The Seas of Self-Storms

Featured Image: “Stormy,” © Luke Gray (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.

A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy:  Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins:  Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.

“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.

“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing:  clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?

“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?

The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?

“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

~ St. Catherine of Siena

the-life-comes-up-after-the-storm-02
The life comes up after the storm 02,” © Marcos Oliva (own work), May 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

Splotches

Featured Image:  “Close up on Monet,” © Peter Boothe, Jul 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.

Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.

On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.

Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!

In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.

Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.

During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.

Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

~ Thomas Merton, Thoughts on Solitude

lilies
lilies,” © Josh, Feb 2011. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license).  “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond,” by Claude Monet. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY.

 

 

Prayer for Morning

Featured Image: “New year’s Eve morning dew #1 20141231,” © Yasunari(康就) Nakamura(中村) (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”

~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4

“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’:  yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”

~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat

I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.

Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.

Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Grace Breaks Through

Who remembers Taz, the incoherent Tasmanian devil animated by Warner Bros.? As an increasingly self-aware, recovering perfectionist, when an attack of perfectionistic fervor strikes, it feels like Taz is inside of my chest, whirling in a maniacal cyclone of destruction, tongue hanging out, panting, scattering saliva, and spouting indecipherable gibberish at a deafening level. Welcome to last weekend.

By the time I crossed Friday’s threshold, I was frustrated, angry, and entirely exhausted. I was guilty of foregoing sleep and self-care, the consequence of forcing too much into too little time while telling myself it was all completely necessary. Friday brought with it an enticing promise of relief and an opportunity to catch up on everything that needed doing.

Back when I set my New Year’s Resolutions, I mentioned that I wanted to become better at identifying when I was using anger as a screen to avoid feeling vulnerable, hurt, afraid, uncertain, etc.. When I spent the entire course of Friday feeling frustrated, bitter, and resentful, I persistently questioned myself, “What am I missing? What is really going on here?” My inability to answer my self-inquiry only deepened my irritation and impatience. Finally, I resolved that it didn’t matter. I was convinced that after a night of solid sleep, I would arise on Saturday feeling refreshed and renewed. Well, I woke up on Saturday to a messy house, a cluttered desk, and an excessive list of “must-do’s.” Of course, I jumped straight in, assuring myself that I was being necessarily reflective. I was prioritizing, taking one thing at a time, and “doing the next best thing,” mindfully. I even paused for a brief, guided meditation (on exploring anger) and spent an excrutiating four whole minutes sitting in silence, gazing out the window, letting the sunlight penetrate my exterior, simply contemplating. New Years’ Resolution #1 – to cultivate stillness, quiet, and peace? Yeah, that’s not going to be so easy.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed with my productivity, and I wasn’t feeling any better. When I sat up in bed on Sunday, at first appearances, it seemed like more of the same. I can’t exactly describe what happened, but in the midst of all that, light broke through. Figuratively at first, but then literally.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, and I did what I do on most Sundays. I reached for the phone, assessed the hour, and in an instant broke down the rest of the day and what I could expect to accomplish. Then, I picked up the little prayer booklet beside by my bed and tried to let the mass readings for the day penetrate my calvarium, underlining and annotating with color-coded pens.

“Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep’ – for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!’”

~ Nehemiah 8:8-10

In these words, I found something that I needed that morning. I found permission to be joyful.

You see, my perfectionism really arises from my deep belief that I’m not good enough. To borrow from Brené Brown, it’s my shuffle for self-worth. Yet, God knows that I am a sinner. He knows all of my darkest parts far better than I know them. And he forgives me. And he loves me. And he wants me to be happy. Because he also knows all of my glorious parts and all of my potential far better than I. The people who heard Ezra proclaim the law of Moses wept and lamented as they realized their failings, but they were then invited to resume a life of love, gratitude, and joy free from the burden of their past. Once I acknowledge my stumbles and make them as right as I can, I am invited to stand back up. And sing. And laugh. And dance. And eat rich food. (Still working on that last part.)

It wasn’t quite entirely so simple, though, old patterns being hard to break. Even as my glimmer of realization began to cast a hint of illumination into the hardened, self-hating recesses of my mind, I was simultaneously planning what I was going to wear for the day, mapping out my afternoon, organizing my bedside table with one hand, and scratching the cat with the other.

Finally, I came downstairs and opened the blinds, and I couldn’t close my eyes to the dazzling sun reflecting off the frozen snow. As the first rays of day shot over the horizon, I truly paused. It occurred to me that there must be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon that makes the sunlight of winter appear more clear, radiant, and bright than the warm, humid sun of summer months. In that moment, almost impulsively, I did something almost foreign to me. Even though Taz was whirling inside me, jabbering something about how I would be running late, I stepped outside into the icy air.

One of my favorite blogs to follow is alpha // whiskey // foxtrot, by the enormously talented Ashley Wilson Fellers. Her black-and-white photography is just as breathtaking as her mindful, poignant, thought-provoking reflections in poetry and prose. (Seriously, if you don’t already follow blog, go check her out). She is one of those artists and writers who encourages me to see the world differently, and on that particular morning, I almost felt like I was seeing the sunrise with her eyes.

I took a picture. And then I took another. Then I pondered, “I wonder how the light and shadows would look from that spot over there.” And I went. In black-and-white, there was no color to distract the eye. The brightness and darkness were just… there. It was an image of the simplicity and stillness that I spent the preceding 48 hours hunting relentlessly. No noise. Just peace.

Winter sunrise 1

Winter Sunrise 2

In the end, there was no great epiphany or single event that catapulted me to some new, profound plane of existence. Rather, it was a culmination of tiny moments, finally ending in a willingness to open my eyes to what was before me all along.

Wishing each of you who read this love, laughter, joy, and peace today.

“For I know well the plans I have for you – oracle of the Lord – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11

Incongruence

Featured Image: “Dark,” © Stephen Bowler, Dec 2013. CC BY 2.0.

In the daily morning meeting, a contextualized and multifaceted discussion arises. As I lean back, my chest and arms open, hands resting in my lap under the long conference table with palms turned ever so slightly upward, I tell myself, “Relax.” There is a touch of forcefulness in the directive, just as there is a raggedness and unsteadiness to my breath. The conversation is not provocative or heated, but more evocative and inviting. And yet, I still feel the chronic tension in my body, especially the tightness of my face and shoulders and the sore lump of my left upper trapezius where it meets my neck.

Slowly, gradually, I melt into the moment, letting the quiet hush of the circulating HVAC system wash over me, settling into the background of the tonal voices that rise and fall from one end of the table and then the other. Across from me, along the far wall of the room, I see a smooth face, rosy cheeks, with deep, dark shadows underneath both eyes. I think about his three young children at home and the new baby, his wife’s recent surgery, and his obscure, mysterious life beyond these walls, of which I know very little. I wonder who he is and what experiences make him. What is buried under the surface of that face? Is he even aware of his own depth? My eyes shift from face to face, taking in the wrinkles of age, the softness of youth, the creases of concern, ringed eyes and heavy lids, or bright irises following their own wandering route. Parents, husbands, wives, children. I wonder what beauty these eyes have beheld and what pain those hearts bear. I pause when I come to a co-worker whose adult son committed suicide several years before I met him, and my eyes start to sting. He never speaks of it to me; I only know that it happened from a passing comment once made by someone else about attending the funeral. What else do the human hearts gathered in this room carry in their depths?

I begin to hear the breaths around me, and for the first time ever, I start to notice the asynchronous rising and falling of shoulders, chests, and bellies of all these gathered bodies. Mine is one of them.

How often do I allow myself to move through my day with awareness of what forms me? How often do I allow myself to really feel? How often am I open to those tender, vulnerable places in my soul? I am tempted to answer, “Never.” I think that I was more awake and alive when I returned from Walden last January, but slowly the walls went back up. I formed a hard shell around my heart, and coming to this realization hurts.

“…for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

~ Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates

Perhaps, my tranquil consciousness during the conference this morning is an invitation to be more curious about myself and others. The question it leaves me with is, can I accept this bidding to look deeper?

On January 1st, I began reading a page each day from a little book by Anne Wilson Schaef called Meditations for Living in Balance: Daily Solutions for People Who Do Too Much. I am finding the short reflections for each day both meaningful and challenging, moving me to consider differently. On the 25th, the topic was “Congruence.”

“Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.”

~ St. Anthony of Padua

Am I a trustworthy person? Do my words and my actions align? Do I mean what I say and follow through, or do I speak and write in empty sentiments? Am I deceiving others? Am I deceiving myself? I would be doing myself more harm if I glossed over these questions. Of course I am dishonest. Every time I commit one of these incongruences, I am eroding my soul just a bit. Such self-examination is painful, but living blindly in incongruence is damaging in a more diabolical way.

As one of my favorite, pithy recovery sayings goes, “Feel. Deal. Heal.” It is impossible for anyone to live congruently all the time. Honest introspection is necessary, difficult, and it hurts, but I am not meant to pitch my tent there. I am meant to move THROUGH it and find the reconciliation with God and self that is waiting at the end. There is joy to be discovered in this process. Of course, it is an often-repeating process, but the goal is that with continuing effort, I grow in time.

“Do not let the past disturb you – just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Calm
Calm,” © Stephen Bowler, Apr 2015. CC BY 2.0.

Spinning

Featured Image: “Pinwheel Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 05/24/12),” © NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, May 2012. CC BY-NC 2.0.

In the back of my throat, I can taste the faint but distinct tinge of iron. Marsha peers over her narrow horn-rims and scans the room from left to right. I marvel at her ability to keep the plastic frames from sliding right off the tip of her sweaty nose. Her face is flushed and ruddy, and she is grinning enthusiastically. Demonically. I struggle not to choke on thick mucus and indiscreetly wipe my own nose on my sleeve. My goblet cells are doing their part to protect my fragile mucosa against the hostile, dry air.

As I close my eyes, I focus on the bouncing of the heavy shock of hair against my damp forehead. It marks time like a metronome, synchronized to each turn of my feet. Marsha bellows at us, “Take the bounce out!” and I am suddenly back in high school marching band. Mr. Hernandez is hollering into his megaphone, “Roll-step! Roll-step!” I imagine my upper half floating like a cloud above the line of my waist, my hips and legs moving entirely independently of my trunk. My body is eerily disconnected and yet fluidly whole. My eyes are still closed, and I feel the rickety fan shifting the air irregularly across the room. I look at the clock. I can’t believe there are still another twenty minutes remaining.

It’s my second spin class. Outside of yoga, spinning denotes my first foray into organized, structured exercise since well before I went away to Walden. By the time I began partial hospitalization last Thanksgiving, I was already so sick and hurt that my last participation in sports was a distant memory. July 20th, 2013. That was the date of my final race, a 10K. The trophy for placing third in my age group sits on one of my bookshelves to commemorate the event. What was the price? I can’t say that it was worth it. At the same time, it was a treasured experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. However, I’m not going down that road again. This is different. I’m different.

Eyes gently closed once more, I visualize every strand of muscle cooperating in unison, linked by my vascular and nervous systems. Warm blood pumps from my heart, courses through my arteries into capillary networks, bathing my myocytes. Together, they shorten, squeezing the blood back through my veins, toward my right atrium, and the cycle repeats. My chest expands and collapses with each breath that rattles past my raspy pharynx. My body was made for this movement. Purposeful. I contemplate the word. There is mounting strain as L4, L5, and S1 arch backwards, carrying a bit too much load. I tell my abs to contract, and they oblige, pulling me erect. My shoulders slope down, away from my ears, relaxed. My fingertips rest gently on the handlebars. “Head up!” Marsha calls.

“Some of you could be working haaaaarder!” Marsha roars. She isn’t talking to me, I tell myself. My body knows what it needs. “Don’t cheat yourselves! Give me a turn and a half! A full turn!” she yells. I understand that her role is to motivate and to push the class, but that isn’t why I’m here. Once upon a time, yes, but not tonight. I give the resistance knob a nudge so that I am just driving hard enough to feel a moderate heat in my quads. There’s the suggestion of an ache in my left knee. I’m more sensitive to the plantar fascia on my right foot compared to the left. I take a moment to notice the absence of tenderness in the area of my peroneal tendinitis. I recite to myself the words that my therapist and I settled upon during our many conversations about my anxieties surrounding re-injury and my hyper-acute response to painful stimuli, “I am OK. It is not in my head, but just because I feel something does not mean that I am hurt. I am being moderate and attentive. I am not going to do anything to myself during these forty-five minutes that I won’t recover from. Here is where I build my strength and prove to myself that I am OK.”

After the class, Marsha asks me if I’m a cyclist. I ask her if riding my bike over the summer counts. She asks me if I would contemplate becoming an instructor. I have great form, and they’re looking for people, she tells me. My immediate thought is, Whoa, let’s slow this party wagon down. I want to blurt out, “I have an eating disorder!” Instead, I thank her for her compliment and explain my long recuperation from injuries and need for gradual rehabilitation. I stop myself there, but it’s so much more complicated. I am afraid of exercise. It’s a threat. It’s something that might derail my recovery.

When I return to the car, I am still so hot that I am forced to roll the windows down to keep from fogging the glass, even though it is mid-December. The cool air refreshes my radiating face as I pull away from the parking lot. It feels like hope.

Crazy Dizzy Spin
Crazy Dizzy Spin,” © Carly Webber, July 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

 

November Twenty-Fifth

Featured Image: “Autumn radiance,” © Mark K., Oct 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.

For Thanksgiving (and my 1-year anniversary of recovery), I decided to take advantage of my judicious use of vacation days to date and spend the entire week at home with my family and friends in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Four days in Connecticut and two days in Massachusetts for the price of three days of leave and two 13-hour car drives on either end of my visit seemed like a pretty good exchange for my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving – the perfect opportunity to practice my dialectical skills. It is the one time throughout the year when the greatest number of my nearest family members assemble in one place. It happens to come at the close of my favorite season, autumn, when the air is crisp and fills my lungs with an invigorating snap, before the harsher cold of winter settles and nudges me inside toward the fireplace, hot tea, and soft slippers. I cherish what Thanksgiving stands for, the coming together of family, the warmth, the light, the joy, the expressions of love and gratitude. When I open my heart to those themes, I find myself humbled, my sense of connection to others and to the universe crests, and my entire being seems to thrive. It is so much easier to live authentically when I am drinking in a steady stream of Thanksgiving’s wholehearted nectar.

The holiday now stands as a reminder of the season of growth that I entered when I began the partial hospitalization program at Walden on November 25, 2015. There probably wasn’t a better time of year for me to become fully engaged in my recovery. A year ago, I thought, “This timing is great because it will get me through the holidays and all those horrible, stressful food situations. Bonus, I’m not at work for the endless parade of potlucks and parties. Score!” I didn’t stop to think, “This timing is great because as I am embracing a completely unknown way of thinking and existing, a way rooted in compassion, forgiveness, love, relationships, finding the deeper meaning in life, living with a sense of purpose, remaining present in the moment, letting go of everything else… the entire world is coming together to re-center on those very same ideals!” That worldwide invitation to ground oneself wholeheartedly, to strengthen the bond with the self and with the others around us, is what Thanksgiving represents to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but if that is the case, please leave me to my idealism! When I allow cynicism disguised as pragmatism to govern me, I don’t seem to go anywhere but deeper into my own ego-centrism and self-righteousness. I would rather answer the knock at the door of my soul that I hear during this season, respond to the invitation to revisit the values I hold so dear, and explore with curiosity and patience just where the path from that door leads.

Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom
Candle bokeh inside Munich Dom,” © Nathan Rupert, Aug 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Here’s the thing… my inner critic, my cynically “pragmatic” demon, is never going away. I suppose that I can’t blame him. (I don’t know why I conceptualize this aspect of my personality as male, but that’s how I identify with it). In fact, I might actually be grateful to him, because I can imagine that if I walked about with my heart constantly wide open, trusting always, espousing universal love/compassion/forgiveness, and practicing vulnerability to the extreme, it wouldn’t be long before that same heart was ripped right out of my chest. A little suspicion and doubt keep me balanced, alert, and alive, just as a little healthy guilt keeps me in touch with my need to continue shining the spotlight of my values on my actual conduct, making adjustments and amends when I do wrong.

Thanksgiving isn’t only about family, soulfulness, and gratitude. Like so many other things of this world, it is neither all good nor all bad. It’s a time when our culture aggrandizes binging and a host of other disordered eating behaviors. While we make jokes about turducken and laugh about stuffing ourselves so full that all we can do is lie immobile on the sofa with our pants unbuttoned, the nutrition/health/dieting/weight loss industry is selling us an unachievable image of the perfect lifestyle. How many Paleo cookbooks, juicers, Nutrisystem plans, weight-loss supplements, etc. will be sold in the next two months? Thanksgiving is a time for every business to roll out their shiniest marketing strategies and glitziest promises of wellbeing, whether explicitly stated or merely implied (buy this sweater and you’ll be beautiful, thin, have lots of friends, and your Christmas will be picturesque). My cynical demon is seething.

The worst part for me is tolerating the talk around the family table or at the work potlucks. “I stopped eating all sugar and have lost 12 pounds and feel fabulous! You NEED to do it.” “I’m trying a juice cleanse between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.” “I discovered this AMAZING new workout. It will seriously change your life.” “The reason your rheumatoid arthritis is flaring up is because you’re still eating wheat! My co-worker’s sister had the exact same thing, and when she went gluten free she was able to come off ALL of her meds. I swear.” It isn’t as though this sort of thing doesn’t happen throughout the year, it only seems that it propagates during the holidays… like a fungus. My cynical demon is roaring.

Deep breath. “You can’t save the world,” Kelly, my nutritionist, once told me. As November 25th rolls into November 26th, I am resolving to practice my dialectics. It is what it is. It is truly, amazingly, brilliantly wonderful. It is… less than ideal. There are certain ways that I can choose to stand up for my authenticity respectfully and thoughtfully, and there are a great many more things that are far beyond my control. I am centering myself on the light, the warmth, the peace, and the joy, I am practicing gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness, and I am striving for understanding. I am finding small ways to change my little piece of the world around me, and I am letting go of everything else.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! May we each cast a little more light out into the world.

release
release,” © Ahmed Mahin Fayaz, March 2012. CC-BY-2.0.

Wonderland

Featured Image: “Joy of Rain,” © Bindaas Madhavi, Aug 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What is best in life? This is a question I used to ask myself frequently when I was first learning how to not engage my disordered eating behaviors. When the impulsive, compulsive thoughts pummeled me like hurricane-strength waves against a worn, ocean levee, I would ask myself for what it was that I resisted.

There was a time when living life well, to me, meant having it all. I slaved hard for the job that everyone stood in awe of, and it wasn’t worth doing if I wasn’t giving 200%. I needed to be working harder and longer than everybody else. If it didn’t hurt, I wasn’t sacrificing enough of myself; I was lazy and sloppy and average. I needed the perfect house, perfect car, perfect clothes, perfect diet, and perfect body. It wasn’t enough that I ran to stay in shape; I ran until it hurt. I entered races, and I made sure that I was a competitor, whittling down my mile splits as I whittled down my waist and whittled away at the foods I would allow myself to eat (read here for more about my struggle with orthorexia). If there was an element of my life that didn’t fit into the perfect image that I tried to project of myself, such as my binge eating disorder, I denied it, minimized it, buried it, rationalized it, disassociated from it, did whatever I could to get rid of it, while shaming and berating myself for my weakness and promising that I would work harder. I was a woman at war not only with the world and everyone else occupying it, I was a woman at war with herself. And I was miserable.

"Prison Textures and Shadows," © Bob Jagendorf, Dec 2010. CC-BY-NC 2.0.
Prison Textures and Shadows,” © Bob Jagendorf, Dec 2010. CC-BY-NC 2.0.

What good was the job, the car, the clothes, the body, the trophies and accolades, when I was depressed, anxious, suicidal, and sinking into binges so severe every night that I was terrified I was going to die if I didn’t kill myself first? Perhaps it seems intuitive to a healthy person or to someone who never struggled with an eating disorder or mental illness, but it took quite a while before I was finally able to recognize, really, truly, and with my whole heart, that this idea of perfection I created for myself was not worth the price I was paying. It didn’t happen quickly or suddenly. It was a gradual realization, and it grew from repeatedly asking myself, What is best in life?

"Wave Breaking Over Sea Wall," © Bill Gracey, Jan 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Wave Breaking Over Sea Wall,” © Bill Gracey, Jan 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is three days before Halloween. I am sitting on the rubberized gym floor of the preschool that Alice’s kids attend. Elliot is huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with the other four-year-olds in front of the small, folding table at the front of the little, square room. They are all completely oblivious to the fact that they are now well beyond the line of tape that marks the “do not cross!” point that they are supposed to stay behind. With each simple magic trick, they squeal with delight, bounce up and down, and scooch forward. I am struck by the idea that a middle-aged adult would spend his evenings performing magic shows for preschoolers. He pulls out a giant pair of wooden scissors as big as some of the children and asks who would like to try to cut the magic rope. They encroach even further, erupting into excited shrieks as two dozen hands shoot into the air, fingers stretched to their maximum length.

Behind this line of miniature, jostling bodies, the littler siblings are carelessly wheeling through the wide, empty space of the remaining gymnasium. Penny, who is two, runs loopy circles around and around until she falls onto her bottom, and then stands up to repeat the same pattern. Around and around and down. She never cries, never looks distressed, and never tires. She is completely oblivious to whether or not she might hurt herself, bump her head, or run into another kid who is careening in the opposite direction. Every so often, she trundles over in my direction, flops into my lap, and practices her new favorite word, “Wuwu! Wuwu! Wuwu!” she echoes as she points at me. As if to emphasize how proud she is of learning names, she occasionally points to her brother or mother and throws in an, “Ewiot, Mama.” Something inside my chest twists up in knots and climbs into my throat.

The magic show comes to an end, and Elliot races eagerly to find Alice and me. “Did you like the magic show?” Alice asks as she tries to wriggle him into his jacket.

“Yeah!” he exclaims, as he jostles against her legs.

“What was your favorite part?” she persists.

“When Lulu came!” he declares.

I choke again.

The weekend will include walks to the park under a brilliantly blue sky, the autumn sun sparkling through the golden and fiery New England leaves. The air will feel crisp and clean while the kids ride bikes and go down the “big” slide. Elliot will insist that his grandmother drive to the craft store so that he can buy beads to make me a necklace that I am never to take off. He will request that I give him his bath and watch his favorite cartoons with him, his itty, warm body curled into the hollow under my arm like a living furnace. For the next three days he will ask, “Is it time to go trick-or-treating yet?”

Penny will throw a monumental fit when it is time for her bath, as she does anytime her head is wetted. She will scream until her face is mottled and snot is streaming from her nose, but within thirty minutes of being wrapped in her soft, velvety robe, she will be calmly nestled on her mother’s lap with a stuffed animal and a book. Elliot will whack his head against the arm of the couch playing ring-around-the-rosy not an hour before trick-or-treating begins, which will precipitate a meltdown, which will be completely forgotten once he is in his monster costume with a flashlight in his hand. His mom, dad, and I will take turns pulling him and his sister around the cul-de-sac in their red wagon when they are too tired to walk home, and then, clustered around the kitchen table, they will dump the spoils of their treat bags on the table, less interested in the M&M’s and Snickers bars than in the experience of the evening.

What is health? What is happiness? What does it mean to live a full, vibrant, wholehearted existence? What does it mean to love and to be loved? What does it mean to be fully alive? What is best in life? What is that worth?

"Old Sturbridge Village - Sturbridge," © Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Dec 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.
Old Sturbridge Village – Sturbridge,” © Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Dec 2013. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Drift

Featured Image Credit:  Untitled, © Fi15 (Own Work), Apr 2009. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

“See, you’re like me,” remarked John charismatically. I mentally recoiled, feeling myself snapping off at the root whatever cognitive connection was beginning to bud between us in conversation. No. That is always my immediate instinct and default response whenever there appears to be a suggestion made that I am the same as another. Do not begin to think that you understand me, I want to say. As I listened to the continuation of his sentiment, though, the depth of the analogy that he wove rekindled my curiosity. “You’re like this beautiful swan, looking all peaceful and calm on the surface, but underneath you’re just spinning and churning.” He held his hands in front of him, palms toward the floor, and flapped them wildly up and down from the wrists to emphasize his point.

John is currently my interim supervisor. Unfortunately, though he is filling in only briefly, he happens to be covering during a time when my work-mandated medical review is due for renewal. This creates an interesting situation, because John knows nothing of my history of binge eating disorder, orthorexia, and depression. John lives in what I call, rather un-creatively, John-land, which is a very pleasant and rather oblivious place to be. He is a wonderful, kind, caring person, but my impression of him most of the time is that he is rather clueless and uniformed. On the spectrum of the 3 U’s, he would be both unknowing, and uneducated. I’m not really sure where he thinks I was for six or seven weeks last winter during my out-of-state partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, and I’m fairly certain that in his benign, kind way, he couldn’t care less. My actual supervisor, Inga, is well aware of all the details, and I have supportive friends in my office. John just isn’t one of them.

As my interim supervisor, John was required to write a form letter attesting to the fact that my eating disorder and depression didn’t interfere with my ability to perform my job functions. I thought that Inga took care of this before she left, but apparently it was incomplete or needed revision. The fortunate bit was that he was working from her draft. The weird part was that this was my first discussion with John about any of my mental health history. I didn’t quite know where to start. It turned out that when my previous supervisor departed for a new job in May, she informed John of the rudimentary basics of my past. He was the interim supervisor then, too, before Inga, a woman I’ve known for years and who was already aware of my E.D., transferred into the position. While he knew that I had an eating disorder, he remained grossly under-informed. It didn’t take long to discern that he was still clueless about the scope or severity of my illness or the intensity of treatment I underwent. Exactly where did you think I was? I still wanted to ask. John-land must be such a blissful place.

One of the main reasons that I always chose to not discuss my eating disorder with John (when I felt comfortable talking about it with my other peers) was because I suspected that, due to his lack of understanding, he also lacked the capacity to empathize. Sitting in his cozy office, directly next door to my own, I struggled to decide just how much to reveal. Was it even possible to communicate my experiences to someone who I doubted possessed the contextual framework that would enable him to fathom? He conveyed how remarkable he thought I was as the most senior and most experienced person within our organization in my particular capacity, how strongly worded his recommendation would be, and how he noticed not a single hint of impact in my performance, ever. I thanked him and agreed that my eating disorder and depression, now in remission for nearly a year, do not impair my functioning. Yet, perhaps this was an opportunity to illuminate some of that unknowing…

“I’m doing great now,” I nodded, “but at this time last year it was a different story. I was in a terrible place. I was in bad shape. Maybe it didn’t look like it to everyone else, but I was circling the drain. I was losing it. You know the reason I was gone for two months last winter was because I was in a treatment program in Massachusetts.” He didn’t know, of course. It was a complete surprise. “Maybe it just shows that we’re all too hard on ourselves,” I continued, thoughtfully. “I mean, we all do it. We think other people can see right through us and that they know just how screwed up we are inside. We drive ourselves crazy. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, we’re not working hard enough, we are failures because we aren’t meeting some unachievable standard we create, when really, we’re doing just fine.”

It was this reflection that elicited the swan analogy. Perhaps John wasn’t as devoid of empathy and understanding as I thought. Maybe I never gave him enough credit. There remained an underlying disconnection, but it was more of a connection than I expected, and his imagery left me with something profound to contemplate.

Untitled, © olkin11 (own work), Sep 2006. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Untitled, © olkin11 (Own Work), Sep 2006. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“I feel adrift,” I told my therapist last week during our regular session. The swan, I decided, was a fitting analogy. “I’m just sort of… hanging out in the middle of the lake. I just feel…” I paused and took a deep breath. Leaning forward on the plush, softly upholstered couch, I rested my elbows on my knees and my chin just touched the tips of my fingers. I released a long, deep sigh. There was no word to describe this feeling of drifting. Only the sigh could make audible the sensation in my chest.

My therapist wasn’t going to let me off the hook that easily. “Can you put words to that?” she asked me. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know…” I responded, sitting in silence awhile longer. “It’s like… I’m not flapping my little feet furiously, churning the water up all around me, completely exhausting myself while going nowhere anymore. Instead, I’m just sort of floating in the middle of this flat, placid lake. I’m still not going anywhere, but now I’m just floating. And I have no idea where I’m supposed to go or where I even want to go. I’m sort of just eyeing the shore, thinking, ‘Hmmm, that grassy spot over there looks kind of nice… Ooooo, that little boathouse over there is pretty… oh look, there’s a pagoda over there that’s nice…’ but I’m just floating.”

My job doesn’t fill me with meaning. I don’t have an overarching purpose to my life. I’m living in a place that is not the place I want to live, separate from the community and the people who fill my life with the most vibrancy and warmth, because this is holding the place of whatever will come next, until I decide what that will be. I’m just kind of… waiting. I have an advanced degree and I’m in my 30s. When am I going to figure out what I want to be when I grow up?

We talked about the different activities that I am doing while I wait. Taking classes, exploring different interests, getting to know my authentic self, learning my likes and dislikes, prioritizing my values. “It’s not like you’re just parked in the middle of this lake doing nothing,” my therapist pointed out. “You’re swimming a little closer to the boathouse to take a better look, and then you’re swimming a little bit closer to the pagoda.” Point taken.

“I know that there’s no timeline on this,” I repeated. I heard it so many times before, and I acknowledged its veracity. My therapist nodded emphatically in agreement. “But how long am I going to float here?” I wondered aloud, “Until I molt?” We both laughed aloud.

Swan Feather on Hatchet Pond,” © Jim Champion, Sep 2008. CC-BY-SA 2.0.