The very fine folks over at Catapult Magazine have released their newest issue today, Health & Wealth Gospel, and one of the articles features yours truly. (Thank you so much for including my article!) Head over to their site to check out the Heath & Wealth Gospel issue of Catapult.
In my last post, I briefly alluded to freaking out in the week preceding my first half marathon. As I mentioned, I wasn’t super excited because I was nervous about the mileage increase; but my freak out was mostly in reaction to knowing my beloved had organized an “entourage” to follow me along my race route and to celebrate after the race. I had just returned to Facebook after my Lenten hiatus to see that more people had committed to being there than I ever imagined. All I could think was that these people, some old friends and some new friends, were going to stand in the heat (and possible rain) for several hours just to watch me pass by them for a moment.
You see, I’m about the least patient person that I know, and I felt bad asking anyone other than my own husband to endure waiting around for me in the back of the pack. If I were a better runner, maybe I wouldn’t feel so bad; but I knew better than anyone else how long it would take. Because I hadn’t actually run the complete route before the race, I couldn’t exactly gauge when I’d be at certain checkpoints. I estimated based on my long-run performance, but running 13 miles is an unpredictable beast when the farthest you’ve ever run is 9 miles. So how could I really ask people to get up early on a Sunday and stand around for hours? Truthfully, I would never do that because I’m so impatient; I could never see myself doing something like that. (Maybe that makes me a bad friend? Maybe I need to learn how to be a good friend?) The only person I actually expected to be there was my husband, and that was only because the race was on a day he was off from work.
A Little Help from My Friends
Of course anyone’s first half marathon is a big deal, and most people would expect it to be a cause for celebration. I am not most people. I rarely ever ask for help. I never think anyone else I know would remotely care that I’m running in any race. I figure they’ve got better things to do, things that are more important to them. I figure the only people who really care about my running are other runners.
All of those assumptions might be true. But what I didn’t consider was that, though the people who showed up might not give a rat’s ass about running, they care about me. They wanted to support me because that’s what friends do. When I couldn’t get excited about it for myself, they got excited about it for me. Slowly and with my husband’s insistence, I came around to the concept that I have people in my life. I have people who are willing to get up early on a Sunday, people who are willing to stand around for hours, even in the heat and possible rain.
In a moment of bravery, I sent an email to my church. I let them know I didn’t want to speak up about it considering it was Palm Sunday and that Easter was coming, but that I could really use some encouragement for this event. And in response, as I was leaving church the week prior to the race, I was overwhelmed with love and encouragement from these people. My people.
That same week, my husband met with his friends from work to make signs. People I’ve only met a few times, people I hardly even know were staying up late making signs for my race. Of course I couldn’t be there; I was training. And still they did it. Some of them showed up too, even though they had sick babies at home, even though they never get up early on Sundays.
So this post is a very honorable mention and thank you for the people who thought of me, wrote to me, spoke words of encouragement to me, made signs, showed up, sent texts, and celebrated with me. This post is for every spectator who waits for the runners at the back of the pack. This post is for the people in my life. Thank you so much.
Just over a week ago, Jim over at The Running Father Blog posted a callout for transpersonal testimonies, and I took the bait. What follows is my personal testimony…of faith and doubt, of a childhood steeped in fear and abuse, of an adult living with the fallout, of many deaths, and of surviving.
Stages of Development
According to Erik Erikson’s Eight Stages of Human Development, the first thing we learn is either to trust or to mistrust. The easiest example is a parent responding to an infant’s cries. Whether the baby is hungry, tired, or needing a diaper change, the baby has a need, and it is communicating that need with shrill wails. If the parent responds to the baby’s cry with feeding, holding, or changing, then the baby learns to trust that the parent will provide and care for its needs. However, if the parent lets the baby wail and does not feed, hold, or change it, then the baby learns that it cannot trust the parent.
Because the parent is literally the whole world for a baby, this lesson of mistrust then influences the baby’s worldview (and according to Erikson, the potential for successfully mastering the subsequent stages of development as they come up). The subsequent stages of development are: autonomy vs. shame (in the toilet training timeframe), initiative vs. guilt (preschool aged), industry vs. inferiority (primary school aged), identity vs. role confusion (adolescence), intimacy vs. isolation (in young adulthood), generativity vs. stagnation (in middle age), and finally ego integrity vs. despair (in elder years).
It’s fairly safe to say that I was on the losing end of these stages until at least elementary school or adolescence. I essentially survived my childhood as best as I could, and my saving grace in my early life was being in school. Once I learned to count, I counted everything…all the time. Then once I learned to read (in Head Start), and was able to bring books home (in elementary school), I read…all the time. Counting and reading transported me from an unstable, scary home situation into a world of order, patterns, and escapism. Of course my parents, siblings, and school kids thought I was freakish for being a space cadet, tuning everything (and everyone) out most of the time and that I was a lazy loner for choosing to read alone over hanging out with the neighborhood kids.
By the time I was 11, I had a bike, interests of my own, and I had learned to avoid home at all costs, and that’s how I survived. Considering the trauma in my formative years, it’s no wonder I have a hard time trusting people even now, or the gravity of things I walk around with daily. I know I’m lucky to have survived my childhood, and I’m luckier still that I’m not locked away in an institution, either mental or prison. That’s not an exaggeration. I’m literally a statistical anomaly considering my socioeconomic, dysfunctional background.
Of course I’ve been to a variety of therapists, and you know what they say? All of them? “Well, you’re quite well adjusted!” No fucking shit, Sherlock. That I haven’t succumbed to homicidal rages, been successful with suicide, or fallen into the abyss of criminality either means I’m a moderately high functioning sociopath…or I’m okay in spite of everything I’ve experienced.
Snake Oil Salvation
When you take a young girl with my history and add an element of charismatic, evangelical Christianity to the mix, what you end with is a girl who’s suffered unspeakable things thinking she was born damned into the world and deserving of her tragic lot in life. And that’s a goddamned shame.
Drawn to Christianity’s promise of eternal love, I ran to, begged, and pleaded with God to save me…or to let me die. I remember being nine years old and literally praying to God to let me die so I didn’t have to live anymore. (WHAT THE FUCK, INDEED?) But with the resilience that ONLY comes from youth, I embraced the concept of eternal salvation; and I became a proselytizing, evangelical Christian teenager. I channeled all my anger and fear into rigid religious fervor. But I still had questions, so I read the Bible, and I took Biblical courses at church.
When God never rescued me despite all my trying and learning and in the depths of my despair, I chose to let myself die and attempted suicide at sixteen. Though I survived, I think part of me did die then. I’ve felt very much in-between ever since, partly alive and partly dead. I was both corporeal and ethereal at the same time. Some might say I was fragile (they have). I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say there’s a single fragile thing about me, then or now. I’m as hard and cold as a corpse, and it takes an unbelievable level of effort to force myself to be warm with people.
I had even more questions about faith, and I was desperate for a loving community, so I chose a Christian college when I was lucky enough to have the opportunity. College. Well, it really was the best of times and worst of times. I went through an early marriage, miscarriage, and divorce all before graduating in four years…with two majors… three part time jobs…and a chip on my shoulder the size of Alaska. I was villainized by some for mustering the courage to hold my head up and for bouncing back after the divorce. I was publicly humiliated for wearing a Kerry/Edwards t-shirt while cleaning in the cafeteria on voting day. You read things like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, or anything by Flannery O’Connor, and you think despicable people like that can’t possibly exist in real life. I’m telling you, I’ve met more than one Bible salesman willing to steal a wooden leg!
As rough as it was, college was also a period of awakening and of finding the deep love of a Christian community, when I wasn’t angry at it, of course. My friends and I would walk barefoot by Buffalo Creek quoting Adam Bede, writing songs, and living out our social justice in the form of hospitality for one another. I never locked my doors. I always left my keys in my car for any of my friends to use as they needed. I never knew if people would be in my apartment…or not. I never claimed ownership over much, but I also never went without anything I needed. I ate well. All my bills were paid…in spite of the money I had or didn’t. It was faith inspired socialism, and it was so beautiful. We lived out the miracle of the loaves and fishes in my last couple of years at college, and it sustained me on more than just material levels.
With my college experiences, my questions about faith only grew, and I became more vocal about my universalist leanings. And then I went to seminary. I realize now that probably wasn’t the best route for me; but I was fresh out of college and not ready to leave my community…so I went to the seminary on the holy hill across the street. I only stayed a year.
In seminary, I gained a love of textual criticism, early Christian tradition, liturgy and ritual, Biblical languages, and early American Christian History, but my doubts than any of it was real, meaningful, or nourishing had also become overwhelming. So I took some time away from church when I left seminary.
In the four years after leaving seminary, I tried going back to church several times, but I just couldn’t. I tried the Methodists because I love John Wesley. I tried the Episcopalians because they drink and have great senses of humor…about faith…and life. The most pleasantly sarcastic people I know are Episcopalian. I strongly considered joining an Episcopal church here in Knoxville, but my husband and I were the youngest people in the congregation by at least a few decades, so the search was still on for a spiritual community.
Dark Night of the Soul
In those same four years after seminary, I struggled in the typical post-collegiate ways. I was overworked, grossly abused by my employer, underpaid, and had no benefits at all. And then I quit that job and struggled with unemployment. But wait…there’s more! To deal with…gosh everything in my life, I started taking an anti-depressant while working for said abusive employer. I was on it a whole month before I quit that job. With all my medical experience, I figured it was okay to just stop taking it. It had only been a month, right? Biggest mistake of my whole life. Ever.
I don’t remember much about the month of November, 2007. I am deeply ashamed of everything I put my husband (then boyfriend) through at that time, but I also know I wasn’t really in control of what was happening. I’m going to blame it all on very bad judgment and quitting my new medication so suddenly (because taking someone with so many demons and fucking with their brain chemistry that way is a disaster just waiting to happen). And it was a disaster.
Some people have a period of depression after confronting (and being consumed with) religious doubt and life struggles. It’s normal, really. But ever the over-achiever, I actually had a certifiable mental breakdown. My beloved took me to the doctor, told him I was broken and lost and not the woman he fell in love with, and he asked for the help that I couldn’t ask for. It took me over a year of taking the right dosage of the right medication to level my brain back out, and the process of figuring out that perfect cocktail was a nightmare all on its own (for me and especially for Daniel).
When I felt better and stronger, I told my doctor I wanted to go off the meds; and I’ve been successfully off of them since early 2009. But I’m not the same. I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same. Maybe part of me died then, too. In all the things I’d been through, I had never experienced debilitating anxiety like I have since living on the flip side of that coin. The constant tentativeness and fear that seems to follow me around since then are like stormy clouds always on the horizon, or a flock of dark pixies overjoyed at my torment.
In the summer of 2010, I started going back to church. I was so skittish. And they let me be. They let me stay on the edges as long as I needed. Even now, they don’t judge me for the times I’m the Roadrunner out the door after service. Or, if they do, they love me the same anyway, and that’s all that really matters. They preach love, and they practice social justice. They care for the people in the margins. They give space and time and validation to people who are experiencing moments of brokenness, and they offer healing to all who would take it. They are made up of people who’ve been rejected and hurt by their loved ones as well as by the Church. They’re religious scholars with rich theology. They embrace and use liturgy regularly, and I’m sure services are planned; but no one gets bent out of shape when something goes awry. I dare say no music leader is as quick with the witty, musical improvisation as ours! And the children’s/youth’s presence in the congregation and service sets the most beautiful example for us as adults.
Along with my return to a spiritual community, I began practicing yoga in October 2010. It really did start as a practical alternative to physical therapy. But it became the first way I ever learned to be comfortable in my own body and mind. I learned to breathe. I learned to be still without relying on obsessive counting, or escaping through literature. I became physically stronger, and then I became inspired…to see what I could do…to learn what challenges I could overcome.
Last year for Lent, I started practicing yoga every day, and so many unexpected obstacles arose. Uncontrollable crying. Anger. Shaking. A return of nightmares, sometimes night terrors. I think my body was finally experiencing a delayed reaction of sorts to all the pain that had been inflicted upon it. And then last summer a friend committed suicide. In my emotional rawness and because of my own near-miss as well as our communication just a couple days before it happened, it hit me and left me down for the count. I gave myself time to grieve, and then I started moving on before I drowned in it. I went back to church, kept up with my yoga practice, added running, and started practicing Buddhist metta meditation.
I’d say I’m still in the process of reclaiming my life. I still cry sometimes when I do certain yoga poses. When I run, listening to loud, screaming types of music, I feel like my whole body is exercising/exorcising out all of my demons. I’m mostly sleepless, unless it’s out of sheer physical exhaustion. And sometimes it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts from my mind. But I’m still active in my spiritual community. I continue in my yoga & meditation practices, and I’m getting better at running every single day. I journal my reactions to life and culture here on this blog. In reading it, I sincerely hope this stage of my life is as inspiring as it is for me to be living it. Because as hard as all of this is, it’s all worth it.
So what am I? What do I believe? What is good or evil? What is my salvation?
Because our culture likes labels, I guess I’m a Post-Traumatic, Post-Evangelical, Post-Fundamentalist, Post-Academic, Atheist, Agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, Yogi. I wouldn’t say I’m a mystic because of my cynicism; but I’m probably more authentically mystic than all the people rushing to India to kiss the feet of their gurus and get new names. The very definition of mysticism, as Wikipedia goes, is “the pursuit of, communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct, or insight.” Yup, I’d say I’m probably a mystic; but I don’t dig the talk of chakras or of chanting, or of faith healing. So I’m a cynical mystic as well as a statistical anomaly. Somehow that all seems fitting.
Similarly, the term “charismatic” takes me back to the scary days of life in a Pentecostal church with speaking in tongues, demon possession, and spiritual warfare. I would absolutely say I am not charismatic at all. But the literal and original meaning of charisma is “grace,” and were it not for receiving the grace of all the people who’ll have me, I’d be completely alone in this world.
What is good and evil? Well, I’m an expert at evil, so I’ll start there. Evil is anything that tells us “I am me, and you are you.” If “I am me,” then that means I exist outside of “you.” It means that we are different. It means I can pass righteous judgment on you and you on me. It means I create a sense of self and a sense of other. As long as I have a sense of self and a sense of other, I can debase whatever is “other.” This is the foundation of poverty and war, which are also evil. It is the foundation of thinking one person can own another person and therefore treat “their” people however they please, which is usually to say abuse. And its result…well its result is utter separation, which is hell. Good, on the other hand, is the coming together of You and Me. It is the abandonment of the sense of self and the sense of other. It is the connection of all living things. It is love and charity, grace and peace. It is salvation.
And what of salvation? Well my salvation is Jane Eyre, and all of Dickens’ orphan tales. It’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Jane Austen. My salvation is The Smashing Pumpkins, Sarah McLachlan, and Mumford & Sons. It’s absolutely yoga, running, and meditating. It’s Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. It’s the Mandelbrot set and MC Escher’s Relativity. It’s the Buddha and Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today and specifically in my life, my salvation is Son’Cia Humphries, Meghan Sizemore, John Henderson, Mr. Owens, Ms. Rhoton & Mr. Wilson, Dr. Ruth Lavender, Dr. Jill LeRoy Frazier, Marvin Glover, Brittany Love, Evelyn Tachau Brown, Judson Nichols, John Gill, Leslie Etheridge, Victoria Medaglia, Ceil Sheahan, Sam Rosolina, Marcia Free & Fred Martinson, and Jim & Sandy Foster. It’s my beloved Daniel and his truly long-suffering love. It’s all the things and people that help me know I’m not alone…that I’m connected. My salvation keeps an eye on me in the moments I’m not able to look out for myself. It challenges me and makes me stronger. It holds me accountable to my vow to love myself.
This post covers my transpersonal journey to this point, which is almost 30 years old. It may seem too short a time to have lived through so much. But I’ve died a few times in the process, and I see it more as if I’ve just lived a few different times even if it’s only in this one lifetime. I’ve certainly had a plentiful serving of tragedy, but I’m living in the midst of the happiest time of my life, which is more than making up for all the doom and gloom.
Tomorrow marks three weeks of Lent, which is almost half-way to Easter and Lent’s completion. This year I’ve given up posting on Facebook, and instead, I’m writing letters to my friends. This Lenten practice is much easier than last year’s practice because I’m not necessarily adding a daily observance (like fasting and daily yoga). The only thing I’m “doing” every day is NOT checking Facebook, which has been much easier than I thought it would be, and I don’t miss it…much. While benefits and encouragements are present in social media, the chaff seriously outweighs the wheat in this regard.
The real challenge of this year’s Lenten practice comes in finding the “right” things to talk about. What do you put in a letter to people you hardly know or people you’ve only known superficially? In Facebook communication, it’s common to post whatever blurbs come to mind or whatever links I’ve come across online and “liked.” My personal Facebook News Feed usually contains conspiracy theories and calls for political accountability, articles about social justice, science news, progressive Christianity updates, Buddhism quotes, local news updates, articles about yoga and running, and my friends’ personal minutia (from meal photos and family activities to work rants and exercise updates). When I “like” these things or post things like this, I essentially put content “out there” for people to respond to…or not. It’s quite the setup for the introvert who still wishes to share without having to actually interact with people in real life. But it’s all rooted in superficiality, despite how profound or meaningful some of it may be.
But specifically writing to people and assuming they’re interested in the minutia of my life is another thing entirely. My first attempt at a letter to Wendy (the project’s muse) was over 10 handwritten pages, chock-full of spiritual history. And I scrapped it all because after I read it, I knew this complete stranger would likely not care to know quite that much about me. Regardless of that assumption’s veracity, I knew that I wouldn’t care for her to know that much about me. Then I sat on it for a week, trying to find something meaningful to say, something worthy of being written down and made tangible with a fountain pen and yellow, lined paper.
All I could muster up (for both letters) was an update about some of my recent activities (which is really to say an update on running/upcoming races). But running is so not the entirety of my life. Why did I write them both about that? Why didn’t I include writing about the things I’m reading, or about my work? Where is the Venn Diagram of topics that are both sincere and acceptable for polite discourse, whether public (on Facebook) or private in a personal letter?
Looking back on those first two letters, they are more reflective of selfishness and vanity than they are of a sincere attempt at communication. They should have been scrapped too, but I decided that whatever I put down in the last versions was going to be sent, with no edits or revisions; and now my heart is heavy with regret for what I included and for what I didn’t mention. In all the foot-in-mouth posts I’ve put on Facebook (of which there are way too many), I can assure you I never felt as embarrassed as I have since sealing and sending those letters.
My husband tells me I’m an onion, with lots of layers. (Thank you, Shrek, for inspiring my husband to analyze my personality in this way.) He tells me that I am “community oriented” in the sense of coming to someone’s aid or doing something for someone else, but that when I am in need, I rarely, if ever, reach out and ask for help from that same community. (He’s right. I rarely even ask for his help, much less anyone else’s. It’s the sin of pride, and I’m very guilty of it.)
Maybe that’s playing a role in this attempt at fostering deeper communication. Here I am thinking writing letters is the perfect type of interaction for me—the writer; but when it came to choosing superficiality or sincerity, I chose superficiality. More than anything I’m sure this is rooted in fear…fear of sharing my life in all its raw honesty; fear of letting people see me as broken or damaged or vulnerable because I don’t have a happy or “normal” history. I assume people want a happy story, one that inspires (and that is what I try to do on this blog). But in making and living according to that assumption, what I’m really doing is failing to trust them…to trust that they will accept me as I am. And as sorry as I am for that, I’ve lived through enough awkward moments of absolute sincerity and honesty to know that my mistrust is well placed.
I have six more letters to write, and I have an established history with only half of them. This week I’ll spend time on the three people I’ve known well. Though we have fallen out of communication, it’s always been easy for us to pick up without seeming to have missed a beat. I’m hoping that makes it easier to write them and that my letters will be more sincere. If I even get responses from the first two letters, I promise I’ll try harder to drop my prideful veil in reply more than I did in the initial attempts. In the meantime, please accept this song that both explains and apologizes better than I can on my own.
“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
This week has been a struggle. I could list all the reasons I can think of to explain why, but that hardly seems important or helpful. The bottom line is this week I have lost the meaningfulness of what I’m doing…with this blog…with trying to change my life…with yoga…with running…with weight loss…with anxiety & depression. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” Am I the “best without conviction” or the “worst full of passionate intensity?”
If you actually read this blog from the beginning, I think (hope) you’ll find a huge transformation has taken place. Without this blog it’s hard for me to see it because I’m living it every day. The small investments don’t seem that important in the big picture of life, but on the reflection of it, the devil seems to be in the details. And this week I’ve lost sight of the bigger picture; and I question whether that’s as it should be or not.
This week I read this Zen proverb:
A Zen student has a penchant for writing to his teacher monthly with an account of his development. His letters began to take a mystical turn when he wrote, “I am experiencing a oneness with the universe.” When his teacher received this letter, he merely glanced at it and threw it away. The next month the student wrote, “I have discovered that the divine is present in everything.” His teacher used this letter to start his fire. A month later, the student had become even more ecstatic and wrote, “The mystery of the one and many has revealed itself to my wonderment,” at which his teacher yawned. The following month, another letter arrived, which simply said, “There is no self, no one is born, and no one dies.” At this his teacher threw his hands up in despair. After the fourth letter, the student stopped writing to his teacher, and after a year had passed, the teacher began to feel concerned and wrote to his student, asking to be kept informed of his spiritual progress. The student wrote back with the words “Who cares?” When the teacher read this, he smiled and said, “At last! He’s finally got it!”
This story was included in the Tricycle Daily Dharma for February 19th. The entire article was entitled “Letting Go of Spiritual Experience,” and it hit me like a sack of bricks. It explained that experiences on a spiritual path, though they motivate us when they’re positive, are fickle. The article essentially explained that the mountain-top experience comes only because of all the efforts of climbing that preceded it. Somehow when we’re on top, we forget the struggle it took to get us there. But these mountain-top experiences AND the climbing experiences are all just experiences. They come and go, and there is little if any meaning in them. And I can’t seem to shake this. All these changes I’m pushing myself to live through are just meaningless experiences.
So what’s the point of losing the weight or of learning yoga or how to run a half marathon? Aside from my yoga teacher and running coach who have vested interests in my progress, I’m doing this on my own and for myself only to find that there’s nothing of substance in it. I can’t seem to find a good reason for willingly putting myself through all of this. And I don’t think the apathy of the Zen proverb is the answer. I don’t want to be the ignorant and misguided Zen student before his realization, but I certainly don’t want to become apathetic either. I’ve been there, and when you’re already prone to depression, apathy is definitely not healthy to flirt around with.
Despite the lack of motivation this week and despite how hard it has become, I’ve still done everything on my training plan. I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I am. And this week hasn’t been a mountain top experience, but I’m still climbing. And I’m only wrapping up week 3. I have 11 more weeks of this ahead of me. I hope this experience passes soon. Until then, it’s chop wood, carry water.