Break Down or Break Open

I recently gifted myself with Oprah Winfrey’s book The Wisdom of Sundays.

blur-book-book-pages-415061Everything about this book was made for me (or people who are a lot like me LOL). The linen cover feels good. The pages are thick. The images are sumptuous. Each page a finely-tuned balance between text and graphic. It’s really exquisite and that’s without even getting to the content. On each page there is an excerpt of a conversation Ms. Winfrey had with some modern luminary. They are organized by theme and are just the right length for a quick dose of inspiration or insight. I’ve been reading a little every morning. It has been delicious and enlightening.

Today I came across this quote from Elizabeth Lesser: “You can either break down and stay broken down and eventually shut down, or you can break open. It’s a decision you make. It’s a commitment.”


The idea of breaking open wasn’t new to me, but that decision bit, that was something I hadn’t given a lot of time. I got it intellectually right away, and it fits with my take on the world, our reactions, our choices, our power, but it felt big enough for me that I had to take a few minutes to think about those moments of breaking down and breaking open in my life. I could see the difference. I could slot those moments into their respective categories. And, with the gift of retrospect, I could see the choice.

I could see the choice to stay broken after my parents’ divorce.

I could see the choice to shut down when my college didn’t heap praise on my acting and music skills that had been honed in high school.

I could see the choice to stay broken after losing a baby in a near fatal miscarriage.

I could see the decision to shut down as an overwhelmed and unhappy stay at home Mom.

I could see the decision to break open as I addressed that overwhelm and unhappy after a few years in.

I could see the decision to break open when my Dad died a year and a half ago.

I could see all of those choices. I honor them. There is no judgment because I can also see how in each of those moments I didn’t feel like I was choosing. I felt like I was doing the best that I could do, and perhaps given what I knew at the time, I was. It’s okay. The lesson about the choice isn’t a tool for looking back with scorn or praise. The lesson about the choice is the tool for seeing the present while I’m in it. The lesson about the choice is the way to bring to consciousness the decisions that have been automatic in the past.

I’ve had a bit of a dark night of the soul lately. Some of it was medical, as I’ve explained over the last week, but some of it most definitely was not. It was backlash.

You see a long time ago I had a pretty active spiritual life. The idea of faith was something I openly engaged with. Sometimes this happened in religious settings, churches and the like, but oftentimes it didn’t. I explored these ideas on my own from early days and my interest and dedication to that discussion with myself ebbed and flowed as it does for so many. And then it just broke.

I can’t tell you the exact moment that happened. Looking back I think it was more of a series of things that made it too hard to believe, too hard to grapple with the notion of a benevolent omniscient force. The extent of the shut down for me was made clear one night at a party. It was not long after my nearly fatal miscarriage. I was struggling: struggling to go to grad school, struggling to want to see friends, struggling with just about everything. But we went to this party because our closest friends were hosting and attending and that’s just what we did. I drank too much, which was also what we did at that time. And then one of our friends, I know in an attempt to be compassionate, started in with the: “It’s all part of God’s plan” routine. I don’t think those were exact words, but it was one of those sentences from the list of stupid shit people say to grieving people. I might have gotten heated. I had some things to say about God. They were loud. Another friend joined in and began playing the role of mediator. I wanted nothing to do with a God that let this shit happen to me and that sentiment devolved into a brief survey of tragedy and horror in the world at top volume. Case closed. This is, at least, the way I remember that night.

That night was a LONG time ago. About 15 years I think, but it seems like even longer in so many ways.

And I snap back to the present and what feels like a bit of a break down that emerged after what I can only describe as the return of some glimmer of faith, of hope, of belief in the unseen, the impossible, and in the power of love to manifest miracles on earth. My curiosity and relief quickly turned to fear as I chose to stay broken rather than inhabit that exquisite space. Understand that I am not suggesting that not having faith, particularly my ill-defined and inconsistent faith is the same as being broken. What IS broken is me choosing to believe and feel things that make me small and unhappy. THAT’s the brokenness.

This latest turn towards faith feels a lot like a break down and a homecoming. When I feel the grace of it – the peace, the joy, the connection – it is homecoming. When I feel the fear of revealing who I am, when I focus on the human consequences I’m afraid are inevitable it’s break down city.

adventure-back-view-beach-185801I can see that the moments when I am in-between as a choice. I can see my attachment to the outcome in my practice – the fear of the other kids not liking me, my lack of trust, my fears about money and success as choices and yet when I make them the feel so effortless they go unnoticed. Perhaps this is the point of prayer, which is really just a spoken declaration of where we are – to bring the broken choices into the light, to name them in order to see their form so that a different choice becomes possible. If I am correct in my understanding that choice need be no more than trying to be open, to allow, to be willing.

Curiosity, action while afraid, trust: these are the tools of commitment. These are the paths of devotion. This is how we break open when we are breaking down.

So be it.

A Glimpse Into Softer Grief

Just over a year ago my sister hosted my Mom, stepfather, and my stepfather for lunch. It was the first time I was in the room with all of those people at the same time since my Dad had died the previous January. It was a little subdued and awkward, but still nice. And at that lunch, I received a bag that presented me with what we coaches like to call an opportunity.

close-up-eyeglasses-eyewear-261869The bag I got was full of my Dad’s glasses, like 10 pairs of glasses. Dad’s vision was terrible. He was shot in the eye with a BB gun as a kid (so it’s not just “You’ll shoot your eye out,” it’s “Someone will shoot your eye out”). He had detached retinas as a middle-aged man. He also was suffering from some bizarre form of macular degeneration that was causing changes in his vision on a daily basis. It’s really quite a miracle of modern medicine that he could see at all.  He was also an artist, so his changing vision (and the threat of it degenerating even more significantly) was particularly troubling.

In the last few years of his life Dad’s vision varied from day to day so he spent some time in the morning figuring out which pair of glasses were the right ones. All that is to say that when I say I had a bag of glasses, I mean I had a full bag of extremely strong glasses that variedy from one to the next to a great degree. We were told to see if there were readers or frames we could use in the mix (seeing as all four of us wear glasses, it was a sgood bet).

When I first got the bag, I set it aside, unable to look inside after I first opened it and smelled my Dad. A few months later I opened it again and pulled a few pairs out and broke down in my grief. A couple of months later the space where I had stowed the bag became necessary for stowing something else I didn’t want to deal with, so I pulled the bag out again.

It’s a strange thing to try to sort through, a bag of glasses. And as I looked through them (not through them, I should say at them), I could see each pair on my Dad. I could see him in the 80s and 90s. I could see him two years ago. I could see him painting. I could see him reading the newspaper, or sticking out his tongue and trying to fix something with small parts. I remembered him reading, tilting his head back to make his eyes cooperate for just a little while longer before he went to bed. I could see him SEEING. I could see him moving through the world visually. I could see him engaged and alive.

We donated most of those frames to organizations that distribute them through eye doctors that serve folks who could use a hand. Dad would have liked that. We only kept a few pairs, some strong magnifiers which we have used when we are repairing really small bits. And when we need them, I’m awfully glad to have them. And when I’m not paying attention I stick my tongue out just like he did because wiggling it helps to get those tiny screws just where they belong. I wonder if, when I’m wearing them, I see things like he did. A lot of times I think I probably already do that.

berry-cake-chocolate-461333As I move from one stage of grief to the next, I find myself welcoming these moments, these strange moments of communion brought on by things as strange as glasses. Sometimes it’s a song. Other times it’s food or something I read that I know he would just love. There are so many books I wish I could share with him now; as I grow we seem to have more in common than ever before. The shock of his passing has dulled (although I still get caught by surprise every now and then). Picking up his insanely strong glasses feels like sitting down with him for a few minutes, trying him on, being together. It helps me remember and it helps me imagine that he is with me still, that we can chat about books and eat a dessert together (ice cream for him, pie for me), and that feels awfully good.


Our National Wound

back-bus-education-159658There has been yet another school shooting here in the United States. As the facts emerged, I moved quickly from a moment of shock and horror to anger. Not anger at the shooter. Not anger at the institutions that are failing to address this scourge. My anger was directed at the news outlet that I rely on the most because it didn’t spend much time on it. The coverage of the situation was wrapped up in the quick hourly update. They didn’t want to interrupt their regular programming, which was focused on the Royal Wedding. I was livid.

And I spouted off – on Facebook, there was no letter-writing involved, but I spouted off nonetheless. And in spouting off I garnered some response from friends that brought me to the heart of my suffering. I ran to anger because it is easier, but I skipped some essential steps.

children-cute-drawing-159823Every time this happens, and yes, there have been enough of these incidents that I can comfortably make generalizations about my own behavior, I have to raise the question of whether or not I should be homeschooling my children. I ask myself if this is the only way to keep them safe. I ask myself what that would look like and whether it might address some other lesser concerns I have about their educational experiences. I ask myself if I could actually take that task on without losing my mind. And THEN I ask myself if it is fair for me to remove my children, if that isn’t a demonstration of the depth of my privilege. It gets messy really fast and it’s all confusion and anger, bile and swirl. They are all real questions; they are all real issues, but it feels like any other spin. And there’s a good reason for that.

It feels like spin because what I’m doing is avoiding how I feel every time this happens. My mind immediately goes to how not to feel that way any more. I don’t want to be afraid – not for my kids, not for anyone else’s kids, or for my country. And I am. I am afraid for all of us. I don’t want to feel the grief course through my body as I hear about the children who have lost their lives to our ineffectiveness. I don’t want to see my former students in those faces or imagine the lives that could have been and imagine the pain their families must be enduring. I don’t want to do any of that.

beach-boys-children-939702And yet when I skip past it, everything else becomes an impasse. All questions lead to “I don’t know” and “I don’t know what to do.” The spreadsheets alone won’t get me anywhere, even if it’s just that I need to realize there is nowhere to go.  The thinking about it won’t inspire good decisions or action or the kind of robust citizenship that is required in times like these. The thinking about it won’t sustain my resolve or make clear which path is the right one. The thinking about it won’t fuel me and propel me to use the gifts that I have to help shift this world. All of that – the resolve, the fuel, and the clarity and action – starts with the kind of honesty that comes with letting the wave of feeling happen.

I have no shame about running to anger first. There is plenty to be angry about, and feeling how I feel won’t stop that. What it will do is to allow my heart what it needs to find that path, take the next step, and to release a small piece of the grief we endure on a weekly basis. And so, I am allowing it. And I thank you for you holding this sacred space with me, as you surely are by having read this far.

I wonder what would happen if we all allowed that feeling. If we all stayed with the moment of the loss for longer than it takes to create a policy statement, if we all decided to allow the sorrow to touch us before we squared off. I wonder if we might find it easier to make progress if we were just honest with ourselves and allowed the national wound that this is to penetrate our individual and collective consciousness.

children-girls-kids-50581In all of it I find it important to remember that I can be in sorrow and still be strong. I can be sad and still be motivated to act. I can grieve for our losses and our larger community and still demand better on every level. I can honor my heart and still work toward the kind of transformation our children deserve, and perhaps this is the only way forward.

So be it.

In the Dark Times

I can’t speak for other parts of the globe, but things have been pretty rough in the U.S. There have been horrific hurricanes that have left so many Americans suffering without vital services. There have been political controversies that seem to be rocking us at our foundations. There have been wildfires raging in and around communities in the West. There’s a lot that’s going wrong. There’s a lot weighing us down. There’s a lot to grieve, to mourn, to argue about, to consider. There are a lot of people facing the darkest emotions the human experience has to offer.

What Do We Do With Our Negative Emotions?

We are not taught how to deal with our feelingsUnfortunately, as a culture, we are not very well practiced at those dark emotions. We don’t often actively encourage people to feel how they feel. We prefer that they “pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again.” We have legends, books, songs, movies, stories, and cultural icons that show us that this is the way. The pause for grief and sorrow must be brief. And then what? Well, I’m afraid for many people, this means an awful lot of stuffing and swatting. We stuff our bad feelings in. When they rise up, we shove them down, often with food or alcohol, really packing them back in there and creating the dopamine buzz that will make us think we feel better. We stuff and we stuff.

We also swat our dark feelings away. We swat them away like they are insignificant as houseflies. “Now’s not a good time. Go away. I’ll think about that later. I don’t want to deal with that now. Oooooh… look, something shiny.” And then we distract ourselves. We distract ourselves with whatever our favorite and most effective distraction is. We distract ourselves with work. We distract ourselves with social media. We distract ourselves with television and movies. We distract ourselves with busyness. We distract ourselves with chores. We distract ourselves with personal drama because outrage often feels better than grief, loneliness, and insecurity. We distract ourselves with pedicures, lattes, and shopping. Swat it away; find something else to do.

And yet, there is only so much stuffing and swatting a person can do. There is only so much the body and the spirit can carry. Because when we stuff and swat, those feelings don’t go away. For stuffers, those feelings just build up. Eventually, many stuffers explode. If you’re not an exploder, I bet you know one. I know a few exploders and have been the recipient of that eventual boom. There’s nothing cheerful about that scenario. What happens to the swatters? Well, the distraction of that one feeling, that one housefly just grows. Eventually it’s a swarm of houseflies (that’s pretty gross) and swatters can’t figure out why they’re having so much trouble getting things done. Why can’t I concentrate? Why do I feel so tired all of the time? Why can’t I seem to make any decisions? Because SO much energy is going into swatting those emotions away. SO much energy is being used to pretend to be okay.

How Can We Process Our Dark Emotions?

There is only one real course of action here, and if you’ve been playing along it will come as no surprise to you. The only reasonable thing to do is to feel those feelings. The only reasonable thing to do is to just freaking surrender for a few minutes, because in all likelihood that’s all it will take to start to feel some relief, to stop feeling the need to stuff and swat. Heck, even if it takes an hour that’s far less time than you’re losing to that feeling with all of that stuffing and swatting.

But I’m afraid if I let myself feel it, I will never feel good again….

If you don’t let yourself feel it, you will struggle to actually REALLY feel good. You may have temporary relief, but that shadow will remain.

But I can’t just break down. I have responsibilities.

Yes, yes you can. Your responsibilities can wait a few minutes while you sit on the floor and cry your eyes out. If it’s kids you’re worried about, maybe it’s time they saw an adult cry so they know that it’s okay. If it’s other adult responsibilities, lists of tasks, things that need to get done, I PROMISE you will be more productive if you let yourself take a few minutes to be genuinely honest with yourself.

But I’m afraid to feel it.

Yes, I know. But you can take it. You were made to experience the whole shebang on this planet, not just the good parts, and not just the shiny objects. You can venture into the depth of it and come out the other side. And every time you do, it will be less scary. You won’t stop having dark feelings, but learning that you can have them, handle them, recover – that’s priceless. THAT will change your entire existence. You don’t have to be afraid, or you don’t have to let your fear stop you from feeling how you actually feel. You are allowed to feel whatever you are feeling and if you finally write yourself that permission slip, things will change.

How to rise higher than you thought possible
But feeling and crying and doing all of that makes me week. 

Oh no my darling one. Allowing the fullness of this life to touch you makes you resilient, makes you whole, makes you a freaking Phoenix. You can never rise to your highest heights if you are always running from the flames.

Feeling Your Feelings

If you’re ready to try, there’s no official instruction manual, but I can offer you some tips. Next time you feel a big wave of negative emotion, get yourself somewhere where you can feel comfortable, and just focus on allowing it. You don’t have to do anything special, just don’t fight it. Don’t try to talk yourself out of it. Don’t ask it questions. Don’t analyze it. Don’t argue with it. Just allow it. If tears come, let them flow. If you need to make a noise and can do that safely, do it. Just allow it. Notice how it feels in your body. Notice that you are still there, that you haven’t been obliterated. Notice how your body changes as you allow the feeling. Notice how the tension falls away. Notice how the feeling diminishes in time. Notice that you are okay, that you are still whole. Notice that you didn’t have to act on that feeling to have it ease up a bit. Notice that you handled it and tell yourself what an excellent job you did.

If you are in a difficult situation, consider how much easier it might be if you just allowed yourself to feel it for a few minutes. I promise you’ll be alright. If you need someone to talk you through it, I’m here.