Full House

When I was younger, I found myself in situations that were uncommon for most of the people I knew.  One such situation was that of being accused of harboring a runaway, and spending time “on the streets” and “on the run”.

A lot of people find this shocking when they hear about it for the first time.  It isn’t much of a secret, really—just one chapter in a storied past.  But I am a clear-headed, responsible, problem-solver when I am not suffering the effects of illness, and being on the run with fugitives seems really far from where I am in life now, or from my early years, so anyone who didn’t experience that unconventional middle, exhibits surprise when I candidly offer this as a part of my life no more or less affecting than any other part of the story.  In fact, while there were many terrible things happening around me during that period of time, some of my fondest memories also come from that time.

One of those memories is of a household that took me in.  I can’t even recall any of their names right now.  Maybe it will come to me at some point as I write.  But a couple, with a handful of kids of their own, took to “adopting” strays.  I was one of those strays.

Life in that household was strange and hard and fantastic.  You had to work to earn your keep.  As one of only three females in the home, I was tasked with cooking, cleaning, and generally working to keep the men-folk on their way to and from jobs that paid actual cash.  I took to calling the lot of young men my brothers and the one younger girl my sister.  And when the work was done and the bellies were filled, the fun came.  We used to sit around the gigantic dining table that couldn’t fit all of us around it.  We would crowd in.  Sometimes with me on the lap of the boy whom I had followed to this remote place, to reduce the number of chairs and the amount of elbow smacking that happens when too many bodies are in too small a space.  We would spend the evenings or the weekend afternoons playing penny poker.

I had never played poker until then.  And I wasn’t very good at it.  I’m still not.  But that didn’t matter much.  I started to pick up the lingo and would eventually be ready to call out the game as I dealt the hands.  I remember I had a fascination with one-eyed Jacks, so they would often enter into the picture whenever it was my deal.  And while I could tell them what we were going to play, the winning was not a thing I did often.

After I left that home, I don’t think I played poker again.  Not because the memories were not fond.  They were.  But because I really suck at poker.  It may have something to do with what my friend Scott once commented on—he said he liked preaching with me in his audience, because you could always tell by my face exactly what I thought of what he was saying.  I don’t have a poker face.  I have a lot of expressions, and I’m not all that good at hiding one with another.

When I left that home, it was because I left that beautiful bronze-bodied boy whose lap I used to inhabit.  And I didn’t feel bad about leaving him behind.  I had followed him there because, to my mind, he was a shelter during a time when being alone was dark and dangerous.  When I left, it was because I had been reminded of what true shelter should be.

A home filled with love and grace and acceptance was what I entered when I followed that boy to God-knows-where, Hickville, population 15.  And it was far from perfect.  Sharing bath water and cleaning up after a host of teenagers and sweating in the summer heat were not the moments that I longed for.  But being part of this rag-tag “family” helped me know what living without judgements looked like.

And that wasn’t something that my own family or my own community had been, growing up.  We were all about keeping up the appearances and judging the flaws and the failures.  My dad never really got caught up in that judgment, which is part of why we remained relatively close even in the times when I wanted to be far from and unconcerned with my biological family.  But he was the exception to a well-known rule.

When I was later married (to an entirely different body), I moved back to my hometown.  That marriage was followed by a prompt divorce.  And I felt the weight of that “failure” and the “failure” of being a single parent that followed.  But I didn’t let that burden break me.

Instead, I became that home I had left—the one with the table covered in pennies and the laughs and the love.  The knowledge that half of us in that household were avoiding the police for one reason or another never seemed to be a weight at all.  Failures were not a thing.  Choices happened, and the consequences of those choices happened, but that didn’t affect who we were and how we were viewed by the others.  Those were just choices and consequences.  Not character flaws.

My biological family still hasn’t fully grasped the concept of this love and grace and acceptance, and neither has the small town that we came from.  But there are many more attempts at showing that love and offering that acceptance than there have been in the past, and I am proud of and glad for that progress.

But for some time, my home needed to be that home, and my heart needed to be that heart—the one that wouldn’t hold court and make judgments, the one who accepted even the most “broken” of souls.  So, it was.  And I had more than one runaway girl living in my space, and I sold my wedding dress for pennies on the dollar to a girl whose parents wouldn’t support her marriage, and I fed a host of working men every evening, and I shut the door on a room filled with kids some nights, and I made my home the place where everyone belonged.

Lest you think I am painting myself as a saint, I also bought beer for minors, did a host of drugs, slept with some of those men, and traded off babysitting duty so that I could go out and drink a whole lot on the nights my own child was away.

But that is fine, because this is the home where we accept and love and extend grace.  And that is extended to me, as well as to any and all others.

Last week, my daughter started the slow process of moving back home by the end of the month.  Today, I extended an invitation for her friend to move in with me as well, crashing with my daughter or on the sofa, or the inflatable mattress if she prefers.  So, this household of one dog and one human is expanding once more.  We are becoming a full house.  Three women, one dog, and one to two cats, depending on the way that the situation unfolds.  And we probably won’t play poker. I still suck at poker, and we can’t hoard pennies, because we need to add them together and make them into quarters for the laundry.  We will probably have difficult conversations about the end of relationships and the challenges of the world.  We will probably drink ourselves silly at one point … hopefully, only one.  We will be in tight spaces and won’t get enough sleep and will fight over the bathroom.  But my home remains the place where we accept and love and extend grace.  So, it doesn’t’ matter why life is messy or how messy it is.  And it doesn’t matter how long these girls need to stay or how many times the pets fight or how many mouths there are to feed.  What matters is that there is space here.  There is a place here.

I don’t take in strays so much as just allow community to happen where it will.  I don’t consider the people who come to my door astray.  Many of them are less lost than some of the people in my history and life will ever be.  As my therapist likes to remind me, the family member who wants the status quo to stop being followed is often the healthiest and most honest member.  So, even I am a lot less lost than what you might imagine—especially if you have made a habit of judging me from your small, rural, Iowa town.

While I was conscious of opening my heart and my home, I was also conscious of those around me who would open theirs.  These people, along with What’s-his-name and Debbie (I’m now almost certain that her name was Debbie, and his was a one syllable name, possibly starting with an M?), became my shelter and modelled community in the best of ways.

Jessica, Brenda, Andrew, a bunch of willing babysitters, and Julie as I finished college, and Dave, Nic and Adam, Matt, Jen, and John and Misty in the Arizona years.  Allan and Carol, at various stages, Steph, Rhonda, Sarah, Elessa, a bunch of Postmas, and a handful of others in the small-town years.  My Dad, always, and my Mom, learning over the years and loving me with expressions I could believe and hold onto as she slipped away.  Today, it is my beloved Rayven, Luke and Ted, Erin (the bestie with a hundred besties) and Bryan, Rosie, Matt, Josh and Jessica (still and always), Julie (ever-faithful and loving), Adam (and even more Adam, because he never ceases to understand my heart) and Jackie, and a host of others who pay my bills and hear my cries and hold my hands. And who laugh with me around the table at every available opportunity.  And I keep building and keep adding and keep experiencing community with more and other.

Once you see it, this space where judgment ends and acceptance is whole and hearty, you can’t stop finding it.  You crave that community, in its purest form.  And you offer it as often as you are able.  The best thing in the world, the best part of humanity, the deepest love and the strongest bonds and the greatest truths happen here—in these full houses.

I’ll miss my privacy a little.

But I am so glad that I can still say, “I have a full house.”

Even while I suck at poker.

 

Same

There is this way of speaking that has taken over much of the communication between me and my daughter, and some of my friends as well, I suppose.  We shorten things.   It just seems like a whole lot of flourish and extra syllables isn’t necessary or important.  And while, as a writer, I am a huge fan of the flourish and the big words, in life they aren’t always helpful.

So, when we are thinking, “I completely agree and have a very similar perspective on this issue”, we instead say, “Same”.

I’m in the mood for pizza.

Same.

I can’t believe the state of the world and am grieving deeply over the pain and wounding that is overwhelming millions.

Same.

I wish that I could be in La Jolla right now.

Same.

I’m overcome with grief and don’t know how to express anything clearly, but everything hurts.

Same.

Yesterday I received news of the death of a good friend of my parents.  And all day I was feeling the weight of grief.  I was feeling it not just over the loss of her life, which is definitely significant and important, but also I was mourning the loss of my own mom.  And I was drawing all sorts of parallels between the lives of these two couples and feeling for those going through what I and my family went through a year ago.

All day I wanted to reach out to the daughter of the deceased wife and mother.  But there were not words.  There weren’t words when my own mother died either.  And the platitudes and “she is with Jesus now” assurances helped not one bit.  In some cases, they did more harm than good.

So, in the evening, I finally realized that what to say was that there was nothing to say—that nothing makes that pain lessened and nothing changes the complex feelings and nothing brings back the mother that you long for now more than you ever did when she was alive.  And I reached out with exactly that: an assertion that nothing would help and that I wouldn’t pretend it might.  I offered my love.  I offered my listening ear.  And I offered my sympathies.

And she shared a huge piece of her heart in reply.

As she expressed her feelings and her struggles and her joys and her surprise and her pain, I realized that all of these long years, we have been living a parallel life.  As she spoke of her many-faceted emotional state and the journey that she had been on as her mother became sick, her father became a care-taker of sorts, and her mother passed, I could have replied with that often used, “Same”.

We were sharing a history, but doing so apart from one another.

When we were kids we played together when our parents got together.  And it wasn’t as though we didn’t enjoy hanging out, but over time, as we became old enough to not be dragged along to our parents’ social events, we stopped spending time together.  And there were times when we connected over the years—running into one another at Christmas or a special event when we were all present once more.  But those little interactions became cordial and socially acceptable, instead of times when we played with abandon or shared secrets or did all those things that come easy when you are young, but cease to be so as you grow up.

Peter Pan had the right of things, in many ways.  Growing up steals much of the honesty and joy and many of the dreams which childhood allows, and even encourages.

What was stolen from this woman and myself was the opportunity to share our similar journeys.  Until last night, we had not had the opportunity to bond over shared experience, or to support one another.  It took the death of both of our mothers to recognize one another on a path we had been walking together for years.

I’ve been thinking much today about this sameness, and this similarity, and this shared experience.  I’ve been thinking that we all felt the weight of struggles alone, and all of this time we could have been bearing them together.  I have had other childhood friends express feelings that I have struggled with: I’m not enough, I’m not good enough, I cannot compare with person X, I don’t fit in, I can’t do anything “right”, I didn’t want to treat person Y like that but wasn’t brave enough to put an end to it and went along with the crowd.   All of this time, we were all young women (and a few men) who felt alone in our struggle.  We were not alone.

We are not alone.  We are united in this struggle.

The organizer in me wants to shout from the rooftops that we need to come together and fight against our common enemy.  But the pastor in me knows that such a strategy isn’t necessarily the right approach here.  What might be helpful is for me to express continually my struggle, and to allow others the safe space to express their struggle.  Because SO MANY TIMES I find that we are coping with the same feelings, and have so much in common, and could be bearing burdens together.

I’ve said before, and will say again, that I label myself as “spiritual but not religious” because organized religion has left bad tastes in my mouth time and again.  I believe in the Divine.  I don’t name it in terms of a triune god, but I believe.  But one of the things that many religions teach, and that I think is a divine directive, is that we share in one another’s burdens—we carry the heavy shit together to make it lighter.  And for some reason the place where I grew up chants the religion like a name at a boxing match, but also chastises individuals and tosses burdens onto their backs while they whisper behind their hands at the failures of those individuals to carry the load.

It is a sick practice, really.  It is wholly other than the divine imperatives to care for and love and welcome and heal and help everyone—like literally everyone.  All of those imperatives tell us to help carry the load, not toss it on the back of another.

I broke under the weight.

So many people I know broke under the weight.

And still the weight is piled.  My daughter experienced that weight when we moved back to that area.  And I left, rather than have her live in that place and in that way where you never feel like enough and people are constantly trying to hide their brokenness by breaking the person next to them.

Today I see that we can fix this.  Today I see that we were fighting the same war, but we were all at different battle sites.  If we could have been honest then, in our adolescence, and shared how we were struggling, we could have become a powerful force for change.  We could have swept that town of gossip and lies and shaming that keep the focus off of the problems of one, only to shatter the life of another.  We could have united to bear one another’s burdens.  We could have lifted the weight and held one another up and shared a journey.

We didn’t.

But I am committed to doing so now.

The past doesn’t change when we change in the future, but it can transform in some ways.  It has the benefit of perspective, and new perspective can shed light on events, even though the events themselves do not change.  And I am ready to look at this childhood in this place with these people in a new light, and with new honesty and connection and trust.  I believe that looking at it in this way will transform not just the past, but will transform us as women and men who thought for all these years that we were alone in our struggles.  Knowing we were in it together and talking about it together in this later stage of life empowers us.  It lets us acknowledge and release the bad and lets us acknowledge and embrace the good.

And that doesn’t happen overnight.  And some events you don’t get over completely—or at least there are some I don’t think I will recover from completely.  But knowing that the burden is shared, and that I am not the only one carrying the weight of those events puts me well on the way to recovery.

So, here I am, people of my youth (and any other time period, really).  I’m standing open to receive and to offer with honesty, with trust, with grace, and with understanding the journeys—mine and yours and ours—and the events and the feelings and the burdens.  I’m here, committed to change, committed to new life, committed to carrying the weight together.

Let’s all try to open up.  Let’s try to do it before any more of our parents die.  Let’s know that the circumstances of our childhood don’t define us.  Let’s know that molds were made to be shattered in order to exhume the beauty within.  Let’s know that we don’t need “thicker skin” or to keep our business private or to hide or to hurt.  We are allowed to be—in all of our ways of being we should feel comfortable and free and alive.  Let’s stoop under the weights of our friends and neighbors and partners and brace ourselves underneath, helping to lighten the load a bit.  And when enough of us are willing to stoop down and take some of that weight, we all find relief.

Community.  I’ve studied it for a long time.  And I keep coming back to this idea, that burdens are borne together, or we are crushed.  So, in order to survive, we need to start looking at the plights of those around us and responding with the short and effective communication that my daughter and I have come to use so frequently.  Same.

There is a quote I use often, and love from Lilla Watson.  “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

It is time for us to work together.  In my childhood community, in my current community, in my social circles, in my city, in my country, in my world, and in my universe it is time for us to work together.

It is time for us to understand that the liberation of one is bound to the liberation of all.

We can only be free when we are free together.  We can only bear burdens with all of us carrying the weight.  We overcome only because we do so together.  And we do so together because in many ways we are all on the same journey—not just in the specifics of events or feelings, but in the sense that we are all evolving and developing into a better version of humanity (or we should be, at least).

We are meant to look to the person next to us, to see their experience and their perspective and the events that shape them and to declare, “Same”.  And if we cannot do that, we will be crushed under weights we didn’t imagine would ever be placed upon our shoulders.

I think we see that in the news every day of late.

We join in sorrow over things that were caused by a refusal to bear burdens of another.  Discrimination doesn’t hurt us personally—that is the burden of the gay or the black or the Muslim—so we don’t enter the fray.  And we are seeing the results of that failure to stoop and lift with our fellow human beings.  When we don’t bear the weight together, people break.  But there are consequences felt throughout the entire community when those individuals break.  You can’t escape the aftershock of the seismic events.  So, why refuse to help hold the weight that might prevent those events?  Ignoring the problems of others doesn’t work.

We lift together, or we are crushed.  All of us.  The whole of humanity.  The entire planet.

And saying it that way makes it seem an enormous task.  But it really just starts with us listening and bearing the weight of the feelings and experience of another.  A world full of people caring about the person next to them is a world that resembles what most would see as a heaven or a paradise.

That heaven, that paradise, is achievable in the here and now.

It can happen if you open up and share your journey, and listen well to join in the journey of another.  It will happen if we simply love one another, care for one another, and bear one another’s burdens.  It will happen when we hear the struggle or joy of another and can respond with a genuine agreement.

“Same.”

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year

As the New Year rolls in, I am in my party dress, sipping a cocktail, and typing at my desk.

I suppose I knew at the start of the evening that this would be its conclusion, but I always hope for an outcome that isn’t me alone with my keyboard and my liquor.

That hope is frequently disappointed.

But I’m not entirely upset or unhappy about this moment. In fact, I kind of like it. Alone with my thoughts and my memories and my moment, I am really very happy.

This has been one of the most difficult years of my life. And if you know much about my life, that is saying much…much that is not good. I have been delving into my history and rooting out the damaged parts of my psyche and fighting a losing battle for health and for employment that pays actual money. I have been struggling with the letting go process that the verge of empty-nesting offers me. I’m really accustomed to grief, but somehow the thought of losing one’s daughter to the world is a type of loss unlike others. Which I suppose gives me the slightest bit of empathy for my own mother. And I have, speaking of my mother, been watching her decline into Alzheimer’s, and watching my dad mourn her situation and struggle through the days as a result.

I have been beaten and battered by life at many stages and in many ways, but this year has been the most psychologically difficult for me. But, in many ways, I am glad that it has been.

You see, I’m a stubborn and independent sort of soul. I like walking through fire, more often than not. I’m not afraid of life. I fight at it. But this year stopped me in my tracks. This year was too much to bear and too much to fight through. And that was a fabulous thing, because breaking under the weight of life forced me to find better ways of reinforcing the beams of my mind and heart and body. I have always made it through things by sheer force of will. But that is not the healthiest way to make it through.

In my defense, I began learning coping skills before I even managed puberty, so I wasn’t really in a position to assess the healthiest ways to make it through…your mind and body sort of do whatever they must to survive at times. And for that I am eternally grateful. But those early skills, while they saved me as a child, are now really unhelpful—even damaging. So, I needed to break in order to build.

They don’t always tell you up front that the building feels the exact same or worse than the breaking for the first six to seventy-two months, however. And while I still feel pain far more often than I feel joy, I feel something. Something to feel is worth a lot after thirty or more years of dissociating and shutting out and avoiding and denying. Feeling feels like so much progress. Feeling in the true sense, where you don’t just emote, but you know why you feel what you feel and you see how it connects to your life and your pain and your joy and your struggle.

So, in previous years…ones where I was alone with my keyboard or my television or my whatever on New Year’s Eve and felt pain…I didn’t really connect to my pain. And this year I can recognize that I wish I weren’t always at home on celebratory holidays, but that I am perfectly and beautifully content watching a movie at home instead of being out as well. And I know that much of that contentment is due to the skills I am learning to help heal the broken parts and allow me to become whole. The more whole I become the more I love being with myself, and don’t need validation from outside sources. (Also, a little of it is knowledge of how awful it is to be trapped on the train with vomiting drunks on my way home at two in the morning.)

Last week I was in my hometown with my family. And it was shocking how quickly I began to seek their approval or tried to fit in with them in some way. On about the third night I broke down and cried and told my daughter, “They will never stop treating me badly. Not ever.” That admission was freeing for me. That I was seeking to be treated as someone else or someone different than whom they wish to remember me as…the role they wish me to remain in…was telling. And the moment when I stopped hoping they would let me change roles or be myself without question or accusation was also telling. It signaled this new way of being in the world. A way that doesn’t require validation.

I don’t need to be told who I am.

I am, regardless of their desire for me to be other. As long as I stop seeking their design for me and follow my own, I have freedom. The moment I wait for them to pigeon-hole me, is the moment I begin to break. I must hold my wholeness, and that means I must hold the plans for who I am and how I am in this world. Mindfulness practices have definitely helped me see that more clearly, but when you are stuck back in your childhood home with your immediate family, it is surprising how quickly you can forget who you are.

So, tonight, having left that situation and having had that realization, I am very happy being me. Being a woman in a party dress with her computer screen and her vodka has never been so satisfying. Because tonight I choose it. It hasn’t been assigned to me or cast upon me or ascribed to my destiny. This moment is mine. Mine alone. And it is beautiful. And I am happy.

Happy New Year!