This is what the past few weeks have felt like.

Sand Traps and John Milton

This is what the past few weeks have felt like.

Imagine me clawing my way up out of a particularly deep pit of sand, spitting grains of grit every which way. *ptuey, ptue ptuey!*

Blech. It’s been a hard, intense last couple of weeks in Real Life World. My mom was back in the hospital a bit (but is doing much better now!); potty-training is in full-swing (almost there!!); married life continues to demand a lot of focus and effort in order to grow and thrive (and plenty more difficult conversations–that being said, though, they are getting easier!!); my own internal demons continue to nip away at me; I’m singing in the choir for a local orchestral production of Verdi’s Requiem, which we perform this Friday; I’m trying to get my poetry workshop in order for June and continuing to teach Latin; family has been in town for visits; we’re getting back to house projects that we’ve let languish for weeks; we’ve started to hunt about seriously for our next house; and I continue with volunteering commitments for She’s Somebody’s Daughter and our church’s meal ministry. And we FINALLY got some beautiful days of spring weather, so the boys and I have spent a lot of time outside lately.

All that being said, my online life has waned dramatically.

Which, arguably, isn’t a bad thing, given the priorities that I’ve cut back on it for. But I’m still discouraged that I haven’t kept up very well with most of you reading this, or your blogs. There are a lot of wonderful people out there that I want to continue to build ties with, and it’s just sad that the nature of reality stands in the way of my ideals of perfect connection with everyone I encounter, online or in person.

So I hope you know I’m thinking of you, reading what I can as time permits, and praying for you as the occasion arises.

I have all these ideas that I want to blog about, too–but encouraging my 4-year-old’s newfound interest in FINALLY trying to write numbers (not letters–he’s still opposed to that–but he can and WILL happily make number shapes now, after I’ve suggested he try to write ANYTHING here and there for a year!), practicing how to share my emotional state honestly and openly with my husband without being combative, and getting my house into a lesser state of disarray–efforts like these are more important to me in this moment.

There have been very hard-won victories of patience, self-awareness, and persistence in the face of low-reward outcomes… outcomes that, in the grand scheme of things, really are remarkably important. They just feel rather like a let-down when they arrive because the amount of work to achieve them feels disproportionate to me somehow. But there my high expectations lead me astray again.


 

Ever tried to peel one of these--with a vegetable peeler? Bad idea.

Today, for example, has been an endless exercise in releasing expectations and their accompanying fears. It feels just like skinning an overripe avocado with a vegetable peeler–wholly unnatural. Who would do that?!

It’s so much easier to believe my broken ways of feeling and relating really aren’t a problem–they’re just part of what makes me different. It’s hard for me to think of them as wrong or anything like the source of destruction and heartache under the surface of my awareness.

But that describes so much of how we relate, mistakenly, to life: if we haven’t thought of something ourselves, it solicits every ounce of our skepticism.

Just because I don’t naturally, easily, readily think of my hyper-vigilance and senseless anxiety as anything but normal, healthy, and good doesn’t mean they ARE those things.

It means I take bad things for granted–bad things I could otherwise ditch.


 

Emotions exist in our brains. That doesn't make them more or less real than any other part of our existence.

Now, one conscious rejection of broken thought patterns does nothing–and, let me be clear, *NOTHING*–to re-write the neural pathways that solidified them to begin with. Not in that moment, not perceptibly. My subconscious can, and often does, draw me right back again to the nameless, reasonless worry that my consciousness formally rejected ten seconds before.

Christians will call this influence Satan’s work, or the work of my sin nature, and that I simply need to reject it repeatedly, firmly, or else distract myself with something else. Portions of this approach may be effective in some situations; but taken all by itself, I think this understanding is outright wrong and harmful. Spiritual warfare/moral mastery simply isn’t all there is to it.

Regardless of what prompts them–the devil, the sin nature, the Spirit of God, or any number of ethically neutral experiences and awarenesses–emotions are biological phenomena. Neural pathways house the electrical impulses that we experience as emotional sensation, which manifests itself in our bodies (if you not so sure, go talk to Dr. Laura Markham). I believe I heard this first in grade school; as a good fundamentalist cadet, I rejected the claim wholesale because it didn’t jive with my concept of emotions as a wholly spiritual ballgame–something completely disconnected from physical reality.

I believed this because I was taught that emotions are *always* something I could have control of, regardless of my physical OR mental state (which I also oddly thought of as mostly disconnected from physical reality since my childhood also taught me that intelligence was something you could attain through sheer obedience and diligence, which are moral character traits). Why? Because emotions had moral values assigned to them–they could be good, or they could be evil–and if they carried moral weight, and I was expected to live in a completely morally upright way, then it must be possible to control my emotions in such a way as to only cultivate “good” emotions and to clear out “evil” emotions. To avoid experiencing the evil ones at all was, in fact, the ideal impressed upon me.

I don’t think it’s just me. My wide experience of evangelical Christianity in general tells me that we, as a culture, have no concept of emotions as biology. It seems to be a completely foreign notion to us. And yet it is broadly documented and demonstrable in every moment your breath quickens at the sight of a loved one; every occasion in which you clench your jaw or squeeze your fists; every episode in which the skin on your face and between your shoulder blades tightens because you are trying so hard NOT to let the “wrong” emotion show and certainly never at any awkward or perceivably inappropriate time because goodness knows Christians MUST NOT let emotions control them–and so instead they spill out over your body in ways you don’t realize and you begin hunching, cowering, craning your neck and suffering mysterious pains and aches and stomach upset…

Because by squelching your emotions instead of studying, understanding, and effectively expressing them, you have indeed let them control you–physically and pronouncedly, though never intentionally.

How’s that goin’ for ya, GM?


 

Comfort *requires* physical touch.

As you might expect, the whole experience has been severely debilitating for decades. Just endlessly “rejecting” Satan or the sin nature hasn’t helped a whit in the long-term.

What has helped, though, has been allowing myself to feel ALL my emotions–even the irrational, deeply unsettling ones–understanding what is behind them, and resolving the source of those fears, worries, and frustrations with truths grounded in trustworthy experience of goodness, love, and security. Falling back on that absolute truth that Jesus loves me *in all my sin and in all my mistakes* as evidenced by the countless kindnesses he blesses me with each day (sunlight/rain/children/shoes/gas in the car/fattening foods I don’t need but love/cats/hugs/birdsong/video games/laughter/the smell of garlic cooking/hyacinths/blogs/paintings/poetry/Latin/computers/shelter/listening ears/my mother/the smell of my baby’s hair/the softness of my bedsheets/my husband’s smile/ETC.) does a lot to physically demonstrate to my physical body that I am loved. I. Am. LOVED.

And all the tensions and nervousness and nightmares created by countless memories of being unloved and unwanted and rejected and neglected: they are not relevant to the present moment in which I physically experience the love of God. And I can let them go.

They are no longer as real as the present time of goodness and love which He has set before me.

Then, when the neural pathways/Satan try to pull me back into detrimental, habitual thought patterns, I *can* say with good reason, “Nope. I know exactly why there is no reason to go there. I’ll tell you all about it.” I allow the sponge in my skull to soak up all the reassurance and resolution available for the fears that triggered my fight/flight response in the past, the button for which my subconscious and the devil take turns prodding.

And–after many repeated iterations of this practice–the devil will leave me alone for a time, and my neural networks gradually make some headway on rewiring themselves into healthy, positive patterns of emotional thought.

It. Takes. Time. And the right approach.


 

five to ten seconds: the eternal perspective you need in a moment

The hardest part is feeling desperate for the good effects to take place immediately, or else to feel guilt over not doing it the “right way,” as I was taught. I.e., setting mental fire to those unwanted emotions and ignoring their existence–until they burst out violently and damage everything.

(I think Satan cleverly takes advantage of me there, especially.)

And this is where the patience the last several weeks have demanded of me comes in particularly handy. Patiently addressing the difficult emotions and complicated baggage that keeps dragging me (or others) down, in detail, without shortcuts. Patiently accepting whatever steps forward we make, however small. Patiently resting in God’s expectations for us–which are so, so much lower than mine.

Without this patience no real progress is made.

Without this patience, I run ragged, desperately searching for a peace that I could only find while holding still.

My favorite psalm came to me once again this morning:

Lord, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

From this time forth and forever.

(Psalm 131, NKJV)

 

And I am reminded, as well, of this sonnet by John Milton (Sonnet 19):

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

This blog may have to stand and wait for a little while yet… but I hope you see why I’m finding it worthwhile.

Love to all.

–GM

 

I always believe the ideal is waiting just over the horizon.

Escape From the Ideal

I always believe the ideal is waiting just over the horizon.

 

All the places you ever wanted to escape to

are always

Here

in the end.


 

I published this poem on my “professional” blog a week or two back just to demonstrate that, yes, I actually am a writer… in the unlikely event any of my “serious” work is ever accepted for publication by any (established) journal. But I also wanted to talk about it here on this blog, which is much more interactive/conversational.

First off, a shout-out to valdelo of Silently Screaming for the simple encouragement to keep writing. That little nudge prompted me to see if I had anything in me tonight… and voila. (More about the power of nudges in a future post!)

Anyhow. This poem popped into my head as I was contemplating my pronounced tendency to look to the horizon for salvation. I have the *worst* time practicing mindfulness–i.e., focus and attention fixed on the present, experiencing and appreciating all it has to offer, not lingering in the past or endlessly planning out the future. The Yercoviches refer to this tendency as “reviewing and rehearsing,” a behavior practiced by vacillators (such as myself) who tend to devalue or idealize events (this is just the link to a summary of the “core pattern” handout where they describe these tendencies, which you can also find available for purchase on their site). I.e., I tend to feel that the past could have always played out better, so I rehash it endlessly trying to “troubleshoot” for future improvement–or I believe that a future event can be perfectly managed if I only plan it out carefully enough, so I overthink constantly (and heavily).

This leads to endless annoyance or discontent or discomfort with a new place or relationship or experience or accomplishment once I’ve finally arrived at it and it has become familiar. All of a sudden, my daydream of freedom and hope and life and possibility has been replaced by obstinate reality grounded in simple, uncomfortable, less-than-ideal facts. It’s not even that reality is really that bad–it just doesn’t match up completely with my daydream. For a vacilator, this loss of the ideal is crushing.

So I have to learn not to value the ideal so darn much.

This is made easier when I realize how many downright stupid, unimportant things I idealize (like not having crumbs on the floor, or having clean bathrooms [honestly, isn’t it far more significant to realize the incredible blessing of HAVING a fully functional bathroom–or even more than one?!], or keeping runny toddler noses off all the furniture)?

It’s harder when I’ve idealized things that *seem* more important, though–like having firm, stable, relationships with loved ones. But firmness and stability don’t look or feel exactly like my imagination tells me (since I don’t have a lot of experience in those areas compared to some, idealized imagination sets my hopes and expectations–not reality). Letting go of these imaginings and finding the courage instead to emotionally experience the reality I’m in–good, bad, and everything in between–is a huge challenge.

It’s deeply intimidating particularly because the reality I experienced for so long taught me *not* to trust, feel, or seek communion with others when relationships have even a whiff of going south about them–in large part because it was never demonstrated to me that doing so *could work*. I also had basically no idea where to start: what does trusting, feeling, and seeking communion look like in a relationship that’s actually worth it–where it’s safe, advisable, and even necessary from a mental health perspective?

However, finding myself in truly worthwhile, long-term relationships has shown me that the old way of relating isn’t going to work here; I need to develop a new skill set.

Fixing all my hopes for happiness and security on the imaginary ideal place, situation, or companion will only leave me despondent when I finally reach my destination–and realize it’s not *everything* I made it out to be.

It will always end up being the experience I’m left to engage with in the present–the current, immediate moment–the one place I’ve had small confidence and found little comfort in for so long.

I will continue to do just that–as long as my expectations are that my ideal *should be* the reality.

The truth, however, is that I can’t change the reality in front of me–but I can, gradually, change my perspective on it and how I interact with it.

The details of this elude me constantly, but I’ve found one mantra from the How We Love website quite helpful. To paraphrase:

“It’s not as bad as I think it is, and it’s not as good as I want it to be.”

Accepting this as unchangeable truth helps me to regulate my expectations and, thus, avoid getting too working up one way or the other. It requires me to let go of my own demands upon reality and exchange them for trust, instead, that my needs will be met–perhaps not how I’d like them to be, but they will be met–by the people who really *do* love me, as they have tangibly and consistently demonstrated over an extended period of time, through the providence of a God who has demonstrated enormous care and love for me over a much longer time frame.

This is the proper way to reflect upon the past: to search it for all the good and love I’ve received, practicing a new, unnatural approach to reflection–rather than picking through it for the parts that didn’t match my original skewed ideals and ruminating over the uncomfortable bits.

And it’s the proper way to envision the future: with calm, simple confidence that my idealized plans will not come to fruition, and are not worth the time I spend on them, but that whatever else happens instead will still be manageable and even full of blessing from a divine agent I can’t possibly anticipate or control–which terrifies me, which reminds me that I need to sink deep into reflections of his steadfast, unshakeable love once more. Because “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18, NKJV).


 

Lord, well over a decade ago I wrote about this, seeking to experience the unfathomable love you have for me, because I needed to be free from fear. I still do. I fear constantly–big things, little things, imaginary things that feel too much like the actual reality of times past to be ignored. Lord, please–free me from torment. Free me from fear. Cast me into perfect love: love based in reality and well-founded expectations, that it may cast out every fear caused by unmet, idealized expectations. Exchange my broken mindset for your healing way of thinking. Help me to be patient with the process (avoiding unrealistic expectations yet again!); lead me to all the tools I need, and bless them with your presence. Thank you for loving me, even when I can’t fully sense it. Especially then. Amen.

 

It’s been a long week

Hi, friends. I’ve had a gritty week.

Hardship #1: Mr. Eyes is in his (likely) final sleep regression at 22 months; what this looks like is a night of great sleep, followed by a night of crying and wakefulness every hour or so, followed by a night or two of great sleep, followed by a sleepless night… you get the picture. We’re finishing week 2 of this, so hopefully we’ll be through it soon. In the meantime, I never know if I’m going to have all my marbles the next morning or not… and if not, I have much less brain capacity for Internetz. Hence you haven’t heard much from me.

Hardship #2: The marriage has taken a few hits this week, too, thanks to a handful of somewhat-more-drastic-than-usual mistakes being made, some arduous late-night conversations (which allowed us to make good relational/behavior progress with one another but were still grueling to get through, especially given hardship #1 above), and a pretty dramatic relapse on my part back into vacillating attachment behavior. I hadn’t had a flair-up in awhile and didn’t expect one, but I should have: a few weeks of escalating frustrations coupled with a particular triggering incident dumped me down the elevator shaft of old, broken ways of thinking, and I had built myself a mud castle at the bottom before I realized it. Shew. It was bad. Thank God, I have a compassionate, attentive mentor in my pastor’s wife, and a phone call with her allowed me to blow off a lot of steam in a healthy, safe context; and, thankfully, my counselor has equipped me with some state-of-the-art resources that allow me to identify my broken, unhealthy thought patterns and respond to my triggers with wisdom and compassion and, thus, humility. Also, thankfully, I have a very long-suffering husband who is working hard to understand the layers of problems I’m continually sorting through and help me cope with them.

Hardship #3: My mother is going in for major surgery on Tuesday, and while I’ve tried hard not to think about it, this is really troubling for me. She’s going to have 90 staples in her stomach when all is said and done, and the recovery will take at least a month if not more time. She’ll be on a liquid diet and stuck at the hospital for days. She’s worried, and I’m worried for her. I’m worried for my sister, too, who lives with my mom and depends on her greatly for all kinds of support. They are coming up to celebrate Easter with us and my husband’s family tomorrow, and I’ve been worried how that all will go, too…. partly because of #4 below:

Hardship #4: This is my own fault, but I took on some cooking tasks for tomorrow. While I enjoy cooking, after the other stressors of the week, this has introduced a lot of extra nervous tension into my moment-by-moment existence. I actually spent the majority of today with a horrible stomachache, apparently caused by *eating*, of all things (both breakfast and dinner induced horrible pangs; aside from those meals I grazed lightly the rest of the day, and while that didn’t hurt so much, it didn’t seem to help so much either)… since the pain has seemingly finally gone away after a liberal application of antacid tabs, and since there were no other symptoms, my best guess is that I have a build-up of stomach acid caused by stress. Because this isn’t the first time similar things have happened to me, I’m very inclined to hang my head and throw up my hands. Shoot, I screwed myself over *again*. That’s all I can think. …But, at least I can be super grateful that whatever it is seems to have passed. I’m just praying it doesn’t flair up again tomorrow (and if you’re the praying sort… I really wouldn’t mind prayers toward that end <3).


 

So, after all that, I kind of just wanted to fill in those of you who might be wondering where I’ve been this week… to keep it real, keep it honest… keep it gritty. I especially wanted to get this out before tomorrow, because, well, Easter:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?

Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for usWho shall separate us from the love of Christ?

Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or swordAs it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to comenor height nor depth, nor any other created thing,

shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

–Romans 8:31-39

 

…Nor tummy aches nor sleeplessness nor toddlers nor family gatherings nor anxiety nor depression nor self-destruction nor over-commitment nor idealization nor devaluing nor history nor triggers nor any other brokenness

can separate me from the love of God.

He is risen.

Jesus has risen from the grave, warming us as the dawn.