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)

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)

 

The First Mile

Featured Image:  “Running,” © Patrik Nygren (own work), Oct 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

As a child, I learned very early and very well that I would never do anything well enough. My mother’s criticisms were strict and constant. If I drew a picture of a person with mitten-like hands, she asked me why my Crayola creation didn’t have all 10 fingers and 10 toes. For kindergarten class, our teacher asked us to cut out pictures from magazines beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Before I could begin to cut, my mom made directed me to use a ruler to outline my images in perfect boxes, sitting by my elbow to make sure I did it correctly. Only once I excised the photographs from the pages with surgical precision could I apply precisely 5 drops of glue to affix them to the paper assignment sheet. My brother and I always won ribbons in the reading and art contests at the public library. Such success was expected of us, and it was nearly guaranteed given our brilliance, talent, hard work, and my mother’s diligent, unwavering “guidance.”

As I grew up, I recognized that there was no sense in vacuuming my room if I didn’t move all the furniture and dust around the baseboards. I internalized that B’s were entirely unacceptable on report cards. An A- was tolerable in isolation, but it remained less than ideal. Handwriting that wasn’t as neat as a typewriter revealed laziness and weakness of character. If I wasn’t in the advanced placement math classes, then why bother showing up to school at all? Math was the subject where I struggled the most. Numbers, equations, and formulas left me feeling stupid and hopelessly incapable. In eighth grade, my teacher advised that I step down to “college prep,” which was level 3 out of 4. My mother was adamantly set against it, and I struggled through advanced math until I completed AP calculus as a high school senior. I earned an A, but I repeated calculus again over the course of two semesters in college. It was one of my first opportunities to choose for myself. I was also able to (finally!) quit the Spanish classes that I hated. When I was 11 years old and begged her to let me study French, my pleading fell on deaf ears. Spanish was more useful, she told me. When I was in college, I chose Latin.

My sense of worthlessness was cemented at a young age, and I came to believe that I would never be able to change. I would grow from an awkward, unattractive, isolated girl into an awkward, unattractive, isolated woman, and nobody would ever love me. It was who I was. It was who I was made to be. I hated myself. For most of my 32 years, I was a slave to my academic and professional success, straining to earn my self-worth through accomplishment. It wasn’t until I finally sought mental health treatment that I began to unravel my distorted thoughts and false reality. With the help of my cognitive behavioral therapist, I started to understand that my way of interpreting the world and my core beliefs were inaccurate. Long before I entered therapy, though, I found a new way to earn my worth that wasn’t tied to scholarship or job performance. I discovered that I was excellent at running. Over distances from a mile to 10K, I was fast! As I became more serious about running, I liked the changes that I observed in my body. I felt strong, sleek, and swift. Capable. Of course, I was never good enough at running to consider myself a runner. No matter how many races I entered, no matter how times I placed in my age group, I continued to worry that someone would uncover the truth about me – that I was an imposter. My training was too inconsistent, and my weekly mileage was too low. I was a phony.

In recovery from my eating disorder, I gave up on running. I was sidelined by injuries and illness nearly two years before I ever entered ED treatment, but through my therapy, I finally jettisoned the notion that my identity or worth came from something extrinsic. I fully expected that running would be an activity to which I would never return, and I found new ways to exercise in moderation and with balance. I distanced myself from work, allowing myself to be just average at my job for the first time, ever. Meeting expectations and requirements was sufficient. Needing time and space to explore what truly brought meaning to my life, I withdrew from anything extraneous. As I progressed in therapy, I gradually took on more professional and personal challenges. Without necessarily realizing what was happening, I slowly stretched beyond the careful boundaries I once erected to protect my nascent self. I set my professional aim a bit higher, comfortable that I knew how to right myself if the balanced tipped too far in one direction. I committed to a twice-monthly volunteer role at a local eating disorder treatment center. I booked a flight to Paris! Still, I continued to avoid running.

“Could you reclaim running and build a healthy relationship with it?” my therapist asked me. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even walking for the sole purpose of walking stirred some inner resistance. Yet, I made a few, staggering starts. Last spring, I went out for a couple of walk-runs. Hesitantly, with great trepidation, I would walk for a few minutes, jog for 30 seconds, walk for a few minutes, and repeat. It never amounted to much, and I never built my intervals beyond a minute or so of running. I abandoned the effort until this autumn, when something inexplicable overcame me. Perhaps, it was simply the right time to try again, or perhaps it was something more.

indoor-track
Payne Whitney Gym: Indoor Track,” © Gary Ku (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

“…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”

~ Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

One day, I very matter-of-factly decided that with all of the biking and swimming and yoga and dashing about on one errand or the next, I was certainly strong. There could be no argument about it. I drove to the squishy, rubberized track a few miles from my house, felt the bounce under the soles of my shoes, and started walking. After a few minutes, my stride broke open, and I was jogging. My legs felt strange and unnatural as I summoned the ligaments and muscles to work in ways at once familiar and not. It was a long time ago that I made this particular demand of them. For three-quarters of a mile, they carried me on, and then, just as plainly, I walked again.

The brief trot remained my solitary attempt through the length of the holiday season. There were more pressing matters to divert my attention. However, as December came to a close, my sights fixed more steadily on Paris, and I resolved to make walking a top priority in preparation for my trip. “Do you think that emphasizing walking will help you to address running, as well?” my therapist asked. I nodded affirmatively, but deferred the additional challenge until after my vacation. It was too risky. I could get hurt.

Or… maybe, I wouldn’t. Maybe, I would be fine, especially if I added distance slowly and maintained the balance of my other activities. One afternoon, I laced up my shoes, but instead of setting off at a tourist pace around the neighborhood, I climbed a set of stairs to the short, indoor track circling the basketball courts and free weight machines at the gym where I work. “I just want to see,” I told myself. “I just want to see what it’s like. I just want to see how it feels.”

It felt fine! It felt like next to nothing at all! It felt very measured and plodding, and also hopeful and foundational. It felt like a comeback – the slowest comeback ever. I felt like the tortoise overtaking the hare. I went back again the next week, keeping my distance between half and two-thirds of a mile. Slow and steady. Bit by bit. Eventually.

Friday was sunny, and a few blinding rays sliced through the large, dirty windows each time I crossed the west side of the oval. On one straightway, I could gaze across the flat landscape to the smudgy line of trees on the distant horizon, and on the other, I could glance down at the pickup games of basketball and volleyball that were underway. I counted my breaths and let my arms swing loosely at my side, conscious of driving my elbows straight back with each stroke. Between breaths, I ticked off the laps. 1…2…3… The tiny track was 1/9 of a mile. 4…5…6… I surpassed my distance from the previous week. My core muscles were tight and contracted, and I could feel my glutes powering each step. I imagined my whole body cooperating to move me along. It was a well-nourished, well-rested body in good health, both mentally and physically. I never ran under those conditions before. I never ran without anything to prove. 7…8… It occurred to me that I was about to mark a new milestone, both literally and metaphorically. 9. I finished the lap and slowed to a walk, continuing to circle until my twitching legs relaxed. A little smile creased my face. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that I was already enough.

mizunos
My Mizunos. Ready for the next mile…

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

~ JRR Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

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)

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)

The Perfection Deception

Featured Image: “WAITING,” © Kai Schaper (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

At the moment, I am soaring over the North American continent, contentedly perched in the aisle seat of an exit row, directly over the wing. There is a hot cup of freshly-brewed, dark roast positioned on the floor. I wiggle my toes in my leather, Birkenstock thongs as I stretch out my petite legs, reach down to grab my coffee, and savor a long pull.

At this point in my life, I am an airline-traveling pro. My frequent visits home find me navigating the friendly skies at least once a month, and that doesn’t include my trips for work. Before I became very sick, I was even a semi-regular international traveler, though I have yet to overcome my lingering trepidation to venture abroad in recovery. There is a distinct separation, not only in time but in my being, between the traveling that I did before I began treatment for my eating disorder and my post-Walden adventures.

After leaving partial hospitalization and hesitantly, precariously, fearfully, re-entering the world beyond the structure of the program, I found that traveling was not easy for me. In fact, I found that traveling was never particularly easy for me. I always tended toward a more anxious, easily agitated temperament. Disruptions to my routine, removal from my comfortable and predictable surroundings, and the introduction of a host of unknown variables tipped my equilibrium, but I didn’t possess the self-awareness to recognize my emotions. Before I undertook treatment, I was unequipped to see the pattern that reproduced a similar reaction time and again. I lacked the mindfulness to cope with my circumstances or to tolerate the uncomfortable, automatic responses that were triggered. All I recognized was that I felt an unpleasant intensity that I did not want to experience, and I judged myself harshly on account of it. After so many bags packed, tickets purchased, and miles logged, security lines traversed, on-boardings, and off-boardings, I really would accept no excuses for less-than-perfection from myself. I was not allowed to be anxious, to not know the inside scoop on every traveling tip and trick, or to ever make a mistake. Finding myself stuck in an airport was certainly no reason to derail my fastidiously clean eating. I would walk miles across multiple terminals to find the healthiest salad. No dressing. Water only to drink. No peanuts, please. My rigidity and lack of compassion for myself only magnified the intensity of my negative emotions. (Go figure!) Cycles of escalating restricting would, in turn, amplify my anxiety and desperation, leading to narrower, meaner, more rigid thinking and even further restriction. Later in my eating disorder, I progressively spiraled into more frequent and severe binging episodes. After a time, I came to expect this outcome with any departure from the immediate vicinity of my work and apartment. I isolated more and more, and I traveled less and less.

Aerials
Aerials,” © Metaloxyd (own work), Sep 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The very first obstacle that I tackled after leaving Walden was the 13-hour drive back to Vanillasville. I didn’t want to leave, but as the psychiatrist who was overseeing my medical care told me in a frank and honest way one afternoon, “Your life is not here.” Throughout the entire day that it took me to cross those roughly 850 miles, I drew on every coping and distress tolerance skill I learned over the preceding six weeks. Every few minutes, I found myself intentionally redirecting my thoughts, self-soothing, rationally responding to a cyclone of distorted fears, or silently and tearfully whispering desperate prayers as I repeated, “It IS ok. It will BE ok. No matter what happens around me, I am ok.”

The very next weekend, I boarded a plane back to Boston. I knew that I couldn’t isolate and avoid, as I did before treatment, and it was my goddaughter’s baptism. At first, my anxiety and apprehension swelled like a brewing tropical storm before every trip. Long before I ever pulled my suitcase out of the closet, I entered the fray of pitched battle against eating disorder impulses, which were fueled by triggering memories of past behaviors and by my panic over the surrender of control that traveling required. With my therapist and my nutritionist, Kelly, I spent several weeks in advance of each departure strategizing, planning, and coping-ahead. With every complicated connection, delay, rerouting, traffic jam resulting in an almost-missed flight, rude attendant, unpleasant seat mate, lost bag, missed snack, spilled drink, etc., my self-confidence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and resiliency grew. Eventually, I reached a point where I occasionally forgot to even mention to Kelly or to my therapist that I was leaving town. The topic might come up in an offhand way, such as the time I mentioned to Kelly, “I had a great time with Alice last weekend. We went to the playground with the kids and took them for a walk with their bicycles…” She tipped her head to one side, eyeing me quizzically. “Didn’t I tell you I was going to Massachusetts last weekend?” I asked, genuinely surprised at my forgetfulness, as smiles creased both of our faces.

No matter what perchance occurrence befell me, it always worked out in the end, one way or another, ultimately. I learned that if I was dashing out the door in dread of making it to the airport on time, I could leave dishes in the sink, laundry in the dryer, dirty sheets on the bed, and the world continued to turn. I discovered that the house wouldn’t crumble to its foundations if I didn’t clean it from top to bottom and take out all the trash every time I left for a weekend away. If I could manage to throw together a shirt or two, a pair of PJs, and a couple changes of underwear and socks, chances were good that I would be able to cope with just about anything. I didn’t need to bring ten outfits for two days, and I could survive for an entire week with what I could fit in my smallest roller-bag. I learned what foods were easily transportable in a carry-on, and it became my habit to fill up half my shoulder bag with snacks and emergency rations. If I ever found myself camped out overnight on a bench in Atlanta (again), there would be no need for worry – I flew with everything I needed to assemble a dinner on-the-go and breakfast the next morning.

Seats
Seats,” © Don Harder (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

My departure for the airport today went off without a hiccup. Not one single hiccup. Packing and prepping was even smoother than usual this time around, likely because I’ll only be away for two days, compared to the weeklong trips I was taking throughout the spring. I was even left with enough time for a leisurely breakfast with Pangur Ban, my cat, at my side. With my bags assembled by the door, I sat down on the living room floor to paint my toenails. Brushing on the bright, poppy color slowly and smoothly, I thought, “So PERFECT!”

Hang on…

There was something not… quite… right… Not perfect… Though it felt perfect… Deceptively so.

It couldn’t be true, could it? After all, one of the tenets of my newfound authentic life was, “Nothing in this life is perfect. Only God is perfect. Circumstances are not perfect, I am not expected to be perfect, and neither is anyone else.” I employed one of my methods for testing the validity of automatic thoughts by asking myself, a) Is it true? and, b) Is it helpful? “So perfect,” tripped both alarms.

It occurred to me that this impression of my trip’s perfect beginning was not only likely inaccurate, it was potentially dangerous. If I fell into the illusion of believing that my morning was progressing perfectly, what sort of expectation was I establishing for the rest of my day. Or for my next trip? Would I be disappointed when I was rushing out the door in a few weeks, dishes in the sink, toenails looking chipped and shabby? Would I doubt myself and lament that I wasn’t performing up to my full potential? In the back of my mind, I would remind myself, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but that wouldn’t necessarily stop the thoughts from occurring.

So… I reflected a bit more deeply on the events of the preceding few hours, and I recollected the night before. I was sleep deprived, after choosing to stay up watching YouTube videos rather than engaging in more mindful, relaxing activities that might better calm my frazzled nervous system and very, very lively brain into quiescence. During the first half of that leisurely breakfast I mentioned, I was a bit distracted and not very present with the experience. Here, I was painting my toes, but I would not be able to devote any care to my fingers until I reached my destination. Able to see these few, tiny blemishes in my otherwise spotless experience, I stopped.

Not perfect, I told myself, reassured. But, I allowed, still wonderful and amazing. These little bumps, these little snags, they take nothing away from the joy of this moment. This morning is still good. It is VERY good. But it’s not perfect.

I realized that today was not the first time that I stumbled into this trap. Nostalgia and comparison trip me up not infrequently. Identifying both the positives and negatives in the truth of the situation seemed like a healthy way to reality check. AND, even as I brought my mindful attention to the few, dim clouds in an otherwise bright, blue sky, I reminded myself, This moment is no less incredible because it is imperfect. Maybe, it is even more incredible on account of its imperfection.

Whether it’s across the street or across the world, I wish you happy and imperfect travels. ❤

Big Sky (2)
Big Sky (2)” © spodzone (own work), July 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Speeding

Featured Image: “SPEED,” © Andreina Schoeberlein (own work), September 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Confession. I’m a speeder. Nearly the first lesson of driving that I gleaned, right after 1) “Always fasten your seatbelt,” and 2) “Keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” was 3) “The speed limit is just a suggestion.” Even before I was old enough to imagine myself with a learner’s permit, there was lead in my foot. I was the daughter of a world-class speeder. I was imbued with the genes and infused with the habits of a world-class too-much-to-do-er, always-running-late-er, never-good-enough-er perfectionist. It turned out that perfectionism did not extend to obeying the rules of the road, though. In fairness, I was also a daughter of the cinema and the silver screen. An epic car chase sent my heart racing and filled my arteries with fire.

In the days before I started down the path of my gradual, eye-opening introduction to my emotions and the painful, repeated practice of identifying them and permitting myself to fully experience them, those adrenaline rushes were about as good as it got. However, when I returned from partial hospitalization, waking up each day and waging the ferocious battle of recovery was a sufficient amount of high-drama for me. To the best of my ability, I made a conscious decision to eliminate negative and destructive influences in my life. It began with violent and graphic television. The daily tumult of emotions that flooded me from the moment I first stirred until I sank into the blissful reprieve of sleep were difficult enough to sort through, name, and tolerate. I didn’t need to go hunting for thrills. I imagined my mind as a fragile and impressionable place. Like a freshly planted garden, it needed both careful cultivation and grooming as well as protection from the elements of the exterior world. I meticulously guarded it from raging storms and hungry critters that might trample, wash out, or nibble away the first buds of new growth.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

Whittling away distractions and unnecessariness, dropping back to part-time work hours, I strove to ground myself in simplicity. One of the issues that I grappled with was my chronic lateness and resultant speeding. At the same time, I was attempting to train myself to distinguish between actual needs and what I told myself that I needed. For example, if I didn’t finish all the laundry on Saturday, the world would not end. I would not be able to look at the empty laundry basket at the end of the day with the satisfaction of being the perfect laundress, but I would stand a better chance of being on time for my morning yoga class, because I wasn’t trying to squeeze in another load as I raced out the door. I was trying to incorporate imperfectionism into the fiber of my existence. For a while, it worked with some struggle. I consciously did less, and I left myself more time for what I valued as truly important. However, whenever I walked past the still-full laundry basket with my yoga mat in hand, I felt pangs of agitation. I didn’t give up my anxiety-fueled, perfectionistic, must-always-be-in-control-of-everything, must-finish-everything-I-start, no-minute-can-go-unwasted, rest-and-unfinished-laundry-are-for-lesser-people patterns passively. No. I waged a bloody, excruciating war against my dysfunctional, maladaptive natures.

Slow Down
Slow Club,” © Thomas Hawk (own work), April 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

 “Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

As the roots of recovery twisted more deeply into the fresh earth, I gradually allowed myself to confront some of the influences that I was rigidly excluding from my life. I never returned to watching intense film or TV. I tried it, but the appeal was gone. Though, for better or worse, I slackened in my battle against my “doing” self. Some previous behaviors slowly, almost imperceptibly, began to re-emerge. In certain ways, these few weeds brought with them a bit of balance. I hurtled back into the world from which I removed myself. There was a very fine line between the isolation I inflicted on myself when I was neurotically enslaved by my eating disorder and depression and the segregation from a more challenging, active, engaged (i.e., busy) lifestyle that I imposed on myself while finding my footing in recovery. During those early months of recovery, I danced rather gracelessly along that boundary. Through a combination of conscious decision-making and a whole lot of tripping, I partly pushed and partly stumbled my way into a more participatory way of living. As I became acclimated and my confidence in my abilities grew, I found myself setting laundry-washing records… and running later and later to yoga and other appointments.

Light Speed
Light Speed,” © RoryCB (own work), January 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Then, this morning, I caught myself driving 75 mph in a 55 mph zone on my way to mass. Ironically, compared to the space I created for myself to make that same trek each Sunday morning over the past few months, there was time to spare. Speeding was not required to ensure my punctuality. Yet, I found myself racing along, jostling to maneuver around slower traffic. At that realization, it was hard to deny that speeding was become habit, once again. At least part of my old self was revealed. I was drinking in anxiety and adrenaline and choking myself on its bitter poison.

I want to hold space for myself. I long to be still and silent. I ache to allow myself my imperfections and accept my incompleteness. At the same time, I understand the strengths that my driven, striving, grasping self brings to my whole. She is the one who gets stuff done – both in the laundry room and in my recovery. She is the boundary-pusher and the limit-stretcher. If only there wasn’t such a constant war! If only I didn’t feel stretched as taught as a piano wire by the tension between these retcher. elf brings to my whole self. She is the one whotwo disparate halves. Maybe, the balance hangs somewhere in the middle. I am praying for the grace to find it!

“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

man on wire
man on wire,” © Alan (own work), March 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)