Quiet

Keen-eyed observers of this blog have no doubt noticed that it has gone silent. All five of you might be interested in an explanation.

I began this blog because I have something to say… but to be honest, mostly I felt like I had to do something. I felt powerless and unheeded, and I felt a fire in my bones—a fire which threatened to explode and break me, if I did not find some way of taking action. So I howled my thoughts into the internet, and occasionally people paid heed!

My life is changing, however. After a rough winter and a rough spring, I was finally persuaded to deal with my depression through medication. My suspicions about putting chemicals in my head were eroded by the experience and counsel of friends. Moreover, for years I had felt a simple leading: “Be yourself!” To which I always responded, “But I’m terrible.” Finally I came to realize that I am not my illness, and that to be truly me, I had to face my depression down.

The medication I am taking seems to be working quite well. The real test shall be this winter, but for the past few months I have felt somewhat more energetic and significantly more in control. So far the side effects appear to be making my bed and writing to my grandmother. But I also began—virtually spontaneously, which I find telling—to set aside some time each day for silence and worship. I’d tried and failed to develop this habit in the past, but now it is part of my daily life. I have no set length of time or time day for this practice; in fact, I have felt the call to silence at almost any time: walking in the park, reading the news. I center myself through quiet and slow breathing, or through my “mantras”: “Thy will be done.” “Thank you.” “Make wide my soul.” Sometimes the Spirit lends a hand, and I am told in no uncertain terms, “Be Still.”

This new practice has deepened my spiritual life considerably, not that it was altogether shallow before. I have felt the presence of the Light in my life quite strongly in the past weeks—I feel it as I type this now. This has steered me to finally act on some leadings I only toyed with in the past, such as giving up playing war games (and thus giving up a major part of some friendships). It has led me to speak in meeting several times, and other times led me to help deepen the silence.

Most significantly, this greater silence in my life and my new clarity of mind has led me to look again at my course. I find that while most of the essays I have posted in this blog are valuable, only a few rise to the level of messages. So I have slowed my writing, waiting for true Inspiration instead of being motivated to write by my anger—or even by my compassion. I have also seen that I do not need a blog to build an audience for my words: in fact, many Quakers seem to be seeking my opinion! So I begin to see that instead of shouting into the Internet abyss, perhaps my true calling is to speak into the silence of Meeting for Worship, and Meeting for Worship for Business.

At least for a time, my calling is to work in the Society of Friends. How I shall do that remains to be seen, and in many ways depends on how well I fare through the bleak winter months. But I know my course. It passes through all my meetings, and through next summer’s Friends General Conference gathering in Colorado. Beyond that I am not sure where I go, but knowing where to start is enough, and it makes a nice change. I have some inklings as to where I might go, however; I have some projects in the works. One, at least, is written; I am seasoning it for a long time, due to its weight. Other projects are more communal, for instance my attendance at other regional monthly meetings and some trips down to Portland for a young-Quakers potluck.

It has been months since I felt helpless, and months since I felt the fire in my bones burning its way out. I do not think this is because my medication has made me so mellow that I simply don’t notice or simply don’t care; nor do I think the fire was just a symptom of my disease. Rather, I think I no longer burn because I am finally on my way.

I am far from finished with this blog. Among other things I still have some essays waiting to be posted. I also have some ideas for future commentary, and I might sometimes write on some of my spoken ministry (as I have done occasionally before). But the Generous Grasp is no longer my primary means of speech or action in this world, though it will remain one of my tools. Expect new posts when you see them, but keep your eyes open; there is probably more that needs to be said.

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Getting Back Up

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting anything lately, breaking my intention to post twice a week for the whole of the year. This was not from lack of material; in fact I have several essays waiting in the wings, and more still waiting to be edited, but the pipeline has ground to a halt.

There’s a simple reason, and a familiar one for all who know me well: depression.

Depression isn’t quite the same as sadness, which could be cheered up; depression makes everything harder, including being happy. So easy tasks become difficult, difficult tasks become hard, and then the work backlog kicks in. Nor does it work to be cheered up, though it doesn’t really hurt; the problem with depression is not that I’m walking backward, but that I can’t walk.

Depression is also tidal. I took on the blog project at high water, and like many of my projects begun at such times, it suffered when my mind’s tide turned.

I’ve dealt with my mental illness for a long time. I’ve had the “black dog on my shoulder” since I was a small child, at least; I remember walking around my old neighborhood feeling desperately unhappy about nothing in particular. Some days I can pull myself out of it, or push myself through it; other times I need help from outside, and I’ve gotten it from many excellent friends; sometimes there’s just nothing to be done about it until it goes away on its own. Sometimes it passes in a day or two; sometimes it eats whole months. I don’t remember much of September 2007, for instance, or March 2011, and there’s nothing good in what I can recall. Sometimes my illness leads me to self-harm, though I’ve avoided that for three years and counting.

But even when I’m depressed, I’m still a depressed teacher, and here are a few of the lessons I’m trying to draw from this latest round with with the traitor in my head.

One of the constant whispers in my ears, one of the mental assaults that I am so frequently fighting off, is that I am powerless. That nothing I do will matter. That I am alone.

Thing is, that’s not altogether wrong… if the third one is true. In this world no one can make it alone. This means two things worth remembering: one, those who have made it didn’t do it on their own, and two, anyone can have power when they join with others. A comedy duo was once asked, “Do you think one person can really make a difference?” They replied, “Of course not. That’s why there are two of us.”

If you’re alone, then yes, you’re powerless. But you don’t have to be alone.

Because so many people feel alone, it’s worth asking why they do, and I think the answer lies in depression as well. Depression digs us into a hole so deep that we can’t see the people around us. And depression can be taught: psychologists call it learned helplessness. In times like these, many people feel alone and powerless because they have been trying and trying for so long with no real success. So they have learned that anything they try will fail. This is not true, but it’s not foolishness, either. So many people have tried so hard for so long, and because of forces too great for them to control, they have failed. The thing to do is try another way. But the holes that depressed people live in don’t let us see other paths.

So here’s the crucial lesson: keep going. Crawl out of the hole. “Inch toward daylight.”

I’ll be honest: in the long run, I can’t promise that this strategy will succeed. It’s quite possible that nothing we do will matter. Except that trying, in the face of despair, in the face of certain failure, matters a great deal.

I’m getting back on my feet. I’m going to keep writing, even if I’ve already failed at what I set out to do, and even if no one ever hears a word I say. Even if I can’t always walk well, I’m going to keep moving.

Giving

I am depressed.

I mean that both about my life in general and about me, today. It’s genetic; I can see traces of problems on both sides of my family. I could also attribute it to a biological father who left me and my mother when I was young, or a stepfather who meant to teach me to avoid ego and instead taught me to avoid self-worth. I can blame brain chemistry, an awkward and isolated childhood, my social life, lack of light in Seattle winters. But ultimately blame leads nowhere, least of all to solutions.

For me depression means lack of energy, lack of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and above all a bitter self-loathing and self-sabotage. I can remember feeling sad with no cause when I was very young, and I can remember taking out my frustrations against myself. I learned emotional masochism, making myself feel worse through guilt or making my life more difficult, so that at least I would be in control of the amount of pain I was feeling. Since I was a storyteller from almost my first word, this meant my heroes would all prevail against vicious odds, but pay the price, suffering serious wounds in the moment of victory. They would then live out the rest of their lives maimed and meaningless.

It took twenty-odd years, but eventually I went from telling stories about it to doing it myself. I was a cutter for a year and a half, and I have nearly a score of scars visible on my arm.

One night I tried to go further. I knew a high place, and I intended to jump off it. Something or Someone stopped me, but it was a struggle. I contemplate suicide to this day. I won’t do it. But I think about it. Living is not easy; it’s like going through life in heavy chains, forever constrained by the bonds and by the sheer weight. Everything is a little harder, a little worse, a little more painful, and self-destruction to one degree or another is my constant companion. This is what depression is.

Yet for all this, my case is light. Many days I have no symptoms, and I can live like anyone else. My case is sufficiently mild and sufficiently idiosyncratic that I have never considered medication. I have never trusted any method that would rely on me alone. I am too good at self-sabotage to be solely responsible for my own health. If I chose to take medication, I could just as easily choose to not take it, and frankly, knowing myself, I would stop at the worst possible time.

Besides, I have a cure.

It is not a quick fix; nothing is. My cure is more Sisyphus than silver bullet (and while it works for my mind it couldn’t possibly work for all mental illness). And it is less easily weighed, measured, and dosed than any pill. My cure is other people.

When I look into a mirror, I see flaws, failures, a useless lump of flesh that cannot–will not–accomplish anything that is worth the oxygen it consumes. This is because mirrors lie. We look into them and see what we expect, out of our pride, our misery, or our mediocrity. It takes someone else, someone who loves us for who we really are, to tell us the truth and do what no mirror can: show us our real selves.

Sometimes one person is a strong enough force in my life to bring my mind into balance for a time, by herself. I’ve already written of Jay, who helped me through my addiction to cutting. She didn’t do it herself; she couldn’t have helped me unless I was willing to be helped. And I could not have done it without her to help me. So we owe each other the victory. And Jay isn’t the only one who’s been so stabilizing for me.

Hanging my sanity on one person works, if it’s the right person… but only for a time. If nothing else it’s tiring for them. I try to give back, but I can’t always, not at the right time or in the right way. And even strong relationships of mutual support will eventually end, one way or another, because everyone dies. So the only way I can make my cure work is by drawing on many people, and the only way it’s fair is if I use the strength and stability they’ve given me to help them in return.

I have often wondered why, in the One’s big plan, I was born under such a shadow of depression. And if there is no grand plan, I’ve wondered what use I can make of my illness, how I can make it serve me rather than the reverse.

Now I know.

My cure is the world’s cure, or the beginnings of one. The support I need–and the support I hope I can in turn give others–is the support we all need. I just need a little more of it. No one can go through life alone. Every great hero we’ve ever heard of had a hundred helpers; even Jesus of Nazareth needed family and friends. I have said, “We are one.” This is what I meant. People supporting other people and being supported in turn. Those who have–be it money, power, or in my case just a better view of who I am–supporting those who have not. And then, as all such stories go, the balance shifts, and those who were needy become those who give. Many times it is love and truth, as with me. Sometimes it may be a larger act, perhaps those who have money and power giving to those who need it more, and getting back what they most need: forgiveness.

It all begins in weakness. It begins by saying that we need help, then by asking as I have asked. It is a renunciation of power, a confession of vulnerability, and for many of us it is the most terrifying act of our lives. But do as I have done. Say, in your weakness, “Please. I need help.”

You’ll be amazed, as I have been amazed, at who comes to your aid, and how. Then in time you will become the one to give, so listen to your neighbor’s whispered cry–“Please. I need help”–remember your own weakness, and give to them in the same measure as someone gave to you. And so our weakness becomes our strength.

This is the story of all family, of all community, of every union and every alliance, the story of all democracy, of all humanity. Asking for help and giving it, not once but always, giving back what’s been given, day in and day out. It is the story of all hope.

Give and ask and give again, world without end, forever and amen.

The Weekly Query #5

The Weekly Query is a series of tough questions that I’ve run into or thought up. There are no right answers, and while you can give your thoughts or responses in the comments below, the queries are largely intended to provoke hard thinking, not answers. This practice is borrowed from the Quaker tradition, as I explained here. Be forewarned that as these are on difficult subjects, you and others may encounter painful topics. Be aware of this for your own sake and the sake of others. The terms “you,” “we,” “yours,” and “our” may be used indiscriminately throughout. Interpret them as you choose.

 

What has been good news lately? What is hopeful?
What has made you laugh in the past 24 hours?

Peace Is Courage

These times erode people like me; they gnaw us, leave us diminished. We spend so much energy in just staying on our feet that to take a step forward exhausts us. Just as well, perhaps, since so often the path’s unclear to my type and I. Our victories are hard-won and our defeats seem to come too easily. Storms are coming–and we are already weary. It sometimes seems that the whole world has gone gray.

It’s at times like these that we must remember our inspirations. Inspiration, meaning putting spirit back in us–and spirit meaning, in the oldest sense, breath. Life. The light may be failing, the storms may be gathering or breaking, but we carry the fire in our hearts that never leaves us, if we can only remember it. There is life in us yet. There is strength we have not yet called on. We can rise, and rise again.

Let us rise by making peace.

Peace flows from the still center within. Some have accused those who choose peace to be cowards, but remember: peace is nothing but courage. It is the courage to go unarmed–although perhaps not undefended–while everyone else is girded for war. It is the courage to walk into the fire in order to pass through it, when everyone else tries to flee. It is the courage to go up against every command, every assumption, every instinct of one’s own body, and trust.  So, remember courage. And remember courage is not the same as fearlessness. We are afraid; we have reason to be. War and struggles for power stem from wanting to have nothing to fear, by killing or dominating all sources of fears. Peace stems from facing one’s fears.

But peace within is only a job half-done, although it’s a grand start. We must also have peace between us. This can be done by taking our courage and adding compassion. Everyone around us who is lashing out, everyone who is dominating and conquering, is doing so out of fear and pain. Yes, even the most greedy and arrogant. Yes, even the most power-hungry and destructive. They fear justice, after all–and time. All the money and all the force in the world cannot hold off time. Remember that, too. Others have joined them for other fears: fear of poverty, fear of change, fear of what they do not understand, fear of Hell, fear of isolation–fear of being alone in a world they no longer recognize. But it’s all fear. So peace can be built, oftentimes, by facing our own fears and then teaching our enemies to do the same. Peace can be built, stone by stone and seed by seed, when we come to our enemies in compassion and say, “Don’t be afraid.”

It won’t always work on the first try, or on the fiftieth. But it can work, and it will never work unless we start by trying.

So, my friend, we have work to do. Let us make a covenant between us, you and I, here and now–to be at peace, and to build peace wherever we go.

When we see fear or grief or rage or hate building–in an act, in a word, in a lack of a word–let us step forward and speak. When the argument builds on the street, don’t turn away, don’t flee; these are your sisters and your brothers who are in pain. When the cruel joke comes, or the casual harassment, remember the fear behind them, and speak–especially if the joke is aimed at another, especially if the harassment is aimed at someone who isn’t there to speak for themselves. When fear sweeps into power, when hate takes charge, stand up and speak out–speak with compassion for the fearful, even if they are oppressing you, even if they boil your blood. Underneath everything, they’re afraid too.

You will be rejected. Facing that chance takes great courage.

You will be laughed at. This is worse; facing that chance is courage also.

You will be ignored. This is worst of all, and is courage’s very core.

But there will be times when you will not be rejected, not be laughed at, not ignored–not entirely. So stand. Speak. Be brave. And take the chance. Build the world anew, one act of courage at a time. One day at a time. One step at a time.

No matter how we are burdened, no matter how lost we feel, listen: the sun will come up. Day will come again. The clouds and the darkness cannot keep out the light, not forever. Remember that, and be brave.

 

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
“‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— JRR Tolkien

“We cannot escape history. We…will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
— Abraham Lincoln

“The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between. But there is still a chance to seize that last, fragile moment. To choose something better. To make a difference… and I intend to do just that.”
— J. Michael Straczynski

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
— Isaiah 40:31

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”
— George Fox

“Somebody has to speak for these people… so now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as anything I know this: they will try again… A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.”
— Joss Whedon

I will not let you fall.
— The One Who Is

A Prayer

A close friend of mine received some bad news this week: her father is suffering from a life-threatening illness, about as severe as it could be. I have been keeping her and her whole family in my thoughts constantly. I was advised not to focus on the sickness in my thoughts, however–that paying attention to the disease only encourages it.

I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you, it made me feel a lot better to think about healing instead of what’s wrong.

So when I pray now, I do it like this:

I see her father flying, for he loves to fly; I see him taking the boat out onto the water, and leading his students off to the most unlikely places, as he has always done; and I see her father sitting in the house he built, in the chair by the fireplace, smiling–always smiling. That part’s important.

I see her mother quilting, laughing, going down to the lake with their Labrador retriever, a tennis ball, and a plan; and I see her mother sitting in the big easy chair, laughing at her husband’s latest joke.

I see her sisters taking trips, dancing, singing along to all the best songs; and I see her sisters coming down the stairs to join the family by the fire, smiles lighting up their faces.

I see my friend, going anywhere and doing anything she wants to, then coming back to the house she loves on the island she loves, coming home from all the world; and I see my friend reading on the couch, looking up as her sisters come down the stairs, laughing with her family.

I see them all together, just being with each other, all as it should be.

Go on now, my prayer–be real. Be real.

The Truth This Night

I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell. I don’t know if there will ever be a second coming — or if there ever was a first. Heaven sounds lovely and makes a nice bribe. Hell sounds rather less appealing and makes a fantastic threat. The Second Coming can inspire hope but also slacking. The First Coming makes a wonderful tale worth retelling and living by, but I don’t know if it is true. I don’t know if any of it is true.

I wasn’t there; I hear the story but I’ve been taught about how stories can change in the telling, and even if I had been in the crowd at the foot of the Mount, I know too well how my memories of the sermon on it would be garbled. I’ve seen things and heard things, true. I have felt someone’s deep presence in my empty room, and heard human tongues speak holy words. But I still do not know, beyond doubt, that the One Who Is actually is, or that the Kingdom can be made real — especially when the still small voice whispering in my heart tells me to keep doubting, that it makes me very useful. So I know that I know next to nothing.

But I do know suffering, and I do know hope.

I know my suffering is dwarfed ten times over by millions, but suffering is very real. I know it in my bones and in my arms and in my soul. And hope — maddening hope, irrational hope, hope that makes us keep going when everything reasonable tells us to lie down and give up — I know that too.

So, driven by both suffering and hope, I have to do my part to help people in this terrific and terrible world. I have to hand out the dollars and serve up the soup, but I also have to speak the words I am given, including these. Sometimes the soup matters more than the words. But the words don’t get eaten. The right word can come alive, and do things I never dreamed of.

And what is that word?

Let’s forget heaven tonight. Let’s forget hell today. Let’s set aside all thought of salvation or eternity. Let us forget demons and angels and the whole troop; abandon the Torah, leave off the Gospel, lay down the Koran. For a day or an hour, we’ll forget every holy word we have ever heard in our lives. And in that hour we’ll feel the suffering around us. We’ll think of the pain of our sister, the grief of our brother. Then in hope, let’s do any thing to ease that suffering.

Tomorrow we can go back to holy writ and hierarchy. But right now, join me in forgetting everything except the pain you feel, the pain I feel, the same pain in everyone around us — that, and the hope that pushes through pain.

I say these things because I know how the story goes. The great speaker arises, the words flow forth, a new faith springs up, the fire rekindles. But the story always ends the same way. The speaker dies, the words are forgotten, or misquoted, or sabotaged, or written down (worst of all for a living word) and everything returns to normal. The people who have seen a great light go back to walking in darkness. We focus on the strata of the world — who’s on top, who’s not. We start judging. The grit and dust of daily life chokes our inner fire. We forget compassion, in the old sense of that word: we forget that everyone around us suffers as we do, and rather than suffer with we suffer alone, and leave others to suffer alone as well.

I know the story. I know the cycle. I know how it goes.

I don’t like it.

So I’m not here to talk about Heaven or Hell. I’m not going to say who’s saved or who’s damned. I do have a little to say about the One Who Made Me Write This, but all of that is guesswork and notions wrapped around a handful of truth. Mostly, I think, the One is not so interested in how we worship; the One sees all belief. This time around, I think the One wants to know how we are compassionate, and how we are hopeful. Whose suffering have we seen today? And whose hopes have we built up?

So let us forget all religion, for a little while, and be good to someone. It may not save us or redeem us or purify us. It might change the world if enough of us do it, but I’m not holding my breath nor expecting it of any of you. All I know is that for one day, there will be a little less suffering and a little more hope.

And that’s what I have to say.