My Christian faith started evolving 25 years ago, but the kernel or promise of change was embedded in my heart since childhood. The catalyst for my transformation was the fire of grief, which cracked me open and left me exposed. Community, in the form of women’s friendship and wisdom, tended me, planted me deeply in cool soil, and gave me room to grow.
My father died when I was 18. I was in college at an Evangelical Christian school. In the following year, I attempted suicide. My family of origin slid into a state of alienation from each other. I was angry and bereft, rude and out of control. I struggled against everything and everyone.
Something essential in me prevailed and was witnessed. Other women saw it. I received compassion and insight from female professors at the college. They brought me to church, a woman-lead Episcopalian congregation. They taught me about feminism, new-to-me theologies, women’s perspectives and experiences conveyed by women authors in narratives and poetry. I learned about the entanglement of Christian religion with colonialism. I reached out and met other female students wrestling with the same ideas and stretching into their own awakenings. I prayed and played with God alongside the guidance of an eclectic and faithful spiritual director.
Among the many books I read, were Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Those two books depict the life of Bertha, the first wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. He locked Bertha away as a madwoman, but before she met him she was free, roaming a lush paradise, beholden to no man and no other way of being. Ultimately, Jane Eyre tells us, Bertha burns down the house that is her prison, and her life ends in the flames.
This character captured my imagination as an icon for the divine. She was a depiction of God before and after men’s language and power structures locked the divine into dogma and authority. I started to perceive and honor the divine as the “Madwoman in the Attic.” I composed a story about hearing Her in the house made by men and sneaking up to her door.
After college, I struggled in the ways that many recent graduates do. Adjusting to the independence and responsibilities of an adult is challenging. The community that I’d known was gone, each woman to her own place and work and relationships. The books remained but a group that lived in response to those words, perspectives, and visions did not exist. There was no “there” there. I yielded to daily life. I found connection and fun with new friends. I misplaced the vitality and piercing perception of my early twenties. I harbored the icon of the Madwoman in my heart and lodged myself on the threshold of her room.
A few weeks before my thirtieth birthday I moved across the country to Seattle for graduate school. It was my fresh start, far from my family, my personal history, the church I grew up in, the politics I did not subscribe to. The Madwoman resurfaced in my graduate studies and occupied a central role in my thinking and writing. As I drafted my thesis I heard Her call. She did not reveal Herself to me in the upper room of the house, which I had hoped and expected. Rather, She bid me retrace my steps and meet Her in each person I met as I traveled back down through the house.
I had received a call. I had conviction and vocation. There was vitality and vision, again!
Within a month of receiving approval of my thesis, I married. Within a year of marrying, I gave birth to a son. Not long after that, I recognized that the marriage was over, but it was years before we separated and the divorce was finalized. Those were lean years of providing the single source of income for our family. Those were committed years of tending my mental health with therapy and medication. Those were learning years of finding spiritual community in a group of pagan women. I considered it a tentative descent from the Madwoman’s attic.
I am 45 years old. I’ve returned home to Seattle from Evolving Faith ‘19 and the Madwoman’s call is renewed boldly within me. Perhaps she is more precise, now, or perhaps my ears have cleared to hear. She says, “Perceive me in everyone you meet. Everywhere. Do not be bound by walls or ways or words. Burn down the house.”
I don’t believe that God is crazy. Nor do I believe that God is locked in conventional theology, dominant culture, or approved religious practices. Burning down the house does not threaten God, just like composing other narratives or engaging new-to-me theologies or participating in previously unfamiliar communities doesn’t threaten God. Burning down the house might set me free to meet God, newly; to honor God, newly; to meet and honor you.
There’s still no “there” there, for me. I don’t have a local community that I can simply join for resonance and support, teaching and service. I miss that. I understand, now, the best parts of a house of worship. Even so, I proceed. I am making it up as I go, one step at a time, down from Her attic and into the company of Her people, who are everywhere.
I’ve been learning and inconsistently practicing new habits to improve my health in the last couple of years. My naturopath, desperate to get through to me, once asked me if I wanted to “be here.” As in, did I want to be alive. I took the question home, thought and journaled about it for a week or so, and decided that yes, I want to be alive.
I wanted to be alive for my son, especially. Now, I add to that my partner and future husband. My friends. My garden.
Do you see the pattern there?
It’s a small and personal world that I live in and live for.
I wonder, is that really enough to make my life worth living?
See, I was raised an Evangelical Christian in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century. And while individualism, trickle-down economics, and oat bran bear no resemblance to the Gospel, somehow religion was tangled up with the contemporary culture. In the midst of the dissonance, the religion identified itself through symbols of personal piety like, proscribing sex outside of heterosexual marriage, campaigning against abortion and anyone associated with them, and conflating the AIDS crisis with the so-called "abomination" of homosexuality.
But the text of the gospels, whether taken as a summarized whole or proof-texting parts, doesn’t provide a lot of instruction on personal matters. Rather, it dwells on issues that affect the collective and show up publicly. Issues like poverty and greed, genuine hospitality for society’s outsiders, and otherwise living one’s life in contrast to the dominant culture’s power structures and definitions of worth.
As a child, I accepted the faith and its religion in earnest. But disconnects between the words we said as a congregation and the way we lived in our homes and daily lives, occasionally broke through and concerned me. Those concerns developed into a heavy tension as I matured. If the spiritually faithful were in action unfaithful, what was the point of the faith? If the congregation lives according to the prevailing culture rather than its proclaimed savior, which demonstration of their faith is true? Ultimately, I judged culture the winner in this competition.
It was a relief. I cut loose from the tension. I freed myself of the obligation to follow Jesus’ example. I chose values like personal security, private property, physical health, and my immediate relationships.
But Jesus’s life, and that original tension, hovers around me.
Jesus didn’t preach about raising children, saving for the future, or delaying death through proper nutrition and daily exercise. Those things are cultural and they still matter to me. So I don’t measure up to his example. I’m making no effort to measure up and simply won’t. Is there a way to live within the tension of the dominant culture and the example of Jesus? Something more than financial donations and social media posts denouncing the powers that be. I really don't know. In the meantime, maybe I can register some faint shimmy on the Richter scale of practice. That, to me, is the path to a life worth living.
Here is Little N with Slim and Brother Justin enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning.
It was such a leisurely Sunday morning that I got to sleep in until 8-ish. We stayed at J's Saturday night after a 4-hour playdate with G and her family. Pizza and a movie later and Little N was sound asleep. Only to rise early, with the cats, and then J, while I slept on. happy sigh.
Happy too, to note that N's behavior toward me improved a little after a call with his dad. N heard that he was going a little too far in his treatment of me and some of his classmates. He is still impatient and quick to anger, but he's eased up on his verbal abuse of me.
So we enjoyed a playdate with G's two boys. We enjoyed hanging out for the evening at J's. Little N put down the iPad and enjoyed imaginary games in J's house, which he wishes was ours. He enjoyed pizza, a raucous movie, sleeping in a big bed by himself, with maybe a cat or two. And I enjoyed my son.
It's a beginning. It's a sign, I hope, that we're in a change. I anticipate bumps. I'm seeking additional support in the form of a counselor for N. And I'm holding onto my hope of N learning how to manage big emotions, like anger, like reactions to change and loss. Holding onto my hope of knowing my son throughout this transition and continuing our relationship, on good terms, on the other side of this.
I haven't been writing here in a regular way for ages. Real life occupies my mind, time, and energy so much. Here's what I'm doing now:
What is my problem!? I wondered, from the midst of a low day. I scribbled my way through it, through the lens of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).
My "problem" isn't my brain - at least, not in the same way as - my emotions. Big. Overwhelming. In-My-Body feelings. And in response to those big feelings I do something. Usually something unhealthy, or in DBT-speak, something Ineffective.
It's Ineffective because it blocks my route to my Goals. My Goals come from my Values. Although... these days it feels like my Goals are being adopted and incorporated from the naturopath and my dismal health numbers. It feels a little backwards. My Goals are actually determining my Values. They're good Values - Health, Longevity, Fitness. They just didn't start in me.
Priorities and Values can change with time and circumstances and new or renewed insights. For a long time, with L, my Value was survival. While at my last job it became Interpersonal Effectiveness. That continues in my current position, though I have some mastery of it now, relying on my good manners plus prompt response time. But the Naturopath and my numbers indicate that my Value needs to be Physical Health.
I've never been an athlete. And it's a very long time - 15 years or more? - since I felt strongly connected to my body. I do experience my strong emotions in my body. But then I tend to do something external to try and change how I feel emotionally. Eat. Smoke. Watch TV.
Mindfulness, I guess, is the tool or skill for acknowledging the big emotions in my body, then letting them pass, while I remain present in my body. In my senses and physical sensations. The Wise Mind process is how I sort out what's going on and choose actions that are Effective for body and emotions. Effective for my Value of physical health.
And... this scribble suggests... my Value of Emotional Integrity...
Some people surround themselves with things that are pleasing to the eye. People like my mother prefer matching colors and complete sets. Furniture. Window dressings. Appliances and silverware. I appreciate that life when i visit but it doesn’t feel like home to me. My biota is much more a random collage of select things that inspire and move me, planted in the practical stuff of getting through each day. I’d like to call it an authentic life but really it’s me clinging to any meaning and vitality I can find.
My bedroom houses a collection of books, stacked on narrow shelves and teetering along the edges of rare flat surfaces. Not because I’ve read all the books but because the books tell me, just by being there, that someone has made some sense of some particular topic that means something to me. They hold the promise of meaning. They offer a glimmer of inspiration
Today, i sit in doldrums. Winter in seattle is a palette of grey-sky days and early deep dark nights. Daily life is a trudge through obligations and responsibilities. Structures that I must abide like rent and bills, grocery shopping, social etiquette and deference to authority. My office job is mundane and riddled with “powers that be” who must be pleased and satisfied. My body is fat and sedentary. The little time that is mine is so often lost to sleep. Recover from the work-week. Not because it engaged me but because i endured it.
Is it me? Is there something wrong with me? That my daily life, and thus the span of my days alive, is so… meh. Where do other people find the spark of life?
I think that’s why we hear so much about gratitude and the “little things.” i think that’s why so much emphasis is placed on family, in this culture. To the point of declaring “friends are family,” as if friends weren’t precious enough on their own. These things are where we, as a culture, have assigned meaning. Are they not meaningful to me? Are they not enough?
I think it’s also the contrast of “Zowie! Pow! Kazaam! I’ve figured out some big things!,” in my twenties versus “I’ve got to figure out how to make ends meet and parent my son,” in my forties. Those twenty-something big things are barely relevant to my daily life now. And they were big significant things like feminism and social justice and life-giving theology. But how to build a daily life, that pays the rent and raises the child, and embodies those big things, today?
So I look for inspiration, capture it in a word or image, tack it up on the wall, return to it, again and again, like worship. Photos of my son. Images cut from magazines. Poems and quotes. Cards from friends. All stuck onto the wall together.
This collection of artifacts tells a story. Once upon a time there was a woman who felt her life didn’t matter. So she drew close to herself things that signified mattering. She stood before them, imagining they made a mirror, reflecting what mattered in her life. Rather, they were a projection, like movies cast from film and light, issuing the promise of meaning into her and her days. She could live the life depicted in the pictures. The answers were right in front of her.
Really? Can I really live a more vital and meaningful life - beyond the to-do lists and the collage on the wall? Are the answers right in front of me?
I've been in therapy for the last seven years. And I think I'm burned out on it. I'm tired of talking about myself. I'm tired of listening to a therapist's perspective, questions, and suggestions. I want some quiet in my mind. I want some time to synthesize what I've heard; practice what I've learned. I want a pause from all the chatter.
This is a tricky decision to make, because I'm just coming out of a funk and still really struggling to do the daily self-care that my body needs. But that's just what I want to do - the doing part of these years of learning.
I expect that my therapist won't be keen on the idea. Maybe the naturopath won't be either. I believe that they see their work, together, as support for me to do the doing and since I haven't been consistently doing it maybe that looks like I need more support.
But it doesn't feel like support, these days. It feels distracting and disrupting. It feels like one more thing I have to do for someone else - keep an appointment. It feels inconvenient and, due to a billing error, suddenly expensive. A break, a pause, looks so freeing and open.
So what do I want to do with this pause that will make it worth the risk of declining my practitioner's support? How will I make this work for me? I'm drafting a routine for myself to include the daily practices necessary to heal my body and sustain my emotions and mind. Here's some of what that entails:
Tangled up in all this striving for good health and self care is something about my beliefs about myself and my life. Am I worth taking good care of? Do I want to be alive and for a long time? Is my life worth living and my work worth doing? Depression says, No. And again, no. Over and over until I'm too tired to resist and I yield to believing that the answer is always no.
It requires a vivid imagination and a good sense of humor to say, Yes.
The world is a big and chaotic place and I am small and, yes, meaningful, in the midst of it. My work as a secretary and as a mother is repetitive and mundane, and yes, it's worth doing well. My body is temporary, already bearing the toll of the years and, yes, it warrants persistent care and tending. Yes, because my tiny life touches other tiny lives and we matter to each other. Yes, because good is worth doing and being for each other. Yes, for laughter. Yes, for beauty. Yes, for comfort, sanctuary, and justice. Yes, for remembering important things and returning to them with the passion of awakening for the first time. Yes, because connection is real. Yes, because where there's a breath there's a hope. Yes, because I am here, now.
I don't and probably won't always remember to say, Yes. My imagination falters and my humor is pretty dark. But deep in my gut, where intuition and faith reside, yes simmers and bubbles up to my memory. I make a fresh list, again, of how I choose to live. I start to practice, again, the routine that heals me. And I look for the reminders of yes.
Those reminders, for me, right now, aren't revealing themselves in my therapy appointments. That might be the biggest reason to take a pause from sessions. And seek new places and people who say yes.
"Hold your heart in all tenderness. Something healing this way comes."
- Jen Lemen
These words have been on my heart a lot lately. Because they are beautiful and hopeful. Because there's so much that needs healing - in my body and my heart, in the bodies and hearts of people I care about, in this country, in the world...
To me, these words are an invitation to be softer, compassionate, unguarded and vulnerable. Open to pain, my own and others'. Faithful to myself and others in the midst of severe trials. To accept hope and healing, to believe that it is coming. To carry hope and healing into my relationships. To be one who bears hope and tends others as they heal.
It's been a long time since I've felt myself to be an open, compassionate person. Post partum depression and the end of my marriage rendered me harder, less emotional, disconnected from other people and myself. The last couple of years, and moving forward, have been about my healing in terms of reconnecting and re-membering myself to those parts and practices and tending their life and expression. Lately, I find myself invited to engage with others, beloved friends, with depth of feeling and healing presence. These invitations challenge me to be the best version of who I am today and to keep growing into someone tender, attentive, and tending.
My dear friend's health crisis is one of the invitations I'm accepting right now. Losing faith in those dark hours last week is probably what rose this quote to my mind. It reminded me of how to show up and who to be when life is so very hard. It reminded me of who I am.
A few weeks ago I finally settled on the idea and accepted that there is no unifying meaning to be made of life the way it is. The lessons of my childhood and a spiritual walkabout through Neo-Paganism and Wannabe Buddhism all fell away with a clattering clumsiness confirming their unreliability. This very prospect of accepting the emptiness had followed me for years, threatening to unravel my tenuous and tentative commitment to life. And in this moment of acceptance it called to me again, with a bellowing vow to suck me into a void where nothing really mattered. Where I and my love, my Little N, didn’t matter. But I held my ground.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed in my bright little room, I spoke softly to the emptiness inside of me. "You can stay with me. I'm not running from you anymore. And you can speak with me. I'm not afraid of your noise and words. I understand you a little better, now, and you are precious to me."
The emptiness is valuable. It reminds me of my agency. I can choose how and what I assign meaning to. Like some sort of spiritual anarchist, I'm declining and refuting the religious law and order that defined how I became who I am. I retain a hermeneutic of love, grace, and justice as my lens on life, but I reject the prescribed social order and the shoulds of personal piety, of judging our neighbors, of accepting and yielding to an unjust social, political, and economic status quo.
There’s no inherent meaning, for me, no obvious goodness or rightness, to the way Western society is ordered. It’s not God’s Law that we live in heterosexual legally married nuclear families, that we prioritize private wealth and comfort, that we amplify a narrow view of individual morality over a broader view of public health, economic and environmental sustainability, justice for the marginalized and the poor, that we define those in need as “deserving” and “undeserving” of aid and support… It goes on. It’s all been better said and sometimes solved by folks wiser, more experienced, more effective than me. But it bothers me. And the religion of my upbringing hasn’t helped any of it get better.
The same critique applies to my personal life. There’s no inherent meaning in my marriage and divorce. It doesn’t mean anything that my ex-husband, L, now lives with me and Little N as a roommate and my partner in parenting. I assign no value nor criticism to my leaving home and my birth family to pursue my education and plant myself in a new place with new people in my life. There’s no particular meaning to rejecting the religion and politics I come from. There’s no particular meaning to my current financial struggles and career anxiety. These things just are, and I get to choose what sense to make of them.
It’s easy to wax on about the big bad world out there. And it’s easy to hunker down into my tiny personal world. The common theme in both scenarios is my choice. The ordained law and order is an illusion. It’s refutable. It’s synthetic. I can and must choose something true in order to keep going in my life.
The search for something true sends me right back to the prophets and good teachers who have walked this path before. I’m thinking of guides like Buddha, Jesus, and even today’s pagan teacher Starhawk. Their words, lives, and choices, illuminate true things for me about non-attachment to stuff, people, and notions, drawing in the marginalized, supporting the weak and the poor, heeding, tending and defending our home planet.
In some ways it would be easier to yield to the illusion and accept the myth of a divine law and order that structures our public and personal lives giving us meaning and righteousness. But that doesn’t ring true for me and my life. It doesn’t fill the emptiness and it never has.
Back in November, I posted that Samhain to Imbolc would be a season of sitting still with the life that I live. Oh, but I am a wriggly little worm. Much of this dark season has been resisting the life that I live. So mundane. So uninspired. I've been looking ahead to a season of action on resolutions.
I came across the above image in my Facebook feed and it did inspire me a little. I'm thinking a lot about my health. About managing my weight, getting a grip on how I feel before reaching for food, about how I want to feel, and about the things that I enjoy, that feel meaningful, and that make me feel connected. This colorful image opens my lens on health to include all of those aspects and their interconnections. Plus, I read a quote (also in my FB feed) that basically said we overeat not because food gives us pleasure, but because it doesn't give us enough pleasure. I hunger, really, for pleasure, happiness, good relationships, a sense of the presence of the Divine, meaningful work. In the absence of these things I reach for a chai tea latte and a cheese danish and head back to my job.
This season of action prompts a long list of To Dos in order to reach for the full health that I want and need. Eating healthfully. Moving my body in a way that's enjoyable and repeatable. Playing with my son after work each night and reading to him before bed. Checking in with friends for Mama-dates and ritual. All things that I am capable of and have done before.
And - this season of action calls for discrete inactivity. Sitting. With my journal. With my life. Recalling and recounting my blessings. Perceiving the fissures in the mundane where the special and inspiring whisper through.
Out of the Attic
This blog started in 2006
on Blogger as
Out of the Attic.
I began posting here in April 2014. Please visit the original site for the rest of the story on topics like: