Kicking & Screaming, I Will Ask for Help Today

Flower Head piece

Alvernia University in Reading, PA is blessed with a most serene campus. I’ve had a handful of opportunities to attend events at the school since we moved to the area, nearly eight years ago now. Each time I’ve been there, a sense of peace and calm has come over me. Yesterday, I attended a social media marketing seminar in one of their buildings, actually the McGlinn Conference Center and Spirituality Center, a ministry of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters.

One of the sisters welcomed us into the center and provided a short introduction, including an extremely brief idea about who the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters are and what they do. She told us that the sisters live in this building and hold spiritual services there. She said that she has asked her sisters worldwide to pray for everyone who enters the building. From the U.S. to Brazil to Liberia to Mozambique, women were praying for us. I had to let my mind linger on this idea for a few minutes while other introductions took place.

I imagined the women in their simple dresses and sandals, across the globe, asking the universe to take care of me.

In that tiny moment, I felt exceptionally loved.

I’ve never asked a group of people to pray for me. That doesn’t mean they haven’t, but I have never personally asked for it, so I’m not often faced with an awareness that it’s happening. I do remember being at a week long youth retreat in high school and some girls I barely knew approached me after a card-carrying-Jesus-lover-jam-band concert to say that Jesus was telling them to pray for me to be saved. YIKES! Freaked me right out.

I remember thinking, “Maybe you’re misunderstanding, because my soul is actually pretty safe.” I also remember  wondering, “Why would you think it’s okay to tell me that?” Those girls were making a lot of assumptions about me, and yes, they were definitely misunderstanding whatever message they thought they were receiving from the other side. As genuine as they thought they were, I was left with the impression that those girls were actually the ones in need of some prayer. So, I was 17 – and a little cocky – but I was fairly certain that my intuition was right.

You see, I have to admit, I don’t believe prayer works the way we often assume it does.

Maybe I’m like the Unitarian Universalists this way – sometimes I’m more certain of what I don’t believe than what I do.

I don’t believe prayer prevents people from dying before we’re ready to let them go. I don’t believe prayer brings sobriety to addicts. I don’t believe prayer will increase the size of our paychecks. I don’t believe prayer alone will rescue us.

What I do know, is that prayer connects us. If we’re all made of the same physical stuff as the stars and everything else, which is something I do believe, then it makes simple sense to me that our spirits might all be made of the same stuff and come from the same place; and praying together might provide an avenue for our spiritual selves to reconnect with their missing pieces.

I’m not going to pretend to have it all figured out. My ego isn’t that big.

I think a deep meditation can connect me with my inner self, to help me understand things and make decisions with more clarity. A good, genuine prayer group can uplift us. It can help us feel important, validated, cared for, and loved. Praying to a higher power, if you should believe in one, is in its most basic form, asking for help.

Because we were never meant to do all of this alone.

In the Sanctuary Model of Trauma Informed Care, Sandra Bloom and her partners present us with three questions we should ask each other anytime our community gathers. The beauty of these questions, is the impact they have on organizations and families and an assortment of groups from prisons to churches. We ask each other:

1. How are you feeling? – This question should be answered with emotion words but without explanation, that can come later in a one-on-one setting rather than in the group.

2. What are your goals for today? – A person can list as few or as many goals as they need, with the understood hope that people will be specific.

3. Who will you ask for help? – We should choose individuals and again, be specific. Maybe it’s a friend or sister or that higher power.

And it all comes together. Who will you ask for help? How many times have I been in a bad situation without answers, without a plan, without hope? And I stewed in that horrifying confusion, alone. How many of those trials could have been eased if I had just asked for help? It’s one of the most difficult things for some of us to do, yet so vital to our survival.

Today, I am fighting against a very strong desire to check out and be alone with my thoughts for a few hours. Instead, I am going to be honest with people about where I am, and I’m going to ask for help. 1. I am feeling worn out and stressed. 2. I have to attend a funeral for a man who, during his tenure, made great contributions to our organization. My goal is to stay mentally present at the service. 3. I am going to ask my director for help. Then I’m going to go home and enjoy my family.

Sometimes, if we’re open to it, it’s just that simple.

Agere Contra, friends

No Ordinary Love

Photo by Jennifer Stone, incenderestudios@me.com

Photo by Jennifer Stone, incenderestudios@me.com

When I turned the volume up to better hear Track 1 on Rose Ave., an album from You+Me, I knew the album was worth listening to with my full attention. My friend Crystal gave me the album, because she knew I would love it. Friends can be good like that. Since autumn, I’ve listened to this album on repeat nearly every time I’ve been alone in the car. Alecia Moore (Pink) and Dallas Green (City and Colour), have amazing vocal talents that command an audience. Their ability to convey emotion in this album is what brings me back day after day for another listen.

As I drove to work yesterday morning, I listened to Track 10, their broken down intimate version of No Ordinary Love, on repeat. It’s a short commute, but I was able to lose myself for about 15 minutes and just hear the words. I naturally thought of my husband the first go round. Then something different happened as the song was beginning a second time.

“I gave you all the love I’ve got,
I gave you more than I could give
I gave you love
I gave you all that I had inside”

I wondered aloud, “What if I loved myself this much?”

A few years ago when we were houseparents, when our cottage was in a real funk one summer – when the kids were on campus all day without a break away, without distractions from each other or from us – half of our girls were on restriction and sitting at the kitchen table. What we don’t always talk about is how mean the girls could be. Their anger and frustration bred a nastiness in them, and misery loves company, doesn’t it? So, they projected their pain and confusion and sorrow and worry onto everyone around them.

Tired of the heaviness in the air and exhausted from fighting the girls’ defenses, I realized it was an opportunity to work through some things. I gave each of them an index card and asked them to write down all of the lies they had been told in their lives. My hope was that if the girls were able to write out some of the ugly things they were told about themselves, we could make some associations with their behaviors and figure out new ways to respond to triggers.

Here are a few of the untruths they shared:

1. Nobody will ever love me.     2. I’m stupid.     3. I’m never going to be anything.                 4. I can never be forgiven.    5. I’ll never be happy.

My heart was not always ready for their honesty. 

I knew that I couldn’t make up for a life time of lies, but I hoped to establish some new ground work for these girls to build on. I openly forgave them for the times they hurt me. I empowered them and helped the girls realize their potential. I encouraged them to ask for help, to use the resources available to them, to create solid futures for themselves. I laughed with them. We danced together – to Michael Jackson. They laughed when I danced to Michael Jackson. We cooked together. We celebrated all of our birthdays together. They taught Stella to play the piano. We traveled, we painted pictures, we cared for three fat goldfish together. We sang songs. We held hands. We cried together. I loved them.

In this season of renewal I challenged myself to be a place where God loves to dwell. I’m still figuring out what that means. I think it means, among other things, I have to learn to really love myself. I have to take care of myself and provide for my needs – time to be alone, time to think, time to read, to laugh, time to be creative, time to write. I have to practicing forgiving myself – for eating that candy bar, for doubting myself, for hurting other people. Isn’t forgiveness the ultimate love?

When I listen to the lyrics of No Ordinary Love, I envision an unconditional love – that’s how I should love myself. I don’t always, and I’m afraid most of us suffer from some form of self-loathing. I’m trying to balance my realistic self with my ideal self. It would bring me some small amount of peace if I could get those women to meet in the middle. I’m working through some of the untruths told to me.

1. I can’t do that, because I’m a woman.      2. I can’t do this job without a degree.               3. All husbands will lie and cheat.

People I loved and cared for spoke these untruths to me. I’m saying no to those lies, and I’m asking you to do the same. When we identify the awful, hurtful things we’ve been told in our lives, we can begin to put them in their places and grow beyond the stagnation such words can cause. When we move out of those dark places, we can begin to see our true selves more clearly. Our spirits become warmer, softer, more welcoming, and offer a place for love to dwell. I think that’s a good start.

Agere Contra, friends

 

 

To Challenge Morality: Batman, Death Row, and Me

Compass.2

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first film I saw in a movie theater. My dad took me to the only cinema in our small town for opening night. I remember how excited he was. To take me to my first movie, to get popcorn, that the movie was Batman. I didn’t know anything about comics or superheros. I was six years old and proud to be Madonna’s number one fan. I knew the lyrics to all of her songs and fantasized about owning her white pumps that I would show off to my kindergarten class.

My days in kindergarten were spent coloring, playing house, and trying to see how loud I could belt ‘Like a Virgin’ on the swing set. I was not yet aware that my childhood was a bit different from most kids in my class, that I was barely sheltered and definitely over exposed to things like drug use, alcoholism, and non-age-appropriate cultural trends. I didn’t know there were words to describe the confusion or anger that I often felt. I didn’t even know that what I felt was anger.

I remember my teacher talking about foreign countries like they were all lesser than the great United States of America. Like every other country was part of the third world and a collective place to be pitied. A certain American propaganda was in the air in the 80’s, and its implications did not escape me. I knew as a six-year-old pop music aficionado that I was also touched by the issues faced by other people. I knew I would one day advocate for the poor, uplift the oppressed, and fight for civil rights. I just thought it would be in one of those other countries.

When I saw Batman on the big screen, a slow realization began to creep in. Something far more important than a love of 80’s pop music was brewing. I suddenly recognized some of the loss in my own life, though it would take decades to decode and process it all – I’m still processing. My eyes were forever opened to the injustices in the world, in my own beautiful America. I felt lied to by my teachers. I wondered why more of the adults in my life weren’t talking about hate crimes or inequalities in the U.S. Two major things happened to me when I first connected with the Dark Knight: I knew that crimes against humanity were real; and I identified with the vigilante’s crusade against injustice.

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. I like to see people step out of shadows, speak through the silence, and break down walls. I also enjoy challenging my own rigid thoughts and ideas. When an online book club I recently joined announced that we would be reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson this month, I knew this was exactly the book for me. It’s the type of challenge my morality needs during this season of renewal.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization located in Alabama that “litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct,” according to their website. In Just Mercy Stevenson offers an honest, firsthand account of working with an innocent man on death row. Random House says Just Mercy is, “A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice…”

This isn’t a book review. Though I would recommend this read to anyone searching for a broader understanding of our justice system as specifically related to minorities and inmates on death row. A week ago, I had an easy answer if asked, “What do you think of the death penalty in America?” This book frustrated me, it made me sad, and it made me want to strap on my batsuit and kick some ass. I’m not even sure whose ass I would kick. That’s just my emotional response to the story. As a humanitarian, a person with a deep faith in my fellow human beings, I am instead reposing this question to myself, “What do you think of the death penalty in America?” and repositioning my moral compass. I’m fighting against what I thought I knew about myself. I would challenge you to do the same. Regardless of your thoughts on capital punishment; anytime we can challenge ourselves to dig deeper and open ourselves to a greater truth, the closer we are to freedom.

I love the ways I identify with Batman. The way the character’s existence validates my own fears, my reactions to injustice, and the daydreams I’ve had for revenge. I love these questions about Batman and how they relate to myself, “How far will he go to protect the innocent, and will he sacrifice his humanity along the way?” Batman is exciting. He’s powerful. He’s a force not to be reckoned with. He’s fighting for a better Gotham. I think the superhero’s traits resonate with all of us, in some way at some time in our lives. He is after all, in the end, just a human like the rest of us. But how can I actually be like Batman in my own life, for my family, or for my own community – without sacrificing my humanity?

In this self-challenge, I have tried to slow down my emotional reactions to the stimuli of social media. Before clicking the ‘Like’ button or signing a petition that could forever change another human’s life, I am pausing to evaluate what I actually know about the situation to determine if I can in fact, draw a conclusion. Too often I can’t, and my moral compass is left spinning. If I always let my inner Batman, my emotional reactions, be the driving force behind the justice I’m seeking for the world, I’m sure I’d make a lot more messes and cause more harm than good. Fury and vengeance are rarely the only ingredients needed for true justice to be served.

When I look at the list of people working with Bryan Stevenson and the EJI, I am inspired by the ways they have all donned their batsuits for justice and mercy and grace. Real life people are Batman when they go to law school to help free wrongfully convicted innocent men, women, and children from prison; or when they become teachers so our kids learn to read and to think for themselves; or even we they become pop stars who use their celebrity for good. We don’t all get to wear glamorous capes or intense tool belts, or get paid millions to entertain people, but we all have the potential to “protect the innocent.

I think I can start by harnessing the wild energy that fills me like the Spirit of Vengeance when I read stories of injustice, of hate crimes, race riots, violations of civil rights, abuse, inequality, and all the things that set me on fire. I can reign in the passion I feel and direct it toward goodness. I can work for a non-profit that protects and advocates for abused children. I can volunteer in my community. I can vote on legislation to break down walls and rebuild communities of hope and love. I can teach my children to love, to serve, and to forgive. What can you do in the name of justice and humanity?

We should never be complacent with our morality. I hope that you will find ways to challenge what you thought you knew about yourself. You might find assurance for your beliefs, or you might realize something new, exciting, and wonderful.

Agere Contra, friends.

Renewal Monday: A Spring Cleaning for the Spirit

Renewal Monday

I spent the last four days thinking about my family’s future. Crowding my imagination this Easter break were thoughts of what we might accomplish together, the beautiful corners of the earth where we would love to visit, and all the new places we could live – the communities we could impact. I thought of the futures of my children and I felt good about the people Adam and I have brought into the world. By bedtime last night, I had completely romanticized the idea of running away and living in a yurt by a lake, the four of us sharing this space and finding our best selves – together. Because that’s when we’re good. That’s when we’re really alive – when we’re together. Selfishly absorbed in each other’s presence.

I smiled into my pillow at the thought of Stella’s words that woke me earlier in the day, “Mommy, wake up. The Easter Bunny, he was here! I think he has something special for Alistair!” I fell asleep to memories of Alistair’s sweet laughter as he ran across the lawn picking up colorful eggs containing an assortment of confectioners’ creations. Stella’s humility and Alistair’s generosity, so natural to them and I think, probably important pieces to their future selves. Surely, God is teaching me a lesson through them.

On Saturday, a day of dreaming between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I savored thoughts of the comfort we provide each other, and the lessons we can learn from each other’s existence, the kids and Adam and me. However, I couldn’t help also thinking of all the children in this world struggling to survive for whatever reason without any familial comforts. Then, I thought of my seven year old self at Easter: joyful, excited, confused, disappointed, anxious. I didn’t want to see this version of myself, I rarely let her out. But I couldn’t get her to shut up yesterday, and my second grade self asked my 32 year old self, “Where is my mother?”

“I don’t know,” I apologized with vague sadness to that little girl in my mind. I could ask her now, my mother, but these are things I do not look forward to discussing on the occasion, when every two years or so, we get together for just a few hours. Why would I sacrifice that sacred time with her, that time she has with my children, to ask her where she was when I was a little girl? Does it matter where? Or, does it only matter that she was not with me? Knowing the place, the circumstances, or the sadness that surely lived in her own heart will not help to fill the abandoned place in my spirit where she should have dwelt all those years.

In these thoughts, I found a dingy area of my spirit in need of some serious spring cleaning. Some people need answers from their perpetrators for closure. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not one of these people. I need time to think, to process and organize the struggle I’m having. Then, I need time to pray. After a lot of meditation, I need time to organize the results. The “T” in my personality type requires this tedious series of events. I don’t actually need contact with a specific person. I just have to dig deep and connect with the Spirit. I sometimes wish I could call a person on the phone, talk through the issues, and feel better afterwards. Instead, I walk labyrinths. I write about my hatred and anger, often in lists, then burn the papers to rid myself of those burdens. I say things aloud to the passing breeze, and let my troubles go with the wind.

Today, on Renewal Monday – while people in the Netherlands are enjoying festive breakfasts and hiking the country side – I will release myself of the Unfreedom of abandonment. Channeling Stella’s humble nature and Alistair’s kindness, I have decided to write a list of all the times I can remember wishing my mother was with me, and to burn that list along with fallen sticks from last autumn. I will choose to love her. I will choose to forgive her for whatever circumstances separated us. I will pray for her to feel peace in her own spirit. Lastly, I will send her a letter. I will tell her that I have thought often of the long stretches we spent away from each other, and I will tell her that I don’t care about the why or the where. I only care that we can still seek sanctuary in each other – today. A grace that was granted to me by God, I will accept and pass on to my mother.

What Unfreedoms are you holding onto? What might you let go to seek growth in yourself during this season of new beginnings?

In this Week of Renewal, I’m spring cleaning my spirit, renewing my sense of morality, and turning myself into a place where God loves to dwell. I hope you come back later this week to read about how I’m challenging what I thought I knew about my own morality, and what I’m doing to make myself a constant living space for love and grace.

Agere Contra, friends.