Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Grace: Not where I started

Sometimes, words or ideas come into my life...and then they keep coming into my life until I figure them out, or I write about them, or I get what it is they're telling me. 

Lately, the word in question is "grace."

It has come up in my reading, in conversation, in thoughts...and I wasn't even totally sure I knew the definition of it.  I had a general sense of what it meant, but I was still kinda unclear.  Even when I thought I knew what it meant, I still couldn't completely wrap my head around it.  What is it, actually?

Anne Lamott writes a good deal about grace.  She says, "I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”   She also says, "Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking."  And also: “Sometimes grace is a ribbon of mountain air that gets in through the cracks." 

Quite honestly, I read that and I think, 'Thanks, Anne.  That's super.  Now what the hell is it and why can't I find any?'  I mean, seriously.  I could use some water wings right now.  I could use a little mountain air...but neither one appears to be too forthcoming at the moment.  And that mystery she refers to?  Anywhere I'm going, I'm getting there myself.  Not so much happening on the mystery front here, Anne.  Not so much.

The dictionary definition of grace didn't carry me much further.  Google's definition provided me with this gem: "(in Christian belief) the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings." 

Further reading on Wikipedia (this is hardcore research, y'all!) landed me this: "grace has been defined, not as a created substance of any kind, but as "the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not because of anything we have done to earn it"...a spontaneous gift from God to man - "generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved..."

And, honestly, I read those definitions and I think, 'Thanks Life.  That's super.  Make me obsessed with understanding a word relating to a God I don't believe in, linked inextricably with beliefs of sin and salvation that are not even remotely close to fitting into my belief system.  That's nice of you.  Really nice of you.'

But it's been weeks now that this word has been coming up for me -- and coming up, and coming up, and so I've made myself think about it over the past few days.   And, really, we're still wrestling a bit.  This word and I -- we're still figuring out what it means for me.  This is not a word that wants to go down easy.

The past couple weeks have been hard, and I've been struggling with a darkness and a sense of overwhelm that is hard for me to admit to and name.  Mostly, in those tough moments, I struggle with a sense of feeling unworthy, and unlovable, and alone in the struggle.  I feel vulnerable, and I can't quite figure out how to be with others in a way that feels right.  Don't we all, at one time or another, struggle with those feelings?  Don't we all, at some point, become so engaged in our heads that we manage to go round and round up there in our busy brains, convincing ourselves that we are somehow unworthy?  Don't we all become self-absorbed, such that we become convinced that we are unloved and unlovable?  I do.  And while, in my funnier moments, I can shake my fist in the air and say "DAMN YOU SEROTONIN, WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU!?!?!" yelling at neurotransmitters doesn't make them multiply or affect their reuptake.  It doesn't change all the life circumstances and goings on right now that, frankly, there just isn't enough serotonin in the world to manage it without leaning at least a little into the darkness.  And that's okay.  It happens.  It is part of what life is, I think, and it will pass. 

But I am good at going through the motions, you know?  I am good at smiling, and I am good at finding the things to laugh at, and I am good at withdrawing when I can't do those things.  I am good at showing up, even when I don't feel like it.  I'm good at doing a good job of whatever it is I'm supposed to do a good job at, even when I don't know how I can do a good job.  And the past few days...I haven't felt like it.  Last night in particular, when I was lying awake because I couldn't sleep, my brain went all sorts of haywire and convinced me of things it never would have said in the daylight.  I got up this morning, and the very last thing I wanted to do was go to choir practice and sing. 

Okay, so maybe there were a few things that were lower on the list than singing, but as I was trying to get out the door this morning, I sure couldn't think of many.  But I got there, and I faked it, and I sang, because faking it and singing is supposed to help. 

And then...there was this thing that happened. 

This woman, who is very dear, came to me and said, "You still haven't heard that song I want you to hear...so I made you a CD!"  She handed me a CD with some songs on it that she finds beautiful and meaningful -- and my heart wiggled, just a little bit, and warmed, and the room grew lighter.  Like a ribbon of mountain air, perhaps.

And then someone leaned over the seat and asked, "how's your sister?  Have you heard from your sister?"  "I said a prayer for her," someone else said.  "I've been praying that the thing that is right for her will happen."  Water wings slid onto my arms, and suddenly, I was not struggling quite so hard to breathe. 

"I wanted to ask you how your teaching is going?" someone asked.  "Did it go okay?"  Another ribbon of mountain air.

"What can I do to help?" someone asked, when I told her things are hard...and suddenly, I knew I was not in the same place I started.  Grace had found me where I was, and had moved me, surely, to somewhere new.  It was absolutely a bestowal of blessings that were free and unmerited.  It was love given, not because I had done anything to earn it, but just because.  It was a gift that was both unexpected and undeserved. 

I don't believe it was a gift given to me by God.  I don't believe there was any sort of sinner salvation going on...if I was a sinner then, I am still as much of a sinner now.  But there was absolutely a human grace that was afforded me today, in the moment that I needed it, in the way that I could hear it.  This, then, is my definition of grace: a spontaneous gift from person to person that is generous, free, and totally unexpected.  It brings breath to the places there was none, and tells us that we matter.  That we belong.  It comes in moments we do not expect, and it takes us to places we did not know to go.  It takes us out of our heads and reminds us that, even in the dark moments, we are in community.  We are worthy of being in community. Even in the dark moments, we are beings who are worthy of being in community.

These moments...they did not banish the darkness or cure the stressors or change my brain's reuptake of serotonin.  But I am not where I started, and this, my friends, is grace. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

On Fairness, Breath, and Grace

Several years ago, I saw a therapist for a few sessions.  She was awful.  Like, seriously awful.  I have since seen a wonderful therapist, who was helpful and kind and empathetic, and all the things she was supposed to be.  But that first therapist, man.  She made a rough time that much harder.

And I was going through a rough time when I saw her.  A time that was so difficult and new, in fact, that I didn't have the words I needed to express what was happening, or how I felt, or what I needed.  What I knew was that it was awful, and that I needed it to change.

But it wasn't easy for me to say that, because I was thinking that I, in part, was causing the awfulness.  I was thinking that I, in part, was to blame for the situation.  When I finally got a glimpse of the fact that this might not be the case, the closest thing I could come to expressing it was to say, haltingly, "it's just...it's just that...I'm just realizing that...this isn't fair.  It's just not fair."

And do you know what she did?  She laughed.  She laughed this big, loud, hearty laugh that startled me, and she said loudly (she did everything loudly), "Ha!  Fair?!  Whoever told you life was fair?  You're in for a sorry wake-up call, sister." 

I looked at her with what I hope was my very best "WTF?" expression.

"Seriously," she said.  "Do you really think life is supposed to be fair?"

"No," I said, embarrassed, and I quickly ended the conversation.

Here's what I learned from this conversation: (1) Stop whining.  (2) Your pain doesn't matter.  (3) It's not going to get better, because you deserve this pain.  Everybody's got it.  This is yours.

These are lessons I've carried with me.
* * * * *

I recently had a young man come into my office who is being physically and emotionally bullied by his peers.  He collapsed into a heap on the chair, eyes filled with tears, and said, "It just isn't fair.  It just isn't fair.  I'm telling you, it's just not fair."

And for him -- as it was for me -- this acknowledgment was momentous.  Acknowledging that he does not deserve this bullying, that it is wrong, that it's okay to talk about and tell adults about and seek help about...that was a big deal.  And, to me, that's what he was saying.  He was saying, finally, "I don't deserve this, and it just isn't fair."

So I told him he was right.  I told him that it isn't fair, and I let him sit backwards in the chair with his feet over his head and cry.  After a while, I asked him to sit up and talk, and I explained that it ISN'T fair, and that I can't undo what has already been done.  But I also told him that there are powerful steps he can take.  I told him that he has a team of people that want to work with him to help him take those powerful steps.  I told him that I see lots of kids who are being bullied, and that when he is ready, I can teach him some super strong anti-bully skills.

I could tell you that I'm an awesome therapist and that he sat up and smiled said, "oh yeah!  You're right!  Do teach me these assertiveness skills and about my right to stand up for myself!"

But this is real life, so what actually happened is that he said "fuck you," and flipped the table over, and told me not to talk to him cause he was really mad, and that I was really lucky that he didn't have a light saber 'cause if he had one, he would have killed me already. 

So we'll try again next time.  
*****

I get it.  I really do.  I get where he's coming from.  I'm in this place right now where I wouldn't mind dropping an F-bomb, flipping a table -- and yes, if I had a light saber, I probably would have light-sabered SOMETHING if I didn't believe there was enough violence in the world already.  I'm not proud that this is where I'm at, but you know what?  Like I will with my little client, I will try again next time.  What other choice is there?

The world, it seems, is going to hell in a handbasket.  The news is full of tragedies and violence I can't bear to read about.  My personal world is full of friends who are struggling to make ends meet or to stay alive, family members who are struggling in more ways than can be counted, and I've had doctor's appointments that cause anxiety as I try to get a - probably simple issue - resolved in what appears to be the most complicated manner ever.  And, because The Universe coupled with social media is a funny thing, those old issues I thought were resolved have come back 'round for visitation again: Anger and Betrayal namely, while I watched Forgiveness slink out the back door when I thought she was here to stay. 

 I don't let myself complain much, even in my head, but as I was driving home from work today, I realized that...you know?  It's NOT fair.  It's life -- and life isn't fair.  For me, there aren't any superpower skills I can learn or practice to change it...but there is power (for me) in acknowledging that it just isn't fair.

I know that if I were to pick up any self-help book, and it's going to tell me not to think that way.  It's going to tell me that I'm making myself the victim, that I'm relinquishing my power, or that I'm feeling sorry for myself -- and honestly, that's the way it sounds.  It sounds like a whiny "life's hard" rant from a privileged girl who is not living in Israel, or living with the fear of catching Ebola, or dealing with being deported after surviving horrific conditions to make it to this country.

But this is how it feels: in my heart, when I say, "This is life right now, and it isn't fair," I am saying, "this thing that's going on is real, and it's hard."  I am saying, "this stuff that's going on is overwhelming and I can't do it alone."  I am saying, "I'm going to let myself acknowledge and name what is going on, because it sucks, and pretending it's just life-as-usual is hard and awful." 

And funny enough, when I do that, my heart softens and the breathing room around it expands. 

Perhaps this is what Anne Lamott talks about in Help, Thanks, Wow.  She writes, "Where do we even start on the daily walk of restoration and awakening?  We start where we are.  We find God in our human lives, and that includes the suffering.  I get thirsty people glasses of water, even if that thirsty person is just me."

I don't believe in god...but I want to believe that there is some sort of Universal Love Force out there in the world that hears me when I say "help" or "thanks" or "wow."  I don't necessarily miss the idea of a God, but I miss believing that something bigger than me is listening.  I miss believing that I can hand The Mess over at the end of the day, and that something bigger than me will hold it for a few hours so I can get some sleep.  I miss feeling like there is something larger than myself that I can turn to and say, "hey," when I just need someone big and powerful to listen.

So perhaps this softening, this opening I can experience through honesty and just being with myself -- perhaps that softness is that force.  Perhaps that softness is Love.  When I acknowledge and name the suffering and the unfairness of it all, perhaps what I am doing is just giving my thirsty self that drink of water.  It is starting where I am.  It is, perhaps, starting the walk of restoration and awakening.

Lamott continues, "You may be saying, 'It's so awful right now, and I am so pissed off and sad and mental, that against all odds I'm giving up.  I'll accept whatever happens.'

Maybe ... you'll go a little limp, and in that divine limpness you'll be able to breathe again.  Then you're halfway home.  In many cases, breath is all you need.  Breath is holy spirit.  Breath is life.  It's oxygen.  Breath might get you a little rest.  You must be so exhausted. 

...So when we cry out Help, or whisper it into our chests, we enter the paradox of not going limp and not feeling so hopeless that we can barely walk, and we release ourselves from the absolute craziness of trying to be our own -- or other people's -- higher powers."

And perhaps that is what is needed, no?  Perhaps what really needs to happen here is to say, "okay, so maybe I'm NOT this awesome higher power all by myself who Has It All Together and is beyond feeling angry, or unforgiving, or whiny."  Maybe I can breathe into the fact that, above all else, I am human, and I can whine, and be angry and unforgiving, like humans are.  Maybe I can acknowledge that I'm allowed to be scared, and unsure...and that life, for sure, is not fair.  Maybe I can get that part of me a drink of water, and let her sit upside down and backwards in a lump on her chair until she has herself put back together, and then we continue walking.  Maybe that's what happens.  I still don't believe in God, but there's a possibility that maybe -- maybe --I can call that spaciousness "grace."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Bravery, Blossoming, and Being Too Much

I was brave today. 

What a silly way to start a post, right?  But I don't know how else to start it.  I was brave.  I WAS brave.  I did something that intimidated me, and I was brave. 

Perhaps really, though, what I did today was a culmination of bravery.  It's been a long, hard process. 

Today, I gave the sermon at church.  It was on ableism, and on loving and accepting people with disabilities.  As with most everything I write, this writing came straight from my heart.  I didn't pull any punches; in fact, a friend who read it described it as "fearless."  When I sent it to my minister for her to review ahead of time, I let her know: "I didn't expect it to be so...gutsy."  But it was, because that was what had to be written.  It is truth, and it is reality, and my voice is one that tries to speak truth and reality.  So that is what I did. 

Let me back up.  When I was in college, I was terrified of public speaking.  I would lose my voice the day before oral presentations, and I would often be sick before I had to give the presentation.  I hated it.  Luckily (although it didn't feel lucky at the time), I got lots of practice...but even with practice, I hated it.  Anytime I was given the choice of 10-15 minute presentation, or a 20 page paper, I never even had to think twice.  I've always been a writer and 20 pages was something I could crank out easily enough. 

Eventually, with exposure, I moved from anxiety manifesting as illness down to just trembling.  My voice shook, my hands shook, my body shook...it was awful.  I hated this almost more than vomiting before presentations.  The shaking was noticeable, and almost entirely out of my control.  Plus, the shaking made me embarrassed, which made my face turn red.  But not just red -- no, we're not talking about getting a little pink in the cheeks.  We're talking about so-red-my-face-throbbed type of red.  Tomato red.  And it would not go away until about 30 minutes after I was done.  And, just when you thought I would reach my peak redness, I would stumble over a word and manage to become even more red.  I don't think Crayola even has a color that could replicate the shade of red I managed to obtain.  In spite of all the practice I had giving presentations in my liberal arts college, I never got over it.  I presented my senior thesis masquerading as a trembling tomato. 

In the year I took off between college and graduate school, I worked for a local Mental Health Association.  That year, I presented "Kids On The Block" puppet shows at local schools on bullying, drugs and alcohol, and physical and sexual abuse.  It was hard at first...but I quickly realized that (1) elementary school kids are the most forgiving audience ever and (2) they didn't care about me.  They were talking to the puppets.  Also?  I was wearing a black hood with mesh over the face and stood behind the puppets so nobody could see me.  I even had my picture in the newspaper, and nobody never would have been able to identify me.  It was, in a word, fantastic.  Towards the end of the year, I started doing the Yello Dyno curriculum on personal body safety for kindergarten classrooms with no puppet, and no hood/mask covering my face, and I found, surprisingly, that I could present without shaking, and largely without turning red.  Apparently, those puppets weren't just therapeutic for the kids.

Once I reached graduate school, I would still be nervous before presenting, but it was a manageable level of anxiety.  I still turned all sorts of red, but I learned to work with it, and it never presented a huge barrier.  If given a choice, I will still, always, opt for the paper over the presentation...but this is purely a preference and no longer a choice made out of fear. 

At this point, public speaking isn't necessarily something that I love, but I can do it, and I do it regularly.  I try to do it regularly, even, so that I don't somehow backslide into that world of red faces and trembling.  Plus, I like to make myself do things that are hard every now and again.  I hear it builds character.  So while I still wouldn't put public speaking on my list of Top 10 or even Top 20 Fun Things To Do, my feelings have slowly but surely changed from Not Sure I'll Make It Out Alive to a big, resounding Meh. 

Aside from the actual act of speaking aloud, though, the bigger struggle for me has been that of voice.  I like to think that I have always had a clear and strong sense of voice in my writing.  And, for this reason, my writing (up until only a few years ago) stayed tightly locked in files on my computer, in folders in desk drawers, and in the many, many, many journals I kept from the age of 9 onward.  A deadly combination of bad creative writing teachers, self-consciousness, and a sense of shame from always feeling like I was emotionally "too much" created this feeling of my writing and my voice being...well...too much.  I kept writing, of course, because not writing is simply not an option, but I kept it hidden.  I had to.  Writing was the most personal expression of myself, the place I put my passion without being afraid of being "too much." 

This is not to say that I was disingenuous, necessarily.  I was quiet, but I was always true to what I believed, and my passions seeped out in small ways.  That's the thing about being "too much."  It's impossible to contain all of your much-ness in one body.  I learned from a young age how to pick and choose how much of my "too much" seeped into the world -- how much of my too emotional, too clear, too truthful, too excited, too passionate self could be in conversations and in relationships with others.  I was very fortunate in my younger years, though, that I was never actively silenced.  People heard and largely respected what of my voice I shared.  Aside from when I became "too much," people nearly always respected and responded positively to my voice.

That changed very quickly once I reached graduate school.  In my diversity classes in particular, I was honest in my journals and in class.  In my writing and with my adviser particularly, I was willing to be myself.  I showed her a lot of my too much-ness.  I was passionate, and I was me. 

In spite of this (or, perhaps, because of), for a solid year, the only feedback I received was that I needed to work on "finding my voice."  I was consistently told things like "the thing about you is that you are someone who does wonderful and amazing things, but no one will ever notice you."  At the end of each quarter, my feedback forms told me that I had to work on finding my voice.  I talked with professors and my adviser about it -- "how do I do this?" I asked.  "I am being me...really...when I have an opinion, I voice it.  When I have something to say, I say it.  When I disagree, I state it.  What am I missing?"

Nobody could put their finger on it.  I was told to participate more.  I was told to speak out more.  I was told to disagree with others more.  And I did, and I did, and I did...and still the feedback came rolling in (always from the same person): "find your voice.  Work on finding and using your voice.  Still not finding your voice."

And about a year into the program, I snapped.  I remember being in a study room in the basement of the library and calling my sister, crying, that I just didn't understand what they wanted from me.  I have a voice.  A strong voice.  I used my voice.  And they weren't listening.  I was so frustrated, I was to the point of considering dropping out of the program. 

So I did the only thing I could think to do: I wrote a journal entry for my diversity class on the issue of voice.  This paper was turned in to the co-teachers for the class, one of whom was my adviser.  I wrote about my voice, and the power I see and hear in my voice, and the ways in which I see myself using my voice.  I did something super risky, and I called the professor in question out by name.  I wrote in that paper: "I understand that you think I have not found my voice.  However, I sincerely think the issue is not that I have not found my voice.  The problem lies in the fact that you are not hearing me.  I have found my voice.  The problem is that you are not listening."

Getting back that paper was terrifying, and the note that read "let's talk" next to that particular passage was whatever is beyond terrifying.  But we did -- we talked.  And my eval at the end of the quarter noted that I had found my voice.  It was never an issue again.

But I have to admit: I was completely beat down by this process.  I internalized the message that, in spite of what I do, no one will ever notice me.  And if that wasn't enough, then life completely fell apart. 

Sexual assault, bullying, harassment, victim blaming...that'll silence you, for sure.  It wasn't possible to "find my voice" during this time.  I tried -- god knows I tried -- but it just wasn't possible.  I tried to use my voice.  I tried to advocate for myself.  And -- it wasn't entirely unsuccessful, but it wasn't entirely successful, either.  It was a hugely shaming, silencing time.

So I started this blog with the sole intention of re-finding and sharing my voice.  And that, amazingly, is what I have done.  Every post I make, every time I write something about anything, it takes an act of bravery.  It is an act of reclaiming my voice and of reminding myself that it exists.  That it is strong, and it is worthy.

My challenge lately for myself has been not only to share my voice here, in writing, but to also submit my writing to competitions and for publication.  I have been challenging myself to share my writing aloud.  I won't lie: it's fucking terrifying.  But my voice ­­- my voice - is too strong, and too passionate not to share.  It's why I have gone through this process and the pain and the work of reclaiming it.  I want people to hear me.  I don't want to be the person who will never be noticed. 

The past two nights leading up to the service today, I had the same dream.  I prepared for the service, was ready, got to church, 10:00 rolled around...and no one came.  It was me, the guy who was playing the piano, and the minister...and that was it.  The sanctuary was empty, and we all went home.  In my dream, I was devastated. 

Because the fear -- the real fear that founded this dream -- it wasn't that no one would come.  I knew that bodies would be there.  It wasn't about the number of people, even.  It was about the fact that I was terrified that I wouldn't be heard.  I went in to do this today knowing too well that it was possible that I would not be heard.  That people could deny my voice.  That I could be silenced, in one way or another.   

It was a risk.  It was a risk to stand up there at all, and it was an even bigger risk to share this passion, to share my too much-ness.  I knew that what I was saying would take people out of their comfort zone.  I knew I would challenge them to consider other ways of viewing people and issues they may not have even considered.  I knew that my passion seeped out in my writing, and that it would come across in my voice.  It had to.  I care about this issue too much.

But you know what happened?  I wasn't silenced.  I wasn't shamed.  I wasn't told that I was too much, or that I had to find my voice.  I wasn't told that my voice would never be heard. 

Instead, what happened was simple and beautiful. 

I was heard.  And my voice -- it mattered.  It started conversations.  It sparked thoughts.  It may have opened minds.  I hope it opened some hearts. 

I spoke up.  I was heard.  And my voice mattered. 

The only words I have to describe what that feels like is that it feels like something in my chest is breaking open.  That happens a lot at church.  It's been happening a lot lately.  I don't even have words for this sort of gratitude.

So yes -- I was brave today.  My intention for bravery this year...it's working.  I am reminded again of my very favorite quote (which, I swear, will become a tattoo for me in some form one of these days):

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."  - Ana├»s Nin.

Blossoming is painful.  It requires bravery.  But it is so much better than that pain of remaining tight inside the bud.

Let's blossom, shall we?