Saturday, February 28, 2015

For Lent: Doing something personal that fits for you

Though it is not part of our particular church's tradition, I usually choose something to do for Lent. Sometimes this means something to give up: Meat, sweets, coffee, some form of media, or the like. A compelling thing I have done more than once, and which I almost always do during Advent, is to give up all non-necessary shopping, i.e. ceasing to even browse for anything other than food at the grocery store, unless a kid has some unforeseen need (such as, I need a sports jersey, before tomorrow's practice!).  This is a good discipline for me, and reminds me that my hopes and needs are truly not satisfied by material things, and that I truly can live without the distraction and stimulus and, let's say it, small thrill, of getting new stuff.  Funny how that comes as a surprising revelation every time!

An important thing I have learned is not to take on an "external" discipline for Lent.  Not to simply copy what someone else is doing, whether the practice is dictated by centuries-old tradition, mandated from the pulpit, or is something I heard or read about.  Such disciplines tend to be doomed to fail.  Instead I've learned to simply ask the Lord:  What should I give up, or what should I do, in order to reflect on your suffering and death, and prepare my heart to receive your Good Friday sacrifice? What is it in my life right now that's in the way, that holds me back from understanding your love and grace?  For several years now, he has given me an answer.  Something clear and true and personal. Something that fits for me.  And because it is clear and true and personal, and because He is the one asking it, I am given the grace to complete the discipline.

This year I felt that rather than give something up, I was supposed to do some kind of guided journaling discipline, which would include both writing in a journal but also visual or art journaling. The issue is, I have been so very, very busy since taking on a part time job over a year ago, that most of the time, I function in a way that is pretty disconnected from the heart.  I'm often harsh and rude to my family, simply because I am tired and it feels like there is always more to be done.  Annoying things, that I totally don't enjoy, like cleaning or grocery shopping.  Okay, then:  A sacrifice of time. When your life is stuffed with kids and their sports and a job and ministry and groceries and laundry and dirty house and oh yeah, gotta exercise, and oh yeah, somehow forging the time to edit and finish a book, and so on, "stealing" time to write in a journal or be creative feels selfish in practice. But this is the Lord asking me.  It actually is not a good thing when I operate in purely "task mode", when I just function and do and don't take the time to stop and think about it all.  I become a person that even I don't like to be with.  So I explored various resources and eventually came up with a list of books I am using--some one day, some another--to challenge me to reflect and respond.  Here is my list:

A Bible reading plan: "Lent for everyone", created by N. T. Wright, which goes through each chapter of Matthew together with Wright's comments and reflection.  So far it is excellent.  I use this Bible App which gives me a portion to read each day and I love it--I've done way better with Bible reading since I started to use it and the various Bible reading plans a few years ago.

Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter contains excellent, very short yet very deep selections from various authors. I used it last year as well.

Let Your Life Speak:  Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker Palmer.

The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.  I did this one years ago, but felt led to go through it again.  What an excellent, excellent book it is!

And of course, a blank journal, drawing pencils and waterproof black drawing pens, and colored pencils. A magic rub eraser and a good sharpener (need to buy one) are essential.  For paints I have a hotch-potch of different kinds collected over the years.  The M. Graham watercolors and acrylics are amazingly good and cost a fortune, but Prang serves well in a pinch.

Confession time:  I'm managing to do the reading and a page or so in my journal, but art takes longer. However, something about drawing goes deeper for me than writing, and I know it.  It's scary and it's threatening and it's easy for me to avoid, but occasionally, I need to take an hour or two on a weekend or a non-busy evening to do it.  When will that happen--Sundays maybe?  My sister and I grew up drawing, drawing, drawing all the time.  In high school, I had the ambition to seriously learn to paint, but then scary, dark things would come out of me, and I dropped it like a hot potato.  Now I get pictures and ideas of things I would like to draw or paint but I lack the practice and skill, and I'm quickly frustrated.  Not to mention intimidated by that clean blank piece of paper.

So I remind myself that this journaling idea is really only between me and the Lord, it is not about creating a masterpiece.  And if he is the one pointing the way up a trail, it is for me to take a deep breath and follow.  And that taking the time to do these things really isn't selfish.

I'll end with a quote from this morning's reading by Parker Palmer:  "Self-care is not a selfish act--it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others."

Whatever that gift is in me, it's been mostly shoved away and ignored, for a really, really long time. There have been some good reasons for that.  There was some scary dark stuff inside, but with counseling and EMDR, I'm facing that down and walking through.  Things are starting to feel pretty different on the inside. And that's good--because in the end, what I would like to create with my life is grace and light.

Monday, February 23, 2015

When we make mistakes: Grace is the flipside

Recently I made some big mistakes, both in my part time job as a teller at a bank, and in my writing. In both cases I was corrected.  Not unkindly or in an overly harsh fashion, but the errors, and the need for me to improve my performance, were brought clearly to my attention.  As a result, I am feeling mortified.  Sick to my stomach, increasingly nervous, having-a-really-hard-time-shaking-it mortified.

Today, following the past few days of these mistakes brought to my attention, I just started feeling worse and worse.  I tried going for a walk, praying with my husband, and journaling, but in the end I developed a migraine.  I took my super migraine pill and went to bed for the afternoon.  The pain has subsided, and is holding steady at sharp-behind-one-eye but bearable.  And now I am writing this.

I've always known I wanted to write.  Back in third grade, I told Mrs. Wetzel, my favorite teacher ever, that when I grew up, I wanted to be a writer and an artist.  And have six kids and live on a farm in Nebraska a la Little House on the Prairie, but that part of the dream was revised over the years. The writer and artist part remains true.  But until very recently--and I am in my 40s now--it simply didn't feel like it was time yet.  I would get bits and pieces of things, poems mostly, once in a while a little sketch or an idea for a painting.  But it didn't feel right to pursue these things in a disciplined way.  My children were younger, our life in ministry was very, very full, and though I didn't know it for many years, much of "me" was taken up with trying to contend with the unseen consequences of trauma from my past.  It was a big accomplishment for me to stay OUT of depression and get through the day without blowing it with my kids, who are more important to me than any artistic feats I will ever accomplish.

Now it does feel like the right thing to focus in a more disciplined way.  This blog is a step in that direction.  It is not a "finished product", like a book should be.  This blog is about the process.  It is about living a life of faith, hope and love openly and honestly before God, and before and with others, too.  Pursuing the "good" and faith and God, given the unique set of factors that add up to this particular life I have been entrusted with.  Hopefully in the end, something beautiful will result. Something that is a blessing to him and to others.

So, as always when it comes to the challenges life throws in my path that threaten to overwhelm me: Back to the things that I know are true. Giving way to feelings of mortification and shame, to the voice of condemnation which is never from God, will not result in anything good.  The only thing to do is to step back and regroup.  To take an honest look at the situation(s), and do what I can do to improve matters.  For the writing, I can withdraw my book for a short time, fix the errors, and re-list it.  Not the ideal publishing strategy, but it is not the end of the world, either.  This is my first book and first effort at publishing, and I'm learning as I go.  For the job, I can take the encouraging advice of my boss to heart, and stay focused when I am at work.  I really have been trying to do too much, and that is another thing to consider.

Whether I am writing or parenting or at my job, I am doing what I do before the Lord.  Like most people, I'm generally doing the best I can.  Because I am human and fallible, sometimes that "best" doesn't look so hot.  Jesus sees the cluttered mess of my life, looks deeper than the mistakes, and sees the good.  And receives it.  This is called GRACE.  And oh, there is real comfort in this.  A calm-my-stomach, ease-my-migraine, bring-steadiness-to-my-swirling-thoughts relief.

This grace, along with the knowledge that in the very end, things really will be all right, is maybe the best part about being a Christian.  It is a very different way of perceiving and functioning than what we grow used to in the world.  We often do not extend this grace to each other, or to ourselves.  It is not easy to un-learn the habits of competition, one-upmanship, and harshness that spur us on to success.  But I am trying to learn new ways, trying to live in to the grace and love which I know are true.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How do you forgive evil?

It's a common question, and a tough one.  When the question moves from abstract to personal--from news of Isis atrocities committed far away to evil experienced in our own lives and households, it can shake a person's self-proclaimed Christian faith to the core.  In the gospels Jesus tells us that when someone hurts us we should "turn the other cheek", i.e., if someone punches you in the jaw, turn and let them punch the other side as well.  But does this mean that we look the other way, never talk about the incident, and attempt to go on as though nothing ever happened?

Nothing would please the perpetrator of evil more.  To keep silent and look the other way allows him or her to carry on and harm others.

Forgiveness is active, not passive.  Forgiveness doesn't mean we don't feel--and express--anger and righteous indignation.  It doesn't mean we don't confront the evildoer, and face him or her with the harm done. Whenever possible, we should stand up and fight for justice, and get the perpetrator to make reparations.

But that isn't always possible.  And no amount of money, apology, or years spent in prison can make up for the innocence lost and lives destroyed or forever altered by the truly evil act.

Here is where faith enters in.  Because God can heal and restore.  He can, and does, take what was meant for evil and transform it into beautiful, impossible good.  Yes, this "good" will be different than what would have been.  The damage sustained, the losses incurred, are real.  But if we entrust them to God, he will pick up the broken pieces of our lives and create something beautiful and powerful and pure.  Maybe even more beautiful than what would have been had the bad things never happened.

If we will entrust ourselves to God, and believe that he will heal and restore and provide everything we truly need.  The Bible says, everything we truly desire, and then some.

If we will trust that God will bring true and full justice to doers of evil.  In the Bible, no one gets away with anything.  But we . . . we have to let it go.  Let go of our rights for full and complete justice, which isn't possible here on earth anyway.  Let go of our desire for revenge; to hurt as we have been hurt.

It's a lot to ask.  A lot to entrust.  But this is what God asks of us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A good support group: Not for the faint of heart!

On the advice of a counselor, I went to a Sexual Assault Survivor's group.  I absolutely did not want to do this, have never wanted to do this.  But because of his strong encouragement and belief that this was a next step which would help me grow past the "stuck" places, I went.  He has expressed over and again that he feels the "secretness" of the abuse is something that has really held me back.  I need to be able to speak my experiences aloud, he tells me, to talk about them, because when the abuse stays secret, I remain in agreement with the abuser, who threatened to do horrible things to me if I ever told.  When I was younger, and he was fully capable of doing those things, it was probably not safe for me to let myself know about the abuse.  But that is no longer the case.  And the counselor felt a group of others who have had similar experiences was a good place to start talking.

I had many objections.  I have avoided like the plague labeling myself as a "victim", because I don't want to get stuck there.  In the end I am the only one who can decide to change things in my life, and ruminating on victimness just doesn't help.  Yes, I've acknowledged the griefs and the losses, over and over again as new knowledge and fresh revelations carve them ever deeper into my soul.  But I've never wanted to limit myself by thinking "victim".  Horrific abuse happened to me and it affected me greatly, but it is not the most important thing about me.  Apart from all that my grandfather did, there's an original "me" somewhere down inside.  There are parts of me that he couldn't touch and twist and mangle.  Also, I had always envisioned a "support group" to mean endless, depressing, "downer" meetings where people sat in a circle and talked about their problems and never got any better.  The organizer of the group assured me this was not the nature of this group.  It was clearly structured, with a beginning and an end, and lasted only 8 weeks.  Each week we would talk about a different topic, and do a few activities to help us grow in that area of our lives.  OK, I said, I would give it a try.  I would at least go to the first meeting.

A few weeks later I walked in twenty minutes late to meeting number one, because the incognito location proved difficult even for me to find.  I noticed right away that I out-aged everyone in the group by 20 years; perhaps because I live in a college town, most of the group members were similar in age to my oldest son.  Grrrreeeaaaat, I thought.  No one here is going to be relate to some of my toughest struggles, which center around being married and parenting.  As I tried to settle in and the introductory talk resumed, I found it very, very hard to sit in that room.  Excruciatingly hard to identify myself as someone who would fit such a label and belong to such a group.  I knew that in fact I did meet the criteria, but even after all the counseling and hard work, I still just don't want it to be true.  I also knew (theoretically) that denial of reality and fantasy-thinking doesn't help in the end, it just keeps you stuck.  But old habits die hard.  I survived for 40+ years by pushing the abuse away and refusing to admit it--especially the heart-stopping details like sights and sounds and sensations and smells--into my mind and heart.  Just the facts, ma'am, and let's move on, had been my policy since the abuse came to light almost ten years ago.  The trouble was, I was still stuck in places I didn't want to be. Hence, counseling and EMDR. Hence, this Survivor's group.

But back to meeting number one.  We took turns reading out loud a fact-sheet about sexual assault and were given time to journal our reactions.  Then it was time to talk.  There were things in the fact sheet that had gotten to me, especially the legal description of rape, which was very specific and detailed.  I had noticed the "emergency feeling" rising in me, and when it came time to talk, I started having a grand mal panic attack.  I closed my eyes and tried to breathe slow, tried to calm myself down, but it just wasn't happening.  I knew how to deal with this kind of thing on my own, but not with anyone else in the room.  I managed to whisper to the others as I got up to leave, "I was 6.  I was 6 years old the first time he raped me.  I'm sorry.  I have to go."

I drove to an empty, inconspicuous pull-out overlooking the tiny Pullman airport and watched the planes take off and come in while my heart kept pounding, and wave after wave of pain swept over my body.  The pain came from body memories, and yes, it is real, physical pain.  If I had known what it was earlier in my life I could have saved myself several emergency room visits.  Now that I understand, I know that if I let it come and sweep over me, rather like an ocean wave, and just keep breathing, it will eventually subside and go away.  Though intense and real, the pain is rooted in the past, not in any present disease in my body.  Traumatic memory is pre-verbal, not logical or sequential, and traumatic memories are sometimes recorded as pain or body sensations.  Read my post on Bessel Van Der Kolk's book if you'd like to know more.

Eventually I calmed down, but I still felt shaky and weak, and not ready for the chaos and noise of kids and teens at home.  So I went to a bookstore to look at magazines for a while, to get my mind off of things and transition back from trauma-world to normal-life.  And I told myself, Well, I tried it. Obviously a support group is not the right thing for me.  There's no way I'm going back again.

While I was looking at magazines, my Mom called, wanting to talk over logistics for our Spring Break vacation.  Then she asked how I was doing.  I took a deep breath and thought, here goes, and said, "Actually, I'm not doing very well."  I told her about the Survivor's group, and the panic attack. And then right there in the bookstore I told her a lot of other things that I had never shared before.

Later in the week, a close friend asked me how the counseling was going.  And I decided to tell her, too.  On the weekend, I talked with my husband.  Which strangely was the hardest of all three.

Going to the group had been terribly hard, but good things happened as a result.  I decided that my counselor must be right after all.  And I decided to give it one more try.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Grief Becomes

Grief Becomes

Grief tones out
like a bell, the sound endless
and drawn out like an
unbreakable thread, until it turns
into a soft, sweet song.

Until the flesh bones blood heart
begin to rot and decay,
begin to break down,
become absorbed into the soil,
as all evil will.

As all evil will
become a peaceful garden,
where new seeds swell and
break open, and I can walk,
breathing the clean air,

Filled with birdsong and hope.
Where I can see children playing—
luckier than me—
who won’t have to know
about the dying part.

Monday, February 9, 2015

An Hour Before Sunset

An hour before sunset,
there is a moment of pause, of grace,
when a softness comes, smudges the edges
of the harsh and too-bright world.

If you catch a glimpse of it
out the window, drop
your task and run,
and catch it—

Let that golden sunlight soak in
to your soul, that gentle grace and love.
And remember God’s presence
within all.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Just a tiny little piece at a time

I'm amazed to see my novel on Amazon. It feels unreal. How did I get THAT done? In this season of life when I am busier than ever, working 5 days a week at a bank, with a busy (and ever hungry!) household of 6, and older kids whose activities and sports take up lots of my evenings and weekends.

How? By doing one tiny little piece at a time.

A counselor told me that sometimes when your time is more limited, you get more accomplished. Adults often find that when they go back to college with kids and possibly a job as well, they study more and get better grades than when they were young and had much more "time to study." How? Having very limited time at your disposal forces the issue.  You can do this, or you can do that, but only one them fits. You have to choose. There's no long free day stretching ahead, no nebulous "someday" or "sometime" to fall back on.

Most weeks I literally had less than 5 hours a week to work on the manuscript, or one and a half hours, three mornings a week. I'd have more if I was a "morning person," but I'm not.  Because of PTSD, I often don't sleep well at all. And once I'm home from work and the kids are here--forget it.

Really, I had very little time. But I've been faithful. I've been disciplined. I've tried to use what time I had, and trust that, though I felt frustrated and would have loved to have more time to focus, it would eventually get done.

And guess what? It did!

Now I am starting to have some ideas for a new story. Story creation takes more time and focus than the polishing and editing I've been doing the past year. When I initially wrote the scenes for my first book, I had one and then two children, and I was at home. Small children take a lot of energy to be sure, but they also took long naps and went to bed early. I sure felt busy, but looking back, I had way more time at my disposal then than I do now. Then came baby number three, who didn't nap, and stayed up late!, and overseas moves, and the manuscript went into a drawer for 8 years.

I'd like to have more focus. Maybe someday that will be possible. For now, I'll keep plugging away, step by step, inch by inch. And hopefully, God will make something of it. Like the little boy with his loaves and two fish, a favorite analogy of mine. We bring the little we have to Jesus, and we trust him with our offering. That is all we are really expected to do.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes

I wanted to quote a chunk of this poem on the dedication page of my novel.  Many might recognize it from high school English class, it's the one that opens with the line "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair."  After spending an hour reading about copyrights and permissions, I felt totally intimidated, and decided not to do it.  But I will quote a few parts of the poem here, with a link.  Because this poem captures the heart of my book.  Especially these lines:  "But all the time / I'se been a-climbin' on," and "So, boy, don't you turn back. / Don't you set down on the steps, / 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard."

Click here to read the whole poem.

Langston Hughes has always been a favorite poet of mine.  The way he combines rhythm and rhyme with spareness and simplicity is just the kind of poetry I like.  Some of his poems also capture a precise mood or feeling which resonates very deep with how I think inside, with how I feel and experience the world.

Some people have asked me why I would write a novel about an African American character when I am not African American.  Who knows, Flora may have been partly inspired by this poem, which has meant a lot to me over the years.  I can see in my mind a book of Hughes' poetry from the library which sat on our end table around the same time that the story began to form.  All I can say is that this is how she came to me, in scene after scene.  The novel (which will hopefully be available on Kindle this week!) is about suffering, but also about overcoming.  Both are deeply human experiences, which have no race or culture.  I think the things that are most important about us are the things we all have in common:  All of us want to belong.  All of us want to be loved. All of us want to be understood.  And all of us need to be free.  Cultural differences run deep, but these things run deeper still.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Book Recommendation: Deep Waters

I'm reading the book Deep Waters: A Journal of Healing from Sexual Abuse, by Jasmine May.  Jasmine May is the pen name of a close friend of mine from college days, and that is why I only learned a few weeks ago that she had written this book.  Her story of healing from horrific abuse is well-written and inspiring. May does not go into unnecessary graphic description, but still it is difficult to digest the depth of evil and abuse that she suffered as a small child.  Nevertheless this is a deeply hopeful, faith-filled book.  Not the kind of "faith" that glosses over reality and shoves away difficulty with platitudes, but the kind that contends with the worst experiences imaginable, and perseveres to a hard-fought, hard-won victory and peace in the end.

I remember talking with May right after her memories had surfaced.  At the time, she and her husband opted for a very intense healing process, with Jasmine taking two weeks out of every month to fly to a different location and receive healing prayer.  They wanted to return to their work in Asia as soon as possible; nevertheless this process with it's unusual family schedule lasted a few years.  She and her husband wondered at the time if the same healing prayer would be a good thing for me, but I felt led on a different path.  I had a newborn at the time, and did not think it was wise to be absent from her life for a few weeks at a time.  And I felt distinctly led by the Spirit that this intense process was not the right one for me.  I had no trouble getting intense enough on my own, I needed to learn to relax.  So my path has been a much slower and more gradual one.  All that to say, a Spirit-led process of healing from sexual abuse may look very different for different people.

May describes the process of "healing prayer" carefully and well in the book.  When it is done carefully and sensitively, it can be a powerfully good thing.  Attempted by people not trained or knowledgeable about trauma and abuse, it can be harmful.  I have experienced a little bit of both.

At the time her memories began to surface, May and her husband were involved in religious work in an Asian culture.  Out of her own intense suffering, May and her husband have now started an aftercare home for girls rescued from the sex trade in that same culture.