Self Care, Self Comfort

IMG_5221

I don’t remember if I wrote about this recently or not, but I have heard a very helpful distinction between self  care and self comfort. Self comfort is intended to anesthetize, numb us, when we are in overload. It’s easy to figure out mine: snacking, and not snacking on healthy food, either. Self-care is more actively finding the things that will give us a sense of ourselves, of our agency, of our capacity to keep on keeping on, even when the impulse is to crawl into bed and pull the covers over our head.

I woke up and quickly got overwhelmed, listening to the news. I definitely had a choice since today is my day off: get in the easy chair with a book and goodies, or get going. I’ve had a busy morning. I cleaned out my closet, something I hadn’t done since I moved here in the summer of 2014. In some respects, doing that work made me sadder. I’ve gained way more weight than I should have since I left Florida. I play that weight game with myself: I’m going to hold on to my skinnier me clothes because, by golly, I’m going to lose that weight! Today, it seemed so much more obvious that it really is just that: a game. So one by one, I took skirts and blouses and dresses and pants I can’t use and bagged them up to take to a clothes closet in one of the churches in Montgomery.

I started going back to my vegan ways with the help of a good friend a couple of weeks ago. It’s been both energizing and rocky going, especially in the last week. But it’s a start; my intention is to be back in a largely vegan food plan moving forward. I’m also doing a bit more exercise. That too is a start. Cleaning out my closet meant confronting the shame and the disappointment in myself. And asking myself what I can do differently that is not gamey, or unrealistic, or unsustainable, in an effort to choose self-care over self-comfort.

That closet work was hard but it is done; I fit in all the clothes I kept, and my closet is sparkling clean. While I was at it, I realized it was the week I wash our sheets. That bit of work brought me enormous joy. A few years ago, my brothers and their spouses, my dad and I vacationed on one of the islands in the Stockholm Archipelago in Sweden. We stayed in a cottage with a lovely umbrella clothes-line outside in the garden. Though it was cool, the sun shone for so long each day that the clothes dried quickly. As I’d pick them off the line and bring them in, memories of how laundry smelled when I was growing up, because everything was line-dried, came flooding back. The smell is simply glorious.

As we got settled here, I asked my spouseman to put up a clothesline for me, and it went on his to-do list though we both struggled to figure out a good place to put it. Then one day, the solution came to Sherod and he buildt this contraption that folds up when we are not using it, and gets let down to allow us to hang our laundry in the sun and breeze on wash days. Today I used clothespins to hang the pillowcases and got the Mallowman to help me with the sheets. We “wrassled” them up on the lines together and there was this exquisite sense of shared purpose and camaraderie. The sheets have since all dried and I’ve remade our bed so tonight, we will slip in between sheets smelling of light and gentle breezes. A very small way, but none-the-less a way, to make our carbon footprint smaller. Self-care.

This Sunday, the Gospel reading ends with the story of the Canaanite woman who importunes Jesus long enough to make him change his mind and respond to her and her needs. I’m preaching and am both deeply disturbed by the passage with its confrontation not only of what’s happening in our country right now, but also of my own hardness of heart, and grateful. There is wisdom and hope to be found in that story. I’m trying to hold on to the realization that the kind of willingness to open the doors wider, to be more generous, to see myself and the Other in a new way as the Gospel suggests even Jesus had to learn to do, requires self-care, while self-comfort makes it far, far easier to simply look away.  I can’t look away.

Taylor Swift, Laurie Penny and Anger

fullsizeoutput_11b7

Many women you know are angrier than you can possibly imagine. Most are pretty good at hiding it, having been taught to do so since childhood. Laurie Penny

There are two sisters in me.   One speaks a lot. She is reasonable. She is nice. Sometimes, she is described as sweet. She is also resilient and determined to make the best of what she’s been given. So I get up on a day like today, delighting in the small joys of life.

On Friday night, Sherod and I sat at table in what can only be described as the Montgomery version of “Babette’s Feast”—lovely company enjoying a slow and sumptuous meal, candle light, wine that was wonderful without being pretentious, laughter. Anne Sexton, in her poem, For John Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further, talks about “my awkward bowl, with all its cracked stars shining”—a wonderful description, it seems to me, of all our lives; so there we sat, late into the evening, cracked stars shining, in a quiet, beautiful, gracious place.

Today has been much more about the domesticity of a day off for a priest like me. Doing laundry and roasting my coffee for the week. Talking to our daughter who is still sick in Fort Lauderdale, so far away I can’t run my fingers through her hair and give her comfort, but connected enough I can order chicken noodle soup from the Tower Deli close to where she lives, have someone it run it over to her, and imagine how that quintessential mama’s cure for so much gives my girl some kind of sense of of the warmth of love.

We’re starting to teach our new family members, Gilbert and Sunny, about finding their way outdoors so Sherod and I stood amused for a good while, watching Gilbert romp the grass, convince himself he’s big and bad-assed enough to stalk one of the chicken ladies, before turning tail and running like his life depended on it as soon as she clucked. I’ve folded and cleaned and breathed in deep enjoying the lavender candle I lit in my office a while ago. It is not hard to be grateful, and sweet, and kind when you are just this side of heaven.

The incredibly hard question for me these days, is ‘what about the anger, the sister of joy’? It seems like everywhere I look right now, there are women holding our awkward bowls with cracked stars shining, trying to keep the light of anger from shining too bright, too harsh in the places where we live, and move and have our being. A peer I respect enormously shared this article on Facebook recently.

That article, and getting to hear bits and pieces of the Taylor Swift trial, reopen the door to an anger that is kept tightly locked in me. There is one small story I am now strong enough and old enough to tell that describes the anger I am talking about.

When I was at seminary, each seminarian had to preach once a semester; we did so at daily morning prayer with the whole community. It was not unusual for a member of the faculty or administration to invite the “preacher” into her or his office for a visit and to give feedback about the sermon the seminarian had preached. It happened once that I gave a sermon about the call to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

I was invited to visit with a person with considerable authority so I was quite flattered by the invitation. We sat in his office and it turned out that what this man wanted to discuss with me was that  after chapel, he’d been thinking about what “picking up your cross” might mean in his life. His conclusion was that his cross would be if his wife was seriously injured and could no longer have sex with him. He went on at some length about why and how hard that would be and I was left wordless. I was 25 years old and far less experienced than many women my age. All I remember thinking was that I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me because what in God’s name could I say?

I had come to seminary without being a postulant for holy orders but still very much wanting to find a way into that possibility. This person would have very significant influence on my ability to make that happen. There were no witnesses and you figure out quickly as a woman, that in ‘he said/she said’ scenarios, especially with the kind of power differential that existed between the two of us, I wouldn’t stand a chance. So I mumbled some inane bits of response, the conversation ended with him congratulating me on the sermon, and I walked out wanting to scrub myself down, wash myself clean of his garbage.

In the larger scheme of things, this was not a huge deal—this person did not try to grope me, he did not make any advances to me. I am not even sure it would qualify for any claim of harassment. But what I see now, that I only sensed then, was that the difference in power and authority between the two of us was so enormous, that a conversation about his sex life with his wife not only missed the point of my sermon but was beyond inappropriate. I am proud of Taylor Swift, and Laurie Penny, and all the young women coming into their own, who have a clearer voice and stronger sense of their worth—and for a world that has opened up a tiny bit more space for a woman’s anger to matter.

As for me, if you grew up, as I did, fearing my own anger so I got far more comfortable with grief and sorrow, it isn’t only that the light shining out of a cracked and awkward bowl has been refracted and dimmed, though that has happened for sure (and all the while so many of us murmur, “you know, rainbows are so pretty aren’t they? And they are a reminder of God’s promises to us aren’t they?”). But it is more than that. As light broke into a multitude of colors, too many of them, but especially the red, got painted over with pink.

Perhaps the work of women like me is to wrap our hands around the too-dim, too monochromatic light, as if it was a rope, to draw it back in, slowly but surely, hand over hand, “un-refracting ” the light, reclaiming a much more complicated and colorful version of ourselves. In the spaces where fear and a desire to be liked no longer reign supreme, maybe we have the opportunity to weave the anger back into the fabric of our being, and along the way, we can take the time to make sure the light becomes more concentrated. More focused. More steady and unwavering, so what shines out through the cracks and fractures of a carefully constructed life is truer and more complete. And also shines brighter.

 

 

For a friend, walking with her mama

DSCN0211

Grace Cathedral

This is what I learned in the spring of 2011: When a terminal illness finds its way into the life of a family, we become remarkable resilient finding our way through changing “new normals”. We have time to build up reserves of courage, though we don’t know we are doing that. Then, there comes a point, a tipping point, and we know down in our bones that we have started walking the last length of the journey. That moment came in April of that year. My mom, mami, as I called her, had been through several lines of hormone and chemotherapy, for metastasized breast cancer. Each line lasted a shorter amount of time, each had harsher side effects. The options were dwindling. Mami and Dad were scheduled to fly down from Boquete to Ciudad de Panamá to meet with Mami’s oncologist because the blood work results were getting dicey again. I decided to join them.

I had seen my mami in January and she had looked more fragile, been more emotionally vulnerable than ever, but still lively and engaged. The mami I met at Hotel Plaza Paitilla, our ‘home base’ in Ciudad de Panamá was grey, exhausted and also somehow, clear-eyed. She had had enough. The purpose of this round of doctor visits was to advise them she was done with chemo and ready to move into palliative care.

The first doctor we saw was her neurologist, the person who first figured out my mami’s cancer had metastasized. It was an amazing moment, to sit next to the woman who had been so strong and unyielding in her effort to help me through the childhood challenges of a bum hip so I might have ‘life abundant’. Now, I heard that strength and determination in her voice as she told a middle aged woman doctor that it was time. Dr A. responded in the most respectful, supportive way imaginable. She had no fear in her voice as she applauded my mami’s decision. She made it clear that if my mami needed any further consultations with her, she would be glad to help. And then, she stood up, along with us, came around her desk and hugged my mother, told her how glad she was to have worked with her, and said good bye. No candy coating, no pretend like, just the quiet and freeing truth that it was OK for my mami to say her body was too worn out to withstand any more chemo.

The doctor who my mami had become profoundly attached to was her oncologist, a much younger woman who’d just returned from Australia where she had attended a world congress for oncologists, who, throughout the time she worked with Mami was always on the lookout for any new possibilities for therapeutic intervention against the cancer. My parents had gotten close enough to her that Dr. P travelled to the town where my parents lived when my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. Encouraged by Dr. A’s response, I went into that second appointment filled with peace, in awe of what was unfolding. My dad and I sat on either side of my mami, each holding one of her hands.  Those hands had become bony little birds, lying weak and tired;  I was filled with dread that if I squeezed even a little, I’d break a cancer-riddled bone.

My mami had a carefully prepared little speech; she’d already practiced with Dr. A so it came even more easily with Dr. P., whom she cared for so much.  We had all been looking at Dr P as Mami told her about her decision, and then Dr. P gave her response. “Pues no, Doña Anita, yo quiero seguir peleando”—Sorry, but no Miss Anita, I still want to fight.”  There was a window behind the doctor’s desk; I could see a tall building  as I turned to look out; relieved, I began to count the windows, one by one, floor by floor. Count. Breathe. Be quiet. Count. It’s going to be OK. Count. Breathe. God d%&n. No—you can’t go there. Breathe. Keep counting. Don’t stop counting. The adrenaline pinged through my body, I felt my chest about to explode, and the room got claustrophobically small.

Mami seemed to draw further into herself and now, all the confidence and clarity was gone from her face. Instead, there was this struggle back and forth between unexpected hope, confusion, and the exhaustion that could not be wiped away by the thin and false thread of optimism offered by Dr. P. My mami’s voice became hesitant as she said, “If you think I can have more time, you know so much more than I do. Yes, I’ll do what you recommend”.

Me? Inside my mind, I turned on my mother. I wanted to shake her,  disrespect her even more than her doctor just had, strip her of her dignity by yelling, “Mami, that is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard you say! It is your body, not Dr. P’s. It is your choice, not hers. Think about Dr. A’s response and how meaningful that moment was. This is a travesty and I am about to reach out and wring this woman’s neck!” I thank God for the strength I dug out from down deep to sit quietly, to let my mami have the conversation she needed to have with the doctor she’d entrusted her life to 5 years earlier, when the metastasis had been discovered.

My father and I talked a few times during the next 24 hours, struggled to make peace with something that seemed to go against all the brave work my mom had done; it is a fearsomely courageous bit of agency to say, “I will now allow myself to die.” We shared our horror. Our dismay. Our anger. My mother only had the strength to sleep, and wake for short periods of time, distracted and distant. Plans were put in motion to go return to the city a couple of weeks later to start the new line of treatment.

Then it was time to leave. My parents headed back home in the morning and I had a late afternoon flight back to the USA,  so I was able to go with them out to to the airport where they’d take a flight to David. I watched my dad wheel my mami into the security area, her body so thin and bent over now that she was lost, almost swallowed up, in a wheel chair.

I had scheduled a deep tissue massage in Fort Lauderdale for when I returned from this trip, and I kept the appointment the next day. Never before and never after, have I experienced a massage where every single place in my body the massage therapist worked on hurt, and hurt excruciatingly.

Away from Dr. P,  my mami regained the clarity she’d lost in that sterile office, filled with books and magazines, and charts and pharmaceutical samples but little humanity. She did not return to Ciudad de Panamá. Mami died some weeks later, in early June. During the two weeks I was with my parents before her death, the neurologist, Dr. A called 3 times to ask how my Dad and I were doing and check on my mami. At one point in those final days, we tried repeatedly to reach Dr. P because the local doctor needed to check something out about my mom’s last round of chemo as he perscribed palliative meds. Dr. P never returned our calls.

Here is some more of what I learned that awful week in April: I was a tiger ready to pounce on anyone who messed with my mami. But sitting in Dr. P’s office, I had been ready to snatch away all my mom’s agency, her ability to make the decisions that worked for her, because I thought I knew what was best for her. It was my mother’s life and death, not mine. I am grateful for the grace that made it possible for me to sit quietly through that meeting, be polite to the doctor, lead my parents out to the cab that was waiting for us.

My mami, even as she was dying, had the strength and wisdom she needed to honor relationships that were hers, not mine. But it was important and a part of me honoring my relationship with my mami to talk about the beauty of the meeting with Dr. A., to reassure my mom that we’d follow her lead, do whatever she decided.

One of my dearest friends is walking towards that kind of hard place with her own mama. As one who’s already been in similar places, I think I know a bit about the confusion, the warring hopes, fears, needs, the sheer mind-numbing volume of decisions, large and small, that are hers to make now. I don’t think it’s perverse of me to see this as a time of deep holiness in my friend’s life. I don’t regret for her that she finds herself in such a place. Walking with my mami tempered me. Made me have to go deeper to find the living waters and in the process, stripped away a lot of games and half-truths I had clung to in the past. Those days, and the weeks that followed, gave me a connection with my mami that neither angels or principalities, or things present, or things to come, or life or death, will ever break.  I pray for such a gift for my friend.