Finding Peace In a Time of Dread

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a freight train barrelling down on you and all you can do is wait for it to hit before. You’re waiting for the power to be turned off. The doctor to give the terrible diagnosis. For the court date to come, the judgment to be rendered, the relationship to irreparably break. Where you’ve just stood and watched the cracks form as the world starts to fall out from under your feet. Even if you’ve experienced it all before, waiting for the freight train to hit can leave you struggling to breathe from one moment to the next and make each day a long, arduous endeavor to get from morning to night without breaking anything or anyone.

I think a lot of people are in that place – or realizing that they may be headed towards that place right now. Unemployment claims in the US are expected to jump from 250,000 to over 2.5 million this week. Elderly people and those with preexisting health conditions are living in fear. People with no health insurance are thinking through what will be their sign that they have no choice but to seek medical treatment if they get sick. Everywhere there are people making choices between income and protecting their health. Being isolated or risking the health of those they care about. Right now there are people watching the cracks forming under their feet and contemplating whether they even have what it takes to survive the world falling out from under them.

This time 5 years ago, that was me. I was living in a state of constant dread. My husband hadn’t gotten a paycheck in over 6 months and the last bit of consulting work he could drum up had been completed a couple of months back. We hadn’t paid the rent for March and there was little to no hope of being able to cover it in April either. Our one working car was in such dire need of repairs that we didn’t dare even use it for one of us to get a job working for low wages lest it finally breakdown and require a repair bill too large to be covered by a low wage job and thus make it impossible for my husband to get to job interviews much less to his first paycheck large enough to cover the repairs. We had no plan for the inevitable eviction we were facing – no place to go, few people to turn to when the day came that we were forced to load the family into our janky truck and leave. The only positive was that the utility companies were prohibited by the laws of the Northern Tundra from turning off the gas and electricity until Mid-May.

The kind of dread that comes from waiting helplessly for the freight train to hit is like a great suffocating blanket. When the freight train actually hits it creates problems that demand action. The adrenaline hits and you physically have to move. There are plans to execute, solutions to find, calls to make. When the train hits and there’s carnage all over the tracks, you call in help, you move to stop the bleeding, you put aside thoughts for tomorrow while dealing with what’s right in front of you. But when the train’s barreling down on you and the ground under your feet starts to rumble and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait, there’s just that paralyzing dread.

Back in 2015 when I was walking through long days of dread, I was reminded one day of the sparrow whose fall Jesus says God takes note of. And it hit me that in my mind, the entirety of that bird’s existence was defined by the moment it fell and yet that wasn’t so at all. Prior to the moment it fell, there had been a great many more moments of not falling. Of flying, socializing, singing, eating, resting and just living its bird life. Out of all the moments that the bird existed, the moment of fall was actually the smallest one. I don’t know what it was about this idea that grabbed me that day, but it came to me that if that freight train was going to hit, it made no more sense for me to suffer in advance over it than it would have for the bird to allow the fact of its inevitable fall to steal all enjoyment from the other moments of it existence.

I felt God telling me, “you think constantly about what has happened or what will happen and hardly even notice that right this moment, you are fine. You can breath, you’re not far removed from a meal, you can get something to drink when you need it, you have shelter from the weather and covering for your body. No one is harming your body in this moment and there’s something beautiful closeby for you to see. Right in this very moment, you’re OK.”

After that, when the dread would start to overtake me, I’d stop and repeat to myself, “right now, I have everything I need. I am safe, I am fed and watered, I am sheltered and I have something beautiful to look at. In this moment right now, I am fine.” It sounds trite, but I’d actually think of the last meal I had eaten, take a sip of the cup of tea, coffee or water I had sitting nearby. I would let myself physically feel the creature comforts I was surrounded by. I’d take a moment to look at and appreciate something beautiful and the dread would pass. In its place came almost a sense of awe at my good fortune. There was still a freight train approaching, but until it hit, I was living in a level of luxury and security that many of the humans who have ever existed rarely had. It made no sense not to savor every moment of it for as long as I could.

Over the next couple of months I would regularly discipline myself to engage in this little mental practice whenever my sense of dread would crop up. Simple and trite though it sounds, it transformed the entire way I experience life. After a while, I started to feel unreasonably spoiled. Yeah, all the furniture might wind up on the front lawn come May, but have you felt how soft this couch is? (Don’t look at the stains!) And how many people in history ever got to enjoy both coffee and tea with just the right amount of sweetener and cream on the same day?!? Have you seen the view through the living room window or looked closely at this picture on the wall? And smell the lentil curry cooking on the stove! I live on the great Northern Tundra of the United States of America and there’s a freight train barrelling down on me and yet somehow I have coconut milk and rich spices from the other side of the world! It’s all quite amazing if you really think about it. I mean – lots of people have had the earth open up under their feet, but how many in human history have birthed 5 children who were all in good health and spirits and had never really been hungry?

The hard reality is that life doesn’t owe us anything and when we enter into human form here on planet earth, there are no promises. Anything can happen. We might get hit by a freight train. In due time, each of us inevitably falls just like that bird. But for most of us the moments of disaster are wildly outnumbered by all the moments in which we are fine. Isn’t it enough to deal with the moments of disaster and the arduous work of recovering from them without also handing all of our moments when we’re actually fine over as well?

If you are one of the many, many people who are suddenly living under the shadow of dread, I would strongly encourage you to start disciplining yourself to stop and be in the moment you are actually in rather than fixating on the train that’s barreling down the track towards you. If the train hits, it’s going to suck – there’s no two ways about it. But there’s no point in suffering in advance. Let the moment you are in – the one in which you are fed and clothed and sitting at a computer or on your phone reading these words nourish you so that in the moment that train does hit, you won’t have already worn yourself out with worry and sacrificed all your moments of fine leading up to disaster to it.

And you never know what’s going to happen anyway. I’ve certainly had freight trains hit me and leave a mess behind but that freight train barreling down on me five years ago? It never did hit. My husband got a good job with the best company he’s ever worked for right in the nick of time. The repair guy we took the car to when the first paycheck came did the most critical repair on the cheap and then arranged to replace our ready to blow tires for less than half price. The bills were eventually paid down and there was even a trip to a resort in Mexico on the company dime the following February. I really am spoiled. And even if you have a freight train barreling down on you, you probably are too. You just have to stop and let yourself feel it for as long as you can.

Snowy Day Play

I love videos of animals playing. This one from the Oregon Zoo showing animals in the snow is particularly cute. Isn’t it weird how we’ve been indoctrinated to see animals as unthinking creatures, devoid of relationships and driven only by the instinct to eat and reproduce? Why do we even think that’s the sort of world God would create? Silly.

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The Christmas Bird

Instead of doing my Christmas shopping a couple of years ago, I recorded this. It’s perfect for sharing with the kids, if they are the sort who will listen to a recorded story. ¬†Grab a cuppa whatever suits you best and listen to the dulcet sound of my voice sharing a heartwarming Christmas story about a farmer, a bird and a little boy. It will be the best 11 minutes of your day. ūüôā

For those of you receiving this via email, here’s the link to the recording on soundcloud.

All People Are Real

I’ve mentioned a couple of times now that I have a dissociative disorder. A derealization disorder, in fact. Which means that when my dissociative disorder is triggered, nothing around me seems real. Sometimes things literally look like movie sets and sound stages to me. I can’t even watch movies when it’s bad because when everything already looks fake, bad acting takes on a whole new meaning. When it comes to dealing with people, it’s like being locked inside a glass bubble where sounds can get through, but they’re muffled and removed from much of their meaning somehow. I read an article about it once which described disrealization as the loneliness disease. Obviously you can’t connect with anyone when you have a hard time even seeing them as real.

Because my dissociative disorder started by the time I was 17 months old, I grew up with no conscious experience of being able to consistently see other people as real. I just assumed that this was what it was like to be human. It certainly explained the way people treated each other; if the people around you feel like objects, then you’re going to treat them like objects, right? But I knew that other people actually are real, even when they don’t feel real. And I knew what it was like to be treated like objects. I didn’t want other people to feel like that, so I decided that part of growing up and being fully alive must include learning to see other people as real rather than as actors in my environment.

Probably around age 11 I started just watching people, trying to imagine what it must be like to be them. I would watch the way they reacted to things and think, “why did they have that reaction and not a different one?” After I became a committed Christian in early adolescence, I became more intentional about it. I’d pick out people who seemed the least real, the most scary or the least appealing and think about what it might be like to be them. I’d look for things to love about them. In the process, I learned to see people as real. And to this day, whenever I notice that they don’t seem real to me anymore, I make myself really look and think about and try to imagine loving them.

Of course, I wasn’t diagnosed with the dissociative disorder until the summer of 2014, so I didn’t know that the rest of y’all didn’t need to spend nearly so much time thinking about other people in order to remember that they are real. Apparently it’s happens instinctively and unconsciously for some people. Who knew? Thankfully, I was motivated by the teaching to love our enemies and the least to really work at dealing with the problem. And then some, because I am an American after all. If a little is good, more must be better. Continue reading

Theologians and Creation

I am of the firm belief that you cannot be a real theologian if you have never sat in awe of a single blade of grass or wondered at the magic of a leaf cell. Scripture says that creation testifies to God, yet many in the church who will spend hours poring over the God inspired human testimony of scripture will spare hardly a glance at the testimony created by the work of God’s own hands.

Sure, they will stop and marvel at a stunning sunset or a shooting star as all of us do. But the magic is in the details. It’s in the gut flora that keeps us alive and in the symbiotic relationship between the land and the animals just as much as it’s in the miracles which Jesus performed. And it’s not just the rest of creation, but in the wild diversity of human beings that God is testified to.

Like anything else, we have a design that naturally reveals itself if we care to open ourselves up to the details of human experience and thought. In my opinion, the real theologians of this age will be the ones who are willing and able to delve into the details of not only scriptures, but of all of creation as well.

A Thanksgiving Blessing

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
~ T.S. Elliot

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Thanksgiving Family Survival Guide – 2016 Edition

Illustration of Mother and Children Carrying Thanksgiving Dinner by Douglass Crockwell

Such a pretty picture. Now imagine that they all hate each other.

An oldie but a goody! BTW, if you read these and know exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to family,¬†you are one of the people I wrote¬†The Upside Down World’s Guide to Enjoying the Hard Life ¬†for.¬†It’s a collection of enlightening essays for thinking better, being better and growing where you’re planted. Even if where you’re planted is a, um, lacking in certain nutrients required for proper growth. (I was going to say something much meaner, but I’m trying to be a good Christian here.) The book is only $6 on Amazon. Buy an extra one for your sister. Or a whole bunch for your friends. Also, if you are one of those people who has been experiencing an increase in interpersonal verbal and emotional abuse over the last couple of weeks, you can follow me on my personal facebook page where I’m sharing other bits of advice for keeping yourself safe and sane under adverse conditions. (I swear a lot more and talk about God a lot less on my personal page though. Just so we’re all clear. I hate to have to make someone look like a jackass in front of everyone. ūüėČ )

So, best of luck everyone. It’s a bit wild out there, but just put one foot in front of the other and you’ll do fine. Happy Thanksgiving, peeps!

Since I am a contrarian at heart and everyone and their brother is doing the “Let’s talk about what we’re thankful for” bit, I’m going to offer up something completely different.¬† Because as important as gratitude is, I also know that on Thanksgiving there are an awful lot of people for whom the answer to “what are you most grateful for?” is “that I don’t live any closer to these people.”¬† So for those of you going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house which had damn well better have a well stocked liquor cabinet waiting, I’ve dug through the archives to create The Upside Down World’s Thanksgiving Survival Guide:

1. Develop an Appreciation for the Absurd: My grandmother once had to be dragged away by a horrified aunt from her very concerned inquisition into the causes of my obesity.¬† One of my cousins made a big deal out of being “sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk” after resolutely ignoring every smile, nod, wave or question we threw her way from the next table over at my brother’s wedding. ¬†Where all of my other 7 siblings (but not me) stood up in the wedding. That was weird. Learning to laugh is a much better tactic for dealing with people being absurd than any other I know.

2. Learn to Tolerate Conflict: Wishing you would have stood up for yourself is only rarely less painful than the discomfort of conflict.¬† The determining factor being whether you hold it together long enough to cry in private or abruptly leave the table after bursting into tears in front of everyone.¬† Thanksgiving probably isn’t the best time to confront your family with a list of all the things they have done to hurt you, but being able to speak up for yourself is a form of self-care everyone needs to know.

3. Learn to Avoid Conflict: At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes we need to tone it down.  Not every confrontation need to happen and not every invitation to conflict needs to be accepted.  Learn to see the difference and how to stop it before it gets started.

4. Deliberately Look For the Good in People: Thanksgiving with relatives is the perfect place to put this idea into action.  One of my grandfathers used to corner us Continue reading

Good Luck With That “Normal” Thing

Perhaps you have heard that I have some children. Entirely more than a respectable woman ought to have, in fact. I have even heard tell that there are those who point to my old woman living in a shoe lifestyle as evidence that I may be a bit touched in the head. Sad. But true. Fortunately for me,¬†it turns out that being a bit touched in the head is pretty much a prerequisite for good parenting, so it’s all worked out just fine.

At any rate, two of my children are currently man-boys who are 20 and 16 and completely awesome. Not that I’m biased or anything. You’d think they were completely awesome if you met them. Although you’d probably be glad you weren’t responsible for raising them.

So recently my 20 year old expressed his concern that I was often excessively harsh with his 16 year old brother. And that this might cause the 16 year old to think it was OK to be excessively harsh with the 5 year old. And the 5 year old has made it clear to everyone that she is the reason for the existence of the entire universe, so this constituted a threat to the well being of all that is.

Now, the thing you need to understand about the 16 year old is that he is, at all times, right. He knows it. I know it. Everyone who knows him, knows that he’s always right. Except when he gets stuck in his own head or is being irrational. In which case, you pretty much have to drag him kicking and screaming by his hair out into the light of day to wake him up. When he was a kid, I used to give his teachers very simple, specific instructions for how to successfully correct him. Those who did not listen paid the price.

So, I called Mr. Always Right over and said, “your brother here is concerned that I am excessively harsh with you sometimes.”

He, of course, looked completely confused, laughed, and checked to see if we were just pulling his leg. (Always a distinct possibility in our home.) ‘”Dude, I’m going to need some examples to go on here,” was his response. He was clearly completely befuddled. As was his brother at this point.

Now, as I have indicated, the 20 year old is male. So obviously he can be really dense. But mostly he’s incredibly sensitive to everything and everyone around him. Which means that the older he gets, the more subtle the touch required to move him. Anything more than a persistent firm nudge feels like an armed assault to this one.

“I never talk to you the way I talk to your brother sometimes, right?” I asked the 20 year old, who looked appalled at the very idea. “You would feel terrible if I talked to you like that, but obviously your brother isn’t experiencing me as particularly harsh.”

I could practically see it dawning on the 20 year old how different his brother actually was from him. Which, as well as they know each other, one would think he would already know. But obviously it had never occurred to the 20 year old that something as basic as our emotional responses could be completely different from one person to another. After all, our emotional responses happen pretty automatically. And we all experience the exact same emotions. So it’s very easy to assume that your normal emotional responses to the world are normal for human beings generally rather than for you particularly.

I suspect that many, if not most, if not all of us make the error of assuming that we are normal and therefor all seemingly normal people must be pretty much like us. In fact, I was in my mid-30s when it really sank in that maybe – just maybe – I wasn’t actually normal. Me. The woman who has so many children that they’ve basically created their own subculture together. The woman who is in Mensa and married to a black guy and swears while discussing theology and doesn’t own sweats or a proper pair of athletic shoes. I actually thought I was like baseline normal. (Obviously I have some masculine tendencies.) I’ll wait until you’re done laughing to go on. . . . Continue reading