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Archive for August, 2010

Sleep Refused

I wrote this a few weeks ago, for another project. Since I’m exhausted and can’t sleep, it seemed to fit tonight (with a few tiny edits).

Sleep has eluded me as long as I can remember. Something in me turns on after dark, and once the switch has been flipped there’s nothing I can do to shut it off. No matter how exhausted I was all day long, at 10pm my mind starts racing as the limitations of the demands of the daytime fade into the background. But it hasn’t always been so much fun to stay up late.

Some of my earliest memories include laying in bed in the dark, feeling so small surrounded by such a tremendously powerful world. I was terrified of what might be outside of my covers in the darkness. Nightmares were regular occurrences, and upon waking I was usually too petrified to move. If I woke my father up, loud scolding would ensue, making the problem worse because then I would be awake, terrified, crying, and my parents would be arguing about what to do with me. For times when I did get up for help, I mastered the art of waking my mother with the tiniest whisper while my father snored beside her.

But on the bad nights, I would pull the covers up over my head, leaving enough space for fresh air to come in near my nose. And I would wait for sleep to come.

I had visions of a world where the forces of good and evil battled on my ceiling. Evil was a dark, writhing mass of mechanical giants, and good was a glowing field of tiny pink and yellow flowers. The two danced against each other, and though I was always afraid the evil would win out, there were always some flowers left. As I remember it now, it’s almost as if the tiny blooms protected me from everything I feared, leaving at least a glimmer of hope that things could get better.

I think I had some out-of-body experiences, where I would hover near the ceiling watching myself in bed. During these times the room was enormous, and though I could feel every cell in my body, I was unable to move as I drifted in and out of reality.

As I got older, I began to try all sorts of things to get myself to relax. But it was too late by then. Bedtime had become a source of anxiety, and the later it got, the more worried I became.

When I was in fifth grade, I got a clock radio. I could set it to shut the radio off after 59 minutes, ample time for most people to drift off to sleep. I listened to a soft rock station called WINK 94.1; their nighttime program was called “Pillow Talk.” Lovers could call in requests of songs like More Than Words and Take these Broken Wings.

Often I would lay there in the half-darkness, trying everything I could to relax, and then that dreadful moment would arrive when the radio turned itself off. “What? I’ve been laying here for an hour already?!” Heart pounding in my ears, chest constricting, chin trembling, I would vault across the darkened room to hit the button on the clock radio to set it for another hour, then leap back into bed. And I would worry. What if I can’t wake up for school in the morning? That big test is tomorrow. And I have a volleyball game after school, how will I have enough energy?

Insomnia has stayed with me throughout my entire life. As I grew older, it took on different forms. In my teenage years and young adulthood, I welcomed sleeplessness as an excuse to stay out and party all night. Once I sobered up and found myself married with a family of my own, I stayed up late after my daughter finally went to sleep, trying to finish art projects, cleaning up the kitchen, or repainting the bathroom. At least somewhere along the line I learned to get up and do something if sleep refused to come.

A few weeks ago I made a pact with a friend to change my ways, to rise at 6 every morning and be more spiritual and productive with my time. I’m doing well so far, but I wonder if the insomnia will return, if I will ever be able to release whatever it is that about the night that simultaneously entices and petrifies to this day.

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The Wise Fool

A simple thought returns again and again throughout the day: I am not God. Yes, I know this is obvious…but not as easy to comprehend as it seems it should be. I’m amazed at how many times throughout each day I try to get other people to do things the way I want (read: manipulate) in an attempt to feel powerful and God-like. Well, at least as close to God as my imagination can take me.

And then I remember exactly why I am not God. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t use guilt trips; in fact he considers wallowing in guilt and shame a sin, a defamation of the holy temple he created my body to be. He never forces or entices us into doing his will, even when he knows for certain that our choices will lead us into tragedy and disaster.

After years of studying healthier ways of emotional expression, my actions are finally beginning to change. I’m growing up, walking in maturity. I’m learning to keep my mouth shut instead of bossing or demanding. I’m learning to identify my own feelings, and not to project how I feel onto other people. I’m learning to pause before I make requests to be certain that I’m giving the answerer the autonomy she needs to say “no” if she needs to.

But what happens internally if I make a request of someone else and the answer is no? Well, usually I obsess on it, write about it, call someone about it and “vent” for an hour, call my mother and cry about it and then proceed to dump all my other emotional baggage at her feet…it can get pretty ugly.

Until now. Something is different. Something inside of me has snapped, and all the anxious, obsessive thoughts are beginning to unwind. I’m not claiming to be perfect or anything…I still have tantrums, still manipulate and make demands. But I am claiming to have grown in emotional and spiritual maturity.

I had a conversation with my friend Havilah today that started with me saying something like this (loose paraphrase): “Wah wah wah!!! Complain complain it’s all his fault bitch complain blame wah! (this goes on for about 5 minutes, at which point I am able to cut myself off from venting) Huff, puff, sigh! Phew…sorry about that. I’m done now. So anyways…uh, how are you?”

Doesn’t exactly sound mature, eh? But I was able to cut myself off from spiraling into self-pity alongside of the grandiose idea that I might be better than the people about whom I was complaining. And I didn’t ask Havilah to fix it or give me an answer. It’s great to have friends who can just listen without trying to fix me. So progress was made even in midst of the setback.

Havilah proceeded to tell me a story about a situation when she trusted in God even when the results seemed up in the air, how she’s learning to pray and let go of her desired results, and how God has been working even in the little details of her life. In other words, she was able to resist the temptation to manipulate, make demands, or control the circumstances and God worked it out peacefully in a way she never could have accomplished had it been left up to her.

And then she shared a challenge with me: once we learn to let go on an outward, visible level, we will then need to learn to let go inwardly. Now it’s time for us to deal with all the crap on the inside, the anxiety and fear, the self-loathing and obsessive thinking. It’s one thing to make peace with the people around me, but another to feel peace inwardly and then act from a place of faith and trust.

As I approach my 32nd year of life, I’m just now learning to welcome and cultivate a space for inner peace. Some days I have it, some days it seems I’ve never experienced it at all. Proverbs 14:1 says it well: “A wise woman builds her house; a foolish woman tears hers down with her own hands.” I am the wise fool; when I succeed it brings glory to God, and when I fail it is all self-sabotage. So I am learning to pay closer attention and think twice before I try to snatch the master plans out of God’s hands. I’m learning that he’s the head of my one-woman construction crew, and that when I try to take the lead it tends to be a day of demolition.

You see, God’s plan for my life is but a mere speck, a single thread in the infinite tapestry of creation. For me to think I know what’s best in my own life is questionable; to think that I know what’s best in the lives of others is plain insanity. Changing my own plan could create holes in the tapestry a few rows over, or ruin the blending of the many-colored strands. Trying to change the plans for others can create a mess seemingly beyond repair.

The baffling fact behind all these metaphors is this: That somehow the times when I grab for my blueprints and run for the hills are still part of the plan. How does God do it? How does he know all the good and all the bad, and still accept and love me as I am?

I can’t answer this question, and so I will pray for more understanding, and a deeper sense of unconditional love in my life. I’ll close with a prayer written in these few verses from Romans which sum everything up beautifully and reinforce the fact that I am not God, thank heavens for that!

Romans 14:6-9

What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.”

Amen.

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We are into the wilds of summer, the days when everything has grown impossibly tall, when the morning glories are attempting to blanket the garden no matter how far below average the rainfall total has been. The days when the chickens start disappearing in the night, as darkness falls sooner and predators lurk longer. The days when temperatures never fall below 75 degrees, and the air clings to sweat-damp clothes which cling to skin, leaving no protection from the swarming mosquitoes.

August is always the hardest month for me here in the south. It seems that all these relentless forces will never let up. Sometimes I think the soil itself is going to start creeping up over our houses, turning every bit of organic matter into compost so the weeds can have their way. The synthetic parts will be left for the roaches to inhabit. I fall into days or even weeks of depression. I don’t feel like talking much (which is not normal for me, an extreme extrovert who usually needs to process my thoughts aloud), except for when I’m yelling at my kids or nagging my husband.

This year is no different, at least not circumstantially. The weeds are plotting their coup of the garden, rain has been scarce, chickens and turkeys have been mauled, heat has been relentless, dirt clings to every surface, bugs are taking up residence in my kitchen, and I haven’t exactly been a happy camper. What is different, though, is my response to all of these forces.

I’m preparing to facilitate a study session on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). During my review this morning, I was reminded of the true meaning of responsibility: it literally means to be able to respond. So when I take responsibility for a situation or circumstance, it more or less means I think I’m able to do something about it.

Last weekend I attended a retreat on co-dependence at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. It was titled “Jesus was not co-dependent, are you?” We were given a copy of the serenity prayer at our first session:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

I am not able to change other people. I am not able to change God. I cannot control the bugs, weeds, dirt and temperatures, no matter how hard I might try. I am responsible for me, and only me. Everything else comes after that. This might sound selfish. But for a co-dependent alcoholic like me it means the difference between a relatively peaceful existence and a life lived in hell. On my good days I choose to follow the wisdom of the prayer, and on my bad days, well…

So what makes this summer different? In learning about my responsibilities, I’m starting to place self-care at the top of my list of things to do every day. I’m following Jesus’ instructions from Matthew 5:37, which reads, “Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” I make sure I mean it when I say “yes”, and I allow myself the space to say “no”. In the past I spent much of my “free time” thinking about what others must think or what I needed to do to get others to act right. But now I’m paying more attention to what I think, and whether or not I’m acting right.

Many factors have led to this critical shift in my thinking and behavior, but two stand out of late. The first happened about a month ago when I found a copy of Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic at the local Salvation Army. Not only has this book helped me to take a different approach to these heightened qualities that my children have possessed from birth; it also showed me that I’m a spirited adult. This realization has taught me to give myself some grace, as I recognize that I was born with my temperament and there are positive solutions to character traits that I used to despise. Once I allow myself room to be who God created me to be, I am able to do the same for the other people in my life.

The second was the deep silence I experienced during my time at the monastery. Before I left, I felt a bit of anxiety about the idea of so many hours a day in silence. As an extrovert, I need conversation and interaction to recharge my energy levels. I feared I would return to Koinonia more exhausted than when I left.

The first night was pretty strange, but I did enjoy my silent dinner. I watched a steady rainfall in the garden through the patio doors, and I was grateful to be anonymous in the room full of strangers. I wondered why it was always so important for me to make myself known everywhere I go, and over the course of the weekend I was able to renounce the ego boost I get from telling my life story. My life is not my own, and the story is best when I use it according to God’s will instead of attempting to impress others.

The discipline of the monks floored me. They spend 6-7 hours a day in prayer, gathering 5 times every day in the abbey church for communal prayer and spending 2-3 hours in silent, solitary contemplation. They practice a “grand silence” from 8pm to 8am, other than morning vigils from 4-5am and mass from 7-8am. They eat their meals together in silence, listening to readings of scripture and theological or contemplative texts. They also work, earning their living by the sweat of their brow.

But the discipline alone was not enough. During the retreat sessions, I was gifted by the stories of Br. Michael, who has been a monk for 14 years. Before I left on Monday morning he made time to talk with me specifically about our experiences of life in community. Needless to say, it was such a great relief to hear that even with all their years of  practice and commitment, the monks live through the same issues we face during these years of rebuilding community at Koinonia.

I was surprised to find that I wasn’t quite ready to leave the silence at the end of my three-day sojourn. Looking back, I can see that my anxiety before the retreat was based in the fear of what I might discover in silence. What I found was nothing fearful, rather a simple reverence for God’s presence in the mundane events of my life.

I plan to continue this practice of silence, and it’s going to take a lot of prayer and dedication to find quiet in the midst of my hectic communal family life. But I’m willing to do whatever it takes…even continuing to face the wilds of the Georgia summer, year after year…to remain in the presence of God.

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