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.

Planting Flags

Duck DodgersI lived in or near Minneapolis and St. Paul for 24 years.  It was home.  It’s also where my life imploded under bipolar crisis.  So while some of my closest friends are there, and the energy and sensibilities of The Twin Cities resonate in me like music, the sorrow and loss of a life destroyed seep up out of the cracks.  I’m saturated in Minnesota, and my groundwater rises.

This past year, I decided to fight the sludge.  The idea started in IPR when we took a close look at my natural support system (friends, family, associations, etc.).  It was a relief when Aly, my case worker, declared my natural supports woefully inadequate.  Instead of fighting against feeling “needy” or berating myself for not being more sociable, I could finally acknowledge that I didn’t have the kind of support that would benefit me.  I no longer belonged to a Tribe.

Aly and I brainstormed.  From those sessions, I chose a dual approach—get involved in the Unitarian church in Des Moines and spend more time in the Twin Cities with my friends.

It has been a weird year, being a visitor in what feels like my hometown.  My zeal in the beginning caused me to over-extend myself, then watch shame and guilt rise about being symptomatic when I was among the people who understood and accepted me unconditionally.  How could I forget that these were the people who watched me self-destruct and didn’t run?  My anxiety or social phobia melted off them like October snow.

Dying of NostalgiaSorrow snuck up on me at odd times—journaling in a Starbucks, intermission at the Guthrie theater, watching a jogger with his golden lab lope along the crosswalk in Minnehaha Park.  Sorrow dragged memories up from the depths—regrets, bridges burned, the parts of my life that sloughed off and lay half-decomposed along the roadsides.

When I discussed this discomfort with my therapist, she said I’d have to dredge all that up and deal with it before the sorrow could lift.  “You have to know why you’re grieving before you can move past it.”  But I already knew why I was grieving.  I’d done that work.  Ad nauseum.  I wanted the “moving past it” part.

I decided to just Watch.  That always seems to be the answer to everything, so why not this?  I saw that sorrow came when I attended events alone, so I started asking my friends to go with me.  Lily and I went to the opera a few weeks ago (free tickets provided by Jim and Duane).  The show itself was dreadful (a German comedy, which has to be the definition of oxymoron), but Lily and I had a wonderful time swearing at the traffic jam caused by hockey fans.

I saw that sorrow rose when I felt separate from my friends’ real lives–a visitor instead of a fixture.  So I planned trips around going to Duane’s presentation to high school students and their parents about AIDS and safe sex, and Jinjer’s workshop on Beginning Astrology, and in December, Carol’s choir concert.

SPilgrimage Cafeorrow seemed to hide in my old haunts, places I loved in my Old Life, so I look for new places to plant my flag now.  A few weeks ago, Jinjer and Carol introduced me to Pilgrimage Café, a neighborhood restaurant with a quirky, delicious menu.  This past weekend I went back there by myself, and felt the café embrace me like a lover.  I sat at a repurposed church pew, my journal on the slab of wooden table, sipping pumpkin ale and breathing in the smell of welcome.

Slowly, I am reclaiming my old hometown for the Nation of Now.  I chose the unfamiliar and travel streets I don’t know.  I cherish my Tribe and go deeper with them while I forge new friendships and expand out like ice crystals knitting across the lakes.  There’s no room for sorrow in all that Light.

“Muddle, Muddle, Soil and Scrubble”

shocked will

“By the ticking of my gums! Yon convicted speaks in tongues!”

This reads like Shakespeare to me.  Just an example of how my brain is functioning these days.

It’s a comprehensive mixed bag, this version of my life.  Enormous gifts and luxury garbled with great loss strangled by stress and cracked open by success.  I don’t have a map for this place.  I don’t know the language.  I’ve given up looking too closely at it because it just makes me pukey.

What I’ve decided to do is just stand still.  If I’m giddy in the morning and too depressed to move by lunchtime, I try to just be that.  If I touch a client in some way or receive a compliment, I try to just feel it.  If I get into my mom’s car and weep when I find one of her nail files (she had millions), I sit with myself through the wave of grief.  If I try to eat a whole pizza for supper and end up getting sick, I listen for the fear that wants to be buried under food.  If I feel a glut of old trauma pushing at me when I work with Ben (because he’s a boy, and I’ve had trouble with boys who “help”), I let it come.

It’s too hard otherwise.  Too violent.  Too disrespectful.

I’m worthy of kindness and attention.  I deserve to be considered.  I don’t have to be anything other than me in this moment.

This lesson is not easy to learn.

Which is why I keep getting the chance to try.

Maybe when I get on the other side of this uncharted, alien landscape I’ll have a better idea of what it was.

Or not.

It really doesn’t matter.

This is what matters.

I’m what matters.

For the Newtown Families

handmade cards, collage art

Image

The Next Orbit

ο ο ο

I live my life in growing orbits

which move out over the things of the world.

Perhaps I can never achieve the last,

but that will be my attempt.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

and I have been circling for a thousand years,

and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,

or a great song.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

ο ο ο

I feel like I’ve expanded into the next of Rilke’s orbits.  I knew finishing Callinda would be a momentous occasion, but I wasn’t prepared for the way it rocked my world.

I have carried this thing around with me, every day, for over a year.  Not just in my head, but in a special carry bag that I toted to and from the designated coffee shop of the day.  Over time, the process became ritual—read the previous day’s work and edit, write 3-5 pages of new material, make the revision changes on the computer, print out the new material for tomorrow’s review.  Suds, rinse, repeat.

This is the way I spent my mornings—every morning.  Here at the end, I was writing all day long, the story spewing out like ejecta from a storytelling volcano.  And now.  Boom.  It’s done.

There’s a part of me that mourns the hole that Callinda filled.  I’ll miss hanging out with the characters and dreaming up new ways to torture them.  But, another part of me is ready to move to the next orbit.  There are several planets in my trajectory, and I’m not sure which one to aim at just yet.

But, I’m circling.  And I think I am a falcon and a storm and a great song.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I feel like Drew Carey on The Price is Right—the next revelation, Come on Down!

I spent the weekend in Minneapolis with our Teachers’ Training group.  After several years of on again, off again gatherings to learn how to teach the material in Foundation fashion, this was my final learning module before I “graduate.”  The Foundation approach is holographic, using cross-cultural mysticism, hard science, art, literature, history, sociology, psychology and varied religious practices to open students to consciousness and to help them create a spiritual practice of their own.

What I discovered, after being in emotional distress most of the weekend, is that I’ve been holding on to this group as a piece of Minneapolis Grief.  Yes, I’ve known and worked with some of the people in the group for over twelve years.  Yes, I learned the skills that help me manage my bipolar disorder there.  But now that my grief over leaving the Twin Cities has faded and begun to heal, I’m seeing More about the group and myself.

My spiritual compass has been pointing me toward being more of a phoenix than a teacher.  My aim is to build a rich, meaningful life out of the ashes my bipolar disorder made of my old life.  If any quality of teaching exists in that it will come from my writing, from sharing my story, or from quiet one-on-one conversations.

I held on to this group out of hunger and pain.  We do share an openness and acceptance for others’ spiritual paths, but there are only two women in the larger Minnesota group whom I’m close to and consider friends.  The rest are acquaintances—like folks in a church congregation who chat and share a potluck dinner.  Even my teacher, Melanie, is an acquaintance.

It was difficult to let them go after holding on so long.  Fingers cramp and remember the strain of grasping.  But, a few days after the fact, my relief and sense of expansion hints that this might have been the correct course of action.  There’s more room now for what’s to come next.  More ashes for the phoenix to use as raw material.

Strain and resistance are powerful forces for transformation.  David Bowie had the right idea.  Turn and Face the Strain.

Path of Least Resistance

Ever since I got back from vacation, I can’t seem to climb on top of my compulsive eating.  I know what’s going on—I got WAY off my routine, and I’m in the process of revisioning what my life can be—two destabilizing and anxiety-producing elements that are calling up all my old (and dysfunctional) coping mechanisms.  I’m spending too much money on too much food.

Every morning I start over with my oatmeal, the solid bedrock of my daily menu, but by the end of the day I’m emotionally ravenous and flying around the apartment ripping open low-fat pudding cups by the dozen.

Thursday, at my first TOPS meeting in three weeks, I was elated to have gained only 0.2 pounds.  I thought for sure the whole ball of wax (or chub) would have rolled back on.  So, even though I’m eating too much, too many calories for my goal, I’m still avoiding the “really bad stuff.”  Small victories—I’ll take them.

The only thing to do is to try to stay aware of what’s going on.  I know I’m nervous about how to grow my life from this point forward.  I’ve taken some action—connected with an Unitarian group that meets at the Y on Sundays, called the Animal Shelter to see if they need volunteers, got information about the Sweet Adelines here in town.  Each little step feels huge with potential, but I’m letting them pull me off center.

I have to plant my feet firmly in the Here and Now.  Do the work, make the calls, try out a group.  I can’t get caught up in speculation or fantasy about the future, just like I can’t moon about the past.  I felt myself sliding into depression yesterday, and as I watched that I saw how my thoughts also slid to missing my friends in Minnesota and my life there.  “Ha!” my Observer cried.  “That’s just habit!  We’re all done grieving that, remember?”

It’s true.  I am done grieving my move from Minnesota, but my depression will roll my thoughts down that rutted track because it’s the path of least resistance.  Just like my emotional discomfort rolls out my compulsions. Eating and spending money on food is the path of least resistance.

So, today, I’ll try again to watch and make good choices.  I’ll try to take the Road Less Travelled.

Time to fix my oatmeal.

A Wished-For Song

You’re song,

a wished-for song.

Go through the ear to the center

where sky is, where wind,

where silent knowing.

Put seeds and cover them.

Blades will sprout

where you do your work.

—Rumi

≈ ≈ ≈

Back from my trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I hardly know how to talk about its profound effect on my life moving forward.  I expected my ten days there to be meaningful and challenging as I reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in five years—when I left defeated and broken after losing everything to the bipolar disorder.

What I didn’t realize is that I literally left my life there.  I never expected to survive moving back to Iowa, let alone start a new life.  Most of these past five years are a blur of mental pain, drug-fog and a near-sighted view of putting one foot in front of the other.  That’s not a life.  My life was in Minnesota.

But, I could never go back, so I shut that door and bolted it.  When I did visit one or two friends there, I kept my head down and my eyes shut because the grief and loss were too much to bear.

This week, out of the blue, while I ate supper with my friends Kirk and LaRae, they suddenly invited me to move in with them.  I dismissed it immediately (the door stayed firmly bolted), but other friends suggested I consider it.  So, for the first time, I cracked the door and imagined what my life might look like if I went “home.”

The three of us talked more about the possibility, and it became clear that it wouldn’t work.  But the process of considering, of listing what I want in my life, of writing down what I value and what I need, started a whole avalanche of inner change.

The crippling grief lifted.  The overwhelming sense of loss and desperate longing for my old life vanished.  I started to envision how I could create a life worth living in Marshalltown—a life that celebrates the glorious parts of me that survived and the Bad-Ass parts born here.

I started planting seeds today, and will continue to do the Work required to help them grow.  Now, I feel like I can go back to Minneapolis anytime, reconnect with more of my old crew, take those friendships forward instead of spinning in the past.  And then, I can come home, to Marshalltown, where my life is growing.  Where my life is.

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