Half-assed Buddhist.

Dear Friends,

buddha-lotus-flower-symbol

Today I read this essay by author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage about the Duggar Family and enjoyed it so much I shared the link on Facebook and Twitter. Fair warning: if you are queasy about matters of sex and religion, don’t read it. Dan is an openly gay man and the Duggars are a conservative Christian family with a reality television show  on TLC (“19 Kids and Counting”), and these two polar opposites mash up in Dan’s essay about like you might imagine. The essay is simultaneously funny and crude and thought-provoking and reminded me that this wild soup we call American culture is indeed fascinating.

As much as I was tickled by the humor in Dan’s essay, I couldn’t help but be bothered by his assertion that families like the Duggars (and, by extension, their beliefs) are “actually pretty scary.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m almost as far removed from the Duggars’ point of view as is Dan, but I’m not frightened by their particular strain of patriarchal theocracy (Dan’s words). I’d just as soon bite off my tongue as advise my daughter (or son) according to Duggar philosophy, but the fact they believe what they believe and live how they live doesn’t frighten me. To each his own, I always say. And, yeah, I get Dan’s point that the family is proselytizing their beliefs, but so is he. Heck, what is this blog but propaganda for my world view?

I could write an entire post about how the temptation to be scared by people unlike ourselves is the root of our world’s problems, but that’s not my point today. My point today is that Dan’s essay reminded me of a season in my life when I spent considerable time examining the issues at play in Dan’s dispute with the Duggars. Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the topic which was published in a now-defunct online forum for female writers, and so I was inspired to pull it out of my archives and share it with you today.

Consider this another fair warning: I write about sex and religion with considerable candor and if that’s not your bag, skip this one. I promise I won’t be the least bit frightened.

With gratitude {for my friends from varied faith traditions — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Bahai, — including those with no prescribed faith, all of whom accept me just as I am, which is exactly what I think Jesus would do},

Joan, who’s been half-assed at far more than Buddhism but hopes you aren’t keeping track

***

Half-assed Buddhist

I first tried my hand at proselytizing the summer after sixth grade.  I had just spent a week at Vacation Bible School sponsored by our town’s First Baptist Church.  Full of the kind of evangelical zeal one experiences after singing 10 rounds of “This little light of mine” and chugging five Dixie cups of Cool-Aid, I announced to my two best friends that they were going to hell.

“Really? Why?” one friend, a Catholic, said to me as the three of us climbed the high-dive ladder at our city’s swimming pool.

“Because you aren’t Baptist,” I replied matter-of-factly.

The thing is – neither was I.  Oh, sure, I had been baptized months earlier but it was at the First United Methodist Church, which I attended regularly under the watchful and approving gaze of my paternal grandmother.  I don’t recall why I was two-timing with the Baptists that summer, but it wouldn’t be the last time in my life I summarily traded teams.

My other friend, a non-denominational, looked really hurt and simply said “That’s not nice.”

“Well, it’s true,” I retorted, and sometime between leaping off the edge of the diving board and surfacing in the middle of the deep end, I forgot the topic entirely – including the fact that I was going to hell, too, by my own definition.

By the time I was 17, I spent considerable time contemplating damnation.  Still a regular church-goer, I had heard enough sermons to realize I was a sinner.  And the worst part was, I enjoyed every minute of it.  My senior year of high school, I discovered sex . . . glorious, immoderate, sweaty, teenage sex.  Usually in a car, but sometimes in the park or even a bed if my boyfriend and I could score an unoccupied house, sex became my favorite diversion.  Such wanton behavior made church attendance a tad uncomfortable, especially given the mere hours that typically separated fornication from communion. Plus, I was still more than a little confused by the seemingly intractable divisions between Christian denominations – divisions that just a few years earlier had led me to declare my best friends hell-bound.

It just didn’t make sense to me that one group of Christians could be so certain that their path to salvation was absolute while their brethren down the street were damned.  If the jury wasn’t in on this thing, why should I waste my time? So, one Sunday morning, I announced to my mother that my church-going days were over.  “Why?” she asked, stunned.  “Because I don’t enjoy it.  And you don’t go.  So I don’t really think it’s fair for you to tell me I have to.”  She said nothing and I went back to bed where I stayed every Sunday morning for approximately the next five years.

My sophomore year of college I briefly contemplated returning to the fold.  I had my eye on a really cute guy in English Lit and I started finagling ways to talk to him before and after class.  It didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place. When I arrived, he offered me a Coke and we sat down at a cramped table that served as both his eating and study space.  He shoved his textbooks aside, pulled out a black flip chart, and announced he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told me he liked me a lot, that he thought I was really smart and pretty, and that he wanted to share his faith with me.  I was thrilled.  “He thinks I’m pretty and smart!” I mentally gushed as he opened his guide to the Mormon faith and launched into the most earnest testimony I had ever witnessed.

Somehow – despite the fact that I was imagining him making out with me with the same conviction he was delivering his salvation appeal –his lavishly illustrated flip chart slowly caught my attention.  I wondered how I could have grown up in the Bible Belt and yet never have heard the extraordinary story of Joseph Smith and his golden tablets.  I was mesmerized, and more than a little moved by Joseph’s words:  “So great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was . . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”

“Oh my gosh,” I exclaimed, “I know just how he felt!”  I talked about my lifelong distress over conflicting absolutes.  “How do I know what’s true?” I asked, as sincerely as one could while discussing religious beliefs with a hot new crush.  His eyes gleamed as he continued his story and I was momentarily lost in my imagined future with this guy.  I just might find the remedy to my existential angst and the man of my dreams at the same time!  So eager was I to convert (and cavort!) that I interrupted him before the punch line.   “So where are the golden tablets?” I asked.  “Can I go see them?”  Joseph Smith’s golden tablets were just the kind of confirmation I’d been waiting on and I was ready to sign on the dotted line if I could just glimpse these magnificent and holy relics.

Then my Mormon friend dropped the bomb: the golden tablets had been spirited away by a heavenly messenger.  Faith was required of me to believe Joseph’s testimony and to receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

Damn.  I’d been down this road before.  Crushed, I said thanks but no thanks, and Elder Sexy and I parted ways forever.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college and moved as far away from home as a small-town girl could imagine – Boston’s Beacon Hill.  I roomed with two pot-smoking boys my age and explored a fascinating world where old money, new immigrants, and liberal politics were the ingredients for an alluring blend of cultural goulash.  One Saturday night while hanging around Harvard Square, two polite and clean-cut men struck up a conversation with my girlfriend.  I was ready to catch the train home, but my friend was really getting into these guys.  By the time we finally boarded the Red Line back to Boston, she told me she had their phone numbers and had agreed to meet them the next morning.  “For coffee?” I asked.  “No.  For church,” she said.

I would soon learn this was no regular church.  A year later, my family would call it a cult.  Ten years later with a little more perspective and a lot less bitterness, I called it an extremely effective marketing machine.  The Boston Church of Christ (BCC) was the precursor of what is known today as a mega-church.  Insidious, ingenious, infatuating – BCC was a Venus flytrap of spiritual misfits and its church leaders saw me coming.

The Church of Christ claims to be just that – Christ’s original church, free from denominational strife and dogma. This was no “mainline” Church of Christ like the one in my hometown, I was told. This was the Boston Church of Christ – the one true church and a spiritual beacon to the world’s lost souls.

Looking back, I know I was drawn to BCC by its followers. Young and old, American and immigrant, highly educated and blue collar, the 2,000-strong membership reflected Boston’s diverse demographic mix that I so loved.  I worshiped alongside Harvard Ph.D.s and Somerville laborers, all equally fervent in their conviction that BCC offered a panacea for all spiritual ailments.  As much as I had abhorred pat answers in the past, I literally jumped in with both feet, agreeing to a second baptism when church elders suggested my first, administered by Methodists so many years ago, wasn’t valid.  It seemed God wanted me to punch my membership card one more time.  Always a good sport if not a devout parishioner, I said what the hell and gave it a go.  Maybe this one will stick, I thought.  Most religious experience is nothing if not contradictory, so I ignored a personal paradox to satisfy my spiritual wanderlust.

What distinguished BCC from all other churches I had previously experienced, indeed what drew me in, was the devotion of its followers.  Unlike the Methodists I had known back home, these guys were serious.  I once attended a revival service where the faithful contributed more than one million dollars.  It still astonishes me today that some 2000 followers put cash, checks, and deeds totaling seven figures in passed collection plates.  I don’t recall how much I gave that evening but I know it wasn’t sacrificial in the way church elders had been encouraging all week; nor in the way that my friend did when she sold her condo and gave a check to BCC for more than $100,000. Long before “What Would Jesus Do?” became a ubiquitous bracelet, the leadership of BCC exploited their version of the concept by encouraging asceticism for the sake of church coffers.  By the time I left the church and moved home, I realized I had mistaken fervor for truth.

In later years, I would approach truth as a human construct that is ever-shifting. I would qualify truth by asking “Whose?”  I quit worrying about the afterlife in favor of the here and now.  Not surprisingly, my focus on “the moment” led me to Buddhism.

A basic Buddhist premise teaches that dualistic thinking – the categorization of the world in black and white terms — is the source of all human suffering.  We self-torment with categories that are sharply drawn and that leave little room for the ineffable. Buddhists see that good and evil are shades of the same color.  We can draw an arbitrary line in the sand if we wish, but perhaps it would serve us well to look inward, to understand why we’re drawing that particular line, grasping for one kind of outcome and afraid of another.

I recently tried to explain this notion to a longtime friend who is as devout and earnest a Christian as I have ever known. I probably seem like a libertine to her  (or worse, a relativist) and she couldn’t understand why – raised a Christian – I couldn’t now continue to play along.  I struggled to provide an answer in her terms, and I finally offered, “I guess I needed a God who’s more expansive than the Christian God I was taught about in my youth.  I needed some new tools and different perspectives to confront and examine the notion of my soul.  And I find that the Buddhist teachings are helping me . . . helping me see myself and all religious thought in a new, more accepting light.”

My friend paused for a moment while she considered my answer, then finally she looked me in the eyes and said with a surprising dose of consternation, “Yeah, but you’re a half-assed Buddhist!  I bet you don’t even go to temple.”

I laughed heartily and hugged her and told her she had no idea how perfect her label is.  My god, what is a Buddhist but one who embraces the haphazard, the unsatisfactory? Her proclamation would be a badge of honor from that moment on, I told her, because it beats the hell out of the skeptical and cynical Christian of my youth.

Yes, my journey inward is sublimely half-assed; but for all its insufficiency and incompetency, it is still magnificently, reverently a journey into me, into the shadows of my heart where I am connected to and commune with both humanity and divinity, in all their definitions. For whatever reason, I never could seem to follow Jesus to the Kingdom of God inside me, but I can’t help but think it’s a good place to end up now and I’m grateful for the tour guide that got me there.

Gathering up all my brave.

Dear friends,

For the last few weeks, I’ve been acutely attuned to the distressing situation that has unfolded a mere 90 miles away from me in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve followed social media intently, I’ve devoured information on news sites, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what it means to me as a Missourian, as an American, as a mother, as a human who cares passionately about social justice and civil rights.

I’ll refrain from drawing conclusions at this moment about precisely what happened between the police officer and the young Michael Brown. There are ongoing investigations and I suspect we’ll be years down the road before we have anything close to “clarity” on how the particulars of the incident and the aftermath reflect on our system of policing and justice, not to mention our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But here’s what I know. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there are distinctly different realities of life in America based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, education, wealth and geographic location. What one man calls justifiable force, another calls oppression and discrimination. What one man deems “justice,” another deems “just us.” Socio-economic factors create a unique “lens” for each of us and until we can view the world through multiple lenses, many of them foreign or possibly distasteful to us, we cannot begin to approach “truth.” To say otherwise is to ignore that evil and corruption thrive despite our best intentions, or to fall prey to the myopia that threatens to permanently disable our nation.

***

So it is through this dismaying, nay disorienting, perspective that I am saddened to tell you Mr. Mom and I recently received devastating news. We lost our lawsuit.

Our attorney sent us the judge’s verdict a couple of weeks ago with an email message that said “It will make you want to throw up.”

Not in the “gag me” way you might refer to when something is annoying. In the “fall to your knees and retch” way until you are hollow-eyed and certain the injury is mortal.

I haven’t filled in many of the blanks for you about the condemnation trial we attended in April. I honestly haven’t been able. I felt in my gut it didn’t go “our way” and I guess I wanted a few months of denial between what I thought was the reality of the trial and the resulting ruling from the judge. But reality gut-punched us recently and we still haven’t caught our breath.

Losing our case means our land remains inaccessible (except via a 10-mile hike through the adjoining national forest). It also means our family is responsible for the Unfriendly’s legal fees. If their testimony is to be believed, they have spent three times what we have. At one point in the trial, their attorney referred to one of our claims as “outrageous.” During a break shortly thereafter, our attorney whispered to me “The only thing I’ve heard in court today that’s outrageous are the fees their damn attorney is charging them!”

We will appeal the ruling. It is our opinion, and our attorneys’, that the judge ignored the instructions handed down from the Appellate Court. That she ruled in contradiction to case law. We won our last appeal when the prior judge contradicted case law, so who knows?

***

Late into the night when we first heard the news, when Mr. Mom and I lay in bed, silent, unable to fathom the future, financially or emotionally, I finally said this:

“Listen. I understand. I understand the inclination to become fatally cynical. To succumb to rage. To believe that everything you’ve thought to be true about life is a lie. I feel it right now with an intensity I cannot describe. I am angry and I am disillusioned and I want to hurt somebody equal to our pain.

But here’s the thing. Our loss represents land and money. Land and money. We are not angry or cynical because our child is dead through injustice. We are not suing because some big corporation poisoned our water and gave us cancer. We are losing land and money. In the meantime, we are managing to put our children through college and they are by all accounts thriving. We have a strong and loving marriage.

We are losing land and money. Let’s remember what we still have before we risk sinking with this ship.”

***

So, I’m thinking of Glennon Melton and her words of wisdom. I’m gathering up all my brave and trying to do the next right thing. It ain’t easy, believe me. I’m not nearly as kind and patient as I want to be. I have long stretches of despair and regret and bitterness. I’m clinging to a faith that love and hope prevail in the end, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. I’m limping on tender feet, hurt beyond words, unsure how one keeps from drowning in the tsunami of fear and trouble and worry that rises over us.

Still, I refuse to end with anything other than gratitude. Despite this very big thing that has gone grievously wrong for far too many years, so much has gone right. I know it. I see it. I feel it. And if I can gather up enough brave, maybe I can trust in it.

With gratitude {for, as always, the partner that makes this journey bearable},

Joan, who welcomes your good thoughts and kind words but asks that you not dwell on injustice. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that justice is in the eyes of the beholder and what feels like a travesty to us is heralded as right and proper by the Unfriendlys. Please don’t tell me how shocked you are or how unfair this seems. Life is ridiculously unfair to legions of souls every day, most of them far more afflicted than I. If you have anything to offer, offer us equanimity, in the belief we will rest in it, heal in it, and pass on more than our share to those around us.

The words.

Dear friends,

words

It’s not very often that I am unable to find adequate words to express my feelings. But the last two days have been overwhelming, so let’s just say that the experience of sharing my story on Momastery is beyond words I can string together at this moment.

I’ve been out of town for two days, more than a little sidetracked by a packed schedule of business meetings. Wednesday night when I got to my hotel room after a late dinner and I finally had a moment to read the comments — here on my blog, on Glennon’s blog, and on the Momastery Facebook page — all I could do is cry. I sat in my hotel room and cried and cried, and then I turned out the lights and cried some more. Not for me, because I’ve sat with my story for a good long time.

I cried for all the readers and all their brutiful stories and all the love and wisdom and pain they poured into their comments.

One of the readers asked what happened between my daughter and sister on their lunch date. Another wondered what’s happening now between P and me. The quick answer to both is that I’ll try to tell you as soon as I have the words.

What I do have the words to tell you about today is just this one tiny thing that was so . . . enormous . . . I still can’t quite believe it.

I was sitting in my office on Tuesday when my phone rang. It was “Amy from Momastery” who said she’d been trying to track me down to ask if they could publish my essay. My first thought was “There’s people at Momastery?”

I know. It’s not like I expected Glennon to call me from her cloffice. I never expected anyone to call, ever, so my ears were ringing and my face was turning red and I was a little bit dizzy and I was trying desperately to listen to the woman talking to me.

It was a very quick call. She asked me to email her a bio and my social media links and I said okay. The call was ending and I was trying not to be an idiot but it was hard, you know, because I was talking to “Amy from Momastery” who clearly knows Glennon, so holding the phone while I realized there was only two degrees of separation between me and Glennon at that moment made me — if not an idiot — at least a boob. I think I actually asked Amy if she knows Glennon and without waiting for her to answer said something like “Please tell her I’m delighted she chose my essay.”

And then, right after I said that, I was momentarily blinded when the world exploded into a sparkly, shiny, swirling Disco Ball of Jubilation because Amy said “I liked your essay and gave it to Glennon to read. Forgive me . . . it’s a little crude . . . but Glennon read it and all she said was ‘She writes like a mother-fu%&er.'”

That, my friends, was a sacred moment. It was a gift. One I will never forget.

If you are at all tempted to be put off by the language: don’t even go there.

My closest friends know I love a choice expletive. I watch what I say in polite company and certainly what I put in writing because I’m sensitive to the tastes of others, but in my safe place, I let ‘er rip. It would be totally like me, when talking to a close friend, to say something like “Sure, I like Anne Lamot and Joan Didion and Elizabeth Gilbert but Glennon Melton? Glennon is a mother-fu%&ing writer.”

So in six words, I instantly understood the intention of the message. And I instantly understood Glennon was my kind of gal. And — more importantly — I instantly understood I had been given the gift of being allowed inside the circle. And when women let other women inside their circle, they are doing the Lord’s work, no matter what words they use.

I hung up and immediately sent Amy the requested email with my bio and links. And this PS: “Please tell Glennon that as of today, I will instruct my husband and children to etch on my headstone ‘She writes like a mother-fu%&er.’ I will wear that badge of honor the rest of my life.”

And my husband and children know I am serious. Okay, maybe not on my headstone, because I plan to be cremated. But in my mother-fu%&ing eulogy somebody better say it.

It’s all I ask for.

With gratitude {for words, words, words, profound, profane, glorious, wondrous, plain and simple words that teach us and heal us and bring us into each others circles},

Joan ,who writes, well, you know

 

Hell away: My messy beautiful.

*** This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.  To learn more and join us, click here. And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here. ***

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

P and me, circa 1968.

The fact that Kate called me from college during the middle of a business meeting, which I was leading but which I interrupted to answer, was odd enough.

Her questions were even odder.

“I have Sunday off and I’m going to the city to have lunch with Aunt P. I was wondering if you know of a good place to eat in her neighborhood. Also, I want to go to the cemetery and place flowers on Grannie’s grave and I don’t know how to get there.”

On the surface, there are easy answers to Kate’s questions. But my sweet daughter unknowingly unleashed a hornet’s nest of angst in two simple sentences — so much so that I excused myself from the meeting to step outside, where stepping outside equals stepping into the vast wasteland of  my emotion on the topic of my sister.

I’ve had what can politely be described as a “difficult” relationship with my sister. At the time of my mother’s death nearly four years ago, she and I were estranged for reasons not necessary to detail here but related to her lifetime of addiction and my lifetime of carefully cultivated anger. Right before my mother passed, Mom said very little other than she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid to die. But she had a final request: “Please stay close to P,” she asked quietly. “She doesn’t have anyone and she needs you.”

Let me tell you — I could write an irrefutable essay on why deathbed requests should be immediately outlawed, but that’s not the point of this story.  To those living and those departing, deathbed requests are an unfair entreaty, or at least that’s how I felt after eight weeks of being the only family member holding vigil at my mother’s side during her final illness. But faced with my mother’s last request to do the one thing I knew I couldn’t do, I did what any loving daughter would do.

I lied.

“Okay,” I whispered. “I will.”

Six months later, I moved out of state. I moved for a lot of reasons, but being five hours away from my sister was surely at the top of the list.

And, now, here was my daughter, away at college and willing to drive two hours to have lunch with her aunt, whose calls I mostly don’t answer and whose texts I only occasionally return. I’ve always believed the universe sends people signals when they most need them. On this day, I thought the universe must be drunk, too. I didn’t like this signal and it surely was nothing more than a kind of cosmic glitch, an errant sign that had nothing to do with me.

But I took a deep breath and answered my daughter’s questions amid the traffic noise outside my office. I was surprisingly composed but unsurprisingly terse. I told her my sister lives in a terrible neighborhood and there’s no decent place to eat within miles of her house. But don’t take her anywhere fancy, I cautioned, because she looks like a homeless person. And don’t bother going to the cemetery because the grave is still unmarked and you won’t be able to find it. It’s a long story, I said, with the kind of exasperated tone that made it clear the failure to buy a headstone had everything to do with my sister’s broken promises.

It was the worst kind of explanation a mother could give a daughter, especially one as good-hearted as mine. It was shameful, really, but it was all I had. Love didn’t exactly win at that moment.

You know — those of us who are fans of Glennon Melton would break a leg to meet her. I adore Glennon, but you know who I really want to meet? I want to meet Glennon’s Sister. I want to pull Sister aside and ask how she managed to be Sister to the Drunk all those years. Because during my sister’s awful, horrible years when she stole my car and my money and my jewelry and found every way humanly possibly to hurt my mother and nearly got herself killed, more than once by a drunken male companion — I stayed the hell away.

I made sure P knew she was not invited to my wedding. I made my mother promise not to take my children around her. When she was sent to jail, many times, I never bothered to ask where or why or for how long. I refused to visit her in the hospital after she was nearly beaten to death with a steel pipe until my mother tearfully begged me to go, after which I stood in the doorway of her dingy hospital room because I wasn’t brave enough to cross the linoleum abyss between my anger and her pain.

You know, for as hard as it must be to be Drunk — and Glennon has given me so many insights into that experience — it’s also hard to be Sister. I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying sobriety, especially my kind of protective sobriety which looks a lot like furious disapproval, is hard, too. The addicted and the sober — we’re like two jagged stones tumbling down a dirt road, crashing into each other and knocking off our smooth edges, unintentionally making each other sharper and scarring up the soft earth around us. We might be doing the best we can, the only ways we know how — and for Pete’s sake we ought to give each other a break given the circumstances — but it’s so ugly and so painful we don’t know what to do so we just keep tumbling.

Surprisingly, though, after my mother died the anger I had nurtured about my sister over so many years began to fray in a way that startled me. The unraveling of what had safeguarded and sustained me, the tattering that had moved beyond the edges into the center of my tightly woven gall, left me unsteady, as if I had lost the only emotional compass that worked for me with P. I sought a counselor’s assistance because the problem with losing your anger is that it’s not immediately replaced with an emotion you know how to work with.  The absence of fury doesn’t create compassion.  It’s something more like benign forbearance, which isn’t particularly conducive to family reconciliations. The counselor advised me to set the boundaries I needed to protect myself, but to commit to taking action in keeping with my values. Apparently the boundary I needed was 300 miles wide.

I figured I’d think about the values part later.

You know, my husband has this theory that the incarcerated aren’t the only ones in prison. He believes the wardens — and the System that retains them — are locked in the same dreadful dynamic, and the keepers aren’t any more free to leave than the criminals. Who’s to say which side of the bars is more subjugating, he asks?

His insight resonates with me because I haven’t known for a long time who’s on what side of what jail, P and me. She’s paid a steep price, including her health, a good bit of her sanity, and an unbreakable tether to her daily dose at the methadone clinic.

But I’ve paid a price too, one I’m just beginning to calculate. I’ve never believed in a literal hell but I can tell you hell away is a torturous place, maybe exactly what God warned us about, but so close to our noses that we humans couldn’t see it and instead we told stories of fire and brimstone because, you know, speck in her eye.

I don’t have a tidy answer today. I know P loves me, because she never fails to tell me. I know I love her too, because I am starting to let myself feel it, no matter how hard I try to resist and how few times I say it. I know we are sisters because we are breathtakingly imperfect in our sameness and because a million years ago, when she was 16 and I was 6, we rode around in the car together, the windows rolled down and the am radio playing Janis Joplin, who taught us “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

The lyrics held true for her and I suddenly think they have held true for me, too.  Maybe we were destined to spiral downward together, to plumb the depths of our souls in tandem until she hit the rock bottom of reckless addiction and I hit the rock bottom of hardened sobriety.  The landing always hurts, I suddenly realize, but there’s comfort in finding hard ground, in stopping the free fall.

Who knew we would be emancipated together 45 years later?

With gratitude {for daughters, sisters, and second chances},

Joan, but, like my sister, you can call me JM

messybeautiful

 

 

Life and the ephemeral meaning I seek to ascribe to it.

Dear friends,

0

Source: torufukuda.com

I’ve had the oddest week. Not so much a week as an off-key symphony of gasps and stumbles and indignations and re-opened wounds and thoughts about my life and the ephemeral meaning I seek to ascribe to it.

I made a Facebook post on Tuesday about how awful my day was and felt immediately guilty. Because, you know, the Ukraine. If the cultural and socio-economic gnashing of teeth and splitting of skulls we’ve come to know as geopolitics doesn’t incite guilt in you, I’ve also got examples close to home.

One friend’s father is dying of organ failure. He put off seeking medical attention because he couldn’t afford it. Another friend’s mother is gravely ill with an unexpected, often fatal illness, the kind that blindsides the loved ones of otherwise healthy people who end up dead in less than 48 hours. My friends’ blushed faces, their tears, their cracked voices and halting logic overrun by emotion remind me of 2010, the Year I Lost My Mother. I cry for them and I cry for me, knowing their wounds are fresh and will take years to heal and, even then, the scar tissue will occasionally bind them until they wince with pain at unexpected moments.

On the day I cursed life, many of my Facebook friends darted out from behind the social network curtain to send me cheer, to commiserate, to remind me of both happier and sadder days. And so I watch the curious parade of status updates — a recipe, a birthday celebration, “prayer warriors” bound by cause and faith, political rants, happy babies, vacations, and sporting events — and I think to myself that the world spins with or without my participation, without the injured or dying or dead and with no regard for either the gleeful or the grieving. This makes me feel at once small and enormous. I am inconsequential, as are my moods, and yet the world, the glorious, infuriating, life-sustaining and soul-sucking world continues to spin around me, spinning so fast that I am compelled to stand perfectly still, like the spindle in a centrifuge, unswerving, observant, disquisitive about the meaning of my Week of Crap until a kind of willing equanimity washes over me, the immensity of which swells my heart with reconciliation for my mysterious earthly journey.

And I think we’re all just plodding — hopeful tramps looking for the slightest evidence of grace in the next soul we meet, so we can shake a hand, offer a word, compare notes, and head on down the road, none the wiser but maybe a wee bit closer to the divine that lives in all of us.

With gratitude {for a week that reminded me of a Jackson Browne song, perhaps a little less harmonious but just as lyrical},

Joan, who’ll get up and do it again, Amen

A metaphor for 2014.

Dear friends,

metaphor

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or anything, but I do want to state for the record that 2014 has kicked my butt in only nine short days.

If I were a dog, I’d be dirty, wet, and three-legged.

I had a wonderful, peaceful, joyous Christmas so I can’t say for sure why the new year has gotten off to such an inauspicious start.

Well . . . I can offer one very big reason: I’m detoxing. I decided on Dec. 30 to give up caffeine even though I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I’ve had what I will politely call a headache ever since.

For the first 24 hours I felt fine. I even bragged about how fine I was. Then the apocolyptic headache set in on day two.

For the next five days, my Headache Threat Level was: Holy *&%$. (Don’t really know how to interpret Holy *&%$? Let me just say that on New Year’s Eve, I took a pharmaceutical cocktail that would have rendered most people comatose and went to bed at 6:30 pm. only to wake up a few hours later at the same Headache Threat Level.)

Then for three more days my Headache Threat Level was: Good Lord Caffeine is Poison.

Today — day nine of my New Year’s resolution — my Headache Threat Level is: I’m Really Annoyed and Tired and I Want to Cry.

Oddly enough, my caffeine detox has coincided with a virulent strain of insomnia. I haven’t slept past 2:30 am in a week. Sleepless and decaffeinated is not the path to a good life. Or so it seems on day nine of the new year.

By the way, back when my Headache Threat Level was Holy *&%$, I concluded cold turkey was a poor strategy and decided to drink a cup of coffee. I took two drinks and thought it tasted terrible. Gag-reflex terrible. That’s when I decided caffeine really is poison, my body must be trying to tell me something, and I encouraged myself to hang in there despite the winching pain.

During the decaffeinated, sleepless stupor we’ll call 2014, a few other choice developments have occurred. Like a winter storm that left us with sub-zero temps and a foot of snow. Like a flood in my office.

Like three lost breakfasts in a row.

You see, because of the winter storm and poor road conditions, Mr. Mom has been driving me to work every morning. And for the last three mornings, I’ve taken my breakfast to work with me in a plastic baggy. Only I haven’t enjoyed said breakfasts because somewhere between the curb where Mr. Mom drops me off, and my office some 50 feet away, my breakfast has disappeared.

I figured I had managed to leave my baggies in Mr. Mom’s truck each morning. However, I found that explanation odd because it would have been just like him to text me something like “Hey, you left your breakfast in my truck this morning. Want me to save it for you?” I meant to ask him about it each evening but my fluctuating Headache Threat Level destroyed my memory.

Anyway, I’m still relying on kind drivers to shuttle me around town and when Kate and Parker dropped me off after taking me to lunch today, I caught a glimpse of something odd buried in the snow and slush by the curb.

It was yesterday’s breakfast.

(See photo above. For the record, that’s an orange and a boiled egg.)

There was no sign of the other two breakfasts, but I’m sure we’ll find them after the thaw.

That muddy, icy bag of mangled breakfast is a perfect metaphor for my 2014. I think the universe wanted me to see it. For a much-needed laugh, I suppose.

Or as a reminder that even when my breakfast is mangled, my coffee cup is empty, and my office carpet is wet, my friends and family keep me trucking.

With gratitude {for the ability to muster gratitude at this point},

Joan, who has nowhere to go but up in 2014

Day 22: Words, not my own.

Dear friends,

redcloud

On Day 22 of this month of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the bounty of words that spill into my life.

For as long as I can remember, words have captured the world for me. Those I scoured, those I savored, those little understood, those I wrote tiny and tucked away in miniature diaries, even those on the back of cereal boxes which I faithfully read during childhood breakfasts were worthy of my attention.

Words meant something, I thought, when written down. I’d seen too many words spoken carelessly — false promises and glib answers and half-truths hanging in the air like an inconvenient fog you hoped would have broken by now. Words on paper were gospel, their power evident in stately fonts printed in black ink on crisp, white paper, and I aimed to harness some of that power for myself until I got sidetracked somewhere south of 20.

To this day, nothing moves me like the written word. I read as widely and voraciously as time and multiple distractions allow. I use every opportunity afforded me to add new and interesting words to my vocabulary, like exogenous, which I heard for the first time last month while listening to National Public Radio in my car and which compelled me to immediately pull over so I could look it up on my iPhone and commit its meaning to memory.

A new book came in the mail today — a late birthday gift for Mr. Mom — with the beautiful title “The heart of everything that is.” I might steal it from his bedside table before he has the chance to crack it. Half my ancestors are white and half are Native American and I’ve always sided with the brown skinned bunch. (It’s the subversive in me.) I knew Mr. Mom would enjoy the story and I figured I might learn something.

Speaking of learning something, read as much as you can. There’s so much to be gained, even from cheap fiction (okay, maybe not 50 Shades of Drivel), amateur poetry, weak news reporting, propaganda. The worst, most lazy, most hateful writing tests your heart, I think, while the most soaring and intelligent prose shapes your sensibilities and your intellect in ways not easily squandered.

Read. Form an opinion. Discuss.

Rinse and repeat for the sake of humanity.

With gratitude {for all the delicious words I’ve ever read},

Joan, who implores you to read this essay, the most beautiful piece of writing to come her way in a long time, and who hopes you’ll drop back by after reading and let her know what you thought of it

Day 14: The uplands.

Dear friends,

helen-keller

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an essay that caught my attention today. Called “The Paradoxical Traits of Resilient People,” it suggests that  embracing adversity is the best way to manage it.

What caught my eye — and filled my heart — was a quote from Helen Keller:

“For, after all, every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill of Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.”

It’s hard to imagine a woman who was deaf and blind and who struggled so mightily could learn to produce such exquisite prose. Adversity certainly burnished the bright edge of Keller’s capacity and she became a role model for the ages. (If you don’t know much about Keller’s life, I encourage you to do a bit more reading. She became a staunch advocate for women and birth control, the disabled, the working class and oppressed people everywhere.)

So on the 14th day of this month of Thanksgiving, I pause to reflect on my struggles . . . one more effort . . . and the inestimable reaches of all that I seek  . . . the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky . . . and vow, today and tomorrow, to footslog my way, step by frail misstep, ever higher to the uplands.

With gratitude {for people with the clearest vision, those who see the expansive vista of human potential},

Joan, who in high school played the Anne Sullivan to her friend Gretchen’s Helen Keller in a medal-winning dramatic duet that first piqued her interest in this remarkable American woman

A month of gratitude.

Dear friends,

gratitude_Snapseed

Many of my family and friends participate in the “Thanksgiving” meme popular on social networking sites by sharing an expression of gratitude each day in November.

I’ve never joined in. In recent years, my thinking goes: “I have an entire blog devoted to gratitude. A daily Tweet or Facebook post or Instagram photo would be a bit superfluous, no?”

Today, after seeing the first wave of posts and Tweets and pictures — and being moved by so many of them — I’ve decided to dive in. Right here. Right now.

On this first day of November, I am grateful for mobility. I started my day with a 3.5 mile run, followed by yoga stretches and brief meditation. There may be no greater luxury in life than the ability to move one’s limbs at will, to push, to strain, to thrust, to retreat, to tip-toe, to balance, to bend, to grab, to pull, to feel the exquisite power and beauty of our own physicality.

I was reminded this time last week — while lying on the floor staring at the ceiling through back spasms — that mobility is never overrated. I have friends with children whose greatest dream would be to move with the ease and grace afforded me.

Every day that I draw breath, I thank the universe for a body that has served me well. Thank yours, too, won’t you?

With gratitude {for the elegant physics of human movement, even when the 50-year-old’s limbs aren’t all that elegant},

Joan, who’s running in her first 5K race tomorrow, lord willin’

Sad. With a side of busy.

Dear friends,

sadapple

In every year of my work life, there are two weeks so busy that all others pale in comparison. One is in April and one is this week. It’s one of those weeks where my assistant prepares a two-inch binder with 20 tabs and dozens of sheets filled with details about the meetings, appointments, dinners, and other special events I will either attend or preside over.

Had I not fallen prey to a bug of some sort and stayed home several hours on Monday and Tuesday, this week would have easily topped 70 hours. As it is, I probably won’t surpass 60, which I suppose is a blessing all things considered.

So that — in part — is why you haven’t heard from me for a few days.

I’ve also been sad . . . which combined with busy tends to result in “lights out” on this page.

Saturday is my mother’s birthday. It also happens to be my 22nd anniversary, and when it finally occurred to me a week ago that the date was rapidly approaching, instead of thinking about ways to express my continuing affection to Mr. Mom, I thought about how much I miss my mother. I was trying to prepare for a dinner party, but instead I sat on my bed and cried.

I can’t believe she’s been gone three years. I can’t believe I still cry when the magnitude of her absence hits me at weird moments. I’ve always thought it is important to honor the grief, though, so I took a break from cooking and spent a half hour in solitude thinking, in part, how much Mom would have liked my menu and thought my dinner party kicked butt.

By the way, in case I never told you the story . . . on our wedding day Mr. Mom and I pretended we forgot my mother’s 62nd birthday. We had breakfast with her and she spent most of the day helping me decorate our reception hall, but I never said a word. At the reception — after we cut the cake — I stepped forward to speak, intending to tell everyone it was my mother’s birthday and to deliver a loving tribute. Instead, I dissolved into tears and Mr. Mom had to speak for me. After we sang Happy Birthday to her, I gave her a surprise gift: a mother’s ring made by the same childhood friend who made my wedding band. A few years later Mom told me it was the best birthday of her life.

I remember that on the days I miss her. On the days I think I didn’t bring enough light and love into her life, I remember that day and it helps.

Then on top of my run-of-the-mill sadness, I learned on Monday that one of Kate’s friends from back home died after an extended illness. Ashley was a beautiful and radiant 20-year-old woman and her loss has left my hometown — and my daughter — reeling. The funeral is today and Kate will be there but I won’t (what with all the events in the two-inch binder with 20 tabs).

I know a little something about Ashley’s parents’ pain after watching my mother lose an adult son. Still, in spite of everything I think I know about grief and heartache, I find myself with few words of understanding or comfort because losing a child at the cusp of adulthood seems to me a grievous and unbearable loss.

I know. Losing a child anytime is a grievous and unbearable loss. Maybe this feels especially acute because I have two children who are on the cusp of adulthood. Two children who were friends with the girl who departed her promising and sparkling life so very early and who remind me how precious and fragile every loved one is, whether 18 or 80.

So I’m sad. With a side of busy.

All things considered, I’d rather be sad, because it reminds me to snap out of busy, which is just another way to describe an auto-pilot life where insufficient attention is paid to what are often inconvenient but urgent matters of the heart.

With gratitude {for emotions that remind me I’m human and I’m living a magnificent and messy and beautiful and brutal and ephemeral life},

Joan, who really wishes she could hold Kate’s hand today and will be so very glad to give her a big hug when she arrives home late tonight for Fall Break

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