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.