compulsive fixing

Saving Laury

7:50 AM

A wise friend of mine once asked me, "You know you aren't Jesus, right?" It is, of course, telling that he even felt he had to ask the question.

There's nothing dysfunctional about comforting a friend, grieving with another human being over a terrible loss, or checking in with a loved one who is encountering challenges or stressors. That's what love looks like.

But compulsion and love aren't the same thing, and when there is an unreasonable amount of anxiety attached to the need to help, I might need to recognize a familiar pattern, and the potential fallout.

I'm pretty empathetic by nature, but I also I tend to get tangled up in compulsive "fixing," a dysfunctional, misplaced sense of responsibility to over-manage the lives of people I care about. It isn't that helpful.

Why do I throw words at situations I have no idea how to repair? And why on earth would I entertain the illusion that I have the power to save people from their personal struggles? It's hard to explain.

My compulsion can come from the general direction of compassion, but it can also be an unconscious attempt to alleviate my own anxiety by grabbing the wheel of someone else's car: save Laury by saving others. It's codependent and unintentionally insulting; this harmless little idea that I have the power to help presumes that the person engaged in the struggle is, in some way, helpless. It also negates the presence of a power greater than ourselves, God in us, enabled by our awareness, acceptance and surrender.

Being compulsive about trying to "help" or "fix" has been difficult for this girl to surrender. Lately, I have been reflecting on "Baby Jessica" McClure, a miracle story, and a cautionary tale for "fixers," like me.


In 1987, in Midland, Texas, an 18 month-old girl named Jessica McClure, later known as "Baby Jessica," fell down an 8-inch wide, 22-foot deep well in her aunt's backyard. While reporters and the local rescue community along with friends and family camped in the area, the entire nation sat glued to the story on CNN for 58 hours as rescue professionals did what they had to do to access the injured toddler. I remember being initially elated when Baby Jessica was heard from deep inside the hole, even if it tormented me to hear her rescuers describe her moaning and intermittently singing Winnie the Pooh.

The depth of the well, the rocky soil surrounding the well, and the width of the hole created a challenge for the rescuers. As observers, we couldn't bear to imagine what might become of this helpless little girl while the team of brave and intelligent men and women problem-solved, risking potential failure.

"Because she had fallen so deep into the earth -- beneath layers of rock harder than granite -- and because the diameter of the well was so narrow, the rescue mission was extraordinarily difficult. Using a large rat-hole rig, a machine normally used to plant telephone poles in the ground, rescue teams drilled a 30-inch wide, 29-foot deep hole parallel to the well. They then began the difficult process of drilling a horizontal tunnel between the two wells about two feet below where Baby Jessica was trapped." Biography, Baby Jessica

And America wept when Baby Jessica's exhausted and heroic team emerged with her, swaddled in white with her teeny arms caked in dirt.

Why am I telling this story?

For me, this is the dramatic and true image that serves me best when I have an impulse to "rescue."

No matter how empathetic I can be, and no matter how much I want to help someone who is struggling, there is always a possibility that my rescue attempts or suggestions might do more harm than good. I am not in that person's shoes, and I am not God; there's too much I don't know. I can make the mistake of projecting my experience onto someone else, guesstimating a diagnosis and prescription that entirely misses the location of the well into which that person has fallen. Or, worse than that, in my attempts to help, I could put undue pressure on the situation, compromising the existing structure of his or her "well."

Of course, I don't believe I should just walk away, any more than anyone would have suggested that those paramedics should have walked away from a crying toddler. So, what to do?

Clearly, there isn't an action plan that covers every situation, and I'm not an expert on trauma and suffering, but using the Baby Jessica story as a model, there are a couple of ideas I'm working with at the moment.

  • The whole nation was watching and praying for that little girl, and that's not a bad idea. I pray I can be a carrier of comfort, peace and healing, and that I won't trip over too many assumptions. I am also trying to remember that I want to be a vessel through which love can flow, not the captain of someone else's ship. 
  • McClure's family didn't try to pull the baby out on their own. They called for help. They built a team, and although family and friends remained present and alert, and they offered support, they didn't drive the rescue. 
  • Later, when an action plan was in place, and potential dangers to Jessica were considered and accounted for, the team dug a parallel hole; it enabled them to get as close as possible without causing more harm in order to observe her, to communicate with her, and to comfort her. 
I have neurotically reached for the wheel from the passenger seat, many times, nurturing the illusion that I can help, mostly because I can't stand it when someone I love is hurting. So I keep giving advise, benign comfort, and mostly, words.

Lots of words.

Our family members and dear friends who have found themselves in the throes of suffering won't always tell you the truth here, but listening to all of the words thrown at them in an attempt to make the visitor more comfortable in the presence of pain is exhausting and most of the time, it isn't the words that help. It's the listening. It's connection. It's love.

Author and teacher Parker J. Palmer, who has shared generously about suffering from debilitating depression more than once, offers this image of compassion in the presence of suffering.

"In the midst of my depression, I had a friend who took a different tack. Every afternoon at around four o'clock, he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet. He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me. He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity. He had no need to fix me. He knew the meaning of compassion."

Maintaining compassion and being present when someone is hurting may be the best medicine for our friends and loved ones who have to walk through tragedy, reconcile painful losses or bear the burden of looking for solutions to seemingly unsolvable situations. I'm hoping that I can make this transition, and that I will find the grace I need to help me to disengage from the compulsive need to fix.


Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, 1990, HarperCollins
Image: Baby Jessica, Newseum


on appetite and conscious contact

Conduit, not Vessel

4:53 PM

                                 

art by Rachael Ibanez
Back in the 80s when I was offering music in churches, I used to sing a sweet devotional song called, “Make Me a Vessel,” written by David Baroni and D. Goins.

The chorus, below, repeats a request for transformation:

"Make me a vessel
Emptied of my selfish pride
Make me a vessel
Then pour your spirit inside"

The song's cry to be filled up resonated with my intuitive sense that I was so very empty. From an old journal, and a poem called,"Of Men and Boys," 1996:

"The depth and the weight of being near me
is like living with a bull in a barn full of feed
Hungry, hungry, I know what I need
especially when I see it, or feel it, or touch it."

My relationship to the space I refer to as the Empty has evolved, but in my twenties I experienced it as terrifying. With mental imagery that depicted a vase-like clay pot that was dry and useless, it seemed that this soulish container must have been created to be filled, right? Clearly, I felt something was missing, but I had no idea of the inherent selfishness that is conveyed in the vessel metaphor.

Fill me, Spirit of God , that I may...feel full?                                                                                           

In my mind, I have always been defined by my appetite(s).With an eating disorder, addictions, and debilitating anxiety issues, I grew up spinning the baton in the “not-enough-stuff" parade, evidenced in “Ghostlands,” an angsty but honest piece I wrote in DeSoto, TX, around 1997:

"I'm searching the Ghostlands - life without living
Touch with no sensation - food, without filling
Comb the dry sands for an honest feeling
For the cold slap of life against my skin, I'm coming in."

Aware of my own deficiencies both in giving and receiving, I spent decades just refining my definition of what I perceived to be the problem. Yep...I’m stuck, empty and depressed. The first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

The truth is, I didn’t know what to do, so I kept filling the empty any way I could. Of course, some of those choices were temporarily satisfying, but destructive. Whether it was Froot Loops or eventually, Norco, there was never enough, and I am, by nature, a hoarder. I would instinctively try to bury myself in a treasure trove of Nestle’s Crunch (or whatever) to ensure never-to-be-depleted back-up supplies, but every step toward “more” led me deeper into the ghostlands.

After a frustratingly circular-yet-finally-effective decade of therapy, I jumped off of the merry-go-round, admitting myself into a pain treatment center to assess whether my perpetual pain, and daily use of prescribed pain medication, was due to a serious physical condition (which I feared more than anything), or whether the pain was more somatic, echoing psychic damage from years in a traumatic relationship. Of course, either way, I had decided: the Norco was out.

My retreat literally changed my life trajectory by magically, spiritually, shifting my focus. I came back to my beautiful home town and found a program to learn how to behave like a grownup. I also quit stuffing Lucky Charms (a metaphor) into the void. Most significantly, I engaged in a seedling meditation practice that teaches me to be where I am, and to be content. On the road, but I still had a long way to go.

Continually uncomfortable, I began to gradually become aware of, and address, my attachments and unhealthy behaviors. Months after my new game plan was in play, I wrote "Twist the Leaky Valve."

Twist the Leaky Valve
July 2013

Consider the distance in time
between longing and satisfaction
minutes...months...decades...

Time is tubing, or transport,
influenced by atmosphere, 
pressure, position
volume and mass, and

if we knew the right combination
to initiate release...
wouldn't we climb, run, dive, lift
and hold our attention as long as it takes?

And what price wouldn't I pay
to twist the leaky valve,
throw back my head,
and open my mouth?

It was yet another look at the Empty. In my mind's eye, the creative inspiration was that of a leaky old rusty kitchen faucet with a slow, steady drip that promises the existence of water, but is so far, frustratingly stuck. Eventually, it occurred to me that pipes with valves don’t really contain a thing, like a vessel would; pipes are more like channels. Conduit. How had this escaped my attention before?

I had been struggling with meditation and prayer, distracted by the aftermath of past relationships and damage that I had participated in, and couldn't...undo. After writing about the leaky valve, sitting on that pillow in front of my fireplace, I allowed myself to just sit with regret and sadness, profoundly and permanently aware that there would be always be scars, scrapes and scratches. A moment of acceptance...and the valve opened up a little. I sobbed, grieving my losses and pouring out stuffed emotion that had been blocked while I was still trying to "crack the code," to solve the puzzle of the past like it was a Rubric's Cube. Watered, and surprisingly at peace, I felt more free, and in the days following, I even think I was able to be more present. The channel had had widened just a bit.

I remember writing my friend Dave Brisbin, rattled and excited, as if I was the first person to see this. I told him that it seemed to me that conscious contact, or true spiritual connection, must flow very much like water. It isn’t about containing the flow; it’s about surrendering to it, letting it move through us. He was kind enough not to refer to the canon of spiritual literature that already exists on this topic.

And what price wouldn’t I pay to twist the leaky valve, throw my head back, and open my mouth? 

Well, it isn’t exactly a transaction, and now, the target is to try and stay as open as possible. That presence isn't mine to control or contain.

peace of mind and heart

Clean Heart

4:00 PM



Growing up Boone always meant starting the day with a family devotional, complete with singing (in three-part harmony, of course), a reading from the Bible, and a prayer to start the day off right. I love this about my childhood. To this day, I generally don't miss a morning sitting, lighting a candle, setting a timer, and allowing myself to relax, and breathe. 

There are two main things I focus on when I pray and meditate: I follow the rhythm and sensation of my breathing as it is regulated by my brain stem, and I try not to judge my thoughts, either quality or quantity. I practice letting thoughts come and go without attaching to them, letting them move through me like water through a drain pipe. By all means, let it drain!

These days, I follow up with a kind of prayer which is basically an exercise in acceptance and surrender, and more like listening. I wouldn't, however, rule out the possibility that I might beg God to relieve my loved ones of their suffering, something I don't tolerate well. Sometimes, while sitting quietly in the enveloping stillness, I notice that I am agitated, that my heart-rate is faster and my chest, tighter; this is usually connected to the thoughts to which I am starting to attach. When I feel anxious, I try to remember it's OK to have these thoughts. It's what my beautiful mind does; it runs on memory, patterning, and stimulus. However, I don't have to "think about my thoughts."

A couple of days ago, my meditation was interrupted by this kind of tension, tension that results from believing the random thoughts streaming through my consciousness, and I remembered this scripture I've loved all of my life; I still say it out loud.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me." Psalm 51:10

I think the desire to revisit this scripture came from a place of frustration that I couldn't relax the automatic barrage of stress-thoughts, worry-mongering, and internalized rosary-style-fidgeting while I was trying to create this perfect zen moment.

The thing is, the scripture itself conjured up more anxious feelings, and some questions. What is a clean heart, and why would my heart...or anyone else's heart...be considered dirty? 

The idea I grew up with still hovers, that I have a nature that is prone to sin, and sin has a similar effect on the heart that cola does on a copper penny. It's corrosive. Mutating.

As a child and young adult attempting to process the teachings of my (beloved) faith tradition, I came to believe that this sin nature is with us from the beginning, and that the moment of salvation arrives when we recognize our sin nature, and repent. The moment we choose another way.

I still consider myself to be a Christian, but with some slight alterations in my originally formed perceptions. This idea of being clean or dirty, possibly a few degrees of separation from the way it was originally intended, has exacerbated an already existing shame issue for me, leaving me in a cycle of self-judgment, steeped in fear of being seen for who I am. 

I like how Pastor Dave (Brisbin) refers to the unfortunate-but-certain defects of the human condition: "stone not yet smooth." In this metaphor, the metrics are tied to maturity, or immaturity, and forgiveness is a given.

Anyway, it was unexpected when in meditation, I heard myself speak this scripture as a prayer, and it felt like going home.

"Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways"

That's how I remember it, with references to sin and transgression...to being cast away, rejected, which happens to be my core fear, by the way. In the last few years, I have come to believe that for me, this illusion of separateness is one of the nastiest flies in the ointment.

So, what exactly is a "clean heart" in the context of someone who is seeking to surrender and doing constant inventory of his or her behaviors while embracing ownership and accountability? I know I screw things up, but am I dirty?

It continues:

"Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51)

Hmmm. Hyssop. I have enjoyed a hummingbird hyssop in my front yard for years. It's delicately gorgeous, and  when I crush some of the leaves, it smells something like vanilla, jasmine and licorice, all blended together.

What does this have to do with a clean heart? Apparently, hyssop cleanses the body in the same way we might be cleansed spiritually.

I decided to Google articles about hyssop, and found a helpful one from Dr. Joseph Mercola whose wisdom in the field of holistic medicine is widely respected. According to his website, there are some very specific and beneficial qualities attributed to hyssop. It's considered to be antispasmodic and antiseptic. It can lower fevers, soothe or heal skin issues, and it can stimulate a variety of sluggish systems like digestive, endocrine, circulatory and excretory.

Apparently, hyssop is traditionally thought to be a healing herb, so in this case, purification is more like detox. 

Maybe, then, a "clean heart" is a beautiful euphemism for a healed heart, and perhaps, purification has never been about making me presentable. Just whole.

I've heard it said that spiritual elements are mirrored in natural, physical elements. In other words, like hyssop is provided by the Earth as an agent of healing, to stimulate the body's ability to cleanse itself, to calm the skin or regulate fevers, perhaps prayer, meditation and spiritual surrender serve as agents to clear the mind and heart of clutter, cobwebs and shadows, to gently exfoliate the hardening, irritating buildup of misconception and, yes, even guilt.

There's a subtle difference between the way I have interpreted scripture like this in the past, compared to the way I would now, and that difference has exponential impact in terms of experience because swallowing guilt and shame along with an authentic spiritual solution is like drinking poison with bread. No matter how liberating the original truth may be, the side-effects are devastating.

"Create in me a clean heart, Oh God," today and every day. "Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean."

Every time I ask, every time I am afraid, or ashamed, or even, in the wrong. Let it drain.

on wounded healers

Cherry-Like-the-Fruit

3:04 PM



My oldest sister, Cherry, was more or less a mystery me to me as I grew up right across the hall from her, on the second floor of our family home. As I would always and forever be three, long years behind her in age, and because 10 years old feels light years away from 13, my view of Cherry was slightly hazy, and much of her daily routine remained cloaked behind her closed bedroom door. Even with her living space just a few feet away from mine, by the time I was conscious enough to notice, it seems she was a million miles away, and a bit of a recluse, with her nose in the books, I imagined.

I imagined it wrong. Admittedly, my sister was a raging perfectionist, and driven to succeed in her schoolwork, but by the time she was 12 or 13, she was also being seduced by a terrible disorder that would torment her for years into the future.

The earliest memories play like slow-motion music videos charged with late-60s imagery, of bell-bottom, stretch knit pants and legs that go on forever, moving in rhythm to the grooves of Marvyn Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations. Cherry was a dancer. She was also drop dead gorgeous with long brown, Carol Ault hair, and make-up that boosted her capitol as a female, giving her the air of a professional model. The tomboy of the family, I was in awe of her style, grace, and maturity. Thinking back, however, I think these images that I have of my big sister, while mature and sensuous in nature, are images of a 13 or 14 year old girl moving at light speed through her adolescence.

She was stunning, authentically and naturally, and influenced heavily by societal interpretations of beauty as conveyed in films and magazines. Twiggy’s rise to claim her 15 minutes of worship had set things in motion during the 60s for both men and women to permanently weave a new waiflike impression of sexuality into our feminine template. Experiencing the typical insecurity that grips us all in adolescence, along with the complication of living publicly on stage as a performer, Cherry had officially judged her healthy body unworthy by the time she hit 16. She started to diet, feeling the pressure to be at her beautiful best, and as she slimmed down, the positive feedback loop coming from family and friends caused her to push harder. She quit eating, exercised voraciously and even, abusively, and so began a dark journey through anorexia and bulimia that would hold her in its brutal, hypnotic grip.

As I grew up, I slowly became aware of her particular brand of brokenness although I didn’t really seek to understand. At least, I didn’t push beyond her self-imposed isolation to try very hard. She had worked tenaciously, quarantining herself behind a seamless fa├žade of normalcy, needing friends and family members to believe she was “fine,” or “studying,” or “just under the weather.”  She wore a mask that was sometimes convincing; still, there were scary household blow-outs, eruptions, when my parents suspected she was still acting out. Fearing she was forcing herself to eat too much, sleep too little, or exercise violently, Mama and Daddy attempted to regulate her activities; although they may have been right about her participation in these behaviors, we were all sadly and completely in the dark about her inability to do anything differently. She must have felt so lonely in a world surrounded by blame and helpless blank stares. My interest in my sister’s suffering was shallow at the time, but I was very young.

Honestly, I think I may have been slightly relieved when she met, married and moved in with her new husband Dan; I do remember being naively convinced that love would prevail. Romantically obsessed, I was pretty sure that love was the answer to everything. In my pre-pubescent underdeveloped adolescent cortex, my handsome new brother-in-law Dan would rescue her from all of this, this Hollywood madness. He was the knight in shining ardor, the brilliant theologically motivated, kibbutz-dwelling, Hebrew-speaking hero who showed up in her life just in the nick of time. After a year living in California as newlyweds, the hopeful couple moved away to find better days in the Pacific Northwest. There would be many rough days ahead.

With the geographical distance in place, Cherry and I grew even further apart, and over the decades, I would be no more aware of her on-going suffering than she would be of mine. My particular brand of brokenness swallowed up all of my attention, awareness and energy.

In the 70s, Cherry wrote a book, called Starving for Attention that tells her story, including the origin and nature of her illness, along with her painful fight for recovery, a process that didn’t begin until she had come to the bitter end, bottoming at 5’8” and around 87 pounds. My older sister didn’t choose this road for herself, but she embraced the truth of who she was and what she was up against, found a way through and told her story courageously. Many, many women facing a variety of eating disorders have shared with Cherry that her vulnerability comforted them, and gave them hope.

In the mental montage that holds Cherry in my memory, even a thorough description of her eating disorder can only paint broad, chaotic background strokes while a few more vivid, delicate strokes more accurately reflect the big sister I love.

The first of these delicate strokes, preserved in a corner of my early childhood memory like a vivid, swirling snapshot, captures the time my sister rescued me after I had stolen candy from a drug store. Acting as a friend and mentor, Cherry kindly intervened to ease my remorse, and facilitated a necessary and therapeutic plan for restitution. The monkey was already screaming directions from my back by the time I was 7 or 8 years old, and for reasons I can’t imagine due to the opulence of my childhood, I was already taking things that didn’t belong to me. I did this more than once, so I could indulge my compulsion for immediate gratification. In fact, for a season, I made sort of a dirty little habit of stealing, mostly food, but also, money for food. This is, even now, slightly humiliating.

I have used the following fig-leaf logic to cover my shame concerning my sticky fingers. There were many intimidating negotiations necessary to access junk food within my home system, all of which went through my mother; truthfully, it may have seemed easier to steal a cookie than try to earn or justify it. I knew full well that I would probably end up empty handed, feening for a fix. So, I pilfered whatever it was that I craved.

When I approached Cherry to guide me through the rocky waters of my legitimately earned guilt, she had immediate and non-judgmental compassion for my hunger and lack of discretion, opting to simply walk me through the appropriate reparations so that I could confess, make amends, and start over with a gloriously clean slate. She went to the store with me, paid my debt and covered my shame.

The next few strokes fleshing out my image of Cherry are more recent…and even sweeter.

Last summer, Cherry and I visited our LA family, chilling out for a week at our sister Lindy’s house so we could spend time together, riding bikes, watching movies, taking yoga classes and laughing our asses off (theirs, all more toned than mine). I was stunned one afternoon to find out that my uber-intelligent, eldest sister had been nurturing her own blog, a side-hobby I think she used, at least in part, as a discussion board for her business as a life coach.

Typically selfish in my response to this new information, I was quickly and deeply devastated.
I have been incubating this desire to write, keeping it under wraps because I am (mostly unconsciously) convinced that uncovering my writing before the right time will suck my power out. Saying this out loud, of course, makes this theory seem considerably less viable.

A few seconds after she shared that she had been writing, Cherry pulled up her personal blog on her website, and read me a short piece on the value of nurturing valuable, lasting friendships. She was transparently happy to share her writing, and embarrassingly, I had to breathe into the practice of listening well at that particular moment. As I mentioned before-I am selfish, and my need to be heard sometimes makes it hard for my ego to surrender my full attention. But, gradually, I took it in. She is a gifted communicator, her style, reminiscent of my father’s. Her vocabulary is well-honed to hit any target, and her formation of concepts, her ideation, is deep and meaningful. I surrendered my competitive instincts, and told her I wanted to hear more, and I did…want to. I was able to recognize this as an invitation to become acquainted with my sister again after years of dysfunction on my side of the street. I learned that while she is prone to prefer humor and playful diversion, she has an aptitude for weaving emotional depth seamlessly into a story, rich with imagery and embedded wisdom.

This moment uncovered a treasure in her that I didn’t know about while it also uncovered a deficiency in me, something that bothered me. I must have been nursing an almost imperceptible lack of trust in my sister; this is the only logical reason I could find myself surprised at her depth and agility as a writer, as a thinker.  I see this now as a byproduct of my own spiritual immaturity, a blind spot in my perspective. I didn’t know her because I hadn’t taken the time to get to know her, or understand her particular brand of brokenness. I also hadn’t taken the time to understand her particular brand of brilliance as we are all certainly two sides of the same coin. At once sad that I had been missing this connection with my sister, and grateful for the present opportunity, I jumped into the pool of conscious contact. This was to my advantage, more than hers; due to the final brushstroke I am about to describe, I am convinced that I was the one that was absent, not Cherry.

Occasionally, our sister Lindy has obligations that take her away from the household where she monitors the continuing recovery of her son Ryan who experienced a life-altering traumatic brain injury over a decade ago.

One quiet evening “in,” when Lindy left Cherry and I along with our parents to spend time with Ryan, I remember feeling slightly responsible to serve as “stand in” for Ryan’s absent mom, a weird interpretation of my role as visiting auntie. At first, I just chatted with him, took pictures, and laughed with my handsome nephew at my father’s inappropriate bathroom humor; Ryan likes a skillfully told fart joke, but he really loves watching his Daddy Pat laugh at his own twisted humor.

To my embarrassment as the “surrogate mom,” I gently-but-firmly asked Ryan to “sit up straight,” a request I had heard Lindy make of him often. Coming from me, it was inappropriate, and Ryan shot me a glance that told me so. I instinctively responded by backing off, choosing instead just to enjoy the time with family.

But Cherry wasn’t the least bit confused about her role with Ryan that night.  I can close my eyes right now, and revisit the image of my big sister moving toward Ryan’s wheelchair where she slipped behind him, and wrapped her arms around him in…not a hug, but a tender, sustained embrace. She stayed there, for at least a half hour, where she lovingly rubbed his shoulders, offering only her gentle, compassionate presence as close to him as she could get. No strings, no pressure.

I watched her, just took it in, with no script running through my head.

The next morning, it hit me. Cherry’s natural instinct was to be present for Ryan, to offer just what he needed in the moment: warm, familial love. Hands on, skin to skin, love.
Cherry, or Cherry-like-the-fruit, as I have heard my sister introduce herself countless times, is rich with a gooey, satisfying heart center, deeply and internally christened with the garnet stain of hard-won, tender compassion.

I may not have said this out loud, maybe not even to myself, consciously; but unconsciously, I am afraid I would have believed that our damage disqualifies us. I’m afraid I would have believed that our particular brokenness had already, long ago, disqualified Cherry and me, both… our usefulness, stomped out of us.

Disqualified from what? From healing, and being healers. From unity, and purpose. Certainly, we could no longer act out our parts in the play with our make-up smeared from tears…in our battered, war-torn costumes. Could we?

I’m still in awe of my sister for a lot of reasons. I love the way she laughs with every muscle and molecule in her body, wheezing out of control and out of breath. I love how her mind works, framing concepts with metaphor and artistic ideation. I appreciate her silver-lining super-power even though it teeters on the brink of denial or enabling.

But, this recent brush-stroke in the painting of Cherry-like-the-fruit that lives in my head…this snapshot of my big sister with her long, toned arms wrapped softly around Ryan, has turned out to be her most tender gift of all. Part of us will always and forever be broken; part of us will always and forever be whole.

solid and sustained

Foxhole Revelation

3:03 PM




I spend a little bit of time reflecting on the past, and not necessarily intentionally; I may not want to deliberately turn a specific page in my personal history, but there it is...turning itself. 

Seven years ago, I wrote "Foxhole Revelation" as I reflected on the aftershocks, the little earthquakes, rattling from within my immediate family due to some of the more tumultuous elements in our history. Not to offend anyone who has literally survived his or her real foxhole experience due to war or violent crime, my immediate family has referred to each other as "foxhole buddies." The term reflects the bond we built after walking through our collective history, especially the tough parts.



Foxhole Revelation

So… here we are,
knee-deep in the muck of our history,
fingernails encrusted with the same dusty memories,
and bodies trapped behind embattlements, a tired triage
of blood and bandages,
of immature love and misplaced loyalty.

Here we stand in the wake,
the wearying devastation and disappointment,
our eyes filled with tears, and still we see
from the maze of disoriented guilt,
of grief and responsibility,
the carnage of our youth.

Our children,
sharing our tears 
through eyes widened and wise,
from the broader perspective gasp 
with embittered revelation, epiphany, 
and distraught resolve, to see
when the violating dust settles 
that the inhabitants of the foxhole
are both friend and enemy,
family and foe.


Sometimes, it seems almost impossible to sort through the "muck of our history," to wander with any sense of direction through the "maze of disoriented guilt...grief and responsibility." I am well-aquainted with my own need to connect the dots, to make sense of how the past, present and future are woven together. Compelled to make meaning, especially as it pertains to pain, loss and suffering, I notice that just because I need it doesn't necessarily mean that I have the skill or perspective to envision a higher purpose, or a greater good. Or even a way through.

People get wounded, and human beings, our memories and our nervous system fully trained by our traumatic or even abusive histories, pass along the energies stored in our reserves through our behaviors, our emotional presence, and even through snips in our DNA. It is comforting to know that we can also heal, and pass along the gifts that become available to us as we continue on that road.


For the record, I haven't fully retired from the occupation of negotiating anxiety and sometimes, depression; I sometimes feel like my feet are planted firmly on the boundary line between darkness and light. 


I know I am not alone. 


This does not mean that I am always suffering, or walking through my days in some kind of torment; it means I get a lot of opportunities to choose.


When I learned to ride a motorcycle, I was taught by a veteran rider to turn my head and look where I want the bike to go. It feels counterintuitive, dangerous even, to take my eyes off of the present course, but it is necessary to shift my gaze and press down on the handlebars, usually in a direction that feels...wrong. That is what brings about a shift in the trajectory. Trying to retrain the brain after years or even decades under the influence of toxic stress requires similer counter-intuitive actions, and reactions.


I am not ready (or inclined) to share the events leading to the "tired triage of blood and bandages" I describe in the poem, even though those experiences and, more importantly, the elements of healing that follow them, inform most of the writing on this blog. I'm not convinced it would be that helpful, and I don't want the "dark night of the soul" in my past to envelope my present and future.


Nevertheless, scar tissue is sensitive, reminding my connective tissue and nervous system pathways that something happened here, something big, something that informs my cellular memory and influences the way I interpret sensory input. 


When the "violating dust" unexpectedly becomes unsettled, it's dizzying. I look at it like the flip of a switch, one that seems to pull me through a portal. Although I may be sitting at home, safe and sound, I can be suddenly aware of some familiar sensations of panic, like I'm being pulled under water and there's nothing to hold onto.  


I found an educational psychology focused article by author Michael McNight that differentiates between a healthy nervous system and one that has been challenged by multiple touchdowns on the fight-or-flight pathway. Although the article focuses on children of trauma, and the way to support them, I was mostly interested in the descrition of these aftershocks of toxic stress.


"In the face of interpersonal/environmental trauma, all the systems of the social brain become shaped for offensive and defensive purposes. A child growing up surrounded by trauma and unpredictability will only be able to develop neural systems and functional capabilities that reflect this disorganisation." In a concise chart offered for reference, McNight focuses on what happens to a nervous system that houses "un-discharged toxic stress," referring to both ends of the response-to-trauma spectrum as being either "Stuck ON" or "Stuck OFF," like a switch that has been fused due to an unmanageable or damaging power surge.


Symptoms of being stuck on may include "anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, exaggerated startle, inability to relax, restlessness, hypervigilence, digestive problems, emotional flooding, chronic pain, sleeplessness, hostility and rage." If your switch is off, you may experience, "depression, flat affect, lethargy, deadness, exhaustion, chronic fatigue, disorientations, disconnection, dissassociation, complex syndromes, pain, low blood pressure, or poor digestion." 


Two things stand out here:


First, no one escapes toxic stress entirely, so many of these symptoms come in and out of our experience as humans, whoever we are.

It is also obvious looking at this list that if we are existing within either one of these extremes on an frequent basis, it is clearly unsustainable. Healing is necessary, and absolutely available, but it's going to take some time, and some counter-intuitive redirecting of un-discharged toxic stress.


Personally, I have gotten a lot of help: biofeedback, therapy, meditation and prayer, love and support from my friends and family, and surprisingly, acts of service. Someone told me once (slightly facetiously) that the mind can be a dangerous place - don't go in there all alone. While I am convinced that I have begun the helpful process of turning my mind into an ally, I haven't found anything more powerful than serving a community in need to get me out of my negative thought patterns.

Sometimes, I prefer to settle on a great movie and gluten free cupcakes. Very helpful.


Admittedly, there are certainly moments when there's there's nothing more healing to do than sit with the upheaval that an emotionally-charged memory serves up, waiting for the dark clouds to pass over, or even through me. Acceptance, surrender and trust may not completely erase painful memories, but they do "make me lie down in green pastures...lead me beside the still waters...and restore my soul." (Psalm 23) 


Walking near my home in Colorado a few days ago, I walked by a tree that was stunning, both in its artistry and in its twisted position. It stands, completely swayed, with branches and limbs reaching out so far and so bent that part of the tree lies submissively on the tall grass beneath it. It's as if it is doubled over, in a yoga pose, or maybe just resting, as if at some point, it meant to permanently fail, but was instead held, supported, by the ground beneath it. It seemed familiar to me, like a foxhole buddy, reminding me that I, too, have been shaped somewhat by my environment. But my core, my center, is both solid and sustained.


We lean into the embittered revelations, setting our attention where we want to go. We reach out to the others we know who can offer tools and comfort. Sometimes, in the most beautiful way, we are simply held up by the ground beneath us. 





"Adversity and thriving-working with children at risk," Michael McNight, LinkedIn, June 4 2017,  "https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/adversity-thriving-working-children-at-risk-michael-mcknight




relationships

Deep Love

3:02 PM



Deep love. It’s the stuff of movies, popular music and poetry. We wait for it, jump into it prematurely, we fight hard for it, we read self-help books about it, and we grieve it’s losses.

The magnetic draw of attraction can be confusing, throwing us off course on our quest for love, but usually we recognize the real thing when we encounter it.

Deep, deep love is undeniable.

The first time I bonded with my newborn grandson, Finn, he was in the hospital, the NICU to be specific. Born a month early with a disastrous platelet count, this little man needed to be infused and incubated for a week until he was stable enough to go home. There would still be some challenges.

Although I watched him enter the world, grateful to be invited by my daughter Rachael to be present at his birth, the first time I had an honest-to-God opportunity to bond with Finn, he had three needles screwed into his sweet, soft head.

Watchdog NICU nurses, our heroes, were urgently attending to his care while limiting the amount of time we could hang out with him in this space. Manage the variables until the threat is contained.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him, this little warrior who had barely learned to breathe oxygen outside of the womb. The first day he was in the NICU, while they were scrambling to decide whether he had an autoimmune crisis in his own body, or whether he was having a reaction to the environment in his mom’s womb (it was the latter), I was gifted a few precious moments to rock him in my arms while tests were being run in the lab, and while Mama and Papa were talking to doctors.

While we waited, we talked, he and I.

I may have been the only one using words, but I’m pretty sure we were both communicating. It’s as if the conversation had picked up somewhere in the middle, like we had already established the exposition of Finn’s story, and the inciting incident; and now that we stood facing the terrifying climax, secretly we both understood that the resolution had already been written. It would be okay.

I commended him for being willing to enter the world engaging instantly in this little hero’s journey.

He quietly pondered that for a while.

I reminded him that he was up to the challenge, in case he had already forgotten, but he seemed to understand; this was all part of his storyboard, the scaffolding for his his future, his imprint on the world. I knew he was special…already.

It was in his eyes. His little bald baby head was a perfect match for the look in his eyes, the look of an ancient wise man. I remember referring to him as Yoda, not so much because of the funny shape of his head but because of the light that seem to live behind those eyes. He looked like he already had amassed the wisdom of a 60 or 70 year old man, at only two days old.

He’s been my main man for three years now, and I’ve hoarded this delightful honor of being his daytime caregiver while Mama and Papa go to work as teachers everyday.

I’ve also learned more about deep love.

Notwithstanding our now-three-year-old Finn’s perfection overall…his razor sharp intellect, verbosity, sensitivity, high EQ and his undeniable dance skills (See my moves, Lala)… these are not the reasons I love him.

That-I-love-him may be the reason, however, that I see him.

Deep love isn’t the stuff of romance, chemistry, or happenstance; it’s the result of painstaking, committed investment. We pour love into our children and grandchildren, and it grows.

They break stuff or pee on it, flush valuables down the toilet, tell us to go away, insist vehemently on one-more-minute-of-whatever. They demand our relentless, devoted attention, give us three million reasons to worry about them, and throw unreasonable prompts at us to elicit the construction of improvisational storytelling that wears out every molecule of intellectual energy.

So where does this kind of deep love have its origin?

I’m not going to pretend I know the answer, but I have a theory.

It may come from holding someone’s tiny hand while he struggles to catch his breath.

It may come from cleaning up messes without being grouchy, rocking him lovingly and fearlessly when he has a desperately high fever.

Deep love may show up unexpectedly when he tells you a joke, and you laugh loudly and authentically.

It’s nurtured in an environment of consistency, of showing up, of listening when you’re tired, of coming when you’re called, of saying no when you know it will disappoint and forever diminish your superhero glow.

The thing about deep love, true love, is that it can be trusted, not because it’s magical but because it isn’t. It’s just investment, empathy, and commitment to see, really see, the person sitting in front of you.

And enjoy him.

acceptance and radical self-love

The Finish Line Is Now

2:20 PM

Photo by Guillaume Bolduc on Unsplash
So, I've been noticing that when I'm on my walk in the morning and I'm headed towards home, the closer I get to my house, the more I pick up my pace. Like a horse, trotting toward the barn.

Why this instinct to cross an imaginary finish line?

I was thinking about this last weekend to when Pastor Peggy decided to take us all out to the backyard labyrinth for a little collective walking meditation. I've never been on a labyrinth, so it was mesmerizing. It was also unique in that everyone present at the church service was also walking the labyrinth at the same time providing a range of experiences
.
When this quiet and reflective exercise was over, and we had gone back inside, Peggy asked us what we observed or learned while we were walking. Naturally, everyone had a unique experience.

Of course, I was swimming in a deep pool of thoughts upon which I might to ruminate, but eventually, I settled on sharing these two things.

First, during my walk, I was acutely aware of the interplay between solitude and community.

I wanted to enter my own experience, to focus on breath and connect internally. But surrounded by all these others, I also wanted to interact, embrace, guide and encourage. After feeling conflicted at first, I gradually accepted the oscillation that seemed to happen naturally between the two. Sort of like it tends to happen in life, perhaps less consciously.

The other awareness centered around what I would call an occasional glance toward the finish fine, which in this case, is the center of the labyrinth.

Of course, this is ludicrous with a labyrinth as the whole point is to be on the path, not to "finish," or to get somewhere first. I learned while I was still in my teens that my name is rooted to the Laurel wreath, the garland put on the Victor's Crown after winning an important race. Laury, then, by all accounts, is a reflection of the word victorious.

Laury…the Finisher.

The running of my personal race has always been peppered with a painful sense of loss over terrible mistakes I've made in the past, decisions I made without the tools to choose wisely.
Struggling for a lifetime around codependency, attachments, fear and lack of trust in myself led me to a giant pile of regrets, regrets that tend to make me feel like I have to make up for lost time or redeem the losses somehow. Surely all of this pain isn't for nothing?

Of course, it isn't.

Like an obstacle course, the challenges we face and the decisions we make lead to a destination of our creation.

Although I wish I could have done my obstacle course without hurting anyone else, and without causing myself pain and suffering, when I look at where I've landed at the end of it all, I know I need to make peace with it, choosing gratitude in the present as a guide.

Continuing to suffer for past lapses in judgement will only perpetuate more suffering; it also drives our focus backwards into regret and guilt, or forward into worry or fixing.

I don't know whether I'm "winning" my race, exactly. I do have this feeling though, a feeling that's rich with compassion and joy, that the finish line isn't out there somewhere. It's here, under my feet, right where I stand.

This is where my experiences are coming into focus, and where decisions are being made in the moment, the ones that create my story.

And if the finish line is now, then I guess I've made it. Well done.

Popular Posts

Like us on Facebook

Followers