Monday, May 1, 2017

Pile of Ash

There is a pile of ash in my backyard today.

I should go back and start at the beginning.  Which is too far back to really be functionally appropriate.  I should go back and start somewhere in the middle, which is really going back a few weeks and moving forward from here in the hopes that there is a future.

We have enough space for short-term guests in our home, though even that is a stretch with four furbabies running around who don’t necessarily get along with each other any better than actual two-legged siblings living in the same house.  So, when it came to a call in which my niece told me she’d been kicked out of her transitional housing, post residential treatment graduation, because she’d been making moony-eyes at a boy, it wasn’t a big stretch to say, “We can make space for you until the end of the month.”

We had some rules:  keep working your program of sobriety and be looking for employment.

We didn’t care if she dated, who she dated, what she did with the people she dated so long as she followed the first two rules.  And if there were relatively minor lapses of sobriety, we took a stand of “progress not perfection.”  Really, my beloved took that stand and gave me a rock-steady place to turn when progress was slow.

But, she got herself hired in three days time.  It took awhile, given it was a new location for a large chain store that had opened the same day she applied, to get on the books for orientation with the HR people.  She did it, though.  And she started saving for an apartment.  And sure there was instability with the guys she’d gotten kicked out with, but they were both committed to making it work and they were determined to get an apartment together as soon as they both had some degree of job security.

I was busy with my own life, but my beloved and I made as much room for her as we could.  After the first slip, we outlined basic household rules – rules which we ourselves hold to – for the healthy functioning of the home.  The only unique rule was concerning sobriety.  Neither my beloved nor I are addicts.  The rules were simple:

  • Maintain your job
  •  Begin saving
  • When not working a late shift, help in the kitchen so you can pick up some basic skills
  • Attend a meeting or church service one time per week, minimum
  • Maintain sobriety (progress, not perfection)
  • Adequate health coverage
o   Including but not limited to termination or prenatal care (when her douchey boyfriend sabotaged their method of birth control)
o   Contraception that could not be sabotaged (after she had a spontaneous abortion)

All of this was predicated on a few simple questions that drive our lives:  What outcomes does she want for her life?  How can we offer space to sort out the choices facing her?  What decisions can and must she make in order to move toward her goals?

That was it.  It was pretty simple.

Except she ended up working so many second shifts that she spent her days off sleeping in the room we’d made up for her and her afternoons off with her boyfriend.  She spent every weekend with her boyfriend.  She said she was attending meetings with him; we didn’t follow her to meetings or stake them out.  We were living our own lives.  She said she was going to church with him.  We didn’t check up on that.  We were living our own lives.

We made space for her when we could.  We invited her to eat with us.  We invited her to engage with us.  But she slept through every moment we were home and she spent every other moment with her boyfriend.  None of this was a problem, because she is an adult and she has to live with the consequences of her actions.  She made her choices.  We continued to live our lives.

She told me she had to be work on Saturday at 8:00am and asked for a ride.  I told her I would get up early, make breakfast for all three of us, and give her a lift.  When my beloved and I got up Saturday morning, she wasn’t home.  I made breakfast for two.  She showed up, gathered a few things, told me she’d been having a rough go of it, that she was going to spend the weekend with her boyfriend, check into a 30 day treatment center on Monday, take a leave of absence from work.  I asked if she wanted to eat breakfast with us.  She said her boyfriend was in the car, so unless he could come in the house….  (He’s previously been banned from the house because he spoke lightheartedly about his treating his animals cruelly – furbaby safety is one of our top priorities).  I told her he was welcome to wait in his car for an hour if she wanted to join us.  She left.

Sunday morning I was making breakfast.  I was in the middle of everything and the phone rang and I answered and she was on the other end.  Could I pick her up?  Sure.  When and where?  She was at a gas station with her boyfriend some 30 miles away.  There was a lot of noise in the background.  The line went dead.  I called back.  No answer.  I left a voicemail.

The hollandaise curdled.  I started over.  “Do you want to go to the broiler?” my beloved asked. 

“I’m not throwing out four pieces of toast, four slices of ham, and four poached eggs.  Breakfast will be cold and you’ll enjoy it anyway?”

“I will enjoy it,” my beloved confirmed.

“That was really a threat more than a question,” and we both laughed.

As we sat down to eat, I was grumpy.  Like majorly grumpy.  “I know the kid calling in the middle of your breakfast prep didn’t help,” my beloved said.

And that’s the thing.  I’ve been working my entire life to first find and then create stability and health in my home life.  My entire life.  When I grew up and realized that stability and health couldn’t be found, I actively started working to create it.  It wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing.  I failed a lot.  I would often choose stable over healthy and sort out the details later.

This is why stable and healthy are so important to me:  when I know that I’m going to come home at the end of the day to a stable and healthy home life, I have confidence when I leave home at the beginning of the day to dare greatly.  I have the confidence to try new things.  I have the confidence to experiment and adventure.  I have the confidence to fail gloriously and make a mess of things.  I know that I am safe in the world because I have a place to land at the end of the day.  I have figured out how to create safety within me because I figured out how to create safety around me.

“This is why I don’t allow addicts into my life,” I said in frustration to my beloved.  “They bring chaos!”

Chaos is the opposite of stability.  Chaos is the thing I can face out in there in the wider world because I have stability inside of me and I have worked hard to build a life of stability inside and around me.

Since the kid told me that she wasn’t going to be coming back to our home and since she had left mountains of dirty laundry behind, I thought I would take my mind off the unsettling phone call in the morning by keeping a bit busy.  I decided I would wash up all her laundry and fold it neatly and pack it up.  That way, when she was done with her stay in rehab, she wouldn’t have to come back to a mess – she could just come and spend time with us before moving her stuff to her new place.  And (BONUS) I wouldn’t have to live with her mess, taking over what was once again my office, for another month.

She told me a couple of times about lapses she’d had.  She told me none of them had happened in the house.  She asked me not to tell my beloved, and I didn’t.  This was a mistake on her part.  I would have kicked her out after I discovered the first lapse if it hadn’t been for him.  I would have kicked her out after each subsequent lapse if it hadn’t been for him.  Without his steady, non-anxious presence, I would have removed the addict from the house.  Without the extra stability he offered, I could not have withstood the chaos she had introduced.  I have a visceral reaction to it; one he does not have.

I was clearing detritus off of the bookshelves flanking the murphy bed when I saw the burned out tea light.  It was a totally generic tea light, no different from the billions of others sold every year.  I didn’t even recognize it for what it was.  When I was clearing detritus off the desk, I found the small red bag which had held it.  The memento.  A keepsake.  A last reminder of my time in New York City. 

That small breach of boundaries was the final straw.  I was done.  She burned this bridge.  There is a pile of ash in my backyard from it.  I decided to move everything, as it was, out to the front porch.  She could pick it whenever she found the time.

As I was collecting her clothes, her knitting, her books, her colors, her make-up, I found the first empty liquor bottle.  As I moved furniture around to get the bedding put away and the chair’s slip-cover on it, and things back where they belonged, I found three more empty liquor bottles.  She said she never had a lapse in the house.  I have a backpack full of empty liquor bottles that prove otherwise.  I dumped everything in the corner of the porch where she had been storing her non-essentials since she moved in.  

And that was it.  I haven't been this free, happy, or relaxed since her first lapse, stealing narcotic pain meds from me the day after I had surgery.  For the first time since then, I'm giggling at home.  I wiggle when I hug my beloved.  I sigh in relaxation when we sit on the couch.  All it took was clearing out the office and having my space again.  I didn't even care that we might have to spend a few weeks with chaotic piles of her things on the front porch.

She would have to make plans with my beloved to come and get her things.  I just needed enough notice so that I wouldn’t be home when it happened.

We asked when she would be able to pick up her things and return her key.  We never got a response.

We changed all of the locks on the house and garage.

While we waited for the locksmith to arrive, I asked my beloved, “When is the last time Lois had her infusion?”

“Oh, it’s been a few days,” he said.  “She definitely due.”

She had been acting funny, the way she does when she’s a little dehydrated.

“I’ll get her set up if you can stick her later tonight,” my beloved said, knowing once the bag came out, she would disappear until long after he had left to teach his night class.

My beloved went to the back porch.  I heard the cupboard open.  I heard the bag rustle.  “She took Lois’s needles.”

“What?  Are you sure?”

“Yes.  She took Lois’s needles.”

I checked the bag.  I double checked the cupboard.  The package of needles is gone.  The bag of Lactated Ringer is gone.  The IV line is gone.

My beloved was this kid’s biggest advocate.  He was going the extra mile, cheering her on, giving her safe space to sort out what she wanted, doing everything he could in the profoundly limited time he had available to offer her skills and tools and resources for figuring out her own life.  He was the only reason she had safe space after the first week she was with us.

After her first lapse, she continued to live with us because of his graciousness; because of his compassion; because of his love; because of his vision and hope that things could be different.


The pile of ash in our backyard just doubled in size.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

T Minus 1

There are three factors that, individually, are necessary and can be sufficient to create a personal paradigm shift – to radically change the way a person views, engages, and understands the world:  education, travel, and crisis.  I have experienced all three and they have shaped not just my world view, but my theology as well.  And these experiences have profoundly informed the ways in which I read the biblical text.  Today I would like to invite you to consider scripture not as a mandate for what and how to believe, but rather as an invitation to explore how your story is similar to these stories and what our stories might learn from each other.

It’s called T minus 1.  That point in time where we get stuck after something awful happens.  The “T” stands for “trauma.”  The minus 1 stands for “one second before.”  When we witness or encounter something traumatic, a part of our psyche can get stuck in that second before it happened as our brain, incapable of integrating this new information, seeks to deny that it even exists.  Some part of the brain rewinds to the second immediately before and hits the pause button.

We find ourselves here today, the first Sunday after Easter.  The first Sunday after the resurrection.  We find ourselves here today and someone is missing.  On the first day of the week, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, Thomas was not with them.  We have no information in the text itself to tell us why Thomas was not present or where Thomas was instead.  So, I would like to invite you to consider when Thomas might be.

In my favorite episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor once said, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly … time-y wimey … stuff.”  Now, I don’t necessarily propose that we get our theological or cosmological education from British Sci-Fi; but I do think this description of how time works is particularly poignant in understanding what happens to our perception of the world in response to trauma. 

I think in terms of when Thomas is …  Well, Thomas might still be somewhere between Maundy Thursday and noon on Good Friday.  Having witnessed the arrest, torture, and execution of his closest friend and leader of their ragtag band of followers, I think Thomas is at T minus 1.  Trauma is one of the most profoundly isolating experiences a person can have.  To that end, it is no surprise to me that Thomas is removed from his community. 

Thomas often gets a bad rap in Christian popular culture because he is said to have doubted that Jesus had been resurrected.  “Don’t be a doubting Thomas” we’re told when wrestling with questions of faith.  “Just believe!”  “You just need to have more faith,” is oft the spoken refrain when people are hurting following a loss.  “Seeing isn’t believing,” the quip goes, “Believing is seeing!”

If Thomas is stuck in the T minus 1, if Thomas is still in the time of one second before Jesus died, then Thomas’s doubt isn’t necessarily a doubt in the resurrection.  Thomas might still be incapable of even accepting that Jesus has truly died.  “Until I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas tells his friends.  “Until I see and touch the physical evidence of this death, I will not believe it happened.”

Resiliency is the ability to bounce back effectively after a crisis – it is often formed in our earliest experiences of trauma.  The biggest predictor of whether or not a person develops resiliency is not if or when they experience the inevitability of crisis, loss, trauma, but rather how those around them respond to their experience. 

Over and over and over again in the gospels we see Jesus interacting with people who have experienced trauma.  And over and over and over again, we see Jesus respond to their trauma in a way that it appears no one else has.  Jesus acknowledges, names, and accepts that what they have experienced is real and that it is terrible.

Meeting a leper, Jesus does not turn away, but instead chooses to heal the man and then restores him to community by having his healing witnessed by a priest.  The trauma of isolation was acknowledged and witnessed and restoration happened.

Meeting a paralytic, Jesus hears and acknowledged the pain, isolation, and trauma of infirmity.  The man is healed, he takes up his mat, and he walks.

Meeting a woman at a well at noon, isolated, alone, Jesus names her trauma, “You are right when you say you have no husband.  You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband.”  “You continue to repeat the cycle of abuse because you are stuck in the T minus 1.”  This woman responds by returning to her village, a place where she is shunned, and declares, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”  “Come and see a man who witnessed my trauma.  I am no longer stuck.”

A bleeding woman knows that if she can just touch the hem of his cloak, her infirmity will leave her.  Jesus, sensing the power had gone out of him questioned who had touched him.  “Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth.”  Jesus heard her story and responded, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

Time and time again Jesus responds to invisible trauma by saying, “Your wounds have been made visible.  The traumas you have suffered are real and terrible.  And it is possible to find healing and move forward.”

A week after Thomas is reunited with the other ten disciples, Jesus appears.  “Come, Thomas.  Touch my wounds.  See that my death and your loss are real.  The trauma you experienced in witnessing my death has been made visible in these wounds.  Touch my wounds.  Know, intimately, that they are real.  Witness collectively, as a community, naming and affirming the reality of the trauma you have suffered.  Move forward from T minus 1 and find healing.”

Most days, it feels to me as though we are living in a time of crisis. The world right now feels like it’s stuck in the T minus 1.  Our ability to move forward and function in a mature fashion has been stunted by our failure to acknowledge, name, and give witness to the realities of trauma.   Though studies indicate that the world is less violent now than at any previous time in history, access to 24 hour cable news cycles, citizen journalism, and social media amplify the conflicts of the world, imbuing them with magical powers and always, always, always pointing a finger of blame.  Rarely does anyone say, “These things are real and terrible and we can find healing and move forward.”

Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure of faith.  Thomas’s doubt wasn’t a failure at all.  It was a necessary step in his learning how to touch wounds, how to see that invisible trauma is real, how to witness and name and affirm.  Thomas’s doubt gave him space to learn how to find healing by moving toward and through loss, rather than stopping at the T minus 1.

As we face our own crises today, may we do so knowing that within crisis lies the potential for a paradigmatic shift.  If we allow it, moments of crisis have the potential to bring us back to the cross, the place that speaks truth to power, love to hate, and acknowledges that trauma – seen and unseen – can leave us isolated, alone, without community or connection – but that same trauma is never the final word.  In our own moments of crisis, if we have the courage to acknowledge, name, and touch, to make visible the wounds of trauma, we can find the power of healing.  We can find the power of resurrection.