Saying Good-Bye Well

Yesterday, I said my last good-bye to Mark Stringer, the minister at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines.  He told us six months ago that he was leaving the ministry, and I’ve been grieving ever since.

It’s weird—we never had a private conversation, just exchanged a few words as I shook his hand on Sunday on my way out the door.  But in the three years that I’ve been going to First Unitarian, I’ve been able to share enough of my story with him to make a connection.

No, that’s not quite right.  I felt connected to him.

From the first service I attended, I knew this guy got it.  His sermons seemed like extensions of my therapy sessions, filled with the importance of mindfulness, compassion, acceptance, and awareness of our own realities.  He made me laugh and cry—usually at the same time.  Finally, after searching for years, I’d found a spiritual home and someone who spoke to the things that mattered to me.

PTSD makes me vulnerable to abandonment-thinking.  Bipolar disorder distorts any thinking into darker twists of hopelessness.  I knew I needed to work this through or I’d probably never go back to the church once he was gone.

So, I attended every Sunday service (once I recovered enough from my last bronchial bomb).  I cried (okay, sobbed) through each one of them, Kleenex box clutched tight.  I made myself look him in the eye after our hug at the door and thank him for the opportunity to do this work.  Some mornings I was too verklempt to say the words, but Mark would hold my watery gaze and say, “I understand.”

While I grieved, I also noted every friend at church who sought me out, every acquaintance who grinned when our eyes met.  I forced myself to see that FU (you gotta love a church with those initials) offered me real community and relationships beyond Mark.  I made a point of wandering around after services to find people I knew and admired in order to weave another thread into our connection.

Yesterday we held his celebratory Farewell Tour at the performing arts theater of one of the city’s high-end high schools (very lovely).  We needed room enough for the whole congregation to honor Mark’s sixteen years of service.  He came to us straight from theological school and is moving on to be the Executive Director of the Iowa ACLU.

I wept like everyone else, touched by his words and deeds (he performed the first same-sex marriage in Iowa), amazed at all he and the church had accomplished (doubled the membership and increased FU’s legislative presence on issues of justice).  But, my tears were of joy and gratitude, not grief.  I spent yesterday talking to my friends, making sure I told the speakers and the choir now much they moved me, and asking questions about the ministerial search process.  I did what I set out to do—I said good-bye well.

It might be good for me to get involved in the Search process, since who “ministers” to me is so very important.  But, I’m tucking that thought away until I learn more.  Will the various committees be able to use a bipolar member who lives an hour away and who may not be able to follow through?  Can I allow myself to be that vulnerable?  Can I get involved and accept my limitations?

It wouldn’t be an Adventure without some mystery and a little risk.

Here’s the first sermon I heard Mark deliver.  Seventeen minutes is an eternity in blogland, but it might be worth your while.

What to Remember When Waking

sculpture1In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

orlys-class

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

circle

 

 

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

moms-passport1

 

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?

—David Whyte

Brain Ferrets

Noise in My Head

I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to listen to my brain, especially when the noise is negative. And adamant.  So, I’ve stuck my fingers in my ears a lot over the summer.  Lalalala.  I can’t hear you.

But brains are insidious, crafty, gray matter ferrets. Mine can sniff out a weak spot and gnaw until there’s room for a nest.  Pretty soon, baby brain-ferrets slink through the cracks of my reality.  They shred everything, those little stinkers, until fact, delusion, awareness, perception, fear, and anything else they find turn into one, pulpy mess.

I wouldn’t mind this so much if they’d just shut up about it. Unfortunately, I speak fluent Brain Ferret.

chewingWhy even go to church?  You can’t make any commitments. You can’t even sign up for fun stuff like the Murder Mystery dinner or the music concerts without cancelling most of the time.

Shut it, Boba Ferret.

And nobody noticed that you didn’t attend all summer.

Yes, they did. Scott and Karen said they missed me.  And what about those emails from Linda and Sally?

Months ago.  That’s not the Community you hoped for.

Shut up, Ferret Bueller.  They’re not mind-readers.  They can’t know I’m brain-sick unless I tell them. Contrary to your opinion, I’m not the center of everyone’s universe.

You wanted to participate, teach meditation, work on Social Justice teams.  Face it.  You can’t do that stuff anymore.  You’ve lost the capacity to be around people.

Well … Maybe …

ferretsYou lasted 30 minutes at your cousin’s funeral this weekend before you had to bolt and find a quiet place outside.

I know …

And those are people you’ve known all your life.

Stop.  Just stop a minute.

You’re losing your social skills.  Your tolerance for distress is shrinking.  You’re getting worse.  Maybe your brain is starting to rot.

Sometimes it does feel that way.

And that stupid art journal.  What is that crap?

Listen here, Family von Ferret, I see the mess you’ve made here.  I can’t sort it out right now, so I’m just shutting this door…

WE’LL CHEW THROUGH IT!

And I’m calling the Exterminators.

ferret2• • •

Uh huh.  That’s right.  Slink back to your nest and stay there!

We’ll be back.

Yeah, I know, Arnold Schwartzenferret.

I know.

My Cyber Life

handmade greeting card, collage artThese days, what with my Zero Money Initiative in place, I spend most of my time at home on my computer.  And I’m finding a whole new life there.  It’s Pinterest, really, that’s sucked me into this Ether World.  I’ve found dozens of Pinners who share my interests.  And since my taste wanders all over the place, there’s a lot to keep me enthralled.

There are the nerdy fan-folk—the Tolkein aficionados, the Trekkers, the Joss Whedonites.  I’m in Nerd Heaven, wandering through all the rare photos, video clips, jokes and articles about my TV shows and movies.  There are the science puns, and inside jokes, and cross-over weirdness that combines Star trek with Firefly and Sherlock Holmes.  My geekiness runs rampant.

Battle Cry, The Hobbit, Thorin OakenshieldThen there are the serious armies of movie star fans.  Any male actor, living or dead, generates a plethora of appreciation (Female stars get plenty of attention, too, just not so many shirtless photos or comments about fainting).  Here, I have found my obsessive/compulsive, delusional tribe—women all over the globe tipping the scale from fan to stalker.  I breathe a little easier knowing I’m far from the craziest end of the spectrum here.  I’m actually rather refined and discriminating in my male appreciation.  Tasteful, even.  Ahem.

sheep, IrelandI can explore my love of Ireland and dream about going there by connecting with Pinners who are either from Ireland or who have shared their vacation photos.  I can listen to the music, meet infamous sons and daughters of the Eire, and learn the country’s history.  All the beautiful sites, the people, the festivals—they let me taste of the Emerald Isle while I scheme about how to get there.

endangered species, animalsThen, there are all the boards devoted to nature—weird and gorgeous wild animals; amazing forests, rock formations, fauna and flora.  There are Pinners gathering information on preservation, animal abuse, conservation, and every aspect of green living.  I’m constantly amazed, shocked, inspired and delighted by all these lovers of the world.  I can indulge in my love of elephants and skunks.  And there’s no end to the folks who love cats—great and small.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, TV, Joss WhedonMy cyber and material worlds are starting to mix, now.  I’m spending more time at the library searching for things I saw on Pinterest—books on visiting Ireland and England, movies like “War Horse” that I thought I’d never watch (but found out Tom Hiddleston/Loki  and  Benedict Cumberbatch/Sherlock Holmes are in it).  I picked up the first season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to watch some early Joss Whedon, and checked out a great mystery novel by Tana French on a Pinner’s recommendation.

I’ve heard Pinterest described as a horder’s dream come true.  A person can collect all their favorite stuff without taking up any space (or creating those scary towers of books, papers and clutter every proper psycho-killer’s home requires).  But, for me it’s gone beyond that.  Yes, I like to create my boards with a certain amount of flair and artistry, but I look forward to learning something new, digging deeper into a topic, sharing a funny video that I hope will make others cry and lose urine like I did.  It’s a new way of interacting, a new kind of community-making.

And it makes me happy.  That’s something to stick a pin in and hang on the wall.

Holding Tension

handmade greeting cards, collage art, Leonard NimoyI hardly know how to function in this quiet place.

For the last couple of weeks, there’s been no drama, no hysterics, no uncontrollable urges.  I get up and go about my day, paying attention to what I eat, making sure I work out morning and evening, working on my manuscript.  I volunteered to be on the program committee for our UU fellowship, so I’m thinking about what our group wants in the way of spiritual substance.  I show up at the meditation groups I host and listen to what teachings might be called forward.  I touch base with my friends.

Anxiety still rises at times.  My Bad-Ass Training kicks in and, for now, it’s enough to keep me from spiraling.  Yesterday, I sat at the Hy Vee cafe in the light of the big windows with my iPod crooning in my ears.  The urge to bolt came on strong—Get Out! Go to Des Moines!  I wrote about it in my journal, then went out into the grocery store for Veggie Sticks (think healthy Cheetos) and a couple of movies from the Redbox.  I spent $10 instead of $60 and stayed home.  I felt like a warrior.

I tell the folks in meditation that developing consciousness is about holding tension—doing something that’s a little uncomfortable because it’s the right thing to do, then doing it again and again.  Soon our capacity for doing what’s difficult grows.  When my illness is quiet, I can practice what I preach.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  I hold tension most of the time, but when I’m ill, my capacity is very small.   And if there’s too much tension, my illness snaps like a rubber band in reaction.  That’s a learning, too, to be aware of that point of no return.  So, in this quieter place, it’s a little scary to challenge those urges to give up, eat, run, spend, relax or whatever my ego might prefer.  After months of being very gentle with myself, I’m not used to pushing hard.

So, today, again, I get up and go about my day—watching, testing and holding a little more tension.

Because I can.

Because I’m on an Adventure.

The Universe Answers

hand-made cards, collage artTo find mental health, we must seek it.  And once we start seeking, it becomes part of us.  We seek answers, but more importantly, we seek questions.  We start to find connections, so we open to more questions.  Driven at times by our illness, the seeking can become sharp-edged.  But if we are patient with ourselves, if we return to a place of acceptance, those edges soften and reach out in wonder.

We all need companions on our quest—people who will share their curiosity, people who will delight in the questions without needing quick answers, people who will love the bright shiny bits we uncover and bring back to share.

For many years, I lived in a community of seekers.  The people close to me looked to nature, or the beauty of ancient cultures, or sacred words from across the globe, or the deep teachings of their own experience to guide their discovering.   They retold myths and made music.  They used love like medicine.  Among them I grew soft-edged and curious.

When I moved away from them, I was afraid.  I thought I would never survive without their gentle updraft against my wings.  My seeking became sharp and panic-driven.  I needed companions, but could find no seekers in this new place.  Eventually I quieted.  I sent a prayer out to the Universe based on the wise words of a friend.

“If you are there,” she told me, “then so are others.  Set an intention to find them.  Set an intention that they find you.  It will happen.”

Last winter I tried to start a meditation group.  I was hungry for connection and curious companions, and too poor to travel to my meditation group out of town.  I couldn’t find anyone to join me, so I sat alone until I finally gave up.  Not Yet, She whispered.  So I continued to breathe into my curiosity, continued to soften and open.

This past week, I was asked to start two different meditation groups.  Seekers found me.  And I found them.  The Universe answers in Her own time.

Finally, the Answer

For the last six weeks, I’ve been hearing the dreaded question—What can I do to help?—many times a day from the blog-o-sphere, from cards and letters, in phone conversations, and in face-to-face connections.  Usually, I have no answer, or the answer I give leaves folks frustrated and itchy for a better answer.  Finally, I think I’ve got it.

My blog accepts donations.

I added a Paypal donation button to my sidebar.  As I’ve said, pride is dead here in Sandy Sue Studios.  Since my strict, German/Irish work ethic of putting my head down and slogging no longer functions, other options must be considered.  This is one.

“Feed Your Hunger. Quench Your Thirst.”

I found out my coffee shop will be closing its doors for good on November 1.  Small businesses struggle all across the country, but our town eats them for snacks.  Haven limped along for almost three years, and even though it had faithful customers, it operated at a loss the entire time.  The end was inevitable.

Since my depression is treacherous at present, I can’t allow myself to consider the implications.  November first is a lifetime away.  No need now to mourn or worry about how I’ll spend my mornings.  Instead I comfort myself the way I have over the last three years—sitting in the sunshine at “my” table with a bit of breakfast, chatting with the other regulars, and writing.  Always writing.

The Human Side

Collage art

In the aftermath of the Aurora shootings, it will be important for those of us with mental illness to use the teachable moments that are bound to come our way.  News reports and media coverage have debated endlessly over Holmes’ state of mind.  Is he a sociopath?  Was he on a manic spree?  Did he suffer a psychotic break?  Is he faking?  We can help answer those questions.

Those of us who are “in the closet” about out illnesses will want to burrow deeper behind the winter coats.  Do what you need to feel safe and keep your loved ones protected.  Those of us who are public can help the people we encounter understand a little better.  Be willing to engage in the conversation.  Be gentle.  Don’t take their ignorance or anger personally.  Help people see that this type of behavior is uncommon and certainly can’t be faked.

Once again, mental illness will be demonized and feared.  Anything that looks this scary and can become so deadly is terrifying.  All we can do is show folks the human side of mental illness.  No one person stands for all—not in the general public, and certainly not in the insane.

Bless you all for your courage.

Beltane

Mixed-Media collage art

Back when I was a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community, I was blessed to be able to celebrate all the holidays of the pagan calendar in community.  I partnered with amazing, talented people to create rituals which drew on ancient tradition and current events.  We used play, dance, music, sacred space, meditation, activities of creation and inner work to mark the holidays as meaningful moments in time.

Part of the Beltane celebration is about bringing together the Masculine and Feminine energies in the act of creation.  Beltane taught me the most about holding the creative energies higher, not letting them sink down into my personality and manifest as sexuality.  I could do it back then.  I could hold a container for others with that energy, and keep it sacred.  I could help folks who were confused about their longings and passions.

But as my illness ramped up, my own sexual compulsions pushed me into dangerous situations and drove my risky behavior.  I might have been able to hold a container for others, but I couldn’t do it for myself.

Beltane reminds me of that past.  But, it also offers me comfort.  Just like my compulsive eating and spending, this symptom of my illness can be tamed if I work at it.  I can step outside the desire and longing, unhook from the fantasies, turn around and simply look at them.  I am more than those things.

There is a part of me that lives in abundance, a part of me that eats only when hungry, and a part of me that welcomes passion as a path to creativity.  This is the community I gather around me today.

I am the Priestess and the Horned God. I am the Sacred Wood where they unite.  I am the Cycle unending.

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