Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

This was my first post to be Fresh Pressed. I hope you have enjoyed my summer re-runs. Stay tuned for a new post in a day or two!

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Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

where my demons hide

 When you feel my heat /Look into my eyes

It’s where my demons hide / It’s where my demons hide

 Don’t get too close / It’s dark inside

It’s where my demons hide / It’s where my demons hide

                                               –From “Demons” by Imagine Dragons

 

It has been a pivotal theme in centuries of great literature. It is Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness.” It is the “dark night of the soul” penned by 16th century mystic Saint John of the Cross. It is the tragic flaw the drives MacBeth to his doom. It is the crime in Crime and Punishment. It’s what drives those awful kids in Mean Girls.

Carl Jung called it the shadow.  It’s that dark place we all carry within us. That place we strive to keep hidden from the world. That thing about our past, or our present, or our expectations of the future that we are most unwilling to show or share. That piece of myself I find hardest to love.

We all have it. The irony is that sometimes the harder we work to keep it under wraps, the more we inadvertently trumpet it to the world.

I’ve been thinking about my demons lately. My misplaced negativity. My petty grudges and resentments. All the signals I send that say, “don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

I’ve been thinking about my demons because something happened lately that brought them to the forefront. It started with a conversation— a conversation in which I just may have offered up a fleeting glimpse of the dark place where my demons hide.

A conversation that stayed with me long after the tea cups were washed and put away. A conversation that rattled around in the back of my brain for a couple of weeks while I went about my daily busy-ness. A conversation that validated my anger and gave me permission to feel hurt.

A conversation that made no attempt whatsoever to contradict or debate or change anything about me.

Paradoxically, a conversation that changed me. Shone a light into a dark place. Someone dared to look into my eyes, and in the process stared down a couple of particularly tenacious demons. I can’t even really put into words what changed. All I know is that there is a particular anger that I have been carrying around for a long time that suddenly just isn’t there.

I think that’s called grace.

 

Body and Soul: of mundane miracles and secular sacraments

Like all good little cradle-Anglicans of my day, when I reached the age of 12 I signed up for Confirmation class. We met crammed into a too-small but oddly symbolic “upper room” off the church balcony. I remember exactly two things from my weeks of Confirmation prep. The first is the lesson where we read and discussed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The minister who taught the class took it upon himself to challenge us with some liberal theology, and pressed the point that perhaps there was more than one way to make a miracle. Perhaps Jesus didn’t conjure extra loaves and fishes out of thin air after all. Perhaps when the members of the crowd observed one person sharing the provisions he had brought, they were inspired – or shamed— into digging into their packs and bringing out their own secret stash of snacks to share. It had never before occurred to me that people might be invited to participate in the making of miracles. Indeed that we might be expected to participate. That perhaps that was how miracles really happened.

I also recall learning about the sacraments. I learned that Roman Catholics recognize seven sacraments, but that Anglicans observe a sort of “sacraments light”—zeroing in on Baptism and Eucharist. Mostly I can still hear the priest repeatedly intone—“a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.” Kind of like sharing your picnic lunch with your neighbors to show that you are a community.

After Confirmation I promptly stopped attending church for most of my teen years. There was no noisy rebellion on my part—mostly I just had lots of other ways to spend my time that seemed far more relevant and interesting than my parents’ church. As a young adult I found my own way into a faith that was mine, not just a parroting of my Sunday School and Confirmation lessons. And I grew to appreciate more and more what it meant to do things that were visible and external as a reflection of what was going on invisibly and spiritually within.

When I turned 40 I had a huge celebration. Forty is a milestone birthday at the best of times, but it is often celebrated with a wry sense of doom and despair. (“Oh no I’m getting old…”) For me, 40 was a really big deal because I wasn’t dead. I had, by contrast, spent my 38th birthday in galloping kidney failure, being readied for what was very nearly a one-way transfer into intensive care. Through a series of miracles supported by the participation of various members of the medical profession, I did make it back out of intensive care and into the world, but not before I had battled temporary vision loss, taught myself to walk again, and recovered from brain trauma.

Catastrophic as that particular illness was, it was not the first time my body betrayed me. The truth is my body has a long and tiresome history of betraying me. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of two, and spent most of elementary school sidelined in gym class with painfully inflamed knees. After a teaser of a remission period during my teens, the arthritis came back in full force just as I was poised to graduate from university and start a teaching career. As if my bodily betrayal was not enough, one of my professors heaped coals on the fire of my frustration by musing to my face that “perhaps I should consider a less physically demanding profession” than the one in which I had just invested five years of preparation.

Then, in a whole new set of bodily betrayals, my attempts to have a child were thwarted by repeated failure. My first two pregnancies ended in early miscarriage. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy went wrong, and I nearly bled to death from an internal rupture. My fourth pregnancy ended in fetal death at 12 weeks, but I didn’t miscarry. Apparently my body couldn’t even get miscarriage right. While I did eventually succeed in carrying two children to term, my eldest was born after an extraordinarily long and difficult labour that resulted in a caesarean. The technical term for this particular bodily betrayal was labour that “failed to progress.”

So by the time I hit 40, my relationship with my body was strained at best. But in spite of all the trouble it had caused me, I was still alive. That seemed worth celebrating. I wanted to make peace with this body that had failed me so many times, but that had also rallied from so many close calls. Like an old Timex watch it took a licking and kept on ticking.

So I got a tattoo. I had been contemplating the notion of a tattoo for about three years, but took a while to decide when, what, and where. Having decided on my milestone birthday as a perfect “when,” I found the “what” while gazing around my living room one evening are realizing that ALL the artwork on my walls bore the images of loons—a creature that has always held significance for me. I chose the image of the adult loon with its baby riding on its back—an image that reflected for me the extent to which my body—and my life—had been marked by my journey to, and through, motherhood.

legAs to “where,” I opted for a spot halfway up the side of my right calf. I reasoned that in this position I could show off the tattoo without getting half naked, but could keep it hidden if that was appropriate in a professional context. I assumed, in fact, that I would want to keep it hidden at work. It oddly didn’t dawn on me at the time that hemlines might rise.

To my surprise, I gradually became less and less concerned with when it might be “appropriate” to let my tattoo be visible. I started wearing shorter skirts to work and not caring who saw the tattoo. Somehow, making my body a canvas for this work of art made me more comfortable in my own skin.

I didn’t think about the tattoo as a sacrament at first. Over time I began to realize that what had felt at first like an act of belated adolescent rebellion held a much deeper significance to me. Curious about what motivated other tattoo bearers, I read and heard deeply touching stories—tattoos marking the death of a loved one, tattoos marking a significant life event or choice, tattoos remembering a lost friend, tattoos marking a battle with disease or addiction, tattoos enshrining a powerful memory. I came to understand that I had marked my body in this way as an outward and visible sign of a truth that I couldn’t really put into words, but that I carried deep within me.

Between my 40th and 45th birthdays, my inner truths underwent a profound transformation that culminated with the outward sign of divorce. Searching for the right ritual to mark this transition, I knew it was time for another tattoo.

This time I approached the tattoo more consciously as sacrament. This time I also knew immediately and intuitively what the image would be. Another loon, but in the aggressive stance—wings upraised—of a loon that is charging an enemy. I’ve been charged just so by a loon, while inadvertently canoeing too close to her nest. They are powerful creatures—and bigger than you think—especially at close quarters in their threatening “don’t mess with me and my babies” posture. This tattoo is quite large, and is centred between my shoulder blades. I have to twist and crane in the mirror to see it myself, but I am always conscious of it—always sensing that it pushes me forwards and gives me strength.

Someone once remarked that the image reminded them of a phoenix rising—an apt coincidence, since the inner transformation that the image was crafted to represent was very much a rising from the ashes of my failed marriage—an emergence of new life in the wake of grief and loss.

Now into my 50’s, I continue to negotiate a tenuous truce with my unreliable body. Most recently, my left hip joint has betrayed me utterly, and for its troubles been banished from my body once and for all in favour of a slick new titanium and ceramic replacement.

It’s hard not to call the outcome of this surgery a miracle. After taking painkillers day and night for I don’t know how long, within two weeks of being rolled out of the operating theatre I no longer needed any pain medication. None. Is it a miracle that the research has produced a prosthetic hip that works and an effective process for inserting it? Is it a miracle that my surgeon was skilled, or that his team provided me with such a comprehensive preparation?

I went into the surgery knowing exactly what I would need to do to contribute to my healing: I would need to haul out my own resources and apply them to my healing process. Provide my own loaves and fishes. Perhaps it’s enough of a miracle that after all the times my body has said “I quit,” those resources are still there.

Maybe I should get another tattoo.

back

Honestly Daily Prompt, I sometimes feel like you are stalking me. This is not the first time you have posted a prompt just AFTER I have posted something relevant to that prompt. So although this was originally posted on November 23, I am linking it to the December 1 Daily Prompt: “Tattoo…You?”

Flowing

“You cannot step into the same river twice.” — Heraclitus of Ephesus

freezing 3

I can’t keep up with the changes. I managed to snap some photos a few days ago that captured the beginning of ice formation along the edges of the river. But they are already historical artifacts. The ice spreads and thickens daily, and the riverbank is now blanketed in snow.

I wanted to capture the river’s changes as it transitioned into winter, but it seems that the changes march on without waiting for my feeble attempts to record them. It’s dark when I arrive home from work now, and even if there was enough light left for picture taking, it’s difficult to fine-tune a camera focus wearing thick mittens. And you really don’t want to take the mittens off for long.

Under the forming ice, the river continues to flow. In the spring, when the ice breaks up, it will be a different river flowing past my door. It may look the same, but as Heraclitis sagely observed some 2500 years ago, it won’t be the same water, and I won’t be the same observer.

I talk about change a lot. I crave change. I find it energizing and exciting. Without a regular infusion of new challenges, I get restless. I probably use “change” as a tag more often than any other word.

I wonder if my interest in change was nurtured by growing up next to a river. Or  do I find the river soothing because its constant changing resonates with my thought processes?

I don’t suppose it matters. What matters is that the river’s lessons have seeped so thoroughly into my frame of reference that I know exactly what is meant by “you can’t step in the sane river twice.” Because the kind of change that interests me is not a change in what one does. It’s a change in who one is.

freezing 2A fellow blogger got me thinking about transformation this evening–  about the kind of learning that moves you into a place so different from where you began that you can scarcely communicate what the change is all about.

I know I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. The person I was twenty years ago would be surprised by the person I have become. The person I was 30 years ago would scarcely recognize me. In truth, she would probably find me shocking and perhaps a little frightening. Certainly she would be confused by some of the thoughts and things I now hold dear, and baffled by those I have chosen to leave behind.

But, like the continuous flowing of the river, all those versions of me are seamlessly connected. The paradox of the river is that, while it is constantly in a state of change, it is always in the same place. Likewise I am still me, in spite of, or maybe because of, all my transformations.

Anne and Anna have a chat

After my stern critique of yesterday’s Daily Prompt, I’m kind of relieved to see a topic that I can have some fun with. Today’s prompt is: “Tell us about a favorite character from film, theater, or literature, with whom you’d like to have a heart-to-heart. What would you talk about?” Actually I can think of any number of literary characters I would like to have a frank chat with, but I’m going to stick with the one that popped into my head first…

Hey Anne. It’s been too long!

Uh, do I know you?

It’s me, Anna. I read all your books, over and over. And not just the first three that everyone reads, but the whole series. In fact I have to admit that it was the later books that I loved the best. You know the ones– there was Anne’s House of Dreams in which you and Gilbert got married, and  Anne of Ingleside all about your children and your life together as a family.

Seriously? You liked those best? It seems like the rest of the world got stuck on me as a gangly kid with red pigtails and a penchant for getting into trouble! What was it about my grown-up life that was so fascinating to you?

The mere fact that it was a grown-up life. You see, when I first read about your life at Green Gables, you and I were about the same age. But then I got to watch you grow up. Fall in love. Get married. Have kids. Watch them grow up. Following your story through from adolescence into all those adult experiences somehow made it possible to imagine those things someday becoming part of my life.

And did they?

They did, although, not quite the way I imagined. I didn’t have to watch my babies go off to war like you did in Rilla of Ingleside, but I had lots of other griefs along the way. The wonderful thing about your story was that it didn’t end with the wedding like so much of that happy-ever-after nonsense you see in the movies. You had adult worries to go with those adult experiences. Babies died. Loved ones became ill. Relationships faltered. It wasn’t always sunshine and roses for your family.

Well that wouldn’t be very interesting if it was, would it? And it certainly wouldn’t be very real.

Exactly! And I have to tell you Anne, you and your family were very real to me back when I was reading and rereading your story forty years ago. In fact I… oh, never mind.

Never mind what? What were you about to say?

Nothing. Really.

No, you were about to say something. I’m sure of it. Come on– as big a fan as you are, surely you can be honest with me!

Well… Oh this is awfully awkward. What I was going to say is that I… well… I actually had a pretty big crush on Gilbert back then.

HaHa! That was what you hesitated to tell me? Honestly Anna, every girl who read through to the end of my story had a crush on Gilbert Blythe! I was just relieved you all existed safely outside the world of the books.

Rebuilding

Today’s Daily Prompt says, “We all know someone who could use a pep talk… so write them one!”

I thought about any number of pep talks I could write: for my friend who is on the verge of becoming a mother, for my friend who is in a difficult situation at work, for my friend who is struggling to help someone close confront an addiction. But when I opened up WordPress to craft this post, a new post from a blog I have been following popped up, and I knew who the recipient of my “pep talk” had to be. So Matt, this is for you, and for anyone else reading this who is navigating the murky and tumultuous waters of divorce.

ruins 3To borrow a phrase from another universe of famous social media pep talks: It gets better.

There is such a thing a “normal” life after divorce. But it will take longer than you think. Longer than you want. Longer than you might hope. But you will get there.

The journey will not be smooth.

You will hear things you wish you could forget. You will say things you regret. You will think that you are losing your mind. You will feel like you have lost the will to be kind.

You will rage at the small injustices and crumple under the force of the big ones.

You will cry. Even if you’re not really a crier, you will cry.  And if you ARE a crier, your neighbours might want to head for higher ground.

You will find it utterly impossible to imagine a state where you do not feel as awful as you feel right now.

But it will get better. Someone told me it would take two years for me to feel “normal” again. I’d say that was a conservative estimate. It took me two years to feel relatively “together.” “Normal” was a longer time coming. But it did come.

If you haven’t already done so, make a beeline to your closest bookstore and invest in a copy of Rebuilding: When your relationship ends by Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert E. Alberti. Or see if there is an agency somewhere in your neck of the woods that offers the “Rebuilding” course that is based on Fisher and Alberti’s work. It will make a difference.

IMG-20130912-00348 (2)Eventually you will build a new life that doesn’t revolve around this enormous hurt. So will your ex. It will take one of you longer than the other to move on in this way, especially if one of you wanted the divorce more than the other. But eventually you will both find new ground to stand on.

The kids will get older and grow into their own lives. So will you.

One day you will find yourself in a conversation with your ex and realize that you are not clenching your jaw that way any more.

One day you will discover that you have let go of  something you thought would anger you for all eternity.

One day your ex will surprise you with a phone call just to wish you well before a big event like an important job interview. Or surgery.

hairOne day you will listen to someone in the throes of new-divorce angst and rage and self doubt, and you will catch yourself thinking “was that me?” And you will appreciate the learning that you did along the journey from there to here.

And you will be grateful for the person you have become along the way.

Suckers

IParking lot weed #1 have a great deal of admiration for things that grow where they aren’t supposed to. In the paved lot in the old golf course weeds force their way up through tiny cracks and make bigger cracks. Elsewhere in the golf course, a stealthy thistle pokes through the decking of a small footbridge.  And the roots from the aspen tree that came down in the wind this spring are sending up suckers to interrupt the uniform surface of the lawn next to my parking spot.

I like things that grow opportunistically. Because they sneak in and grab a toehold in a tiny spot of soil and soak up some sun and photosynthesize their little hearts out when no one is looking. Because they thumb their metaphorical noses at the forces that said, “Oh no, you can’t do that here. This is a lawn (or a parking lot, or a garden) and the likes of you don’t belong here…”

Twenty-seven years ago I signed a rental agreement for a house with two mature, stately trees in the front yard. The trees were one of the things that drew me to the house.   A few weeks later, on moving-in day, I pulled up in front of the house and was horrified to see two big tree stumps. The landlord pulled up behind me and jumped out of his car to hand me the keys. He was beaming with delight.

sucker
Aspen tree–the sequel. This one will be harder to preserve, at least if I want to continue to plug my car in on cold winter days.

“I got rid of those trees! I think you’ll find it much brighter now—and we won’t have to worry about the foundation. I’ll have a guy around next week to grind out the stumps.”

I mourned those trees. A few weeks later, the unseen root network started pushing up suckers all over the lawn. I rebelliously chose one and started avoiding it with the lawnmower.

I drove past that house today. My little sucker is a huge tree—actually a cluster of four trunks rising from a single base—towering over the two story house.

I like it when the little guys win.