Essence of Water

candleThere are a lot of days, especially since the start of the Spring 17 semester, that I get to the end of my day and wonder what the hell just happened. How is it bedtime already?! I’m running like a crazy woman trying to keep up with everything going on in the family and add homework and papers to that. Yikes!! Forget bedtime, how is the week over already?! But then there are days that suddenly bring a new sense of focus on where I am and what I’m doing. I feel like I’m finding answers to questions I barely knew I had. Those are days I want to hang on to tightly – and trust me when I say this – that doesn’t work. They just slip by that much faster, like trying to hold on to water with a fist.

Taking three classes, all on campus, sounded a little ambitious back in October when I chose my Spring classes. By the third week of February, when I look at the stack of reading I have to do, it starts sounding completely batshit crazy. It’s an odd combination to read fifty pages on spousal abuse and then read eighty pages of Zen philosophy and then write a paper analyzing Cartesian and Lockean theories in the film The Matrix.  And yet, I have never felt so at home and so alive as I do in this set of classes.

The first day, first fifteen minutes into Comparative Theology, my professor declared me the class unicorn – yes, religion majors are that rare, even on a Catholic campus. He was rather excited that I had been closely following the dialogue between Pope Francis and the ELCA and the events surrounding the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We chatted about Luther and Bonhoeffer and their views on the Roman Catholic Church. He promises I will absolutely love the second half of the semester. Meanwhile, reading Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice has suddenly made some of the conversations in Alice In Wonderland make sense. I finally get what Absolem was rambling on about. Yeah, I know, not at all the point of Comparative Theology but hey, little things make me happy. And as it turns out all that time I spent over the last nine years reading Rohr and his explanations of non-dualism was time well spent.

Philosophy and theology are comfort zone classes for me, so even though both would be a lot of reading and paper writing, I was happy. But I was genuinely concerned about my third class. I was afraid that taking a sociology class focused entirely on family violence would dredge up a lot of old stuff. It’s been a couple years since anything has triggered a seriously bad reaction for me and as much as I’d like to keep it that way, I also don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding from would-be triggers. That was a hard choice to make and one I am so glad I made. Unpleasant as most of the subject matter has been, it’s been like having someone walk into a dark room full of scary shadows and turn on a light.Turns out I still blamed myself for more stuff than I had realized. Also turns out some of the things I’d chalked up to my own weakness were entirely not my fault. Being able to talk about some of the reasons why women stay and were the system breaks down has been healing and empowering for me and it’s been important for the 15 soon-to-be social workers, teachers, nurses and cops to hear.

“A Zen master once said that water is of one essence, but if it is drunk by a cow, it becomes milk, while if it is drunk by a snake, it becomes poison.” – Thich Thien-An

The more I’m able to bring my painful past experiences into the light, the more I understand them. The more I understand them at their essence, the more I’m able to transform that pain into something healthy instead of into poison. So no matter how crazy this semester gets, I know I am exactly where I need to be and doing exactly what I need to be doing. Who knows, maybe by May I’ll be be able to stop trying to grab on to answers and be able to hold them lightly and even let them go.

What I Wish My Church Knew (About My Divorce)

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November 7, 2008. Divorce finalized. That’s my anniversary now. And it’s a very lonely one marked by no one but me. Being part of church community after a divorce can be extremely hard and there are some things I wish I’d been able to say over the last seven years but could never quite find my voice. So these are the things I wish my church knew about my divorce.

I need you to believe me.

When I say that things were bad, I need you to know that what little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. When I come back to you after the divorce saying I need help to negotiate a way for myself and my children to be a part of the community because my ex has now decided to joined as well, I honestly need your help. It’s not a bid for your attention or some game to slam my ex. I don’t feel safe, whether that’s physically, emotionally, or spiritually doesn’t really matter. Church is meant to be a sanctuary, a safe place, and you are the one I’m trusting to help me find that space. I need practical, pragmatic solutions not platitudes or a lecture. I know it’s messy. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t need your help.

Sometimes I lie when I say I’m okay.

When you ask me how I am, look at me. Really look at me. See the circles under my eyes and the tear stains on my cheeks. Hear the strain in my voice. Because there are days when it’s just easier to say I’m okay than it is to explain why I’m not. I know you really don’t have the time after the service to listen about the umpteenth battle over child support or the way my kids have started talking to me the way their father used to or how much it hurts that the guy who I really enjoyed having coffee with will never call me again because dating a divorced woman with teenagers was more than he wanted to handle. I know you have a hundred other people to say hello to this morning so I’ll say I’m okay even when I’m not. And something as simple as hug or a reminder that you’re there if I need to talk goes a long, long way towards letting me know it’s okay to not be okay.

Just because I’m in pain doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving.

The pain of divorce doesn’t end when the ink is dry on the divorce decree. And that pain changes over time. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter or unforgiving. I will celebrate a thousand little victories this year that you will never know about and I find great joy in those things that would be silly or mundane to anyone else. I will change my hair or wear that shade of nail polish or go out to dinner alone and it that will feel like I’ve conquered the whole world, because for me, I have. But you’ll never see that. You will see me flinch when you preach against divorce when we read Mark 10. You will see me cringe when you preach about marriage. You will see my tears when you preach about forgiveness. Yes, I am in pain. But that doesn’t mean I’m bitter. And forgiveness for me is everyday thing. Especially when, because of the kids, I still have to be in contact with the one who hurt me so deeply. Instead of assuming I need to let it go or to move on or that I’m resentful, ask me what hurts and then listen to my answer. Listen to what I don’t say and ask me about that too. I already have a lot of people who make assumptions about my life, so please, please don’t be another one.

I feel invisible.

I hear your sermons on marriage and against divorce. I hear your sermons about relationships, including the relationship with God and how you use a good marriage as your example. I feel left behind as I don’t know what that looks like and I don’t know that I ever will. I see happy couples renew their wedding vows during a service and it’s bittersweet for me. My marriage was real. It no longer exists, but it did once. I went into it with such huge hopes and dreams and when I took my vows, I meant them. Seeing couples who have stood the test of time gives me hope that such love is real and possible and I love that you hold them up and celebrate their love. But I wish the church that offers an annual service for all married couples to renew their vows would also hold an annual service of healing for those of us whose marriages imploded. Give me a litany of my defeats and my victories and let me celebrate that by the grace of God I have survived what I thought would destroy me. Acknowledge that I exist and that my situation is not so uncommon. I know a lifetime marriage is the ideal but show me that I’m not alone and that I still matter as much as I did when I was a married woman. Show my children that church is a place of healing for the broken times in life.

I am more than my grief.

I have been divorced now seven years and one day. I lost everything in my divorce, far more than mere property. I came away with my confidence destroyed, my reputation under attack and my dignity in shreds. But I have worked through my grief. I spent time in your support groups and made retreats with other divorced people. I have spent time in therapy and remain in spiritual direction. I have learned who my friends are and sadly, who they are not. I’ve grown and changed and I’m in a different place now. I’m looking for new ways to connect with people. I want room to grow and a channel for my pain. Give me a space to be constructive, beyond working with other divorced people. See that I am more than my divorce. Let my experiences help to improve your pre-marriage preparation program or your marriage ministry or both. I know where I made my mistakes. Let me share that wisdom. Ask me how my divorce has changed my relationship with God. My answers might surprise or inspire you.

These are only some of the things I wish my church knew. What little I’m able to bring out words is a thousand times bigger and darker than what I can manage to express. It’s a question no one has ever asked me but it’s an answer that needs to be heard. We’re all so many different people in so many different situations in life, sitting in your pews, seeking so many different things and in so many different ways. Maybe it would help if you would ask the question: What do you wish your church knew? And then, without judgment, listen to the answers.

Me Too

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It had been a crazy day to top off a crazy week. Thursday was winding down and not fast enough. All I wanted was to get to 2:30 so I could go home. I just needed my day and my work week to be over. I was tired, stressed and achy. At 2:20 my boss called. She needed us to call a client right away. My coworker was already late leaving and would already have to rush to pick up her daughter at school. I had a little time before I had to go get my son. “Go.” I told her. “I got this one.” I didn’t feel like it. I needed to get some detailed information from the client and there was no telling how long this could take.

Please, please, please let this be an answering machine, I prayed as I dialed.

“Hello?” It was the wife.

Shit! Seriously God?!? Was an answering machine too much to ask for?!

So I introduced myself and asked my questions about the husband. She explained that she needed insurance for herself as well. She said she’d be harder to help as she has a chronic illness. She sounded ready to cry.

Okay, maybe I have a few minutes.

“I understand what that’s like.” I explained, “I have rheumatoid arthritis and I know making sure your doctors and drugs are covered is so important.”

“Me too!” She suddenly brightened up and grouchy as I was, so did I.

We went on to spend the next forty minutes, long past quitting time, talking about how we were misdiagnosed for years, how we finally got the right diagnosis. We discussed the weather and the havoc it wreaks on our bodies. We talked about what it felt like to deal with the undercurrent of skepticism from people around us and the frustration of being treated as if having a flare is somehow our fault. We delved into the feelings of guilt that come with not being to do the things we used to be able to do so easily – working full time being one of those. We touched on the anger we felt towards doctors who wouldn’t listen to us or treat us as human beings with thoughts and feelings, choosing instead to see us as guinea pigs, case numbers or both. We compared treatment strategies and the fear of the misjudging the complications from the drugs we use versus the damage the disease itself can do.

When we finally hung up, she was noticeably calmer and more upbeat. So was I.

Alright. I admit it. I needed that. Thank you, Lord. Okay. Quit smirking damn it.

As the conversation replayed in my head later that night, I realized how easily I fall into the trap of hiding or outright lying about how I’m really feeling. It’s not because I think people don’t care so much as I know they can’t truly understand. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your own body, you can’t truly relate, no matter how much you want to. It’s easier for me to just keep quiet than to try to find the right words to explain.

Yeah. Me. A writer. Struggling for words. I hope that paints a bit of the picture.

The problem with keeping those feelings hidden from others is that, after awhile, it becomes such a habit that I start keeping them from myself too. How many times do I have to be reminded that the secrets I keep are the ones that poison me slowly? Obviously, I needed one more.

This reminded me of another conversation, one I had shortly after I had filed for divorce. After an exceptionally raw session with my therapist, he told me, “Chris, you’re trying to get somebody to completely understand the pain that you feel. It’s never going to happen. No one will EVER understand it. That pain is yours and yours alone.”

That statement knocked the wind out of me. I cried uncontrollably for two days. Then I walked into church at the end of the second day and stood before a statue of Jesus, beaten, bloodied and dressed in the red robes and crown of thorns. As I looked into His face, it suddenly hit me full force that He knew. He knew my pain. He knew ALL of it. He’d been right there with me through all of it, not watching it but feeling it with me.

I guess I needed to be reminded of that too.

It’s funny how much healing there can be in those two simple little words: me too.