How Not to Commit Suicide

Sometimes, late at night, I

understand how someone could make that choice.

i, myself, have been so

close, have walked that fine line between here and the hereafter, suicide note folded neatly

in my purse, while my inner

demons duked it out with my inner angels. “This life is intolerable” my demons argued. There is no way back, no way forward, no way out.” My inner angels

empathized with their brothers’ pain. “No one should ever have to feel this bad. Ever. But there’s something you don’t know. When you are in this dark place, you can see no way out. That does not mean it’s not there. It just means your vision is clouded. You need to update your eyeglass prescription, get rid of that mirror that distorts everything you see, minimizes your beauty and maximizes your flaws. Wash your windows. You’ll be able to see out, and know the world is bigger than this dungeon that holds your heart hostage.”

I listened to the parties continue their discourse. It lasted for weeks, as I hung on by a mere thread.

I was thirty-five, with three small children. They needed me, and yet that was not enough.

The demons were in desperate pain and threatened to take me down with them.

My will to live fought back as I angrily railed at life for throwing me into a perceived dead end, with no room to even turn around.

“You are not right,” my angels told me gently. “Your brain is not telling you the truth. There is a way out. You just can’t see it yet. But the choice is yours. There will be no divine intervention. Might we respectfully suggest you call a friend, ask for help, get a second opinion?”

I went to therapy one last time. I sat on the floor, couldn’t even look the therapist in the eye. She sent me to the hospital. Three weeks later, I discovered that the Dead End sign had been posted directly in front of a forest path. It was overgrown, and not well maintained, but it was a path, nevertheless. It was slow-going and challenging at first, but persistence, loyal companions, and many, many teachers brought me finally to a place where the going is easier, the sun often shines through, and where some days, I am even able to touch joy.

Two decades later, now happy and healthy, with grown-up children, I think about that suicide note. It was heartfelt and poetic, attempting to capture in three paragraphs all the lessons I wanted my children to learn, lessons that I wouldn’t be around to teach them. I eventually threw the letter out. The irony does not escape me that the only words I remember are: “Never give up.”

I give thanks every day that I decided to follow my own advice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maternal GPS

I was struggling recently. You’re shocked, I know. Specifically, I was struggling with childhood issues stemming from uneven parenting. I prefer “uneven” to “dysfunctional”, because it allows for the good things that did seep through, speaks to the paradox of sometimes good, sometimes really bad that occurred during my formative years.

I have gotten to the point where I can hold two truths simultaneously, one in either hand: 1) My parents probably did the best they knew how, AND 2) I did not get what I needed.

I have been angry. I have been grieving. I have been astonished and awestruck, both to understand the extent of the damages to my psyche, and to acknowledge the inner strength I must possess to have become (at least on my good days) a (mostly) functional adult.

I am at the point where I need to choose how to move forward, both in grieving for my parent who has died, and in reassessing my relationship with the one who is still living, renegotiating something that will meet both my needs for connection and for self-protection.

In the midst of this painful process, I stumbled across a letter I wrote to one of my sons a couple of years ago, as he awaited acceptance/rejection letters from law school. As I reread it, I realized it could be easily applicable to any one of my children, and then, HOLY COW, it might even secretly be a letter to me, that older, wiser, inner parent part of me, speaking to the younger, tender, deeply wounded little person who still longs to hear that she is ok and worthy of love. I share it here in the hopes that it might resonate with those of my readers, my pseudo-siblings who got cheated out of a “normal” childhood (whatever that might look like) and are struggling to be adults without having the solid underpinnings of unconditional love that are our birthright. It’s kind of long, my apologies. I guess it’s just an example of what happens when I hand my pen to my heart and get out of the way.

“Dear Son,

Sorry the waiting is so hard. I know this will sound extremely dorky, but it can’t hurt, right? You can envision yourself opening letters of acceptance. In my mind’s eye I can see you walking to the mailbox, opening a letter, and it has big, red, felt-tipped handwriting that says “Yes!” (You may choose your own font.)

At the very least, it beats stressing about the possible noes. They may come, but that way you won’t be miserable until they do. I in no way mean to invalidate how hard this is for you. Truth be told, I am slightly anxious too, but more in a good way–wherever you land, it will be better than where you are now, and I am excited for you, for your next steps, for your new future, for the wonderful person you are and the amazing person you are continuing to evolve into. I know that the people you will champion in your new line of work will be deeply blessed by all that you bring to the table. Right now, it’s just a question of which table.

When I say I’m proud of you, I’m not proud in a “hey, look at me, I did a great job, and check out the result” kind of way. It’s more like: “Look at that man, and he’s so awesome that the love I feel won’t stay put quietly in my heart, and it’s too big to fit inside, and holy cow–that man’s my son!! and I’ve been blessed to witness his journey and sometimes be a guide, and even though he’s had to overcome so many obstacles, he still is kind, and thoughtful, and generous, and compassionate, and intelligent, and beautiful, and talented, and perservering, and loving. And that’s a miracle. And I am grateful for the blessing of you, to have had the privilege of sharing your life.

Today I am rearranging my office, gearing up for a new phase, and noticing, much to my chagrin, how much it bothers my sensibilities when my books are not lined up by height. Sigh. I guess I couldn’t hope to be my parents’ daughter and come away unscathed. But, truth be told, also blessed–my eclectic vocabulary, organizing skills and above-average intellect are gifts, though, as my father once admitted to me, smart is fine, but isn’t as important in the long run as kind.

And you are both, and so many other things as well. I am crying now just thinking about what a treasure you have been and continue to be in my life, and even if you end up practicing law in Zanzibar with no internet or phone service, my heart will always find you, ’cause that’s just how it works when you have kids, and you love them, and you try hard, and you get some stuff really right, and you get some stuff really wrong, and a lot of stuff in-between, but you just hope that it was enough, and you’re proud because even though it was harder than anything you ever imagined you could do, you somehow managed to pull it together and never give up, give way better than you got, and you hope that if your kids can do the same, give better than they got, and their kids too, maybe in six more generations no one will need therapy anymore ’cause they’ll just know how to love each other and be caring, and loving, and kind, and fun, and responsible and consistent, and flexible and tenacious, and they’ll know from the get-go that they are already good enough, and they won’t have to spend so much time and energy trying to prove that to themselves and others.

So back to my original point of that unintentional run-on paragraph, which is that wherever you land, I will find you, my maternal GPS system will tell me which direction to stand so that my love will flow out and make its way to your heart, and course through your veins, and the sound of my voice will whisper softly in your ear–you are loved, you are blessed, you are enough.”

And I’m a little embarrassed, ’cause this is not the email I planned to write, and I thought about not sending it ’cause it might seem too corny or overly-emotional, but then I figured you get to decide what to take in, what fits, what feels right, and scrap the rest of it.

So, um, back to my to-do list, which is mostly the business about dealing with bad checks left over from December.

Ma Dukes”

 

 

 

How to Fell a Tree

 

Have your eye on a tree.

Consider carefully, is it really dead?

 

Gather your tools.

Gather yourself.

Study your tree.

Take some time.

Observe—the trunk, the width, the breadth,

the twists and turns.

Consider the wind.

Be still.

Give thanks—for oxygen, for shelter, for shade, for beauty.

 

Set your course.

Consider the angle.

Aim true.

Make your first cut.

Be gentle; do not rush.

Recalculate.

Tenderly cut some more.

Reassess.

 

The tree is still dead.

Your angle is true.

Take a risk.

Commit to your angle.

Breathe.

 

Thoughtfully, calculate your second angle.

This one’s higher than the first.

With sadness and gratitude, dig in.

You are now committed.

There is no turning back.

But remember, the tree was already dead.

It’s still dead.

Doing something different will not save it.

With sadness and gratitude,

finish your second angle.

 

Remove the wedge you have created.

You have made space.

Removed the old, readying the new.

Take a break.

Observe your handiwork.

Keep breathing.

Regard the wind.

Study your flight path.

Calculate your third angle.

Resume your labor.

Take your time.

 

Pound in a new wedge.

Ease the tree past its tipping point.

Make another stroke.

Stand aside and wait for gravity to do its work.

Your part is done.

 

Watch your tree fall.

Feel the rush of wind.

Inhale the quick, sharp movement.

Honor its strength.

Marvel at the power.

Let your heart well up with gratitude for all this tree has offered.

 

Mourn the collateral damage.

Gather strength from the knowledge that you have done your best.

Remember that the tree was already dead.

You did not kill it.

You merely hastened nature’s course.

Give thanks–

for oyxgen, for shelter, for shade, for beauty.

Things Not to Worry About

I don’t know about you, but I catch myself worrying far too often, and usually about inconsequential things. If it is true that our brains can only hold one thought at a time, then why do I spend precious moments worrying about all sorts of improbable scenarios rather than focus on the joy, and light, and beauty that is right in front of my eyes?

At this very moment, for example, I am writing from my dining room, where the sun is shining brightly, warming up my back and neck, a balm after the chilly weather we’ve been subjected to this week. I can see my outline reflected on my computer screen, and in this outline, (which is gentler on the psyche than a real mirror), it looks like I’m having a good hair day and am wearing some pretty cool earrings.

My silhouette is framed by a bright blue sky and the nearly-barren branches of my favorite backyard tree. This tree fools us every year. We think it’s dead, and then, in its own way, in its own timing, it suddenly bursts into bloom and fills the yard with fragrance. Even in the winter when its leaves are gone, it stands tall and reminds me of what strength looks like.

The light gradually shifts, and suddenly a rainbow illuminates the paragraph I’m writing. (The light also illuminates all the fingerprints and smudges on my screen, but today I’m choosing to ignore them.) The furnace kicks in and I raise a mental “thank you” for a warm house and enough money to pay the heating bill.

Stephanie Pearl McPhee, in her book—“—“Things I Learned from Knitting…Whether I Wanted to or Not”, gave me a good laugh today. In her chapter, aptly titled: “Don’t worry, be happy” McPhee lists “5 things WORRYING NON-KNITTERS HAVE WARNED ME ABOUT” :

  1. Knitting needles are very pointy. I could put out my eye at any moment.
  2. If I were knitting while in a car and there happened to be an accident, I could be impaled or even killed by my own knitting.
  3. If I am not very careful, I or someone else could become entangled in my yarn and be unable to elude or escape danger.
  4. If I am a victim of a crime or terrorism, my knitting needles could be grabbed and turned against me as a weapon.
  5. If I’m sitting and knitting in the presence of children, one of them could run into my knitting while playing and be impaled, have an eye put out, become entangled, or, heaven forbid, all of the above. “

When I read the above list of worries, it puts my own mental loop into perspective, and I just shake my head and laugh at my silly old self. I don’t need to shame her, she’s just doing the best she can, and old habits die hard.

Speaking of habits, did any of you make new year’s resolutions? Mine were pretty simple this year: Honor my gifts, and …something else that I can’t remember at the moment. Maybe the worry got in the way again, I wouldn’t be surprised. But I’ll choose to be amused. I’m sure it will come back to me when the time is right.

 

 

 

 

Final Exam

Last night I had the mother of all school anxiety dreams. I dreamt I was taking a final exam for a college class. President Obama was the instructor. It would be an essay test with only a few questions, so each question was worth many points; the stakes were high.

As the President started dictating the questions, I noticed that people around me were speaking so loudly that I couldn’t hear. Then I noticed with alarm that I had nothing to write with, or on. I frantically searched everywhere for a writing instrument, asked fellow students, left the room in search of the proper tools. All the while, the other students had written down the questions, and were starting in on their answers.

I searched in storage areas—every pen I found didn’t work; every pencil melted or snapped to pieces when I tried to use it. I found my favorite pen, but someone who was drunk had messed with it, and it just left ink on my hands. I wandered the streets, getting farther away from the classroom, desperate to find what I was looking for, frantically trying not to get lost. I needed to be able to find my way back. Someone showed me an enormous display of high-quality art supplies, extolling their virtues. I grew frustrated and impatient, and bellowed in exasperation: “I don’t need to create a work of art, I just need to find a PENCIL!”

I am aware that most of the students are finished taking the test, and not only have I been unable to find anything to write with—I STILL DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE QUESTIONS ARE!   I know there’s no way I’m going to finish this test on time—maybe I can take an incomplete, finish the test later, and just mail it directly to the White House?

I had really hoped to do well on this test. I respect the President, and getting a good grade from him would mean a lot to me. I start to wonder—was I even registered for this class? I don’t remember ever going to any of the lectures. I’m not even sure what the subject was.

Mercifully, I finally wake up, stumble downstairs for coffee, and remember too late that I forgot to buy half and half, so coffee is pointless. Against my better judgment, I let myself get distracted by the morning news—I don’t know what makes me feel worse—Hurricane Sandy’s swath of destruction, or the thought of another awful week of mudslinging prior to the presidential election.

I eventually wander back upstairs, glance haphazardly at my email, google Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, realize I haven’t left enough time for breakfast, dress quickly, and head out–late again–for therapy.

I am still out of sorts from my dream, and mad at myself for getting distracted and arriving late. My therapist encourages me to take a few deep breaths and settle in, but I’m having none of if. I recount my dream in great anguish, and find myself crying in the middle of the telling. What is wrong with me? I come to the end, and finally get a glimpse of insight—about running around in circles and never getting anywhere, about how painful it has been to watch the world run by me this year, while all I could do was sit on the couch watching out the window, or take long naps.

I surprise myself by stating firmly and unequivocally: “All I want to do is read, and write, and teach and heal.” Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of psychotherapy, giving ourselves the gift of time, a safe space and a captive listener where we can hear our soul speak up from time to time.

It isn’t until much later in the day that I remember my reading from the night before. In “Hands of Light”, Barbara Brennan discusses her pathway into the field of energy healing. “I had never heard of such a thing, nor was I interested in illness. What I was interested in was the way the world worked, what made it tick. I looked everywhere for answers. This thirst for understanding has been one of the most powerful agents guiding me throughout my life. What is your thirst? What is your longing? Whatever it is, it will carry you to what you need to do next to accomplish your work, even if you don’t know what that work is yet.”

 So there were the questions I couldn’t hear for my final exam—“What is my thirst? What is my longing? The answers—“I want to read, and write, and teach, and heal.” And what do I need to do next to accomplish my work? Apparently it’s as simple as finding a working pencil.

 

Theology in a Box of Crayons

“When was the last time you were really happy” read the writing prompt. And I was immediately transported.

Five years old, a box of round crayons from my grandma–was she there for my birthday? I don’t remember. But the crayons were many, more than the eight or sixteen usual ones, and the container was round, stiff and sturdy with a lid.

Something about it was magical. It stretched my idea of what was possible. Forty-eight magnificent colors, so much unencumbered possibility. What might I draw with these? What fun might I have? Who would stop me?

And they were mine, just mine, for me, not to squander over other people’s needs and feelings, nor to hand over indiscriminately out of pity or martyrdom or knee-jerk caregiving.

To use or not. To color my own life, so that I wouldn’t just be left with dreary shades of beige or gray, dusty, muted tones that never captured the depth of my own beauty. At five I somehow still knew that the colors were all mine and that that was ok.

It wasn’t until later that I started giving all my colors away. Or having them taken by force.

At seven I wrote my grandma a letter. The pictures, I said, were drawn in pencil, since my dad had taken our crayons away until Christmas, still three months away, after my three-year-old sister made the mistake of being a normal toddler and drew in crayon on our shared bedroom wall.

In an angry meting out of punishment I was made to pay for her “transgression”.  And we both paid a price. An early reason why the idea of substitutionary atonement no longer rings true for me.

At fifty-seven, I again own my own crayons, sixty-four this time, and they remind me that while it’s nice to share, it can be ok, necessary, in fact, to hold back something for yourself.

Jesus’ well-known commandment, to love our neighbor as ourself, holds out self-love, rather than self-hatred or self-sacrifice, as the gold standard by which to measure our love for others.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but perhaps it is true, that the surest route to a peaceful world is to learn to truly love ourselves first.

 

 

Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.

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