The Stories We Tell (or Don’t)

Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.

Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.

12 years in. 12 years out.

Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.

For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.

So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.

Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”

I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.

There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.

 

Unguarded Gut Level Stuff

boots

I did something crazy last weekend. I buried my old boots. I made my annual trek to Cape Cod and The Prayer Boots came along for one last walk down the beach.

Those worn out old boots were a physical reminder of who I had been when I started walking with God and letting go of them was also a way of letting go of those perceptions of myself that I had carried on my journey up to this point. That was much harder than I expected but it was time to finally put to rest the worn out illusions I had about myself and about God. I couldn’t embrace what is right in front of me until I could put down what I was carrying so protectively.

To do that meant letting my guard down. For the first time, my kids came with me to Cape Cod and so they were in a space I have jealously reserved as space for me to be alone with God. Understand that it is exceptionally hard for me to let people close to me really see me being, well… me. It’s honestly easier to be myself in a room full of people I don’t know than it is with the people who see me everyday. Because while I’ve changed over the years, people’s perceptions of me have not always kept pace. Thus, to let my boys witness me bury an old part of myself in a spot that only God and I understand was a whole new level of vulnerability. But there we were on Saturday morning, as I walked a mile or so down Head of the Meadows Beach with the boots tucked under my arm, dug a grave and buried them in not-so-random spot and, all the while, my teenage sons offered their commentary.

“Mom, you’re not seriously going to do this…?”

“Aaaaand there she goes… ooookay…walking away now…cuckoo”

And yet, despite their banter, one helped me dig and the other found a piece of driftwood for a head stone. They knew this was important to me and they accepted it as such even if they didn’t totally understand it. I had made it as clear as humanly possible that my time on the Cape is sacred to me and allowing them to be a part of that was a big deal. I’m not sure that totally registered for either of them until that moment when I put the boots down and started digging.

They were very good about giving me quiet space in the evenings to read. Knowing I had five nights to read as late as I wanted, I had brought two books with me to the Cape: Lies We Believe About God by William Paul Young and Doing the Truth in Love by Michael Himes. The latter was assigned while the former was not. As it turned out, both were important.

Himes talks about the sacramental nature of everyday life. Anything which allows us to become aware of God’s omnipresent grace is a sacrament. I couldn’t throw away those boots like everyday trash, because to me (and surely no one else) they were part of many a sacramental encounter.

Young talks about so many things but the one that deeply touched me was that God is never disappointed in me simply because God never had any expectations that I would be any different than I actually am. God knows who I am and what makes me tick better than I do so of course God doesn’t expect me to be something other than me. The one with the impossible expectations is me, not God.

On a gut level, I already knew these things to be true but to see them printed in black and white was an affirmation that I needed. There seems to be a lot of these little affirmations the last few weeks. Learning to trust my gut has become a theme of Lent this year for me. I’m rolling with things I don’t totally understand on an intellectual level because on a gut level I’m trusting that God knows what God’s doing and that God knows how to deal with me being me so I can stop apologizing for being the weird and sappy nerd that I am.

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The Prayer Boots

img_7787With a March snowstorm in the forecast and my annual trip to the Cape fast approaching, I had was heartbroken when my favorite boots gave out. The heel of the sole broke completely free from the rest of the boot and the kids talked me out of attempting to use super glue to fix it. I have a reputation for ending up hopelessly glued to stuff. So instead, I drove two sales ladies at the shoe store completely bonkers trying to find me a pair as close to what I had as possible. I came home with my new boots and, seeing the laces in the old ones were still good, I pulled the old laces out and set them aside. I took the old ones outside, but when it came time to put them in the garbage can, I started to cry. Yes, cry. Over a worn out pair of boots. Not a sniffle and a stray tear. Oh no. we’re talking a sit-down-on-the-steps, holding-on-to-the-boots, tears-rolling-down-the-face kind of a cry.

This is stupid. I told myself. Who in their right mind cries over a broken down pair of boots?! But the reaction was so visceral, I had to ask myself why they mattered so much to me. Honestly, I’m forty-some years old. It’s not like I’ve never thrown out a pair of boots before.

But these boots were different. These had a history. Over eleven years, I walked hundreds of miles of empty beaches with God as my companion. As beautiful as that may sound, I wasn’t always the most pleasant of company on those walks. And there were plenty of times when I resented God’s very presence in what had become the only safe space I had left. My life was in such a miserable state, all I wanted was to be left alone. It was not uncommon for me to walk four miles and spend the entire four miles yelling at God to either help me or get out of my way. Funny thing is, over time, something gradually shifted and those walks with God on the beach became less confrontational. Little by little, I stopped yelling. I stopped demanding. I stopped begging. I accepted God’s company and I found that even on those days when I thought I really, really wanted to be alone, what I actually wanted was to be alone with God because God was the only who understood what was brewing inside of me.

Over the last eleven years, I didn’t learn to trust God by sitting in church on Sunday. I didn’t learn to surrender all the stuff that was killing me inside by reading a prayer book full of prayers I was supposed to have memorized and couldn’t. There were days when I was just so hopelessly tangled up inside, the only way to untangle the mess was to take a walk down the beach and let God do the untangling. And the only way that works is to let go and let God do God’s thing and accept that maybe, just maybe, the Creator has a clue about how this particular creation ticks.

All those miles, all that sand and salt water, all the tears and pain and hell I’d walked through was soaked into a clunky, ugly, worn out pair of old leather boots. God transformed all that into a life I never dared to hope for, a life touched by unfathomable grace. Sometimes a pair of boots is more than just a pair of boots. Sometimes a pair of boots become sacred objects. So maybe that worn out pair of boots isn’t going in the garbage can after all. Maybe they’ll be given a very quiet burial somewhere only God and I know about.

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Of Life and Death

 

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Three deaths in ten days. That certainly got my attention. While none were family, each had touched a part of my life and it forced me to think about how often we impact the lives of those around us in ways we don’t always comprehend or even stop to consider. My son’s 16 year-old classmate who committed suicide, the 93 year-old priest I hadn’t seen in eighteen years, and the 57 year-old rockstar I knew only by his music, these three are the most unlikely combination and yet each touched my life in ways they never really knew.

I spent most of this semester trying to keep life and death confined to the five-page papers due in my ethics and bioethics classes. It’s not like I haven’t seen life and death up close and personal. I was raised being taught that death is merely a part of life, both are mystery and both are sacred. That makes losing someone I love an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. But as I listened to my much younger classmates talk about the death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, I heard over and over that death is a right. And as a right, death is something that can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even inflicted. There was no room left for faith.

“Jack Kevorkian is the Rosa Parks or Dr. King of our generation,” declared one nursing senior with reverence in her voice while several other chimed in their agreement. I heard business majors argue that terminal patients should be encouraged to commit suicide to free up beds for patients who might recover and patients diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s should also consider suicide while they were still somewhat rational rather than become a burden to their families. Death has become cheap and sadly, in the process, so has life.

But what about life? And what about a right to life? Ah, yes that Right to Life movement sounds great on paper but, in the hands of a generation that has been more instilled with knowing their rights than with a deep faith, life has become just like any other right, meaning it can be legislated, ruled, controlled, chosen, and even revoked. “Violent criminals,” one young man vehemently argued, “have given up their right to life because of their choices. So now they should die and we as a society should say how and when they die.”

There was little reverence for the mystery or sanctity of life or of death. It worries me that these are the people who will be making policy decisions in years to come. But I had papers to write and these were topics to be considered and weighed and analyzed but best left impersonal. Funny how life and death refuse to remain impersonal for very long.

In the last ten days, it was the blog of teenage girl that reminded me of the incredible darkness I have had to overcome. It was a funeral for a priest that brought home to me that it was the kindness, gentleness, and openness of someone who touched into my life for the briefest of times that gave me the hope to overcome that darkness. And it was the death of a rockstar that shook me more than I would have thought possible which forced me to see that it was his pursuit of his passion that had given me the soundtrack for much of my teenage years; music that came before the darkness fell and still evokes memories of carefree days of untainted happiness and music that came later that touched into emotions that I had no language to express.

My life right this very moment would be different if not for any one of them. That’s the thing about life, just being alive is an act of faith: a deeply held belief that God is good and a trust that God knows what God is doing even when it makes no sense to me. And that gives me cause to wonder how my actions, my words, my writings, my pursuit of my passions, how all of those aspects of me being me could influence people I may never know. That is not a right. That is mystery and that is grace.

 

For Bella, Fr. Emidio Gregori, and Prince. Requiescat in pace.

 

Unexpected Answers

Unexpected Answers

accidental saints

I read a lot of books. I recommend books to friends I know would enjoy them. But I don’t write about books on this blog. Unless of course, I run across something that so rocks my world that I have to write about it. Last time that happened, it was The Shack. This time it was Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People.

Ever read a book that you can’t put down? I’ve read a lot of those. A few years ago, I called out sick because I had quite literally stayed up all night to finish the Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest and still had 100 pages left when the sun came up. I couldn’t go anywhere until I knew what happened to Lisbeth Salander.

But now let me ask the question another way: Did you ever read a book that wouldn’t let go of you? Because in the last ten days I read one that pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. It wasn’t that long of a book but it took me ten days to read because, crazy as it sounds, I swear to you that book told me when to pick it up and when to put it down.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had read Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Pastrix during the Week of Guided Prayer over the summer. That book beat me up. It challenged me into a profession of faith that I felt not quite ready to make. Add the scripture readings into the mix and well, I came away from that week feeling very bruised. The image of a rosebush being pruned (or run over by a lawnmower, depending on your perspective) was the image of the week.

So maybe given how that week went, pre-ordering Pastor Nadia’s next book Accidental Saints was probably a little crazy. But it was okay because I wasn’t going to read it right away. I figured I’d save it for the long Thanksgiving weekend. I lasted all of about 2 hours after UPS dropped it off. Then I randomly read all of Chapter 8 in the laundromat and cried my eyes out. (Don’t worry – no spoilers here.)  But even reading a random chapter was enough. It grabbed me and pulled me in. As I read, I found myself facing all those things that had come up during the Week of Guided Prayer: trust, surrender, pruning and deeper healing. I read about “forgiving some jackass who I really want punch in the throat” and how much love and grace can sting. Being loved well stings – that is a perfect description of something that I’ve felt so deeply but could never manage to find the words for and to see it there in black and white in my hands dissolved me entirely.  For the second time in ten days I was sitting in the laundromat with a book in one hand and wiping away a stubbornly steady flood of tears with the other. The regulars there are probably beginning to wonder if I’m coming unhinged.

Deacon Ron always tells me to look for the recurring themes in my writings. Trust and surrender are not my strong points. Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Read any three random posts on this blog and you’ll see those things pop up. What you might not find so easily are the themes I don’t write about as much. Being vulnerable.  Letting people love me. More specifically, not letting anyone close enough to love me.  It’s taken a long time to learn to open up again and even longer to accept that I had walled myself off from being hurt because I had been deeply hurt – actually I believe the term most often used by my therapist was brutalized, although try as he did, he could never get me to say that word out loud.

It was hard to type that sentence and if this seems a bit disjointed here it’s because I had to walk away to make a cup of tea and sit in the sunshine for awhile until all the ugly feelings that word brings up – weakness, powerlessness, shame, fear, embarrassment – had dissolved again.

For years there had been a lingering pain that I could never quite explain. I know why I flinch if someone touches me unexpectedly or why I get panicky if I hear someone yelling and angry. But I could never find the way to express how much it hurt, and sometimes still does, to hear, “I love you” or to have someone do something kind for me. And it sounds pretty batshit crazy to tell someone, “I’m so glad you hugged me (said you loved me, repaired my car, drove me to a doctor) today. I needed that. And by the way it feels like you ripped my heart out of my chest in the process.”  No. I kept that level of crazy to myself in hopes that sooner or later it would make sense. I don’t know how I expected that answer to come but I can promise you I never expected it to come all at once in the middle of the spin cycle.

Grace stings because it is so undeserved.

Love stings because we believe ourselves to be so unworthy.

Trusting God is scary as hell because it means first accepting that we are so
loved.

Surrender requires working through the other three.

candleAnd this is why grace is like water. It slips under the walls, through the cracks in the mortar, drips in through the ceiling. Not only is it impossible to hang on to, it’s impossible to keep out. Except it’s more like rubbing alcohol than water. It stings but it cleans and once you’ve been soaked in it, you can be set on fire.

Confession of a Perfectionist

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When I made the decision to take summer classes, it was a pragmatic one. I have to finish my studies within six years since I will need student loans and grants to do so. I expected during my first summer course to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. What I didn’t expect was what it would teach me about myself.

Going back to Sacred Heart University has been one hell of wild ride from the beginning. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that one day my RA was in full-blown flare and the next, through the power of prayer and God’s grace, it was in remission and has remained so. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that I was able to talk my way back into the school at all. But it happened. I excelled where my teenage self once failed so miserably. I earned my way off academic probation and onto the Dean’s List and even managed the somewhat dubious honor of being on both at once. So after being granted academic forgiveness and being freed from near impossible expectations, I should be celebrating and I did, for however brief a time.

I started my online course and that took some getting used to. I argue online all the time but I’m not used to doing it for actual points. But what really got to me was the midterm. The test was true/false and multiple choice, open books but very detailed. I had three days to complete it. I sat down and did it all in one five-hour marathon. I couldn’t stand having it hang over my head. Once complete, I submitted it and my grade was available instantly. 96. A 96?! That’s it?! What I did I miss? How did I miss those two questions? I spent another forty minutes looking up what I got wrong. Then I looked at my overall grade in the course: 94.32 and the feeling that welled up inside was a deep disappointment.

I have an A in a difficult, super-compressed summer course at a university that wasn’t even going to let me back in and all that after a chronic illness that had stripped away so much of my life miraculously went into remission and the feeling I have is disappointment? Yeah, something is seriously wrong with that picture. I recognized it immediately. Well almost immediately. “Immediately” being defined as the moment in which I put down the three books and the lecture notes I had frantically read through to see what I got wrong. Upon realizing that this was not okay, my initial reaction was to crack jokes, always my best defense. So I posted on Twitter:

If you score a 96 on a difficult midterm & are disappointed, you’re:

A) perfectionist

B) honor student

C) taught by nuns

D) all of the above

Ha ha ha – yeah it’s not funny. It’s sad. When I first went back to Sacred Heart, there was a legitimate use for my perfectionist tendencies. Nothing less than perfect was going to cut it. But that’s no longer the case. I’m free to do reasonably well without any external demand for perfection and yet I’m still pushing myself for it. Why?

I’ve been asking myself that for a week. It’s been an emotional week for the nation and for me. But time waits for no one and I took two more quizzes this week. I posted my arguments and should be writing a paper as I type this. My quiz grades were perfect and my overall grade is now 95.43. I had told myself I would be happy with a 95. Now that I have it, I want a 98. Why?

How good is good enough? And why can’t I accept that what I’ve done is good enough? I don’t know. But I know where to start.

My name is Christine Pelfrey and I am a perfectionist.

On Darkness and Rainbows

Over the course of the past ten days this nation has faced two major events, the horrific shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston and the Supreme Court decision declaring marriage equality as a civil right.

When the news on the shooting first broke, I didn’t know the history of Emanuel AME Church or that it was called Mother Emanuel. It was awful enough to me that someone would sit and pray with folks for an hour then stand up and shoot them because of the color of their skin. I’d like to think I’m not so naive as to think that racism in this country is no longer a prevalent issue but attacking people in church just doesn’t happen in the U.S. in 2015. But it did and the more I read, the more it broke my heart that such evil was done to this community that has faced hatred so many times in the past. The darkness that I feel can only be a pale shadow of what they feel. I wonder how we can still be so backwards as to judge people by the color of their skin. Have we learned nothing? I am frustrated, angry, and sad that such insidious evil lurks in this country and I feel powerless to combat it on my own. I have tried to remind myself that I have raised my children to see people for who they are and not for anything else. This is how we change the world. But it is a slow process and on June 17, 2015 it felt far too slow. I watched President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Pinckney and cried. If you haven’t watched it in it’s entirety, you should. It is powerful.

Nine days later, the Supreme Court of the United States reached the landmark decision declaring marriage equality to be a civil right. Members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters erupted with joy. Those who see the decision as a threat to the traditional and/or biblical definition of marriage expressed a myriad of emotions ranging from dismay to outrage. One of my usual online debating opponents went so far as to post the picture of the White House lit up with a rainbow and call for the three days of darkness to descend. I understand not everyone supports the idea of same-sex marriage but to call for the Apocalypse seems a bit extreme. I have too many friends and family members who have waited for their relationships to be considered valid to be anything but thrilled by this ruling. The language of the ruling clearly states that First Amendment rights of religions to continue to object to same-sex marriage will be protected and that is also important. I’ve spent far too much time online arguing and celebrating in the last 36 hours. Although for once no one has told me I’m going to hell.  We have so far to go in the realm of civil rights but we have come too far to give up hope. What I saw yesterday on the faces of so many couples was exactly that, hope.

These ten days have been a time of darkness and of rainbows, of despair and of hope. As a nation, may we pay attention and learn well. Grace often finds us in the darkness.

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