Thoughts and Prayers

Harvey, Irma, Maria.

Thoughts and prayers.

Orlando, Plano, Las Vegas.

Thoughts and prayers.

Trayvon, Philando, Tamir. 

Thoughts and prayers.

Travel bans, hate crimes, DACA.

Thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers. Those words fill my Facebook feed,  but they are meager offerings in the face of yet another tragedy at the hands of a man with a gun. They leave the mouths of our elected leaders, yet those words don’t finance rebuilding a distant and brown part of the United States or bring back black boys and men who died because of the color of their skin. They are what we offer when we are scared and sad and overwhelmed. Thoughts and prayers are what we say when we don’t know what to do and when we want to be seen (even by ourselves) as doing something. They are what we say when we wash our hands of problems and throw the troubles of others to the divine.

Thoughts and prayers. I have thousands of the former. Sad and pleading thoughts. Angry and outraged thoughts. Hopeless and helpless thoughts. Even, occasionally, a hopeful thought, which always surprises me, blooming among the ash and debris of a nation exploded. I have thousands of thoughts. Not one has held back a hurricane, blocked a bullet, raised the dead, protected the innocent, or brought any good out of evil. Thoughts can’t do that. Thoughts are, well, just what our head does when we’re not otherwise occupied. Our thoughts can consume us, and it is easy to mistake thoughts for action.

But prayers. Of these I have none. In the saddest and most desperate moments, I’ve found myself pleading to the universe, perhaps invoking a God whom I no longer believe in, but prayer? Prayers, like thoughts, have yet to hold back a hurricane, block a bullet, raise the dead, protect the innocent, or bring good out of evil. Prayer can soothe us, as it, like thought, can feel like action. But prayer — an act of faith in the divine — is an escape hatch I no longer have.

I left my faith behind over a decade ago. I didn’t lose it. It wasn’t misplaced, nor was it neglected and thus somehow tattered beyond all recognition. It was, after much thought and no small amount of distress, set aside somewhat reluctantly and with a sense of loss that kicks back in times like this.  This was not unlike the fate of my wedding ring, reluctantly yet resolutely removed post-separation, returned to its velvet box of origin, now a casket for the ring and a marriage, and tucked deep in a rarely-used dresser drawer. Not lost. No. Intentionally left behind.

 

Faith. Religious faith is a slippery commodity. It is the currency of religious belief, which is both gifted and cultivated. Faith is considered a gift, given by the one who is then the recipient of the belief (God, by whatever name or names) that comes from the gift. This circular and seemingly self-serving system seems to benefit mostly the divine, but to say the mortal receives no benefit would be dishonest. Faith is a refuge, a sure shelter when the world seems rocky and riotous. To have faith — to believe in what cannot be seen and cannot be empirically known — is said to be a virtue. It is good to have that faith, to take that gift, to believe. It’s good for the belief system overall and, from personal experience, it can be good for the believer. 

It was good for me. First, I had a sort of blind faith, one that moved from a child’s faith that what my parents and church said must be true: that a divine being, which we called God, was somewhere or everywhere, doing something generally beneficial for someone or maybe everyone or perhaps just some people. It was fuzzy, the faith of my childhood, and in many ways, I’m grateful for that. The God of my youth was distant but apparently cared that we thanked Him (and the God of my youth was male) before meals. Jesus did the hands-on stuff — curing lepers, raising the dead, and turning water to wine. God took the credit and quietly cared for us.

During my teen years, Catholic school and a rather conservative (for the 1980s)  Catholic youth group brought some complexity to faith. It was in those years that faith became part of my vocabulary, truly an entity that could be protected, abandoned, lost, squandered, sought, or gifted by the divine. Faith shared some traits with virginity — given to one without request but lost if not careful and virtuous, and, perhaps, returned if one repented for losing it and promised not to do so again. Thus faith can be a word that could be used somewhat threateningly: “Don’t you have faith?!” “You just have to have faith!” And, perhaps most ironically, “You just need to pray for faith.”

So I had faith. And I was careful not to question it, to hold it up to the light. I had faith because I needed God to keep me, to love me, to approve of me. I wasn’t afraid of hell (having not been raised with a heaven). I was afraid of being alone, with only myself to keep, love, and approve of me. Faith was somewhere between talisman and weapon, like a rabbit’s foot with a sharpened claw.

Yet faith served me. It kept my life in order, and it warded off the worst of evil. Faith, after all, allowed me to lean on a god who loved me no matter what and who wouldn’t let humans destroy one another. It kept me in the safety of the Catholicism I’d chosen at the start of my adolescence, a Jesuit Catholicism, steeped in justice, simmered in the Gospels, and garnished with Jesus’ messages about how we should love and care for one another. It was faith that allowed me to see hope where there was little, as the God to whom I pledged my faith was a God of redemption and unconditional love, and God clearly would make all okay.

Well, that was until I thought it about it. It was thoughts about prayer that undid my relationship with faith. It was a slow undoing, a reluctant and gradual process of unwinding the first-whispering and then-shouting doubts that prayer was not going to save the world or even me. Doubts whispered at first, buzzing in the words of priests whose praise only was for those who believed in a Catholic God (which I knew was not a thing). It then roared as 9/11 made my world bigger and darker and scarier. Holding my newborn son in my arms, nursing him during the night, watching the flashes of light from the TV, bombs falling on moms and nursing babies who were dying in Afghanistan after so many people died here, deaths not canceling one another out but simply amplifying suffering and fanning the flames of hate. I spent many nights, my son at my breast, drowning in the tears of sorrow for those I’d never met or even considered. I prayed, but still I drowned, and still moms and babies died.

It was then that I loosened my grip on faith.  Still, it took years for me to fully examine the heart of my religious life: prayer. Mine wasn’t a unique crisis. It was new to me, but it is as old as ideas of a divine who — if s/he chooses — can interfere with human lives. How can a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God listen to some prayers and intervene for good while letting moms and babies die in horrific ways? That was the first question, one that sat stewing for some time, but it was quickly joined with both a logical undoing of a system not designed for logical analysis but rather counts on, ironically, faith.

So I set down faith. I didn’t throw it out. I didn’t lose it. I set it aside, holding it from time to time, occasionally praying, again ironically, for that faith to somehow work again. I changed belief systems, but moving to an Episcopal church brought me only time to work through the grief. I stuck at it for a bit, needing the ritual and rhythm of the service and wanting the option to pray to a God I was increasingly sure wasn’t there, just in case he was. But I could no longer make it work. I could no longer see the divine in a god. I could see love in Jesus and compassion in the Buddha and the power of community in action working for the common good, but I had set down my faith, as I could not see God.

A year or two later, I was doing the same with my wedding ring, reeling at a reality that was only the stuff of books and movies. Marriages take a faith of sorts along with hard work, patience, dedication, honesty, and love beyond measure. The faith in a marriage can similarly be undone by logic and reason, as well as by violence and injustice. I held onto the messy remains of a marriage torn asunder like I’d held onto my fraying and failing faith. It HAD to work, you see. This is how it is to be.

But it didn’t, and so I let go. I did not let go with the quiet grace I that accompanied leaving my faith in God. I was not simply resigned and saddened, or simply empty. I was instead furious, gripping tight and throwing off all in the same breath, deprived of choice and agency. But I let go and put the ring — and my marriage — away.

A decade later, I’ve found love again, but this time I have also found faith in my ability to care for myself and still let someone else care for me. A decade later, my religious faith remains packed away, a sometimes tempting treasure of the past that I still occasionally mourn, as faith and prayer and the comfort of a God who was looking out for me is, at points, appealing in its complex simplicity and ancient promise. 

That setting down of faith leaves me without prayer, and when others offer both, I offer only the thought half of the duo. Thoughts — free and wild and sometimes hot and angry and sad — remain with me. But thoughts of any kind do not touch the violence of our world. They never have. And they never will.  But, by my calculus, prayer doesn’t change the world either, or at least it doesn’t seem to have done so yet. Prayers have been offered for millennia, and to what end? Humans still suffer from disease and from one another. We pray to countless gods, and yet we still remain a predictably violent species how are markedly vulnerable to pain and suffering. I won’t deny that the chief benefit I see in prayer is a respite from hopelessness and helplessness for the one offering the prayer. It is precisely those benefits I miss. But prayer as an antidote to the inanity of humanity? No. It doesn’t work.

So much for thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts are silent and impotent in themselves. Prayers are, by my accounting, not actually feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding Puerto Rico, or bringing back the life, health, and hope of those who found themselves in an impromptu war zone instead of a concert. Thoughts and prayers may comfort us when nothing else does, and that is indeed good. But what thought and prayers cannot do is save the world from the harms humans wreak upon it.

Those jobs are up to us. It’s up to us to create a society that screams ENOUGH with violence. It’s up to us to push our representatives in government to act in ways that serve people, not big business. It’s up to us to have the hard conversations with those who regard any human as less. It is up to us to work for justice at home and abroad. It’s up to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and demand that we rebuild Puerto Rico, Houston, and Orlando. It is up to us to never let another Trayvon, Tamir, or Philando be killed because of the color of his skin. It is up to us to speak, to act, to act up, to act out, and to live fully what we think and for what we pray. We cannot rely on thoughts and prayers to heal our world.

So I pick up faith. Not faith in the divine, but rather faith in the ability of humans to make change in the world. I have faith in the strength and power of human beings dedicated to justice and love. I have faith because good people do feed the hungry, speak up for the oppressed, care for the sick, and fight for rights for all human beings. This faith, I can keep. This faith, I can share. With this faith, you and I can change the world.

Advertisements

Out of the Ruts

IMG_0906Michigan weather and a county with little remaining plowing budget have found me driving in ruts. My street, a narrow slip that, with a car parked at the edge, allows only single-file traffic, is covered with several inches of ice. Two tire-sized ruts provide the only path, and transferring a vehicle from those ruts to a driveway or the other way ’round takes intention and precision if one doesn’t want to skate into another car or simply spin one’s wheels. Those ruts hold the car tight, however, albeit with a fair amount of jostling within them. There’s safety in the ruts, even with the daily morning glaze of ice. The nausea-inducing ride in them is far from pleasant, but while in these ruts, you’re not apt to end up sideswiping a car or ending up in a snow bank.

Driving in these physical ruts led me to think about the metaphorical type, the kind that we say we want out of yet not badly enough to risk the leap; the one that may leave us skidding into the unknown or simply spinning our wheels in frustration. There can be an odd comfort in even our most painful ruts, perhaps because we know the jostling they bring, which can sometimes seem more comforting than whatever road might lay beyond those well-worn grooves.

Six years ago tonight, my rather messy disaster of a marriage turned far more chaotic. Years of worsening arguments and other insanity came to a head, and by the end of March 2, 2008, I lived alone with two children. I’d like to say that I never looked back after that day. The episodes that led to the shrinking of our household should likely never open one’s mind to reconciliation, and I’m still uncertain why, that for almost another year, I fought for that chance to return to healthy married life. It was, as they say, likely desired for the children, although children are always better off away from violence and deception. It took me almost a year for me to realize that the loss on March 2nd was best accepted and better for all.

Every February since, starting somewhere in the middle of the month, I feel the downward pull. It’s a tug towards some wintery mix of sadness and anger, tinged with a bit of guilt and touched with disbelief that the whole nightmare — years of it — was mine. I don’t blink at our anniversary and can’t even recall the date of our divorce, but that Sunday night in March, along with the weeks preceding it, are still hard to bear. While my grief takes different forms different years, at some point, I find myself in the ruts of revisiting that past — the day itself, then the weeks around it, then the years that came before. It’s a nausea-inducing ride of pain and sadness, yet I fall into those grooves each winter.

Last year, happily enjoying the first year of love with the peaceful, honest, and faithful man whom I’ll soon call my husband, I almost missed it. Mid-February found me thinking about the date, but little emotion came. For the first time, I felt some detachment, some ability to not let those memories play over and over, with all the emotions returning during the reruns. The actual date caught me off guard. I’d actually forgotten, until, at some point near the end of the day, I remembered. Into the ruts I fell.  I cried with company, and the sorrow left more quickly. I started to think those ruts had passed for good or at least that their hold on me had loosened.

This year, the heaviness started over a week before the date. I felt the familiar grooves after landing with a thud, and drove along their familiar path. It’s been a long season, and, like many of us who are suffering cabin fever in what is truly the worst winter many of us have ever seen, I’ve had some dip of mood. Perhaps my upcoming nuptials contributed to my mind’s unexpected plunge into the darkness of six years earlier. While I’ve largely concluded I’m capable of being part of a healthy marriage, of loving someone deeply without losing myself (a self only really found in the past dozen years), of being loved deeply and without reservation, I’m prone to worry that at points borders on panic.

I don’t question whether I had a role in my marriage’s slide into disaster. I know myself when I’m anxious — grasping, afraid, demanding of answers to all that confuses and scares me, angry, wordy — and those last years found me anxious beyond what I’d known previously. I also know what most of us know about making relationships better: I could have listened more and talked less. I could have sat with my anxieties before throwing them at another. I could have let go just when I most want to grasp tightly. In a million ways, I  know I could have loved better. Couldn’t we all?  I don’t, however, take all the blame for the nightmare that was the years before that particular March 2nd, nor any for what happened that night. I did many things over many years that didn’t help, but ultimately, we are responsible only for what we choose to do with our hands and hearts. We are sovereign that way.

Somewhere in the past few days, the dread and deafening doubts tiptoed away enough to let me get through some days without crying. The relief, similar to when the ice finally starts to melt, was barely perceptible until I looked back and saw I hadn’t cried that particular day. I scheduled a massage for Saturday, washing myself in tender and healing touch. I mentioned my blues to my massage therapist, telling her the date that had been bothering me. Her response made little impact at the time: Do something special that day, something that rewrites that day in my memory. Fat chance, I silently figured. What could happen that could push away that darkness of that single and dreadful day? How could I escape those ruts?

The answer came hours later, after the mail had failed (again!) to bring my copy of UUWorld, the quarterly print and online publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. By no effort of my own, I had a piece in both editions, a piece I’d written last fall — Questions of Comfort, a musing about the need for meaning in tragedy. An editor at UU World contacted me, a writer who rarely submits anything to anyone anywhere since that keeps the rejection monster from visiting too often. He asked if they could use the piece, and I, eager to be in print, elatedly agreed. While I’d seen the piece online, my copy had yet to arrive. Over the previous days, friends send messages saying theirs had arrived, one kindly sending a picture of the first page, providing the proof I needed that this was real. But I wanted my own.

Stalked mail carriers rarely deliver, however, and Saturday’s delivery was notably without my copy of the magazine. As I headed to bed after a marvelous day with my intended, it came to me that perhaps I’d found a way out of the ruts March 2nd had held for me these past six years. March 2nd fell on Sunday again this year, and friends, knowing I’d not yet held the magazine that contained proof that I was indeed a published writer, promised to bring that proof to church. Sunday, I’d see my words published in a small yet not invisible magazine that often contains pieces on the hardest parts of life as well as the seemingly small wonders it brings every day.

And so I find myself on a new road, one where March 2nd isn’t a day of recalling pain and reliving disaster and returning to thoughts of failure. March 2nd can be the day I first saw my work in print in a made-of-paper, read-by-people-who-aren’t-obligated-to-do-so magazine. It’s small, this success, but it’s a start down a road I’ve yearned to travel: The road of the published writer.

I don’t know what will happen come the end of February 2015. Habits are hard to break, and some memories are more challenging to manage than others. It’s not in the remembering that the ruts wreak their havoc, however. It’s in the emotions and thought patterns that we dig deeply, either by intention or accident, and it’s what we miss by assuming that once we fall in that we can’t find our way out. There’s nothing wrong with remembering and learning from our most painful memories, but when they steal so much of our present, they need some adjusting. They are ruts to ride over and out of, in search of more open road. Who knows where that might lead?

Counting on my Fingers

IMG_0352I count the months off on my fingers, like a small child waiting for a birthday. It’s not that I can’t mentally figure the time from early February to sometime in May. I can. There is something in feeling the months, each with a finger to itself, and as each month goes by, needing one less finger to make the count. It’s closer, I tell myself, as I click off only three.

In three months, spring will have fully arrived. In three months, seeds in the garden will be thinking of sprouting, the ones bringing hardy greens at least. In three months, the crocuses, the tulips, and the daffodils will have come and gone, or at least mostly gone. In three months, there will be dirt to turn over, weeds to pull, and grass to mow. In three months, I’ll be the parent of a seventeen year old, a high school senior. And in three months, plus a few weeks, I’ll be sharing this home with my partner.

It will be here before I blink. That’s how time goes now, in blinks and changes. Children grow up when you look away for a moment. Trees you planted just last spring, or so it seems, have leaves above the second-story bedroom window. But even at this age, when waiting for something so anticipated, so desired, the blink-and-change trick doesn’t seem to work so well. I’m reduced to counting on my fingers, waiting for the morning when I wake up with my beloved beside me, knowing that we have not just the day, or, more often, just a hours to drink up every detail each other’s faces, exchange a week’s worth of minutiae, and express a love so large it brings me to tears.

I’m irritated at my impatience and embarrassed by my inability to wait with equanimity. I’m anxious, even, that I’m missing part of the present, these last three months with just my children. They’re certainly not counting with the same impatience as I, or possibly counting with some concern about change or maybe (most likely) not counting at all. As much as they like him, watching a parent remarry results in mixed emotions, something I know from experience. I’ve no doubt their count and associated emotions are far different from mine.

And then it comes to me. I feel guilt at my impatience. These boys are settled with this change that comes in three fingers, but I know we have hard work and likely some challenging times ahead of us. It’s inevitable, the struggles that happen when families change size and shape. My memories of my father’s remarriage when I was seventeen are ones of profoundly extreme emotions. I was delighted to see him happy and partnered, a condition that suits him, and yet his dating and newfound love were awkward for me to watch, the way it is for all teens seeing their parents fall in love when they themselves are dabbling in the same strong emotion. It was also disorienting, the changes in the years before and after his second marriage. It was exhausting, moving from mom, dad, and me; to dad and me; to dad, stepmom, step-sister and me in just a span of two years, all while trying to figure out myself my world of teen relationships. It produced a slew of emotions that left me wrung out and desperate for stability. And, at the same time, his remarriage offered some of that stability, that sense of family, the happy kind.

It wasn’t that easy, of course, and we all blundered at points. I’d been, to some extent, impatient back then, wanting to be part of that new family because it seemed so normal and whole, wanting to belong to something before I left for college, needing to find my place in new family before I was only a summer and Christmas visitor in a house that wasn’t mine. It wasn’t, I found, that easy. Family doesn’t occur instantly, even when all involved want to be a family. Love doesn’t conquer all, it seems, and that year, the last one I spent at home, was hard in ways different from the ways the preceding two had been hard. When I look back, I recall very few bad moments but far more loneliness and loss than I’d known at any point earlier. Forming family isn’t easy.

And yet I’m so impatient now. It’s selfish, that impatience to share, in the same day, a morning coffee and an evening meal with my partner, with the time between dinner and the next coffee beginning with good night and not goodbye. I’m uncomfortable with that selfishness, especially knowing that no matter our intentions and efforts, this will be hard for my children, this change that they both say is fine and desirable, and, if they are like I was at seventeen, this change they also don’t entirely want and find somewhat disturbing. Wanting it, at least in my experience, feels like betrayal of the family you had before the new family. It betrays the vows made the first time, the ones that brought you into being, the ones that crumbled not because of you but while you watched. It betrays what you find after that, the profound intimacy between a solo parent and his or her children, an intimacy borne out of enduring pain of loss and some shift in relationships that shouldn’t likely occur but do. No matter how tightly boundaries are held, children become confidants and companions and take somewhat different roles when the parent number drops from two to one.

So remarriage shifts the roles again. A good deal of this shift is a relief, as part of being a child of a parent who’s experienced loss is seeing parental pain and having no power to fix it. Enter the new spouse, someone who, you learn later, can’t fix hurt either but can relieve some of your burden of noticing parental pain and feeling helpless. It’s no one’s fault, this pain borne to kids after divorce or death. It’s just part of the package, the helpless responsibility tinged with points of worry. I’ve parented this way, solo with short breaks each week, for nearly six years, and we have some sort of rhythm, the three of us. We have countless inside phrases and jokes along with ways of being, three to the house, one adult and two boys. And my children, especially my older, likely know this helplessness and sense of responsibility. They are, I imagine, of mixed minds about what happens in May.

Yes, it’s some guilt I feel as this deeply desired change approaches. I’ve this sense of betraying them and somehow negating what we’ve built these past six years while knowing neither are true. It’s more than countered by the joy of entering partnership with the man I love, a man who loves me fully and deeply while appreciating my children for who they are and respecting that our enthusiasm may not be mirrored by them. But it’s there, paired with my remembering of my own experience with my dad’s remarriage and the emotional challenges that surprised me in the year that followed.

Perhaps that’s where the tears come from, the tears that sometimes fall after our goodbyes as a weekend visit ends. (Distance compounded by snow prohibit more than weekend visits this winter.) They’re not perhaps as much about the missing (although, oh, I do so miss him through the week) as from the guilt over my impatience that the missing end sooner than it will.

But still I count on my fingers. Three months plus a bit. There are walls to paint, furniture to move, a kitchen to rearrange, and a new being to welcome. And there is so much more. I’m confident my partner and I are approaching this new road with sufficient love, friendship, and compassion to weather what will come our way. I’m certain we’ll blunder as we adjust to shared space and shifting roles. I’m hoping we find a sense of family, the four of us together, and a feeling that change can be good even when it is hard.

So I count on my fingers again.

One. Two. Three. Go.

Grief Without a Timetable

DSCN0669“Every childhood has its trauma. This will just be theirs,” said my therapist who helped me through the separation that led to my divorce some five years back. I nodded, holding back the tears. What had transpired in the previous two to three years seemed too traumatic for me to bear in my last thirties. How were my boys, only 10 and 6 at the time — babies, for goodness sake–supposed to weather this trauma? Shouldn’t their greatest traumas at these ages be skinned knees and dropped ice cream cones?

My greatest trauma prior to the slow, agonizing end of my own marriage was my parents’ separation when I was 15. The divorce, a year later, and subsequent remarriages were brief showers of grief compared to the devastating hurricane of my 15th year that followed the (to me) shocking announcement of their separation.

Around that time, I took a religion class in my Catholic high school about death and dying, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief were a focal point of the class. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Presented as a linear progression of grieving for the dying and bereaved, I don’t recall relating those stages to the depressive fury that filled that next year of my life. Acceptance actually came quickly after a brief period of denial I kept to myself. I was to live with my dad for the rest of high school, visiting my mom a few times a week. That wasn’t going to change, and I had not one fantasy about parents reunited and family restored. But mine wasn’t a peaceful acceptance, but rather a resigned one punctuated with an anger so deep I couldn’t speak it or even acknowledge its existence, and depression that, while not incapacitating me, sucked a light out that had burned brightly before. At once I was accepting, angry, sad, and, come each holiday and all its dilemmas, incredulous that I was in balancing act forever. Over the years, after I could touch more of the anger without retreating in pain, all of those feelings softened, but they’ve never remained entirely away. It’s grief without a timetable.

Our human condition and resulting emotions are messy and chaotic, but our human brains prefer organization. We like logical progression, moving from A to B to C over days or weeks or years. We like to categorize people and feelings and ways of being in the world. Consider Erikson’s stages of development, the DSM’s divisions of mental illness, the Enneagram and Myers Briggs personality categories, and even astrology’s assignments of traits and fates. We sort and order our belongings and ourselves, desperate for the comfort of order. So ordering grief? Why not?

Because it doesn’t work. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and author of “The Trauma of Being Alive” (New York Times, August 3, 2013) says it well:

Mourning, however, has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay.

Dr. Epstein goes on to describe his mother’s grieving of her first husband’s death, a long process never entirely resolving. His mother goes on to marry again and live a full life, albeit with the occasional nagging doubt, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” His answer? Trauma never goes away completely.

While my trauma from my parents’ divorce nearly three decades ago has largely receded from my thoughts, the unwinding of my own marriage, a long and messy process, brought fresh grief that has yet to mellow to an occasional wistful sigh. Far wiser at 38 than at 15, I knew from the start I had to acknowledge those feelings that churned up without bidding and with little respect to time or place rather than deny them, as I had done as a teen.  As the separation morphed into divorce, I could usually tuck the tears of fear and anger and resentment away at least until I made it up to my room and shut the door. There, alone or with a friend on the other end of the phone line, I could let the feelings rise then ebb, like some unpredictable and cruel tide.

But grief wasn’t always that neat and manageable. Grief resists containment, corroding the container if bottled up and exploding out when the lid is just slightly loosened. But sometimes I shoved a particularly painful emotion inside, finding it ugly or just inconvenient. Sometimes it spilled out at church or in the car or while cleaning the garage or when talking to my then husband turning ex-husband or parenting my children. I know at points I have deepened their trauma by poorly managing my own grief.

After a few years, the grief surfaced less often and with far less intensity. Too many times I’ve asked myself what Dr. Epstein’s mother asked: Shouldn’t this be over by now? Recent events and revelations have again brought me back too often to a place of deep sadness and hot anger. They come so fast and hit so hard they threaten to knock me out of the tenuous equilibrium I thought I’d reached. I’m floored by their ability to render me incapable of right speech, right action, right view, or any other peaceful way of being in the world. It is, in one sense, a new trauma to add onto the pain of five years back. It is also far more manageable, since it is really just another chapter of the old trauma. I know this pain, and I know that my best response is to do as Epstein says: Lean in. It works. And the pain passes, whatever expression of emotion it has taken, at least for the time being.

The first Buddhist truth says it well: Life is suffering. That’s not too far from my therapist’s wise words about every childhood having its trauma. We will experience trauma. We will suffer. It’s inevitable. And grieving? That’s what inevitably follows trauma, or at least the traumas that aren’t our own deaths. Everything ends. That’s the promise of life, after all.

So is it depressing that grief with no timetable will follow inevitable trauma? A bit, but it’s a truth worth accepting. Perhaps that’s the acceptance we should really strive to find: Not an acceptance that ends to our disbelief, anger, sadness, and pain but rather an acceptance that these feelings may just not ever evaporate entirely and that it’s okay that our minds and hearts work that way. It’s still unsettling, and grief brought to one’s own children is a trauma all its own. It’s life, though, so I’ll lean in, wait out each round, and watch their tides and ride my own.

Peace.

On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

Institutional Thoughts: Musings on Marriage

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not actually getting married, mind you, since that’s just not on the radar. But since my divorce, I’ve thought about marriage: what it means, whether I’d enter one again, and why I feel so conflicted about it.

So why write about it now?  A good friend recently remarried. She’s utterly, completely in love. Both that love and the service were lovely to witness. Her wedding was the first I’ve attended since my separation (4.5 years ago) and divorce (3 years ago), and the months before it and the actual event brought me to wonder a bit more about marriage and whether I’d ever enter one again. I was surprised at how much my friend’s wedding caused my mind to tumble.

I was married fifteen years, spanning from the too-young twenty-five to a far-more-mature forty.  Some of those years were happy. Some were not.  I entered that marriage with the hope and confidence that typifies youth. When it finally ended, I walked away from the courtroom with sadness at what could not be and relief that what was had finally ended, I was also older and wiser and somewhat jaded. I left wondering about trust, lasting love, the fallibility of humans, the messes that result when our loving selves get lost to fear, and whether I could ever risk my heart again.

Sure, I’ve pondered the what ifs. What if I’d waited until I was older? What if I’d not seen marriage as bridge to be crossed to the world of adulthood? What if I’d entered it more certain of myself and with some years living alone (and not college-dorm-room alone)? But during that wondering, I’ve never desired to turn back the clock. That marriage brought me my children, after all. Beyond that, it was during the worst parts of that marriage and the time that came after that I learned about me and how my head works. I learned how much strength I had and what I truly valued. I learned I could go through what was unthinkable (divorce) and come out, well, better.

So with those positive outcomes from my first marriage’s end, why the sour expression when thinking about ever entering it again? The trite answer would be along the lines of “once burned, twice shy,” but that really doesn’t touch the tender heart of the issue. It’s not because I don’t trust men or because I wonder about my ability to judge character and suitability. It’s not because I’m waiting for marriage equity — when all are free to marry then I would partake. And it’s not because I’m a commitment phobe or prefer to live alone. (Or at least as the only adult in the house, although that does have some advantages. The empty side of the bed holds plenty of books and my iPad.)

Some of it is a bit of cynicism. Marriage, Catholic marriage as sacrament with plenty of forethought and a bit of counseling, didn’t safe-guard my relationship with my then-husband. The words said that day, the paper signed, turned out to be just words and paper. Human frailty set us asunder, and an expensive legal system undid the paper end. Now, as the child of divorced parents, I wasn’t naive enough to think that words, a priest, and a signature would guarantee happily ever after, but I did think that the intention that went into those words and those signatures would persist through the hard times. But for a myriad of reasons, sometimes that isn’t so. And sometimes, it’s better that way.

But as my father says, all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, this human construct consummates in separation. And, generally, a fair amount of sadness, at least. I’ve led a fairly easy life, void of death of those close to me and blissfully full of an abundance of friends, food, and good fortune. Those years before and during the end of my marriage were miserable, frightening, painfully sad ones. The sense of loss was only buffered by the presence of my children and the intervention of friends, and the hurt the former suffered created a pain in me I’d never known before and hope to never know again.

But back to marriage. Our culture holds high expectations for a spouse: lover, best friend, housemate, nurse, cook, cleaning crew, parenting partner, confidant, and more. It’s a tall order. Marriage is no longer simply a pairing based on logical arrangements and tangible benefits to a family. I’m not advocating the return to the purely utilitarian marriage, although there are days that my first criteria for a partner would be a willingness to clean the insect carcasses out of the porch light and a dedication to shower cleaning. I’m just wondering what the right balance of expectations looks like.

Truth be told, I’d like to partner again, even if that person didn’t clean bugs out of lights or scrub showers more often than I. My father often reminds me that we’re social animals, and the desire to pair extends beyond the biological end of procreation. (And there will be no more of that, mind you!)

Our culture seems to carry conflicting messages about partnering. On the one hand, it tells us that pairing is essential. Consider the number of articles on and off-line about how to find and keep a partner. Look at movies and TV, many which focus on partner acquisition even while hunting down the bad guy. Find someone who “completes” you, who is your soulmate, and all will be well. Being alone? That’s a situation to be fixed, preferably as soon as possible.

Countering that is what I’ll call the “whole people are happy alone” maxim. As a society, we also value independence and the individual over the group (politics and sports aside), whether that be the group at work or the group that is a committed couple. Saying one is lonely is viewed as weakness, with admonitions to know one’s self and be comfortable in being alone. I’d wholly agree that being comfortable in time alone is part of being a healthy human. Being able to sit with the self without restlessly searching to fill the void of other indicates a level of acceptance of one’s nature and being. But one can be quite comfortable being alone and yet feel still lonely. Heck, one can be inches from one’s spouse and still feel lonely. I’ve been to both those places.

So where does that leave me with the institution that is marriage. It’s not a magic-maker nor a guarantee. It’s not the answer to loneliness or lights filled with bugs.  It isn’t a protection against pain and hardship. It is in part a piece of paper that comes with legal protections and social acceptance (and it should be open to all, regardless of the gender pairing, but that’s another essay). At its best, it should be a commitment of love, friendship, and deep compassion.

Perhaps its the pain of ending part that has me stuck.  Perhaps it’s doubt that I could do a better job at my part, despite knowing myself better and seriously working on the parts of me that did nothing to help as my marriage unwound. Perhaps a bit of it is about trust, as much as I like to think it’s not. I just don’t know. That’s not much of a conclusion, but today it’s all I have. I’m open to thoughts about marriage, good or bad. Share away.

Gelt Getting

We’d lit the candles while my mother said the prayers.  We had finished our chicken noodle soup, challah, and salad, cleaned away the dishes, and brought out a few small gifts that would conclude our annual Hanukkah celebration with my Jewish mom.  This was the fourth night of the Festival of Lights, but as it was our first night with my mom, it was our one and only Hanukkah night this year.  The day before Christmas Eve, we carved out some time for this ritual.  On the 24th, my boys would open presents with their father and his side of the family.  Tonight, however, we had together.

“Hey, look what I got!” said my younger son, giddy with Hanukkah excitement.  “Guilt!”

Gelt,” I corrected him, choking on my sip of wine.  “Gelt is the foil-wrapped chocolate coins we have at Hanukkah.  Guilt is something else entirely.”  He proceeded to repeat his verbal faux pas for the remainder of the evening, although seemingly for reaction each time.  “Gelt,” I reminded him each time.  Thirty minutes later, we bundled into the car and headed for their father’s house for, as they call it, Christmas Eve Eve.  I said a quick goodbye, envious of the easy excitement of the young. I headed home, which was conspicuously quiet and calm.  Time to spend a peaceful evening with my mom and — hopefully– sleep with more ease than I had for the last few weeks.

Sleep has been an elusive companion lately.  While falling asleep is occasionally a problem, staying asleep from five onward plagues me far too often.  As an eight-hour-a-night person, this drop to five or six night after night makes for an out-of-sorts string of days.  Knowing (or at least hoping) it’s the stress of the holidays helps.  While I don’t go all out for the season, I do enough to create a fair amount of extra work.  I try not to worry about what isn’t done, but concerns nag at me, and they seem to like to do this most several hours before the sun comes out.  Guilt walks closely behind — or perhaps ahead — of my worries.

Ah, gelt would be such an improvement.

Because I haven’t dictionary-delved and dissected for a while, lets turn to the online Merriam-Webster for a definition of guilt:

1:  the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly :guilty conduct
2a: the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously
  b: feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3: a feeling of culpability for offenses

Guilt has its place.   Definition 2a, the state of one who has committed on offense especially consciously, is the prick of discomfort that can keep us from a Lord of the Flies existence.   Guilt about wronging another can lead to efforts to repair those wrongs.  Many might prefer to ditch the word guilt, replacing it with self-awareness, but I prefer the bite of good-old guilt.  Guilt can drive us to do the right thing when we really don’t want to.  A bit of guilt can lead one on to a heart-felt confession and determination to do better next time.

But definition 2b, feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy, is a different beast entirely.  I’m a pro at imagining offenses, either ones I imagine I already committed or ones that I might commit if I say or do the wrong thing.  Or if I don’t say or do the right thing.  Either way, like worry, guilt (2b) is useless and damaging.  This season, I’ve done my share of both, and I paid with my ministrations to those futile emotions with my sleep.  Do I make the cookies my mother loves, or let myself off the hook this year? Did I get the gifts for the boys even?  Did I overdo it for them?  Did I miss a cue during that conversation with so-and-so?  Did I stay too long when I visited?  I’m getting it all wrong!

Yeah, that stuff is the useless guilt and worry that folks say to discard.

If it was only that easy.  I’m convinced some of that tendency toward worry and guilt is imprinted on my DNA.  I can’t place that load on my Catholicism, which wasn’t the faith of my most formative years and was not practice in a place that paired the faith with guilt.  There is a fair amount of tendency to ruminate and feel guilt (2b) on my father’s side of the family, with a lessening of intensity as those genes are diluted by passing generations.  I’m able to talk myself through most of my worry and guilt, but I’ve yet to reach the point where I don’t feel them come on, unbidden and unwanted.  Like the neighbor’s cat that frequents our back door, guilt and worry return spontaneously, since at times they are fed. (Yeah, sometimes we feed the neighbor’s cat. I don’t feel guilty about that.  Much.)

So as the end of the year approaches, I continue to work on letting guilt (2b) and worry go.  With the more preparation-heavy holidays past, they are less likely to keep me awake. The pair is likely to continue coming, however unbidden.  After 42 years, that seems unlikely.  I can continue to acknowledge them then let them go.  All feelings pass, and these are no different.  As for what I pass onto my sons, that remains to be seen.  I’m hoping it’s gelt.  That’s the good stuff.

Habits of the Heart that Hurt

Band-aids help, but it's better not to inflict the harm in the first place. (From Cute Band-Aid Pictures)

I have bad habits. Hardly unique, huh? Some are newer, acquired in adulthood. Many go back as far as I can remember. Some are harmless, like always putting my left hand behind back handling the tea kettle, even when it’s cold. Others are less benign, like picking and my cuticles down to the first knuckle. (That one is gross.  Learned it from my Dad very young.)

Those habits don’t influence anyone but me, however. (Aside from occasionally bankrupting the family band-aid stash and grossing them out.) The habits of my heart and mind that I wrestle with the most can cause collateral damage, and they are amazingly hard to change.

Those who know me well are all too aware of my tenacity and ability to verbally spar. I can stubbornly hold a line of thought long past the point of reason. While that may not be a big deal if I could keep that in my head, all too often, I just don’t keep in there. It shoots out my mouth, and I struggle to turn if off.

Recently my older son got the brunt of it. After discovering his version of studying for a test was unlikely to produce a passing grade, he was on the receiving end of a tirade on studying habits and the importance of attending to information even when you don’t find it scintillating. After a few minutes (could be longer, since I don’t check the clock mid-rampage), he rather miserably asked if I could move on to the part where I show him how to study more effectively. Ouch.

I’d like to report I shifted gears immediately, but that would be a lie. I told my mouth to stop, but a few more sentences landed on my already-weary son before I managed to shift to a supportive instructional mode.

Damn.  And damage done.

I’m working on it, but I really struggle with turning off my mouth when I’m trying to be understood.  My younger is the same way, and it drives me crazy.  You’d think years of inserting ear plugs while counting to ten and breathing deeply while listening to his rants would teach me to SHUT UP, but no dice.  Several times I’ve told him he’s hitting me with his words.  I should know. I’ve done it to those I love the most.

Ouch.

It really is about being understood, being truly heard.  I went many years in my marriage not feeling this was happening.  I felt chronically misunderstood, and it smarted.  I spent far too much time stating and restating my case, waiting for information back that I was understood by the one whose path I shared.  Not necessarily agreed with, just understood.  I was rarely successful, with equal blame to my delivery and his issues.  I’d like to say that pattern started during that marriage, but I’ve been fairly verbally tenacious since, well, I could talk.  Which, shockingly, was rather early.

Ugh.

Nearly 42 years of, well, talking too much when I’m anxious to be understood.  Okay, more like 41.  I doubt I was that much of a verbal pain in the ear my first year of life.  Fortunately, I’m becoming more aware of this habit of the heart and mouth.  Sometimes, I can feel it coming and pause, holding it in.  Other times, as I hear it build and feel my anxiety rise with it, I can arrest it.  But not always.  Not when I’m the most upset, feeling the most vulnerable.  It still sometimes pours out, flooding the ears of whomever is the targeted audience.

Fortunately, I’ve (largely) broken another particularly bad habit.  From early childhood, apologizing has been another stumbling block.  As I entered my current relationship of the last year and a bit, I figured out to say I’m sorry and really mean it.  I know, we learned that in preschool, but as a rather anxious kid and adult who desired to be understood and really likes to be right, this was a stumbling point in my closest relationship.  I’m far better at this now, although some of my apologies take a long time to express given my general verbosity and that understanding business.  I still sometimes struggle to not put qualifiers on my apologies.  I’ve found they are better received without going something like, “I’m sorry I freaked out when you couldn’t manage to keep the appointment/date we’ve had scheduled for the past two weeks.”  I’ll admit a simple, “I’m sorry.  I was dreadfully wrong,” goes over better.

I could go on, enumerating my bad habits of heart and mind, but frankly, I’ve had it.  After making heartfelt apologies today (probably more than needed, but sometimes I keep going hoping I’ll feel better) for my runaway mouth last night, I’m weary of my own whining.  Here’s to continuous improvement, or at least continuous attempts at improvement.  Here’s to keeping my mouth shut and needing less band-aids for myself and those I love the most.

The Divorce Shuffle

If you’re tired of reading my post-divorce slump posts, skip this one.  I’m tired of having them, but somehow they just pop up occasionally.

I keep wondering when the sadness will leave for good.  I wonder when I will no longer wake at night from a dream about reconciliation with my ex.  Even in my dreams, that long-gone desire is dashed by the presence of his new wife’s son.  I don’t pine for my ex, can’t imagine returning to the shambles of a marriage we had those last several years, and spend most of my time feeling whole and grounded.

It’s just that divorce never ends.  The shuffling of children back and forth, the calls/emails/texts to discuss the children, all the extra work it takes to raise children in two different homes.  It never seems to end.  What was once a discussion after dinner or when the kids went to bed now requires a call between us, never at the right time for either one of us unless previously scheduled.  Decisions that take a good amount of back-and-forth either are truncated or tabled until there is more time to discuss the issue.

Don’t get me wrong.  We do quite well co-parenting in different houses.  Better than we did on the same turf.  It took us awhile to come to this point, and we still slip into unpleasantness at times, but we do pretty well.

Doing  “pretty well” does nothing to change the rather unfortunate yet real fact that we are no longer two adults parenting our children together, backing each other up and stepping in for each other when one can’t continue without coming unglued.  We’re probably doing better than we were during our last few years together, years filled with arguing, angst, and more.

So what undid me this time?  An article in the Spring, 2011, issue of Brain, Child, “Before This,” was the culprit.  Sarah Ivy elegantly wrote the crux of my struggle with divorce:  loss of family and the ever-present burdens of divorce.  The essay pivots around the birth of Ivy’s fourth child, the product of her second marriage, with the other three coming along during her previous marriage.  Although she never states it as such, it seems she was the catalyst for the divorce.  While I’m loathe to ever identify with the “leaver” in divorce, I know some situations are untenable and best left for the safety and sanity of all, and I respect the privacy she gives the circumstances of her divorce and ex-husband.  In short, she gives birth, fully expecting this child to be a full sibling to her other three, despite sharing only half their DNA.  It is her reaction to the child that’s jarring to her:  this child is clearly NOT just like her others at birth, appearing quite different.

While this different appearance may seem shallow of Ivy, her essay shows nothing of the sort.  She’d continued with life after the divorce,  determined to sally forth as previously planned, family intact (or what remained).  The birth of her fourth child broke that illusion.  The reality of the disturbance that is forever in divorced families weighs down heavily as she looks at this child who is clearly of different origins than her first three.  Life has changed forever, and the rest of the article recounts her understanding of that.  I could be crass and ask her what took so long, but that would only betray the touch bitterness that still surfaces at time as I sally forth in my completely changed world of divorced living.  Sure, the boys and I have settled in, but not to something any of us would have chosen, given the ability to actually choose.  (Okay, I wouldn’t have chosen to live the last years of my marriage as I did either.)

Not once did I hold the illusion that separation and divorce would be a blip in our lives, an event we’d experience then move on, like a speed bump taken a bit too fast on the road of life.  Never did the magnitude of dividing parents and shuffling children escape me.  I’m a child of divorce, after all.  While my being-shuffled years were minimized by my age at their divorce (16 years), my shuffling of myself has never stopped.  Holidays are parceled out, visits to different homes are scheduled, and the word “family” elicits a collage that doesn’t seem to quite all line up.  I never wanted that for my kids.  And sometimes, not often, but sometimes, I feel pretty angry and mighty sad when I think about the relative simplicity we’ve lost from our previous life as an intact family.

Despite division, despite adding family on their father’s end, despite mom dating, we all sally forth.  We’re still learning all the steps to the divorce shuffle, knowing these steps will change as time goes on.  I’ve gained some flexibility and increased my tolerance to the unknown, reaching somewhat better terms with change.  Sometime, however, I tire of the dance and its ever-changing steps, and I miss the relative simplicity of two parents, two kids, one house.  Sarah Ivy said it best: “…none of this was simple or clean, and ever would be again.”  Thanks, Ivy.

Lusty Thoughts (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 1)

I’m two weeks behind on my church homework, at least for the written portion.  Last Sunday Alex Riegel, minister of  the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, began a series of sermons on the seven deadly sins and their corresponding virtues.  While this may be usual fare for many Christian churches, it’s a bit unusual in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  With no threat of hell and no reward of heaven, why should a Unitarian Universalist spend even one Sunday morning contemplating vices and virtues from the Christian faith?

The answer lies, quite literally, in the cave of the heart.  As I blogged recently, the cave of the heart is the place that is our center, according to Hindu belief — the place we dwell when we leave our mind, feelings, and body behind.  The place within us where the kingdom of Heaven is present, if only we still ourselves enough to find it.

Whoa, I hear you saying.  Am I reading the right blog?  I thought Sarah was a Unitarian Universalist with an eastern bent.  What’s this kingdom of heaven stuff?  No, I’ve not reverted to the Christianity of my youth, but the idea of peace, balance, and love in my lifetime, even in this very moment, is pretty tantalizing.  I have no idea what happens after death, and right now, I don’t care.  I’m here now, in relationships with others and with myself.  I’d like to make the most of this life, of this moment.  Cave of the heart, kingdom of heaven, whatever you care to call it, if I can touch a place that alleviates suffering and increases love and peace, I’m in.

Back to lust.  Last Sunday, the series started with lust.  Lust was defined as the desire for superfluous sensations and wants, such as sex, power, money, and the like.  None of these desires are bad in themselves, but in excessive amounts (wanting far more money than needed, for example) or in inappropriate ways (sex without a loving, complete connection with the beloved), these desires are lusts, and the act of lust removes us from the cave of the heart and places us wholly in the body, emotional center, and head.

Connecting lust to more than sexual desire is a bit of a reach initially.  I’ve had to play with this in my mind, since simply desiring something seems harmless, at least superficially.  After all, wanting doesn’t have to lead to having.  Like many, I’ve wanted things that aren’t going to improve my way of being in the world or may actively damage relationships with others.  A G-rated example may clarify my thinking.  During the end of my marriage, I wanted to be truly understood.  We all do.  It’s a normal desire, and being understood by those closest to us is a generally reasonable desire.  But as my panic about my crashing marriage escalated, my desire to be understood became frantic.  I lusted to be known, to have my emotions validated as right, and went to any end to have that happen.  I yelled, pleaded, berated, nagged, and so on.  All to be understood and seen as right.  My desire to have this understanding woke me at night, preoccupied my days, and grossly interfered with the rest of my life.  Sure, my marriage was crumbling.  I had reason to despair.  But the desire to be truly heard ate at me as much as the sorrow of loss did.  I was unable to maintain equanimity or even basic politeness when I felt misunderstood.  Simply put, I lusted to be understood and put all that energy into that end.  Lust got me nowhere and worked to further damage my relationship.

Now, I’m not blaming my divorce on my lust to be understood.  But had I been able to leave my mind and emotions, churning away, day and night, and related with love, I might have felt more peace during that time.  The sorrow would have stayed, but I’d have left less of a trail of emotional dross for myself and for him.  I could have alleviated some suffering.  That’s touching the kingdom of heaven.

Misplaced, out-of proportion desire.  That seems to be the key to lust.   And not really the desire itself, but the way it takes over the well-grounded self.  When I wanted to be understood by my ex-husband, that desire supplanted my desire to be compassionate, accepting, and patient.    That’s where wanting, desiring, becomes lust:  the want takes over reason and loving kindness.  Whether for sex, power, money, or recognition, lust takes one away from a right relationship with another.  Lust’s corresponding virtue, chastity, is a bit harder to reconcile for me, outside of its generally understood meaning relating to sex.   Even when defined as innocence (as Alex does in his sermon), it seems a reach.  Perhaps balance or right relations works better for the non-sexual lusts.  Temperance might fit here, but that’s a musing left for the second deadly sin, gluttony.  Stay tuned.