Monday, April 17, 2017

Where's Eustace?

I read an article by Michel Odent discussing "stress deprivation" in pre-labor cesarean birth. Labor starts a cascade of hormones and body responses that help prepare the baby for life in the outside world. He mentions how the word "stress" has negative connotations and the impulse of our culture is to avoid stress. One of my favorite TED talks addresses this belief here. The article goes into detail about the implications for mother and child in denying the process of labor for whatever reason. Even if the reason is lifesaving, there are certain long-term consequences to doing it this way.

It is the same in emotional health. Skipping parts of the healing process has long-term ramifications.
Someone does not go from business school to head of company with no experience...it takes time to learn how to apply book knowledge to real life situations. You can't take a block of clay and stick your finished piece in the kiln without conditioning the clay first. You can't go from throwing ingredients in a bowl to eating a "cake"...you can't have ingredients and call it a cake without sifting flour, creaming eggs and sugar, adding all necessary ingredients, and finally baking. There is a process, and it takes time. Not your time. Its own time.
This is what happens when we cut off our anger: it doesn't go away. Just as a cake doesn't hold together until it's baked, anger doesn't hold together unless it is healed. Instead, it comes out sideways and in all the wrong places. It makes you lash out at people who are helpers or friends. it makes you misplace it on to people who don't deserve your anger. It might even make you become abusive and choose someone to bear the blame for all of your anger .
Birth is an apt metaphor for this, for when anger is cut out of you instead of squeezed out of you in a truthfully expressive way, there are repercussions to your mental health. You brood, you suffer, you feel confused or antsy or stuck. Stuffing any feelings, but especially anger, will literally make you sick. Stuffing it into passive aggression is even worse.
I got tired of stuffing. Having a "coming out" party with a devotion to grief meant I also had to have a healthy devotion to anger, at least for awhile.  Having anger when you have every right and reason to be angry is a holy, blessed thing. Let me be straight. Having anger does not give you the power to change a darned thing about another person, except to hurt back if you so choose, and it will still end poorly. Anger is your burden alone, but it gives you excellent information about yourself. It gives you clarity. It protects you, especially if you have been taught to numb out and not stand up and speak when things are very wrong. It is healthy to be good and pissed, especially if you have someone in your life whose goal is to limit your options, press you down, and unfairly punish you. It is healthy, and like giving birth, it is finite. Anger is an energy most of us didn't learn how to handle. When we find situations where passive aggression is mistaken for mental health and where we aren't allowed to be angry, we suffer. Our anger gives us clarity and strength and the energy to make things right.
If one has been in an oppressive situation, your anger has never been uncovered or welcomed. To accept and express anger is vital, otherwise it is as if a limb has been cut off your body and you will be emotionally crippled your whole life. The transformation happens when anger leads to truth which leads to grace. It's a long process. I say to  anyone who knows me, any angry part of me is just a part, just a stop on my path. I was stifled for so long and anger is like lighting a fire of Self. We all have to learn some time to light this fire of truth to get to grace.
Not being angry causes not just your suffering, but the suffering of others. Not speaking up when you should is an act of cowardice. Sometimes, awakening anger can keep hurtful people far away from us in our hearts. Hurtful people won't acknowledge or honor your anger, because they can't handle anything that isn't superficial. Abusers and narcissists value image over substance. Their thinly disguised anger defends their image but not their humanity. It's fake. They might have the same perception of themselves as victim, but it is not because their human needs were threatened, it is because their image was threatened. That, too, means it is fake. In the name of that false image, they create a victim to blame, judge, criticize, and heap all of their angst on. That isn't the same as truthfully saying to someone, "your behavior has caused damage." In fact, it's the opposite because it is based on a lie.
 To get to love and grace, these protections must be put aside. Imagine being loved not for your "fakeness" and "performance" but for your messy humanity. Often, the person pointing out your hurtfulness is giving you a gift: the possibility of being loved for being real.
Eustace, a character in CS Lewis's "Voyage of the Dawntreader", had greed in his heart. When he tried to selfishly hoard and keep a treasure when he had the option to share it, he himself was turned into a dragon- a scary, threatening dragon . This passage from the story illustrates beautifully the transformation of an errant heart:

"The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. but the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don't know if he said any words out loud or not.

I was just going to say that I couldn't undress because I hadn't any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that's what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and , instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I jsut stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that's all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bath.

Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

The the lion said - but I don't know if it spoke - 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was do deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know - if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was was smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again. You'd think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they've no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian's, but I was so glad to see them.

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me - (with his paws?) - Well, I don't exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes - the same I've got on now, as a matter of fact. and then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream."

Do you see? Eustace had to claw his way out of his dragon skin. Then he had to go through layers and layers until he was finally exposed for who he was- a boy. 

This is what anger does eventually...exposes the bare flesh, exposes our feelings of being trapped; our sense of powerlessness, our humility, our sense of righteous indignation at exploitation of any kind, and finally, our ability to be transformed. And we can find there that we are, in all of our humanity, deeply accepted and loved. 

Monday, March 20, 2017



If you are local to Louisville, I am honored to be reading a piece of my creative nonfiction at Louisville's SWAN Day celebration.
SWAN is an acronym for "Support Women Artists Now."
I find it funny and also delightful that I get to read my writing when I have had such trouble embracing myself as a writer and my fingers are in all kinds of art and music pies. Maybe being insecure about writing makes me a writer?
Here are details for the event:
https://www.facebook.com/events/416056615427478/


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

OH MY GAWD

As a music educator, and mostly as a parent, I believe it is my duty to influence my children's musical tastes. Or at least expose them to good music. When the pre-teen and finally teen years hit, with a six-year-gap between my younger children, this poses some unique challenges. I want to embrace what my children are listening to, and give them room to explore on their own while gently exposing them to other things.
But man, a mom can only hear "JuJu On That Beat" so many times. After I'd reached my threshold of tolerance for that particular song, I declared a War of the Generations: Dance Music Edition.
First order of business: Madonna. First, my daughter sat on the couch. I won't publish the pictures here but suffice it to say the looks she gave were scornful. Then they were more scornful. Then her whole face was downright contemptuous.
SCORE.
That meant I should play another Madonna song. Don't worry, there was a smile beneath the contempt and she even humored a round of "how contemptuous CAN you make your face?" That turned out to be funny.
You see, she is in the throes of becoming her own person. Mom isn't cool any more. Hugs are in short supply and we now share a full complement of moods. I have to be creative in finding ways to connect with her without intruding on her individuation.
But by Madonna song number three and trying to dance to it, REALLY dance, the ol' pre-teen college try, she threw her body on the floor in a "Holiday" sized tantrum. Her face down, arms splayed out like a cross -how apropos-, she wailed hysterically, "NOOOOOOOOOOO."

"NOOOOOOOO, MOM, NOOOOOOO.
OH. MY. GAWD. NO."

My poor child. I had to redeem this situation. I know, the Moon Walk.
We watched the moon walk, we tried the moon walk, we listened to Billie Jean and danced to Beat It. My inner mom was giving a thumbs up. Way to go. Good job.
Dreams of other songs, comforting songs from the 80's, filled my head. A respite from JuJu On That Beat, however temporary it might be. I didn't care. This was great. We were connecting over 80's songs.
Then, something happened. Google. She wanted to learn more about Michael Jackson. So everything was ok until we got to bleaching and burns and melting face. Then she had exactly two nightmares about Michael Jackson's face and I had to write this evening off as a parenting fail. A year or so passed with nary a mention of -shhhh- MJ.
So, imagine my surprise when tonight, we all ended up dancing in the kitchen to Michael Jackson, prompted by my daughter. There was even a little break dancing. What fun.
The point of all of this is that even when you think they aren't, your children are listening. They are hearing you. If they have made that turn towards freedom, they need you even more, way more, than they will ever let on. I'm convinced you have to let them think they don't need you, and quietly love them over those contrived distances. If they still think Mom is cool, then eat that up, every moment of it.
Actually, just eat all of it up. It's way too short.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

Missing the point

I rely a lot on friends to keep me abreast of things that are happening in the world of politics. My time is thinly stretched these days, so this morning I listened with interest to a story my friend was telling me. He said as he was driving through Indiana, a radio announcer was going off about the issue of raising minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. This announcer was denigrating the kinds of jobs people who work at minimum wage hold, and complaining that raising their income won't improve the quality of their work. I could not help but think that there are many, many people who think like this radio announcer, that they are entitled to have lower-earning people in their poor place to serve them, have no obligation to examine their own entitlement while they benefit from oppression and keeping others poor.
Yet I  understand the thinking of those who are entitled. Entitlement completely underscores abuse. In this case, a man believes that only his opinion is what counts, and he should benefit from the toils of people who he deems less than him, basically using human beings so he can feel better about himself. So the selfish show of entitlement comes when that man believes that these people OWE him that. And when he does not get what he is owed, he turns himself into a victim. Somehow minimum wage workers threaten him because his hamburger might be of lesser quality.
Another man I heard of was in dire straits because he might have to downsize his house by half: from a value of half a million to a value of a quarter of a million.
To most of us, this is obvious. It's the spoiled brats of the world and whiny grown-up babies who mess it up for everyone else. Even though they have more than they need, they must affirm their perception of themselves as God by controlling the lives of others through taking from them or subjugating them, or both. The lord giveth and mostly taketh. That radio man, in looking only at how empowering a downtrodden group inconveniences him, is acting like a prick and missing the point. Putting people in a position where they are basically asked to be slaves to those richer than they are is oppression at its finest, fueled by fiery entitlement. His conviction is that he is owed certain things by people he deems lesser than him. When he does not get that, he feels oppressed and therefore, victimized. However, the people he is oppressing with his heinous attitude have real worries: food, shelter, clothing, basic human needs. To him, he is being victimized when he is disagreed with and his superiority is not acknowledged and acted upon. To those he oppresses, their victimization is real in that their basic needs are being threatened.
This man flippantly said they should get two jobs if they need to. Men who use the courts to financially cripple their exes are the worst. I am certain those kinds of  men would never take two minimum wage jobs, even though any monkey off the street can spout off opinions on the airwaves or make sacrifices to their vacation schedules to accommodate their children's needs and see the value of being a supportive co-parent instead of an obstructive and destructive one.
Supporting the poverty of another is enslaving them. Abusers deliberately enslave an other. They feel threatened not when their basic needs are actually threatened, but when their ego and convictions about their entitlement are threatened. So they focus on their false victimization-you victimized them by disagreeing with them or having your own thoughts- and cannot see the damage they do in reality. Their grasp on reality is tenuous at best. That is why politicians can get away with so much oppression-they twist things around to garner sympathy. People really believe their "hamburger will be devalued" if they support another.
When the real victims then stand up for themselves, they are punished.
Fear of punishment should not stop people whose human value and quality of life are threatened by entitled bullies. Oppression marks everything that is evil and shameful and hateful in this world, and working to change it takes great courage and insight.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

river

it used to be I minded being born
on to undressed walls
only when I was in white love
in womb-warmed darkness
comforted by the pleasures of illusion
the rich blindness of soft soil, where one
can grow straight down
to the cusp of moisture
held simple on lips
no skin untouched

in deep, a long stretch of
sea legs would carry wind to
bluster and billow out the dreams
seed pods lying on top of dew
or floating in the sun
they blister and heal

it used to be a river
which had my entire devotion
was hung on a clothesline
where it dried and cracked

I heard you say I was strong
when you broke me

am I? is broken strong
or moved like other rivers;
seeded like other births?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

hands know


How much do hands know any more?

It used to be I’d watch my grandfather turn over a stack of twenties in his fingers at the betting window. I’d watch my grandmother’s fingers gracefully twirl a swift cigarette from out of the package. All eyes turned toward the track or the television in some corner, they’d forget their handling and fondling to go shout a number. Horses begin at one part of the oval, end at another, first number at the finish line is noted.

A pack of horses densifies and then stretches in a line.

Lines on lines, rows on rows, forming and re-forming.

Another cigarette is rolled from the pack, is lit, and bobs on my grandmother’s lips when she talks.

It rolls like the whorls in a baby’s hair. Like the whorls in an enthusiastically running tide.

Like seashells, snails, Klimt paintings.

Trees of life.

Horses hurling towards the finish line.

Like the Fates, twisting the threads of life between their gnarled crone fingers, between their spindly joints, making whorls of tangled torments from smooth lines.

Horses leave the gate frantically,

My grandmother’s fingers are grey, and her skin is smooth like thin paper. Her irises are tiny black lights. She is ash all around, head always wrapped in a fog of smoke. A cigarette is always dangling, resting, smoking and throwing up thin ivy-like shoots into the air before they disappear. Cigarette smoke, if I look closely, is only foggy when it is forcefully expelled from a mouth, chaos. Most of the time it forms thin lines in the air, curves gracefully in visible lines. These lines throw dirt on walls, in conversations. They become violent if provoked by a philandering, gambling husband, forming and re-forming, light up, breathe in unseen, breathe out chaos, stub out, repeat.

It takes patience to untangle chaos, to hold one’s breath while the fingers work beneath.

It takes intention to choose which horse to bet on during any given race, the names blur and run together after a few drinks. Another cigarette, another bourbon, heavy breath and empty pockets. Plastic cups empty and gather at a tiny table. Racing forms with frantic pencil circles and calculations. She always said she only held the smoke in her mouth and did not inhale it and would not take it in all the way. He smacked his “Form” on his hand in an excited “come on”.

Jockeys goad with their whips.

Like sweeping the floor.

Like fists curled deliberately, clutching a retaliation for dear life.

Poking anthills, firing up ants, rigid, thick stick arguments.

The floors are dirty and covered with stepped-on losing tickets. Loser’s confetti pieces, folded and torn, then scattered and tamped down. Tiny cigarettes in a pack. Pinch, pull out, light, drag, stub out. My grandmother mutes herself with cigarettes, with calculated circles of resignation. The horses are in the gate, dancing on their haunches, taut and ready. Participatory repression, spring and release.

Watch the cigarettes leave the pack. So many were smoked.

People stand in long lines waiting for their turn to bet. These lines are slow and ponderous. Sticky hands reach into pockets to pull out money, count and count again, which number should you pick. Agonizing confusion over the inability to predict something with certainty, yet with all the information written on the Racing Form one has a hunch. A hunch, a clue, an illusion, you like the name, the horse looks good, the jock looks good, just pick. Roll one more cig from the pack. Dirt circles shoes and money, leaves residue like the angst of drunkards.

Wring out a winner, twist the numbers in your head.

Horse races were always accompanied by other rituals: drinking too much, followed by my drunken grandfather losing his money. The ritual retelling by my grandmother of how my grandfather gave his money to whores, fell out of drunken windows, her floors at home left dirty, her mouth circled with smoke, his head in an unremorseful fog. She was yearly sheared of her dignity and place, a domestic. These rituals were circular, relational whorls, tidepooling and receding, one smoke after another.

His mouth was always ready with a smooth line and in his hands a wad of twenties. The years gathered on his bobbing lies, growing fatter and fatter on his lower lip, slow creeping ivy-tendrils of thin smoke. My grandfather kept lying words on thin threads, just in case he’d have to tie something together, make something other than a mess or pretend he could do something better than twist out a crying woman.

Sometimes, something has substance on its own. A winning horse, the ticket with the correct number, the drunken losses that are felt and ignored. A jockey who is carefully measured in stature and lightness. A number that is a wild card win. An obsequious smoke. Other things must be plied together to create substance, to stick together, to later tangle. Horses whirling tightly together, circling. Smiles on drunk faces. Folding and stacking losing tickets in halves as you tear each half, smaller and smaller, snuffed out. A man, and women. These, too, are ritually discarded with the cigarette stubs.

Spun cigarettes, horse races, grandparents, circling, crying.

Ritual twisting.

Losing tickets.

Hands know.

Monday, March 6, 2017

I confess

I have a secret I've kept from all but a few close friends. It is one of those habits of comfort that as an adult, I've deliberately secreted away. It is a pleasure from a time in my life when I was a completely different person, full of passion and fire, full of conviction and evangelism, a somewhat embarrassing person. No, really. Any time you know what someone else should be doing you are embarrassing yourself. When I embraced fundamental Christianity, I listened to only Christian music because all other music was "devil music". I even went to a workshop at my youth group where someone played a Queen song backwards on a turntable and if you strained to hear, the chorus sounded like, "it's fun to smoke marijuana." We ooohed and ahhhheed over how crafty the devil is in leaving these bad influential messages in the popular music everyone was listening to. On first dates, I don't really disclose that information, again, embarrassing, and say instead I have "large gaps in my cultural knowledge." But I loved contemporary Christian music, and my secret is, that although my spirituality has shifted, I still listen to it.
Going back to that time where I was so naive and had so much love I needed to put somewhere, when singing my heart out to "Jesus music" brought me feelings I didn't know I could have, when church brought me connection to something bigger than myself, is just comforting.
I was saved at several Petra and other Christian rock concerts. In the black-and-white thinking of a teenager, I thought salvation was an either/or proposition: either you were saved because you toed the line and were good enough, or you weren't. I hadn't learned about grace and so I'd have an unsavory thought or do something sinful and back I'd be at the altar call.  Maybe I took it as shame and putting on a garment of shame felt familiar. There were other ways the church put on shame, and my waking up to how truly radical Jesus was, and what a social justice warrior he was in the narrative of his life, not to mention that I experienced in a bad way the Pharisee nature of many Christians, left me seeking other ways to experience holiness and divine connection.
But I loved the music. I loved, and still love, the feeling of worship and devotion. I remember one artist was fire-was controversy- was passionate honesty: Amy Grant. I remember what a stir she caused by inching to the mainstream, by working with Peter Cetera, and then breaking through with her hit "Baby Baby."That was huge for a Christian artist. She also sang songs about the joy of family, had scandalous names to her songs like "Lead Me On", and wrote about struggling with temptation to cheat on her husband. Wow. Christians didn't talk about those things, much less sing about them. People freaked out and judged her relentlessly. I loved her.

What I drew from singing and listening to that music was an honesty I hadn't found in the letter of the law. It was the spirit of the law, the psalmist's cries, as the deer pants for the water; sincere longing and passion. It was the utter vulnerability that comes from recognition of your humanity in contrast to the Divine. And oh, having been bathed in shame my whole life, I was attracted to Christianity, but eventually realized for me, the truth of God is the opposite of shame. Perhaps shame is what brings us to spirit, which is why I love it when people expose their dark underbellies. I have spent so much time in dark underbellies of abuse and have seen the worst of humanity:  in Christians, in organizations, in myself, in beloveds. But often the people who are the most hurtful are the ones who appear the most righteous and perfect. It's so boring and bland to be righteous and perfect and above reproach. How positively wearisome and banal . Give me some reality...tell me how you hurt or avoided responsibility or lied or stole or messed up or had to unburden your pride and apologize. Tell me what you know of your darkness, where you have stumbled, where you have humbled yourself before others and God. Let's get real together. Because, yikes-how we wound each other, constantly. How we hurt, ignore hurt, abandon, reject, criticize, and blame each other. How some even enjoy this wielding of powerful swords over others, even swords of religion and especially shame. Yet-please show me a person who has found grace without coming face to face with those shadows and darkness. Show me the person who hasn't fully emerged from beneath a dark underbelly without lifting their arms in praise to anything and everything that is LIFE, screaming "I am FREE!!!"  Show me the person who has walked in darkness and strife, in numb pain and isolation, who doesn't come all the way out of that knowing grace IN THEIR BONES. They have to because then they have known how shame hurts.
I love that one can touch darkness and it leads you to grace. It helps me accept my own faults and the mistakes of my humanity, and be as unburdened by perfectionism as I possibly can. I can always fix a mistake, but I can't fix it if I don't own it.
Part of me doesn't want to admit that oppressors have any use in this life except to cause suffering, that ideally we will all be walking in the light of grace and restoration and love when everyone's enlightened and the divine feminine has come to a place of equality with the divine masculine and then who cares, there is just the DIVINE. But if the whole purpose of being abused, being scapegoated, being made into an enemy is to find grace, then all that suffering will not have been wasted. And how odd to find grace through people who are not full of grace yet claim righteousness. That's just the way it works.
Also, there is Amy Grant.
So, I will just keep closet listening to my Jesus music. And Queen, too, because there never really was any devil music.
Lead Me On.