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. 
                                               Copyright © 2021 Laury Boone Browning

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


Rudder Down

8:23 AM

These days, I’ll get my first cup of coffee (yes, there will be more), and cruise my phone while I drink it…then prayer and meditation. Often, unfortunately, I still manage to boomerang right back into mental stressing, massaging all of the potential possibilities for concern. I could teach a master class on worrying.

With that kind of stuff going on in your head, best to create a diversion.

My diversions of choice?

Putzing around the house doing mild cleaning; eating food I’m not hungry for, especially unhelpful sugary snacks; mostly, looking at my phone getting distracted by sound bites on Twitter or Instagram, or choosing an ocean of possibilities available on the TV through streaming.

I’m afraid to chart my day and see where my time goes. I have also been afraid that I can’t break the pattern. I’m streaming and viewing more than I’m living. That sounds dramatic. And it’s true.

I could blame it on the pandemic, but that’s an oversimplification; still, the pandemic has given me passive permission to fall full bore into this posture of, “whatever,” but I’ve been here before. It’s almost as if how I spend my time doesn’t matter. What to do?

First, as they say, admit there’s a problem.

Then, ask for help, and dream a little. What kind of life do I wish I could have?

I believe I can design a path, beginning with practicing regular awareness check-ins to assess how much time I’ve spent scrolling or staring. I can notice what gets in the way. (Avoidance, procrastination, doubt.) I can capture words of affirmation to recalibrate my expectations. And I can choose how I want to live my life and how I prefer to spend my time.

So, choose.

Although I know this isn’t an original idea I’m working with, it’s still helpful, so here’s a sort of template to shake myself out of the trance.

1. Awareness and acceptance.

“It looks like I’ve been sacrificing my day-so-far to the internet gods. Okay, I can’t get back what I’ve already given away, but I can accept where I’m at, and move forward.”

2. Consider small commitments with follow through.

“It’s fine that I’d like to decompress by watching an episode of Schitt’s Creek now, but I’m going to stop after one, and then get right back to investing in my values by working, cooking, exercising, organizing or writing.”

3: Make long-term, self directed changes.

“In order to be conscious about how I direct my time, my last activity of the day will be to assess where my time went throughout the day, and to make a constructive plan for the next one. No guilt, just take inventory.”

Finally, have a little faith!

Maybe, I got caught in the current again, but do I believe I can change what I’m doing with my life? Especially, if I am willing, and ask for help?

Yes, I do.

                                        Copyright © 2021 Laury Boone Browning


acceptance and radical self-love

When Asked How I Was Inspired by my Mother

8:37 PM


My mother raised me, well, all four of her girls, to make our beds, to be prompt for dinner, and to do our homework before we watched TV. She ran a tight ship.

While this probably doesn’t sound very remarkable, please consider the setting. My precious (late) mother was the wife of entertainer Pat Boone, and upon hearing or speaking that singular aspect of her resume, she has always been swift to add that she never expected, or even wanted, to be the wife of an entertainer. She had married a 19-year-old Tennessean who aspired to be an English teacher (ironically, the job that I have come to embrace). My mother worked passionately to nurture an environment for her daughters that would at least feel somewhat normal, and that’s what makes the household routine that she envisioned and acted out unique.

Bedtimes, bath times, trips to church and holiday traditions were by design predictable and comforting, and although I will never understand Mama’s need to clean the plastic placemat 10 minutes before I have finished my Teriyaki Chicken, her signature sense of order and discipline are present and appreciated in my home in Colorado, and in the Middle School classroom where these traits were not only valuable; they were essential.

The gift that Mama had for imagining any and all crises before they happened so that she would have every opportunity to prepare for any scenario is not really the quality that comes to my mind when I am asked about how I have been inspired in her presence. When I was asked how Shirley Boone has been an inspiration to me, the memory that invaded my mind took me back to my years as a freshman in college.

After decades of being parented with precision, having decisions made, for the most part, on my behalf, I was floundering at school, torn between the disciplines of my childhood, and the vast array of options available to an inexperienced 19-year-old girl, suddenly on her own in Malibu. I focused as well as I could on my studies, but the anxiety that came with school, along with the newly acquired pressure to self-realize, was formidable; I felt I was deconstructing before I had an idea of who I was, or wanted to be…feeling invisible, afraid and confused, my college experience made me question my previous, family-centered identity, offering no real alternative, at least, not fast enough for me to acclimate.

In this context, and for some reason I don’t exactly remember, I took up smoking.

Devastated that my college days were more frightening and uncomfortable than relaxed and festive, as I had anticipated, I remember calling Mama in tears, and she swiftly met me for lunch somewhere in Santa Monica. Waiting for lunch to arrive, I vividly remember thinking this might be hard on her, but I wanted to be authentic and have a real conversation, so I pulled out my Marlboro Lights, and in one swoop, I put one authoritatively in my mouth, and lit a match. My traditional Christian mother sighed, asked for God’s grace under her breath, smiled at me, and the conversation continued.

What makes this memory special enough to be the image of her presence in my life?

I guess it’s the fact that she didn’t lecture me…she didn’t remind me about how God might feel about it …she didn‘t even appeal to me as a mom who was, and is, very concerned about my well-being. (I was already very focused on my own stinging awareness of these salient points). In an intuitive moment, she recognized that our relationship had evolved, and she evolved with it. She loved me the way that I came to her: cocky and self-justified, vulnerable and yet, terribly, painfully afraid.

She sensed that I needed her to listen and care, without a lecture, and she morphed into a different kind of mother right before my eyes. She melted my resistance to being open with her, cementing a foundation for many, many similar talks that would follow over the years.

Decades later, when my 16-year-old son Michael left home suddenly and unannounced, cocky and self-justified, yet vulnerable and terribly afraid, and I had already exhausted myself, unsuccessfully attempting to dictate what he should do, and who he should be, I knew that it was my turn to adapt…to morph…and mercifully, our conversation continued.

When I picture my mother’s response upon reading this anecdote, I imagine the inner Shirley saying, “of ALL the moments we’ve shared in our lives together, couldn’t you have remembered anything else?”

Nevertheless, I am assured that my mother has come to know me not only as her daughter, but as a person.

She’ll understand.

                                               Copyright © 2021 Laury Boone Browning


the gifts are on the way

Radical Gratitude

9:00 AM


The practice of gratitude is radical.

I've been a bit stuck in a perception of gratitude as listing, literally writing things down in a list that might be in alignment with my preferences: I'm grateful for apples and the bounty of the harvest...I'm grateful for beauty, and the way it makes me feel. I'm grateful for whipped cream on pumpkin pie, and piles of fall leaves that children throw their bodies into giggling.

And I am grateful for all of these things. But is that all gratitude really is?

This image of fall leaves, sought-after by my husband and I as we drove to Estes Park and beyond for the express purpose of seeing fall colors, fills our hearts with awe and wonder. We could look at it and say, how lovely, this makes our hearts happy because it's beautiful. Taken one step further, though...I've allowed little feelings of apprehension to creep in when I look at fall colors. Winter's coming. The beauty of fall colors can only exist in the alchemy that's inevitable for deciduous trees: the shedding of leaves that are no longer able to do their job.

Letting go of things that no longer serve.
Yay....? Can I be grateful for that?

Can I only be grateful for the beauty of the colors without taking into account the source of the beauty? Maybe gratitude practiced, gratitude matured, involves the surrendering of these kinds of preferences.

Maybe gratitude, deepened and mature gratitude, comes from a process like this because, ultimately, what are preferences if not attachments?

In my contemplative prayer practice, at the moment I'm enamored with the word ALLOW. Something about that word reminds me that I'm not in control so many of the things going on around me. Like the coming of winter.

Mature gratitude doesn't prescribe its conditions. Contentment, true contentment, isn't dependent on preference.

Can I be as grateful for barren trees in the darkness of winter as I am for the burnt orange, deep burgundy, and melon-pink shades of fall? I want to be. I'm practicing.

                                        Copyright © 2021 Laury Boone Browning

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

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.

                                            Copyright © 2019 Laury Boone Browning

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 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 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.

                                            Copyright © 2019 Laury Boone Browning

on wounded healers


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.

                                            Copyright © 2019 Laury Boone Browning

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