Some Light Blinds, Some Illuminates: I Once Was Right But Now I See

In the chaos of upended routines and travel and summer heat, words have been coming to me fast and wild, unplanned reflections and questions and poems born out of a swirling cacophony of new experiences and ideas crashing into old rhythms and assumptions. Like pouring from a full pitcher, each time inspiration struck the flow was heavy and relentless to the last drop, and then there wasn’t any more. Now all of those words sit on my computer, untouched, unseen. I’m unsure what to do with them. The passion they were written with evaporated like water from swimsuit on a line. A limp memory, waiting for a body to set it back into motion. My body? I’m at a loss. 

This kind of creative existential crisis has struck before, though I have no new insights about how to steer out of it. It usually involves blankly staring at the blinking cursor while wondering who I’m actually writing for and if it’s actually useful, or if it’s just my private therapy that I foist upon the public. (The public! I have to laugh at my own vanity. I love you, dear readers, but you hover in the double digits.)

Some expert writers tell you that you must clearly define the question your writing answers or the problem that it solves. That way your readers know right away if they need you. Others encourage free-form stream of conscious writing, they passionately declare the craft an end to itself that should never be bridled with platforms or marketing strategies. I’ve also read that writers should always be responding to the world around them, engaging with the issues of the day in order to stay relevant. Of course, “they” also say it is our unique voice and interests that make this whole pursuit worthwhile, and losing touch with our own lens would be catastrophic. Naturally, my response to all these competing perspectives has been to attempt to appease every last one. The radio silence on this blog tells you everything there is to know about how that went down.

I didn’t always feel this way. I remember writing with urgency and conviction when I was younger and still firmly bound to the traditions and ideas of my childhood. Certainty was a brilliant light that blasted all competing questions to the shadows. I knew just what I wanted to say, and I knew that everyone needed to hear it. The light was my guide and my home. It burned so bright that I could not see anything else beyond some vague awareness of the dark periphery. Why would anyone go there when you could gaze into this luminous purity? It burned through my whole being until there was nothing left of me and I was pure light too.

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But no matter how intently I focused on the brightness, the shadows converge. It’s simply not possible to move through life without bumping up against these dark forms and ripples that filter and bend the light. As I turn my gaze from the single minded conviction of what “ought to be” and encounter what I thought were shadows, I realize my eyes were actually being blinded, not illuminated. There is a whole universe waiting to be taken in and explored.

Do you know this sensation? It takes a while for our eyes to adjust and make sense of what we are seeing – a riotous display of colors and textures and music and emotion and creativity and, of all things, light! We begin to realize all that we were missing in our single-minded pursuit of pure light alone. We realize that the people we thought were “lost” to the shadows were merely on their own journey of exploration, many of them now reaching out towards us in compassion and love. We can finally really see them because they are no longer others. This new dimension, blending together color and emotion and music and light, it unites us without rules or doctrines or creeds.  There is Divinity here. But also Humanity. We are not in tension. We experience freedom we didn’t know we were longing for. Bit by bit we learn to honor all the parts of ourselves, our bodies, our experiences, our needs and desires. The purging, forging, and burning of our former reality seems absurd in this new realm. And to think it was here all along!

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And yet, I still find myself longing for the old binary. Fear, doubt, insecurity, stress, pain, the weight of any of these emotions can send me reeling back to familiar certainties. Just like staring into a bright light leaves a temporary mark in your field of vision, I think that all my years staring into the floodlights of certainty has left a lasting blind spot. I am learning to trust other senses to compensate for the loss, other voices too, but when I become disembodied – when I feel shame about my emotions or experiences – I feel my eyes searching for that light again. I want the complexities to fade. I want the simple answers. I want to feel right and pure and clean. I want what it promises, even though I know it can’t deliver.

If this summer is any indication, I think that the times when we are flourishing and growing in new patterns and self care are exactly the seasons when we are most susceptible to falling back into old ways. We are like children hungrily taking in a wonderful new experience. When our senses become overloaded our emotions follow and without the compassionate embrace of a friend or guide, and sometimes even with it, meltdown is immanent. And that’s okay.

I want to explore this experience. To be more present to my feelings as they surface rather than trying to stuff them down or shame them away. I wonder why I continue to revert to old, self-defeating habits just after spending time listening to what my body needs. Why do my heckles still rise when I hear stories of lives lived so differently than my own? What tools can embodiment offer us as we navigate this vibrant and difficult world? How can we walk with one another in postures of compassion and love on a journey that is anything but linear? Why does the shame spiral of a loved one so often trigger our own reflex of self-preservation and denial, and what can we do about that? I have so many questions about how my body and mind are working together in all this – I hope some research will help me gain a better understanding about how our physical and mental/emotional and spiritual forms impact one another. But I also want to follow the questions that wonder why, and why not, and what now, and what if?

It was a strange summer, a failure by any measure of productivity. I didn’t accomplish a single one of my writing goals. And yet, I feel that I have grown. I write to you now, this first week of September, with fresh eyes and gratitude to all those writing teachers who insist on the stream of consciousness sort of writing. They were so right.

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Selah, child of light

For years I have said that miscarrying our tiny Selah was the beginning of the end of faith for me. In the days after that very worst day, family and friends reached out with words of comfort, with meals, with stories of their own loss. Tangible, vulnerable acts of kindness that made me feel less alone. But there were also family and friends and trusted mentors who felt it was important that I understand that no child is promised to heaven except those that God predestines. In fact, they said, it was prideful to claim an assurance of grace for my child – who was I to know the will of God? They said I should find comfort in God who is “in control”, who leads us into suffering for our sake, or for his glory, or to teach us to trust him. It felt like a threat. If he wants to create a child to die in your womb and then condemn that tiny soul to hell, who are you to question him? Maybe he did it precisely because you are the sort who would be brazen enough to call foul. 

The sentiment itself wasn’t shocking. I had always believed this theology, I had even offered those words to friends in their own suffering. But something changed in the sharpness of my grief. Ideas that had once given me comfort now failed because they made God look like a monster who delighted in inflicting suffering or creating and then murdering unborn children and destining their souls for hell, all in some bid to bring himself more glory.  Okay crazy nightmare hitler god. At least hitler was finite. This is the all knowing, all loving, all powerful God, and this is how he uses his power? This is goodness? This is love?

These were the first questions of my deconstruction out of reformed fundamentalism, made possible by the life and death of our dear first daughter. Deconstruction is, itself, a kind of death. An end. But as the years have passed I have begun to see her brief existence as more than just the tipping point out of a toxic faith. She was like a portal to the non-dualities of this universe. Through her I gained eyes to see the fear and oppression that was keeping me in line with this frightening theology. Through her I found the courage to imagine that, if there was a God, a Divine Being, a movement of Love in the universe, it would not, could not, delight in inflicting suffering on human beings or burning tiny fetuses eternally in hell.

Selah taught me how to wonder, how to fight against fear, how to sit with grief and heartache without pithy answers or submission to a dictator’s will. I don’t know if I ever would have found my way out of that toxic theology without her. She led me, with her short life, through all the rules and gates meant to protect God from our humanity. She showed me that God is not a king in a walled off fortress. Love cannot be contained.

I have gained momentum in running after her, following her small frame towards glimpses of the Divine in the wilderness beyond the gates, but it hasn’t been easy. The blinding flood lights and the hum of fluorescent bulbs that keep every doubt or shadowed thought at bay distorted my view of what laid beyond. The light of certainty illuminates all the carefully laid doctrinal walls between the desperate within and the desperate without. For so many years I was so sure that they were right, that God could only exist in this pure architectural wonder. I left timidly, with backwards steps, tripping my way down the front steps and across the grounds. I told myself that I just needed perspective, perhaps a new group or guide could show me how to find my way back in, back to God, back to the community I loved.  The further we ventured, the dimmer the light, the light I thought was God, became. I grew angry, then weary, then hopeless.

But then, at the edges of human answers, I stopped. It felt like the small soul that was tugging me out there was trying to turn my face, to finally look ahead rather than back at what was. By now the fortress was nothing but a dim glow on the horizon and my eyes were finally adjusting to the dark. It was so quiet. But then I turned and found the whole universe stretched out before me, before us, a resplendent tapestry of light and void. It pulsed with hope, with song, and I could finally see the shimmering movement of Love in and among all beings, across time. 

I fell into it, and it caught me, like a child safe in her mother’s arms.


Thank you, Selah-girl, for showing me the way.  For giving me the anger and the courage to escape the oppressive ‘certainties’ so I could experience the delight of true wonder and mystery and awe. Your name means “pause, reflect deeply” and is found at the end of many lines of psalmic poetry. It came to me in those vulnerable days curled up on the couch as you faded from my form, and at the time all I could reflect on was my helplessness and sorrow. I am so grateful for the journey we have been on from that place. Together we have lived into your name fully, always circling back, always with more questions. I never would have had the courage without you, my beloved girl. Thank you leading me home.

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An Imprinting of Love: How to Be Gentle With Your Kids and Yourself (at the Spiritual Parent)

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I was nine when we moved from our small New England town to the suburban sprawl of Colorado Springs. Everything was bigger there. The houses, the churches, the mountains, somehow even God was larger, more real, more present.

Christianity had been an important part of our family culture before, but now it took center stage. Our social lives oscillated  between attending a mega church (and all of the classes, groups, dinners and activities that came with it) and hanging out at the Focus On The Family complex which was conveniently just down the street.

My brothers and I spent countless Saturdays exploring in the Adventures In Odyssey wonderland while my parents steeped themselves in Dobson’s philosophy. His empire pumped out radio programs, magazines, and parenting books that explained how our “sin natures” caused us to misbehave and directed parents to set firm boundaries via physical punishment and authoritarian shaming to help children understand the dire consequences of their sins.

I’ve been trying to shake off the effects of this toxic approach for years…

Click here to read the rest of this post on the Spiritual Parent blog.

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curiosity in the face of fear

I grew up in an conservative christian community, proudly intolerant of all outsiders. From a young age I learned to look at these “others” with a mix of fear and pity – fear that their “lifestyles” would infect mine if given the slightest chance, pity that they were so committed to their hell-bound “worldly” ways. This attitude covered over everything from religious and cultural differences to sexual orientation and gender expression, even the smallest things like clothing, makeup, music, and people who let their kids do youth sports on sundays.

Their allegiance was clear, I was taught. They have put their desires, their interests, their very selves before the will of almighty. They were doomed. We would be too, if not for the grace of God and the prick of the holy spirit keeping us from listening to Evanescence and shopping at Hot Topic. (What? You didn’t also confess that sin of worldliness in your prayer journal numerous times between 2001 and 2003? Well. The Lord knows your heart.)

We weren’t without compassion. Like any person convinced everyone around us was going to burn alive for eternity, we did our part to rescue them. We had VBS programs and summer mission trips and I even went to public school so I could get a great free education while witnessing to my friends. In fact, our public school attendance was quite controversial in our church because the truly holy families sent their kids to our church christian school. I made up for this by starting bible studies at lunch and doing prayer walks before school with several other zealous and painfully awkward teenagers. To my memory, we weren’t angry or hostile towards others. But we didn’t really have any contact with people who didn’t share our beliefs. We were happily settled into a world of sameness.

It wasn’t until adulthood when I began to encounter these “others” as more than caricatures. They became my colleagues and neighbors and friends. We swapped stories about our weekends and lines from our favorite shows. We cared for clients and neighbors and friends. We planned a community garden. I babysat their children. Slowly, my horizons expanded. I learned about the diverse city I was making a home in, the people who were so different from me, until they weren’t. Until the differences gave way to a surprising amount of common ground, similar desires, values, dreams.

But all this stretching and learning and listening doesn’t happen quickly or come easily. Podcasts became my refuge – a powerful but safe, introvert-friendly way to explore other worlds while I worked up the courage to actually set foot in them.

There’s this intimacy to storytelling via podcast – a sense that there is no distance between the storyteller and the listener. I am not some faceless member of an audience, watching a performer on a stage. No, with the help of my ear buds I am sitting right across from this brave soul. They are speaking their beautiful life right into my heart.

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There are a few important things that happen when we learn to really listen to each other’s stories.

First, we gain valuable practical information to help us understand another’s world. That might be terminology or maybe an overview of cultural practices, it might even be historical data that we’ve never heard before. This information serves to fill in gaps in our most basic understanding of others – what sort of culture shaped this person to be who they are? What are the terms they use to describe their world, and what do they mean?

Second, storytelling humanizes. It’s easy to be afraid of someone, to allow the shadows in our understanding to become menacing and intentional. Luckily, it’s just as easy to adopt a posture of curiosity and wonder. When I listen to someone tell a story about their life, I am instantly transported into their shoes. When they share what the heartache felt like after their mother died, I feel a pang too. When I hear a story about a personal triumph, I share in their joy. But here’s the thing: if we do not practice empathy, our capacity for it atrophies. Luckily, the reverse is true: the more we practice this posture of curiosity and active listening, the more natural it becomes, and fear loses power.

Third, storytelling offers a safe environment to encounter and consider new ideas. From the safety of my own earbuds I can can learn about people who live very different lives, have very different values, and want very different things. No response required. I don’t have to mask my emotions if I am shocked or disgusted or confused. I don’t have to draw any conclusions or make any judgments. Stories have softened me. They’ve evaporated my fear.

Somewhere along the way I realized that the fear was self-imposed. No one was ever trying to take apart my beliefs, to win me over to some dark side. That nervous feeling I felt, the feeling I relied on and believed was telling me something dangerous was happening – that’s just the feeling of growing. The feeling of opening to new ideas, new questions, new possibilities. If we lean into it gently, patiently, there is no limit to what we will discover about the world, and about ourselves. Isn’t that wonderful?

Now I can’t wait to tell people about the fascinating worlds I’m discovering through my headphones. I’m no longer afraid of the harsh light that black and white thinking casts on the world because these stories have helped me to see the vibrant spectrum of hues that were invisible to me before.

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The phrase “I wonder…” has served me so well on this journey. It helps me to turn my quick judgments into opportunities for growth. I wonder what it’s like to be a refugee, fleeing on a flimsy rubber boat.   I wonder what it would feel like to live in a body that didn’t reflect how I felt on the inside. I wonder what it’s like to be Muslim in america. I wonder what it will be like to look back on my life at 50 or 75 or 90. I wonder what it would be like to live as an immigrant in a big city, or a small, rural town. I wonder.

But even with that posture, we live in an exhausting time. In the era of soundbites, it is easy, necessary even, to keep our guard up against the onslaught of polarizing opinions and extreme reactions. We learn to filter out everything we disagree with because we just do not have the energy to deal with it. Storytelling, a practice as old as human civilization, reminds us we are bound together by our humanity and helps us to process these complexities together.

If you’re afraid, cautious, too principled to wonder about how another lives as they do, I encourage you to try listening to a story told by someone in the group you fear. I love This American Life and The Moth for short, powerful glimpses into the lives other people lead. If a podcast feels like too much, you might try reading some of the short interviews on Humans of New York. That prickle of discomfort is the itch of growing pains. The stretch of becoming, making room for more love and understanding. Preparing you to see and flourish in a more colorful, vibrant world.

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I’m preparing to attend a conference this weekend. A christian conference. My first foray back into christian culture in some time. The group hosting it has created a sort of counter culture that challenges every exclusive, dualistic fiber of conservative Christianity, re-imagining the faith with love and hope and plenty of space for a spectrum of beliefs and questions. They are the loveliest people. But I am terrified. I am so anxious about exposing myself to “church people” again. So nervous about our differences of experience and beliefs. Dreading what conclusions my friends at both ends of the spectrum will draw about me attending something like this. It’s all fear.

So I’m taking some time this week to practice this meditation of wonder. To consider and breathe space for the possibilities. To listen for the stories, let go of judgments, and just be present to the experience.

It is through listening that we gain eyes to see more than what is visible – to understand what has been and imagine what can be.

 

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