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.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Truth

I was going to title this one "Trump was Right" but I couldn't stomach it, even for the click-bait. And even now I'm thinking I might delete that line because it's so terrible to look at.

When Trump said that there were "fine people on both sides" of the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, people got really angry. And for good reason- because politically Trump was equating NAZIS with ... well- not Nazis. And that is a terrible thing to do as a president- and in general.

However, (ugh) I have to admit something. He wasn't completely wrong. And before you burn me alive, hear me out. NONE of us are perfect. I think I've talked about this before, the sort of black and white ultimatums we deal in when talking about people we disagree with (or who are terrible people). You can be a terrible person, have TERRIBLE values, and still act like a nice person. You may even do some very fine, nice things.

One of the sort of insidious trends of the neo-Nazi movement and other white-supremacy groups is to blend in. They wear khakis now. And here's the thing, most of them wore khakis before. They just changed the culture of the group to make sure that they started becoming less obviously deviant or different, or dare I say "evil." It's hard to look at a bunch of white guys in khakis and polo shirts and think- now there's a dangerous group. The reason for that is because our society has conditioned us not to be afraid of those guys. And they are using it to their advantage. Obviously there are people who have had experiences that taught them otherwise, but by and large, if you see a white dude with a clean haircut, khakis, and a polo shirt walking down the street, you won't even notice him. Because he looks "normal."

And that is the whole point, white supremacists are embracing their normal, and everyone is buying into it as evidence that they aren't that bad after all. Hmm- not so fast.

It's true- I bet you that a white supremacist has the ability to be a loving parent. I bet a white supremacist has the ability to do something nice for their neighbor. I bet a white supremacist has the ability to contribute to the community, give money to the poor, do good work in their career. Because a white supremacist does not exist only as a white supremacist. They are whole humans, with relationships, careers, and other hobbies. But it doesn't mean that they are incapable of doing bad things. Obviously, right?!

Let's go further. Let's take the actual Nazis. My Grandfather (Opa) was born and raised in Berlin. His mother was Jewish and his father was a journalist who was black-balled by the Nazi party. Opa had the privilege of perspective when understanding Hitler's special kind of terrible. Opa was able to escape to the United States, but some of his friends from school were drafted into Hitler's army. In fact, Opa was set to be drafted but managed to escape by being smuggled out of Germany before his number was called. It was privilege that allowed him to have even the means to escape! Men serving in the Nazi army were called Nazis. But not all of these men were serving by choice. Sure, they could have died rather than serve (likely the only option available) and then serving is about survival. After the war, the men and women civilians left in Germany were made to clean up the rubble as a sort of a punitive measure for their complicity in the Nazi reign. But I know one of those women was my great aunt, who had kept her daughter's Jewish ancestry a secret to protect her, and did everything she could to protect and care for my great uncle (her eventual husband and the father of her daughter) and my great grandmother who were Jews. Despite clear evidence of her help, she still had to do the punitive work. Because she was a German and she managed not to be imprisoned. Hitler came to power in 1933, and soon after the entire public school curriculum was rewritten with anti-semitic genetic lessons spread blatantly throughout. The war, and the Nazi reign, ended in 1945. So it would be possible for a child to have an entire public education based on Nazi curriculum, from k-12 grade. Do we blame them for believing what they are taught from 5-18 years old?

I'm not excusing anyone's behavior or lack of bigger resistance. (But seriously, what would you do in those situations in Germany?) I'm not even making the argument that there wasn't evil at work. I am just saying that it's never black and white. When we make sweeping judgments, we often miss a a chance at progress and possible solutions.

I AM mad that Trump said there were very fine people on both sides, but not because he was wrong, he was actually kind of right, but because it DOESN'T matter. Because life, history, politics, is not that black and white. Very fine people do terrible things and should be held accountable. Very terrible people can do wonderful things. The point is that we cannot depend on a tattoo or consistently terrible behavior to help us decide if someone needs to stop. This actually can be spread into the whole rape-culture problem too. Just because the rapist is a really wonderful student and all-star athlete, does not somehow make them not also a rapist. It can be applied to the issue of black people getting shot- just because he stole candy or made bad choices does NOT mean he is "bad" or deserves the death penalty without trial.

Our tendency to polarize people into "good" and "evil" creates an impossible situation. If you see only the good in people, then you sentence yourself to never holding them accountable. If you see only bad in people, then their lives are no longer equal to yours or others. It doesn't work. It's bad politics, it's bad theology, it's bad human-ing.

So yes- there are probably some really stellar citizens in that torch-bearing crowd. If you call for all Nazis to burn in hell, then you are no better than they are. THEY hate, YOU hate. So let's throw away the unhelpful unilateral good vs evil argument. Let's be smart. Let us hold every person accountable for the shit they do- no matter how much money they make you or themselves. No matter how many medals they have received. Let's also listen to the story of that kid in the gang. Yes- he did some baaaad stuff. Yes he should be accountable to that. But yes, he is a human and if you hear his story, you might actually learn something. At the very least you may learn that we are all human, we all make mistakes, and what we look like (and our financial status) often determines how we pay for those mistakes. It's not about good and evil- so stop that game.

The truth is- people are far more complicated than a litmus test for good and evil. If we allow ourselves to think and listen with more complexity- we might actually be able to solve some problems. We might be able to create peace rather than using evidence of an ounce of good or evil to slam the scale of justice down wherever we want it.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Deaf

I had a hair appointment, and before the woman washed my hair, I made a point to let her know I wore hearing aids and would be taking them out, so I wouldn't be able to hear her. She looked at me like people look at you when you say that your dog just died last week. It was a little weird, but I appreciated that she was trying to be caring. Then, while she washed my hair, she said something to me. I almost laughed. She was checking the temperature of the water and by context I figured out what she said and told her it was fine. Then I'm sure she thought I was a big, fat liar about the deaf thing. (Except for my hearing aids in my hand.)

Deaf people are REALLY good at reading context. Like scary good. So we catch stuff even if we didn't hear you. That sounded like a threat and I'm not even sorry about it.

I have this arrangement with my new hair stylist. I have done the deaf dance with several stylists. This dance is the advanced notice that you will have to take your hearing aids out for the hair washing (they are NOT water proof). Then you have to remind them that it means you can't hear. Which is true, but since you're a dope lip reader and context clues reader- the stylist will inadvertently slip up and talk to you and you will respond appropriately because you can figure it out. Here's the thing- when you have your hearing aids out- it takes A LOT of energy to do all that context sleuthing, so you'd really rather them not talk to you. So it's difficult. Then you feel like an asshole because you aren't talking to them or even really looking at them because you're trying to avoid them striking up a conversation. SO you try to dry out your ears mega-fast so you don't have to work so hard at keeping up with the conversation. Here's the problem- your ears weren't perfectly dry so now they feel all damp and weird and the person is brushing or cutting your hair- which means they now have these hearing aids to avoid and you both feel anxious about it. And now you can talk, but seriously it's still hard to talk with hair in your face.

This dance was so damn exhausting that I tried something new with this hair stylist, and I did it with the one I had in Hampton. I said "Hey, I'm deaf, so when I take the hearing aids out I can't hear. They can't get wet, so I need to let my ears dry before I put them back in. It might be a little while. I'm not trying to be rude, but I'll probably just read." My new stylist said "sounds great- we'll both get a little quiet." That's when I knew I found the right person.

I was reflecting about my deafness today- not something I do often. Not hearing is kinda like that sound of the AC cutting on. You completely forget about it until that first warm day in spring and you're like- what's that noise? Oh yeah, the AC. I think my parents played a big part in letting my sister and I feel like we could let our deafness fade into background noise- it didn't have to be our primary identity. I really appreciate that, because it allowed us to have the confidence to do anything we wanted to do. But every now and then I think about it and reflect on it.

My older sister is also deaf, so it's nice to have someone to talk to when I think about it. I don't think we fully realize the blessing it was to have someone in-house who understood what we were going through. We talked about our deafness over Thanksgiving last week, when her family joined mine. We have both been doing a little reflecting on it lately. I'm not sure if that's age, therapy, or just the wind blowing where it does. But it was nice to share with each other what we have realized.

Kelly said that she had thought she was totally comfortable with her impairment, when it occurred to her that she was proud of how well she compensated, not necessarily how she was born. That was a lightning bolt for me. And of course we're proud of how we've compensated. We're awesome. But- it was a realization that we hadn't necessarily fully accepted our hearing loss as an OK thing- but more we were bent on proving that it wasn't a thing at all. By how incredibly amazing we were at not seeming deaf. We fool a lot of people. And for some reason we were more proud of that. I'm still working out what that means. I've tried to be more vulnerable and say when I can't hear people or name that I can't hear in an unapologetic way. I don't feel that I need to apologize, but I do have very high expectations of myself as far as how much I should be able to do to compensate.

And that was the discovery I made. I work really hard to do normal things. It's part of who I am to the point where I don't even notice it. It's like brushing my teeth in the morning- of course I do it! Of course I face the people who are talking to me. Of course I read their lips. Of course I intuitively read their body language. Of course I have a sixth sense of emotions and even a weird spiritual vibe. Of course I can usually tell a creeper from a mile away- I'm constantly watching and listening with every fiber of my being. I realized that not everyone does this. Hell, people can have a conversation AND watch TV at the same time. To me, that's impossible. If I try to multitask - even with the check-out person, I will miss most of whatever it is I'm trying to do. So human interaction takes literally my whole being to do right. THIS is why I was a good chaplain. This is why I am a good listener (hopefully). This is also why I can't do crowds of people for too long, or shallow conversation for too long, or have too many friends. It's exhausting. I can't tune out and tune in at the right time. I have to be fully present for all of it if I want to catch the good parts. I can't select what I hear, so I select who I hear. I used to think that was me being elitist or super-introverted. Now it feels a little more like self-care and grace.

I have always been so proud of myself for being "passable" as hearing, that I think I forgot to give myself credit for the work I have to do to pass. Not in a pitying way- but it made me realize why I have instinctively put up the boundaries that I have. I'm not mean and I don't hate people. I like people- a lot- and I can only give 100% to so many. I am realizing that I made good choices when I said I didn't want to do that thing with all those people right after doing that other thing with all those people.

And now, I have a new set of hearing aids (got em on a huge sale for $5500!). Now I remember all the work it takes. Getting new hearing aids is switching your old ears out for a new sound system. Your brain has to adapt. You have to adapt, and then you have to figure out what needs to be changed (settings, programs, volume, etc). But you still have to go to those events with crowds and people talking. I'll admit the first day I hid in a quiet corner and had wine while I whined about how much my new hearing aids sucked. I *knew* that they would be fine, but I felt terrible. I had to do even MORE work to pass as hearing, and that is when I realize that I'm at the brink of hard work. Trying more completely exhausts and overwhelms me. It'll get better. It'll get easier, and my work will reduce back to the normal level. But it's a lot of work, and it made me feel better to be more honest about it this time around. People at church were asking me how I was adjusting to them- I felt really cared for.

I've always thought of my deafness as something that is background noise. Mere chance to mention in  an off-hand way. But now I am trying to face it a little more straight on. I'm trying to get to know this part of myself a little better, to recognize in my daily quirks and habits, the things that I do because I can't hear. Then, ultimately, to embrace it. To give it grace and worry a little less about "passing" as hearing- or perfect- or anything other than who I am.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Gandalf

Yesterday (I think) was national mental health awareness day. I'm pretty immune to these awareness days because they seem fairly insignificant in the pile of all the other days that we're told to be aware of things. I'm sure the awareness is helpful and has an end game that promotes health and well-being, but I can say that knowing I have struggled with depression - being AWARE of it- does not make it go away. It doesn't really make it easier for me to talk to someone else about it- because awareness and understanding are oh so far apart. It doesn't lessen my load or really impact me at all. I'm grateful that I do not live in a time when I would be thrown in the looney bin or ostracized for being a woman with deep thoughts, but honestly- it doesn't help me now to think about how much worse life was for people before me. That's just more depressing.

All that to say- someone's Facebook post reminded me that I struggle with depression. And I was annoyed by the reminder. Because for all my awareness, I still dodge that sucker as much as I can.

My last therapist (who was helpful to an extent) gave the advice that I shouldn't fight the depression so hard. I don't think she used this analogy, but I thought of how when you are drowning your supposed to stop fighting the current, but relax into it and it'll spit you out in the end. Here's the problem: you might be dead. Or half-drowned. Or on an island someplace you didn't want to be. To let the current take you is to trust that the current will harm you less than your efforts to fight it. This isn't always so clear, especially when the current is a black hole of depression.

I've mentioned this before- but my depression looks a lot like laziness. It looks like someone sitting around doing nothing and being useless. It looks like forcing yourself to do everyday activities like getting out of bed, showering, eating. I always brush my teeth though. If I get to the point where I don't brush my teeth- get me immediate help. Depression for me looks like me thinking about the mist below my dark thoughts. I ask the questions about the rain, but I don't dare touch the lightning inside the dark cloud. If I jump into the deep end, I might not find my way out. So I spin in circles in the haze, never being satisfied or content, but knowing somehow in the back of my brain, that at least I am avoiding the real darkness. If I confront that shit- I might drown. (I recognize that I've jumbled twelve different analogies here- but I'm going to leave it and let you sort it out.)

The thing about black holes of darkness (depression) is that they have a sort of magnetic quality about them. Your curiosity (or sickness) lures you closer and closer to the abyss, until you suddenly have a moment of clarity and realize you are about to stick your toe in it. I was going to say lava- but lava has a distinct quality of heat and fire and pain. Black hole of darkness is like that "Nothing" from Never Ending Story. It isn't something- it's nothing- and it's sucking your world void. You put your toe in- you will pull it back to find nothing. If you jump in all the way- you will vanish.

So my coping mechanism has always been to journey to the other side of the earth, get away from the black hole and fight the gravity that pulls me towards it. When the therapist recommended that I jump in feet first and trust that I'll get out on the other side- I pretty much thought she was full of shit. Really what I thought was that she was"Aware" of depression, but didn't quite understand. Because someone who understands knows that letting go is equal to giving up which equals blank stares for an undetermined amount of time. She might be able to write off a few months of staring as therapeutic recovery - but I have a family and dreams- and certainly have no time to give in to darkness.

So yes, I have considered the thoughts that she might be right, but I need a battle plan. I mean a dive-in plan. I need to know how to jump in to the deep end and not die.

Then, as I often do now, I thought about literature. I wish I had read more fantasy as a child, I think it would have helped me process more of my deep thoughts. But luckily I married a lover of Tolkien and the others, and I have now seen and read many fantasy and sci-fi novels that attempt to ask more of the deeper questions. I thought today about Gandalf. In the Lord of the Rings series, Gandaf encounters a Balrog- a demon of darkness. His quotable line "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" is his rebuke to this creature of darkness, who attempts to stop the tribe of travelers from destroying the ring. Actually, I don't think the demon gives a shit about their travels, they just tread on his turf and he's a demon.

Gandalf succeeds in stopping the demon from attacking his friends, but he falls into the deep crevice after the demon- and by all accounts, his fall into darkness is assumed to result in his death. Gandalf was grey-bearded then, a powerful wizard but not the most powerful. After his encounter with this demon, he re-emerges like a phoenix, splendid with white hair and more powerful than ever. Everyone is super excited to see him and that's that.

I needed just a few more details of what happened between falling down the dark demon cliff and rising white-bearded with a kick-ass power jump. I went and did some searching and it was actually quite fascinating. Moria- the place this creature lived- means "black pit" - as if my analogy needed some more help. In the search I found the story went that Gandalf pursued the Balrog for eight days and finally there was a battle between the two that culminated on a mountain top, where the demon was thrown from the top and died, splitting the mountain. Gandalf supposedly died as well, but was "sent back" to Middle Earth with greater powers as Gandalf the White. Very special, would love to have a few more details on the whole "sent-back" part.

So all I need is to know that I can kill the demon and that even if I "die" I'll be "sent back." Sorry Tolkien, but I need a little more to go on. How do you confront a demon, die, and live? How do you dive in to the deep end and make it to the other side? I think this is part of my reasoning behind shining light in the cave of questions (I mention that in a previous blog where I'm going to start asking the scary questions and have other people ask with me so we aren't so alone and scared.) Instead of calling depression something dark and demonic- I'm trying to turn on the light down here and invite people to join me in asking the dark demon so many questions that instead of being dark and mysterious it gets sort of annoyed and moody. That seems less scary. I can handle a moody and annoyed demon.

Maybe I shall emerge from this cave not as Gandalf the White, oh wise and powerful... but as Sarah the Persistent, obnoxious but not alone. Or maybe I'll make a home in the cave, since it's too well lit for a demon of darkness to dwell in anymore. Or maybe I'll throw a demon off a cliff and split a mountain and die.... and be sent back. Time will tell.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Neck Grief


Today I had a massage, and before you judge me, I judge me too. However, I signed up for this massage membership in a very low point emotionally, and it was one of my steps toward health. Although I feel embarrassed when I mention it (the frivolity of it!), today reminded me of why I signed up.

Every time I go in, I'm asked the same basic questions about what I need in the massage that day. Every time I go in, my answers are nearly identical. Yes, full body- but spend more time on my back, shoulders, and neck. Pressure? Hard. How do I want to feel? Relaxed.

I actually tried to think of a different word for how I wanted to feel, because relaxed seemed lazy. I want the relaxation to be the result of muscles forced into submission. Luckily my massage therapist understands what I mean. She is not afraid to hurt me. I know the places that will hurt, and I try to breathe into it. I'm not going to lie, I try to pretend it doesn't hurt as much as it does because I don't want her to back off on the pressure. 

Today, I asked her to focus on my neck and shoulders especially, because I felt like they weren't even my own. I didn't explain it well to her. What I wanted to say was that I wished they weren't my own. I have often wished this. That I could somehow trade them out for a new set. That I could hold my head up without constant stretching and adjusting. I want to feel like my head isn't supported by a janky set of sticks duct taped together and ready to collapse at any moment. In my mind I thought: if you can make me not feel like trading it out, you will have performed a miracle.

The complete focus on the neck didn't happen until the very end of the massage, so by then I had been lulled into a peace of silence and introspection. I was even writing a little dialogue scene for my book in my head. There had definitely been some painful muscle work, but I had expected it. She started working on the tendons around my shoulders that connect to the neck, painful but bearable. Then she moved on to my actual neck, focusing first on one side, then on the other. She held pressure points for what felt like a painful eternity. I felt my neck sort of twitch and release. It hurt. Like woah. 

Then I sort of had one of those kind of out-of-body experiences. Not a creepy one. I just sort of panned back and looked at my neck with such sympathy. I thought, God- she's been through a lot. And just naming that gave me this wave of grief. But the kind that you get when you finally think or say out loud something that has been buried within you. It was a release. 

I have had three spinal surgeries and my neck will forever be jacked up. I do not feel things like I should, and my body does weird stuff if I sit or lean or whatever for too long. Spinal injuries are really, really weird. You know how if you break your ankle, it's never really the same and you're more likely to do something to it later because of that crack in the strength of the bone? Spinal injuries are like that, except it manifests in the weirdest ways, and doesn't always make sense, and doesn't have a specific cure or treatment. 

I may be wrong (but certainly not alone) but I tend to ignore the majority of my spinal issues. Because if I went to the doctor for every tingling sensation or weird symptom (like my hand curls up involuntarily sometimes, mostly when I've leaned a certain way)- I would be forever at the doctor and the only solution they would have is surgery- which would bring a new set of weird possible consequences. Spinal injury for me is deciding what set of symptoms you can handle. If it is too painful or too life-inhibiting, then you might be able to trade a few cards of symptoms for different few cards that are a little less annoying- but you can't fold. You can't trade in your neck for a new one. Some can only trade in twos and threes for fours and sevens. I think as far as spinal injuries, I've got at least a pair in my hand- it's not so bad. 

That's another thing about spinal injuries. They can be catastrophic, searing pain. So even when I feel weird and like my body will never be fully functional (and never knowing if something is related to the injury or something else), I still think "it could be so much worse." I think that mentality of comparison has been helpful sometimes for me to keep in perspective my quality of life. But today, as I released that grief for my neck, I realized that maybe I should have given myself a little space to grieve. 

Of course, it's hard to even know or name what you are grieving. I don't even remember what it felt like to be able to put earrings in my ear without looking, or to clasp the necklace without standing in front of a mirror. I don't remember what it was like to feel the fine texture of something. I do remember being able to do a back bend without much effort, curving my back and neck into a perfect U shape. I remember doing back dives into the pool, landing as well as a forward dive. I remember doing neck stretches in my PE class where my head would touch my shoulder. I kinda remember not having scars. But in that moment, when I felt the acute pain in my neck, I felt the grief. I felt love for my neck rather than anger. I forgave it for giving me so much trouble and felt sympathy for all the trouble it had been through. And now I'm thinking, I am thankful for the courage it has to hold itself together and heal as well as it has. 

I know I'm talking about my neck as if it is a separate thing, or even person. I don't why I do this or why it helps. But it does. It gives me space between me the part of me that causes me grief. Enough space I guess, to give grace. And then I can reclaim my neck as mine- painful and graceful- and continue to get massages. Because my neck, she's been through a lot, and even if I feel silly getting a massage, my neck could use a little love.