Tag: Fear

18Mar

Carpe Defibrillator

In two days, we leave for the Alps. The snowboards are out of storage, 4,372,690,114 freshly-baked vacation cookies are cooling on the counter, and, per tradition, my heart is hiding in the tightest part of my esophagus.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in prairie country, but mountains terrify as much as they thrill me. On the drive up, I always imagine our car hitting a pot hole and plunging us down 3,000 feet of sheer rock to perish in a fireball of Die Hard proportions. Once we reach snow, I think about the treacherous ice canyons [probably] gaping under the thin frost on which we stand. Riding the ski lift, I imagine the cable snapping or a gust of wind flipping my chair upside-down over the highest drop. Buckling into my snowboard, I consider the myriad of ways I could die or, at the very least, end up horribly mangled on my way down the mountainside with no effort on my part.

Then I factor in the girls. With stunning internal cinematography, I can see an out-of-control skier lopping off their heads with his pole. I can see the girls tumbling off the edge of a precipice, barreling face-first into a tree, heck, even stumbling on a flat surface and breaking a wrist (which may or may not have actually happened to a certain father of theirs). I imagine fatal icicles, avalanches, surprise blizzards, and death by snowmobile… and they’ve never even been on the slopes yet.

Christina’s post yesterday about mothers’ fear of taking risks set me thinking… or rather, stopped my overly dramatic thinking in its tracks. “What is it about nature,” she asked, “and high places and sharp that seem so terrifying that it’s not even worth the supervised risk?” Well, everything, I thought. Then I began to remember some of my happiest childhood moments—reading on tree branches with leaf shadows dancing across my face and soft air beneath me… jumping from one boulder to another over mysterious, bottomless crevices… sitting on our car windowsill with the wind full in my face as we drove through State Parks… strapping on rollerblades and letting my brothers sling me back and forth across the street with long ropes attached to their bikes… exploring woods alone, wading swift rivers up to my neck, running barefoot through grass… Danger was the big kid on the playground, sure, but he wasn’t an enemy.

I will not be letting my daughters sit halfway out of a moving vehicle anytime soon, but I recognize that my [dramatic and mostly unfounded] fears should not keep them from experiencing the wild joy of nature. So we’re borrowing a sled tonight. We’ll rent a pint-sized snowboard. We’ll save seats for the girls on the cable car and show them the world from snowy peaks. I will make every effort to encourage carpe dieming, to have fun, and to quiet the panic every time one of them peeks down a hill. All the same, don’t be too surprised to find out I’ve stashed a first aid kit and a defibrillator in one my boots.

18Nov

Cherry Tree Creed

I’ve hinted on here before about my rather extreme religious upbringing, but I’m hesitant to say much more about it. One part of me goes a little giddy at Anne Lamott’s quote, “If my family didn’t want me to write about them, they should’ve behaved better.” Yes, yes, yes! I cheer, until it comes to actually putting the ragged parts of my story into words and I inevitably whisper No. I can’t tell whom exactly my people-pleasing brain is trying to protect, but it balks when my honesty tries to reach back more than a decade. Some details are too ugly for the light of day.

Nevertheless, the way I was raised is relevant to who I am today. Painfully relevant. After all, the frequent religious apologetics classes and brainwashing camps were my introduction to doubting God’s existence. The behavior I saw in the churches and cults our family was involved with taught me about the tight-lipped smiling delusion so many people define as Christianity.  The forced hours of Old Testament reading every week took me beyond disbelief in God into the dark territory of hatred. You get the idea, at least in part.

I  spent most of my life under such a heavy religious terror that my sense of logic had to be locked up along with my emotions and honesty. The most redeeming thing that could have happened was when I gave up caring and let my doubts and anger tumble out of hiding. Depression helped, oddly enough. I already felt so low that keeping up my pretense of believing God no longer mattered. Deal with it, I told him. I may have tried punching him a time or two as well.

I see now that it had to be completely destroyed, that old belief system with its blackened stone walls and bloody gouge marks.  I had to lose enough hope to operate the wrecking ball myself. And slowly—slowly enough to be revolutionary in the we-could-die-and-face-judgment-any-minute mindset I had been taught—a new belief system is being reconstructed in my heart. It has floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor cherry tree, and I suspect it will be some kind of spa once it is finished. There are no longer any shadowy nooks for shame, eternal damnation, party politics, or generational curses to hang out in.

A friend lent me The Shack to read a couple of months ago (the amount of time I’ve spent “forgetting” to return it makes me think I should probably just buy my own copy already). Reading it felt very much like having my rib cage pried open and all of my struggles with God exposed to the operating room lights… and then gently re-formed into such an expansive hope that my body has trouble accommodating it. Between the fresh perspective offered in that book (I can’t tell you how much I love that God reveals herself as an African-American woman) and the radical kindness of Jesus’s words, many of my questions are finally finding their perfect fit in answers — ones that don’t traumatize me or require me to suspend logic or darken my soul atmosphere. I don’t have everything figured out yet—for instance, I’m still searching for an explanation for the contradictory, violent God depicted in the Old Testament—but I am so relieved to finally have a creed that lets my heart breathe deep:

(I refer to God with female pronouns because in that way I  can comprehend her differentness from the patriarchal judge of my childhood.)

I believe that:

The Bible…
is a picture of who God is and what a relationship with her is like,
not a comprehensive encyclopedia for all the facets of existence,
and not a textbook,
and not a list of rules
(as if we could follow the rules anyway).

Free will…
means God values humans enough to give us the freedom of choice
and limits herself by not overriding those choices,
even the bad ones
(which hurt her too),
but always providing opportunities even through the bad choices
for us to clearly see her love.

God…
does not instigate tragedy, only works through and beyond it
as the life-force of the universe,
the energy, the concept of light, the goodness,
merciful enough to do away with justice
because she is love
(and not gender specific ☺).

Jesus…
is God in human form,
not a human with divine superpowers but human-human,
with emotions and needs and frustrations,
whose life flowed from his relationship with God
(who neither orchestrated his death nor abandoned him,
only worked incredible good through it).

The Holy Spirit…
is their divine presence—undiluted love—
landscaping the beautiful mess of our hearts,
the piercing loveliness we feel during a certain song
or a beautiful day or moments of profound peace,
always here and never finished.

Prayer…
is simply the ongoing dialogue
as the four of us live together,
acknowledging that the unseen is real
and that relationship is all that truly matters,
and that God cares…
which could probably be called faith.

Life on earth…
is a process that won’t culminate until all is made new,
blessedly temporary
(which I know when I agonize over the too-few hours each day),
but  a good time for the element of choice to get worked out—
a messy and necessary step for a God who respects us
and who continues to participate in our stories
outside the bounds of time and breath.

Then heaven…
will be all this as it was meant to be
without the violation of a single free will,
every heart finally connected to God’s,
finally capable of channeling her extravagant love
and enjoying complete creativity and fulfillment along with her,
seeing the beautiful face of our planet unscarred—
life on earth, redeemed.

And I…
am not a convert or a heretic
or a warrior or a one-size-fits-all
or a guest of honor on the doorman’s list
or a project to be finished
but one member of a completely unique relationship with the Divine
who values me enough not to impose rules or limitations
and promises  a never-ending process
toward fullest life,
beautiful change accomplished hand-in-hand,
and a love I am just beginning to absorb.

10May

Gentle Tsunami

I was walking home from the park three days ago hand-in-hand with my daughters, smears of frozen yogurt on our cheeks and playground gravel under our fingernails, when it hit me. Grace. Like a gentle tsunami, it washed over that moment. Then, at half-past-naptime in the afternoon. There, under the silver-glinted olive trees. My hands clasped with the two little girls who make me crazy with love (and sometimes just crazy)… and I whispered “Thank you” into the springtime sky.

Mommy with her girls 1

I remember another Sunday years ago when I sat in our church’s youth group after a particularly terrifying lesson. I was already a veteran victim of religious terror, and our church had raised the bar impossibly high with the unit study on demons when I was in 5th grade. Still, this particular Sunday’s message was the most frightening of my life: You are doomed to commit the same sins your parents did. It was an interpretation of Exodus 20:5 that many Christians accept, and it scared me into a hopeless panic.

“Please, God, no!” I prayed over and over like a character in a scratchy black and white film. “Please, God, no! Please, God, no! I don’t want to hurt my own children one day, I don’t want them to end up like me. Please, God…” I muddled through vague resolutions not to ever fall in love or get married, not to ever, ever make a baby. I was heartbroken. Damned.

In college, I met, kissed, and married my husband within ten short months, irreversibly losing my anti-marriage resolve. However, my fear was still alive. I felt it in the secret passageways of my anatomy every day of married life. I tasted its metallic bitterness. It compounded in my chest when I leafed through Anne Geddes books, wondering what kind of monster a baby would unleash in me. I did not want to find out. I adored children, so I was particularly cautious not to have one myself.

Another Bible study turned the tides. I worked through Beth Moore’s “Breaking Free” with a group of college friends and learned that faulty translation had created all this mess. Exodus 20:5 in the original language says that the “sins of the fathers” (oh, what a sinister phrase) are taken into account by God. As in, God understands how the misdeeds of older generations affect younger generations. Other Bible passages such as Ezekiel 18 go into greater detail on how people’s choices and consequences are solely their own… but this isn’t meant to be a Bible study. It’s the story of how my fear let out a surprised “Oh!” and vanished in a wisp of smoke.

That very next summer, I got pregnant with Natalie. And while I still had some freakouts and hyperventilations to work out of my system, I welcomed her to the world with a fuzzy, warm, king-sized happiness. I met my baby and turned into a mother.

Meeting Mom

Four years and two months later, I played with my daughters all afternoon at the park. We picked Sophie’s favorite miniature daisies and flew on pink horses that Natalie conjured up. We ran all the way home for a potty break and then back out for frozen yogurt topped with white chocolate, strawberries, and heaps of colorful sprinkles. We walked home giggling, and I realized with the full profundity of a once-afraid soul that God answered. For all my faults—getting frustrated with the incessant toddler messes, blocking out every third hour of the incessant preschool chatter, saying “We’ll do that later” far too often—I have been spared the pain of becoming an abusive parent. My own hurts are even healing under the skilled touch of grace. The fear is simply a forgotten nightmare; grace is my here-and-now. Grace is why today, I can hug those little girls with a heart full of our delicious memories and say, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too.”

Mother's Day toes
6Sep

Flames vs. Fairy Dust

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether to laugh or to cry.

I was young, maybe ten, when I saw the drama “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” in a huge Southern Baptist auditorium. Gold tinsel was draped over one side of the stage, while the other side featured a black papier-mâché prison with tissue paper flames engulfing the roof. Heaven, hell.

The drama was very simple to follow. People would die during different circumstances and immediately be sent to the tinsel or to the prison. Two women were gossiping when a bus ran them over; a group of demon-thugs in ski masks dragged them straight to hell. A man passed out from drinking too much whiskey; off to hell. A broken-hearted woman cried at the loss of hope in her life and shot herself in the head; hell. A freshly-scrubbed family dressed in lace and bow-ties walked out of church where the youngest daughter had just invited Jesus into her heart—a fortunate coincidence, since their car crashed on the way home. Gold tinsel for the whole family!

When we got home that night, I asked my parents what happened to aborted babies or even little kids who die before they get a chance to say the all-important Sinner’s Prayer™. No answer. Apparently hell-according-to-the-Southern-Baptists did not discriminate based on age. I lay awake half the night imagining tiny mangled infants being dragged off to burn with Satan. That, my friends, is horror.

I’ve done some thinking over the last few years, and some reading… but mostly thinking. Among other things, I’ve been trying to figure out why the self-proclaimed “good news” can lend itself to a theatrical horror show. Eternal torment for gossipers, alcoholics, depressed women, and babies = the worst possible news. Plus, it makes God unthinkably cruel and vindictive, sending demon-thugs after anyone who forgot to say his or her prayers.

Within the last two years, I decided to focus on the problem instead of repressing it. I tried reading the Bible, but that splintered my heart even more; I couldn’t see anything beyond damnation. I put away the Bible, etched my too-heavy questions onto paper, and asked myself over and over how a deity could claim to be love, then doom his own creations—us, who he made imperfect. No answer. Just my honesty, tinted first by anger, then by dejection, then finally by tired acceptance of an era’s end. Very simply, the doctrine of hell burned up every particle of trust I used to have in the goodness of God.

I am sharing this for two reasons: 1) I don’t believe I am the only person to wrestle with the apparent inconsistencies in my religion, especially when the accepted theology is so unfathomably gruesome, and 2) What I took as abandonment these last few years was time. As a result of marinating in my questions for so long, I’ve learned what I’m willing to believe and what I cannot. I’ve let years’ worth of pretenses slide, even writing about my journey some here (which, un-religious honesty about religion? strictly forbidden by the Association of Preachers Who Wear Ties). This has been a very new perspective for me—standing outside Christianity, looking in, wondering why some of those people look so happy—and only now are the answers coming.

A wonderful friend who’s also sludged through this path introduced me to a book called Hope Beyond Hell that said (and I paraphrase):

Ready for a few perspective gymnastics? Good. What you’ve been taught about hell is based on centuries of tradition. In fact, the Bible has buckets and wheelbarrows and industrial-sized cargo boats full of promises that not a single person will be left to burn with Satan forever. Hard to believe, right? Well, take a look…

It wasn’t hard to believe, actually. It was fairy dust, and my translucent wings were instantly unstuck from the swamp; for the first time in years, I’m flying, glad at long last to still be a fairy.

I am not going to list all the reasons or technicalities here—if you’re interested, check out the book—but I am coming to genuinely believe these things:

That this:

God speaks

(besides “reducing holy mysteries to slogans,”* using fear tactics to force people into religion, and just plain being annoying) is misguided.
* Matthew 7:6, The Message. Jesus says not to do it, by the way.

That some parts of the Bible were never meant to be taken literally, and that some parts have been translated poorly due to the translators’ perspective. That many people have formed dogmatic theologies without studying the original words within their original contexts.

That centuries of pulpit-pounders have done untold damage in spreading the idea that God is ready to throw us in a lake of fire when we die.

That God is a better parent than we are and that his kindness endures forever.

That the multitude of different beliefs, different approaches, and different spiritualities in this world will ultimately lead to the same beautiful new beginning.

That we will see all our loved ones again someday.

That there is hope.

19Aug

Gargoyle Daydreams

I remember her sobbing under blood-soaked sheets, moaning and gasping and stifling screams. She would not go to a hospital. Not to save herself, not even to save her unborn baby. Only when she had lost too much blood to protest was an ambulance called. It snuck down the street in the middle of the night, lights muted and siren off, to carry her to whatever help she would accept. The next morning, her living children woke to babysitters who told them “Your mom is away seeing a friend, now who wants pancakes?” Of course, who would tell young children that their own mother had been willing to abandon them to a darkly looming life and a pile of bloody sheets, all for a misplaced fear of doctors?

***

I find myself immersed in gargoyle daydreams so often these days that the filmy wisps of imagination are becoming stone. I’ve always been good at picturing catastrophe, but these dreams are darker than anything I’ve experienced before.

In every single one, Sophie dies.

I spoon applesauce into her grinning, teething, lovely mess of a mouth and try to talk my heart out of breaking. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real. I snuggle her against my chest the way we slept in my hospital bed, all cozy curlicues and softness, and nuzzle her perfect dollop of a nose, all the while trying not to panic. This isn’t a goodbye.

I didn’t figure the reason out until tonight, while I browsed sites like Glow in the Woods, other women’s haunting and exquisitely beautiful stories of their lostbabies. One mama in particular wrote about the day her thirteen-month-old died, how she had known he was sick even when everyone else blew off her worries, and I suddenly understood.

It was exactly like that, seven weeks ago. We were at church when it dawned on me that Sophie was not okay. “Of course she is!” argued the other women, the relatives, all the grandmotherly types. “She’s just teething. See, her forehead’s not even warm!” And even though I sensed deep down that something was wrong, I let myself be cowed by the other womens’ years of experience.

After lunch, I couldn’t ignore the heart-tug, so I did all I knew—Tylenol, Pedialyte, kisses. I rocked her back and forth while her temperature climbed from 103º to 104º to 105º (“The thermometer must be broken,” offered a helpful relative) and consciously decided against taking her to a doctor. No American health insurance, and we’d be back in Italy soon anyway. So we went shoe shopping instead, Sophie limp and expressionless in her carseat.

She had the seizure in the parking lot of Famous Footwear while I was inside merrily trying on high heels. I ran straight out and was nearly bowled over by her lumpy lavender skin, her rolled-back eyes, her forced breaths. I couldn’t look at her again, not once on the eternal ride to the hospital. I just held her head and willed us both to keep breathing.

When we first arrived at the ER, the medical staff seemed duly alarmed. They slapped a “Red Alert” bracelet on her tiny ankle, and a team of nurses bustled with needles and machines and pint-sized magic potions. “Just hold her hand, Mom. Just keep talking to her.” It wasn’t until hours later, when the adrenaline had worn off and sheer willpower was holding me upright, that the on-call doctor coolly mentioned, “Oh yeah, this is no big deal; happens all the time. She looks perfectly fine to me.”

At that moment, I felt as stupid as I had that morning in church when the grandmothers pooh-poohed my instincts. It’s no big deal… What kind of idiot must I have been on the trip to the hospital, imploding from the silent pressure of holding back sobs? I felt very distinctly that I had been robbed of my experience and, more importantly, the right to intuitively care for my baby. But the doctors knew best. I stuffed the whole episode into some scraggly Room of Requirement in my memory and locked the door.

Tonight, it finally dawned on me that it was a big deal. Oh, was it ever a big deal. Because when I look at bereaved mamas’ photos, I see my own little girl. When I read their heartbreaking stories, I read mine. My story has a different ending to be sure, and I could never presume to understand the pain these other women are going through, but it didn’t have to end differently. If I had just… or she had just… or we hadn’t been able to… The truth is that a happy ending doesn’t erase guilt. It doesn’t settle this urgency to turn back time and do things differently as some kind of cosmic insurance against my dreams.

It was a big deal, and maybe it’s time I faced that.

Sleeping Sophie

***

I tend to flaunt my faith in doctors around people who are afraid or skeptical of them. It makes me feel wise, I suppose, and independent and so very mainstream. But there is more to healing than textbook medical knowledge, nodes of intuition and loving concern that matter. I know that, now.

28Jul

Beware of Mantras

Growing up quasi-Amish taught me how to bake bread from scratch, sew my own dowdy jumpers, grow organic wheat grass in a pan on the windowsill, and hide. Good lord, was I skilled at hiding. I had a lusciously guilty stash of sugar cubes that grew over the years to include Thin Mints, Warheads, Pixie Sticks, and some fundraiser candy that called itself World’s Best Chocolate (and really was! at least to a chronically deprived sweet-tooth…) and none of my five hundred siblings ever found it. Talent, non?

I also learned how to hide my feelings, my opinions, my idiocies, and my problems. It’s a little-known fact about families who isolate themselves from the world: rather than creating a safe haven, isolation breeds like an insidious form of bacteria until you can no longer reach outside your own skin. No one allowed in, period.

I can’t begin to tell you how powerless I was raised to be. I have a lifetime of poisonous mantras stashed in my mind: Do not ask for help. Your feelings mean nothing. We do not talk about that. Doctors want to harm you. Policemen want to harm you. Your instincts are wrong. NO ONE CAN HELP. Honestly, the two best things I’ve ever done to fight off those mantras were meeting Dan, who tirelessly chiseled away at my mind with rock-solid compassion, and starting this blog. It’s not easy, of course. I constantly want to censor myself (and I often do, if you want to know the truth), and I revert several times a day back to Your feelings mean nothing. We do not talk about that. No one can help, no one can help, no one can help, no one can help.

Writing about depression, in particular, feels like stripping in front of the entire world. It comes with a host of other confessions like failure and weakness that I would much rather keep hidden, and it looks so raw and grotesque out in the air. Hi, I’m Bethany, and I can’t manage to take care of two teeny-tiny little girls and one teeny-tiny little apartment by myself and oh my god, am I actually admitting this aloud?

But your comments and e-mails have given me exactly the boost I needed to shrug off my Amish mantras and do something unimaginably frightening: Ask for help. I went to the doctor today, all of my own volition, and I told him the truth. And now there will be tests and further appointments and possibly referrals, and though we know nothing yet, I feel hopeful. I don’t know how to explain what hope feels like after this long, but thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

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