No One is Looking

October 13, 2016 – at home

I’ve been thinking lately about how I’ve viewed people and places and myself.

I used to get very excited about the prospect of going to certain places, very excited. It seemed to me that going to [fill in the blank: a fancy restaurant, a big city, a special event] would take me to a different plane of existence, that somehow I’d be different, at least during the experience, only to find the places to be quite ordinary and myself the same. Then all the excitement and emotion would come crashing down, and I experienced a low of depression, disappointment, and bitterness. I felt foolish to have been so excited, only to be so disappointed. This low was so unacceptable, so unbearable, I determined not to get excited about things, about going places or participating in special events. It wasn’t worth it.

This has led to a certain numbness on my part. I observed way back in junior high the sort of rollercoaster existence I had. I hated being sad and depressed, and feeling, and decided that if I didn’t let myself get too happy, I wouldn’t get too sad. I learned to, as Jane Austen labeled it, exert myself. Self-control. This is how I learned it.

Still…

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I see images of elegant people in elegant places, (sitting with Don Draper at a bar)…

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or cool people in cool places, (any hipster sitting in a coffee shop, working on a laptop). I am tempted to try to be like these people. But I am old, round, and very inelegant. I will never, and never would have, fit the elegant image. But the coffee shop? I think, “Hey, I could…I could go sit at Starbucks with my laptop.” But I see the lie. Yes, I could go. I could, what? Pretend? I could pretend to what? Work? Create? Pretend to have a reason to be there? To what point and purpose? To be seen? By whom? Why? Anyone who sees me is not going to think, “She’s cool.” They’re not really going to see me at all. NO ONE IS LOOKING.

What is it I really admire about these people? They have lives. Or they seem to. Don Draper belongs in a bar. Hipsters belong in coffee shops. They have reasons for being where they are. They have lives.

Where do I belong? I have a life. It may not be much worth observing, but I have it. And it’s a waste of time and life to think about taking my laptop to a coffee shop so as to be observed by some nameless stranger.

I say I don’t care what people think, but apparently I do.

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The Other Shoe

I grew up in an alcoholic home. If you know what that means, if you have a clue what sort of dysfunction automatically accrues to that sentence, I’m sorry. If you don’t, I will try to elucidate for you. Growing up in an alcoholic home means that no matter what you do, it’s never good enough. You cannot earn good things, or good treatment. Good things might happen, but it will be random, unpredictable, and eventually you will have to pay for it. Happy camping trip? You’ll get in trouble and get beat because pine needles and pitch got on a sleeping bag. Nice time at the beach? Now you’re in trouble for bringing sand into the car, and letting yourself get sunburned. It goes on and on, any time something good happens, something worse follows. It becomes clear that while good things come to other people, they will never come to you because you will never be good enough. That’s what it’s like.

Well, that’s only part of it, but it’s a big part. It’s the old one-two punch, you get suckered every time. One shoe drops, hey there are cookies and milk on the table for an afternoon snack! Smack! You dropped crumbs on the floor and forgot to put your glass in the sink. Maybe they weren’t your crumbs, you were careful, maybe your brother swished his crumbs over to your side, and moved his glass to your place, so even if you did take the glass over, it looks like you didn’t. But no one will believe you, cuz you’re a liar. “You’re exaggerating. You say your stomach hurts every time you drink milk, but it doesn’t hurt when you have cookies, does it? It doesn’t hurt when it has chocolate in it. You just don’t want to obey your mother!” SMACK!

When you get older you have learned the lesson well. You’re not good enough and never will be. You spend a lot of time and effort pretending to others that you are good enough to have friends, good enough to have nice things, good enough to be happy, but deep down, you know perfectly well, it’s a lie. And when good things do happen? Guess what? Can you be happy in it? No. It’s scary. It’s DAMN scary, because you know you don’t deserve it, you know you’re going to have to pay for it. You wait for the smackdown, wait for the other shoe to drop. And sometimes you make it drop.

You’ve finally gotten on top of the bills?

Speeding ticket.

Friends, actual friends, want to go out together?

Panic attack keeps you in bed.

You don’t deserve peace, you don’t deserve friends. LOSER!

It took a long time for me to see this pattern. It took a long time to be able to see it, to discern this was happening, and to look at this whole business of DESERVING happiness. I guess my Catholic Christian reality is: no one deserves to be happy. Yet, it is God’s will that we should be happy, to have joy, to have life, and that abundantly. “Deserving” happiness is a worldly construct. It has nothing to do with the Word of God. Yet, for those of us who grew up in alcoholic or otherwise abusive homes, it’s a very big reality. And it takes the Holy Spirit to change that reality. Walking in the Light.

I kind of have to laugh at that phrase, walking in the Light. For many years, that sounded like a death sentence. I did not want the Light shining on me, showing everyone how unworthy, how wretched I am, what a pretender I am. (Like that’s some big secret that God doesn’t know.) Yeah, He knows. And He says walk in the Light. Today, walking in the Light means something completely different. It means walking in all the Truth. And part of that Truth is that being happy, having good things happen to me, is in point of fact God’s will for my life. Yes, sometimes life sucks, but He is with me in the suckage. AND He is with me in the goodness too, in the joy.

If you know what it means to grow up in an alcoholic or abusive home, and you too live in that state of non-existence, pretending to be okay when you know perfectly well you’re not okay, if you too have ever dropped that other shoe and sabotaged God’s blessings, do not despair. He’s not mad at you for it. He is not like our parents. He really, truly, wants us to be happy, even though we don’t deserve it. And when you are up against it, holding that shoe, getting ready to drop it and precipitate the smackdown, pause, just pause, ask God how to do it differently this time. Talk to Him about it. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask. Ask. And let God help, let God give you joy, and peace. It’s okay. It may still be scary, but it’s okay. I promise.

A Puzzlement

A week has not gone by that I haven’t taken this problem out and fiddled with it, like some mental, emotional, spiritual, sociological, physiological, psychological, theological Rubic’s Cube with too many facets and variables. How long has it been?

We met in junior high, and were pals all through high school. You dated my brother. We roomed together in college. We were the best of friends. You were Ethel to my Lucy, though you were always way smarter than me. I thought we’d know each other forever. I found a certain fearlessness in myself, knowing you’d always be around to help me figure things out. I had visions of our children falling in love and marrying, and our two families would be related.

But then you eloped. You moved away, out of state. One day we were roommates, then you were gone. You married a GI and lived far away, but still came back to be my matron of honor when I married the church organist. Our families were never close, you moved a lot.

Your marriage didn’t last, mine did. The church I attended sort of imploded, and I drifted back to the Catholic church, but I missed you. I missed being able to talk to you about things. You always helped me sort things out.

We stayed in touch, a little. But every time we met I could see you were unhappy. Always striving, always saying you were ‘doing better’, but I never knew what you were coming back from. Allergies always took a toll, I knew. But there was something else, some sadness, some something I could never put my finger on.

How long have I wrestled with this? When was it you came to me to ask my permission to marry another woman? When did you first confess you had been deeply in love with me, and ran off to marry Victor because it became apparent I would never return your love?

I think I can finally put that Rubic’s Cube away now, because it doesn’t matter. Even if I could make it be alright in my head, I can’t make it be what it never was. I thought we were best friends. You thought we were sweethearts.

Stupid is as Stupid Thinks

An incident on another blog has brought up a painful memory for me, from the other side of the room, as it were. Someone overheard themselves referred to by a child as ‘the fat aunt’.

I’ve never said anything about this to anyone, and I’m sorry if it offends, that is not the intention. This is more about exposing my own stupidity in an effort to walk in the light.

In an office where I worked most of us weighed more than we would like. And there were some morbidly obese coworkers. A couple of them couldn’t make it up the stairs, and were accommodated with desks on the first floor. I never said anything, of course. I just kept them in a box in my head, to one side, believing I was not judging them, because I never said anything.

One day I found myself heading back from lunch with some others, following behind a woman whose legs were stiff and bloated, her ankles were the same size as her calves. This was something more or other than obesity. But the thought that floated into my head was, “Why does she wear her legs like that?” The absurdity and stupidity of that thought hit me like a glass of ice water in the face.

“Wear them”? WHAT.THE.FUCK!?! Why does she WEAR those legs? Are you kidding me, Ann? You think she chooses to have those legs? How much of her life is wrapped up in living with those legs? How much time does she spend at the doctor’s office because of those legs and whatever it is that makes them like that? How much of her time, money, and effort goes to living with whatever it is that makes her legs like that?  

I wanted to sit down right there in the hallway and let this whole thing permeate my mind and thinking. How many other people had I so stupidly judged? I, who had always thought of myself as kind and generous. Instead I had to keep walking, go back to my desk and keep working, but that thought has rung through my head ever since: how fucking stupid I can be.

Meditation: Old Threads

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on when, in your heart you begin to understand: there is no going back?”

–Frodo Baggins

These words from one of the closing scenes of the movie Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, (LOTR: ROTK), the final installment of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the classic trilogy, brought a wrenching reaction in me I did not expect. Having read the books many times over, I was prepared for Frodo’s dreadful choice at Mount Doom and the many poignant partings. I came to the theater adequately supplied with tissue. What I didn’t expect was to have it hit home. I felt like I’d been sucker punched.

I suppose we’ve all survived something. We all have markers in the landscape of our lives, ‘before’ and ‘after’. Whether it is the death of a loved one, a serious illness or surgery, or simply a change of jobs or relocating. Much of my survival stuff surrounds a spiritually abusive, cult-like church. I’d been a part of the group for 20 years. Married and raised my children in it. When it collapsed, all in a day, I was left stranded, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically. It took almost ten years of spiritual numbness to even begin the recovery process. The beginning-of-the-end of numbness came in December 2001, with the opening of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.

Like millions of other fans around the world I had waited and watched, logged on to my computer every day to seek out new images and updates just hoping the movie wouldn’t be as disappointing as earlier attempts had been. I was not disappointed. After my first viewing, I wanted to immediately buy another ticket and see it again. (I had to wait until the next day.) I watched it repeatedly in the theater (37 times). I listened to the soundtrack 8 hours a day at work, and regretted having to take off the headphones to go home. The themes and characters became my daily bread and companions. I had never, in all the years of reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s great work, ever seen the spiritual images that now leapt off the screen. I was seeing new aspects of Christ with each viewing. The music alone often moved me to tears, remembering the tenderness and fierceness of Christ’s love for me.

In coming out of that abusive, cult-like church, I heard a presentation by David Clark, well-known exit counselor. Among other things he said that when a person comes out of an extended period of trauma, such as kidnapping, or an abusive situation, such as a cult, they find themselves emotionally, mentally, psychologically and in many other ways, at the same place they were when they went in. That is to say, no growth or development takes place while in that environment. So, at age 50, I found myself picking up the threads of my life as it had been at age 20, when I first got involved. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever feel ‘normal’, or at least whole and healthy again.

LOTR: ROTK evoked emotional responses from the audience almost from the beginning. Sniffles and even weeping could be heard throughout the viewing. Faramir’s desperate charge played against Pippin’s haunting song “Edge of Night”, the death of Theoden, to name a couple.

But as Frodo wrestled with the memories of his ordeal I thought, as I sat in the theater watching it for the first time, ‘I am likely the only one in this audience that is reacting to that particular line’. Later I was talking with someone who mentioned the universality of many of the scenes, and how so many of them could impact any one of us. When I next viewed ROTK, and it came to that scene, I remembered what my friend had said. I pondered how others might view this.

War veterans came to mind, especially WWII vets. I just thought how they had gone to war, young men out of school, fresh faced, and innocent, and into the horror and chaos of battle. Then, when it was over, they came back and were supposed to go back to ‘normal’ life and be their old happy selves. Of course, today we know how extraordinarily difficult that was. Yet, they were expected to pick up the threads of an old life and go on, with little or no recognition of, nor accommodation for their trauma. I’m not sure much has changed, though I think we at least recognize the struggle.

Then I thought of all those who have lost a loved one suddenly, or multiple family members to car accidents, floods, fire, and other catastrophes, even divorce. I realized we all have seasons in our lives. Dark times we must pass through, and even not-so-dark times, like going away to college or on an extended journey that takes us well out of our comfort zones. These things change us in ways we could not have anticipated. I didn’t feel so singular anymore, and it was some comfort. However, few could identify with twenty years of captivity and mind control.

Then I thought: what was it like for Jesus to go back to heaven?

He had just spent 30+ years in a male human body. He was betrayed by one who was supposedly His friend. While it’s true He knew all this was supposed to happen, that can’t have made it any easier. He prayed, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me…’ He was not really too excited about dying, especially at the hands of brutal Roman soldiers. As Sabatini wrote, “A man may not fear to die, and yet be appalled by the form in which death comes to him.” If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the images of His suffering are vivid and haunting.

However, once it was over, ‘finished’, I wondered, how did Jesus feel going back to heaven? Did His sojourn among us change Him? How did He pick up the threads of His old life? Like Frodo, His wounds will never fully heal.

So this has become my prayer ‘How do I pick up the threads of an old life…’, for I know He understands.

Church on a Hill

Laura had, and presumably still has, rheumatoid arthritis. I did not know what that meant, back then. I just knew she moved rather oddly and expected to be in a wheelchair by the time she was twenty-five. But that seemed ages away, and I figured that whatever ailed her, there’d be a cure by then. She had long, lithe fingers and could play the guitar and read music, or at least a chord chart, which was more than I could do. She told me the patron saint of musicians was St. Cecelia, and she wore a St. Cecelia medal.

Laura, Jessica and I were in Camp Fire Girls. Actually, they were in Camp Fire. I was invited to Jessica’s on a Tuesday evening. She asked me for two dollars, which I handed over. She handed back a card and said, “Congratulations, you’re in Camp Fire. Raise your right and repeat after me….”
Those two, along with most of the other girls in the group had been together since grade school. We were all in high school by this time, and it was called Horizon Club instead of Camp Fire, but it was still Camp Fire. I earned exactly one bead, a big purple one. Laura and Jessica both had lots of beads, of course, because they’d been in so long. Being in Camp Fire was probably one of the coolest things I ever got to do. We had a couple of field trips and stuff. I got to be a counselor at Day Camp. I never got to go to or be a counselor at the regular summer camp, but I went to the fall reunions for counselors, which was pretty cool. All in all, it’s a good memory.
But, three is a crowd. I’m not sure now what the relationship between Laura and Jessica had been prior to my being around. I just know that Jessica thought I could walk on water. Laura was too sensible for that, but we were good friends. They were both way smarter than me. They both had read a lot more than I had. I was a good reader, but my reading had not been directed since I left Catholic school. And when we came to California, we stopped going to the library. So the only books I read were school books and a Fifty Famous Fairy Tales book I purchased for myself at the grocery store. Then one day one of them loaned me a copy of The Hobbit. It was wonderful. Then Jessica tried to tell me about The Lord of the Rings. At first it sounded boring, not at all whimsical like The Hobbit. Eventually she wore me down and I decided to give it a try. I was right. It was nothing like The Hobbit. I got bogged down at The Old Forest (Chapter 6) and stopped reading for a long time. Then Jessica said to just skip to The Sign of the Prancing Pony (Chapter 9). (It’s funny now, because it was like I needed permission to jump ahead. Of course, without her input, I would not have known where to jump ahead to.) Anyway, once I met Strider, I was on my way. It’s weird. I fell in love with Strider. I guess other girls fall in love with Mr. Darcy or Willoughby or some character from a romance novel. But there was just something…something…about him. It would be decades before I understood what that something was.
****
One day Laura took me to visit an empty church building. She wanted to adopt it. She wanted to see Latin masses celebrated there, and maybe run a day-care center from the basement to help pay for it. It was a white stucco, chapel-looking building sitting on a hill surrounded by suburbia, very picturesque. I think she wanted to call it St. Cecelia’s.
***
As the years went by, we all graduated from high school. Jessica went to college, I didn’t. Well, I took a few classes, but I was very intimidated by the whole business. I don’t remember if Laura went or not.
For a while, Jessica and I got an apartment together, not far from the University. It was a strange time. We were such good friends, we talked long into the night about all sorts of things. Jessica had a cleft lip and palate. She had about two dozen surgeries from the time she was born til I met her. I guess it was more than annual. Today, they do things differently, but her mom was determined to have Jessica look as normal as possible. But every time she had surgery she had to stay home from school for months at a time because her mother was concerned about infections. Again, today we know this is unnecessary. Anyway, she did lots of home schooling before it was fashionable. And in her spare time she read through the family’s encyclopedias. Yeah. So anyway, she didn’t do a lot of dating while we were roommates. But then neither did I. We just hung out a lot. There was this one guy, I forget his name, but I think he wanted her to marry him and move away, or maybe just move in with him in another state. She told him no, saying she didn’t want to leave her good friend. I figured it was just an excuse not to get involved with him, you know. But it was kinda flattering.
***
I don’t quite know how to introduce the topic of my virginity. I figured it was gone anyway, so there wasn’t anything to preserve. So, first chance I had with a decent guy, there it went. Greg. That lasted 3 or 4 months. It was interesting, I’ll say that. He worked at the same hamburger joint that I did. He was sort of homeless though. He roomed here and there on the wrong side of town. He called himself a derelict Mormon. I guess he’d been on a Mission and…I dunno…something musta happened. He had decided he could not be a good Mormon until he had done all the things he was trying to get others to be saved from. Or something like that. So…that’s when I first toked up. I think I did hash too, but I don’t really remember. I watched him do coke and heroine. Actually, I helped pay for the heroine and watched the transaction take place in the bathroom of this crummy little house. [One of our co-workers was a heroine addict. She called it horse.] And I dropped him off at a place where he was going to do some LSD. Very sixties, incense, black walls, no furniture to speak of, lots of cushions on the floor, strings of beads instead of doors. I believe he also tried sex with a guy. But once he had completely polluted himself, he went home to his parents. I never heard of him again.
After that, I went to confession and started going to Mass again, at St. Francis in mid-town. They had a 5:15pm Mass every day and I went whenever I could. There was no music, which suited me, because guitars at Mass still seemed strange to me, much as I liked to sing. Then there was Paul. I stopped going to Mass. Paul ended a few months later and I started back to church. This went on back and forth for a couple of years. There was David, the Jewish ex-Navy guy who could bench press 425, Steve, the marathon runner with a degree in Russian history, Gordon the car salesman. I forget the rest, but there was about a dozen altogether, I think.
One day, during a church-going phase, I happened to be in a little Bible book store. It had a coffee house in the back. It was actually early evening and there were quite a few people coming in. Turns out, this is where a choir was rehearsing for a church nearby. [Why they were not rehearsing in the church I never knew.] It had been a couple of years since I sang in the high school choir, so I wanted to hear their sopranos first before I offered my services. The conductor was a short, round guy, but very well dressed. One of the sopranos was being very possessive so I kinda guessed maybe that was his wife or girlfriend. He sorta looked married somehow. I ducked back into the bookstore and asked about the choir and so on. Then I casually asked if the choir director was married. The girl behind the counter positively shrieked with laughter. Billy!!?! MarrIed!!?! HAhaHA-AHH!! Billy couldn’t even spell sin, much less commit one!” Now, I thought it rather odd that this girl equated marriage with sin, but no mind. With that roadblock cleared, I went back to check out the competition. That tall soprano could carry a tune. She was hitting the pitches, which obviously pleased Billy, but she was a tad shrill, and a little breathy. Good. And she was chunky and way taller than him. Good. (He was about my height.) And she wore glasses. Good. She had long pretty hair, but so did I. Between songs I introduced myself and asked to audition. Billy said sure, during the break. I forget what I sang, but I was a shoe-in.
Well, turns out what he really needed was an alto. No problem, at that point in my life I had a three octave range. So I alternated between 1st and 2nd soprano, and alto, depending on the need. As long as there was another alto for me to follow, I was fine. I had no idea where the church was or what kind, but I figured singing in the choir wasn’t the same as joining the church. And it didn’t mean giving up being Catholic, as near as I could tell, according to the new rules. I just wouldn’t take communion unless the preacher guy said the right thing about the bread and wine actually becoming the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It just seemed to me it all boiled down to transubstantiation. I had completely forgotten about apostolic succession. So…next Sunday, guess where I was? In that little stucco church on the hill which Laura had wanted to adopt.