close up image of rocks and shells jumbled together on the beach

After a string of happy, peaceful days, days where I met new people, was invited to join them for outings, I was beginning to imagine that my life could be more like this in the months and years to come. It took almost no time at all to slip back into a familiar old place. That place where I cringe ever so slightly as a matter of course. Where I devote some portion of my thoughts to preparing for losing my footing again. Where I feel in my bones that I will somehow pay for this.

The other day I wrote in my journal a reminder that I don’t have to earn joy or peace. (News flash: either do you. None of us does.) Cognitively, I know that life isn’t a balance sheet. That we don’t have to come to some reckoning or accounting of the number of hours we suffered lined up against the number of joys we felt. I don’t have to justify feeling good. There is no amount of suffering I am required to endure in order to be qualified to experience happiness. I don’t have to pay dues for ease or satisfaction. These things don’t come at a cost. They just are. I am allowed to just experience them without apologizing or explaining or waiting for the other shoe to drop.

These things that rise up from my body in one way or another, the thoughts that prompt me to be wary of the times when I am happy, they are deep and powerful, hooked in to me in ways that require careful, deliberate handling. The admonitions that I am not allowed to laugh out loud, smile at the sight of a hummingbird in my backyard, wake with a sense of hope and gratitude unless I also acknowledge all of the suffering others are enduring and prepare for my own to come roaring back – those are ancient. They are messages from my parents, their parents, our culture. The idea that everything has a cost is a difficult one to ignore.

When I knew I was going to start a new life in a new place, I spent a great deal of time exploring notions of what I truly wanted. The kind of work I want to do, the people I want to surround myself with, the way I want to spend my time. I also thought about how I want to feel and move through the world. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. I’ll say that again. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. Because deserving is a loaded sentiment, but it doesn’t have to be. I can just deserve love and joy and care simply because I exist. I don’t have to work for it.

While I have become more comfortable with this idea, I still have to remind myself often that creating the life I want and giving myself permission to inhabit it are two different things. The other day I found myself with nothing on the calendar. At 2:00 in the afternoon, I had a moment of mild panic (yes, that’s a thing – at least for me) that I had nothing pressing to do. For a millisecond, I entertained the idea of grabbing the novel I was reading and lying down on my bed to read. I indulged the fantasy quickly – the dogs stretched out next to me beneath the ceiling fan that was slowly pulling the ocean air through the windows, the curtains billowing slightly, me propped up on pillows, deep in a good book. And then came a visceral recoiling and the voices in my head:

You can’t do that. Surely you could mop the kitchen floor instead. Or go find some weeds to pull. Or at the very least, go outside. It’s sunny and beautiful. Get some fresh air. Or get on the elliptical machine and exercise. Certainly you could find something productive to do instead of lying down with a book at 2pm!

My gut tightened. How irresponsible could I be to think it would be ok just to lie down with a book in the middle of the afternoon?

But here’s how I know I’m making progress; from some deep corner of my heart came another voice that said simply,

this is the life you wanted to create for yourself – a life of ease and rest. Why wouldn’t you lie down and read for a while? 

And so I did. And I’m fairly certain I fell asleep for a bit, too. And when I woke up, the dogs were nestled against my legs and the kitchen floor was still unmopped and I hadn’t burned any calories, but I was a little bit closer to believing that I deserve joy and peace in my life, however it shows up. The work of animating the knowledge I have deep within me takes presence and intention, and the more I practice the better it gets. Here’s to believing that we all deserve joy and happiness and ease, no matter what.

What is it about having that breeds wanting?

Last week my oldest, who I hadn’t seen for nearly six months, managed to get four days off of work in a row and she flew out for a visit and a rest. Seeing her reunite with her sister and her best friend, waking up and walking out of my room to see her sound asleep in the guest room, having coffee with her in the morning – it was exquisite. And I found myself longing, thinking, more of this, please! I also found myself dreading the moment she got on a plane to return to her life thousands of miles away.

It is exhausting perching on the point of now, toes crammed together on the peak, looking at the down slope of what could be (and often, what I wish for) on one side and on the other, looking at the down slope of what has been and what might have been different. My mind races forward and back like a dog chasing seagulls on the beach, imagining, hoping, wishing, lamenting, preparing for the end of what is.

It is in those moments when I can dial back my perception to the now, imagine the tip of this present time flattening out, stretching to let my feet stand firm, toes spread wide, that I begin to find gratitude and let go of longing. I lose the fear of what could have been or what might be and practice – shaky but resolved – appreciating what is. In those times, I am able to remember to notice the joy of being with beloveds, pay attention to the laughter and the way the light falls and the smell of jasmine on our walk through the neighborhood. My mind tugs at me, wanting to find a way to prolong it, reproduce it, prevent it from ever stopping. It is surprising how insistent that impulse is, how quickly it can make me stand back up on tiptoe and lose my balance.

I am trying to remember that our bodies can only ever be in the Now, while our minds are almost always in the past or the future. And while being in my body can sometimes feel incredibly scary, with its pockets of fear and unprocessed pain, in the present moment, more often than not, I am safe, and I can find a measure of joy.

But this empty-nester thing is for real. I am 49 years old and I have never lived alone. I went from living with my sister and mom to a college dorm with a roommate, to an apartment shared with my brother, to living with my future-husband. I was married for 23 years and even after the divorce, I had my girls with me most of the time. The occasional weekend when they were away at their dad’s house didn’t prepare me for the long stretches of time alone. I am continually shocked at how rarely I go to the grocery store, prepare a full meal, talk to another human being (I talk to the dogs a lot). Everything is brand new right now and it takes effort to flatten that pinpoint Now so that I can stand, feet flat on the Earth, in full connection with this moment and remember that, at least in this second, the future is none of my business.

picture of a sandy beach with big rocks and a blue sky

I have been absent here for a long time, not because I don’t have things to write about, but because I have to wait for things to settle before I can write. In the last two months, I have completely turned my life upside-down, by selling my house in Seattle and moving closer to family in Southern California. During that time, I became an empty-nester for real – even spending a couple of intense weeks in LA helping my youngest and her boyfriend move into an airbnb and, later, an amazing apartment.

All of this has inspired grief, sadness, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, and fear – a lot of fear. I feel like I am a river that used to run clear and someone came in with a massive dredging machine and stirred up all the sediment at the bottom. The emotions are swirling and mixing and making the water cloudy and all I can do is notice and wait for it to settle so that I can have some clarity.

In the beginning of April, I was frustrated that my house wasn’t selling and that, although I had decided to move, I felt trapped in Seattle by circumstances. Several friends noted that I was not, in fact, trapped. I could go anytime I wanted to and leave the house empty – it would sell. It took a while, but I gradually began to believe them, over the protestations of my parents’ voices in my head

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

You have obligations. What makes you think you can just drop everything and go?

You have to have another place to land all lined up before you leap from the foundation you’re on

I packed a huge suitcase, the rest of my daughter’s things, sold my little electric car, rented a van and took my two dogs and the pet tortoise on the road. I have never done a solo road trip before in my life. I was excited and also really really scared. As I sat in the driveway one last time, ready to drive away without knowing how long I’d be gone, I created a mantra that I hoped would calm my fears and ground me when I got panicky or unsure.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

It worked. Every single time I started to freak out and worry, I put one hand on my heart and repeated those words to myself – sometimes over and over again until my breathing slowed and I felt calm again. Now, the simple act of speaking the first sentence settles me.

I am safe. This one reminds me to come back to my body. It helps me remember that I am not bleeding to death or in some mortal peril, no matter how scared I am. It zooms my vision out to the wider range of my life and lets me notice that my feet are touching the ground, I am breathing clean air, my vision is clear (well, with my glasses on), and in general, I am not in danger.

I am loved. This is a reminder that I am connected to something bigger. That there are people out there who are rooting for me, who are invested in my well-being, and who do really love me and consider me part of their family, chosen or otherwise. Often, conjuring up the image of just one of my beloveds is enough to make me smile spontaneously.

I have resources. If a tire goes flat, I have a cell phone to call for help. If I encounter horrible weather, I can pull over and wait it out inside the van. I have money for food and I know people along the route who I can call on for support. I have resources in the form of my life experience and wisdom. I know how to handle challenging situations and when to ask for assistance. I am not alone, no matter what my anxiety-spiraling brain tries to tell me.

I deserve joy. This one is key. It reminds me that this life is mine to live and if starting over in a different city will bring me joy, then I deserve to do that, no matter how hard it might be or how many years I spent in Seattle building a foundation. I deserve to pursue a life that feels expansive and purposeful and I don’t have to justify it (even to my dead parents in my head).

Oh, and the house? It sold the day after I packed up and left Seattle. I think it was the act of taking that leap of faith, of really committing to my own happiness and future that opened up the space in my old house for a new family to fall in love with it. The last month has been a whirlwind of packing and purging and moving and unpacking and as I write this, I am surrounded by half-emptied boxes of things and bubble wrap and a house with more dog beds than human beds, but I am planted in my new town and, more importantly, I have begun to really believe in my bones that I am safe, I am loved, I have resources, and I deserve joy.

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

So here’s the thing: I function really damn well until I don’t. And when I don’t, sometimes, it is so alien to me as an experience that it causes me to catastrophize. I mean, if I can’t manage my own life, there must be something seriously wrong, right?

What it really means is that I have a hard time understanding the context of everything that is going on in my life sometimes. I have a hard time really grasping that adding just one more thing might be too much. And that’s when my body steps in to kick me off the treadmill and shut that shit down.

This morning, I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one of those in 15 years or more, and I’ll be honest with you – I spent the first two hours trying to talk myself out of it and the next five hours getting an EKG, chest x-ray, blood and urine tests and talking to an array of absolutely lovely, caring, professional health care workers who confirmed for me that my heart is healthy and I am physically well and maybe I want to step back and look at what’s happening in my life and see where I can ask for help.

And my life is really wild right now. In the last three weeks, it has been moving at warp speed – my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out and leaving the state altogether, my oldest is feeling firmly settled in her life and has no plans to come back to the state to live,  I revised – well, really, mostly wrote – a new manuscript in the space of four days, and I am starting over – really starting over. I am selling my house and leaving Seattle – a town where I’ve lived for more than 25 years, selling my furniture and my car, and packing up to go find a house at the beach, closer to family. It’s a lot.

But here’s the kicker: my mom’s birthday is tomorrow. And it’s her first birthday since she died last June. And it’s really tearing me apart, but I don’t know how to explain it. To you or myself.

My mom had Alzheimer’s and, to be clear, I haven’t celebrated her birthday with her in five years at least. She didn’t know who I was or that it was her birthday. I couldn’t send her gifts because she didn’t read anymore, and clothes and slippers would just get stolen from her room in the memory care facility she lived in. Flowers made her sneeze. I would wake up, sing a quiet Happy Birthday to her in my room, light a candle for her, and tell her husband I was thinking of her, but I didn’t celebrate her birthday with her for years. And it’s not like I ever had any illusion I’d ever get the chance to again. But also, she died in June and I hadn’t seen her, held her hand or smiled at her or anything in over six months because of Covid restrictions. And tomorrow is her birthday.

I sat in the exam room this afternoon, hooked up to a heart monitor, stiff gown gapping open, practicing mindful breathing, wondering what the hell? I was pretty sure I’d had a panic attack, the stiffness and discomfort in my left shoulder blade laying there like a cast iron skillet, but why? I just finished writing a manuscript that the editor said he “can’t wait to publish.” My youngest and her boyfriend are launching their successful music careers after working their butts off in isolation in 2020. My oldest is happy and settled and has built a loving community for herself. I’m finally going to realize my dream of living at the beach. These are happy things!

But they are stressful. It is so easy for me to gloss over the reality that we’re doing all these things during a global pandemic, at a time when we’ve proven to our fellow citizens how little we really care about them when it comes down to choosing between ourselves and our money and our communities. Sitting with how much my heart hurts that we can’t manage to find ways to care for each other that are profound and meaningful and sustainable is something I do silently every day. It is the constant backdrop of every decision I make – how can I safely help the kids move? How can I make sure that the food we get at the food bank also gets distributed to mutual aid groups who need it? What happens if one of the kids gets Covid and I’m far away from them?

So here’s the thing: all of the situations and circumstances in my life are a lot without the events of the last year. They are overwhelming in and of themselves. But somehow, I fell prey to the notion that we all just need to keep going along to get along. That continuing to put one foot in front of the other is the thing to do, the only thing to do. But we have to stop and acknowledge the weight of it all, the grief and the loss and grapple with the unimaginable because the unimaginable is happening around us every single day, all day long. I’m not sure what that looks like, or how to build it in to my days, but after today, I know I have to figure something out.

And doing it on my mom’s birthday feels like a pretty fitting way to honor her.

 

blue background with image of light blue cartoon dog in profile sitting and holding it's head with an anxious expression on it's face

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I don’t know anyone who isn’t feeling at least a strong undercurrent of anxiety right now. Even if they can’t name it, there is a vibe, an energy going around. I’ve been asked by nearly everyone I come in contact with how I’m planning to handle Election Day – am I worried, will I watch the news, pay attention to social media, or steer clear and find some way to self-soothe.

I attended a group meditation on Sunday evening and one of the messages that came through in response to someone’s concerns about how to “show up” and respond this week, how to prepare for the unknown, was really profound. The meditation was led by Doctora Rosales Meza, an indigenous healer, and she said, “If you are waiting for something to happen in order to decide what to do, you’ve already given away your power.”

She’s right.

If, instead, we find a way to ground ourselves in what we know about who we are, if we set an intention to act from that place of love or compassion or what we feel about our own purpose, then there is no moment of decision. We show up the same way we show up every single day because that’s who we are.

We also talked about energy, and how destructive things feel right now, and how we can choose to only recognize destructive energy, or we can acknowledge that there is also an opportunity to create right now, to make something from the ashes, in the void that is left behind by those things that have broken apart. And I was reminded of something I teach adolescents as part of The SELF Project curriculum: namely that energy simply is. It cannot be created or destroyed, it can only move, and it moves in accordance with the environment it exists within. Meaning, that it has no preference, and it is us that assigns it “positive” or “negative” qualities, that push or pull, channel or shape it. We can stand squarely in its path or step out of its way, we can harness it to create something new or to dismantle or destroy something.

So what do I know about myself? What is important to me about me? How have I shown up, not only this year, but for most of my life? I value curiosity, courage, advocacy, listening, learning. I use my voice and my actions to make change in my immediate community wherever I can, with the intent of creating relationship. And it is in this, it seems, where my “marching orders” lie: I can continue to show up to support relationship, to remain open to new information and see where the barriers are to community. That is what I can offer, that is where my power lies, and I’m not giving that away for anything.

How are you choosing to show up? Where do you need support from others? How can I help?

Image Description: blue candle holder with lit candle sitting on a metal table top

I have been thinking a lot about rage lately. About how we hold it and offload it, about who ends up being the container for it and what it feels like and how much energy it possesses.

Rage is the product of anger and fear suppressed. It is borne of a feeling of powerlessness. In my own life, it has shown up as the result of childhood molestation, gaslighting, and a lack of agency or ability to change my circumstances. It multiplies in dark places, building on itself until it can no longer be contained, and it is this aspect of rage that I find the most compelling. It is also where I see the most possibility.

Men like Harvey Weinstein who have massive quantities of rage seek to dispel that energy at some point. No being can walk around and function while they hold that storm within them. And as women (or those with feminine qualities) are seen as the containers for emotion in our society, it follows that men like him would seek to literally insert their rage in to the women around them, the women they see as the perfect vessels to hold their rage. These kind of men tend to hold their rage as long as they can and then expel it outward in violent acts, often toward women.

We have even, in many cases, normalized that response. The Australian ex-rugby player who killed his wife and children last week prompted an outpouring of grief and shock, but also comments from men like “he must have been pushed over the edge” or “she took his children away from him” as though it was somehow understandable that a man would discharge his feelings in a way that destroys the lives of people he purported to love.

If I think about the archetypal feminine and masculine (not gender, but the qualities we have ascribed to the Feminine and the Masculine), so much of how we address our rage is in line with those energies. Masculine energy is associated with linear thinking, decisive action, control and competition. Feminine energy is about nurturing, creativity, emotions and collaboration. Our culture has embraced those notions along gender lines and it is killing us.

The problem with rage (and energy, in general) is that you can’t let it go or give it over to someone else entirely. If you don’t transform it in some way, the seeds of it will continue to live within you and grow again. It is why men who assault others don’t often stop – the issue hasn’t resolved itself. It is why some men choose suicide – often after they’ve killed others. It is why most men choose methods of suicide that are loud and outrageous. These men have embraced the notion that transforming their rage by processing it, feeling it, talking about it, examining it is unacceptable, not masculine. And if you don’t know how to morph it in to something else, but you don’t want to feel it anymore, you have to try and get rid of it. And if our culture has told us that it is acceptable for men to be outwardly expressive and show their anger, and that women are the nurturers, the carers, the containers, it somehow feels ok for men to offload their rage on to women.

The human body is not designed to hold emotion or energy. If it were, we wouldn’t have to continue breathing or eating to sustain ourselves. We wouldn’t have to find a bathroom every few hours in order to eliminate the things that aren’t necessary. When we hold on to rage, trying to contain its energy within us is destructive. It continues to ping around in our bodies and brains, wreaking havoc. Even if we think we can wall it off, it sits inside us like a coiled cobra, muscles quivering, senses alert, ready to strike.

Rage makes us hyper-focus on control – the masculine energy seeks to control others, and the feminine energy seeks to control itself. Female rage often turns to depression, anxiety, dissociation. Male rage often turns to violence. And when that energy is offloaded, it multiplies like one candle lighting another. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But it can be transformed, and until we begin recognizing the rage we carry and learn how to transform it, we will all continue to swim in it. It is and will continue to be the legacy of toxic masculinity, perpetuating physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, shame and isolation. Excavating rage, examining it, owning it, and alchemizing it in to something that can be used to build rather than destroy is freeing. When I have taken the time and done the hard work it takes, I feel free, light, strong. The space that rage used to inhabit becomes a place for hope and optimism, and the energy builds connections that end up serving the collective. It is on each of us to do our own work, but we can create a culture where the work is important and necessary and normalized for all of us if we begin to recognize the power of rage and just how much of it we are all carrying.

My last post pointed you to my friend Jen and her work that helped me set a new tone for my life. I have several pages of notes from a day I spent with her last year in a tiny little cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and every now and then when I’m feeling a bit lost, I revisit them and find new nuggets of wisdom.

Last week, I unearthed the notebook again and found a loose sheet of paper I’d tucked inside. It features just eight words, spaced out and written in sky blue pen. I don’t remember when I wrote them, but I vaguely recall sitting down one morning with my coffee, lighting a candle, and doing metta meditation to start my day. When I finished the meditation, I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote what came to me. I do this often, and it doesn’t always make sense in the moment, but capturing them for later has proven to be powerful.

Sometimes, I have epiphanies or sudden shifts in thinking that have profound effects. It’s a little like an earthquake that suddenly and irrevocably changes the landscape of my mind and heart and life. But more often, I’m learning that making substantive changes takes intent and practice. I have to embed and embody new ways of being in to my life so that they become habits, and these seven words are emblematic of that hard work.

Patience

Being patient requires me to trust in the abundance of the universe, the kindness of people, the rhythms of life. Like a surfer whose timing is off and has to watch a perfect wave pass by without begin able to ride it, I have to wait and know that it’s only a matter of time before the next good one comes by and lifts me. Once-in-a-lifetime stories are romantic and cinematic, but not really an accurate reflection of the way life works.

Perseverance

This also asks that I trust – in my own ability to keep moving, in the fact that one step will lead to another. It doesn’t mean that I have to know what all the steps are, or where the ultimate destination is, just that the next step will come and then the next and the next. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t rest, only that I listen closely so that when I’m called to start moving again, I hear it.

Passion

This word is sometimes over-used, but it is also under-rated. Being able to tap in to the things that drive me, that motivate me, that stir that feeling in my belly that excites me and makes me smile is a skill, if only because it asks that I acknowledge that those things are intrinsically worthy, that they are enough, important, valid (whether or not they lead to monetary success). I’ve been in relationships where my passions were trivialized and called “cute” or “sweet” and I learned to doubt myself, but I’m (re)learning.

People

We are designed to live in community, and many of us enjoy it, but we aren’t taught to be comfortable resting in it, being held by it, surrendering to the give and take. We cannot accomplish the things we want to do without other people, and celebrating our victories is not nearly as sweet when we do it alone. A willingness to be seen and heard and see and hear others is vital in my journey to a better life.

Paths

Not path. Paths. Plural. There is no one path, there are many, and they connect to each other. It is ok to head down one path, change my mind and veer left or right or even make a u-turn and head right back to the last fork in the road. It is perfectly acceptable to travel for a long time down one path, decide that I’ve learned all I can from it, and hop off or run as fast as I can to a different one.

Plans

Gloria Steinem said, “Hope is a form of planning.” This P brings together passion and perseverance and bathes them in hope. It gives me a place to start and a goal to strive for, even if things ultimately go sideways. As long as I remember that a plan is simply a blueprint and I get to decorate the walls however I damn well please, I can see opportunity in it rather than feeling limited by it.

Presence

This is often the hardest P for me. It requires a willingness to pay attention to what is happening, even when it’s scary or uncomfortable, and especially when life is joyful. Having learned to be dismissive of my own successes (‘humility is sexy,’ I was once told), I have to practice being intentional about noticing when I feel joy and imprinting it on my brain and my heart. Paying attention to my instinct to minimize my own efforts or hedge against jinxing myself and correcting it to bask in the feeling of happiness is a lot of work. Noting my reaction to fear or sadness and counteracting the shrinking by opening up further has only gotten easier the more I am present.
When I remember these pillars (ha! another P), I am rewarded with a sense of peace. When I slow down, envision them, act with intention to give them a place in my life, and embody them, I begin to transform the way my brain reacts to the world so that the old lessons of scarcity and bootstrapping and fear fall away.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve wrestled (well, thumb-wrestled) with something that keeps cropping up for me. It’s nothing major – thus, the thumb-wrestling – but nevertheless, it keeps showing up for me and I keep nodding at it and then moving on with what I’ve been doing.

Six days ago, I started a ten-day program with my lovely and amazing friend, Jen Lemen, that has re-surfaced all of this and put it front and center, and it’s profound and moving and scary as hell. In a good way.

This morning, I woke up and sat in metta meditation (part of the program involves saying metta every morning) on my deck. Surrounded by fragrant plants and bathed in sunshine, I opened up as wide as I could and by the time I was finished, tears were rolling down my face unabated. As is my ritual, I wrote down the messages I’d heard as I sat and texted Jen to download.

The next, very critical piece of this for me is to walk. I have access to a gorgeous arboretum about six blocks from my house, so I leashed the dogs up and we headed out. There is something about opening myself up and making myself vulnerable and then walking to the trees and sitting in quiet for a while that grounds me and lets the messages of love and compassion sink deep in to my bones.

Between my house and the arboretum is a play field and this morning, there was a t-ball game in full swing as the dogs and I approached. There was a father and son (young, maybe 4 years old at the most) playing catch off to the side, and we rounded the corner just in time to see the little boy running as fast as he could with the ball in his hands, racing on chubby legs and laughing and then he just crumpled in to the grass, his legs giving way beneath him as he rolled on to his back and giggled with his face to the sun. Then he sat up and stared down at the grass next to him, the game of catch completely forgotten. He pulled a blade of grass, ran his hand across the top of others to feel the tips on his palm, and was generally engrossed where he sat. His dad kept trying to coax him to get up and throw the ball back, come back to the game, but the little boy just sat, smiling, playing in the grass.

I began crying again. I have been falling, over and over again, for the last 18 months. Not hurting myself, not upset, just falling. And after each time, I get up and go right back to the thing I was doing when I fell.

As I watched that little boy, my heart swelled with nostalgia and longing. I remember being a kid and staying where I fell for a while. I remember the joy of it, the discoveries I made that I wouldn’t have seen if I had just gotten right back up and kept playing.

It’s time for me to let myself fall and stay where I am for a while. My body is crying for me to let it be, to pay attention, to sit in that place and be still and quiet and open up to different possibilities. I’m listening.

*If you’re curious about the program with Jen, please check out Jen’s Instagram and look for information on the Path of Devotion. She’s starting another group July 1 and it is life-changing. She is a gentle, wise guide if you’re looking to create new, meaningful rituals and rhythms in your own life, and you pay what you can.

I spent the first eight years of my life as a Catholic. Went to church, learned the hymns and the responses and the stories. Longed to have my first real Communion, marveled at the beautiful robes and pomp and circumstance. Learned about God.

When my parents divorced, even though I didn’t understand the circumstances of it at the time, I was told that we were no longer welcome in the church. My parents had been married in the Catholic church and a divorce was not allowed. I went through a period of being unmoored – for a variety of reasons related to my parents’ split – and I remember wondering, Where is God?


This morning, as I drove Lola to class, I turned on NPR and heard a rabbi ask that same question. In the wake of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, so many are trying to fit the events in to some understanding of their framework of faith. So many times over the years, I’ve done the same. I would get angry with God and turn away, thinking that no real God could ignore me simply because my parents made mistakes. I fought against the notion of any omniscient being, took a comparative religion class in college and learned about the different ideas and iterations of this being throughout the ages, in different cultures. I have called myself an atheist, a “recovering Catholic,” agnostic. All of those labels were in reaction to what I absorbed from my years in church and from my mom, who held on to her faith in God with a fierceness and tenacity I never understood.

When I finally stopped reacting and thinking about God intellectually, I was able to recognize what I know as spirit, connection. I don’t feel a vertical connection with some other being that exists above all of us. I don’t think I ever have. Intellectually, I believed in that for years – relied on it, even. But I don’t recall ever feeling it within me. What I do feel is a horizontal connection, a link to each and every other sentient being that reminds me I am part of something bigger, that I am not alone, that I am held and I hold others. I don’t have a name for it, and I don’t frankly feel the need to.

I understand deeply the question, Where is God. The need to find some meaning or framework for processing the horrific acts we humans perpetrate is visceral and the idea that there is some being out there that can hold us in our grief and pain and provide answers is often central to our ability to move forward in the face of such trauma. For now, I believe that we are it, we are the ones, and it is that connection between us that allows us to continue on. When Jewish people are targeted, those of us who are not Jewish are called upon to hold those who are, we are called upon to acknowledge the pain, feel grief profoundly, and hold tight. We are necessary to lift those who cannot walk on their own right now and carry them with us as we do the work to rebuild, affirm love, create peace. When Muslims or Native Americans or black and brown people or people with disabilities are targeted, we are called to do the same work. My connection with you is not dependent on your religious beliefs or the color of your skin, the language you speak or where you were born or whether you can hear or see or walk. My connection with you is much deeper and is rooted in something that goes beyond physical form, and that connection goes both ways, if I let it. That means that when you are in pain, I can feel it if I choose to, and in doing so, I can help relieve some of your burden. It also means that when I act with love in my heart, it raises me and you, and reaffirms that tie. When I offer to speak on your behalf when you’re in pain and you can’t, that is “God”. When you listen to me with love and care, that is “God”. When we come together to spread peace and acknowledge the worth of every sentient being as equal, that is “God”.

If the question, Where is God is in service to preventing future massacres like the one that happened in Pittsburgh or the killing of two black people in Kentucky, the only answer I have to offer is this connection, this affirmation of our link to each other. When we turn away and refuse to feel each others’ suffering, we deny the existence of this thing that ties us to each other, and we also deny ourselves the support we gain from others around us. We are supposed to live in community with each other, we are supposed to rely on each other, we are supposed to offer each other our unique gifts when we can and draw on the gifts of others as well. Call it what you will, but I think this is what will save us.

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before.