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Red-Letter Profession

Monster copy

Image credit here.

Whole months have rushed by. I have been working harder and keeping busier than I would like. This season of labor feels necessary and therefore regret-free.

I can be a bit of a workhorse. Tackling challenges often invigorates me. But an excess of work without the benefits of regular exercise and restorative solitude is numbing. Add to that picture my recent lapse in the practice of spiritual disciplines, and the result is a high-functioning sleep walker. At least until the lights go out. That’s when the monsters come out to play.

Last night, I dropped into bed sleep-deprived and fighting a virus. As soon as my breathing settled and I drifted off to sleep, the monsters kicked open their cage and ran amok. I saw them from the insides of my eyelids and felt their scratchy nails as they raced circles around my brain. They yanked down my lids and released, snapping them open like window shades. The creatures moved next to my chest and began their vigorous warm up. They were planning a protest march, and they wanted to make sure I was awake to appreciate it.

The monsters had demanded my attention many times in recent weeks but I had tossed them Facebook, Netflix, and coffee and told them to shut the hell up. I should have known better. I can handle one or two small monsters with no more than a few mild abrasions. It’s a wrestle-and-release scenario, much like fishing for sport. I definitely should have known better than to ignore them for so long. The fiends had grown to a frightening size and multiplied unchecked.

Have you ever faced an army of chanting monsters? I hope you will be spared. They are shrill, tone deaf, and lacking in rhythm. The only part they can reliably perform is the chorus. They have that down.

They sound something like this:

You are going crazy and your arms are flabby and you are going crazy and you are a bad supervisor and you are going crazy and you haven’t folded the towels and you are going crazy and you forgot to refrigerate the milk and you are going crazy and your shower is moldy and you are going crazy.

If you try to ignore them, they just get louder:

You are going crazy and you will get cancer and you are going crazy and your mother is going to die and you are going crazy and you will have to work forever and you are going crazy and your children will suffer and you are going crazy and you will get bedbugs and you are going CRAZY!

I crawled out of bed, turned on the light, and retrieved my Bible. Henry was out of town so I didn’t have to worry about waking him. I randomly opened to the book of Mark and began reading. The monsters did not like this.

I read the words in red, Jesus’ words. I rested my palm on top of them. I don’t know why I did this.

Across time and space, I felt his breath and heard the words from his lips. I thought about “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14). In defiance of all logic, we were sitting on my bed palm to palm, Jesus and I. I borrowed his strength to wrestle and release each monster. Jesus and I talked for a while, and I drifted off to sleep.

Think what you must. I am not going crazy.

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Resurrection Day, 2016

 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commoms

 

I wanted a flashy day with loud music, confetti, and line dancing but God said No. Resurrection is a process.

I wanted a forgettable day with daffodils, blinding sunbeams, and enough perspiration bleeding through my t-shirt to prove that Winter had come to an end. God provided a pale day and a chastening spirit which chilled the bones of the beeches and chattered the ghosts which clung to their outstretched arms.

I zipped my jacket and kept hiking. Hints of redbud pink rewarded my perseverance.

Today I sit behind my desk and discover that I have one delicious hour more than I had expected. I have forgotten my utensils and, in the privacy of my office, peel and eat a sweet potato like an ice cream cone while typing these words with sticky fingers. Ideas rattle in my own skull, crowding one another and asking for safe passage onto paper. I choose to bring this one to Life:

God has provided another perfect day.

Mad Hatter

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept 26, 2015

Mad Hatter

I am anxious. I am irritable. I have too much time between clients and too much time to think.

Isn’t this what I wanted? To think? To think about writing? To contemplate my enjoyment, which has become tinged with fear, and may be tipping into dread? I love writing for you. Yes, YOU. I also feel frightened and exposed. My perfectionism is a stitch in my side. And the demands of blogging etiquette stretch my introversion to desperation even while I enjoy your writing, and I lap up the comments you send my way.

I have a few moments, and so I continue the waiting I began earlier this week. I talk to God some. Mostly, I listen. I need to learn what comes next. I am both wonderfully strong and entirely dependent.

I purposed—and I think I still do–to finish my blog threads Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. I had written most of my material before the idea of a blog had even crossed my mind, and I have spent the months since February polishing and supplementing the pieces through which I have experienced freedom from suffering and greater self knowledge. During this therapeutic process, I became aware of a desire to try my voice in the hearing of others. I started this blog. All of this felt God-led.

Now the realization of my goal is within sight. What lies ahead?

I am known for fleeting passion. I gardened with fervor for a few seasons and then dropped it cold. My husband Henry and I worry about the appearance of the flower beds I started but do not maintain. Are the neighbors pissed? I crocheted my fingers to the bone last year, and now I can hardly stand the sight of yarn. Early in our marriage, I cooked everything but pasta from scratch. Then it was couponing for a few years. Before I started blogging, I was addicted to Bones reruns and Bejeweled Blitz. You see my pattern?

I have had to review, at many junctures, which parts of me are ME and which are merely hats which have caught my fancy. I have a list of ME parts. I keep it to remind me of who I am when I am in danger of becoming confused. Without it, I don’t think I would like myself very much, and I think I would have a hard time looking God in the eye. God’s pleasure in me is my guiding principle, or at least I want it to be. Not because of fear. No. Because I have experienced the goodness of God and can’t unknow it.

Here are some ME parts:

My relationship with my husband.

My relationship with my children.

My relationship with God.

My counseling career.

There are others as well, but these suffice for now. I am committed to the maintenance of these parts even on days when Henry and I argue, my daughters spill nail polish on the rug, God seems remote, and work straight up sucks. I will attend, fight for, defend, and nurture these parts even during times when my love is a discipline scant on warm feelings.

Writing might be a hat. I can’t tell. If so, it is one which I have worn with enjoyment. I might wear it for a while longer. Or I might put it in my closet and wait to see if it comes back into fashion. Then again, maybe writing is meant to become a part of ME. If this is the case, I will need to learn how to make a more permanent place for it within this anxious and chaotic woman. God can show me how to do this—and I will submit to this molding–but I don’t believe I can do it on my own. Perhaps writing will occupy some role which I haven’t even considered. I will have to wait and see.

And so I have entered a process of discernment.

Which, at times, requires me to lie in my bed with the covers over my head.

So that when I have become fully divested, I will do whatever God asks or permits.

Because following God is not a hat.

Shabby

office

Saturday, July 25, 2015

God and I are having a conversation.

It has no words.

It is summer, and I have four unexpected hours before my next counseling client.

I sit in my donated cinder block office, the window unit clunking out an icy gasp as I hunch at my end-table desk and ponder the praying hands, the plastic cross, and the bold needlepoint “JESUS” which share this tiny island. Christian kitsch.

I dare not remove them. Any changes must go through the Queens of this church, too old now to manage the stairs to the Sunday School rooms below. They loan me “my” office any day but Sunday. It took me 5 years of plotting, but I made the dusty rose curtains and the gilded table lamp with the punctured metallic cardboard shade disappear.

The stack of Bibles can stay. They are my friends. I find my business card stuck in Jeremiah. I read a few chapters and sit, pondering.

Visible above the air conditioner and framed by peeling wood, the tired playground sighs for someone to comfort it. The cheap plastic equipment and the flimsy, hand-assembled jungle gym peer back sadly through the dirty panes, and I am glad the oaks clothe them in dignity while they wait. The preschoolers will not return until Monday.

Outside my door, children race up and down my (usually) retiring hallway. I hear Spanish. One congregation is holding its semi-annual yard sale and cooking food in the shopping center parking lot. I’m going to need some pupusas before you know it.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice and struggle against the snowballing demands of a church in decline. The roof leaks, and the sidewalks crumble….The heating system goes up. A signup sheet on the bulletin board solicits mundane assistance: Who is bringing napkins this month? Paper towels? Toilet paper?

I did a few workshops in the lower level once. The Chinese congregation opened its kitchen and its small sanctuary.

The White congregation is old and dwindling. The pastor maintains a calm demeanor and continues his ministry. It was in response to this attrition that he sought partnerships with the other congregations, and they have all become friends.

I see the African American congregants pass my door regularly on their way to and from functions, and we exchange smiles and pleasantries. I’ve been in this room for 6 years and they have never made a referral. Sonya joined me here about 18 months ago and began working a few evenings a week. Soon, I began to get knocks on the door. People always seem surprised to see me. They ask politely for “the regular counselor.” This makes me smile. Sonya is Black. It’s no problem. We all need to feel safe.

I tried to leave once.

I was tired of mopping the ladies room every time it rained. I was tired of the stained gold carpet and the dirty pink and green sofa, which took up too much of the narrow room anyway. I couldn’t stand the smarmy artwork and the gold-painted plastic shelf and mirror set attempting to look like fancy gilded wood. I am an Ikea girl.

I was done when an especially heavy rain caused “my” water-stained ceiling to collapse. The room flooded. The church dried everything out and put it back exactly the same way.

I found an office at a different church near by.

This office had bus service plus metro access. It had clean furnishings in good condition. It had a door which shut and locked properly. It even had a door bell.

But I realized it wasn’t my home, and I wanted to move back.

Our Director scrounged up a little money. Sonya and I ran our ideas by the lead pastor and the Queens. We picked out a few furnishings, assembled them, and did some deep cleaning. Things are far from perfect but I am at peace.

I throw open my door and enter one of America’s most diverse zip codes. A United Nations of food and a Crayola box of beauty. A patchwork quilt. All these dance before me to the music of Acts unfolding.

Content, I return to the office to consider these wonders.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice, the building which houses The Church. Sometimes the groups go about our faith separately. Other times, they join hearts and coalesce into the Greater Oneness. Heads bow. Many-textured voices intertwine and rise as one in prayer, in confession, in song. Incense to The One.

I am tired. I am shabby.

I am home.

Infidelity

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Summer, 2013

“Are you getting enough?”

“Well…”

“I know we haven’t made much time for each other lately.”

“I’ve been getting by.”

“Because if you aren’t getting your needs met here, I want to know where you are getting them met.”

No, no no, this is not a conversation about sex! This conversation occurred in my women’s group. We were discussing our friendship needs.

My Ladies and I have been fast friends since chance (read: God) threw us together in the Spring of 1999 when we attended the same church retreat.

When we first started getting together, we met weekly. Each time we told new stories, learned more about one another, and laughed so hard it’s a wonder nobody ever threw up. Once each summer we went to great lengths to escape our children so that we could go off somewhere and behave like children. Please don’t ask me about specifics. If I told you, I’d have to kill you.

We had established the perfect blend of personalities, interests, and abilities. We did serious; we did spiritual; we did raucous; we did clueless. This was the life! We would go on like this forever! Nothing could ever come between us. We all but took vows and exchanged rings.

Slowly the passion cooled. We were on our way to becoming an old married couple. Getting together was enjoyable, but it wasn’t always the peak experience we had come to expect. As our children’s lives became more complicated and our work demands changed, making time for one another dropped further and further down our list of priorities. To be fair, perhaps I should also add that it dropped further and further down our list of possibilities. We were exhausted! Sometimes making the effort to coordinate four schedules became just one more thing—one more box to check on an already long list. And let’s face it. Who needs that?

As we began to coast, each of us began to explore other friendships. This felt good! We were getting our friendship needs met! But the enjoyment was also tinged with the guilty pleasure of “the affair.” Shouldn’t we be trying harder to make our schedules work? Shouldn’t we be pushing harder to create excitement in the perfectly good relationships we had? Could we be authentically happy that our intimate friends had found ways to get what we could not provide? Occasionally things between us became awkward as we wondered where we stood. Were we headed for divorce, however amicable? We had gone through infatuation and a lengthy honeymoon before the glow wore off and we found ourselves in the power struggle trying to assert our own agendas. Are you familiar with Imago Therapy? The theory behind it holds that if you make it successfully through this rough patch, you enter into a more mature and stable love.

Well….

We all agreed that the group needed an injection of something to keep things fresh. Without acknowledging it to one another, we more or less ended up in two camps.

Camp Edify wanted our times together to focus more on the study of Scripture in order to produce spiritual growth and maturity. This was a worthy aim. Camp Bite Me shrewdly figured that Bible Study = homework = one more thing. Seeing how frazzled we had all become, the Bite Mes didn’t want our times to have any agenda other than relaxation and fun. This aim was worthy as well.

When Edify touched on spiritual themes, Bite Me listened with patient smiles while it silently screamed, “Squish the damned camel through the needle already so we can get to the fun part! Can’t we just keep it light?!” Edify listened to Bite Me with Christian tolerance, plotting all the while how to manipulate the talk back to loftier fare. As the power struggle intensified, so did the tactics. Since neither camp had actually declared itself or its agenda, each volley had to take the form of a finely crafted segue lest the other camp come to suspect its motives. Fortunately, we are all very subtle and refined individuals.

I recall one van ride last summer in which the volleys sailed flew back and forth for the better part of two hours. As the Edifys became more earnest, the Bite Mes became more, uh, entertaining. In the end, it was Pollyanna versus Jersey Shore in an epic smackdown. I bet you can’t guess who ended up crying “Uncle.”

I’m willing to share the conversation with you in its condensed form but only if you promise not to tell anyone. I think it appropriate, in this day of Twitter and speed dating, to collapse it to its bare essentials. This may also help to insure that I will still have friends and a job in the event that someone I know actually reads this.

“Ten Commandments.”

“Ten inches.”

“Seek ye first.”

“Knockwurst.”

End times.”

“Ten times.”

“Grace.”

“Mercy!”

“Forgive us our debts.”

“Cigarette.”

For several months after this wrestling match, I wasn’t sure where we’d end up. For a while we went our own ways and almost seemed to forget about one another. A sort of continental drift or benign neglect had become the norm. Certainly nobody was going out of their way to organize anything.

I prepared myself for disappointment by trying to imagine I was ok with these developments: These women were nice but a lot of people are nice. And I was very busy. And both camps were starting to get on my last nerve. To gird myself against possible hurt, I practiced my Steel Magnolia Hug (lean in, brittle embrace, pat, pat, pat, I-don’t-need-you, release) and my International Air kisses (Mwa! I-am-above-zees. Mwa!) in the mirror, and said, “Screw it. I am just fine.”

Except that I wasn’t. I wasn’t fine at all. Hanna had dumped me, and I was high and dry. I didn’t realize how depressed I had become until I ran into one Lady unexpectedly and felt the tears spring into my eyes. I lurched into in a hug and didn’t want to let go. I needed my Ladies! I sent out an SOS, oblivious to the snot which threatened to short out my phone. Hell froze over, pigs flew, and before too long, we were seated cozily together enjoying a meal. We had a wonderful time.

We are older. We are wiser. We are still intact. Some things have shifted and some have stayed the same but we are still faithful to one another. Furthermore, I believe we are entering a good place in our odd little union.

This is the fourth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here to read installment three. Click here for installment five.

Rule # 16: Sing When You Feel Like Crying

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

My father taught me to sing as a cure for a disturbing condition–a condition disturbing to him.

I’m surprised that I never developed a distaste for singing. On the contrary! I have loved to sing since I was tiny. I sang songs when- and wherever I felt the urge. And I contentedly tried out funny noises just to hear how they sounded. One day, while riding home in the back seat of our station wagon and looking out the window, I caught myself vocalizing and felt sudden shame. I looked around furtively to see if anybody had observed me–whew!–and I made a mad grab for a fig leaf. The seeds of adolescent self consciousness had been sown but singing remained joyous.

After that day in the car, I generally sang in private or with others. As a second grader, I loved to sit on my carport alone and sing from those little booklets used by carolers. I didn’t understand that music gave me direct access to my feelings and helped me to process. I just knew it felt good. Yes, it helped me to process them during periods when I was either too young or too lacking in insight to consciously address my inner state.

I was never a great singer, and at this point in my life, those muscles are shot. My singing voice is growing croaky from disuse. I could make the effort and revive it but these days I am more likely to write. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the sense that the gift of song was delivered in secret to help preserve and protect me. The idea makes me smile. A friend I didn’t know had filled my cup with chocolate milk while my head was turned. A friend I hadn’t yet met had draped a fluffy quit across my sleeping frame.

I sang in choirs as a child and adolescent. As an adult, I did a longish stint as a vocalist in a band. The feeling in my body—both the sound and the vibration—brought deep, visceral comfort. The eerie moments when surrounding voices interlocked with mine to create a perfect Summ* achieved a temporary rapture for which words could not suffice. I had to close my eyes and disappear into it.

My father never liked it when I cried. I’m going to go as far as to say he didn’t tolerate it. He never said outright that it was a bad thing but that is the message I received.

When I was upset and tried to speak to him through my tears, he would say, “Stop whining. I can’t understand you while you are crying.” His attempts to manage me made me cry harder to be heard, and this made matters worse. To have a voice, I had to give up my voice.

My father approached crying as though it were an inconvenient medical condition, such as hiccups, or a pathology in need of treatment. It was disconnected from its origins rather than treated as a symptom of a larger problem. It certainly had nothing to do with him. He decided to help me get over it anyway.

My father shared his tried-and-true cure. He declared with medical certainty that it was physically impossible to sing and cry at the same time. I believed him, and I believe he believed himself. The cure for crying was to sing. It just now occurs to me to ask how he had learned this remedy and what had necessitated it.

So I sang. And now I write.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

*I had to use this German word, which means humming or droning because the sound of word will make you feel what I am saying. Summen recalls the sound of bees happily at work in the wisteria arbor above your head. Say the s like a z and the u like the u in the English word put. Say it out loud. Emphasize the first syllable and feel the zzzzzzz. Listen to it here

Growth Pains

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

This is the first installment in The Story of Hanna

October, 2011

I’m still feeling a bit wobbly following my surgery this summer. It was unexpected, it was rough, and it happened without the benefit of anesthesia. I lost an important part of myself, and my wounds have not yet closed. As a counselor, I’m always helping others deal with enmeshment and individuation. I get this stuff. I was surprised at some things I learned when I had to look in the mirror.

“I knew as soon as I saw your hair and clothes.” Hanna had said, unable to fully articulate what had begun to go wrong between us the moment she and her husband arrived from Germany for a month-long visit. This was their first visit in five years. I had finished my graduate work and taken a job in my field. I wasn’t sure what taboo I had broken. What had I done to trigger such feelings of loss and betrayal?

Hanna and I met when we were assigned to the same fifth grade class in XCity, Germany. We were classmates for four years before I returned to the U.S. I was the pig-tailed American girl with the Ranger Rick backpack and the bad John Denver habit. She was the quiet, white-haired kid who wore traditional leather pants and carried a pocket knife. I thought she was a boy. It wasn’t until our early teens that our best-friendship became firmly cemented.

By ninth grade, Hanna had become a star athlete and a Beauty. Her looks and effortless air of mystery caused boys to pine and become irrational in her presence. I, on the other hand, had followed my family blueprint to become a gangly, pimple-faced Nerd. In my presence, boys experienced…nothing. They didn’t notice I was alive unless they needed help with their homework.

Steadfast through the decades, we visited back and forth and were in frequent touch in between. Despite our outward differences and our geographic separation, we were, as Hanna’s father often joked, “ein Kopf und ein Arsch.” A head and a tail. A single creature. Though he meant to tease us, he had hit upon the truth: We were so close that we hardly knew where she ended and I began.

Hanna and I understood one another intuitively and profoundly. Our enmeshment worked unbelievably well. In fact, I believe it saved us from childhoods which could have undone us.

Hanna came from a family in which feelings were poorly tolerated. She grew up without hearing the words, “I love you”; and when she showed emotion, she was criticized as mentally unstable and threatened with boarding school. Invalidated and undervalued, she could easily have gone for broke and self destructed.

My family was equally dysfunctional. We were just as well versed in passive aggression but it was located within a larger arsenal of weapons intended to help us bite and scratch ourselves to the top of the family heap. Punishment came frequently and unpredictably, and nobody wanted to be the one in the crosshairs when Dad was in one of his moods. I became observant and stoic. I distrusted and ignored my own feelings. I could easily have gone on to become an abuser or else continued to withdraw until I lost touch with myself altogether.

I know Hanna’s love and support made me more resilient and allowed me to hold my head a little higher. I conjured her presence to help me when I felt clumsy shopping for clothes, and I imagined myself in her skin to give myself the courage to take risks. I later learned that she had carried me in her heart in much the same way. Admiring my dispassion and logic, she imitated me when she needed to think her way through difficulties without becoming overwhelmed by her emotions.

Our outward experiences were always very different. I was a goody-goody; she experimented. I accepted Christ; she remained skeptical. I went to college and became an athlete at about the same time she retired from athletics and moved to a small town to apprentice as a goldsmith. I dated little, married young, and couldn’t wait to have babies. She traveled the world and dated a series of colorful characters. Nevertheless, we always shared intimately and without judgment.

We each made an important decision around the year we turned 40. I returned to school to pursue my M.S. in Pastoral Counseling. After making progress towards an undergraduate degree in Psychology, Hanna dropped out of college to become partner to a man with a serious and chronic health condition. We did not realize that the cord which had kept us connected for so long was about to fray.

My grad school experience was arduous and protracted. Family responsibilities resulted in my taking over six years to finish; but stretching out the timeline had gifted me with the opportunity to deeply contemplate and assimilate the material. The program required more of me than the memorization of facts and the writing of research papers. I was challenged at every turn to reflect with honesty upon my faith and my life, past and present. I experienced anger and sadness, joy and gratitude as God used this time as the crucible for a work of healing and enormous growth.

It was suggested this summer that I had changed, that I had become “other.” It was hinted that I had become less. Less hospitable, less authentic, less available. I disagree. I know have become more.

Somewhere along the way, I grew my own head, heart, and lungs without even realizing it. My brain thinks clearly, my heart beats confidently, and my soul expands with every breath. I love Hanna, and I want her friendship just as much as I always have. I simply no longer require her. In time, I believe I will be able to feel the profound beauty of this truth.

We are not yet at the end of the story, and I do not know how it ends. What if I survive the surgery, and Hanna does not? What if we both survive the surgery but the friendship cannot be resuscitated?

The wait is painful and uncertain.

To follow this thread, please click on the tab for The Story of Hanna or find second installment here.

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