Thursday, February 21, 2013

Progress Report: Day 9 of Lent - Addiction, Obsession & Isolation

It looks like I do them all equally well.   Sigh....

First:  Yes, I do have Internet addiction issues

Who could have guessed?  I decided I can't just give up games for Lent, because I was utterly and completely dysfunctional without them.  However, obviously this is an issue I'm going to have to deal with long-term.



Second:  My church's "Values and Expecations" for ministry apply to marriage, too.

Like, who would have guessed?  If I follow these in dealing with every relationship, including how I interact with my spouse, everyone will be happier, including me.

I have always struggled with this concept, largely because my childhood taught me that being involved with family is hazardous:  connection can lead to relatives moving in with you, asking for money, or tempting you into a labyrinth of impossible demands and manipulative emotional abuse.  Instinctively, I attempted to follow my father's model of emotional detachment through deliberate immersion in books, photography and art.  My unconscious goal has been to harden my heart into a rock around which the turbulent waters of human relationship may flow however they wish, without really affecting my inner life.  Holiday get-togethers are fine; real relationships with family members are scarier than s***.

If you've seen my mother's skill at working the "drama triangle" to her advantage, you know why intimacy is so terrifying for me.  I've worked hard not to be a manipulative, passive-aggressive human being and mom; I pray God that I have succeeded.

However, trust is difficult for me, and thirty-some years of living with my darling husband's passive-aggressive behaviors have done nothing to reassure me about the benefits of intimate relationships.

If intimacy is too scary, how do I meet my relational needs?  I am regularly involved with relative strangers in a formal setting:  church, writer's groups, the SCA - anything which provides human contact with safe boundaries and clear expectations.  Like a hermit crab, I can emerge for meetings, then withdraw into my fabulously decorated, safe shell of solitude.  If I had a theme song, it would probably be  "I Am a Rock" (Paul Simon, 1965).

Or "Numero 2" (Noel Paul Stookey, 1978):
"Daddy's gonna grin till his lip wear thin
It's the only thing he can swing this year"

"Momma make a good song writer out of me
It's the only way I can talk to her"

- except that I'm a poet rather than a songwriter, and my momma has no interest in poetry.    Yet, like the young Paul Stookey, I too wanted to be heard, and my mother's love of reading inspired me to try my hand at writing.

Thus my struggle with, "Family comes first."  I enjoy formal ministry and casual friendships, but to love is to risk everything.  To put my husband's needs above my own and above the needs of friends and acquaintances - yeah, that's scriptural, but if you're married to a vampire who doesn't have the self-control to stop taking, how can you feed his need and still survive?  And how do you meet your own needs within the relationship?

On the other hand, my DH is also a courteous, intelligent, interesting person who is as worthy of love as any human being on earth.  He needs acceptance, respect, friendship, and connection as much or more than I do.  Why shouldn't he be able to count on me for encouragement, love and emotional support?

In one of my early poems, I had a line about "two hearts beating together, not beating each other."  We both want the former; too often, in our mutual woundedness, we end up with the latter.

Yet if I practiced, "Family comes first" and made room for him in my heart and my inner life, wouldn't we be both be happier?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Progress Report: Days 6 & 7 of Lent - God Acts (and Speaks Again)

Day 6:  God Acts

"No kidding, God was there!"  Over the weekend, as I ranted about my life, one of the topics that came up was the former horse corral.  We had about five years' worth of cut, split and stacked wood under the oaks there. During the Monument Fire, all of that firewood burned, killing the oak trees and leaving a charred, ugly mess.

I wanted to expand my compost bins there, but didn't want to build nice bins that would later be crushed by falling trees blown down by wind or cut down with a chain saw.  Big obstacle:  hubby can no longer use the chain saw and I am not skilled or strong enough to tackle that job myself.  How, I asked my husband, could we possibly cut and haul off all that wood so that I could finish my compost project?

The next day, my father-in-law phoned.  He had a new chain saw and needed firewood.  Could he please come and cut some from our land?

Heck, yeah!  God IS with us, and He LISTENS!

Day 7:  God Speaks Again

My current spiritual discipline from The Spiritual Formation Workbook is to read "a book on the spiritual life that interests you" (Smith and Graybeal 35).  I try to spend 15 minutes after I study the Word and pray, practicing Lectio Divina - which is basically to read, reflect, respond (by praying to God about what you've just read), and rest (in God's presence, listening for what He has to say or simply enjoying Him).  You could practice Lectio Divina with almost any text, from the newspaper to scripture, from history to a poem by Robert Frost.

This morning, I opened Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and began reading at this passage:

The insight of one fourth-century monk, Evagrius, that in the desert, most of one's troubles come from distracting "thoughts of one's former life" that don't allow us to live in the present, reflects what I regard as the basic principle of desert survival:  not only to know where you are but to learn to love what you find there" (Kathleen Norris 23).

Whoa!  That's been my problem during this season of Lent: distracting thoughts of my former life!  Or, rather, distracting thoughts about what I had hoped my life would become.

In many ways, my life is like the Coronado National Forest which surrounds me:  scrub oak ravaged by fire; dark, skeletal remains of century-old trees looming bleakly above dead annual grasses; and, in the midst of this barren landscape, occasional live trees and shrubby, optimistic young trees springing up from the roots.  I can look at what might have been - the dead trees - and mourn, or I can look at the new growth and hope.  It's my decision, really.

My task, like Kathleen Norris's, is "not only to know where [I am] but also to learn to love what [I] find there."

Before Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water, after Enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.
Zen Proverb

Sit, walk, or run, but don't wobble.
Zen Proverb

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Progress Report: Day 5 of Lent - God Speaks

In the SCA, after we go to an event, sometimes we get together and tell, "No s***, I was there!" stories.  Well, in the church, sometimes we get to tell, "No kidding, God was there!" stories.  (We don't say s*** in church; so we say, "No kidding!" instead.)

This is one of those "No kidding, God was there!" stories.

Yesterday (Saturday):  I posted my poor-poor-miserable-me entry about how I've been sitting on the couch and crying, fighting with my husband, and generally wasting my life on computer games.  When I went to review my Bible memory verses, I found myself looking at Matt. 7:7,8:

Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.

I was all like, "Yeah, right, God.  I'll believe that when I see it."

Saturday evening, people responded to my sad blog entry with love and kindness.  I cried some more, but happier tears this time.

Saturday night:  I couldn't sleep.  I was awake at one and four and probably in between as well.

Today (Sunday):  I sleep through two alarms going off and the dog trying to dig his way into the bed.  I sleep so late that, by the time I struggle out of bed and drink some coffee,  I have only 15 minutes to dress and get out the door.  Somehow, we arrive at church only a few minutes late. This is a miracle in and of itself.

We walk in after the service starts, and there's this guest preacher from Tucson named Brian.  He begins by saying, "I know you're in the middle of a sermon series on Acts, but I really wanted to tell my life story.  So I phoned Pastor Jesse and he said, 'Sure, if it's that important, preach on whatever you want.'"

At this point, I stop playing with my iPhone and start actually listening because I KNOW that if God got me out of bed, got me off the couch, brought a guest speaker from Tucson, and interrupted a sermon series, He has something important to say.  Here's what it was:

When Pastor Brian was a teenager, he had an encounter with God where he felt God telling him, "You are Mine forever and You will serve Me."  At the time, Brian was a gifted baseball player with college scholarships waiting for him, so he had no plans to enter the ministry - until a freak motorcycle accident sent a clutch handle through his leg and ended his dream of a career as a professional athlete.

In the hospital, as Brian waited for his parents, God showed him Prov. 3:5,6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He will make your paths straight.

Brian said that the message from God was, "Trust Me, lean on Me."

As he continued his story, incident after incident proved to Brian that, no matter what the circumstances in your life are, no matter how confusing things appear, you can trust God and lean on Him.  Whether it was becoming a youth pastor in New Mexico or moving back to Arizona so he could meet his future wife, over and over again, the message remained, "Trust Me, lean on Me."

As I reflected on Brian's story, I realized that, no matter what my life's hopes and dreams were, God can still take my life in unexpected directions, and it's okay.  Brian wanted to be an athlete, but when an injury ended that dream, his life didn't end.  God took him someplace else, and hey, it turned out to be a good place.  God can definitely do that for me, and for every one of us - if we're willing to trust Him and lean on Him.

During the service, someone (Brian?) said, "God said He will make your path straight.  Straight.  Not crooked, not falling into a ditch, not ending up in the bottom of a pit.  God said he will make your path straight."  Trust Me, lean on Me.

The other thing that God said to me during church was, "Don't treat your husband like he was dead.  He's not dead; he's broken.  Instead of grieving for what might have been, have compassion."  We cannot change the past, and because of my husband's severe chronic pain, we are definitely going to have trials in our future.

I'm not sure where we're going, but I know that it's going to be okay.

     *     *     *     *    *

Thank you all for listening, and being there for me :-)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Progress Report: Day 4 of Lent - Miserable Failure

Really, truly miserable.  Apparently, for me, computer games act as a kind of anodyne - a pain-relieving drug which enables me to ignore the failures of my career, my parenting, my life, and my marriage.

On Thursday, I went to the funeral of a former colleague, a warm, caring and wonderful man whose work as a coach and teacher had positively impacted many lives.  Listening to the accolades so deservingly accorded him, I had two awful realizations:  (1) my husband is also likely to die young, and I will be suddenly left alone in a house I can neither complete nor maintain; and (2) when I die, no one will give a rat's ass because I haven't done anything meaningful with my life and I'm rotten at friendship.  Just throw my ashes out with the garbage - that's about all my life is worth.

On Friday, I sat on the couch and cried for four hours before I attained enough emotional stability to go to the grocery store.  Then I came home and played games on my computer until midnight, because it hurt less than thinking and feeling.

When I haven't been crying on the couch for the last few days, I've been following my husband around the house, haranguing him mercilessly.  He is unfortunately both a basically nice, decent human being, and simultaneously a selfish monster - without meaning to be, of course - but the net effect of thirty-plus years of marriage is that I have immolated my own desires, ambitions, and needs on the altar of his happy assumption that if he's happy, everyone's happy, and that if he says he's sorry or he forgot, it's okay.  Apparently, reparation or changed behavior are not required; all we need is my ever-lovin' forgiveness so he can continue on his way.

To be fair, I must say that, on one level his failures aren't exactly his fault.  As a sort-of-like-autistic, depressed man with chronic pain issues, he functions about as best he can in relationships.  Empathy, planning, foreseeing negative consequences, and remembering simple things aren't natural, easy or obvious to him.  Nevertheless, he is a taker, and I'm a giver with a martyr complex (like my mom), so we dance this addictive, destructive dance together, as we have done for thirty years.  It tears me apart yet I cannot break free.

When I'm upset, I sit down at the computer and find some game which requires a combination of strategy or problem-solving, and accurate, real-time responses.  It doesn't matter to me whether I'm killing zombies, swallowing smaller fish, or destroying asteroids  To be successful in the game, I have to focus completely on the game, and set all emotion aside.  Computer games are a form of mindless meditaton which enable me to survive without looking too closely at the uncomfortable issues in my real life.

Unfortunately, playing games for several hours a day in an effort to remain happy and calm doesn't exactly help me achieve my life goals or maintain relationships.  So I thought that giving up games for Lent would be a positive thing:  I'd have time to do all the other stuff, and I could become a more spiritual person.  Sounds like a win-win, doesn't it?

Instead, it was liking pulling the Band-Aid off my "ow-ie," and discovering I have gangrene.  I am consumed with rage over the daughter I didn't have, the horse I didn't get, the writing career I sacrificed, the art that didn't happen, the teaching job that my husband sabotaged - in short, a lifetime of regrets, not least of which is finding out that I really don't like my husband or myself right now.

As to what happens next, we'll see.  Just having articulated this clearly feels right, and good.  Like opening a window in a room that's been closed and dark for years and years.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Progress Report: Day 1 of Lent - Waking Up?

A few thoughts about Lent and asceticism, from Kathleen Norris (Dakota:  A Spiritual Geography.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1993.  Page 23):

Asceticism "is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person.  It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society - alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels - that aim to make us forget."

It is the function of poetry to remind us of exactly who, what, and where we are; and literary discipline is often related to spiritual disciplines.  I have not written seriously in some years because I do not want to be reminded of who, what, and where I am; I have not wished to look too closely at my life. Genre fiction and games have been a welcome hole in the sand where I could bury head and heart.

One day without games or supernatural thrillers, and already, I feel that I am waking up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Preparing for Lent

Okay, so I'm a Protestant, and I still abstain from something every year for Lent.  Some years, it's a food, like chocolate, or maybe alcohol, or caffeinated beverages.  One year, I tried to refrain from "talking trash" about anybody for 40 days.  That was a tough year!  We say negative things about people all the time, and never even notice.

This year, after prayer and reflection, I'm giving up 2 V's:  vampires (i.e., supernatural thrillers and romances with any bloodsucking fiends, shapeshifters, or fey) and video games (well, actually, computer games).  It will be an interesting Lent.

Why practice this weird annual ritual of random asceticism? 

Gontran de Poncins, a "restless French aristocrat," left the comforts of civilzation and lived among Canada's Eskimos during the 1930s.  As he reflected upon what he had given up, he discovered that less is truly more.  Listen to how wonderfully he explains this:

God knows we were poor enough.  Our poverty was total.  We possessed nothing:  not even the snow was our own.  As a bird carries off a twig with which to make its nest, then leaves that borrowed twig once the season has passed, so we cut and trimmed our borrowed  snow and left it to return to the common lot, passed it on as the Eskimos bequeath from generation to generation the stone traps in which they catch their river fish.  But there was a cheer and a contentment in our existence which I continue to muse upon and cannot altogether explain to myself.  Was it because infinite poverty lent infinite price to the least object?  There was more to it than this.  I had lost all I owned, but had found great riches.  Like a religious, I possessed the veritable treasures, those which could not be taken from me.  I had lost the world, but I had found myself, had exchanged the glitter for the gold.  Within me had lain potentialities for moral serenity, and I had not known it.  Storm and danger had been my salvation, and without them my spirit should have dropped heedlessly off to sleep in my flesh.  There on that Arctic tundra I had reconstructed myself from within.  Up through the lined and frozen layers of skin on my face, my true visage had begin to emerge, the visage that God had meant all men to show to one another; and that visage all the blizzards, all the adversity in the world could not decompose (Gontran De Poncins with Lewis Galantière.  Kabloona.  Chicago, IL:  Time-Life, 1941, 1965, pp. 319-320).

When we deliberately give up that which distracts us, we find moral serenity and our truest selves.  I don't know why we cannot be content when we have too much, but fasting somehow breaks that endless cycle of want and need, of "Mine!" and "Why aren't You listening to me?"