Saturday, March 29, 2014

Swallowing Sand

Something I have learned about any sickness of the soul is that simply combating the negative behaviors symptomatic of the illness is very rarely effective.

Part of healing is in not just cutting ourselves off from the unhealthy patterns, but replacing them with healthy ones. When I am physically sick, I don’t just set my willpower to struggle against the urge to cough, my stubbornness against the burn in my throat. I take vitamins. I drink tea (usually with a few drops of honey and lemon juice). I rest. And I get well.

Similarly, in healing from an eating disorder that nearly destroyed me, I was never able to get well by forcing myself to stop purging or restricting or binging, or even by trying to choke out the negative emotional patterns that caused those habits. What finally proved helpful is not to not do things, but to choose to do other things instead-- eating well, staying active, purposefully engaging emotions and realities that bear so much more truth. 

This may be overly cerebral, so perhaps it is best said the way I summed it up in my year end blog post in December: overcoming dark in my life is much less about constantly trying to starve the negative and much more about conscientiously, intentionally feeding joy, hope, and light.

I’ve been feeling dried up and sickly for a while now.

My soul has turned inward under the heat of the elements, shriveling in the face of relentless pressure from a job and a loneliness that feel much like a wasteland to me. I try to fight the negativity, the discouragement, the fears. But I find myself seemingly hopelessly crushed under the thumb of circumstances and my own relentless thoughts.

Recently my church’s pastor said some things in a sermon that have been turning over and over in my head and heart. He talked about thirst-- a feeling my soul seems to know well lately, this desert dryness. And then he talked about how often we seem to try quenching our thirst by drinking sand instead of water.

No matter how much sand you drink, you’ll still be thirsty. Chances are it’s going to make you more thirsty instead of less, in fact. In the desert water’s going to be harder to come by, but it’s the only thing that’s going to satisfy the burning in the back of your throat.

And I’ve found myself asking what am I drinking?

When I feel dried out, numb, I have a few familiar medications I turn to and drink deep: my tendency towards self-loathing sadness, my cynicism, feeding the lying standards society calls "success," my desperate, consuming ache for people to like me. None of them bring me any kind of relief. I know that intellectually, and yet I greedily drain their cups every single time. They’re easy to get-- I’ve had so much practice. Years ago I wrote it as a song: so I’ll drink deep that familiar cup, embrace its bitter name. It’s a million miles from good for me, but at least I know its safe.

And so my goal has become, particularly during these weeks leading towards Easter (such a steady reminder to me of the resurrection God brings all over again every time our hearts fall into silent darkness), to drink the right things again. To remember resurrection. To remember all the things in my life that have turned towards redemption, that are turning to redemption now. To recognize that change-- beautiful, breathtaking change-- is resting just over the horizon of my heart right now.

And maybe most importantly of all, to remember that even if I can’t get this right the first time, even if I keep trying to swallow sand a million times over and healing looks like a collection of so many years of moments instead of just one, Grace still wipes the grit off my lips and whispers it’s going to be OK. Come and live.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

And Run

I stood beside the gray-green edge of Old Tampa Bay.

The waves lapped quietly, almost respectfully, against the soles of my favorite pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. My white cloak floated gently on the cool March breeze. I took in the scene with the default delegated eyes for my heart: a camera lens. The steady click, click of the snapping shutter served as a metronome for the rhythm of my thoughts.

I hadn’t caught even the ocean’s reflection in nearly five years, since I encountered the Pacific for the first time during an unforgettable trip to California. I wrote a blog post about that experience that, in many ways, captured an era of my life, my thought patterns, and my faith. As I looked out over the bay a few days ago, I was sharply aware of the contrasts.

At 18 and scared I tackled the waves head on, fighting them, raging, drinking their salt tears-- to end by dancing with them. In present day, I told myself that had the weather been warmer and circumstances different, I may have tried something similar. But the reality is that my lifestyle now automatically shaped circumstances to make that a very unlikely eventuality. I realized with a sense of wry self-awareness that not only was I not bothering to enter the waves anymore-- I don’t even own a bathing suit. I threw the last one I owned away years ago now.

I don’t want to paint an idyllic portrait of the naive bravery of youth, because honestly my friends, my adolescence was nothing like that. It was a series of shadows and near misses and I am fully serious when I admit that I barely made it out alive. But in the early days of my faith, I hadn’t yet grown to understand the potential both for beauty and pain locked inside the beating, breathing human chest. Even as I took on my own demons and those I saw in others, I had no idea of how far I could potentially fall-- or climb.

A few years back I hit a wall of deep doubt, a kind of crisis point in which everything I thought I believed was stripped away. I wrote as an 18 year old kid of God as the rock solid ground beneath the breaking waves, a foundation that wouldn’t just fall away. But there was a season of my life when I felt like that was exactly what happened-- the earth fell out from under my feet.

Ever since my venture to Colorado post-college graduation, the story has been one of slowly seeing harmonies added back to the song of my heart. Restoration is the word one of my dearest friends spoke over it from the first, and it may be the most true word. What was restored is not exactly what was there before though. It’s a faith more vulnerable, less sure of details but more real, a heart more trembling, more humble, a love less like a golden idol and more like holding a hand in the dark.

But part of the fallout is that I fear facing tumult like I have never feared it before. I fear risk, I fear being swept high, I fear falling. So I wrap myself in the defense mechanism of "alright." I walk on the shoreline of my life, watching without engaging, remembering the days when I dove in headfirst and chasing the mementos from bygone moments (the songs, the tastes, the places) with the hope that I can still catch an echo of what it was to feel so strongly.

After getting married and moving into our first apartment, I thought for a long time that I hated domesticity and the kind of adult stereotype the settled season would bring. I also told myself it was what I had to be good at now since it was all I’d ever get to do again, and I quickly found it having a peculiar numbing effect on my heart.

I’ve realized now it was never domesticity or adulthood I hated. It was living in a place where I had reduced my identity to checklist form. It was this terrible coping mechanism I’d created: for fear of facing all the things that matter so much, I’d submerged myself in a state of being where nothing mattered at all.

I stood on that shoreline with a lot of thoughts prickling underneath my skin. I have some new possibilities on the horizon for this year that are both exciting and terrifying, and I’m not entirely sure how to hold fast and navigate through it all yet. But as I remembered who I was and considered who I am, one thing I knew for sure: I don’t want to stand confined to my self-inflicted shorelines anymore.

My husband and I piled our cloaks, my camera, and our shoes on a bench. We walked down to the water. And somehow, for no reason at all, I ran.

I ran partway into the waves and then ran with them, bare feet against syrupy sand, saltwater soaking me to my waist. The wind carried its sharp taste across my tongue when I opened my mouth to laugh, tugged at my arms, filled my pulsing lungs. My husband had caught up to me, was running with me along the water as waves broke across my knees.

I still believe all the things I wrote in that post so long ago. As I learned then, you can’t always face these things with brute force, viewing the waves of this life as simply something to be conquered by the right formula, to be owned by your superior life skills. Even doubt itself can’t be conquered that way. But if the person I was five years ago needed to learn to dance, the place my faith is in now lends wings to my ankles and whispers run.

I don’t really know what life’s going to look like in six months. I can’t calculate all the variables, the risk, before engaging it-- and I’m done trying. It doesn’t really matter anymore if I have the appropriate attire for the water or not. Maybe it never mattered to begin with. I’m going to face these oceans knowing that God is not just known as the earth, but also the wind-- the keen, intangible taste of Otherness that pulls at me, leaves me aching for the other side. And I’m going to brush off these scars from all the times I’ve fallen before and run.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

For The Ones in the Hard Jobs

This is a note for my friends in the hard jobs.

Those of you who serve food to impatient customers who have no idea that you couldn't even afford to buy that same food yourself without risking having your lights turned off in your too small, barely safe apartment.

Those of you who chose to step into the schools to try to change the lives of love-needy kids and now find yourself controlled and silenced by a system that seems to make impossible anything that looks like creativity or love.

Those of you who are told by a manager or a colleague that you're stupid or not enough just because someone once said the same thing to them, and they've been handed the power to use you as their route to run from their own shame.

This is for you– and maybe for me.

You are not named by where you work. No matter how many hours a week they ask of you, there is more to you than where you spend a certain percentage of your time in order to garner a paycheck.

And you are not the sum total of how well you fit the societal norm of "successful." Our particular version of career success is new and particular to our culture and it will not last. You will. You are an immortal soul, burning brighter than the elusive top of any corporate ladder ever could.

And you are not worthless just because the decision has been made that your labor is only worth as much as minimum wage. You often do things harder than anything the airbrushed elite face: you get out of bed early, stay out late, go without meals even when you ache from hunger and exhaustion, and still have to smile at all those who turn their (often unseeing) faces towards your service.

You are so much braver than they give you credit for.

And you are changing lives. The currency of compassion is rarely – maybe never – quantifiable results. The time you exchanged kindness for a customer or coworker's cruelty and they still curled their heart inward in spite? That may have embedded itself where you can't see, will never see, but that doesn't erase the fact that it's there. And I can hear the cynics answer "but maybe it didn't make it anywhere past their skin–" but maybe things like compassion and grace have so much inherent value that even their lack of response to it can't detract from its beauty.

Just in case you wondered, you don’t have to stay there forever either. If your heart keenly aches for a different channel for your time and your elusive energy, you will find it. People have a lot of jobs over the course of their lifetime. Not all of them suck, but even the ones that do usually lend experience to undergird the ones that don’t.

Maybe most of all, to you-- the soul-weary, the desperate, the trampled on, the invisible, the frightened-- I’d say the same thing I wake every morning trying to tattoo on my own heart:

you are not what you do.

You are so much more than that.

May we walk in that grace, my friends.