2013 in review

For your New Year's Eve enjoyment, here is a summary of Turquoise Gates for 2013. It has been an interesting year, as I questioned and lost faith, yet still blog at the same site that hosted my "Christian blogger" identity before.

Photo by Katrina
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Here's to a happier, healthier year in 2014 and continued inspiration to write a blog that feels like it no longer "fits".

Saving Seven: The Next Generation

She just couldn't quit crying when I told her I was going away for the evening. She is seven and all she wants is mama to hold her hand while she falls asleep every night. I was on my way to a tour of the Basilica of St. Mary with some friends. Maybe dinner. A few hours away from the craziness of the holidays and finals week and grading. A few hours with people who "get" me - so I can just laugh and enjoy.

I brought her with. My friends - childless - were entranced by the bewitching intricacies of this very special seven year old. We stopped at the organ shining silver in the candlelight of the silent basilica. I think about all the music Christendom has written over thousands of years. Haydn, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart.

The sanctuary is as cold and soundless as a tomb. An angel lifts her arms to the heavens, face upturned. She is in the deep shadows, lit only by a single strobe. I am this angel. Questioning, begging, gesturing. I am no longer able to talk because I no longer think anyone is listening. But for some reason, the sky still feels the full weight of my fury and my torment.

What do I tell a 7 year old while we tour a basilica on the brink of Christmas, the year I lost my faith? We talk about art. She talks, mostly. I listen to what an innocent seven sounds like. She is so accepting. Everything and everyone? They do their thing, she does hers, and she loves everyone anyway. Why couldn't we always raise kids this way?

Mary looks down from her perch and I feel sorrow like a waterfall falling off that stone. Did she know, when her son was in his 30's and bloody on a cross, that what she believed may not have been true? That now her son suffered and died and she had no idea why or what would become of all of it? Did she ask god why he allowed this? Did she beg for her child's life? Did she wonder, afterward, where her purpose lay?

It is a huge burden to watch my seven year olds grow up. When I was seven, my world shattered and bent like a tilt-shift lens that could only focus on one thing: pain. I've spent my lifetime in a bittersweet romance with pain, because pain causes panic but when I am in control, my hand on the knife, it also numbs me. I look at my little girl barely tall enough to look at the candles on tiptoe. She does not know that pain. She is so different, so real, so much herself, so audaciously Amelia.

I don't know much this Christmas. I know it doesn't feel like any Christmas before. There is an aching grief that comes with loss of faith, a heightened sense of emptiness and futility, an instinct to give up hope entirely. What I forget in those moments is that what I believe in now -

It's right in front of me.

Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." Amy is hurtling up the stairs curving up to the exit. My mind is remarkably silent. Hurt isn't there. There isn't enough belief left to be hurt. Now, I have to pick up and figure out and DO.

What if that man hanging on the cross just thought he was god, like so many before him? Did he know he was going to die, that there was no rescue. Did he wonder about what this "bearing the sins of the world" thing was going to hurt like? His statue at the basilica points to a deep scar on a thorn-cased heart. He points, directing our gaze. Is he telling us about a sacrifice, or just telling us how badly life hurt him? A warning, perhaps, that faith is a cage for the heart that cuts deep when one struggles against it.

I've spent many midnights during advent pondering what in the world to have faith in if it isn't a higher power. Every time, the faces of my children float up into my subconscious. I have to do this right. I have to save seven. I'm no longer waiting for a different savior for them. If he's there, he's not much of a protector. The statistics dictate that someone like me, a long-term, ritual abuse survivor - I should be an abuser, physical, sexual. A predator of children. Instead I have chosen to be a mother hen my whole life, gathering the fragile and vulnerable under my scarred arms and simply loving them. I have made my choice, and I'm going to live for good. I will not waver in that.

Saving seven is complicated. I don't want my children to be burned by the acid of my disillusionment and anger at the universe. Their childlike wonder if refreshing and beautiful. They can hold many truths in their hands at once, never asking how they fit together. They just exclaim at the beautiful colors of these jewels of human tradition we've handed them. Soon will come the time for questions and explaining and their own decisions about all of this.

But what I want to save about seven is seven. Innocence, imagination, the world revolving around their out-stretched arms, scattering love like snowflakes onto their open souls.


My faith is in the very flawed thing that I fear and hate. Humanity. Mine, yours, ours. Because we all have choices whether to join the ranks of those who hurt, maim and scar - with words, weapons, bodies, voices; or to be instead healing, light, love, acceptance, grace. I choose to join the ranks working on the unseen hospital wards filled with the aching and broken. I see them pass me on the street - disheveled sometimes, usually with those dead eyes that look right through you because not one passing stranger holds a candle of hope up anymore.

It is easier to understand evil as a simple choice rather than some labyrinth scheme of opposing narratives that frame an awful, awesome, terrible, fearsome, merciful, bountiful god. Would a god of love drown the whole world? Would a god of love destroy cities, murder men, women, children - would he ever give up hope on a whole generation? Would a god who is all-powerful and all-present and all-knowing need to send his son to sacrifice, to pour out his wrath on his own flesh and blood - was that really the best he could come up with? More death and suffering?

Christmas is here, and I am delighting in wrapping paper, sugar cookies, children wound tight with excitement. This year, I'll be listening to the Christmas story read aloud, as I have since I was a small girl. This year, I'm going to listen and think of that innocent baby on whose tiny shoulders was placed an enormous responsibility by society. I know what it's like to hold other people's happiness like a dozen balls I'm juggling, desperately trying not to drop one. I don't want who I am to shatter anyone. 

I can still be friendly with the idea of Jesus. A peaceful prophet, an introvert, tempted, divided, wandering the earth for years on end. I just can't fathom that his father, whose name is Love, sent him as a tiny babe to be born in a stable and to take on the weight of the world.

So as we (the "good guys"?) send drones into the Middle East with no regard for innocent bystanders; as men hurl homemade bombs and face tanks without weapons or reinforcements in Syria; as Filipinos bury their dead and rise from the wreckage of another natural disaster; as we reel in the face of a media onslaught about bullying, suicide, teen aggression, murder in schools and no answers for any of it: there is nothing more - and nothing less - we can do but love where we are, who surrounds us. Grieve with the grieving and dance with the rejoicing.

As for me, I'll keep my questions about futility, being born into privilege, and social justice all to myself. After all, a made up day to be happy is a good reason to eat too much and laugh as much as I can.

Saving Seven

My therapist makes me think about the little girl in me all the time. It took me 30 some years to admit that she even existed. I didn't want to be "stunted" by my abuse history. I wanted to be normal.

The little girl in me is the part that comes out when I am afraid. She is a fierce protector. She has a notch in her belt for each of the brothers she saved from the filth of that woman. She has a notch in her belt for every time she laid herself down next to evil to prevent someone else from having to know that pain.

Now it is time for her to get back up. It is time for her to walk away from the dark corners she's been hiding in. It's time for her to grow up.

I've wept tears for her. There is part of me that can't imagine living without that little fierce creature within me. But it is not fair to trap her in a fear-filled 7 year old mind. I welcome her in to my own anxiety fraught brain. I imagine holding her close and the slow, tentative whimper that comes before the torrent of tears she always held in. I imagine her beating her little fists against my chest. I imagine her heart breaking right there in my arms. I know love is poor stitching for a broken heart. But it does close wounds.

I want her to know that I love her, bruises and brokenness and filth and terror and all. I want her to know it's okay to feel that way when someone does that to you. I want her to know it's not her fault.

I think she's starting to hear me when I say these things. And slowly, tentatively, she is walking toward healing.

Prompt: The Little Girl in You

When a Christian Blogger Doubts: Permission to Walk Away

All photos today courtesy of Katrina
She reminds me of a time when I had so much hope that even the dying flowers on the sill lit me up with faith. She holds the camera steady, checks her settings; sighs at the image that flashes up on the screen. I've started her off on a joy hunt from the time she was an infant, and it strikes me that she has perfected it in ways I haven't yet.

She tells me, with elation sparkling through her words like bubbles through champagne, that you can get rid of all the mess with your camera. Hold the angle just right, and dusty piano keys glitter and gleam. At ten, my daughter has learned that happiness is mostly a matter of perspective.

I feel the warmth of her candle next to me, and it brings me peace. She is demonstrating a lesson I've worked for decades to learn - one that still slips through my grasp. She accepts imperfections but it doesn't take away from her joy.

I've come up against one giant imperfection in my life story. It has threatened to wreck havoc on the delicate framework of joy that I've built around this yellow house and the people within her four walls. I remember worrying about this at 14, 19, 22. How do you quit living a double life? How will people react when you parade your ghostly and imperfect reality into the light for the very first time?

People around me ask for grace. They ask me to wait. They ask me to pray. I love them, and so I do. But faith has gone like a forgotten misty morning, and with it most of my suppositions about how the world works. What is good and what is bad. What is worthy or unworthy. Beautiful or ugly. Truth or lies.

I try to focus on what I do know rather than what I don't. Every now and then, I wonder if I waited long enough. But 34 feels like long enough to wait for a whisper in the darkness. The logic in me quells the fear: I believed once, so I am giving myself permission not to now. Fighting against my disbelief was just carrying me farther from myself and the very peace I sought. Instead I accept it. Maybe my disbelief has been trying to talk sense into me for all these years.

It's scary to give yourself permission to walk away for a while. It's even scarier to admit - and accept - that you are in limbo. But answers seem much less important than joy. The way I figure it, truth exists just fine without me understanding it.

I live now in the concrete, the measurable, the things I can see or hear or feel or smell. I live in bear hugs from children; in snow angels in the crystalline below-zero air; in lectures that wring me out because I pour everything into them. I am finally meeting the world head on. I am out of my cave and here in the world everything looks just a little brighter and a little more hopeful. You and I? Maybe we are the ones to find hope in.

Once in a lifetime

(I figure it's the only time I'll ever get to say it, so what the heck!)

I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I am thankful for the childhood I was given, being raised without want in a peaceful community. I have never suffered poverty, hunger, or fear for my life.

This year has been one of great change for me personally and for everyone in my family as well. I am thankful for the kindness and love with which my family has faced my difficult transitions. Although we see this transition very differently, everyone who loves me has made sacrifices to try to understand and support me as I go through a year of metamorphosis back to myself.

I am thankful for a family of my own that is loving, accepting, generous and witty. Living in the moment this year has allowed me to truly appreciate the beauty of the quickly passing days of my kids' childhood. The snuggles at nap time, the crazy afternoons trying to get schoolwork done, the hot chocolate messes in the kitchen and the paint all over my kitchen island - they all are a testament to enjoying this stage to the fullest. 

My son showers me with affection so much so that I often have to introduce boundaries. (otherwise I might be kissed to death, truly) He is an original, this kid. I am thankful this year for a deepening bond between us as the difficult transition from spanking and punishment to teaching and rewarding is finally in the past. Although it is hard to accept just how long it takes this boy to enter new information into his long-term memory, we are making progress. I am thankful he is my friend and I am his. I am thankful for every opportunity to teach him, play Hot Wheels with him, and watch him grow.

I am thankful to have had Amelia for 4 years longer than expected. I am thankful for all the ways her difficult life has shaped her into a resilient, stubborn, caring and compassionate person. I love her sense of humor, her wild break-dancing, the volatility of her emotions, her "heart on her sleeve" way of living. This year, I am thankful for the educational leaps and bounds she's made - learning to read, mastering her numbers, beginning math drills, and beginning to use logic to solve problems.

I am thankful for my Rosebud, whose creativity and happy-go-lucky personality expand my horizons every day. I love every tinkly little tune she composes on the piano, the piles of paper penned with lyrics to her newest song, her burgeoning love of gourmet cooking and baking exploration, our mutual enjoyment of culture, most recently the ballet. She keeps me more light-spirited and encourages me to let go and let my imagination run wild. She is constantly proving to me that more is possible than I have ever dreamed. This year, I am most thankful for her kind heart and keen sense of empathy that sends her into my room often to comfort me and cheer me up!

My Katy is definitely a tween these days. She sleeps more, occasionally gets crabby with her siblings, needs her down time alone, and is even more helpful around the house. I am thankful for our shared love of books. Reading books together or one after the other has been a highlight of this year. Her depth of understanding of the world already astounds me and blesses me. Recently, we read a historical fiction piece together and she was able to identify all the cultural themes as well as the personal struggles of each character. This year, I am most thankful for her developing readiness to begin public school, her flare for drama, her storytelling, and her interest in my work. We have spent so many happy days discussing my lectures. She is going to be bored in nursing school when she's 19!

Mostly, I am thankful for this guy. This year hasn't been easy for him. It is his ability to be unapologetically himself, to love without boundaries, to see beyond labels, to imagine a world where very little beyond love matters…this is what has given me the courage to step fully into my own identity. He has continued to love me when I don't deserve it, forgive me when necessary, and to serve our family in ways I never dreamed a man would.

The one thing outside of my family that blesses me most on a daily basis is my job - or should I say, my coworkers and students? There is nowhere else I feel totally and truly myself and can give and receive openly and honestly. It is a place where I can restore my sense of hope in humanity and the world. It keeps me young, playful and relevant. It forces me out of my comfort zone constantly. It pushes me to be the best version of myself. It motivates me to be inspiring, authentic, and fair. I am so thankful to have my dream job and to find it is, indeed, my dream job!

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

If you hate the play, change the script

If I hadn't been born with a heavy dose of piss and vinegar, I'd have given up long ago. Several people have tried to break me, destroy me, discredit me. The specter of that possibility - someone exploding back into my life and pulling the thin veil off my secrets - tortured me for far too long. The only antidote is to grit your teeth, accept reality, and be honest about who you really are. The only cure for internalized shame is to air out your dirty laundry once and for all so you can get back to life the way it was supposed to be lived. After you've radically accepted your experiences, your strengths, your flaws, then - and only then - you will be free to value the person you have become in spite of all the pain. You will be able to stand tall in your own shoes and devil-may-care if the world values you as much as you do yourself.

When someone hurts you when you're small, tells you to keep it a secret or else...there's no one to blame, there's no validation of your pain, there's no healing. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of child abuse is that the disgust and the shame of it grows into that person inextricably, often saddling them with a heaping pile of steaming guilt that was never theirs to begin with. What happened can't be that bad, because you have to live with it. So you minimize the abuse and instead believe it is you that is bad. I'm bad, I deserve nothing, anything nice that happens to me is a fluke, a gift, or a mistake. My internal monologue had this sentence on constant repeat, a looped excuse for my self-hatred and self-doubt.

For the longest time I thought the only way to fix myself was to see myself "clearly" as the sinner and screw-up I was, and hope that there was forgiveness enough for a 7 year old girl who did nasty things like I did. I took the pain, shame, disgust, betrayal and evil and drew it into myself, held it so close to my heart that it grafted itself in. I thought I could think away the pain. Just will it, do it, one thought at a time. I sang the Pink song loud on karaoke nights, willing myself to change, to change those words and those thoughts that pinned me down and kept the blood running fresh from old, old wounds.

You're so mean when you talk
To yourself - you are wrong
Change the voices in your head
Make them like you instead
So complicated
Look how we all made it
Filled with so much hatred
Such a tired game

So cool in lying and we tried, tried, tried
But we tried too hard, it's a waste of my time
Done looking for the critics, cause they're everywhere
They don't like my jeans, they don't get my hair
Estrange ourselves and we do it all the time

Why do we do that?
Why do I do that?

You can't will those thoughts away any more than you can will the abuse away. If you keep all that despair and blame inside, afraid to expose your naked flesh to the world, no one will ever be able to tell you it was wrong and that it wasn't your fault. The first step to changing your thoughts is to invite someone into them. Then, armed with their more objective interpretation of the twisted jumble of events, you can begin to forgive yourself. Even without forgiveness, though, change is possible. You can choose to act as if you deserve love and respect long before you truly believe it.
If you are extremely miserable and you would like to feel better you may have to change your behavior despite whatever argument is going on in your head. If you could treat yourself with kindness and compassion, be understanding, and acknowledge your deepest fears and hurts- at least to yourself- why wouldn’t you? If this made your life easier, more livable, and more hopeful- why wouldn’t you do it? Arguing about deserve-ability certainly isn’t doing anything for you. In order to feel differently you have to act and behave as if self-compassion and kindness matters. You may have to tolerate some guilt, set some limits on your time, or even say no to the demands of others. The point is that you should get started on acting and behaving in ways that are worthy or deserving of you. Over time, your attitudes may change right along with your behavior. And in addition to feeling better because you are behaving as if you have more self-respect, you will have more resources for coping when other people put you in demeaning situations, take advantage or you, or assume that you are willing to be treated poorly. (Renee Hoekstra, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy counselor)
It's a magical thing, being compassionate to yourself. You can go back and love yourself when you were least lovable, when you were covered with tears and filth and confusion. Every one of those childhood moments when you felt unimportant, unnoticed or unloved? You can look back on that now, close your eyes and feel what it felt like to be that child. And you can notice. You can validate that experience, acknowledge that it hurt you. You can tell that little one the significance of that moment, how it bent you and strengthened you all at once. You can tell her that because of her - not in spite of her - your life has been amazing.

Do you believe you are worthy of your own compassion and love?

Down come the ivory towers

It's all a tangled up mess of the best and the worst of times. I suppose any discovery is this way, as the familiarity of tradition and old persuasions weighs down the flight of the dream birthing into reality. Every time I think I'm tapping the glass ceiling on this new freedom I shatter right through beyond whatever wild imagination I conjured of this self-discovery thing. For a while I thought I lost my muse, so muted did the whirring of my thoughts become. There was nothing to write because I was just happy being myself.

Creativity does seem indicative of chaos. It is in the tornado and the hail and the typhoon that new beauty floats up like so much glittery dross from the holding tanks of life. You wouldn't expect something so rare to buoy up out of old filth.

I keep on stirring it up, looking for the diamonds in the rough that have been wrought out of all this...shit. Layer after layer old frowns peel off and when I am alone I am just me. It's the first time in my memory that I haven't had to lie to anyone to tolerate myself. Not even to myself. Honesty comes at a price, sure, but worth it, every penny.

When a Christian Blogger Doubts: Pressing Pause

The earth wears frosted tips on her assymetrical haircut, corn fields left standing and all the hay shorn. It's as if the winter has caught up to us before we're ready: frozen us in an awkward adolescence of soul growth, desires muted and minds still like the windless landscape. This is what coming to peace with not knowing feels like. Radically accepting life for what it is rather than what it should be? It sounded presposterous to me at first - for didn't I know that God had created us for something bigger, better? Time passes, and life hasn't changed much, no matter what divine inspiration I've claimed.

I've worn shame like an ill-fitting harness for most of my life. Somehow it smudges off on you - abuser wiping dirty hands right down the side of your life. And for all the bruises, visible and invisible, hope sighed out and never returned. I embraced labels because they seemed to give me an identity I lacked without them. Husband and children were my middle finger to the world. They were symbolic of change, symbolic of sameness, symbolic of my choice to re-enter a world that had chewed me up and spit me out again and again. Why do we keep revisiting the very places where our identity was stripped away in hopes that this time will be different?

Compassion is my modus operandi. I entered my profession to give voice to those who had none. But my self-talk never faltered. Yet somehow I had grown an abuser in my head who perpetuated all the pain. It was if I had climbed back into a cage through it's open door and locked myself in. I hear the truth in a Pinterest quote: "Stop wasting your time looking for the key to happiness. The door isopen and unlocked - just walk through it." It was hard to change the voices while I believed I deserved no compassion - until I realized that many of the people I'm compassionate toward don't "deserve" it either. I am compassionate to others simply because they are human and their humanity calls to the tender places in my soul; I am harsh on myself because I had been taught to loathe my body and my mind, and I was stupidly agreeing with another's assessment of my worth or lack thereof.

Changing the voices in your head isn't easy. In fact, it feels very false when you first start to try. I have a list of "self-validations" on my phone, something I can call up whenever the voices in my head starting chattering in a certain direction. Even the word - "self-validation" - grated on my long-time Christian sensibilities when I heard it. Validate myself? You're kidding, right? Because I am bad, I am worth less than nothing, the best I could wish for in life is to disappear so that what might appear instead would be good and right and truthful.

I stop and turn back to the words I've just typed because I can hear them come alive in my mind. Yes, that's what the voices used to say. But you know who taught those voices to talk that way? It wasn't divine inspiration but the Sunday school teachers, the pastor banging on the pulpit while his veins popped out of his neck, the glasses they trained me to wear before I opened my Bible. A thousand times I was told I was worth absolutely nothing without the covering of Christ, yet I don't see the reflection of Christ in the words and ideas my mind filled with in the wake of those condemnations. Because if the creator/savior paradigm is true, then he wanted me to be alive. If he is good and kind and merciful and just, he would not have created me into a life that was ultimately a failure and a fraud. Which means the voices in my head couldn't possibly be repeating the savior of my soul; if he thought I was worth nothing, he wouldn't have wasted carbon and oxygen and hydrogen to make me.


The doubts have grown into me and I've grown into a question mark. I don't feel compelled to understand why anymore. I feel compelled only to live this day and the next until all of my days are used up. I don't want to die in a cage and I don't want my children to watch me live in one. I am only setting them up for a life of slavery if I do that. And my own life? You know, the one I used to think wasn't worth a dime? I do want to live it - truly live it, freely and beautifully and tragically and totally. It is worth something to me to be me.

I'm halfway down the path away from god, and I'm crouching quiet, trying to get my bearings. But I'm not broken-hearted anymore because I don't know the answers. I understand my place in the grand scheme of things, and I am not big enough to understand something as overarching and metaphorical as an idea of god passed down through 2,000 years and countless interpreters.

I am okay with not knowing. I am okay with not always moving forward. It is enough, finally, just to be.

Dancing outside the lines

I used to stop to take photos of beautiful things when I passed by. I used to turn around. Lately I'm always running. From work, to work, away from something, toward something. My brain is like a hamster on a wheel and my car is where it spins. It's my rolling sanctuary, my therapist on wheels, my concert hall and my freak-out chamber.

Miles move thoughts in increments, and my car draws concentric circles around home: like centripetal force, home pulls me back and pushes me away and I am the water trapped in the bucket while the child spins in fascination. The first revolution or so, on familiar roads, some of the water spills in tears. As I loop farther and farther, thoughts spin out according to their densities and I can see the layers of my life, some clear, some opaque. The unfamiliar roads are a tiny adventure to cure the wild wanderlust and the music keeps the hamster wheel spinning, lyrics laid like sountrack and bass propelling me on with it's swelling energy.

I've carried my soul lightly for so long, like a firecracker or a helium balloon. I remember the first time I floated up to the ceiling while my body lay stone still and I learned separating self from self builds a fortress of protection around your true self, only the hull of your discarded physicality taking the brunt of the pain. Emptiness creates a vacuum, though, and other souls get sucked into the vortex like pieces of paper against the filter. Now I have become the centripetal force that pins relationships and stifles them in the scream of the oxygen-less air. My body is greedy for something to fill it with. This is what pulled religion up tight against me in the whirlwind: the need for something to live for, something to be. And now that faith has fled, here I am so empty and so full all at once, pain swelling so high and fast it threatens to crack my ribs or split my breastbone. The debates and the reasoning and the logical fallacies, the ipse dixit of paternalism and the granite face of heritage...they are each a puff of air adding to the tension tearing me apart.

I've worked with people who've exploded all kinds of ways, just the way I will be soon if I don't change, and I know putting something back together is much easier if you surgically sever the burgeoning taut bloom of the dying dreams. Letting yourself explode means a bloody mess for the survivors to clean up.

I've examined myself like a germ under a microscope. Turned myself around under the lamp, like a faceted stone whose full face you can never see all at once. Choosing which side to present has become an instinct born of long practice.

I'd let out as much line as I could, and here I was walking on solid ground and bouncing around above the tree tops all in the same moment, as if my soul might escape the atmosphere and buoy me out of this world. It was like a teardrop hurled against gravity, a soundless wail towards heaven. Life has given me lead boots that hold me to the spinning planet and the line between body and self was fraying fast.

I began to reel myself in. Whether my body was a cage or not, I could not face the dualism for another waking moment. It was love myself again or die. It was make space for me or lose it all. It was time to claim my own home.

It's a beat up soul that has lighted on the roost as soundless as a feather. Gravity has compressed me again and I fit within myself and it feels like pulling on my favorite college hoody and wool socks after a long hot summer. The children must still be liquid beings, too, airy things, and they wrap around my new shape and grin with that saturated joy that is possible only in the safety of childhood. My emptiness is no longer consuming them and I watch them puff out with their own wind and I feel proud that they will walk the earth more lightly than I have.

Like the end of a race or at the bottom of a skislope, I'm breathless, sweaty, I'm limp, spent with the work of prospecting for whatever the moment gives - joy or sorrow, pain or pleasure. I pull into the driveway and prepare myself for voices and faces and messes again, like the cooldown after the work-out. Only a few hours till the click of the lamp and the darkness of my new reality. I lie stone still under the down comforter, listening to my own breath, looking straight into the darkness. Warmth seeps out of me as I smile - even though no one can see me - air escapes in a last sigh, and I fall asleep without popping pills or swigging beer or soaking my pillow.

And this -
warming yourself
feeding yourself
bathing yourself
acknowledging yourself
validating yourself -

it doesn't mean you're selfish, it means you're wise. For who ever put their fire out in order to light another's? Who is ever happy with others who cannot stand to be alone with herself? Who can give without receiving? Who can live without this most basic form of love - the acceptance of the gift of your own life, however it turns out, as the happiest accident and also the hardest labor? You can't live on mouth-to-mouth because the oxygen is already used up. You have to breath your own air, walk your own path, and find enough love to tenderly cradle those still-empty places without scrambling to pour something else into them. 

And that is how I've come home.
Here in the smother of my own silent embrace, I slowly discover I've belonged all along.

I'm trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
Well, darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it... 

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine. 
(Indigo Girls)

At the limits of possibility

The grass is unnaturally green in that late autumn way. As if every drop of chlorophyll stored in the roots is being squeezed, rationed perhaps, out to the tips of the blades. I look from down to up, a stream of exhaled smoke like a tower above me. The tree arms bend and sway in their infinite combinations. The black of wet trunks contrasts with the bright leaves still clinging. Yellow and black, like a wasp, I think.

Why does nature resonate with the deepest parts of our souls? Why are there millions of members of the Sierra Club passionate to save our natural treasures? Why do I look up and feel peace as I watch the curvature of the tree limbs swaying in the wind?

The kids come crashing out of the house as I silently ask one last question of the tree, "Where did you come from?" They are as bright as the trees in their Halloween finery. With aunt and grandma in tow, we carouse the neighborhood snatching candy at lit doorways and running to the next light. Katy in her "Thing" costume rushes down the street, a box wrapped in black table cloths that flap sinisterly behind her.

I've heard so many arguments against Halloween in my decades at fundamentalist churchs. A pagan holiday, they say - as if Christmas is not steeped in paganism? I look around at the flushed faces and flashing eyes and the variety of the costumes. I think to myself, today is about welcoming the innocence of childhood back out into the streets and into the neighbors houses. It's about adults pausing one day a year to laugh with the next generation and celebrate their diversity and creativity and the joy they bring us.

Tears spring to my eyes. Life faltering, faith gone, this family is the last treasure I have left outside of my own brain. I feel that fierce, Mama bear guttural response as I watch them span longer and longer distances. THESE ARE MY BABIES, I want to shout to the rooftops with pride and happiness. My husband and I swirled together in four unique ways and here they are, growing up slowly, one more block trick-or-treated this year than last. They waited until dark so they could see the big kids' "scary" costumes. This year they laugh at the zombie, skeletons, vampires and ghosts.

For a moment, everything seems possible. I could stay and we could make things right in our marriage and we could keep doing just as we have. But here I stand at the junction of the possible and impossible and I find there is no line painted here in the valley of the heart that demarcates one from the other. I can only go on the instincts, that feeling of rightness when I'm planted in the possible and the immediate unrest that comes when I cross the line and my soul screams her dissent. I cannot keep the person inside me silent much longer.

I feel it, like the chlorophyll in the autumn grass blades, rising in me, this deep and private truth that ties all of my life together and explains most of the unanswered questions and illuminates the darkness of long periods of depression and self-harm. With each day, I step a little closer to myself. I makes lists of things I love. I make lists of dreams I've never vocalized. I make lists of reasons to stay and reasons to go. I make lists of beautiful things I've seen. I make lists of good thoughts to replace bad.

Though the emotions remain high, my days filled with wild swings between utter joy and complete desolation, the razor blades don't wink at me from the cupboard, the knives stay neatly in the butcher block, the pills sleep in their bottles. Something about this journey back to being me has lifted the spectre that has hovered over me for 25 year now. I ask this strange soul that has taken up occupance within me, "Where did you come from? What took you so long?" And she says back to me, "You are beautiful. You are worthy of love. You are necessary, too."

It would be an easier world if the people we are evolved earlier in life. But in truth, I've needed all of those 25 years to find my way back through the twists and thorns of the personal path of pain I journeyed down. I needed a new perspective to recognize myself, finally, at 34. It's as though the Picasso painting of my life that has perplexed for years in it's fragments is reorganizing it's parts into something I can finally see. The reflection of a face that I have missed and loved and grieved over for 25 years.

It isn't innocence returning. It's the ability to look right at the innocence lost and say that every experience of life has melted into the mosaic I admire on this day of triumph when I can open my arms to the world and announce myself unabashedly. It's moving past forgiveness to acceptance. That radical kind that knows those things shouldn't have been, but are, and it is what it is. It is the past, unchangeable, irrefutable, and I have stopped pounding my fists on the confines of time trying to shatter the glass behind me and go back and make things better the second time around.

The road ahead

Remember, remember, this is now, and now, and now. Live it, feel it, cling to it. I want to become acutely aware of all I've taken for granted. (Sylvia Plath)
I've fallen for the promise of a mirage a hundred times. Ran toward it, only to have it escape me like a handful of smoke or dreams. And so I've learned to live here in the now instead of staring at the road ahead. I suppose graduate school trained me to always look ahead - and of course, work demands it, too. Life demands it. But not every moment of every day.

I used to daydream while I worked. My mind rarely came back although my hands were hard at work. I watch my students, in the lab practicing skills, in clinical helping real people. It's all so new to them, they are completely absorbed by the mental part of the task before them.

I teach them life is messy, even nursing. It's better to make a mess on the floor and clean it up later than it is to endanger a patient. I think this goes for all of life: people, relationships, they are always paramount. When I was a young mom, I had to have a perfectly clean house to have a friend over. How many visits did I miss because I was focused on the mess on the floor instead of the face of the person begging for my attention?

The children come with when we go to the lab on weekends. They take blood pressures, they do CPR, they like to put tubes in and out of the "fake people". It is their favorite place at the university (well, maybe 2nd only to the vending machines). They are here in the now but also hard at work on their futures.

I am on a road to change. I can see the vista in front of me is quite different than I imagined. And the mirage? Yes, I'm tempted to run pell-mell toward it, leaving all else behind. But this time I'm wiser, older. I'm walking slowly, testing it out. Is the freedom and peace I seek really there in front of me? Or is it perhaps beside me in these moments, just waiting for me to notice.

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When a Christian Blogger Doubts: Stained Glass Memories of Hope

The leaves fall silent deaths in rivulets down the forested valleys. Walking is the fall activity of choice...feet swishing, kicking at the swirling blanket, or silent as a fox creeping on the carpet of damp watercolors strewn laissez-faire across the forest floor.

I stare at painted skies and huge questions float as heavy and thick as clouds through my subconscious. Where did this all come from? What is the purpose of this beauty? Why do I get to see it, here, today?

The older you get entitlement falls off you like the ill-fitting garment it always was. Replacing it is a new awe for the holiness of life. The sacredness of each and every thing we take for granted: warmth, light, growth, tenderness, affection, strength, courage, justice, breath and heart beat and a working brain. The sun rising and setting each day. The seasons turning like clockwork every year, from winter's storehouses of snow watering the spring earth to this suicide of the leaves in autumn that flames bright as a lit match and just as briefly as the coming cold paints the earth dark and slimy and dead. From death springs life and all life acquiesces to death in the end.

Buddha observed it - the "enlightened one", Siddhartha, a prince whose compassion was picqued by the tragedy of poverty in his kingdom. The starving prophet who teaches of kindness and justice and mercy and a long, winding road of meditation and searching to get to that place of understanding. Just another man, another prophet in a world full of prophets. Maybe it is the magic of the singing bowls and their endless single note of reverbration that gives a glow to Buddhism. Maybe it is the very soul of the man whose mission in life was love, shining pure through the ages?, through the pages of the Sutras, through the words, chanting voices, bowing bald heads of the lamas and monks who follow in the way to dharma

From my Christian viewpoint, Buddha has always towered like an unfamiliar Solomon, the king of the Jews who asked God for wisdom instead of wealth.

The Qur'an reads unnervingly similar to the Bible - the Old Testament, death and destruction, obey or else. Parts of the Psalms and Proverbs of Christianity are echoed almost word for word. I remember slogging through the Qur'an one winter when I took care of a Muslim child who was dying. His mother, devout Sufi, questioned her faith in the face of such tragedy. She had not yet been to Mecca, she did not always say the 5 daily prayers. She called this struggle the "greater jihad" - the struggle to maintain one's faith in the face of adversity. This jihad had nothing to do with killing others and everything to do with ravaging one's own soul with worry, doubt, and constant inadequacy. We often had the Bible, Qur'an and Torah open in front of us as we talked late into the night, I hovering over her sedated son. I remember her telling me, a few hours after he died, that to consider a life without Allah was too hopeless for her to fathom. She repeated Muhammed's words, the words he said when he lost his own son, "The eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except which pleases our Lord." As she says this, I hear the echo of David's words when his infant son died, after days of supplication for mercy, days of weeping. The child died, he picked his disheveled body up off the dirt floor of his home, ate, dressed, slept with his wife. When his servants asked him why he had ceased to grieve for the child as soon as he died, David replied, "While the baby was still alive, I fasted, and I cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’ But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.”

Death: the unquestionable final barrier between life as we know it and a space and place we cannot fathom, understand, or confirm. Is it streets of gold or a cold grave we never even feel? Can a soul, which is invisible matter, disappear entirely and cease being?

The room was hushed and quiet as I helped her bathe her son's small body with scented water, white flowers floating like little life rafts in the bowl. She called this absolution, the washing. She said all Muslims do just so to prepare to pray. Her quiet voice punctuated the deep and reverant silence of the room with a sacred melody of both longing and abiding faith. She brought beautiful hand-embroidered white sheets from the mosque, and we wrapped him slowly, the kafan of the sheets a cocoon where he would wait for resurrection. I asked her about her silence. No tears. No weeping. No gnashing of teeth or asking why in that last lap to death and now to her cold son wrapped in his kafan. She would never see his face again on this earth. Her black eyes glinted for just a moment while her jaw clamped and unclamped. I will never forget the forced breath, almost through gritted teeth, with which she said, "I am compelled to believe, else I will follow him from heartbreak. This cannot be the end. I must believe my son is with Hazrat Izrael, alaihis salaam*." Her son's death, the final separation, cemented her decision. She could not face a world in which death is the end. She could not face life without hope.

The Jews say Jesus was perhaps a prophet. Not a messiah. After all, does it seem like the world has been saved? Christians argue that in some eternal, unseen way, yes, we have all been saved if we will only accept Christ's rule over our hearts and bodies.

I remember the first time I saw the bald head of an Orthodox hasidic Jewess: in the overly warm confines of her son's ICU room, full of the smell of his failing body, she sadly tilted her head to the side as she sighed, pulling her shietel from her shining hairless scalp. I had no idea she wore a wig. She saw my curious stare, and she said quietly that she shaved her head to avoid tempting her husband with the beauty of her hair. I watched her for months, praying 5 times a day, reading in Hebrew to her other children, the quiet submission she put on like a heavy black cloak when her husband was present. She was a spitfire, a real female dynamo: she often engaged in screaming matches with one of the harshest physicians, arguing with him that her son would live, his rotting flesh would transform and renew, that G--, whose name she could not speak aloud, he prospers and rescues the faithful. Around Jewish men she was silent; she even moved quietly and meekly. She was steeped so heavy in the laws of the Torah that she wept each night in agony that her unconscious missteps might be causing her son's agonizing death from leukemia.

When he died, they called him go-sess, a person who has passed into a sacred time of life to prepare for death and eternity. Because he was unconscious - blessedly - his father left the room to gather a minyan, a group of ten upstanding Sephardic Jewish men who could say the Vidui, or final confession, in the dying boy's place. This series of Yiddish and Hebrew prayers and chants went on for hours, accompanied by the wailing of the women. No sanction from the nursing staff could quiet them. Wailing is part of the process, the rabbi whispered to us outside the room. As the moment of death approached, each space between breaths becoming longer and longer, the teenager's body growing colder and darker as life ebbed away, the displays of the women became more and more dramatic. They tore clothes, dragged nails across skin as if by wounding themselves they could buy back time, buy back life, buy back a world they could understand.

We all have gods, I heard a preacher say more than once. Love of money. Fellow man. Liberty. King and country. Family. Education. Career. Fame. True love. Some claim Allah, some claim God, some are too afraid to claim a name out loud, and call it shem shalo - "the name that is his". We are all on a path from birth to death, so far universally inextricable circumstances about which many of us have formed or adopted elaborate mazes of protective reassurances. Some seek enlightment. Some heaven. Some nirvana. Some seek Truth. Some seek equality. We all want to believe there's a reason for us to be here. We all hope for something that transcends the eat-poop-pee-sleep-sex-work-illness-loss-joy ordinary of life. A reason for being. A reason for suffering. A reason for dying.

Is it wrong to believe something just to comfort yourself? Is it possible that God and the whole story is a figment of our collective imagination, a construct for the world that allows us to keep the dark mysteries of the universe at bay? All who turn to the skies for answers, all of us the world over, we are part of a pulsing ache - the same yearning for a perfect divinity who is master of the universe and is pulling the puppet strings on our behalf.

The only ones who can answer our questions are those who can no longer speak. Perhaps they speak through the very dirt their bodies return to, as their lost lives feed this flaming world of beautiful dying. They are the life that feeds the maples turning. Can it be enough for me, to see the beauty and to see the pain, to hold close the helpless truth that I can alter none of it except for my actions while I am here and breathing?

I call this radical acceptance. I call this the never-ending river of questions that runs through us all and rushes loudly in some souls more than others, demanding attention, demanding answers. When there is no answer, how do we continue on?

Two verses from the very book I'm doubting press gently on my back, nudging me to walk on. Faith without deeds is dead. Put your hand down, nurse, on the suffering hand before you. Open your mouth, teacher, and guide others toward justice, peace, love, sacrifice, fulfillment. Extend your arms, mother, for embraces here may be part of the answer. Soften your heart, lover, and find the path your partner is plodding along, find the hand that has given up hope of holding yours. Even if it is just this moment, even if there is nothing else, love matters. If all we have is each other, and there is no commander in the clouds, love is everything still. 
Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.

Wisdom seems to swirl around like a dust devil in the prairie wind, a tumbleweed moving too fast along the dust to chase. In the moments just before the dawn, my eyes search deep into the black night outside my window. And a single phrase, Spanish, comes to mind, and I can rest. "Y si nada nos libra de la muerte, al menos que el amor nos salve de la vida." It is a line from a poem by Javier Velaza, written for his book Torn in 1963. In my language, this dusty Latin professor from Universitat de Barcelona says, "If nothing saves us from death, oh that love would save us from life."

the pain itself 
crosses the threshold 
of fear, 
with your arms 
a lifeguard, I sink to prevent 
the grievous, lethal plummet
-would that I could almost hope- 
not a word well-remembered, 
you manage my forgetfulness and the gift of unconsciousness, 
which shelters me from my worst enemy 
and more tenaciously, you grant grace, 
even lie - 
because everyone is lying 
and yours is pious - 
which seals my eyes 
and tells me it is over, it's over, it's over 
and comfort me that
nothing happens, because nothing is past, 
is past, 
is past, 
is past, 
is past. 
And if nothing frees us from death, 
oh that love would save us from life.

(from El Salvavidas, "The Lifeguard")


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*(from above): "Hazrat Izrael, alaihis salaam," means "the Angel of Death, peace be unto him"