Eavesdropping

Last week, I was eavesdropping on a conversation in a public library while I was waiting for my tutoring student.

I knew quickly that the woman answering the questions lived with a chronic illness.  She was describing in vague tones, how her poor health was affecting her entire life.  She spoke of the struggle to still see what she had, not only what she had lost.  She still had her husband and her part-time job.

The conversation shifted slightly when the older woman asked how she experienced God right now.

Her response was simple, but telling.

“I want to know that He’s looking out for me.” 

There was a raw honesty in her pain and desperation.  For this is what we all want.  This is what we all forget.

Is he really a friend?  Does he care? Will he show me that there really is light in this world, not just darkness?

The woman  in chronic pain held back tears as she said, “it’s so hard to find daily support right now.”

 

 

As I listened, I got teary-eyed.  I’ve had that exact conversation so many times.  And yet this time being an observer, I experienced such appreciation and love towards both women.

The gift the woman with chronic illness gave was honesty and desperation.  The gift the older woman gave was a calm, empathetic presence and knack for listening and asking timely questions.  She gave the space for silent hope to be born. She is hopeful for the younger woman who can’t be hopeful for herself right now.

What I experienced in that ordinary moment of waiting was Christ on earth. Nothing less.

Two women both giving and receiving.  Both women willing to sit in sadness, to accept reality. Yet in their talking, hope, this invisible force was growing.  This space the women created was beautiful.  A space that Christ can be seen for who He actually is. One woman at the end of herself, another willing to affirm silently to herself that this is really where life begins.

I was assured as these women left, that this space they created together, was actually the incubator for joy. Not culturally-defined joy with bubbly, extroverted personalities, and an overabundance of laughter (although none of these attributes are wrong!) But a deep-seated joy, that can only begin as one lets go.  As chronic illness tends to strip away the people and work and facades we cling to, there is always the opportunity to begin again. To let go, to accept, and to begin again.

I am thankful for this moment of eavesdropping.  To see how close the Divine was to these women, even though I’m certain that he felt so far away.  I can only hope that some people experienced the closeness of God, as they witnessed me over the years angry and crying in many coffee shops across the city.

–For all those who have listened to me in my hopelessness, who hoped for themselves and for me.

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Simple Questions

Last week I listened to a podcast, where the person being interviewed expressed that the words of her yoga teacher were still rattling around in her mind:

“How tender do you want to get? How soft do you want to become?”

Those words made me stop.

I want to be a person who can receive. Someone who can be present, accepting the simple moments as they come and go. I want to be able to be still myself, so I realize what I need and want, and not be so terrified of my fatigue.

I want others to know that they are so important, that I’m willing to get close enough so that they change me.

And yet I’ve lived enough to know that this vulnerability is costly.  My generation values authenticity and vulnerability and yet it’s hard to be the first person to speak, the person to say, “I’m not okay.”

These months have been ones of seeing myself more honestly, seeing my protective walls, and knowing that they don’t just come crashing down in a moment.  It’s more like a slow melting away.

Receptiveness doesn’t mean being a push-over, just as sacrifice means that one must first recognize that there is a self to sacrifice. Without a discerning eye, receptiveness could look like people pleasing and helping could be avoidance.

So I keep returning to stillness, to myself and the Divine, to see how much my ego actually is at work and to see my own goodness and worth more clearly.

Sometimes receptiveness looks like receiving love, being affirmed, being reminded of how valuable I am just for being me. It could mean a hug, a compliment, being still enough to receive this moment, and the unknown that comes with it.

In order to be soft, I want to live into my body, knowing its joys and its pains.  I want to feel what I’m actually feeling, when my jaw tenses up, when my shoulders scrunch to my ears, or when I can actually touch my toes! I want to know when my breath is shallow and when its full. I want to listen to the emotions that rise up in me.

As I daily pay attention to myself, I will be more attune to others, having extra capacity for laughter and tears.

For in times of vulnerability, there is a shared tenderness, and we both could become softer as a result.  Of course, the choice is ours.  We have to be willing to sit “on the mourner’s bench” as Nicholas Wolterstorff likes to say.

The one who is tender speaks bravely, inviting everyone else in the room into a softer, gentler place.

Into a more expansive view of the world.  Into a new emotion, understanding, or empathy.

But there is no force. She could be met with unhelpful silence, misunderstanding, pet answers.

But she also could be met with love and acceptance.  There is great risk in seeking to be tender.

Yet there’s also an invitation to everyone else in the room.

Do you want to be tender and soft too? Will you join me on this journey of honesty, risk, and feeling deeply?

 

 

Health Update-Winter 2017

Last week, I met with my doctor.  These check-ups are met with a variety of emotions: anything from a bit of nervousness, to feeling calm and relieved.  While we generally only discuss the past several months since the last appointment, I still bring my whole medical journey with me.  It doesn’t get left at the door.

I’ve now been seeing doctors regularly for about half my life.  And for most of that time doctors did not know what was going on with me.  I was told that I was fine or that my symptoms were in my head.  I’m glad it’s different now.  I’m completely believed and my medications and supplements are prescribed mainly for how I feel, before how I feel is proven by a lab test.

And I’m glad to report that I’m doing really well.  Minor changes were made to my treatment plan, but the overall message was “Keep doing what you’re doing.”  My doctor told me that I’m doing better now than he expected.  While there still are minor setbacks, there still is a sizable forward momentum.  I’m starting to feel what it’s like to be healthy again.  And it’s a good feeling.

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While you as the reader can’t see the few tears while I write this, writing this post is emotional.  I didn’t think I would experience the day when I felt as good as I do now.  I didn’t think it was impossible.  After 10 years of no answers and my health continuing to get worse, hoping for relief felt exhausting at best and stupid at worst.  And despite my doubt and resignation at times, I have quite a team walking this with me.

I have supportive doctors and nurses.  I have health food stores, farmer’s markets, and an online community that helped me figure out how to make things that actually taste good.  I have friends who are sick and friends who are healthy.  I have nature, walking trails, a yoga studio close by.  I have books that I’ll just plow through on my more tired-and-stay-inside kind of days.  I have people to help me process my spiritual journey, and how my illness has transformed and continues to transform my relationship with God.  In fact, my illness has been the reason why I ever met a gentle, weeping God in the first place. I have a job that I enjoy.  I have a lifestyle that continues to help sustain my healing.

As I keep healing, there’s a question that keeps circulating in my mind, “What now?”  There’s no clear answer or plan to this question.  Yet for a few years, all my energy went into healing, and I had to turn inward, just to survive.  Now all the lessons and gifts I’ve received by learning to take care of myself every day, can move outward.  I look forward to exploring this question more this year.  But for now, here’s a poem by David Whyte that resonates with me and my journey.

Journey 

Above the mountains

the geese turn into

the light again

painting their

black silhouettes 

on an open sky. 

Sometimes everything

has to be

enscribed across

the heavens

so you can find 

the one line

already written 

inside you.

Sometimes it takes

a great sky

to find that 

small, bright

and indescribable

wedge of freedom

in your own heart.

Sometimes with 

the bones of the black

sticks left when the fire

has gone out

someone has written

something new

in the ashes 

of your life.

You are not leaving

you are arriving.

Advent and Reflection

On Friday, I went to Sustainable Faith Indy (SFI) for a 4 hour silent Advent retreat.

SFI holds snapshots of my healing process.  The first time I took a silent retreat was two years ago during Advent.  I had just quit my job at the Oaks Academy, and I wasn’t yet diagnosed with Hashimoto’s.  I had no job, was moving out of my apartment the next month, and I had no idea what to do to help myself.  I was desperate, anxious, and yet too exhausted to feel those emotions that strongly. Numb was a better description.

On these retreats, Advent guides are prepared for each participant.  As I looked through my guide from two years ago, I found in its pages a poem that reveals the depth of my sadness, of my desire for healing:

When Sickness Prevails

Fatigue helps me to befriend stillness

even when I scream into its void.

Silence reveals who I really am:

my fears, doubts, joys, and thoughts

and in that rest I know I am sick.

 

When sickness prevails, rest doesn’t satisfy.

Emotions run rampant, loneliness sucks me dry.

Fear overtakes my mind. I feel stuck.

Stuck in this moment, in this depressing hour

Never to get out.

 

When sickness prevails, friends are few.

I ask for what I need, but I am shut-in,

unable to do much activity outside my apartment

and then largely forgotten.

Forgotten because busyness reigns and words are cheap.

 

When sickness prevails and I am alone,

I try to distract myself and not feel.

Eventually I am still enough to cry

and those tears are held by those

acquainted with grief,

when sickness prevails.

 

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As I read this poem now, I am sad as I think back to that time, and yet simply grateful that two years later reflects a much different story.  As I sat down at the lunch table at SFI before my afternoon retreat started, I thought,

“I am among friends.”

Two years ago, I also wrote down a few longings I had, that are now a part of my every day life.

  • I wanted adult friendships, not mentors.  I wanted people who could handle walking with me in my story, yet saw me as valuable, and were willing to learn from me as well.
  • I wanted to feel like I could be included in the life of the church, not just as someone to help, but one with a vibrant story to share, even if I broached uncomfortable territory.
  • I wanted to journey with a few friends dealing or had dealt with sickness.  I wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone.

And this Christmas, all of these longings have been given to me.  I have several adult friendships, who walk with me in my story, and seek my healing right alongside me.  I have been lovingly included at Dwelling Place, and I have several friends with sickness, who help keep me grounded when I’m becoming fearful again or coming unglued, or want to give up.

In the midst of profound struggle, I have been given many gifts.

What are you reflecting on this Christmas?  What gifts have you been given? 

 

 

Rest and Advent

Sickness and forced rest continue to teach me a lot.  Over Thanksgiving break, I got sick with a cold.  I was fighting it off for several days, then Thanksgiving afternoon the sore throat hit, and I was on the couch, not really paying attention to much.  But Friday just meant watching 6 hours of Gilmore Girls, eating leftovers and drinking lots of tea, coughing and blowing my nose, and sleeping.

Even though I felt awful, I came back to the thought, “It’s good to just completely rest”.  I’m a lot better at resting than I used to be. I set aside time to read, to write, to just watch TV.  I make sure that I don’t have too much going on.  I can say “no” when I need to.  However, being sick is an invitation to just care for your body, and not really worry about much else.

This time of year in the midst of Christmas-everything, nature is telling us to rest.  The days keep getting shorter, and ironically we try to get more done.  There’s the shopping, the baking, the traveling, the attending of parties, the decorating. But what if this Advent we listened to nature a little bit more?  What if we took a walk in the crisp winter air instead of congregating in shopping malls?  What if nature actually helped us prepare for Advent?

The season of Advent contains longing, desire, and waiting.  I know that when I rest, I become aware of my deepest longing and desires.  As I rest, I can grow a larger “holding tank” for all that I hope for and feel.  I’m not trying to escape or to hide my desires.  And as a pattern of rest continues, I’ve found that I desire to rest in community.

Rest takes on a particular necessity to those who experience intense suffering.  Or for those who feels that they cannot rest, they long for it deeply.  We all as humans, long for a reprieve in the midst of suffering.  We want a pause button.  We long for a meaningful conversation, appropriate touch, eye contact, for time to slow down, to share a meal with someone else.  We want to be seen, not ignored or forgotten.

As we rest, we have the reserve to reach out to those in need of rest.  Our emotions, no longer deadened, can view a person’s suffering from a compassionate heart.  We comfort those, as someone else helped to comfort us.  As we experience Advent this year, we can take comfort in Christ as vulnerable, needy baby. He had limits as we do.

Rest allows us to embrace our limitations, and to find a communal life among the suffering.  I’m certain that Christ must be in our midst with a teary eye.

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(Rest can also be your roommate laying on the ground with her dog after putting up the Christmas tree 🙂

When a Flare Comes and Goes

A few weeks ago, I was experiencing an autoimmune flare.  Physically, I couldn’t see where the energy from the day was coming from.  I powered through the day exhausted, but was not sleeping well.  Emotionally, I was either on edge or panicking.  It took longer to do simple tasks, and I started worrying about the future because I never felt rested.

It truly is difficult to find the root cause when dozens of symptoms are swirling around in your brain.

So I went back to the basics.  Breathe. Gentle yoga. Short walks.  No sugar.  No caffeine. Lots of meat, veggies, avocados and sun-butter.  Resting and saying no to lots of commitments. Simple visits with friends.

Quickly, my circadian rhythm returned and I was sleeping 8-9 hours a night without waking up. I knew that it was a good sign when I started falling asleep at 8:30pm on the couch (even though I missed the Cubs’ win!).

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One of the most difficult things about a flare, is that you are still expected to live in the “land of the well.”  I have a job to do, errands to run, food to make, and commitments to attend to.  But once a flare hits, you feel this immediate desire to return to the “land of the sick.”

Why?

Because that world matches how you feel.

Because your health has been bad enough that you know what a flare could turn into.

Because people who are sick can empathize to a greater degree.

Because you don’t want to feel like you have to defend your actions.

Because you want people to know that your job performance may not look like it’s suffering, but you are saving every ounce of energy, just to get out of bed and go to work.

Because you wished you looked sick, because then people might understand a little better.

 

And yet, I’m also learning that the initial desire to “hide” from the healthy world may be essential for the short term, depending on how intense the flare up.  However, it’s also detrimental in the long run.

Though they may be few, there are  healthy people, who truly do want to understand what it’s like to live with a chronic illness.  So, I’m learning to be honest, with the small, mundane details of being sick, because ultimately this is more healing for me than hiding.  More than anything, I need to know that people still care.  I need to feel believed that my intuition is correct about how my body is reacting, even if I look healthy from the outside.

What flares teach me more than anything, is that healing is still happening.  The steps are small, but they are not insignificant.  I’m still learning to trust other people, even as I trust what my body is telling me.  As I continue to trust other people with my story, I’m choosing to lean into my messy past, and face into when doctors and friends didn’t believe me.

Flares remind me that I’m limited, and that my health is a gift.  My own decisions affect my health, and I don’t just want my health to be limited to the food I eat.  It includes the people on the journey with me.

Those brave people who are willing to say, “I’m walking this journey with you.”

Something’s Missing

The election is tomorrow, and honestly I am glad.  I’m tired of the rhetoric on both sides, and how the lens in which people view the world changes in drastic measures.  I’ve seen a lot of ugliness in how people talk with or against one another.   I want to lean into the Thanksgiving season because I need some reprieve.

However, in this election season I do find something striking.  We fixate on the powerful.  We hang by their every word.  We check out the fact checker after debates and look at their stances on issues throughout the decades.  None of these things are wrong, and yet our moods and vision are affected  by what these powerful people say.

I’ve kept a question close by these last several months:

How would we change if we listened to the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized?

experts-dwell-on-downs-syndrome

A homeless person will never become president.  Neither will a sick person (that is unless you watch West Wing!). Neither will someone with autism or down syndrome.  Neither will a paralyzed person. Neither will an illiterate person. The list could go on.

The marginalized see the world with different eyes.  They know what it feels like to be left out, forgotten and ignored.  They feel like neither presidential candidate knows anything about their life, because it’s true.  They live their lives hoping someone will look them in the eyes with compassion.

What if we learned about the world through their eyes? What if we held onto just a sliver of their will to live, to fight and persist in a world that pretends like they don’t exist? What if we, the powerful, quieted our shouting voices, so the vulnerable could summon enough courage to speak?

We would be better people. We would know compassion and empathy speaks more powerfully than any conclusion in a debate.

We in our country are proud of our freedom of speech.  But do we really want to hear everyone speak?