Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Attention, devotion, and spiritual crises

This morning, I woke up and my sense of life-suck is intense. Not my life-suck. My life is pretty okay. It's the world-suck,really, that's hurting me in a visceral way. In a way that takes my breath away, and leaves me feeling like a scuba diver under an ocean that presses the weight of a thousand worlds upon every inch of my skin.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview between Krista Tippett and Mary Oliver on "On Being." I had listened to this interview before, but they re-aired it in honor of the publication of Oliver's new book.

There are many beautiful moments in this interview, but this time I listened to it, this one stood out to me:

" MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I’d like to talk about attention, which is another real theme that runs through your work — both the word and the practice. And I know people associate you with that word. But I was interested to read that you began to learn that attention without feeling is only a report. That there is more to attention than — for it to matter in the way you want it to matter. Say something about that learning.

MS. OLIVER: You need empathy with it rather than just reporting. Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. But that’s what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don’t go anywhere. And I say somewhere that attention is the beginning of devotion, which I do believe. But that’s it. A lot of these things are said but can’t be explained."

And I think this is part of it. My work - my professional work - is so much about attention, isn't it? When I am working with a child or a family, on my good days, there is nothing else in the world. I am there, in that moment, attending only to that child. I am not only noticing his verbal answers when I ask about the bullies at his school, or about how angry she gets when things don't go her way, but I am also attending to the way her eyes shine when she giggles, and the way the dimple on his chin stands out when he is being mischevious. My work lies in noticing the ways parents look away with embarrassment when they talk about their frustration with their child. It is held in noticing the moment when the shift happens - when the anger gives way to sadness, when the frustration gives way to desperation, when the denial gives way to reality. It lies in drawing out the tiny moments of joy, and capitalizing on the moments of pride with genuine excitement. My good work depends on attending to the details: favorite colors, special interests, dog's names, family vacations, and favorite superheroes.

But my heart is not full of field guides of other people's children. Instead, my heart is full of the way these things matter, and the meaning of the places where these things take us. My work is not about reporting, or solely about attention. It is not even only about empathy.

Since the first time I worked with a child one-on-one when I was 16, I knew there was something holy about this work. There is something spiritual, and necessary, and hard, and cruel, and beautiful, and right. There is something about this practice of attention and empathy that feels like a devotional practice to my world.  It is necessary for me, and it is my whole heart, and I don’t know how to be any other way.

When you attend to the world as I do, just because it is the way I was made, sometimes it gets to be too much.  And not just a little bit too much.  Sometimes, it becomes all the way too much.  It has always been this way.  I was the kid who cried over her history book in 4th grade.  I was the kid who cried over pictures of dinosaurs eating one another in kindergarten.   When things at work go shitty for me, my whole world goes topsy-turvy.  I wish I wasn’t this way.  I wish I was different.  I wish my heart wasn’t this big, boundless, uncontrollable thing that goes catapulting into spiritual crises with such regularity I practically feel at home there.  When your heart is full of books about the meanings of other people’s lives, when you read about death after death, and injustice after injustice, and you know those lives are books full of meanings you simply never had the opportunity to know…what do you do with that?  I try to change, but I am always here – right here – in this place of attention, and empathy, and devotion. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

These are the times that no one talks about.

My heart is overflowing with the world's suffering. 

This week, it has felt like the pain of living here, now, is just too much.  I cannot hear one more thing, or I will crack open and crumble into a million pieces.  Part of me feels like I already have.

I don't even really have words for this because it feels so big and all-encompassing.  In spite of the fact that I know I am wrong, I feel alone in this.  I feel like there is something big and wrong with my heart that makes me feel this sort of tired.  If we are all feeling it, then how is the world going on?  If we all feel this bone-aching, broken, crumbling tired, then how is it that the world keeps turning? 

This week, I have followed the defunding of Planned Parenthood in the place I used to live.  I have watched my friends fight, and advocate, and struggle.  It feels like taking giant steps backwards in history.  It feels like being told that bodies like mine don't matter.  It feels like the wrongs that are done to female bodies are not important.  It feels like silencing, and powerlessness. 

The past few weeks I have heard stories at work that have broken my heart.  I saw a child who is dying of a degenerative disease.  I met with a family with two children with complex, severe medical issues and developmental disabilities, and I held their mother's fear as she cried about how utterly terrifying it is to have two children who are so incredibly vulnerable.  I saw another family with two beautiful, severely disabled children, both of whom were abused in their public school.  I saw another family with many children, where the 8 year old served as the primary reporter because the mother's own intellectual disability prevents her from being able to understand and answer my questions.  I spent all day on Monday calling providers to attempt to help two families in crisis, and I ran into dead ends at every turn.  I met with children who are being bullied.  I had to explain rape to a child.  I could go on.

People are dying from gun violence.  A few weeks ago, I supported my trainee when she was terrified that she was unable to get in touch with her sister -- who goes to the community college in Oregon where 9 people were murdered.  The news is full of pictures of Syrian refugees with trauma in their eyes that I can feel in my body.  Black and brown people everywhere are being murdered.  It feels like everything is wrong and there is no justice.

The racial disparities I see in front of me in my session room are stark and unrelenting.  There are children with disabilities being handcuffed in our schools, children with disabilities being physically abused in our schools, children with disabilities not receiving the education they need or deserve in our schools, children with disabilities being bullied in our schools. 

So this week, I came home and I yelled at the dog because he had to go out, and I couldn't handle one more being needing something from me.  I was frustrated with myself when I had to get up to get a glass of water, because even I didn't want to need something from me.  I want to let myself crumble into those thousands of pieces to just relieve the aching, so I can rebuild myself into something that feels human again.  I am tired.  I am so tired. 

These are the times that no one talks about. 

I feel such a sense of embarrassment and shame, even, about being in this place.  We who are helpers and healers and open-hearts in this world are supposed to know better, and do better, and care better.  We are supposed to care for ourselves all along so we don't get to this point.  We are supposed to do the hard things, and see the beautiful in the hard things, and focus on the ways in which life is lovely in spite of the suck.  We're supposed to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. 

But here is what I would tell my fellow helpers and healers.  Here is the thing no one ever told me.  Here is the thing I am longing to hear -- the thing my bones are aching to be told before they disintegrate into dust:

Dear You,

There will be times when the weight of this world lays on you like a wet, wool blanket.  There will be times you feel broken and alone.  There will be times when you feel as though the enormity of sorrow, anger, grief, and pain in this world will engulf you, and you will be pulled into the undertow.  Your body will ache, and you will long for quiet, for peace, for a break from the need and the hurt and the wanting. 

This is not wrong, Love.  This pain is not your shame, is not your broken, is not sign of your failure or lack.  This is simply the way of it: our hearts are meant to crack open under this enormity of grief.  We were never meant to carry this alone.     

Self-care sometimes looks like crying alone in the bathroom.  It can mean naming the beast: exhaustion.  Compassion fatigue.  Burn-out.  It can mean reaching out, in spite of everything that tells you to fold in.  It can feel like allowing yourself to crumble. 

So crumble, Beautiful.  We do not need to fear the how of putting-back-together.  We will come back together because something in our cells was built for this: for the falling apart and putting together of broken lives, including our own. 

You were made for loving, Friend.  It is the beautiful reason you come apart so easily.  It is the reason you will always fit back together.  This world has not stopped loving you.  It does not know how.

You are held, now and always, and you are always loved. 


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Dear Neighbors: Sorrynotsorry about the education I gave your children today...

I had the opportunity to meet some of my neighbors today.  Well -- not neighbors, really, as they are a pretty long walk away, but we'll call them neighbors nonetheless.   While on a walk with Marshall this afternoon, they ran up to greet me. 

"Can I pet your dog?" asked the boy in the black Ravens shirt.

"Sure," I said.

"Is him a boy or a girl?" he asked.

"He's a boy," I said.

"Why does hims have a purple fing on hims neck?" he asked.  "I finked he was a girl because hims fing is purple."  He chuckled as if I was so very silly -- giving my boy dog a purple collar.

"You thought he was a girl because his collar is purple?" I asked.  "You know, I think anybody can wear any color they like.  Marshall just happens to like purple."

"Oh," he said.

A girl in a pink Ravens jersey came and joined us.

"He has a dog," she said, pointing to the boy.  "A puppy.  I'm not his sister.  He lives there.  I live here."

"Oh, so you're neighbors then!" I said.  "That's nice.  You guys must have fun playing together."

"Mmmmhmmm," she said, spinning in the grass.  "Except EVERY TIME he comes over, he wants to play Spongebob Yahtzee Junior, but I don't always want to play that game!  It's EVERY TIME!!!"

The boy giggled. 

"You must really like Spongebob Yahtzee," I said.

"Spongebob Yahtzee Junior," he corrected me.  "I OH-WAYS want to pway it, but hers NEVER wants to pway it, and then I can't pway it because hers won't pway it wif me!"

"I play it sometimes," she said.  "Just not ALL the time, because we have to find time to play other games, too."

"But sometimes we should play Spongebob Yahtzee Junior," he said, as he kissed Marshall's butt.  "I love dogs," he continued.  "I will hug and kiss them allathetime.  Allathetime I will just kiss them and kiss them because I love them. And we were digging in the gwass and watering hers twee, even though its a big twee and we only has a wittle water.  Also, she's my girlfwend."   He looked at the girl and laughed.

"I am NOT your girlfriend!" she exclaimed.  "He always says that and...I am not your girlfriend.  I'm not."  She went back over to the tree she had been digging under before I arrived.

"How do you know she's your girlfriend?" I asked him.

"Because I told her hers was my girlfwend," he said, matter-of-factly.

"Ohhhh," I said.

"BUT I'M NOT," she called from under the tree.

"Well, you know, the thing is," I said, "is that there is a really important rule about being girlfriends and boyfriends."  The girl put down the stick she was digging with and came back over.  "The rule is that in order for people to be boyfriends and girlfriends, both people need to agree."

The girl looked at me and paused, while the boy continued kissing Marshall's side, ears, and tail.

"You know how you want to play Spongebob Yahtzee Junior, but you can't play if both of you don't agree to play together?"

"Yeah," he said.  "When hers doesn't want to pway, I can't pway it because you need two people to pway it."

"Right," I nodded.  "It's the same way with boyfriends and girlfriends.  Both people need to say 'YES' in order to be boyfriends and girlfriends."

"Oh," he said.  "Did you know that Spongebob isn't my favowite show?  I wike Paw Patrol better."

"Really?" I said.  "I like Chase.  Who is your favorite?"

And he told me that he likes Everest, and she told me that she doesn't like Paw Patrol, and they talked about the hole they were digging under the tree, and then I left.

Dear neighbors:

Sorrynotsorry about the education I gave your children today. 

I don't always provide sexuality and relationship education to random 5 and 6 year olds.  Just when the opportunity presents itself. 

It takes a village,


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Grace from a preteen girl to a boy with a kazoo

I have this strange fascination with the word "grace."  As someone who is more agnostic than anything else, the idea of "grace" in the traditional sense doesn't mean much to me...but there are those moments, you know?  Anne Lamott says, "Sometimes grace works like water wings when you feel you are sinking."  She also 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."  This definition works for me, I think.

Here's the thing: I feel like I'm sinking.  In spite of -- or because of -- that, I have these moments where I will suddenly find myself not where I started.  There are these weird moments that grab my attention and say: "HEY.  You.  Get out of your head for a minute and look: everything is not as shitty as you imagine.  There is shit, and there is also this moment, so forgodssake, stop for a minute and look here."

Earlier this week, I went to get my patient from the waiting room.  This patient is a preteen young woman with a myriad of physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health concerns.  As I walked out to her in the lobby, another patient -- a young boy with a severe intellectual disability -- walked up to my patient.  This young boy was drooling and vocalizing, his shirt was wet with saliva, and he was holding a kazoo in his wet hand.  He walked right up to my patient, stood in front of her, looked in her face making a variety of sounds, and attempted to hand her his kazoo.

Both caregivers started to move in the direction of their children, but my patient looked at the boy and smiled.  "H-h-h-h-hi," she said.

The boy vocalized, grabbed her hand, and attempted to put his wet kazoo into it.

She smiled.  "C-c-c-cool," she said -- looking, but not taking the kazoo.  Instead, she raised her other hand.  "How 'bout a h-h-h-high-five?" she asked.

The boy gave her a high-five and turned to his mother, laughing and delighted.   My patient laughed, too.  "S-s-see ya," she said, waving and bending down to his level as much as she was able to get his attention so he knew she was saying goodbye.

"Bah," he said, waving with his hand turned backwards towards himself.  "Bah-bah."

From there, we all carried on as if that moment had not been the most beautiful thing in the world.

Something about this little moment, though, just moved me to tears.  It gave me what I needed to get through the rest of my day.  It was a moment of such gentleness.

I watch people all the time interacting with people with disabilities, and there is always a moment of hesitation, awkwardness, looking away, stepping around, avoiding.

But here, there was no awkwardness.  There was no looking away.  There was just a love that I don't typically see: from a preteen girl to a boy with a kazoo, there was a moment of gentleness, and generosity, and love.  Grace, even, though they had no idea. 

And perhaps that is what grace is then, right?  Perhaps it is nothing more than extraordinary love that defies expectations and lands you, breathless and whole-hearted, in the next moment, changed.   

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The encouragement of light against our beings

Several weeks ago, I found this quote by Haifz titled "It Felt Love:"

did the rose
ever open its heart

and give this world
all its

It felt the encouragement of light
against its being.

we all remain



I wrote it down and kept it laying around so I would stumble across it occasionally.  I tend to do this when I find words I think might be important for me to remember.

I have found myself without words for the past two weeks.  For a week, that was literal -- laryngitis set in hardcore and very nearly drove me crazy.  More than that, though, I have been unable to write.  I have 3 paragraphs written, from different times, all trying to say the same thing, none of which went anywhere.  I wanted to write.  I knew I needed to write.  But in spite of me showing up -- and staying at -- the page, no words came.

I know why.  The answer to this is glaringly obvious.  I just haven't known what to do about it.  Remember that situation I wrote about?  The one that is making me feel small, and scared, and stepped on?  It still isn't resolved.  And there are other layers layering on, as layers are wont to do.  There are steps, and I am taking them, slowly, but it is hard to take steps when one feels small and scared and stepped on. 

This isn't my body's first time at the small, scared, and stepped on rodeo.  This isn't my first time needing to find the courage to stand up to situations and people and institutions making me feel small and scared and stepped on.  And, oh, my body hates this place.  It panics, and it gets sick, and it has a hard time breathing, and it decides that, maybe, if we respond with enough ridiculous intensity, the feeling will go away.  It doesn't work.  I don't recommend it.  The only thing that does is serve to make you feel really, really tired. 

My brain is smart and rational.  My body -- well --she's just trying to protect me, as misguided as her steps may be.  But my brain tries to do the right thing.  I try to face it head on.  I try to put words to it.  I try to reach out and talk to people, even if just to say "Hi.  I don't know what to say, but I need to touch another human right now." And because of or in spite of that, people -- my people -- my church people -- have been there.  They have reminded me over, and over, and over again in direct and indirect ways "you are not alone."  "You are loved."  "You are worthy, and badass, and okay, in spite of feeling a decided lack of okayness."

Anyway, I went to church this morning, and I was tired, and grumpy, and didn't much feel like talking to people.  It feels like there are tethers tying down my typically buoyant heart, and I need some quiet to figure out if I want to try to loosen those knots.  I spotted a friend sitting in the back, and I joined her.  She's someone I know I can just be quiet around.

But then the service started, and by the time we sang the first hymn (Spirit of Life, a cappella, which will hit you in the heart with raw truthiness on a good day), I realized I was probably in trouble.

See, I don't cry in front of people.  I don't cry by myself.  I can count on two hands the number of people I have ever trusted enough to cry around.  And, aside from a worship service at General Assembly and the movie of "The Fault In Our Stars," (because, holy crap, who didn't cry at that movie?), I don't cry at events.  I just don't.

Except for today when I did.  And not just a little bit.  Like, a lot.  Like, the fucking tears just kept falling because the minister just kept saying words, and the more words she said, the more she touched that voiceless, aching place in my soul.  Those words poked right at the grieving, aching part of me as if to say, "hey, this?  You know this part right here?  This hurting achy place?  We see that, and know that, and hold that, too."

And then, just as I stopped crying, the whole stupid sermon spoke right into THE place -- that cavernous place that feels like alone, and unworthy, and unlovable that has been threatening to overtake me.  The words echoed into that hole, saying "even in this place right here, you are loved.  You are not alone.  Even in this place where you feel most lost, you are seen and loved, if only because we know those lost, and dark, and achy places, too."

Then we were supposed to sing again, and I couldn't, and my friend put her arm around me until I slowly composed myself enough to, at least, start wondering exactly how much makeup had run down my face.  

The thing about love like this is that it surprises you, and it scares the shit out of you, and it hurts.  It hurts like that moment when you move the foot you've been sitting on and it feels numb, and tingly, and stiff, even as it welcomes all the blood flooding into it.  It hurts, and its uncomfortable, and you want it to stop, even as you know this sensation is exactly what you need.

I imagine that's what the rose feels when she opens to the light, isn't it? She feels love.  She must.  Otherwise, she never would have opened.  She would have remained too frightened.

As I was leaving, a new friend -- someone I love to sing next to in choir but do not know very well -- gave me a hug and the most simple and profound act of kindness and generosity one person can give to another.  It surprised me in that same way -- in the life flooding into the achy part way.  "I love you," she said.

And that.


That is how we do this thing, isn't it?

We work like hell to find the places we will be loved, and then, on the bad days when we are hurting, and broken, and feel alone and unlovable with all of our broken, sharp, and cracking parts, we show up and let the scab be ripped off.  We let ourselves cry in church, we open ourselves to vulnerability, and we let others breathe love into those cavernous hurting places.  We name the darkness that threatens to overtake us, we let others tell us we are worthy and loved and -- even if just for a moment -- we let ourselves feel it.

We feel the encouragement of light against our beings.

We have to.

Otherwise, we would surely all remain too frightened.

(For what it's worth, if you're reading this: I love you).