The Chains That Bind Us

July 23, 2022 – Part 1

Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking up and down the grassy knolls of our new property and exploring the winding ravines that snake through the bottom of what I’ve secretly labeled “the scary forest.” 

Right off, we saw a coyote big enough to be a wolf trotting off into the scary forest, thus confirming my belief that that’s where all the limb-tearing creatures abide. And just last Saturday, a motherless baby bear emerged from down there after I’d spent an hour sitting on my porch in the pre-dawn darkness, listening to the deep and gravelly grunts of what I (later) understood to be her mama. Not only that, but a few days ago, Arin discovered a deer skull and hollowed-out carcass atop a rocky ledge—most likely the handiwork of a perching lion. 

All-in-all, I’d say the scary forest is not on my top ten list of places I’m dying to explore.

Later that afternoon, Arin and I took Grayson and Arin’s mom to the Royal Gorge Bridge, where I tapped out on Grayson-duty and relinquished his crossing-the-highest-suspension-bridge-in-the-country caretaking to Arin. (High places and I don’t mix well, and Grayson completely tips the scale). Instead, I focused on remembering to breathe while coercing myself across the gently heaving bridge that dangled from strands of measly steel cables. I held on to my mother-in-law’s skinny arm for dear life, wholly forgetting that it was I who was supposed to be supporting her. 

Afterward, Arin spontaneously opted for a detour up Skyline Drive, a narrow, one-lane road flanked by steep drop-offs on either side that more than adequately lived up to its name. Curling the brim of my baseball cap tightly around my eyes, I turned all my attention to the Wordle of the day, squeezing my cell phone like a rubber stress ball. 

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and flat-out discouraged by how much of my day was spent feeling anywhere from mildly anxious to outright panicked.

I never used to be such a scaredy-cat; rather, quite the contrary. I was the fresh-faced, twenty-three-year-old mom sitting relaxedly on a bench at the Tampa zoo as my eighteen-month-old son climbed up and over the jungle gym—alone and unassisted. Older mothers with pinched and worried faces hurried over, “just to make sure I knew where my baby was and what he was doing.” Their concern always confused me—how else would my son learn his limitations and capabilities if I didn’t give him the space to try? Back in those days, I rode roller coasters with reckless abandon, went for midnight swims in the ocean, and took solo late-night flights into Detroit to watch my sister play volleyball—and never once did I think of being afraid.

But then Grayson, our Autistic son, came along and taught me—over and over again—the meaning of fear. He was the child I swore would never live to see Kindergarten. When enraged (which was often), he would suddenly dart into five lanes of oncoming traffic, open his door and attempt to leap from our moving car, or shimmy over our second-story railing and threaten to jump—and all before the age of five. 

Therefore, after living years and years in a steady state of flight-or-fight, I, the mother who was once young and cool-as-a-cucumber, can barely remember what it’s like to feel the absence of fear.

Somewhere along the way, as one catastrophe piled on another, something inside of me began to shrink and shrivel, and my ordinarily expansive soul-space grew tight and gnarled as an atrophied muscle. I started perceiving once trusted civil servants—like teachers, doctors, and police officers—as enemies, and the world—previously open and inviting—turned dark and threatening as the scary forest. It was then that I started feeling afraid. All the time. 

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I once snapped a pencil underfoot in the dark. Little boys riding bikes down the street made my heart race as I frantically searched my memory, only to recall that Grayson was in school. And the sound of my cell phone ringing turned my throat dry as the Sahara desert. 

This compilation of fears—accompanied by the new sensations from the day prior—caused me to linger in bed when awakened by a bright white moon at 4:00 a.m. this morning. Normally excited for the start of a new day, my feet typically hit the floor and head straight to the coffeepot the second my eyes flutter open. But today, I heaved a weary sigh and pulled the covers back over my head to block out the streaming moonlight and avoid another day with myself. 

I felt tired of being afraid, sick of battling my fears day in and day out; I just wanted them gone. I imagined ripping them from my chest like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, then hurling them over the edge of the Royal Gorge Bridge where they could never bother me again.

 I’ve experienced enough crises to know that trauma can get “stuck” in your body, which is part of the reason I wanted to move. I needed at least eighty acres to bleed out all the chaos from our past—the police restraints and hospitalizations, our oldest son’s rollover car accident, the disgusted glares from strangers at the grocery store, the nightmares of Grayson falling and falling through layers of black space…

But today, there doesn’t seem to be a mountain big enough to handle all my fears, and I worry they’ll remain trapped inside me forever. I lay there under the covers in moonlit darkness for a long time; then, finally roused myself and started writing: Yesterday, Arin and I spent an hour-and-a-half hiking…

Just the day prior, my sister, Dani, had texted me a page from Susan McCain’s new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, and something about it had struck me, although I couldn’t put my finger on it then. So I went back this morning and reread, “I believe he’s telling us, It’s enough to be aware of it, and to feel its sting. Because this, in the end, is what connects us all…By turning his experience into poetry, Issa invites us to the shared story of being mortal, the communal longing of being human; he guides us to the love that I’ve always felt to be the unseen power source of all those sad songs with which we’ve inexplicably filled our playlists. This is the ultimate paradox: We transcend grief (or fear, in my case) only when we realize that we’re connected with all the other humans who can’t transcend grief because they will always say, because we will always say: But even so, but even so.” 

I realized that as much as I want to rip the fear from my chest and chuck it over a bridge, it is this fear that keeps me connected to others; for it is our pain, our suffering, and our lack of control “that guides me back to the love that is the unseen power source of all…”

Regardless of how desperately I long to rid myself of my fears, at the end of the day, I must value them for the gift they truly are. They are the thorn in my flesh that leads toward compassion and away from pride; they’re the link that binds me to my fellow co-laborers in life, and they’re the constant weakness that remind me to depend more fully on Christ, the ultimate and most pure source of strength. 

Perhaps one day, my fears will magically evaporate, and I’ll find that I can breeze effortlessly across the Royal Gorge without a second thought. Or maybe, and probably more realistically, I’ll continue battling, struggling, reminding myself to breathe, and occasionally pulling the covers back over my head to find some relief.

But even so, even so…

May our struggles be blessed.

Skyline Drive

Small Town Vignettes

Eating dinner at the bowling alley

July 5, 2022

A man we’ve dubbed “Propane Joe” came up the hill to fill our tank today. He showed up unexpectedly a day early with a “Howdy” and a “Nice place ya got here,” then stuck around long after topping off our tank just “shootin’ the breeze.” People around here don’t seem to operate by the same clock I’m accustomed to, and no one’s ever in a hurry.

I smile to myself, recalling the words I’d recently read by Edward Abbey in his classic book Desert Solitaire, “We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.

Two hours after his arrival, as Propane Joe was preparing to leave, he turned back to Arin, seemingly struck by inspiration, and casually called out over his shoulder, “Hey there, you want to be a volunteer sheriff?”

Arin shrugged and—without a second thought—replied, “Sure.”

“Great, I’ll call you sometime,” said Propane Joe as he hopped up into his truck and disappeared down our long dirt driveway.

~

Yesterday, I took Grayson into town to buy a pair of hiking boots. The owner of the store was (yet again) in no hurry, and as we visited, she discovered that we were new to the area and that Grayson ran cross country.

“Oh, Hal-the-cross-country-coach was just in here!” she exclaimed, picking up a pen. “I’ll give him your phone number and tell him to call you. Maybe you can get together with him over the summer!”

As she walked away to grab a piece of paper, Grayson glared at her and sneakily stuck up a tall middle finger before abruptly marching out of the store.

When I caught up with him moments later, I angrily demanded to know why he had flipped off someone who was so kindly trying to help us.

Scowling at me beneath one furrowed eyebrow as if I were the dumbest woman alive, he irritatedly explained, “I’m just not used to people being so nice. It makes me feel weird.”

Later that day, he asked to go back and apply for a job.

“I like that lady,” he definitively proclaimed. “She’s nice.”

The Sinewy Connection Between Life and Longing, Death and Doubt

July 5, 2022

I am mid-stride in the kitchen when the darkness hits. Without warning, it rolls in as quickly as the afternoon thunderstorms, although my darkness feels much more smothering and muggy. Siphoning my breath and dousing my previous exuberance, the darkness accosts me, demanding an immediate account for my actions: What have you done?

In the sudden eruption of thought, I cannot discern whether it’s originating from within myself or without. You realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life. You’ve uprooted your children, your AUTISTIC SON nonetheless, and you KNOW how he hates change! You’ve forsaken your aging parents, abandoned your friends…and for what? A longing? A far-fetched dream?! You know that in time, you’ll make a mess of all this too—just like everything else you touch. You’re an inverted Midas; everything you lay hands on turns to shit!

My stomach twists in knots as I identify the franticness as Fear, and the spiteful accusations as Self Hatred. I banished the latter years ago; still, it loves to rear its ugly head from time to time to test whether my resolve has weakened. It tries to sneak in the back door, piggy-backed on my deep-rooted fear of failure. Both voices blend as one until Self Hatred grows overly animated and—hopping on its soapbox—starts portraying my longings as potential landmines, my dreams as catastrophes-in-waiting. 

Having exposed itself, I gently but firmly escort Self Hatred back out the door, reminding it that it is no longer welcome in my life. Turning my attention to my quivering Fear, I attempt to compassionately acknowledge it as real rather than feverishly ignoring it as I have for many years past.

The heaviness subsides slightly but leaves me shaky and unsettled, certain to the core that nothing in my world will ever feel right or normal again.

Shortly after, I take a walk to dislodge any residual heaviness. My eyes can recognize the surrounding beauty, but Fear prevents them from perceiving it as such. Rather than an ancient, towering Ponderosa Pine, my wildly scanning eyes inform me that I am beholding a mountain lion’s perch, from where it will inevitably pounce and tear me limb from limb. Every rock is a crouching bear, and every snapping twig confirms my impending doom.

But as the incline rapidly increases, I am forced to focus on just sucking in enough oxygen to maintain my leisurely pace (altitude is no joke!). In time, the deep, rhythmic breathing begins unfurling my knotted guts.

Up ahead, the dogs have zeroed in on something of interest, and although I call to them, they willfully ignore me. As I round the bend, I see a full rack of curving ribs, rising like spires from the weedy earth, and the hairs on my arms stand on end. The ribs are still attached to the backbone, forming more than half of a skeleton, with clumpy bits of fur and meat still clinging to the bone.

Although my boys and husband hunt, I’ve only personally experienced the post-hunt plastic-wrapped meat, the cleaned-up pelt-turned-rug. I’ve never killed anything, never even been close to such unmanaged, wild death. Something about it simultaneously intrigues and repels me (like many sacred things do), and I inherently understand that this push-pull will be my new steady companion while adjusting to life in these mountains.

Truthfully, the longing and curiosity have always been intertwined with my fears and doubts (more on that later), and like a rubber band ball, I have never been able to tug on one strand without the whole mass tagging and bouncing along behind. In reality, it’s all one bundled package anyway—life and death, desire and fear, light and dark. They cycle back and forth, round and round, in and out, and our wide-eyed attentive presence to all the opposing forces is what shapes us into more well-rounded humans—empathetic, sensing, and wholly present.

This unexpected encounter with death somehow makes me feel more acutely alive, and as I walk up the remainder of our winding dirt road, I notice my previous darkness had, at some point, dissipated along with my Fear, leaving behind only a deep-rooted satisfaction.

One day, I will be ribs and backbone and clinging morsels of flesh.

I have one life.

How will I choose to live it?

Integrity is often a willingness to hold the dark side of things instead of reacting against them, denying them, or projecting our anxiety elsewhere. Frankly, it is just another name for faith.

-Eager to Love by Richard Rohr-

“To tread the sharp edge of a sword, to run on smooth-frozen ice, one needs no footsteps to follow. Walk over the cliffs with hands free.”

-Buddha-