Thursday, February 25, 2016

C is for Comic (Relief)

"On the first visit, he [Alexander Zauber] wants to know everything about my accident.
I describe my various fractures, and as I mention each one, he nods and says,
'It could be worse.'
I have terrible headaches: 'It could be worse.'
My left ankle is broken: 'It could be worse.'
My knees are on fire: 'It could be worse.'
Surprised and somewhat annoyed, at one point I cannot hold back.
'Really, Alexander, what could be worse?'
And with a serious face, my friend murmurs, 'It could have been me.'"
-Elie Wiesel, Open Heart


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My son Finn has repeated this story to me three times since I first read it to him and sent him into gales of laughter.  Truth to tell, I found it so funny myself that, when I read it, I immediately copied it down in my journal.  

The strange--and by that I mean best--part is that I found the laughter-inducing story in a memoir about having open-heart surgery, written by one of the most well-known Holocaust survivors in the world.  

Who expects to laugh reading something like that?

In the first month of my leave, I turned to laughter like some people turn to drugs, alcohol, or chocolate.  As my medical treatment was still in the works to bring my anxiety down,  I maintained a strict routine after dropping my kids off at school:  1) Return home, 2) Grab a snack, 3) Watch old episodes of The Office.  At first I thought this last step was just my way of distracting myself, the only effective tool to escape my panic for an hour or two.   And I'm sure that was part of it.  I did the same thing after two of my miscarriages: camped out on the couch and watched The Office for hours on end to avoid thinking about the loss I was experiencing, taking a break from the awful heartbreak I otherwise couldn't seem to avoid. 

But is that what comedy is?  Humour? Laughter?  Are they just distractions from reality?

A week or two into my leave, Matt and I watched an interview granted by the comic Stephen Colbert to Father Thomas Rosica.  In it, Colbert talks candidly (and not in character) about his work and his Catholic faith (and how the two feed, rather than detract from each other).  While the whole interview is worth watching, one segment stuck out to me in particular on that day and in this season of my life, and especially these words:  

"You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time. And I don't mean that mentally you can't hold those things.  It's somehow autonomic, it's somehow physical...If you're laughing you just won't be afraid...The only way to approach something that's really hard is with joy...doing something joyfully doesn't make it any easier, it only makes it better."
-Stephen Colbert

Fighting fear, one funny face at a time.

Any person who struggles with anxiety will know that relief from fear and panic is something to be treasured: if laughter does that, it is a welcome guest!  In this season, which has been painful in a way that I think people who don't have faith might find hard to understand, my most healing bouts with laughter and joy have been the ones I didn't go looking for.  Part of my treatment has been cognitive-behavioural therapy, which doesn't sound fun and which I certainly wouldn't describe as fun.  It is hard work and it forces honesty and reflection that isn't intended for ego-support.  And yet, in that therapy, in uncovering some of the unhealthy ways I approach life, I often find myself laughing.  (Wait, I don't HAVE to go to the worst-case-death-doom-gloom scenario every time something unexpected happens?  Wait, I don't HAVE to assume someone hates me and avoid them for weeks because they didn't respond when I said hello to them?)

I once told a bride-to-be (when I was all of six months married myself) that the best advice I could give her was to learn to laugh at herself.  I have listened to that advice in marriage, but forgot to do it in the rest of my life.  The pressure I have put on myself to be a Competent Female Pastor left no room for laughter, or grace.  (And, to be fair, there's so much misogynistic bullshit still floating around the church I know why I did so).  It's been nice--necessary--to be reminded here, where up is down and north is south and I'm not sure who I am or what I will be able to do, that laughter is still to be found and is best welcomed with open arms.

Don't get me wrong:  I'm not suggesting laughter is a catch-all, that life is simply a lemonade-making venture with giggles and ha-ha at whatever challenges we face.   Rather, it's what Stephen Colbert named in the last sentence above:  laughter makes life better, even when--precisely when--it is so hard.  In times of despair, laughter does not banish heartache entirely but holds out a line in the dark saying,  "Grab hold, all is not lost.  The stars shine here, too."  

---

A blessing for you, and for me.  

May laughter burst forth in unexpected places,
Fending off fear,
Lightening the load,
Hinting heavily at hope.
Amen.

Monday, February 15, 2016

D is for Dad (always and forever)

The last time I blogged my way through the alphabet, my dad's death anniversary ended up falling on the day I was scheduled to write on "D".  And here I am, four years later, opting to switch the order to accommodate the fact that it is eleven years ago today we said good-bye to him.  I can't imagine writing about anything else.

At the end of a hike, leaning on Dad like always.


Some of you won't know what to do with this, but my dad has spoken to me across the Great Divide during these months of my leave.  It's usually not as strange as that: mostly I just remember in greater detail things that he said or things that our family did.  Other times I recall wisdom he once shared that I haven't been able to apply until this season of desolation.  But, at least once, Dad spoke to me and it was clear and shocking and exactly what I needed to hear.

I was in my counsellor's office.  I had just been given the first of what would be three letters from my doctor advising my church that I needed to be on medical leave.  She had also recommended I immediately resume counselling, which meant this first visit back was an intake of sorts.  I had stopped seeing my counsellor the year before because I was too overwhelmed with the other demands of life--a first sign, looking back, that things were not going to end well!  At this visit, she and I went over my symptoms: their severity, the length of time they had been present, etc.  I cried throughout the visit, as I had I cried the four days prior, mourning the need to surrender, mourning my inability to press on.  I was ashamed to have failed to keep it together (though, let me be clear: I am well enough now to know there is no shame in being broken by life).

When all had been said for a working diagnosis and an advisory to extend my leave to three months, my counsellor made me do something that, inwardly, I rolled my eyes at: she told me to take a moment of silence and stillness and observe my inner state.

At that point, my "inner state" was a mess.  My symptoms of panic and anxiety were double-teaming me, focusing on my chest and throat, rendering eating and breathing difficult.  I didn't WANT to look inward! It was STUPID to look inward!  But like the good student-soldier-patient I am, I did it.

To my surprise, an image came to my mind:  a dark, hollow space.  Not a room, per se; it was clearly inside of me and the walls had the curve, contour, and colour of flesh.  But jutting out, or rather, hanging just a foot or so from the rosy walls, were thick electrical wires.  The ends were frayed, the inside wires exposed to the air (if there was indeed air in that emptiness).

The image disturbed me, cognitively, because wires are for machines and I had no desire to be a machine.  And perhaps I would have abandoned the image as quickly as I saw it, but my counsellor asked me to name it, and I did; and then she asked me to observe it, which I also did.

In the observing--in that forced silence and sitting with this image I did not like--I remembered suddenly that my father, in his life, had been an electrician.  I said this out loud, the tears falling fresh and fat down my face.

My counsellor asked in reply, "So your dad would know how to fix it?"

"Yes," I whispered, covering my eyes with my hands.  "He would."

She pressed me again.  "What can you receive about this image?"

(I'm covering my face as I write this, and tears are falling fresh again).

"That I can be fixed."

"And what," she asked, "would your dad say to you now?"

This question did not elicit an immediate answer because it raised my level of anxiety.  Dad had been unsure about my forming pastoral identity (as he was about the question of women in ministry in general).  Our last conversation before his diagnosis had been about my impending interim pastorate at a church plant in which Matt and I were involved.  He had been concerned back then about how I would manage it all.

But something burst through that initial anxiety, a truth beyond my fears of critique or condemnation.  If Dad were to speak now, it would not be only with the voice and wisdom he had in the final weeks of his life.  His perspective would be different; how could it not be?  Dad would undoubtedly see me with the compassion of the eternal where he was now, on the Other Side.  And Dad, whose life was cut shorter by burnout, by overwork and over-stress over a building project he would not live to see finished, would speak to me with that knowledge as well.

So I answered with the words that came clearly and which I knew to be right, and still know to be right.

"He would tell me not to kill myself for the church."

------

A blessing for you, and for me:

God of all comfort, 
Comfort those who mourn:
Whether dreams or dads or delusions of endless strength
Let us receive the Words of Life,
Lovingly given,
From wherever and whomever you choose to speak them.
Amen.

Friday, February 5, 2016

B is for Babies



"My family continues to hold me close despite the mud and blood I still track back here.  They keep me far saner and more centered than I would otherwise be." 

-Rev. Heidi Neumark in Breathing Space:  A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx

---

Several times last year people would ask me how I was doing balancing a heavy load as interim pastor, mother, and wife.  "Okay" was my staple answer, because I was often stretched but at least making it; even thriving sometimes off the mental and emotional demand of my job.  "Okay" seemed to cover both the thriving and the strain.

But there were two or three times when I really wasn't okay and the stress of my job and life showed in the paper-thin skin beneath my eyes, smudging itself to the surface in greys and purples.  At those points, the follow-up statement from the concerned was invariably the same:

"I don't know how you do it with four kids."

---

I have always felt, as Rev. Neumark bears witness, that contrary to popular belief I would not have been able to "do it" if I DIDN'T have my four babies (using the term loosely, of course; my firstborn "baby" is now a gangly, handsome preteen just two inches shorter than me).  The whole of my licensed and ordained ministry has taken place in the context of motherhood and, for the most part, the two have worked in harmony to keep me well.   When I would come home from church, insofar as it was in my power, I would leave my work responsibilities and stresses at the door and focus on my kids, my husband, and myself.

This was taken in the last few weeks before I went on leave. 
Who is comforting whom?

And really, I had to!  How does one reply to work emails and make dinner at the same time?  How does one counsel a parishioner over the phone while breaking up a fight over whose Lego man is whose?  Over the years I didn't struggle to maintain a separation between work and parenting like I saw many other colleagues do because Motherhood set its own hard and fast boundaries.  I was a better minister because I was a mother (and vice versa, though that is a subject for a whole different post).  It was only as those boundaries were relaxed this past year (sometimes by necessity) that my health deteriorated and my anxiety became uncontrollable.

While on my leave, my family remains a source of grounding and steadiness for me.  My lowest lows and most anxious moments are often restrained by what must be done for my kids: chopping vegetables and fruit for lunches, standing in the rain for soccer, changing diapers and driving to school.  I'm equally grounded by the hilariousness of raising my kids in the stages they are in.  It's hard to despair when you've got a big-eyed, blond toddler singing "Old MacDonald" at the top of her lungs, or when you're oldest son confides in you that he wants to be Donald Trump for Halloween.  The darkness can't be too dark when there is such humour and holiness to be found.




Beyond that, as they have before, my kids have responded to my fragility with grace and compassion.   They have supplied me in this season an extra portion of what every mother craves: kisses, hugs, snuggles and reassurance.  They accept, with remarkable calm, that their mommy loves God but is unable to practice faith in Him in her usual ways.  Every Sunday morning they say good-bye to me without a drop of drama as they head to church, certain that one day I will be well and come with them again.

In other words, my babies are exercising faith, hope, and love on my behalf.  They believe in a future that they cannot see.  And that helps me to believe in it, too.

---

A closing blessing (for you and me both):

May compassion and companionship be given us in plenty,
That love may be our resting place,
hope our sanctuary,
and faith our friend.
Amen.