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Particulate Matter– a Lesson in Surrender

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I forgot about this essay until the smoke from the fires burning around the West put me on a kind of house arrest this week.  All the windows were closed, every fan was on, and I longed for the fresh Montana air that I so love.  It reminded me of a perilous fire season in the early 2000′s and I searched through my files until I found this essay.  The baby in it is now a senior in high school, the five year old, a senior in college.  It was in the early days of my motherhood and I felt raw and scared and protective.  There were forest fires raging close to our beloved Montana home, and I was beside myself with the feeling of helplessness.  I was still mostly a city transplant.  I wasn’t completely resigned to what I now accept as the natural order of things in the wilderness.  Thankfully, the man-made structures in our valley escaped destruction that summer.  And thankfully, back here in 2017, the smoke cleared out with last night’s cool winds, the windows are open, and the air is fresh.  We can all breathe deeply again.  Reading this essay brings me back to a time when anything was possible, good or bad, and I was new in the field of surrender. Seventeen years later, I am glad I know that to be in the “flow” is simply to know that there is a “flow” in the first place.  Enjoy!  

Particulate Matter   by Laura Munson  This essay is dedicated to anyone who has lost their home or business to forest fire this summer.  Or whose property is still in peril.  It was originally published in the Mars Hill Review.

Montana is burning, again.  Outside is a slur of orange and floating ash that looks like we are living on the set of a Sci-fi B-movie from the Sixties.  The green grocer says it looks like a Jehovah’s Witness church marquee come true:  the world is ending.  The world is ending and all the Hippies are walking around wearing gas masks as if they will be the chosen race.  The farmers are harvesting their alfalfa crops, lungs and all.  I guess they figure they will meet their maker first.  To me it looks like life inside an old sepia-toned photograph with no one smiling except the baby.

My baby doesn’t know not to smile either.  He is ten weeks old—as old as the fires that burn in Lolo, Werner Peak, Moose Mountain, Big Creek near Glacier National Park and on and on.  One fire burns one thousand acres and counting, just eleven miles away from our house.  Another burns 14,166 acres, northwest of a town called Wisdom.  I close the newspaper and hold my baby tight.  Please God, don’t let our valley burn.download

AM radio has political pundits spouting off against environmentalists—mad that forests have not been thinned in the name of owls and small rodents, their threatened extinction a small price to have paid in exchange for the dozens of houses that burned in last summer’s fires, and the 900 houses state-wide that wait, evacuated, their denizens on cots in high school gymnasiums.  Others think it’s Conspiracy Theory—that the feds are not fighting the fire with the man-power they could in the interest of turning a profit on salvage logging in land otherwise protected as endangered habitat.  Some say the firefighters are heroes.  Some say they are “money-grubbing opportunists” in an impossible war.  Some say that they should let the fires burn—that the only thing that will stop blazes of this magnitude is snow or days and days of heavy rain, and that the millions of dollars being spent on fire lines and air attack is not only a waste of money, but a serious threat to watersheds, and renders the forest less resilient to fire in the end.  Old timers I know who have seen fires rip through this valley before just lift their eyes unto the hills and nod the way you might if Ghandi was your commencement speaker—Ghandi, the same man who said, “Suffering is the badge of the human race.”  My baby sucks and rests and searches for his thumb and actually says “Goo.”

I find myself walking around the kitchen with a fly swatter, taking care of tiny black fates– things I can control.  And I find refuge there.  I can’t see the flames, but I see on the news that in one day the local fire– the Moose fire– has expanded from 4,700 acres to 14,000 acres, with one flame front running four miles in four hours, another cruising three-quarters of a mile in less than twelve minutes.  Even if I could see the flames, my garden hose is short.  I go out to my smoky garden and spend an hour watering a thirty-foot long by six-foot wide perennial bed, and two pots of tomatoes.  I put my faith in my still-green tomatoes.  I have to.  I cannot afford to sap my faith in tomatoes with my fear of fire.  They say they could rage until the October cool-down and it is only August.  They say that fires this big have minds of their own.images (5)

There is skittish solace in the mundane things that need to happen whether our twenty acres of Big Sky are consumed in flames or not.  The baby needs to be fed.  The toilet paper roll replaced.  The dishes washed.  The peanut butter and jelly sandwich assembled for the five year old who will play hopscotch at summer camp today, unimpressed with the ratio of particulate matter to breathable air.  I try to ignore the hot wind that bends the cat tails in the marsh behind our house that in two months has gone from canoe-able pond with mating frogs and foraging Sandhill cranes and resting loons, to a dry, cracked vestige of grasshoppers and confused snails.  I try to ignore the fire bombers that drone overhead back and forth all day, driven by what I must deem as “heroes” in a war that we can only imagine.

I hold my baby and smell his head and think of all of us, living in the mundane despite the magnitude of mortality and belief and fear and faith.  I think of the tiny things that weave us together that we don’t think to talk about, but that engage the moral majority of our minutes here on earth.  Buttons, cups of coffee, socks and shoes.  And I want to cling to these things.  I want to dwell in the community of controllable things.  And instead of feeling their burden, I want to find the blessing there.  Not just because I am scared of fire.  Not just because I look into my baby’s eyes and wonder if our future will be long together, come fire or disease or what may.  But because the flames I cannot see remind me to love what I can love.  Or at the very least, to take the funnel clouds they leave in their skyward wake—sometimes climbing 40,000 feet– as part of the mystery that implores me to be content with my little place on earth.  My humanity.  My chores.  My grocery list.  But the smoke…the unseen flames…must I love them too?  Jim Harrison writes in his Cabin Poem:  I’ve decided to make up my mind/ about nothing, to assume the water mask,/ to finish my life disguised as a creek,/ an eddy, joining at night the full,/ sweet flow, to absorb the sky,/ to swallow the heat and cold, the moon/ and the stars, to swallow myself/ in ceaseless flow.

I struggle with this flow.  I struggle with my community of seens and unseens.
images (4)Outside the wind picks up; it feels gratuitous.  Sinister.  I drop my garden hose, short as it is, and return to the cool, stale-aired house, windows shut tight for weeks now.  I pace like a caged cat, peering out the windows at the pitching and heaving lodge pole pines.  Lodge poles need the high heat of forest fire in order for their cones to drop their seeds.  If the lodge poles could pray, they would be praying for this exact wind.  Am I to accept our destruction for the sake of lodge poles?  Am I any kind of environmentalist—any kind of faithful servant of the Creator, or steward of Creation, if this is my prayer:  Please God, make the wind stop?  Am I to be bound only to the mundane by my faith?  And accept the rest as Higher Order?  The Natural Order of Things?  My own fate therein?  I am a twentieth century woman:  isn’t there something They can do about this?  Some button to push…some button to un-push?

You see, somewhere in this “flow,” I am a mother; it is my instinct to protect.  I know that for me to attempt to fight the fire is fruitless.  What is my fight, then?  My meditation?  My prayer?  Can I be like Arjuna the warrior and fight, as the Hindu God Vishnu instructs, without thoughts of “fruits,” “with spirit unattached?”  Can I find Vishnu’s “meditation centered inwardly and seeking no profit…fight?”  Is my fight to be simply in the preservation of the tiny things that have been proven win-able in the ten digits of my human hands?  Sure Job had to give it all up, but must we all?  Must we at least be willing?  I scrub, I brush, I boil and bake—little strokes of faith—little battles won.  But I am not serene.  I am not surrendered.

I struggle with surrender.

The writer Annie Dillard in her Teaching a Stone to Talk finds God in a rock.  Is my Creator one who puts a rock, a lodge pole, before me?  Before my children?  Before this bounteous 20 acres of Montana in which we play and work and garden and grieve and pray and find home?  What kind of dirty trick is this that we are to love our place on earth—nurture it with all our might, but be willing to give it all up at the same time?  Wendell Berry in his Mad Farmer’s Manifesto says, “take all that you have and be poor.”  I don’t want to be poor spiritually or otherwise, if it means my land—the place where my children fly kites and catch frogs, where my husband and I have conceived our children, seen our first Northern Lights, built a Mountain Bluebird nesting house that the same bluebird returns to every year and whom my daughter has named, Hello Friend—if all this is to be reduced to char.images (2)

The apostle Paul says, “…we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”  I am groaning.  But I have words.  I want rain.  I want windlessness.  I want.  I want.  I want.  Perhaps it is this wanting that the Spirit translates to the Divine.  The Buddhist tradition says that we will not experience release from our suffering as long as we have desires.  So am I a complete spiritual flunky if I admit that I feel deep desire to preserve my place here on earth– that I feel an entitlement to my place?  Just how much should we grin and bear?  Or groan and bear?  What can we pray for and remain faithful?

I realize that there are no finite answers to these questions.  But it helps to know that I am not alone in them.  Tell me then, Humanity, that I can pray for the wind to stop, and then after that…in my utter befuddlement, pray to the sweet and ruthless flow of Creation not only for tomatoes to grow in my pots, but for excellent tomatoes to grow in my pots!  Tell me that the Creator is both Lord of wind and tiny things.  And that we are not to be limited in the extent of our wants—our fears, our passion plays.  Please, I beseech you, Humanity, do not tell me that I am entitled only to my sense of faith and my sense of love but not to a loved thing on earth—destined to accept the burning of my house, or say, disease in my child, as if the wind is more necessary than a child.  The wind is created.  The trees are created.  A child is created.  My house is created.  Tomatoes are created.  My daily schedule of car pools and play dates and meals and laundry are created.  Is there a hierarchy to the importance of created things?  Am I at least as dear to the Creator as a lodge pole pine?  Tell me that there is a prayer for all of us.  Because all of us, on some level, matter.

My five-year old daughter comes in to show me that her first tooth has come out.  If I am to surrender to forest fire, tell me, oh Creator, oh Humanity, that this tooth matters.  I hold the tooth in my palm and smile at her and she obliterates me with three fell swoops:  “I wonder if God likes the fire.  I wonder if the fire likes itself.  I’m going to go outside to play now.”  Maybe surrender is not a letting go, but an acceptance.

A going in, even.

images (3)Tell me then, oh time-travelers in this wondrous and heartbreaking “flow,” that not only does the mundane matter, but that it is holy.  Tell me that we are in this holy pickle together—that in your ultimate helplessness on this planet, you cling to what you can help.  That you too contemplate the advantages of brushing your teeth before or after coffee, almost daily.  Before or after orange juice.  Before or after sex.  Tell me that you too keep the buttons that come in a tiny envelope, safety-pinned to your fine garments but with absolutely no intention of ever using them.  Tell me that sometimes you notice that you incorporate the use of your forehead when you are folding towels.  And that in that instant, you laugh out loud.  Tell me that you laugh out loud.  I want to know that we are both laughing.  From Peoria, Illinois, to burning Montana, to Massachusetts two hundred years ago.  It is the echo of that laughter which will save me at three in the morning, breast-feeding my boy, watching lighting striking, slicing through the smoky night.  And prayer, I suppose.  But after prayer, it is the echo of humanity, not God, I am waiting for.  I want to know that I am not the only one pacing alone in my “smoky house.”

Tell me all this, and then tell me that the Creator, to whom time must certainly not be a linear stretch as it is to we mere mortal peons, must on some level restrict himself/herself/itself enough to the created hill-of-beans of my mind, and find mercy.  Tell me that the execution of these tiny things are our greatest acts of faith.  Because they are our fight.  Our meditations.  Our prayers.  Prayers to the moment.  Prayers to our futures.  Prayers without ceasing.

Most of all, tell me that our Creator loves us for the fears we have that lead us to the clingy worship of tiny things in the first place.  Tell me that you believe the Creator gives us the minutia to help us deal with the Everything Else—to find our connection to the rest of Creation.  That the Creator designed us to need the community of tiny things.  Tell me that the Creator invites all of it, like a parent does a child’s wants for bubble gum in one breath, and the cure for cancer in the next.  And that we can both pray for the wind to stop and for the rains to come.  And the fires to end.  And our children’s lives to be long.  And then in the next breath…the next groan…pray for plump, juicy, hose-fed, sun-kissed tomatoes every summer, smoky or not.images (1)

—2000, Laura Munson, Montana

Note:  If you are travelling to Montana this summer or fall, please enjoy our beautiful wilderness which is full of smoke-free and wide open roads and trails, valleys, rivers, and lakes!   

If you would like to take a break this fall and live the writer’s life in the woods of Montana, find community, find your voice, and maybe even find yourself…check out this video and info, and email the Haven Writing Retreat Team asap to set up a phone call!

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Thank God!

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I’ve noticed something lately that I wish I’d noticed a long time ago.  Maybe if I’d been listening in church as a kid I would have learned it then, but I was too starry eyed– staring at the blues in the stained glass, dreaming about all the things there were to dream about.  That’s what church was for me:  a time to dream.  And believe.  And feel tucked into community between my loving mother and father, to harmonize on good old fashioned hymns, and to take the Holy Eucharist and really believe I was having a feast with my other loving parent:  The Big Guy.  Who somehow could make himself small too, wafer and wine-sized that fit into the cup of my soft little girl fingers.  I was always so thankful for that.  It was the thing that stood out for me Sunday after Sunday:  God could be bigger than the night sky, and small enough to rest on my tongue and be swallowed down with sweet communion wine.  I learned to be grateful because of the Holy Eucharist.

Somewhere along the line, I started expecting things to happen.  And I lost much of my gratitude.  I guess they call that entitlement.  It’s a highly unattractive quality, and one to skip at all costs if you can.  I started to get easily angered when the smallest hardships would happen.  Not the big things– those I took in slowly; piece meal.  I had faith that the Big Guy would handle that stuff.  I just had to pray for grace and for God’s “will” to be done.  That was what my sister, mother, and grandmothers told me, and I listened.  It was a much easier prayer than, “Gimme gimme gimme.”  But the small things…were another ball of wax.  I’d stub my toe and fling the F word.  I’d lose my place in line and want to make “a federal case” about it, bringing in words like “justice” and “fairness” and “wrong.”

Maybe it was because my parents had been brought up during the Depression and wanted my life to be light and blithe, but I don’t remember being taught the lesson that life is not fair.  There is no such thing as “fair.”  And if you think there is, you will suffer.  When people were mean to the little guy, I’d barge in and try to come to their rescue.  Or at least sit with them at lunch if I didn’t feel so brave.  When a kid would cheat in class and get an A to my B (especially when they cheated off of ME), I would fume in my diary, and fume in the school halls, and fume in general.  Sometimes I’d take it out on my Bichon Frise during our obligatory after-school walk around the block.  I’d tie him to a tree, and climb it and hide from the world.

Somewhere in the mix, my very best friends’ lost a sister and a father to cancer, and I realized that the safety I felt standing between my mother and father at church was not the rule.  It was the exception.  I was mad at the world.  Life wasn’t fair.  I did not feel grateful at all.  I felt duped.  The Communion wafer only worked in church.  So that meant…I was mad at God.

I brought my anger to a teacher in high school.  He said, “Well if you’re angry with God, that means you believe in Him.”  That really pissed me off.  I didn’t want to believe in a Creator who would be unfair.  And I took a long break from the whole mess.  I was mad at God, period.

I travelled around, studied other religions and spiritual texts, asked a lot of questions, and started writing books as a way to sort things through.  And somewhere after the birth of my first child, when everything was so pure and full of wonder and mystery and total surrender, gazing into the miracle of birth and new life, I realized…I wasn’t really mad at God.  I was mad at institutions:  school, family, church, society.  I felt like I’d been lied to.  Things didn’t all add up if you showed up a certain way in life.  They just didn’t.  There are no promises, no matter how good of a person you are, or how bad of a person you are.  Life happens.  Life is daily.  And life is painful.  And beautiful too.

And the only thing that made any sense at all was something that glimmered and winked at me from my past.  The Love message.  The Final Commandment.  So I took it and ran.  I wanted to forget about unfairness and suffering.  I just wanted to know what it was to live that final commandment.  I wanted to Love God, and my Neighbor, and maybe even in-so-doing…I’d learn that last little piece:  I’d learn to love Myself.

By and by, I had another child, and both of them grew, and I started to see them raging against a stubbed toe, or a mean girl comment to the underdog, or an injustice in the classroom, or a bad call on the soccer field,  or any number of “unfair” things life dished up.  And I sat them down and said, “I wish I’d have learned this a long time ago:  Life is neither fair.  Nor unfair.  Life is just life.”

They looked at me like I was an anarchist.  And maybe living into the Final Commandment renders a person just that.

“Stop expecting things to go a certain way.  Just love.  Be love.  Forgive.  And love some more,”  I said with the fervor of an Evangelical.  Maybe not the best way to sell a teen on something.

It fell flat.  In a kid’s mind, there’s no muscle in that way of thinking.  Because school teaches us that life is structured and the structure keeps us safe.  We get rewarded for certain behavior, and punished for others.  If we work hard, there are rewards.  If we look the part, we will be rewarded.  If we have certain types of friends and excel at certain types of activities, we are rewarded.  There is no Worst Student award.  There is no So You Had a Bad Year award.  There is no You Sat on the Bench award.  There is no You Eat Lunch Alone award.  You Didn’t Get Into Any of the Colleges You Applied To and Yer Going to the Community College award.  And yeah.  That sucks.  And the very best mothers, and teachers, and aunties will tell you:  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

But I want to teach something different.  I want to say that there aren’t lemons and there isn’t lemonade.  It’s all in your perspective.  That’s all.  For that I can breathe deep.  Feels good, doesn’t it.

So what does that look like in daily life?  Here’s how it played out last week and why I’m driven to write this post this Saturday morning in Montana, with the kids still asleep and no one rushing yet to get anywhere, on time, in uniform, to perform, to “battle,” to win…  Even when I say that it’s not about winning.  They hear Blah blah blah.  For now they are just quiet, and breathing, and warm in their beds and I’m on my second cup of tea, in my pajamas, with nowhere to go.  These are the moments to really receive what the week may have taught in the way of lessons.  And I got served up a good one.

I was having lunch with a friend and she was telling me about her divorce settlement.  She’d just finished her last mediation and she said it was the bravest she’d ever been.  They didn’t have the money to hire lawyers, so they negotiated the Parenting Plan, and all the division of assets, including the house, stock, back taxes…all of it…without any real legal counsel.  Just the mediator making sure they didn’t decapitate one another in the process, making minor suggestions based on who was crossing their arms in front of them and sneering.  “It was terrifying,” she said.  “But I got everything I wanted.  With the exception of my marriage.  But I guess that’s been over a long time.  It’s like a death, though.  You have to grieve.  You can’t skip steps.”  She sighed.  “But I think I came out okay in the settlement.  The mediator seemed to think so, anyway.  And my mother.”

“Thank God,” I caught myself saying.

She looked up at me with a sharpness in her exhausted, cried-out eyes.   “You know…why do we only thank God when things work out the way we want them to?  You know what I’ve learned in this whole divorce experience– watching my kids lose their core family, watching them have to accept another woman into their lives, watching them feel embarrassed in front of their friends, watching the break down of what was for years such a strong foundation…like trying to hold water.  Impossible.  You know what I’ve learned watching that water drain through my fingers no matter what I do to be a better vessel?  We don’t learn from the good times.  I didn’t learn anything from nice vacations to the tropics or years of perfect Christmas card photographs, or theme birthday parties all recorded for posterity’s sake to show what?  That we had something precious and beautiful and powerful and unshakeable?  No.  It didn’t end that way.  And what does that mean?  That we’re all fucked now?  That nothing from the past was real?  And that nothing in the future matters because the water fell through our hands and we couldn’t do a damn thing about it?  No.  No.  No.”

Her face was red and her breath shallow and I wanted to hug her, but I was sort of scared of her.  I’d never seen her so strong and present.  So I just sat there, waiting.  I knew I was about to learn something big if only I had my mind open and my heart wide.

“I’ve learned that the best Thank God we can utter is when things DON’T go the way we want them to.  When life serves up total and utter SHIT!  That’s the time to drop to our knees and say, Thank you, Lord.  Thank you.  Because that’s where the lessons are.  That’s when we grow.  That’s when we can really understand what it is to love in its most pure and simple way.”

I could feel myself resisting it.  Why don’t we want this to be true?  What are we so scared of?  I remembered the last night’s sunset and how it yielded to star after star popping into sight like, “hey– I was here the whole time, you just couldn’t see me.  Maybe you could remember a thing or two about holy mystery and all that dreaming at church you used to do.”  I had felt gratitude that night sitting there, parked by the meadow, watching night come.  But being grateful for divorce?  Or cancer?  Or death?  That takes a master.  Doesn’t it?

I gave it a whirl.  All week when things came up that I didn’t like or that felt uncomfortable or dangerous or just all wrong…I mouthed, “Thank God.”  When the toilet, dishwasher, and hot tub all broke in the same day, I mouthed, through clenched teeth, but still:   “Thank God.”  When I found a pack rat nest under the hood of my truck and black smoke billowed through the tail pipe, I screamed, “Thank God,” but it kind of sounded like a swear word.  Still.  When my kid threw up at school, I said, “Thank God,” and stocked up on chicken broth.  When I tried to release a mouse into my yard rather than snapping its neck with a conventional trap, and my dog attacked it…I whispered…”Thank God,” but with a question mark.  I decided there is no right Thank God.  It’s just an openness to the flow of life being exactly as it is, and even exactly as it should be, if you believe in should.  Or design.  But even if you don’t, gratitude busts through suffering, and I think we could all use a dose of that.

I’ve decided to try to get back to that little girl in church who didn’t necessarily need things to go a certain way.  In those days,  I had the safety of my mother and father and this Creator called God that the minister promised existed and on top of that, loved me.  That was all I needed.  That kind of blind faith is what I want back.  I don’t know who or what God is.  I’ve had hundreds of ideas about this subject for years.  When I was little I used to say, “But who is God’s God?”  I don’t want to have questions like that any more.  I like the mystery.  I often say to my kids, “If we’re supposed to know, we would.  Just receive the message.  Just love.  That’s hard enough.”

But does it have to be so hard?  I think the way to it being easy is in the spirit of what my friend taught me this week.  If we can find gratitude for EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING, and receive it as a holy gift…well, I dare say, with tears in my eyes and the tea kettle telling me there’s a third cup for me this fine Montana morning…that holy gift is the gift of freedom.  May you have thanks for everything that makes up this day.  And may you feel free in it.

 

 

 

 

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Breaking Point: #18

I have been busy writing my novel during this Breaking Point series and so I’ve handed over this platform to you brave souls.  Though I haven’t been responding to your comments, I’ve read every one and I love how people are reaching out to each other with such love and support.  It’s such a testiment to the power of sharing our pain.  You are all amazing human beings.  Hamlet talks about The thousand natural
shocks that flesh is heir to… 
Natural shocks.  Pain is natural.  Normal.  When we resist it, we make it worse.  A deep breath for us all, from this Montana morning.  Thank you to Joy and Karly for today’s brave Breaking Point stories.  yrs. Laura

Here’s an affirmation for you from a GREAT book by David Richo called:  “The Five Things We Cannot Change”:

As I say yes to the fact of suffering, may I accept the dark side of life and find a way through it, and may I then become an escort of compassion to those who also suffer.

Submitted by: Joy Weber

I was 22 years old and lonely as hell. I had moved from Minnesota to upstate New York in hopes of a geographic cure for the pain in my heart.

I was a new RN, working a new job and scared to death that I couldn’t do it. I had very few friends and those I had, I thought I would lose if they ever knew the real me. So I hid in a world of lies and pretended to be whatever I thought they wanted.

And through it all, I drank.

I had been a daily drinker most of my life since I was 15. Sometimes I had to drink in secret. Now that I lived alone, it was easy. I came home from work, closed the blinds, and drank until I “fell asleep” into that desired oblivion.

I drank so I wouldn’t be afraid, I drank so I wouldn’t feel lonely, I drank so I wouldn’t remember my childhood, I drank because it hurt too much to be alive in this world. I drank because I hated myself, I drank, well, because I’m alcoholic. I was completely lost.

And then one night, the alcohol didn’t work. It didn’t take away the pain. I was raw, aching, and desperate. I paced the floor. My chest ached so badly I could hardly breathe. I wanted to die but was too frightened to kill myself. It was 2 in the morning, pitch black in the country, and I was more alone than I had ever been in my life. Morning was still much too far away. My pain and anxiety escalated as I paced. Finally, I stumbled and fell to my knees and something inside of me broke and I began to cry. “Please!” I half-cried, half-yelled to a God I didn’t believe in anymore, “Please!! Help me!!” and the flood of tears finally came.

I wept from the very depths of my soul. Wept all the tears that hadn’t come for years. I cried for the little girl I was who grew up too fast in the face of physical and sexual abuse. I cried with the pain I wasn’t allowed to speak when Daddy left. I cried for all I’d lost and all I’d never had. The sobs wracked my body and the waves kept coming. I cried out my self-hatred, I cried out my fear. I wept for my lost faith which had once been so precious to me. And still I cried through the night with the tears ebbing, flowing and finally, at last, quieting.

The morning dawned with gentle birdsong, glorious orange sunrise, and my heart, for the first time in my life, beginning to know peace.

I went to my first AA meeting that morning.

I am 26 years sober.

 

Submitted by: Karly Pittman, who blogs here.

For most of my adult life, I’ve suffered from various forms of mental illness – over 20 years of eating disorders, 15 years of on and off depression, and lifelong challenges with anxiety. I also cope with several other traits, that while not mental illness, are often shamed by our culture – like high sensitivity, distractibility/ADD, insecurity, and low self esteem.

I’ve felt terribly guilty about these traits, as if I should be able to will myself into being different. (To put it another way, I’ve felt insecure about feeling insecure.)

Yes, I’ve made progress; I’ve seen growth. And yet as the years go by, I’ll be honest – I don’t like the fact that I’m still – after all this work, and all this time – having to cope with anxiety, or depression, or a spinning, stressed out brain. I’m frustrated that I’m still, well, me.

If I examine my beliefs, I see that I approached my healing journey with a very closed fist and rigid, high expectations. My expectations went something like this:  if I do all the right things (forgive and let go and take the high road) and undertake this healing journey (God knows it isn’t easy), then I want a reward. I want a guarantee that all my pain will just go away; that I will be wealthy and happy and healthy and loved.

When I didn’t receive these things, I blamed myself. My pain was proof that there was something very wrong with me. This, my friends, is suffering.

I thought if I did all the “right” things – that if I pray and do yoga and meditate and look at my stuff and surrender and forgive – that I could turn myself into a being of pure light, pure radiance, and all my human messiness would fall away.

It is a subtle, perhaps the most subtle, form of control. In the wake of this control – or rather my lack of it – I feel ashamed. I feel perhaps the deepest shame, a spiritual shame, that I’m failing life 101 and it’s all my fault. I feel like I’ve flunked some spiritual test because I haven’t created my life in the way that I’ve wanted.

We feel so, so ashamed because we can’t control. We can’t control the challenges in our lives, the pain that needs healing, we can’t even control our emotions – they just arise. But this shame is based on a false truth:  that we should be able to control. We were never meant to control life in this way.

Perhaps viewing my mental health challenges, my inherent sensitivity, my humanity itself as something I can control with enough spiritual practice is unkind. Perhaps if I surrendered to it, instead, I may find a much gentler – and wiser – way of relating to it. And perhaps in this kindness, I will find a freedom, a peace even in the midst of anxiety, or sadness or sensitivity.

If I’m honest, I can see that my spiritual seeking was about trying to banish my pain, not care for it. I just hated it. I hated the dark muck of depression, the panicky spiral of anxiety, the wobbly feet of insecurity. I have come to see that as long as I’m relating to my pain from that place – a bargain of, “If I care for you, will you go away?” – I will suffer. I will feel guilty, like I’m being punished, and ashamed, like it’s all my fault.

But to release this suffering means to let go of control. To open my heart and release my expectations, my focus on how my life looks on the outside, my need to have a guarantee for a positive outcome. Big, deep breath.

So as I sat last week, with fresh grief in my heart and tears dripping onto my keyboard, I bowed to my pain. I surrendered. I said, “It’s okay anxiety, I love you. It’s okay depression, I will care for you. It’s okay sensitivity, I’m here.” I stopped fighting against my pain and turned towards it in love and care, allowing it to be.

I think there is no greater love than this – to open to all aspects of ourselves, even our deepest, muckiest, ickiest, most shameful parts, and to wrap them in our arms and say, “I will not abandon you. I will stay with you and I love you.” Maybe my deepest pain, all the mental illness and suffering and food stuff, is just that:  something to learn to love. If I don’t love these parts of me, who will?

When I stop judging my insecurity, my anxiety, my depression, and just allow it to be, I feel free. I feel free because I’m not so tense, fighting against myself. I don’t blame or punish myself for feeling sad or lonely, I reach out for support. I don’t feel so caught in, “It’s all my fault.” Instead, I surrender to the wisdom of detachment. As my friend Deidre says,  “It couldn’t have happened any other way.” Another way of saying this is, “You did the very best you could.”

This morning the Beloved whispers to me, “Dear one, you were never meant to be in control. You were never meant to take on so much. You were never meant to carry so many burdens. Let go, dear child. Let go.”

There is so much about life that is not in our control. Do we have the courage to let go, to accept this, and to open to grace? This journey, as all journeys do, comes back to love. Can I love all of me – even the dark, most painful bits? Even my very, very messy humanity – humanity that may never go away?

Rumi put it this way:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know:
the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.

Perhaps our brokenness – our humanity – is the call that brings us back to love. We fight against it, try to evolve out of it, hide it, overpower it, and then, exhausted and discouraged, we return to love. Can we just love ourselves, right now, in this moment – where we’re feeling afraid, or anxious, or distracted, or lonely, or depressed? Can we care for our pain, just to care for it – and not for any other reason but that it’s simply a very kind thing to do for ourselves?

May we all remember who we are:  fully valuable, enough and worthy with all our tender humanity. The New Testament says, “the truth shall set you free.” This is what I know to be true:  that each and every one of us is lovable, is worthy, is precious, just as we are – with all our human muck, all our challenges, and all our pain.

We are wonderfully and beautifully made, and we are good; very, very good.

 

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Breaking Point: #10

I am hosting an end-of-winter series featuring stories from the trenches of pain.  My hope is that in sharing these breaking points, we will feel less alone.  Thank you all for your bravery.  You are helping the world to heal.  

yrs. Laura

Today we have two Breaking Points.

One of desperation…

Submitted by: Victoria, in London

Sitting in the hall way of my small modern flat.  Just me.  Although the walls were bright, it was dark with no natural light.  The walls were moving in.

What were my choices, there must be choices.  Swinging my straggly hair and becoming aware of an odour I wondered when I last had a bath.  Did I need to do something?  It didn’t matter.  I could not do anything.  I would sit and wait.  And wait some more. Something would happen, it always did.

I could hear the buses in the road and was aware that life was carrying on outside.  Buses, bikes, cars, people bustling, on the way to and from the shops, the bus stop, the park, the library.  But nothing was changing.  It was still the same.  No one was coming to rescue me.  No one was going to knock on the door and solve everything.  If the phone rang I would not be able to ask for help, again.  I cannot ask.  Who would understand?

And what if I tell?  The look of pity and incredulity at my words would be the last pebble that made the earthquake begin.  And it may never stop.  Not ever and this may be the end of the world. The world which is my world which is the only world that I can know.  How am I supposed to know another person’s world, how is that possible?  Which brings me back to here.  And the walls and my bad hygiene because I have no energy to go the bathroom not 3 steps away.

Get the clothes and bury myself, pile them on myself and hide in them so that I do not exist, no one could see me if anyone was here.  Finally, I am not here I am sorted out and I am just a blouse, or a towel or a piece of fabric and no one can tell that I am in the pile of things so I can stay here forever, un noticed.

But no one is here.  And there is no one to see that I am not here.  I know that I am here and I still feel the same.

Nothing has changed, nothing is better and I cannot do this any longer.

And one of healing

Submitted by: Merris Doud

God helps us in times of need even when we want nothing more to do with Him. In my case, He used my dogs to help me through the days following the death of my daughter, Sarah.  I never blamed them, never questioned their love for Sarah or me, never felt anger towards them. They were the perfect instruments for God to use. In the split second that it took my brain to process the words “Sarah took her own life,” my world lost all meaning.  My husband, Mike, had taken the dogs to be boarded.  When I was able to move – to speak, I asked him to bring them home.  As I lay on my bed, feeling a brand of pain that I could never have imagined, the dogs ran in and excitedly jumped on the bed. They immediately sensed that something was horribly wrong and quietly settled, lightly molding their bodies against mine.   Soon they slipped into their afternoon routine, gently snoring as they napped.  They didn’t move; they didn’t speak; they didn’t cry.  They were just there, warm and alive and touching me. And it was comforting, so much more comforting than being told that Sarah’s death was God’s plan, that time would take the pain away, or that Sarah was now in a better place.

Throughout the months that followed, I moved through my days vowing never to love anyone or anything again.  The dogs were always there, either laying on the bed beside me or collapsed like speed bumps on the floor beneath my desk where I tried to work.

I begged anyone who would listen for an explanation, and it infuriated me when they shook their heads looking through me – offering nothing. I felt no such rage towards the dogs.  I asked them no questions; they gave me no answers.  I didn’t expect that from them.  They looked at me in the same way they always had – no pity in their eyes.  Nothing had changed in our relationship, no awkwardness – no impatience for me to get up and carry on.

One morning I woke up to find Maggie, the abandoned pup that Sarah had brought home, standing over me.  She cocked her head to the right then to the left. I swear she smiled as if to say, “There you are. I’ve missed you.”  And I felt something other than pain for the first time since Sarah died. Encouraged, Maggie bent over me, wagging her tailless backside with such vigor that she nearly toppled over. Then she began showering me with wonderful, wet kisses, her sweet puppy breath warm against my skin – awakening my capacity to love. Watching this action from the foot of the bed, Annie, who Sarah had rescued from an animal shelter, jumped up and joined in, happy that we were kissing again.

I believe that was when I started to heal.  Not then, but now I see that in that moment , God revealed to me that there was still joy in my world – not joy as pure as before,  for it would always be filtered through the pain of losing Sarah, but it was there, nonetheless. Both Maggie and Annie are gone now, their purpose fulfilled.  They were special dogs whose lives began as unwanted strays and ended as the esteemed channels that God used to touch me and give me a glimpse of hope.  For without hope – without love, we’re just passing time – waiting for the lights to go out.

For Annie and Maggie

I miss you guys

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Inversion

inversion
Inversion
by Laura A. Munson

It’s lonely in February with just one woodpecker and a few chickadees against the grey. They call it inversion.
Our valley is flanked by the Whitefish Range—foothills to the Rockies– what in summer looks like a towering garden wall. Then winter rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and gets caught along its jagged edges; and we are sequestered here under a low ceiling of grey, from as early as October, to as late as June.
I don’t have the mind for winter much past the end of January. I can’t sleep that long. Day after day of this grey, socking us in, pressing us down, depriving us of vitamin D. I try to work with what is left—with what is not dormant. I become fascinated by paw prints—are those snow hare prints? Mountain Lion? Fox? I go out with a field guide and a ruler. Scat becomes a symbol of communion. Even the deer start to seem exotic. Crows, prophets. The raven, a mystic holy one.
I walk in insomniac circles in the snow to prove that I am alive. Is that the actual dirt of my driveway glinting through the ice? Does the pond look like it’s opening up in the middle—just a bit?
I force bulbs in my kitchen window, missing the wildflowers that
cover the hillsides from June on to the snows—the yellow arnica, the pink roses, the purples of the columbine, wild lupine and geranium, the orange of Indian paintbrush, the blue flax, and on and on until the violet of the asters. The bulbs in my window come up so wan, knowing they are decoys.
I become good with the mawl, splitting kindling, never enough in this undying season. Sometimes I split wood just to hear the echo. Maybe the woodpecker will answer. Maybe it will be a Pileated woodpecker—maybe there will be red in the trees.
It is fashionable to complain. I do not want to complain. I remind myself that it is this precise grey that keeps our valley free from over-development, our hillsides thick with Larch and Fir, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine– not thick with the “rustic chic” of log-accented condos and private ski chalets. These are not Colorado winters bedazzled with sapphire skies and relentless “champagne powder” days. This is still the great Northwest; fertile and wet and dense. And grey. Perhaps that which is so fertile must sleep deeper. Longer.
I slap skins on my skis and hike to the top of the mountain, above the cloud level, just to see what has been procured for pilots and high-flying birds who’ve had the guts to stay. I strap on skis and climb through the grey to remind myself—my skin, my retina– that there is a color in this world brighter than my orange down parka.
The sheen off Glacier National Park is garish. Like a confection. The sun so sovereign. The sky so blue with infinity. My heart rises then sinks: How could we be so…neglected?
And I remember the gluttony of summer. Dipping hot feet into mountain lakes turquoise with mineral-rich glacial run-off, melting lotion into golden shoulders, waking with the birds at the exact blush of dawn, little bundles of fingers purple from picking huckleberries, emerald green peas in a silver pail.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong.
Maybe we are being protected from something that only the sky knows. Maybe the inversion is a great grey net, preserving us, somehow.
It looks so quiet below. Not sinister.
Yes, I decide. We are being preserved.
I breathe into the blue and slide back down under, and for a moment, as the world vanishes into vertigo, I feel free. Floating in-between acute wakefulness and sleep again; a part of the gentle hand of ozone covering us all these months, year after year.
And then it’s the valley again, cut off at the shins. The lake, a white footprint in the middle of it all. And again, I am on my front porch, chin to the grey, but I am thanking it now.
For however else am I to remember the welcome the wildflowers deserve?

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