Thursday, April 29, 2010

the scoop, part six

Where was I? Oh yeah, simplicity. Hah!

When I realized that my life was SO FAR from the ideal of simplicity everything came grinding to a halt. I kept trying to write because I had this deadline looming, and I didn't want to disappoint anyone. (Disappointing people is the worst thing you can do and you'll probably go to hell for it for crying out loud!) I kept on pushing and pushing even when my body started to push back. It started pushing back in the form of headaches and sleeplessness. My thinking became more confused. I would sit for long stretches of time staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen, but nothing came to mind except a rush of tangled thoughts.

Then, little by little, breathing became an issue. I didn't notice it too much at first. I yawned all the time, and I thought, "Well of course I'm yawning more than usual: I'm not sleeping." But then I started feeling a constant pressure in my chest, like my ribs were crowding my lungs, and I began to breathe in big gulps of air all the time. It was the kind of breathing that someone does when they are swimming in choppy water and starting to sink under the waves. The way I was breathing reminded me of something

(something terrible from a long time ago)

but I couldn't think about THAT.

So I quickly distracted myself and kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And I kept getting sicker and sicker and sicker.

Eventually the breathing thing got bad enough to land me at my doctor's office. She explored a few possibilities and then sent me to get a chest CT. She wanted to rule out a pulmonary embolism. I went directly to the hospital and had the scan and they made me wait there until they could call my doctor with the results. I waited for a couple of hours and she finally called.

Her voice sounded tinny and thin to me. She said, "Well, you don't have a pulmonary embolism, but there were some findings. You have multiple lesions throughout your right lung that are different sizes and have different characteristics. You also have several lesions on your thyroid and one on your breast. You're going to have to have a mammogram and see an endocrinologist and a lung specialist."

None of that sounded very good to me.

I could go on and on with this next part, but I'll spare you. Let's just say that things were not looking very good, and for about a week and a half I thought I was a goner. But at the end of a lot more procedures and appointments everything turned out fine. Kind of. I was still breathing like a crazy person, but I wasn't going to die. And you want to know something? Thinking you're going to die has a strange way of putting some things back in order. But I still couldn't write and I still felt horrible.

My doctor thought that the breathing problems were stress-related and wanted me to see a therapist. As a person who counsels other people I knew this was a good idea and I dreaded it like nothing else. I made the appointment and we got to work gutting me. At least that's what it felt like. He fairly quickly started poking around in


(the thing in my history that I was hoping to avoid for the rest of my life or longer).

I gulped some more air and wished I was dead.

At some point (the order of all this is a little fuzzy to me) I ended up taking a leave of absence because I just couldn't keep going anymore and I thought a break might help. The leave started in mid-December and I was scheduled to return at the beginning of February. I thought maybe if everything else was out of the way I'd be able to write again (yes, I was still clinging to that hope) and maybe put my past behind me. But things didn't play out the way I planned.

Not by a long shot.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

the scoop, part five

Sorry about that time lapse. I kind of forgot about me for a minute there.

Let's continue.

For the last eight years, my work has mostly revolved around counseling as well as training and mentoring volunteer counselors at my church. It's work that I have sincerely loved for the most part, but I noticed over time that I seemed less able to do it. I was tired. I was easily hurt and discouraged. I felt vulnerable. I can't even really say specifically why I was feeling these things. I had the sense that something had worn down inside of me, like I lost my emotional skin and now everything that touched me was sharp and painful. When Lorraine began to decline, I felt like I was trapped in a helping role from which there was no escape. The role followed me everywhere, always tugging on my sleeve and demanding my attention. In fact, I was gradually becoming less human as I absorbed the drip, drip, drip of the demands on me.

Just when I thought I was going to crack up, I got some news that was very exciting to me. The church approached me to see if I would be willing to collaborate with the senior pastor (a close friend of mine) to write a book on simplicity. This felt to me like an opportunity directly from heaven. They allowed me to take about half of every week away from the office to write, and they handed off parts of my job temporarily to give me extra space. If all went well, they promised that they would find a way to make writing a permanent part of my job. Seriously, what could be better than that? So I started researching and writing about simplicity, and that's when things got really complicated.

It turns out (shocker!) that my life was not at all simple. Not even close. I won't go into the gory details, but let's just say that I suddenly felt like I had been asked to write a book about quantum mechanics or calculus...I had no idea what this concept even was supposed to mean. This created a ton of incongruence in me. I couldn't, in good conscience, write about something that I had so little actual experience with. I felt really stuck.

But there was another element of this material that sent me into a tailspin. There's a strain of the writing on simplicity that is fairly radical and is concerned with the dwindling resources on this planet, and the greed and mindlessness of western culture that is using up what ought to be shared. The math of this reasoning goes something like this:

1) Every person on earth has a little more than four bio-productive acres of land for their use.
2) Most of us in the United States use about sixty or more acres because of things like the amount of meat we eat, ecological practices involved in the mass-production of food, large homes that require lots of energy to run, lack of sharing, etc.
3) If we don't correct this radically we're all going to hell in a hand basket.

I don't have enough information to be able to rationally argue about the finer points of this reasoning, and I'm not even saying that it's not true, but I do know this much: it made me more than a little crazy. I felt like I was having a 24/7 panic attack. In order for me to use only my four acres of bio-productive land I would have had to make some lifestyle changes that I couldn't even begin to imagine, especially given that I share my home with others who are not exactly on board with this program. AND even if I were to make all of the changes this line of reasoning suggests, I couldn't see many people around me making these kinds of choices. Was it my job to write about these things and convince the church to follow suit? I started doing my best to keep up with everything, but I felt like I was sinking into a tar pit. The earth was doomed and it was pretty much my fault!

Way. not. simple.

So the project that I imagined being a creative break ended up launching me into a deeper depression than I've experienced in a very long time. I hit a brick wall and could not write a word.

That was when breathing became a problem.

But we'll get to that next time.

Monday, April 12, 2010

the scoop, part four

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that distancing myself from blogging distanced me from my flesh-and-blood relationships and even from myself. When I first began blogging, the people around me commented how changed I much more alive and engaged. It's almost like the process of intentionally listening for my own experience was creating me somehow. When I stopped blogging, loneliness kind of snuck up on me, but I was only aware of this in the most remote sense. The tree was falling in the forest, but no one was there to hear the sound.

But there's one more really essential piece of my life that will help you (and me) to understand the environment that I was living in when everything came undone. My 87-year-old mother-in-law (Lorraine) had been living with us for the past fifteen years. This had always been an easy arrangement. She was a sharp and active old woman with a quick wit. She was always very independent and helped us around our house. We loved sharing our lives with her. But that all changed in the last year and a half.

Little by little, Lorraine's memory and judgment became impaired. Dave and I began to hear things and see things that were disturbing to us, and we finally had to take away her car keys. This made her very angry and suspicious. Our relationship with her changed almost over night. It was kind of like having a toddler who wanted to drive and cook. Soon, she became delusional and started to hallucinate. She thought we were stealing from her and that people were looking in her window and sitting in her chair. She could no longer be trusted with a credit card or really with much of anything at all including her personal care. It's so hard to watch this happen over time to someone close to you.

Don't get me wrong: we still loved her like crazy, and she still had moments when things seemed fine. But mostly, we were constantly anxious and overwrought. There was even a time when she nearly killed us all by turning the gas on the stove while my grandbaby and I slept. By the time my son arrived and woke us up the house was filled with gas and we had to call the fire department and escape to the neighbor's house. She never understood her role in that incident, and I never tried to explain it to her. It would only have upset her and she wouldn't have remembered it anyway.

So my home provided no rest. I'm fairly sure that I could have sailed through the rest of this story with minimal damage if I would have had a home to rest in. But then I wouldn't have been where I am today, so I guess I can't complain. I'm glad the tree fell even though it was utterly silent. It cleared a path so that I could see more of the beautiful forest around me and the clearing beyond it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We've got a long way to go before we reach the clearing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

the scoop, part three

At about the time that I was beginning to sink into the molasses of my funk, I decided to deliberately withdraw from an online presence. I can't really go into all the reasons for that, but at the time I was thinking of it as a spiritual discipline, sort of like electronic solitude. To this day, I have no idea if I really benefited from this decision. I am a terrible introvert, and it's hard for me to tell the difference between setting a wise boundary and hiding under the covers. I suspect the latter, but it sounds so much more holy and luminous to say I was on a year-long digital silent retreat. So saintly, yes?


What I do know is that I lost something when I stopped blogging. I missed the risk-taking and the challenge and the practice of putting myself out there. I missed the unexpected self-revelation, the way I would find myself reflected in all of your words. I missed the unexplainable kinship I experienced with the community of people who graced my space here. So, ironically, when my body was sending me these haunting letters, I was less able to decipher them because I set aside the discipline of listening to myself in writing.

Don't get me wrong, there were things about the way I was doing my online life that needed to be addressed. I'm embarrassed to say that the amount of energy and time I spent:

• writing a blog
• checking my blog for messages
• responding to messages
• checking other people's blogs
• reading other people's blogs
• commenting on other people's blogs
• checking for comments after my comments, etc.

was considerable and way off balance. But I think it's kind of cheating to deal with it by abandoning it. It's like saying, "I really like you and I value our relationship, but I think we've been spending too much time together and my other relationships are starting to suffer. So let's break up."

Anyway, I'm glad to be back here telling my story. It's just starting to warm up now. Are you curious what comes next? Me too.

Monday, April 5, 2010

the scoop, part two

It's funny to me how we arbitrarily decide where a story begins. This story starts a year ago pretty much because I said so, and because it's just too much to start way back where it really started. I've got enough to tell you as it is.

About a year ago, I began to notice persistent feelings of heaviness that I couldn't really account for by examining my circumstances. I was slightly depressed and slightly anxious and slightly out of breath most of the time. I felt like I was walking in molasses, like I had to be very intentional to lift one foot in front of the other. I became less and less motivated, and more and more sleepy. I swear, I could have slept sixteen hours a day and I still would have felt run down. And most disturbing of all, I couldn't think the molasses had seeped into my brain and was mucking up my synapses.

Outwardly, things were going very well for me. I was just approaching the end of a year of diving into old spiritual practices with a group of amazing people, and I was basking in the glow of a successful writing project that was used by my church to introduce people to imaginative prayer. In fact, the project was such a success that the church was looking at ways to rework my job description so that I would be doing more writing. That was very exciting to me. I was spending lots of time getting to know my little grandbaby, settling into a new and rich stage of my life. I could go on and on here. Really, everything was great, so the heaviness was a puzzle to me. I decided to ignore it and hope it would just go away. (Brilliant strategy, huh?)

I realize, looking back, that this was the first of many "smoke signals" my body was sending me. It was trying to get me to pay attention to something that I didn't particularly want to notice. Bodies are amazing, really. They know stuff. I wish I was as smart and creative as my body. It's a flippin' genius. I think I'll spend the rest of my life saying "thank you" for all the ways it tried to get me to listen, and "I'm sorry" for all the ways I plugged my ears and said, "la la la la...I'm not hearing this!" My poor, ignored, unappreciated body is still suffering from a psychic sore throat because of all the screaming it had to do to finally get my attention. Things had to get very ugly before I began to turn to it and say, "Oh, I'm sorry, was there something you were trying to tell me?"

But at this point, my body was just sending me nice, polite little notes. It didn't pull out all the stops and take me hostage for quite some time...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

the scoop, part one

I'm not terribly certain how I came to be where I am today. The last year is something of a blur. I thought that maybe if I just began writing, the story might start to take some shape and become a bit clearer to me. So here I am writing.

A year ago I was a pastor and a counselor. I had a secure home. I had a fairly settled sense of where the future was taking me.

None of that is true for me today.

And I'm happier.

So let's begin...

Friday, April 2, 2010

good friday

In honor of Easter weekend, I thought I would post a meditation I wrote last year about the Garden of Gethsemane from the viewpoint of Peter. It's meant to be entered into imaginatively with all of your senses.


The heat of the desert is giving way to a biting cold as evening descends. Peter wraps his clothing tighter around him as he approaches the garden with Jesus and James and John. They are Jesus’ closest friends, but he finds no comfort or pride in that now. They’ve just come from the Passover meal, and the words of Jesus are echoing in his mind. Words like “death” and “betrayal” and “before this day is ended, you will deny me three times.” The taste of the bread is still in his mouth and it tastes like crushed dreams and disappointed hopes. This is not what he expected when they entered the city on a path of palm branches to the shouts of “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.

The darkness of the olive grove is heavy around them, and the gnarled trunks provide no place to rest. Jesus whispers, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Sit here while I go and pray.” Something in Jesus’ voice and eyes is startling; is that fear? How can Jesus be afraid? The knowledge of it shoots through Peter’s heart like an arrow, and he searches the faces of his friends for something more familiar than this, but there is only terror and confusion. He feels the strength draining from his limbs like water as he watches the one he loves walk a little distance from them and fall to his knees.

He hears little ribbons of Jesus’ prayer. He hears him praying that if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him would pass him by…that the cup of suffering would be taken away. And then he hears the words, “yet, I want your will to be done, not mine.” Peter’s eyes feel like heavy wooden doors. His head is pounding and his thoughts are impossible to catch. Against his will, he drifts into a fitful sleep with vivid and tormenting dreams.

Peter wakes to Jesus standing over him, shaking him gently with searching eyes. “Couldn’t you stay awake for even one hour? Keep me company and pray with me a little while so you won’t be tempted. I know your spirit is strong, but your body is weak.” Even here in Peter’s first betrayal, Jesus is his friend, caring for him, watching out for him. A stab of regret goes through Peter and he shakes off the tangled cobwebs of sleep.

Jesus goes to pray again, the same words, the same groaning, the same requests going up to a silent heaven. His body is shaking and his words come in sobs. His clothing is drenched and clinging to him, and appears strangely dark. It’s too much to take in…too much for Peter to grasp. Fatigue and confusion descend on him like a curtain, and he falls asleep again.

Once more Jesus shakes Peter and pleads with him. “Stay awake with me, Peter. I don’t want to be alone. Please pray with me.” Peter lifts himself up and sees that Jesus’ clothing is soaked with blood but there are no wounds to make sense of this. Then he sees the beads of sweat tinged dark red across his face and he understands, and this knowledge comes with the terrifying certainty that Jesus is actually going to die. Peter and James and John promise to stay awake, and they huddle together for warmth as Jesus goes one last time to pray.

When Peter wakes the third time his heart sinks with the knowledge that he has already begun to deny Jesus. He hears the sound of a crowd in the distance and sees the glow of fire flickering off of the leaves of the olive trees. Jesus has changed somehow. He’s calmer now and he speaks the words, “Look, my betrayer is here.” Peter shivers as Judas approaches and kisses the face of Jesus, the sweat and blood leaving their mark on his lips. Jesus glances at Peter, and there is a kind reassurance in his eyes as the soldiers lay their hands on him.

~ ~ ~

Where are you in this story? What is Jesus’ invitation to you?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

a whisper at the end of a long silence

I am here. I am writing again.

It feels good and also feels scary. Sort of like I misplaced my invisibility cloak. (Those things are really handy!)

I'll be back later with more, but for now I felt like it was just important to step back into the world of out-loudness.

I am here. I am writing again.