“The only requirement of an artist is this: you must try to love and forgive yourself completely before you create.” – Glennon Melton On my morning stroll, as I was pondering what to write here today, I stepped over a … Continue reading
Like so many this week, I’ve felt saddened at the loss of Robin Williams. Maddened, actually. Super-peeved at how oppressive a glitchy brain/unhealthy mind can be. The fact that his death was self-inflicted felt like a punch in the gut. Everything about it has made me re-evaluate the straight-up realness of depression, how it manifests, where it hides, who it looks like.
A few weeks ago we double-featured Hook and Jumanji for our kids, thus introducing them to the legendary actor. Twenty-five years ago I watched him in Dead Poets Society and, as a sophomore in high school, I remember being shocked at how the story ended. The main character taking his own life? I couldn’t believe it. NOT the outcome I expected. I could not comprehend how someone could do such a thing. But then, I was only 15. I had lived a peaceful childhood under a quiet roof with loving parents and experienced no major trauma in my decade-and-a-half of years. I had no INKLING of the curveballs life could throw at a person. Fifteen years later I would give birth to my first child and be diagnosed with postpartum depression. Then…I would begin to understand.
Adjusting to life as a mother sent me through the wringer. I had all these…expectations of how I thought motherhood would be, SHOULD be. Within weeks of my son Rowan’s birth – maybe even days – those expectations took flight like Dorothy Gale’s house in a twister and landed in some far Technicolor country. Even so, I devoutly did the mom thing, as moms of newborns will do…nursing, changing diapers, trying to figure out when to put him down to nap, reading books and blogs with all their conflicting opinions. Should I let him cry or nurse him back to sleep? Should I be talking to him more? Singing to him? Signing? (Yes, SIGNING!) Is it ok to put on a Baby Einstein DVD while I take 30 minutes to breathe or will it fry all his brain cells? Should I feel guilty for having had an epidural? I don’t think it makes me less of a woman but some of my friends who birthed epidural-free seem to think so. And on and on. AND ON. That right there is enough to turn any woman’s world upside-down but to make matters more interesting, the tiny tyke refused to take a bottle and nursed every two hours for the first three months of his life, feeding practically around the clock. Which meant I spent a whoooole lotta time planted on the sofa cruising the tube and terrifying myself by watching The Ring (there was nothing else on!!!). Most of my friends were still in the workforce, not home alone all day long with a wee eat-sleep-and-pooper. And my only sibling was getting married (a pleasant occasion but a transition all the same). Plus I still had laundry and grocery-shopping and meal-prepping and staying-in-touch with grandparents and thank-you notes to write – an endless list of Things To Do – all squashed in between hour-long sessions of baby boy sucking the life right out of me.
So, one Saturday morning, when Rowan was three-months-old, Brandon offhandedly mentioned that he wanted to purchase a water hose, and all I heard was: “So you can add one more thing to your to-do list, Jana.” Buying a water hose implied someone would need to be watering the landscaped plants around our condo, and for some reason I interpreted that responsibility as falling to me. I would now have to add ‘watering outdoor plants’ to my list of Things To Do. And I promptly lost it. Because I couldn’t DO anymore. I was completely tapped out. The mothering thing – and all its expectations – were sucking me dry (quite literally via my breastages). I distinctly remember sitting on the patio off our condo, staring across the asphalt parking lot at the lush summer green of the Tennessee trees. Weeping. For an hour. Because I couldn’t handle ONE MORE THING. Not even the idea of watering some shrubs.
When the tears slowed and calm descended, I pondered how horrid I was feeling so much of the time anymore, and how there was just no way possible that I could be helpful to my husband and child in this condition. And suddenly, an idea: I’ll just LEAVE. It made complete sense. I sat there, working through details of how I could scrape together some funds, leave our home, and not be tracked down. BECAUSE BRANDON AND ROWAN WOULD BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT ME. I thought that. Lucidly. As plain as day. They deserve better than this mess of me, I thought. My condition as wife and mother is dragging them down. Life will be easier for both of them if I’m NOT HERE. My tricky trickster of a mind – riddled by undiagnosed depression – convinced me that my husband and newborn son would live healthier lives without me around. Depression has a cunning ability to make otherwise reasonable people believe things that aren’t true.
Suicide never appealed to me but I did seriously contemplate running away. Until that moment on the patio, when I would hear about someone abandoning their family, I thought what most of us probably do: What a jerk. Leaving your children in the lurch like that. How SELFISH of you. But I GUARANTEE YOU, there are parents out there abandoning their families – via suicide or simply speeding off into the horizon – because they are convinced of the lie that depression whispers: “Your family is better off without you. No one wants to deal with your crap anymore.” I would never have believed this…until it happened to me. And I’m not excusing the behavior. Just explaining that the mind – in an unhealthy state of clinical depression – has the power to convince a person of untruth.
When my parents were visiting us in the midst of my postpartum funk of the suck-most variety, my dad mentioned that he didn’t think he had ever known anyone who had struggled with depression, and my mom, without missing a beat, replied, “Yes, you have.” Before my own meet-and-greet with depression, I most likely would have said the same. Depression is insidious in how well it knows how to hide. People with depression don’t look like the mopey animated characters on the antidepressant ads. We don’t have a cloud floating over our heads signifying our approach (though we feel cloudy on the inside). We don’t drag around a metal ball chained to our ankle (though we feel weighty on the inside). It’s just not that obvious. Depression can look like world-famous comedians who get paid to makes others laugh…like the mom with the kid-filled minivan who appears to have it “all together”…like the gentle giant of a farmer who sells tomatoes and cantaloupe at the market…like the neighbor who always shouts a friendly hello when you’re out in the yard…like the gorgeous classmate voted homecoming queen…like the wildly-successful-at-age-22 techie with his cutting-edge company…like the captivating guest who tells the best stories at a dinner party…like the elderly bookstore cashier who makes the most fantastic literary recommendations…like the preacher who speaks of God’s grace on Sunday mornings. Depressions looks like all of them…and more. With certain stats reporting 1 in 10 people in the US suffering from depression – and unless you’re a hermit living in the distant hills somewhere – YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH DEPRESSION.
If you suspect a loved one might be depressed, PLEASE reach out to them; those suffering from depression often lack the energy or motivation to reach out themselves. My circumstances landed me at the doctor when, shortly after the water hose incident, two close friends (one a pediatrician, the other a postpartum nurse) and my mom urged me to set up an appointment. Tell your friend what you’ve observed that concerns you and ask them about it. Dig a little if you have to. Most people – including me – do NOT want to talk about our overwhelming sadness, about how depression can be so inwardly antagonistic, because IT FEELS LIKE WE ARE BURDENING our spouses, children, parents, friends…and that’s not a good feeling. So please…ASK. Then LISTEN. And even if you don’t “get it” – if you look at your friend and all you see is the abundance by which they’re surrounded (dozens of adoring friends, skyrocketing success in professional endeavors, healthy children, a supportive spouse, financial stability) and you don’t GET IT – and you feel like you want to tell them to “be thankful” or “count their blessings”, I would ask that you please keep that to yourself and listen MORE. Practice compassion. Offer to drive them to their doctor, accompany them to a counseling session, or go on a walk with them in the sunshine.
A decade has passed since my postpartum depression diagnosis. My personal everyday struggle tends more toward anxiety, but depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Spending long periods of time feeling intensely anxious can be, well, depressing. (Understatement.) Since my mad go-around in 2004 – when I lost 20 pounds in a month’s time, and which took me almost a year to pull out of after weekly counseling, medication, regular reading of the Psalms, and a calendar wiped free of commitments – depression has visited me still, but with less intensity. I’ve had minor bouts here and there: when we moved from Nashville to Abilene, over the past two years because of several relational losses, and this summer as I’ve begun my spelunking self-examination expedition.
If we live long enough, overwhelming sadness taps us all on the shoulder and waves hello. For some of us, it lingers longer and engages us in superficial small talk. And for some, it is a constant companion, wrapping its arms around us in suffocating measure. I’m not 15 anymore. I know there are outcomes to stories that I will never comprehend. Still, I was stunned at how Robin’s journey ended. The experts – and non-experts too – could debate all day long about where exactly depression stems from…some say it’s a result of genetics, inclinations of certain personalities, the voice of Satan…some say it’s a physical illness, mental disorder, spiritual deficit. But no matter which slimy hole depression crawls out of, its consequences can be deceitful, disabling, and – evident this week – deadly. It had the power to snuff out the life of a man who exuded joy, who spent his life spilling out joy to others. It’s had the power – most likely since the beginning of time – to convince us that we have no business partaking in this precious Life.
Depression is real. It looks like me.
I wake up on an air mattress in an Austin apartment around 3:30am. (Sounds sketchy, eh?) Never falling back asleep means I’m heading into a day of carshopping on four hours of shuteye; this, along with several other factors, causes me significant anxiety. Sipping on grapefruit juice, I force myself to eat breakfast. If I can work through the early-morning ickiness enough to take in a bit of protein, it often takes the edge off.
At 3pm the previous day, we decided to trek to our state capital to shop for a new vehicle to accommodate our children’s ever-lengthening legs. The 10yo is with his grammy, so we figure we can manage a road trip fairly easily with the 7yo and 3yo. The locale of our rented condo is prime, on a shady block within walking distance of the University of Texas. I wish we had lived here when the hubs was in grad school; I probably would have seen him a lot more. We cruise around campus and I throw “hook ‘em Horns” out the car window the entire time. The 7yo asks me to “stop doing that” and B mumbles, “This is getting weird.” I reply only: “Solidarity.” I want to live in Austin again. I WANT TO LIVE HERE. I daydream about moving back to Austin regularly. We take the girls to the Capitol building and explore the inside of the rotunda. While observing the portrait of Davy Crockett, we explain to the 7yo that he, like her, was a Tennessean who moved to Texas. I text with a friend from Houston who was here just the day before, both of us bummed we missed each other.
We get on with our business at hand and drive to the first dealership on our list. The car salesman – who knew we were coming – makes us wait so long that we finally leave without ever seeing any inventory. I can tell the hubs is already frustrated. I say, “You doin’ ok? You’re seeming stressed.” He replies: “See this huge zit on my face? I’m pretty sure the stress pushed it last night.” I respond, “Dude, only one of us is allowed to be anxious in this partnership…and that’s ME.” Fortunately he laughs. A weathered-looking man who hints of homelessness ambles past our car while we are waiting at a stoplight. Several weeks ago at church, the 3yo put together a bag of snacks and water for someone who might be in need, so we share her offering with him. He takes it and thanks us, and her pleased grin shines like the morning sun.
Upon our arrival at the second dealership, the day has turned blazing hot. I’m hungry. And sleep-deprived. Thus I am irritable (to put it nicely). We test-drive a used Mazda with a sunroof. My five minutes of interstate-driving incites a full-on inward panic. No one in the car can tell but I am freaking…OUT. My head feels weird, my heart races, and I feel afraid of fainting while driving. As I turn back into the dealership, I calm down…but am still shaking and tell Brandon what happened. He says, “You did fine.” I didn’t FEEL fine though. At all.
Lunch at Chipotle. There are no tables available so we stand there waiting for someone to take notice of the family with two young children and one hangry mama. When a table opens up, I notice the teenage girl who leaves it is sporting a buzzcut, carrying a plastic box filled with meds, and has a port in her chest. After we sit down, the hubs notices the massive ulcer on the inside of my bottom lip and expresses frustration (with God, the universe, what-have-you) in regards to my struggles. He says it’s unfair that I have to deal with anxiety, insomnia, cankersores. I shrug my shoulders, then ask if he saw the teenage girl who just left. He ponders her for a moment, then replies: “Talk about unfair.” No kidding.
I mention that even though I often daydream of living in an urban place like Austin, I don’t know if I could take the frantic speed of it all. I feel frantic on the inside so much of the time, thus I need my surroundings to be the opposite. If I felt inwardly at peace more often, maybe I could better handle the whirlwind (traffic, noise, crushes of people, waiting for a table when you’re hangry) that is big-city living. We talk about how we have lots of changes coming in the next few weeks: Brandon’s job, the 10yo entering public school, the 7yo attending a new two-day-a-week school, and I say to B, “I feel the pace quickening…and I’m not ready.”
Two other patrons’ extremities are completely inked in tattoos and I want to study them all. But it’s rude to stare. I am fascinated by the stories people feel so deeply that they have them permanently etched on their bodies. The hubs and I start car-talking. Is it too hard to climb into the back seat? Does the back seat get enough air circulation? We move the convo back to our mini-mini-van parked on a side street and sit in the heat talking to our insurance company about fascinating topics like interest rates and financing. When the 7yo requests a potty, we drive around the corner to Starbucks. I notice more scrubs in the shop and outside a punk-looking girl dressed in black with a green ponytail…using a walker. Putting together all the health-professional-looking adults, a couple of ill teens, and a medivac helicopter flying in over the parking lot, I realize we are in the backyard of Dell Children’s Medical Center and it feels like my heart doubles over. This is one of the conundrums of life that is so hard for me to comprehend…ill and suffering children. As much as I have lingered on this thought in my forty years, I choose to push it away right now.
We decide against visiting the third dealership, and instead to make an offer on the Mazda with the sunroof. The girls and I spend the rest of the afternoon in a sky-blue waiting room while the hubs takes care of all the laborious detail that comes with purchasing a car. This is Brandon’s game and I am fine with that. I do my part by keeping the munchkins out of his hair. The girls do a terrific job waiting and entertaining themselves…and me. A friendly salesman offers for us to change the channel from ESPN to whatever the girls want to watch, so we hit up PBS. As he leaves the room, he whispers, “Football is so boring.” Another employee wanders into the waiting area and buys three snacks in about thirty minutes. On his third go-around, I say, “Maybe you should just go buy some lunch.” He laughs, turns red and says, “This IS my lunch.” He doesn’t come back after that. Did he think I was flirting? I don’t care. I’m forty years old. I’m starting to care less if someone thinks I’m flirting.
The sky turns dark toward the north. Blessed rain is moving into the city and the surrounding hill country. I go out to our hail-dinged car to retrieve our insurance card and sweet mercy! The shade of those thunderheads! As we wait for the dealership to do a last-minute tidy-up, I overhear the financing guy spilling to Brandon about the bad blood between him, his ex-wife and her present husband. It’s a sordid story and we’re only hearing his side of it, but it’s an appreciated reminder that everyone everywhere has stuff they’re dealing with. The 3yo notices my cankersore and says, “Oh, you okay? It hurts me too.” Empathy at three years old. Impressive. She hands me an invisible something and explains, “Crackers…eat them ALL.”
We are finally new(-to-us) car owners. It’s about 5pm and Brandon wants to push for home. Because we now have two cars to steer back, it means I’m driving and I am nervous about navigating through rain, in rush-hour traffic, and on four hours of sleep at dusk. But if we stay in town it means we have to pay for another night of lodging, and what if I don’t sleep well again? Will I be any more rested for a drive home tomorrow? We finally agree to stay put and head back into central Austin. I feel relieved. The apartment we rented the night before is fortunately still available so we pile back in. The weather is overcast, sprinkling and cool enough for us to walk down the street and let the girls have dinner with a mooching pigeon on the Chick-fil-A patio. Then we drive our new wheels to Whole Foods to buy dinner for the grown-ups; on the way, the hubs says ‘someone’s thumpin’ their bass tonight’ and I say ‘I think that’s US’…and it IS. Nicki Minaj and Usher in the middle-aged house, yo. Parking in the underground garage at Whole Foods makes us feel like legitimate city-dwellers. There’s no way we could shop in a place like this regularly (price point!) but it’s fun to do on “vacation”.
Back in the apartment, the girls crash into bed and Brandon fiddles with the phone charger. I dig into my baked potato and open Facebook to the news that Robin Williams has died. His death is sad enough as it is, but then I see something about ‘self-inflicted’ and ‘asphyxia’ and I know he has most likely hung himself. No…NO! Dammit! I think. Maybe I whisper it out loud. I don’t react this way because it’s the famous, funny-man Robin Williams, but because I loathe how depression can play such tricks on your mind. It lies and makes you think the world is better off without you, that your existence is a burden to your beloved ones. After 63 years of nagging at Robin, that insidious voice has convinced him of the lie. It ticks me off that depression – the oppressive spirit that haunts so many – has turned the ear of another child of God. I’ve come close to falling for that lie too, but that’s a not-so-usual story for another day.
I lay down my exhausted self in the city of my daydreams and fall asleep thinking of Robin.
“We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for in our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being.” ― Hermann Hesse
Yesterday a friend texted: “Do you ever experience the feeling of deep loneliness and the simultaneous desire to be completely alone? I call it ‘alonely’. You ever get that?” Yes. This is me right now. Wanting so much to be alone. But unliking the Loneliness that accompanies me like white on rice. My walk with Loneliness is taking me farther into rarely-explored, tricky-to-maneuver territory, and I’m not thrilled about it. I’m going in…but I’m going in with resistance…and some fervent kicking. So what that I’m 40? Forty-year-olds are not immune to kicking/screaming. Haven’t you watched The Real Housewives of anywhere?
Can’t say I’m stoked to share the following. First, I don’t want to sound desperate or whiny or like I’m passive-aggressively fishing for affirmation. Second, I don’t want the people who DO care for me deeply and express it openly to feel insignificant because of these words; I wonder if my dearests will read this and think “What am I, chopped liver?” To which I would reply, “You are grade-A, organic, grass-fed filet mignon, my friends” and also “Liver is actually good for you.” But this is my present reality right now. It is not a veiled cry-for-help. It just IS. If you feel the need to affirm me, put it into prayer-form and whisper it over your keyboard or phone. If you simply want to say “yep, I get it”, by all means, please share THAT. Because that encourages not only me, but anyone else reading through the comments.
Because I’ve been pondering a book-on-friendship idea for about ten years now, I sent out an informal survey the other day to several folks (ages 17-72) and asked them to list the five people (outside their home) with whom they correspond the most and how often they correspond with each. After I received about a dozen replies, I decided I should try to answer the question myself, and I had a hard time naming someone with whom I have a legitimate back-and-forth conversation (texting, phoning or in-personing) on a fairly regular basis. Part of this coming up empty-handed is self-imposed; I am smack in the middle of purposefully trying to practice stillness. Part of this is because — in our community brimming with teachers — there are lots of folks out-of-pocket during the heavy-travel summer season. Part of this is because several of my personal relationships have been in transition over the past year (a couple groups of which I’ve been a member have petered out, close friends have moved away). Add up all those parts and I feel…LONELY. My present life circumstances have gathered together and resulted in feelings of stark isolation.
It’s not that I don’t have people. I do. It’s not that I don’t correspond with people. I do! It’s just that I don’t have people with whom I correspond regularly (many of my surveyees had a couple people they corresponded with a few times a week). So there I was, sitting on my bed with that thought, mulling these things over when the hubs flopped next to me and said, “FYI…” and gave me a LOOK. “Don’t freak out, okay?” He said he had been asked to play lead guitar in the new instrumental service at our church. I love this for him. LOVE this. Playing guitar is one of his favorite pastimes and he’s very talented. But if he does this, it means he’ll be on stage on Sunday mornings and gone for two evening rehearsals a week. Translation: MORE TIME ALONE for Jana. I can think of nothing more to exacerbate my already-distinct loneliness than my closest ally – the one I talk to every day – being less available. Freak-out COMMENCING.
The thing with Loneliness is that it tries to convince you that your flawed humanness is why you’re alone. An extreme circumstance — death of a loved one, divorce, moving to a new town, celebrity — understandably contributes to feelings of isolation. But what if Loneliness IS the circumstance? What if you can’t attribute it to any specific event? When my people aren’t available like I want them to be, Loneliness can feel like the worst kind of dismissal, even abandonment. I imagine Loneliness settling next to me on the bench with that face — that FACE — and mumbling, “Maybe…there’s something WRONG with you.” To which I reply, “Dude. That’s a very uncool thing to say.” He shrugs his shoulders and gives me a sorrowful look.
But, like Bad Cop-turned-Good Cop in The Lego Movie, Loneliness has a softer side too. This kinder one suggests there are treasures to be found on a stroll through a land deserted of companions. Maybe this wide-open space in my journey is doing just that…giving me space. Space to think. About all sorts of things. Space to get to know myself, as unnerving as that can be. Space to evaluate why I’m so terrified of being abandoned. Space to reassure myself there’s no need to panic when people are unavailable. Space to learn how to more truly love others…and how to love myself, period. Space to breathe, write, read. Space to HEAL.
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes: “Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away…this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts….believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”
I know Loneliness will turn Bad Cop at some point again, making me feel like the reason I’m here in this desolate place is something for which I should be shamed. But it’s not. It just IS. Like some roads lead through the lacking-of-green landscape that is west Texas, some inner journeys lead through the lacking-of-companions tundra that is Loneliness. There is beauty here. You have to work hard to see it, and it’s often not visible until you’re through the desolation and can look back on the land in its completeness. But it’s here.
After Brandon leaves for his first evening of rehearsal, I corral the kids into bed, then sit on the front porch in the evening calm. The cicadas buzz their tune, the edgy heat of a summer day having already dissipated. I am surprised to not feel the lonely ache that has filled up my insides the previous two nights. Right now it feels like solitude, tranquility. I love the moment…the quiet, the demands and expectations of no one, the settling of the sun behind the blue clouds, the settling of peace into my spirit.
Loneliness sits next to me, enjoying the sunset too, and says, “See, I’m not so bad.” I narrow my eyes at him, unconvinced. He shrugs. I breathe out deeply. I can do this. I can walk this road. I CAN. Breathe in the arid desert air. Breathe out the mistaken belief that I’m lonely because I’m less-than. Breathe in Love. Breathe out fear. Try again tomorrow.
We are visiting my parents’ for a few days. I wake and go for a walk around the neighborhood in a drizzle of rain. My dad joins me on the first lap; I like hearing his reflections on turning 70. I walk the second lap alone, and come home to a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Around 10:30am, the hubs and I leave the youngsters in the care of their grand-dad so we can spend time with a friend before he moves cross-country and because I have an appointment with our holistic doctor.
As we begin our hour-drive to Denton with beverages in hand – cappuccino for him, Orange Ka-Bam smoothie with “energy boost enhancer” for me – the hubs talks fast and furious about deep, spiritual matters…things like how he thinks marriage is just a practice-run for how we will be in relationship with everyone in the next life. I love listening to his well-thought-out thoughts, and I wish I could recount them here as eloquently. His perceptive impressions remind me of the other day when I was bemoaning a dying tree having to be removed from our yard. I wondered out loud if it was all a prediction of a teetering friendship of mine – a depressing symbol of what was to come in the relationship – and the hubs came back with: “Maybe it IS a symbol…the dead parts of that friendship are being trimmed away, allowing the still-living parts to flourish.” To which I replied, “WHOA. That’s actually rather profound.” To which HE replied, “Uh, that reaction from you is making me feel really stupid.” To which I laughed.
As we steer into Denton, I call our friend and he suggests Chuy’s for lunch. He is graciously carving out a couple hours to hang with us before he up and moves to Maine tomorrow. We’ve been in relationship with this guy for almost twenty years now, and he is one of my favorite people on the planet. I’m so happy to be with him. I don’t know if my face is glowing but it feels like it is. Over baja tacos and creamy jalapeno dip, he fills us in on his new job and we expound on our kids’ latest antics. After lunch we move out to the patio to enjoy the unseasonably cool weather (balmy instead of baking); he shows us pics of where he’ll be living and informs us he has finally joined Facebook. I’m so thrilled for this next chapter in his journey…but Maine is quite a long hop from Texas. Just like most significant life transitions, the moment is bittersweet. When we part ways there are multiple hugs, a few tears, and one big lump in my throat.
We head to the Doc for my follow-up. Because of the insomnia and anxiety I’ve been navigating since early this year, I’ve been in touch with him more often. About three months ago, I drove in for an in-person visit where he put me on about 27 supplements and told me I should spring for a massage as often as possible (tense much?). Today when he asks how I’m doing, I tell him…better. I hesitate though, like I’m afraid that if I say it out loud, better will disappear. The Doc asks me to unpack my response, so I tell him I’m having an easier time falling asleep and that I’ve been pointedly focused on examining how I, Jana, interact with the world-at-large. I tell him, after years of knowing I possess this attribute, I am putting the brakes on chasing after the approval of other people to validate my self-worth. He stops his note-taking, looks up from his paperwork, and says, “That’s huge.” I also explain that I’m attempting to be more still. He asks, “How’s it going for you? That can be hard to put into practice.” It IS hard. I don’t have a chance to mention that I am afraid in the stillness – in my present non-pursuit of relationships – that my people will lose interest in me, that they will move on, and that I will be left with more heart-aching loss.
During my physical assessment, when the Doc palpates the soft spot under my right ribcage, I mention that it hurts a bit. He then pushes on the spot so hard it feels like my lungs constrict. There is tension in the diaphragmic muscle, he says, and calls it a flibbertyjibbit or some other clinical-sounding word that starts with an F. As our conversation continues, the wellness coach assisting the Doc labels us (the Doc and I) a comedy team…or dynamic duo…something like that. She thinks I’m funny, she says. I have no idea what I’m saying or doing that’s funny. (Wait, maybe she meant funny-in-the-head.) She says I am just the person with whom she needed to end her work day. I’ll take that as a compliment. I think. Depending on her definition of funny. As he leaves, the Doc grabs my hand and says, “Someday God is going to send someone your way to help.” I smile politely but feel confused by his statement. I feel like I’ve already been sent several someones to help, including this doctor. So when he closes the door behind him, I look at Brandon and ask, “What did he mean by that?” The hubs stares back at me quizzically. “What?” I implore. “He means he thinks God is going to send someone your way who needs your help…who needs to hear about your experience of healing.” Oh. Right. That makes more sense. Then Brandon gives me a look and says, “Sometimes I wonder about you.”
We hop in the car for the drive back to my parents’ house; I check social media and see something that makes my heart sink. Suddenly I feel quite the opposite of better. I try to keep it together – we’ve had such a lovely day and I don’t wanna go all Debbie Downer on our drive home – but I am. My mood is plunging. Brandon tries to give me a pep talk but it doesn’t work. Jokingly, he says, “Hey you. Snap out of it.” I reply, “I can’t.” It’s maddening that one small circumstance can have such a large effect on my emotional state. This is where the practice of being still turns difficult. Trying to sit with the pain? Trying to examine why certain words/actions hurt so much? Trying not to feel guilty about feeling hurt? Trying to figure out how to eventually transcend the hurt? Trying to forgive? Trying to forgive others AND myself?
We buy some custard and sit in the sun. Then drive back across town and pick up take-out from Freebirds. As we pull into my parents’ driveway, I say to Brandon, “It’s so hard to forgive. I don’t want to forgive. It’s too hard! Someone’s always doing something stupid or hurtful and I’m always having to forgive. And the more people you have in your life, the more you have to forgive.” He replies, “It’s good practice then. And aren’t you glad you’ve been forgiven for the stupid and hurtful things you’ve done to others?” At that moment, we step into my parents’ living room and back into our everyday reality of parenting three children, so I don’t have the chance to turn around and glare at him for speaking truth at the precise instant I don’t want but need to hear it.
The 3yo runs up to hug me, the 7yo is upside down in the recliner, and the 10yo informs us that the 3yo was fussing all day long (according to my dad, this is just the 10yo’s opinion). There are baths and a prayer, and then we shuttle the kids off to their various sleeping spots. The 10yo asks me to tuck him in. As soon as I lay back on the bed next to him, I am crying. I say, “I’m sorry. I’m feeling sad about some stuff.” There is a long pause and he asks, “What are you thinking about?” I try to boil it down to pre-pubescent childhood terms… “You know how sometimes you want your friend to invite you over to play? or invite you to their birthday party? and sometimes they don’t and you feel sad? It’s the same for grownups. Sometimes I want the people in my life to do things and they don’t and it makes me sad.” Another pause while tears slide back into my hair. Then he says, “Maybe your friends don’t know what to do…maybe they’re learning.” I lay there in tearful silence as I ponder that statement: maybe they’re learning. This wisdom from the lips of my 5th grade boy, the one with whom I butt heads almost every day. Of course they’re learning. Just like me. Like him. Isn’t that kind of our role as human beings? Maybe they’re learning. Maybe I’m not the only stumbling through life, sometimes falling flat on my face, learning by experience.
Later on Brandon notices my downcast demeanor and says, “Hey. I love you.” I reply, “I know you do. But nobody else does.” (I might be prone to dramatic statements on occasion.) He responds, “Yes, they do. Just because people do stupid things doesn’t mean they don’t love you.” I know he is right, but I don’t want to admit it.
I’m still learning.
Being STILL. This has been my goal of late. I’ve been exercising it in my relationships (by initiating hardly any correspondence), via the practice of meditation (and I do mean PRACTICE…it does NOT come easy to my overactive mind), and on social media (checking it only twice a day). Being still(er) on social media has been huge. HUGE. My mind has been less chaotic in the interim, during the 7am to 7pm hubbub-that-is-my-life, and I’ve been kind of amazed at the immediacy of the results; my attunement to the hubs and kids is much more heightened when I’m not losing my focus a dozen times a day. Then, this past weekend, I stilled myself on a yoga mat. Or a Yoda mat, according to Madea (see Tyler Perry’s Witness Protection for reference).
My history with yoga is pretty much nil. When I lived in Nashville, a friend taught sessions at the neighborhood community center and oft-encouraged me to visit, though I never did. I participated in a class at a fitness gym a few years ago but never returned. This past Saturday morning, however, as I was sitting in the backyard attempting to read and instead being hypnotized by Mother Nature – all three kids were elsewhere, the hubs was tinkering with the fritzy sprinkler system, the leaves of the pecan tree were fluttering overhead, and the birds were doin’ their chirp thang – I started re-pondering the ancient practice to the point of googling “yoga abilene”. The idea of stretching my middle-aged body via a low-impact workout…the mindful, meditative part of the practice…how uber-fierce the women look in the Athleta and Title Nine catalogs doing their “tricks” (as the 3yo describes it)…it all seems very appealing. My search of the interwebs brought up a yoga center on the south side of town. I poked around the class offerings and noticed the online “disclaimer”, smiling at the fact that it has to be…disclaimed: “Yoga is NOT a religion. It is a physical practice that incorporates mindful breath work and whole body movements with the aim to integrate mind and body. Do not be scared off if your instructor places their hands together in front of their heart, bows and says ‘namaste’; this means ‘I honor you’ and each class is ended this way.”
The online schedule showed that a beginners’ class was scheduled for mid-afternoon. When no one answered my call, I drove to the center in hopes to see if I could participate. The owner welcomed me in to the third week of a four-week beginners’ class, showed me around the simply-decorated venue, and introduced me to instructor Johanna. Other participants trickled into the dimly lit room where mellow music played. Soon Johanna turned off the tunes, and we were off and stretching. The room was quiet, and I mean QUI.ET. I wish I could tell you I described it to myself in my head as “so quiet you could hear a pin drop”, but my first thought was actually, “If somebody rips one, there will be absolutely NO hiding it. We’ll ALL know who it is.”
After our warm-up, we moved into poses with names like Downward-Facing Dog, Cobra, Warrior II, Plank (which is just an uppity word for ‘steadily holding a push-up for torturous amounts of time’), and – my favorite – Child’s Pose (the resting position…ahhhh). It wasn’t long before mmmmKAYthis isHARD floated into my head. But I reminded myself: you’re a beginner. Only a BEGINNER. First real class EVER. BE…GIN…NER. And anyway, I needed assistance only ONCE during the entire hour. Instructor Johanna guided us into a position that I haven’t even been able to find on the ‘net yet. Maybe it was just some random contortion she made up to weed out the pansies. And it almost did. My body felt torqued…’cause it was. Another instructor, set up on her mat behind me, frantically rushed forward to help, like she could see the lawsuit coming a mile away.
Somewhere in there, amidst the twisting of our bodies into pretzels, the instructor directed, “Let your belly be soft.” No problem THERE. I’ve given birth to three 9-lb children. My belly is permanently, irreversibly, forever…SOFT. About halfway through the class, my soft-pretzel self caught the odor of sweat-stink. Pretty fair chance it was me. Don’t amble too close there, Johanna. I doubt you would “namaste” my naste’ stench. Honor the DEO…that’s all I’m saying. All-natural deo made with baking soda, coconut milk, and flecks of gold from the Holy Grail, of course.
The instructor strolled between us speaking in her firm, encouraging voice. As I was bent forward with my head to the ground, my fists stacked in front of me, she said to the room, “Unclench your hands. What are you holding onto?” Oh. OH. You wanna go THERE, do you? Johanna? DO YOU??? I almost rolled over on the mat that other people’s smelly toes have stepped all over, looked up at her and asked, “Do you REALLY wanna know?” But I didn’t. Rhetorical question.
Near the end of class, as she guided us through cool-down, she kept repeating the word ‘surrender’. Surrender. I wanted to stomp my feet at that comment. Surrender what? All this talk of surrendering and relinquishing and letting go (don’t you dare start singing it!). Surrender WHAT?! And then…it was like the spirit of God that lives within gave me a gentle, knowing look and replied, “You know what.” It wasn’t till several hours later the answer fully arrived: surrender the expectations you have of people, the approval you seek from people, and in some cases, the people themselves.
I suppose this is why I feel drawn to yoga at this point in my journey. It’s not just about strengthening the body – which I need for sure – but the mind and spirit too. It’s yet another meditative practice that promotes connecting with one’s self, an inward excavating adventure of sorts. As yoga teacher/life coach Erin LoPorto describes it: “There is a deep meditative aspect to yoga that takes you deeper into yourself and into your life…the mere act of stilling our bodies, closing our eyes and minimizing the external stimulus brings us to a place of witnessing our internal state of being. Are you practicing yoga solely for the physical benefits or are you hungering for transformation? If you want the latter, at some point, you will have to acknowledge that inner world….”
Have you experienced grief to where it made your heart ache, literally? That’s been me the past few weeks. There’s been the physical sensation of a vise grip on the innards of my ribcage. Saturday was the first day in weeks I’ve felt relief. Maybe it was having a kid-free morning or sitting outside in the shade of a tree. Maybe it was the prayers of my people or more fully accepting certain life circumstances. Maybe it was the yoga…or maybe it was everything.
Whatever it was, I wanna see where the yoga takes me. Hopefully into a better sense of my self. And very few Planks.
The hailstorm of epic proportions unleashed its terror at about 6pm on a Thursday evening. My friend Arlene came over to watch my girls so I could attend a therapy session. As I was about to leave the house, my 3yo exclaimed, “It’s dark out der!” Indeed the sky looked sketchy. I checked weather.com and noticed a tornado watch had been issued for the area. In the past, this in itself would have kept me at home. I have nightmares about tornadoes, and I WILL…NOT…DRIVE if there’s a hint of twister weather in the forecast. But also: THERAPY. The radar showed the storm was just north of town, and since I had less than three miles to drive (in a southern direction), I figured I could outrun it. And there’s a good chance I COULD have if it wasn’t for the longest red light ever to exist in the history of traffic lights. Standing in my driveway about to step into my car, I thought I heard a sound of rushing wind…enough to make me stop and reconsider leaving. But I supposed it was only rain in the distance, so I turned the key in the ignition – an hour of therapy luring me – and lead-footed it about halfway to my destination before being stopped in my tracks by that foolhardy red light. The storm blew in while I waited. I heard the hail before I saw it, heard the pinging. When I finally frantically pulled out of the interminable intersection, I hightailed it into the parking lot of a local business, missing the driveway entirely and lurching up over the curb in a panic. The next ten minutes consisted of me honking at the aforementioned storefront to see if someone would unlock the building for me (they turned off the lights seconds before I careened up to the door)…realizing the pings had turned to pops…zipping back across the lot to gather with other drivers seeking shelter under trees…sitting with my hands over my face in fear and self-protection as hail pummeled my little car. It sounded like a team of gangsters was taking metal baseball bats to the poor thing…or like a machine gun was being leveled at me…or LIKE ZEUS WAS PITCHING BASEBALLS FROM OUTER SPACE. Not only was the sound itself traumatizing, but knowing that ANY SECOND one of those missiles could fly in and bring shards of glass with it…makes me feel antsy just writing about it. The hail lightened just a smidge and the other couple vehicles sped away, so I decided to gun it too. Moments after I shot off, here came the doozy…a direct hit to the windshield. A web of cracks appeared instantly. Trying not to hyperventilate, invoking the name of Jesus in all its capacities, explaining to God in a high-pitched tone of voice that I did not want to die this way (pretty sure there was shrieking involved), I turned down a street to take me into downtown, through an industrial area already shut down for the day. That was one lonesome stretch of two blocks. I felt like the end of the world might be upon me and I was facing it alone. As I drove my hysterical self between the downtown buildings, the hail intensified again. Noticing another vehicle underneath an overhead crosswalk between a bank and parking garage, I followed suit. Didn’t do much good. The hail bounced off parked cars nearby and bullied me anyway. I wondered if I should abandon my rolling tin can and run the few steps to the shelter of the parking garage, but didn’t feel it was worth the risk. It would have been like stepping into a batting-cage-gone-mad without a helmet. So I sat there, jumping at every POP!, wondering how the guy two lanes over looked so chill, and watching the hail shatter windows of cars parked downtown for a children’s art/literature festival. I had only two blocks to my destination. When the hail gave another semi-reprieve and I saw the lights down the street turn green, I took off like a bat out of hail 😉 I found a parking spot right at the front door of the office, but the ice bullets were still striking enough that I was nervous about the two giant steps it would take to enter the building. I crawled over the console into the passenger seat and after several minutes let my long legs catapult me to shelter. The timing was perfect; after such an experience, a therapist’s office is exactly where I needed to be. He went to check on his truck, and I went fetal position on the sofa. When he came back from surveying the damage, I told him I needed him to tell me about his day, share a funny story, just TALK, because I didn’t have the present capabilities to string together sensible sentences. After limping the car home on a flat tire, Arlene walked right up to me, hugged me tight, and said, “You SURVIVED.” Later that night, my friend Summer texted me: “If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you are going to be freaking superpowered.” I’d like to think so. Supergirl spent the day after on my couch staring out the window in a trance, trying to learn how to breathe again.
The following Tuesday, auto claims adjuster Jeff showed up. He started surveying the car (like adjusters do) and I started asking questions (like I do). My overt curiosity led to him divulging that he was one of the first on-scene after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Circling my car making notes on the dents and dings, he shared about the aftermath of the hurricane: the looting, the dead animals, the people who had refused to leave their homes, the houses spraypainted with marks to signify dead bodies inside, the smell of decay, the categorical devastation. And then he stated bluntly: “That storm killed everything that stayed.”
Which made me THINK (like I do). Sometimes…you can’t stay. Sometimes you have to leave the marriage/friendship/church/job/school/neighborhood. At some point, it’s not worth the heartache or the mental anguish anymore. And sometimes…it’s flat-out dangerous to stick around. Maybe you’ve weatherproofed the house. Maybe you’ve battened down the hatches. Maybe you’ve got your stash of water and canned goods and flashlights. You’re as prepared as one can be. But sometimes…SOMETIMES…the storm is so vicious you just have to scoot the heck outta dodge.
Deciding to leave is not something I take lightly. For those who haven’t been privy to my resistance against “relinquishing”, let me introduce myself: I’m a dig-in-my-fingernails type, especially when it comes to jobs, relationships, and general life expectations. My peeps have described me as “loyal” and “faithful” on more than one occasion. And I know this about myself. I AM loyal and faithful. To a fault. But there’s a time to give in…to raise the white flag…to surrender.
Surrendering so often has negative connotations of weakness in our culture. You’re giving something up? You’re GIVING UP??? But there can be courage in the giving up…in realizing that fighting whatever-your-battle-is is only wearing you out. The fact is, there are storms – or life circumstances – that can kill you. Maybe your body, more likely your spirit. Is it worth it to stay? To sacrifice your SPIRIT for the job with the demeaning boss? For the partner who doesn’t hear or respect you? For the overcommitment to organizations that leave you no time to rest?
“When an endless amount of work/blood/sweat/tears leaves a situation or relationship as unhealthy as it ever was, when there is virtually no redemption…sometimes the healthiest possible response is to walk away. Locked in a toxic relationship/career/ambition/community, the levels of unhealth and spiritual pollution can murder everything tender and Christlike in us….we can pour an endless amount of energy into the chasm, and it will never matter. [Walk] away before you destroy your spirit on the altar of Futile Diligence. Not every battle has a winner; sometimes it is all losers, carnage everywhere. When healthy options exist, and there is a safer alternative right…over…there, often the bravest thing we can do is stop fighting for something that will never, ever be well. [Evaluating critically] is the wisest thing we can do. Reaching a point where you say ‘enough’ to a toxic environment is not cowardly – it is so very brave.” – Jen Hatmaker
Some storms there are no avoiding (illness, death, betrayal, etc). They come on fast, without warning, and you have to ride out the squall. But sometimes you can see that threatening-looking mess approaching from way off, the meteorologists are flashing their warnings on the screen, the double-red flags have been posted on the beach, and you have to decide: do I evacuate?
“There is a time to embrace and a time to turn away,” penned the author of Ecclesiates. Sometimes bravery means standing your ground, sometimes it means walking away. If you find yourself thinking, “This might legitimately be the death of me”, if you feel your spirit melting under the heat of the firestorm, if you feel God/Love putting it on your heart to move in another direction, do it. Get out. Don’t stay. Put some distance between yourself and the tempest. Evacuate and protect your precious spirit.
As for me, I can’t make any guarantees about what I’ll do the next time a monsoon moves in during a scheduled counseling appointment. I really…REALLY…love therapy. I might even take a bullet for it. An ice bullet. Get it?
This morning I wake around 6:30am and practice meditating for fifteen minutes. I try to concentrate on Love. I am Loved. You Love me. LOVE. But even in my groggy early-morning mind-fog, my thoughts are all over the place. I follow meditation with a walk around the college campus nearby, intending to offer prayer to God for the entire 40-minute stroll. But by then, my monkey mind is even more alert, a stream of consciousness straight out of a William Faulkner novel. My prayer lasts about 40 seconds, overridden by the conversation I’m having with myself in my head. Could all that talking-to-myself qualify as talking to GOD too? Maybe it does.
Back home, I eat a breakfast of eggs, apple with almond butter, and – no tea today – water with drops of iodine. I prompt my 7yo to start writing thank you notes for birthday gifts. I start a load of laundry. My 3yo wanders into my room pleading to watch a movie; I say no and ignore her continued whining. She turns away, dejected, and my heart breaks a little. I sit on the edge of my bed and say, “Larkin, come here.” She walks her sad face back to me, and I gather her up in my arms and lay back on the bed with her. She snuggles into my chest willingly and I run my fingers through her brunette curls. My spirit calms with her little body next to mine. I think about last night as I was tucking her in at bedtime, lying next to her, watching her run a matchbox car over her blanketed chest. She noticed me observing her, grinned a bashful smile, and asked “Why you lookin’ at me?” I replied, “Because I love you.” And then I pondered how we humans do that: gaze at what we love. We pay attention to the objects of our affection. I find myself watching – just because I love – my children, the sun setting, people extending kindness to others, the food bar at Central Market. This morning I wonder if the reverse is true: can we grow our love for someone if we fix our gaze on them steadily? Can we end up having affection for whoever or whatever is always in front of us? Does it work that way?
I head to a dental appointment. After I sign myself in, a magazine practically leaps into my hands from the coffee table. It’s an April issue of TIME; the cover story is titled ”Finding God in the Dark”. The article highlights preacher/professor Barbara Brown Taylor’s new memoir Learning to Walk in the Dark. My eyes settle on these words: “…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” This resonates. Hugely. Because I feel like I’m in the dark right now. Like there’s a thick fog in front of me, obscuring the different paths I could take. It’s not clear to me how I should move forward. That kind of dark.
My pearlie-whites look good, the toothy professionals say. The dentist admits that the tiny cavity they took x-rays of three years ago looks…smaller? How is that possible? They say it’s because I floss. I like to think it’s because I’ve cut down on sugar.
I drive directly to the downtown library and check out BBT’s book. A title in the children’s section – A Lonely Book – intrigues me so I snag that too. I come home, move clothes from washer to dryer, and start a second load. I notice a splinter I’ve had in my thumb for almost two weeks has disappeared. The skin has quietly opened to let out the foreign object. I’ve been aware of its presence ever since it slid in, but at some point, unbeknownst to me, my body pushed it out. I’m intrigued by this thought: how our bodies reject invaders, how forces unseen to our eye gather and send away that which doesn’t belong. It makes me think about how this translates to splinters in our spiritual selves: resentment, rage, shame. And how our spirits do everything to push out those splinters too.
Lunch finds me at a local sandwich shop themed around Humphrey Bogart. Listening to The Andrews Sisters’ trill “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, I devour the buttery patty melt while staring at a lifesize cardboard cut-out of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, a.k.a. Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Were Rhett and Scarlett happy with the way things shook out between them? I wonder. Did Rhett ever regret leaving? Did Scarlett ever realize her foolishness?
I walk across the street to a bakery and begin Learning to Walk in the Dark. An out-of-town college friend strolls in with her daughter; while we chat, I mention that I’ve just started reading BBT’s new memoir and my friend reminds me that she is coming to Abilene to speak in September (thrilling!!!). After awhile, I run home, pick up my crew and we return to the library. I have such fond childhood memories of the downtown library in my Louisiana hometown. Those reflections, along with my desire to be that bookish, studious-even-in-the-summer mom, prompt this visit. We find a table and the girls start talking loudly, debating about who gets to hold Rapunzel, and the firstborn grumps about not being able to locate a certain Lego book. It’s not quite the relaxing, low-key afternoon I had envisioned. The husband looks across the table at me and says “You look like you’re about to cry.” I feel that way. It’s kind of my modus operandi these days.
We come home. I make dinner. Exhaustion sets in. All the weariness, non-stop kid commentary, and feeling-taken-for-granted crashes into each other and barrels into my chest. Someone’s tone of voice sets me off and and I excuse myself to the bedroom. When I hear someone ask “why is mom frustrated?”, I decide I need to enlighten them. Then I’m yelling and the husband is suggesting I stick with my original plan of retiring to the bedroom. So I do, and slam the door as hard as I can behind me. He follows me in and I rage. At some point I spit out, “I feel alone! I feel so ALONE!” Because I do. (I share this because it’s just a matter of fact, not because I need anyone sending me flowers or serenading me with MJ’s “You Are Not Alone” at midnight.)
I scribble my inner junk into my journal, as fast as my fingers will fly. Around 9:15, I go for a walk. In the dark. Reflecting on the title of Taylor’s book, I decide to take her suggestion literally. My walk in the dark isn’t quite as dark as I’d like it to be. I’m in a city with streetlights, headlights, traffic lights, porch lights. But that’s not stopping me. I walk up to campus bare-footed, listening to the cicadas, trying to follow the darkest path. As I stroll through the century-old buildings and pecan trees, I hear the faint sound of singing. My step quickens in the direction of the amphitheater, the most likely spot to track down the sort of chorus I’m hearing. And there they are, about 200 teenagers singing “Nothing But the Blood”. It’s beautiful…BEAUTIFUL. I park myself in the shadow of a tree to listen and a friggin’ fire ant bites my ankle. But my spirit still soaks in the sweet voices of those high schoolers:
“Now by this I’ll overcome—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Now by this I’ll reach my home—
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
I walk home. In the dark.
I am at a prayer session of sorts. The church I attend has invited women to come to the home of one of our staff ministers for an evening of respite away from our busy lives. As we quiet ourselves in stillness, all of us lying on the floor, a woman moves around the room and lays her hands on our heads – on each of us for just a few minutes – and prays for us silently. She is reputed to have a gift for visions. I’m not exactly sure what that means. I am so utterly cynical of such things: “visions”, a vibrantly healthy church family, overly happy people. I really just want a quiet evening all to myself. Lying here on this floor with a sofa pillow under my head will do nicely. As wary as I am of this woman’s upbeat, charismatic personality and “vision” claims, I want to be like her. She has a seemingly unshakeable faith and confidence in the unseen world. Maybe one day I will too.
When the hour of stillness is over, she tells us each what pressed on her spirit while praying. There are about ten of us here, and I am the second one to whom she speaks. She says the word “transformation” kept coming to her…and an image of a heart wide open, with a myriad of rooms to be explored…that there were good things to be found in those parcels of my heart…that the year ahead would be transforming. This resonates. I’ve felt it begun already.
That was two-and-a-half years ago. In the months to follow, I journeyed deep into the valley of grief with friends who buried a child, had two friends deliberately remove themselves from my life, and had two friends move away. Transformative? Indeed. Metamorphosis? Something like that. But am I an egg, larva, chrysalis or butterfly? Am I getting to know myself? Becoming more comfortable in my own skin? Learning to legitimately love myself? I can’t quite put words to it. But I know, for sure, I have a New Path ahead of me. I have arrived at a crossroads, and it’s time for me to take the turn.
Anyone ever born into the world travels their own individual path. And because thinking in metaphors helps me better understand these sorts of things, I typically envision these paths running through a forest (scrubby mesquites, towering pines, massive redwoods…take your pick). I’ve been walking a path near my parents and brother my entire life. My husband’s and my paths have been side by side, paralleling for almost 17 years, with our three children appearing (out of thin air!) over the last decade. Then there’s everyone else – varying levels of friends, acquaintances, strangers – and our paths weave in and out of each other’s lives. There are some with whom I’ve walked so closely that our paths have been practically the same, and now because of time and other relationships, I have to squint to see them, our trajectories having taken us in such different directions. We all move at our own pace trekking through the timberland, just as we do through life, paths crisscrossing, overlapping, sometimes abruptly shifting into about-face mode.
Somewhere during the last two years I am padding along when I notice the New Path up ahead and feel drawn to it, but also afraid. The unknown, you know…the UNKNOWN!!! A sign points to the offshoot: This Way to Unexplored Chamber of Your Heart. I mosey up to the juncture and stand there for the longest time, staring down at what-could-be-my-new-path, digging my toe in the dirt as if I could tell what was ahead from the texture of the ground beneath my feet. The whirlwind of those two friendships disintegrating behind me shoves me forward, forcing me to stumble onto the unfamiliar path. And then, a brand-new friendship blasts out of nowhere and happily distracts me from the fear of my changing course and from my recent painful break-ups. So I stop. Right where I am. Resting in the relief of having a new, attentive friend, I put the idea of traveling the New Path on the backburner.
But nowadays, the dust kicked up by the flurry of that freshly fulfilling friendship has settled, and I can feel the pull of the path again. It’s time to refocus on the walk before me. I’m not necessarily thrilled about this realization. It’s hard leaving behind a precious, life-giving season of your journey. Who KNOWS what’s ahead? It could be ANYTHING. It could be breath-takingly beautiful, like standing underneath a canopy of millions of monarch butterflies wintering in the fir forests of central Mexico. Or it could be an awful trudge through swampwaters infested with less-friendly creatures. Or…OR…it COULD be that a terrifying swim through the swamp is my one and only way to the monarch haven. What’s to come is still blind to me (as uncharted territory usually is), and I’m fully aware it has potential to be painful, frightening and/or lonely. But I also know this New Path has potential to be healing, freeing, TRANSFORMING.
So I’m walking forward. Tentatively. With some anxiety (you betcha!). Paraphrasing author Jim Palmer’s words from above: I’ve been knowing…it’s time to get going. I’ve had an awareness of the road ahead for a while now, but here’s where the rubber needs to meet the road. Or…here’s where my foot needs to meet the earth. Whatever. So I choose to move forward…with plenty of lookbacks at where I was, where I’ve been these past two years…where I’ve been my entire life, honestly.
I have no idea what stage of my “transformation” is indicated by this recent change in direction (larva sounds about right. larrrrrrrrrvaaaaaaa.). But I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s happening…so I’m happening with it. As with most new and unexplored trails, there’s both anxiety and anticipation about what’s ahead. I like to think this path I’m now traveling is drawing me closer to this clearing in the forest I’ve heard about. Right smack in the middle is a tree so expansive its shade covers anyone who admits they need it, a tree with millions of metamorphosized winged creatures fluttering in and about its branches. A place where we hikers can truly rest, a place of peace, a place that gives Life in its purest form. That’s where I hope I’m heading.
“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Last Monday, with my boys on the last leg of their European adventure, my girls headed to Fort Worth to spend some time with their grandparents and left me to have a week all by my lonesome. On that first responsibility-free afternoon, I vacillated between absentmindedly staring into space with a goofy grin on my face and breaking into spontaneous jigs of joy. One WEEK? All to mySELF??? I’ll be able to get so much DONE!!! When I bumped into my friend Lisa at church on Sunday morning, I told her I was thrilled about the week ahead but also feeling the need to “be productive”. She looked me square in the eye and said “No. You don’t need to be productive. You need to just BE.” The next morning, as I drove the 7yo to her gymnastics class, I passed a digital marquee in front of one of the gajillion or so churches in our town and glanced over to see it in flashing red: “BE STILL AND KNOW”. Both messages reinforced what I felt my spirit already prodding: Be still. Be quiet. Listen. Reflect. Keep your calendar clear. Don’t DO…just BE.
After my mini-mes drove off, it took a good 36 hours for me to unwind and regulate my breathing (not even joking). By Tuesday night, I finally started feeling like I could actually relax and start my focus on BEING. Here’s how I spent the week: walking two miles every morning, reading Jim Palmer’s Divine Nobodies, watching a bit of trash TV in the middle of the afternoon (and by “trash TV”, I mean Bravo), having a masseuse run her elbows up and down my back for an hour, peeling the top layer of epidermis from my thighs (thanks to last week’s sunburn), doing some writing, having a new tire installed on the zoom-zoom (I caved to this to-do list item in regards to my personal safety), and watching a documentary titled “I AM” (fits right in with the “be” verb, eh?). I admit there was also one afternoon of intense house-cleaning. I practiced “being still” with some of my favorite local take-out, a cherry Coke, and multiple squares of dark chocolate. I spent some time “knowing” Netflix, at a louder volume than usual. I had a moms’ afternoon out to see “Mom’s Night Out” with one of my most drama-free friends, Lady Chillax (not her real name, in case you were wondering). A neighbor cut the gladioli out of her yard and left them on my porch (see above). I had an insightful, promotive-of-healing conversation with Reiki Lady about relationships and emotional attachments. My friend Lisa (the one who implored me to BE) came over and read to me from Richard Foster’s Prayer about relinquishing fear/anxiety/desires/people. (Side note: From this day forward, I will now be using the word ‘relinquish’ in place of the phrase ‘let it go’ because 1) it’s fun to say and 2) there will be no more interruptions of me making a point about letting something go by people breaking into personal renditions of Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go”.) I had a few weepy moments. I had a few dancey moments. I had a few Bluebell and DQ Blizzard moments.
As much as I love listening to my music, I didn’t have it on much. Not in the car, not at the house, not on a star, not with a mouse. I purposefully moved about my day in silence, with the occasional telling-of-a-story to myself out loud. From teacher/author Ram Dass: “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” And it’s true. Y’all know it’s TRUE! After quieting myself, I heard melodious birds and distant lawnmowers and creaks in the walls around me that I don’t typically notice. But I’m guessing our friend Ram probably meant hearing to another extent. When people are away and to-do lists ignored, and a quiet, still space lies before you, STUFF COMES UP. I know. It’s profound. Almost as profound as Ram’s words. Feel free to typeset that against an image of some magnificent natural setting and share it like mad on social media.
Seriously. Stuff comes up. I think most of us know this on a deep spiritual level, and because of this knowledge, we often AVOID the practice of being still because we don’t WANT stuff coming up. We don’t WANT to hear. Because that stuff – or SHTUFF (because, like ‘relinquish’, it’s fun to say) – typically brings with it pain. That’s why we bury it, put it away, attempt to ignore it. And beneath the load of all the things we have to DO, a lot of us can keep our shtuff at bay (it’s always there though, festering). For me, it meant coming to terms with a friendship in which I have too heavily emotionally invested myself (I have a tendency to heavily emotionally invest myself in most of my closest relationships, and while I think this can make for some pretty wonderful relational interactions, it doesn’t work if 1) it’s draining energy from your day-to-day life and 2) as one of my friends tells his subordinates in their work with their clients: “Don’t care more than they do.” This is a thing with me…caring for someone to the detriment of mySELF. I realize this is a semi-touchy subject, especially if you’ve grown up repeatedly hearing the scripture “Love others as yourself”. But that’s just it. Those words imply we should love ourselves and others EQUALLY. Another blog for another day!) I also “heard” this thought: maybe I’ve experienced so much friendship loss over the past two years (friends moving cross-country, friends removing themselves from my life) to give me time and space to become friends with myself. Not that God orchestrated my friends moving away purely for my own self-enlightenment. I’m just saying…who the heck knows how these things work?? (Yet more profundity!) Maybe the losses happened and the space came and…Love flowed in to teach me something more about, well, Love.
So much of my life consists of DOING. I know how to DO. I DO every day. BEing is harder. How can one BE, exactly? I have a running to-DO list, not a to-BE list. Things to DO: teach reading lesson, buy groceries, send in camp application, pay water bill, have windshield replaced. Things to BE: hmmm…let’s see…loving, kind, forgiving, at peace. Dangit. BEING looks like it might be even harder than I initially thought. It requires much less of me to sweep a floor than to practice forgiveness. So I fill up my calendar with DOING. Which, by the way, also factors into why – when I have three minutes to myself during a normal ol’ day – I often turn to scrolling Facebook or Pinterest. Because it’s easy, and it taps down the shtuff that might bubble up. Not exactly the definition of Emerson’s suggestion to “guard well my spare moments”.
Most of the great spiritual teachers encourage the practice of solitude, where one intentionally steps away from life’s busyness to be still and tune in to one’s spirit/The Spirit. In Mark 6:31, Jesus says to his disciples: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest.” Why yes, Jesus, FABULOUS suggestion. Don’t mind if I do! The question is, how does one practice BEING alone/still/quiet if one is inundated with a lifestyle of DOING?
When I told my therapist that one week of solitude didn’t feel like enough time, he replied, “That means you’re exhausted.” Is that what that means? Because I think he might be right. The thing is…I can’t take a week off from my life as often as I might prefer. I need to figure out how to integrate moments of stillness into each day. I’m fortunate to have a husband who recognizes my need for solitude and 1) takes our kids on a week-long adventure to Grammy’s every summer and 2) encourages me to take weekends out-of-town by myself on occasion. This year my parents helped out (THANK YOU, MOM & DAD!!!). But my present reality is that there’s always someone or something that needs my attention. And it’s hard, hard, hard to eek out minutes to practice solitude during each 24-hour day, especially if you need 36 hours to unwind (logistical problem).
Hold on…gotta scribble somethin’ down…“how to be still and practice solitude in the midst of the pandemonium that is my life”. Excuse me a moment while I add that to my to-do list 😉