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(Or: In Which Lori and Ruth Pen a Poem Together)

You may not know that one of my very favorite poets is our own Ruth. As you probably have gleaned, she has a way with words. So when she emailed me with a premonition most poetic — Rows and rows of grown things. And it came from the pain. — I had to respond.

Oh Gardener, you surely tease:
what can grow from this blighted, salted soil
but stones and brush, blunted and stunted as bonsai?
What takes root in blood and mud but dashed dreams
and creeping evil? This ground has shown no promise,
not in all its years of sunward striving. Still, you laugh.
Crucifixion turns into Resurrection. Do I not recall?
And I see — rows and rows of grown things,
green shoots rooted in pain, turning new blooms
toward heaven. When will it come? You simply smile.
I carry no timepiece. Only wait for the rain to cease.
And you throw me an umbrella: a friend.
I resolve again to wait.

Have you ever had a dream so vivid that you felt as if it was a message from the universe? It happened to me yesterday at 5 AM, so I bolted out of bed to write it down.

A lovely voice was singing to the tune of Al Green’s “So Tired of Being Alone” with different lyrics.

She sang:

When you’re out of here

When you can’t go on

When you feel like giving up wherever you go

And it bothered me. My first thought was to worry that my son might be feeling this way, so before he left for work yesterday, I told him about the dream and asked him if he was feeling like that. He said he wasn’t. I said, “I’m aware that I don’t always leave open avenues for our actually communicating. Often, I come at you with tasks or concerns instead of listening.” I asked the second question. “Do you want to talk about anything going on in your life right now?” He really listened to what I said. He told me he knew he could talk to me, and that he was okay.

Who was this message for?

In that patented Nicely-Noodgy way I have, I’m now in the process of cycling through my list of loved ones and contacting them. You okay? Had this dream. Want to make sure you’re feeling copasetic.

So when you ask the people in your life, “Are you okay?” and they say, “I’m fine,” ask the second question. “How are doing, really?”

Check on your loved ones.

Don’t tune out.

Check in with your soul.

Don’t check out.

We’d love it if you stuck around. We’ll stick by you. Let’s make it better, together.

P.S. If you need to talk, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 800-273-TALK (8255).

Things have gotten awfully heavy of late. It feels like we’re all just trying to carry the weight of our crosses; sweating, straining, staring at our own two feet. Meanwhile, people are buckling all around us. They are dropping to their knees. They are feeling alone. It cannot end well, for we all need to be loved. And so, I am urging you: Take up an end. If you’ve got your cross balanced and you’re making your way, slowly but surely, help someone else out. Or to drop the metaphor for a moment, tell someone today that you love them. Tell them you forgive them. Tell them you hear them. Because you might be the next to stagger. It can, after all, happen in an instant. Or to take a more nautical theme:

A warning to mariners:
storms crop up quick.
Squalls in the harbor,
thunder out to sea,
fog like a shroud.

If your skiff’s at risk,
signal. Do not attempt
to rescue yourself.
The water is cold.
Depth cannot be calculated
by any standard measure.

If your skiff’s afloat,
please save the sinking.
Bail with a bucket,
or even a thimble.
Make a life jacket
from your own heart.

Continue until all’s clear,
which may be never.
That is all.

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, God calls a butterfly.” I’ll confess; I never much liked that quotation. It’s a little too neat, too pat. Tornado wrecks your house? Think of it as an opportunity to start over, to pare down your life. Fired? Consider it a chance to do something new and exciting. Yeah, right.

I have a tendency to sink into melancholy, Poe-like, after something distressing occurs. I’m not proud of it. But what lifts me up again is not so much opportunity or “looking on the bright side” so much as allowing time to bring something else, something new, into my life. It can be as small as a letter from a friend. Whatever it is, it breaks the surface tension on my melancholy and allows me to come up for air. I can’t force it. I can only wait for it. Yes, waiting is hard. But it goes by slightly easier knowing you’re not alone in doing it. So, at the risk of being as trite as whoever it was who penned the quotation at the beginning of this post, I offer the following:

I saw a blue heron, midstream standing
stick-legged, watched it dip, beak wetted,
wrangle a fish, throw back its head.
The fish wriggled down its gullet.
This was not the plan of the fish.
But if it ever looked at the sky,
thought even once what if,
it may be surprised — buoyant even —
at its newfound ability to fly.

Kids have not had a banner week, what with falling into gorilla enclosures and wrecking $15,000 LEGO statues and all. I have not formed an opinion on these events. I shouldn’t — I’m not a parent. I have no idea how tough it is to wrangle a small human being with a mind of its own. In fact, I’m not fit to judge anyone. I don’t know their lives: I’m not bipolar. I’m not an adoptee. I did not come from an abusive home. I’m not transgender. By the same token, you can’t possibly understand me, having not lived a life with the exact same contours, colored by the same emotions, experienced by a brain with its own unique wiring. No one can.

We are each alone in our brokenness. That fact tends to put up walls. More and more often, we see people wallowing in their aloneness, letting that aloneness define them. Why reach out to others when they can’t possibly understand? What is there to do but to trumpet my unique aloneness to the world?

There are constructive ways to deal with our aloneness. Several, in fact. One is to realize that, although our specific brand of aloneness is particular to our lives, we are all — every last one of us — broken and in need of healing. We actually have that in common. Maybe your “broken” differs from mine, but we can still reach out to one another in our common brokenness. I can’t understand yours and you can’t understand mine, but we can both understand how it feels to be sad, lonely, afraid, messed up. We are alone…but in a very crowded room. One touch is all it takes to bridge the gap.

Second, no matter how offbeat your type of aloneness is, there is someone who understands it. And you don’t need to go looking for a support group to find them. God understands every kind of brokenness there is, every kind of sinfulness, every kind of loneliness. Nothing is too foreign, too sensational, or too strange. I can’t promise instantaneous cures to your every injury, but I can promise that there is a listening ear out there who truly, deeply gets you. And, again, the chasm isn’t nearly as deep as you think it is. Open your mouth (or mind) and let it out.

Just as Emily Dickinson once opined that she was a nobody and asked if you, the reader, were a nobody too, let me be a literary catalyst: Hello, I’m broken. I’m a mess. I feel alone. How about you? Are you broken, too?

And if so, can’t we be broken together?

I’ve always thought of myself as possessing unlimited imagination, a riotous garden abloom. But just as weeds choke young flowers, so anxiety seizes me from time to time, strangling creativity before it can blossom. I get scared, see. And nothing does that more effectively than conflict.

My problem is that I want to be liked by everyone. But no one can be. People are far too variable in their affections, oscillating from fast friendship to loathing, allegiances twitching like a needle on a seismograph. Knowing this does not help; I still want everybody to be happy all the time. And where two parties’ happiness is diametrically opposed — aye, there’s the rub.

Simple answers present themselves: God loves me. Being loved isn’t my mission in this world; doing good is. You can’t make everybody happy. None of these truisms helps me sleep at night. (Okay, maybe the first one.) I am a perpetual middle child, always seeking harmony, always on edge.

All of which is to say that I have nothing to say. I cannot hold up any platitudes for you to embrace. I am all out of stories illustrating God’s Providence in the world. And you know what? That’s okay.

Being empty is also a state of being ready to be filled. And even in my darkest hours, I know this is possible, as I have been filled endlessly — to overflowing — by God’s movement in my life, over and over again. To say it can happen is to acknowledge that it will happen. And so it does.

Conflict will come and go; people will always resist the urge to let their gears mesh smoothly, often for very good reason. All I can do in these times is offer a place of peace. And when all peace has been drained from me, I can frankly and freely offer my empty cup to Christ. His peace is flowing like a river. He will always have some to spare.

2015-02-09 16.02.32My formerly-stray cat has gotten a lot more comfortable being a member of our household, but no matter how many times I say to KitKat, “Fetch the ball!” he’s just going to look at me, both bemused and bored.

It’s like his face is saying, I’m not a dog. Cats don’t “do” fetch

We sit. We stretch. We curl. We mew. We groom.  We purr.

But no. We do not. Fetch.

No matter how many times you tell a cat to be a dog, he’s still going to be your furry feline friend.

KitKat does things his own way – for example, he doesn’t like to be picked up, and since I have neuropathy in my hands and tend to drop him, have only tried a few times. It…um… didn’t go well. I’m glad that shining moment wasn’t posted on YouTube!

And, no matter how many times you say to my hands, “Feel things! Don’t be numb anymore!” Yeah, I’m still going to drop the kitty.

So many things affect the way you receive the world.

As someone with MS, I can tell you, it affects the way I process information (slowly, and often not for long), the way sensory input is absorbed (if there’s too much going on, I can’t take any of it in), and the way I interact with others (if I’m really feeling the pain that day, I’m much more subdued.)

There are also the odd physical sensations that can be frustrating. Once, it felt as if I had a piece of tape stuck to the bottom of my foot (I didn’t.). Yesterday, it felt as if there was a rock in my shoe (there wasn’t).

You can say, “Don’t feel that way! There’s not a rock in your shoe. It’s all mind over matter!” But still, this is how I feel.

So imagine how other conditions might affect the way a person receives the world. Asperger’s, social anxiety, depression, etc. Or even someone with an introverted personality. There doesn’t have to be an official label for someone to be dealing with things you might not understand.

No matter how many times you tell a person, “Don’t be affected by this stress! Just grit your teeth and power through!” It doesn’t help them. “Be like everybody else,” is what you’re really saying. But the fact of the matter is, these are individuals, created by God to be exactly who they are.

So even if you can’t see it on the surface, rest assured, everybody’s dealing with something. If you assume they deserve compassion for what they’re going through, it might give someone hope during a hard time. A little comfort and encouragement can go a long way. And it doesn’t cost a thing.

Now, do you think KitKat might want to go out and catch a Frisbie? 🙂

Concrete Jungle Picture

 

The other day, a friend said she was going to a therapist because she was feeling stressed and depressed. When she told her boyfriend about it, he said, “okay,” and started to talk about how his day had been.

She was annoyed, as she felt that he should have asked, “What’s going on, honey?  Can I do anything to make it better?”

But oftentimes, when men and women talk about a problem, we’re not even speaking the same language.

We’re talking about emotions. They’re thinking about solutions.

In a way, I told my friend, you should take it as a compliment. You told him there’s an issue, and he’s assuming you can handle it, so he’s respecting your ability to deal with it and tackle it head on. He knows that if you need him to do more, you’ll tell him.

But we don’t usually do that. As women, we think, you should know how I feel. You should provide the emotional support that anyone with a heart would know is needed right now. As men, they think, I’m not a mind reader and I won’t do you the disservice of assuming you can’t address your own issues. If you need something else from me, I’ll count on you to put it into words and tell me.

Maybe men really are from Mars, and women from Venus! Sometimes it seems we can’t hear each other at all.

I’m grateful that this language barrier doesn’t apply to our prayers. God not only understands all languages, he can interpret your silence as well. He knows what’s on the heart even if you say nothing at all. He also knows that if you say so much that you’re out of breath, you might be missing the point of grace.

Last night, I prayed in such great detail about what I hoped for my son’s life that I realized something. I can’t ask God to give Cole a customized life according to MY specifications. I have to let that idea go. Sure, I’d like to live in a small town by a lake, but my son would be just as happy in the concrete jungle sitting by the Hudson River. I’d like him to go to college near home, but he’d probably like to branch out on his own out of state and have some independence.

I decided to pray for a life that made him smile every day and sleep like a baby every night. It’s not perfect, but Providence is. So I’ll let my son – and our Silent Partner – fill in the blanks together.

Gutman_Karakul_lake

For so many of us, dark nights of the soul can be isolating. It might seem as though no one else in the world understands what we’re going through.

The other day, I saw an interview with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, in which he talked about his dissociative disorder.  It was amazing to hear someone in the public eye talking openly about mental health issues. Had to tip my hat to him. It was like a public service.

I’ve dealt with depression through the years myself. Things pile up on your psyche and you just can’t seem to see the light in life anymore. Sometimes you think, if only I had more intestinal fortitude to power through this.  I could buck up. Take it on the chin. I could white-knuckle through if I were stronger.

But the truth is, if you had a broken leg, you’d say, put a cast on it. You wouldn’t say, tough it out. You’d say, stay off that foot.  Fix it.  Let it heal.

Why can’t we acknowledge the fact that mental health issues matter just as much as obvious physical ones?

And just as SueBE wrote so powerfully in a recent post, it is possible to be stressed, even when you’re a person of faith. Many things can lead us into a depressed state, including the death of a loved one, as Lori wrote about with such poignancy.

For those of us who do believe, prayer is the first place we turn when we’re faced with a crisis. But faith doesn’t make a problem disappear. I think God expects us to use every reasonable means at our disposal to address issues that arise.

If stress becomes a daily issue, it’s imperative to look at the root causes. How can it be alleviated? Is it possible to leave an untenable situation? Would medication or counseling help? Talk about it. Don’t struggle in silence. Speak until you find what works for you.

Ask the questions, research solutions, and start by seeking God’s leading in prayer. Talk to your trusted clergy, unburden to close friends and family.  And as ever, keep the faith. Remember, you’re not on this road alone.

Last Sunday’s gospel reading was particularly apt — Jesus walks on the water. Let me set the scene: The apostles are huddled in a boat on a stormy sea, as lightning crackles and thunder rumbles all around them. It is dark. The sea is writhing with terrible creatures determined to suck the boat under and splinter it like a bone in the teeth of an ogre. And then they see someone — Jesus? — walking on the water, just as if he were strolling down the streets of Jerusalem. It must be a ghost! But no, the apparition speaks to them, tells them not to be afraid. Peter, ever the bonehead, speaks up, “If it’s really you, call me and I will walk on water, too.” Jesus does. Peter starts out. But then he gets distracted by the thunder and the lightning and the roiling of the dark forces under the waves, and he sinks. Like a stone. Jesus, of course, rescues him, and once again, the apostles fail to understand the lesson.

Most of us set out on the sea of life with good intentions. But we get scared when the darkness comes. A majority of us will crowd together in the boat and ride out the storm. Some of us will try to walk, but sink. The weight of the world becomes too heavy to carry, and we slip out of sight. And some few of us will take to the water, navigating the waves as naturally as the path to our front doors. How do those people do it?

I used to think that those who are skilled at walking on water (metaphorically speaking) are so because they never take their eyes off the prize — God. They hear the thunder, see the lightning, know somewhere in the recesses of their minds about what lurks beneath the waves, but they don’t get distracted. They don’t let the water pull them down. This is a simplistic notion. Many things can affect our ability to cope, for instance, illnesses and addictions that sap our strength and change brain chemistry, throwing us off balance. Try walking on water with a millstone like that around your neck.

We mustn’t judge or condemn those who don’t make it. Walking on water is an act of extreme grace. It is a daily miracle. Most of us never have to do it — we just sail along in our fortunate ships. For those who must walk on water, God can be a tremendous resource, a lighthouse beacon, a life preserver. I have experienced this in my own travels. God holds me up.

But I will never be anything but empathetic to those who drown.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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