Our Dangerous World

We live in a bleak world right now — bleak, because the ground beneath our feet is shifting; bleak, because the winners and losers are easy to identify, but more often than not, the true enemy is within; bleak, because we are increasingly isolated from one another.

Today, as I cleaned my kitchen, I was thinking about a political discussion I’ve been having with a friend. At one time, we agreed about most things. However, as our ideas have been influenced by different information sources, we have grown apart.

On a personal level, this has been difficult. Shared values create a strong foundation for friendship, and ultimately, politics is about values. What do you believe is important? How do you believe our nation’s resources should be invested? What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?

When that foundation is damaged, everything changes. The sanctuary of frank conversation no longer exists. The habit of easy discourse and laughter must be broken so new patterns of interaction can be developed that respectfully circumvent topics leading to discord. Underlying those efforts is the fear that even prayer and good intentions won’t be enough to salvage something.

As I was mulling this over, I found myself thinking of a movie from the 1990s called “The Swing Kids.” Set in Nazi Germany, it is about the friendship between three young men. They all love jazz — two love dancing; one is handicapped, but is an amazing musician.

Because jazz is verboten — forbidden — they each encounter problems with the authorities. One, the handicapped musician, ends up killing himself. One of the dancers is influenced by the materials used to indoctrinate Hitler’s Youth and embraces Nazi ideals. The other is repulsed by his experiences and makes a public statement of opposition by jazz dancing at a dance hall. He, of course, is arrested.

It’s easy with the 20/20 hindsight of history to know which one made the right decision — the young man who was repulsed by Nazi ideals. But, we don’t yet have 20/20 hindsight about the times through which we are living. We don’t know how the nationalism — so like that which led the world into war in the 1930s and 1940s — will shape our world in its current incarnation.

What we do know is that we can all be pawns of powers which hide behind the curtain and manipulate us with messages. The Internet makes it easy. Any individual can put any idea out there and be believed. The idea doesn’t have to be true. The idea doesn’t even have to be plausible. The idea only needs to resonate with a few people who pass it on to others and suddenly it is being embraced as real and true.

As a person who works professionally with words, this dynamic scares the living bejesus out of me. If we can’t trust the written word, what can we believe?

I try to stick to mainstream news sources — reading both those which lean left and those which lean right to have a more balanced perspective. By doing so, I hope to avoid the greatest risk of being manipulated, but even then I am not immune. A while back a video clip taken out of context made the news. As the full story emerged, the incident reflected bad judgment, but not the message it had been edited to imply.

I had jumped on the bandwagon of consternation, and experienced remorse for doing so. That raised alarm bells for me. If I — alert to the dangers posed by the Internet these days and taking preventative action — can be so easily misled, how might others who are less cautious be influenced? And how might they act on what they believe to be true?

That’s what frightens me the most. How might people act on what they believe to be true?

We live in volatile times. Gun violence is becoming normalized. Elected officials role model bullying. Changing weather patterns are creating personal stress on wide swaths of the world’s peoples. Making things worse, the Internet seems to fan sparks into fire all over the place.

I don’t know what we can do on the personal level to address any of the big problems, but I refuse to concede that nothing can be done. Maybe we can at least be kind to one another. Maybe we can hold our friends in our hearts with love, even when we have differences of opinion. Maybe we can resist all that threatens to destroy us by doing good — in our families and in our communities, knowing that by doing so we send ripples of hope into the world.

Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be making an effort to shine light into the darkness of these times.

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Technicolor Dream Shawl

In my wildest dreams, I would not have guessed  I knew so many people who would happily get in bed with the KKK. I would never have guessed I would find friends supporting someone who boasted about assaulting women.

I feel as though I have walked into a Salvador Dali painting or an episode of the “Twilight Zone.”

I don’t know if I will ever get past the denial stage of the overwhelming grief which consumes me. I don’t know if I want to. If the intensity of my grief is any indication, the anger unleashed were I to move beyond denial could be incredibly destructive. My tongue remembers how to cut to the bone; that’s part of the legacy of growing up with verbal abuse — I know how to wound with words.

Last night, as I continued binge-watching “Bones,” a delightful, good-always-triumphs-over-evil television series (which, sadly is ending just when we need its hopeful message most), I decided my next knitting project will be a technicolor dream shawl. I purchased some variegated yarn a while back to make slouch hats for a family member who was undergoing chemo, and have some yarn left. I realized I could use it to knit a crazy shawl as a quiet act of protest.

The shawl would remind me of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and the hope it gave me through one dark winter.

Theater had not been part of my life before I was assigned to review performances at the Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. I had attended a couple performances when I was young, in the pre-wireless microphone days, and couldn’t hear enough of the dialogue to enjoy them (one of the disadvantages of having a hearing disability).

Wireless mikes changed my experience, and amazing performances at the Playhouse enchanted me. I didn’t realize, though, until months later how deeply the psyche can be affected by theater.

One of the performances I saw (more than once) was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” In the months that followed, when my granddaughter was abused at daycare and was hospitalized as a result, when I found myself unable to find work after leaving a workplace due to bullying, when I watched people I loved deal with difficult situations, I found myself over and over humming songs from “Joseph” and finding comfort in those songs.

Remembering “Joseph” also helped me to remember the story of Joseph from the Bible (Genesis 37, 39-47). He was sold by his brothers! He was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned; he was forgotten by someone he helped to gain freedom. Year after year, he was pounded by adversity — but in the end, God lifted him up.

In the end. I must remember this is not the end. I must remember that dark is not dark (Psalm  139:12) to  the God who is love. I must remember that all the dark times in history have passed and this will, too.

To help me remember, I will knit, and to help me remember, I will wrap my shawl around me like hope. To help me remember — because remembrance is all some of us will have in the coming days. Remembrance and faith in a God who is love.

I Hurt

This morning I sat down at my prayer desk, lit two candles in front of icons of Our Blessed Mother, opened my Sacred Space devotional, and read slowly and reflectively while breathing deeply.

We are all part of that cosmos that transcends space and time … I pray with compassion … I give thanks … The Kingdom of God is not coming in things that can be observed.

I breathe deeply in this place where I have experienced intimacy with God. I remember his love. I ask for nothing this morning. I just sit and breathe, but eventually I reach for the tool which will allow me to process what I am experiencing; I will write and in writing I will carve out a place upon which I can stand with dignity.

I begin with two words, two words I learned to say years ago when I read Wayne Muller’s book, Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood. In the first chapter he writes, “For just a moment, I imagine letting go of the ‘Why’ and just allow yourself to say, ‘I hurt.’ Nothing more, just repeat that phrase a few times slowly, ‘I hurt.'”

I hurt.

I was sexually molested at 12; my initiation into physical intimacy was rape by two men I did not know who entered the sanctity of my bedroom from a neighbor’s party and woke me because they wanted to “party” with me. I have battled with depression all my life, and have never been able to have a healthy relationship which involved physical intimacy, which means I have been painfully lonely for my entire adult life.

And this week, I watched our nation elect for president a man who boasted about assaulting women, which essentially gives every man carte blanche to assault women. I hurt.

I grew up in a predominantly white, primarily agricultural state during the Civil Rights movement. The only black person I had ever seen was on television, but I didn’t need personal experience to know what was written on my heart: ALL men and women are created equal. I have been grateful for eight short years that in my lifetime I had seen our nation take the giant step from segregation to full participation.

And this week, I watched our nation elect for president a man who is blatantly racist, a man whose intolerance is notorious, a man who reveals the heart of darkness which lies within the people of this nation, people who claim to be Christian and to worship the God who is love. I hurt.

I hurt.

I hurt.

I hurt.

And I am not alone. My employer is making trauma  counseling available, recognizing that many of us feel as though we have been injured by a catastrophic event. I feel as though I am watching one of my beloved daughters being gunned down or one of my precious grandchildren being run over by a train — helpless. I am helpless to stop the tragedy unfolding before my eyes.

And I feel homeless. I do not know this place, these people. The country I was taught to love no longer exists; Tuesday’s election has shown me this.

Sitting at prayer desk and writing has helped me to find a modicum of peace in the midst of this suffering. I find it in the Psalms, in words which remind me that this, too, will pass.

‭“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil. For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found.” ‭(‭Psalm‬ ‭37:7-10‬, ‭NIV‬‬)

Missing Comma

I need to write this morning. I need to purge myself of the feeling with which I woke — the nebulous hopelessness, the vague sense of being doomed, the knowledge that Satan is alive and well and thoroughly enjoying himself by stirring up memories better left forgotten.

He tried to camouflage what he was doing with concerns about the immediate future. When I moved to California, I thought I’d be OK for a month or two financially. I’d paid my bills for July and for part of August, and expected to have much of the security deposit I placed on my apartment returned. In addition, I expected to have a portion of the rent for August refunded, because I moved out early and a new tenant moved in shortly thereafter. But, I haven’t received a check and repeated efforts to contact the gal from whom I rented the apartment were finally answered with a terse message that I’d left extensive and widespread damage — an assessment I knew wasn’t true. Requests for more specific information have gone unanswered. I woke this morning worried about auto insurance and credit card payments that are quickly becoming past due.

All the hope I had experienced just two days ago had dissipated. What if I can’t find a job? How am I going to pay my bills? What if Sara and Brodie get fed up with helping me? Slowly, another voice began to whisper. A future of hope. Healthy growth. Trust. God’s voice. His promises. OK, I thought and picked up my journal. I need to write.

As soon as I opened my journal to the first blank page, I knew the truth. How I felt had nothing to do with money — nothing has changed since Tuesday — and everything to do with the past, a past I did not choose but with which I have lived for my entire adult life. A basement apartment. Sleeping in the twin bed in my corner of the bedroom. Two guys I didn’t know wandering down from a party upstairs. First one and then the other. My sheets bloody from the violation. Months of my life I still don’t remember.

I should have guessed this would happen, this weakening of the inner armor I’ve pieced together over time to shield me from these memories. I’ve been listening to an audio book when I paint in the morning — HELL AND HIGH WATER by Joy Castro. The narrator is a reporter assigned to do a story about registered sex offenders who have fallen off the grid in post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s full of stories and facts about sexual violence again women and children. And well written. I found myself picking it up when folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher and making myself lunch. I finished it last night, knitting into the darkness after Sara and Brodie went to bed. I needed to know how her story ended, because I suspected the narrator had been sexually molested herself. I needed to know she was OK. Even if she was fictional.

Knowing the source of my anxiety didn’t ease it, though. I picked up a book of poetry I found while packing — [RISKING EVERYTHING] edited by Roger Housden. As has become my habit, I opened it at random until a poem captured my attention — “O Taste and See” by Denise Levertov. I was stymied by the second stanza: “the subway Bible poster said,/meaning The Lord, meaning/if anything all that lives/to the imagination’s tongue.”

In reading poetry, I usually follow the author’s cues — use line breaks and punctuation for pauses. But, if I read the third line without pausing — “if anything all that lives” — it made no sense. It needed a comma, a pause, to make sense — “if anything, all that lives.” Then the whole poem unfolded with its richness, with its hope. We’re to allow the deaths in our lives to be transformed. “crossing the street, plum, quince,/living in the orchard and being/hungry, and plucking/the fruit,” the poem concludes.

Being hungry and plucking the fruit.

But first, we have to cross the street. And I have, I need to tell myself this morning. I have crossed the street. I worked with a therapist to create a modicum of order out of the chaos resulting from that experience, abuse in my family home and my mother’s death. I returned to the faith which had been torn from me by that act, which I couldn’t confess and barred me from receiving the Eucharist. And while my life is not what it might have been, I’ve done some good work from time to time and — I like to think — I was a good mother.

I have crossed over, even if I am currently unemployed. I have crossed over, even if I have bills to pay. I have crossed over, even if I am once again the victim of another of life’s injustices. I have crossed over.

And the sweet juicy fruit for which I hunger is well within my reach: hugs and kisses from precious granddaughters, encouragement and support from both of my daughters, my son-in-law’s patience, my brothers’ advice, morning prayer, time at the easel creating beauty, friendships. Love in all its many guises.

Love. The fruit which comes from God’s hands. For me to pluck.

Routine and Flexibility

I confess, I’m a creature of habit. I like having a daily routine. I’m not exactly a slave to any routine I establish. It’s just that routine provides structure, a motif I can embellish.

And that is the challenge of living in limbo, in that place between jobs. Apart from sitting behind a computer for hours on end, wading through lists of job openings and completing on-line applications, what am I supposed to do with myself? How am I supposed to know when I get to the end of the day that it was a well-lived day.

That’s important to me, living each day well. Once upon a time, I was focused on the future, on getting an education and starting a professional career. Then, I ran smack dab up against a reality check. I had two children in elementary school, was working full-time and trying to complete a Master’s degree when my gynecologist used the “C” word during a consultation. My menstrual cycle had gone wacky, but I thought a few fancy pills would solve the problem. I wasn’t prepared for anything more serious; I was wrong.

I knew how quickly cancer could decimate not only the person whose body became the battleground between abnormal cell growth and modern medicine, but also that person’s whole family. My mother went into the hospital shortly after I started my senior year in high school and died less than three months later. The experience shattered our family and created in my life a void I tried to fill for nearly a decade with behaviors that were unintentionally self-destructive.

I wasn’t ready to revisit that kind of tragedy. I wasn’t ready to introduce my children to that kind of tragedy. I did not intend to leave my children motherless. Period. Non-negotiable.

For a year, I battled the condition my gynecologist warned was a precursor to cancer. He had recommended surgery, a hysterectomy, but I was a single parent with neither family nor friends to care for my children while I was hospitalized and recovering from surgery. I asked if I had any other options, and he outlined an experimental approach. I opted for that.

Medication intensified hormonal mood swings to the point that I was suicidal during the low points. My gynecologist brought in another specialist — a psychiatrist — to deal with that side effect. More medication was prescribed. Through it all, I had to continue supporting my family and provide my children with a modicum of stability at home. The medication and responsibity and uncertainty tied me in knots. I turned to the counselor who had supported and guided me when I had left an abusive marriage a decade earlier, and she helped me once again to traverse a difficult passage in life.

Eventually, the gynecologist was satisfied with the test results and treatment ceased, but during that long year, I had to decide what was important and focus on that. I didn’t have the energy to deal with more, but I also didn’t want to waste any of the time I had left. I knew that if the therapy I had chosen didn’t work, I could still have a hysterectomy, but I also knew that by the time we recognized the need, the cancer could have spread.

The Master’s degree fell by the wayside. If I died, I did not want my children to remember — if they remembered anything at all — a mother who was too busy to spend time with them.

The dreams of a professional career fell by the wayside, too. Growing up in an abusive home. Losing my mother when I was young. Being sexually violated on more than one occasion. Being so confused about relationships I couldn’t tell the difference between a good man and a jackass. Cancer. It was too much for one person to bear.

So, I shifted the measure of my life. Instead of striving for dreams, I was going too strive to live each day well. Instead of sacrificing the present in order to achieve a future goal, I was going to make choices that resulted in rich days. And while I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful in living within the paradigm I choose for myself — I’m by nature a workaholic — I think on the whole I’ve lived a good life.

I somehow managed not to botch parenting too badly; both of my daughters have grown into young women I can appreciate and admire. I have managed to develop a few skills — like painting and scrapbooking — that have provided me with enormous personal satisfaction. My spiritual life has deepened with each passing year so that now I can live authentically only by living the gospels. And, every so often, God has given me a glimpse of the way in which he has used me to help someone else on their journey, and that has been a special blessing, a gift of grace.

But, now I’m embarking on a new phase in my life. It’s so new, I’m a little disoriented. I have tried to bring some normalcy to it by establishing a few routines. In the morning, I shower, kiss my daughter and grandgirls good-bye, and then spend some time in prayer. After this, I paint for about an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, before sitting down behind the computer by 10 a.m. to find jobs in the area which interest me and for which I’m qualified. Late in the afternoon, after putting in several applications, I put it all away so I can enjoy a little family time with my daughter’s family.

But, sometimes I have to be flexible. Today, I edited an article for a friend before starting my search and my grandgirls arrived home early with my son-in-law. Oddly enough, this variation in the pattern of my life feels good.

Maybe that’s enough right now — that I have brought my penchant for organizing things to the uncertainty of the situation by establishing an arbitrary routine, but that, when necessary, I can let go and flow with the currents of life. Yes, maybe that’s enough. But, that being said, a job would be nice!