Feel This, a re-visit

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In Monday’s post, I described a new relationship I’m building with my emotions, one where I trust their warning flags and stop to listen to their message. The post that follows, from August 2018, comes from a time when I was mired in sadness. As I waded through the tears, I built the muscle that prepared me for this new way.

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, 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 amazing 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 quietly 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. 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 had finally controlled my emotions. 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.

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Ecclesiastes 3:4

Applied Learning

In the spirit of learning from my lessons, let’s apply the last two blogs to my current reality.

Fact #1 – I can’t plan for everything.

Fact #2 – I’m not in control.

How do we live in the tension of recognizing these facts while living out our daily realities?

My current reality is this: I just returned from three weeks away from my home.  I intentionally didn’t plan any work for this week — not even tutoring — because I knew I would need a week of recovery.  Autoimmune disease is such that any stressor — good or bad — can cause a physiological response.  Flying can cause a response. Eating a delicious Cuban sandwich on fresh – delicious –  glutinous bread can cause a response. Working seven days in a row in an unfamiliar environment can cause a response.  Seeing an old friend can cause a response. Taking a detour can cause a response. Eating sorbet — before or after lunch — if it is out of the routine, can cause a response.  (Yes, in the past three weeks I have done all of those things.)

A ‘response’ can mean different things to different people.  For me, a ‘response’ is typically any of the following — fatigue, eye inflammation, increase in pain or fatigue, or, if the stressors are cumulative or particularly intense, what I call a ‘knock down’.  I got ‘knocked down’ a couple of times during the vacation. It’s really not pleasant.  I usually get a pretty solid headache, gastrointestinal distress, systemic pain and fatigue, and usually, the symptoms are so intense that I can’t sleep.

In the past five years, I have been knocked down enough times that I recognize the feeling and have come to take these episodes as reminders that I am trying too hard, that I am doing too much, and that I have to be mindful. I used to feel frantic during a knock down; now I lean in.  I fill a tub full of epsom salt water and slither in.  I lie there for as long as I can with a cool cloth across my forehead.  I drink a lot of water.  I take a homeopathic remedy called nux vomica (as recommended by my doctor), and I rest. I eat healing foods — rice, popsicles, scrambled eggs — and I prop myself in front of something mindless on the television. A standard knock down takes about twenty-four hours of intentional recovery.  Some have taken longer, some have resolved more quickly.

I fully anticipated a knock down during this week.  So, I planned nothing.  Well, not nothing. I planned things that would set me up for success in the coming weeks.

While stressors can lead to a ‘response’, intentionally proactive behaviors can build resilience, like money in the bank.  They don’t prevent a knock down, but they do build my core strength so that the likelihood of a knock down is reduced and the recovery from one is perhaps shorter.  What builds resilience for me?  Well, a regular schedule, for one.

If I follow routines — get up at the same time every day, eat the same breakfast (gluten-free oatmeal with coconut oil and honey has been a recent trend), drink the same drinks (one green tea followed by one black tea), exercise, complete a task or two around the house, have one or two social interactions, and complete one or two professional tasks, all while taking periodic breaks throughout the day — I build resilience.  If I am being proactive,  I have to create my to-do list with this in mind.  I have to ‘plan’ blank spaces into my day.  Margin is essential.

Intentional reading and blogging are perhaps more important steps to building my resiliency than I give them credit for. Long ago, I learned to override feeling with doing. Because I didn’t want to feel pain or get lost in any type of emotion at all, I busied myself. That is a temporary fix, but feelings don’t go away.  They get buried.  Deeply buried.  I have found that if I read a particular genre of books (I’ve referred to many of these types of writers in this blog — Ann Voskamp, Shauna Niequist, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, and the like), then I gain access to emotions that I long ago buried.  While I am ‘hearing’ and feeling the stories of others, I recall my own stories and am able to attach meaning to them.  The follow-up, of course, is this blog.  If, in the wake of reading and reflecting, I sit down at my computer here in the quiet of my little house by the river, I give myself time to process the emotions that have been stirred up.  For you teachers out there, the reading is the receptive portion of the lesson; the blogging is the expressive.  I, like most students, need both in order for the lessons to have any hope of sticking. (And, like most students, I need repetition of most lessons in order to achieve mastery.)

How did I get the privilege of the time that enables a lifestyle with margin? that allows for reading and processing?  The only explanation I have is that the One who has eyes to see me and who knows my needs better than I know my own, determined that because I would never plan this type of life for myself, He would plan it for me. I was living a life that powered through and led to an epic ‘knock down’.  He saw it, and in compassion, He set me down into a new reality–one that allows for margin, one that allows for reflection, one that allows for healing.  Which exposes the next lesson:

Fact #3 – I am held in the palm of His hand.

I am really trying to rest in this reality.  Muscle memory makes me want to jump up and start doing so that I won’t have to feel the pain that has been exposed in the stillness of this chapter.  However, the knowledge that comes through the power of the knock down coupled with the words of some key people that are speaking into my life right now remind me of the words of Elizabeth Elliot that Ann Voskamp quoted in The Broken Way :

…”out of the deepest pain has come the strongest conviction of the presence of God and the love of God.” [Voskamp follows with] The most crushing lie a life can hold on to is that life is supposed to avoid suffering, avoid loss, avoid anything that breaks.  Loss is our very air; we, like the certain spring rains, are always falling toward the waiting earth…

I embrace the knock down because His hand is holding me and leading me to a better life in this next chapter.

Psalm 103: 13

The Lord is as kind to his followers as a father is to his children.

Sorbet before Lunch, revisit

This post, written in June of 2017, is being edited in June 2019, on the heels of a week away with my husband, as I sit in a hotel room I’m sharing with the roomie I met two years ago. This is a pattern I’ve enjoyed repeating.

So much is jangling around inside my head this morning. Over three weeks ago my husband and I left on a two-week vacation — we slipped away to an undisclosed location where no one recognizes us so we could begin to recognize one another again. We spent hours together, just the two of us. It was quiet; it was restful; it was lovely. At the end of the two weeks, I jetted off, instead of coming straight home, to a week of AP English Literature Exam scoring with hundreds of strangers. Inside of those three weeks, I read a couple of books and several articles, I listened to podcasts, I watched meaningless television, I had long, and short, conversations in person and over the phone, and I read thousands of words written by high school students.

Now I’m home.

I’m back at my desk in my little house by the river.  My dog is under my desk at my feet. I’m halfway through the first cup of tea, and I am trying to get the jangling to coalesce into some kind of meaning.

What do you learn from three weeks outside of your routine? If you sort all the pieces into piles, what do you have?

First, I have the realization that the things that I planned — the ones that we just had to do — weren’t the ones that I valued the most. In fact, the sandwich that I just had to eat from that particular restaurant did taste delicious, but its gluten- and dairy-rich delicious-ness left me feeling miserable for the next twenty-four hours. The things that I thought would make the experience ‘perfect’ weren’t really the highlights. No, the unexpecteds, the ad libs, were the nuggets I will cherish — a last minute detour, a lunch time phone call, impromptu sorbet right before lunch.

This plan-happy girl needs to be reminded from time to time that her plans aren’t always the best and that she can’t plan for everything. In fact, often the best parts of life are the ones I didn’t, or couldn’t anticipate.

In the weeks leading up to the AP Reading, I was feeling a bit apprehensive because I had been assigned a random hotel roommate. Although, you might not expect it, I tend a little to introversion. While my career has involved standing up in front of students, cracking jokes and calling out bad behavior, I truly love my end-of-day quiet alone time. What if my roommate loved to chat until all hours of the night? What if she was a slob? What if her personality got on my nerves. It’s not like we would just have to get through a weekend. We would be co-existing for eight days!! I had a plan, though — if she was super creepy, I told myself, I would request a single room and just pay the difference. Phew! Glad I solved that dilemma.

I arrived at the hotel before she did and quelled my anxiety by staying busy. I situated my stuff, got myself registered, went for a swim, showered, and then waited. She arrived on a different schedule, so we didn’t actually meet until almost 8pm on the first day! After so much fretting, all worry evaporated when she arrived, Southern twanging her greeting —  a virtual “Hi honey, I ho-ome!” — and putting me at ease.

Not for one minute did I feel that awkward let-me-ask-questions-to-get-to-know-you feeling. From the start we chatted like old friends, laughing over ridiculousness and tearfully sharing our hearts. We were ok being quiet together, too. I didn’t feel like I was imposing when I felt poorly and had to cash-in early. I didn’t feel like I had to explain myself or justify my actions. I felt like I was living with a sister. Probably my favorite moment of the week was the last night when our conversation went something like this:

“Hey, thanks for not being a creepy roommate.”

“Hey, thanks for not snoring.”

“And thanks for not being a slob or watching tv until 4 in the morning.”

“And thanks for not judging me for going to bed before 9.”

I couldn’t have hand-picked a better roommate.

So what’s the take-away here? Do I suddenly turn from my planner-ly ways and go forth in a life of abandon? (She says as she glances over at the to-do list she made for today and the one she made for this week.) Every teacher-fiber of my being loves to plan. In fact, two items on my to-do list involve planning — for the summer class that starts next week and for the new course I’m teaching in the fall.

Writing lists and anticipating alternatives is in my DNA. I won’t ever not be a planner, but is there a way for me to plan for spontaneity? for margin that allows for ad lib? Of course!

Something about filling my days with plans reduces my anxiety.  If I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for the big scary unknown, but, also, if I fill in all the spaces, I leave no room for surprise, for serendipity, for spontaneity.

Leaving space is taking a risk.

Do I dare? Do I dare let myself sit quietly in the chair on my patio, watching nothing, anticipating nothing, expecting nothing? Do I dare have a day that’s not planned wall-to-wall with activity? What could happen?

I might take a last-minute detour.  I might make a new friend. I might eat sorbet before lunch.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.”

Psalm 130:5

All the Feelings, Re-visit

This post, originally written in January 2016 and cleaned up in April 2019, speaks directly to some of my thoughts in “It’s About Time.”

The inclement weather has given me another day of virtual stillness and I am noticing that when I am still, I think about the words that others have said, and I have time to consider them fully.

I don’t always like considering the words of others, you know, fully,  because then I get, you know, feelings. And feelings make me, you know, feel things. 

As a child and adolescent I felt a lot of things. I was an emoter. Ok, ok, I know I still am, but back then, I felt things in ways that other people could feel. I remember being told that I laughed too loud and cried too much. I can picture my chubby-cheeked, blonde-headed self, being told that it was time to leave my grandparents’ house, protesting with angry face, stomping feet, and clenched fists. I can feel my throat tighten and tears spill down my cheeks as Frosty the Snow Man melted into a puddle. I remember stomping through the hallways at school or flinging myself onto my bed and wailing into my pillow when I felt wronged by a friend or a boyfriend. Yes, my whole being knew how to feel things.

Now, I learned, for the comfort of others, not to be quite so demonstrative. I mean, it’s not socially acceptable to have all the feelings. In fact, I remember my cooperating teacher, during my student teaching experience, telling me to ‘not wear my heart on my sleeve’. Well, where else was I going to wear it?

Over the years I have tried to peel my heart off my sleeve and shove it deep in an interior pocket. I have attempted to push feelings deep, deep down into my subconscious self. And while I may have quieted some of my outbursts and hidden some of my feelings from my own awareness, my face has often revealed what my guts are feeling, even when my mind hasn’t gotten the memo. People around me have seen my truth-telling face and have taken meaning from it. They have picked up that I am angry, apathetic, shocked, judgmental, or horrified, even when I haven’t realized those emotions myself.

In my younger days, when I was using the full-body method of emotional experience, I often lost blocks of time to tears, flailing, and, shall we say, “verbalizing”. It was loud. It was messy. It was not concerned with productivity. Perhaps one benefit to tucking hurts away and refusing to indulge them is the ability to get a bit more accomplished. And it just so happens that I like getting things done, so a way of life commenced. I often refer to this time in my life as ‘soldiering’.

I became too busy to attend to emotions. Soldiers don’t have time for feelings. They are kicking butts and taking names. They don’t feel sad about it. And, they don’t really care if you feel sad about it. They have a job to do, dammit. So, either help or get out of the way.

Yeah, that has been me for a very long time. I have pushed people aside without considering how they were feeling. I wasn’t intending to do that.  Really. I was just on a mission. I was focused.

Here’s the thing, though. The people who love you don’t really care if you are on a mission. They just need you to care. They need you to stop butt-kicking and name-taking for a minute so that you can see that they, too, are having some feelings. They might also be trying to shove their feelings into their subconscious, but if you stop moving, you might see that their faces are revealing what they aren’t even aware of. You might be able to pick up that they are hurt, shocked, angry, lonely, overlooked, or terrified.

And when you see that, you can sit down beside them and be still with them together. You don’t have to have an answer. You don’t have to solve the problem. You just need to sit in the stillness with them, which will give them the time and the permission to feel — to really feel.

And when we feel together, we are joined by bonds that are not soon separated.

Aren’t those bonds far more valuable than all the butt-kicking and name-taking in the world? Yes. The answer is yes. Learn from me, grasshopper.  Take time in the stillness to feel all the feelings.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.

John 15:13