Sunday, 14 September 2014

Ten books which have changed my life (FB challenge)

So, the Northern Lights are reluctant to make an appearance here, which means I will be doing the 10 book challenge I've been nominated for several times over. With the usual disclaimer that so many more than 10 books have changed my life, and in no particular order except the one in which they come to mind:

1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: it articulated so much about being a child of immigrants that I had felt, but had been unable to express. I couldn't put it down, I couldn't stop crying, and it may be time to re-read it.

2. A Wrinkle in Time and all related books by Madeleine L'Engle. To this day, I use Echthroi, Deepening, kairos and chronos to explain things. I was talking to a friend the other day about another friend I'm worried about, and I said, 'You know, he reminds me of Charles Wallace under IT.' L'Engle's theology helped me articulate mine, and I lost myself in her stories. I still do. And I still cry when Progo...oh, go read them!

3. Goddesses in Every Woman by Jean Shinoda Bolen. My introduction to archetypes and Jungian psychology. Need I say more?

4. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. I got a copy in 2003 when a Catholic acquaintance was giving hers away. I owe her the deepest thanks: not only did it fill my love of fairy tales and my need for diving deep into the psyche, it was so beautifully written, it read like poetry. Bliss.

5. My Grandfather's Blessings (and its companion, Kitchen Table Wisdom) by Rachel Remen. H/T Alison Porter for this recommendation. Rachel's stories of her family, her practice, her life, entwined with her reflections on the deeper significance are absolutely soul-restoring, and food for spiritual hunger. She is one of my heroines, and I actually have 2 copies - one I lend and one that doesn't leave the house.

6. The Wizard of Oz & associated books: These were the first books I remember being able to completely lose myself in, to escape from here. The irony being, of course, that I collected the whole set because they were the books my uncle bribed me with so I wouldn't tell my parents about the sexual abuse. Several years later, he asked for him back, and I said, 'No.'

7. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: I discovered this on a bookshelf in my father's office when I was 11ish, saw it had been given to him by one of his brothers (NOT that one, but Ambereen and Saira's dad, whom I absolutely adore), and my curiosity was piqued. I took it upstairs to my bedroom and was immediately entranced. Even then, though I didn't have the depth of experience to fully understand and appreciate it, I knew I'd found MY spirituality, MY prophet - and his name wasn't Muhammad.

8. The White Dragon/Pern series by Anne McCaffrey: I found it in the Holton library when I was about 11, and it was the first Pern book I read (I later went back and read the series in order, along with the other trilogies I could get my hands on). I identified deeply with Jaxom and fell in love with Robinton - and later fiercely identified with Menolly in the Harper Hall trilogy (but I wanted to Impress a dragon!).

9. The Shack by William P. Young: Blew the doors off my understanding of G-d and the Trinity. My entire relationship with G-d shifted profoundly after reading that book, because I finally began to trust that I was loved. I have a hard copy, but I suspect it's one I'll want on my Kindle for easy access.

10. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh: I knew my parents had been through Partition - and for some reason, when I was young, I'd assumed it had been a very orderly transition, not recognising much of my parents' behaviour for what it was - the result of extreme trauma. It was only when I stumbled across a documentary here on Partition, sitting through it horrified, that I truly understood. A friend recommended Khushwant Singh's book - a gripping, harrowing read that made me finally understand what my parents had been through and why they were who they were.

Friday, 16 May 2014

I grieve...

Since 4 May, I have been doing Desmond Tutu's Forgiveness Challenge. After Iyanla Vanzant's four weeks back in December, I thought this would be easy.

*Pauses to laugh hysterically*

The last fortnight has been among some of the toughest emotional work I've done, and that's on top of the last 6 months, which has been an emotional wringer on its own, kicking me out of my numbness into a perpetual ache in my solar plexus, where layer after layer of dark sticky fascia like material feels as if it is being ripped from my inside...sometimes it's just sore, sometimes it makes one want to bend over double - it's always there. 

But I finally feel alive - and am beginning to feel so much clearer. To quote John Cougar Mellencamp, 'Hurts so good.' And so does this challenge, even when it knocks me for six through a poem, meditation or making me write down what's going on for me.

Today was the latter when, on day 13, I was asked what I grieve. I thought I might write a couple of things that encompassed everything else, keeping it abstract and at a safe distance, my natural way of defending myself from the pain and the overwhelming grief and sense of loss that followed.

The first part of the challenge was listening to an interview with Alanis Morrisette, and then she said these words that struck home: 

As long as we hold on to the victim consciousness, the rage, and the blame, we don't have to feel grief. And the sensations somatically of grief in our body for a lot of us can be really uncomfortable. There are a few feelings. For some of us, anger is more tolerable than full-blown grief.

If I ever wondered why I was so angry, my answer was right there.

I started writing...and didn't stop. Couldn't stop. Everything I'd held in, pretended I didn't grieve, or pretended I'd gotten past, poured out into my diary. But I knew there was one more step. I had to speak it out loud. 

Remember, I'm naming it and feeling it. I know I probably don't need to say it, but this needs the space held for it, so please, nothing about moving on, thinking positively, 'you can do something about it' or anything that gets me away from sitting with this. I've spent my whole life defending, being capable, and holding the space for others - now it's time to be with and honour my own vulnerability.

So here goes:

I grieve... 

...that I never had ground under me 
...that I never had a childhood and the carefree joy and silliness that goes with it
...never knowing the freedom in just being, which I still have trouble with  
...never being safe in a pair of loving arms
...never holding my brother as a baby or bonding with him as he grew older
...never being able to rest in the certain knowledge of being safely held and unconditionally loved 
...the loss of that which so many other children took for granted: love, security, affirmation, rootedness 
...never being celebrated in the way this friend celebrates her daughter on graduation day: "Bittersweet today. I just can't believe how fast you grew into a beautiful young woman! I am so proud of you! And as I sit here with tears... I know you are destined for awesome things!!! I love you" 
...never being deeply and truly known from the moment of my birth
...never being close to those whose blood runs through my veins 
...the loss of that primal belonging to mother and family; for the sanctuary that belonging offers  
...never having the freedom to explore my heart, my talents, my gifts, my body, to work out my shape and way of being as I became a woman 
...the loss of the celebration of graduations, birthdays, days that were mine 
...never having sense of endless possibility of the late teens, early 20s, the wanton freedom and the ability to let go and experience - clubbing, travelling, what I wanted to do because I didn't know - still don't sometimes - how not to be a spore rather than a seed 
...the loss of being able to love with abandon, to give into lust, to explore what my body wanted and be with it. Why? Because with an uncle, I had learned that my body was for someone else's use. From my parents, I learned it was clumsy and something dirty, to be ashamed of
...not having that deep love and intimacy of a long-term relationship because of fear and because I can't believe that I could be loved like that
...feeling unloved for as long as I can remember
...the loss of the time spent fighting them for every precious second of freedom from their need to make me an extension of them, even as an adult

...I grieve. And in grieving, I heal...

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, "Joy is greater thar sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

--Kahlil Gibran

...and feel the shoots of joy spring up from the seeds of sorrow.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dream log: where I'm under a thresher, then in the next dream, forgive my father

Flora - our awesome cook for Wednesday lunches at work - was driving like a bat out of hell on Randolph Rd East near its intersection with New Hampshire - 2 minutes from the house in which I grew up. White-knuckled, grabbing the dashboard, I said, 'Flora. I know this road. It's narrow, it winds, and you can't take the turns THAT FAST.'

She, of course, ignored me. 

Fortunately, she stopped off on the side of the road before I had a heart attack. The area near us was a vast field, and the sky was that unearthly, pearlescent yellow that harbingers a storm, with black clouds not far off. Coming towards us was a giant, post-apocalyptic looking machine, which turned out to be a thresher - we were too late to move fully out of the way. A friend (unknown IRL) said, 'The sides! Bend over double and go down the inside of the wheel! Following his instructions, I tucked myself tight to the left hand set of wheels (to my right, since we were going in the opposite direction) and turned to see a man underneath the machine who seemed to be guiding it in some way, walking so close to me we could have brushed shoulders - yet he seemed unaware of me.

Even bent over double, I felt a flat rectangular piece of machinery press into my back over and over, the pressure not quite unbearable, but so intense that I woke up feeling it press into my back one more time before I was fully in this reality...

...I cracked open an eye and blearily checked the clock. 5am. Argh. Tossing and turning finally led to falling into an uneasy doze, where I was suddenly with someone else and we were pinning things to the sides of of a peach posterboard cone. Both our fathers, with whom we'd had tremendously difficult relationships, had died, and we were pinning things up and stating reasons for why they might have been the way they were. The emotional tenor was intense, and it was almost as if their spirits were there.

Suddenly, she pinned up small star-shaped flowers that were glowing, translucent white, with yellow centres that were becoming an otherworldly gold, as she said to me: "He didn't do so well in this physical reality, but his soul loves you." I choked and sobbed, and woke up feeling that intensity of grief, understanding, and finally forgiveness.

The clarity, the spaciousness has stayed with me all day.

Oh, and I didn't know what the flowers were, so I looked them up - Star of Bethlehem. Symbolic in the obvious way, but also eerily appropriate in several others...

...dreams are powerful medicine.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me - a reflection on the fourth word of Christ from the Cross


We are now midway through the Via Crucis, that most harrowing of journeys, the point at which the reason for beginning a difficult journey can feel so long forgotten, and at which the end is nowhere in sight. It is the moment when looking back can show us how far we’ve come, give us a clearer idea of where we are, and offer us the courage to go forward – in the words of Caryll Houselander:

Now from the Cross, before his eyes are darkened, he can look back down that road which is indeed an image of the road through life of all those who will come after him.

He has known pain, exhaustion, apparent failure, shame; but it has not only been tragedy. He has known too the blessed dependence of a man upon other men; he has been helped by them and accepted their help; he has realised the joy and the light that comes to other men through helping him, above all through helping him to carry his cross. He has known compassion from the women he met on the way, compassion and the heroism it inspires – the women who blessed him openly with loud voices and Veronica who dared the mockery of the crowd and the authority of the armed guard to come close to him and wipe the tears and filth from his face.

He has known all these things and more in his Incarnation, and now he comes to the final experience that brings him to full humanity: despair.

We’re not comfortable with the idea that our Lord should despair, or feel darker emotions, such as rage or doubt. Look at how we glide over the rawness of Gethsemane, the rage of the cleansing of the temple, the despair of this moment.

Why? Because to acknowledge that G-d incarnate must descend into the abyss means that we ourselves cannot avoid it, however much we hope that our faith will allow us a spiritual bypass; however we weave our religion – whether through ornate liturgy or relentless positivity and ‘goodness’ – to create a neat, safe world and pretend that the darkness has no claim on us by calling it 'sin', and ourselves, when we avoid it, 'good'.

But to claim that despair is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned on the cross. To claim that rage is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in the temple. To claim that doubt is a sin is to claim that Jesus sinned in Gethsemane. To deny the darkness that is part of us is to dishonour Our Lord – because it is to say that His humanity was a lie.

But the truth is that when we deny the existence of our darkness, claiming we feel none of it, it is our humanity, our faith, that is the lie.

Because there is no truer moment than now – the moment Jesus hangs on the cross in utter agony, midway through his harrowing journey, crying out to the Father, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’

The emptiness. The desolation. The inability to trust what is to come, to believe in what he has left behind, this descent into the abyss marks the final moments of his Incarnation in which he has lived the full experience of his people. He has laughed, he has grieved, he has been angry, he has loved, he has comforted, he has doubted…

…but only now does he despair, feeling abandoned by G-d, and in this moment, he has truly become fully human – truly felt as we have felt.

Because he despaired, falling all the way into the abyss, I was not alone that desolate night I put one leg over an 8th floor balcony railing, intending to swing the other over and fall into the car park below. You are not alone in your darkness. Because Christ felt as we felt, NONE of us are EVER alone.

He is with us in every joy, every sorrow, every ordinary moment. And because he experienced them, because he has walked the road, he shows us the way forward.

What does Jesus do in this moment of utter despair? He doesn’t attempt to be what he thinks G-d wants him to be; he doesn’t try to suppress his sense of abandonment; he doesn’t pretend to feel or be anything other than he is. He DOES stay in relationship - He speaks to His Father: “My G-d, my G-d, why hast thou forsaken me?” He brings his desolation to the Father, surrendering it, and in so doing, allows it to be transformed.

As Houselander noted, Christ’s road is the road for all of us who follow: when we allow ourselves to feel the darkness, giving it to G-d rather than trying to hide it behind our backs because we think it’s ‘bad’, when we admit we thirst and finally surrender, commending our spirit into G-d’s hands, new life will follow.

But that new life will not be like our old one; it will be something beyond our imagining, for acknowledging the darkness, risking the descent, allowing the surrender bring great gifts that change us at the deepest level. We may not know how, for that is part of the mystery, but we may get a glimpse in this exhortation to Christ often sung on Palm Sunday:

Bow thy meek head to mortal pain, then take, O G-d, thy power and reign.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The gift of giving into despair

Who’s telling the truth? Nearly everyone becomes a liar. Nearly everything becomes a betrayal. The journey of life becomes so insignificant that we seek only the dark — we dim our lights until we can no longer see. We can no longer feel...

This morning, after feeling balanced and open for months, the emotions I'd been holding in check to function - grief, the emotions that sit beneath being strong for others, soul-weariness - all came crashing down. I strongly suspect it's part of the forgiveness practice I'm working through: last night was 'Forgiving your feelings': so no surprise that, after decades of being marginalised, they decided to pour through the open door once it was cracked open.

Weeks ago, in a therapeutic discussion, I discovered that my core emotion wasn't anger, as I had thought, but despair. Today, that was what overwhelmed me. Finally, after years of  fighting it, I did something different. I stayed still and let the tsunami engulf me. 

And the oddest thing happened. As I went through my day, thinking 'It's all a lie,' I felt a profound sense of peace, even as I felt things I shouldn't:

I completely, irrevocably give up on them.

That friend will never be able to offer the emotional support I need, because they can't deal with my darkness.

She'll always play the victim even as she pretends not to; she's never going to change.

I actually believe that his part of this friendship is about needing me, not genuine affection and appreciation for who I am. I don't think he really sees or wants to see me. I'm done making the effort.

These people will always value status, money, and chase approval. Our core values will always be diametrically opposed. There's no point in engaging.

Why do I keep offering myself, my friendship, things that deeply matter to me to people who are utterly incapable of receiving it? WTF IS WRONG WITH ME? 

He's always going to charm his way through life and never discover who he really is. And because this is a shallow world that values appearance over substance, that is going to be reinforced.  What difference would reaching out make? I'll leave him to his long, slow, internal death. 

I don't care. 

They are only going to see what they want to see - why see a marriage, mother and child in trouble when you can pretend to see a perfect family? 

I will never get any better - life will continue to be bleak, joyless, and living my purpose and passion will continue to elude me, as will the love and connection I want more than anything.

I don't belong here.

Nothing I do makes a difference.

So, why am I here?

And so on.  

I felt the utter absence of hope. I let that be my truth; I acknowledged what was real. I didn't desperately scrabble for hope, thinking, 'I MUST hope, no matter what form it takes,' nor did I scrabble for faux Christmastide feelings; I left my hands by my sides. I let it overwhelm me.

It is still overwhelming me.

But I chose not to lie...and my usually sharp, blunt, German surrogate mum showed a surprising gentleness. My perpetually busy friend checked his motion and heard me, pulling me in for a quick hug that allowed for a much-needed lean against a safe shoulder - and was genuinely present, despite a hundred other things that needed doing.

These moments reminded me of Andrew Bunch's sermon at work's Wednesday chapel last week, when he spoke of the siege of Samaria and the nature of Advent hope. Advent hope, he said, comes when we are at the end of our rope - in the case of the siege, famine and women eating their children; that it often comes from those we despise - as it did from the lepers, who had nothing to lose and had taken the risk of entering the tents of the Syrian army, only to discover the siege broken; and that it is unexpected, miraculous, something we never could have expected - something that has room to happen because we haven't closed off possibilities by insisting that hope appear in a particular way. 

I await that extraordinary hope, but I remember that, as today's preacher reminded us, whilst the experience is exceptional, often, the manner is ordinary. That moment when a friend checks his motion and holds the space. That moment when you steel yourself for an expected 'Well, dear, just carry on, these things pass,' and instead get an affectionate look, a finger brushing across your cheek and a gentle, 'You're going to be ok,' from an unexpected quarter. In a song that offers you the only prayer left right now: But I offer all I am for the mercy of Your plan - help me be strong. Help me BE. Help ME.

Suddenly, you realise that THIS time, you've actually changed enough that you WILL let G-d help, because THIS time, you've finally offered your consent to getting lostWhich means that you finally trust that babe in the manger enough to step into those outstretched arms and let Him bring you home, even if you can't feel His love just yet. 

But you know that, as today's preacher noted, if you stay present to your life as it unfolds, the opportunities to love (and be loved by) G-d come over and over again. And if you stay present, you sense that in one of those encounters, just as you've finally consented to get lost, you'll finally feel - and truly know - you are loved. 

Real hope - not the manufactured, even desperate, hope we scrabble for to avoid the dark night of the soul bearing down on us...

...that is the gift of giving into despair and the long dark night.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Freedom, or, making sure (some) dreams don't come true

Dreams shouldn’t always come true, as we know. Sometimes, we can make sure they don’t.

Last night, a snippet of a long, involved dream had to do with a gorgeous, blue-patterned butterfly on top of a pool of water. I kept trying to rescue it before its wings got waterlogged, but suddenly it was camouflaged against a larger dress of the same pattern and I couldn’t find it. I searched desperately for it on the dress that was suddenly covering more than half the pool, catching glimpses of it being very still, then losing it. Finally, lifting the very heavy, wet dress out, I snapped it out in the air to release the butterfly. The susurration of wings from out of the dress made my heart lift, then I saw it was a grey owl, not the butterfly. I snapped out the dress again, just in case, but nothing.

With a heavy heart, I stepped out into a large garden as an announcement was being made about a close friend of mine. I can’t remember what it was, but I woke an instant later, a chest-wracking sob threatening to break out. It took a long time to be able to settle down to some semblance of dozing, which was all it was for the rest of the night.

I woke and showered, returning to a butterfly/moth (of a similar pattern to one in the office, who had appeared and hovered for days after my uncle died) fluttering wildly, trapped in the paper globe lampshade on the ceiling.

I sat down on my bed, in shock at the parallel to my dream. Then I committed – this would NOT end like the dream. I lifted the globe, trying to entice the butterfly out…no go. It would come as far as the bottom, creep around the edge cautiously, then go back to its panicked flying inside the globe. I laughed ruefully, the symbolism of how we stay in situations that imprison us, come to the edge of freedom and go back in to what we know, not lost on me. To quote Rachel Remen from My Grandfather’s blessings:

I was surprised: "But they were suffering, Grandpa. Why didn’t they want to go?"

My grandfather looked sad. “They knew how to suffer,” he told me. “They had done it for a long time and they were used to it. They did not know how to be free.”

I was shocked. “But what about the Promised Land, Grandpa? Wasn’t it true?”

“Yes, it was true, Neshume-le, but the choice people have to make is never between slavery and freedom. We will always have to choose between slavery and the unknown.”

And that butterfly, like us, at the edge of the unknown, chose slavery, again and again. One moment, when I saw its still silhouette through the lantern, my heart stopped, afraid that real life would end like last night’s dream.

I was damned if it would. I lifted the globe to disturb its torpor, and finally, enough to force it out, holding my hand against the opening at the bottom as it beat against me, desperate to return. Finally, it settled on the outside of the globe, climbing up. Once it was high enough not to be able to return too easily, I went and flicked off the light, then opened the curtains, making the grey dawn the brightest part of the room.

I stood by my bedroom door in the reluctantly lightening near-solstice morning, willing the butterfly to move, my heart lifting as it landed on the net curtain. I leapt across the room, pushing open my window, pulling down the net curtain to try to force it over the top. Resisting, the butterfly went sideways. I laughed, saying, ‘Trying to take down your defences too soon, am I? Ok, you lead.’

I waited, and when its tiny, insect leg brushed the top of the net curtain, I pulled the curtain down far more gently than the first time, coaxing rather than insisting – out of my own panic, my own need to change the ending of the dream – that it set itself free.

In the next instant it was on the window pane, a heartbeat later it flew out, finally free.

I choked back another sob, a happy one – suddenly realising what my deepest commitment was: freedom. Mine and others’. I may have often misunderstood what freedom is; my understanding of it continues to evolve and deepen, knowing it has as many faces as those who experience it, generated from the same bedrock of truth and love – and it is to fostering that freedom in all that my vocation lies: as a teacher, as a therapist, as the pastor I’ve always felt the calling to be, as the person I’m becoming.

For to be committed to freedom is to be committed to life truly and deeply lived, in whatever form that takes. L’chaim.

I often thought – and I suspect it was true, at first – that my passion for freedom came from growing up in a country that proclaimed it, in escaping a family that tried to enslave. And in the moments where I am fighting desperately, I still feel that. But even as I have known that my ways of being - my tendency to force things into the open; to use anger to transform; to speak out (rarely with the greatest of tact) in places where acting in was the norm; to push for depth and authenticity – that all these things were forged in a difficult family, I have also known that my passion for freedom was woven into every cell, was breathed into me by the G-d who knit me in the womb and called me by name. I have always known that it had a deeper purpose, and again, Rachel Remen – or rather, her grandfather, calls it by name:

“Why does G-d come Himself, Grandpa?”

“Ah, Neshume-le, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only the people who become free can serve G-d’s holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them.”

That is why.

And though I may fight for it, push myself and others towards it, force the truth into the open, hold the space for others to find their way, it is G-d who comes down and leads – whether a butterfly finding its way out the window or someone leaving an abusive situation of many years’ standing.

Our nightmares need not define us – not every dream needs to come true.

That is the freedom to which we are called - and when we answer 'Yes,' choosing the unknown - to which we are led, by none other than G-d Himself.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


shortest post ever

Current state: as melted as snow in the Sahara.