The Chains That Bind Us

July 23, 2022 – Part 1: Regarding Fear

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

The Fear Behind the Fear (COVID-19)

Screenshot 2020-03-21 at 7.46.58 AM

During this strange and unprecedented time, I have been amused by the humorous memes and videos that have been popping up on social media. Parents have been instantly thrust from their roles as busy professionals to homeschooling, full-time, stay-at-home caregivers. While it is so good to laugh at ourselves and find humor where we can, I have to wonder at what lies behind the memes.

Over and over, I have heard people asking for suggestions for ways to pass, kill or survive their time at home, and for ideas on how to stay busy. A fairly consistent theme that seems to be emerging in these funny videos looks something like this…1) person is excited for “down-time” 2) person binge-watches all possible NetFlix shows 3) decides they will finally try to sit and talk with spouse and/or kids 4) ends up melting down screaming into a pillow and ultimately finding a breath of relief in the bottle.

What seems to be lurking behind the humor, is the fear of 1) unstructured and unfilled time, 2) unlimited time with spouses/family members, and perhaps most predominantly a fear of 3) time spent alone. While on paper, and at our busiest, most people would concur that these opportunities are desired and necessary, even coveted. Yet, when the same opportunity extends its hand as a real and viable option, we panic.

Setting aside potential fears surrounding the actual virus and the economy, I have been thinking about the psychology of social isolation for a while now and wondering…what is it, specifically, that are we so afraid of? Upon reflection, it seems that when we find ourselves “stuck” at home with cleared schedules, and unfettered access to our spouses, children, and perhaps most importantly, ourselves…our deepest fear (if we are even able to silently acknowledge it), might be that we will come face to face with…absolute nothingness.

We know that all of the conversations we’ve avoided due to lack of time, all of the insecurities and nagging voices that we’ve drowned or kept at bay…will all be waiting for us in the vast expanse of time. I think that if we are honest, this might be the cause of our deeply-rooted and intensely personal panic. This is what keeps us binge-watching, searching the web, looking for ways to “kill” time. We will do anything to avoid being alone with ourselves.

What if rather than trying to “kill” time, we attempted to lean in and embrace time in its fullness, whatever that might include? What if we sat for a while, alone (gasp!), and let our thoughts and fears rise to the surface and breathe in the fresh air of honesty and unhurried moments? What if we allowed ourselves to feel failure, fear, sadness, anger, and pain…instead of evading, numbing, and tuning these emotions out? What if we allowed ourselves to acknowledge our internal emptiness and nothingness?

In one of my favorite (highly recommended) books, Sabbath by Wayne Muller, he says, “For some people, emptiness can feel fertile and spacious, alive with possibility, as a womb is ripe waiting for a child to come. But others feel emptiness as an ache, a void; something painful, in need of being filled. When we are empty, we feel unhealed; when we are unhealed, we can feel unworthy.”

It seems that this generation, perhaps more than any, is afraid of emotional pain. We try to fix, medicate, eradicate…but we will not allow ourselves to feel.

Could it be that we are a nation of stress and busyness mainly because we are unwilling to feel and acknowledge everything that hurts inside? What if we must first admit to, and then acquire a certain level of companionship with our emptiness and unrest, in order to find true peace, instead of settling for a tuned-out mental break from our internal torment? During this time when the literal world needs healing, what if we started by using the extra time to heal ourselves? A wise saint once said, “All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.” This does not mean that we don’t help our friends and neighbors, but rather that we will best serve others when we begin to heal ourselves.

It is my prayer that we will be able to see the opportunities presented by this virus, as opposed to the fear and inconveniences. Suffering is not a new concept, but perhaps new to this generation on such a large scale. I pray that whether we suffer internally or situationally, we will all learn to suffer with patience, kindness, and gratitude, and that we will be able to teach our children how to do the same; and if by chance, you find yourself panicking at the thought of isolation…breathe, lean in, sit with it, and become acquainted or reacquainted with the glorious person that you were created to be.

 

“To come to what you know not, you must go by a way where you know not. Growth may not feel like growth, and we need encouragement that there is somewhere to go, if we are to sail on.”

-St. John of the Cross-

 

 

 

A Summer Tornado

downloadThe end of summer feels a bit like wandering through the aftermath of a natural disaster.  I mentally move from room to room, assessing all the damage that has been done after several months at home with five kids, mainly my autistic son.  A broken window in the basement…door jamb plates that have been sneakily unscrewed at some point to avoid “room time…” a broken lamp and glass candlestick in the storage that I’ve known about, but somehow, just can’t conjure up the energy to clean…broken glass tabletops from angry, slamming spoons as well as from the time he was “pretending” to throw a chair and slipped…broken doors and doorknobs (oh Lord, so many broken doors)…a garage door that won’t shut, a front door that won’t open…railings that have been ripped out of place…the list goes on and on…

And then there’s the internal inventory…everything I set out to do this summer, everything I hoped to be and do and just ran out of steam. Everywhere I look seems to be a reminder of my failures and shortcomings.  And it feels a bit overwhelming…a lot overwhelming, actually.  I basically want to pack it all up (or just leave it all behind) and move to Montana (or anywhere).

And tomorrow, he starts middle school.  My stomach hasn’t stopped churning since I realized how close the start of school was (a combination of sheer dread and simultaneous elation)!  I remember leaving him at preschool…I guess it was more like peeling him off of me and sprinting out the door…and this kind of feels like that.  I am always afraid of him feeling afraid, of him feeling lonely, of someone being unkind, of me not being there for him.

But in the daily midst of struggling to just breathe and not suffocate, a bright thought sneaks into my darkness.  My 16 year old son, who was standing on a teetering precipice, spent the summer fishing instead of partying, all day every day.  He came home happy at night and actually talked to us and laughed with us!  My daughter spent 5 weeks in Florida helping family take care of a household with 4 small children.  Last night, I sat up until midnight with my 13 year old son and 3 of his precious, giggling, hilarious friends as they tried to learn how to use chopsticks (and or course broke more glass in the process)!  My youngest daughter is still asleep with a friend in a fort they worked until midnight…and not a single electronic device was involved!!

I woke up this morning reminded (yet again) of the messiness and complexity of life.  I constantly feel like my life is either on the brink of a tragic catastrophe or sheer paradise.  They are both true, I think.  Every breath holds within it the potential for suffering and misfortune, as well as peace and prosperity.  But sometimes it is not so obvious which is which. Most days, I am incapable of discerning what events will lead to my downfall or my salvation. It all blends together in one chaotic, jumbled mess.  Perhaps it is all one in the same.  At times, I can’t see through my tears.  But on any given day, they might be tears of heartache or tears of laughter.  Life seems to be one huge contradiction.  It is concurrently chaotic and monotonous, sorrowful and joyful, dreadful and wonderful.

It’s pretty hard to hide and yet at the same time, hard to admit…I’m a mess, my kids are a mess, my home is a mess.  But I guess it’s the mess that makes us human, that makes us vulnerable and that humbles and refines us.  I can’t say that I always appreciate it, that I don’t at times try to close my eyes and make it all disappear.  But on better days, I can at least accept this beautiful mess called life…