I’m not sure exactly what that means. At the time, it just meant that I was lucky enough to get pulled out of the boring regular classroom to participate in a small group “extra” learning environment.
I’m pretty sure gifted curriculum has come a long way since then.
I sure hope so.
In fourth grade, one of the weirder projects our little gifted class did was a unit study on holes.
Yep. You heard me right.
I’m not even kidding.
I guess if you really think about it, you can come up with all kinds of things relative to the subject of holes that have application to our lives.
But who’s going to think about it?
Well, us for one.
As part of our unit, our teacher asked us to create something with a holes theme: a story, a poem, a painting… an original creation about the ever-elusive hole.
Although I roll my eyes HARD at the thought of this now, the truth is that as a fourth-grader I was pretty gung-ho with this assignment. Truly inspired. My observations (as well as my thoughts) on holes were deep, and I decided there was only one way I could really capture the essence of the hole.
I would write a song.
When I sang my song for the class on presentation day, the teacher got so excited about it that she convinced the music teacher to write accompaniment so that the school’s entire fourth grade could perform this song on parents’ night. Percussion sticks, xylophones, and triangles were added as orchestration so that the performance was pretty much just a confused cacophony of sound.
I doubt anyone could even really hear the lyrics, which is too bad because they were deep (I was gifted) and meant to just barely touch on the more complex characteristics of a hole.
Have you ever heard about holes?
Have you ever heard about them?
They may be tall.
They may be small.
They may be long.
They may be long.
Have you ever heard about holes?
Have you ever heard about them?
My teacher was maybe able to see something metaphoric in my complex lyrics, but c’mon… I was nine years old. Gifted or not, to me holes were simply that.
But now I see that holes are as complex as my teacher thought they were.
In my fifty years of living, I have been an asshole, stuck in a hole, a round peg in a square hole, living in a hellhole, a mouse with only one hole, in the hole, and out of the hole.
I have a whole lot of experience with holes. #smirk
This last week my therapist and I had an impromptu discussion over the proverbial hole and my experiences with it. She had noticed and pointed my attention to how much I’d grown in a particular area we’ve been working on for FOREVER, when I inadvertently (as I think I am prone to do) said something snarky about the depth of the hole in which I had plummeted.
Now, in conversation with most people, I can get away with these little jabs at myself. They’re usually pretty subtle and meant to ease my discomfort with whatever praise has been bestowed upon me. I often don’t even recognize I’m doing it until it’s out of my mouth and way too late to take back.
And that usually happens at the exact same time that Melissa calls me out on it.
She’s quick to the draw, that one.
This is both my favorite and my least favorite thing about her.
And even though I’m not likely to admit it to her face, it’s probably the reason I continue to submit myself to therapy with her.
When I responded to her compliment with a subtly self-deprecating remark about the immense depth of the hole I have been in, she asked me to consider whether or not I think this negates the better mental and emotional health I am experiencing now.
These are the moments when I have to work just real hard not to set my jaw, clinch my fists, and stomp my feet in frustration in response to this woman’s ability to know things about me I do not know about myself.
Because she’s right.
I feel like my journey is tainted because it has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese… because it has been fraught with #allthethings.
I don’t know that there’s a way to avoid grief over time spent in the hole. I don’t think that I’ll ever again write songs in celebration of the hole. But I can stand on the edge of the hole, look down, and experience immense gratitude because I’m no longer in there.
The moments in time that stand out to me as the darkest and most fragile – the time I have spent in the scariest metaphorical holes – the rescues, support and triage it has taken to get me out… these moments do not diminish this journey to wholeness I am on.
I feel emotional today. Like, tears-brimming-in-my-eyes-all-of-the-time kind of emotional.
I’m not typically one to engage these kinds of big feelings days.
I do not like them.
But when my body joins the parade and adds increased physical pain to the mix (as it is currently doing), it becomes so much more difficult to steer clear of all the feelings.
Emotion can feel like a distraction to me from all the things that I need to get done. Honestly, I’ll clean all the toilets if it means I can avoid legit crying. True story.
But now my body won’t let me clean the toilets. #eyeroll
Engaging emotion can also feel like standing on the edge of a bottomless chasm – feeling like if I step off, I’ll never find my footing again.
It’s kind of terrifying for me.
I have spent a lifetime perfecting my unhealthy habits in an effort to mute the voices of my feelings.
I have skills, ya’ll.
My skills are so good that I often find myself living in a house of my own making – a house with closed and blinded windows and very little circulating air. Even though living in this house is isolating and suffocating, it feels necessary in order to keep me safe.
I mean, of course it’s not actually safe. But there’s a part of me that feels so much more comfortable living in this house. This part would much rather be alone, starved for affection and nourishment, than be exposed to whatever scary-feelings monsters might be lurking outside.
Imagine a horde of zombies creeping around outside, peering into your house – looking for weak spots and vulnerabilities that would allow them entrance.
That’s what it often feels like.
But I’m learning that those aren’t really zombies outside. And if I just open the blinds of a window and peek outside, I can see that, really, it’s just the rejected, burdened, and lonely parts of me – desperate to be known.
Ya’ll, perspective is everything.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, my therapist has been gently coaxing (and sometimes firmly pushing) me to leave my metaphorical house. She’s teaching me to wear sunglasses if the light is too bright, bundle up if it’s cold, let myself breathe in the fresh air, and even let whatever rain comes fall on me without fear of getting soaked to the skin.
Because I can always change clothes and dry off later.
And instead of weaponizing myself against those feelings that frighten me so, I’m learning to take a deep, courage-building breath, giving them a shy “hello” and a chance to tell me a bit about themselves… and what it is they need from me.
Really, this metaphor is about being a good neighbor to the outlier parts of myself that have been exiled and left exposed to all the elements outside the safety of my inner house.
Practically speaking, it’s about learning to first notice what’s going on in my body, then to notice the feelings beneath the surface of my body, then to honor those feelings by letting myself sit with them and feel them until they fade away.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
It’s harder than it sounds.
This week my desire to withdraw into the safety of the four walls of my house has returned.
My body hurts. I’m edgy. I need the sun to shine again.
And I miss my mom.
It’s been two years this week since cancer claimed her life – a loss that left me huddling in the darkest corners of the most inner rooms of my inner house. It’s been a very slow warming to a sense of safe-enough that has helped me muster the courage to inch my way out of the darkness in this house I built. To pull back the blinds and let the light in. To give my Self permission to first peek through the peephole before opening the door to the parts outside, so I know who or what I’m facing.
But I’m getting braver.
Practices like writing, meditation and silence, sticking with therapy even when it sucks, and finding ways to cultivate the new relationships I have with the parts of myself that carry such heavy burdens on my behalf. Compassion for them is growing. A desire to really know them, without fear or shame coming between us, is growing.
I know this may sound like I have multiple personalities. It certainly does to me. But my therapist, when talking me off that ledge of insanity, likes to say that we refer to parts of ourselves all the time. Everyone does. We’ll say, “A part of me wants to go, but another part really would prefer to stay home.”
So if I have multiple personalities, then you do, too. #samesies
As the deep ache of losing my mom has resurged in the last couple of weeks, I have been focusing my efforts on pushing my “I can be brave” button as often as is necessary to listen to and to support the part of me that walked my mother through her last month here on this earth. That part of me is profoundly lonely. She holds memories that are hard for me to revisit – keeping them safe until I’m ready. The loneliness she feels is part of a bigger sense that she has become untethered to the world now that both of her parents are gone. As I sit with her and listen to her, instead of becoming burdened by her pain, I find that my Self is able to tell her that she is still very much tethered to this world. The relationships she has helped to create with her husband, daughter and three sons, a son-in-law and a beautiful, absolutely delightful grandson are what now hold her securely to this world.
And with that realization we share a moment of gratitude and hold each other until the fullness of grief abates.
Early one morning in late June of 1985, my family squeezed into the cab of a U-Haul truck, all four of us packed in like sweaty, slimy sardines, and began the long trek from Huntsville, Alabama to Vallejo, California. This was yet another move in a series of moves we made over the course of my high school years that total so many my brother and I struggle to keep an accurate count. We’re going with somewhere between eight and ten.
During the previous two years when we lived in Huntsville, we spent a chain of about eighteen months as a homeless family relying on the kindness of friends, a few family members, and people we barely knew to keep a roof over our heads. This wasn’t a well-known fact within our community there, but it was our reality. We moved from house to house, living in the empty homes of travelers while they were away.
We spent those months in a kind of weird quasi-homeless state – paring down our belongings with each move – so that by the time that hot summer day in June rolled around, everything our family of four owned fit in the 15′ U-Haul truck my father rented for moving day.
I really struggled with this move.
But really, really struggled.
But I had learned the hard way two years earlier when we moved from Tennessee to Alabama that struggling to adapt was not an option and would be met with a heavy hand by my father, so I put on my game face and got to it.
Once we were loaded, with our creamy yellow sedan hooked to the back of the truck and my dad’s lawnmower tied to the top of the car, the four of us – my father, my mother, my brother and me – piled into the cab of the U-haul and off we went.
It was starting to really warm up in the South.
Southern heat creates its own special kind of suffering. The air is thick with humidity and this oppressive moisture only increases with the rising temperatures, so there is a melty, sticky, wetness about you that is the definition of gross.
Did I mention that my father decided to shave a few pennies off the cost of the U-Haul rental by opting out of AIR-CONDITIONING?
And did I mention that we were driving from Alabama to northern California by way of the entire Southwest region of the United States?
Yep. It was a grand ‘ol time.
The trip was meant to take about two-and-a-half days – driving hard.
It took us twice that.
My 10-year old brother and I played the hell out of the one cassette tape we had between us – Petra’s Beat the System – passing the Walkman we also shared back and forth as we took turns listening to the whole album before passing the Walkman over to the other to listen. Sometimes we mixed things up, and I only listened to one side of the tape before passing it to Patton for him to do the same.
We had a lot of hours to fill, ya’ll.
Boredom is hard, but boredom while you are squeezed into the cab of a U-Haul truck with no air-conditioning and nothing but desert to stare at for hours on end is mind-bending.
And not in a good way.
Actually, the boredom was often welcome since there was plenty going on that I wanted to avoid inside the close quarters in the cab of that truck. After two years of getting dragged behind Dad as he drank his way out of jobs and out of all the good graces we, or anyone, had to give him, we were barely tolerant of his presence. The tension that existed within the bodies of the four people in that truck was palpable, and it was my job to find a way to turn this trip into a fun, family adventure instead of the devastating loss that it really was.
But c’mon… you can only play the Alphabet Game so many times. And when you play I Spy in the desert you really only have like three things to “spy.” The game is over before you’ve hardly started.
About an hour into the drive, it became clear that my father had failed to think through all the details involved in moving a family across the country. In fact, it was clear that he’d done no planning at all. We had a route mapped out thanks to our handy Rand McNally Atlas, but he’d spent much of the money given us for the move on God knows what, so we were going to be short on what we needed for gas, for food and for our nightly stops to sleep along the way. Every time one of us needed something that cost real, actual money as we traveled, Dad became more sullen and resentful of our presence on this road to nowhere.
I’m a pretty creative person, but even I was running out of decent fodder for distraction when, at dawn on our third travel day – just outside Tucumcari, New Mexico, our U-haul truck broke down. Our little family of four found ourselves stranded on a deserted highway in the legit middle-of-nowhere New Mexico.
Sorry, Tucumcari – but, wow.
Dad popped the hood like he knew what he was doing (he did not), checked the oil stick (he loved doing this), and fiddled around with a screw here and there before announcing that the truck was dead (it actually was). He then handed Patton and me orange flags and set us on the side of the highway to hitch a ride back to town.
I was no longer bored.
It actually didn’t take too long before someone pulled over to help us out. I’m guessing we made for a pretty pitiful sight. My 140 lb., 5’8″ tall father smoking cigarettes next to a broken-down U-Haul with his two young kids and wife standing on the side of the road waving those orange flags like our lives depended on it.
Our lives did kind of depend on it. Stranded in the desert in the middle of the summer is no joke.
Eventually a nice, old gentleman in a blue pickup pulled over, tinkered a bit with the truck, then offered to drive us back to Tucumcari to the U-Haul lot there. After spending two long days in the cab of a truck, it was thrilling to be placed, along with my brother, in the back of this man’s pickup. We held on to the sides and grinned while the desert wind washed over us.
Well before my brother and I had had our fill of riding in the back of the old man’s pickup, we arrived at the U-Haul lot. We sat in the shabby, little U-Haul office while dad drove out to the stalled truck with a couple of mechanics. They were back more quickly than anticipated, but only to switch over to a tow truck since they’d determined our truck was out of commission.
They weren’t happy.
Turns out my father had cut a few more corners than we thought in order to save on the costs of the move.
He’d rented a truck one-size down from what had been recommended figuring we’d just fill it to the rim and toss what didn’t fit.
We did that, and we tossed what didn’t fit, but the truck was still overloaded.
He broke the truck.
U-haul wanted to hold my father responsible for the truck. As the men discussed the situation with my parents, the increasing agitation in all of their voices made me feel nervous and embarrassed so I grabbed my brother’s hand and we darted outside to explore the parking lot.
We wandered through the parked trucks, weaving in and out as we tried to create new games to distract from the fear that threatened to grab us and take us down.
It’s difficult to describe the nature of the fear that wove its tentacles around us.
For sure we were afraid of our father’s rage.
And embarrassment fueled his anger like little else.
But more than his anger, we were afraid of the chaos that gathered around him.
We were familiar with it, but afraid of it.
And sick of it.
The “Who broke the truck?” argument didn’t last long, and somehow my father found a way out of culpability. He really had a knack for this. He was giddy when he found us amidst all those trucks, which felt out-of-sync with the frustrating news he had to give us.
He had “arranged” for a bigger truck.
But U-haul would have nothing to do with the transfer of all of our things.
This meant that we had to move it all ourselves.
All. Of. Our. Things.
And there was a piano in that truck. My piano. An old, but fully restored upright piano given to me by my grandmother.
A piano weighing about 500 lbs.
Did I mention that my little family consisted of four small humans? My father was 5’8″ and weighed maybe all of 140 lbs. My baby brother was just ten years old. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say I was likely the strongest of the four of us.
Physical strength was not on our side.
It was easily 110 degrees in Tucumcari that day. Dad pulled the new truck next to the broken one, we set up the ramps, and then began the process of moving the boxes…ignoring the furniture – particularly the intimidating upright piano that had been difficult for the six grown men who had loaded it onto the truck just a few days before.
I whispered to my mom, “How are we going to do this?” as sweat dripped off our faces instead of the tears that we knew could not be released.
I honestly don’t remember what, if anything, she said in response. I have the sense that she just kept on moving since we both knew that if we couldn’t move the little furniture we still owned, we’d have to leave it behind… including my treasured piano. That felt unthinkable.
But as she was apt to do, it wasn’t long before Mom was chatting with various other travelers stranded in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Mom was quick to make friends with every stranger she encountered. And not just a “Hey, how are you today?” kind of friend. No, she was on a first-name basis with you the second the two of you made eye-contact for the first time. Within five minutes, her new friend was tearfully telling Mom the story of her life… and they were likely both tearing up if they continued talking for another five.
Mom had a way with people like no one else I’ve ever known. Honestly, without this way that she had, I’m not sure we would have been as generously embraced by each new community we landed in as we really were. She was something.
So on that hot, miserable, the-world-is-ending afternoon, Mom became friends with the mom from another family stuck at U-haul for the day.
I guess getting stranded in Tucumcari was a thing?
And then, without meaning to, Mom so charmed her way into the hearts of this family that they willingly rolled up their sleeves and got to work helping us move to the new truck.
Total strangers who happened to have two strapping tweener boys in the family. Once they got involved we were able to make short work of moving what remained in the truck.
We were back on the road by late afternoon. I watched the sun set on the horizon as I geared up for a long night. We had to make up for the time we’d lost, and there was exactly zero dollars for an extra night in a motel. In fact, early the following morning we pulled into a gas station and waited while Dad called his soon-to-be new employer to ask for an advance on his wages.
I don’t know how Dad’s employer responded to that request. But I do know that while they were on the phone, he delivered some bad news to my father.
The house we planned to live in for the year or so we would be in northern California was no longer available to us.
We had nowhere to land when we arrived.
And even though this turn of events wasn’t exactly my father’s fault, I decided in that moment to let go of the childish notion that my dad could ever be counted on for anything.
Harsh, I know.
I wasn’t wrong, though. He never became a reliable, consistent or faithful father.
But being right can feel really wrong, and I’m still untangling the web of confusion and despair this decision created for me. My road to wholeness is continually made more challenging with its own broken down trucks, stolen items and crappy motel rooms.
And yet the journey continues.
After another long day of driving, we finally pulled into Fresno, California in the late afternoon of the fourth day. We were absolutely exhausted, but the end was in our line of sight, and truthfully, we were getting kind of excited now that we were actually in California.
Come to think of it, Dad must have been given that advance – or was promised it, because that night we parked the truck behind the motel and went out for a proper dinner.
The next morning, as we approached the truck to load up for the last stretch of the trip, we noticed two things: 1) the aforementioned lawn mower which had been strapped to the top of the car was gone; and 2) whoever took the lawnmower also tried really hard to take our car.
For the love.
Welcome to California.
When we finally arrived at our destination – Vallejo, California – we moved into a cottage of sorts that someone arranged for us to stay in until we found an apartment. It was a tiny one-bedroom house that we filled to overflowing with ourselves and all of our things. We quite literally stepped on each other trying to navigate our way through the house.
But it felt a whole lot better than the cab of the truck where we’d spent the previous five days.
Connection is crucial for intimacy to develop, and that’s hard to do when you’re hundreds of miles (literally or figuratively) away from the person you want to grow close to.
My husband, Mark, and I spent the first eight months of our relationship/engagement falling in love every night after work, talking on the phone for hours – he in Oklahoma and I in Colorado. We managed to see each other face-to-face five times in those first eight months, but it never felt like enough.
On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1993, we were especially piney for one another.
We’d just spent ten whole days together in pure bliss, visiting his family for Christmas. It was my first visit to Mark’s hometown of Roswell, Georgia, and his parents’ white leather sectional sofa was huge and cozy. We snuggled up close throughout those days, savoring the time together. We thought it would be three whole months before we saw each other again, so we made every second count. Before I boarded my flight back home to Colorado, we made a plan to connect on the phone at 11:59PM on New Year’s Eve.
We wanted to be able to hear one another’s voice when the clock struck midnight.
We were adorable.
Today a plan to connect with someone on the phone at a certain time is relatively simple.
But in 1993, before we carried phones with us everywhere we went, it could be quite complex.
Mark was to be the entertainment at a party in Oklahoma and I was to be in Idaho Springs, Colorado preparing for a day of skiing on January 1, so we needed careful planning and services to make the phone connection work.
Enter Matt Olsen.
Matt and his wife, Molly, are two of our dearest friends. Molly and I became friends on her visits to Colorado Springs to see family during her breaks from school at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We attended the same church in the Springs and got to know one another through the college and career events planned by the church community. Coincidentally, Mark knew both Matt and Molly from his years at ORU, and when Matt and Molly married in August, 1993, Mark and I both missed the wedding because we were falling in love in Mexico at the exact same time.
Small world. And fodder for another post at another time.
Since Matt and Molly were visiting Colorado Springs for the holidays that year, we made plans for a day of skiing to get the New Year off to a good start. My brother, who had lived in Colorado for eight years and never gone skiing (scaredy cat), joined us on our little adventure.
Matt was in charge of the overnight accommodations.
This was a mistake.
After arriving in Idaho Springs, we drove into the parking lot of the motel Matt had selected and booked for us.
The Peoriana was its name.
Being fancy was not its game.
It was a run down strip of rooms facing the parking lot. The office was located in a separate building in the center of the parking lot, which, by the way, was covered in a thick layer of ice.
Our room was made up of two double beds facing a tiny black and white TV with hazy reception. If I remember correctly, we listened to reruns of Gilligan’s Island while trying to focus on the blurry images moving behind the haze of static. Of course, we weren’t really there to watch TV. We went to dinner and hung out in the room talking, laughing, playing cards and harnessing the crazy amount of static electricity in the room by making sparks with our blankets (you had to be there) until it was time to call Mark.
This was when our plan kind of fell apart.
Because, you see, there wasn’t a phone in our motel room.
Turns out if one wanted to make a call while staying at the luxurious Peoriana, one had to cross the parking lot and use the lobby phone there.
So that’s what one did.
Not a big deal.
Except one had to navigate a field of glaciers in order to make it safely to the lobby.
SO MUCH ICE.
These were the days before I had some sense in me.
Before I had children.
For some reason I see my pre-mom self as my pre-sense self…as if the act of giving birth somehow pushed my common sense button and after that I had all kinds of good sense.
But before that?
Pre-sense Kaysie was a lot of fun.
And pre-sense Kaysie had all kinds of adventures.
But post-sense Kaysie continues to reap what pre-sense Kaysie sowed.
That night I was wearing the ever-stylish pair of white sweatpants along with my favorite Air Force Academy sweatshirt and a pair of boots. I didn’t bother tying the boots because…pre-sense.
I moved like a ninja across that icy terrain – a ninja in white sweatpants.
But despite the careful placement of each and every step, there came an inevitable moment when I hit a sheer, glassy patch and fell.
On my right knee.
Guess which thing is going to give when a knee and a block of ice slam into one another?
I’ll give you a hint – it won’t be the block of ice.
I know this now because my post-sense self is alive and well.
As I struggled to stand up, I slipped again, slamming my butt hard into the ice.
A lady, sitting in her car near me as I struggled to get back on my feet, rolled down her window with a look of pure horror on her face and asked, “Hon, are you okay?”
No, lady. I am not okay. #worstquestionever
I pulled myself precariously to my feet and made my way to the door of our room by holding on to car door handles, antennas, bumpers, license plates…whatever I could get my frozen fingers around for stability.
I stumbled into the room a bloody mess.
Like, I was literally a bloody mess.
My white sweatpants were soaked in blood from a gash on my knee.
It probably needed stitches, but remember…pre-sense. And we didn’t have band-aids for the same reason, so Matt ran to the drug store, and then my friends patched me up as best they could.
Then guess what I did?
Yep. I pulled myself together and traversed back across the frozen parking lot to call my man.
The things we do for love.
The skiing the following day was pretty amazing despite the drama of the night before.
Despite my brother’s unwillingness to take a beginner class before hitting the slopes, which meant I spent half the day hiking back up every single slope in order to pull his sorry ass out of the snow.
And despite the open wound on my knee that bled through everything we wrapped around it. The bleeding finally stopped when the steady stream of blood throughout the day sealed my long underwear to my leg and served as the perfect mode of compression.
Thank God for our post-sense selves. Without the wisdom that comes as we grow and mature into some sense about life – who we are and what we want – we’d be a bloody mess (literally and figuratively, for me at least) of a self trying to navigate valley glaciers or descend icy glacial masses from mountaintops.
But there’s something, too, about the pre-sense space – the lived-in state of heart and mind that gives us the courage to do the daring, bold acts that get us across the ice and allow us to connect with the One we long for.
Here’s to finding a way to access the wisdom of the post-sense self with the courage and daring of the pre-sense self as we connect with the One in whom we find our whole being in 2020.
There’s no season quite like the Christmas season to expose lack in your life. It hits all the marks if things are going great but, at least in Western culture, the Christmas season can also magnify grief and loss, loneliness, anxiety, poverty, physical limitations, painful familial relationships… and on it goes.
It’s difficult to embrace what so many call “the joy of the season” when you’re being swallowed up by pain – whatever the nature of the pain might be.
Most of my Christmases have been a challenging mixture of anticipation, fear, hope, doubt, joy and even dread. I think it’s likely this way for many.
As a child, someone was always promising me good things, which was nice, but… my experience with promises – and their propensity to be broken – made me wary and uncertain. Uncertainty isn’t super helpful when it comes to cultivating the dreams and hopes so often associated with childhood and the magic of Christmastime, and I expended a great deal of energy trying to distract myself and my family from those scary, uncertain feelings. I organized the decorating of the Christmas tree. I wrote little plays for my brother, my little cousins and me to perform for the family. I practiced songs on the piano so I could play to soothe us all. I used humor to deflect pain. It was easier to swallow the financial limits on the family when I joked and threw around ridiculous hints about the outrageously expensive gifts I was hoping to receive.
My father was game to play along for a while, but drew inward and angry as the big day approached – the stress more than he could bear. By Christmas Day he was usually too drunk to do much more than sigh at however things turned out (with little-to-no effort on his part) and/or weep with shame-filled gratitude over whatever we’d received from our church and extended family. Then he slept.
Honestly, we preferred the sleeping.
My mother, on the other hand, had this truly remarkable ability to lean into the One whom the whole celebration was about despite the circumstances. She could hope when my father could only despair. She could hope despite uncertainty.
I think my attempts at entertaining and distracting the family were also my attempts to engage hope. I wanted to be like my mom, but the despair and doubt of my father was strong within me, and these constantly threatened to take the upper hand.
In an attempt to manage some of my own uncertainty, I often rummaged through drawers and closets looking for a special something I could count on being under the tree for my brother and me. There always was. Once it was a hardbound edition of Black Beauty. Another time it was a Raggedy Ann doll. Occasionally, something big was hidden. My senior year of high school it was an electric typewriter. I don’t know how she managed to have something there, but somehow my mom was able to find a way.
I was aware of the stress the season added to my mother’s already impossible load. As a parent, I’ve had my own Christmases filled with worry about how Mark and I could stretch our limited finances in order to provide Christmas for our children. More often than not, Mom didn’t have limited resources. She had zero resources.
When I was nine years old, I wanted a Simon for Christmas. Like, I REALLY wanted a Simon. This electronic memory game was all the rage at the time. Milton Bradley pulled out all the stops for the toy’s advertising campaign, so it seemed everywhere I turned there was another commercial featuring some adorable child mimicking the series of tones and lights the game spit out, while smiling over the utter joy of this game.
I wanted this game so much.
But I didn’t ask for one.
I didn’t tell a soul.
At $24.95 (close to $100 in today’s terms), I knew it would be too much to ask of my mom. It was in my mind a hopeless wish, and I wasn’t interested in asking something of her I knew she couldn’t provide. Also, I wasn’t one to ask for anything I couldn’t be certain of receiving.
Way too risky.
So instead I just kept it to myself, aching over the impossibility of a longing fulfilled.
I know, I know. It was just a game. But, except for a Mongoose stunt bike, there was nothing I wanted more. And I think the longing is often more keenly felt when you know you can’t have what you long for.
Early on that particular Christmas morning, after I’d been awake ALL NIGHT LONG in anxious anticipation over what the morning might bring, I snuck out of my bedroom and crept the short distance to the living room where the tree stood in the window.
There I saw my mother.
She was kneeling at the foot of the tree with her Bible open to a favorite passage – likely one oriented around a promise as was often her way. Presents surrounded the tree…and right there in front of it all lay the game Simon.
The Simon caught my eye right away, but my mother is who held my attention.
My mother, on her knees on the floor, with her hands clasped together in front of her and her head bowed, was weeping quietly. And I was captivated by her. Her expression of gratitude to God in that moment left an impression on my soul, and I was privileged to observe my mom as she maintained that posture of gratitude over the next forty or so years – the remainder of her life.
Despite whatever circumstances came her way, she found a way to lean into a deep sense of gratitude for whatever good also existed in the moment.
As I’ve tried to put this practice into place in my own life – and struggled desperately to do so, I’ve wondered if maybe it just doesn’t come as naturally to me because I possess more of my father’s cynicism and petulance than I do the trust and gratitude my mom embodied. It’s often during the Christmas season that I see these two parts of me – unintentionally gifted to me by my parents – vying for power.
It’s an uncomfortable addition to the holiday.
But there is a shift – the moment that gratitude wins the upper hand – that happens when I am able to access the substance of my mom’s kneeling stance in front of the icicle-covered tree that Christmas morning. You see, I don’t think she was so much overcome with gratitude at what kinds of things were around the tree. Yes, she was thankful for the provision that came at the last minute from the kindness of strangers. But as she knelt at that tree, it was clear to me that she was leaning into the nearness of Christ in the moment. She was leaning into the experience of feeling SEEN by God.
This is the variety of gratitude that really changes us at our core.
In my own child-like way, I felt seen on that Christmas morning, too. The presence of the Simon at the foot of the tree was tangible evidence to me that Someone knew I was longing for something and wanted to show me I was seen by giving it to me. This is the way children learn this very important truth. Some children are given many opportunities to see it. Some only a few. But for all of us, knowing that we are seen, especially in our seasons or spaces of lack, changes us from disgruntled, stressed-out, chronically anxious people to people who are hopeful and warm and trusting.
And allowing the awareness that we are seen to settle deep into our bones is the secret to real gratitude.
I do have the cynicism, petulance and pessimism of my father.
AND I have my mother’s awareness of the nearness of Christ that compels me to assume a posture of deep gratitude.
I’m learning to recognize both of these parts of myself, surrender the broken part to the grace of God, and then to lean hard into the part that knows she is seen and not alone.
As the celebration of Christmas comes to an end and we prepare to enter a new year and a new decade, may you find the part of you that is able to lean into the nearness of Christ – letting Him show you that He sees you in whatever way He chooses.
Even today the mention of this name causes my blood to boil. Or her actual name does. I might have changed it to attempt some anonymity.
Becca lived down the street from me – in the nicest house in the neighborhood – and the two of us were continually at odds with one another. No one at the time, not even my father, could spark anger in me like she could.
Well, okay, maybe my father… but I couldn’t show it to him.
I could totally let loose with Becca.
Bless her heart.
This girl was the Eddie Haskell to my Theodore Cleaver. The Nellie Olsen to my Laura Ingalls. She had a polished, prissy kind of charm that adults loved but outside, away from the watchful eyes of grownups, she was just plain mean – particularly to the ones who needed a bit of support in order to thrive.
Those were the ones, though, that I latched onto and kept under my protection. This meant that Becca and I were at odds most of the time.
We spent many a summer day engaging in a prolonged screaming match, hurling insults at one another and throwing the occasional punch. By insults I mean the worst possible thing we could think of to say without engaging the use of a forbidden curse word.
I was a good Baptist girl.
Each verbal war was sparked by some injustice Becca inflicted upon someone I cared about. I’m sure it also didn’t help that she wore beautiful clothes, lived in a lovely home, owned all the latest and best toys, and pointed these things out to us on the regular.
She also had a habit of telling my baby brother – three or four at the time – that he was too little to play with the gang.
Ummmmmm…. no. The privilege to reject my brother was mine and mine alone.
I rather enjoyed standing on the edge of my lawn, shouting down the street something like, “If you show your face near my house again, my dad is going to come out with his rifle and shoot you!”
Now, first of all, my dad didn’t have a rifle.
Second, he couldn’t have cared less about my troubles.
He wasn’t going to do anything at all.
Becca’s dad, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to intervene on his daughter’s behalf. More than once I received a stern talking-to about my mistreatment of his girl.
That was fun.
It’s so very confusing to feel both shame over your poor choices (and in the situation with Becca they undoubtedly were) and a sense of righteous anger over the provocation that brought about those choices at the exact same time. And this was a norm for me.
IS a norm for me.
Anger is an easy access emotion. As an eight on the Enneagram, I am prone to passion and am easily riled up over perceived injustices, particularly on behalf of another.
But it’s difficult for me to access pure anger. It’s almost always confused by shame.
The climax of my epic feud with Becca came during my tenth birthday party.
My Holly Hobbie-themed birthday party.
A Holly Hobbie cake was the extent of the theme, but still.
It was awesome.
My mom, being the gentle Southern woman that she was, insisted that I invite ALL the neighborhood girls at or around my age. This party was a big deal to me since it was the first actual party I’d had since I’d turned six, when my parents managed to take three friends and me to see the movie, “Gus,” starring Don Knotts… in an actual movie theater. Meaning, they managed to purchase four child admissions to the movie, then sent the four six-year olds into the theater… alone. A $2 adult admission was too much to spend when the children were just going to be sitting watching a movie anyway.
That was a great birthday.
Given the high hopes I had for this tenth birthday celebration, I was sufficiently distressed over the required inclusion of Becca Berkham.
I just knew she would ruin everything.
I wasn’t wrong.
The plans for my party included eating Holly Hobbie, opening presents and walking to the park en masse to play. Muse Park was super close to my house – maybe a quarter of a mile or so, and we walked there by ourselves on a regular basis, so it wasn’t unusual for the moms of my friends to stay behind with my mom to chat over a glass of iced sweet tea while we girls went off to play.
We weren’t far along in our walk to the park when things became heated between Becca and me, as she began to tease and taunt my friend, Karen, about the birthday gift she’d given me. Karen was going through a difficult season as her father’s disability had left him unemployed for a long period of time, causing financial devastation for the family. I was oh too familiar with this kind of suffering, so was quick to defend her.
Things deteriorated from there.
As the insults began flying between us, the other girls got fired up as well. Tensions rose quickly and before you knew it, I was in a knock-down, drag-out girl fight with Becca Berkham.
Truthfully, I was primed for a fight with that girl from the moment my mom told me I had to invite her to the party. I didn’t want her there, the other girls knew it – she probably knew it, too, and so I can imagine she was on the defense from the start – just looking for a way to be in charge of a situation already largely in my favor.
This was a classic catfight.
Hair-pulling, skin-clawing, neck-throttling, and punch-throwing.
And I loved every second of it.
I also got into huge trouble for it.
Becca ran all the way back to my house, by herself, and tattled on me.
Honestly, though, at the time I really bought into shame over the devastation that came to my birthday party that day. I believed it was my fault.
I was told it was my fault.
But I was also a house divided because somewhere deep within me was this well of fury knowing something unjust had happened.
I shouldn’t have had to invite her to my party. She was cruel and spiteful. Clearly, we weren’t friends.
If they ever had parties – and they didn’t – I’m pretty sure my parents would never have invited Becca’s parents to the gathering.
Adults can be really confusing sometimes.
And the double standards they can hold over their children, feeding both the shame and the fury within, are the worst.
Growing up as a child of a father with alcohol and prescription drug addictions was chock-full of these kinds of contradictions. Some were glaring, others more subtle. And I have to say that the more subtle ones were the most dangerous. For instance, when my father said to me, “Don’t drink and drive,” and yet regularly did this very thing, it was easy for me to observe the inconsistency there and think to myself, “I will never drink and drive because it’s a stupid and highly dangerous thing to do.” Or if he said to me, “Smoking is bad for you. Don’t do it,” while lighting up his own cigarette for the twentieth time that day, I was able to observe that smoking was taking an enormous toll on his body and determine for myself that smoking wasn’t for me.
However, things were less clear when I was sick or hurt and needed medical attention that my family couldn’t afford, and I was made to feel enormous guilt over the burden my need put on my parents…even though the reason my parents couldn’t afford to care for my need was that my father had either lost his job due to his drunkenness or spent all of our money for the same reason.
I felt shame…and I felt rage. And the rage I felt made me feel more shame.
And even more confusing was my father’s inability to experience and hold space for his pain, physical or otherwise – expecting us to hold his burdens for him and medicating himself at all times to soften the blows that life inevitably threw his way. In this way, he communicated to me that he was allowed to be in pain, but I was not.
Shame. And fury.
This is becoming clear to me now – at the age of 50. But as a child it was very, very murky. Or, maybe I did see the contradiction, but it was much easier to be angry with and blame myself when I struggled to carry the load placed upon me than it was to feel those angry feelings about the parents I truly loved.
I still struggle with this.
The adult world of my parents was so confusing, while the rage I could freely feel and express in my catfights with Becca Berkham was liberating. With Becca, I knew the source of my anger and left it squarely on her shoulders. With my father, I still felt the anger, but needed the sense of safety that came when I embraced shame in order to shut the rage down or redirect it towards myself.
When I was fourteen, my father moved us to Huntsville, Alabama – away from our hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, the family who lived there and the support and love of a strong community. It was devastating to me. We lived in an apartment complex, and I began high school without a friend in the world.
Over our first few months there, I slipped into what I now think was my first depressive episode. I was homesick, lonely and very much afraid of the future since my father was more unstable than ever.
I’m pretty sure I was also quite pissed off, but that emotion was inaccessible to me.
I worked hard in school – grateful for something to focus on. We’d begun attending a large Southern Baptist church, but I was initially too intimidated by its size to try to meet other kids there or to get involved.
Fast-forward a couple of months to the Fall Parent/Teacher Conferences at my school, where my parents sat with the teacher of my favorite class (Contemporary World Affairs) and listened to him describe me as an excellent student making straight As, but also one he was concerned about because I was withdrawn and melancholy during the day.
Looking back, I think my teacher’s efforts here were well intentioned. I think he saw a student who was struggling and thought perhaps he could bring awareness and inspiration to her parents, motivating them to step in and better support her during what was clearly a difficult transition.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
In fact, my father came home from this teacher conference, called me to follow him to my bedroom, launched into a tirade about my attitude, and then instructed me to lay face down across the bed while he beat the crap out of me with his belt.
An appropriate consequence for depression, don’t you think?
Not so much.
What’s crazy-making about this scenario is that my father convinced me that it was. An appropriate consequence, I mean.
And he did it so well that I believed it for close to forty years.
Years and years later, when I described this event to my intimates (which wasn’t often), I was confused by the looks of horror and indignation on their faces when I marked this moment as a catalyst for the needed shift in my attitude and perspective on our new home at the time.
My exact words were, “I deserved it and was grateful to my dad for the wake-up call that came with it.”
For the love.
It’s a struggle now to see the truth in this, in the episode with Becca Berkham and in countless other similar scenarios from my childhood and adolescence because the truth is veiled by the weight of shame and years of suppressed pain.
But it’s starting to peek through.
My therapist often tells me that anger is usually covering up some other emotion – like sadness, humiliation, grief or despair. This has often pissed me off, which I know is ironic…and that pisses me off, too.
When I let her help me sit with the anger, though, not resisting it, suppressing it or redirecting it back toward myself, much like my child self was able to do with Becca, I get a glimpse of a deep well of sorrow and loss.
It’s crushingly painful to see it and to feel it, but it passes…and after it fades away I am left a bit more whole than I was before.
Last weekend, we went on a family getaway with our framily (friends like family) to Branson, Missouri. It’s a trip we’ve taken all together now four or five times over the lifetime of our friendship. The nine kids between us are very close – more like cousins than friends – and the grownups have been doing life together for 25 plus years. It’s quite something, and we are so grateful to have each other.
We spent all day Saturday at Silver Dollar City – an amusement park that harkens back to the 1800s with a Wild West theme in all the shows and rides. It’s a pretty great place to spend a day – especially in the fall when the Ozark Mountains are at their finest.
Over the years, the number of rides I’ve been able to ride has diminished to almost none. It’s been quite the loss to this thrill-seeker, and I’ve still pushed the limits of what my body can/should do by riding the smoother coasters and really anything that looks to be less bumpy and jolting than your average state fair ride.
Yes, I completely ignore and blow past the signs that warn those with back conditions to stay off the ride.
Life is short, ya’ll, and my children have grown up too fast. #fomo
Silver Dollar City has been the last remaining park to have rides that my body could handle, with the exception of It’s a Small World at Disney World. #blarg
One ride, in particular, has been a favorite of the family/framily over the years – The Great Barn Swing. It’s a giant, mechanized swing that swings you seven stories high at speeds of up to 45mph. You are very tightly locked in, so it’s never caused me any physical pain. In fact, I rode it this summer when we visited the park with my brother and his family, and I had a blast. I loved the thrill; I loved the screaming; I loved laughing at my people as they experienced pure terror; I loved everything about it.
But this weekend, when I rode it again with our framily, I had a wholly different experience.
I sat next to Matt, who is like a brother to me, and was looking forward to screaming my head off with him. But as the ride began I was immediately overcome with overwhelming and irrational fear.
Ya’ll, it swallowed me whole.
I became convinced that my massive metal waist harness wasn’t secured adequately, and I JUST KNEW I was going to be hurtled into the atmosphere.
You know the phrase, “It scared the shit out of me!”?
No, I did not empty my bowels. But I will be grateful for the remainder of my days for the bit of self-control remaining to me in that moment that allowed me to hold everything in there.
My outward expression of fear, however, could not be controlled. I screamed alongside Matt – but his screams were about thrill, joy and laughter, while my screams were wrapped in abject terror over my impending death.
I decided that Matt was my best chance for survival, so I linked my arm into his and held on for dear life. I figured if my VERY SECURE harness gave way, I could just hold on to his arm to keep from dying…like somehow I would have the strength to keep my currently (and likely permanently 🙄) too-heavy body from being flung out across the amusement park.
Don’t laugh. This plan had substance.
When the Giant Barn Swing finally came to a stop, I could have cried real, actual tears of relief. I shakily made my way out of the ride area and gratefully collapsed onto my motorized scooter – a support I have previously accepted with a great deal of resistance, but in that moment I was completely content to stay there for the remainder of the day.
And, embracing the fullness of my fear in that moment, I resolved to never EVER ride that ride EVER again for the rest of my life.
My, how time changes us.
I’ve never considered myself to be a fearful person. In fact, I have actively spent my life pursuing and engaging in activities that most people avoid because of fear…and I have felt (too) much pride in being “fearless.”
Growing up, I was often referred to as the fearless tomboy in the family, and that identity felt comfortable to me.
So my modus operandi has been to not just push past fear, but to push down fear and move on as if it isn’t even there.
It worked pretty well for me for close to 50 years.
But it doesn’t work so well for me now.
As I’ve moved into the latter part of the middle ages of my life, my ability to contain any significant (or even some seemingly insignificant) fear has all but disappeared.
What I mean by this is that now when fear arises, those typical fear responses in my body – shaking and clammy hands, threatening bowels, and tightness in the chest, to name a few – are magnified to a disabling level.
My body literally shuts down.
It’s just the worst.
It’s as if I’ve lost the capacity to be afraid.
But I don’t think that’s true. I think what I’ve actually lost is the capacity to repress my fear.
I think what’s most disconcerting about this change is my discovery that more often than not, my fear is induced by other emotions rather than the potential of actual physical harm.
My therapist once told me, “You are afraid of fear.”
This induced #alltheeyerolls.
And yet, she isn’t wrong.
This is not to say I’m immune to the fear of physical harm. But at one time I think I was. Sort of. Or…I was comfortable with pushing the limits of my body’s fear responses. I mean, for crying out loud, I spent years of my childhood risking life and limb by jumping off the roofs of houses, pulling crazy bike stunts, and climbing to the highest points of trees so I could measure my courage by jumping to the ground below.
It felt comfortable to be in danger.
It doesn’t feel that way now.
All this new insight hasn’t made it easier overall to embrace fear. No, resistance is still most often my first response. There’s a sense of shame that threatens to overtake me at the first hint of fear and my body’s responses to it. I think I’ve spent a lifetime conditioning myself to push down fear because I’ve convinced myself that fear is paralyzing and counter-productive.
And, true, it can be.
But it can also inform me.
I’m learning to be more accepting and kind to myself and to fear when it comes up in various circumstances. This shift is allowing me to begin to notice what actually triggers the fear response.
Is it fear of physical danger and/or a terrifying death like the aforementioned Giant Barn Swing induced?
Is it fear of the rapid decline that is taking place in my body and the limitations that come with this as the years go by?
Is it fear of unfamiliar and uncomfortable emotions that arise when a childhood memory is triggered?
Is it fear of loss or fear of rejection and betrayal that comes up when engaging with the people I love?
Oh, for sure.
Now instead of resisting the fear that comes up, I’m learning to embrace it just like I did on the Giant Barn Swing – screaming like a banshee and holding onto my safe enough people for dear life, and then letting it guide me in my responses to the given situation.
Like swearing off thrill rides for the remainder of my days.
It’s difficult to embrace my responses to fear, for sure.
But it’s not nearly as difficult as Fear told me it would be.
Over the last 18 years, my body’s structural system has systematically broken down.
It’s been just real fun.
I could write a long story telling you all about the pain and the surgeries and the isolation and the depression… and about the community that has surrounded my family and me over the years – making meals for us, sitting in hospital rooms with us, driving my children to all the places and taking me to an endless number of doctor’s appointments…but that’s not really what this post is about.
About five years ago or so, I began to really grieve the loss of all the outdoor activities that had always been so life-giving for me. We led an outdoor life as a family – camping with friends, active in Scouts, biking, hiking, long afternoons at the park (or mornings…it’s Oklahoma, ya’ll, and the heat can beat you down hard by 11am), and simple evening walks in the neighborhood. These replaced the crazy stunts I had pulled outside as a kid trying to regulate myself in the midst of the chaos in my home. And they were WAY more healthy.
But over the last ten years the limitations that have come from intense and constant chronic pain, loss of strength to my right leg from the nerve damage in my back, loss of mobility, and the trickle-down effect of physical challenges that now seem to pop up on a regular basis, have left me with few easy options outside to feed my soul.
The word “easy” is key
So I began dreaming of creating a space in our backyard where I could go to soothe my soul. A place where we could gather with family and friends to just…be.
One day, about five years ago, I asked Mark for a fire pit for my birthday. He loved the idea, but we had multiple medical bills (I can’t even), monthly therapy expenses for our youngest son who is autistic, a company to manage, and three teenagers.
Teenagers are expensive, ya’ll.
Over time, the fire pit became a pipe dream to me. I just knew it wasn’t going to happen. There were always a million other things requiring our financial focus. In fact, our whole backyard fell into disrepair. We stopped using it at all and, except for the dog’s bathroom needs and David’s still occasional use of the trampoline, we kind of pretended it wasn’t there.
I let it go.
One day in August, as Mark and I were driving around town together, he told me he had begun making plans for a fire pit as a 50th birthday present to me. You guys, I was so surprised I started crying. We hadn’t talked about this dream of mine for a long time, so when he told me his plans, I just felt so…seen. Over the next few weeks we spent time scrolling through Pinterest, collecting ideas and ordering what we needed. We went to Lowe’s and picked out the rock and the border, and we recruited our college boys for the hard labor.
Last weekend, Mark and the big boys (plus a bonus boy who has now cemented his place in my heart) spent hours and hours digging out the space, loading in the rock, filling in the space with it and transforming our backyard – which in a sense had been lost to us – into a little bit of heaven here on Earth.
I’ve tried to make a practice of looking for redemption in the midst of whatever pain or loss I’m experiencing, but in the last couple of years – with my own continual physical decline, our special needs parenting challenges, immense financial stress, and the loss of my mom to breast cancer, I’ve floundered. I’ve found myself struggling to see purpose in all the pain and suffering in my life and in the lives of the people that I love.
I try to emulate Pollyanna by playing her glad game when I need a lift. Gratitude really does shift my thinking and my mood, so I do believe Pollyanna was on to something.
Finding the good in what is tragic or crushingly hard isn’t always possible.
And quite often what’s been lost to us isn’t going to come back.
And the weight of that reality can be overwhelming.
And, actually, it becomes quite the beast to bear when guilt over the inability to find good is piled on top of what is already crushing you.
But occasionally – and maybe more than occasionally, something new comes in and surprises us with goodness.
And it’s like a release valve to the soul, allowing you to catch your breath and find a bit of rest in this life we live here on our broken planet.
That’s what this fire pit has done for me.
I sit here by the fire and remember that Jesus said, “Come to me, you who are weary…and I will give you rest,” and this promise becomes very tangible to me.
As a child, I learned faith and theology through service, community and a big, long list of dos and don’ts.
And through the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board’s State Bible Drill.
I was good at all the Baptist things: choir, puppet ministry, hand bells, flannel board storytelling, children’s church and taking notes during “big church,” just to name a few. But Bible drill was an area of expertise for me. I could memorize just about anything put in front of me, so the long list of memory word that included the books of the Bible (in order), dozens of Bible verses and long passages of scripture pertaining to topics such as The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Commandment, The Beatitudes and the Love Chapter… these were not a big deal for me.
The other drillers and I met early every Sunday evening in order to practice with our coordinator. Standing in a straight line facing her, we ran drills on finding books of the Bible by responding to each prompt she called out.
“Philippians,” she’d say.
Then came the commands required for us to begin the drill.
“Attention. Present Bibles. Start.”
The moment we heard “Start” our hands whipped open our Bibles with barely restrained intensity, searching feverishly for the book of the Bible or verse called out. As soon as a driller found the correct book or verse, she put a finger on the Bible opened up to that spot, and then stepped forward… with barely veiled disdain for those drillers still sweating over their Bibles behind her.
The first driller to find the book and step out was then required to call out a response such as, “Philippians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians.”
For those unfamiliar with the sequence, this means I named the book I found; next I named the book before it; then I had to name the book I found again; and finally the book that followed it in the order of the books of the Bible.
Like I said, I rocked at this.
You had to complete the entire sequence in order to win the round.
But that was just the Books of the Bible section.
The real memory work lay in the lists and lists of memory verses and key passages we were required to know.
I knew them all. In fact, I was so good that I ended up State Perfect in the Tennessee statewide competition.
Not one mistake.
And, yes, I was proud of myself… just in case you weren’t sure.
Points were deducted for a variety of reasons:
If you needed more than ten seconds to step out after a call
If you gave an incorrect response when called upon
If you failed to stand up straight or to keep your eyes on the drill caller until the command “Start” was given
If you stepped out before your index finger was placed on the correct response
If you mishandled or misused the Bible during the drill
Speaking of handling the bible, there were very specific guidelines for this: where you placed your hands and which way the Bible faced could cost you precious points if not done exactly as the drill required.
It was no joke.
I know it sounds intense, but I actually remember loving it. I felt motivated.
Focused on making sure I was perfect in every category.
And, yes, competitive. I guess since I still laugh at my opponents (who are usually my sons or daughter) when I hand them their asses over a game of cards, I’m still a bit competitive.
My Sunday School teacher saw an opportunity to harness this scripture-memorizing gift I had and challenged me to memorize an entire chapter of the Bible, saying it would help me in my relationship with God. He was probably on to something with the initial idea, but I think he was misguided when it came to his particular selection.
He assigned me Romans 6. A chapter of the Bible that can be summed up in two words:
I mean, this guy had the opportunity to use my weird little splinter skill to teach me all manner of things: God’s love for me, God’s father heart for me, God’s hope for relationship with me. Instead he chose to drill the rules.
And the thing is, I was comfortable with this drill. I was comfortable with the drill approach to my faith as a whole. Since I spent so much of my time and energy trying to please a father who was unreliable and inconsistent with me, it was soothing to have a list of behaviors that I believed would ensure God’s favor and connection with me.
That said, it was confusing then when I rarely felt anything akin to a relationship with God through the programs I participated in at church. Bible Drill, Sunday School, Mission Friends, Girls in Action – all of these programs created by the church to “train up a child” did little to help me experience God as a loving father whose primary goal was to be in relationship with me. In fact, it felt more like God was a distant, all-powerful Force – just another being I worked my ass off to try to please… but never actually did. The lists of dos and don’ts, the points deducted for every little mistake, the care required in order to show respect, well, I wasn’t going to be “state perfect” here. These were impossible standards.
Without awareness of the futility of my efforts, though, I bought into the whole system, working with all of my self to achieve the standards that I hoped would please God.
It’s very difficult to reconcile God’s grace with the striving that is born out of a rule-driven culture. We’ll never experience the embrace of love we so desperately long for when consumed with our attempts to meet impossible standards for that love.
Even now, with this awareness, I battle the tendency to work for perfection in order to please God and my significant others. This way of living is hard-wired into my brain, so learning new pathways is my current work. But, thankfully, it’s a work tethered to grace and compassion.
I’m spending a lot of time these days as a 50-year old woman trying to help my child self understand that she is okay. That she is loved without condition. That her life isn’t meant to be a drill with the goal of perfection. That her desire to achieve perfection was misguided by the adults in her life and so she has misunderstood what it means to be loved with holy grace that is freely given.
More than a year ago, my therapist helped me create what she calls a “safe place.” It’s basically a visualization exercise where I go to a place in my imagination that calms me. Some people visualize a beach or a cabin in the woods. It can really be anything you want it to be as long as you can access your sense while there. You need to be able to hear, smell, see and feel as you experience the environment you’ve created.
My safe place is in the mountains. There’s a mountain stream with cool water flowing around submerged boulders. I can hear the rush of water as it runs by me. I’ve placed a perfectly situated fire pit in the midst of a small clearing near the stream and surrounded it with wooden Adirondack chairs (since those are the only outdoor chairs my broken body will allow me to sit in pain free for any length of time).
I also took the liberty of moving the kudzu-covered woods I explored as a child to this place in the mountains. I know that you won’t find kudzu in the mountains in the real world, but this is a work of my imagination. I can do what I want. I even included the tree bridge I ran to as a frightened kid who needed to jump from its heights in order to test my courage.
I know. It’s strange. But the safe place can be anything I want it to be as long as it calms me and helps me bring my body and emotions to regulation when distressed.
The problem was, though, that after months of using my calm space as directed by my therapist, I wasn’t experiencing the help from it that it was supposed to give. It’s hard to do this, you guys. It takes a trust in myself and in my therapist that I don’t easily access. I drilled the exercise for a long time, but it felt full of pretense and totally ineffective.
So I quit.
Because as a Tennessee Baptist Mission Board State Perfect Bible Drill participant, if I can’t do it right, then I’m not going to do it.
Thankfully, my therapist isn’t keen on letting me walk away from things just because they are hard, and I don’t get it right the first time. She insisted I keep at it. She can be pretty bossy.
One day, as I restarted the practice, but still struggled with my safe space, I let myself get curious what might be missing. It was an idyllic setting, so that wasn’t the problem. It hit all the marks when it came to my senses. I was technically doing everything right. So what then?
And then it came to me.
I’m not meant to be there alone.
What was missing was the One whose very nature compels Him to embrace me with love and compassion despite my condition, despite my mistakes, despite imperfections.
I need God with skin on. I need Jesus. And more specifically, I need Him sitting on the tree bridge 20 feet above the safety of the ground below, holding me in my anxious state of fear and disgrace and letting me know that there is no height from which I can jump that will make me as I long to be – perfectly whole and perfectly loved.
A year after my mom passed away, my brother and I sat down to do the laborious work of going through the boxes of things she had kept over the years. There were four large boxes full of keepsakes: letters, photographs, newspaper articles, notes written on scraps of paper and works of childhood art created by Patton and me. We quickly found ourselves immersed in memories attached to feelings of joy, admiration, grief, dismay and even anger.
These boxes opened up both the wonders and the wounds of our childhood. For us, like so many, these two are in an inextricable knot.
We found our father’s license to minister and sat in silence over the absurdity.
We found elementary school report cards, noting the teacher’s observations that we were not okay.
We found dozens and dozens of letters from our maternal grandmother and aunt expressing veiled concern for our well-being in their attempts to skirt under the ever-watchful eyes of our father.
We found at least 20 Valentine’s Day cards our father gave to our mother, expressing love and devotion that surely meant nothing to her in the face of all the pain and suffering he caused.
And we found our own notes and letters – written to one or both of our parents from early childhood into adulthood.
It was uncomfortable for me to read these letters and see more clearly than ever before the work I was committed to as a child and young adult – the work of holding my parents up when they were down.
And they were almost always down.
There were hastily written notes of love and encouragement from my teenage years attached to gifts of money from me to my father. Even though I presented them as such, they weren’t really gifts. My father expected me to hand over to him much of what I earned through odd jobs, babysitting and house cleaning with my mom.
Mom even kept a note I wrote late one night in high school…hastily on a scrap piece of paper apologizing to my father for getting angry with him when he wrecked the car and didn’t have the means to fix it.
As we sifted through Mom’s boxes, I came across a letter I’d written to my parents when I was 11 and in sixth grade. This was the year that my father’s money-making schemes truly failed him, as the women’s clothing store he’d opened the year before (named Kaysie’s…for the love) was upside-down financially before it even began, and dad’s work ethic wasn’t such that he could or would ever turn it right-side up.
And the creditors came calling.
They’d had enough.
I can’t say that I blame them. My father accrued massive amounts of debt throughout his life and then ran away from the consequences… dragging his family with him as he ran. This instance of bankruptcy was the first of three for our family.
Why people continued to loan him money is beyond me.
Of course, with bankruptcy comes repossession, and the bank repossessed our house.
Our beloved Archwood house.
Here’s the letter I wrote:
I actually don’t remember writing this. I don’t remember thinking that everything would be okay. I don’t remember feeling grateful for all the things my parents had done for me, and I certainly don’t remember thinking they were moving us for my own good. I don’t remember telling my parents that “I can take it if you can.” Instead, I remember feeling afraid and angry.
Reflecting on it now, I realize it wasn’t so much the loss of the house that broke me. It was the loss of the neighborhood. It was the loss of belonging somewhere. But mostly it was the lie my parents told me in their attempt to soothe my pain – this was happening for my good and God was in control of these events that so clearly were the fault of my father.
Once we left Archwood, we never gained a true sense of belonging again, and their lie made me believe that God was responsible for that. We were displaced emotionally as well as physically for the rest of my childhood – moving no less than ten times over the following six years. We finally landed in Colorado my senior year of high school, and it was there that I felt the sense of belonging I’d been searching for ever since the loss of the kudzu-covered green belt I’d spent so much of my elementary years exploring and running to for my sense of calm. Living in rental houses, apartments, the empty houses of strangers who were traveling, and a random one-bedroom cottage for a month in California – shuffling our ever-diminishing stash of possessions with us as we moved – doesn’t exactly cultivate a sense of belonging. We were received with love and kindness almost everywhere we went, which I know is more than many in similar circumstances ever get, but when we lost Archwood, I lost the sense of who I was in the world and struggled to find it again for the next 15 years.
Also, with this letter I embraced a lie of my own that I’ve struggled to disentangle myself from ever since.
The best version of me is the only acceptable version of me.
I took it upon myself to present to my family a strong front. I kept my emotions in check, I stuffed the pain of loss, displacement, neglect and loneliness, and I turned instead to positivity, chronic busy-ness, levity and false hope in order to protect my parents – and worse, to protect God – from the “bigness” of my true feelings.
And I chose to believe my parents had my best interests in mind.
But they didn’t.
They had survival in mind.
I knew this deep within my core and so reasoned that I needed to be one less thing. It became my mission to be small for the sake of my parents.
Only I’m not small. In fact, I can swallow a room with my essence if I’m not careful.
At the age of 49, as I read the letter I’d written as an eleven-year old girl, I was no longer able to hold back the bigness of my true self – the despair, fear, panic and rage I’d really felt when I wrote it.
And these emotions swallowed me.
This has been happening a lot lately.
In therapy, I was finally given a term for this experience of overwhelm from the big feelings associated with the pain of my childhood – emotional flashback. These flashbacks are different from what others describe experiencing when dealing with PTSD. There isn’t a visual component for me. I’m not reliving a particular moment in my memory. The reel isn’t replaying in my head. Instead, a tidal wave of emotions I can’t associate with a particular instance washes over me. Being unable to connect these feelings with a moment in my past makes me feel out of control. Not my favorite feeling. Then there are the times when something painful in the present triggers an emotional flashback, and I find myself caught in the tension between the present and the past. This is the worst of it because then I feel I’ve lost control over both.
My therapist is slowly and very patiently showing me that the path to healing is to embrace the eleven-year old I left behind when I wrote that letter… with all of her big, painful emotions and her sense of loss over the necessary move. And to embrace the three-year old who felt responsible for easing her mom’s constant state of overwhelm. And the eight-year old who felt it necessary to watch over her little brother and fill in the nurturing holes in his life our parents could not or would not fill. And the six-year old who thought it was her job to stop her father’s drinking, to stay vigilant in his presence and ever-watchful for signs of danger, and to motivate him to make something of his life.
To nurture the child in me is to let go of my attempts to continue to control the state of my being and to present more than the parts of me that feel safe enough and together enough for others to see.
It is my work in therapy and my work with God – trusting in the end that He is with me, was with me (in the pain He did not create) and loves whatever version of me I make available for Him to love.
This work is so very hard to do.
But as I do it, I find that my hold on the lie I have believed is loosening. I don’t have to always present my best self. Or maybe I’m learning to redefine what my best self is. God has been kind to place safe-enough people in my world that love me despite my big-ness, despite my brokenness. In fact, I’m beginning to see that they love me because of those things. When I let them love me, I let God love me. And that is my best self.