Idiosyncratic Connections

Featured Image: “Rise and shine,” © Tjarko Busink (own work), Jun 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

One afternoon, about a year ago, my division chief at the time popped into my office for a spontaneous chat. Michael was an unusual character and the only person to ever directly ask me what it was like to experience life with an eating disorder. Such baldness was fairly typical of his manner, and our little dialogues often diverged down rather unconventional paths. On this particular day, he was specifically interested in discerning my degree of spontaneity. Why? Your guess would be as good as mine, but apparently, it was a personality facet that was of explicit interest to him.

“Hi!” Michael announced in that stark and sudden way that always caught me slightly off guard. He seemed to appear in my office from an empty void of hallway outside. I smiled, assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything important, and waited to discover what exactly it was that he wanted. “If I asked you to go camping this weekend, would you say yes?” he asked, without prelude.

“Ummmm… Nooo,” I replied, drawing out the vowels of my response with an inflection that was intended to convey just how entirely inappropriate I considered his question. “What the hell?” I thought.

“Why not?” he persisted, taking a seat across from my desk.

Staring at him with incredulity, I blinked, wondering which of the 3,000 reasons coming unbidden to my mind would be best to verbalize first. “Well, to begin, I hate camping,” I started. Why Michael continued in the mistaken belief that I was some sort of hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, campfire cooking, outdoorsy, person, I could not understand. Multiple attempts to impress upon him my strong attachment to electricity, hot water, flush toilets, and soft bedding repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “In any case,” I continued, “you’re my boss.” Working under Michael’s supervision was one matter. Though some of his leadership decisions were a bit questionable, and his personality was a bit eccentric, he was an engaged and responsible chief. However, he was difficult to read, and he was not someone I would ever want to encounter outside of the workplace in a social atmosphere.

By his direct but indirect way of approaching a topic, he had yet to hint that the ulterior motive behind his wildly irregular query was one of determining just how adventurous I might be. “Well, you like to travel. What if I asked you to take a trip with me?” he asked. “What if I told you that the trip was all planned, tickets purchased, hotel reserved… would you go to, say Atlanta, with me this weekend?”

“No!” I exclaimed, quite scandalized. At that moment, I desired nothing more strongly than for him to depart my office immediately.

What did my face look like as I spat out my response? He seemed to finally catch onto my consternation, and he finally explained himself. “Ok,” I thought. “Weird, but ok. I’ll play along.” He rephrased his question, inquiring whether I would jet off with a friend under the same circumstances. “If it was someone I knew well,” I mused, “someone that I trusted, maybe someone I traveled with before, then yes, I think I might. It would need to be a very good friend though – someone who knew all my idiosyncrasies and whose idiosyncrasies were known to me. Then, I would truly trust her if she told me that all the details were already worked out.”

Even from Michael, I didn’t expect what came next. “Idiosyncrasies?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

A real friend doesn't judge when they find you sitting in the sink..
Cool Spot,” © wabisabi2015 (own work), Jul 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A real friend doesn’t judge you when she finds you sitting in the sink.

My puzzlement and amazement deepened. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” I countered redundantly. “My idiosyncrasies. You know, like my little personality quirks.” His expression was one of bewildered bemusement. “You know, like…” I racked my brain… “I prefer to shower at night, and I prefer to wake up early and go to sleep early. I don’t drink alcohol or soda, and I don’t like babies, or Mexican food, or most dogs. I really can’t stand cigarette smoke, and I go to church every Sunday, even when I’m traveling.” When put on the spot, it was difficult to quickly summon a list of idiosyncrasies that were appropriate for sharing with one’s boss. I certainly was not prepared to divulge any stories that might exemplify my more hard-to-tolerate eccentricities. My trustworthy travel companions were the people with whom I forged those tales. They understood me enough to never speak of eyeballs in my presence, they didn’t care what I looked like without makeup, and they didn’t mind if my feet smelled or if I snored when I was extra-congested. For my part, I didn’t particularly care what they looked like without makeup, either, or if their feet smelled, if they snored, or if they stole all the blankets when we bunked together in a room with only one queen. I didn’t mind if they wore socks with their Sperry’s, or if they washed their clothes in the bathroom sink of the hotel, or if they always burned the microwave popcorn.

Michael scrutinized me briefly before responding. “Oh. I suppose I never thought about that sort of thing,” he intoned. He tipped his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I would have to say that I don’t have any idiosyncrasies.” I nodded and smiled politely. I was pretty sure that I could help him identify one or two. He slapped his hands on his knees jovially and pushed off of the chair. “Well, have a great afternoon!” he bade me, vanishing from my doorway as cryptically as he appeared.

Blinking, I watched him disappear. As perplexed as I was by the exchange that just concluded, our conversation was directing my thoughts along a different tangent. Recalling numberless road trips, beach trips, Euro trips, and couch surfing expeditions spanning decades, I found myself swimming in delightful memories. I wasn’t recollecting perfect experiences, however. I cringed at reminiscences of my own foibles, and I smiled warmly at the patient tolerance of my friends. I grinned at their own unique peculiarities, and I laughed as I reflected on all the crazy, weird ways that the stress of the unexpected could manifest when our coping skills inevitably slipped. How blessed was I to be able to treasure those moments? How much did my life overflow with abundance to be loved and accepted by these trusted few and to be able to love and accept them in return?

“See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.”

~ Saint Pope John XXIII

When my plane lifts off for Paris on May 19th, there will be no one waiting to meet me on the other side of the ocean. I frequently travel by myself for work purposes, sometimes living out of hotels for up to a month at a time, but my upcoming trip to France will be my first solo vacation. To claim that I don’t worry a bit about being lonely is a lie. What will it be like to stay in a foreign country par moi-même for seven whole days? I’m not sure. My nearest comparison was a two-day side-trip to München during a two-week sojourn in Germany, and I was very glad to return to Helene’s apartment in Stuttgart at the end of those 48 hours. Despite living on my own for over a decade, an underlying predisposition in my personality toward loneliness, isolation, self-pity, and melancholy tends to assert itself if I allow that to sprout and take root. If. The thing is, I am never alone. Wherever I go, I am known, and I am loved. With me, I carry all of the people I treasure in my heart. Inside of me, I contain every occasion we shared, great or small, exceptional or mundane. Deep down, in my center, there is a little nugget of God. Even when my vision is blurred by the sticky mire of loneliness, all it takes is a twinkle of grace to penetrate the muck of my soul, give my heart a bit of a polish, and remind me, once more, of all my beautiful connectedness and of the all-loving God who is holding me in his hand.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

~ Timothy J. Keller

Misericordia

Featured Image: “Just a little yawn,” © Rob Hurson (own work), Jun 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Part of the human condition is that we all contain within us something abhorrent. (At least, that is what I’m telling myself.) At our deepest core is nestled a beautiful soul, God-given and graced, and we are capable of great goodness. Yet, none of us ever live up to all of our values all of the time. There is always a conflict under the surface. When everything is going well, when all the potential stressors in my life are minimized, I neglect this grimy underside of my human reality.

There are many monsters in my closet, and, though I may put on a good show of vulnerability and openness, I do not enjoy inviting them out for tea or cake. I prefer it when those monsters lie silently in the dark. When they are quiet and cooperative, they allow me to narrate a promising story of self-improvement and growth that is colorful and filled with light. When my world becomes more chaotic, it is increasingly impossible to maintain this illusion. As the veneer of my carefully constructed, idealized self displays its true fragility, those demons emerge to help me cope. They bare their teeth and unsheathe their claws, gnashing their jaws against the suggestion that my life is not rhythmic, predictable, balanced, and fair. When other people, the world, and extraneous circumstances exert their force on me, I fight back. My monsters include Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger. They serve me well. They are quick to leap to the defense of Order, Control, Obedience, Rules, Self-Sufficiency, and Safety.

wild-things
where the wild things are,” by Jonahliza Eliger, Nov 2008. CC BY 2.0. (license)

One week last October, I fell back into a self-protective, self-defensive mode of reacting as the burden and pace of work demands mushroomed. I was confronted with a sharp incongruence between conflicting priorities. In my recovering perfectionism, I was still striving to understand my identity apart from my professional life. I was messily attempting to establish boundaries with myself and with others in order to create the space and silence that I needed to explore and preserve my authenticity, and I recoiled against any unanticipated demand on my time or attention. My constant inner monologue was a noisy place of overlapping ultimatums and thinly veiled threats. One word was dominant as I attempted to respond simultaneously to all of the mixed messages I was sending myself:  Should. Sometimes, it was expressed as “must,” or “need to” in the intensity of my strict expectations. “I should be able to run these tests myself. I need to finish these reports by the end of the day. I should NOT stay late. I must go to the gym on Tuesday, and I should still go to church after work. I should swim on Wednesday. There should not be so much to do. I should not be so angry. These reviews should not take so long.”

With little flexibility for myself, I afforded even less consideration to the experiences of others. I was wrapped-up in a rather narcissistic, self-tortured vortex that I created of my own volition simply from the refusal to concede that my standards were impossible. I started to lash out at the very people who cared about me the most, my closest friends at work. My mutually exclusive expectations were colliding with the incontrovertible physics of reality, and in my over-functioning state, the more overwhelmed I felt, the more I piled onto my unending “to-do” list. My fangs were bared. My claws were out. Obviously, I was bearing an unequitable share of the burden. Just as always. Plainly, I was being unfairly treated. When others “failed” me, when I failed myself, Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger were there to pick up my shattered ego and carry me onward.

Recognizing that I was not behaving in a manner congruent with who I wanted to be, I only stumbled deeper into anger. Hating myself in my blindness, I knew that I was being unreasonable and irrational, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was blinded by the acrid smoke of my own emotions. This cycle continued for four tiresome days. It was tiresome for me, and tiresome for all those around me who endured my moodiness, irritability, and cartwheeling temper. Finally, my friend Steve had enough. I just finished saying something particularly biting and acerbic to him, who was my closest confidant at work, and turned on my heel to storm off. “Now hang on!” he called after me. “Come back here, and close the door!” I knew that I was in for it, and I deserved it, but rather than a severe reprimand, which really wasn’t his style, he met me with a patience that I didn’t deserve. “You’ve been pushing back a bit hard lately, don’t you think?” I hung my head in shame and embarrassment. He acknowledged the pressure that I was under but also observed of my behavior, “It’s a bit much, don’t you think? We’re your friends. We’re on your side!” Sulkily, I offered a shallow apology and slinked back to my office. Instead of barring my fangs, I was licking my wounds.

It was another 24 hours before I apologized in a more meaningful way. It was late on Friday, and I was headed off to yet another out of state conference the next morning. I didn’t want to get on a plane with the sour taste of my own bitterness still in my mouth, but when I went to find Steve before I left for the day, he was caught up in meetings with the administration across the hall. As I packed, I was still sucking on the acidic aftertaste that lingers with the knowledge that I inflicted pain on others in order to diffuse my own discomfort. Finally, I phoned Steve under the auspices of discussing some final bit of work business before I departed for a week. At last, after chatting for two minutes about that mundane subject, I meekly voiced an admission of my truly inexcusable conduct of the preceding days.

In the end, I was filled with gratitude and was left amazed and bewildered by the extremity of the grace I experienced. I did not deserve forgiveness. In recent memory, I could not recall carrying on so wretchedly for such a prolonged period of time, with such disdain for others. I treated them as means to my ends, stripping them of their inherent dignity and worth from my self-righteous, self-defensive perspective. My friend possessed the empathy to hold me accountable for my behavior without responding to me in kind. When I offered my somewhat useless apology, expressing that there were no justifications or explanations that could make what I did “all right,” he replied only with understanding and compassion. As I hung up the phone, I wracked my brain to recall a time I was ever treated so charitably. There was no further admonition, no lecture, no conveyance of a lesson, only pardon and peace. I started to cry. “Oh God,” I prayed, “Is this what it feels like when you forgive us?”

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;

he who finds one finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price,

no sum can balance his worth.

A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy;

such as he who fears God finds.

For he who fears God behaves accordingly,

and his friend will be like himself.”

~ Sirach 6:14-17

sulky-wild-thing
Sulky wild thing,” © louiscrusoe (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Rediscovering Repentance

Featured Image: “Hope,” ©Luca Bovolenta (own work), May 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.

In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.

Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.

With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.

Desert Morning
Desert Morning,” © MarkCranstonPhoto.com (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?

My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.

desert rainbow
Desert Rainbow,” © William Hanlon (own work), Apr 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Into a New Year

Featured Image: “untitled (New Year’s Day),” © Tilman Köneke (own work), Jan 2016. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.

This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.

The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart:  God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?

That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.

Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.

“For I know well the plans I have in mind 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

beanstalk
beanstalk,” © Börkur Sigurbjörnsson (own work), Mar 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…

  • to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
  • to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
  • to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.

“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”

~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.

  • Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
  • Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
  • Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
  • Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
  • At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.

Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.

“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”

~ Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

Happy New Year!

bells
bells,” © orangejon (own work), Jul 2006. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

 

To Be Known

Featured Image:  “Polar Bear – Alaska,” © rubyblossom (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My best gift this Christmas wasn’t the new yoga pants that my brother and sister-in-law gave me, though I picked them out, and they were exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t the set of practical (and safe!) blinking, clip-on, LED lights that I can wear when I ride my bike at dusk, though they were also on my list. It wasn’t even the Starbucks gift card that I received in the office white elephant exchange. No.

It was a polar bear.

To be more specific, the gift was a charitable donation to the World Wildlife Fund in the amount of one polar bear adoption. I am reasonably certain that the money from the contribution goes to fund a variety of the organization’s conservation efforts, including measures to save polar bears and their habitats. In the mail, I received a form letter from the president of the WWF explaining that Margie, one of my college roommates, made the donation and adopted the polar bear in my name. The large package also included a photograph of “my” (or rather, “a”) polar bear, an official-looking certificate, a little card with some facts about polar bears, and the most adorable, soft, cuddly plush polar bear one could imagine.

On the radio this year, I heard some talk show hosts discussing “research” indicating that people generally don’t like to receive gifts of charitable donations for the holidays. I can’t remember the primary source of this information or where the results were published, but I can testify to this fact – though I recognize that Margie’s contribution to the WWF didn’t actually adopt a real, live polar bear for me, I LOVE MY IMAGINARY ADOPTED POLAR BEAR!!!!! I love knowing that this Christmas gift money went to an amazing cause rather than to the cause of amassing more stuff that I don’t truly need, no matter how purposeful it is or how much I really longed for it. I love the cuddly, little toy polar bear that accompanied the donation letter. I love the photograph of my curious (though I am sure, very ferocious) living polar bear in his native, snowy land. Most of all, I love how this gift tells me that I AM KNOWN, AND I AM LOVED. Despite all of my weird, often hypocritical, sometimes brusque idiosyncrasies, I am still loved.

You see, back in our college days, I thought that I was going to reverse the trend of global warming by convincing everyone I knew to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With alarming ideas about rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, and shrinking ice caps in mind, I pictured the habitats of the polar bears slowly vanishing. While all of those factors were (and are) contributing to increased pressures on polar bears and declining populations, trying to convince my roommates to turn down the thermostat at night by exclaiming, “You’re killing the polar bears!” probably contributed little to improving the overall survival of the species. I can imagine that it was somewhat comical and frequently exasperating to live with me constantly declaring, “You’re killing the polar bears!” whenever someone showered for more than 20 minutes or left the water running while washing the dishes. “This from the girl who drives an SUV,” one of our friends once quipped after I made note of her excessive use of Styrofoam. In the interceding 10 years, life experience (and loads of therapy) buffered my all-or-nothing thinking and softened my approach. Yet, what this gift showed me was that Margie not only remembered this quirk of mine, but loved me in spite of it.

To be known fully, in all my imperfect messiness, and treasured just as I am… that is the best Christmas gift of all!

900-lbs
900 lbs,” © Arctic Wolf (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Presence of Mind

Featured Image: “Bicycle,” © Ian Sane (own work), Dec 2009. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).

One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.

The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.

My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.

Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton,” © Zach Brissett (own work), Aug 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Fessing Up

Featured Image: “Head in Hands,” © Alex Proimos (own work), Dec 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Yesterday, I did something really stupid and careless.

I hit a parked car.

The story itself is rather unremarkable… in retrospect. It is not an experience I am eager to repeat, but at the same time, I am bizarrely grateful that it happened.

It was 10 minutes to 4 o’clock, and I was scooting out of work a bit early. The parking lot was still full of neatly aligned vehicles, and I was a bit pleased as punch that I was going to beat the mad rush of traffic that would soon be backing up on the little, two-lane road. My car was at the end of a row that faced uphill, so when I started backing out of my spot, I allowed gravity to do the work for me. I slowly rolled backward, lazily turning the steering wheel while gazing absent-mindedly in my side-view mirror.

There was no jolt, no thump, no shudder. The tiny collision almost escaped my notice entirely. But, it was a beautiful autumn day, and my windows were rolled all the way down. At the same time that my foot pressed the break to shift into drive, the faint sound of metal scraping metal assailed my ears. “Did I just hit that car?” I wondered, scrutinizing the ancient, long Cadillac that jutted into the aisle behind me. The Caddy looked like it was from 1970 and was probably built like a tank. I was more worried about damage to my car if I did, indeed, bump it. “What do I do?” flashed through my mind. For a fraction of an instant, I considered driving away and feigning complete ignorance of what just occurred, but my anxiety and my need-to-know seized me. I jumped out to hastily glance at my bumper. “Looks good!” I quickly concluded. For another nanosecond, I told myself that I ought to walk over to examine the other car, but then I rationalized, “That car is way sturdier than mine, and if mine’s ok, the other car must be ok, too. Anyway, looks good from here!” I shot a brief squint over my shoulder as I climbed back behind the wheel.

1970-cadillac-convertible
1970 Cadillac Convertible,” © George Pankewytch (own work), Jul 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

As I zoomed away, I was wracked with doubt. “It’s fine,” I tried to tell myself. “This stuff happens all the time.” I recollected the time someone doored my car in the very same parking lot, putting a giant dent in my side panel that cost $200 to repair. Maybe little dings and scrapes did happen all the time, but that didn’t make it right. “I should have left a note.” I considered trying to track down the owner of the car when I returned to work the next day. As I continued along my route, I started mentally composing the note I should have written. “Well, if I am ever in a similar situation again, I will act differently,” I decided.

When I arrived home, I inspected my rear bumper more closely. There was no dent, but the paint was most definitely cracked. So… I hit with enough force to crack the paint. “Did I just commit a crime?” I wondered. “Was that a hit and run?” My wild imagination began concocting scenarios involving parking lot security cameras, police investigations, and serious consequences. My anxiety skyrocketed. “Well, this isn’t the afternoon that I planned,” I assented. I didn’t know what would happen next, if my victim was even still at work, but I knew that I needed to go back. I needed to at least try to set it right.

Fortunately, the drive lasted all of twelve minutes, even despite the traffic. Double fortunately, the Caddy was precisely where I left it. There was no sign of scratch, scrape, dent, nor ding. I fished a blank index card out of my work bag and scribbled a slightly hedging but very apologetic note. “I think I bumped the front of your car as I was backing out of my parking spot today. It cracked the paint on my rear bumper, but I didn’t see any damage to your front bumper. If you notice anything, though, please call me. I am so sorry!!” I neatly printed my phone number at the bottom and signed my name. Still shaken, I walked back into the office. Most of my co-workers were gone, but my friend Patrick was still there. “I thought you went home,” he declared, surprised to see me.

“I did,” I stated bluntly. “I came back.”

“Ohhh,” he nodded in a knowing way, indicating he could tell that something was clearly out of sorts. I unfolded the whole story of my little accident, my flight from the scene, and my ultimate return to take responsibility for my mistake. He nodded again.

“I’ve written notes like that before,” he admitted.

I was astounded. “You have?!” I asked, my voice peaking. Then, he shared his story with me. Bad weather, icy roads, and a hurry to get to a class, followed by the comically slow slide into a stranger’s car, the definitive “dink” of metal tapping metal, and the dawning realization of what just transpired.

“The owner never called,” he told me. “Maybe this person will never call you either.”

“Maybe he will call and say, ‘My car is ok, but thank you so much for your very nice and honest note,’” I suggested, wishfully. It felt good to know that I did the right thing, in the end. It also felt good to know that I wasn’t alone in perpetrating careless blunders.

Why am I grateful that I hit a parked car? I believe that God is at work in all the moments of our lives. As I reflect on this accident, I am contemplating how it is helpful for me to let go of my expectations in order to recognize and accept the graces that God wants to give me. God’s gifts to me may not fit into my limited construct and narrow definition of a blessing.

Maybe I needed a little reminder of my human limitations and my great capacity to err. Maybe it was time for a little exercise in humility. Maybe I was in want of a fear-inducing challenge to my values so that I could face down that fear to grow in the courage of owning up to my mistakes and accepting the consequences of my actions. Of all the dumb, careless, or misguided things I could do, backing into a parked car at 2mph was a relatively harmless gaffe upon which to build my humble mistake-owning.

In the end, yesterday afternoon was a reminder that we are all vulnerable to chance snafus. It happens to me, it happens to Patrick, and it happens to everyone else. When I make mistakes, I face a choice. I can either keep all of my slip-ups and faults to myself, attempting to portray a perfect image to the outside world, keeping everyone else at arm’s length… or I can admit the truth about who I am – all the silly, crazy, weird, flawed, and dysfunctional parts of me – and be my authentic self.

P.S. As I am pressing “Publish,” I am feeling the melting sensations of shame and the gripping of fear, mainly stemming from the fact that I ran away at first. I am still imagining police officers knocking on my door. There’s absolutely no excuse for my initial reaction. However, hopefully others can summon some compassion in their hearts for my genuine remorse, with the recognition that we all do idiotic things from time to time. Especially when we are afraid.

facepalm
Even adorable, furry animals have those days. “#facepalm,” © Victor Gumayunov (own work), Feb 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“The antidote to fear is gratitude. The antidote to anger is gratitude. You can’t feel fear or anger while feeling gratitude at the same time.”

~ Tony Robbins

The Umbrella – The Fifth Week of the Kindness Challenge

Featured Image: “the ripple you leave in my life : duboce triangle, san francisco (2014),” © torbakhopper (own work), Feb 2014. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license)

In April, a rather unremarkable event happened that stayed with me. It was a small gesture, a tiny overture extended by a total stranger, but it resulted in a lasting gratitude. The task of the fifth week of the Kindness Challenge was to cultivate appreciation for kindnesses received. Though I renewed my commitment to journaling about my gratitudes at the end of each day, I thought that a fitting blog post in keeping with this theme would be to reflect upon a little kindness that made a great impact in my heart.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was caught between work and home. All day long, it seemed that one mishap collided with another, and I battled back against a tidal wave of emotions as they crested and crashed over me. Each little hang-up and snafu was rather unremarkable alone, but as I recollected old work traumas, the bullet train of my distress, anxiety, foreboding, blame, frustration, exasperation, and desperation shot out of its station. It didn’t break any land speed records. I managed to tap into a few of my basic skills – enough to keep the velocity of my overreaction in check, but the strain that I experienced was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Exacerbating the acuity of my suffering, I was attempting to braid together a million loose ribbons of unfinished tasks into some sort of neat bow, while racing to complete a list of to-do’s, and rushing to lock up my office for a week’s attendance at a conference out of state. What was supposed to be a simple and straightforward day seemed to be turning out catastrophically wrong. At least, that was what I told myself. I was feeling worn, thin, and defeated, and my impatience with myself for being unable to better cope only compounded my exhaustion and vexation.

It took every effort that I could summon to pull together all those stray ends by 3pm so that I could make it to my 3:30pm hair appointment on time. Because… priorities. Of course. No self-respecting researcher wants to deliver a presentation at her industry’s huge, annual, international, conference with a shaggy, 8-week old haircut. Nothing was packed yet, and I could feel my body and mind reverberating with apprehensive, negative energy. Discouraged. Despairing. Scared. Overwhelmed. Helpless. Hopeless. Hostile. Agitated. Self-hating. World-hating. Trapped. Victimized. I pulled into a parking lot down the street from my stylist’s studio. Outside the car, the skies were a thick gray, and there was a pressing threat of rain. The forecast predicted precipitation, and a lot of it, and as I was walking out of my office building not fifteen minutes earlier, a few scattered drops were already falling. Yet, for some unclear reason, I decided that I would take a chance without my umbrella.

It looked like I might be fortunate. As I left the salon, the sky was still holding back. My anxiety-fueled perfectionism sank its sharp teeth into my chest, though. I have time for one stop, I told myself, darting around the corner and across the square before ducking into another shop. I NEED a new tube of eyelash serum before my trip! (The more frayed I am, the more ridiculous the demands and expectations I tend impose upon myself.) It was while I was frenetically flipping through the tubes of mascara that the clouds cracked open and the deluge began. I managed to dash madly as far as the corner across from the lot where my car sat, patiently waiting, immune to the downpour. I took shelter under the awning of a bank, but by then the rain was hammering the earth in driving sheets. I decided I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and I resigned myself to wait, hoping it would lighten as quickly as it began.

There I was, conspicuously standing alone at the corner of the bank, while a blinding torrent of rain cascaded downward. A few cars drove slowly past, windshield wipers flicking wildly, drivers hunched over steering wheels in unbroken concentration, attempting to peer around the raindrops. Across from me, a small SUV was idling in the otherwise deserted lot, headlights flickering and wipers dancing. A man in a windbreaker with a giant golf umbrella suddenly popped out from the driver’s compartment and dashed across the road toward me. “Would you like an escort to your car?” he asked.

In the top left drawer of my desk, I store a collection of stamps, a few eclectic stickers, and a random assortment of blank greeting cards. Across the front of one of those cards, in haphazard lettering, is a short poem by Holly Gerth that reads,

I wish I had a big yellow umbrella

that would keep away all the rain in your life.

I would hold it over your head,

and the drops would splash, splash

and you would never even feel it.

 

But I don’t have a big yellow umbrella—

so I’ll walk through the rain with you.

I couldn’t believe it was really happening. This generous person who I didn’t even know was walking through the rain with me. His umbrella wasn’t yellow, but it was big. I was simultaneously grateful, relieved, and ashamed. In the face of this genuine act of kindness, I was ashamed and repentant for my own hardness of heart, and I was regretful and remorseful for being so consumed with my petty worries, preoccupations, and anxieties. I was jolted out of my narrow scope of vision, propelled beyond the tiny, inner world where I was trapped as a result of my prolonged over-focus on myself. Though there was a sting that accompanied the recognition of my weakness and warpedness, I was thankful for the awareness, because it expanded my perception and opened my heart. It also threw my problems into sharper relief, and I felt the reassurance of knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”

two share an umbrella
two share an umbrella,” © Robert Couse-Baker (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing frighten you,

All things are passing away;

God never changes.

 

Patience obtains all things.

He who has God lacks nothing.

 

God alone suffices.

 

~ St. Teresa of Avila

Gathered together under the giant golf umbrella, the two of us hurried across the slogged street, leaning into each other and awkwardly dodging puddles. In less than a minute, he delivered me to my car door, and as I continued to babble my profuse, stumbling words of thanks, he was off again down the sidewalk and back about whatever business brought him out on that particular, wet afternoon. As I pulled away from the curb, I wondered if it was God’s plan that I should lack the insight to bring my own umbrella with me on that day. Was I meant to be trapped in that downpour, so that such a chance encounter might happen? I wondered what impact this simple interaction would effect on the universe. How far would the ripples spread? My bristling, stony heart was slightly (though not entirely) soothed by the thoughtfulness, kindness, and goodness offered to me. Did it allow my rescuer to feel good, positive, joyful, hopeful, generous, and loving to be able to lend a hand to a person in need? Maybe we both departed from that encounter a bit more wholehearted than when we arrived, and ready spread that wholeheartedness to others.

As I reflect on that day now, months later, I can’t help but wonder… maybe it is still creating ripples.

umbrella days
umbrella days,” © Zlatko Vickovic (own work), Nov 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Thank You to My Former Nemesis

Featured Image: “thank you,” © Amy Gizienski, April 2011. CC BY 2.0.

This October and November mark a one-year anniversary of a plunging spiral, and I am processing what that means for me now, in my current state of recovery. Though my decompensation was prolonged, my “rock bottom” and the beginning of my climb toward the light followed shortly one after the other. In October, I was binging daily, was barely functioning on any level, be it cognitive, emotional, or physical, and was afraid that my suicidal ideation might become something more. By the end of November, I was taking my first, shaky steps into this strange, bizarre, foreign land of “recovery.”

Isn’t it funny how the way we might experience something in a moment differs from the way we record it into our memories like an odd collection of snapshots, sound bites, and video segments, and differs yet still from the way it appears to us if we are ever able to examine objective pieces of that moment a long time later, such as an actual photograph or recording?

I remember that it was a struggle for me to accept the meal plan that was individually tailored to my needs when I entered partial hospitalization. I recall arguing with my first nutritionist, Olivia, and I recollect that it took me a little while to trust her. I can flask back to the leap of faith I made when I began eating carbohydrates and snacks. I can revisit snippets of events – for example, the conversation that I had with myself in the shower after my second day at Walden, as I tried to talk myself into doing things “their way.” The intensity of my emotion is lost on me, though. I can only vaguely imagine what it must have felt like, how anxious and distressed I must have been to relinquish that stranglehold of control.

A few days ago, I cracked the spine on the journal that I kept while I was at Walden. I was forced to dig through a pile of journals to find it, because since that time, I filled up about eight black Moleskines with line after line of black ballpoint in careful cursive. My life bridges two lives, “before Walden” and “after Walden.” In my memory, they are distinct, but staring up at me in not-so-careful cursive was something that was anything but distinct. On my first day at Walden, I wrote, “The only negative interaction that I had today was with Olivia, the nutritionist/dietician. The diet that she wants me to follow is HORRIBLE!” What ensued across the page was a word-for-word recapturing of a confrontation that I can only picture, knowing myself. I could imagine how frustrated, enraged, indignant, and righteous I felt, but the intensity of that moment was gone as I read the words that I scrawled in capital letters and double-underlined. In its place, I found only surprise and knowing laughter. I was surprised that I forgot what it was like, and I laughed with heartfelt empathy for my confused, conflicted self.

Moleskine
Moleskine,” © Linelle Photography, Aug 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I’m a scientist by training and profession. Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My reasons for refusing carbohydrates were grounded in fact, but were so distorted, black-and-white, extreme, rigid, and, in retrospect, ridiculous, that when I read what I wrote with my own hand, I couldn’t help but break into laughter. Later, I showed the journal page to my therapist, and we laughed together. At the same time that I was accusing Olivia of being brainwashed by the grain industry, my brain (which only uses glucose for fuel) and body were craving those complex starches that I refused to permit myself to eat.

Regardless of the path my life takes, my partial hospitalization will always stand as a bend in its course. Yet, the clean division that I created in my recollection did not bear forth in my re-reading of my journal entries during those days. There is no old me and new me, there is only this one me, all messy and merged. I cringe as I type out those words, because I so want it to be otherwise, but denial won’t create reality. And, so, I accept that there was no “aha!” moment, and there probably won’t be. I hope that I keep climbing toward the light, but it isn’t a straight climb, and it never was. I’m on some narrow mountain pass that twists round and round, and I only gain elevation by coming back across the same face of the mountain that I crossed three times already. Sometimes the trail takes a dip or a drop, and other times the ground is level and the going seems easy.

It only took a few weeks for me to begin to, first, trust and, then, to like Olivia. She once admitted to me that she was the one counselor at the center that all the patients hated. “I’m the one who makes them eat,” she sighed. “They love the therapists, they don’t fight with the psychiatrists, but everyone always hates the nutritionist.” Her tone was accepting, not resentful or bitter. She never gave up on any of them, just as she didn’t give up on me. She worked away at my inflexibility with steadfast persistence, never yielding. When I fought, she held her ground. I hated her, and she helped to save my life. So, to Olivia, and all the others like her, I want to say, from the depths of my heart, “Thank you.” Thank you for pushing me, for confronting my demons with me, and for showing me my own capacity for folly. At this time next year, I can’t help but wonder what I might be laughing at about myself as I am today.

Mountain Path
Mountain Path,” © Louis Vest, June 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0.