On Trauma, New Hearts, And New Bones

29 Aug

Without a doubt, Ezekiel is one of the weirdest books of the bible. It juxtaposes extremely misogynist, violent passages with some of the most exquisite prose on healing and redemption ever written. It is a strange read indeed and perhaps one of my favorite texts – perhaps because of this very contrast between horror and transcendence.

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Ezekiel is rarely preached on. After all, how do you explain that God alludes to Jerusalem as a whore, for aligning herself with other nations and that for this unfaithfulness, God basically decrees she is brutalized, raped, stoned, and cut to pieces?

Ezekiel 16:35 – Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord: 36 Thus says the Lord God, Because your lust was poured out and your nakedness uncovered in your whoring with your lovers, and because of all your abominable idols, and because of the blood of your children that you gave to them, 37 therefore, I will gather all your lovers, with whom you took pleasure, all those you loved and all those you hated; I will gather them against you from all around, and will uncover your nakedness to them, so that they may see all your nakedness. 38 I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy. 39 I will deliver you into their hands, and they shall throw down your platform and break down your lofty places; they shall strip you of your clothes and take your beautiful objects and leave you naked and bare. 40 They shall bring up a mob against you, and they shall stone you and cut you to pieces with their swords. 41 They shall burn your houses and execute judgments on you in the sight of many women; I will stop you from playing the whore, and you shall also make no more payments. 42 So I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer. 43 Because you have not remembered the days of your youth, but have enraged me with all these things; therefore, I have returned your deeds upon your head, says the Lord God.

Yeah. That’ll preach…

I’m not a biblical scholar so I’m not going to exegete this text or provide a long historical context for this particular book of the Old Testament. Yet current scholars speak of the prophet as being traumatized himself, as a Hebrew in exile, and that some of the violence of his exhortations reflects his own experiences of victimization. Scholars claim Ezekiel’s own internalization of the oppressor. What I’m more focused on are the healing and the redemptive components of the book. How do traumatized people restore their hearts and souls? How do humans find meaning, hope, and life after profound brutality? How do cultures that have been decimated, exterminated and/or marginalized ever experience wholeness again? How do survivors survive? How do people face the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man and not have hearts of stone? How do people receive new hearts? These are the challenges of healing trauma on personal and political levels. More often than not, we need God’s redemptive grace for transformation to occur.

If God is the breath – the spirit – the ruach – how do we breathe in new life?

Is it not in breathing that emotions release and life force begins to flow again?

We see in Ezekiel 37 a profound shift in language and message:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”  Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Ezekiel 36:26 states: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

I love these passages for as I watch the news each night and take in what I know of the world, the amount of trauma truly overwhelms. The degree of suffering in the world is beyond belief. But somehow, the spirit endures. It lives and transforms and there is a message of hope – despite it all.

While I don’t condone the misogynist language of this ancient patriarchal text, the violent metaphors, contrasted with healing and redemption, nonetheless exerts its power.

Giving up on Nashville

26 Aug

I once had a terrible argument with a loved one. The person I cared about stated that my writing aspirations reminded her of all the musicians in Nashville waiting tables while nursing dreams of fame. Only a small percentage would make it. Why keep the dream alive if it only caused frustration and pain? Why not cash in on the dream, shift focus, and create as a hobby? Why not find joy that way?

My friend was coming from a place of love. My friend just wanted to see me happy. What she didn’t realize were three things: 1) artistic dreams had been the fuel that had propelled me through every difficult and lonely situation in my life; 2) this was the message I’d heard since childhood from fear based adults who felt practicality was the only way to live life; 3) that any kind of personal quest towards leaving a mark on the world was viewed as narcissistic and grandiose. These messages, engrained in me from early on, sharply contrasted one piece of wisdom from my grandmother. She once told me that if God gave you a particular talent, it was a sin not to use it.

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The funny thing about that argument is that I’ve done a complete 180 degree shift from the time we had it. I still believe in the power of dreams and that you must chase after them with a vengeance. If you have a goal, you have to protect it like a cherished infant and not let anyone snatch it from you. Creative people and dreamers are the individuals who have defied reality and expectations and changed the world. So no. Never give up on Nashville, if Nashville is the dream. There is something beautiful and noble in the trying. It is the journey, not the destination. And I respect anyone on the path. It is far better to be on a path – whatever that path is – than numbed out and resigned to the status quo.

But ironically, what has changed for me is that I no longer believe the “dream” is it. In fact, at the moment, I can’t think of a single dream or aspiration I have for my life other than to try and live with an open heart and to live each day to the best of my abilities. The only focus of the moment is spiritual. How God do you want to use me for the day? How God can I honor the present moment instead of chasing an allusive future? And how do I keep transforming the past into a gift of service and compassion for others? That’s it. It’s pretty simple and it’s definitely not sexy or glamourous. It certainly won’t win me an Oscar or an interview with Oprah.

Yet creativity will always be the thread that holds my life together. That hasn’t changed for creativity provides tools for problem solving, for finding meaning in adversity, and for transforming chaos into order. Creativity is what brings form from the void and ushers beauty into the world. Sometimes our creative efforts go recognized; other times they die with us. The very nature of creativity is death in transformation, spontaneity within discipline and structure, and a surrendering of self while discovering an ever evolving and defined self. It is indeed paradoxical.

The happiest moments of my life occurred when I was a child visiting my grandparents in Wisconsin. There I discovered a beautiful intimacy in simplicity, presence, and relationship.  I found great wonder in very basic activities: cleaning out the bird baths each morning, cutting fresh flowers and arranging them, baking cookies, learning to sew and knit, and tagging along with my grandma while she ran errands. Afternoons were spent reading or playing in the yard. We simply enjoyed being together and engaging in meaningful work.

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Ironically, these are the things songs get written about in Nashville. We create to capture life and to understand it. We create to survive and to thrive. Our creative skills are the one thing we share in common with God. But at the end of the day, I hope to be more like God in heart than in skill. Because skills no longer seem like a big deal to me. At the end of the day, we simply want to experience love not for what we do but for who we are.

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Give Me Your Burdens

24 Aug

At my mom’s funeral, I wondered how the priest was going to handle the fact that my mom died by suicide. Instead of condemning her to hell, for in Catholicism suicide is often viewed as a sin, he spoke of God’s grace. After mentioning my mother’s innate goodness, he read Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and You will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

That scripture has always meant something to me since then, although if truth be told, I often forget about it. Yesterday, it was a passage cited in church during our lecture series on hope. I wasn’t feeling a lot of hope at the moment but the passage started speaking to me. Our brilliant pastor, Ed Noble illuminated things. “God doesn’t say, ‘Come, all you who have it figured out, you who have “it” going on in life. You with no burdens or issues or drama. You who are perfect and not screwed up like the rest of us.’  No. God says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden…'”

Some of us have never had a consistent landing place; a soft place to fall; a place where others have our back on a routine basis. As I probe into some of the deepest wounds of my life, I realize that for much of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I have struggled alone. Where were the parents to turn to for solace, or the beloved spouse, or the tight extended family/community, always there for you? That certainly has never been my reality. More often than not, it has been me, myself, and I. I’ve figured out how to move myself from point A to point B, how to put bread on the table, how to bury my parents, and how to navigate life’s challenges. I turn the key in the door each night and welcome myself home. But none of us can exist like that without ultimately cracking at some point. My mom did. She couldn’t feel God saying, “I’ve got this. Lean into me.” It took taking her life until she could finally come into the arms of Jesus and hear him say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden…”

Christ was heavy laden. He certainly didn’t have it easy. Even if you don’t think of him as the son of God, it was no picnic to be crucified by the Romans for basically doing good in the world and being a rebel. But I love this painting I saw recently depicting he and his mother on his way to his death because for a moment it shows Jesus’ and Mary’s roles reversed. In this moment, it is Mary who with her eyes is saying, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden…”

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I am convinced that the only hope there is in this extremely broken world is that which is Divine and of God. There is too much pain, too much isolation, too much fucked up-ness to get by unless you cling to the Light vs. the Dark. We can cry out in the unfairness of it all or we can surrender and rest in the peace He offers us. And then we must in turn, take this same peace and extend it to others. It’s as simple as that. That’s all there is in life. Everything else is a mirage. Spiritual love is the only force of any significance. Because without it, we’re all lost, simply clinging to materialism, ego, an absurd attempt at control, lust, posturing, and grandiosity. “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36.

 

 

Because Life is Too Damn Short

16 Aug

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Something happens to women in their forties. I call it the “I’m done with bullshit,” phenomenon. By the time you get to be a certain age, you’re just done with nonsense in all facets of your life: work, relationships, social expectations, etc. You simply stop caring what other people think and do what you want because you realize LIFE IS TOO DAMN SHORT. It will be over in a blink of eye, so why waste time doing things you don’t enjoy? Why not surround yourself with a tribe of folks who accept and celebrate your authentic self instead? Granted, we of course have to be responsible and tolerant and show up for our day to day tasks. Likewise, we learn and grow when relating to those who are not sycophants and who challenge us towards growth and transformation. But truly, we have far more choices in life than we realize.

I remember years ago a supervisor saying, “Lise, you’re working harder than your students. Stop it. It’s not serving them and it’s not serving you.”

There are things that I put up with in my twenties and thirties that I simply no longer have patience for in my forties. They say by the time you’re in your sixties, you go from not giving a damn to not giving a (insert your word of choice). Do you develop a foul mouth as you age? No. Of course not. And I don’t mean to insult anyone with my language. I am trying to make a point. As you age, you start to carve out the precious time to do what means the most to you and what adds premier value to your life. You surround yourself with others who “get” you and who support you in being all that you possibly can be. And you in turn want to do the same for others. A life of meaning and value is one of service but of the best kind – the kind that comes from choice vs. a sense of obligation that has no real heart behind it.

Let’s all lead a heart filled life, embracing each moment and squeezing all that we can out of life. This doesn’t mean avoiding sadness or pain because these are part of life. The more we can feel our own emotions, the more compassionate we are towards ourselves and others. Yet there is such grace in the ethers, if we let go of the bs in our lives and focus on what’s of integrity, joy, passion, and commitment. Sometimes that starts with ourselves, as we carve out time to appreciate God’s grace and settle into our authenticity. Then we can show up for others and support them in theirs as well!

Awakenings

15 Aug

Like love, geography can speak to our hearts and wake us up. As someone who travels extensively for work (and who was very well traveled as a young person), I’m becoming increasingly aware of how distinct topographies speak to specific longings within our souls.

In February of 2014, I was sent to Stroudsberg, PA to teach one of my Mental Health First Aid instructor courses. By the time I arrived in Allentown, I was pooped. A few months prior, I’d had to put both of my cats down on the same day. A few years prior, both of my parents had died prematurely. I’d just come off of three weeks of teaching, one stint that took me all along the California coast line and the other to Bend, Oregon. My colleague and I marveled at how taxis seemed to be non-existent at the Allentown airport. We were loathe to rent a car because a huge snow storm was due and we weren’t familiar with driving in storms. Finally, a car arrived to take us to the Shawnee Inn.

Shawnee turned out to be about 100 years old. It was both lovely and funky. Because it was the dead of winter, there was barely anyone there other than a few skiers. Our group was atypically small, which left us lots of extra time to just “be.” I had a huge room and a deep comfortable bed, two bathrooms with claw tubs and a view looking out onto the countryside. I didn’t mind that it was 20 degrees out and that my colleague and I had to walk down the road to the adjacent restaurant. I loved the quiet still. I loved the frozen river. I remembered how much I loved the East coast and the countryside.

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Something was calling me. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that two months later, I was once again sent to Shawnee. The front steps host a red carpet, as if you’re arriving at the Oscars.

Pennsylvania is a beautiful state. Over the course of that year, I ended up spending two months there for a relationship. The landscape reminded me of the farmland of Wisconsin where I spent all my summers with my grandparents. The contrast between the Midwest and Southern California forever etched an ideallyic notion of green rolling hills with farm houses. I was smitten by the Amish, the horse buggies, and the dairy creameries. I loved the old churches dating back to the 1700’s and all the early American history seeped into the area. The architecture alone made me bananas for I am a sucker for stone, farms, and universities.

As I revisit the terrain yet again, this time for work, I check out more of the state. I notice that despite the gorgeous countryside, people here drive fast and impatient, just as they do in Southern CA. After all, the state is close to D.C., Baltimore & NYC, plus has Philly, one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Drivers and cyclists here have East coast intensity and rudeness, no different than entitled Californians have their “it’s all about me” vibe. Only the Amish seem to know how to slow down. But oh, is it beautiful.

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Some people absolutely know where home is. I’m Californian through and through but my heart has spent time in so many vast places, it simply loves them all: the majesty of the Rockies, the mystique of the Southwest, the gorgeousness of the Pacific NorthWest, etc…. I no longer know MY topography or what speaks to me. I’ve logged time in big cities and on both coasts. I’ve logged time in this country and abroad. Perhaps home is where you are and the journey is what awakens you. You keep listening to the winds, waiting for when they tell you where you are next supposed to be. The winds tell you whom you’re to meet and where you’ll root – even if only temporarily.

We all want to plant ourselves but nothing is ever completely permanent. More often than not, we go where called or stay where told.

This year I was surprised to find Hawaii and the South spoke to me as well, two areas I never would have thought I’d resonate with. Yet I loved the spirit I felt in both places, the slow pace, and the rain. But then it is the topography that calls to the heart, matching what the soul needs at the moment in its time of intersection.

Home. It is a very complex word and means different things to different people.

The Roles We Are Vs. The Ones We “Play”

11 Aug

The other day I was in the drug store when I heard a girl who couldn’t have been a day over nine years old say in a sharp voice to her younger sibling, “You need to stop running around and get here in line with me, right now!” I did a double take. The girl’s voice was not her own. It was clearly channeled from her harried mother. Someone had put the girl in the mother role, expecting her to look after her sibling and she was pulling it off with a Meryl Streep performance. The incongruity of her little body juxtaposed with the adult posturing of  stress and impatience was astonishing.

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What roles do we play and which ones do we authentically own?

As a drama therapist, I encourage people to expand their role repertoires and to not always play the same parts. On the other hand, I believe in an authentic self that supersedes any roles we play or conventions life asks of us.

What about the roles we deeply long to star in that we haven’t been offered? How do we account for a career stalemate and/or turn our game around? How do we simply write and cast the movie, assign ourselves the lead and then pick the supporting players?

About two years ago, I listened to the poet David Whyte give a lecture/reading in Asilomar, CA. I had had the fluke chance to meet David a few months prior, but I had never attended one of his events. His theme centered on “the art of asking the beautiful question.” At one point he asked us to reflect on a couple of words that had resonance for us and/or that we wanted to better cultivate in our lives. He then had us write the words down. I scribbled “mother” and “lover”, two words I felt I could barely identify with, yet as soon as I wrote “mother”, I realized I completely resonated with the word. Although I had never given birth and my two cats had just passed away, I realized I was more than maternal. I had loved on and nurtured scores of young people in my life and had more innate, motherly instincts than many who have given actual birth. I was reminded of a statement a male friend once said to me. “Lise, anyone can fuck. Anyone can get pregnant. Not everyone knows how to shape and encourage a young person’s development.” He was right. If mothering was about shaping and fostering a young person’s strengths and potential, then I was a mother.

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But now this other word…. Lover… Shit. I hadn’t had a boyfriend or even been kissed for years. I felt completely bankrupt. How could I be a lover without a lover to love?

If you don’t know Asilomar, David’s event was held at a site along one of the most beautiful stretches of the Pacific coastline imaginable. Asilomar basically butts up against beautiful Pebble Beach, the 17 mile drive, and the famous golf course. During the afternoon breaks between David’s talks, participants were free to roam along the beach. After the session, I took a long stroll along the shore. It was a stunningly gorgeous day in January. The sky was a glorious blue, the sea greener than a cat’s eye, yellow labs played in the waves, and the sun brushed upon my skin as gently as a lover’s caress. I watched couples holding hands and then felt the pit of emptiness in my stomach. “I’m not a lover. I don’t have that.”

The instant this thought went through my mind, the Universe defied my thought distortion and challenged me to a debate. Simultaneously, the wind joined the sun, stroking my face. It was nature’s form of a menage a trois.  I found myself smiling at the pleasure of the moment. And I thought, “WHOA!!!!! I AM A LOVER! I am a lover of nature, of people, of the sea, of animals, of the things about which I am passionate, I am a lover of words and art and dance, and I am a lover of life. Nothing and no one can take that identity from me. Not only that, I am sensual and I express that, whether I am sharing my body with someone or not.”

From that day on I identified myself as a consummate lover. I was not a wife. I wasn’t even a girlfriend. But I was a lover. It was a role I’d played many times, but now I was fully embodying it as part of my authentic self with or without a co-star.

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Within two months after that, a real life lover materialized. And now, once again, I am a woman without a consort. Without a dance partner for sharing and enjoying romantic love. People tell me, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone. ” I despise that phrase. I despite the whole idea of it. Sure. You can definitely shift your focus by pouring your love and sensuality into someone else. Sometimes this is healthy and a natural progression of life. A relationship no longer works and you step into one that does. But to naively say, “Reclaim yourself by fucking someone else,” is the most bullshit way to take one’s heart and power back. If love making comes naturally and organically and joyously, that is one thing. But to just scout out some lover in a bar to make yourself feel alive again, will only reinforce emptiness that can’t be filled by someone’s sperm or a few moments of ecstasy in the sheets.

A lover is someone who is passionate, powerful, sensual and compassionate. Another person may help strengthen these qualities and draw them out in us. But true love is sustained when we are these qualities with or without the body in the bed next to us.

Ladies, the sooner you figure this out, the sooner you’ll really understand the power of your own self-worth and what is truly sexy. You are the lover and player of your own life. Do not wait for someone else to validate that which is feminine within you. Honor it, embody it, and be it first and foremost for yourself. Then if you so wish to share yourself with someone who is worthy and who you feel delight in, more power to you. But the power is yours. Not the other way around.

Like Standing On Fishes

31 Jul

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It was as if he was waiting for me. When I peered into the living room as I put my key in the door I could see Hafiz sitting in my desk chair where he had a thousand times before. Only this time was different. I had slept separated from him and this morning was my morning to say goodbye. It was as if he knew and had rallied all his energy within him. After a month of sleeping through most mornings and no longer sitting on my lap, he wanted to cuddle.

At one point, Hafiz had started dropping weight fast. Terrified that he had cancer, I took him to the vet where they ran some tests. When the vet called me a few days later with the results, I expected the worst. Instead, in her chipper voice, she relayed that he had a thyroid condition and that it was completely (and inexpensively) treatable. She was right. Hafiz’s weight held steady for a number of years thanks to his thyroid medication that I handled wearing rubber gloves because apparently the pills could hurt me.

Hafiz and his brother Rumi came to live with me when they were six years old. They were siblings and their owner, who had raised them since birth had just landed in a nursing home after falling and breaking her hip. I had been a reluctant pet owner. But like most things in life, their arrival was part haphazard, part orchestrated. Had my friend Christiane called me on a different day, I probably wouldn’t have driven down to see them. Yet being that it was a three-day weekend, I had a little spare time.

Then there was no hesitation. One look at Rumi, who greeted me with a gentle openness, informed my decision. “But you need to meet the other one,” Christiane insisted. “He can be more temperamental.” It didn’t matter. Kneeling down, I peered under a chair to get a look at Rumi’s brother. He returned my stare with a ferocious hiss.

Although litter mates, they looked and acted nothing alike. Rumi was pure Siamese. His black and brown coat was as sleek as a mink’s, soft and gratifying to touch. He was slender with midnight blue eyes and a very gentle “meow.” So sweet and docile, he was almost effeminate in nature. Hafiz on the other hand was built like a football. Pale grey with huge blue eyes, and remarkably defined cheek bones, his body weight felt like an infant in my arms. His meow varied in tone depending on his moods and he often grunted when he ate.

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Rumi walked compliantly into his carrier cage when asked. I took him to my car while Christiane brandished a towel and lured Hafiz out from under the chair. As I drove away, my companions made distressing meows from their cages. Gripping the steering wheel, I took a deep breath.

As I opened their cages, they peered out and then took a few tentative steps. They immediately went into my bedroom closest and only came out to eat, after which they returned directly to their safe house.

As I fell asleep that night, they ventured from the closet and jumped onto the bed. I was later awakened by the sound of little paws pattering on the hardwood floor. I hadn’t anticipated sounds coming into my world. They were like newborns home from the hospital. Everything about my routine was suddenly altered. I drifted back to sleep and later awakened to a humming sound. As I became conscious, I realized their little motors were running. They had settled up against my prostrate body.

Two days after Rumi and Hafiz were getting settled, I received a call.

“Hello?” I repeated a few times into the phone.

A shaky voice asked, “Are they okay? Are they okay? Something is wrong. I can feel it.”

I realized it was Christiane’s great-aunt, experiencing intense separation anxiety, as well as grief and loss.

“They are doing very well. I promise I will take good care of them.”

“Mouse…He gets urinary tract infections…. I raised them since they were babies. I fed them milk with eye droppers.”

(I had renamed the cats).

“I’m sure you miss them terribly. I promise I will love them dearly.”

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The woman started to cry. After sitting in silence for a bit I gently said, “You can call me any time you like.”

The woman was now starting to sound confused. She’d just lost her beloved animals, her home, and independence. I understood more than she realized.

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