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.
"Where is balance in your life?" the question is our homework assignment from the circus lessons coach. I've considered my answer and I'm happy with it.
I am seen, known, and loved for who I am. I dwell in my close relationships with my husband, son, and besties. I enjoy my home. My daily routine generates only a minimum of stress for me. My life is safe, secure, and stable.
Rooted in this place of comfort and warmth, I'm reaching out, stretching, and challenging myself. The vital tension between comfort and growth is how I'm balanced.
At 45 years old, my heaviest weight, and lowest level of physical fitness, I'm enrolled in circus lessons and enjoying them. I just received my A1C (blood sugar) test results - my highest/worst numbers to date. So, J and I have embarked on a focused and intentional diet to bring my blood sugar back within healthy boundaries and maybe shed some pounds in the process. I'm walking in the evenings, inconsistently but persistently. I'm tending to my body, my physical self care and presence, in new and supported ways.
I've planned a solo adventure. In October, I'm attending the Evolving Faith conference in Denver. The ideas, experiences, and emotions of how one's spirituality and/or religion may change over time is one of my passionate interests. Ultimately, I'll be traveling alone to meet and engage with strangers, pushing through the membranes of my introversion.
It's been almost a year since I created and hosted my first retreat. It went smoothly yet it left me exhausted and sensitive to all the areas for improving the event. It also reminded me of how much I value and enjoy small gatherings of women talking together about substantive, real-life, heartfelt topics. This year I'll host more of these group conversations in my home, starting with one this month. And, I'm revising the retreat for a new participants.
There are more ideas for stretching still percolating through my mind, but this is where I'm balancing, today. It's a vibrant, creative, growing space between the comforts of home and the unknown out there.
In a joyful ceremony, with friends and family, J and I were married.
We gave special attention to including young N in the ceremony. J made a commitment to N to love and support him as step-father and friend, with care not to replace L. We made promises as a family, in addition to our vows as a couple.
N also received a simple silver band as a symbol of the family the three of us make together.
Then the party! A picnic reception with plenty of food and cake for all.
I've enjoyed coloring since I was a child. As an adult, it's taken on a different feel and purpose. When I scroll through my old blog, there are intermittent posts of completed coloring pages, filled in at night at the kitchen table, waiting for Baby N to wake up for a feeding or some comfort, until I could finally go to bed. Now, N is a tween who needs different things from me, and I find myself again at the kitchen table coloring.
I color to soothe my nerves and clear my head after a day at the office and the commuter traffic. I color because I enjoy the final product. But there's something else easing its way into my little hobby. I color to restore some of my own vibrancy. I'm re-membering my creativity.
Granted, filling in a pre-printed page with markers isn't a unique expression of self or anything. But it does offer some foundational elements for developing creativity. I mean both concrete things like choosing colors, establishing patterns, practicing technique with a tool, and intangibles like getting into the “zone,” perceiving something familiar from a different perspective, and engaging imagination and ideation parts of the brain. I’ve missed these parts of myself during these seasons of personal drought.
Coloring again feels to me like planting and tending my creativity. Coaxing it out of dormancy. Bringing it up into my life.
June Moon Visionary Art free online coloring book
Dover Publications offers a diverse array of coloring books
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've been sick for about 2 weeks now. I'm not as sick today as I was a week ago. I'm back at the office. I'm holding things together. But weighing me down more than illness is Little N.
He's angry. Every evening after school. Every morning when he wakes. At me.
When I pick him up from school he swears at me and flips me off, calls me names, teases me about my weight, tells me that I'm dumb, erupts at anything I say, any move I make. When he rises in the morning he bellows for me to get up and starts issuing demands. It's near constant. It's exhausting. It's wrong.
His anger is justified but misdirected and abusive. He wants to be with his dad. His dad has moved out of state. He blames me. For everything. All day.
I don't know how to correct him. To let him feel his anger, get it out, and treat me with respect, all at the same time. The questions stew and stir in my mind and my heart.
I feel like I've lost my son. To his anger. To his father. Will I, how will I, reclaim our relationship? Is there any coming back from this?
There's a line in an Ani song, "We never see things changing, we only see them ending." I hope that this is the pain of things changing. And not the grief of an ending.
this has not been my most healthful, most productive week ever. it was largely a week of recovering from the visit with my mom. well... our relationship makes me tired and sad. so much of what is most significant to me seems to be insignificant, or even negative, to her. and, at 43, i still don't have the words to tell her these things.
so i keep the peace. i let the unspoken words collect in my throat. and when the visit is over, and mima has returned to her home, all those thoughts and feelings splutter up and out, sour tasting and slimy.
i document it all in my journal. what i heard from her, how it felt in the moment, what i think about the same topic (which is largely antithetical to her point of view), why i didn't say anything. i notice the shape and weight of what i didn't say. i sketch it out to try and understand the differences between us and the history that keeps me holding my tongue.
my siblings, though more alike to our mother politically and culturally, have had similar challenges expressing their own points of view to her. they get labeled rude or ungrateful or worse when they talk back. even at our adult ages. but then, they tend to lash out in anger. none of us have found a polite respectful way to say what we think and be heard. each of us have experienced the backlash in some form or another.
i believe that my mother loves me. i'm not sure that she likes me very much. her comments tell me that i'm too fat, too grey, my home isn't ordered properly, my boyfriend isn't her type, my city isn't her culture, my beliefs about spirit are wrong, my faith in friendship is misplaced, my dreams are best left in the past.
so what would i tell her? now that she's gone and the words are still with me.
first, these things are my own - my health and appearance, my home and 4 sets of measuring cups, my sweet thoughtful boyfriend, my cosmopolitan liberal city, my spiritual-but-not-religious soul, my steadfast precious friends, my dreams for creativity and vocation.
second, i am enough and whole as i am. i don't need or want the persistent comments and critique as if i don't measure up to some ideal that i don't even subscribe to. i don't need to be saved. i don't need correction, lectures, exhortations. i'm not interested and the constant comparison is distracting and draining as hell. i am enough.
third, accept me as i am today. see me. value me. let me be. encourage me in the things that are important to me.
fourth, give me space to speak my words. please, pause the monologue. grant me the room, the airtime, to speak up with a clear head and open heart.
it's pretty common to have a challenging relationship with one's family of origin. it's a familiar phenomenon to all get together and start acting out the roles we had in the family back when we all lived together. when we were children. i think maybe my mother is stuck at a particular point in time, which i have grown past. like, maybe she doesn't recognize me now because i'm not the same girl i was back then. mom has often said that she has to be mother and father now that my dad's passed. but i don't really need that kind of parenting. i'm looking to be seen and heard as the adult me, who i am, enough and whole, today.
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:
I thought about calling this post "part 1... of infinity" because I think that there are that many opportunities to catch a glimpse of and understand self-care. Because I think that there is that great of a spectrum of what self-care means. For now, I'm starting with what I'm learning in therapy sessions, naturopath visits, and my inconsistent, fumbling practice to take care of myself.
For a long time, I believed that this is what self-care looked like - the gentle drowsing in a hammock. Decompression. Rest. Recovery from the work-week or workday. Checking out from responsibilities, roles, and relationships.
I still maintain that going slow, for me, is part of self-care. And... my work with the naturopath tuned my ears to hear something else. Self-care is also doing the good, even challenging, stuff that I don't feel like doing. It's taking action now, and again, and keeping it up, using my calendar, smartphone, gold star stickers, rewards-along-the-way, falling-off-the-wagon-&-getting-up-again to develop the healthy habits that care for my body, mind, and heart.
Weekly sessions with my new counselor harmonized with the naturopath's voice in my head. My counselor calls it, "a life worth living." It's a concept I've been toying with for years. I even own a book titled Creating a Life Worth Living. I've been moving this book into every new apartment, setting it on the shelf, staring at the title, and not reading it. I so want a life worth living. I haven't any faith that I can have it nor imagination of what it looks like.
Until, maybe, now.
When my counselor talks about a "life worth living" he's referring to a life that embodies my values. He points to "self-validating" actions that make me feel good just for doing something that embodies or reinforces one of my values. Then he requires that I get concrete in my answers as to what those values and actions are.
For example, I was recently diagnosed with "metabolic syndrome." It's the All-American coexistence of truncal obesity, high cholesterol, borderline high blood pressure, and pre-diabetic levels of blood sugar. I'm a stroke waiting to happen. It's discouraging. But! I value health, vitality, active longevity. So! I commit to and practice the new habits that align my body with my value. That means taking on some challenging and occasionally boring new behaviors that I don't always (or maybe ever) feel like doing. In fact, right now, at the starting point, they feel like more work and not like the lounge-y self-care of my daydreams.
Fortunately, I have a smart, supportive care team - the naturopath, the counselor, a nutritionist, and even my son and my ex-husband. Together, these folks provide me with the information, accountability, and motivation to get my actions in line with my value. With their help, I'm exercising to a sweaty degree, refining my diet to cut sugar and increase fiber and nutrition, drinking gallons of water, and generally incorporating daily habits that demonstrate and embody the value of my health.
Today, it's a heavy lift. Change is hard. Change that requires me to plan and adopt new activities within my limited schedule - feels impossible. I'm already worn out, how can I possibly be expected to plan meals, cook new recipes, log a food diary, work out... and not reward/appease myself with sweet treats and vegging out! How can I truly care for myself and inhabit a life worth living if I don't make these changes? I dust off my calendar and find the time to take care of myself in new ways. I practice mindful breathing during my bus commute. I prepare and pack healthy meals to eat at the office. I pull on my gym clothes as soon as I get home and start moving along to the work-out video that makes me sweat heavily and laugh at myself, too.
Change isn't just repopulating my schedule with healthy activities. It's also reassigning value to different things in my mind. What's a sweet treat in the post-sugar lifestyle? What's relaxing after raising my heart rate to a beet-red-face level? These are new delights to discover and enjoy. Even the idea of work as self-care is a new idea for me to unpack and understand. And that illuminates other areas of my life and other values I say are important to me: creativity and play, connection and compassion, community and service...
I still love the feeling of being held in a gently swaying hammock. Maybe in six months (or two years...) I'll love the feeling of a hot work-out after a day at the office. For now, I'm clumsily, reluctantly, grateful to my care providers for the gift of a new-to-me way of doing self-care.
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: