Chasing the Sun

Remember the great solar eclipse of 2017? To me, as remarkable as the sight in the sky was the sight of the crowds of people staring up at it. For a few hours, we pushed aside work stress and political mess and looked up into the heavens.

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On a fraction of the scale, that’s what I saw at the coast last week. Every morning,  stalwart bands of people of all ages stopped whatever else they were doing (mostly sleeping, I imagine) and gathered along the beach to watch the sun come up. The sunrises were glorious, but the knowledge that so many other humans were paying homage to them was uplifting, too.

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We are so used to controlling everything around us that it’s got to be healthy to stop every so often to recognize the forces in the universe we can’t control. What time the sun actually slips over the horizon, for instance. Modern-me, I caught myself glancing at my phone to check what time the weather app said the sun was supposed to come up. I even felt a burst of impatience when I thought it was taking just a little too long to meet the electronically-promised deadline.

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I also realized after a day or two of pre-dawn walks along the shore that I didn’t really have to walk east as far and fast as I could go: my efforts weren’t going to make the sun appear any faster. I’d see the dawn just as quickly if instead of hurrying far down the beach, I plunked down in front of our condo with a mug of coffee.

You might wonder why, on vacation, get up before six instead of sleeping in. There’s just something about trying to catch the moment when that tiny orange ball appears. There’s also the reality that once it does, it’s a only a short time before that lovely, sought-after phenomenon becomes a nemesis: blazing, eye-straining, skin-blistering light and heat which no amount of sunscreen, hats, and umbrellas can control, nature once again proving that it can’t so easily be tamed.

And if we needed any more proof of that, we’re watching Hurricane Michael as it barrels towards the Gulf Coast right about where we were last week. I’m remembering the miles of cars lined up on the interstate, Bonnaroo-style, waiting to turn off onto the state highway that heads south to the coast. All those months of planning and preparation to get there, and– so much for fall break. So much for our assumption that the natural world will be just where we want it to be, as we want it to be, when we want it to be.

We don’t run the world, and isn’t that a good thing.

Meanwhile, to those in the hurricane’s path, I’m thinking about you today.

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His Eye is On the Seagull

img_26742We’re down on the white sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast for a couple of days, and this morning’s watch-the-sunrise-walk and swim brought me right back to the old question:

What’s with this prayer thing, anyway?

The complex we’re staying in has a fifty-yard outdoor pool, and being a compulsive lap swimmer, I’m getting out to it before the opening bell to get some swimming in before the ankle-biters and raft-shriekers throng in. For two mornings in a row now, I’ve had the place to myself, with the exception of two women who stand in the shallow end and chat together. This quiet time is an amazing gift, given that down here, it still feels like high summer, and there are more than enough families with rafts, noodles, high-pitched shriekers and splashers who take over the pool later on in the day.

So I started wondering: have I gotten this blessing of empty pool because the little no-neck-monsters are still eating their Fruit Loops and watching cartoons? That is, has it been sheer, delightful coincidence? Or– is the Almighty actually arranging it so that of the hundreds of people staying in this complex, not a single one looks down from their balcony at the shimmering blue water below and and decides the pool is irresistible?

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The question made me think of a conversation I had last week with a friend whose 90-something year-old mother is doing well after a long cancer surgery, despite going into it with cardiac issues and cautions from the surgeon. My friend, not herself a church-goer, said she knows it was because of all the many prayers her mother’s friends had offered up. It’s just like the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” she said, referring to the scene where hundreds of prayers for Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey waft upwards to what Angel Clarence calls the Chief.

Well, ok, but what then do you say to all the people whose surgeries don’t go well? Were their prayers just not strong enough? Was God too busy tending to global affairs to listen? Was–horrible thought–God making an executive decision? “You over there, you’re good to go. You in the corner, sorry, not this time.”

This is not a new question. Not of mine and certainly not of others. I think it whenever someone says, “we had a safe trip. God was really watching out for us.”  Which immediately brings up the antithesis: if we have a fender bender on the way home or hit a logjam on 24,  does that mean God wasn’t looking after us, and if not, why not?

I’ve talked to enough priests and theologians to understand that there’s no one perfectly-phrased prayer, no magic incantation that’s going to make the difference between which prayer is answered and which isn’t.

I’ve also often heard the belief that ‘whatever happens is all part of a master plan.’ Which to me leads us uneasily back to the notion of God as Executive giving some the green light and others the back door.  Anyway, I’m not entirely sure that an empty pool for my sole benefit is part of a grand divine scheme.

Then there’s the vaguer, ‘Prayer is for us as much as God because it puts us in closer intimacy with God.’ That’s nice, but it kind of begs the question.

 

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So this is a post without a conclusion. Because I don’t have one. Just the question, which I imagine I’ll still be ruminating on tomorrow morning, whether the pool is empty for me or not:

Why are some prayers answered, and not others?

Because “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” yes, but we all know that some of them are still getting munched on by hawks.

 

The Secondary Trauma of Doubt

I’m not talking about my doubt here. I’m talking about yours. Which in the sad circular way of emotional/psychological dynamics, can easily become mine.

Doubt that what I experienced was real, that is. Doubt that it matters enough to talk about it. Doubt that the healing process of dealing with what happened is fundamental to emotional wholeness. Trauma survivors already tend to question and second-guess themselves constantly: “what did I do wrong?/ what’s wrong with me that this happened?”, riffs on the “it was my fault” so common with battered wives. How much easier to yield to the powerful and popular attitudes of “it was a long time ago; the past is past; just let it go; aren’t you over that yet?” of those who have no experience–or understanding–of trauma.

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Fear of not being believed is almost as traumatizing as whatever happened in the first place. Being doubted shoves the survivor further into isolation, when already one of the hardest parts about being a trauma survivor is the loneliness of the condition. Not only do you already carry the guilt and shame that “something must have been wrong with me that this happened,” which is the norm for victims of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological violence, you regularly face, if you are able to go public with your experience, the doubt, disbelief and, almost as lethal, minimization of it by those around you. It’s usually easier to say nothing, which means you continue on with a life where you live one way on the surface and a whole different reality inside. Which means you continue to feel different; estranged; less than.

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Just as you did when you were a victim.

Is it any wonder survivors don’t speak openly about their experiences, even with those closest to them? Let alone speak specifically against the abuser, let alone do that in a public way.

All reasons it galls me, the doubt we’re hearing from those who are convinced the allegations against Judge Kavanaugh are fabrications because they are only now being brought forward.

Who in their right mind wants to go through the public trashing given to those who, to steal a saying of the Quakers, “speak truth to power?”

It takes more courage than you can imagine to open up about abuse of whatever kind. Survivors are extremely good at sensing the thoughts and feelings of those they interact with. For those who endured extended childhood trauma, for instance, safety and sometimes survival depended on reading every mood shift of the adults around them.  The least hint of a negative response in a listener–boredom, indifference, disbelief, rejection–and communication shuts down. Survivors expect rejection, and with good reason. Again, it’s no wonder that so many choose never to tell anyone about what happened. It’s also completely normal, so to speak, that decades would go by before speaking out. It can take that long to attain sufficient trust in a world that before proved nothing but threat or terror.

I’m sure people are tired of hearing about abuse, harassment, assault. Imagine living with the scars of the above for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something For Nothing

Steaming over something or other with a little politics thrown in, I took myself for a walk up our long gravel drive the other day. Might as well get some exercise if you’re going to be in a fuming frame of mind.

So the gift I found at the end of the drive caught me totally by surprise.

We moderns don’t believe it’s possible that we’ll ever get something for nothing. We’re too well schooled in the ways Facebook and other “free” internet sites make millions of dollars out of us.

And yet–

Consider the humble persimmon. I had to, when right there on the road in front of my foot were four perfect little gems.

img_2621They hadn’t been there the hour before when I took our dog out for a walk. They had just dropped and weren’t yet squashed by a car or claimed by the hordes of birds and raccoons who wait for them every fall.

If you’re not from the rural South, you may be unfamiliar with the persimmon. Just think tiny mango, in a gentle red-orange instead of green.  They don’t fall till they’re completely ripe: completely squishy, that is, and if they’re not, you don’t want to bite into one.  Unless you like your mouth puckering up with an astringency beyond description.

The persimmon is the poor man’s mango, a fruit I didn’t taste until I was well past middle age. When I was a kid, fruit meant red delicious apples and canned fruit cocktail. Unless we were visiting my North Carolina grandparents in early fall. There we ate muscadine grapes warm off the vine and picked gnarled, sweet-tart apples from a hunchbacked tree behind the garden.

Now that our small-town groceries carry mangoes, I’ve had a few, and last week our neighbor brought us back several from her farm in Florida.

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They’re huge, approaching the size of one of those souvenir mini-footballs.  Soft as butter, sweeter than honey: after one bite, I wondered who needs ice cream when there’s fruit like that?

(Scratch that thought: everyone needs ice cream.)

But mangoes, muscadines, and apples have to be tended by someone. Pruned, sprayed, you name it. The persimmon just–grows. At least that one does. I certainly didn’t plant it. I don’t do anything to tend it. And I sure didn’t climb the fifty feet or so to harvest it. I simply gathered what fell to me.

In short, I didn’t do anything to earn it, but I walked back to the house with a handful of soft, warm fruit. Where it struck me: isn’t that a lot like life? We didn’t do anything to deserve it. We certainly didn’t earn it. And yet–here we are. We’ve been given something–a whole universe of it, in fact–for nothing.

That’s a nice counterweight to this week.

 

 

The Sunday Afternoon Blahs

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What is it about Sunday afternoons? For many of us they’re a kind of melancholy time, a limbo between the earlier anticipation that the mere mention of ”weekend” brought and the rush of the work week to come.

Saturdays have a kind of energy about them: to-do-lists abound, and finishing them seems completely feasible, with the weekend stretching out ahead like a glimmering white-sand beach.

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Saturday night still feels like weekend, even for those of us who are decades beyond the “party!” that the night once meant. Sunday morning means church or other ritual for many and has its own rhythm until lunch. Which is when–wham! Sunday afternoon hits.

Blah.

Sometimes I think we still associate the time with schooldays, when it was so often the moment of reckoning for that long-procrastinated paper.

But really, I think the melancholy has a deeper root. Many of us aren’t good with times of transition. Work: we get it. Play: ok. But the grey space in-between? It can make us fidgety.

Not to mention the notion of sabbath rest. The idea that no matter what religion we have, or none, there’s a day set aside when we remember that we’re not in charge of the world. Which we hate to admit will go on functioning just fine if we take a little time off from running it. We’re not good with that idea.We prefer to believe our every act is so indispensable it’s essential we push on with work no matter what, charging ahead to fill every minute with tasks achieved and lists checked off.

It’s easier in some ways to treat Sunday like just another week-workday, or imitate those organized folk who skim past the afternoon altogether: they may be home from the office, but every moment is filled with prep for the week ahead.

I know that given the hectic pace of many people’s lives, Sunday afternoon leisure may not even be an option. But if it is, can we accept those quiet hours? Allow ourselves, with no distractions, to face ourselves and what we are? plain old human beings, that is,  not human doings?

How do you do Sunday afternoons? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Takes a Team

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As I’ve watched my son and and his wife raise their daughter from fragile, needy newborn to robust and smiling four monther, I’m struck by how many people it takes to keep one small life going along.

The parents, of course, who’ve learned to eat meals in shifts and trade off who sleeps when. And also that collapsing in the living room for a few minutes at the end of a day, before beginning the bedtime routine all over again again, is activity enough, no entertainment needed.

Add in grandparents, aunts, and uncles to occasionally baby-tend. Then all those professionals– newborn nurses, pediatrician, lactation consultants, pediatric chiropractor, day care workers. That’s a whole lot of people lavishing attention on one little bundle.

That’s a team.

img_25801The thing is, what happens to this team as a baby grows? Does it continue to hover, providing love, nurture, and age-appropriate guidance? Or as the child ages, becomes (perhaps) less adorable and (certainly) more independent-minded and mobile, does it kind of lose focus? The way some new pet owners lose interest when that cute fluffy puppy grows into a gangling, garbage-can-overturning dog?

One answer to that question is found over at the Department of Children’s Services, where the frequency of cast-off children can break your heart.

Another is in the isolation too many in our society feel these days, which we know causes all kind of physical and emotional health problems and addictions. Not to mention, this National Suicide Prevention Week, the rise in suicides.

Truth is, long after we need someone to feed and dress us, we continue to need our team, continue to need people to lavish attention on us. In more or less degree, depending on the day. The members may change over time, the demands be less intense, but we never lose the need for a core group of nurturers. Which nurture, I quickly add, we pass along as we serve on other people’s teams, in one continual giving and receiving.

Oh my gosh, I’ve just paraphrased John Donne’s 17th century, “No man is an island.” Or Nick Hornby’s  21st century novel and film, “About a Boy: ” your choice of genre.

But that’s because it’s true. For hundreds of years ago, and still today, not matter what age we are.

We need a team.

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Stayin’ Alive

No food or fancy pics today, just a few thoughts on National Suicide Prevention Month, which is now, National Suicide Prevention Week, which is now, and World Suicide Prevention Day, which was yesterday.

You think somebody’s trying to get us to pay attention?

It’s a subject I’m not unfamiliar with. There have been three suicides and one attempt in my extended family. There was one suicide in my boarding school, with at least one “copy cat” attempt after. My psychiatrist brother, who served three tours of duty in Iraq helping soldiers cope with PTSD, could, if asked, offer anecdotes about the numbers of troubled vets in our country who struggle with the issue.

But most people don’t ask, because, let’s face it, it’s not a topic that wafts easily around a dinner table. Some people are embarrassed to say the word or find the topic “too depressing” to discuss. Others seem to think that if you don’t mention it, it won’t happen. You could call that denial, given the numbers of suicides in our society. I call it plain dumb. It’s kind of like not talking about cancer on the grounds that silence will make it go away.

When really, the opposite is the case: the more a medical issue can be talked about, the more information gets out about how to prevent the thing and the less death-by-whatever we have. Think of the lives saved when the dangers of smoking and lack of seat belts became public awareness campaigns.

Getting the thing out in the open is especially helpful when it’s mental/emotional health we’re talking about. Isolation in that case is just plain deadly. There’s an old 12-step saying, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood: don’t go there alone.” If a person is suicidal or depressed, the last thing he/she needs is to be left alone with the swirl of negative thoughts which if not checked can keep spiraling ever downward.

While the opportunity to open up–to be noticed, to be heard–can be life-saving.

Yet our society tries to keep the topic bubble-wrapped in silence:more comfortable that way.

Twenty or so years ago, I spent two months out west in a center for the treatment of people dealing with extreme trauma of some kind or other. Most of us landed there because old childhood issues had finally caught up with us; some of us landed there after being termed suicidal. One night, I remember sitting around the supper table with a few others talking about suicide in the kind of open, black-humor way that doctors and social workers and others who cope daily with extreme stress often adopt. Until a staff member came along and told us not to.  Suicide wasn’t a topic for general conversation, he said. Save it for the therapy rooms. You don’t want to give people ideas, he said.

Hold on a minute. If the idea hadn’t entered at least several heads, that center would’ve  been a lot emptier–and poorer– than it was. Did even that professional not realize the relief of actually being able to share openly with others who understood the struggle from personal experience? Not realize the relief of not having to act like all was well?

So, people, let’s talk about it. Let’s quit being afraid that using the word “suicide” is going to make it happen. Let’s get past the embarrassment, and frankly, the selfishness of not wanting to hear about “depressing” things. Do we not get that it’s a whole lot more depressing to be left alone with the issue?

Not to mention dangerous.

Let’s say the word, and maybe save a life.

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