Aching Feet, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

Puckett 50th, 1983

When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

dandelion 2

 

 

Abortion Meets Compassion

About five years ago, I decided to reshape my life. A mental health scare coupled with spinal injury and vocal cord paralysis may bring on the overwhelming need for change, I suppose. When the you-know-what hits the fan in pretty much every area of your life, it’s time to re-evaluate what you believe.

And I decided to believe in compassion; compassion for my own self, and compassion for others. Even, maybe especially, others who make different choices from the ones I would.

That sounds easy, right? Not always, my friend. Nowhere even close. Living a life driven by empathy can sometimes wound. It can occasionally wear you down.

Last night, I had a bit of a rough start to my evening. I was rushing from my full time job in an office to my part time job as a college professor. Traffic had been light, so I had a few minutes to sit in my car and eat an apple while checking in on social media.

Thanks, Facebook.

Here lately, because of a case in New York, there’s been a lot of talk about late term abortions. Talk that hurts.

If you know me at all, if you have heard my story or read my blog, you know that I used to be a devout Christian. I was raised in church. I won the Bible Bee at church camp in sixth grade, I studied Bible at Lubbock and Abilene Christian Universities, I counseled at camp, I spent seven years as a youth minister’s wife, I created the Sunday School curriculum for our entire church in Oklahoma. I physically helped to baptize two of my children. I stood in the shade of my husband’s sunlight, as a good Christian wife was meant to do. I stayed home raising babies as much as possible.

I just love it when a stranger on social media calls me both an “atheist” and an “idiot” in the same sentence before going on to trumpet their own Jesus faith. Pffft. Silly, silly man. Jesus and I go back a long, long way.

In my youth, both spiritual and emotional, I believed all the things a Christian is supposed to believe when it comes to politics. What was it Paul said? When I was young, I spoke like a child…etc.?

In the current American climate, I have come to suppose there are three weighty issues that fuse faith with politics; one’s stance on a wall to keep out illegal brown people is now tied with opposition to abortion for top priority. Putting mandated Christian prayer back into schools seems a distant third.

I only want to talk about abortion though. And how it changes the way people relate to each other.

First, let me get this out of the way: I believe abortion is a tragedy. Always. I never, ever think it’s a thing to celebrate.

When I was eighteen, I was resolute in my understanding that abortion was a sin. An unforgivable sin. So very sure. It was what my preacher taught, and it made sense. Precious sweet embryos need protection. They need a chance to live. They are dear. It was, in my young and certain mind, a black and white issue. “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Then a friend, I’ll call her Cindy, found herself pregnant. She had been a fringe youth group girl, we hung out some at devotionals and trips to putt putt, but we went to different high schools. We weren’t close. To be honest, it surprised me when she came to me, imploring me to take her to the abortion clinic in Dallas. I didn’t have a car, but she just needed me to drive her home, in her car.

No one else would help her. She told me then that she felt she could trust me. That I would keep her secret. That I could forgive her. Friends, sisters, that was a crucial moment. I could have condemned her like all her other friends had done. I could have told her she should have just kept her legs closed.

But I thought of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. How he knelt, how he refused to condemn her. How he said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Cindy had been abandoned by pharisees. She needed me to be Jesus. So I took her to the clinic.

I don’t know what I expected, maybe a shadowy, filthy room with cobwebs hanging in the corners and an upside down crucifix suspended over a stone altar engraved with a pentagram? Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” playing backwards over the sound system while men wearing butcher’s aprons cavorted in glee as they worked over the poor women? I was scared to walk into the clinic, though. It turned out to be a well lit, clean doctor’s office. It looked like the same place I had visited my entire childhood to get antibiotics, vaccinations, and lollipops. Cindy ached after it was over. She didn’t cry, but she was very, very, quiet. I got her home and tucked in to her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Just six months later, another close friend had a secret abortion. Pretty much the same reason, and secret because of the derision she knew would be heaped on her. We attended a private Christian college, and sexual purity was literally a requirement for continued attendance at school. The appearance of chastity was the price of admission to our social life. She could not bear the shame, and she would not stigmatize her family.

Did Jesus ever reproach women who were suffering with shame, even if their sin was sexual? Did he ever, ever put limitations on the blessing he offered? I’ll stake my life, there’s no instance in which he ever imposed boundaries on the gift of grace and compassion to hurting people. Self righteous pharisees? Yes. But not hurting people.

Not being Jesus, I still struggled, though. I ached in my soul to think of lives not lived. Embryos terminated. I knew what church taught. The Bible is not specific about this particular situation, and so one has to decide if its prohibition of murder is applicable. I asked my mother in law about it, and was surprised to hear her own thoughts. She supported keeping abortion legal. Surprised is too mild a word, really. I was stunned.

My MIL reasoned that women would have abortions. Period. Always had. Always would. In her heart and mind, to allow a woman to perish due to a misplaced, jagged coat hanger causing uncontrolled hemorrhage was as vile an outcome as the other. To my mother in law, the woman’s life and safety was precious and also worth protection. Pragmatism, yes. Compassion for women? Definitely yes.

I remind you, in case you’ve forgotten the bit I wrote at the top- I think abortion is a tragedy.

In my early 30s, I was staying at a beach house with a group of relatively new friends, and as the night progressed, we started talking about abortions. Several of my friends had had them. Different ages, circumstances, responses, faiths. I began to understand, to really get it: it is possible to have compassion for all the people in the scenario. And in the time that has passed since that night, I have learned of more friends, students, and even family who have trod that lonely sidewalk into the clinic. I don’t think any of us are truly untouched by it.

So that’s the way I have approached the abortion issue since that night. I utterly and unequivocably refuse to sit in judgement of a woman who feels she must have an abortion.

I understand why some people can’t condone the act. I really do. Nevertheless, I believe with all my soul that my heart contains enough compassion for both mother and lost child. Our hearts hold limitless love. It is only when we choose to wall off that love that we cannot meet people in their need.

You know what I don’t understand? When some of those same, supposed Christian warriors call me names. Like “Idiot.” or “Atheist.”

It is incomprehensible to imagine Jesus talking to me like that. It is unfathomable to put Jesus on a street corner shouting obscenities at wounded women entering clinics. And yet, for some, it is their MO. It’s how, in their sense of righteous indignation, they’ve decided to win the race to climb Morality Mountain. They’ve forgotten though, that Jesus isn’t up there. He’s down in the valley, loving on the hurting folks. Even the women who have chosen to abort a child. And so I must, too.