Wednesday, March 9, 2016

May I Wear a Path

It all started yesterday with International Women's Day; I was thinking about the women who have come before me, both the heroes and the humble. I wondered, what on earth does my life have to do with Margaret Fuller and her 19th century intellectual powerhouse of a life?

Nothing. Nope. Not really. I certainly did not suffer from life-long migraines due to being over educated as a child, in fact my intellect was judged to be below standard for the gifted program in my working class elementary school. No tears shed there, if they'd had a spirit filled dreamers gifted class, I'd have been the queen.

We all follow paths worn by the many steps of those who traveled before we pass by. We all shape our lives after those who have come before either knowingly or not. The question is, then, who am I following? Who made this path?

The answer came today during my writing class at church. We were writing on the topic of "Brokenness". The pattern goes that we read a poem and then write a bit and then share if we want to. I'm not even sure who said what, but I began to think about my great grandmother and how the story goes. She was a teenager in Norway when her sister decided to sail for the United States. Apparently letters were coming back from an aunt that things were so wonderful and so fabulous. If Marta would join her sister Severina then Mrs Johnson, the aunt (or cousin? the story twists in my mind) would pay her fare and she could work it off over time. The story goes that the work would be in the house, in the kitchen and while Marta didn't want to go, her family and her sister, and probably if I understand my DNA correctly, her Scandinavian guilt pushed her to sail.

Of course, the work wasn't in the kitchen, it wasn't in the house. It was in the fields; the sweltering tall prairie fields of South Dakota. And there was no early release. She worked for seven years. Now we would call her an indentured servant. One who had to work off her passage for so many years and then was free. But this ancestor woman of mine was never really free. Her whole life, so the story goes, she wanted to go home. She wanted to smell the wet, green air of Norway. She wanted to climb the hills and smell the sea on every breeze.

But, like all of us, life happened. She married a nice German man; a musician. She had two daughters and then years and years later had a son. She never let her daughters into the kitchen to cook a thing and was never, so the story goes, a very warm mother. Then, on May 4th, 1951, while visiting her daughter, my grandmother, she died.

This is the path I feel beneath my feet. Here are my ancestor women who nursed their babies and rocked them to sleep. The path of the my grandmothers grandmothers who lived as best they could and gave their children the best they could manage. The thousands of dinners set on the table, and hundreds of celebrations of holidays. The cooking and cleaning and managing and making do. I feel those dear ones in my body. They worked so hard and felt such loss. We have had so much leaving and loss on this path. We still do. You and me. Here in this world, we love and live and while maybe our plowing is different now, we still are working so so hard to do the very best we can.

And yet, and yet, I am able to have a bank account and credit and a college degree and I can vote. I have legal rights to my children beyond and outside my marriage (OK, OK, my children are grown men, but go with me here) and for goodness sake I married a man outside my religion and my race! I have a different life.

My path follows the dear worn way of my fore-mothers and it goes so much further. It's almost like I have a secret jetpack that allows me to walk and walk and then when faced with a cliff I don't have to soldier on as best I can. I have a new path, but not really. I have the "leap" button on the path, maybe that's it. I have more powers.

We have learned so much. The women I am drawn to honor are the ones who lived the daily life of getting by and getting on. Some of my other women ancestors were not simple women, but troubled and complicated. Their love for their children is hard to see in the stories told. I carry those paths in my cells, too.

So today, with my writing friends in my writing class I wrote the story of how my great grandmother might have felt. How this was not what she'd planned, how she never wanted to come to the great plains and always, always, always missed home. She pined. I wrote about the ripples of that life-long misery.

Women who are not my ancestors still pine, still get stuck, still become trapped in situations which are not fair nor just. Today. All over. Even where things should be better. And, of course they should be better every where.

Let me honor Marta and her sisters and our cousins everywhere. May my feet wear a path worthy of those who may follow.

May it be so.

Monday, April 13, 2015

When the Light Wins

Here's the thing about depression. You don't really know that you are deep in until someone points it out. Or validates it. Or notices.

At least that's how it was for me.

Today while I was working I hit a road block that had me questioning just why oh why I do the crazy work that I do when I realized something pretty big. A few months ago this very thing would have meant that my work day was over. Road blocks set me spinning into a "no go" zone which meant I might as well give up for the day. Usually it also stopped all practical work; no house work, productive errand or really, anything else would happen. Maybe I'd climb between my cozy flannel sheets and sleep or maybe just curl up on the couch and stay there.

Someone asked me a few months ago how I could tell the difference between the grief of losing my dad and depression. I didn't have much of an answer at the time--my brain was still in a fog, but the question stuck with me. Now, some distance out, I know the precise difference--in fact it is more of a Venn diagram with no intersection at all. Two different animals completely, with maybe a river or even an ocean separating them.

Grief is sadness, loss, regret for missed opportunities and a longing for things that will never be again.

Depression is hopelessness, feeling numb about everyday things (oh my God I have to choose what to eat? What to wear? Really?)  and wishing the pain of living would just be over.

That spin art of depression can take a person to some dark, dark places. For me it also hurt, I mean physically. My joints ached like I had some horrible inflammatory disease. But, the strangest symptom I experienced was an almost completely atonal voice. I think I am usually pretty expressive--but at the height of the depression it bored even me to listen to myself speak. I guess really, everything was flat: voice, energy, will to live.

I'm sure losing my dad contributed to my depression in some ways as did a whole lot of other events in my life. It's not been a good year. Or years. But some of this is about the way I think and the way I've been thinking all my life. Negative, or well, horrible and abusive self-talk can pile up a bit over the decades. It's kind of like laundry--the pile grows and grows until pretty soon you've got nothing left to wear. No place to hide.

For me I came to a point when something happened that one distant part of me recognized as just not OK. It was just too far, and if I squinted a little I could see that maybe I was actually worth at least a smidge more. That's when I finally called the therapist a friend recommended. It was hard to get that diagnosis--the validation that no, it actually was not OK. I was not fine. And not everyone feels this way. Not just depression, but severe. Like--really severe depression with a couple of co-diagnoses for good measure. It was an earthquake of the soul.

Bad stuff. Bad news.

But no. Actually, no. It was not bad news. It was good news. It was really good news because therapy with a good therapist begins to rewire the thoughts and feelings and reality that we all build for ourselves. For me Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a good fit, and it has mended some of my very broken places, at least a little. Still, though, I have done some damage in my life that I'm not sure can be repaired. Folks think I'm maybe just not very organized or that I have terrible follow through. I see it and hear it in the daily interactions. And while my memory is much better I still have a hard time remembering details. Hell, I'm always bad at details and have developed elaborate systems to track them in my normal life. But this depression was brutal on my ability to recall, well, anything.

In truth and hindsight I should have taken a few weeks or maybe months off from work. But in the deep depths it's hard to know what you need. Impossible, even. It never occurred to me to ask.

So, here I am. Hitting road blocks and actually navigating around them. Getting better. Being better.

That is good news. Victory really. I am rebuilding my life. Finding joy and hope. Mental health trouble is so wildly stigmatized in our world, yes still, that I deeply fear even talking about it because, well, because of job searches and personal and professional reputation and being judged for what happened to me as being my new normal when it is absolutely not. But to hide is to be ashamed of the depression. And that gives it power.

That is not OK. No more power for the pull of the dark side. No more. It's over. The light won and the truth is I know that if not right this minute, that pretty soon I'm gonna be OK. For real. Whole and holy and good. And that is a good thing, a very good thing indeed.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014


My dad is entering the final stage of his life. No one has said that to me, but I know it's true.

He's not even really himself anymore, and hasn't been for a while. He's back in the hospital, and I'm not sure he's gonna make it home again. Maybe. H
e's been surprising us for almost two years. But somehow this time is different.

Yes, I'm sad. Not sad for the letting go because at this point there's not a hell of a lot of dignity or meaning for him or for those who love him. Except, of course, doing everything possible so he's comfortable and cared for. I'm more than a thousand miles away, so there's not much real world I can do to take care of him. But I don't want to just be sad. I want to remember.

So, I'm kind of gliding through this day and it's tasks and holding memories. Like mixing homemade root beer in a vat so deep I was up to my elbow stirring with a long wooden paddle- I must have been about five. And the stories he told by sons about each individual lure in his tackle box. And the way he loved our crazy dog who ran away every chance she got. And his love of being busy and just having things to do, even if it was just going to the dollar store and having coffee at the local meeting spot.

I'm not sure what comes next. But it feels like waiting right now. And I'm OK with that. I'll wait. I'll wait.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Through the Dark Places

My weeks are peppered with meetings meetings meetings, all kinds of meetings. Working with the Church of the Larger Fellowship is the most fun I have ever had in an actual job, but if you were to attend all the meetings, it is likely there would be hardly a moment for actually doing anything. We have Theological Reflection or “TR” for short, the “planning all things to all people” meeting which is somehow named the “Big Hairy Meeting” but spelled “Harry” so in my mind I just think “oh, this week we have Harry” and it’s not so scary. There is Adult Faith Development and a monthly regular old staff meeting which is not really about all things to all people but kind of is. And then there are the twice weekly worship meetings. Wow.

Honestly, it’s lovely.

A few weeks back our fearless leader, Rev. Meg Riley, was talking about dealing with children and difficult topics at one of these meetings and she said this: “Do we accompany our children as they go to dark places?”

She was not talking about caves. Or nighttime hikes.

Rev. Meg was talking about helping our children face the dark parts of life—and how those things sometimes come blasting at our children full bore. We can throw our hands out, leap to place our bodies in the path of whatever is happening to our beloved child. And yet sometimes—sometimes there is not one damn thing that we can do to protect that precious being.

They are going to hurt.

Our racist world is going to filter in beyond the enclave we have tried to build. Illness will visit. Family strife: divorce, disease, poverty will find us and by way of us it will find our children. They will experience mental illness, and the hate of dictators and the terror of global warming and its inevitable results. And they will experience the mundane, regular hurts which are not so dramatic but we all know still hurt like hell. Life hurts sometimes. As much as we may try to stop it and prevent it and fix it and hide it, life sometimes just hurts.

And so, do we accompany our children when these things happen? Do we? And if so, then HOW do we accompany them?

Can we witness and allow our beloved children their own experience, not invalidating but allowing them to experience pain and loss and devastation? Can we? Can you? I struggle with wanting to fix it.


No pain, no suffering, no loss. But then of course what happens is that their experience is not validated. They do not feel the healing power of witness. They are left alone on the platform at the train station while I board the “happy train” and completely ditch them.

Well, crap. That’s not a good thing.

And so I try again. Luckily, or horribly, life provides unending chances to navigate pain and loss. So you have ample opportunities to forgive yourself and begin again in love.

Or, well—you go on and do whatever you have to do. I’ll speak for myself.

I have ample opportunities to forgive myself and begin again in love. I will do what I can to accompany my children as they go to dark places. I never want them to be alone there. They need to know that people will love us and walk with us through the most awful of times. We are not alone. They are not alone. I call and text and skype and try to see them in person, but my kids are adults—all grown. It’s not as easy as when they were little and at home and I could sit next to them or bake just the right treat or invite the perfect movie night. Nope. It’s different. And not one bit less important.

I found myself scribbling notes during that particular meeting with Rev. Meg and a bunch of other brilliant CLF folks.

I do not want children; mine or yours or ours or theirs to ever walk through the dark places unaccompanied. May it be so that there is always a treasured adult who says, what…..monsters? Demons? Scary stuff? OK, we got this. Let’s go. Bring it!

And may it be so that sometimes, sometimes….. I will be that adult.  Whether they be my own adult kids, my congregation, my neighbor or some random kid I see who just needs a smile. May it be so.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Good, the Hard and Peeling Potatoes

I am visiting my parents in Minnesota, but not just for fun. My dad had two strokes in the last week. I had to come, even though my mother called me after I booked the flight and emphatically explained that they were FINE, that all was well. I came. 

He spent a couple of days in the hospital, but he's home now and trying to sort out this new normal. I have destroyed the clean kitchen here in my childhood home repeatedly, cooking way too much food. He tries to eat the tons of food.  And he tries not to get frustrated when we cajole him to get rid of catalogs from 1983, but he also shows me the look-book from his Army basic training in 1953 and tells stories about the people he was with  in the photos. 

It's good. And it's hard. 

I find myself folding laundry, peeling potatoes and washing dishes set to music in my head. Actually not just any music. Most of what plays along as the soundtrack to my emotional shoreline of waves washing in and waves washing out are hymns. 

I grew up in a small Unitarian Universalist Fellowship--the hymns I remember from being a kid are "Morning Has Broken" and.....well, yeah. That's all I remember. We probably sang others. But I don't remember them. As a young adult I came back to get married and then to have my children dedicated and then to just come back to church. That's when I started to build this library in my heart of hymns that would rise up at just the moment I needed them. 

The first time I remember this happening I had three young children and we were all at my parents' house, I think we were doing yard work. I remember walking through the back yard with an arm full of tree branches and hearing in my head "I must answer yes to life" over and over again. 

Hey, it was a tough time! Then the verse came to me, it's kind of a plodding hymn in some ways, but it's perfect for working to: 

Just as long as I have breath, I must answer, "Yes" to life; 
though with pain I made my way, still with hope I meet each day. 
If they ask what I did well, tell them I said, "Yes." to life

The hymns came more frequently as the years went by. If you sing a hymn a few times a year it soaks into the resource library of your soul. Of course I have "Spirit of Life" which calls the spirit of love to come and sit with me during times of hopelessness and loss.

"Sing in the heart, all the stirrings of compassion."

The somg most present for me today is one we heard in our Q4M worship this week "All Will Be Well" by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse and while it's not in any of our hymnals (yet!) , it is one of the best songs for keeping on keeping on when things are hard. I have plucked my way through the chorus of this on my guitar, teaching it to groups of children and adults--and they have told me that it helps. It helps. It does. 

All will be well, all will be well all manner of things--will be well. 

No, those aren't Meg Barnhouse's words exactly, they're from Dame Julien of Norwich. But Meg set them to this tune with a beautiful haunting melody and a cadence that matches walking. Or peeling potatoes. And then she wrote verses to explain them. It really does help.

So that's what I did today. I peeled potatoes, and made a way too big batch of homemade beef stew, even though I've been a vegetarian for 15 years, no I didn't eat it, but my dad did. My loved ones here in Minnesota did. As I worked the hymns of my faith bubbled up and walked with me. They bolstered my strength and centered my soul and said:

"baby girl. you are holy" 

and reminded me: 

"though these sheltering walls are thin, may they be strong to keep hate out, and hold love in."

May it be so for me and you and my dad and my mom and my family and your family and every single broken and lovely person on this planet. 


Big, fat, rockin' holy AMEN! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mothering and Letting Go

I have been a mother for almost exactly half of my life. You could argue that even though I'd been out of my parent's house for six years and married for four that I was just barely an adult when that dear first child was born. My husband and I lived in an awful little apartment kitty-corner from where we'd gone to high school. Just before our son was born, my husband painted part of the apartment building in barter for our rent.

But none of that mattered. I was young, we were broke, there was a terrible recession and few jobs, our families thought we were nuts for bringing a child into this mess, and it was all meaningless because I was a mother. A MOTHER!

This feels like a lifetime ago. Now, that little baby who lived with us across from our high school is an adult man, and a fine one at that. He's grown and gone but close enough to be dragged home to help with the yard work which he hates but does anyway because, well, he's a fine man!

The next baby came along almost exactly three years after the first, and he lives most of the year in New York going to college now, at least when he's not adventuring or researching in distant lands. He's gone for months and months at a time. I can see his face on web chat, but I don't get to eat lunch or watch movies with him for absolute eons at a time.

The last baby came along two years later. He's still at home, for now anyway, but turns 18 one week from today. He's headed into what passes for the second year of high school in this house--a second year of community college and if all goes well, he's headed for either a great BFA in musical theater after high school or maybe he'll just launch into a career. If I could choose it would be school. But this has been the biggest lesson of mothering.

Often I do not get to choose.

Often I am sitting on my hands, or biting my tongue or just smiling and waiting as these damn children go off and create lives of their own.

They choose girlfriends and schools and cars and jobs on their own!

Sometimes they even go to the doctor and book haircuts and good lord-- buy SHOES without me.

There was a time that I made all of these things happen for my boys. I even had say over the food that appeared before them and the clothes they had to choose from to wear every day.

And this is just how it should be. I am happy. I love my boys like a deep wide river that powers over every boulder and cliff it meets. Today I saw this photo and thought "there's my heart!"

But look at them! They are grown! They need me, yes. But what they really need is for me to have a full and interesting life and to leave them the hell alone!

We are in the season of leaving. College semesters begin, summer fun and travel are ending, we're settling into a low-key time of school and work getting back to our simple lives. That handsome boy on the right leaves on Friday and I will not lay my eyes on his physical being until Christmas. Christmas, people! I am devastated. And not.

It's a funny thing, the work of a mother is to make herself completely unnecessary to the daily lives of her children. And while yes, I think I may be succeeding in this, letting go of my children is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The task at hand is to rip your heart out, and duct tape it to your child as they march off to their future lives and then smile and princess-wave to all those who are watching....And I have to do it three times.

If I were not a professional church lady I would say out loud "F*CK!! THIS IS HARD!"

Oh, well, I guess I just said it.

It may be the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But I would not have traded it for anything in the world. Not one thing. Not a million things. I have been blessed with this sacred role. I am a mother. A mother.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Stigma--and the Phrase "Commit Suicide"

People commit crimes.

People commit murder and if you want to go there, people commit adultery.

We humans are broken and we screw up and we sometimes act out the past wrongs done to us by screwing up other people--some of them people we absolutely treasure.

When we humans do really bad things we use this language. We commit crimes, we commit ills against society.

But I do not believe that people commit suicide. I believe that suicide is a tragedy and a horror and should never have to happen. I wish that we would cradle one another gently when times are dark and we should never be alone when depression tries to corner us and speak its lies to us about how we are unworthy and unlovable. I also know that sometimes the pain of living gets to be so much for some folks that they can't take it and they do the only thing that makes sense in the crazy twisted moment of that reality, and end their existence on earth.

I do not believe that taking your own life is some kind of a sin. I believe we are all here in this blessed and sometimes cursed life, struggling to do the best we can. And sometimes it hurts like hell. It's awful. Heartbreaking. Devastating to those left behind. But it is not worthy of what we mean when we use "committed". To say that someone has committed suicide, unless you really believe it to be a sin against god that disallows that person from a heavenly afterlife, is old, dated, inaccurate use of language that perpetuates the stigma of mental health problems.

People die by suicide. It is a horrible tragedy. But lets not make it worse by saying that our beloved brother or sister committed something. Language matters, what we say makes a difference and the words we choose change the meaning of what we say.

Let's all say what we really mean.

I am terribly sad that Robin Williams died by suicide. I pray that his loved ones can hold the beautiful memories of his life close as they reel from his loss. I pray that we can all try to take a little more care with one another and to learn to love ourselves--especially our broken parts.

We can take a line from Williams' character in "The Dead Poets Society":

Let us use the words that we mean. Stop the stigma. And let each person on this planet know that we are all, at our very core, whole and holy and good. Love surrounds and lifts us all, even when we cannot feel it. Especially when we cannot feel it. You are so loved. You are. So loved.