Witness

Seconds before I walked down the aisle at my wedding, I gulped and looked my Uncle Abe in the eye. “You’re gonna have to hold me up, okay?”

I wasn’t sure my own legs would carry me down the aisle. I was simultaneously melting into the floor and evaporating into the clouds. He looked at me with crystal clear blue eyes and didn’t answer. He lifted his chin a little and set his gaze at the end of the aisle. He didn’t waiver when I threaded my arm through his. I puffed out a little air to try and force myself to breathe as we walked out into the sunlight.



In the years that that followed my definition of “holding” grew to include the way my husband held me up, how I held our babies, and how a few special friends warranted an extra tight hug. Those are the times when you say so much without speaking a word.

This week my definition of “holding” people evolved yet again.

I was at lunch with friends when I sensed an emotional blowout was going to happen. It had nothing to do with our conversation. I simply knew that all the images I had been securely stuffing into a tiny mental box for months were about to coming tumbling out. I left as quickly as I could and raced home.


I saw my mother shuffle toward me in hospital socks saying, “You look a lot like my daughter!” and I saw the terrible recognition in her eyes when she realized that she couldn’t rely on her brain to recognize her own child.

I saw my hand placing my stupid Coach purse in a filthy locker before I went into the highly secure ward of a hospital addiction ward. I stole glances at the guy with the baggy jeans walking in tiny circles around the table where I sat with my mom. I stole glances at the super skinny guy with sunken eyes and his equally skinny girlfriend huddled up together at the next table. I glared a little at the nurses’ aids who seemed impossibly young and much too careless.

I strained to read my mother’s lips when she began whispering nonsense. I saw that someone had given her a dirty t-shirt to wear. I bored a hole through the table with my eyes when I felt I was going to scream at someone.

I saw kids in the admissions area of the behavioral health center, eyes cast down, followed by their parents. The parents were soldiers with faces set in stone moving like there were concrete blocks on their legs.  

I saw myself holding up my mom in and out of three different hospitals where we tried to figure out how to get her the right kind of help.

I saw stars. My eyes were shut so tight holding up my Uncle Abe at my grandma's funeral knowing that he didn't have long to live either.

I saw an angel helping my mother and me to hold my sister up as she dug her heels into the ground and collapsed in front of the funeral home where my brother's body lay.



After my emotional blowout, I felt like I had survived the best anxiety attack yet. I had seen it coming – had retreated to a quiet safe place – had buckled in and then let the images roll. It was a “good” anxiety attack because I hadn’t been afraid of the panicking itself.

I was left with a different sense of self:

When did I become the person who holds people up?

Since I have bipolar disorder, I am used to being “the broken one”. There used to be a joke in my house that no one else was allowed to have any issues because my problems eclipsed the entire family. Now I figure that struggling with mental illness has humbled me, stripped me of the illusion that I have control over life, and better equipped me to hold others.

The next time I need holding or need to hold someone else I hope I'll remember that it's not just the physical contact that supports a person. It's also our willingness to witness their story, and to have that moment become part of our story, too.



Later in the week I was challenged to take a series of self-portraits as part of a therapeutic exercise. I staged a few lovely pictures in flattering light but I knew that they weren't honest enough for me. So I took one more awkward self-portrait.



I gasped when I saw the age spots and wrinkles looking back at me, but only for a moment. Beyond that I noticed my calm, triumphant smile. I earned a lot of those wrinkles in the last few months. There was an incredibly difficult story written on my face and I was there as a witness to myself. I was holding myself.


Release

I have often talked about lessons that keep coming back to slap me in the face.

One lesson I've been learning my whole life isn't so much slapping me in the face as it is wrapping me in a warm embrace.

"Love can also mean letting go." -Glenda Green

I ignored it for years. Pretended like it didn't exist. I felt if I wasn't actively trying to influence things or people that I wasn't trying hard enough. In fact, you can educate yourself, set goals, and work like crazy to achieve them. Those are the things in life you can drive, but there are many things that we cannot influence or control. I know that seems like an obvious truth, but I don't really think I believed that for a long time. I physically tried to will things not to be true.

It wasn't until I saw someone I love trying to bend reality over and over again, that I recognized this trait in myself.

The kind of resistance we create by trying to fight things that just are can make us sick. It damages our physical bodies. It creates destructive thought patterns. It erodes our self-awareness and our self-worth.

It is usually when someone dies, that we are confronted with the ultimate lesson in acceptance. I have lost a brother, a young friend, and most recently my grandma, in two short years, so I've had some practice.

Right now, my uncle is dying and I can't do anything about it.

He's special to me because he walked me down the aisle to meet my husband under an archway of roses into eternity. He's special to a lot of women in my family because when other fathers, brothers, and husbands passed away or out of our lives, he stayed. 

He listened - a lot. He cooked for my grandmother. He was silent much of the time, so when he spoke to me I soaked in every word. He smoked cigarettes on the front porch and stared off into space. When he smoked he propped an elbow on top of his crossed legs and went somewhere in his mind.

For all the things I will never know about his life as a younger man, I know all I need to know about who he is to me. He is a constant.

Now he's sick and all I want to do is drive to Canada and have a cigarette with him. (I have always secretly felt that if I smoked next to him on the porch, I might catch a glimpse of where he goes in his mind.)





Since I can't make that happen, I'm going to say: Uncle Abe, You will not be forgotten


We were love. We are love. We will be love.

Intellectual Cul-de-sacs

I was raised evangelical. I was evangelical in the sense that every breath was a prayer. Every encounter was a chance to be a light of God. Every meal was a chance to bless the food.

Every judgment was black and white.

A little girl rides across Texas in a little truck with her daddy to a Tuesday night prayer meeting. Windows are rolled down and the dusty air whips ponytails around her face. She looks down to admire her white patent leather shoes.

I’m a perfectionist, a completist. I want to love and be loved perfectly and completely. I want a concrete, clear set of rules to follow and to confirm that I am getting an “A” in life. Also, without a vengeful God, who will punish terrible deeds? Without a plan to follow, how will I know where to go after I die?

A teenage girl sits in the passenger seat of a Ford Bronco. Her best friend is driving her home from the clinic where she secretly bought birth control pills. She feels convicted and at the same time relieved that she wasn’t caught. Her best friend senses the girl is conflicted and asks, “Do you really believe that you’re going to Hell now, Rachel?” She looks down at her grungy combat boots and whispers, “No,” but she doesn’t really believe it.

These are just two of the moments in my life that, when set against each other, serve up the perfect spiritual conflict on a silver platter.

It has taken me nearly 40 years to figure out that I determine my own worth. Period. End of story. 

What I do to enrich my understanding of humanity is my responsibility. How I treat other people will reflect back on me.

From this deeply personal struggle, I started writing fiction. I asked myself, What if the biblical Adam and Eve, the archetypes for the first two humans, were alive today? Would they be vegan hippies, Trump-supporters, or something else entirely?

My mind was ablaze with details of the world I was building for my characters. Once I decided on a setting, names, and the characters’ personalities I wrote enough scenes for a third of a novel.  Before I invested any more time on the project, I wanted to check in with an editor to make sure the story was viable.

My editor was supportive, critical in the best way, and seemed to “get” my story. The biggest problem she found with my story? I wasn’t putting my characters in any real danger. I laughed when I realized she was absolutely right. Creating back stories, jobs, and quirks had come naturally to me, but what I had written was not actually a story. It was an elaborate description – a pretty vision in which the characters were never made to suffer, fail, or face challenges.

So in my depiction of a modern-day Adam and Eve, I was keeping them safe in the Garden. I wasn’t even offering Eve the apple.



As the creator, I must see that Eve chooses of her own free will to bite the apple. She will do it knowing that she may die because of it. Without making that bold choice, Adam and Eve will remain in an infantile state of innocence and bliss. They will not progress spiritually and the story will be a vignette and not a narrative.

For those who subscribe to a religion, if a Heavenly Author was too afraid to put his creations in danger, Adam and Eve would never know what it was to be a mortal, a parent, or a creator of life themselves. They would not be able to mirror their Heavenly Parents. They would be two-dimensional dolls. 

I heard Sam Harris refer to “Intellectual Cul-de-sacs” on a recent podcast about the value of interfaith debates. He was saying that lazy people will subscribe completely to dogma and they’re done. There is nowhere to go intellectually from there.

I loved imagining the silly idea of a prehistoric Adam and Eve marching up to the edge of a modern-day cul-de-sac like video game characters who ran into a virtual wall. Then I put that vision out of my head and threw them into the den of lions. I said, “Let’s see what happens now.”


I’ll let you know when I figure it out.