Monday, January 18, 2016

Keeping the Lid On: The Worst, Profoundly Beautiful Thing

I have done a lot of crying lately. Unfortunately, it has mostly not been the good type of crying and, for anyone who knows me, you probably know that I hate crying. So mostly, I've been crying a lot at home, and in the car, and once in the bathroom stall at work.

I tell you this because, as always seems to happen, when I feel I am just barely holding it together, people start commenting: "You look so great lately!" "You just look so happy." "Have you lost weight? You look fantastic." "I don't know what it is about you, but you just look amazing."

And not just people I know, either. I kid you not, I was at Barnes & Noble last week, and an older gentleman stopped me to tell me how lovely I looked and that he appreciated my smile. Not more than 15 minutes later, some lady stopped me to tell me that she had been admiring my haircut and how peaceful I looked as I browsed the poetry section.

I said thank you, of course, and I smiled and looked oh-so-serene, and then I went to my car and I cried, because fuck serenity, y'all. The whole reason I went to Barnes & Noble was because I couldn't find enough oxygen in my house, and there always seems to be more oxygen somehow when I'm around books and strangers who mostly don't want anything from me.

Yesterday, I was listening to "The Moth" podcast in the car. The final story in this particular episode was by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber -- which was cool, because I am currently about three-quarters of the way through her book, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. I like her -- I really do -- and I like what she stands for...but for an agnostic reader, there's a whole lotta Jesus in this book. It's good for me, I think. It's always good to read things that make you uncomfortable. I like reading things I don't agree with to find the passages I find Profoundly Beautiful, and there is much in this book that is uncomfortable, and also Profoundly Beautiful.

What's ironic is that I started this book about 4 months ago, put it down, haven't touched it since October. Friday night, I picked it up and read the chapter "Panic Attack in Jericho."

Saturday afternoon, Rev. Nadia comes on the podcast...telling the story of her panic attack in Jericho.
I clearly needed to hear this story.

(You can, and should, listen to the story here: . It starts at about 37:00).

The story is basically this: Rev. Nadia goes on a trip to the Holy Land with "20 super nice Lutherans from Wisconsin." She prefaces the story by saying that the worst thing someone could ever call her is "needy." She is strong and independent, and never wants to rely on anyone. So on this trip, she doesn't want to socialize with the group, she doesn't talk to them, she doesn't want to look at pictures of their grandchildren, and she definitely does not want them to know about her fear of mountain roads. Then, the group makes a trip from Bethlehem to Jericho down a road on which Rev. Nadia is afraid of traveling. On the trip back to Bethlehem, the bus fails to make one of the hairpin turns, and everyone has to evacuate the bus...and Rev. Nadia has a panic attack, right there, in front of said super nice Lutherans. 

In the podcast, she says, "I have a full blown panic attack in front of 20 super-nice Lutherans from Wisconsin...which is basically the worst thing that could ever happen to me. And I don't even know when she came up to me, but all of a sudden I realized that Sharon's hands were on my shoulders, and she was saying, 'you're okay. I'm right here. You're okay.' And she was keeping the lid on for me so something didn't escape that I needed like my sanity or the ability for my body and mind to be in the same place at the same time. And she was so strong and calm and amazing and everything I want people to think I am and everything I wasn't in that moment. And she was exactly what I needed, and like an asshole an hour earlier, I had a hard time knowing her name."

And, even though I knew this was what happened because I had just read the chapter in the book not 24 hours before, something about this broke me inside, and I. just. cried.

See, I like to have it together, and even when I don't have it together, I like to fail at having it together perfectly. I like to be in control of not having it together so much that I can make it beautiful. I turn it around, I make it into gratitude, hiding the full and ugly truth of it. I do my hair, and I smile, and I look serene in the poetry section, and no one knows that I cry in my car. I try to find the pieces that I can name Profoundly Beautiful -- like the fog in the streetlights during the walk I took this morning when I woke up at 3:30am and couldn't breathe.

Because for me, much like for Rev. Nadia, the worst thing would be vulnerability in front of others. To be vulnerable -- like truly vulnerable -- to need to trust or rely on someone would be my Worst Thing. It would be my panic attack in Jericho.

In the past year, it's gotten so much easier -- to trust others and to open my heart. But when things get hard -- not just hard, but a specific kind of hard, like they are right now, when my body seems to be asking "...but are you SURE we'll survive this?" it feels like the Worst Thing is happening, or could happen, or might happen. So I want to not show up. I want to be the asshole who just disappears from friending for a while.

I think my breakdown in the car yesterday came because I realized that I really do have people who are helping me keep the lid on...or, who are willing to help me keep the lid on if I let them. And this -- this simultaneously feels like the Worst Thing and the Profoundly Beautiful Thing. I don't understand how it can be both, but it is. It just is.

I cannot do this on my own, and this has been the cause of many, many tears over the past week. When I can't figure something out, when I'm confused, when I need to ask questions, when I need someone older and wiser than myself to offer me has all felt like a potential Worst Thing. When I have asked, there have been people willing to listen, and proofread emails, and take walks and remind me that I can do hard things.   And each time I ask, it feels like vulnerability. It feels like it could be a step towards my panic attack in Jericho. It feels like, maybe, I don't actually have a hold on that lid after all. And each time, someone has been willing to put their finger on that lid and say, "Hey. You're okay. No, really. You're okay."

So here's what I'm doing: I am working so hard to keep doing this Worst, Profoundly Beautiful Thing of letting people sometimes help me to keep the lid on because I can't do it alone. I keep trying to do it on my own, and every time I do, I end up walking the neighborhood at 3:30am, or crying in my car.
This week -- I will survive this week, in spite of what that bitch Anxiety says.  I can do hard things.

Even if the lid comes off.

Even if I end up having a panic attack in Jericho.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Like An Almost Vow

Like An Almost Vow

I am 7 years old at Bubby's house in the den.
Granddad is teasing, joking -- he's full of tricks.
"Say what I say," he tells me. 
"Just say it fastfastfast."
I nod.  Bite my lip, ready for whatever question will come.
He asks: "I love me who do you love?"
"Me!" I answer, quickly, jumping to my tippy toes to answer fastfastfast.
His face falls.
"What about me?" he asks.  "Don't you love me?"
Shame floods my body as he tells
Bubby, my mother, my aunts and uncles and cousins
that I love myself more than I love him. 
"You've got a big head," he tells me, and that
becomes my nickname.
Big Head.

as I sit next to Bubby's reclining chair in her house in the den,
I hold her hand and
remind her who I am.
She asks,
"Why do you have all those rings on your fingers?"
"I don't know, Bubby," I say. 
"I like them.
This one," I say, pointing to the silver rose I always wear,
"I like because you gave it to me."
She nods.
"I don't know why you wear those things.
You look like you're married to yourself."
I laugh.
"Do you love yourself?" she asks.
My breath almost catches on my answer
but I hear myself say
"I do,"
like a New Year promise
or an almost vow.

She nods
and silence falls between us in
that forgiving place somewhere between
and forgotten.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Hello Cucumber? It's Pepper. Or, You who love the world so much

I feel the need to write some sort of holiday post here -- or at least something that gives lip service to the holidays, or the new year, or to the past year and new beginnings.  I feel like I'm supposed to feel alive with the leftover warmth of holiday glow or, at least, some sort of 2015-nostalgia or 2016-hope, or some sort of something that says "December has come and gone.  January 1 has skidded into lives with a screeching crescendo, and onward we go into the new year with resolutions to be better, healthier, more socially conscious, skinnier people who drink more water, yell less, spend less money, are better partners, make more Pinterest crafts, eat less fast food, and spend more time on the treadmill."

But holy mother of god, I don't want to write about that.  I don't want to write about the holidays, I don't want to write about the upcoming year, I don't want to write about resolutions, or non-resolutions, or why I do-or-do-not make resolutions, and my plans to drink more or less water. 

I'll do that, of course.  I always do.  But maybe I'll do it in a week, or two, or in the middle of February.  Sometimes February is the best time to set New Year's resolutions.  The good thing about resolutions, I've discovered, is that your New Year can start any damn time you want it to, social convention and pressures be damned. 

So here's what I'm going to write about instead:

I have had several conversations lately about spirituality.  Most of these conversations were thought provoking, interesting, light, fun...but one -- the one that was most important -- this one was hard, and it was hurtful.  I am not placing blame or pointing fingers, but the past few weeks have been hard.  Particularly this past week, I have struggled to breathe above this incessant, nagging weight in my heart, and throat, and stomach.  And this conversation -- this conversation that felt it could have touched on who I am -- it was made out to be wrong.  And I'll tell you here that it's okay, except for the fact that it's not in ways that are too big to put into words.

So then, today, I saw this picture by Brian Andreas, and I thought: This.   

If you're reading this, I probably don't need to convince you that I love the world.  Or that I love people.  Or that I am, actually, a loving and compassionate and whole-hearted being-of-love, as much as a I can be.

But I need to believe it.  I need to believe that I love the world.  I need to believe that I love this life, and that I love people, and that I love in a way that matters.  Because it does matter, doesn't it?  I am loving, and it matters.  It does.

I was listening to On Being the other day -- it was an old podcast I had not had time to listen to from several months ago.  This interview, titled, "The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship" was by Father Greg Boyle-- a Jesuit working with gang-affiliated youth in Los Angeles -- interviewed by Krista Tippett. 

Father Boyle states that we are all called to be people through which "kindness and tenderness and focused attempt of love return people to themselves and, in the process, you're returned to yourself."  He provides the example of the following conversation he had with a young man - one of his "homies" that works for him that he describes as "exasperating" and "difficult": "I said, "You know, Louie, uh, I'm proud to know you and my life is richer because you came into it. When you were born, you know, the world became a better place and I'm proud to call you my son, even though," — and I don't know why I decided to add this part — "at times you can really be a huge pain in the ass [laughter]." And he looks up at me and he smiles and he says, "The feeling's mutual [laughter]." And, you know, suddenly kinship so quickly. You know, you're not sort of this delivery system, but maybe I return him to himself. But there is no doubt that he's returned me to myself." (

I had a young man come into my office last month who was having a particularly difficult day.  He did not want to see me...or anybody.  He did not want to talk.  Or play games.  Or be alone.  He wasn't quite sure what he wanted, actually, so he yelled at me, and at his mother, and he threw things, and flipped over the table, and crawled under the chair and let me sit in the room with him for the remainder of the hour.  I responded to emails, worked out some kinks in my calendar, and periodically said, "I like the way you're taking deep breaths" or "thanks for keeping your body safe" or "let me know if you feel like getting a juice box for calming down," to which he replied something like "shutthefuckup" or "why are you still talking to me?"

At the end of the hour, I let him know it was time to go, and that I was going to schedule his next appointment with his mother.   As his mother and I began hashing out two possible dates, there was a hissing noise from under the chair. 

"Yeah, buddy?" his mom said.

"Mom," he whispered.  "Make sure to pick the soonest one.  I want to come back and see her at the soonest time possible."

"Hey buddy?" I said.

"Yeah?" he asked, poking his head out from under the chair.

"Thanks for that.  I want you to come back at the soonest time, too."  He looked surprised.  So did his mother.  And my heart -- it felt this rightness that my heart feels when it can speak genuinely and truthfully, even and especially in those moments when you would not expect those words to be said.  They come from some place deep in my heart, and the air in the room changes when they are uttered.  My client extended his metaphorical hand, and I took it.  Not because it was my job.  Not because it was the right thing to do.  But because he dared to put his hand and his heart out there again, and in doing so, he returned me to myself.

"You who love the world so much?  That's what you are here to do."

Several weeks ago, I was at the grocery store.  There was a young woman -- perhaps 14 or 15 years old -- with a developmental disability with her mother in the produce section.  This young woman was clearly antsy and done with shopping, and her mother was clearly not yet finished. 

"Don't touch," her mother said, over and over again, as the young woman ran her hands over each pile of vegetables.  The young woman whined, and pulled on her mother, and rammed the cart into the case.  She picked up the cucumber and put it up to her ear, pretending to talk on the phone, jabbering into the end of the vegetable, suddenly engaged. 

Her mother, seizing the opportunity, reviewed her list and was frantically picking up as much as she could while her daughter entertained herself. 

I was a few steps down at the peppers, surveying the scene.  As the cucumber conversation began to end and the young woman reached over to pull on her mother once more while continuing to loudly state "'LO??  'LO??  'LO??" into the cucumber, I went for it.

Picking up a pepper, I caught her eye and put it up to my ear, "hello?" I asked.  She laughed, surprised.  Her mother looked over at me, and then pretended she didn't notice.

"'LO???" she said again.

"Who's there?" I said.  "Is this Cucumber talking?"

She laughed, like it was the funniest thing she had ever heard.  People around us were staring at me -- the crazy lady, talking into the pepper.

"'LO??" she said.

"Oh hello, Cucumber, it's Pepper!  It's so good to hear from you!  How is your shopping going today?"  She laughed and laughed and jumped up and down, flapping her hands excitedly.

The man behind me picking out his potatoes snort-laughed.

Her mother, finished with her shopping, called her daughter to her.  She put the cucumber in the bin.  "See ya," I said to her, placing my pepper in my cart.

And that's it -- she walked away in one direction, and I in the other.  But in that moment in the produce section, the whole world felt right again.  She had, through her laughter, her engagement, through our simple conversation -- she had returned me to myself.

"You who love the world so much?  That's what you are here to do."

I am loving.  And it matters.