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.

Monday, 4 November 2013

A letter to Lou on her anniversary

Dear Lou,

It’s been a long time.  So long, I’m not sure you’d recognise the girl - almost too young to be working a suicide hotline, but already so very weary - you took under your wing.

But then again, maybe you would – because in that short time our lives intersected, you played a huge part in the woman I became.

It’s hard to know where to start, you know? There’s so much I want to say, so much I understand now that I didn’t then, so many questions I want to ask that I didn’t then. But most of all, I want to give you the chance to shelter under my wings – the adult wings that can now hold as much space as you need – needed – for as long as it takes.

I can’t give you – nor do you need – the shelter I can offer now that I couldn’t then, because I had to grow into it. But I can sit with you, on this day of your anniversary - much as Will and Lyra did in their different worlds – and talk to you.  I hope that’s ok.

First of all, thank you. Thank you for being you – for being there. For being able to see past the rage and for daring to stick your arm through it to the hurting girl beneath. Thank you for listening, so often and so completely – and without judgment. Your faith in me, in my ability to face situations – both small and large – meant the world and made a universe of difference to my life.  Things got better in small ways: I remember hearing your Carolina drawl behind me on that December day, a little over a month after you died, after my biochem exam, saying, “Good job. I’m so proud of you.” I got the highest grade in the class.

And because you trusted me to handle the small things, you made it possible for me to go for the big ones: 3 months and 4 days after your death, I moved out of my parents’ house, leaving them a note on the fridge.

Despite the struggle; the immense pressure from my parents to move back home; the overwhelming depression that roared to the surface when I was no longer constantly fighting my family and led me to put my leg over the 8th floor balcony railing one December night; my father ringing me on my birthday and asking, ‘So, how are you paying your rent? Are you sleeping with your male friends?’ – despite all that, it was the best decision I ever made. My life truly became my own that day.

There are no words to thank you for being one of the incredible, loving people who made it possible for me to make that choice.

But that’s not all there is to say – some things are darker, more painful. Yet they need to be spoken aloud.

Never will I forget that Saturday morning, having arrived on shift and hearing that one of the Child Protection line workers had committed suicide; looking up in horrified curiosity asking, ‘Who?’ and hearing your name.  Even now, I can feel the full physical agony, as if someone was ripping out the inside of my solar plexus, and I want to scream all over again.

Yes, even now, the memory feels like this morning's.

The fury was like a wildfire through a forest that hadn’t seen rain in years – rage at you for making the choice you did, then telling the police officers who knocked at your door that you were fine, only to die hours later; rage at myself for being someone who worked a suicide hotline but hadn’t seen it in you; rage at G-d for letting you do this.  I hated you so much. SO much.

I was absolutely functional within minutes:  I did a full hotline shift;  in the evening, it was off to  parental friends for dinner – my parents had no clue anything was wrong, and to this day they have no idea that I had a friend who committed suicide.  The price was dear, but there was no way I was going to become the paralysed, incapable of functioning, manipulative energy-sucker my mother became whenever a painful situation arose.

I did it by being angry, as I still do occasionally when I need emotional reserves I simply don’t have; I stoked my rage at you: I didn’t go to your memorial service; I refused to grieve you; I imagined shouting, ‘WHY???? WHY????????? HOW FUCKING DARE YOU???????? SCREW YOU, BITCH!’ at you so many times. Then I just wanted to pretend you never existed, had never found a way into my heart, had never been, for far too brief a time, the mother I needed. I wanted to gut your room in my heart and redecorate so I could pretend I’d never been touched. After all, YOU took yourself out of my life, so *I* would make it so you had never been in it.

But love wouldn’t have it: it was your voice I heard that December day…and so many days after.  Even now, sometimes.

Even now, echoes remain. I freak out during sustained arguments: what if something happens before we resolve this? ‘Are you ok?’ litters my vocabulary like kebabs on the pavement on a Saturday morning. Good friends *have* to say goodbye before extended absences, or the panic squeezes my heart till I can’t breathe, because I can’t forget the day I poked my head into your room across the hall and didn’t hug you because you had your back to me, cutting out a pattern – it didn’t matter because I was supposed to see you again. I didn’t.  My parents made me exquisitely aware of subtext and emotional resonances, you honed my edge for catching the leading edge of depression, of the slip into the suicidal. It was from you I learned that depressed to suddenly light of heart was not something to be relieved at; it was something to be terrified of, something to interrogate.

Every last one of these is a scar, but every last one of these is a gift: even if I'm absolutely certain I’m right, I’ll put my  hand out to reconcile; my friends know I want to know how they really are; the people I love know I love them; and that therapeutic awareness means I’ve asked the right questions more than once.

Out of darkness, light.

And what if you were here now, and we could just talk; or if you’d been here all these years? Would we have stayed in touch, or would there have been a natural letting go? Would we have become women who genuinely liked each other and shared confidences, rather than a surrogate mother sheltering a wayward chick?

I don’t know. But I know where I’ve been – and I can talk to you about that.

Thirteen months after you died, I was where you were – and made a different decision when the question ‘What right have you to take yourself out of other people’s lives?’ came to/was asked of me. In that moment, I remembered what it felt like when you took yourself out of mine, and knew I couldn’t do it to anyone else, and pulled my leg back over that railing. So, a second time, you made me own my life.

It wasn’t the only time – I’ve been there a number of times since, though not so often in recent years.  I’ve always made the same decision, though I don’t know if I always will, because sometimes bringing an end to that pain is so desperately tempting  – we never know, do we? The moment I realised that uncertainty about each time that – or any other – decision looms, I understood.

And I let go – the one time, perhaps, I’ve truly forgiven (both of us and G-d) but not forgotten.

The years since you’ve been gone haven’t always been easy, though there have been many blessings, much laughter and incredibly wonderful friends alongside the darker times spent struggling with inner demons that created outer heartache and pain. So many things I’d loved to have discussed with you: men, religion, life, some of my absolute clangers of decisions, growing up…but above all, your life. Your experience. I’d have wanted to get to know your heart, as you’d begun to know mine. And I think you’d have loved visiting Oxford…so much older than antebellum Carolina ;-).

Oh Lou, you’ve been gone so much longer than the length of time we knew each other, but I miss you so much. You taught me that 30 minutes or 30 years doesn’t matter – love does.

I love you.

And I hope I’ve done you proud. 

Fried chicken and pecan pie,

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Dream log: Dragonflight

This afternoon, I went into hiding in my bedroom to read and reflect, but found myself passing out within 10 minutes (fortunately, I always set my alarm for 2 hours after I come upstairs for just that reason).

I am, as anyone who has read this blog is aware, a prolific and vivid dreamer. When I nap, I drop straight into very vivid dreams within seconds. This afternoon, they started with the mundane heading for the ridiculous until suddenly, I was dropping through the clouds. As I passed a white tower with an antenna, I thought, 'Oh, I'm dropping into Jo'burg! Okay.' 

As I fell, I realised I was performing somewhere as part of a group - whether that was a conference, a speech, stand up comedy, who knows. As soon as my feet hit the ground in Jo'burg, I was off again, landing somewhere along the southern coast - on a stunning white sand beach with the ocean to my left, grassy dunes to my right, mountains in the distance and a small crowd behind me. As I began to run, I heard a friend's surprised voice behind me: 'What are YOU doing here?'

Without turning, I answered that I was there to perform with [group's name].

He responded, surprise and new respect colouring his voice, 'I didn't know you were one of them!'

'Yes, I am.' Grinning, so he'd hear the smile and the warmth/intended cheek, I continued, 'There's a lot you don't know. I'll see you tomorrow,' as I took off. It was bright daylight, but the sun had passed its zenith and was beginning to drop in the west. 

At twilight, I found myself on a mountain, looking down at a breathtaking city cradled by mountains on one side and open to the ocean on the other, watching the lights come on, mesmerised - fully understanding Cape Town's reputation as one of the most beautiful places in the world. With glee and fierce exultation, because I could, I ran off that mountain and jumped, knowing I would fly. I soared above the city, revelling in the beauty below me, exquisitely aware of how I was working every air current - but I felt like me; I didn't know what I was.  I went through various birds, but none felt right - my wings felt too large or the wrong shape. 

I flew out over the water, hoping to catch my reflection. It wasn't till I flew back inland and over a large puddle (not quite a lake!) that I realised I was a dragon. Idly (and vainly, I suppose), I wondered what colour I was, and the answer came: 'You are the colour of sunset flame.' Of course. I flew at twilight; what other colour was there? 

Finally, I reluctantly descended,  landing near a cave where I would spend the night before going down into the city as a human for various appointments and the performance. Cosy and dry, it was crowded with dragons doing the same - essentially a dragon hostel. I asked one of autumn gold to move over so I could have a bit of room; he did so with alacrity and I curled up to sleep. 

Then I woke up here, feeling my dragon shape melting off me. 

(Shortly thereafter watching two shows with unexpected dragon references...) 

I'll take another one of those, please... 

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Persephone, Ogboinba, Cybele, Oya: or, What Samhain can do for you, pt II

(If you missed Pt I, you'll want to start here.)

And fell for the longest time.

Persephone. Ogboinba. Cybele. Oya.

With the exception of Oya, who wasn't drawn, but jumped out of the deck, not a single one of those goddesses was mine. 

Persephone was where it began. I sat back, curious to see how she had been interpreted:

Persephone, the Maiden. Find ways to use your innocence as your strength.She is for innocence, and you had yours taken from you much earlier than it should have been, and I think she is here to point out that you need to explore your relationship with that. But there's something else here, something about how you've felt towards that self, maybe? I'm not sure, but I get this feeling that she's here to point to an anger, or even something darker, that you feel to the part of yourself that is vulnerable.

So easy. It would have been so easy to pull back from that, tell her she was wrong whilst acknowledging that 'Yes, I do need to tap into my innocence and vulnerability to be stronger as per Brene Brown, blah blah. Thank you for this, but I might be just a bit angry about it all, but really, I'm just fine.' *Good Mother Demeter airy handwave*

But to do that would have been to continue the lie, to deny the tidal wave of feeling emerging, to make the choice to continue my parents' work and remain disconnected from others. The time had come to make a different choice and speak the truth. But as it always is when I lose myself in writing, I'm never sure what that truth is till I read it back:

Fuck. YES... I am SO angry. Yes, you're right. I've hated Persephone since I was a child, because she pranced around picking flowers doing girly shit FEELING SAFE and HA! LOOK WHAT HAPPENED TO HER, SEE, YOU STUPID NAIVE BITCH???? And then she tried to trick her way out OF WHAT SHE DESERVED BECAUSE SHE WAS TOO STUPID TO KEEP AN EYE OUT. As far as I was concerned, she was weak. I wanted NO part of her in Jean Shinoda Bolen's book, NONE. SHE was weak. *I* was not. Fucking Kore.

And that's how I've felt about my vulnerability: not just ANGRY at it, but repelled by it. At some level, part of me thinks that vulnerable child got exactly what she deserved because she wasn't looking. Like Persephone.

I typed out the full comment, not fully aware of what I was saying till I sat back and read it. Again. And again. 

Horrified. Shaken. But finally knowing the truth: 

I'd always blamed Persephone for her rape, because of her innocence, her freedom from care (which I equated with irresponsibility) and her lack of vigilance. And in the same way, I blamed the child I'd been, her vulnerability and lack of vigilance, for her parents' emotional abuse and her uncle's sexual abuse.


And yet, I'd rip the throat out of anyone who dared suggest that a child was in any way at fault for any abuse that befell them; that a woman was at fault for being raped. But somehow, it was ok to blame the child I was for not being stronger, more vigilant, for not acting.

I'm just starting to cope with that. As I continued in my comment, 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I knew it was bad, but.'

And in the moment I realised what I'd done, I finally understood the truth about innocence, which I'd conflated with naivete and wilful ignorance:

[W]hat strikes me about innocence is that it is a NATURAL state. Like Cybele's wildness. And in my rage at my NATURAL innocence, twisting it into a reason for being abused, I cut myself off from my NATURE as a whole. That's why I don't know who I am outside this identity of helper; what my gifts are; what my intuition says for ME; why I'm not in touch with my wild side, as it were - why it's only the responsible, CONTROLLED side that shows.There's so much in my nature I'm not even aware of, such primal, passionate, wild side - Cybele, who Persephone really needs to grow into, not her more controlled mother (hence no Demeter in this reading, because she is very much part of my persona, and this reading is about who I REALLY am underneath it all, the parts I don't know).

In my vulnerability, my innocence, is my wildness - and my way. As Clarissa Pinkola-Estes put it, 'The wild has a vast integrity to it.' And that is what I have cut myself off from - and why I find it so hard to move.

It is why I have never found this - which I desire more than anything - because to have that intimacy - emotionally, spiritually and sexually - one needs to be able to truly surrender, to truly let go - to become vulnerable and trust. To be wild, natural. And I can't. I'm not easily held, even - perhaps most especially - in the deepest pain and despair. 

But perhaps yesterday made a start. Time will tell. 

Persephone and Cybele, anchoring the reading because they were the overarching theme: innocence, nature, wild, integrity. 

As my friend pointed out, we ALL start from the Kore. For me to deny the Kore, yet accept Persephone, Queen of Hades and conveyor of the dead, is to deny my process, my wholeness, and in the end, myself.

That should have been enough, might have been, but Ogboinba appeared in the reading. I had a hunch she would, and she has always been the one I'd rather not see. The short version of her story is that though her powers grew and she became the most sought-after healer and prophetess, she could not have children, and travelled seven kingdoms to seek a way to become able to bear a child and become a mother.

The warning against discontent is too close to the bone, as is the desire for children - both of these make her an apparently easy read when she shows up for me. 

But as I fell into that literal reading, I felt an intense resistance. This wasn't right, and I knew it wasn't just avoidance. I sat with it for a while, asking Ogboinba what she wanted to say here. When the answer came, it shifted the ground under my feet, which will never be the same again:

I could see that [about the child], but I thought, 'Yeah, we know that about me. But this isn't quite about that.'

And then I realised - in this case, the child Ogboinba is looking for is ME. Me as a child who grew up in a happy family; me the undamaged child, the child who was allowed to BE a child. In essence, she is me, travelling over the world again and again, searching for that halcyon childhood I wanted so desperately, the only way I ever believed that I would find out who I was. Searching for the safety, the love, the time to become who I was, to have that group, those people who loved me unconditionally, in whom I could rest.

In my hands were all these gifts born in the crucible of my family - the ability to see, the ability to heal, the ability to know, the incredible strength, problem-solving, the empathy, the ability to use anger as a tool - my arms were overflowing with gifts.

But *I* wanted home. I was FURIOUS at having these gifts; furious that I would HAVE TO USE THEM, be a COMMODITY to the DIVINE, like I was a COMMODITY to my parents. I KNEW, when I asked you last night, that Ogboinba was going to show up; I knew it.



THAT, for me, is the essence of Ogboinba here. I want what I can never, ever get back; what I can never ever be. I hold all this given me, all that I've made out of it, but I want to be able to be that laughing little girl; that girl who walked into adulthood certain of love. That girl who grew up playing with fashion, clubbing, experimenting, loving college and forming lifelong friendships even through the angst. And I haven't seen that I've gotten so much, but not in the way I wanted.

Finally, finally, years after I should have done, I did what I tell everyone else they should do. I told G-d the truth, no holds barred - everything that was in my heart, everything raw and wild, not pre-processed and analysed in a neat little 'Yes, I know I'm upset about this, and this is why, so it's ok' package. It wasn't okay. It still ISN'T ok. It may NEVER be ok.

But you know what? That's ok.

Because as all that was ripped out - my solar plexus STILL feels sore - and released, something else took its place.

Connection. I finally FELT G-d. And I finally felt ME.

I did one more long overdue thing: I wept. I wept for the little girl I was, the one I wanted to be, the woman I'd wanted to become, the woman I am. 

At long last, I was home.

The Samhain Prelude, or What Samhain can do for you, pt. I

I knew it was Samhain week. Really, I did. And I knew things were shifting. But I didn't expect to do much more than small adjustments. I mean, I know I'd been making a practice of every morning (yes, just in case I forgot to do it before I left the house, I have an Outlook reminder set) of saying a prayer - or several - akin to this beautiful one by Tosha Silver that I've tweaked a bit:

Dear G-d, take me over and do what You will with me.
I am Yours alone.

take me over and do what You will with me. 
Fill the space between us. Make Me Yours.

Change me into One who surrenders to You and trusts in Your way for me.

You, who have numbered every hair on my head and called me in the womb, who from the body of my mother named my Name, You know me far better than I know myself; You know my true Way. Lead me.  You lift my burdens. You know every longing and fear in my heart. You show the way even in the dark.

I am Yours.
You are Mine.
We are One.

All is well.

Just needed to keep on keeping on with that and I could carry on in cruise control, give or take a few steering corrections, right? 

Oh so wrong. Because when you ask G-d to change you, G-d's going to take you at your word and do it. His way, not yours. And if you're someone with a leaning towards Kali and with Oya as your orisha, it ain't going to be a walk in a pretty meadow on a halcyon summer day. I mean, as a Kali/Oya girl, why would I want that when I can have a stormy winter North Sea, Eyjafjallajökul or monsoon season, right? Oy vey.

I'd been saying that prayer for a week, people. A FREAKING WEEK.

Little did I know that when I gave a good friend the advice, 'Process your emotions, NOT events' (i.e., your feelings are where the truth is, processing events is being a gerbil on a wheel; you'll end up re-creating events that kick up the same feelings until you listen to what they have to say) that I'd be thrown into that crucible myself less than 72 hours later.

There had been signs that this was coming. The student who came up to me and introduce himself, and we ended up bonding intensely over not having talked to our parents (his father for 30 years, both of mine for 9) and the pain in that, no matter how close or distant you were. That I needed Hecate as my profile picture for the two weeks leading up to Samhain. That I needed more space; had even less tolerance for small talk; got home wanting to zone out, not talk. That fewer and fewer male friends could touch me without my flinching. The rising panic as I kept turning over 'I don't know who I am if I'm not taking care of someone. Who am I? What do I want? Am I ANYTHING outside of that?'

Leading you down into my core where I’ve become so numb
Without a soul, my spirit's sleeping somewhere cold
Until You find it there and lead it back home

There may be trouble ahead would have been the warning; Evanescence's Bring me to life the soundtrack.

I'm a therapist. Signs like that should make me stop and listen. Friends telling me my energy was chaotic should have made me stop and listen. They didn't. 

So Kali and Oya took things into their own hands.

Breathe into me and make me real
Bring me to life

A therapeutic conversation about how my parents alternately idealised/demeaned me and moved to prevent me from genuinely and deeply connecting with anyone outside the immediate family (always the hallmark of a toxic/abusive group dynamic) started the ground shifting under my feet. I felt the tremors, prepared for the usual situations highlighting them to come up; made the choice to process with a couple of close friends.
One was what was expected.

The other friend surprised me when she said, Damn it, now I want to pull Goddesses for you.

My eyebrows went up. That WASN'T usual. We carried on chatting, and at the end of the conversation, I said, If you want to pull Goddesses for me at some point this week, I wouldn't be averse.

When I woke up in the morning, she'd done the reading. I waited till I got to work before reading it through, having expected the usual Demeter/Brigid/etc. goddesses that tend to qualify as 'mine'. You'd think I'd have learned by now.

Persephone. Ogboinba. Cybele. Oya.

As I read, I felt the winds whipping through, the surf rising, the storm coming. I looked for a hand to hold, for sanctuary, for shelter. From the conversation the night before, it was clear to me I couldn't ask the other friend to hold the space for what was coming, to hold the coming intensity. I frantically searched my inner circle for those who could hold the intensity, pull me up, those I could reach out to and dismissed the choices because of where they were in their own lives. Then I looked at where they would try to pull me into - a brightly lit room, warm, safe, calm...but tame. Status quo. And I knew the price was far too high to pay. There was only one choice.

Frozen inside without Your touch
Without Your love, darling
Only You are the life among the dead

Like Amy Lee, I let go of the hands of those who would pull me to safety - but only by holding me in place - and kicked back off the narrow ledge, falling into the abyss, trusting in the Unseen.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Reflections on grace and on finally getting the Prodigal Son

I hate seeing people who don't deserve things get them. 

When I read that last Wednesday night, given the context (Miley Cyrus), I expected to agree and be exchanging ^5s, left, right and centre; with a big fat 'YEAHHHHHH!' Instead, I pulled back as if I'd been shot and thought, 'What a cold world it would be if we all got what we deserved.'

My inner dialogue continued, '[My favourite little one] doesn't DESERVE my love, but she has it. Does a baby 'deserve' to be cooed over, adored, fed, clothed? Does a violet 'deserve' the same amount of rain as an oak? Do any of us 'deserve' oxygen, the world's breathtaking beauty, a gorgeous sunset, a starlit night? The love of others, to be taken care of when we're ill? Have we *earned* it?'

No. But those are the things that make life worth living.

I grew up - I think many of us did - in a world where 'love' (read: approval, b/c it sure as fuck wasn't real love) was doled out in the tiniest amounts. An arm around my shoulder here for a good grade, a peaceful evening for a good report card, a word of praise if I was lucky. So I, like many others, grew up thinking of love as a scarce, precious resource, not to be 'wasted'. So much so, in fact, that when a friend sent me a long text thanking me for gifts I'd given her little ones, for loving them, I thought, 'NO! Don't waste that on ME!' Being loved like that, thanked like that, far more than *I* felt was warranted - or deserved, made me panic. I had no idea what to do with it, and it took talking to several friends - including a therapist - for me to able to accept it. Being loved like that might be what I want more than anything, but accepting it, acknowledging it to be real, with no strings attached, was something else again.

In the moment I pulled back at my friend's comment, I finally got the prodigal son. Giving the younger son his freedom and welcoming him back, no questions asked, when he chose unwisely and squandered that freedom - THAT was love. It's what we all so desperately want, but never dare hope for, and often, as I did with my friend's text, find ourselves unable to accept. That's why it makes us SO angry, because that lack - of either giving or receiving - hurts so much. We don't believe anyone - not even G-d - could love us so much for who we are, *that even our worst screw-ups don't matter*, that we can always come back to open arms. Love is shamelessly profligate.

But more than that, love gives us what we most need. The younger son needed to feel he was home and forgiven, in a way he could understand and accept, and that meant a feast. The father KNEW that. He also knew that his dutiful elder son didn't need a father's open hand, or a goat for him and his friends - to be whole and healed, he needed his father to challenge him to have an open heart - he needed to forgive his younger brother for going away and to let go of the resentment and rage that was his barrier to love. He needed to step into that feast to love and let himself be loved.

Because that's the thing about being dutiful, about being 'good', isn't it? It isn't about love, which is generous and open; it's about fear, which closes and constricts. 'Duty' and 'good' assume 'love' is that scarce resource to be 'earned', it's what we're chasing to finally get when we 'deserve' it. So when someone who hasn't been as dutiful 'gets' that love we so yearn for, we're beyond rage, because we feel it has been denied us - that we are rejected, unloved. But we're not chasing love, we're chasing approval, which is never, ever worth it - it will never become the love we need.

We so often portray the elder son as selfish, but he isn't: he's scared. He's terrified because he's made that colossal mistake we all make: he believes love is a finite resource, and that for one (his brother) to get love means that it is being taken away from someone else (him). He feels rejected, hurt, and betrayed, protecting himself by shutting himself in and everyone else out. But he's wrong. That his father can love his younger brother so deeply is a mark of how much he is capable of loving - and DOES love - his elder son. Not the same, of course, but equally, because love knows what we need, and we are deeply, wildly and wonderfully unique, needing to be loved in different ways.

Until the elder son sees the truth: that love is infinite, and the more love we give, the more we have to give, he'll be locked in a prison of his own rage and resentment, unable to walk into that feast of profligate love.

And that breaks my heart.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Black and White

An example of how laterally my brain works: last night, something outside sounded like a bullfrog ==> so I posted on FB that he might be called Jeremiah ==> Three Dog Night ==> my favourite song by them.

In fact, one of my favourite songs of all time.

It was decades after desegregation that I first heard this as a child, and even then, I felt its power: I stayed stock-still to listen - and cried, falling in love with it years past its heyday.

I sang it as I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison on television, wanting to ring it out over South Africa in joy and pride.

Today, after SCOTUS' Voting Rights Act decision of a few weeks ago, after Trayvon and George Zimmerman, even the furore around the biracial couple in the Cheerios advert, the sense of Martin Luther King's dream dying makes it even more powerful and poignant, especially as I learned today, whilst hunting it down, that the original 1954 version opened with this verse:

Their robes were black, Their heads were white,

The schoolhouse doors were closed so tight,
Nine judges all set down their names,
To end the years and years of shame.

The Warren Court. The Court I so desperately wish could have been immortal; and if not them, then the Burger Court that followed them, the Court of my childhood.

Three Dog Night dropped the verse - and why not? It was 18 years after Brown v Board of Education; 8 years after the Civil Rights Act. They thought we'd won. How wrong they were.

My heart hurt - I'm not sure how many more times it can break.

And just like that first time, the older me wept, for different reasons - for the hope in the song, the certainty we were going to be there soon, surely in the 28 years that would mark the millennium. They could never have imagined the SCOTUS decision in 2013 that would be so different from the 1954 one. 

The world is black, the world is white, with so many of us so many shades in between. And together we learn everything.

Perchance to dream that one day, all the colour of one's skin will mean to anyone is how much melanin it contains.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

An eldritch night

It wasn't even a Luther or a Hannibal night; my most exciting watching, to my everlasting, now public, shame, was Gypsy Sisters. Nor am I reading anything that would have forewarned me of a difficult night. 

On coming to the end of Part 1 of William Boyd's Waiting for Sunrise halfway through the midnight hour, I decided it was time for bed, having dozed through the last few pages. Sleep should have come almost immediately...

...when suddenly, the night changed. I heard the sound of something or someone scrabbling on the roof above the bathroom; the sound of something or someone on the porch roof below me. Someone's key was rattling in the door, though everyone was home. Outside, loud voices, a sense of something in the air. The night felt ominous, danger everywhere.

Suddenly, as I lay in my usual falling asleep position on my left side, I felt a hand - and at one point saw a shadow one - trying to grab my right upper arm and pull me over, which then became a whole community of hands from my upper arms to my legs trying to roll me over and off the bed. I may have spoken and said 'Stop,' but it didn't. As I struggled, I sensed a thunderstorm breaking; lightning seemed to flash through my room and I heard an echo of thunder.

The owners of the disembodied hands spoke; claiming to be specific friends, saying that I should just let go. The voices wove themselves into a dream where I told them they couldn't fool me; I know my friends' touches and my parents' (!) touch. Suddenly, the dream shifted, retaining the eldritch urgency of the night: 

I was on a steep hill with three friends, all male: they were all sons of judges, mayors, etc., trying to help me: I was being chased for witchcraft. To be fair, I WAS a witch; I both Saw and used Magick; I think it was something I had Seen and spoken of that got me into trouble. The boys were further down the hill and slid into the surrounding bay. I dove from halfway up the hill, ending up near them. Though I was running to preserve my life, though the situation was urgent - I wasn't afraid; I was almost...exhilarated. My main concern was protecting the boys - who were members of the coven alongside me - and making sure they could remain members of the establishment, because their NOT doing so at this juncture meant a greater catastrophe than the one I'd spoken of to the community; the one that had led to this chase.

I saw the dream in double vision - one version where it just happened; the other version lucid, where I thought, 'Past life.' In THAT version, I turned as soon as I hit the water to see that one of the men was a real-life close friend, treading water, trapped into the holding position and prevented from swimming by his wet cotta. Our eyes held the other's, layered by the telepathic sending possible in the dream: his was full of...guilt for not doing more to help me and fear/loss as he thought, 'Oh my G-d, you're going away,' knowing he couldn't leave - not just yet anyway. 

My gaze, my Sending, was reassuring, understanding, as I thought at him, 'It's okay. We'll find each other - this time [life] or the next. You know where I'm going,' as I submerged, pulled out of the cotta and swam, like a mermaid, through the underwater cave under the hill that only he knew about; leaving my cotta behind as evidence for the pursuers to think - and the 3 men to 'confirm' - that I'd drowned.

I started into wakefulness, heart pounding, gasping for air and safety, disoriented, into a far darker (it had only been 45 minutes) and utterly - almost preternaturally - calm night; into the deep stillness that only appears once a storm has passed.

I twitched my curtain and looked out to see that the ground was bone dry.

I picked up my phone and emailed one of my closest friends with everything I could remember of the dream until then. Less than a minute after I hit send, my gchat icon popped up with "Shit, are you okay?" I wasn't, but 20 lines later, I was soothed enough to successfully drift off into a night with no further incident.

I woke to a normal world, though eldritch echoes remain: far too many birds flapping behind our office, with one, unusually, playing with the lock on the shed. Normally, all one hears is the occasional stone dropping from above, but today, it's like a roost back there. I can't help but wonder if they are ravens.

Then my officemate noted, several hours later, that today felt 'unnaturally quiet'.

Clearly, eldritch is not quite ready to evaporate just yet. Watch this space.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Where I parody Right Said Fred's greatest hit for ... altar servers

This morning (thanks to a friend who posted about 'St Elmo's Fire') was an 80s soundtrack to annual monitoring reports, emails, etc. Beginning with John Parr, it ended with Right Said Fred. For some reason, as I listened to Right Said Fred on loop, the thought of writing a paean to our altar servers took root and wouldn't let go. So with deepest apologies to the Fairbrass brothers, here is my humble offering: 

I'm too pious for my Lord, too pious for my Lord 
Lord’s going to leave me 

I'm too sexy for my cotta, too sexy for my cotta 
Could I be...any hotta 
And I'm too sexy for Milan, too sexy for Milan 
NY and the Vatican 

I'm too rigid to cope with doubt 
To deal with the unexpected 
No way I'm problem-solving! 

I'm a server, you know what I mean 
And I do my little turn by the altar 
Yeah by the altar, by the altar yeah 
I do my little turn by the altar 

I am such a little star, such a little star 
Totes awesome by far 
And I'm so in love with my lace 
so in love with my lace - puts you plebs in your place 

I'm a server, you know what I mean 
And I do my little turn by the altar 
Yeah by the altar, by the altar yeah 
I shake the little bell by the altar 

I'm too pious for my… 
too sexy for my… 
too awesome for my… 

I'm a server, you know what I mean 
And I do my little turn by the altar 
Yeah by the altar, by the altar yeah 
I swing my thurible by the altar 

I know better than the MC, won’t listen to the MC 
Who screwed up? Oh, that was ME! 

I'm too pious for my Lord, too pious for my Lord 
Lord’s going to leave me 

And I'm too po-faced for this song

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A love letter to Boston

Dear Boston,

I have a confession to make: though I've never set foot in you, I've been in love with you for most of my life. Crazy, right?

I'm not sure how or when it happened, but I was slightly taller than knee-high to a Shetland pony, I think. I hadn't run into 'We're all marching to Pretoria' yet, so nowhere in South Africa had entered consideration. I was already in love with London after a brief stop in LHR on our way to Pakistan (the chips were really good, what's a girl to do?). I hadn't met NYC yet - but that was never a contender. DC was nice, beautiful during cherry blossom season, Bawlmer was lovely, but... was always you.

I think it was Social Studies class, really. You know, THAT story. The Tea Party. The little Muslim girl I was secretly loved your rebellious spirit; your heart to fight for what you believed in. (And TEA, seriously? Who drinks that stuff? I just KNOW you wouldn't have done the same with perfectly good cawfee.) Then, I heard about your winters - and I LOVE snowy winters (Ok, a lot of it is cold rain, I hear, but...). And what politically minded young girl didn't kinda sorta fall head over heels for the young JFK? AND OMG, the OCEAN. Finally, I saw your skyline. That was it. YOU were it.

But I never got there. My parents only let me apply to Harvard and MIT, and we totally knew that wasn't going to happen (because MY rebellion was underachieving) - but if I'd applied and gotten into BU, BC, Brandeis, Tufts or Wellesley, the DC metro area wouldn't have seen me for dust. 

And somewhere in my heart, I suspect south of the Mason-Dixon Line would never have seen me again as a permanent resident. I was even willing to forgive THAT 'a' - you know, the one where people pahk their cah. How's that for true love?

But it never happened, and life - and my preference for sleeping and pottering during time off - got in the way of my even flying into Logan to visit and meant that I only loved you from afar through glimpses and your natives.

From those glimpses of your city and your people, I built up a picture: warm and welcoming - if reserved at first before opening your heart; intellectual; down-to-earth; scrappy; the only people outside Poland able to pronounce Yastrzemski; stubborn enough to refuse to recognise the letter 'r' as part of the English language; hardy; people who put their shoulder to the wheel when the going gets tough - or even when it doesn't. 

Yeah, my crush on you is a big one. And I swear, if we'd found each other, I would never have cheated on you with London.

So, when I heard the news yesterday, my heart broke - even more when I had to tell my friend, Phil, who had spent his university/graduate years in your city, what had happened. I don't have the right to claim any kind of deep grief: that goes to your own and those who have known and loved you over the years. Nor can I claim any understanding of how you feel: the only inkling I have is from how I felt when I saw pictures of Washington on 9/11 or when I heard about London on 7/7. But that is only an inkling. 

All I can say is that my heart is with you - and so are my prayers, my sorrow and my deepest condolences.

Grieve. Weep. Stop. Take all the time you need to get back on your feet. We've got your back. And hard as it is, don't close your heart. Stay Boston - that will be the ultimate triumph.

Boston - we love you and we need you - as much as we did in 1776.

We always will. 


Monday, 15 April 2013

The prodigal daughter returns, or, Habeo Papam and reflections on 18 years in the Church

I was convinced St Francis was chasing me. 

No, seriously. In the first week of March, he was EVERYWHERE. Ok, I was re-reading Rachel Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings, so I knew he was going to appear once, in one of my favourite stories of hers about a young doctor who railed against the system the way I rail against the pastorally incompetent in any field, who found his strength in St Francis' gentleness, remembering that he became a paediatrician to protect innocent life. Totally expected.

'Make me a channel of your peace' at mass in Wokingham before the baptism I attended on 10 March. Suddenly, after months, a Franciscan fiend friend reappeared on FB chat after months of silence. St Francis was quoted in my newsfeed, by a friend in a conversation, and finally, just when I thought I was going to get a break, on telly.

'Et tu, Without a Trace?????' I thought. 'What on G-d's green is going on here? I get it, Lord, I need to shift from anger to a gentler way; my strength is in my vulnerability, my openness.' I simply thought it was the Holy Spirit's way of emphasising Rachel's story, reminding me that it was absolutely ESSENTIAL I shift NOW from my often super-judgmental way of being. 'Ok, ok, I get it, Lord. Really.' But Francis kept showing up everywhere. 

The conclave began soon after, and like a good Catholic, I was wrapped up in it like being wrapped up in a duvet on a lazy, snowy Saturday morning. I was completely entranced by the seagull who seemed to want a bun warmer without fully understanding the consequences. 

That evening, Wednesday, 13 March, I knew something was up when smoke hadn't gone up by 17.30. I was counselling that evening, so I'd asked for texts when the smoke went up and, in the case it was white, for further details as they arrived. I dozed off waiting for my 18.30 client, coming to full wakefulness with a start at approximately 18.14. I fumbled around in my pocket for my phone, to see it blinking balefully at me - and a little white envelope in the top lefthand corner...

...and 7 text messages reading some variation of 'white smoke'.

Damn it. Client in 15 minutes, no chance to hear the announcement live. Damn it! ONE MORE BALLOT, PEOPLE, AND I COULD HAVE DONE THIS LIVE.

Let's just say I was eternally grateful this was a long-standing client who looked down a lot whilst speaking - but my phone didn't blink till end-of-session, 19.20.

"Argentinian" (!)
"Jorge Bergoglio" (Italian descent, nice. Add the Spanish upbringing to that, his Latin is going to ROCK.)
"Jesuit" (Oh. my. fucking. G-d. The Holy Spirit made it in. A South American Jesuit???????????? YESSSSSSSSSSS!)
"Regnal name: Francis."

My heart stopped. I didn't need to ask if it was Xavier, De Sales or any of the others. I knew who it was.

Francis of Assisi. You know, the one who'd been chasing me for the last week.

At last, I knew why.

Then I got an email from a Jewish friend, one who had been Catholic, entitled 'Habemus papam', telling me, 'I love him.'

I went home and watched the announcement; read his biography, read his character.

Something in me, something that had been held tightly for over a decade, since the sex abuse scandal broke out and I had felt betrayed beyond imagining, beyond any possibility of forgiveness, beyond any possibility of healing or remaining in the Church except day-to-day - that something unclenched. No. More like, unfroze.

I wept.

Finally, after years of feeling lost, trapped in a choice of my own, I was home. 

Not habemus papam, but habeo papam. I have a father.

My father being who he was, I have spent my life fighting with male authority. No matter how many wonderful father figures and male friends came my way, I never trusted it, never believed it, never sat with it. Add the fact that my father's brother sexually abused me, and it is hard for me to be held by a man in any sense: emotionally, physically, spiritually. I'm the one who always hugs over, so I'm not trapped. I look for the lie beneath the charm immediately; for the thug beneath the gentleman; the amorality beneath the pronouncement of religious orthodoxy. I look for the serial killer in the pillar of the church, the workplace, the society.

I knew, when I joined the Church on 15 April 1995, that I was joining a church whose leader didn't want me. I looked beneath the adulation and saw a man who, born behind the Iron Curtain and raised to power as we entered the 1980s during the Cold War, spoke out against communism even as he borrowed its tactics: eliminating the Devil's Advocate, so his endless, personal - often politically opportunistic - preferences for canonisation went forward without challenge; wielding the word Marxism to silence liberation theology; going beyond that to silence any dissent or challenge. In addition, his cultivation of the papal celebrity culture and his demand for unquestioning obedience was always going to ensure we stood on opposite sides. But I had grown up with not being wanted, I could handle that: I was coming into the Church for the sacraments, for the home it had been for me through many close friends, but above all, for Christ - for that knowledge I had understood . 

Then came the sexual abuse scandal - and the Pope's unwillingness - and let's be honest, if he could silence liberation theologians, he could defrock Bernard Law and others - to handle it. 

It was like being hit in the solar plexus with a sledgehammer. As it went on and on and nothing happened, I nearly walked, over and over again. Every day was a struggle. Trusting anyone in a collar was a struggle. Watching priests I didn't know or trust with children made me want to throw up. Some days, it is STILL a struggle. 

And now that I can, I want to say to everyone who got impatient with my - or another's - struggle with the Church and our ability to stay within it, or trivialised their feelings by whatever means (it was ages ago, the number of priests was few, etc, etc) - you trivialised EVERY survivor's struggle.  Remember that next time you open your mouth to dismiss someone who couldn't stay in the Church or someone who is tied up in knots about it: you are dismissing your sexually abused friend, lover, cousin, sister, mother - in this case, me - and ask yourself why you feel the need, why your emotions are at such a height - is it because you yourself want to leave, but dare not? Because you were sexually abused and have shut it off? Because it's so horrific, you need to reduce it to numbers to make yourself more comfortable at someone else's expense? Why?

The years of silence stretched on, and John Paul II died to unseemingly hasty calls of 'Santo subito,' a testament to the invasion of celebrity culture/hysteria and the erosion, under his papacy, of the Catholic Church's ability to think deeply, grieve with dignity and take time, counsel and challenge (hence the institution of the Devil's Advocate) when making a decision.

Under the next pope, it felt even more clear I was unwelcome: from his calls for a smaller, solipsistic Church where everyone agreed with each other (erm, sorry? A smaller CATHOLIC church? When Jesus wanted everyone in, from tax-collectors to Pharisees? How does THAT work, then?) to his claim that Protestants weren't 'churches' to his endless :facepalm: moments when it came to other religions - all indicative that he saw non-Catholics as something less than human - it still wasn't working for me. And let's not forget how with one breath he said, 'Sorryforthesexualabusescandal' and in the next said that ordaining women was anathema - as if raping a child and ordaining women were morally equivalent. In addition, the creation of the Ordinariate, a church within a church where Anglo-Catholics can just form their own little ghetto, only serve each other and not give back to the whole Church, simply so more people who claimed a particular, narrow version of lace-brigade, church-as-social-institution, us/them orthodoxy could come into the Church, felt like an complete abandonment of principle: you leave everything to come all the way into the Church OR YOU DON'T COME IN. Simples. The rudeness with which Vincent Nichols treated Rowan Williams at the press conference announcing the Ordinariate made me ashamed to be a Catholic, even more ashamed to be one with him as my representative.

I'm not denying that both these men did good for the Church. But from where I stand, the way in which they lived their office, the implicit values they steeped the Church in, meant big trouble ahead. 

Why do these values matter, you ask? You either believe the rules or you don't, right? Who or what the pope, the leader of your institution is, doesn't matter.

Wrong. If you want to understand the dynamics a classroom, look to the teacher. A religious community, look to the prior/abbot/superior. A family, look to the parents. A political party, look to the leader.

Leaders set the values and create the milieu in which the institution is steeped.

And the milieu set by the previous two popes can be summed up fairly simply: "Agree and obey all dictates without question; conflict/robust discussion is unwelcome and punishable by excommunication; those who disagree/question/are not like us are not human and therefore are not subject to the basic kindness and courtesy we give humans; if it looks orthodox, it IS orthodox, no need to examine any further."

Think that's exaggerated? Then listen to the response I got when I mentioned to a clerical acquaintance that I was horrified by how Nichols had treated Rowan Williams at said press conference:

Why? He doesn't recognise his status as Archbishop of Canterbury; he has no need to acknowledge him. Rowan Williams doesn't have the right to speak.


No, it isn't. It's NOT a Church. They're apostate.

At which point, my internal response was, 'Wow. You really ARE a cunt, aren't you? 'WHY?' How FUCKING OBVIOUS IS WHY? BECAUSE HE'S A HUMAN BEING, AND ANYONE WITH EMPATHY WOULD TREAT HIM AS IF IT WAS HIS CHURCH, WHATEVER THEY MIGHT BELIEVE. Man, bet you treat waiters and people who serve you like shit, because, 'They're not priests. They're not real people.' Thank G-d you're not someone I would ever have to consider going to for pastoral care.'

As per the above example, it is in those most invested in the institution, dispensing its ways - the clergy - that the milieu manifests itself most strongly. Let's take the values: obey without question, no need to think; those who are not 'us' and question can be treated as less than human; if it looks orthodox, it IS.

What is the common thread here? Most clearly, a lack of self-awareness and examination; a lack of depth; appearance = what is real; consensus = orthodoxy/faith, conflict = heresy, which leads to an atrophy of the ability to grapple with the difficult. A lack of discernment and discrimination, an inability to deal with complexity and read subtext. Also, a profound inability to do that which a Trinitarian G-d does best: relationship, which requires the ability to acknowledge and navigate conflict.

Now imagine those values creating an influx into the priesthood. Who's coming? Certainly not those with a deep sense of service to G-d and others, or those with deep self-awareness and willingness to listen and change, or those with an ability for deep relationship and intimacy. No. The influx becomes those running away from their issues, whatever they may be; the eternal Peter Pan for whom the priesthood is about extending university rather than taking responsibility and entering adulthood; those who want to parrot the lines and gain easy status; those who equate agreement/acquiescence with love and are threatened by conflict; for those who want some measure of power over others, pounding them from the pulpit, using them to dump unconscious emotions and prop up fragile egos. From what I've heard of seminary interviews, they're none too discriminating as long as you give the right answers. Easy enough to lie or fudge an answer. But beginning one's ministry with a lie, conscious or not, never ends well for anyone.

That's not to say there aren't some amazing entrants with deep pastoral gifts into this fray - and if you're a friend of mine, you know I consider you part of this narrowing thread. But the problem is this - it is extraordinarily difficult to root oneself healthily and deepen against considerable pressure: if you are pastorally gifted and minded, but liturgically more relaxed, the constant snark, borderline bullying and little 'Oh well, he's...not quite one of us,' is the Chinese death by a thousand cuts, requiring an immense sense of self - and more than a bit of the rebel - to resist. Because, you know, we're all wounded in some way. It becomes hard not to wear a mask and pretend for much-needed relief, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

To those with a true pastoral calling: it is best not to pretend, or one day, you will find yourself being cruel in the confessional; avoiding the call of your pastoral gifts; going through the motions. You will find yourself losing your most profound gifts and your vocation. 

Observation indicates some truth to my extrapolation: from clerics who expound proper dress for mass, yet titter about being dressed up as a geisha to being obsessed with a 'sunrise' of drainpipe trousers to the times I've talked people down from hurtful confessions to story after story of requests for pastoral help ignored in the hopes it would go away, I really hate to admit that this trend seems real. You can also see it in the shift in how priests write: go to someone like Cormac Rigby or Timothy Radcliffe and compare them with most of the newer priest writers. Their thoughtfulness, depth, and ability to construct an argument wipes the floor with every last one of the current crop.

As the influx of the emotionally unaware, pastorally ungifted, self-absorbed, style-obsessed parrots of orthodoxy increases, that leaves more and more of the real work on the shoulders of the pastorally gifted and competent priests. Add to that the lowered expectations of the laity when it comes to pastoral care, and the unwillingness to help priests become better pastors by lovingly challenging them, and the situation becomes even more precarious.

As that ratio reaches tipping point, the Catholic priesthood heads into pastoral clusterfuck.

That pastoral clusterfuck is exacerbated by the dynamics that are then set up in churches - so those who support their fragile egos or naturally enter into the dynamics they unconsciously need will get preference, those who don't will get shunted aside. Lather, rinse, repeat over parishes around the world and the laity get increasingly unhealthy as well. Witness the polarisation in the Church; the shrillness on both sides, and the childish equating of "good = agrees with me; bad = disagrees with me."

And from whom are our future seminarians drawn?

Into the fray, enter Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, a man whose central values revolve around relationship and pastoral care, who eschews grandeur and appearance - a man who prefers public transport to being driven; who has refused the papal apartments; who wears simple black shoes; who chose to wash the feet of prisoners; who cooks for himself and drinks yerba in the Buenos Aires slums. Oh, and cancels his own newspaper subscription.

Which, of course, gets him damned for being liturgically less ornate than the previous pope; for not wearing the red shoes and the mozzetta; and even more heinously, for his 'trouble pronouncing Latin' - which could only be said with a straight face by linguistically challenged, arrogant Northern Europeans who have no concept of Latin vowels. His Latin, FTR, is swoonworthily perfect. Do remember that he has one lung and his 'trouble' is stopping to catch his breath. 

The intense reaction to the new pope is fascinating: branded 'Uriah Heep' by the most arrogant of tradofascists; 'concern', which smells far more like fear, from many clergy; and the need to put him in a box with JPII and Benedict: 'What we believe', 'Why we believe' and 'Doing what we believe' for one of the more inane posters I've seen.

Amazing how afraid of real power people are, isn't it? Power that is centred in a real, loving relationship with G-d that then spills over onto his people. Does this man need a mozzetta to show his power? I think not. He is completely centred in G-d, authentic, and in a moment of true meeting with another. 

So he's in relationship, you shrug. That's doing. But that's not all. The man's a JESUIT, people, with degrees in CHEMISTRY, PHILOSOPHY and THEOLOGY. The stupidity of assuming that because he practises his faith, he can't THINK it, is beyond mindboggling. And I can tell you from his face, in picture after picture, he is constantly discerning - there's a ferocious intelligence and perception behind those eyes; Jorge Bergoglio doesn't miss a beat.

This need to split, to say 'He does, so he doesn't think like Benedict did,' shows the depth of the rupture our Church has experienced, and explains the paucity of deep thought and theology in recent years. An unwillingness to hold conflict is not a strength; it is a weakness, a brittleness. Anything that moves us away from wholeness, away from being able to hold opposites and paradox, makes us more shallow, less nuanced, weaker. It makes union an impossibility.

But now we have a pope who can hold it - and us. And that's terrifying, because he is going to ask us to level up - by example. Laity will look to him and go, 'Oh, that's what pastoral care looks like,' then demand it of their priests, far too many of whom believe their priesthood is all about them. We will ALL be forced to look beneath style to substance, to our relationship with G-d and others. We will all be made to think about how we love.

I will be forced to really examine my thoughts a week ago, when we were called to offer one another the sign of peace on a Monday, and I looked hard at the priest, thinking, 'Don't make me do the sign of peace on a Monday. I don't want to touch these people.'

These people - those not like me, those I perceive as self-absorbed, playing the victim, faux pious - those I see as less than human. Yes, I too, am part of that milieu, part of the problem. Let change begin with me - it's the only change I can make.

Habeo papam.

This man, this pope, this...Papa - he will challenge me to the core. He is far more doctrinally conservative than I am; he will do things with which I disagree; I may well be upset by some things I discover about his past. 

But our hearts, nuestros corazones, are one. At the centre of our values is a yearning for G-d and the pastoral: the people. Being there for those who need us, no matter the cost. I have a clergy friend who cycled to a suicidal young woman in the rain. THAT. Always THAT, and the readiness to sacrifice oneself for that which is greater than we are.

I can rest in that. I know I am wanted - because I am loved, held precious, because I am part of the flock, one of G-d's own - contingent on...nothing. And bring on the challenge - I can't wait - this is going to be exhilarating.

Finally, I can put down the self-imposed burden of shouting warnings and leave that where it belongs - in the hands of one whose heart is with the people. I can trust that I am held, valued and loved, and in that trust, I can worry about MY faith. 

Considering that today, 15 April 2013, I've come of age as a Catholic - I'm now 18 - it's about damn time.