Sunday, January 25, 2015

On crying too

I hardly even know where to begin. 

I arrived home last night around 10:30 PM, after spending a week in Haiti.  (You can see the blog and some of my writing about our trip here: 

I am going to need to do a lot of writing, and thinking, and processing about this, but tonight, I'm going to need to start simply.  Tonight, I am going to need to go slowly.  Tonight, I just need to start unpacking what is here.

I am not much of a crier, and it's not even that I'm crying as much as I just seem to be leaking.  Ever since last night, my eyes just seem to be leaking.

Yesterday, I packed up my suitcase and got in a van that drove me 3 hours through the mountains of Haiti.  I passed hours worth of poverty I had previously been unable to imagine.  Poverty that now has faces tied to its name.  I passed hours worth of children and families with no access to water.  Water.  A fundamental human right, a necessity.  I sat in that van and was driven past people living in houses made of clay.  Houses made of sticks and mud, housing god-only-knows how many people.  Houses of hungry people, thirsty people, sick people, living in a country with no way out.  I rode through a country of people living in conditions I could have gone my whole life without ever imagining - people with hopes, and dreams, and smiles not so very unlike my own.

I got in that car, I rode through that gorgeous, devastated countryside, got on a plane and, without really having done a damn thing, I left.  I left.  I got on a plane, and I left the devastation exactly as I found it.

Then I came home, I turned on the tap, and clean water came out.  I flipped the switch and lights came on.  I took a long, luxurious hot shower.  I got into bed with lots of fuzzy blankets, on a comfortable soft mattress.  I made myself a cup of hot tea with clean water and tea bags I bought from a store in which I had more options than any person needs.  I came home to more space and stuff than any one person truly deserves, and I felt relief.  I enjoyed that shower.  I savored my cup of tea.  I didn't even think about the lights as I flicked them on and off as needed.  When I turned off the lights and I closed my eyes, the images of the people and places I had witnessed a mere 12 hours before flooded my mind, and I had the audacity to cry.

This morning, I got up, opened a closet full of clean clothes and chose something to wear.  I went to my kitchen, made myself breakfast with food from the fridge, helped myself to clean water fresh from the tap, sat on my couch with my dog and read for fun - because I had nothing else I needed to do, all my basic needs having been met.  I went to the bathroom and flushed the toilet without a second thought.  Then I went and got in my car, drove 30 minutes on a paved road, and ended at another heated building with electricity, clean water, and good people.  I sat in a comfortable chair for an hour and listened to my ministers speak about process theology, because I have the privilege of worrying about so little that I can focus on such heady and intellectual topics as process theology.  And at the end of that?  I had the audacity to cry again.

This is just the beginning.  The number of privileges I was afforded throughout today -- including driving to Walgreens to fill the remainder of my prescription for anti-malarial pills (which was almost entirely covered by my health insurance) - was astounding.  I did nothing to earn this.  I did nothing to deserve it.  But here it is -- all of it -- so available and at-the ready that I don't even need to think about it.

I feel guilty, yes, but guilt isn't the primary emotion.  Mostly, it's sadness.  Mostly, it's hopelessness.  Mostly, it's a sense of powerlessness, and feeling so very, very overwhelmed.  Mostly, I just keep crying, and I don't know that I'm even really sure why. 

I feel such an obligation to this world.  I always have.  I feel such a need, and a desire, to open my heart to the world, to witness its suffering and to tell its stories with compassion.  I feel an obligation to witness the places that hurt to the extent that I am able and to do what I can to move it towards wholeness.  I know the ways I can do this are small.  I know the things I can do are miniscule as compared to the need...and this is okay.  I do it anyway, if only because it is what I need to do.

When I was younger, I hated my sensitive heart.  I didn't know how to protect and manage it, and I felt raw, and hurt, and as though I was just so different from everyone else.  Over the years, I have been able to practice some gentleness towards my sensitive, open heart, and through this have learned to manage it better.

But knowing that there are people without water, and knowing people without water hits your heart in different ways.  Knowing that such extreme poverty exists, and holding a 6 week old infant who is living it -- there is no comparison.  Reading about the trauma and devastation of a country, and looking into the eyes of the men, women, and children for whom it is a daily reality -- this is different.  The world is not only not how I thought it to be, but my heart holds photographs of the people living an existence I never even had the ability to imagine.  And I had the privilege to - literally - fly away from it.

I don't have children, but the analogy that keeps coming to mind is that it feels like the difference between knowing that babies cry and hearing your baby cry. 

I knew the world was crying.  Now, it is my world that is crying.  This world -- the one that I live in -- with you, right here, right now, this world is crying.  Our world.  In 2015, there are children drinking dirty water, without shoes, unable to go to school, without food, without any visible sign of things changing.  They are living in one room houses of sticks and mud; they are dying of preventable, curable diseases.  They are smiling, and laughing, and turning plastic bags and dirty hats into toys, or walking for hours carrying water on their heads. 

I knew the world was crying.  Now, it is my world that is crying.  This world -- the one that I live in -- with you, here, right now...and the most I can do is cry, too.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Like People Do: On Crossing the Street

When I moved to this area 3.5 years ago, I was at once thrilled to be out of graduate school and back on the East Coast, and also deeply unhappy that I was in this particular city.  You see, although I had lived for 4 years in the Midwest, and although much of the difficulty of those years was tied to that location, there was also something much more far reaching. 

Namely, the man responsible for my sexual assault was not from Ohio.  He lived in Baltimore.

So a year and a half later, when I applied to internships everywhere from New Hampshire to Tennessee, from Ohio to North Carolina, my ultimate placement at my top choice was bittersweet.  Rather than leaving it all behind, it felt as though I was walking into something new.  I knew the chances of seeing him were slim to the point of being unrealistic, but it didn't stop my fear.  My anxiety about walking alone, going places alone, and being in the city was intense.  Through daily exposure, after several months I could handle driving to work, taking the shuttle to where I needed to be, and walking up and down the few blocks between buildings with minimal anxiety.  However, walking around with friends, going out to dinner and walking back to my car, attending a street fair...this was where panic loomed.  It's hard to describe the intense fear I felt and worked through so frequently.  Just walking the couple blocks to the Whole Foods, or the CVS, or around the corner to my friend's apartment complex was enough to make me nauseous, make my whole body shake, and completely exhaust me.  It was, in a word, awful.


As I wrapped up my day at work this evening, I realized I had several things I needed to pick up from the drugstore.  I considered several options of how to make this happen, and quickly realized that walking the couple blocks to the CVS around the corner was going to be the most time-effective way to complete this errand. 

So you know what I did?  I put on my coat without a second thought and I walked to that CVS.

When I was about halfway there, I had this moment where I realized: I'm not scared. 

I wasn't surprised that I wasn't scared, per se, but it was an affirming moment. 

I'm not scared.  

Perhaps it's silly, but I felt brave.  And powerful, perhaps.  Maybe even a little badass.  Realizing growth and change, however small, is always badassery, I think.  As I stood on the street corner, waiting for the light to tell me to walk, I pictured myself standing on that same corner two years ago.  It was similarly bitter cold, but two years ago, I felt unsafe in my skin.  I was shaky, and nauseous, and hyperaware, and I didn't know what to do with my body.  I was counting my breaths, just to give myself something to focus on so I could get to my car. 

Tonight?  I was standing on the street corner, waiting for the walk light, like people do.  I was thinking about how damn cold it was, and about what I was going to make for dinner, and about that funny thing I had to text my sister about.  I was standing on the street corner, waiting for the walk light, just like people do. 

I've had a number of these moments lately -- they're tiny, and no one else would recognize them as moments...because they're things like buying a new pair of jeans.  Getting a drink with a friend.  Crossing the street at night.  Just like people do, you know?


As I continued walking to the CVS, I noticed a woman, a little younger than myself, with a huge backpack reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon's pack in the new movie of Cheryl Strayed's "Wild."  She came towards me, and moved to wait to cross the road.  We stood for a few moments in silence.  She, looking up and around at the buildings (clearly a tourist), and me, unintentionally staring at her blue wool hat, wondering why the hell I forgot my hat and gloves in the car.  As the traffic continued and we waited, I became increasingly agitated with the cold and my lack of hat...and she smiled.  She turned and said in a beautiful Scottish accent, "it's such a gorgeous night, isn't it?"

"It's a little chilly," I said.  "I am finding myself admiring your hat."

"Oh," she laughed.  "It's beautiful here.  I am just loving Baltimore.  This is just so incredible."  She continued to look up at the buildings around us, and then looked at me and extended her hand.  "I'm Jennifer," she said. 

"Are you visiting?" I asked, stating the obvious, given the backpack and the admiration of the city I take for granted.

"Yes," she said.  "I'm from Scotland...came to the US to do a 6-month tour of the country.  I just came from New York by bus...headed south after this.  I'm staying with a man...I believe his name is Zachary...around the corner."  She flashed the map she had pulled up on her smartphone.  "I'm couch-surfing," she said. 

The light finally changed and we crossed together.  She was full of energy and passion and excitement for the new foods she was trying, and the excitement of New York, and the beauty of Baltimore, and how much money she was saving by using this "couch-surfers" website and finding people willing to host her in the cities she was visiting.  "I've met so many wonderful people," she said.  "It's just truly, truly incredible."

When our paths were about to separate, we shook hands again. 

"You are incredibly brave," I said. 
"Yes!" she nodded, simply, smiling exuberantly.  "It was so nice meeting you."

"Take care," I said.  "Be well.  Stay safe."

She continued walking down the road,  and I found myself looking up at the sky she admired, and whispering a prayer to whatever power might be out there that Jennifer be protected in her travels.


For a moment, I laughed at myself.  After all, it's funny, isn't it, that I would get to feeling badass about walking a couple blocks to the drugstore and would meet a girl visiting a foreign country, alone, for 6 months, staying on strangers' couches?

There is nothing badass about crossing the street, I thought. 

And yet...

On Saturday, I leave for a week in Haiti. 

A group of folks from my church and another local church are traveling together to Haiti to learn, and to provide some assistance, and to broaden our worldviews, and to open our hearts to people and the world just that much more. 

There is nothing badass about crossing the street.

And yet, somehow, each of those actions has brought me here.  Even the ones where I was trembling.  Even the times I had to count my breath.  Each of those actions has still, somehow, brought me here, and something in that feels maybe, a little bit, badass. 

Maybe a little bit powerful. 

And maybe a little bit brave.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Goodbye Bravery, Hello...: My 2015 Word of the Year

Setting the intention to be brave at the beginning of 2014 was, unknowingly, one of the bravest things I did.  Of course, I couldn't have known what the year would bring when I settled on this word, but it is sufficient to say that this year gave me a plethora of opportunities to be brave.  And you know?  I took them.  Sometimes I had no choice but to be brave.  Other times I had a choice - and I chose the one I thought was "brave."  Still other times, I opted not to do the "brave" thing.  Sometimes, choosing not to do that "brave" thing ended up being the bravest choice.   

I know I said over and over again -- both here and elsewhere -- that my goal was not to become fearless.  I know I defined bravery about 20 different times.  I know I indicated that I was not trying
to be the fearless knight in shining armor, and that I didn't even WANT to be that fearless knight...but truth be told, I ended the year feeling disappointed.  Underneath of the calm, wise, thoughtful exterior I display here, I really wanted to end 2014 feeling as though I could do anything and not be shaken.  I wanted to be able to say that I did brave things without fear or anxiety.  I wanted to end the year feeling badass and whole and as though no one could ever rattle me.

The thing about bravery, though, is that when you spend a year focused on it, you start to see it everywhere.  As a therapist, I have the privilege of witnessing acts of bravery on a daily basis, and holy cow, y'all.  Do you realize how brave and beautiful people are, just getting through every day?  I see it in the kids in clinic who are being bullied at school, and the kid with multiple disabilities struggling with learning to read.  I see it in the nonverbal teenager who is learning to functionally request his wants and needs, and even in the kid who gave me a concussion a few weeks ago as he tries really hard to control his anger.  I see it in the single father raising a little guy with special needs, and the mother whose husband is deployed, and the people who come into my office and laugh, or cry, or don't listen to anything I say, or are mad about being there.  Every one of them is so full of this ridiculous, beautiful, strong bravery. 

Even the most difficult of people -- the parent who came 2 hours late for her session, for the third time in a row, and then yelled and threatened me when I told her I had other patients and could not see her.  What bravery it took to show up, to attempt to advocate for her needs and her son, and to keep trying.  Or what about the elderly woman in front of me at the grocery store, carefully counting out $2.56 worth of ramen noodles?  Or the man at the drug store attempting to carefully discuss which shade of red nail polish would best match a particular dress with his 14-year-old?  And even the lady in front of me at Best Buy yesterday, yelling and threatening her tantruming 3-year-old...even her.  We can't even imagine what steps she may have needed to take to bring her to this point, now -- and yet she's here.  We all are.  Isn't that an act of bravery?  Just getting here, to this moment, now?

I may not be brave...but I can
do hard things.
I am ending 2014, then, with mixed feelings.  I do not feel brave.  If I had to live this year over again, I'm pretty sure I would still shake and feel as scared and decidedly not-brave as I did the first time around.  But I am also trying to believe that I am brave because I choose to keep loving this world, and because every action I take comes from this willingness to love.  I am brave because I love the world enough to continue trying, to continue engaging, to continue fighting and believing and acting and moving forward in the ways that I know how.  I am brave enough to do brave things, even through the fear, and the self-doubt, and the shaking, because I believe that this life and this world is worth it.  What I learned, then, may be simply that there is bravery in the doing and in the loving.  I learned that I can do brave things.  I learned that sometimes, if you love the world enough to keep doing those brave things - even if the brave thing is just showing up, or putting one foot in front of the other, other brave souls will come out and help you.  I learned that accepting love is bravery.  Loving back is bravery.  I think I needed to learn these points.  I know I'll need to learn them again.

So even though I am not brave, this is good enough.  I think this has to be good enough. 

December marks a year that I have been practicing yoga.  Talk about bravery!  When I started going, I was anxious before every class.  I was self-conscious about wearing yoga clothes, and I felt naked, judged, and exposed.  Being willing to show up and inhabit my body -- this body -- was, at first, awful.  I couldn't get out of my head or my judging mind, and I felt vulnerable.  The teachers talked about opening your heart, and being in your body, when all I had done for the past several years was attempt to hold my heart closed and live in my head.   

But in that very first class I attended, there was a moment when I was dripping with sweat from the 90 degree room, twisted into some approximation of a shape, thinking about how god-awful this was and how I never wanted to come back, when I heard the teacher ask, "how is your breath?"

Almost involuntarily, I took a deep inhale.  Just like that, I felt myself -- my mind and my heart -- fall into my body.  For a brief moment, I felt whole.  I felt alive in my body in a way that felt safe and controlled.  I felt alive in a way that filled my body.  I felt alive, and fully present in my skin.

So I went back, even though it was god-awful.  And I went back and it was less god-awful.  And I keep going back, because yoga brings me into my body.  Because it makes me feel alive.  Because I no longer panic about yoga clothes.  Because I can get into crow pose, and my eternally tight hamstrings are releasing their grasp, and because I can't quite do a headstand.  I keep going back because, on my mat, nothing else matters: there is me, and my heart, and my body, and my mind, as I am.  On my mat, I feel something like whole.

I went to yoga yesterday afternoon, and it was one of the most amazing classes I have ever taken.  I ended the class feeling grounded and so whole-heartedly in my body, it felt as though this amazing energy was pushing at the edges of my mortal form, desperate to escape into the world.  For some reason, I left the class feeling as though my being -- my heart, and my spirit, and my body and mind -- I felt that they mattered.  I felt as though I was starting this year with promise living inside of me.

Not me.  Photo from Elephant Journal.
About halfway through the practice, our teacher had us hold our Warrior II pose and close our eyes.  Warrior II is a pose that makes me feel strong and grounded, even though it can also burn like hell.  When I closed my eyes, I heard the words a dear friend repeated to me often over the past several months: "you are a warrior," she said.  I pictured myself in this pose, felt the warriorness running through my tingling, alive, burning muscles, and a word came into my head: powerful.


My heart seemed to skip a beat, and my eyes filled with hot tears I quickly blinked away.


For the rest of the practice, this word was present in my mind, gently, as though it was resting at the bottom of the screen as a photo caption.


I think my word of the year has found me.

I think back to last year and my initial post on bravery.  I think about that client I had -- the one who told me I "have the biggest, best ninja heart."  I think I'm still trying to live into that...but this year is not the fighting year.  It is not the pushing striving struggle year.  This year is the year I own my power.  This year is the year I feel that power.  This year is the year that I believe that I am a warrior.  That I have that biggest, best ninja heart.