Listen to Your Life

If there is anything better than a walk in the quiet woods on a warm spring morning, the scent of apple blossoms in the air, and listening to The Samples on my headphones, I do not know what that would be.

I haven’t listened to The Samples for a while – but since about 1991 they have never been far from me. In the mountains of Montana, I fell in love for the first time, and “Feel Us Shaking” was part of the soundtrack of that summer. When I was in West Africa, “Little Silver Ring” and “Everytime” played constantly – as I went running, as I journaled, as I daydreamed. The semester I studied in China during seminary I listened to their live album as I walked from the seminary up on the hill down to the city below. Something about their songs has always filled me full with the perfect amount of longing and hope at the same time.

Today, I was stopped dead in the middle of my walk when “Here and Somewhere Else” by the Samples was playing. It was partly the song itself, but also how it slammed me back in time to when I was listening to that song the most.

I traveled for a couple years with a band. During those two years, I started dating a fellow who I met along the way and we began a long-distance relationship as I kept traveling. I saw him whenever we were in the area where he lived, but mostly I was on the road. He was funny, sweet, and cute. I loved him. Sort of.

Also during that time, I began to spend more time with one of the guys in the band. It started very innocently – talking for hours about music and life. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend. I began to realize over time that I was falling for him, but I never dreamed he would be interested in me.  I kept writing my long letters to my boyfriend back home and telling myself I was happy.

Until the night the boy in the band kissed me…and the truth of what I really felt came spilling out and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I never wanted him to stop kissing me. I closed my eyes and I didn’t care if I ever saw my boyfriend again. I felt like a terrible person, but sometimes there is just no going back when you realize what you truly want.

Oh, I tried. See, the boy in the band didn’t want a relationship with me. I realized that even as he was kissing me – so after what amounted to a weekend of making out with the boy in the band, I tried to go back to “normal” and force myself back into contentment with my boyfriend.  I told myself it would be better once we were living in the same city. I told myself that my boyfriend was cute and funny and sweet and what more do I want? But my heart was off somewhere else – nowhere near my boyfriend. I could feel it in my bones. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. I went for long walks asking myself “why why why!?” Why couldn’t I just be happy with the cute, funny, sweet boyfriend anymore?   The only answer that came to me was the unsettling truth that if I had to choose between the two years I had spent in a real relationship with my boyfriend and that one weekend of kissing the boy in the band, I would take the weekend. No question.

But I never did break up with that boyfriend. I was sure that it wouldn’t be smart to do that. He was sweet and funny and cute, remember? What more did I want? It was silly, it was foolish to want more.

But I did want more.

In retrospect, while I couldn’t bring myself to break up with him, my behavior seemed to show I was trying to get him to break up with me. I told him about making out with the boy in the band. I got super drunk at his brother’s wedding. I moped around depressed and crying – morose about being off the road and away from my band. Within two months of my moving back to the city where he lived, he broke up with me.

And I was sad…but mostly indignant. I remember thinking, “You are breaking up with me? I was never even sure I wanted to be with you and you have the nerve to break up with me? I just spent the last many months trying to talk myself into staying with you, reminding myself over and over that you are sweet and funny and cute and telling myself to ignore the voice in my head telling me that it isn’t enough to just think someone is sweet and funny and cute…and now YOU are breaking up with ME?”

But thank God he did, because I could have spent who knows how long continuing to try to convince myself it was right, it was fine, it was a good enough relationship – even though deep in my heart, I knew I would trade every second with him for the few moments of real passion and head-over-heels joy I felt with that long-lost boy in the band.

I’ve been thinking about how often we settle. In some ways, my Christian upbringing is at the core of it. I was taught to not be too big for my britches, to be thankful for what I’ve got, to look for the good in everything.  I knew my boyfriend was a good person, but what I couldn’t admit was that he wasn’t good for me.

It takes real strength to figure that stuff out. It can be so hard to let go of what is good and hold out for what is great, to believe we deserve the things that really bring us joy and light us up inside.  And it can feel positively scandalous to see this quest as a holy task, but it is! Because it would have been terrible for me to end up with that boyfriend for the long run – he is a great guy and he deserved to be with someone who was thrilled about him all the time, not someone who was spending her life talking herself into being with him.

For months, I ignored the voice in my heart telling me the relationship wasn’t right, that I had to let him go. I treated that still, small voice in my heart like she didn’t really know what she was talking about, what she wanted.

I’ve learned over time, over many years, that when I don’t listen to that voice in my heart, I forsake my deepest self. I forsake what is truest and most holy within me if I don’t pay attention to what my own life is trying to tell me. I spent decades listening first to the advice of others, the best practices of professionals, tradition, mentors, but a while ago I made an important promise – a promise to myself that for the rest of the years I have left, I will listen to me and my heart and wisdom first. I will listen to the way the Holy Spirit is singing in my own life first. I won’t treat myself and the Spirit’s motion as if they don’t matter, or as though they are merely some lesser voices to be crammed in the crevices of bigger, more scheduled, more sensible plans.

No, my Spirit-filled self first.  She matters to me.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner

 

 

 

Prayer as Ruthless Honesty

It’s a lovely time of year to live in Minnesota. The weather is finally warm enough to be outside, the leaves are coming back on the trees, the school year is winding down and all the activity of summer is dawning.  The fields that stretch behind my house are free of snow and the corn is not yet growing high, so I can go walking there – a nice change from jogging miles on my treadmill every morning.

Yesterday as I walked, I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast, the “Robcast.” I’ve listened to this podcast off and on since he started it because I’ve always enjoyed his books and other projects but lately, I’ve been mainlining these podcasts, one after another.

I love how he is making these podcasts exactly what he wants them to be – sometimes they are a sermon – which is very natural for him since he is a pastor, but sometimes he interviews people, on other occasions, they are just his thoughts which sound more like a motivational speech than anything.  He creates for the sake of creating what he feels led to create and does his best to detach himself from whether or not the outcome will be a “success” – and encourages others to do the same. His words, his way of sharing them, his outlook – and all of it is serving as good medicine for my spirit.

And yesterday, he was talking a bit about prayer. He said, “Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” He referenced a text from Jeremiah when Jeremiah was pouring out his frustration, anger, and praise all in the same prayer…but the prayer didn’t end with praise, it ended with asking God why he had even been born. (Jeremiah 20:7-18)

It reminded me of my dad’s notebooks I have been going through as I’ve been trying to get rid of things. Whether he saw them that way or not, they were prayers. From the sad poems, to the angry, ranting letters to local politicians, to the unpublished memoirs, even the unsent letters he wrote to faceless, nameless women he found in Enquirer personal ads. All of those words he wrote were him pouring out what was going on inside of him. The notebooks were the place he felt he could be honest. They were his prayers.

All of us need a place we can be honest and real about what troubles and excites us, what brings us hope, what we long for. We need to be able to pour out and acknowledge all that collects inside us – to remember that it, and we, matter.

It seems in modern Christianity we think we need to sanitize our prayers. In fact, long ago in confirmation class I used to teach the kids a tidy little acronym to help them remember what a ‘perfect’ prayer looks like: ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. All those parts are good and important, but prayer can’t be reduced to an acronym. When it is treated that way, we start to think there is a wrong and a right way to pray, that God can only handle some of our words and some of our thoughts presented in only certain ways.

But God can handle our messiness. God can handle our prayers that are all over the place – angry and thankful and pissed off and hopeful all at the same time. We are never ‘too much’ for God. Our emotions, our lives, our mistakes, our longings, our desires, our despair – none of it is too much for God.

“Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” – Rob Bell

 

 

 

Simplifying: not always so simple

Last night, at the end of a long day, I went downstairs to confront the sorting of piles once again. In the traditional Christian story of the Creation, God separated the light from the dark to create day and night. In my current story, I separate pictures from the letters from the notebooks from the concert stubs, from the family history records to create piles upon piles.

I grabbed another notebook of dad’s to look through and decide if there was anything in there I wanted to keep. The one I grabbed was not his usual ranting, sad poetry, or angry letters to be sent later. This one was nearly full of letters he wrote to women in response to classified ads they placed in magazines like The Enquirer. I don’t know if magazines still have these kinds of ads – perhaps it is the early equivalent to Ashley Madison or other dating sites. Anyway, this notebook was plum full of letters my dad wrote. “Dear Ms, I am a divorced, 5’9, 190 lb man living in Minnesota,” (he was none of those things…except living in Minnesota) each of these letters would begin – and then he went on to share his version of woo-ing the intended recipient. Some of it was sharing his dreams of moving south, some of it was piling flattery on some details she may have shared in her description, “you love to cook? That is perfect, because I love to eat!” In some of his letters, he spoke about how his “ex” wife didn’t understand him, didn’t meet his needs, didn’t live up to her “wifely duties.” He ended each letter with expressing how he couldn’t wait to meet and giving our home address and phone number.

These letters were mostly dated around the year I was 16. He would have been 52. ‘

I can’t say the letters upset me all that much. It’s not like I have any illusions he was a perfect man or that his marriage with my mom was without difficulty. I’ve been married long enough to know that sometimes things can happen that drive you bat-crap crazy. Maybe mom and dad had been fighting and one of the ways that he got through it was imagining a different life for a while. I don’t know if he ever sent one of those letters but I do know he never met one of these women. He was a hermit – he never left the house. In fact, he could barely walk down the driveway so he most likely would have had to ask mom to mail those letters.

No, I think these letters were a gasp at life and freedom and excitement for my dad whose real life had already become so severely limited by physical and mental ailments that he was desperate. “Is this all there is? Is that great opportunity never coming to find me up here on this hill where I hide? I’m scared shitless of this gray hair, these wrinkles, this expanding midsection, this unending sickness of spirit and body.”

Was this my dad’s version of a mid-life crisis? Writing letters to imaginary women in the far-off warmer climates where he always wanted to live? Dreaming of himself as taller, thinner, free-er, healthier, just different than he was?

No, these letters don’t upset me. What upsets me is knowing he felt trapped by circumstances – ones that were both within his control and beyond his control. He had all sorts of longings – like all of us do – but he felt powerless to change. He was so infinitely afraid…and unfaced fear eventually turns to anger.

The anger was what we got to see. He may have had all sorts of complex emotions roiling underneath, but what we saw and how we remember him is by the anger.

I tossed the notebook in the garbage.

 

 

Rejoicing in Repurposing

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how a significant portion of the items I have been releasing into the care of others have been china, dishes, glassware, serving dishes, and vases that I never used. I have two china cabinets – one was my mother’s and the other was a far more beautiful china cabinet that a family was giving away in Texas and they brought it over to us. I like both cabinets for different reasons: My mother’s sat in our living room my whole life while I was growing up and just looking at it brings back memories. Also, if you walk by it quickly, the glass doors make a noise that sounds like 1974 to me.

The other cabinet is a dark wood that looks nice with our other furniture. Plus, the bottom cupboard holds art supplies and some puzzles.

It’s never been the cabinets I wanted to release – just most of the stuff inside. I’m very happy with what I’ve done now. The bit of china that is left has been moved to the dark wood cabinet, and my mom’s cabinet has become the perfect storage place for my office books. Yesterday, Owen and I moved it into my sunroom, unloaded the ugly little bookshelves I had in there (which he was pleased to take for his game room/office) and filled the cabinet with books. The storage area underneath is perfect for old journals and some of the pictures I still need to scan.

So now it feels like mine. Having two cabinets full of tchotchkes was silly and didn’t make sense for this life in which I never use all those fancy dishes –  but using one of those cabinets for the books I use all the time – now that is fine and works for my life.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Not getting rid of everything – but getting rid of what is extra and unneeded, getting rid of the countless things that I might need for “someday,” creating space for what matters.

Words are Heavy

Without a doubt, the most difficult task in my de-cluttering is the boxes of papers, pictures, and letters. Seriously, there are about five large, heavy tubs at least.

Eventually, I want to scan many of the pictures, so they are staying for now – but I’m sifting through the papers and seeing what I still want to keep. I used to write a lot of sad poetry – that’s going. Much of the stuff the kids made when they were teeny tiny is also going – I’ll just keep a few select, favorite creations. I have thrown out a few pictures of people or places that I don’t recognize. Today alone, I filled one garbage bag full with this kind of paper/picture/letter stuff.

It gets tricky when it comes to my mom and dad’s papers and pictures. Dad was really into genealogy and I’ve told myself I might want to read all his findings “someday” – but that means holding on to copious amounts of paperwork in the meantime. Also, all his writings that were never published (and which I can barely read because his handwriting was so terrible) – I can’t quite part with it yet. Especially because from what I’ve read, it seems like many of his spiritual struggles were similar to mine and I feel like if I really take time to read it, I might come to understand him in a way I haven’t before. I would like that. Perhaps I will post some of his writing here – and then I guess technically it WILL be published. That would be a dream come true for my dad.

I think I’ll start right now.  Hold on – I’m going downstairs to get one of his notebooks…

I’m back. I grabbed a notebook from 1969 – he would have been 36 years old. This was the year before I was born. By this time, he had been on disability leave from parish ministry for a while – maybe 5 years. He left full-time ministry because of his various health issues after only three years in the parish.

“Purpose

The air can be stifling. So hot and miserable that it chokes. There’s an absence of that “peace that passes all understanding.”  We may reach for our old escape hatches. We find they are gone.

I felt so alone that I feared each moment. A meaningless moment is hell. To wander aimlessly without purpose is hell. There must be a purpose and a goal.

There’s nothing so stifling as the loss of peace. I lost that peace. I was serving at Tea, South Dakota (as a pastor). The nest became rougher and rougher. Finally, I was forced from the nest. I couldn’t fly – I hid in apartments. I hid from all the world.

But peace escaped me. Again and again, I tried to fly – I couldn’t. Then things became worse. I fell into deep depression. The darkness of night was frightening. I feared life and I feared death. 

How can I explain the inner torture? How can someone understand the inner hell I knew?”

He never spoke about any of this to us. He wrote down his heart. I do that, too.

These last days as I’ve been worrying about health issues, I’ve been pondering that passage from Philippians about “peace that passes all understanding.” I hope my dad eventually found that peace at some point during his earthly life. If he did, I hope he wrote about it so I can find out someday – somewhere in those piles and piles of paper in my basement.

 

 

 

De-cluttering – With a Twist

Sometimes the slightest pivot in circumstance puts things in a whole new light.

Last week, I was happily de-cluttering my house with fervor. It was fun and satisfying to fill up another bag or box with items that were mostly just taking up space. I enjoyed pondering why I kept all these things so long and how much time had passed since I last touched or used this or that.

Then, I started noticing an irritation, a sensation really, in my throat that was unusual and has been lingering for a few weeks now. I don’t want to describe it too much because I’m not looking for any help with diagnosing – but I will say it was troubling enough that I went to the doctor, and she is concerned enough that suddenly I’m having a small battery of tests to determine what is going on.

And I’m freaking out.

I hate to admit it. I would like people to think I am constantly filled with the peace that passes all understanding, but the truth is that I am not. Not always, anyway. In fact, the last few days I’ve been overreacting with fervor. Just ask the kind radiologist who happened to do my ultrasound yesterday. I burst into tears as soon as I walked into his little ultrasound room. He was so nice as he said comforting things and handed me tissues and water. But you see, I kept thinking about how the only other times I had  ultrasounds were because we were expecting a baby – and what if this ultrasound finds something that is terrible and I’m dying and I have to leave my beautiful babies and this beautiful life and…

The ultrasound showed nothing.

So now I am having another kind of test scheduled soon and in the meantime, I’m telling myself to breathe, to stop imagining the worst, to think about what this intense fear I have is all about and what it is trying to tell me.

I think the fear comes partly from the generalized fear that most mothers have of something happening and not being around for our children.

It’s partly because I have spent time with so many sick people over the years, visited them, prayed with them, and seen their quality of life slowly diminish, and sometimes be extinguished. I don’t want that. But then, neither did they. None of us ever know when or if illness will strike.

It’s partly because my own father was sick for so many years and it stripped away all his joy and life in his life. I still grieve how his poor health robbed him, and our family, of so much.

It’s partly because my father-in-law died from a cancer that began as an irritation in his throat…

See, all these things! I may be healthy as can be…or maybe there is something wrong. I’m in the in-between time right now when I don’t yet know. So, staying busy helps and I want to throw myself even deeper into the de-cluttering…

But now when I sort through another tub of papers or clothes, there’s a quiet, but impressively over-dramatic voice in the back of my head whispering, “Well, that’s one less thing for Chad and the kids to take care of when I’m gone.”

You can see how the whole spirit of de-cluttering has shifted in this light.

I’m sure I’m fine…or maybe I’m not…either way, I’m alive now and nothing is bad. I woke up and gave my children breakfast, and helped my long-haired 11-year-old boy comb his thick blonde hair into a pony-tail. I went for a jog and while I did some cleaning I listened to some spectacular mix-tapes I found while going through old boxes. I just ate the perfect hard-boiled egg. I’m infinitely thankful God gave me this day. This gorgeous, one-of-a-kind,  possibility-filled, breath-taking day.

 

 

 

What to Keep, What to Not Keep

The process of decluttering is still surprisingly easy. Still, bags are leaving my house each day. I’m getting to know the man at the thrift store who takes in donations pretty well. Yesterday we chatted about the weather as I unloaded boxes of books, games, clothes, toys, etc. As I released into his care the theological tomes of pastors before me that were “gifted” unto me, the glass bowls that generations of other women in my family served potatoes or a nice jello salad, the countless random decorations I don’t ever look at but still take up space and collect dust, I felt nothing but glad and ready to go home and fill up more boxes.

When in the process of purging I come across something that makes me pause heavily, even if it is something I will likely never use again, like my simple wedding dress, or some particularly beloved item my children made for me, I set it down and let it be. There still has to be some room for keeping, for the sentimental.

But not much. The end goal is to store most all photographs and papers digitally, only one box of keepsakes will be kept. One small shelf of favorite books. My wardrobe pared down to the essentials. Any decorations or furniture will be carefully thought out and kept at an extreme minimum.

I have a long way to go, but I already notice space is opening up in our house. It’s already becoming easier to find things and to keep things clean without so much to move around and go through.

For a while, I needed to hold on to so much that belonged to my family members who died and passed it down to me, but that need is now gone. I’m releasing so much of what I have been holding on tightly for the last many years, both emotionally and materially. Bless it and let it go. Give thanks and release.

No wonder I’m feeling lighter every day.