the landscape has abrupt topography shifts. The hills of the canyon that these ranches were nestled in quickly smoothed out into miles and miles of flat, mesquite dotted pasture and farmland after driving only 15 minutes or so southward from my house. There is a county ranch road that winds deep into the canyon, starting as a 2-lane hardtop, then shifting into caleechie, and eventually dead-ending in a ranch at the base of a mountain at the far end. On the front end of the canyon, this ranch road begins as an intersection with Hwy 83, and marks the entrance to what I considered home. No matter where I traveled as a child….whether just the 40 minute drive to school or the grocery store….or a two week road trip to British Columbia or other foray into the Western United States….once I hit the beginning of that ranch road and the mouth of the Dry Frio Canyon….I was home.
Almost every single mile of that canyon holds memories for me. Those were all the water crossing that were flooded and impassable so many times. I remember all of the exact places where people flipped their cars, or drove into trees, or took out my dad’s barbed wire fence when trying to master a corner too fast. I’ve been on the majority of the properties in that canyon at least one time in my life, and in a huge chunk of the houses. I know all the bumps and turns on the entire stretch of road – when I was a child and riding in the car with my eyes closed, I could always “feel” how close we were to my house based on how the road “felt”. I know the families and the stories behind ranch after ranch in that piece of Texas.
I’ve now lived outside of Texas for almost two decades, and I’m losing the sense of home that comes with it. The house that I grew up in and returned to until I was in my mid -30s? It has been remodeled and a new family and ranch foreman live in it. My mother, who makes up so many of the memories of that ranch has been dead and buried for eight years, and my father moved to his own house on our family property five miles down the road. I no longer have any legitimate claim to the land of my childhood.
This realization used to make me despair. I felt that if I lost the land that raised me, it was as though I was losing a part of me. If I could no longer go “home” in the same way that I used to , I had an uncomfortable feeling of nihilism creeping up on me. Even as an adult, when my ex-husband and I used to move from house to house and state to state so frequently, the constant leaving behind of things and land dearly loved would undo me. In some cases, I would try to return those those places and recreate what was there before, usually to no avail.
Buddhist thought has helped me tremendously in this area. Nothing is permanent, everything is passing. I knew this to be true on some level, even as a child. The ranches and land that I grew up on are in some ways nothing like the way they were 30 years ago. Ranching families have left and new have arrived, folks that I’ve known since I was a baby have grown old and died or will soon pass. Barns have rusted and lay abandoned, fields that once grew hay and alfalfa now are overgrown with thistles and Johnson grass. New roads are constantly being changed and cut across the river based on the most recent flood. But, just because the land is always changing doesn’t make all that has happened before meaningless. It ALL means something, and all the unknowns that are yet to come will also be meaningful.
The last time I went down to South Texas I felt released in a way that I have never experienced before. My life is no longer there. The chances of me living in that part of the world every again are slim. But I no longer felt the need to grasp and claw and hang onto something from the past that is no longer mine. Of course, I took pictures of all the things I love, and went to the places that have always been special to me…but in less of a panicked way; it was much more of an appreciation that for at least one more time, life allowed me to experience these good and true things that I have always loved. And, perhaps this may sound silly, I felt as though the land was telling me that it had raised me well and had sent me off and it was fine to make my way in the world without needing to hang on to tightly to the past….and that all the lessons and love that I have brought with me will forever be meaningful, because they are a part of me now….and THAT is enduring.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ― Robert Frost
One of my cousins and I talk frequently about how what you’re taught about family can really influence you as an adult. We feel like we grew up with a very strong “respect your elders” ethic, one where family ties are extremely important, and the need to present to the world with a cohesive, unified front is paramount.
My grandpa and his father first bought land for our family ranch way back in the 40s….when land was cheaper and you could by hundreds of acres of rocky hill country and scrape out an existence with a small herd of cows, goats, or sheep. He and my grandmother moved out to that land in the Dry Frio Canyon in Uvalde County and raised four children. As young adults, three of those siblings moved away and worked elsewhere, though one remained. But now, over 40 years later, they have all come back home. Those siblings all live within about 8 miles of each other, on pieces of land that are all a part of or butt up to the original Monroe family ranch. My grandmother and grandfather have been gone for years, yet each of their children have doggedly hung on to the land…land that has become so much of a part of our family’s identity and what has tied us together for so long.
I love my family. They are tough, cantankerous at times, hard working, and rugged. They are intelligent, proud, and have been good caretakers of the land for all of these decades. And I suspect sometimes they probably wonder where the hell I came from. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier…the one that made them scratch their heads and ask “What is Julie up to now?” and “Why is she doing THAT?”
I used to really struggle with how I fit in with my family. While in so many ways I definitely hold to the good South Texan country girl mentality, in other ways I don’t fit in my family AT ALL. (Except for my cousin-sister….she is one of my people and “gets” me most of the time. Even when she doesn’t, she accepts me.) My family and frequently butt heads when it comes to politics or ideologies, definitely religion…and I guess like most families experience….there are certain conversations that just should never be brought to the table because they will always result in discord. Until well into adulthood, I felt like it was my job to figure out a way to “fit” into my family….to try to learn to see the world their way or to devise some brilliant plan to help them understand the beat that I march to. Because of the way this third generation of Monroes was brought up, I felt it was my responsibility to always please my family, to work hard to garner their approval and favor in all that I did, and to never push back hard when I disagreed with them on various topics.
I don’t think I am unique in this; I’ve met so many people who have struggled to decipher the dynamics that run through their extended families and figure out what their responsibilities therein are. And when we are taught from a young age how important the concept of family is, we can feel a strong urge to constantly try to foster the sense of home in our family. The idea of not having a strong foundation of family to return home to can feel like we’ve lost our base, our footing, our sense of origin in life.
Families all vary. Some families do relationship really well and provide a solid, healthy upbringing for their children that helps them launch out into the world successfully. And other families are…., well, let’s just say it…..rather shitty and abusive. Most families probably fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
But ultimately, because families are not static and consistent and are subject to death, and tragedy, and varying dynamics between each contributing individual…..I don’t think it’s safe to rely on them as our ultimate “home” either. No matter how wonderful family can be, they won’t be there forever. At some point we will be separated….by distance, or disagreement, or death.
“Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark.” ― Pierce Brown, Golden Son
Have you ever been minding your own business doing whatever, or you travel to a particular type of place, or you’re engaging in an activity with someone or a group, and suddenly a sense of peace and “all is well” comes over you, maybe for no good reason?
These kinds of moments….I think they are wrinkles in time and space….where maybe we are touching a truer reality beyond the ones that we normally experience. I’ve decided that maybe these moments are a closer representation to what “home” really is.
I was talking with a good friend a month or so ago about how going to certain kinds of places….it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a specific geographical space on a map…really does something to us and helps us reconnect with our sense of what “home” means. For my friend, it is all about trees. She told me about a certain region of a state in the northern Midwest that feels like home to her, even though when she was growing up she didn’t really live in that particular area. But every time she takes a trip to that region, she feels home.
For this friend, it was more than an aesthetic…more than an appreciation of the landscape and the forests and foliage…..she remarked that she has become a literal tree hugger, because when she hugs these tree that she loves so much, she physically experiences a sensation of grounding, and peace, and home.
I feel this way about mountains. I lived in Denver for a few years, in the foothills of the Rockies. Every time I would drive toward my little village nestled in the base of those hills, and I would look out over the vista of pastures that lay before them, my breath would catch and I would marvel at how I had the opportunity, even if for just a short while, to live in such a breathtaking place. The Green Mountains of Vermont does the same thing to me. For multiple years in a row when my children were younger, we would go as a family to central Vermont to run a particular road race and spend a week in a rented VRBO house outside Waitsfield or Stowe. While running those mountains or driving through the lush countryside my heart would literally hurt with how beautiful it was and how it fed my soul. There are several other places in the United States and globally (Scotland….OMG….it undoes me like nothing else) that just wreck me and create that sense of home within me.
But this sense of home doesn’t always have to come from anything visual. Certain types of music and instruments take me home, every time, too. I’ve decided that the cello is my heart instrument. I dearly love other instruments….the mandolin, the banjo, the violin, etc….but when I hear a cello, especially when it builds to a crescendo in a beautiful piece of music and the deep, thick waves reverberate through my gut and my body takes on the music in a physical way……Damn. There is nothing like that. I know that to have music that is audible, there must be time and space, but I’m convinced that music, especially cello music, transcends everything. Change my mind. And while you’re considering how, listen to this:
“The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
Depending on how you’re raised, and depending on what kind of religious or spiritual background you come from, you’re likely to differ in how ‘belonging” you feel on this Earth. If you’re raised with the beliefs that the physical world has been corrupted by sin and that in general humankind is a goddamned mess, you’re probably not going to feel the strongest kinship with all that you see when you look out the window. It won’t resonate as home.
The sentiment that was perpetuated by many when I was a child and younger adult? “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through….” And things along the lines of “when Jesus comes back this world is gonna burn.” And lines from the New Testament like “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Meaning….you’re stuck here for the time being, so just deal with it as best as you can and bank on things being better after you die and make it to heaven….if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Never mind that a better English translation of such passages in the Bible would read something like “Don’t get caught up in the world’s systems and unhealthy, imperialistic institutions”, and never mind that much of what Paul wrote was more mystical in nature and not be understood from a blatantly literal standpoint.
I used to be terrified of the cosmos and living forever and wondering if I belonged (I’ve written about this plenty in other posts). During most of my childhood, I felt as though what I had to offer the world was pretty paltry, I felt shame from being part of the gender that allegedly destined all humankind and creation to the pit and fires of hell, and my authentic self quite often seemed to be too much for those around me. I sure didn’t feel at home on this earth, yet wasn’t too keen on hurrying to the next world (heaven) and discover that I didn’t belong there, either.
Thank goodness I have discovered thinkers and writers (many who are proudly Christian), who have helped me lay aside this fear of not belonging. Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, John O’Donahue, David Whyte, and so many other people that I have encountered beyond the words on pages, have revealed to me that the Divine is so much bigger and greater and wonderful than the small, petty, angry God that I knew as a child.
I’m convinced that the cosmos is enchanted. That there is some great loving, impersonal but not less than personal energy that grounds it and sustains us. It’s the magic that happens at the intersection of science and all that can’t be explained by methodic questioning and rational data. But even if I didn’t believe in some sort of fundamental spiritual reality, the words of Carl Sagan and hard, literal scientific fact convince me that this galaxy is our legitimate home and that anyone who arises into this existence of space and time absolutely, without question, belongs and has been invited to be here:
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Referring back to my earlier point of art and music and physical settings that create a feeling of home, the way some people are able to use words can catch my soul. My favorite movie is A River Runs Through It, based on the book by the same name. Norman Maclean writes in such a way for me that words and cosmos intertwine, and every time I hear Robert Redford narrate this movie, I am overcome with a sense of belonging, and nostalgia, and peace, and connection with all things. It is weird, and pretty unexplainable. I call it magic.
Here are some of my favorite quotes, that stir up a cosmic or earthly sense of home for me:
“Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”
“To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”
“As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.”
I have no clue what happens when we die and leave this place world. For many years I thought we would go to the great by and by….a traditionally evangelical or Protestant understanding of heaven. These days I think that the idea of reincarnation is just as likely and probably makes more sense. I cringe at the notion that the Divine would be so heartless to give us one lonely shot at getting life right and then base the rest of our eternity on whether or not we did in fact get it right or believed the right things. Never mind that he wouldn’t take trauma into consideration, or the fact that a billion people existed before the human Jesus ever showed up; and never mind that to deal with this problems Christians would have to contort themselves senseless to try and fabricate theories about how God would get the message of Christ to every single person in the world in some way so that they could believe, even if they never encountered anyone or any text from the Judeo-Christian lineage.
I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in nihilism. I honestly don’t like that option at all, and kind of wonder if 1)people that believe this have ever experienced magic or enchantment in their lives, and 2) if they have experienced these things, how do they adequately and scientifically explain their existence?
The place that I’m currently at on all of this….and I reserve the right to change my mind….is that when we die, the “stuff of our selves”, soul, spirit, whatever you want to call it….melds back into a great unity….the unity of all things. And maybe we get to choose if we want to come back and do life over to learn new lessons. I don’t know. I’m not honestly super concerned about this anymore.
But since there is no way for us to FOR SURE know what’s going to happen when we die, I don’t think we can base our understanding of “home” on it either. Mary Oliver asks us what we are going to do with our one wild, precious, and wonderful life? I don’t want to waste mine assuming that the good stuff only starts in the next life.
Along those same lines, I don’t want to waste this current part of my life by trying to hurry and get to the more palatable or easy parts that I anticipate might lie ahead of me…..the next relationship, the next house, when I’m an empty nester and no longer have endless piles of laundry to attend to, retirement…any of those things. None of what I can imagine about my future is guaranteed, except for the inevitable death part, and I don’t even know what the details of that will look like. But this is what I’ve learned in my first 41 years: getting that next bigger house does not make you happier. Bringing in that bigger paycheck does not make you happier. Driving the fancier, more expensive car does not make you happier. Some of the most miserable people I know live in fancy houses, drive fancy cars, vacation in expensive destinations, etc….and I wouldn’t trade my life with theirs for anything. And once again, ALL of those things can be taken from us.
“Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”” -Herman Hesse
Now that I’ve sorted through all of this, all I can conclude is that “home” must absolutely be found within yourself. You are the only constant in your life; You are the only reality that you are able to understand at the deepest levels. Even when you feel incredibly close and connected to another person, you are still understanding them through your own filters, and they are mirroring back so much of you, to you.
Wherever you go, there YOU are. You are always with you. Therefore, YOU must become YOUR home.
This can be a scary conclusion, because alot of us don’t like ourselves, much less love ourselves. Or, we haven’t learned to be our authentic selves. We haven’t learned to dig inside and appreciate what’s there, acknowledging that there is work to be done but that we are fundamentally OK and good. But the thing is, if we can get to this place….a place of knowing that we belong and are enough and are all we need….then nothing can be taken from us.
Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush wrote a wonderful book called Walking Each Other Home. It is largely a book about death and dying, but it is also a book about learning how to come home to yourself. This, I think, is the ultimate point of all good religion and spirituality……to show us how to come back to ourselves…..to find the universe and divine and source that is within us. When we do so, then we can live outwards in love, with the ability to create real and lasting change in the world, with the ability to be a safe and welcoming person for others. And when we find that ground of being within ourselves, we will always be home. No more frantically searching for it or trying to create it outside ourselves. Then, whatever we are doing will be “home”. Whoever we are with with be “home”. Wherever we go will be “home”.
This, I think is the true way to live in the present….to be here now as Ram Dass always put it. To live eternity right now.