December musings: Hope.

 Going somewhere.

Going somewhere.

It’s December. It’s December! How can it be? How can the time fly by so quickly? 

I am of course thinking over the last year, and that is only helped by the fact that I am on an art retreat with Leaf. We’ve done this twice over the course of our friendship, mostly because we lived in two different places and wanted to find time to be together. The last time was when Isaac was a newborn. But since Leaf moved to Pai, we’ve talked about wanting to do it again, and since we both needed to come to Vientiane, Laos for visas, we realized we needed to grab the moment! 

So here we are. Yesterday we flew on the tiniest plane, landed in Udon Thani, caught a van up to the border, then walked out and onto a big bus full of Laos people with all their shopping bags. We got off the bus, made our slow way through the border, and into a taxi where we tried to get our heads around all the zeros at the end of the numbers in Laos kip. (I pulled 1,000,000 kip out of the ATM, which is a little over $100. Leaf said, “We’re millionaires!”) Coming to a country where we aren’t familiar with the money throws us back into traveler mode; aware that we can be taken advantage of, aware that there will be mistakes here and there as touts try to “help” us. 

I can understand Laos because it is so similar to Thai, but struggle with speaking because there are different words. But it is different here; more laid back, grubbier, with all of that charm that comes from things being a bit messy. It reminds me of other countries that I love, with smells that bring me into India or Nepal. The huge Mekong river seems to make the air heavy with a damp earthy smell in the evening. Outside my window as I write, there are three types of tin roof. I’m excited for a few days of writing and thinking, plotting my new book and maybe doing some painting. I’m excited to explore an unfamiliar place (but slightly familiar, since we’ve both been here a couple times before) with my dear friend. 

Life has been a bit crazy in the last month. Chinua has been unwell, as one of his blood pressure medications was making him anxious. This changes life for us in a huge way. I have been so busy in my life and in my mind that I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe. But we are muddling through and it’s such good work. The work of having compassion, of working together to be healthy, of covering jobs and tasks for someone with love. Ah, how I want to be made pure. I want the things that come from me, all my work and words and reactions, to flow from mercy.

Christy and Olga and I have been having Bible reading circles, and on Thursday night they came over for one. We had dinner together and then crept upstairs to try to sit and read the Bible in a house that contained eight children. Chinua was watching strange Japanese gameshows with them downstairs, so there was a lot of shouting and scream-laughing that was barely masked by our uninsulated teak floors. But somehow we managed, sitting on the floor in a circle around a candle upstairs. 

And we read and talked a lot about hope. About hope and how it purifies us. The words kill me, they slay me, my heart melts.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

Is this the part of growing older that is the hardest? Continuing in hope? When you know all your own mistakes? And you read the news, and it is consistently disappointing—the depths of contempt people have for one another, the ongoing dismissal of suffering, the lack of empathy. The statistics we pull up to shove in one another’s faces, the ways we justify oppression. 

Come, Lord. Oh, the ugliness breaks my heart.

But it is the same that it has always been, our brokenness and lack of love as humans, the way we need God to fill every cracked place. The way we need to stand in love and continue to act in mercy, no matter the craziness swirling around us like a whirlpool of vicious words and acts. Now more than ever, may I speak in love. Now more than ever, may we have this hope that purifies. One day we shall see him as he is. This hope changes us, rearranges our molecules, lifts our voices, quiets us, reassures us. And right now we can walk forward in hope and love. 

Looking back and looking forward, I long for mercy. Mercy and hope, in my family and in the spaces around. I pray the same for you in this Advent season, as we prepare to celebrate Light in the world. 

***

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Loved.

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Sometimes thoughts pile up like clouds scudding quickly across a blue sky and I can't quite follow them. Day after day, I'm busy with people and children and one small white dog, and it is hard to find time to sky gaze. So I come to the keyboard to try to untangle, to look deep within, to find a thread that I can follow along until it brings me to a place that can be used to face the day. 

Today is it something about the feeling of "not enough" that has dogged my steps for my whole life. By now I know that nothing I do can erase this feeling— it is caught in my arteries and my muscles, in the mysterious pathways of my brain. It will not go away if I do more. It will not go away if I help more. It will not go away when I publish books, or clean my house, or run a mile. My wild mind, the unsafe one, can find a myriad of ways to highlight how I am not living up to some standard. It will point out people who are more beautiful, fitter, farther along, wiser. It wants me to despair in my own home, the home of my body, my family, my wooden house in Thailand, to belittle the small things I do to bless the world. Not enough, it laughs, not enough. A cruel, cruel companion who motivates through shame.

"Step out of the circle," I tell people when I guide meditation. It's an imagination exercise when we prepare for the silence. "Imagine your thoughts as birds flying around you in a circle. Watch them go by. When you are ready, step out of the circle."

I step out of the circle. What I find beyond the birds is so lovely—maybe one day I will truly believe it. Maybe it will make its way into my veins and limbs, into my heart and the mind that holds me captive. 

It is not that I am enough. It is that "enough" is not a factor, in this wide space outside the unsafe mind. This is God's space, free and holy, and Loved is the only qualification here. Loved is the motivation. Loved is dancing, smiling, wearing clothes not to look beautiful but to be beauty. Loved is serving, loved is nestled like an egg in a very soft nest, waiting to break out and fly. Loved is a parent, loved is a child. Loved is sung over at night, gloated over. Loved is the same working and resting. Nothing can change loved. Loved is carried like a baby next to the heart of Jesus, loved is weeping at his feet. Loved is caught up and thrown into the air, shrieking with joy, and caught and kissed all over her face. Loved is so completely beautiful every single day, because every scar, lump and line has been gazed upon by its own maker. Loved gets more beautiful, more captivating, the older she becomes. Loved can't walk away from the lover. Loved is in the gentle gaze. Loved can't live by her own rules anymore. The wild mind stills, the hands are at rest, the cage opens, and all is lovely outside, bathed in golden light. Shadows dance across the ground and Loved dances with them. 

***

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Thankful in the quiet.

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I have a soul that tends toward comparison and self pity. Leaning and slanting into a puddle of ugly measuring. I know how to battle it now, because there is no better remedy for self pity than the open eyes of thankfulness.

Here are some heart brightening things. Things I love. Things that steer me back to gratitude.

  • a quiet morning
  • poetry
  • the beauty parlor I love, with all the older Thai ladies
  • the Thai language
  • language of any kind
  • rice
  • Solomon’s heart
  • Isaac’s laugh
  • Kenya’s hugs
  • Kai’s care
  • Leafy’s mind
  • Chinua’s voice, arms, songs
  • flowering trees
  • Isaac’s square little feet
  • friends
  • boiled peanuts
  • spicy food with Leaf
  • nail polish
  • God with me, even when I’m a wretch
  • real change
  • good talks with the teenagers
  • long days
  • yarn
  • the fact that the world is in color
  • birdsong in the morning
  • a cup of green tea in the afternoon
  • Christy living here
  • the fact that shopkeepers in my town know my name (so they don’t just call me the foreigner anymore)
  • our big station wagon
  • hot-springs
  • the gift of aging
  • a faithful husband
  • bracelets
  • Winnie’s crab dance
  • light at every different time of day and year
  • my little dog
  • kimchi fried rice for breakfast
  • yellow noodle yunanese salad
  • Lou, my house helper
  • books: reading them, writing them, and reading them to my kids
  • Isaac in the morning
  • fried eggs
  • hummus
  • my blender
  • coconut trees
  • the river (I have found myself there several times this week, watching the streetlights on its black night surface)
  • my kitchen
  • my new friend who greets me all around the town, whenever he catches sight of me, even at my sink when I am washing dishes
  • my mandolin
  • possibility
  • pens, books, paper, paints, pencils
  • backwards dancing in the kitchen at night
  • talking on the phone with my parents
  • sunsets
  • my banana seed necklace
  • hand embroidered textiles
  • my pillow
  • frankincense
  • hanging out with kids 
  • mountains
  • picking moringa for my salad from the weedy lot next door
  • podcasts
  • our piano
  • God everywhere, loving me.

***

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How I live with anxiety: A follow-up to my last post.

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I am okay again. Yesterday was bright and beautiful. I spent three days in the fog, and everything looked terrifying, but I rested, and I climbed out and came back.

I used the words mental illness because they were being tossed around in the wake of last week's tragedy. I find it hard when those words are used without much thought or distinction. But an anxiety disorder is a mental illness, and I'm not afraid to own it. It still is hard to write about my anxiety disorder and what it does to me. My second blog post ever was about the woods of depression and anxiety and how they plague me. That was over twelve years ago, when I was twenty-five years old and hadtwo kids and one on the way. I have learned many things since then. I have explored neurological reasons for anxiety and found some help there. I have learned a lot about myself. I am much, much better. 

But I have these things I call meltdowns, and they are terrible, like a pit that I fall into. Any interaction is terrifying. The Internet is terrifying. People are scary. Life seems horrible. And I can't escape. There is no way to get out of my own head, so the nearly physical presence of my anxiety nearly undoes me. They take days to get over. And as you know, I have people in my life, lots of them, who count on me. 

Because it had been so long since I had a bad meltdown, I thought perhaps they were gone. Shame and disappointment overwhelmed me when I went through another one. I want to be free of them. I want to go through life without fearing that my brain will turn against me without warning. The qualities I admire are strength, joy, consistency, safety and grace. And sometimes I am the opposite. Ugh.

But today I can see that this is cause for rejoicing. Because it had been so long since I fell apart like that— it took me by surprise. And I came out of the pit quickly. I am learning. 

Here are the things I do to keep my mind well and not fall into the pit:

-Take medication
-Take herbs (rhodiola rosea- I highly recommend 350 mg a day, but as always, I am not a professional, talk to a doctor if you are not sure)
-Eat well and make sure I get tons of iron and vitamins
-Go on long walks in jungle and forest
-Keep religious about sleep
-Drink lots of water
-Limit caffeine
-Journal
-Pray and meditate
-Get up very early for time alone to write books
-Write blog posts and gratitude journals and poems. Keep lists and bullet journals to keep from getting overwhelmed.

All of these things help me, and yet none of them can guarantee that I will not fall apart from time to time. There is no guarantee.

A friend once gave me wise advice. She said that we often expect ourselves to focus or remember all the good things about love and God and our belovedness and our faith when we are in the midst of a crash. But those are the hardest times of all to remember. She said she stopped putting pressure on herself to think it through when she is down. Instead she surrounds herself with every comforting thing: books, movies, good food (for me, comedy) and when she is well, and her mind is clear, that is when she fills her mind and heart with things that will carry her through: meditation, exercise, reading good books and scripture, journaling. I do this now, and it helps. I have two people, nearly. One who can handle it all and learn and run with things, and one who just needs to hide away. 

I write about this here because it is hard to find writers (let alone Christian writers, and thankfully there are many more people these day) who are honest about these things, and people tell me it helps them when they find me. I know many, many people struggle with similar burdens, and I have had parents of kids who experience anxiety tell me it helps them too. We all need a little insight into the mind of those who struggle. Some people struggle just to be. 

Over the weekend, I struggled with why. Why does God not say yes to our most well-meant requests? I don't know. It doesn't seem helpful for me to be this way, and a long life with this thorn stretches out ahead of me sometimes… it is daunting. And there are still people who deny the neurological and chemical nature of depression and anxiety. 

There is a beautiful man here in this town. He is a gentle soul without a home, who finds places to busk with his bamboo flute. I often see him in the market or on the street. He is a friend of mine, though we don't say much more than hi and how are you? Sometimes he stands motionless for a long time, flute to his mouth, with no sound coming out. None at all, for minutes and hours. And oh, I understand this. How hard it can be sometimes, even to stand at all, let alone play the flute that you have to your mouth. I love that he tries, and that sometimes he can play. He is a brother to me. This is something I feel often. When I see someone on the street in San Francisco, shouting or crying, I feel that I am one bad week away from that person's reality. Take away sleep or comfort, and that is me. My hold on my mind is fragile and I guard it carefully.

And maybe some of us need to understand the struggle, to write about it and have eyes of understanding. To say, "I know how fragile we all are, how easy it is to fall." Or maybe there is no reason, it just is. I know, in good moments, which are more plentiful these days, that I am loved I am loved I am loved. And that I am never alone. God is with me and this is enough. It will always be enough.

The storm.

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When the storm breaks, it brings relief. It has been building all day, a heavy drapery of air, something you can’t shrug off your shoulders. Heavy in the lungs. 

And then, I drive with Isaac to pick some things up at the garden. We drive the chariot and race the storm, but the sky cracks open as we’re driving and within minutes we are soaked to the skin, water running down our faces, my wool hat sodden and floppy. I give him a plastic bag to put on top of his head and pull my hat down tighter, and we drive slowly, encouraging ourselves. Nearly there, nearly there. And we laugh, because the storm has cut through the pressure like a knife.

I love storms in real life. Back at home Isaac gets into the bucket that we call “the bath” and I take a shower. We get warm and dry. We drink some tea.

I don’t love storms in the world of the mind. I didn’t want to end up in the weeds again, ever again. I didn’t want to end up on the curb; a spot on someone’s shoe. I thought I was healed. I should have known better. This storm doesn’t bring relief. It brings self hatred, a swollen face from crying, a flock of angry impulses banging against my rib cage. I was so sure I was healed, that this wouldn’t happen anymore. 

People who know me say healing is a process, that I am improving, that they see change. But I want healing like a lightning strike, a cleaving from one life to the next. I’m tired of fighting my brain. I had hoped that I was different now. Changed forever. I want a chrysalis, I want new life after the fire. I didn’t want to be in the weeds, ever again. I want more than God is giving me, and I’m angry.

It’s heavy in the lungs.

Back to square one, I think, back to the beginning. I have been watching the news too much. (Sorrow, sorrow. Wild winds. Mental illness, they say, and I feel plastered with someone else’s crimes. I have a mental illness. What am I capable of? What is anyone capable of? Triggers everywhere.) I haven’t been careful of eating, my blood sugar is all over the place. Maybe this set me off, maybe that. I’m too needy, I was following a line of stress, dropped like bread crumbs, not careful enough about trails I shouldn’t go down. I didn’t get enough sleep, waking in the wee hours with constriction in my lungs. 

Equilibrium. How I want it. 

A scented candle. Chopin’s Nocturnes. My clumsy handwritten notes to myself. A hug from Isaac. 

Coffee in the morning. Bricks outside my window. A flash of green. Vegetable broth. Sourdough starter. 

Does He want me to be this way? Does He want me to be here, in the weeds? If He does, and I am his servant, monk and mystic, utterly devoted, how can I beat at Him with my tiny fists? Can I make a world here? Did He make me this way? Why?

Knitting. A round stone. A perfect word at the right moment. The tiny freckles on my daughter’s face. 

I’m sick. I’m sorry, I can’t make it today.

A feather. A tree that is a friend. A good pen. 

Is He in the weeds? Can I find Him here? It doesn’t seem like a great place to hang out, to be perfectly honest. I can think of better. 

Don’t leave me here.

A glass of water. A poem. Frankincense. A little dog who loves me. Kai offering to lend me his favorite book. Journals and all their possibilities. Maybe some sun, maybe a rainbow. Maybe a day that will be soft on my face. Peppermint soap. A morning of writing. 

Gathering again. Back in a place I didn’t want to be. I will wait for healing. I can wait a little longer.