Tilting the framework: learning to embrace a change in perspective.

Learning, Living

I’ve been following the same morning routine since January. Having a plan when I get up helps me focus and move into the day smoothly, before the coffee kicks in and really wakes my brain up. I know the majority of people have been working their entire adult life, but as usual, I am not most people. I’m still acclimating to not having the entire stretch of the morning, waking until lunch, to shape however I want.

But this morning I am shaking it up. I’ve used darkness and cold to put-off my reentry into running, but no more. I have such a love/hate relationship with running. For me, it’s hard work. I’m not long and lean. I embody a lot of body to put into and keep in motion. Hips are fine for walking and dancing, but they sure don’t lie when I run. Then there’s the 1/4 dead lung thing which I’ve had so long I don’t know how much it really affects my breathing, I just know I like to blame it when I’m struggling to both breathe and be conscious at the same time.

I’ve been looking forward to this morning almost as much as I’ve been dreading it. Routine is easy, but change alters your entire perspective and shakes you out of complacency. It turns your framework. Even when it’s difficult to breathe.

Last month I read a book which made me start thinking about Buddhism again. I’ve long been fascinated by the philosophy which seems more about flow and less about struggle. So I decided why not? Why not study an ancient philosophy which seems to bring peace by embracing suffering? I’m discovering the thought and lifestyle patterns I’ve been traveling for the last five years or more are already moving me down this path without being intentional about it. Why not continue the journey and see where it leads?

The me who leans into routine and familiarity says this is a ridiculous idea, but the me who knows what it feels like when running transforms into flying, when the breath flows and the legs are powerful and gravity eases its grip, that me knows that tilting my framework is worth both the effort and the upheaval. Routine may bring me pleasure but pushing myself into bursts of challenge and discomfort deepens my capacity for joy and adventure.

It’s important to me to have a plan and a focus every day, but it’s even more important to have those things written down in order to return to them after my life wanders down an alternate path or to cross them off the list and discard them altogether. I didn’t plan to be a runner, or to return to work full-time or to consider agnosticism or Buddhism philosophies to embody in the world. But here we are in the soft dark of a February morning, standing on the edge of my tilted framework, waiting for the coffee to kick in.

January Habits

Happiness Project Experience, Living
Photo of my desk this very morning. My creative process isn't tidy and requires coffee.

Can we talk about the fact that it’s nearly February? It doesn’t seem possible that the first month of the year is almost behind us. Personally, I feel like I climbed a mountain of hard things right at the beginning and that I should be able to coast the rest of the way through the year. Alas, that’s probably not going to happen.

This January is different from many which have come before because it’s the 29th day, and I am still plugging away at the habits I started on day one. Before you walk away in disgust, I want you to know how easily I started/ I picked four things to track: Pause, Move, Journal, Routine.

January’s theme for the Happiness Project Experience is “Self-Knowledge” and my four habits anchor on what I know of myself. Making time to pause and reflect daily (in my case, this includes meditation, daily gratitude practice, and habit tracking) is an activity right in my wheelhouse. If anything, I can be in my head too much. This habit gives me permission and focus without letting my internal narrative have control of my mood and sabotage my intentions.

Move is the habit which challenges me this month. I often make my habits very ambitiously which inevitably brings a crash and burn. I do have a big ambitious goal of running ten miles by the end of 2019. But it’s January, and the only thing I had to do this month was to move. Most mornings I did a 7-minute HIIT routine or yoga. Somedays I did more – and occasionally a lot more. Every day, I moved because something is infinitely better than nothing. Next month I want to actually start some running if the lengthening days will cooperate. It’s difficult to run on rural roads in the dark.

Journal is the cog around which everything this month and probably in the months to come hinges. By journaling, I mean keeping my bullet journal. This month my bujo tracked my habits, planned dinner and mapped out my daily and weekly intentions. It’s also where I did my gratitude practice at the end of the day. Basically, spending five minutes in my journal, reviewing what happened and looking ahead to the next day meets a large portion of my pause habit. By making my habits entwined, I was much more likely to complete them all.

Routine is the scaffold which upheld my other habits. This month I focused on a morning routine. I built time into the morning routine for exercise (Move) and meditation (pause). I look ahead to dinner and tackle a daily chore or two (Journal). I didn’t set an intention for writing for this month, but I did make it part of my routine most mornings which led to considerably more than when I am just winging it. I consider this a bonus habit which I hope to build on in the months to come. February I will work on building a nighttime routine hopefully is just as rewarding.

There are other things I am tracking with my 19 for 2019, but I haven’t had time to sit and monitor that progress yet (pause) and may not until this weekend. Perhaps they will be part of a second month’s end blog post in case these things interest you.

I do want to share how very satisfying it is to look over my habit tracking for the month and see how well or how sporadically I engaged my intentions. My habits don’t move mountains but they have significantly impacted my happiness level this month which ripples out into every area of my life. I’m so pleased with the investment I made in myself with this project and am hopeful that each month will bring more growth and change instead of each month simply drifting into the next as has happened in years past.

For February, the focus will be on energy. I haven’t yet set all my intentions as I want to finish this month fully and well before I leap to the next one.

Day by Day

Happiness Project Experience, Learning, Living

Someone asked me the other day about the Happiness Project. I talked about it for a few minutes, about why I paid to join a coaching system and what I hope to accomplish. Then there was a follow-up question: So how many “resolutions” do you have this year?

I don’t know. I’m taking it day by day and month by month.

In years past, I’ve launched all my initiatives at the same time. Do all the things, every day! Do them without missing a day! If you skip a day you’ve ruined everything! Friends, perfectionism ain’t no joke. She’s a terrible life coach.

In my divorce from the rules and regulations of religion, I’ve developed softer lines and fuzzier edges (not just from stress eating and Sunday morning mimosas). My inner voice is softer. I’m no longer thinking in all or nothing terms. I believe not in transformation but in evolution.

This year will bring changes, some of which I will plan, but many of which I will not.

These changes will not all happen at once, but they will happen.

I will hold space to welcome the unknown and the unexpected.

For January, I have four foundational habits I am forming:

  • Pause morning and evening – these are moments of planning, meditation, and evaluation. Sometimes I journal, but if I’m tired or in a hurry, simply a moment or two will recenter and redirect me on the path I intended for the day, or create space for a new intention. Yep, I’ll change a whole plan mid-day if unforeseen events require it, and call it a win when I adapt rather than resist.
  • Keep a bullet journal – I’ve planned and failed at this more often than I care to admit. But my pausing habit facilitates my bujo habit. I’m experiencing more success by pairing the habits and more happiness by tracking, recording and remembering things by keeping them all in one place. And it’s pretty yellow, which makes me smile each time I pick it up.
  • Plan Dinner – This habit pairs with my bujo. I don’t know about you, but when I know what’s for dinner on a daily basis, we eat better and shop better. Also, it cuts down on cranky late afternoon texts with my Hunky demanding a dinner plan. We are both more inclined to cook rather than eating cereal when we know what is prepped and available. Eventually I want to plan out a couple weeks or even a month at a time, but for now, I plan dinner down one side of my bujo page and the groceries required on the other. In a month or so, this will make grocery lists so much easier and that will also make me happier.
  • Move – I do have some physical goals this year that will involve more specific and intense habits, but those habits aren’t for this month which is already pretty full. Instead, I just need to get my ass out of bed, off the couch and away from the desk chair. I follow a 7-minute HIIT many mornings or a 4-minute kettlebell routine. I step out for a 4 o’clock walk, take the stairs, park farther away, walk if it’s under 5 minutes, whatever comes to mind to make motion part of my daily experience, I do it, and I don’t think too hard about it. Good enough is good enough, right now.

Day by day these four small things are making me happier and making my life flow more smoothly. Doing them regularly may take an extra 30 – 40 minutes, but generally save me well more than that amount each day. They are investments in myself, my family and my time. They make me happier which is what the Happiness Project is all about.

For the months to come, I have some general ideas and a rough sketch of what goals will fit where, but I’m taking it day by day and month by month. Change will come whether I want it or not, the question is, will I have the tools to shape those changes or will I simply let them roll me along with them? I’m choosing my tools this year, but prepared to enjoy the rolling along for a short time, if and when it comes.

What changes are you making this year? What tools are you using?

Embody

Healing, Living

In November, I wrote about how 2018 was a year without a name. The concept of a word or theme for the year is fairly widespread (go ahead, google it if you need more information.), and I have taken part in the concept for years. Maybe you think it’s hokey or gimmicky, which is fine, your word for the year can be ‘cranky-pants’, but for me, it’s a deeply spiritual experience.

I listened for this year’s word for a long time. I knew it wouldn’t be anything related to church culture. I knew I wanted it to be self-centered (not in a selfish way, but in continuing to focus on self-love, self-healing, a generative and growing word.) I knew it needed to be feminine and empowering, fully accepting of where I am while allowing me to develop bigger dreams, bigger ideals, and bigger love.

One of the foundational tenets of most Christian theology centers on the depravity of humankind. We don’t just do bad things; we are bad, born inherently broken and unworthy of Love. To be indoctrinated with this message is to learn to hate your self. Hating your words and your actions is bad enough, but it can teach you to hate your very flesh. If you’re also a woman? Forget about it. You ate the fruit; you caused the fall, and the patriarchy has reminded you of it ever since. You are doubly damned.

I’ve lived this reality for a long time, even when I stopped believing it, I couldn’t escape a culture that was steeped in it. Breaking free of this destructive and decidedly unloving doctrine has been like picking sand out of jello. Just when you think you’ve removed it all, you find a little more crunching between your teeth. Believing this body I inhabit is inherently divine and capable of producing beautiful and miraculous things is a conscious act of will every day.

For a long time, I thought my word would be ‘Goddess’ honoring the process of coming to know the Divine Feminine. But ultimately, this word still places the emphasis outside my actual body, an outside being or force who acts upon me, which I think is a disempowering view of Divine Love.

Embody is a word which cannot be divided from the messy muscle, blood, and bone of humanity. It is flesh-bound even as it leaves the lips. And yet it is also deeply entwined with the spiritual. As we think in our hearts, so will our body behave. We will embody that which we believe, understand and feel, and we will be affected mentally and emotionally by what our bodies encounter, and how they perform. We are bound together, flesh and soul.

The Gospel of John begins with a beautiful poem: The Word became flesh and lived with us.

I often think of Jesus, His never-ending welcome to those who were considered outside the love of God and man, unworthy and dirty, wounded in body and soul. Religious men hated him for his welcoming spirit, his work of unbiased love and healing. People flocked to his touch and his message of invitation: All who are weary and heavy laden, come… Bring your wounds and your loneliness and receive restoration. Remember you are loved. You always have been.

Fundamentalism has lost this message somewhere in it’s striving to attain what it’s had all along: worthiness and welcome. I hope being embodied will remind me that this body, with its scars, its unshapely bulges, its stretch marks, and failures is that I have always been divinely inhabited by an overwhelming Love, perhaps wandering, but never lost. This humanity cannot be separated from Divinity any more than I can separate my soul from my skin and still exist.

Whatever it is I wish to see in the world, I must first be in the world. This one is perhaps the hardest for me. It is much easier to accept love than to be it, but the two are also impossible to separate. The more open we are to love in the world, the more readily we lavish it on others. Love isn’t merely what we feel or say (if I had a dollar for every time I heard my abuse was enacted “out of love” last year…), it’s what we birth from our bodies in the way we make caress the world as we move through it.

2019 will be a year in which I become what I believe, and so I must curiously explore and wisely choose who and what influences me, and I will practice creative love for myself, for humanity and for the earth.

Embody.

Beyond Belief

Happiness Project Experience, Healing, Learning, Living

So here we are, at the dawn of a new year. I’ve thought quite a bit about this writing space during the waning days of 2018. I’ve considered its presence and its purpose, how I have used my voice and how I want to use it moving forward. I even considered how I felt about having shared my experience in so public a forum, knowing what people are saying about the things I write and the person they assume I have become.

Vulnerability isn’t easy at any time, but least of all when it questions the most basic tenets of foundational belief systems.

2019 is a brand new page to write upon. I have considered whether I want to keep sharing the story of my experience with fundamental theology, and why I understand now that unless it evolves into wider, more open space, it will continue to devolve into more rigid and abusive means of expression. Unfortunately, when the stakes are the eternal damnation of your soul, questions and doubts are singularly dangerous. Slippery slopes end only in lakes of fire.

I can do nothing to change the path I’ve already walked. I can’t retrieve the years I lost to narrow-minded concepts and “loving” with an agenda. But I do know I am in good company where regrets are concerned. We’ve all gathered a fair collection, and now it’s our decision how far we carry them, and what lessons we will take when we lay them down.

For me, I’m still working it all out: faith, wholeheartedness, emotional health, relationships, kindness, empathy, loving humanity. It’s hard work interspersed with tremendous beauty and glorious belly laughs. I want to end my days feeling I have lived them well, not that I have lost myself in the bitterness of what has passed.

And yet, there is an empty space which demands the voices of those who have been down the slippery slope and lived to tell the tale. Whether we call ourselves the Nones or the fringes, whether we are humanists or agnostics or atheists or simply none of the above, there is space for us to come together and share ourselves and our dream of a better world and kinder humanity, a space beyond belief. Whatever label you affix to its members, I believe that space is sacred, and it needs voices brave enough to stand up and say, “A shitty thing happened to me! I was changed by that thing, but I am not defined by that thing.”

I’m developing a set of personal commandments, which I am sure I will talk about more in the days to come. One of the fundamental understandings upon which I intend to live is this:

People will love me. People won’t love me. Carry on.

I won’t continue to dwell in the events leading up to and culminating our graduation from religion in 2018, but I also won’t ignore they happened, and they still happen to people who desperately need to know they aren’t alone.

It’s been over twenty years since I had cancer, yet every time I hold space for someone walking their own cancer journey, it hurts as much as it did the first day a surgeon said to me, “You have a cancer.” I have lived that moment a hundred thousand times in my mind, and will probably live it a hundred thousand more, but I can carry it and not be victim to it as long as I let it remind me how strong it made me, and the rare and strange gifts it left behind.

I can follow this same pattern with my experience of spiritual abuse. I can hold space and still live and grow and move away from the reality of it. The reality will fade, but the experience will remain, and others will need to hear it.

I intend for 2019 to be a year beyond belief, outside of the faith constructs which guided me at one time, but which eventually strangled and expelled me.

I also hope 2019 will be a year of growth, experience, and adventure. I invested in myself and joined the Happiness Project Experience (The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is a book I have read and reread and enjoyed every time). I believe there is space for this voice too, the voice of a woman rediscovering who she is in the middle years of life, a woman embarking on a journey after the kids are raised and after a year where everything, everything changed.

So much change happened unintentionally in 2018 that it excites me to imagine how much can change when I intentionally set out to expand my life, my heart, my understanding of the world, and my love for myself, for humanity and for the earth. The possibilities are endless. There is space for that adventure and all the stories and ponderings it brings.

Thus we ring in a whole new year in this space. People will love it. People won’t love it. And that’s exactly as it should be.

The Box of Disorder: Meeting the Divine on the slippery slope.

Learning
During the Summer of 2017, I did a lot of writing. Shortly after I began writing about my faith journey, I was presented with the contract of silence. I stopped writing and even closed down the site where my writing was found, but I saved most of what was written there. When I talk about my experience over the last several years, it is impossible not to talk about the experience of deconstruction. The box of order and this post were two of the most honest things I’d written, so I wanted to share them again before I start talking about reconstruction – or as I like to call it: Diving into heresy.
Almost everyone has opened the box of disorder. Some of us flirt with it many times in our lives but never dare to climb inside. Some of us climb in and never leave, unfortunately. Disorder isn’t an easy place to live.  Most people who do climb inside this box react one of two ways: by returning to the order box due to fear, guilt or shame (it happened to me), or by embracing disorder, eventually emerging to enter the box of reorder (this is currently happening to me).
 Usually we face the box of disorder because something catastrophic happens in our lives. Illness, loss, tragedy, or a drastic shift in life circumstances can all send our idols of order crashing to the ground. We stop being certain of anything; we aren’t sure where to turn.  The box of disorder feels like a carnival fun-house with unlevel floors, distorted mirrors, and hard-to-find exits.
 I’ve spent the last few years deep in this box, attuned to terms used to describe the experience: dark night of the soul, backsliding, crisis of faith, falling upward, and my personal favorite, the slippery slope. None of them are particularly appealing, with good reason.  In the box of disorder, we are likely to lose our identity, our certainty, some of our friends and possibly the support of our faith community. It’s a messy, bloody process.
 Sometimes, the box of disorder starts with a simple question: is that really true? You may have heard this question before. The serpent used it on Eve in the Garden of Eden myth. Did God really say that? Is it really true?  The story ends with disastrous consequences, and humanity has avoided the question ever since. It’s easier to simply accept what we are told without question and cling to order in an attempt to avoid pain.
 I don’t say this in condemnation, having done it myself.  Sometimes the answer to the question is it really true is too big, too terrible, too full of unknown consequences to face.  When this happens, we retreat to the box of order.  Possibly many, many times, we open the lid of disorder to discover we can’t face what’s inside. So we retreat, again and again, and again, until one day, we simply can’t accept the easy answers anymore.
 I believe my descent down the slippery slope began just this way, with one question that created a crack in my order box. I ignored the crack for a long time. But like a scab we can’t stop picking, I never left it entirely alone. Eventually, more cracks appeared.  They became harder to hide. My box was splintering, drawing attention.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, the consequences for my defection were swift and terrible. When the dust settled, I mended the box of order as best I could,  and climbed back inside as deeply as I could. I stayed there for many years, uncomfortable and unable to forget my questions, but terrified of what the box of disorder held.
Eventually, a series of difficult events created too much tension and discomfort to remain. Glue and duct tape, even my prayers and fears couldn’t hold the box together anymore.
I shattered.
 I couldn’t stop asking the question, is it really true, of every belief, rule, relationship, person and experience I knew.  This is disorder.
 But let’s go back to Adam and Eve a moment.  Yes, when faced with the question, ‘is this really true’, they encountered disastrous consequences. However, the more I reflect on this story, the more I realize something very important. Ejection from the Garden of Eden is the best thing for Adam and Eve How often,  in wisdom literature, even in nature itself, do we see created beings become stronger, better versions of themselves as a result of distress?  We see it in diamonds, gold, marble, trees, flowers even our very own bones.
 The more I experience life and the Divine, the more convinced I am the Garden of the creation myth, like the box of order, is a beautiful beginning, but not a place we are meant to stay. If we want to become more in tune with the Divine, we need Her Spirit within us, which isn’t possible in the Garden. We know and love God best when we also experience that which is not God. Inside the Garden, just as in the box of order, there is no choice for us to make.
 Disorder does not reduce. It refines. We become more wholly ourselves when we experience doubt, disorder and yes, brokenness.
 If we believe, which I do, that Jesus isn’t Plan B, hastily initiated because of our screw-up, then it is true that leaving the Garden and braving the wilderness was always the best possible way for us to become enfleshed Gods and Goddesses ourselves. We didn’t accidentally fall, we were created to fall.  In falling we are finally swept up into the exhilarating, awesome, unfathomable grace of the Divine.
 Unless we leave the Garden, the box of order, there are ways and faces of God She cannot reveal to us. Her love is so enormous, so all-encompassing that She desires to unfold and unfold and unfold again each and every time we ask, is this really true?  But we must find the courage to ask. When at last we do, She will begin to pull down all the false and comforting constructs we only thought were true, one by one.
 So we slide down the slippery slope tail-over-tea-kettle, meeting Divinity with every tumble. Looking right and left, we see Her tumbling beside us all the while, and when we finally reach the bottom, if we ever actually do, we also find Her waiting there to catch us in Her wide open arms, wondering why we waited so long to fall.
 The box of disorder is the scariest, loneliest, hardest, most beautiful, most miraculous, most invigorating place I’ve ever existed. Like Adam and Eve, I can’t go back to the Garden where order reigns. The way is closed, not as punishment, but as a blessing. The wide world lies open before me, and the Divine inhabits every inch of it, even me.
 Is it really true?  Yes, but not the rigid ways we have been taught. Life, faith, love, God, meaning, death, loss, grief, pain, all are so much bigger and more beautiful than we ever dared dream when we lived in the Garden.

Reclaiming Anticipation

Healing, Learning

When I was a child, we traveled every summer to my grandmother’s house on a lake in Michigan. I didn’t have a perfect life – no one does – but I can tell you those Michigan summers were absolutely idyllic, cousins everywhere, in and out of the water all day long, the soft Michigan grass which even on the hottest days still feels cool under the trees. My grandmother was a big believer in the thirty-minute rule: no one gets back in the water for thirty minutes after eating. This meant we’d swim and play until our stomachs were caving in, and then after eating we’d hover at the end of the dock, daring each other to put our toes in, our legs in, to jump in and get right back out without being caught. Meanwhile, Grandma yelled random threats through the screen doors.

I used to plan for these trips for hours. I loved to make packing lists and activity lists for the long car ride. To this day, I still love a car trip. To me, interstates and rest areas mean something soul healing and wonderful at the end, even if, in reality, they don’t. I don’t know if these summertime trips are where my joy of anticipation began, but it is something I have carried with me all my life. Many people love surprises, and I do too, but I love surprises so much more when they are sprung in advance so I can anticipate through the time leading up to the experience. When Craig scheduled a session in a shark cage at Sea World for my birthday, he told me months ahead of time, longest lasting gift ever!

Gretchen Rubin, one of my favorite happiness researchers, posits that anticipation, experience, and revisiting are all equally important when it comes to gauging a happy/memorable experience. Even things which are difficult in the moment, like running a half marathon, can be encapsulated as a joyful memory when paired with the anticipation of the event, and revisiting the highlights often. My own half marathon, which was excruciating, remains fixed in my mind as a fabulous weekend. Although, I’m not sure it’s a weekend I want to repeat except as a spectator.

Lately, I haven’t been able to enjoy anticipation like I used to. Trauma and abuse usurped the lovely expectant glow and turned it into a sort of dread. I learned to fear what might be coming next and to believe that most events I enjoy would be met with repercussions. Even worse, We would experience a surprise emotional ambush directly preceding an anticipated event which would taint the rest of the experience. This happened the day before we went on vacation more than once, establishing our abuser’s power, as if it were ever threatened, and effectively overshadowing the joy and relaxation we’d been anticipating.

Because I never knew what might trigger the next attack, anticipation turned into anxiety. I couldn’t escape the undercurrent of dread that something painful was coming. I looked forward to trips as an escape from a poisonous environment and dreaded returning. There were certainly moments and events which I enjoyed, but none of them were free of the shadow of abuse. Like a greasy oil slick, it covered over and tainted everything with a slimy, noxious sheen.

This pattern of emotional abuse and response didn’t happen overnight. It escalated gradually for years. Even though the direct abusive influence ended months ago, I now have to do the hard work of relearning how to be myself. It’s a long journey.

Last week, Craig and I went to Atlanta to see Rob Bell who has been a voice of sanity, for me especially, over the last few years. Because he knows me, my husband told me we were going well in advance so I could enjoy the anticipation. This is when I began to really notice that looking forward to this event, which would definitely not be approved of by church leaders who once governed our lives, (if you are outside the arena of over-blown religious drama, Rob Bell is definitely a heretic in fundamentalist circles), triggered fear and anxiety, even though those men no longer have the means to exert any control over our lives. My ability to anticipate has been so warped by trauma, that I am in danger of losing it entirely.

But knowledge is power, right?

One of the gifts writing and sharing my spiritual abuse experience is that it helps me be a better analyst of where the deepest wounds to my psyche are and to recognize the best ways to reverse the effects of trauma. I believe distance and time will bring healing, but I want to accelerate the process, to leave the taint of oppressive religious systems behind and enjoy the gift of being me again. I want to anticipate good things without fear of the inevitable painful response. I am learning how to be a vulnerable human again, and sometimes it hurts. But like childbirth, it hurts in a way that brings forth life. I can survive this labor, knowing what comes next.

Recently, Craig and I attended a show, which was officially my professional coming out as his wife. Until now, everyone has known about me, but not met me. I don’t really figure in to his work experience – so different from ministry where I couldn’t escape scrutiny and expectation if I tried, which I did, desperately. Even though I had no prior experience with most of the people I knew I would meet, I carried a little ball of fear and dread around with me the entire week before. I tried to anticipate with pleasure but the switch kept flipping to a low-level anxiety, creating a familiar nauseous thrum in my body.

But I went. I actually had fun. I met people, delightful people, people who were warm and welcoming and happy to meet me. People who have no expectation beyond meeting again at the next social event, which I am now able to anticipate, if not fully, at least without the anxiety triggers I experienced with the first meeting. When I see that bitch Anxiety rise up in my mind now, I have a good memory to draw on to put her in her place.

I want to anticipate good things fully, the way I used to. I’m taking back my power to look forward to what happens next.
My abusers can’t have it.
I am the keeper of my own soul, and I’m taking back all the power I foolishly traded away for a lie.

I’m really looking forward to the whole experience.

The day I said what I wanted

Healing, Living

” We don’t need to call everything we are doing ministry. Just call it Tuesday. That’s what people who are becoming love do.” – Bob Goff

It continues to be a surprise to me whenever I realize a new sense of freedom. One of the insidious traits of emotional abuse is its subtlety. Power and pressure exert themselves gradually until, like the parable of the frog in the pot of boiling water, you are stuck in a very dangerous situation. There are so many things I stopped doing or saying for fear of the potential repercussions, even when no one overtly coerced me to stop (though that happened as well). It was easier to alter my behavior bit by bit, cutting off pieces of myself, until, over time, I was carrying entire dead limbs around as though they were still part of me. I realize, now, how much of a shadow self I became, walking, breathing and talking, but not as myself. I was a three-dimensional projection of an identity someone else invented.

Fortunately for me, it seems a dying soul can be reanimated.

Even though we’ve been out of church for six months, it wasn’t until the final severance check cleared that I stopped feeling the weight of fear. For the first three months, we depended on those checks as the pieces of Craig’s new career fell – so excruciatingly slowly – into place. After that, I won’t lie, we just wanted to make sure we received every bit of guilt money. We gave a lot to that place, I didn’t plan to leave any part of myself behind, including my money, when we left. Selfish? Probably. I’m out of F—s where that’s concerned.

My rebirth is an ongoing process where I discover pieces of myself in forgotten corners and entire rooms of my soul that I’d closed off and shuttered. I’m rediscovering my love of a daily deep belly laugh. I look forward to Craig coming home from work, not that I was ever sad to see him before, but he always brought the weight of ministry home with him along with an emotional darkness from a toxic work environment. We still have bad days, of course, but these are regular bad days. We know tomorrow probably won’t be more of the same. Six months later, I am still profoundly grateful for this truth.

All of these pieces make up the picture for what happened at Aldi last week. But before I share the story, you should know, I have actively avoided seeing people associated with ministry. I haven’t felt free to talk about my experience, and sometimes, I still have anxiety attacks. It’s better to avoid triggers. But I’m finding my voice again, and the fear is smaller now, much more manageable. My mantra is no longer, “in and out and no one sees me” every time I go into a store. Everywhere Craig goes it’s a festival of reunions, I just want to walk away clean.

But on this particular day, I did see someone. Someone who publicly shamed me in the past for my political views. Not a church leader, another male who felt the right to put me in my place because patriarchy is the theology on which he was raised.

We exchanged the normal small talk; he inquired about Craig’s job. When I responded with a brief description of his career he responded, Mmmmm-hmmmm. Still in ministry.

I couldn’t think of a way to vocalize what it meant for a man to tell me AGAIN what my life centered around, not even someone outside the sphere of abuse. No one gets to do that. We are not “in ministry.” We are most certainly and completely out of “ministry”. If I have my say, we will never “do ministry” again.

These days we love without agenda, coercion or fear. We do not feel the need to convert the world to our way of thinking. If anything, we’ve converted to the “dark side” ourselves, seeing the Divine in more ways and more people than we’d dared before. The kingdom just keeps getting bigger now that we’re outside the walls of religion. No, we are not in ministry, the exclusivism and religious overtones of that word make me want to vomit directly on my shoes.

But I was too frozen to say that, instead I paused a moment and said,

Well, he does still ask people for a lot of money.

He walked away and then? Well, then I laughed. I went out to the parking lot and held on to my knees and laughed until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I texted Craig. I came home and told my children because I dared to look patriarchy right in the face and laugh at its rigid and restrictive definitions. I said exactly how I felt about ministry and I didn’t give a damn who heard about it, or what they think of it.

The problem with religious words is how exclusive they can be. We use them to define who is out and who is in. This person who identifies as an evangelical Christian, when he works with students, it’s ministry. But when this person on the LGBTQ spectrum dares to take a role with students, it’s part of the subversive gay agenda. And if a Muslim should enter those spaces, well then the entire system’s going to hell. Good works are good works only if the “right” person engages in them.

On the other hand, what if Craig’s job didn’t involve college students and education, but instead he opened a bar and bartended for a living. He’s a pretty amazing guy, and his heart has room for all the world, plus one. If he worked at a bar, all the traits which made him a beloved pastor and which make him a fantastic college administrator would be right there with him. But he wouldn’t be in ministry, right? Be honest, what would you call it? What about your religious friends?

It wasn’t long after Jesus departed Earth that humanity began establishing dividing lines: people who eat this way; not people who eat that way, people with this piece of flesh cut off; not people with this piece of flesh still on. We aren’t sure of our position so we put others beneath us as a buffer. You’re in. You’re out. Sheep. Goats. We stopped letting people explore and define their own spirituality not for fear they would get it wrong, but for fear that somehow it might prove to us that we’d been wrong all along.

In. Out. Goats. Sheep.

I know how humbling that oh shit moment is. Oh shit, I got it wrong and I was a terrible person to many people with my rules and my doctrine and my certainty and my exclusion. This is my lived experience so often these past few years.

It hurts to know the hurt I’ve caused, the ways I have misrepresented Love in the name of correctness. Oh shit, indeed. But it’s also so divinely beautiful to know I could be so incredibly wrong, and still so incredibly loved. In response to this, the only thing I can do is try to love better, deeper, less exclusively. I’m not in ministry, with its eye toward heaven, I’m in love with this world and the people in it. I don’t give a damn who’s in or who’s out. I no longer believe in Out. There’s only love, and I’m all in. We’re all in.

Which brings me back to Aldi. Over the past few weeks, the room in my soul where I have the freedom to say what I want, a room which I tightly closed several years ago, has been leaking. I’ve said things behind the anonymity of keyboard that I was terrified to say face to face. I’ve unnamed and named, but safely, within the confines of my own home. Until last week, when I opened my mouth and said NO. Maybe the words weren’t no, but the soul cry was.

No, you don’t get to define my life anymore.
No, you don’t get to elevate anything I am related to with religious underpinnings.
No, I’m not who you say I am, nor is my husband, nor my children, nor my choices.

No. No. No.

This whole freedom thing? It just keeps getting better and better. I’m in for the long journey.

How to start a conversation

Learning, Living

So the question becomes what now? What’s next after this round of Awakening?

Sharing the story, albeit the short version, of my journey with church and fundamental evangelicalism is an important part of my healing. But I don’t want to stay a victim, only talking about what happened and how it broke me, only focusing on the hurt and shame. I want more and better than what I’ve experienced. The only way out may be through, but sitting at the end of the tunnel looking over my shoulder isn’t moving forward.

I’ve come to realize that I’ve written about the spiritual for so long, I realize it’s where I am most comfortable. For two years I wrote very little at all never knowing what word or phrase would trigger my abuser(s). I wonder now if this fear has been part of my overall spiritual apathy. For the last year, I’ve basically pushed anything of a religious or spiritual nature away from my attention. I’m so disgusted by the fundamentalist response to an abhorrent political climate that I don’t even want to be associated with those practices or even sit in the buildings.

But I do feel that something calling me back to Center, and apparently that voice demands words, lots of words as part of the birthing process. Cutting off my Spirit is the same as ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. I’m facing the same questions that many nones and dones everywhere are asking: where is a safe space for me and others like me to have meaningful conversation?  Meaningful conversation doesn’t have to center on spirituality, but I believe it often wanders into the spiritual realm anyway, whether or not we intend it.

For instance, a good friend joined me for dinner recently; her friendship is another unexpected gift from my job. We talked and laughed about many things.  Of course, books were an enormous part of the evening. Our conversation wove through books and musicals to more intimate details of our lives, how we feel, whom we love, how we experience life previously and presently. These things have great meaning and, in my understanding at least, they are deeply spiritual because they directly affect the well-being of our soul/ spirit. When I use the term spiritual, I mean this inner part of our selves at least as much as I mean a supernatural force outside of us.

Did we speak of God? Very little.  But I still consider our conversation Spiritual.

In my experience, many religious spaces aren’t safe for these types of spiritual conversations. My friend, who is a delightful, fun, incredible, world traveling, peace corp teaching, theater-loving, intelligent individual, who makes the world a richer place by being in it, doesn’t subscribe to the conventional, religious narrative. Would the church offer a safe space for her to be fully herself, freely expressing all the facets of her self without condemnation or coercion? Would we be free to have the conversations we had in my home within a religious construct without having to correct her choices to align to a cultural norm? Would she feel safe and welcome?

Would my non-binary friends? My gay friends? My secular humanist friends?
A practicing Muslim?
A black, single mom receiving state benefits?
A refugee?
A Hasidic Jew?
A Sikh?
A Christian with questions?

The curious thing about ‘safe spaces’ is if they aren’t universally safe, then they aren’t truly safe. Inevitably, a power structure will assert itself in order to dictate and control the narrative and experience of a non-inclusive ‘safe space’  In order for there to be a power structure, someone has to be in…and someone has to be out. That’s how power works. It is always binary; it must be more real, more right, more important, more venerated, more absolute than any other narrative. When power controls the narrative, it’s always possible you could embody the next quality which falls from favor, and when this happens you will be coerced to conform or be expelled.

The question I grapple with is whether a space seeks to expand and embrace, or reduce and indoctrinate. Fundamentalist spaces are overwhelmingly the latter. Christianity has evolved into an exclusive salvation club. A relationship with fundamentalism is fraught with an agenda: can we get this person outside spiritual construct to see the universe exclusively our way as well as renounce their former experience as wrong, broken and worthless and assume our agenda? Oh, and pray the sinner’s prayer which is, after all, the real key to holiness.

I know I’m stepping on toes here. Some of my longest and dearest friends identify as Christian, and I do find them safe and open and wonderful, even when we disagree. I am speaking now of systems, not individuals. Every religious structure, or any system of power, has its extremists, its moderates and its outliers. I’m not asking anyone to justify how they experience the Spiritual (in this case I do mean supernatural power), or even if they have any form of spiritual experience at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about conversation. For so long, I was excluded from taking part in it. When my abusers met repeatedly to talk about me, about how to handle and control me, I wasn’t allowed to be part of the conversation. I was reassured, however, that this type of a abuse is supported by scriptures, which were helpfully listed in the Silence Contract, in case I had any questions. Even had I been in the room, I wouldn’t have been part of the conversation because my experience didn’t matter, as long as the power narrative was firmly established.

But the truth is, I am hungry for spiritual conversation, the kind which meanders and wonders, the kind which is deeply intimate one moment and hilariously sacrilegious the next.

Do you know that I stopped laughing for a while when the abuse I experienced was at its peak?  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but these days, when I laugh deeply from my center, I find myself thinking, I forgot how good this feels. Laughter is an experience my soul missed even though my conscious-self wasn’t aware of the lack. While I often say I am the funniest person I know, this type of laughter really only happens in conversation with another soul. I am profoundly grateful now when I consider how many people in my daily life elicit this response from me. They are my safe spaces, my spiritual spaces even if we never speak of God in any of Her identities.

So this is where I am. Seeking safe, spiritual conversation. If we happen to stumble on God, however we experience the Holy, while we’re at it, well, that’s alright too.

The Sacred Myth of the Hysterical Woman

Healing, Learning

A few weeks ago, I planned to drive to Nashville to visit my family. I’ve been in a new-to-me car since the summer, and this was our first road trip together. Unfortunately, the traffic was horrific, including a closure of the major interstate I needed to get home. Fortunately, GPS directed me, and everyone else, down a side highway to avoid the area, but the traffic only worsened, bumper to bumper, stop and go, as far as I could see. I was actually considering turning around to go back home when my entire car shut down. It didn’t make a funny noise; it didn’t flash an engine light.

It all just stopped, engine, electrical system, power steering, power breaks – all of it. One hundred and fifty miles from home.

I womanhandled the car over to the shoulder, activated my AAA (hallelujah hands for AAA ya’ll. We’ve used them enough this year to pay for ten years of membership), and awaited the tow truck. At 4:45 on a Friday evening, I had no hope of anyone diagnosing the problem before Monday, so I also awaited my husband to retrieve me and take me home knowing full well we’d have to return for the car the following week.

Monday morning, the car ran perfectly. When I called the mechanic to get a report, he stated he could find nothing wrong. No codes were showing; no problem cranking her up.  He even took her on a twenty-mile test drive. My response was this: I did not imagine that my car shut down while driving with me inside it. I’m not making this up. He, of course, was gracious, taking the car on another long test run, checking any possible issue, and still finding nothing wrong. We picked up the car, which Craig drove home because I wasn’t speaking to her. We still don’t know what happened on the road that day.

But the words I said to my mechanic are ones I can’t seem to stop repeating in various situations:

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up. I don’t want to be seen as one of those raving, hysterical women.

The raving, hysterical woman is a sacred myth culture uses whenever we women make power structures, usually established by men, uncomfortable. It’s used to deflect from the fact that there is a real problem, and those systems are responsible for that problem. When women question the status quo, we are dangerous.

I think of Dr. Christine Ford, who was violated so many years ago and stayed silent, knowing she would not be believed, knowing that naming her shame would only make it possible for others to dehumanize her further by invalidating her experience. She would be held responsible for her own victimization by being too drunk, in the wrong place, dressed inappropriately, too much of a party girl. What I saw on the stand during her testimony wasn’t a raving, hysterical person – Kavanaugh filled that role nicely and was found sympathetic – but a blazingly courageous figure, staring a male-dominated and traditionally androcentric system in the face stating, I did not imagine this violation. I am not making this up.

I also consider Vonda Dyer, Julia Williams and other brave women of Willow Creek Community Church who overcame years of religious cultural conditioning requiring they acquiesce to male authority and protect men as spiritual leaders, in order to speak up about how they were violated – their bodies, their souls, their humanity. In religious circles, speaking out against an “anointed” figure in the church, almost always male, is tantamount to urinating on the Bible. These “divisive, angry, hysterical women” ( the word ‘women’ couched in these terms will sound as though the speaker is spitting as the word leaves the mouth ) with our drama and our fragility and our inability to see the bigger picture for the greater good. How dare they?

How dare we?
They did not imagine this violation. They are not making this up.

It would be easier and more comfortable for me not to identify with these bold women.

After all, I wasn’t sexually violated, not touched, not held down against my will, in fact, many of the violations I suffered happened without even my presence in the building. So how is it possible that I consider myself violated as well?

Ultimately what happened to these women, to women every day when they are violated, isn’t an expression of sexual desire. Sex may be the vehicle of abuse, but it isn’t the motive. It’s also not the only vehicle. Emotional and spiritual trauma are even more common and less recognized because ‘they aren’t a big deal.’ The damage they inflict is invisible. The act of violating a soul or a human body usually stems from a deep need to express power – to show a person he can do what he wants when he wants and there is nothing she can do to stop him (or them).  When women have the audacity to express ourselves, our independent feminine thoughts, ideas, visions, emotions, experiences, sexual desires, identity, or existence, we must be reminded of our place.

This “reminder” can take many forms.

Afterward, women experience a form of gaslighting meant to push us into the stereotype of the hysterical woman. It usually starts with denial: that never happened; you are making that up. We may be demeaned by labeling us in derogatory terms: “emotional, divisive, etc.” We may be diminished by calling our character into question: she dresses like a whore; she’s angry (somehow this is a derogatory stance for women); she deviates from the male definition of a “good woman”. We may be dismissed: our experience isn’t how it really is, we are wrong, it didn’t happen that way. We are often silenced, whether through shame, coercion or direct physical intimidation. I have experienced all of the above.

Even if our bodies are not physically violated, demeaning, diminishing, dismissing and silencing are violations, a type of soul rape.

As women, we have normalized these events, which happen to us almost daily, and we often swallow our anger, pretending it’s not a big deal. We don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to make people uncomfortable. If we are in a religious construct, we don’t want to go against a Divine Being who seems to be made in the image and likeness of the very men who violate us.

We don’t want to be seen as raving, hysterical women. Who will believe us? How will we be taken seriously in the face of power systems which have existed for hundreds, even thousands of years? Why speak up at all?

Every day, when I sit down to write, as I dare to share my story, I think about these things. I am angry. I have been violated. What happened to me should not be normalized.

But I know what people will say, they’ve said it for years. I’m divisive. I should be able to overlook the harm to one person by a toxically masculine institution in the face of “all the good things they do.” I’m a troublemaker. I’m a raving, hysterical, liberal, snowflake feminist. Or my personal favorite, “Jesus would want us to forgive them.”

Bullshit.

That’s what I tell myself every single day. That’s all bullshit. The abuse and violation I experienced are real. They are systemically rampant in America and perhaps nowhere more so than in our churches where women are oppressed, silenced, denied and diminished as part of the doctrine the institution promotes. Women are angry because we should be angry. Our sacred forms, our souls, are being violated. We are something less-than-human in the eyes of the powerful.

We are cute, amusing, tolerated, patronized, prized and dismissed as too simple or too fragile to understand the complexity of the dominant male narrative. This theology is a violation of our purpose and our personhood. My body, with its curves and its breasts and its propensity to leak alarming fluids – blood, tears, milk – isn’t an invitation for men to exert any form of control, sexual, spiritual or otherwise.

If it seems I am angry, it’s because I am. Not only for me but for the Bathshebas and the Marys and the Dr. Fords and every woman whose story and body and soul have been appropriated by the masculine power systems to defer to a male-generated norm. We aren’t male property.

We angry women belong to our selves. We are vibrant, bold, powerful, beautiful. We make the male narrative uncomfortable. We threaten the foundation of male-dominated power structures. We don’t stay in the places men put us. We speak truth to bullshit.

I did not imagine my experience. I am not making this up.