When I was a teenager, there was a man in our tiny, tight-knit community who was crazy.
And by that I mean, of course, that he was mentally ill.
I was afraid of him.
It didn't help that his appearance fit every stereotype about craziness. His long, curly hair stuck up around a balding pate, earning him the nickname "Pauly" after the 90's comedic actor (and similarly coiffed) Pauly Shore.
"Pauly" didn't speak, at least not that I ever heard. I think maybe he talked to himself (speaking of stereotypes) but whenever we saw him, but I never heard words come out of his mouth directed at other human beings. He walked around our town alone, sometimes pausing to send an unflinching stare at an object or individual.
One time his stare was directed at me and my friends, a table full of precocious teenage girls. It was uncomfortable. It was troubling. But that was all it was. As usual, he stared until he was done staring, and then walked off.
When I went home, I complained about it to my father. I didn't think "people like that" should be allowed in public, making others uncomfortable. They should be kept somewhere else, on their own, in some kind of guarded space away from normal people.
"You sound very much like someone you don't like right now," my dad said, as I got particularly heated and uncharitable at my plans. He was, as usual, getting to the heart of the matter and hinting at my obsession with a person who had similar ideas about the mentally ill: Adolf Hitler.
I wept indignantly and denied it. I stalked out of the room.
And I never forgot the conversation, nor complained about crazy people again.
Because of course, my dad was right.
Do you know who wants to be mentally ill?
Do you know who wants to admit they are mentally ill?
But some of us are learning to admit it publicly, by the support of our friends and family or not; with the help of a culture that is slowly but surely changing the way it talks about mental illness.
I have a mental illness. I was diagnosed a year and a half ago.
In my stronger moments, and with the right people, I describe myself as crazy.
I use the word when a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. and the nauseating cycle of blame and shame begins: "Hey, don't rush to blame this on mental illness," I say as I read claims that guns are not the problem in shootings (which by definition involve a gun).
"I'm crazy and I don't go around shooting people."
I use the word also when describing engagement with other, more severely mentally ill people: "They were totally crazy. I mean, I'm crazy, but they were CRAZY."
I hear people talk about the need to destigmatize mental illness, and that's what I'm trying to do when including myself--an apparently healthy, fairly normal person--among the crazies. But I drop the term in less familiar settings because, in common parlance, crazy people are scary people. Crazy people are unpredictable and prone to violence.
I'm mentally ill, but I'm not prone to violence, and I try to give a heads up about what I'm feeling to give predictability to actions related to my illness.
"I'm not feeling very well, I might need to step out for a minute," I say when my ears start ringing, a sure indicator that a panic attack, unchecked, is not far behind. Or, "Just so you know, my anxiety level is about HERE," I say, gesturing to my chest or collarbone or throat, "So we may have to stop talking about this."
"This" is almost always church-related: theology, questions of vision and mission, cultural challenges. My sickness manifests itself precisely where I used to feel strongest, most certain, well-trained.
I prefer to say I am unwell or sick, leaning especially on "unwell" because not everyone sees my sickness as such and frankly, unwell sounds more respectable. I am unwell enough to be prevented from working for pay. I am unwell enough to have to still avoid certain situations and even certain books or discussions. I am unwell enough to need treatment, but it is not the kind people typically think of when they think of debilitating disease. I don't need surgery, I need antidepressants and therapy, regular doctor's appointments and a lot of self care.
"I am not well today," is how I let Matt know my PTSD is flaring up and we may need to change our plans. He takes such warnings seriously and is willing to adjust as he always has. My husband. God should give all sick women such husbands, amen and amen.
An easy way to beat myself up is to think about all the women and men in the world who have been through far worse than me and have to make do with far fewer supports. My husband tells me this isn't helpful to them or to me. And of course, he is right.
This much I know: being sick in a country with a social safety net is better than being sick in a country without one. Being sick in a country that is fighting to destigmatize mental illness is better than being in a country that says mental illness is something you should just "get over" and until then should be a carefully guarded family secret.
The reality is that all kinds of people get sick, sometimes in their hearts, sometimes in their guts, sometimes in their minds. All kinds of people get injured, sometimes in their bones and sometimes in their brain matter. Which begs a few questions:
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, reserve space for people who get sick?
Do we extend dignity and respect to those who get sick in the head?
Do we as families, as faith communities, as nations, invest resources in preventing sickness and, when it comes to it, in helping sick people get well?
Do we also invest resources in those who have a sickness of the mind?
Do we support the families of the mentally ill and help them shoulder the burden? Because, stigma or no, mental illness brings cost and difficulty as every illness does. I am now completely dependent on my good husband for my house, my food, my clothing. I am a financial burden instead of a fellow earner. I have thrown off the shame that I was saddled with when I first became ill, but I must name the reality, for it is the truth.
"I want to be well Lord," I prayed the other night, after being reminded of how much I can't do now that I used to be able to do. "Please make me well!"
It's been a year and a half since I stopped working. So long! I went on leave thinking it was a temporary setback. I thought I would be back at work within a few weeks. I certainly thought I would have "gotten over" the symptoms by now and been either at my church or in an even more challenging assignment.
But no, I am still not well, and I don't know what to do about it.
Except keeping taking my medicine (and I call it medicine instead of medication, but that is a whole 'nother post) and do more therapy and go on runs and keep pushing the borders of my capacity gently, slowly; willing to withdraw and wait if what I want to do is beyond what I can do.
I read the Bible a few weeks ago for the first time in months. And it was good.
I had a conversation about church vision with my brother-in-law. And I didn't panic.
I listened to a sermon. I had to, simultaneously, draw pictures in the notebook I always carry to keep myself grounded, to keep my anxiety from rising beyond levels unbearable; levels that would force me to stand up and walk out of the church.
My pen skimmed the surface of the paper; I pressed down harder to create an image I could focus on. One minute passed, two, three. Eventually my nerves settled, and I stayed in the pew.
People ask me if I want someday to go back into ministry. Want is a funny word in this situation, because want and can really are two different things when you aren't well. Returning to ministry is not on my List of Things to Do because it is so far beyond my reality of Things I Can Do.
So what can I do? That I can answer, though it changes day by day. And it's where it is important to keep my attention right here, right now.
Today, I can write. Thank God.
Today, I can cook and clean and care for my children. Thank God.
I can go to church when I can go to church. Thank God.
I can pray. Thank God.
I can be with friends and out in public without being too overwhelmed. Thank God.
I can read some theological perspectives on the hows and whys of this extraordinarily strange time in history. Thank God.
I can argue. I can love. I can even, sometimes, dream.
I am unwell. I am a little crazy. But I have help and I have hope.
And for now, that is all I need.
I was raised evangelical, which means I was raised to be suspicious of anything resembling adoration of Mary, the Mother of God.
Also, we weren't supposed to call her the Mother of God.
She was just Mary, "No more a saint than you or me!" as my dad explained it.
Funny thing though: in our heavily Catholic region in south-central California, there was a Catholic channel that was freely available to all with a TV and antenna. And, when our 80's sitcoms or cartoons weren't on the air, and we were really, really bored, my sister and I would watch it.
And from that channel, we learned to pray the prayer they call "Hail Mary."
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Now when I say we learned to pray it, I really mean we learned to say it. Because of course we weren't supposed to "pray" to anyone but God, even though Hail Mary isn't a prayer to Mother Mary so much as asking her to pray for us. But we weren't even trying to do that. We were just memorizing something cool and slightly foreign to our stripped-down, Protestant sensibilities.
The words of the Hail Mary lay dormant in my brain until the last of my four miscarriages, when I stopped being able to pray (except in public as part of my job). And please don't think there was some sort of hypocrisy at play; I wasn't pretending when I spoke to God publicly, and I wasn't pretending when I couldn't speak to Him in private. If there was any hypocrisy it came from the cells of my body which allowed and disallowed prayer at their own will.
(Do cells have a will? Maybe not, but trauma does things to cells that make it seem that it is so.)
In private, I looked away from God. He was there, but I couldn't, as it were, stare Him in the face and talk to Him. I could look to His side, around Him, away from Him. But I couldn't look at Him in prayer, which of course is what we're doing--turning our full selves to this Creator we love or fear or trust.
In looking to God's side, I caught a glimpse of someone I could talk to: His Mother. I saw her in Bible stories (which I could still read), alternately encouraging and pleading with Him, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes as a baby or nagging Him (and I mean that in the best, most honourable way) to perform miracles when miracles were clearly what was needed.
Mother Mary came into my side view, and I felt I could trust her. So I turned my full attention her way, trusting that if I started talking to her, the Mother of God, she could in turn talk to her Son (who I trusted and yet clearly didn't trust enough). I said the words I had learned as a child, over and over again: Hail Mary, full of grace...
And I felt something like peace. Something like love and rest and calm.
When I first went on medical leave last year, I couldn't say any sort of rote prayer: not the Lord's Prayer, not Glory Be, not Hail Mary. I spoke to God in short, desperate cries: "God help me! Please help me!"
I knew that others were praying for me too. And, without any plan or intention, I started enlisting not only Mother Mary's help in praying but also the departed of my friends and family. In church-speak we call these people part of the "Communion of Saints." A month into leave, crying while walking home, I called out to members of that Communion whom I had known and who had died: my father, my grandfathers, some of the parishioners I had pastored and buried. "Dad, pray for me! Grandpa, pray for me! Cloe, Lena, Ernie, pray for me!"
C.S. Lewis once wrote on this very action: "There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead." (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly Concerning Prayer) I read his words long before attempting the practice, but they came to my mind when I did.
Of course I can't prove that those of the dead I asked prayed for me, and some of you may think we are so firmly in bizarro land that you can't believe I could think they did.
Still, I asked them to pray. And I felt confident that somehow, nearer to the Throne, their prayers were doing good on my behalf.
As a mother four times over, and as one who laboured all of Christmas Day with my firstborn son, Mary looms large in my mind every Advent and Christmas season. In a world where courage and bravery tend to be framed in physical strength or violence, a teenager giving birth in a stable is a striking counter-image.
This year on Christmas Eve, I lay in bed with my youngest two as their electric anticipation mellowed into soft, rhythmic breathing. And I pictured myself, laying down next to Mary in her post-partum recovery in that stable. I didn't want to bother her, or take her attention away from this Child to whom she had just given life (SHE gave life to God! What magnificence!) I simply wanted to be near her; to companion her in her weakness and mighty strength. To watch her care for God.
We had multiple illnesses and one tragic death hit our family this season. For each one of these beloved, I would go to sleep and re-awake in the night asking Mary to pray for them. At this stage of recovery I trust God--fully, completely. And I trust His Mother--fully, completely. Just as I ask my friends and family to pray when loved ones are hurt, or sick, or dying, I ask Mary--Theotokos, God-bearer--to pray for them too.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
The internet is such a great place to learn about oneself!!!
To summarize (from my less-than-fun reading and reviewing of similarly-themed posts over the past few days):
And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go look in the mirror to remind myself how special I am before writing the rest of this post.
Just kidding. Still here, all snowflakin' it up.
Some thoughts regarding what I have read about myself and the legions of the disappointed and devastated like me:
I can't speak for all other snowflakes, but the repugnance and devastation with which I received the political catastrophes of 2016 have nothing--zero, nada, NOTHING--to do with not getting my way, and definitely nothing to do with participation trophies (which, by the way, I never got growing up. Where's my trophy, golldurnit!?!)
No. My repugnance and devastation have everything to do with what I did get as a child of the United States of America. And there were two things in particular:
1) SHAME. As a child, I learned to be ashamed of the racist, violent history of my country. Of course I learned so while also learning to be proud of my country. Proud of its democratic heritage and its geographical diversity. Proud of its entrepreneurial spirit and freedom of conscience. But I learned, in my basic public education in two different rural towns, to be appropriately ashamed of the parts of my country's story that were shameful.
As a start, I learned to be ashamed of the participation of people who looked like me and worshipped like me in centuries of slave-owning, segregation-upholding, civil rights-resisting, and everyday acts of racism.
I learned to be ashamed of my country's historical limitations on women, limitations that seemed preposterous to me as a child of the 80's with a vagina and uterus who was told I could do anything and be anything I put my mind to.
I learned to be ashamed of a historical reality that bothered me when I learned of it and haunts me now: my country's silence and unwillingness to get involved when it knew the German government of the 1930's and 40's was bent on discriminating against, deporting and finally annihilating the Jews of Europe. I read all I could to understand this unfathomable mystery and, in the end, gave myself to preventing its recurrence. In 8th grade I began giving what would become regular presentations on the Holocaust to recruit my fellow students into the "Never Again" club.
2) CELEBRATION: I learned to celebrate every fight, every stand, every disavowal of the acts grown from the evil seeds sown by shipping, tormenting, buying, and selling humans in the earliest days of my nation. I celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. day as a national holiday, and thought for a long time that the adults in my life celebrated the day and the man, too. I celebrated the progress that had been made through first black men then women of all colors earning the right to vote, and then the work of the Civil Rights Movement to ensure equal opportunity for people of every color and creed. Later, in high school, I was privileged to hear my LGBTQ brothers and sisters talk about their experiences of discrimination and abuse, and that began a journey of learning to celebrate the expansion of their civil rights, too.
So yes, my "snowflakeness" was imparted to me through my childhood, but not through the talking points I hear from those bent on ridicule. My snowflakeness was imparted to me through the lesson, reinforced time and again that discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice are not to be tolerated or celebrated in the United States but repudiated and resisted, to the end.
As a child of the church, I found a faith that crystallized these beliefs in Holy Ghosted, diamond-crusted shells, etched with words like "created in the image of God" and "love your neighbor as yourself."
I learned. I believed. I still believe.
So when a race-baiting, xenophobic, maligner-of-certain-faith-practitioners candidate won the election with the help of people who look like me, who talk like me, and who worship like me, my response was consistent to what I learned as an American child and what I still believe as an American adult:
Followed by sadness.
And eventually anger, and protest, and all the things that are so easy to jeer and kick at now that victory has been secured.
Because that victory made clear that racism and misogyny and xenophobia and religious prejudice are not, across the country, things of the past to be looked down upon and learned from. They are real, vital forces and motivators, not sources of shame but of empowerment.
Likely most of the people who voted for Trump--good people, so many of them--did not vote for the platforms of prejudice or rallies of racism or admissions of assault. But they voted in spite of them. And that, at least for me, was what was hardest to stomach. I thought that the shared shame of our history would be enough to induce us to never return to it collectively again. It wasn't. And yeah, that devastated the hell out of me. When did racism and xenophobia and assault obtain the ability to be overlooked? How did they not provide the automatic halt of the Trump train?
It was the tacit agreement to overlook these evils that got snowflakes like me out on the street and railing away on our keyboards and telephones. It wasn't that we didn't get our own way. It wasn’t even that our candidate(s) didn’t win. It was that half of our shared country voted to take 50 steps back into evils we (perhaps naively but nonetheless genuinely) believed to have been shamed and rejected once and for all.
I am not so naive now. I know in December of 2016 what I did not know on before November 8 of 2016. I acknowledge that, despite having received much of the same public education as me, and despite many reading the same Bible as me, there are fellow citizens of mine who didn't come to the same conclusions.
So be it. But I reject the central myth pedaled by the antagonists of the "special snowflakes", that the anger and temporary despair reveal a lack of grit or tenacity or character. Being knocked down is not the same as never getting up. And to my dying breath I will believe and fight for what I learned as a child in America and teach as an American adult raising my children outside of that country.
I believe, as the Constitution highlights (or at least hints at), that human beings are created in the image of God and, as such, are endowed with dignity and respect that should be honored and codified.
I believe that the ugly, repetitive catastrophe of dehumanizing, othering, and overlooking our neighbours should properly elicit shame, and that shame and anger are appropriate responses when a man is elected on a platform that celebrates the catastrophe rather than rejecting it.
And if these beliefs make me a special snowflake, then fine. I'm a special snowflake. A special, disappointed, but hopeful snowflake who's got some hope and faith and fight left in me, along with the millions of other snowflakes who feel as I do.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy."
-Psalm 137:5-6 (King James Version)
To begin, a funny story: When I was preparing to go to Israel for the first and only time 17 years ago, my encouraging but slightly freaked-out parents did everything they could to prepare me for such a trip. My electrician father researched the receptacle shapes and power converter needs for life in the Middle East. My extroverted mother sought out the best phone plan that would allow us to call each other with as much regularity (and as little cost) as the not-quite-cellular-American infrastructure would allow.
Neither of them had travelled abroad beyond Canada at that point, so they didn't really know what other things I might need to be equipped for the adventure. To remedy this, they took me to the abode of experts who might know better: a fancy-schmancy travel store "over the hill" in Portland, where a VERY happy-to-clean-us-out salesman sold us a bundle of stuff: multiple luggage security locks, a personal handbag, a secret passport stasher, and a large navy blue rolling duffel bag.
This duffel bag, for reasons still unknown to me, had a miniature stuffed monkey keychain attached to it. I wonder now if that's what sold me on it. (Look, a cute little monkey! Hey, it's free with the bag, I should get THAT one!)
For reasons even more unfathomable, the stuffed monkey had a name, as all of the monkeys attached to this kind of bag did (I suspect it was a kind of Cabbage Patch Doll approach to beguiling sentimental customers like me).
As it happened, I liked a dark blue bag the best, one that a stuffed monkey of the same colour attached to it like other bags of the same make and brand. And this monkey's name was...
My parents teehee-ed over this to no end. "Maybe you'll meet your husband on this trip and his name will be Matt!" they joked, the salesman grinning in response and waiting for us to finish our purchase. I shrugged and grew red, trying to appear indifferent to such a possibility (I was a 20-year-old evangelical woman, so meeting my future husband was frequently--perhaps TOO frequently--on my mind.)
We paid for the bag(s), the locks, the secret passport holder, and left, content that I was as ready as I could be for my first real trip abroad.
Upon my arrival at the Jerusalem campus I learned that there were not one but FIVE Matts there (out of only 100 people altogether). Five Matts! This was too ridiculous and tempting to obsess on and overthink, so I mentally set aside the monkey and focused on better things: exploring, studying (on occasion), and spending hours and hours with some of the most interesting, beautiful people I've ever had the privilege of knowing.
And in that last, super normal and ordinary activity, I did fall in love. While I ate and drank and travelled with many truly fabulous people there was, ultimately, just one person I woke up wanting to see in the morning; only one whom I thought of last in the waning moments of wakefulness at night.
That one person was, of course, my Matt. The Matt I would pine for, first as a secret, unspoken crush and then as a publicly proclaimed and claimed boyfriend while we finished our undergraduate degrees. The Matt with the dark brown hair and the chocolate brown eyes and the deep, cavernous crinkles in his cheeks when he smiled. The Matt that, if such superstitions and oddball signs are to believed, a blue monkey keychain on a blue bag in a luggage store in Portland foretold I was going to marry.
In honour of our 15th wedding annniversary, Matt and I are returning to the land where it all began. Airline tickest proved affordable just when they needed to in order to make such a plan, and booking lodging in all the cities we plan to visit while there has afforded me an extra portion of joy.
Lots of people dream of going, or returning, to the Holy Land for the reasons that make it a precious place for faithful Muslims, Christians, Jews (among others). The three main monotheistic religions of the earth have all staked their claim on it at one time or another, and still do today with varying degrees of success. Our miracles happened there. Our prophets spoke and healed and brought back the dead there. We expect to meet God there.
But I'd be lying if I said it was mostly the claims of faith that make me want to go back, or historical sites, or even (as it was the first time) the chance to bear witness to what a resurrected People could do in a land they saw as their divine right. My reasons are much more plain and personal. Yes, the limestone buildings of Jerusalem glowing in the fierce, Middle Eastern sun are beautiful on their own. But they are also the buildings I walked past as I got to know the man who teased and challenged and listened me into love with him. Yes, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan river have their own power over me because my Saviour swam and stood and walked in them. But, if I'm honest, the power is even greater because I swam in that lake and stood by that river with good friends, with remarkable souls, including the remarkable soul who asked me, less than two years later, to be his wife.
I am going back not just to the Holy Land sanctified by divine deeds and places of memory for the faithful but my Holy Land--a land sanctified by friendship and love and places of memory from the best year of my life.
The author of Psalm 137 warned himself against forgetting Jerusalem. For me, such a warning is almost laughable. I have never really gotten over Jerusalem. Which it makes it all the more wonderful that I am finally going back.
The same image has come unbidden to my mind every day this past week:
I am either in the basket of a hot air balloon or, more oddly, I AM the basket of a hot air balloon. My perspective is downward. I'm just a few feet off the ground, which is not too alarming, but the ropes that should tether me safely to it have come loose.
Am I floating away? Am I trying to land? I'm not sure, but I know instinctively that the ropes should not be untied. I need them to serve as tethers; I need them to keep me connected to the ground.
I spent the first part of this Friday night past in despondency. Nothing much had happened, but the weight of two weeks' worth of bad news piled upon bad news finally took its toll. Jeff Sessions had been revealed as the attorney general in the cabinet of the president-elect. All I knew about him was what I remembered from an article written a month before in which he, a United States senator, declared that a man grabbing a woman's genitals wasn't really sexual assault.
When my husband came home I was sitting at the table with my head in my hands.
"I feel dead inside." I declared, still staring at the table. "Of course what he said doesn't matter to the next president. How could that kind of statement matter to a man who actually assaulted women? How can we live in a world where such a man will be the next president? How is that is even possible"
Matt rubbed my shoulder and listened as I continued to speak, up to the point where I said, "Everything seems upside down to me. I feel lost." At that, he gave me some badly needed straight talk that helped pull me out of my gloom:
"Of course you feel lost. You've been stuck in the house all week being blasted with Donald Trump news on Facebook. You need to get out and connect with real people again."
And with that, he helped me make dinner and I started to come back to life.
I know what the first rope is, the first truth that will tether me and keep me grounded in a season that frequently sends me reeling: Call it community or something else, I--we--were created for real life lived with the real, flesh-and-blood people in our homes, our streets, with those we see at school and places of worship, in the grocery store and at the bank.
Reductivism is tempting and all too possible in online engagement: my family, friends and colleagues become the sum of their opinions and images.
I become the sum of my opinions and images.
Real life is less particular, less intense; opinions are but one sliver of the complex pie of shared existence. That which connects us--food, children, weather, holidays--that is the stuff that dominates our days and unites flesh-and-blood neighbours and friends with each other.
I can see myself again in the balloon, looking down, taking hold of a rope: flesh-and-blood, rooted existence in this space and this time. Here I am. Here are my people. Here is my place. And it is good.
I tie the rope to the ground.
I began reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a few weeks ago. I found a mint-condition copy at a thrift store and bought it because my daughter loves the shorter version we have in the house, and because it seemed odd that I had never read the original before.
I'm finding it a serendipitous guidebook, as classic fiction often is for me. All that Alice knows must be altered, to make way for the wisdom necessary to navigate the strange Wonderland world. This is a world where a girl can fall hundreds or thousands of feet and not be harmed, where rabbits talk and worry about punctuality. It is precisely in the bizarre that Alice discovers her bravery, bravery she hopes to take with her back to her real home in the real world.
Speaking the truth has become an act of bravery for me. It doesn't feel like it initially, but it always does afterward. Speaking the truth about sexual assault. Speaking the truth about PTSD. Speaking the truth about God intersecting with my life (or me intersecting with His, as it's probably more accurate to say). Speaking about the first two subjects, necessary as it feels at the time, gets paid for afterwards by me and, to a degree, my family. There is a reason "spilling your guts" is so appropriate an idiom for the act.
But it does something else, and this relates to community, too. Throughout this past year I have had people who have experienced similar events--sexual assault, faith displacement, PTSD--reach out to me. Sometimes they share what they have experienced; sometimes it is as simple as, "you helped me put my story into words." That, far more than the act of writing, helps heal what is broken within me. When people reach out to me, I reach back--and when we join hands (metaphorically or physically) something inside whispers, "Yes. Good. This is the way it is supposed to be."
I am looking down again at the ground, one rope tied and the remaining three corners of the basket rocking dangerously in the wind. I throw down a second rope and someone--I cannot see who--tethers it to the ground for me.
I will keep choosing to speak the truth. I will not give into cowardice. I will not appease and please through silence and whimsy.
I will tell the truth. And so, the second rope is tied.
On Sunday morning, Matt woke up fighting a bit of the cold that my children have all passed around to each other.
"I don't want to go to church today," he said as he reached into the cupboard for his coffee mug.
"It's Christ the King Sunday!" I exclaimed. "I would DIE if I didn't go to church today."
"That's the difference between you and me," he responded flatly.
"No," I said. "It's a sign that I'm getting well."
This is the year of all years that I know, deep in my bones, that I need a calendar to live by beyond the political one of primaries and debates and elections. Hope pushes for involvement in those things, but it does not rise from them (nor should we expect it to).
I need to live by the calendar I have followed since I became an adult 19 years ago: the calendar that begins with the anticipation of the birth of Christ and ends with his crowning as King of the Universe. I need a reality rooted in God-become-human, in power prefaced and encased in humility. I desperately need the eternal Christ child in the manger to remind me the bluster and fear-mongering of kings (and president-elects) is not forever. I need to journey with the Holy Family to Egypt to remember that, whatever policies are enacted in the future, God knows what it is to be a refugee and calls us to welcome Him through welcoming others.
I need the once-and-always proclamation promise of Peace on Earth. And I need it, as the song goes, to begin in me.
This then, is the third rope: the ancient way of telling time through stories, good stories, of God and His people. This holding onto Good News that began with a good God creating a good world and that will, in His time, end with the full redemption and healing of that world. I don't demand that everyone sees it in exactly the same way, but for me, at this time, holding onto the Good News is what will keep me alive; it's what will keep me upright. The Good News is what will keep me from being utterly displaced by an era that is unfamiliar and yet all-too-familiar.
So I tie it, firmly, tightly, and let myself be drawn steadier and closer to the ground.
Once a month in my congregation (and every week or day in many others), we celebrate Eucharist (Thanksgiving); a meal instituted by Christ of bread and wine. In my faith tradition, we call this meal a means of grace; a way in which God feeds and nourishes not only our bodies but our spirits.
Eucharist, Communion, the Lord's Supper: these are all names for the same meal, based on the same Good story recorded in all four of the Books that describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is my favourite part of worship, both as a leader and as an in-the-pew participant. The last part of the liturgy that I would say as the leader was this strange line: "Drink this cup, in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for you, and be thankful."
Thankfulness and gratitude, are central to the Eucharist, and they are central to the life of faith. But gratitude is a grounding practice both for those at home in a faith and those who make their home outside of one. It forces us to account for the good in addition to the bad. Thankfulness is the recognition that there are gifts we have been given and enjoy--gifts of people or health or work or the beauty of the day.
As a culture, we North Americans have a whole day set aside for an annual practice of gratitude, of thanksgiving. But that isn't the only time available to practice it, nor is it best to save it for just once a year.
When I came home this morning, my four-year-old neighbour greeted me with laughing and pointing--not at me, but at the sun, which we in Vancouver see too rarely.
"The sun is out, the sun is out!" he exclaimed joyfully.
I'm sure I knew that subconsciously, but I hadn't factored it in with my long list of things to do. But here was my neighbour, pointing and calling me to look. So I did. I set my bag of groceries down on the stairs and turned to look with him at the face of the sun. It was covered by white clouds, but the light was streaming through and touching both of us as we looked.
These things, gratitude and thanksgiving, will be my fourth rope, tying me not only to the ground but to God (Whom Tillich wisely titled "The Ground of Being.") I know gratitude can happen outside of God, but for me it happens now to Him, in concert with Him and the creation in which He has set me and those I love. I lost my ability to practice God-directed gratitude when I lost my ability to read the Scriptures. But it has come back, and I no longer have to limit my thoughts to the good things that happen. I can be thankful for them. With a smidge of panic (as comes whenever I consciously connect things to religious obligation). But I can be grateful. Thank God.
I am looking down again, in the balloon. The wind is gentle, barely blowing. I reach down and easily and firmly tie the fourth and final rope to the ground. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.
Still in the balloon. Still looking downwards.
I am aware that, just outside my field of vision, nothing has changed. What is uncertain remains uncertain. What is terrifying remains terrifying.
But if and when I look beyond me at a world that is good but breaking, a world that even now breaks hearts and bodies and sends nations into disarray--I will look with eyes open and with the strength and stability of the four things that anchor me in place: the flesh-and-blood people in my life; the truth I will continue to speak; the Stories that I know and shape my life around; and gratitude for the good that I know will arise.
It is enough.
It will be well.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May we find our footholds in what is good, and right and true
That we may not fear
Or grow over-weary,
But rather be glad,
And even, on occasion, rejoice.
This post is an expansion on an entry in my journal, written in a low season of my life following a soul-crushing miscarriage. May it be a word of courage and encouragement for those who need it.
Went for a walk.
Looked for God at a waterfall.
Heard Him in the damp, ancient forest
of trees with half-stretched
broken branches, covered in
I walked until I felt compelled to stop in front of one old tree in particular. And heard,
"This is you, Kadee."
I notice the tree's branches,
their frenetic, top-to-bottom reaching out.
There is no fruit. It provides no shade.
What good is there in a tree like this?
"It stands," I hear.
"Just stand, Kadee."
But is it good enough just to stand?
"You are good enough. Just stand."
Psalm 1 has a line that I returned to often after my father died:
[S]he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in season.
Maybe this isn't a season to bear fruit.
Maybe it is enough just to stand.
If God says it's true, it must be so.
A blessing for you, and for me:
If you can run, may you run with strength and speed.
If you can walk, may you walk with dignity and purpose.
If you can stand, may you stand in confident trust that it is enough.
And if you can only crawl, sit, or lie down,
May you, in so doing, partake in the Divine dignity of weakness.
And though we long with you for the gift of strength,
I rise up even now and call you blessed.
Here is something I didn't see coming: I didn't anticipate what it would be like to admit publicly I had been sexually assaulted in the context of a larger national conversation on the subject, and then have friends and family vote for an admitted sexual assaulter.
I knew, of course, that it would happen. But I didn't know what it would do to my heart.
I didn't expect that it would feel like dementors circled me and sucked all hope out of the air in the early morning hours of November 9. (Yes, I know that dementors aren't real. But sometimes it feels like they are.)
I didn't know that I would feel betrayed by my people, the white American evangelicals, 81% of whom voted for an admitted sexual assaulter (among other things; and God Almighty, what a long, terrible list of other things!)
I didn't know that the voice so recently returned to me would scream for hiding and protection and safety again in the wake of the election; to sit out the next four years safely and silently here in Canada, ignoring what is happening in the country of my birth and around the world.
I didn't know silence would be so tempting after finding the courage to speak. How could I?
But now I know. And I have faced and rejected the temptation to quiet down and go away.
I have faced and rejected (thought failing sometimes) the temptation to simply keep the peace and ignore what remains troubling and disturbing about this New (i.e. Very Old) World in which we live. A world in which naming misogyny and xenophobia and racism is treated as whining, and denouncing those things earns one the title of "poor loser." A world in which riots are rightly denounced while attacks in and on churches and schools and human beings are minimized or ignored.
I have faced and rejected the temptation to give into the safety of despair and turn away from noisy, irritating, painful hope.
No. It is in hope that I want to live. It is in hope, and its twin sisters, faith and love that I, as a person of faith, am called to live. And in this new season of knowing that all is not well, hope will continue to require work on my part and on all of our parts.
Hope requires turning away from the temptation to despair and cowardice. Hope requires turning away from the temptation to demean and withdraw from those who voted differently than me, especially those who share my faith. It is hope, not optimism, that is necessary in these days. Hope, not cheery naivetè must remain the oxygen of the brokenhearted and the inspiration of the weary.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, "Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, if we work hard enough, we can make things better. Between them lies all the difference in the world. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope."
Well then, may God give me courage, for I. Will. Live. In. HOPE.
In hope, I will work for a future that is just, not the savage now that elevates the rights of those of a particular skin colour, orientation, religion or gender. I will speak when that future clearly remains to be realized. And I will rejoice when it seems to break through.
In hope, I will live into a Kingdom where it is the poor and the mourning and the broken who are declared blessed instead of reviled as losers and whiners. I will speak when that Kingdom is rejected for a kingdom of the mighty being right because of their might. And I will celebrate when that Kingdom advances in peaceful victory.
In hope, I will live into a Kingdom of grace and mercy and humility and love, where, as Mother Mary sang, "God casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly."
In hope, I will reach out my hand out in friendship to those who disagree with me, even though it may be slapped away or spit upon. (God help me. God help us all. That is the part I dread most.)
And I will screw up sometimes. I will fail at love and I will give up hope and then grasp it again. And I'll probably irritate people (no, definitely will! Kadee, shut up already about Donald Trump!). And I'll probably be a Debbie Downer or, I flatter myself, Gandalf Stormcrow (no, definitely will!) and get muted or blocked or ignored, even by people I love and people who love me.
But thank God, so much of what used to keep me silent--the agony I put myself through because of what others think of me and my words--has been crucified and buried. And may it lie dead, amen and amen.
I expect to be hurt, and I expect to be ignored. And I expect myself to tell the truth anyhow.
Because hope. And only hope.
A blessing for you, and for me:
Be brave, beloved:
Use the voices God has given you to speak the truth, and to speak it in love.
Live courageously in hope, clinging to faith tinged by hope,
And I will do the same, with His help.
Note: This post was originally an entry in my personal journal, written less than two months after I went on medical leave and about a month after I started running per my doctor's recommendation. It is about running. It is also about much more than running.
Every time I run, I have the same memory play in my head as I start to get in my stride: when I was in grade 4 or 5 and the only girl to volunteer to run the 800 meters at our annual track meet.
A few years earlier I had been declared the fastest girl in class after a race around the field for P.E. For some reason I thought I was still fast enough, and that running 800 meters would be no problem for me.
It's strange how much I remember about that race. I remember my dad telling me I needed to be practicing in the weeks before, couch potato that I was. I remember him telling me that I needed to start out slow, or I wouldn't have enough energy to speed ahead and win at the end. I agreed to his wisdom, eventually.
But on the race day itself, the need to prove myself quickly voided Dad's good wisdom. As we were lined up, another, older girl talked to the boy from my school running in the race ahead of me. "Who's running the 800?" she asked. He nodded in my direction, and she sized me up She had permed hair and cool accessories, and an athlete's solid build. I was skinny and awkward and had thin, straight hair (anathema in the late '80's, early 90's).
"Is she any good?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders and somehow (I don't remember if in words or whispers) informed Miss Amazing that I was the only one who had volunteered, and thus the only one running from our school who had not qualified by trying out.
By the time we were lined up, it was desperately hot outside and I was equally desperate to prove to everyone that I deserved to be there. So when the "Go!" was given, I set off in a blaze of speed, ahead of Miss Amazing.
But only for a moment. Very quickly I could feel that it would be all I could do to finish the race--winning would be the least of my concerns. As we made the first round, I saw my dad parked with his work truck on the other side of the school fence, watching me race.
I knew I was going to disappoint him. I had not practiced, and I had not paced myself. I was going to lose, and badly. Which, of course, I did. I believe I came in dead last, which was bad enough, but I was so exhausted that I fell on the ground after crossing the finish line, panting and sweating and in agony. I looked to my best friend for sympathy, but she just looked horrified and mostly embarrassed.
Looking back, I have so much compassion for that little girl, alone and in last place, heaving on the ground. If Dad stayed, I don't remember it. If anyone came to help me, I don't remember it. The only funny thing I remember--and this can't be right, but I'll say it anyway--is my foster brother running the boys' 800 right after me and not only winning by a long shot but doing so after initially missing a turn and having to backtrack to the right course for the race.
Whenever I run now and am tempted to race ahead to look faster--more fit, more worthy of respect and admiration--I think of my Dad by his truck, watching and saying, "Slow down or you'll have nothing left at the end." I have to tune out the lifetime of other voices that say THIS moment, THIS impression is what you must kill yourself for.
Run the long race. Listen to your body. Pace yourself. Slow down.
Words to live by, if I've ever heard any. And now, finally, I am learning to listen to them.
T is for Titillating Tales of Terror (or Real-Life Scary Stories my Family Tells, in honour of Halloween)
A certain sparkly vampire family made its fictional home in a temperate rainforest town, 250 miles north of the socked-in coastal village that my own family calls home.
There is a marked spookiness that descends on all coastlines along with the dark. The only horror movie I could tolerate watching as a kid was called "Lady in White", which was about a grief-stricken ghostly mother who jumped from a cliff into the ocean every night she re-realized her daughter had been killed. (Goosebumps are popping up all over my skin as I write this...do you know who hates thinking about scary things? ME!!!) While that story was set on the other side of the country, it laid beautiful ground in my childhood imagination for strange things to happen on the coastal cliffs of my adolescence and adulthood.
When I was in my early twenties, my brother (born with considerable more nerve than I) reported spooky happenings to which he and his friends had been witness. They would purposefully go to get themselves scared at a nearby state park, complete with misty, dramatically descending cliffs, a non-working lighthouse, and a tree (known as the Octopus Tree) that was rumoured to have housed the bodies of recently departed First Nations people for the first night after their death.
The strangest part of this already strange and beautiful place were the deer (at least in his experience), because the deer there did not act like ordinary deer. The park and its surrounding area is not well lit and prone to fog, so trips there at night were always made with caution to not hit any wildlife.
But, five or six times, the cars in which my brother and his friends travelled were not so much dangerous as endangered. When they came upon the deer that roamed the misty forest by the cliffs, the encounters were anything but normal. Instead of freezing up or running away out of fright, as deer tend to do, the deer would get aggressive. The drivers would have to move their cars away from the deer, getting out of the deer's way (!) instead of the other way round. It was, as he says, "like the deer were trying to defend something."
One night, this Warrior Deer behaviour reached its pinnacle when, with about ten people spread between two cars, one lone deer came out onto the road. As the headlights of the car flashed into the face of the animal, it stared into eyes of the driver of the first car for a few seconds before running into it, throwing its body against the front of the car as if to say "Get out, you don't belong here!"
It was with these strange encounters in mind that I went at sunset with my newly engaged fiancé to this same state park to take pictures. Matt hadn't heard any of the stories or local legends, but they weighed on my mind as we passed through the open gate of the park. I thought for the briefest of moments about telling Matt what I had heard. But something held me back; I thought that talking about the stories might make both of our imaginations run rampant.
The sunset was beautiful. To watch and photograph it, we descended from a spot in the park affectionately nicknamed "Suicide Point" by my siblings and I (!) and carefully traversed a narrow wedge of land to a cliff that juts out to the sea. Once the sun set, I started feeling anxious about getting back...and again, opted not to tell Matt, as he was still taking pictures of the last crimson and orange streaks on the horizon.
By the time we came back to Suicide Point and clambered through the brush to the official path, it was dusk. As we approached the Octopus Tree, my skin began to crawl: not because of its appearance, but because I thought I heard groans coming from the woods around it.
But I am the scarediest of scaredy cats, so did I say anything? No sirree, I did not. Because as long as I didn't say anything or draw attention to the groans, I could keep on believing it was all in my head.
Two or three moans and groans later, Matt's ears picked up the sound. He looked at me and grinned. "Sasquatch?" he asked, jokingly. I gritted my teeth in a nervous smile in response and pushed out something like a laugh.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"I'll tell you later," I replied.
Even at this point, with Matt hearing groans near a tree that probably didn't but maybe did house the corpses of the dearly departed of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, I was trying to talk myself down. Maybe there were people in the woods being goofy and playing tricks on us? Maybe there was a family nearby and the kids were hiding and groaning, trying scare us? This was nicer to believe, so I just walked a little faster, holding Matt's hand and trying not to squeeze it as hard as my fear compelled me. Someone else was here. Someone was being silly. It was all in my head.
The path away from the Octopus tree descends gradually into a large parking lot for tourists wanting to see the lighthouse and the tree and the beautiful views.
But there were no cars there. Not a soul. And at this point Matt, naive as he was to the legends and mysteries of the place, started getting nervous too. He had heard the moans and groans. If no one else was here, who was making them?
The gates to the park close at sunset, or so a sign affixed to them says. We drove out as quickly as we could to avoid being locked in. As we passed safely through the still-open gate, I began to tell Matt what I had heard about this place. He tried to make light of it, and I tried to relax as we got back out onto the main road.
But, as we turned onto it, a deer emerged from the woods and came onto the road.
And stared at us.
And didn't move.
And I can't tell you how long we stared at it or it stared at us, but the standoff ended when the deer ran at our car!
And then Matt and I collectively freaked out, he in his calm, cool way and me in my frantic, noisy screeching way. Somehow we got around the deer, somehow we made it back onto the highway, and somehow we drove as quickly as the dark would allow back towards town and home.
If you can believe it, we have never gone there at night again. Because maybe the tree is just a tree and maybe the cliffs are just cliffs and maybe the deer are just deer but...
Well, who really knows?
Note: This post was inspired by a similarly-themed column published in Bill Bryson's hysterical book, "Notes from a Big Country." Thanks, Bill!
The Bridge Jump (a tale passed onto me from my friend Mike)
I went to university in Idaho. Nobody outside of the Pacific Northwest of the United States knows where Idaho is (and even then, people can be foggy on the exact location). Upon arrival I was told that Idaho is comprised of two parts: the northern, green, forested part teeming with white supremacists (!), and the southern, brown, tumbleweed-ridden part in which my university is located.
Thankfully there was more to southern Idaho than that (not much, but some), and one thing that we university students did when the weather was warm was go bridge-jumping at a nearby river.
One warm afternoon, a poor, nervous lad made his way down the side of the bridge to the narrow landing from which he and his friends were to jump into the river below. The drop was greater than he expected, so it took him several minutes of hemming and hawing and his friends' encouraging before he finally got up the nerve to jump. At that critical moment, he made the leap. And as he did, his friends noticed in horror that a large object was floating down the river and would be intercepted by their friend precisely when he made landing.
The large object was the corpse of a dead cow (!)
Gravity of course is real and unflinching even if situations like this. So Poor Laddy continued to plummet down, unable to change velocity or direction, and fell straight through the bloated, blessedly squishy and soft and thus not lethal body of the dearly departed Moo Mama.
Laddy survived, thankfully. But I would venture to say he never jumped again.
One fall morning, I woke up early to take our dog for a much needed walk in the neighbourhood. It was dark and cold for the thirty minutes or so we rambled, and I was glad to return to our warm home at the end of it. When I came in, I saw my oldest two children (then 7 and 5) sitting on the couch watching cartoons, but could not find my 15-months-old youngest son.
"Where's Ephraim?" I asked the two boys.
"I don't know," the oldest one answered, his eyes and his brothers' glued to the television set.
I went into the bathroom where my husband was just getting out of the shower.
"Where's Ephraim?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" he replied with slight alarm.
"I can't find him," I said.
We looked at each other for a few silent seconds before Matt scrambled to get clothes on and I left to do one final check under the beds and tables and inside the closets of our tiny attic suite.
No Ephraim. Matt and I opened the door, went down our steep flight of stairs, and went opposite directions down our street, calling his name as we ran.
As I approached the park at the end of our block, I saw a tiny figure in a t-shirt and a diaper peeking out from behind a bush. It was my son, of course. I ran towards him and he ran towards me, laughing and excited to be "found" and so unbelievably unafraid and unbothered by the cold.
I kissed his little cheeks and warmed his feet in my hands while chiding him for running away. Then we went to find his dad and returned back to our house. We still don't know how long he was alone at the park, but our guess was anywhere between ten and twenty minutes.
That is life with my third son in a nutshell. Always on the edge of panic while he rushes headlong into the next big adventure. Now that he's older and his impulsiveness has mellowed, some of the beauty of his fearlessness has been revealed. In fact, I often wish I could take a smidge of it for myself.
January 2005. Matt and I have looked through our bills and our bank statements and realized that we just don't have enough money for me to make it through another semester of grad school. When we go our separate ways, he to put our son to bed and me to clean up from dinner, I shoot a quick prayer up to God.
"Lord, if you want me to stay in this you're going to have to do something to make it clear. Because we can't do it on our own."
The next day an older friend stopped by with a belated birthday present for our one-year-old son. Isaac opened the present, throwing the tissue paper around the room and excitedly removing the actual gift. I thanked my friend for her thoughtfulness and she replied kindly but still sat there, smiling, as if waiting for something else to happen. I was tired and unfocused, so I thanked her again for the present and we chatted until she left.
I put Isaac down for his nap and went to clean up the living room, including the gift bag. Only then did I notice a card inside that I had failed to see before and thus left unopened.
When I slipped the card out of the envelope, a cheque floated down onto my lap. I picked it up and when I saw the number, my stomach dropped.
$500.00. Five-HUNDRED dollars.
In a note also enclosed, my friend explained that after the recent death of her parent, she and her husband had received a small inheritance. They had prayed about which people or charitable organizations to give the money to, and Matt and I kept coming to their minds.
I started to cry (I swear I don't cry all the time, even if my posts seem to indicate otherwise). I had asked for God to do something about our financial shortfall and, believe what you will about the timing, a cheque was in my hands within 24 hours. The next day I wrote a thank you note and told my friend about my evening-before prayer. And I stayed in grad school, graduating two years later with a Master's degree, two babies, and no debt from that degree whatsoever.
יהוה יראה (the Lord provides)
A month after my father died in 2005, my sister called me.
"I'm pregnant," she declared.
"You're what?" I asked in astonishment. Her daughter was only eight months old at the time, and as I had managed (gratefully) to remain unpregnant for the 13 months following the birth of my son I assumed she would like to have some non-pregnant time as well.
"I'm pregnant!" she said more loudly. "And I don't know how! I swear this is an Immaculate Conception kind of thing."
I wanted to ask more questions but she was in a bit of a fury and said she had more calls to make. I got off the phone, thanking my lucky stars that it was her and not me.
Two months later, as I have written about before, I found out that I was pregnant as well.
Let us fast forward to the strange part of all of this (besides the aforementioned Immaculate Conception of my nephew).
When you are in your first year of mourning for a loved one, there are several days that are bitter and brutal and that you just need to make it through: The first month anniversary of their death. Then the second. The sixth month anniversary that kicks you in the gut and the yearly anniversary that wallops you in the teeth (that anniversary is called yahrzeit in Yiddish, as our Jewish brothers and sisters have the good sense to have a proper name for that horrible day). The first anniversary of marriage sans loved one is hard for the spouse; the first birthday without them is hard for everyone. The yahrzeit is agony, and there's no good way of getting around it.
A little consolation on these days is always welcome. A little extra joy is a stark and life-giving contrast to the months and days cut deeply by the sharp, unrelenting force of loss.
So imagine, if you will, the consolation of welcoming my nephew into the world two days before what would have been my dad's first birthday away from this world.
Imagine, if you will, the consolation of welcoming my son into the world a week and a half before what would have been my dad's first yahrzeit.
And imagine, if you will, the consolation of both of these events being completely unplanned, completely unexpected, completely "wrecking" the timing of so many things and yet resting as a balm on our family's broken hearts when a balm was just what we needed. Because that, of course, is what their births were.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May hope catch you unawares,
May consolation bleed through the breaking of your best laid plans,
May laughter lift you from fear,
May God provide.