Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Getting off my 'but'

My butt ended my radio career.

No, really.  I once got fired from my gig as a morning dj with an obscure (read: run your antenna through your toaster and out the window to hear it) FM Christian station, in the late '80's,

for saying the word  'butt', as in:

"It's 7:05, get your butt outta bed !"

and by lunchtime, I was no longer a morning on-air personality at KNLE-FM -- "The Light of the Hill Country" in Round Rock, Texas.

But I digress...

I've been thinking about "but", in terms of the either/or way of talking.  Consider these two statements and how they feel:

"It's a really difficult time you're going through, but God is with you."

"It's a really difficult time you're going through, and God is with you."  

Is it just me, or does the second one feel different, less trite, less "always look on the bright side of life.. dee doot dee do, de doot dee doot dee doot dee doot do..." ?  (Feel free to whistle along, if you've seen Monty Python's "Life of Brian")

Or how about these two:

"I love you, but you're driving me crazy!!!"

"I love you and you're driving me crazy!!!" 

There's a kind of negating one thing in favor of another that sneaks into those "but" statements, as if the two conditions can't exist together, as if it can't be a really difficult time AND have God present,  or as if it's not possible to love someone who is, at the same time, driving you crazy.

In a previous entry Math Homework and Brown Bag Lunch , I talked about taking a hard look at "the numbers", the cold, hard financial and chronological facts (that's money and age, to the rest of us), and deciding that it was time to live beyond the numbers, to trust that life was more complex and more hopeful than the numbers could ever show me.  And, interestingly, several people who responded to that post saw it as primarily a post about how bad my financial picture was.

I'm wondering if this response comes from a habit of choosing one side or the other of a two-part picture:  either the finances are really bad OR I'm ok.  But what I meant to emphasize in that piece was more like an "AND" statement:  The finances are challenging, particularly in the immediate short term, AND, we will be ok.  (For those folks who want to know the plan: I will be investing some of the life insurance money in myself; going back to school for 2 years to get an MA in Counseling Psychology, and that "investment" will pay off in a soul-satisfying career that will use my gifts and earn a decent living.  The rest will be invested in ways that help provide for my retirement.  No, I will never be rich, AND we won't starve, either. )

Our culture certainly has emphasized binary thinking: Liberal or Conservative, With Us or Against Us, Edward or (what's that Werewolf-character's name?) , Chunky or Smooth, Coke or Pepsi... We've gotten so polarized that we often conflate "the other side" of an argument with "the wrong side" of an argument and those who old opposing viewpoints are assumed to be evil.  After all, if your side is "good" then anything different is "bad", right?

As I look back over the past 18 years, trying to understand my late husband through the lens of his death,  I am realizing the degree to which that the win/lose, either / or way of looking at the world can be a trap, and when you're trapped by that kind of thinking, there are very few options.  For Andre, life was a battle; you either win or die.  For him, sadly, Jesus' message of "whoever loses his life will gain it" made no sense at all.  The mystery of Christ's incarnation: fully God AND fully man, Savior of the world AND helpless babe sleeping in a cow's dinner dish,  was simply impossible to even contemplate.  I wonder, if he had been able to unlock that part of his mind that was stuck in either/or thinking, would he have been able to quiet his inner demons?  Would he have been able to see the world as a less threatening place, to see his kids not as either angels nor devils, but as kids? Would he have been able to see that admitting he needed help was not defeat?

As the kids and I work on healing from Andre's death, it occurs to me that we won't heal by sitting on our 'but's. We're going to have to become conscious of and consciously change the way we think and talk about reality.

"I don't understand why God let this happen, but I trust that there is a plan."  will not be as helpful as a statement that puts an "and" in place of the "but".

I don't understand why God let this happen AND I trust that there is a plan.

(AND, sometimes I'm so mad at God,  I could spit.)

Perhaps this part of the journey will be about walking with my arms full: holding in tension the scary and the hopeful, the horrific and the cathartic, the sweet and the sad.

I hope I don't stumble and land on my butt.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Math Homework and Brown Bag Lunch

If my life these days could be reduced to series of equations, I think this would be one:

4K + 1A+ lots of messy stuff  = -1A   

(when K= kids and A=adult )

In other words: four kids, one adult, and all the stuff we are working on around here, results in one adult that is definitely "negative": i.e., not enough, especially by the end of the day.

Here's another one that has been paralyzing me this week (I was never any good at math anyway, and I'm not even sure I can express it as algebra):

Previous monthly income = x
Previous monthly expenses = y

x/6 - (y-$2000) = still not enough to live on

See?  I told you I couldn't do the algebra right...  But I think you get the idea.  And when you increase the complexity of the equation by the number of years I've been out of the full-time workforce (14), and the income I used to make in that profession  = almost 0, (teaching English as a Second Language--something that is most often volunteer work), the picture doesn't look much better.

Andre was a great admirer of German engineering and loved to joke that his German heritage made him no good at relationships, but great at things mechanical:  "Vee do it by zee numbers, baby", he would chuckle, in his terrible fake-German accent..  It's not much of a stretch to understand part of why life was complicated around here, when Andre could only really understand things "by zee numbers".  He would talk about understanding life only in a binary sense: things were "zero" or "one", on or off, black or white, right or wrong, win or lose.  The notion of talking through a conflict, working toward "yes" for both parties, was alien to him.  So was dieting (a slow, steady process of choices, compromises, incremental progress)  or training for a 5K race, (again, incremental progress, with compromises along the way for age, injuries, weather...) or raising children (definitely a "fuzzy logic" process, combined with a lot of two steps forward/one step back)

or getting mental health help.

It just wasn't a clear "fix".

 Another of Andre's only half-joking mantras was "If at first you don't succeed, try a bigger hammer."  It's clear,  isn't it?  Zero or One, on or off, it's either in the numbers or it's impossible.  Interestingly, Andre always resisted any attempt to establish budgets or spending plans in our house.  It was as if some part of him knew that if he saw what his hobbies and impulsive purchases cost, and compared it to what the numbers should have been, he would have had to admit that it "wasn't in the numbers" and he would have had to stop. His horrible death was also a binary thought process: if  life wasn't going to stay the same and be fine, then it was going to be too horrible to continue and had to end.

Yesterday, I sat down with the most numbers I could gather, in order to have a skilled financial planner help me figure out what to do with our family finances.

When I got to my car an hour later, I had to phone a friend who is particularly gifted in calming me down before I could stop sobbing enough to be able to drive home.  I was simply overwhelmed by the sense of impossibility that those numbers presented, in the hands of a professional money person.  And it wasn't just the money.  It was my age (48), the number of kids I have (4), the number of years I will be parenting  (until I'm 60 at least), and THEN you add in the money numbers. I walked out of that office feeling like I had done my entire life wrong, at least according to the numbers: married too late in life, had too many kids*, stayed out of the work force too long... oh, and I married an unstable, tortured guy who decided to kill himself... and this is where I've landed.   (*not that I regret a single one of my "too many kids" ,except when I'm sorting socks... Oy, there's a math problem: 4 kids X zillions of socks = laundry hell)

But my friend (just as I had hoped he would) pointed out that God doesn't do things by the numbers.  He reminded me that we are in touch with a reality that is way, way beyond the numbers.  (Don't I have the most amazing people carrying me along on this journey?)

As I've been scrambling for spiritual keys to let me out of this prison of numbers, I've been thinking about a Bible story of a situation that was way, way beyond the numbers: the story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand.  Jesus and his disciples had been teaching all day to a huge crowd, way out in the boonies somewhere, and it's getting to that time of day when people are hungry, but there are no 1st-century taco-trucks pulling up to feed this crowd. The only food available is one boy's brown-bag lunch: five loaves (think pita bread) and two fish. The scriptural account says that the disciples told Jesus that there was a problem that they just couldn't solve, it wasn't in the numbers -- a hungry crowd, and not enough food.  Jesus told his disciples to start passing the lunch around, and to gather up the leftovers after everyone had had their fill!  (Leftovers? Really?  from a quick dash-through-Trader-Joe's lunch, shared among 5,000 men and who knows how many women and kids?)  And those 5,000 men, and however many more women and kids, ate their fill, and filled up twelve baskets of leftovers.

It was SO not in the numbers, isn't it? And yet, there were people that day who saw how it worked out, and seeing it changed their lives.

Today, I had a really tender time of talking and praying with my new pastor, a time he had set up to get up to speed on the Hedrick family mess (my words, not his), and find out how he could be ministering to us.  As we talked, he picked up on something I kept mentioning: my lack of emotional and physical "reserves", my "not being the parent I should be for my kids", not having the band-width to handle much of the job of life these days. At the end of our talk, he prayed for me and he asked God to help me to stop reaching down deep inside myself for strength to continue, but to reach OUT to the strength that only God can give, the strength that we read, "is made perfect in weakness".

It's really not in the numbers, is it? Here's the passage that my pastor was referring to, it's in Paul's second letter to the Corinthian church:

 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  (2 Corinthians 12:9 )

What if I could accept that I have NO power to change whatever illogical turns my life has already taken, and I can't create a plan that is totally by the numbers, that is guaranteed to make up for those unfortunate turns?  And what if, in choosing to accept the numbers, but not be bound by them, I could live the kind of life that looked like HOPE instead of just foolishness?

Want a bite of my pita bread?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dithering in the intersection

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," writes the poet Frost,

"And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; ..."

After last week's cleaning, purging, and re-arranging of physical spaces around here, this week, I'm doing some re-purposing of mind and heart spaces and I'm standing at a crossroads of thought.

The road-split I'm struggling with is how much of my story can be told, how much here? How much can be told to people outside of the small need-to-know zone?  I wrestle with a sense that I'd like to quit living the two-level existence that my kids and I have struggled to maintain for so long,  a life consisting of actual events and the "official version" for public consumption.   But would it cause people even more grief, more sense of being robbed of Andre, if I drop the mask of the saintly widow, grieving simply for her nearly-perfect husband and their nearly-perfect marriage?

And so I might have to break another trail in this mapless, autumnal wood.  Perhaps there is a way to tell my truth without causing others too much pain.  So, if you'd like to pause here and click the "close" button, I will think no less of you.  In fact, I'll never know.

This week, as I live in my re-claimed spaces, Andre's sad presence seems to stalk me.  And as I fight with waves of guilt, anger, and sorrow, a wise woman in my life has suggested that I choose a Biblical story, and meditate on it, choosing one that will remind me of the healing, restoring love of God.  So, I've chosen the woman with the 12-year-bleeding, the one who is healed by Jesus, when she touches the fringes of his clothes.  It's in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, verses 21-34 and the story also appears in the accounts by both Luke and Matthew.  Jesus is on his way to heal the daughter of someone really important, and as he passes through the crowd, a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years reaches out and touches the edge of his garment, and is healed.  Jesus stops the whole procession, scans the crowd and asks who has touched him, which leads the woman to step forward and tell what has happened, and how she has been healed.

That woman, with her life leaking out, drop by drop from inside a hidden wound, is me.

 In ancient middle-eastern culture, she was living on the fringes of society because her wound made her ritually unclean, unable to be part of the day to day relationships in her village, isolated. In being careful to keep my inner "bleeding" hidden for so long, I've been able to live closer to the center of society, but I've felt like a fraud for most of it.

Andre came into our 18-year marriage with behaviors that should have been a hint at the kind of pain that was fraying his soul, but at first, he seemed mostly stable, and his kindness, his eagerness to please, and his need to keep me close at all times felt very much like love.  As the years went by, and his behavior became more worrisome, more controlling, I got more and more proficient at keeping the ignition sources away from the volatile fumes of Andre's anger, and I became more and more alone.  When the kids entered the stage where their normal naughtiness was no longer "cute", I spent more and more time protecting them from inappropriate punishment while trying to teach them to behave appropriately.

It was, of course, impossible.

I was neither able to either completely protect them nor create a consistently firm but loving discipline structure around them.  Drip, drip, drip... loneliness... drip, drip, drip, ..failure... and I pushed myself to work harder, to seek out more challenges to hide from myself the fact that my life was draining away in protecting and hiding the woundedness of my husband.  I was a homeschooling, home-birthing, hands-on, homemade-everything, meal-plans-and-shopping-lists housewife...drip, drip, drip...and I was only dimly aware that anything was really wrong.  We looked pretty ok on the outside--more than ok, is what people tell me.

A little over three years ago, I came to another diverging of the road, without planning to.  I  had gotten pretty good at all the hardcore housewife stuff and feeling like there was a pretty stout patch on the leaky parts of our lives.  I was feeling like the kids and Andre would be ok if I went away for a weekend to work on my singing, to see if there was anything left of my non-mom, non-wife self that was worth resurrecting.  In the kind of soul-opening work of re-discovering my singer-self, a touch of Jesus' hem, if you will, I accidentally stopped the whole procession.  I finally had a clear glimpse of how much of my life had been bled away already, and I could not go back to ignoring it.  When I came home, I needed more and more time to walk, to pray, to sing, to pile on more challenges: lose 50 pounds, make myself some new clothes, learn and perform a major solo in a concert. Meanwhile, the "dripping" had become a flow, tears leaked out with every deep singer's breath, and I worked harder than ever. And so it continued through the months, and even after the news of the life-threatening diagnosis of my dearest friend, my lifeline through all those years of trying to keep myself glued together.  Faced with the potential loss of my friend, I just couldn't keep moving fast enough to outrun the pain.   I could no longer hide from myself and my husband (and people around me who noticed a change) the fact that I was bleeding away inside, losing my "juice".

Over the past three years, with less and less success, I continued to try to keep a lid on Andre's explosive anger, heartbreaking paranoia, and wildly fluctuating moods, while I tried to keep myself and my kids moving forward in the paths that I had chosen for us, trying again to ignore how bled-out I was becoming. But by early July of this year, I was nearly bled white.  I was exhausted.  Something had to change and I told Andre so.  I had no idea at the time how fragile he was and that the path of his intense pain would split into the one that leads to healing and the one that leads to violent death that night.

And as I think about how the story ends for the woman who has healed when she reached out and touched Jesus, I wonder if, perhaps the path of pain, the one that appears to split into such different roads, actually merges back into the path of healing.  Andre's pain is over.  He is healed in heaven.  My life is no longer leaking steadily out of me in the same way that it was.  I'm still healing, as are my kids.  But we will no longer live on the edges of our "village", unclean, isolated.

Every Sunday, after the prayer of confession, we hear :
 "Friends, believe the good news.  
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, and are being made whole."

Yes.  I think that's true.  Thanks for hearing my confession.  I think the truth might be setting me free.



Friday, October 12, 2012

Ghost Busting

Grasping frantically into dark places, breathing hard, flat on my back in the middle of the day, covered in a sheen of sweat, conscious that, at any minute, we'd need to finish this so I could clean myself up and go pick up the kids at school, I said it,

"Oh, screw you, you crazy sonofabitch.  Your opinions don't matter anymore."

Of course, I didn't get an answer, at least not an audible one.  Yes, I talk to a ghost these days, but it seems like I'm in a more lengthy and tense conversation lately, as I work through yet another round of trying to re-claim this house.  The good sign, I guess, is that I didn't get an audible answer.  Another good sign, as I lay there, with my head in an impossible position, under the school desk, and blindly worked my hands into position to finish snipping the snares of zip-ties and industrial-strength, double-sided tape,  the absurdity of it all hit me and I giggled.  I worked for a bit longer, unscrewing the bolted-in armor of wires, power-supplies and brackets that Andre had used in his 100-year-installations in the former schoolroom... and then, still sweaty and dusty,  I posted a naughty-sounding update on Facebook about all the "fun" I was having, flat on my back on the schoolroom floor.

(And you thought that opening paragraph was leading someplace else, admit it. )

But it hasn't been much "fun" at all.  Not that it hasn't been good, I guess. It seems like a breath of fresh air for me and for the kids to see the dark, cluttered room full of computers and schoolbooks transformed into a wide-open table-space for crafts and sewing:  boxes of paints, clay, colored pencils, paper, fabric, popsicle sticks, glue guns... all stacked neatly on shelves that used to hold workbooks and assigned reading.  The incessant hum of three e-waste-dump frankensteined computers has been replaced with the sound of a ticking clock and the odd mixture of Steven Curtis Chapman, Brooklyn Tabernacle, and Asleep at the Wheel that my Pandora station plays on the single computer left in the space.

As I work toward re-claiming this house from years of dysfunctional energy, and the chaos of the last three months (yes, it will be three months tomorrow), I find myself ever more vividly confronting Andre's ghost: not a Hollywood-style, corporeal ghost, or something neon-green and misty to call the rheumy-eyed, dangly-earring-wearing spirit communicators about:  just an unhappy presence, an echo of being told that I'm doing it wrong, a complaining, condemning, guilt-producing presence.  And so I've been talking back, sometimes kindly, "sorry, sweetie.  You're dead now and you can't control this anymore", and sometimes with a bit more bite: "Screw you.  You don't live here anymore and you can't have it your way."

My "corner" in the master bedroom, the place that had been my sacred space for writing, and my productive place for work, has been moved downstairs to a corner of the family room in which I can enjoy the morning sunshine, and participate in the life of the family in the evenings.  I could no longer stand to spend my editing time (my paid work) and my writing time (my heart's work) in that now-defiled corner of the master bedroom, sitting just inches from where Andre's life spilled out of him, into the carpet and the floorboards.  No amount of expert crime-scene clean-up and heartfelt volunteer interior re-decorating has been able to clear away the sad energy of that spot.

Having lost my own father when I was 13, and having watched my mother begin her journey of widowhood at age 48 (yes, feel free to cue the Twilight Zone music at the eerie parallel between her life and mine), I thought I was pretty savvy to what this turn in the path might look like.

Um... nope.

If my father's ghost hovered in our house back then, I'm SURE that my mother did not use the kind of language that I use in my ghost-busting.  I'm sure he was welcomed for as long as Mom needed him to stay, and that he floated off as she was able to let him do so.

I have a feeling that I will be needing every tool I can find to help usher-out my tortured late husband and deal with (and help my kids deal with) his complex legacy.

Re-arranging and de-cluttering my house is a start.  The slower work is doing that same process in my heart and soul.

Like the signs say at the mall,when one store closes and a new one is coming in:
Please excuse our mess.  We are in the process of renovation. 

Something I've been thinking about in Romans 8, starting in verse 18:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Getting lost on the way home

One hundred, seventy-eight miles after I tiptoed out to my car at 6:45 a.m, my GPS remained firmly convinced that I still had not left the driveway of number 3 Half Mile Road.  Instead, it kept insisting that I turn left on Mansfield Avenue, while steadily increasing the estimated arrival time to my destination.  No amount of turning it off, re-booting, re-entering the destination address, and (the all-purpose technical fix) tapping on it, could change its stubborn electronic mind.  It simply could not guide me where I wanted to go.

So, that early Sunday morning, I had to rely on memory, instinct, and the pull of "home", as I simply drove north on the Merritt Parkway,  missed an exit in a moment of doubting my directional instinct, doubled back, and continued driving, until I was hunting for parking at my destination, only slightly late for the 10:00 service, but still in time for what I had driven 3 hours to experience.  Somehow that "follow your nose" (or "follow your heart") sense had gotten me where I was going, in time to hear a brand-new piece of choral music, written by a dear friend, and performed for the very first time that morning. No, it wasn't "home" in the sense of "the place where I live" or even "the place where I grew up", but home, in the sense that in that place, my heart is at rest, safe. The older I get, the less the geography of home has to do with geography on a map, and the more it has to do with the presence of love: the inexplicable love of God and of those who have decided (equally inexplicably) to love me.

Throughout my recent trip to the East coast, it seemed like my GPS kept failing to give me adequate directions about where to go because it couldn't accept the fact of where it was (like when it failed to recognize the Whitestone Bridge on the way to Brooklyn, or the above story about remaining stuck in a driveway in Darien, CT).  Without that clear acceptance of where I was, I couldn't rely on it to tell me what came next.  In those moments, I had to trust local folks for directions (including politely asking some saggy-trousered gangsta type standing under the elevated train in the Bronx how to find Rosedale Avenue, or having an animated conversation with a busy mom in Whole Foods in Winchester), and listen to that voice that was guiding me "homeward" for that day.

Those of you who know me in real life know where I'm going with this: yup, it's a metaphor for my life these days.  I am on a journey toward a new life, and there are some places that I think I want to go (like possibly back to school, briefly), and some dreams I have, and I have very little in terms of a reliable set of directions on exactly how to get there.  The best I can do is accept where I am, and keep moving, occasionally asking the locals (my tribe of friends and generous churchfolk who keep making themselves available) for help and information, and listening close for that voice that draws me homeward.

The piece of brand-new music that I heard that Sunday morning was an original choral setting of the George Matheson hymn, "O love that will not let me go".  In case you haven't got that hymn text memorized, here are the three verses that my friend chose to set, so you can carry it around in your head, like I've been carrying it around in mine.

O love that will not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee.
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And find the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be. 

O cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee.

I lay in dust life's glory dead, 
And from the ground there blossoms red, Life that shall endless be.

Lately, caring people often will tell me to "hang on" through this season of grieving and re-claiming my life, but by the end of some days (and at the beginning of others) I find I've run out of strength in my grip.

It's helpful to think there is a Love that will not let me go.