Depleted, I Pause: A Devotional for the Weary

It’s month three of a global pandemic, and I am depleted. Rusty, dark, creaky of soul and bone as a recently diagnosed (but not only recently experienced) autoimmune disorder slows my body while my heart and brain try to process fear of disease, fury at racial injustice not only for black people but for the brown people held in cages at my state’s border, and a tendency toward fatalistic distrust in my government’s leadership in the face of so much turmoil, injustice, and ache.

With my head lying on my arms, sobbing at my desk, I realize I will only survive with spirit intact if I stop relying on my own wisdom to replenish and sustain. That tactic, in isolation, is so much spraying bright paint on a rusty bike, hoping to just coat the battered frame underneath with a sparkle of glossy color.

And so I have been reading, listening, and observing while tucked into my tiny camper in the woods or sitting on my screened-in sunporch (ah, what privilege to even have such places). This week, I am not sharing my own deep thoughts, I am sharing from those whose work is enabling me to stay on the path of a beautiful, rich, magical life, though for the moment I am just plopped down in the dirt of it, not going anywhere. I don’t expect the wisdom of others to shine me up, in fact, I am no longer sure that’s even the goal. No, I hope rather for lubrication of my spiritual frame, a juicy-ness added to my soul. Perhaps part of growing older is accepting that the vehicle is showing signs of wear, but choosing to move forward anyway.

“In God, we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28, the New Testament

“We all get shit wrong…The question is: have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego?” Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, to Brene Brown on her podcast “Unlocking Us.”

“Despair is the fear that tomorrow will be just like today.” Rob Bell, author of Love Wins

“I tried to imagine a church that did not support its country’s wars as a matter of patriotic course and instead stood against the devastation and suffering they caused in people’s lives.” Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

“For the universe is full of radiant suggestion…Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” Mary Oliver, Upstream

“I’ve got a dream!” Rapunzel, Tangled

“I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction—and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. The sensitivity that led me to addiction is the same sensitivity that makes me a really good artist. The anxiety that makes it difficult to exist in my own skin also makes it difficult to exist in a world where so many people are in so much pain—and that makes me a relentless activist. The fire that burned me up for the first half of my life is the exact same fire I’m using now to light up the world.” Glennon Doyle, Untamed

“Da! Wow-wow! Thhhhhhh? Woooo!” Hazel Fernandez, 18-month Queen of our Household

And with those words that I am certain are full of the toddler wisdom that so thoroughly lives in the present moment, I say blessings and peace to all who read. May your day, filled with both light and shadow, be lavish in love. Namaste’.

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Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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I Hugged My Husband On Wednesday…

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. In a moment of crisis, I hugged him because I had to. It was hug him or hurt myself; desperately upset and out of practice, my head knocked sharply on his shoulder as I thrust myself toward him, and I discovered there had been nothing to be afraid of, after all. Oh, joy of joys! His strong hands stroked my back, his broad shoulder absorbed my tears, and I broke open just enough to look around. The world is full of beauty:

books dog-eared with affectionate reading, sunshine sparkling through jewel-colored crystals, juicy peaches, baby toes, the hum of summer locusts in the woods. A Chopin nocturne.

Fresh starts. Worn paths.

Dandelions. Doodlebugs.

Apologies accepted. Grace granted.

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Who knew that resilience, that trauma recovery, that learning to love who you are, would turn out to be a lifelong journey? That ugly voices once thought vanquished could worm their way back in? But beauty and power lay in reconnecting with the deepest part of our spirit. The part that, merged with the Divine, beseeches us, “Don’t listen to the Darkness! Behold the Light! The birds! Sparkling water and leafy trees! Those who love you, not because you’ve earned their love, but simply because YOU ARE.”

I hugged my husband on Wednesday. I accepted his love for me. Though still reluctant to be touched, I am aware of it; I’m still working on shaping my own love for me. But I know where to look to find it, for the Divine Creator is an infinite and persistent source of love.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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RenFest, 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.

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Short and Sweet: Love Me Tender

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” Charles Dickens

I cry so, so easily. In yoga class, I may cry in the final moments of savasana. Once, an instructor came through the studio anointing our wrists with essential oil;  at her touch, my spirit was compelled to tears; I felt silly. It is not uncommon for me to weep when rocking my grandchildren. I cannot listen to worship music without crying as my soul reaches toward the Divine One. Trees may bring me to a state of gentle lament.

A tender heart is both the blessing and burden of the empathic person and this week my empathy bucket has been drawn off mightily: my infant grandson hospitalized with RSV, disappointing election results, a day spent with local high school theatre students, some of whom went home disappointed and trophy-less. And my first weekend at a new job managing the vendors at a festival that sees a 17-day attendance of over 100,000. There are needs nearly beyond my ample list-making capabilities and the depth of my emotional wellspring when confronted with worried or angry artisans and crafters bearing their own burdens of creative, financial, and logistical stress.

In moments such as those, those moments when we are tired, depleted, and lonely, the Universe, in its Divine Knowing, places who we need in our paths.

At the end of a day of apprehension and problem-solving, I walked myself to a quiet garden, festooned with fairies and flowers, and sat on a wrought iron bench. And there, I met a new friend, a kindred spirit who sensed my fatigue and worry and listened with such compassion that I christened our first meeting with tears.

Too often in our American Can-Do sensibility, we perceive tears as a sign of weakness, sensitivity as a character flaw. We admonish our children not to cry, we lock ourselves in our bedrooms to weep privately into our pillows, ashamed of our vulnerability. And so I say: cry it on out. Cry in private. Cry amongst friends. Let your children see you cry so that they may learn the healing power of it. Own your gentleness and your wounded heart. And let those who love you, whether long-time spouse or brand new friend found by accident in a fairy glen, share your tears to create connections. For connection, relationship, those are the sweet, tender threads that bind us all together and give us the courage to keep walking.

Namaste’.

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Loving a Quiet, Ordinary Life

How did you answer the question, the one single question that every adult asks every kid when they need to start a conversation, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a tough one, kids only really know the careers they see on TV or in their own small circle of people. They share those big ones, the ones that their families have encouraged: astronaut, football player, doctor, the President.  I usually said I wanted to be a famous singer like Marie Osmond or the beautiful ladies called Dawn who sang with Tony Orlando. I loved their pretty clothes, I loved that people clapped for them, and I knew I loved to sing. In my secret heart, I wanted to be a singer all the way through my growing up years. And I could sing, I really could. I don’t mean in the way that we’ve all heard some poor, deluded American Idol candidates, who show up to audition so sure their voices are awesome because their moms always thought so. No, I had a voice that could have played pretty much any Rodgers and Hammerstein lead; if I had chosen to do the work, to study and rehearse and push. I had the instrument. 

But I chose a different path. I met a guy my first day at college. I fell in love and got married at nineteen years old. I changed my major from vocal performance to elementary education. I made the conscious, deliberate decision to follow an ordinary life, to settle down and raise a family and have a little house and a conventional, safe career.

I had my first child at twenty-one years old, my second at twenty-four, and my third at twenty-seven. I probably changed thousands of cloth diapers, washed lots of them in an old avocado green washing machine that I bought from my grandpa, made baby food in a food processor, read Watch Your Step, Mr. Rabbit and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? so often I still feel their rhythms in my bones, graded countless first grade math papers, matched socks, drove to baseball practice and dance lessons, sewed dresses and Halloween costumes, baked birthday cakes, emptied Friday folders, buckled church shoes, made love with my husband, made beds, made lunch, made…a life. An ordinary life.

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Art by Charlie Mackesy

In the quest to instill a spirit of courage and daring in our kids, we encourage them to dream big; and dreaming big seems to mean fame. Perhaps prestige. Most likely hefty cash flow. We tell our kids (both families and teachers do this) that they can be anything they want to, that if they just want it enough and never give up, they will reach their goals. That’s good stuff. We definitely want kids to know that they are smart, that they have talents, that they can do good in this world. They should shoot for the stars!

But that’s not invariably true. Have you ever seen the scene, the incredible moment, in Little Miss Sunshine when Dwayne, the brother character, realizes he cannot be a pilot because he is color blind? To see the realization dawn in his eyes, then inhabit his entire body until his limbs cannot be contained, to see an entire childhood aspiration lost, and so an entire identity erased, is excruciating.

I think a lot of people go through a version of that internally every day. I know I did; not every day, but sometimes. I got lost in the piles of unrelenting dirty dishes, the long rehearsals when I taught my theatre students how to perform instead of working on my own art, or the constantly replenishing pile of bills.

Yet there were so many moments of enchantment- some troubling thorns, but more glittering magical seeds:

Kissing tiny boo-boos and bandaging little knees.

Seeing students hit milestones.

Swimming in a central Texas lake.

Preparing my Aunt Molly’s Thanksgiving dressing recipe.

Loving and losing pets.

Being baptized at age ten, then helping to baptize my own children later.

Giving a daughter away in marriage.

Holding that daughter close when it was time for her to file for divorce.

Being estranged from my adult son for a period.

Seeing the first ultrasound image of my grandchild.

Choosing over and over again to love my husband and to let him love me.

Somewhere along the way I realized that my life was pretty ordinary, and also pretty great.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved Little House book series, has said, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

What would happen if we taught our kids that an ordinary life is beautiful? That having a vocation, whether it’s accounting or bagging groceries is an honor; listening to music is transcendental; noticing the sunlight in the tree leaves is holy; sometimes sandwiches for dinner are perfectly okay? That life does not have to look like a Pinterest board? That children’s birthday parties don’t have to compete with each other or be Instagram worthy? That wedding proposals can be intimate instead of viral?

As I really dig into my sixth decade on this planet, I am choosing to love my ordinary life, to share my ongoing journey to heal from trauma and betrayal (both in childhood and adulthood), and to be okay in alone-ness. I am learning to be as grateful for playtime with my grandchildren as I might ever have been for grand adventures. Restlessness gives way, inch by excruciating inch, to contentment.

May you know that your own ordinary life is also precious. I hope so. Though we’ve all got to walk our own path.

What are the joys you find in your ordinary life? I’d love to know!

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If you’re in a quandary how to start conversations with kiddos, this article is great. I wish I had had this information when I was raising kids and teaching school.

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/stop-asking-your-kids-what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up-ask-this-instead.html

 

Grandma’s Post-Postpartum Depression.

A couple of days ago, I found myself picking up, by hand, all the little crumbs and leafy bits scattered on the light beige carpet on our stairs. One by one. This, after stacking toys and reversing the hangers of each piece of clothing in our bedroom closet.

My husband is worried about me.

My daughters are worried about me.

I am a little worried about me.

Plagued by insomnia, heart rate excelling, breath accelerated; for three consecutive weeks I have found myself unable to sit still in my own home, my eyes constantly darting to and fro, seeking messes to straighten or clutter to eliminate. I do not exaggerate, my family pleads with me to stop, to sit down and enjoy a movie or a book or a chat. I fail. Tonight, my spouse stalled me by encircling me with his arms, saying, “Honey, stop. Sit down.” I lay my head on his shoulder for the briefest of moments, then replied, “I can’t,” then trudged upstairs to put dirty laundry in the wash. The garage has been cleaned, the cabinets cleared, the linens assessed and mended. I painted a bedroom on New Year’s Day. Even the slimy produce has been disposed of and the drawers of the fridge washed with hot, soapy water. That’s the worst job, isn’t it? I hate it.

Oh, and just two months after knee surgery I am pushing myself to walk 10,000 steps a day and/or ride my bike. Movement is, at this point, compulsive, though apparently and unfotunately not yet burning enough calories to erase the stocking-stuffer imported English wine-flavored gummy candy from my hips.

Amidst this frenzy of activity, there have been only two things that could stop me in my tracks:

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Binge-watching the second season of Fleabag with my older daughter on the day before she returned to Los Angeles; we holed up in my bedroom with wine and chocolate to cram all six episodes of the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her Hot Priest, and I took that break because my girl insisted. It was her one request before going home…

And my two grandchildren. One, a girl, is thirteen months old. She is playful and headstrong. The other, a boy, is only three weeks old. He is angelic and hungry. They and their parents live with my husband and me. It’s a blessing. I love having them. I do. Really, I do.

But I think I may be experiencing a bit of post-postpartum depression. Is that a thing for grandmothers? It should be. I bet it is, and we just don’t talk about it.

Recently, my husband and I met a new couple, lovely folks. As we chatted, we described our living situation: youngest daughter and her domestic partner living with us with their kids while my daughter finishes school and they try to get ahead financially. Incredulous, they said something like, “We told our kids once they finished school (and they paid for their kids’ degrees, a feat we had been unable to accomplish on our pastor/educator salaries) they were on their own, and we meant it. We enjoy our kids and grandkids, sure, but no way would we let them live with us.” Emphatic shakes of their heads emphasized their resolve. Maybe that grandmother doesn’t have any post-postpartum depression. She seems to have it pretty together. But this one? Me? Hell yes. I think I do.

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I went looking to see what humorist Erma Bombeck might have to say about being a grandmother, certain that if she could find something funny to say, it would shake me out of the funk of anxiety, and she had nothing but niceness to say, she the pinnacle of rapier wit:

“Grandmas defy description. They really do. They occupy such a unique place in the life of a child. They can shed the yoke of responsibility, relax, and enjoy their grandchildren in a way that was not possible when they were raising their own children. And they can glow in the realization that here is their seed of life that will harvest generations to come.”

Why can I not “shed the yoke… [and] relax?” What’s wrong with me?

It’s a lifetime of perfectionist habits, partnered with a legitimately diagnosed anxiety disorder and a compulsion to be the best, most generous and helpful mom/grandmother/employee/teacher/etc…

Magnified by menopause. That, to quote Fleabag, “horrendous…magnificent” process that shakes us women up, down, and sideways.

Enough about how I have been struggling. We’re all struggling one way or another. What you may wonder, dear reader, is what is she doing about it? 

Here’s what:

After a couple of months letting my anxiety prescription gather dust, I got it refilled and I started taking it again. Faithfully, every morning, with my daily 4 ounces of orange juice. At first, I did it because of the look of dismay on my husband’s face when he realized I had not been taking it. But then, I decided to take it for myself. So often, when those of us with a mental illness feel better, we think it’s time to take ourselves off our meds (and of course, we do not consult our physicians because we know what they say. I actually did ask my doctor and she said No and I did it anyway). It’s been a couple of weeks and I am feeling incrementally calmer.

I started letting my family help more. Right now, as a matter of fact, my husband is loading the dishwasher (so…many…baby…bottles…) while I write up here in my cozy bedroom writing space. When I got home from work today, there were dirty dishes in the sink and I left them there! No one in my household expects a constantly clean house. Just me. That’s my hangup, it comes from growing up in sometime squalor. Gotta let that stuff go.

I stuck to my guns with my new boss to get a private workspace. Is it in an old closet? Yes. But it’s my closet. It’s quiet. I can avoid the chaos of an open concept office (which is fun when you’re in an office with Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael, and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew, but not so great in real life). The important part of this situation is that I stuck to my guns and spoke up for something I knew I needed.

I did yoga yesterday.

And I canceled a commitment I’d made to my extended family this week. I’d made it with the best of intentions. And I had tried to honor it. But I simply did not have enough time. They accepted it with silence, then someone else stepped up to do the job. The rest of the family is rallying to help her accomplish it, which is great. I think I disappointed or angered them, but I know that after all these weeks of crying, shaking, and lying awake, my health mattered more. Listening to my inner voice tell me where I had overextended, then doing the humbling work of canceling, was the best self-care I could do at this time.

What I am emphatically not going to do is send my daughter and her family away. They need help, and I remember what it was like to feel bereft and overwhelmed when a young mother. Maybe I am a sucker, but I want to provide a nurturing foundation for my daughter and her family. The best part of “grandma’s post-postpartum depression” is the exquisite beauty of being a grandmother, anyway.

Medication. Boundaries. Saying no. Self-care. Accepting help. Leaving the dishes. Hugs from my husband. Cuddles with two grandbabies. And plenty of the genius of Fleabag. These are tools for coping with the rarely discussed and maybe only case ever of post-postpartum depression.

Okay, Erma, I am ready to glow.

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Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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