Growing Roots (A Series): Part V

Rooting in Your Gifts

When my children were young I began to search for a family church – not out of faith or a desire to worship anything in particular, but out of a desire to provide them and maybe even me with a safe spot, a community, a place to be at home even when home didn’t feel that good.

activity-adult-adventure-1376960.jpgI held memories of backpacking trips with groups from my my childhood church firmly in mind as I investigated our local options. Ironically my now seminarian husband was less enthusiastic about this quest, so I became the advance team. I made a list of churches to visit based on what I knew generally about beliefs and practices and what I could get down with, and perhaps more importantly what I couldn’t get down with, and I began to visit them.

I went to services to see how it felt, to check out what was being taught and said. If the minimal bar of not offending me was passed, I then asked about their programming for kids. It’s possible that part of my motive as a stay at home parent of twin pre-schoolers was to find just one hour in my week where I could sit and think without being interrupted.

I could say more about the churches I visited – who made the initial cut and why, but that’s not really the point today. Today the point is what I did with church.

I think, even in my older twin mom exhaustion that I knew that many of my core needs were not being met. This reaching out for community was an attempt to shift that balance, but it was, in many ways, an attempt to apply that same old geographical solution to the problem of feeling terribly alone and isolated. If I could just find the right place, I would feel better.

I did find a place, a really great place, and we began (slowly and intermittently) to attend as a family. People were welcoming and friendly enough. We were reserved and rushed. Church became an additional item on the list of things to do, and I (as the one who started it all) became the ringmaster of the Sunday morning circus. In my attempt to find community, I had created a lot of work for myself, had added more tasks to the insane stack of domestic work, childcare, and freelance writing and editing I was already doing.

For me doing all of these things meant doing them well. I was exhausted, and fully retreated into my armor of perfectionism. So when I entered this new space – wrangling husband and children to get there, it became a box to check off (and to be sure to do well) – one more thing on my list – a thing that I sensed could help but that I was really unable to engage with in a way that WOULD actually help.

I had set a trap for myself, and I was caught.

And then, one Sunday, the choir returned from summer hiatus. And they were good! I say this with love: church choirs are often NOT good. Being a musician can make regular attendance at a place with a not good choir a difficult thing to commit to. This choir was good, and it occurred to me that maybe this was a thing I wanted to do.

It had been over 20 years since I had sung in the University Choir at Penn State. I had been in a few bands in the meantime, and occasionally even been paid for that, but even that beer-soaked musical effort was a distant memory, so there was some anxiety about taking on this new musical thing with a group of people I didn’t know.

The director and I sorted out where my voice belonged and I began to attend. And I began, again, to sing. It had been years since I’d sung in front of people who I wasn’t attempting to coax to sleep or to learn the alphabet or just cheer up.

It had been far longer since I’d read notes on a page, and it was tricky. As I continued to attend, I found help all around me. I learned who the great sight-readers were and sat near them for a boost. I slowly went from singing along quietly and tentatively to actually singing along, sometimes with confidence. I began to feel my way back to the space that appears when I sing and I allow myself the pleasure of trusting that I am good enough at it to stop worrying.

Wednesday nights became sacred time, and it was easy to believe that the shift that occurred was a result of finally choosing the right geographical solution. I had finally found the right place. In retrospect, I think something else was at play that created that magic for me.

To participate in choir, I had to set everything else aside. There is no multi-tasking in choir. I also had to face the fact that I would make mistakes. These were two things I was desperate to do but didn’t recognize the longing.

attractive-background-beautiful-756453In addition to that though, to get that soaring feeling I sometimes get when I sing, I had to engage with my gift and trust that it is good enough. Whoa.

I had to plug into something that I knew could bring me joy and let all of the worry about looking foolish go. Whoa.

I had to take off enough armor to let the sound come out, to breathe deeply to support it, and to have the sensitivity to others necessary to work in a group with my, and all of their, gifts. Whoa.

I had thought to turn outward to root myself in a community. I had thought it was a question of finding the right place and then identifying the right people and then, over the course of however long it would take a shy and introverted person to do so, to cultivate relationships with those people.

It had not occurred to me that I could turn inside – to my joys, to my desires, to my needs and my gifts and that turning in THAT direction i could grow roots and find community. i could find more nourishment, confidence, AND kindred souls for care and comfort.

I had never realized that rooting begins not just with soil, but in the seed.

Awakening to Joy

I have a confession to make.

It’s about joy.

We have had a strained relationship over the years.

I have eyed joy from afar, from a distance, with trepidation and suspicion, daring only to dip my toes in when the temptation was too strong to resist any longer.

There are a whole hornet’s nest of old reasons for that, some of which I’ve already revealed and some which continue to spill out here in this miraculous digital space, but in some ways the reasons are not important.

The actual wounds and hurts matter far less than my reaction to them, which was to close, to armor up, to prepare myself for the battle that I perceived life (in part because of those wounds and hurts) to be.

Working with my own coach at one point I could actually hear that armor going on, the clink and clank of the heavy weight of the individual pieces as I covered myself up so I could be safe in body and spirit. I could feel the burden of carrying all of that protection as constant exhaustion. And I could sense the fruitlessness of it as the emotional ceiling shrank to the height of “fine” rather than “great,” or “wonderful,” or even just “happy.”

affection-conceptual-connection-256738Joy was not allowed in because in order to block the bottom end of the scale, I had to cut out the top. This is the unfortunate reality of how it works with our feelings. We cannot block selectively. We can only block for intensity and volume, so we either have them all, or we limit ourselves to a narrower band that feels tolerable if not good. Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and all around compassion genius, describes this narrowing: “These reactions, strategies, and story lines are what cocoons and prison walls are made of.”

What, then, are we to do if we want to experience joy? This has been a question I’ve been wrestling with for a few years. I have all of the ingredients for a joyful life and yet somehow the feeling still seemed inaccessible to me. Ironically, now that I seem to have gotten a better handle on this whole joy thing, I have stumbled onto a book that describes the very process I’ve been following, although in a much more concise and clear fashion (without all of the bumbling and experimenting). Pema Chödrön describes cultivating joy as working on the mental capacity to celebrate and rejoice in good fortune – even in the smallest forms. To do this we need to be present, to see what is actually around us, and we need to acknowledge and be present when we resist that rejoicing.

When we feel ourselves pull away from the opportunity to celebrate, to rejoice, Chödrön suggests that we: “right on the spot, we can go beneath the words to the nonverbal experience of the motion. What’s happening in our hearts, our shoulders, our gut? Abiding with the physical sensation is radically different from sticking to the story line.” BOOM.

In order to access the joy, we have to actually allow the discomfort we experience when presented with the makings of joy – whatever those might be for us, AND the way to do that and not turn it into some multi-day mind fuck is to feel those feelings in the body. I know this to be true from first-hand experience. Being instructed by my own coach to notice my emotions in my body for the first time was a total revelation, and the way that it quieted the mind was nothing short of miraculous. It is in this miraculous quiet space that we can relax, that we, as Chödrön puts it “train in softening rather than hardening.”

bloom-blossom-close-up-36764Softening, rather than hardening. It sounds risky to many, but doesn’t it also sound so restful? Doesn’t that armor just get so very heavy? Doesn’t “fine” grow so tiresome?

I know it did for me, and as I open this space, as I drop my armor (which is a process by the way and one that is not exactly linear in my experience), I discover that I can be safe in my joys, in my rejoicing, in my celebration because I am no longer so fearful of experiencing the lows. It is all part of the human experience, and I really do want the whole shebang. Don’t you?



What Do You DESERVE?

A wise friend of mine gave a talk about human rights this weekend. Given some of the things going on right now, it seems like an important conversation to have, although I suppose that’s true most days.

My friend rightly pointed out that human rights rest on a decision that we make as a community or as a society. We agree that there are certain things that should be true for everyone. My friend, and minister, explained: “You can’t do anything to be more or less worthy of human rights so long we agree that they exist.” They apply to everyone.

For those of us raised in countries or cultures where at least lip service is given to human rights we agree, that at least on some level, everyone has rights that cannot be taken away. Of course the argument rarely stops there and becomes more detailed and heated shortly after. Despite our disagreements about what our specific human rights are, we do seem to agree that they exist.

backlit-clouds-dusk-853168We agree that other people have rights that cannot be taken away, truths that are self-evident. We don’t however, on a more personal level, seem to be very good at extending the same baseline to ourselves. If we can agree that everyone has inalienable human rights, can we agree that just being able to be alive is a pretty low bar and that we ought to consider both raising the bar and being sure we are applying it to ourselves? What would it look like to grant ourselves rights on the individual personal level?

What can you say you always DESERVE no matter what? There’s the rub, isn’t it? That DESERVE. Yep, I capitalized it because it’s a hangup for me. When I think about what I DESERVE there is always a conversation about effort – effort that I must expend to be deserving, action I must take to be good enough, goodness offered to be worthy of whatever. It’s an old hangup and one I’m working on, but it’s deep and sometimes it takes time.

I have a hunch that many of us have never considered what we deserve no matter what – even on days when you’re not nice to others, on days when you don’t do your best, on the days when that one Girl Scout cookie becomes a sleeve of Girl Scout cookies.

What do you deserve no matter what?

I gave this some thought and the exercise was both revelatory as to what I am willing to believe I am worthy of and startling in its sometimes stark contrast to my own self-care,  even in its much improved state.

What do I think I DESERVE? (I’m still capitalizing because that word is still tough for me.)

  1. Sleep. This is first because I didn’t get enough last night. I think I deserve sleep even if I haven’t been swell that day.
  2. The highest quality food I can manage.
  3. Love. (whoa)
  4. Acceptance. (double whoa)
  5. Joy. (are you kidding?!)
  6. The occasional insight in times of trouble.
  7. Internal peace.
  8. Beauty.
  9. Community.

Yeah. I told you I’ve worked on it. I’m well past believing that I only deserve health care and shelter. Some people might find that spoiled, but understand I have no problem agreeing that everyone else deserves these things as well. I’ve only thought about it from my perspective. I am happy to imagine that your list might look different, and that you deserve all of it. The question is how do we get there? How do you, if you wish, get to having the audacity to want such a list, imagining that you could claim it?

The first step is the same as the reasonable first step in addressing problems on a larger scale, from Reverend Carl: “We need to be honest about the situation at hand.”

For those of you (formerly us) who have no sense of that which is inalienable in your personal realm, you have to determine whether or not that’s working for you. Do you (formerly we) feel neutral or badly more often than seems reasonable given the circumstances fo your life? Do you frequently find yourself overwhelmed, over-scheduled or overtired and then face the task of bettering your moments by consciously choosing behaviors that buffer you from the way you feel or simply cheer you up for a short time? Do your days feel more draining than fulfilling? Are you in some version of survival mode?

The situation at hand, if you answered yes to those, is that your current approach isn’t working.

OK Julia, Great, so I admit it’s not working, then what?

You figure out what your inalienable rights are. What must be true for you to live, to thrive, not just survive? If that seems too big a question, let me give you a boost. Let me start your list for you:

  1. I am allowed to think my thoughts and feel my feelings no matter how I or other people might judge those thoughts and feelings (and by the way, this is a longer version of the acceptance mentioned earlier).
  2. Now you go…

blonde-hair-blurred-background-dress-852793And when you finish that list, try on the idea that you actually DESERVE that. If that’s too big a leap, try on the idea that you should be able to have that list whether you deserve it or not because you are human, because you are the result of a moment in time and a biological improbability that will never happen again, ever. You really are special, just by being here. What would happen if you decided to treat yourself that way?