Unforgiveness Part 1: This Is Not A Political Post

In the last blog, I wrote about how compassion flows when you connect with a person’s humanity, and acknowledge their path, and the different moments in time that led them to where the are.  Life is not black and white, and no one can really know what they’d do if they’ve never been in someone else’s shoes. I do really and truly believe that each of us, from Mother Teresa to Charles Manson, began as a beautiful and innocent creation – a child. And through a million different moments, sometimes, something – just goes wrong.

Easy to say, of course, until you’re the one on the receiving end of the thing that went wrong. Until you’re the victim of a crime. Or an accusation. Or an extortion plot for some incriminating pics of you in high school and thank goodness there were no interwebs back then.

Then forgiveness can feel a little out of reach, and compassion out of the question.

I’ve never really considered myself someone who struggles with forgiveness. Not that I’m really great at it, or don’t hold grudges – I hold grudges just fine.

If anything, I’m pretty sure that I’ve been much more in need of forgiveness, than I’ve needed to forgive.  Growing up, I was often the master-mind behind the Gretna version of Mean Girls.  Well there weren’t really enough of us to form cliques, but we tried to improvise as best we could.

Anyway… over the last few years, I’ve discovered a few things about myself.   One of these things was revealed around the time of the U.S. Election. This is not a political post, btw. Mostly not. Well… I’ll try.

The morning after the election I was stunned. STUNNED. And angry. And I half ripped off the head of the first person who tried to talk me down from it. Why was I SO angry?

I mean, I had legitimate concern for the state of the free world. I also had a lot of, “You idiots, what have you done, you idiots…”   And I had straight-up bewilderment.  Story after story of really, really bad behaviour, and prejudices, and pussy-grabbing just kept surfacing, and yet… here we are.

But there was also something else. Especially when I heard that 80% of the group — the tribe that I have identified with for most of my life — voted for him. It just felt so damn personal. Something inside me was screaming, “After making a lifestyle of focusing on behaviour, and anyone who isn’t Christian enough, you’re now embracing THIS GUY?”

My faith experience (and personal goal for many years) seemed that Priority One was to point out one’s every move, six ways from Sunday, that might resemble a sin.  Certain ones anyway.  And the threat of hell thrown around if the sin column started to total a little high.  Now this same collective voice is suddenly saying, “Oh that? Yeah, don’t worry about that – as long as we build the wall and fix the bathroom issue.”

But like I said, this is not a political post.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m discovering that I take some issue with the faith I grew up in. And let me be really clear – if I’m pointing a finger, I don’t even know who I’m pointing at.  Everyone?  No one in particular?  Myself?  I don’t even know with whom the issue is, exactly.  Or which parts of it are the issue?

Not all of it. Not everyone. Not even maybe.  But there are certain ideas, or the culture, or mindsets.. or something.  Maybe it’s all just something I took the wrong way, and it compounded. A cocktail of misunderstandings and a series of unfortunate events.

But it IS my experience.

Anne Lamott writes, “Forgiveness means it’s no longer important to hit back.”

I don’t know exactly who I’m swinging at, but it definitely feels like it’s still important to hit back.  My left hook is triggered by a lot of things.  Conversations I hear.  Conversations I’m in.  Facebook posts.

It feels like a wound. Somebody pokes at it, even inadvertently and I flinch and go into defense mode. Which actually looks a lot like offense mode.

Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts” tells the story of a woman, addicted to crystal meth, who has been treated horribly by her mother, and who is now neglecting her own daughter.  He describes generation after generation of ruined lives, and all I can feel is compassion.  I don’t feel judgement and can only imagine the desperation and the drive to escape unimaginable pain.

But then someone makes a disparaging post about the Muslim community, or chooses to boycott a Disney flick that contains a ‘gay moment’ and I’m like, “Okay, THAT’S IT. Brace yourself for a sharply penned Facebook post of cleverly-disguised (or obviously stated) contempt.”  

Yeah. That’s my super power – a sharp wit. I asked for time travel, but I got a big mouth instead.

What IS that?

Etty Hillesum, wrote from a Nazi concentration camp, “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”

Drat.  I’ve heard that before.  Like the thing when you really dislike something about someone, it’s really also something that you dislike in yourself.  Shoot.

But I think that there is also the wound. And the wound is real. And my guard is up against anything that comes near it. And when that same wound is being inflicted on someone else, I can feel it. And it seems like it will take more than the passage of time to heal completely.

To be continued… possibly for longer than I want.

Kodachrome

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The novel, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III is on the short list of fictional books that have impacted my life.  I remember choosing it because it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.  I wanted to read something, but didn’t know where to look.  The last time I’d read a novel was against my will, and was probably something like Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Leaven of Malice.  Neither of which I actually even read, unless Coles Notes and VHS count.

I won’t give too much away about the plot or resolution of House of Sand and Fog, except to say that it’s extremely bleak and everyone dies.

Well, not quite.  But the ending of the book left me so torn, as to who was good, who was bad.  Who was at fault, who was innocent?  They all were and they all were not. 

A review on the book sums it up for me.  The reviewer writes,  “… his (the author’s) limber imagination is capable of drawing the inner lives of three very different main characters with such compassion that readers will find their sympathies hopelessly divided.”

That was exactly it.  It was probably the first story I’d heard (or noticed) where the line between the good guys and the bad guys was not clear – at all.

The novel, 19 Minutes by Jodi Piccoult, traces the events leading up to a school shooting.  In this story, the kid who does the shooting is horrifically bullied by his peers his whole life.  The author paints his pain and their cruelty so vividly, that by the time he walks into the school you are practically rooting for him to do what he does.   Of course not.  But kinda.

I just watched Monster, with Charlize Theron.  The based on real events movie portrays bits and pieces of Aileen Wuornos’s heart-breaking life, which includes prostitution and a serial killing spree which lands her on death row.   Her life is shown as a tragedy of one terrible circumstance after another; and small choices and non-choices that end up with her being hopelessly desperate.  And it’s hard to resist feeling compassion for her.  And honestly, I’m not sure we should try.

We grow up in a world of good and evil.  Snow White and the Evil Queen.  Cops and robbers.  Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.  But since the Dubus novel, I have been drawn to stories where the lines are not so clear.  The good guys are not perfect, and the bad guys have their own complicated pasts.  Like Thor and Loki.

Life is not black and white.  I used to think it was.  In fact I knew everything about everything.   I could tell you what’s black and what’s white.  Who’s right and who’s wrong.  This is the mind of someone who thinks they are above other people.  It’s the mind of someone who thinks they are incapable of falling.

But something happens when you find yourself falling to depths that  you never thought you were capable of.  When you do things that you thought only those kinds of people would do.  Those other people.

Like when you’re lying in bed at night, and you can’t remember if you picked up your child or not, but you’re too absolutely wasted to get up.  So you tell yourself that they’re at a friend’s.  They’re safe and if worst comes to worst – they’ll call.

And you find out the next day – to your relief and repulsion – that yes, you did pick them up.  You just can’t remember anything about it.

When you get to this point (and thankfully not all of us do), you realize a few things:

  1. You are probably capable of just about anything if you feel cornered or afraid or hurt enough. And so you watch yourself.  And you don’t count on making good choices just because you’re better.  You’d never do that.  Not like those people.
  1. Everyone else is also capable of just about anything if they feel cornered or afraid or hurt enough. And there’s a good chance they also didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a complete idiot.  Or a monster.
  1. It gets a little easier to see the path of other people, not just where they ended up.

Some of us just tend to come out looking cleaner than others.  I may have zigged where they zagged.  They got pulled over and I didn’t.   I had a support system, they didn’t.  Or a million other things that, had they gone a little more to the left, maybe I’d be the one in prison, or on the street, or on Maury Povich, waiting for the results of a lie detector.

I think this is one place that compassion comes from.  As Christians, I feel like we’ve thrown around the phrase, “Show love to your neighbour….”

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor…”

Maybe it’s semantics.  Maybe it doesn’t mean anything different to anyone else.  But there have been many times I have set out to show love.  Because it’s the right thing to do.  Because I want to shine my light.  Be Jesus.  Be the hero.  And I’m pretty sure that they see it coming a mile away.  Hell, I’ve seen it coming a mile away.  Real caring and compassion cannot be faked.

I’m not sure you can really love someone if you think you are incapable of ever falling.  If you don’t consider yourself on the same level.  And we all do it, I think.

So maybe I’m drawn to stories that are not black and white because life is not black and white.  It’s full of color.  And I’ve started to try to see the colors in other people’s journeys.  Not the black and white of where they landed when they fell.   In some ways, the colors are not that hard to find.

In some ways, the hardest part is seeking them in myself.

On Anxiety

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A while back I bought one of these old-timey wind-up alarm clocks from the MCC.  This is a clock.  That ticks.  It’s a ticking clock.  Whenever I walk into the room, and hear the clock, it triggers a memory of my grandmother’s bedroom.  And the memory is accompanied by a mild wave of guilt because if I was in there, I was probably snooping.  Although she must have kept the good stuff somewhere else, because I never found anything.

It’s funny how triggers work.   The shitty part is that they aren’t all cutesy reminders of childhood shenanigans, snooping through your grandmother’s jewellery box.  Sometimes they trigger fears.  And sometimes suffocating, irrational, paralyzing anxiety.  I have no idea if this is how it feels for anyone else — I’ve never really talked to anyone about it.  For me it’s like a buzzing on the inside.  I can’t settle myself.  I can’t think.  I can’t focus.  It’s like a tailspin that I can’t stop — if only the thought to stop would just enter my mind.

IF, and this hardly EVER happens.. but if I can at least stop myself long enough to say something like, “This is anxiety.  What is your reality here?”  Then I have a shot at something.  I don’t even know what.  Mainly to not numb out.  That would be progress in itself.  But to actually work myself through and out of it — that’s a rarity.

And I don’t even know if I can say this really happens.  Because I have no experience working through anxiety.  What I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a long career…  I will find you and I will kil —    Oops, nope.  Not Liam Neeson skills.

I’ve acquired a set of skills where I do one of two things.  I either numb it, or I just shut down feelings, build walls against pain.  I’ve always had this, I think.   When people talk of being hurt, I don’t really know what that means.  I get mad, I get even, I stomp my foot and pout — but I don’t really get hurt.  I either just don’t feel it, or if I start to, I move straight into the numbing agent de jour — food, approval, and of course until recently, THEE most effective one – alcohol.  Thankfully I’ve never started doing drugs.  Once, at a really low point, I thought about it for a second.  But I didn’t really know where the average housewife goes to get any.  And to be honest, I wasn’t even wanting to get high.  I was tired and overwhelmed, and mostly just needed to just get some shit done.  Thankfully, no.  Very thankfully.

I always thought that the ability to shut down feelings was a benefit to me.  Why would anyone actually want feel pain, when you could just.. not.  Why?  Really, why? (crickets)   Exactly.  I thought not.

There was just one teeny glitch in my system.  It doesn’t hold.  It is possible to keep it together for a really long time.  But it’s kind of like being on a merry-go-round and someone hands you an armful of bouncy balls.  As things start to speed up, you’ll start to drop them, and the more you go after the strays the more you lose.  And the faster you spin, the further they get away from you.  And more and more head towards the edge until finally you have to let go of all of them, just so you can hang on to the centre for your own dear life.

And then there is no choice left, but to deal.  You now see your best standbys as a clear and present danger.  You could take that route — of numbing and self-medicating — but you’ve finally realized that it’s a pretty big crap shoot and you may already have lucked out more than the average person.  And that, if you continue, there is a very good chance that you could die.

So here I am.  Feeling my feelings.  And hating the f#@k out of it.  HATING IT.

Except that I am starting to learn one thing.  It doesn’t actually kill me. Sometimes I sit and wait it out.  And sometimes, I’m a bit more on the offense, and I breathe and pray through it.  I don’t know if that makes it faster or better.  I know that God is with me, either way.

And when I’m out the other side, I look back mildly perplexed, thinking, “Hey.  I made it.  It didn’t’ kill me.  I didn’t die.”  To be clear, I don’t really think I will die.  But you couldn’t tell by the extremes I’d go to avoid those feelings.

Here is what I’m practicing.  And it’s not rocket science.  But to just stop and do some kind of reality check.  Just your basic, run-of-the-mill Serenity Prayer stuff.  Throw some kind of wrench into the hamster wheel that is my brain.  And even if it’s only for a moment, it’s sometimes enough to be able to feel my feet touch the bottom of the pool again.  And then I can move in the direction I need to go.  And I don’t feel so tossed about by my own thoughts.

It’s like labour.  But less messy.  You know how, when you’re in hard labour, and the nurse is trying to encourage you saying, “You’re doing great, just keep it up, you’re doing awesome!”

And as you’re swinging the nitrous mask at her head you scream, “I’m not DOING, ANYTHING!  This is happening TO me!!  If I had ANY say in this, it would stop — RIGHT NOW!!”

Had I actually practiced any of the prenatal breathing techniques, I may have been in a position to cope with my pain a little.

So I practice it now.  The breathing.  The stopping.  The naming of my thoughts.  The reality check.  Meditation.  What is true vs. what is the story I’m telling myself

It’s funny.  Like not ha-ha funny, but it’s funny how your thoughts can push you around.  And play tricks on you.  When I was drinking, and something would trigger my anxiety, I’d be stuck in this fog of foreboding.  I’d fight the urge to drink, but eventually I would give in and jump off the wagon — running start, both feet forward. Once I made that decision to numb, I settled right down.  Everything in me was calm.  I didn’t actually even need the alcohol.  I just needed to know that there was an escape.

And now I’m learning that even if there is no escape, I know that I won’t die.  I will survive it.  And while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the escape route, I also know that you can go around and around and around the thing, but eventually you’re gonna have to go through.  And likely that’s the best way.  I’ve started to find my strength.  Or something.  It doesn’t actually feel like strength.  Maybe it’s just stubbornness.

Anne Lamott says, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

Even when I can’t see my way through to the next moment, something inside me hangs on until the light comes back.  And it comes back.  It just looks a little different from day to day.

Toward

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This was a few years back.   One of my boys had friends over, and I needed to go to town for a couple of things.

Me:   I’m going to go get some groceries…

Boys:  Can we go skating on the pond?

Me:  Ummmm… just wait until I get back.

Boys:  Well can we have a fire?

Me:  No.  Wait until I get back.

Boys:  Can we go shooting with pellet guns then?

Me:  NO!  For the love of… Can you please just do something that is a little less likely to cause property damage or personal injury?  I don’t even OWN all of you….

Boys:  OK.  Where are the axes?

Me:  Ugh.. just SIT THERE and don’t move until I get back.

I love this.  Mostly because it’s not even made up or exaggerated.  There they stood, earnestly waiting for me to let them run around the yard shooting each other.  They really wanted to do all of those things, and saw no issue with this.  I, on the other hand saw ALL of the issues with this.  They’ll shoot their eye out.  They’ll start the whole section on fire.  They’ll chop down the neighbour’s yard swing.  All while I run and get a jug of milk.

They knew what they wanted, and were ready to move towards that.  All I could feel was the fear of what could go wrong.  Now granted — in this particular situation I might not have been completely off base in exercising some caution.   Or all of the caution.  There was a huge chasm between the way they saw things, and the way I did.

Somewhere along the way (aka turning into adults), our drive towards something can get overshadowed by the fear of what could go wrong.  And a healthy amount of this is just called normal.  And growing up.  And staying out of prison.  And we all do it to varying degrees.

But I think that maybe it’s gone a little overboard with me — or maybe with everyone — I don’t know.  But never realized that it might be a problem until I was at a counselling session.  And my counsellor poses a question to me as he sits back in his chair, nodding, the pads of his fingertips tapping together.  (I’m kidding — just trying to make it sounds all Freudish).  He says, “What is it that you want in your life?  What is important to you?”   

And I’m like, “Well I don’t want to have any pain.”

“That’s what you don’t want.”

“Well I don’t want people to hurt.”

“That’s also what you don’t want — what DO you want?”

“Well I want me and everyone I love to be free from pain.  Ha!  Nice try.”  Leaning back in my own chair, one eyebrow cocked, I feel like I’ve won some kind of showdown.  Because that’s obviously why we’re here, ha.

And I start to think.. and I start to realize that damn near everything I do, is to avoid some kind of pain or discomfort or bad thing.  I do more running from things, and hardly any moving towards good things at all.

I drank to run away from difficulty and pain.  And especially towards the end of my drinking, there was noooo drinking for the purpose of having a good time or be sociable.  It was ALL about escape.  I mean drinking yourself into oblivion all alone, in your house is hardly a party.

Fear is what drives me when it comes to food and body image issues.  I remember the first time it ever crossed my mind that there might be something ‘wrong’ with my body.  I was in grade 3 or 4, and a friend told me something about her older sister, who had just lost a bunch of weight.  “Well my sister used to be chubby, but now she’s thin.  So maybe when we get to her age, that will happen to us, too.”

Oh yeah, sounds good.  Wait…. WHAT?  And it hit me, that there was something wrong with my body.  And blah, blah, etc, etc, fast-forward 30 years…  And the truth is, that an embarrassingly large chunk of my life — with the food,  and the thoughts, and the body image — has revolved around the singular fear of being overweight.  Even when I was underweight.  And it’s consuming, and it’s a whole nuther blog, or maybe 10 more blogs..

I was talking to my doctor about some medication (yes, for my moods, so get off my back), and I asked him about potential side effects.  As he’s reading them off — dizziness, nausea, heart condition, stroke, temporary blindness.  And my mind is going, “Man if he says weight-gain, I’m out….”

Sooooo basically blindness? Fine.  Heart trouble?  No problem.  But put on 10 pounds, and I’m like, Awwwwww HELL No!  People are just going to have to deal with the this, because NO.  Just.  Nope.

It’s one of many areas that is governed by my fear of something, as opposed to being fuel to drive me towards something — health, energy.  All the things that we could be appreciating our bodies for, is instead channelled into debilitating fear.

And this habit (habit?) permeates many of my decisions, or actually lack of them.  I have a lot of trouble making decisions – because I’m always looking for the perfect decision, where all will go well for all involved.  The guarantee of no pain.  I’m looking for the solution that will be perfect for everyone.  And sometimes, that just doesn’t exist.

And what’s left is this state of groundlessness.  Not going forward, not going back, not being at peace with anything.  Anxiety creeps in and starts to set up camp, and it will freaking stay there for days if I  let it.

But sometimes if I can stop my mind, even for a moment.  For a few deep breaths, or the words of a friend or author.  Or a meditation or prayer (they are the same to me)… There is a small clearing in that forest of anxiety that makes me stop and ask, “What is important?  What do I want?  What direction do I need to go?  What can I change?  What do I need to accept?”

And I catch a glimpse of the direction I need to go, if only the first few steps.  In the movie, “Out of Africa”, Meryl Streep’s character says of Robert Redford’s character, “Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road.”

And so too, maybe we are only meant to see a little ways down the road, because only the next step is the one that needs taking.  And when things are scary and unclear, we need to know that we only need to take that one next step.  Or as the poet, Rumi says, “If all you can do is crawl, start crawling.”

And then I know (sorta) that going forward, is worth the risk of pain.  And I try to understand the notion that love and pain are two sides of the same coin.  If you love you will have pain.  If you can manage to escape all the pain, there is probably not much love, either.  Either way, the fear that has been ruling my life has ended in pain anyway.  Drat.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I have not mastered this.  Whatever the opposite of mastered it is — that’s what I’ve done.   My default is to run from pain, but in no particular direction.  I need to be intentional.  Busyness and self-abasement are not my friends.  Sufficient sleep and focus and meditation are.

And even though it seems like crawling doesn’t get you very far — think back to a month ago, or a year.  You can cover a lot of distance when you move towards something — no matter what your speed.

Even If Your Voice Shakes…

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Okay, so for some reason unbeknownst to me, I have stopped biting my nails.  I’ve had this habit for my whole life, and now without even thinking about it, I stopped.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about this, but I’m am also pretty confused.  Of all the vices I battle on a daily basis, this one did not make the short list. And of all the effort I’ve put into fighting said vices, how did this just happen?

I waffle between shrugging my shoulders gladly and gratefully, and obsessively trying to figure out what brought this on?  What was the system?  How can I replicate the script and run it on my cheesecake issues, or maybe my habit of flying into a quiet but fierce rage whenever I hear any sentence containing the phrase ‘.. the President-Elect…

People would tell me that nail-biting was a nervous habit and I was like, “What the….  No it’s not.  I’m not nervous.”

People would also tell me that heavy drinking was a way to escape pain or emptiness.  Again I was like, “What the…  I’m not in pain or feeling empty.”  I drank to have fun, and plus when I drink, I’m hilarious.  And a freaking awesome dancer.   

Maybe.  At one point.  Well, never the dancing part.  Ever.

There’s too much to wade through to get to what I want to say.  But basically, a while ago, something inside me said, “ENOUGH.”   It was not the first time I’d said it (more like the billionth).  And I was probably not in the worst place I’d been all the other times that I’d said it.   But somehow, and at this point – it really was enough.  It was way past too much, actually.

I’ve been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings pretty steady for the better part of the last while.  I don’t know very much about very much.  I can’t even say exactly what it is that seems to be ‘working’ for me right now.  But one thing I know, is that I don’t think that I have ever been part of a community of people quite like this.  I’ve never been part of a group of people who could be so varied in beliefs, in personal history, in social backgrounds.. and whose paths are all so different, and yet so very the same.  I’ve never been part of a group where the support is so unconditional, where there is no competition or superiority or envy or need to be right; but where there is trust and compassion and the sincerest wish for every single person to be free and well.  It’s palpable.

There is so much to be gained from this dynamic. So much.  But that will have to be another story.

There is a lot I don’t really understand about why this is ‘working’.  Like the nail-biting, there is part of me that (while not complaining!!!!!!!) is confused as to why and how.  There’s a part of me that’s leery and scared and pessimistic and thinking, “Just don’t get too comfortable – you’re not out of Train-Wreck-Ville yet…”  And I’m terrified that I’m just one wrong move away from a downward spiral that will be really tricky to pull out of.

And yet… I’ve never been more honest with myself before.  I’m on to the lies I tell myself about how it’ll just be this one more time.  And I’ve caught a glimpse of the possibility of staying with pain.  So simple, but so difficult.  But I think this is really the base line to freeing oneself of any type of addiction – the ability to sit with discomfort.  I have never in my life had this ability.  Ever.  Not even once.  In the eternal words of Daffy Duck, “I’m not like other people.  I can’t stand pain.  It hurts me.”

I have found that there is a ripple effect to sobriety.  A clear-headedness and lessening of anxiety that just helps everything else be… better.  And easier to cope with.  That will also have to be another story.

But I have also found that my tendency to want to numb pain is a little like playing Whack-A-Mole.  It’s like my mind says, “Oh?  You’re getting a handle on the booze?  That’s cute.  Just don’t forget, you’ve got this whole tickle-trunk full of other vices to draw from.  Don’t forget you’ve always had body image issues, so there’s still that.. “  That will have to be another story.

Here is what is important to me.  I don’t want to tell this story just for the joy of the sheer terror it brings to admit this.  I’m not some Zen master who’s been clean for 50 years and could write a book about peace and transcendence.  I don’t know if too many people could really truly say they are out of the woods.  I definitely feel like there are still some woods.  And I might still be pretty close to the middle of them.  Or the beginning.  Who even knows.

Sometimes I feel like we hear stories from people who are safely on the other side of a struggle.  And I find it hard to relate to them while I’m still IN the struggle.  I feel like I have connected so much more with people who are honest and real even when they are in the 3 steps forward, 2 steps back stage.  Of anything.  I think many of us struggle with addictive behaviours (to many things), and there is a spectrum of most addiction; but the bottom line is that it destroys, and takes away our freedom.

And while I’m fighting the battle de jour, I want to know, “Will it still be okay if I don’t know how this goes?  Will it still be okay if I don’t have answers?  Will it still be okay if it’s not okay today?”

I want to know that it might still be okay when I don’t know what to do, or it’s messy, or I can’t be strong.  And I could never get that from the ‘neat-and-tidy-straight-upward-line-of-redemption’ stories.  It felt like my scraggly, up and down line was a failure.  And hopeless.

I go for a smoke after AA meetings.. Except I don’t smoke.  I just like to be with everyone.  I once joked that I’d love to have just the one cigarette a week, after the meeting.  Which was met with a lot of BWAH-HA-HA level hysterics.  Fine.  Even I know I’m kidding myself on that one.  I’m finally starting to catch on to the lies my mind tells me.

In In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate writes, “My advice to anyone with addictive behaviours is to begin telling the truth.”

And maybe that’s what’s different now.

Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

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So I thought I’d try to improve things nutritionally, and I said to the kids, “You guys should eat more spinach.  That’s how Popeye got so strong.“

“Popeye also smoked, Mom… Should we be smoking too?”

Funny.

I think we all want to be strong.  We know strong people, seemingly.  We may even have fleeting moments of strength ourselves.  But often life is just hard.  And the hardest days can leave us feeling anything but strong.

I like to give myself reminders, for when I can’t see through to the other side of my struggle.  When I can barely see past the next day or decision, or even how I will make it through one more breath.  And while I’m a sucker for positive and inspirational quotes and movies, etc; sometimes I feel like they are not very real.

Like Yoda, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  I like it.  It’s catchy.  It seemed to work well for the Jedi.  But I’ve never been able to totally embrace it.  I can only try.  I think it helps to be positive.  Put your faith in something bigger than yourself.  But I can tell myself all I want, that I’m not going to screw up today.  But that’s not really been my experience.  And quite frankly, if it was that easy we’d all be doing all the things.  We’d be at our ideal weight – well, 5 pounds less so we’d have a cushion for Christmas and Easter.  We’d have perfect jobs, and families and houses.  But we’re not Jedi.  And things didn’t always go exactly as planned for them the first time around, either.

I read this on the interwebs.  “I love planners, highlighters, giant calendars, nice ball point pens, to do lists, & anything else that gives me the illusion that I’m getting my life together.”  That’s me.  I love pretty notebooks.  And throw an inspirational quote on the front of it and I’m begging them to take my money.

I was in Chapters, and I saw a notebook, and the caption on the front was “Ain’t Nothing Gonna Break My Stride.”  It’s a song by Matthew Wilder, and it’s from the 80’s, so obviously it’s fabulous. Anyway I’m thinking, Yes.  This.

But then I’m like – wait, what?  Stuff breaks my stride every damn day.  I look away for a second and before I know it I’m flat on my face with skinned knees and a mouthful of grass and gravel.

And the fun part is, that half the time, that thing that took me right out and knocked all the wind out of me?  I put it there myself.  Awesome.

Sometimes things are so hard, and so scary, and we tried – we really did.  But in the end it wasn’t enough.  Or sometimes the sweet release of giving up (or numbing) outweighs everything that we truly want and need.  And yet… even in the quitting and failure, a spark remains.

We wouldn’t call it quitting if we thought that’s all there was.  If we thought that’s all there was, we’d say we had arrived – that we’ve embraced the idea that this is our absolute best.  And yet we don’t.  We call it a failure because something in us knows there is still something more.  And sometimes it’s not what we always thought it was supposed to be.

In Breathing Under Water, Richard Rohr writes, “Letting go is not in anybody’s program for happiness, and yet all mature spirituality, in one form or another, is about letting go and unlearning…”  And failing?  “You will not learn to actively draw upon a Larger Source until your usual resources are depleted and revealed as wanting.  In fact, you will not even know there is a Larger Source until your own sources and resources fail you.”

Ugh… Super.

I don’t have too many answers over here.  But a few things I try to focus on are stillness and meditation, self-care and gentleness, and honesty – at least to myself.  I also know that shame is the enemy.  But maybe failure is not.

The falling is not bad – just don’t try to convince me of that while I’m down.  And sometimes the quitting is not bad.  Sometimes quitting is not quitting.  It is more of a course change.  A letting go and an unlearning.  Maybe we need to redefine strong.

I got my first tattoo.  You actually still hit some firsts when you’re in your forties.  Like dealing.  Dealing with stuff is new for me.  And just so ya’ll know, I’ve been informed that self-medicating, numbing and avoidance are apparently NOT forms of dealing.  Thanks for the heads up, Universe!  Ha.

Anyway… this tattoo consists of symbols and Roman numerals that mean, “Fall seven times, Stand up eight.”  It’s on the inside of my forearm – visible to me and anyone else.  And in some moments, it’s all I need to see.

Recovery of the Black Box

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So I’m sitting in the counselor’s office for that first appointment.  You know, where you’ve got about an hour to try to get everyone up to speed on the events that led up to this train wreck.  Reality is, we’re generally not in a counselor’s office unless there’s been some kind of debacle.  That first appointment is kind of like the ‘black box’ of your life.  Hopefully it will give some clue as to the events leading up to the crash.

“It’s because I am selfish.”

She looks at me curiously, as though she might not believe what I’m saying.  “This is because you are selfish?”  I nod matter-of-factly.  It’s been established.  Like the Law of Gravity.  The Geneva Convention.  Death.  Taxes.  All of it.  I know it.  Everyone in my life knows it.  It’s been corroborated by clergy and lay people alike.

The counselor looks at me – you know how they do.  They must take at least one course in facial expression, perfecting the sympathetic head bob and perceptive eye-crinkle.  Her already gentle demeanor takes on an almost pained look as she stares straight at me and says, “Who told you this?”

I blink back at her with my own squinty eyes, as though she’s asking me why the earth is round.  “I just am.  I’m the screw-up.  I screwed this up.  I screw things up.”

She keeps looking at me as though she is actually sad.  I’m confused, thinking, ‘Is this woman even qualified?’  I mean, don’t you need at least a base level of brights and intelligence for this line of work?

Finally, she speaks.  “How long have you hated yourself?”

I feel a tiny something inside me snap, and my chest tightens, and I can feel what must be tears welling up in my eyes (I’m not a crier).  And even though I barely move, she looks at me and says, “Something was just triggered in you – what was it?”

These people.  How did she see this?  I didn’t even see this.  Probably best to shut down the waterworks right quick.  And besides, what is she even TALKING about?

I don’t hate myself. I do everything for myself.  But… I have tried and tried to do the right thing.  Be the right person.  Well okay, just to clarify, I should probably say that from age 13 to about 19, I wasn’t really trying THAT hard to be good.  But it was definitely on my to-do list.  Some day.  When I got a real job, and a mortgage, and started shopping at Tan Jay.

But since becoming an adult, I knew the direction my life should go, and so I pointed it that way.  Go to church.  Do the right things.  Don’t do the wrong things.  But it didn’t seem to work.  I made this decision, but it’s like it didn’t take.  Why does it seem like it’s so easy for some people to be good, and I’m failing the remedial version?  Does this mean I am selfish?  I don’t know.  But I wonder if slapping that one word across the whole thing might be a bit simplistic.

The findings aren’t exactly conclusive, and there are still many layers of information to sort through, but the black box, flight data recorder, aka self-awareness have pointed to a few things that may have played a factor:

  • My idea that everything was black and white. The idea that I could take a look at someone’s actions (or life), and without knowing a damn thing about their story, think I could just stamp it right/wrong, good/bad, success/failure.  Then also proceed to compare myself to that.
  • My experience that being honest and real is fine, only so far as it stays within the parameters of your tribe.  It seems we can only handle so much real, before we start to cringe and back away and shout directions at it.
  • I couldn’t relate to a lot of people, and so I thought there was something wrong with me.  Many of the stories I heard seemed to consist of neat and tidy failure, followed by a fairly straight upward path of redemption. I mistakenly believed that these were the only stories.  Even though mine never, ever lined up quite like that.
  • The idea that I (or any of us) need to have our shit together before we come to God and community. We say that we don’t… We sing Just As I Am and Amazing Grace… But I’m thinking that I never really believed it….

Until the day I threw up my hands, pulled a Jack Nicholson and said, “Okay, God.  What if this is as good as it gets?  What if this is the best I can do?  What if nothing ever changes?”  And at that time things were really, really unstellar.  At least they were, compared to the life I was trying to project.

And there was a response to what might have been the realest prayer I ever prayed.  It’s not like I heard. you know, the audible voice…  But there was a feeling – no, more like a knowing – that said, “It’s okay.”

And for the first time in my life, I believed it.  I was enough.  In that mess, in the everything that was certainly not the good and right thing that I had tried to point my life at.

Now, I’d love to say that the knowing stayed put, right smack dab in the forefront of my heart and soul.  It did not.  But I did catch a glimpse of it.  And I haven’t let it go.

I would also like to be able to say that after my discovery of the missing link, everything fell into place, and there is a neat and tidy upward path of redemption.

There is a path.  I am on it.  And I’m thinking that we might have lost something by only being real about our stuff, once we’re safely and soundly out the other side.  I think I needed to hear stories of people who were in the middle of it – who had to somehow be with the uncertainty.

The good news is that we are all them.  We’re all in the middle of something – some kind of change, or struggle, or question or decision.

But we need to give each other space to be real.  So we can find each other.  So we can find ourselves – our true selves — and know we’re not alone.