Phoenix

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you, step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”
– Joseph Campbell

“Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.”
– John O’Donohue

“Narrow is the road that leads to life.”
—Jesus

 

Christianity gave me an excellent script by which to live my life, an excellent map to follow. It told me if I did A and B and C, and if I walked THIS road instead of THAT one, I would be following the footsteps of millions of others who had reached the destination and could ensure my safety. It gave me stability, predictability, an idea of what the future would hold and, to a certain extent, a feeling of control over my life and lack of vulnerability. For years, I followed that map as best I could, doing everything the church told me I ought. Until things fell apart.

When things fell apart, I let go of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and determined to travel (to the best of my ability) my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that still, small voice inside, the voice I call (for lack of a better word) My Soul. I have a feeling it could also be called Holy Spirit. Too often, over the years, I’d ignored this voice in an effort to be “right” according to the opinions of those around me. Now, I stopped listening to the opinions of others. Stopped asking for permission. Stopped explaining myself. I started saying “no” more often and started saying “yes” more often. I did the next thing I felt led to do, and then the next, and then the next. Then one day, I ended up in a place I never thought I’d go, a place the church told me God would never lead.

During this time, I struggled not only to understand my experience, but to figure out the “right” thing to do. Finding myself in a place I never thought I’d be, everything seemed too big, too complicated. I couldn’t possibly take THIS one step at a time. I had responsibilities, obligations. Somehow, I had to come up with a plan, find some path to follow, figure out the destination. I spent a miserable few months trying to do just that, until a friend convinced me to do something that, by all accounts, seemed exactly the “right” thing to do. So I did that “right” thing… and everything grew worse. Much worse. Inside, I felt myself screaming and one day I stopped and listened. Really listened. Tears rolled down my face as I realized, she’s been screaming for years.

Suddenly, I knew I couldn’t ignore that screaming voice anymore. I knew I had to stop looking for the destination and start once more to listen to the voice whispering the next right step. Not the big picture, not the five year plan, just the next right step, trusting it to “bring me home.”

I am coming to believe that the destination is not mine to know. I am coming to believe I can only ever know the next right thing, and then the next, one right thing at a time. Not the next right thing for my husband, or my friends, or even my children, but the next right thing for myself. Step by step, day by day, moment by moment. God, The Universe, My Soul, The Holy Spirit, whatever I want to call It, this Higher Power knows about the people in my life and I am coming to believe that by doing the next right thing for me, I am also doing the next right thing for them.

I think I am beginning to understand what Joseph Campbell and John O’Donohue and (dare I say it?) Jesus meant when they spoke of the path as narrow and unseen. Where religion gives a map, The Spirit gives the next step, and only the next step. Should I choose to take it, there will be no one on the other side to cheer me, no one to tell me it’s all going to be okay. Religion gives a picture of the journey. The Spirit extends an empty canvas. And that is terrifying.

I once heard someone say the Universe is always trying to push us toward the direction of our own growth. If this is true, what is happening to me now makes sense in a way few things ever have. It’s as if a match has been lit to a kindling gathered to destroy the straw house religion and popular opinion had me build. My husband recently said he feels I’m not the same person I was when we got married. He’s right, I’m not. I am Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

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Newest Addition

Our cow had her first calf today (a little bull) and our oldest caught it on video…

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Till We Meet Again

Lisa opened her eyes and looked around her hospital bed. While she slept, the room had filled and for the first time, she saw the friends and family members gathered there. She arched a brow. “What brings you all here?”
Grief gave way to laughter, and those who loved her took a healing breath as Lisa did what she had always done, comforting those around her, easing their pain even as hers increased.
Lisa spent her last days connecting with everyone who came to see her, struggling to stay awake long enough to talk to each and every person. With labored breaths and broken words, my Aunt asked her friends about their families, about their jobs, about the things that were important to each of them. In her final moments, she told my brother to get his tires checked, reminded her sister to take care of their mother, asked that we all stop crying.
Lisa died as she had lived… caring for those around her, making others as comfortable as she could, loving each and every person with a love that had weathered countless storms and fostered life-long friendships. Those who loved her cared for her in return, traveling great distances to be there, spending every moment they could with her. They cooked, cleaned, and made sure she lacked for nothing. Lisa’s sister cared for her tirelessly, taking more on her shoulders than I think even she thought possible, exhibiting a strength I don’t think she knew she had. Lisa’s doctor, also one of her closest friends, came to see her multiple times a day, answering our questions, giving instructions, repressing her own grief in order to be strong for us. Her brother-in-law stayed up all night watching over her so the rest of us could sleep, her sister-in-law and cousins worked tirelessly to make the arrangements after her death, friends and family members crowded the house to help pack and move her things. So many people loved Lisa through this time, in so many ways, it is impossible to list them all. We stayed up late talking with and singing to her. We made plans for an empanada stand. We cried, and laughed, and comforted each other as best we could.
I never said goodbye to Lisa. I couldn’t bring myself to speak the words.
“Don’t say it,” she told me. “Say ‘till we meet again.’”
And so I did. And so I have. I have met Lisa in a sunrise over water, in the wagging tail of a dog, in the sound of a dove, in the faces of my family members, in the soothing words of her friends, in the arms of a loved one, in the care and kindness she nurtured and fostered in everyone she knew and loved. Lisa will never be gone as long as sunflowers stretch their faces to the sky and waves crash against the ocean shore. As long as incredible women love each other, and care for each other, and hold each other close. For this, I am truly thankful.

“Those we hold most dear never truly leave us… They live on in the kindness they showed, the comfort they shared and the love they brought into our lives.”
– Isabel Norton

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Coming Home

Exactly one year ago, I wrote a post in which I mentioned the struggles I was having with Christianity, specifically my own pursuit of “correct doctrine.” For all my Christian life, I had believed that being a “good” Christian meant having the right opinions about the bible and believing the right things about God. After almost twenty years of living this way, making unimaginable sacrifices and horrible mistakes along the way, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t keep squeezing myself into the box that my church and my culture had assigned to me.  I couldn’t keep looking to everyone and everything around me to determine what I should and should not do.  I couldn’t keep trying to be “good” and I couldn’t keep striving to be “right.”  So I decided to let go, as much as possible, of everything the church, my society, and the world around me had ever taught me about who I ought to be and what I ought to think and how I ought to act and I determined to travel – as much as possible, – my own path, doing everything I could to listen to that small, quiet voice deep inside that I’d ignored for so awfully long. 

One of the early and, in retrospect, most important things that happened to me during this time started with a simple question: “What does my heart love?” As I struggled to answer this question I soon realized that the only way I could do so truthfully was to list the things I USED to love – all the things that had brought me a deep sense of peace and joy when I was younger, before I got married, before I had children, before I became a “Christian.”

Eventually, I came to realize that somewhere along the path of my life, I had started taking on identities. At the age of fifteen, I left my mom to move in with my dad and decided I was going to be a “good daughter.” I set out to be respectful and kind and helpful and try as much as possible never to rock the boat. I decided I was going to be a “good student” and made straight-A’s throughout my high school years. When I met Jesus during my freshman year of college, I decided I was going to be a “good Christian” and so I began an almost 20 year journey that consisted mostly of the search for “correct doctrine.” I got married and began a 15 year struggle to be a “good wife.” Had children and did everything I could to be a “good mother.” And all along, as I layered one identity after another on top of myself, I got smaller and smaller and smaller. Until one day I realized that when faced with the question “what does your heart love” I couldn’t answer. Because I didn’t know.

I wrote that list of all the things I used to love and spent a year doing as many of the things on it as possible. I allowed myself to spend entire days in my bedroom, just reading or journaling or listening to music. I started to paint and sketch and draw again. I bought a horse and learned to ride (with varying degrees of success.)  I even climbed a tree (not nearly as much fun at 37 as it was three decades earlier.) As I started doing the things I loved, I found that I still loved (most of) them and also found new things to love along the way.  But more importantly, I also found my own voice, my own strength, my own wisdom. I found myself.  And it has set me free.

Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence… It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives by using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wildernesses of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making. If you work with a different rhythm, you will come easily and naturally home to yourself. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. There are no general principles for this art of being. Yet the signature of this unique journey is inscribed deeply in each soul. If you attend to yourself and seek to come into your presence, you will find exactly the right rhythm for your own life. The senses are generous pathways that can bring you home.

– John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

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Wind in the Wilderness

“When we hear people referred to as animals or aliens… ‘disgusting,’ ‘ingrates,’ ‘pigs,’ ‘retard,’ ‘fag,’ ‘bitch,’ or other labels… we should immediately wonder, ‘is this an attempt to reduce someone’s humanity so we can get away with hurting them or denying them basic human rights?’ We must never tolerate dehumanization – the primary instrument of violence that has been used against mass groups of people recorded throughout history.” – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

I was thinking this statement over last night when I realized that it’s easy for me to get behind Brene’s words, as long as she’s talking about the marginalized, the minority and the oppressed. But I discovered that I felt differently about her statement when I replaced words like “aliens” and “fags” with words like “white-supremacist” “bigot” and “racist.” Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to recognize my own need to lay aside the labels. Because what we’re talking about here are not character flaws or states of being (after all, people CAN BE “disgusting” and others ARE, by definition, “aliens.”) What Brene is talking about here is how we USE those words to lump people into categories and reduce their humanity. And when I switch the words out I am forced to see that it happens on both sides. It happens inside of ME.

I began discussing this with a friend on facebook last night and some excellent questions were asked: “don’t some of those groups, like the ones marching in Charlottesville, DESERVE to be labeled?” and: “Are we just supposed to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the face of evil and become doormats?”

These are good questions, but if what Brene is telling us is true, there is a third option to consider: MOVING CLOSE. As Brene writes: “people are hard to hate close up.” We can choose to love the person behind the hate even when its hard, because people deserve to be loved and we deserve to be the kinds of people who love. This doesn’t mean we check our morality at the door. It means we find a way to connect while firmly holding our position and gently seeking to understand theirs better. Those who are filled with hate have things inside them that are difficult and disturbing… but that is not all they have inside of them. They have friends and family they love deeply, they have struggles and conflicts that are difficult and painful. When we label and dehumanize people – any people – we participate in the false dichotomy of “us” vs. “them.” This is a position that will lead us nowhere but further apart. A friend of mine likes to say that it’s a game that is rigged. The moment we start to play, we’ve already lost. In order to win, we must find a new game to play. Move closer. Moving close means being brave enough to walk through our own pain in order to understand theirs.

This is what we run up against as we consider this issue. How so-damn-hard it all is. How agonizing and upsetting and hopeless everything seems to be. But this is where it starts. We break the mold by breaking it within ourselves. We start the change by finding the strength to change ourselves. Others may never bend (although when faced with love and understanding, people usually do,) but WE can bend. And when we do, we become like the blades of grass which allow the wind to bend them, and in doing so, ensure the wind will never break them.

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The Law of Reciprocity

“Every action, thought and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect.  If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect.”
– Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
– Isaac Newton

I missed the eclipse on Monday.  I was irritated at my husband over something and I acted on that irritation and said something to him.  This led me to getting more irritated, and saying more things.  Which then led to further irritation and by the time the cycle was over, the moon had passed right over the sun and I had missed it.  Thanks to me, my husband missed it, too.  The eclipse fell on his birthday and he’d been looking forward to it for months.  I’ll never forget the way he looked when we realized the moon had passed and I said to him in utter despair: “Oh my God, we missed it.”

We missed it.

We’ve been missing so much.

When I read the words of Zukav, above, I knew I was having my eyes opened to the truth of what Christians refer to as the “law of reciprocity” and others define as “karma.” Put simply: intention (or motivation,) when acted upon, is an energy that will return to us.  When we act out of love, love is returned.  When we act out of fear, or anger, or irritation, we receive more of those things.

I think this is why so many problems, especially in relationships, seem circular.  The more we do to avoid pain, the more pain we ultimately feel; the more we act to alleviate our insecurities, the more insecure we become; the more we work to avoid our fears, the more fearful we will be.  In this way, we become our own worst enemy, attracting to ourselves the very thing we wish to avoid.

But this is where it gets good, because if this is true then the opposite is also true:

If we refuse to act on behalf of these unhealthy motivations (generally rooted in fear), we will begin to experience less of these feelings.  Conversely, the more often we act on behalf of good motivations (rooted in love,) the more of these feelings we will have.

What’s paradoxically so incredibly easy and so unimaginably difficult about this is that if it’s true then it’s all up to me.  I am the only one who can create security, love, peace and joy for myself and I do it not by changing my outward circumstances but by changing my response to them.  By controlling my behavior, I ultimately have the ability to change my feelings.

Of course, changing my feelings is what I’ve been trying to do all along, right?  But I think this is where I’ve been getting it all wrong:  I’ve always thought that the feelings had to change first.  I’ve always assumed that the solution was to somehow stop feeling fear, anxiety, pain, etc. and then I’d stop acting on these emotions. So I spent all my time trying figure out a way to change my feelings and although I’d try really really hard for a while, it didn’t take long before I’d be right back in the same spiral again.  What I’m just beginning to realize, however, is that it’s not the feelings that need to change (something I don’t always, or even usually, [or even ever ???!] have control over,) but the actions (which I CAN control.)  And, paradoxically, the more often I succeed at controlling the action, the less I will experience the feelings.

So when I wake up in the morning and I see the cell phone lying turned on in a central location and everything in me wants to turn it off and hide it (and smash it with a hammer after lighting a fire to it then flushing it down the toilet) to keep my husband from texting all day, I evaluate the motivations behind the action (in this particular case, fear of being neglected and ignored) … and I leave it on.  By doing so, I simultaneously refuse to act upon the impure motivation (fear) and act upon another motivation: the desire to love my husband.  In this way I not only attract less fear back to myself, but also attract more feelings of love and security.

Simple, but not easy.

It will be 7 years before we get another chance to see an eclipse.  I can only pray that things will be different, then.

No.

I can do more than pray.

I will act (or refuse to act, as the case may be.)

I want another chance.

“For whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
– Galatians 6:7

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Posted in Contentment, Criticism, Forgiveness, Friendship, Love, Marriage | 1 Comment

Wanting to say “no” is enough

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You want to say “no.”
You want to say “no,” but you feel like you can’t.
You want to say “no,” but you feel that you shouldn’t.
You want to say “no,” even though… even despite… even if…

Yet saying no seems wrong, somehow. Especially when you don’t have an excuse, a prior engagement, a socially acceptable reason for saying no.  Saying no seems selfish, disloyal, unsupportive.  You think that if you refuse, people might not like you, might not respect you, might think you’re a terrible person.  You think that because you strive to be a kind, generous, thoughtful person, you must say “yes.”  You think that being a kind, generous, thoughtful person means you shouldn’t say no.  You think that if you love someone, if you’re the only one who can help, if the cause is a good one, you’d be wrong to refuse.  And so you ask yourself the question:

“When is it okay to say ‘no?'”

This is the answer:

When deep inside, in that most essential, core part of you, you want to

When you have evaluated the needs of the person asking, and you still want to.
When you have considered the alternative, and you still want to.
When you have examined your motives and those of others, and you still want to.

Because wanting to say “no” is reason enough.

Wanting to say “no” is reason enough because how you feel matters.
Wanting to say “no” is reason enough because what you want matters.
Wanting to say “no” is reason enough because what you need matters.
Wanting to say “no” is reason enough because you are responsible for your own emotional well-being.

Wanting to say “no” is reason enough because – ultimately – loving, honoring and caring for your deepest self is the only true responsibility you have in this world.  And it’s from that place, strengthened and liberated by radical self-care, that truly loving care for others can flow.

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(Inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s essay entitled “The Truth that Lives There” from her advice column Dear Sugar, and an article entitled “Wanting to Leave is Enough” by Caroline Garnet McGraw.)

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