Narrative threads

In Michigan this year, winter had stamina.  It seemed to begin way back in October and continue halfway through April. The temperatures were low, the snow banks were high, the skies were gray, and all felt bleak.

My daughter once informed me, after I had been an English teacher for well over a decade, that when nature imitates the mood of the story, literary critics refer to the phenomenon as pathetic fallacy.  

We see it all the time in literature and movies: rain falls during funerals, the sun shines on parades, lightning flashes and thunder claps as the evil villain hatches his plan.  Writers use the setting of a story to create mood and to signal for readers how they might feel about the action of the narrative.

Sometimes it seems to happen in real life, too.

As the winter wore on this year in all its bleakness, and as circumstances in the narrative of my life unfolded, I took my signal from nature and wrapped myself in gray.  I didn’t see any buds on trees, any new growth in my garden, or any other signals from nature that I should hope.  I saw the earth hunkering down under the weighty blanket of snow, and I hunkered, too.  I wrapped myself in crocheted afghans, drank cup after cup of tea, and waited for the earth’s axis to tilt once again toward the sun.

Some moments, I didn’t believe it would. I felt we were stuck in winter forever. Storm after storm raged. Winds blew. Temperatures dropped. The world outside was harsh and unforgiving.  I had no reason to believe that we would ever again see tulips sprout from the earth.

I didn’t, of course, spend the whole winter under covers. I did what everyone who lives in the north does in the winter. I slathered my body in moisturizers, layered on clothing, pulled on boots, hat, gloves, and coat, and trudged into the elements. Day after day after long, cold, dismal day, I drove over slushy roads, stepped in salty puddles, and scraped icy windshields. The cold gray weather was both real and symbolic.

The problem with pathetic fallacy — with letting the setting signal the mood — is that you can lose your frame of reference. All winter I was shrouded in gray, so all of the action in my narrative seemed to take on that hue. Now, to be honest, my life narrative is cluttered at the moment with conflict and unresolved tension. Villains too numerous to list are executing evil plans and threatening to harm those that I love. However, in the midst of the gray of winter, I failed to see that simultaneously, a parallel plot is unfolding — one in which battles are fought and won, victory parades are held, and loved ones are reunited.

All. is. not. gray.

It’s been hard to see that — what with winter lasting so long. It’s been easy to fall for the fallacy — the mistaken belief — that all of life is cold, dark, dormant.  In fact, I have over the last several months been pathetic — filled with all kinds of emotion. I have leaned in and felt things that I have not allowed myself to feel for a very long time.  I have cried and yelled and moaned because I have looked fully at one strand of the narrative. I’m not sorry; I needed to see it. But guys, winter is gone.

I have a rhubarb plant outside my back door that peeked through the soil on my birthday at the end of March. Since then, it’s been slammed with winter weather — snow, sleet, wind, and rain — and still it is thriving.  My garden is a bed of weeds, my yard is a mole metropolis that is sorely in need of raking and mowing, but the sun is shining, and all I can look at is that rhubarb.

The villains haven’t dropped their weapons, the conflicts have not all been resolved, but one stubborn plant that pushed its way through frozen ground way before winter had subsided reminds me that there is more than one thread in my narrative.  I have reason to bake pie, to plant seeds, and to fold up my afghans.

Earlier this week when I arrived home from work, my husband said, “Before you sit down, go look at the patio.” I knew before I looked what I would find — the adirondack chairs that my father-in-law made for us years ago had been put out after their long winter inside.

He had seen it, too: the sunshine, the rhubarb, the reason to hope.  So hope we will, as we sit on our patio, faces tilted toward the sun, and let this season have a chance to direct our feelings about our narrative.

Psalm 27:13

I am confident in this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

 

 

Bits of Truth

Words matter so much to me.  I realize this is pretty obvious: I do put a couple thousand on this page every week, and my chosen profession requires me to use tens of thousands  every day. Yeah, I love words; I’m drawn to them.

I typically read several hundred pages of fiction and/or non-fiction every week, and when I see words arranged in a way that resonates with me, I use my iphone to snap photos of them. Also, whenever I gather with two or more, I arrive with a notebook and a pen, prepared to write down the meaningful and the trivial.  I scratch out notes at work, at church, and in my small group.

I spend my life surrounded by words, and I tend to horde them. As I was making my way to this space today, I grabbed a couple scraps of paper from my desk, my phone, a notebook crammed with sermon notes, a book I’m reading, and my laptop.  What do these items have in common?  They all contain words that I have gathered from one place or another and carried home with me. One bit of paper travelled all the way from my trip to St. Louis last November. Another is from a visit to Cincinnati about a month ago.  My shoes and toothbrush might not have made it home, but these scraps of paper not only survived the trip, they have remained on top of my desk through several frantic clutter-clearing purges.

What could they possibly say that would validate my gripping them so tightly?

The one from November, which I scribbled while sitting in church with dear friends, says “I can have hope that He will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.”

The paper I shoved in my pocket after church last month in Cincinnati says,  “Lord, if you don’t do something here, we are in trouble.”

In my notes from our small group Bible study I find, “This life is unsettled and incomplete,” and “hope wins.”

Last night, I started Jodi Picoult’s small great things.  I opened the cover and read these words from James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”

Pithy phrases all.  Concise.  Succinct.  Power-packed.

Why do I store these clusters of words?

Because in the emotional haze in which I have been existing, I wander around searching for beacons of truth. And, for me, truth is usually found in print.  I don’t write down every word I see, but when I see words that speak truth, I capture them. I hold them.  I carry them around.

Here’s why. Emotions are powerful.  They are expressions of deep feelings that need to be experienced, but they don’t always tell the truth.  My emotions tell me that all is lost, that hope has died, that everything counts on me, that I’m the only one with problems, and that none of this will ever work out.  I weep on my bed and get so carried away by my tears that I never want to stand up again.  Overwhelmed with sorrow, I reach out my hand and grab something to read to quiet myself.  Without fail, I find some shred of truth that breaks through my exaggerating and misled emotions.

I find myself speaking out loud:

All is not lost; God will redeem my loved ones and me and my community.

Everything does not count on me; Jesus is doing something here.

I am certainly not the only one with problems — despite what social media wants me to believe — but my only chance at working through the problems I have is to face them.

All of this will work out. Sure, life is unsettled, but hope wins.

My pulse slows.  My breathing returns to regularity. I close my eyes and move toward sleep.

Yes, I feel dark things still — anger, sadness, grief, and pain.  These feelings are valid,  and I will quash them no longer.  I will sit with them.  I will feel them.  And, I will speak truth to them.  I will not be overcome.

John 16:33

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

 

 

 

 

Feel This

Barbara Brown Taylor, in Learning to Walk in the Dark, asks “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them?  What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going?  Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happens next?”

Gasp. Trust my feelings?  That is not one of my internal constructs.

I received the message very early that I was supposed to control my emotions, not trust them.   I’ve often been told that I laugh too loudly, cry too easily, and “wear my emotions on my sleeve.”  Although many have tried to encourage me to rein in my feelings, I’m starting to understand that I have been designed to feel fully and express loudly.

My great grandmother, bless her heart and rest her soul, was possibly the first to encourage me to tame my emotions. She was of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that had enabled her to marry a widower, raise his daughter plus one of her own, run a household, and remain financially stable even when she herself became a widow at a fairly early age.  I loved being around her.  She was a feisty woman with a sparkle in her eye who always welcomed me into her life of baseball games, crocheting, gardening, and baking. She seemed to be at the center of  family gatherings where over twenty of us would eat, tell stories, laugh, and play. Often, near the end of these get-togethers with all the people I loved, I would become tired and sad. Most people in my family just accepted the reality of going home; they grabbed their things, piled into cars, and left.  Me? I bawled. I sobbed. I ugly cried.  Ill-equipped to handle such unbridled expression, my great grandmother tried shame: “Stop that crying, do you want people to see you looking like that?  What if I took a picture of your face right now?”  Those words still sting, but because they came from a woman I loved and admired, I tried to learn how to hold in my tears and behave like the rest of my more reserved family.

That didn’t go well.  Sadness turned in, in my experience, becomes anger.  I can be found in many family photos glaring into the camera lens, because dammit, if I can’t cry, I’m at least gonna be pissed.  And pissed I was.

When my parents divorced, my three siblings seemed to deal with their grief in much quieter ways.  I don’t remember them yelling the questions I yelled, or crying the tears that I cried.  Nor do I recall them throwing things at my stepfather across the kitchen table and stomping out the door to ‘run away’ over and over again.

My middle school memories include scenes of me sobbing in the hallway, yelling at classmates, and getting made fun of for my extra-obnoxious laugh. The reactions of students and teachers to my emotional expression gave me one consistent message — you’re too loud! Calm down!  So, I attempted to calm myself and to soothe my hurts.

How does a preteen do that?  Hours and hours of television, libraries full of books, pounds of potato chips and dip, sodas by the million, and retreats into my room to listen to music and write.

I also tried creative elaboration (lying), academic achievement (perfectionism), and subtle coercion of my friends and classmates (bullying).  None of these strategies had the lasting effect of quieting me; they merely added more emotions — shame, pride, guilt — to the pile that I was already trying not to express.

All was not terrible, of course.  I had friends with staying power and a family who loved me in spite of my emotionality. I was successful in school and well-connected at church. Nevertheless, my feelings were always simmering right at the surface.

High school, in my memory, was a blur of exploring the emotional spectrum.  I felt everything — anger, sadness, joy, love, betrayal, embarrassment, jealousy, pride, fear.  Those four years were a wild ride that involved laughing with friends, glaring at teachers, perfecting the art of sarcasm, breaking rules, being ashamed, and lashing out.  Even in the emotional hotbed of adolescence — I stood out.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I was voted “moodiest” by my classmates –a designation memorialized in my high school year book.

The transition to college allowed me an opportunity to be different — to be less emotional.  I think I tried, but by the end of freshman year, my coping mechanism of eating had packed on some pounds, and my fear of “getting fat” caused an overcorrection that became an eating disorder. I turned my focus to restrictive eating to control my weight, and devoid of emotion, I moved through my routine, barely interacting with the people in front of me, and deeming each day a win or a loss on the basis of my total calorie count and the number on the scale.

I may have finally controlled my emotions, but they remained, lurking deep beneath the surface.  I was terribly sad, but I didn’t cry.  I just soldiered on until I collapsed, gasping for breath.

That was over thirty years ago.

Therapy and maturity have healed some hurts, and I have, of course, learned how to more appropriately manage my emotions.  I was certainly going to get it right with my own children.  I was going to let them feel what they felt — cry their tears and laugh their laughs. My intentions were good, but life gets complicated, and when it does, we fall back on old faithful patterns.  Surely my children watched me hold back tears; they saw me swallow anger and soldier through difficulty. Despite my best efforts, my estranged relationship with my emotions has had an impact on the people who have shared a home and a life with me.  How could it not?

So when I consider Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘what if’ question, I’m challenged to try a new strategy.  She offers me an opportunity to feel what I am feeling, to lean in and explore sadness, regret, grief, and anger.

These are not pleasant feelings, but I’m learning that they must be felt.  They don’t go away.  If I paste on a smile, square my shoulders, and strengthen my resolve, I am only delaying the inevitable.  And the inevitable eventually shows up at the front door with a summons, refusing to go away until you get in the car and ride to the place where you face all of your realities.

So now when I wake up in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, franticly worrying over things that were or might be, I don’t wish myself back to sleep.  I lie still for a while, looking my feelings straight in the face, and after a while of sitting with these strangers, I get out of bed, come to the keys, and write.  Of all the strategies I have tried over the years, this is the one that allows me to tap deep into the well of feelings that have been locked deep inside, under armor and facades and lies.

Here, I tell the truth, and the truth is: I am hurting.

I am so sad. I have lost so much. And finally, I am going to cry.

It might be loud.  It might be messy.  I might attract attention.

I’m ok with that.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who needs permission to weep. I’m not the only one who needs a chance to be surprised by what happens next.

Ecclesiastes 3:4

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;