The Rocks We Cling To

A few weeks ago I sang with my church choir. We sang a hymn that was one of my Dad’s very favorites. Whenever I hear it, I can see him sitting, eyes closed, at our beloved Chautauqua Institute, leaning his head back as if to take in the sound fully. Getting through the piece without tears was a surprise and a welcome signal that I am coming into the time when I can remember my Dad with joy in addition to my sorrow for the loss.

beach-clouds-cloudy-557067There is a line in the hymn: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging…” The arrangement we performed really swells and sweeps in this moment and it feels like both storm and strength. I can see it, the figure in the water holding onto that rock amidst the cresting waves and the dark sky. The hymn reminds us of the joy, the peace that can be found using love as our rock, our foundation.

I know, not just from my own experience, but from so the stories so many others have shared with me, that love is not always the rock we cling to. We cling to all kinds of rocks hoping to weather those storms. We cling to tradition (or at least the “way we’ve always done it”); we cling to rightness; we cling to stability; we cling to stories.

What I’ve found is that there are many rocks that will help us SURVIVE. In times of trouble, we can turn lots of place to muddle through, to endure, to get by, to get through, to get past. But some of those rocks, they leave us cut and bleeding, wounded by the clinging rather than by the storm.

Some of those rocks are old stories we have about who we are. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I HAVE to do XYZ. I really SHOULD or SHOULDN’T.” These are the guideposts we develop when things get tough, and sometimes they really do help us. The thing is that once they are in place, they sort of become furniture, or bricks, unquestioned in purpose or validity. It’s there; it should be there. It’s ALWAYS been there. It is truth and when I suspect it’s not, I am wrong; I am bad. I am flawed and a failure because I can’t live within the story I’ve created for myself. And yet we cling. We cling to those stories.

We cling to those rocks not because we are stupid. We cling to those rocks not because we don’t want better. We cling to those rocks because we are scared. We are scared to question what we know. We are scared to do things differently. We are scared to try on a new story because the outcome is unknown.

And so we cling to those rocks and get cut and bruised and hold on with our teeth chattering from the cold. We stay stuck because it feels safer. We stay stuck because it’s what we know. We stay stuck because for us or for someone we love getting unstuck means breaking the rules. We stay stuck because we are afraid we’ll lose everything if we imagine a new way. We’ll lose our friends and family. We’ll lose the community and relationships we’ve cultivated. We’ll be that outsider – unwelcome in the ring of humans around the fire. Cold, alone, abandoned.

It’s old this coping mechanism. And by that I mean it’s human evolution old, not just you personally old. Our tendency to define our possibilities using a pretty narrow scope and a shallow field ensures our acceptability in the tribe and we need the tribe to survive, even if it means everybody in that tribe is clinging to their own brutal rock.

It’s a grim picture, but being somewhat drawn to the image, I want to extend this metaphor just one step farther. If you are clinging to a rock that hurts, I want to know if you’ve tried to touch the bottom with your feet. I want to know how convinced you are that you can’t stand up. I want to know what would happen if you just let go? Even I, a confirmed “sinker” in a lifetime of swimming lessons, can float with the occasional small maneuver. What would happen if instead of clinging to that brutal rock, you just let go and see where the storm takes you?

beach-dawn-dusk-128458There are some things I can tell you about storms on the water. First and foremost: they always end. Secondly, they bring up all kinds of miraculous and beautiful things (just ask any shell collector). Thirdly, when they are over, the beach is there and the sun emerges, and more often than not there is someone who will help you find your towel.

Maybe it’s time to trade in your rock, or maybe it’s time to just float.

When We Start to Fall

Last night we watched an episode of Planet Earth II with the kids. If you’ve not seen it, I highly recommend. It’s a series by the BBC, narrated by David Attenborough, and has some incredible footage of animals doing their thing. Really stunning.

Last night’s episode on mountains featured a group of Nubian ibex. I’m going to go with ibex as the plural of ibex because I can’t bear to say ibexes. I hope I’m right because I really should be. In any event, the point is not about the word, the point is about the animal.

Juvenile_Nubian_ibex_(50822)The sequence showed how these ibex live at altitudes of about 8,000 feet on cliffs that offer little in the way of easy travel. They are safe from predators at those heights, but need to descend to get water, and that’s where things get hairy, especially for the ibex kids. We were on the edge of our seats watching a red fox stalk the ibex kids as they nervously and inexpertly navigated the craggy cliff face. If they moved to safer ground they were at risk of being caught by the fox. Climbing further up moved them away from the water that was their goal and from the parents in the herd who waited for them on the bottom (a little Mom judging there on my part I confess).

The ibex kids ran just far enough for safety and then found themselves cornered in a spot where the next ledge down was 30 feet below and the fox was working his way up to them. And they began to slip, lose their footing. We were all holding our breath (except for my son who had his fingers in his ears, his eyes closed and was chanting: “Tell me when it’s over. Tell me when it’s over.”).

And then you know what those ibex kids did? Are you ready for it? Just as they were starting to slip and it looked as though death was certain in one way or another… they leapt. They jumped right into that 30 foot space and flew down to the ground. They were so young that they likely hadn’t used their ibex jumping skills yet, but on this day, they got the lesson swiftly. They felt themselves falling. They felt themselves in peril. They were terrified (the noises made this clear), so they turned to instinct and they jumped.

And they made it!!! We all cheered as they jumped again and again and evaded the fox and caught up with the herd. Go baby ibex!!!

It got me to thinking about the amount of time I’ve spent on those rocks. When I’ve backed myself into a corner through inexperience or uncertainty and I look around only to find that it seems all of my possible roads are full of peril. I look around and see only impossibility. I look around and become paralyzed, bleating and wishing for a wiser human to save me. Paralyzed by my fear. Paralyzed by my perception of inexperience. Paralyzed by all of the what ifs. So much time and suffering on those rocks.

And then I think about the times I leapt.

Twelve years ago Scot and I were on year 6 of our “infertility journey.” I almost threw up in my mouth saying that. We seem to think if we attach “journey” to words describing a shitty time in our lives it will be less awful. That may work for some people – not so much for me. At any rate, we had pretty much given up because our previous attempts had been so heartbreaking and, in one instance, nearly lethal (that’s a story for another day).

We were considering adoption (everyone referred to this as “just,” as in why don’t you “just” adopt – as though that is a small thing, again a story for another day) and we were also wondering just being the aunt and uncle who travel a lot and give great gifts. And it made for a great story. Even now, that’s a life story I can get down with. But I didn’t really buy it. I wanted to be a Mom, and I wanted to have kids with Scot. The struggle that we went through to make that happen was dreadful. And one New Year’s Eve, when I’d had too much to drink and was sitting with a trusted friend, I told her I was standing on the rocks. I confessed that my great travel and gift-giving plan wasn’t working for my heart. I admitted what I really wanted and cried because it seemed impossible.

And she said the thing that my own instinct was no longer able to say: “What if you just try one more time?” We talked about a doctor she had heard of, a miracle worker. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how things went after that, because it’s all a bit of a blur and it is a blur because I leapt. I stopped letting my fear STOP ME and put myself in the hands of the miracle worker. I put all of my learning into action and made the rest of my life work along with this final attempt. I minimized my stress. I even changed jobs in order to do that. I did the whole thing.

In this case, my leap got me the result I wanted, twice over. I have 11 year old twins who are most definitely my and my husband’s kids. But the point here isn’t really that my dream came true. Because this dream, of being parents, has perils of its own as so many of you know.

child-costume-fairy-127968The point about the leap is that it ended the self-imposed torture of standing on the rocks and trembling in indecision. Even if our final attempt had failed, I think I would have felt better having finally gone to the miracle worker people were talking about. I would have felt like I had given it my all and that I needed to check in to see if there was a new dream I could sink my teeth into. It was the sitting on that rock that was so, so terrible. And my guts knew I wasn’t ready to give up, which would have been a perfectly acceptable choice really – a leap of it’s own in releasing that desire in favor of building something new.

So I guess I’m just wondering how sure your footing is these days. Do you feel yourself slipping? Do you feel like you’re on the rock? What would a leap look like for you? I’d love to help you fly.

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