Journey through anguish to freedom

the-sower

The Sower, by Vincent VanGogh

Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.
~Psalm 126

I’ve been reading Sabbatical Journey by Henri Nouwen, his journal from the last year of his life. Of course Henri doesn’t know it is his last year of life as he is writing, and many of his thoughts are for his future plans. He was only sixty-five, my parents’ age. It’s hard sometimes to read his thoughts about the future, his plans for ministry and writing. The journal goes through August, 1996, and he died of a heart attack in September that same year.

Eight years before he wrote this journal Nouwen suffered a period of intense depression and spiritual struggle which he wrote about in another book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. Mark gave me this book about eight years ago when I was going through my own period of depression and struggle, and reading about Nouwen’s experience, and the wisdom he gleaned, helped carry me through my own anguished journey. It feels significant to me to be reading Sabbatical Journey (also given to me by Mark) eight years after The Inner Voice of Love, just as Nouwen wrote it eight years later.

img_2037Last night I came to this paragraph in the journal, about a visit from Nouwen’s dear friend Nathan. It was written in July, 1996, two months before Nouwen’s death:

In the early evening Nathan and I had a nice dinner. At one point we talked about the anxiety that had been plaguing me during the last few months. I felt somewhat embarrassed and ashamed to put my inner burden on my best friend, but, in the end, I am glad I did. Nathan told me that he found it hard, not so much to listen to my pain, but to realize that I had walked with it so long without sharing it. I explained that it had not been possible for me to talk about such things on the telephone, and he understood. That was a comfort for me. I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.

I read this, curled up on my quiet couch on a winter evening, hands wrapped around a hot cup of tea. Nouwen’s time of depression eight years prior to writing that lasted for about six months. My own, eight years ago, lasted longer — two years, perhaps, with another three or four before I was well out of it, and another year or two before I left the community that had been such a mix of security and trauma, comfort and conflict.

Nouwen wrote his journal with the intention of publishing it. He was going to do the editing himself, but after he died his friend Susan took on the task. After I read that paragraph last night, I set down the book and picked up my own journal. I feel I share so much with Nouwen — the inner struggle, a long-time experience living in community, good friends to walk through my life with me, and the desire and calling to write down my experience to give to others. Nouwen wrote around forty books in his life, books full of such wisdom and healing, such intimacy with God and striving to live a life of love and service. His writing helped me and so many others move through anguish to freedom. Yet even at the end, two months before his death, he wrote that stark, honest sentence: “I sometimes wonder how I am going to survive emotionally.”

I imagine him, curled up on his own couch, journal in hand. He had so much insight, so much wisdom to give to us. But in the end, his greatest gift was his honesty and vulnerability. We all desire healing and strength, but when the apostle Paul begged God for his own thorn in the flesh to be taken away, God did not heal him, but said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Here, let us be willing to be weak in front of each other. Let us teach each other out of what we do not know as well as what we do. Let us learn to value each others’ weakness as well as strength. Let us say to each other that we find it hard, not to listen to each others’ pain, but to realize that we had walked with it so long without sharing it.

Love,
Jessica

***

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The opposite of envy

img_1999My family had our Christmas celebration a week early this year to accommodate everyone’s schedule, so Mark invited me to his family’s Christmas dinner. It was a lovely time, with delicious food and fascinating people. I met people I’d heard Mark talking about for years, and found them every bit as interesting as he’d described. When we sat down for dinner I joined a table with Mark’s three sisters, a niece, and two wives of Randa’s husband’s brothers. I loved our conversations about work, introversion, and social media, and the fun of opening our Christmas crackers, sharing the jokes, and trying on the crowns.

A few days later, Mark’s sister Randa posted the picture above of our table on Facebook. It’s funny — when I sat down at the end of the table there was an empty seat next to me, but I figured someone would sit there. Karen, Mark’s sister (in the red crown) noticed I was all alone at the end of the table and tried to draw me in, which I appreciated. But I didn’t feel alone or left out, I just felt happy, surrounded by all those lovely, interesting people. I wasn’t expecting anything, wasn’t needing anything. But what I received was so amazing — great conversation, great food, the warmth of the fire, and even a gold crown. And after the picture was taken Mark’s other sister, Suzy, sat down next to me, filling out the table and completing the circle. It wasn’t until I saw this picture that I saw what Karen had seen — me looking alone and apart. It made me think.

I hadn’t felt alone at the gathering, partly because Mark’s whole family was so loving and welcoming, but partly also because being alone wasn’t the story I was telling myself. But to be in that place, where I could be sitting slightly apart and not feel sad and lonely, really feels like a miracle. I think it is a miracle. Because that was my internal narrative for nearly 40 years, that I was left out, different, doomed to be alone. I felt such pain for so long, when I was alone and when I was with others. Even in my family small things would make me feel slighted and unloved. There was a deep pit of pain at my center, and I spent so much of my life trying to find a community where I would fit in and finally feel at home. I caught glimpses of that community over the years, but could never quite make myself a part of it. In my college fellowship, in seminary, in Maine with friends who had a farmhouse and a band, at Park Street Church, in ministry with InterVarsity, and finally in an actual intentional community in Boston where I lived for seven years. There would be moments of warmth, sitting around a fire singing, or reading from a prayer book, eating a hearty meal, talking about God or literature. But then my inner narrative would kick in and I would feel outside, apart, misunderstood, left out. So as I sat at the table and broke bread with Mark’s family, it felt miraculous to feel whole, to be able to be present and happy without that deep inner pain.

It is a miracle, but it has also taken so much work. The Enneagram helped so much, as did Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and Esther Ekhart. It took years, but I rewrote my story. Instead of a story of someone alone and on the outside I started to tell of someone deeply loved and whole. I told the story of someone who was quirky and a little awkward, but also smart and witty and warm. I told the story of someone who loved being alone and creative, but could bring that solitude and imagination to her relationships. And then I told the story of a woman who could be a home for others, with a crackling fire and prayer books within herself, who could welcome in those who felt alone and outside. And when I learned to stop grasping and to let go of things and people I couldn’t have I found myself surrounded by love and friendships I couldn’t have imagined before.

It is an ongoing lesson, of course, and envy is still my besetting sin. When Randa posted this picture on Facebook I did feel a twinge of loneliness and envy. I wished I had leaned in to the picture and smiled better, wished I had photographic evidence of my inner feeling of inclusion. I wished I could prove to the world that I was “in”, that I was loved. But then I did what I have learned to do, from Henri, from Esther, from the Enneagram: I sat with the feeling without either running from it or letting it define me. I observed it, and asked what it had to teach me. I remembered that I am loved, that I am whole. And then I wrote about it, turned it into prose, transformed it into an essay that can hopefully be a warm, inviting home to my readers: Welcome to your community, welcome to the party. You are loved and whole and part of the family. You are quirky and maybe a little awkward, but we love that about you. Come sit at our table, take the seat by the fire. There is room for you here. We’ve been waiting for you.

***

If you need help imagining the coziness, here’s some audio from the Gryffindor common room.

If you relate to what I’ve written, you might want to check out Henri Nouwen’s book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom or the practice of contemplative prayer as written about by Thomas Merton. You may also want to check out the Enneagram: Richard Rohr‘s book is a good place to start. (If you relate to envy as your besetting sin you might be a four like me!)

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Winter survival guide

img_1948 “All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.”

from The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

Has anyone else had kind of a hard year? Mine wasn’t bad — in fact it was very good in many ways — but there were a lot of hard things. Migraines were worse this summer and fall than they had been in a long time. Our housemate that we really liked moved to California and Mark and I had to put a lot of time and energy into finding and adjusting to a new one. My nanny job ended and it took several months to find a new one. And my dad, who has a degenerative muscle disease, transitioned this year from using a walker to a wheelchair. And the election was, and continues to be, hard.

One of the lessons that my forties has taught me is that hard things are not necessarily a tragedy, but a  part of life. If you spent all your energy trying to make life easy and good you would have very little time left to actually live. Pain and struggle is as much a part of life as joy and happiness, and in some ways are much better teachers. Living in New England teaches me this, as the ebb and swell of the seasons bring such joy and beauty along with pain and difficulty. The heat of the summer worsens the migraines, and the darkness and cold of the winter brings the emotional struggle of seasonal affective disorder as well as the physical challenge of shoveling snow, negotiating parking and driving in the narrowed city streets, dealing with my own colds and viruses as well as those of the children I nanny, and having limited options for activities with the kids.

If I could invent the perfect climate for myself it would have five months of spring, five of autumn, and one each of winter and summer. Just enough heat and cold to get a taste: We would have the month of summer and the month of winter off of work for intensive barbecuing, beach-going / skiing, Christmas and Hanukkah celebration, snowman-making, etc., and then the days would revert back into my sweet spot: 60-70 degrees during the day and just chilly enough at night to snuggle under a warm blanket.

But in real life here in Boston, winter seems to stretch out for five months. The days start getting dramatically shorter in November, and for many people the associated seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, starts even earlier. The end of daylight savings time plunges us into darkness at four o’clock. December doesn’t usually have much snow, but the cold and dark set in for real. And then January and February hit, with their frigid temperatures and the possibility of several feet of snow. Some years are colder and snowier than others, but you never really know what you are in for till you’re in it. March is called the beginning of meteorological spring, but every New Englander knows that, though you may get a day or two of warmish weather — a day or two of lambishness — March is really much more of a lion like its wild, sister winter months.

But the winter days are part of life just like those in the spring. I want to live those days, too, and not just count them down till my preferred days arrive. I don’t want to spend half my year watching the clock. At the same time, the coming spring is part of the winter. The joy to come is part of the sorrow, just as the sorrow flavors the joy. Just like life. And one of the most wonderful things about winter to me is that on its very second day the light begins to return. With the coldest months of the year still ahead of us the days are already lengthening, giving back the morning and evening light that the summer and autumn took from us. (And the bittersweet opposite is also true: On the second day of summer the days are already shortening.)

So one way I survive the winter is by marking my calendar for the light’s return. Since I’m not always awake for the sunrises I focus on the sunsets. The earliest is in mid-December, 4:12pm. By the winter solstice, December 21st, it has already inched back to 4:15, and we only have to wait till January 9th for a 4:30 sunset. 5pm is February 2nd, 5:30 is February 26th, and by the time we go back to Daylight Savings on March 12th we are already at 5:47 which then becomes 6:47, and even those who have to work till six have the light for their commute home.

img_1738Another way I survive the winter is by attentiveness. I have limited light so I try to pay attention to it more. I try to go to bed early and wake up to watch the sunrise. I try to get ready for the early sunset by going outside around 3:30, enjoying the slant of the winter sun and the sharp outline of the bare tree branches against the winter sky. If I can’t go outside I at least look out the window. And when I am home for the sunset I light a candle to acknowledge the transition. I can’t keep the sun from setting, but it feels good to be a part of the process. It isn’t just happening to me, I am allowing it, even welcoming it. And I celebrate the fact that I can recreate the light and warmth of the sun inside my home.

The winter has barely started. It may be another mild one like last year, or it may be brutal like the year before. It’s not going to be easy. But it is a part of life, just the same. And the joy that comes with the first thaw of spring would not be as pure and full if the winter were not so dark and cold.

***

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Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working

Instructions to the writer when the library wifi isn’t working:

Okay. It’s okay. Just spend some time here with no internet. Sit with the boredom, with the antsiness. Don’t fight the tiredness, but don’t disappear into it, either. Stay present. Sit in the hard-backed chair. Sit up straight. See how it feels. See how your thoughts are different than when you’re slouching. Close your eyes. Open your eyes.

Write one true sentence. Write one lie. Look at the books around you. Wonder what you can learn from just their spines. Make an observation: There are 34 volumes in The Dictionary of Art, and only 29 volumes in The Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Wonder about those five less volumes. Wonder if they are because five books worth of music was never recorded, or if it was never even written. Feel the missing music in your bones.

Notice you feel a little less sleepy. Look out the window at the brick wall of a school. Remember your own school’s brick wall, when you were ten. Describe how it felt when you leaned against it at recess: Warm and hard, the rough edges catching on your clothes. You wanted to lie down in the grass, like you did in your yard at home, and daydream. But the kids would have laughed at you, so you leaned against the wall and watched them play. You were tired then, too. Recess was after lunch. There were two and a half more hours before you would find your little brother and walk home.

Wonder if you could write a story about walking home from school with your little brother. Think about it for a few minutes and come up with nothing. Feel discouraged. Don’t fight the discouragement, but don’t disappear into it, either. Use it. Describe it. Where do you feel it in your body? Your chest? Your arms? Notice that it makes you feel alone and separate from the other people around you. Wonder how many of the other quiet people in the library feel discouraged, feel alone. Write for them.

Write for them. Write your story about walking home from school for the other ten year old girls who felt alone at recess. Write it for the grown-ups in the library who were ten once. Write it for the ones who remember the prickly feeling of the school wall against their skin. Write it for the ones who have forgotten and only know that they are missing something in their bones. Write it for the musicians who would be in volumes 30-34 if they weren’t so tired and discouraged. Write till they know they are not alone. Write till you know you are not alone. Write till the musicians pick up their instruments and start to play. Write.

***

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Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it

teaI woke up early to write, but what does it look like to write this morning? What does it look like to write with the election three days old? What does it look like to write when your neighbors have called the police to have your car towed, and someone has keyed your car, and then your neighbor comes over to say, “This is not that kind of neighborhood?” What does it look like to write when Leonard Cohen has died and you hear the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Roots as directed at you in some small way:

See I’ve been patiently waiting for this moment
To rise up again, that’s the way I was molded
And as the last one standin’ as the rest of them foldin’
Give me my one chance to grab the torch and properly hold it.
And I am not throwing away my shot.

What does it look like to write when the essay you’re working on is about something that happened ten years ago, and you had been writing it from a place of peace and perspective but now 2016 feels like it has no wisdom to offer 2006?

What does it look like to write when someone you love is sick and you don’t know if they will live to see you publish your first book, and the pressure and sorrow of that leans against your pen and weighs down every word?

What does it look like to write when the President-Elect is someone whose name you swore you would never write, even in your journal, not out of hatred but because attention fuels his chaos like oxygen fuels a fire? If this were a novel it might be an interesting narrative device to have a character without a name, a whole book in which he is referred to only obliquely. Vonnegut could have done it well. But this is real life, and Vonnegut is gone, and the fire has caught hold of the highest office in the land, and how can you write a story while the world burns down and not mention the arsonist?

What does it look like to write this morning? Last night I came home and told my housemates that our neighbor, who had called the police on us, had said he would come by that evening to chat. He said he wasn’t the one who keyed our car and, “Let’s not escalate this.” Mark and Allison and I touched base, but Allison had a bad migraine from the stress of it all, so Mark and I said we would talk to the neighbor when he came. We were tired, and really wanted to change into sweatpants, but we kept our “nice” jeans on and waited for the doorbell to ring.

I stood in the kitchen while my dinner was cooking, and breathed deeply, and tried to pray. All day and the day before, messages of love and sorrow had been coming in on my phone, by text, by Facebook, and by Twitter. My friends and I needed to feel each other near, and so we sent warm-breasted homing pigeons to each other with tiny messages tied to their legs: “I love you.” “I’m thinking of you.” “You are needed here — don’t despair.” I breathed deeply and tried to relax my shoulders which were tensed to hear the jangle of the doorbell, while my phone made soft little chirps and coos and I could hear the rustling of the pigeons’ feathers as they landed.

And so I breathed deeply, filled the kettle with water, and put it on the stove for my neighbor.

I don’t know what it looks like to write this morning. I don’t even know what it looks like to pray. My neighbor never did come over last night, and so I went to bed and set the alarm as I’ve been doing lately, to get up early and write as I watch the sunrise. I didn’t get anywhere on my essay about 2006, though. I don’t know what it looks like to write in November of 2016. But I do know how to breathe deeply. I’ve been working on that. I do know how to strap a tiny message to a pigeon’s leg and send it out into the night. And I know how to put the kettle on. I learned that just last night.

So that’s what I wrote about today. And, friends, readers, listen — I love you. I’m thinking of you. You are needed here; please don’t despair. As Glennon says, stay close. I have tea and coffee, and my kettle will be on, here at Ten Thousand Places and on my Facebook page. This morning I recommend English Breakfast, or maybe yerba mate (after coffee, of course). Whatever the “how” of writing, I already know the “why” and it’s you.

All my love,
Jessica

***

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To my white friends: Four things we must do today

Last year, in reaction to Sandra Bland’s death after an illegal arrest, I wrote a post to my white friends about four things we could do. The things I named were to listen to the stories of people of color, acknowledge their feelings, lament and mourn along with them, and acknowledge our own complicity as having benefitted from a system that gives us privilege and advantages, and not having fought hard enough to break down that system.

I named those four things as a place to start, and while I still think they are, the news of today calls for something more. 

1) Listen. Yes, we need now more than ever to listen to the stories and testimonies of people of color, acknowledge their pain, and lament along with them.

2) But also intentionally and carefully create space. More than listening, acknowledging, and lamenting, today we need to create space for people of color to grieve without inserting ourselves into the conversation. Too often our attempts to empathize turn into co-opting  the discussion and centering our own pain. A lot has been written about how much more attention and weight is given to a white woman crying than to women of color. Yes, we are hurting, and we must find ways to take care of ourselves, and places to talk and process. But the place for that is not in the comment section of a black woman’s Facebook post, or the public space of Twitter where our voices and pain overshadow those of minorities. Talk to other white folks, in private, and come back when you are ready to stand on the sidelines, in a support role, and center the voices of the marginalized. If you’re not ready to do that today, just listen quietly. 

3) Acknowledge our complicity. While I still think this is vital, I have learned a bit since I wrote that about how such statements come across to people of color. I do think there is a place for them, but I also think we have to do a lot of this work in white spaces, rather than calling on people of color to bear with us during the process. And I also now realize that there is a huge element of guilt and the desire for affirmation even in this process. We act out of a desire to assuage our guilt and be seen as one of the “good” white people, rather than out of a desire to actually make a change. Most of us have mixed motivation. But we have to keep checking ourselves and each other, asking what our motivation is and what the effects of our words are — their fruit, as Christians would say. People of color are tired of hearing words come out of our mouths and never seeing any real change.

4) So, don’t talk about it, do it. Join your local Showing Up For Racial Justice chapter, support Black Lives Matter and other groups fighting for racial justice. (I’ll attach some links here this evening.) Organize and attend protests, sign petitions, make phone calls, hold your elected officials accountable, and start thinking about what it would look like in your own life to give up some of your privilege in order to raise up others. Think about what you would do if it was your own sons and daughters stepping out every day into a world that wasn’t safe for them — and then do that, and keep doing it. And don’t do it for “cookies”, to prove that you are one of the good guys, or to assuage your guilt. The goal should not be to be a pure and shiny white person. The goal should be safety and equality for all people. Until that is accomplished, we have failed, no matter how good we look wearing a #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt in our profile picture. 

That’s what I’ve got for now, friends. 

With all my love,

Jessica