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Shaking off shame

Last year, I connected with Jake Owensby’s blog, Looking for God in Messy Places. My own sense of where I find God resonates with his writing, and now I am reading his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life. In both his blog and his book, Jake writes about traumatic events from his childhood, and I am amazed at his openness.

In a memoir I recently read, the author declares that she wishes she could write openly about the trauma of her childhood, but she is not there. Me neither.

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I want to be there—that place where I can speak openly and honestly about traumatic things that happened to me, where I have moved past shame—but I am not.

Thirty years ago, I read John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, hoping it would lead me beyond shame. It gave me insight and understanding, but I was still bound by shame.

Then there was therapy for few years and a series of other therapeutic programs (retreats, family programs, al-anon, etc.). Each moved the needle a bit, but my shame is deep seated.

Shame is the yardstick by which I measure my freedom, because shame truly does keep me bound and unfree.

Looking back, though, I can see the distance I have come. There was a time when I did not even know what had happened to me. Like many children who experience trauma, I buried it deep inside and denied anything had happened.

All I knew for certain was that when I was eight years old, God saved me, that God had somehow picked me up and held me close. I had no understanding of the circumstances from which God was saving me. But I knew this one truth: God saved me.

In my twenties I realized that there was an impact from the damage that had been done to me as a child, because I could see how it was affecting the way I was living as an adult. Bad choices only begins to describe my twenties.

Chapter One in A Resurrection Shaped Life is called “Growing Beyond Our Past.”  Jake Owensby writes, “Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity” (Page 4). He notes, “We omit the messy parts of our lives” when building a resume, but that we have to “come to terms” with our past as part of a Christian spiritual practice.

I know my past helped me be more compassionate toward people who are vulnerable, especially children and people who have developmental disabilities. It also helped me know how blessed I am to have survived childhood trauma relatively intact.

Therapy, retreats, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, daily prayer and self-help books all helped me get to a place where I could make better choices and live with greater integrity.

I am still working with God in the messy places of my life, those places where I still hold onto shame—and trusting that God is continually healing me.

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Waiting for God

I know best how God is working in my life by looking back. In the present moment, God’s guidance and actions may not be as clear as when I pause and look back. So at the end of every year, I take some time to re-read my journals, and I take note of any themes or directions.

At the beginning of last year’s journal, I jotted down some quotes from Isaiah and 1 Corinthians and then I wrote, “What if I lived every moment as a God moment? As if I was waiting for God to come to my door?”

As I read those words, I was actually waiting for some friends to come to brunch, sitting in anticipation of their knock at the door.

What if, I thought, I really lived in that kind of anticipation of God’s intervening in my life?  If I knew with such certainty that God was about to show up? That God was about to knock on the door?

My word for this year is awareness and these questions seem to invite me to a deeper reflection on my relationship with God and my openness to God’s presence in my life.

  • How aware am I of God’s presence in my everyday life?
  • How attentive am I to God’s promptings?
  • How often do I offer up prayers of thanksgiving or petition throughout the day?

I want to start this new year with my focus more firmly fixed on God and the way God calls me to live. I know that will mean some changes, and I pray for the grace to be attentive and the courage to act.

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Leaning into vulnerability

I recently heard an interview with a published poet. When asked about a poetry slam she had attended, she suggested that aspiring poets would benefit from reading poetry—”good poetry,” she said. She went on to suggest the same for writers of any genre—fiction, playwrights, biographers, etc. To improve one’s writing, she asserted, one needs to read what others have written in that genre.

Interesting idea.

Most of my reading is fiction. Occasionally, I will read a biography or historical fiction, and sometimes poetry, but the vast majority of my reading is fiction.

And, as much as I love to read fiction, I write nonfiction.

So this playwright’s comments about reading the genre that I write highlighted a disconnect in me. Her comments stayed with me for the next few days and I felt invited to look more closely at my reading habits.

In my twenties, I read some non-fiction, mainly self-help books, and I found books about adult children of alcoholics to be very helpful. But other nonfiction did not hold my attention. I remember reading The Road Less Traveled, by Scott Peck, and thinking, “I could have written this.”  He was telling me things I already knew, so what was the point of reading his book?

When I visited the l’Arche community where I would eventually live, I was carrying my copy of Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. I was about a third of the way through when I arrived. One of the assistants remarked, “Don’t bother reading the rest. You will be able to write it after you’ve been here a month.”

“A woman after my own heart,” I thought, although I did eventually finish reading the book.

As I pondered this disconnect between what I read and what I write, I had an aha moment.

By nature, I am a rather strong person (I am an eight on the Enneagram), and I tend to avoid vulnerability. The basic premise of self-help books is that I need help—that I am vulnerable.

Similarly with books about spirituality—reading them implies that I need help with my spirituality, which I know I do. But, for some reason, I am resistant to reading the very books that might help me.

Each book about spiritual or emotional growth invites me to lean into my brokenness and vulnerability, to let go of the façade of strength that I wear as armor, and I resist.

For many years, I felt God was inviting me to write about my spiritual life and the ways God has blessed me. I was resistant. And then a friend asked me to ghost write spiritual reflections for him. It was the perfect way for me respond to God, and I loved sharing how God had blessed me. After eight years of ghost-writing, I had the courage to start this blog.

Now it seems that God has expanded the invitation to include not only writing about my blessings, but also reading how God has blessed others.

Gift of Faith

Red Tent Living

A friend recently invited me to a talk at her church about keeping faith during difficult times. I had a work conflict so I could not attend, but I commented, “I could give that talk.” “Oh, yeah,” she responded.

Nine months after my friend Jim died, I gave a retreat talk on gratitude. I shared with a group of about forty women how my faith not only sustained me while I took care of Jim when he had brain cancer, but that my faith enabled me to be grateful. “Every day, we laughed, and every day, we were grateful,” I told them.

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Becoming courageous

“I want to be you,” a volunteer at my work recently said to me.

“Me?” I asked incredulously.

I admire your courage and kindness,” she said.

Over the years, I have told other women that I want to be them. These are women who embody the virtues I aspire to—patience, compassion, kindness, wisdom and self-acceptance. I want to embody those same virtues.

So when I heard these words being said to me, I was surprised.

I suppose most of us carry around images of ourselves that focus on our insecurities, where we see ourselves falling short and not living up to our own standards, let alone expectations others might have. I know I do.God-wisdom-courageI used to move a lot and hanging curtains was one of the first things I did to help me feel settled into my new place. I remember after one move, a woman at work asked how I was settling in and I told her I had my curtains up so I was in good shape. “Who hung them for you?” she asked, knowing that I was single. “I did them myself,” I replied with both a tinge of incredulity that she asked the question and also a sense of pride. She considered hanging curtains rods a challenge.

But, I have been in my current house for five years and only last week put up the last of my window treatments. I was nervous about drilling into the plaster wall. Drilling into wooden window frames is easy, but plaster?

I googled installing curtain rods in plaster walls and then I called my brother for further assurance. He concurred with the You Tube video.

So I charged my drill, mustered my courage, measured and began. I even used the level to make sure the rod was straight.

The finished product pleased me.God-wisdom-courageWhy had I been so resistant? So fearful?Even though others may see me as courageous, I know my inner fears. I know how I can be paralyzed by the smallest thing (like putting up curtain rods).

When this paralysis strikes, I wonder if it is a matter of accepting my limitations or being challenged to overcome a fear.In my early thirties, my therapist encouraged me to do things scared.

Act as if… my therapist advised me. We had been talking about my fears, and there were many. He suggested I act as if I had no fears, with the idea that acting as if would lead to a change in behavior, that my fears would disappear.

I was doubtful, but it actually worked, and each time I did something that frightened (or even terrified) me, I gain confidence.

From another therapist, I learned is to ask, What is the worst that can happen? In most circumstances, the worst is not so bad. (In the case of curtain rods, it would mean some repair work before reinstalling.)

Doing things scared and weighing possible outcomes have helped me become less fearful and more courageous.God-wisdom-courage

 

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Lessons in letting go

“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.

“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.

But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.

I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.

At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.

When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.

I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.caregiving-vulnerability-forgivenessWhen I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.

In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.

“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.

Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.

Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

 

 

 

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Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

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