Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Theory of Everything (on a rutted road)

*not sure if the above pic is of Oklahoma, but man it looks like it.

The dirt in our neck of Oklahoma is thick and orangerust colored, beautiful for growing wheat but hell on wheels when it rains more than the ground can absorb. I have felt this, firsthand more than a few times, but most notably when Hunter and I went out for a "drive" (a.k.a. my 14 year old boarding school self sneaking off to smoke) only to get stuck up to the running boards of my 1968 beetle. Elbow-deep in that clay-shale mud, dragging armfuls of sticky paste away from the wheels and laying down wheat hay for traction, we were able to get that little car out of the ruts and back up onto the middle drier ground so we could creep our way home.

The ruts in Oklahoma rainy season are no joke, deep and jagged, the earth peels away in thick sheets and tire tracks push so deep that you worry about damaging the undercarriage of your car. You have two choices: to be in the ruts, go slowly, grind out the undercarriage and risk getting stuck or to find a way to flip your car up onto a space where you straddle the middle ground with one wheel while bouncing along the warshboard (yep, warshboard) side on the edge of the road with the other. One requires you to risk long term damage and breakdown, the other requires you to attend to what you are doing with laser attention, as falling back down into the ruts could cause damage worse than originally expected.

I first thought of this analogy when I was talking to a friend about behavior change in long term relationships, how it's so hard to change things when what you know is the rutted road, especially when you aren't sure if the road is going to change or get better or if this is it, turtles all the way down. It also applies to conditions in life that have locked you into patterns and beliefs and ways of being. "I'll just wait until the kids are out of high school to engage with the life I want to live" or "It's good some of the time, so until it gets really bad, I don't want to change ...(my job, my relationship, my habits)."

And so you keep going and going and going until one day you realize where you are, stuck in this wounding condition, and you can no longer bear it--the noise of the scraping and the tension of your arms having to hold the wheel straight. In essence, what you are doing to your very soul to stay locked in the pattern that is ultimately not where you need to be.

So you look for those few-and-far-between patches where the rut weaves and jags so you can work your wheels up onto the higher ground. And that getting up on the higher ground is not only difficult, but also in itself exhausting and unstable and new and naked. The ruts are easier to navigate but a painful destruction of your tender unexposed side, the higher ground scarier but ultimately probably better for long-term sustainability--the reality is that you just. don't. know. The truth is that sometimes you are in it and you don't want to be, but getting out of the car and into the thick muck on foot is not an option, you just have to ride it until it's done, wherever that leaves you.

I sat across from my dear girl Lara the other night laying out this Theory of Everything (on a rutted road), each of us feeling it in our hearts for the painful relationships we've been through, realizing also that this is just part of the human condition of change in life overall, from losing our mothers to thinking about our best selves and those parts of ourselves still waiting to be born. And we are still learning, and choosing, all of us.

Love makes space for everyone’s happiness.

This is a piece I wrote during my #lentinseptember days.

I have struggled immensely over the years to come to terms with my mother’s decision not to marry again after my dad died. She not only didn’t remarry, but also didn’t date anyone. For years when I was a child, I thought this was because she loved my father so much that she couldn’t bring herself to be with someone else, that this was the essence of true and abiding love, a love that I should search for as an adult. As I grew older, I began to understand how complex having your partner die can be. I think my mother was afraid to extend herself again, afraid of losing someone again (as her mother had), afraid of rejection, afraid of what life like might be like on the other side of this immense fear. And, in addition to this incapacitating fear (and this has been true for my two friends who have been widowed), some people would not let my father die. People shared their condolences on an annual basis, remembered the anniversary of his death, sent her cards on his birthday. She was, in their minds, married to my father forever and therefore, in some small way, in her mind she was beholden to that narrative. My best friend brought this home for me when she told me about her own experience of having to leave friendships because all her friends ever wanted to talk about was her husband and how much they missed him and wished he were there. She had ceased to be a young and vibrant spirit in their eyes and was, instead, the memory of husband she’d lost. I think this, in some ways, is because people want to believe in endless love, true love, love that lasts a lifetime and beyond. That they themselves are worthy of that undying love, that they themselves may be loved in that way.
And, in reality, that love may exist and it may never die, but that does not mean that life does not move forward into different narratives. Nothing replaces that love, but beauty and vibrancy and life get added in the form of new love. It is impossible to unlearn anything in our brain, we only add new learning and experiences to it. And so goes our heart.
I remember when my friend and I sat at the coffee shop in those fragile days after her husband’s funeral, discussing what life was like now and what her future may hold. “What if I wanted to be buried with him and I get married to someone else?” she said, her tiny, grief-wasted frame leaning across the table. “What if he was my one true love? How will that next person feel?” I remember telling her that I thought this was a normal part of grief, and that her life and the end of her story were hers to write, and that story included resting with whomever she wanted to rest with, that the next man in her life would understand. People who love you have a wide berth of forgiveness of emotion, nostalgia. They understand love and loss, or they do if you’ve attracted the right human. They take what has happened as part of your living story and love all parts of you. 
From my own experience, I know there is a tremendous weight on a child whose parent does not move forward in her/his life. It creates unrealistic expectations of love and commitment that likely will be unmatched with her/his future partners. It also makes that child feel guilty at the sacrifice that the parent offered, should that child feel less compelled to be so completely self-sacrificing as a parent his or herself. In some ways, it’s a perpetuation of guilt and shame. My mom sacrificed so much by doing X, I should be able to... It’s always felt hard and raw and not reciprocal to me. It feels like too much that’s been given, a sacrifice too great. It’s fear and avoidance and nakedness cloaked in love, but it’s not love alone. Love makes space for everyone’s happiness.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Emerging Fullness, in the Deluge

MR. O'DONOHUE*: Well, I think that the threshold, if you go back to the etymology of the word "threshold," it comes from "threshing," which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness. And I think there are huge thresholds in every life. I mean, I think, you know that, for instance, I'd like to give a very simple example of it is, that if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, 50 things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying. Takes 10 seconds to communicate that information, but when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Because suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this. So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative. And I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing.
MS. TIPPETT: And where is — where is beauty in that?
MR. O'DONOHUE: Where beauty is — I think is beauty — beauty isn't all about just nice, loveliness like. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming. And I think when we cross a new threshold that if we cross worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. And in our crossing then we cross on to new ground where we just don't repeat what we've been through in the last place we were. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.

Today I walked back through church doors that I hadn't crossed in ten years, my return prompted by something John O'Donohue said about community and christianity and this great understanding of beauty and thresholds and moving into "more critical and challenging and worthy of fullness." The decision to stop attending church was as frivolous as my starting: I began going to the Unitarian church when I was 24, having finally found a spiritual home and I left because we moved to a new city and the feeling of loss was too deep, too disconnected upon return for me to feel comfortable. In short, because I had lost I denied the very thing that would have likely helped me to heal, connect, and grow. I've been journeying around in an array of seeking in the past year, all sorts of hooey and loveliness and unknown that I myself don't know if I believe, but I've been looking for a map, hanging my heart on trying to divine how things will unfold, reaching back to work through hard things and looking forward to predict the future. Who knows if any of it is true, but it's something to think through and that in itself is valuable.
These days, the season of thresholds feels like it's coming to an end, after years of disarray and change and heartbreaking loss and difficulty, it feels like life is settling out. And yet, it's not. We fool ourselves with that thinking of calm, that chaos isn't balling itself up for another go at our lives. It's instructive that way, the call in the wee hours that a friend needs our love or that someone is leaving our life or that we ourselves just find us dragged behind the black dog of depression for even one day, knees skinned and tender, grown unused to the sudden tumble. 
But what I've learned instead is not to fight the chaos and the change and the strife and the difficulty, but to live in the experience of it. When David was about to be born, I took a number of hypno-birthing classes so that I could hopefully remove myself from the pain of his delivery by envisioning a happier place somewhere sacred and beyond (with chocolate babka, but that's another story). But the truth was that I couldn't remove myself from where my body was, that only by reaching into the intensity and depth of that physical pain could I get through it. 
And so I'm beginning to understand that that's what all of this is about, the transitions and waiting for life to calm down and even out and not feel like I'm deflecting lasers with my light saber. The truth is being in it, with whoever needs it, with myself clear about my own needs, with a sense of community that is big and robust and purposeful, with love and gratitude and sadness and the whole gamut of it all, is the beauty of life. Alive and giving, alive and conscious, alive and intentional. But alive and in it and not afraid and not tired and not waiting for life to begin anew, easier and more simple. 
Because we are complex creatures living in a complex world. If you are going to engage, it gets messy. Put your boots on and get to work. Meet these times worthily, so as O'Donohue notes, "what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. And in our crossing then we cross on to new ground where we just don't repeat what we've been through in the last place we were. So I think beauty in that sense is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life."