Monday, October 1, 2018

Clue 1: Women Dying

In this past week, many women have received a message loud and clear from the United States. This message was sent at the same volume and callousness in 2016. The message is very clear: Women, you do not matter.

Other messages have been sent and received over the course of the entire history of this nation. Other people have dipped their toes in the red-hot river of rage within them. I confess, I did not understand this rage. I am still barely coming to terms with it. I have been able to ignore many of the messages, because they only nipped at my heels or pierced me in non-fatal ways. I was not paying attention. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry about that. This week I felt a spear through my body. No more ignoring it, no more brushing it aside and hiding myself inside the safety of the good people around me.

In November of 2016, enough people decided that a man who had a clear track-record of disrespecting, even disregarding the value of a woman, was worth being elected. This man had so many ugly stains on his calendars, and I hated it all, but one that pierced was when his "grab them by the pussy" comment became not only permissible, but not even a big deal at all. Just locker room talk, fit for a president.

Now we have a man that is up for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, quite possibly more important to our nation than the four years of a presidential term. The standards for this individual are importantly high. A woman comes forward (anonymously) before he even makes the final cut, to tell her story of sexual assault by the proposed candidate.

What followed her coming forward (then in name rather than anonymously) showed that a tangible amount of people in the United States do not think that she matters, nor her story. Forget whether she was credible or not, her simply daring to say she had something important to say was immediately not worth listening to, for the sole reason that her story could tarnish a man's reputation. The reputation was most important, whether she was right was secondary.

There was a moment in the recent Senate hearing, likely when one white male was "respectfully" lamenting how horrendous it was that this woman should come forward with her story, inconveniencing the entire process... when I felt that pierce to the heart. The spear: Women don't matter. Thousands and thousands of women had been coming forward with their stories of sexual assaults and abuse, and inside the senate committee and in households nationwide were people saying: "Ugh, but that is not as important as it is to have this man in power... Women, you might have trauma, but don't let it get in our way."

People may think that I'm overstating this message. But once you see something, all of a sudden things make so much sense. Details become clear in the light of the new revelation. I was lulled into complacency by the small progresses for women, lulled by my own safety bubble. But this sword in my side broke open my protective skin. Pouring out are the clues that are so obvious to me now that I know the twisted end. Of course women are not important!

The first clue that came to my mind when I felt the pierce of this message was, strangely, my hospice patients. I am a hospice chaplain. I work part time now but at one point I had as many as 50 patients. As a chaplain I saw varying household arrangements, different races, class, education levels, family dynamics. Do you know something that did not discriminate in the least? Horrific treatment of women. Rich, poor, intelligent, young, old, all colors and sizes. An odd majority of the women that I sat with while dying, were not only battling their disease, but they were fighting the demons of their past.

When you are aware that you are dying, there are common things that occur. One common response of a person (of sound mind) dying is what we call "life-review." You mine the years of your life for purpose, closure, love. You reflect on your life and hope that you will find it had been worth living. You learn a lot about a person when they are on their death bed. It is a sacred and unique place to be, one I have been privileged to witness many times. I find that I am still learning from those moments, even years after their deaths.

When a woman with abuse in her story reflects on her life, that abuse acts as either a spiky speed bump in their processing, or depending on the traumatic nature of the abuse, a sharp detour into a pit of darkness, thorns, and hopelessness. It literally affects their death. Women dying are not free of their trauma, they are often confronted with it. The women I describe below were from all walks of life. The information has been combined (some few patients might be contained in one composite) and generalized so that the identities are protected, but all of what I share here is true, some stories were almost identical across patients with minor details separating them.

I had a patient that had been so hollowed out by the men in her life, that my entire focus and purpose of my visits were to help her feel that she was worthy of love. I would rub her feet, read to her, listen, and when I spoke I said only words that centered on this truth: she was worthy of love. I am not sure if I accomplished my goal, but as she lie dying, I remember telling her that I loved her, that I found her absolutely worth loving, and that the God of the Universe loved her without any hesitation.

I had another patient who was under the constant vigilance and control of her husband. We weren't sure she was receiving the pain medication made available to her. The husband was a womanizer, locked the door behind the mostly female staff when we entered, and blustered about the wonderful care he gave his wife. There was video surveillance to the point where we weren't sure if the patient could honestly and safely tell us how she was doing. Her family had been forbidden to see her. I tried to visit when the husband had a regular errand, and on these occasions, she quietly confessed to me her fears of his temper. Her husband told her she was responsible for a family tragedy (an accident that no one could have prevented and she was not present at). Half of my visits were talking through that guilt and shame. The staff was aware that there were weapons in the home. On one occasion I left the home in fear, and the staff agreed we can only visit the patient in pairs for safety.

Another patient had been brutally beaten by her husband, a truth she only confessed cryptically to me. A family member confirmed and elaborated on what the patient was unable to share. This patient ping-ponged between singing the praises of her husband, who had died years before, and secretly sharing that she feared seeing him in heaven. She was afraid of talking badly about him, even when he was dead. She was afraid to die, in part because she thought she may see her abuser in heaven, and in part because she had been told so often how insignificant she was, she thought she might not make it to heaven. I whispered to her as she fought to stay alive for fear of abuse even in death: "You are safe, you are loved, it's OK to go..."

Another patient had been successful in the business world. Upon her diagnosis, her life felt apart. Her spouse abandoned her, leaving a sibling to bear the burden of the care. She no longer produced income, so she was set aside. The sibling faced the disappointment of her own spouse, who bemoaned her burden.

I could go on. These are composite stories of just a sampling of a larger narrative.

On the flip side, I am trying very hard to remember if there were stories like this of my male patients. I'm sure there must have been, but I cannot recall a single male patient who had sexual or physical abuse as a predominant part of his life review. Most of them reflected on their careers, their experiences in war-time, their families, etc. I am wracking my brain trying to remember one man who had experienced what the women did. It was certainly not a pattern.

Men are not exempt from sexual trauma or abuse, not by a long shot. Women are not unilaterally victims, not by a long shot.

This week I finally allowed myself to see the writing on the wall: that women don't matter. And looking back, a big clue was the sheer volume of women dying with the scars of trauma, abuse, abandonment. Many of them had never been believed, or even worried about. Many of them had seen themselves as a burden. Some of them were not sure if their life had worth. Some even bemoaned that they couldn't die fast enough to relieve their family members. I understand this (as being  a caregiver is extremely taxing), but I can't think of a single man who said this.

These women's souls were opened before me, and in a collective cry they told me: We didn't matter. I didn't hear it. I told each of them that no, they did matter. They do matter. I care about them. The God I pray to cares about them. They whispered back, but the rest of them didn't care. And there, I can't argue with them.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Stop All The Clocks

Stop all the Clocks. That's the first line of a poem by W.H. Auden about the death of a loved one: Funeral Blues. It's a beautiful poem that talks about true and raw grief. Here it is so you won't miss the chance to read a great poem:

Funeral Blues
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

It's a somber poem, but I appreciate that it doesn't try to lift up grief. Grief is not up. That first line hit me, along with the feeling/vision of everything sort of slowing down and focusing in, like sound and light is drowned out so that this feeling of grief is crisp, acute, real. I thought about other feelings- joy, fear, sorrow, excitement, anticipation, contentment. I'm drowning them out with plans and several  loudly ticking clocks.

I have been creating anxiety for myself out of long-standing life quandaries. I've been trying to plan, figure out, order and control everything before it comes. I have schedules, financial plans, scenarios and their several possible outcomes to be matched with my own master plan to prevent all things negative from happening.

I didn't use to do this as often. I lived a bit more in the moment and worried a bit less about the future or its consequences. I've reached that moment in life when I'm young enough to do something and old enough to realize there is something I should be doing. All of life's normal problems are staring me down at the same time demanding to be resolved, or else. 

I must have the following things sorted by the end of this day: financial security now until death, kids' college tuition paid for, zero debts (student and car loans), stay out of credit card debt, medical expenses covered and planned for, freedom to travel, have time with my family, a system for keeping my house clean that works like a machine, a schedule for towels and sheets to be cleaned, a schedule to keep me sleeping enough, a schedule to make me exercise, a schedule that creates space for creativity, a schedule that creates space for my friendships (and allows me to make new ones), my kids' play dates, a system for my kids to learn everything a kid is supposed to learn, a plan for my kids to do chores and learn independence, a plan for my kids to have free time and space to be kids, intentional communication with my kids' teachers, communication with my family, communication with my husband, space for my husband and I to enjoy each other's company, set up a will, get a financial planner, buy a new mattress, save for the next car, save for the next computer, try to get ridiculous internet bill lowered, save for a trip, plan a trip, pay taxes, save for quarterly taxes, maybe get a full time job or a part time job, revamp resume...

Stop. All. The. Clocks.

Auden said this because he just couldn't move forward, nothing should move while he experienced this piercing grief that made all other things nothing. I realized that stopping the clocks might be my path to feeling joy, contentment, satisfaction, peace. Emotions of any sort that makes time stand still and pushes everything else to the side- not because it doesn't exist or need to be dealt with, but because IT is not life. It is a means to an end- the end is life, love, relationship. It is important for those things to be the focus, and the rest to be simply managed as well as possible. 

Stop All the Clocks. Just Stop.

I closed out my "schedule" for this fall, because I know we'll break it anyway. I ex-ed out of my spreadsheet for chores because I know we'll do it differently anyway. I stopped crunching the same numbers to see if I could figure out where my hidden million is, because we'll never be rich but we'll make it work anyway. We'll still live our lives and clean the house and pay the bills, but I just need to stop trying to find The Way to make everything work perfectly together. It won't, I won't figure it out ever and I'm making myself insane trying.

Yes, stop all the clocks, turn off the telephone....
listen to music while alone
Get rid of plans that will break
live now, don't let the future take

Tonight I'm going to a concert. It's going to be wonderful and I will stop my clocks. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Stories

I sat with a friend at a local coffee shop today, swapping stories and joys and grievances. This friend always leaves me with something to think about, something to feel about. I wonder many times what she possibly gets out of our conversations, when it seems she is clearly the most interesting! But she has a way of making me feel important and worth listening to. 

Today we talked about how stories shape our lives: our own stories and those of others. She shared something personal with me and then apologized for "dumping" it on me as we often say when we are vulnerable. It made me think of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said in this speech; that our jagged edges are the things that others can grab on to. If we are perfect and smooth, there's nothing for anyone to grab or connect to. We all want to be perfect, but we lose our sense of humanity in search for this perfection.


I remember when I was a kid learning about how to write a story. We learned about the typical movement of a good story: introductions, where you meet characters and set the scene; conflict, where you confront or reveal the problem; and finally the climax and denouement- the apex of the conflict and the resolution. Good writers can play with this formula a bit, but something I noticed even at a young age was that nearly every single story (certainly all the interesting ones) had conflict. I was bothered by that. 


As a child, like many children, my world was perfectly segmented by right and wrong, good and bad, safe and dangerous. In my innocence, I wanted a story that was right, good, and safe. Any conflict meant that something was wrong. This idea is of course fostered by our upbringing, certainly mine; where we are taught to be good, kind, and to do the right thing. The hope of our parents, our teachers, our mentors- is that we do good. Or in my Christian context: "O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)


This is not a bad goal, the problem for us comes when our concept of right, good, and safe become less clear, or even in conflict with each other. The problem comes when we no longer are sure what is right, good, and safe- and we have no tried and true way of discernment. When confronted with the grey-areas of life we have to choose: do we throw our whole foundation out the window, find and claim an un-movable firm foundation, or figure out a way to move and change with the nuance? That last option feels super unsafe and fuzzy.


It's no wonder that our loss of innocence is nearly always an instance when someone we thought was good, does harm; or when something bad is done under the pretense of goodness. We learn that there are nuances, that good and bad is not always obvious. That deception exists. We learn that no matter how hard we try, there are things we have no control over, conflicts we cannot fix. To our utter dismay, there are adults who don't know what to do.

It's hard as a parent to teach children how to handle this. We want our children to continue to do good, while protecting them from harm. We want them to trust that in general, we have better judgment of what to do, although we are not perfect. We want them to still feel safe. We want them to be kind, but wary. How do you teach a child things like discernment and wisdom? These are skills that evolve over time and in a catch-22 fashion, we have to discern when we are wise enough to trust our own discernment. 

It is confusing at best. I think most adults are still wrestling with it. 

Here I come back to the stories. Again, from my Christian context, I'm taken back to that text from the Old Testament. The first thing is do good, or what is right. This is the part we are good at teaching. The second is to love mercy. I realized that in stories of Jesus, nearly every time the writer says he "showed mercy"- it was after he encountered a person's story (either in word or by seeing them where they were). Or, more often, he would be called on to "have mercy" by a bystander in search of compassion.

I did a quick little word study on mercy. We often interpret that word as being forgiven despite a fault. Other translations or connotations of that word lean toward compassion and love (one translation talks about this love being 'from the gut' or 'womb' like a mother's love for her child), which for me places emphasis on the love and feeling towards the person, rather than whether that person deserves it or not. We love to talk about deserve in our humanity- but I'll save that discussion for later. If mercy were to be heard as a word describing a feeling attached to action, I think it would look a lot like what was happening with Jesus and the people he encountered. They asked for mercy. Perhaps rather than asking only for forgiveness, they were asking for him to see them and hear them. So if Jesus had mercy- he had compassion, guttural love for these people whose imperfect lives were left open for anyone to see. He grabbed on (or they grabbed him) and saw them.

So the story- as kids we learn that there is good and bad, right and wrong. When we hear the word mercy- we file it under "forgive a wrong"- or in another way- "right a wrong." Our mercy somehow balances or cancels out the wrong. But this doesn't work either, does it? If mercy is something we do to or even for a person, we have not really engaged that person's story. We have not attempted to grab on to their jagged edges. We would like to see them as jagged, and ourselves as smooth or perfect. This isn't really mercy, it's charity in the snobby sense of the word.

Likewise, when we recognize our own jagged edges, we feel shame. Someone needs to have mercy (forgive/right) on us. We can't go back to the good side until some penance is served, until someone waves a magic wand to balance the equation. 

What if instead of trying to jam our grey and nuanced experiences into the dualistic categories of good and evil that we have inherited (from some philosopher I'm sure)... what if we bend a little? What if we grow and evolve? What if mercy is engaging another person's story and allowing ourselves to be shaped by it, thus giving that person purpose and value? 

When I was uncomfortable with conflict being a constant in the arc of a story, it was because I saw conflict as a bad thing that needed to be fixed or avoided. I did not see conflict as a change, a transition, an evolution. I did not see conflict as a chance for mercy (to see and value another human). So I didn't pick up the skills to make it those things. 

We have heard people say with nostalgia: "back in my day, kids didn't have choices, they did what they were told!" I understand that, and honestly I can see that some parents over-correct from their childhood and give their children too few boundaries. However, the root of that statement I think highlights some of the reasons why conflict today is so incredibly volatile. Those who were never given a choice or never allowed to practice negotiation, simply waited their turn to be right. Now that they are adults, they get to decide, and there is no room for negotiation. There is no space for anyone's story but their own. It's their turn now. They have no experience in negotiation. They write the story, and any conflict will be one-sided when they are good and the other is bad. The story ends with them winning (good) or the others winning (evil). With those stakes, it's no wonder people are so passionate.

If we learn that a good story (both in fiction and real-life) is made up of several multi-dimensional characters, none wholly evil or wholly good, all with their own story in the mix- then maybe we will come to that conflict/climax moment with mercy. Mercy in this place being a willingness/openness to see and hear the story of someone other than ourselves. To accept that their story is not our oppressor, but rather an opportunity for growth, for change, for resolution that is broader than we dreamed. Feeling mercy leads directly into humility.

The last part of the verse I quoted is "walk humbly." The last part of the story arc is the resolution, the denouement. When I humble myself long enough to actually see another person (mercy), I might be given the gift of resolution with another, rather than retreating to my "right" corner. If we engage in meaningful conflict (not bad or good), we engage with other people, other stories, and we are humbled. There is equal space for everyone because none of us have put ourselves on a pedestal as the most important person. Humility does not mean humiliation or shame. There is not a winner or loser. Humility means we get out of our own way long enough to get perspective, to see others, to grow. And we ALWAYS have room to grow. 

So if you think someone is a total asshole or an absolute idiot: do good (be kind anyway), love mercy (hear their story and feel compassion or even love), and walk humbly (accept transformation and give space for theirs). We only have the ability to write our own story, so we are the ones who decide whether conflict is bad or a chance for transformation. We do not have control over the stories of others (or their conflicts), but we can certainly be a good character. 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

I Struggle

For a long time I assumed that my life was easy, and that I did not struggle, or more accurately, *should* not struggle. I thought that my awareness of the ease of my life was a positive thing, something that allowed me to keep in mind how not hard it should be to be me. My perspective was WOKE as they say, and as I thought. As usual, I was mostly full of shit.

My life is constant learning. Some people get to feel proud of their wisdom for a good period of time. I have tried to feel wise, but I usual end up getting humbled by something pretty quick. Thanks a lot, introspection. Even this blog- I'll come up with something later that will make it all silliness- I'm sure of it. But life is a process and apparently I'm meant for the slow-rise.

My latest lesson in life has been that I do, in fact, struggle. I'm not talking about the proud struggle of triumphing over huge odds- but more along the lines of "I struggle to do things that most people accomplish with ease." I neglected to recognize this, or perhaps to think it was allowable, because I knew logically that my life was actually not all that hard. But, that logical explanation for some reason does not make me more functional or capable or a higher achiever. Even with lots of privilege and love and support, I still struggle. This was very difficult for me to accept. Ha- "was"- it IS difficult for me to accept.

My goal right now is to face two things: I struggle, and that absolutely needs to be OK. For the record- it isn't yet. There are some days that I struggle a lot. I thought that because of how "easy" my life is and how capable and brilliant I am, that the struggle was either not really a struggle (I must be lacking perspective), or at the very least, it is not really OK for me to struggle under these circumstances.

By no intention of any of my peers or mentors, I sort of gleaned from life that if you are struggling, it means you're doing it wrong. Or maybe you shouldn't be doing it to begin with. Surely you can relate to this mentality? I mean, we certainly see a video or article circulate at least a million times a day to reinforce this idea. Are you struggling? Then you: haven't found your calling, aren't fully present, don't have enough vitamin whatever, spend too little time in the dirt/sun/ocean, do too much, do too little, etc. etc. etc. We have so many options for why we are needlessly struggling. To struggle means that we're doing it wrong. Even the "no pain no gain" folks see struggle as a mere means to an end. We as a human race (especially in our American framework) believe struggle should not be a constant. If we are strong, we defeat the struggle either in mind, body, or soul. Struggle is not a way of life.

Ah, but I finally realized that it is. I mean, it might ebb and flow. But my whole adult life I have been struggling, and I have been struggling to fix myself, stop the struggle, make things easier, give myself worthy goals, whatever it takes to make my struggles have purpose, and an end (both literally and metaphorically). I was watching those stupid videos and thinking "maybe if I just stood in the ocean for 15 minutes a day, all the hard things would become easy to tackle." There's the tiny distinction here that I want to make clear: I wasn't under the impression that I should have no "problems" or that bad things shouldn't happen, my frustration was that those obstacles were so effective in slowing me down. The very struggle itself was making me insane.

It's a little bit comical though, to have this mindset that I should be able to easily clear every hurdle like some Olympian gliding over every barrier effortlessly. Yet, somehow I have it embedded in my mind that if I trip, maybe this kind of race isn't for me, or maybe I'm totally worthless. Or maybe I'm not trying hard enough, or haven't found the THING that will help me soar.

In a particularly rough patch of depression, I got so angry with myself, so frustrated. I asked myself "Why is it so damn hard to just be normal?!" Why is it such a struggle just to function? Then it hit me, and not in an epiphany way to make the struggle go away, but rather I just realized that I don't know why, but I did know that it is a struggle. I'm trying to accept it at face-value. Being a functional human being is hard for me. And it probably will always be hard for me. Not in ways that are obvious or always super painful (and sometimes they will be), but I do, in fact, have to work hard every day at being human. And I will, almost every day, struggle with it. Some days I will flat out fail. There are dreams that I have that I won't achieve. There are things that I'd like to do, ways I want to be, that won't happen. Because I'm struggling. Because I'm not an Olympian when it comes to some of these hurdles.

Somehow I can easily accept that I cannot and will not ever hear like a normal person. I make adjustments, learned tricks and adaptations that help. I have hearing aids. I tell people when I can't hear or accept that I won't hear something. This can be a little annoying at times, but I have NEVER thought to myself that somehow I wasn't trying hard enough to hear. That's ridiculous! And yet, when it comes to my mental health- I keep expecting that I will somehow not have to work at it at all. That one day when I figure it all out- I'll just glide on a joy cloud forever and ever amen. I don't need to adjust or adapt or work at it. I expect that I shouldn't need to, and I tell myself I'm not doing enough- or that it is my fault that I struggle.

Admitting that I struggle, and that I will always struggle, weirdly gave me a little bit of a break. I have to remind myself of this feeling because that "shouldn't be struggling" is embedded in my brain. If I accept my mental struggle like I accept my hearing struggle, I no longer have to try not to struggle. This is what I have to work with. It is not bad, it is not by some fault, it is just the parts that make up me. I have people who love me, I have meaningful relationships. I have dreams and hopes and desires. So- I might struggle, but it's so I can keep being human and keep loving and keep experiencing life. If I stop getting so mad at myself, maybe I can enjoy the good stuff a little more.

So I'm going to keep struggling. If I retrain my mind, I can picture the struggle as me working very hard. And on the days I fail, to either try to remember, or have someone who loves me remind me that I won't fail every day. Accepting my struggle gives me permission to be proud of how functional I am, proud of how hard I work, and how that work pays off many days. I'm maybe not all the way to proud yet, but I'm thinking that maybe my expectations on myself were a little too high. There are things I can do within the framework of who I am. Being honest about my struggle does not diminish my dreams, it just means if I reach them I get to be really pompous about it. Ha!

Actually, that's not true. In a weirdly God-infused moment, I realized that because it can be such a struggle to do life, that if anything amazing does happen- it's going to have to be with a shit-ton of help from God (which comes in all shapes and sizes, but particularly in the shape of community). If God can use me, then that would be so wonderful AND I'll need assistance. Like Moses who depended on his brother Aaron to make his speeches, who complained all the time about the people he was leading, and who ultimately didn't even get to go to the promised land because he doubted... he still did incredible things. He still let God try to make things happen within the struggling person he was. And he got to see God. That's alright.

I'm not going to expect myself to change the world anymore. I can barely do regular life. If God wants me to change the world, then here I am- here are my limits, and here is my struggle. See what you can do, and I will try my hardest to keep humbling myself, I will lean on every crutch (person) I can, and I bet miracles could happen. But even if they don't, I can still find joy in my family and friends and I still get to see God. And that's alright.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Body and Spirit

I was talking to someone the other day about this huge divide that we have created in our culture (and religion) between body and spirit. There are attempts throughout faith practices and cultural revolutions to bridge this gap, but the fact remains that we have inherited an idea that feels instinctual: our bodies and our minds (or spirits) are separate. And by default, in that separation we have deemed one to be good and the pursuit of it safe, and the other to be bad and the pursuit of it dangerous.

In my religious experience, particularly growing up in an evangelical church, the separation of the flesh and the spirit was a constant, underlying theme. We were instructed to reject our flesh, our desires, and focus instead on spiritual things. Focus on morality, purity, and spiritual salvation. Our bodies were mere shells.

There is a quote mis-appropriated to CS Lewis that says "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." The original lines can be found in Walter Miller, Jr's novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz." But it reminded me of another quote that is similar: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience." This was written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a french philosopher, theologian, and scientist. I really like him. I'm not sure he was trying to drive a hard wedge between the body and spirit, but this quote and others like it are constantly re-tweeted/shared/memed/etc.

Quotes like these make the rounds because people LOVE them. People LOVE them because it feels mystical when everything can feel so mundane and terminal. Dividing the body and spirit so clearly gives us a shot at magic. Something beyond what we see and feel is at work, and when we feel the limits of our physical bodies and the physical world, we can believe in the magic of the spirit. The spirit is set free to roam about and do things uninhibited by this creaky and battered thing.

It's so comforting. I didn't realize just how deep into this divide I had fallen until I started thinking about it. I find comfort in separating myself into two. Good = spirit (at least the well-fed and trained one). Bad = body. That equation allows me to drop my body by the side of the road when it fails me. And it fails me often. I have nerve pain, back pain, numbness, hearing loss, vision isn't what it was, and my body can create uncomfortable moments of vulnerability. My God what a relief to throw the whole bag of bones in the trash. In the next life, anyway. Isn't that what a lot of mainstream Christian voices say? Store up your treasures in heaven and all. We love this because it means that if we fail at having all the treasures here on earth - that's OK. If our body fails us in this realm, it's no problem because we didn't need this body anyway. Cancer, dementia, chronic illnesses- they can all go to hell (literally) while we shed the mortal coil and graduate up to spirit. What a relief right? It is, actually. But this relief comes with a price.

I remember in one seminary class, when the professor reminded the majority of United Methodists in the room that their faith tradition included a belief in a bodily resurrection (for you non-church folk- that means your body gets a new lease in heaven). Granted, even in this idea the understanding is that your body is all new and shiny and painless. But there was a tangible discomfort in the room. I could tell that people really did not want to grasp onto this idea of having an actual body - their own. He made them even more uncomfortable by saying that perhaps that might affect their beliefs on whether or not they should be buried or cremated, etc. Most of them tossed the discomfort away with the God-card, saying that if God could make us from dirt in the beginning, then God could do it again with ashes. Not a bad argument, one I've used. When I die- toss me in the ocean, burn me or not. Feed me to the sharks. Who cares- I don't need the body. But maybe I should be thinking about my body as having a purpose, even in death.

The Christian tradition can't get away from the body, and sometimes it slips into awareness that maybe we can't separate ourselves so readily. On Ash Wednesday, we line up to have someone mark our foreheads with smudges of ash in a cross shape. The person imposing the ashes often repeats a refrain like: from dust you were made, to dust you will return. It's similar to what we say at a gravesite service: dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Some people absolutely love the lenten season because it is an excuse to get in touch with our physical reality (in the name of spirituality). Most people hate it and would rather skip Lent, Good Friday (when Jesus dies a real physically terrible death) and jump right to Easter. In fact- most people would prefer to do Christmas and Easter- which is basically Birth and reBirth. We try to leave that pesky mortality by the roadside. Who cares, we are people bound for heaven and shiny things, why would we waste our time in darkness with our disposable bodies?

I'm reminded that the stories of the resurrected Christ include his scars. When I think of my body, I have so many scars that I would like to see erased. But maybe this image of a not-perfect bodily resurrection is supposed to teach me something. Is God full of scar tissue?

I just finished reading "Learning to Walk in the Dark" by Barbara Brown Taylor (highly recommend- she's my best friend and doesn't know it). In this book, Taylor writes about the "full-solar spirituality" of the Church. She points out how many churches split the world in two and focus on the sunny side up. Light vs. Darkness (which is the focus of her book); Flesh vs. Spirit; Good vs. Evil.... Many churches welcome their member into their sanctuary where only light, spirit, good, and happy things are allowed. Sure we say "bring your burdens" but what we want is for you to set them down and forget about them. We don't want to talk about them, feel them, shoulder them, or anything uncomfortable. We're going to shine a floodlight onto you until all the darkness and badness burns away and you might be blind but at least you're safe, at least we're safe. There are ALWAYS exceptions to this, but as a whole, the world and the church both are very happy for you to leave your dirty laundry in the basement.

What are the unintentional consequences of separating body and spirit? (I'm assuming that they are not separate like we imagine, as the separation is indeed a theological and epistemological development that has not been around forever. That argument is for another blog.) For me, it means that I do not fully feel. I have welcomed the habit of turning my body off so much that I must prepare for a physical activity like preparing for a quiz. My children plop themselves into my lap and I must resist the urge to protect my "bubble" that I have created. It's not as hard with them, but when it comes to others- I share very little physical vulnerability. I'm not talking about sex (but I will). I'm talking about all the things I'm not allowing: the hugs, the squeezes, the hands held and the fabrics felt, the paintings done, the dances danced. I've shut it all down because it is a tunnel into my body. And I don't want to feel my body. I've rejected it. You know why many people can't dance unless they are drunk or high? Because dancing is a full body expression- one that completely owns the body as a beautiful and good thing meant to be expressed, felt, moved, and admired. Oh hell no. That sounds terrifying. But it also explains my obsession with the movie Dirty Dancing as a kid. How I longed to be able to move like that, in a community of other people where it was OK and not actually, well, dirty.

Why are we so image-conscious? Why must our bodies be shaped a certain way or operate a certain way? Why isn't our body just good? We are all working out some guilt and shame about our physical beings because we are all taught through our culture, religion, and gender- about what pitfalls lie within our skin (especially if it doesn't fall within that parameter set by our surrounding social structure). The color of our skin gets assigned to varying levels of inherent goodness and badness. A topic for another blog post (or for me to read another's perspective). Our culture tells us bodies are bad - meant to be covered to varying degrees. Our religion tells us that sex is bad, unless it falls within a certain parameter. And even then- none of us really believes that it is good if our whole life we were taught it is bad. We know that there is no magic that makes it good only in this pocket of circumstance. The magic is that somehow we're left off the hook for doing this "dirty" thing. So we do it because our bodies need and want it, but we still feel it as being on the bottom half- the lower things that might be fine in moderation, but not to be overly enamored with. We're playing with fire, or something. When we forget to turn our brains off, sex becomes a rebellious act nearly every time. We're doing something we weren't supposed to do. Pile up enough guilt and shame around sex and the body, and then watch the sexual disorders multiply. Any kind of physical intimacy (whether in friendship or as lovers) carries with it a sort of shadow from shame or at the very least the fear that vulnerability digs up.

What if our bodies and our spirit were seen as one mingling substance? What if who we are is not just our "heart and soul" but also our body and death? Perhaps we would dance more. We would feel the earth and the painting. We would touch our face with grace and appreciation for all it has seen and felt. We would sob and laugh more. The avenues to intimacy might be broader, allowing more of us to feel connected to one another. We might understand our illnesses better, and our health. I honestly don't know. I'm new to this journey. Right now what it feels like is less shame. It feels like the opposite of numbness. It feels like the possibility of more joy.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Hate Letter

I have a pit in my stomach just from writing that title. It's funny isn't it? The thing you brush off as being "no big deal" becomes a much bigger deal when you allow yourself time to think about it. I have a feeling this blog will take me a while to write because I'll only be able to do it in fits and bursts. The discomfort is real. 

When I was in 4th grade (and I'm having trouble remembering if it was the summer before or after), I received a hate letter in the mail. The shock of it was perhaps the worst thing. I remember getting so excited about getting something in the mail, and thinking it was from a friend I had in Maryland (I had lived there preschool-2nd grade). When I opened the letter, I remember I saw inside a typed letter (typewriter!), with the words "I hate you" written inside. My heart and soul deflated. It was a page of words, but all I can remember is that the person didn't like me, called my Mom a nerd (which in retrospect is HILARIOUS), and left me feeling absolutely and completely drained of joy. It was, of course, anonymous.

There are several books and movies that focus on the "loss of innocence" trope. So much so that we may even miss the real, more subtle thing in our own lives. In literature and movies, they are usually drastic scenarios, sort of traumatizing to exploit the feeling that we all have felt when we find out that the world is perhaps not a magical place. In real life, it's often a small thing that simply breaks the spell. The beautiful iridescent bubble pops, and we see how fragile it all was. Some people never have a chance at innocence, they know from day one that things aren't fair and adults aren't actually in complete control and children can be cruel.

But I grew up in a world of magic. Rainbow bubbles were daily floating above my head. I was lost in my own imagination, singing songs, riding my bike, playing outside for as long as I wanted to. I knew bad things happened, I knew adults cried, but everything always worked out in the end. No one had ever hated me. No one had ever told me I couldn't accomplish something. I didn't know about mean girls or abusive boys. I was innocent. I was blissfully unaware of the human need to protect ourselves. What was there to protect against? My parents had everything under control and I was safe and loved.

Then that letter came. First was the shock that someone hated me. I didn't hate anyone. I didn't know how someone could hate me when I was pretty sure I hadn't done anything terrible. But I didn't know who it was. That was the second challenge: the mystery. I had no way of confronting this person. No way to clear my name or ask for forgiveness. No way to make things right. To convince them that I wasn't actually so terrible, and maybe if they gave me a chance, they would like me. Then came the guessing. Who was it? Was it a cruel joke by someone I didn't know? This seemed impossible as the contents of the letter were too personal and specific to be by someone oblivious to my life. Did I have a friend who actually hated me but pretended to be my friend? That was the most frightening of all possibilities. 

The mystery was eventually solved, but in the same way that most childhood mysteries are. By the process of elimination and by the silence of those who would have rushed to the defense, we figured out who the mystery writer was. I was taught to let it go, that people say things they don't mean. Or that if they meant it- I didn't need to bother with an opinion I shouldn't care about. In fact, I had so "let it go" that I am connected to this person on social media today - and we have not once mentioned the letter. I never actually asked this person. Because how do you ask someone in their 30s- "did you write me a hate letter when you were 10?" It seems ridiculous, and makes the whole thing bigger than you want it to be.

But it was big. Not particularly because of the person or the words, but because of what it cracked open in me. Doubt. Self-awareness that people might not like me. The simple idea that someone could pretend to like me but actually hate me was the biggest bubble pop I could imagine. Didn't everyone say what they meant? I had not developed the tools for dealing with lying, rejection and hate, so I did what many of us do: I retreated behind a giant wall. 

That wall was not a complete construction that year. And that letter was not the only catalyst for building it. But that was my loss of innocence. That was when I realized that I could be touched by this pain I had seen everywhere but here. I could unwittingly be the focus of someone's hate and malice. So I started to build the wall. Some years I built entire sections, some years only a few bricks. Some years I realized the need for a gate, some years I added barbed wire and electricity. 

I built the wall brick by brick with every word I chose not to say, for fear of judgment. A brick was placed with every outfit that I chose out of my desire to blend in, not stand out. T-shirt and Jeans was my uniform. I built the wall by choosing to look out the window on the bus rather than chat with my neighbors. 

I built that wall by making sure that I didn't get close enough to anyone that I would likely disappoint, and by limiting the amount of friendships I had in order to limit the responsibility and amount of pain I could endure if it went south. I built the wall by being much more strict about who I let in, I needed to trust them and believe that they loved me.

I built gates by writing honestly. I built windows and lowered the height by traveling and talking to strangers. I demolished sections by falling in love and having children. I chiseled away at corners with therapy and honest conversation.

I continue to build that wall by lowering expectations of what people should expect from me. What started as a gentle boundary-setting for myself turned into a cover for not wanting to risk disappointing anyone. I set the expectations drastically low. I tell you everything that I cannot and will not do. I confront you with my failures and short-falls before you get a chance to point them out. When I do something good- it's a pleasant surprise for all of us.

When we lose our innocence (if we ever had it), we lose the idea that we are safe. We gain the idea that we need to protect ourselves. And our entire lives become a battle between the need to protect ourselves and the need to connect. 

I don't know what to make of our vulnerability. It seems ridiculous that the words of a 10 year old would have lasting impact on me, now in my mid-thirties. I am actually OK, and have survived and felt worse in my life. I don't know what I stand to learn from this memory or the incremental wall building and demolition from there. I want to be more vulnerable, but I'm still scared and I still get hurt. It seems as soon as I let "my guard down" someone sweeps in for a stab. 

How do you live life joyful and connected, without all the pain? I don't yet have the bravery yet to let it all in. I still need my guard. I think most of us do. I used to think wisdom was the ability to not care about the things that hurt- to let it roll off your back. I don't think so anymore. I think wisdom is to care about it all- and somehow survive and have joy. I am not there yet. Maybe this year I'll carve out some more windows. It's a start.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Losing My Religion

I chose that title just so everyone would get that REM song stuck in their heads, and also a little bit for click bait. Click so you can see whether I'm losing my religion or not! In a way, it is true, I'm losing a part of my religious identity. I'm still trying to figure out what that means, what it looks like.

When my family came for Thanksgiving, my sisters and their family stayed with me while my parents stayed at a hotel. One night, after my parents had left, the kids were asleep, my sisters, their husbands, and Jason and I sat up late talking. 

I have a confession. I intentionally took myself out of the conversation. I closed my eyes like I was falling asleep, only I hadn't really fallen asleep yet. Granted, I was exhausted and I did eventually fall asleep since closing your eyes often leads to that. It wasn't pretty: to preserve room, I was sitting on my husband's lap, which means when I did fall asleep I ended up sprawled out over my husband's seated body- like a too large child who won't let their parent put them down. It wasn't super comfortable.

Why did I close my eyes? Because the conversation turned to religion. Church. Theology. Here's the sad part. I love thinking about and talking about theology. But I closed my eyes.

My older sister started talking about her and her husband's spiritual journey. The last few years have been years of growth, exploration, and drastic change from their church where my sister's husband had worked over a decade. They talked about theological differences, leadership styles of the pastors, and even liturgical differences between their old and new churches. I could feel something happening within me. I felt myself shrinking, becoming invisible (or wanting to become invisible). My younger sister talked too about how she and her husband struggled to find a church that gave them a sense of community and purpose, that gave space for their questions. My younger sister expressed her need to sort of break up with the church for a while since it had been such a towering and controlling presence for her life. She needed to regroup and ask some hard questions about what church and God meant for her. I felt myself making a conscious effort to get smaller and quieter, to stifle my thoughts and feelings and story. Then they asked Jason a question about his role as a minister. And that's when I closed my eyes. 

I closed my eyes because I had been feeling something growing inside me: the pain of not having church or ministry as an identity. The pain of it never really sticking. I've told the story of when I felt called by God to "be a minister." That happened almost 18 years ago. Holy crap I just did the math. 18 years!! And I have nothing to show for it but struggle. I have this pain inside me because I never doubted (other than the panic in the moment) that God was speaking to me, calling me. I never doubted that I was to have some response to match this high calling. But the pain is that the identity never stuck. I never figured out a way to become a minister. No one in my family ever really saw me as such. None of my friends really did outside of being "a nice person who listens." 

For 18 years I've been wrestling with that calling to be a minister, and in that conversation that night, when my heart was bursting with longing to talk about my own journey, my own thoughts- I knew that it wasn't important. Or that it was too important to me. I also had so many feelings swirling inside me that I didn't quite understand, but they were too big for this fireplace chat. I didn't want to ruin what was a lovely conversation with my own issues. I made myself close my eyes so I could disappear from the conversation. It was far easier to disappear than to care. Caring was too painful. Caring meant I would want people to suddenly recognize this minister identity in me that had never stuck. I would want them to ask me what I thought because of my experience and theological education. Caring meant that I wanted people to see and honor my journey and my struggles. I felt like somehow I needed to be recognized- which was flat out selfish and stupid. So I disappeared, because I didn't know what else to do. I didn't know how else to handle my grief. Caring meant feeling the anger - and I wasn't ready to do it.

I heard Jason saying "If it makes you feel better, Sarah's kind of struggling. She's kinda over church." And I don't think it made anyone feel better or worse. 

I am losing my religion. I've lost the minister identity- not the loss of someone who had something and then lost it- I never had it. I think I'm finally giving up on the thing ever sticking. Maybe God made a mistake. Maybe it was just a ploy to get me to do other things in the pursuit of being a minister. Maybe it was a three year calling and I tried to make it stretch 18. All I know is that it hurts too much to talk about religion right now. I don't want to insert my pain into someone else's journey. I don't want to be the old hag telling the travelers - "been there, done that- you'll see it leads nowhere soon!" That's not really what I think but it is in a way. That doesn't even make sense, but it makes sense to me. It's not a linear journey, but my journey has led me here: nowhere. I've been in the wilderness for so long that I call it home now. The best thing I have found for connecting to God is silence. SILENCE. Maybe I'll be a minister of the wild. I won't get paid for it. No one will ask me about my role as a minister. No one will ask me to pray. No one will wonder about my own theological studies or knowledge. But I can maybe give some water to a fellow wilderness survivor. Tell them that they aren't alone. And they'll shrug and thank me for the water and being a good listener.

The more I allow myself to think about this, the more I think that perhaps part of my problem was that I had an image in my head of what it meant to "be a minister"- and that involved authority, title, respect. Hilarious when I think about it because I have a lifetime of bucking the system and rejecting authority, titles, and blind respect. Oh the irony.

Quick caveat (or note?)- I process my thoughts by writing, so if I start a blog in one place and end it in another- that isn't because I didn't edit for clarity- it's because I figured things out as I kept writing. It might be messy and less crisp- and I hope you'll forgive me. I like naming each part of the process. I don't want to reject the beginning, or the middle, because for me there never is an end- I keep most thoughts open for debate... I don't do final wrapped up finished conclusions very well.

So as I engage this idea of letting go of the "be a minister" identity- which I was ready to completely and utterly chuck over a cliff- I'm thinking I need to let go of the image I had in my head. And embrace the ways I have answered that call- in my own weird ass way. I wasn't called to be a pastor of a church, leading committees, ordering roof tiles, and appeasing people who care too much about the color of the carpet. I don't have the patience for that. And at this juncture- I don't believe I ever really want to have the patience for that. As a woman trying to answer a call- I never knew whether I didn't want to do something because I didn't think it was possible (or didn't get the support) or if I really just didn't want to do it. I have felt good about every vocational decision I have made in my life. As a dear fried said to me today: "nothing is lost." All of it has been my jazz-dancing through life, not in some linear upward track, but in a whirling dervish sort of way. Although sometimes I do less jazz dancing and more silent brooding.

But here's the thing, the book that made me want to go to seminary is "The Preaching Life" by Barbara Brown Taylor. If you have never read anything of hers- go do it- she is exquisite. In her books, she talks about her own struggle with her calling. She felt God telling her that she could do literally anything she wanted- as long as she belonged to God. I remember absolutely loving that part (should have seen that as a bigger sign). In that moment, she decided to become an Episcopal priest. I believe she is now a professor (although she may have left that post). The point is- she changed her answer- but the calling remained the same. Maybe in God's wisdom and also joy- I was given an annoyingly vague calling. Because God knew I wasn't going to do something normal and predictable or even logical. I have this insanely logical part of myself which is constantly at war with the other part of myself that is certifiably insane- but beautiful. I tried to make my calling fit into the logical section. My pretty insane self said over and over "fine, but let's take a little break to do this experiment." And my logical self said: "OK- here's a logical explanation for why that is ok."

I sound like I have split personalities, but I think I've pitted these two parts of me against each other to torture myself, when I just need to blend it all together. I will be insane, and also make wise financial decisions. I can do that. I will not try to make everything check out with both sides. Sometimes I need to be logical, and sometimes I need to take a leap of faith.

God knew that. So in 18 years I have been a youth director, a Congregational Care coordinator, a caregiver for elderly, a stay-at-home mom, a writer, and a hospice chaplain. Yes, I ended on hospice chaplain because it makes me sound like a freaking saint. I confess and I don't care. I loved it and also might have enjoyed the respect I got just as much as the job. Now I am writing.

My call to be a minister was more than be a nice person. I am perfect for the wilderness. I have always wanted to be in the center of town because it is safe, comfortable, and organized- and as a minister- you get respect. I don't belong there. I want to, but I just don't. I get restless. I've KNOWN this about myself. But I always thought the wilderness was temporary, and soon I would find "my place" where I would finally settle, I'd get ordained, I'd have some perfect vocational epiphany and finally everyone would recognize me for the minister I was called to be. But that's not happening, because that's not my calling. I'm the minister to the people who hate titles. To the people who have too many questions. To the people who say shit and pray. For the people who would rather die then listen to another stupid sermon. I am a minister with no authority- because I need to fucking humble myself and take up my task. My task is to belong to God- in the evolving way I see God and myself, and to greet people on the journey. To tell you you are not alone. Not because I have authority- but because I live here too. Because the wilderness is home, not a place for outcasts. The wilderness is home. It is a place to stay and wander freely around. And that is sacred, and it doesn't matter if you worship Buddha, Allah, or Beauty itself. I've been here long enough that we have a lot in common, and my humility is what will allow that connection to continue.

And maybe in 5 years I'll change my mind- but I'll still belong to God- whoever that is. And I'll still be a minister to whoever is running around me. And I'll have years of experience.