It's been a while since I posted..... but here is an article I wrote that will be published soon.
Have you ever been part of a gathering where someone has sought to settle the group with a guided meditation to begin your time together? “Close your eyes and take three deep breaths,” are often the first words out of the leader’s mouth. But if you’re like me, all of a sudden you feel unsettled, on hyper-alert, not sure why everyone else seems so still when you are beginning to breathe faster, beginning to wonder if you are in a state of panic and soon, with every fiber of your being, wanting to escape the room.
This was my experience, and I simply thought it meant I was really bad at meditation or prayer, that I was incapable of being still and knowing God, and probably also that God wanted nothing to do with me. So I declared to the world that I could not pray. I could not center myself. I could not know God, given that I could not be still, and therefore God did not have a way to know me. I was a failure.
Breath was my enemy when I tried to focus on it. It was hard to bring the ruah, the very spirit and breath of God, into my body without wanting to escape. The breath I had had to fight for so often when I was being hurt was now something I could only avoid and run from, not pay attention to. There was no stillness. Therefore there must have been no God.
But as I began to do some work to heal from the abuse I had endured as a child, including the time my brother had almost killed me by strangulation, I discovered that I needed to go and be in nature. I began hiking every day. To my surprise, as I walked I found my emotions had room to move. As I took each step my whole system relaxed and slowed, and there was stillness in the rest of me as my body got lost in the safety of hiking through beauty.
I began to ponder this, and discovered, as many children who experience trauma from a young age do, that my automatic response to the abuse was to freeze. To try to become as invisible as possible to evade my being seen as a target. Or, if that didn’t work, to disassociate—to leave my body so that I did not feel all that was happening in such an acute way. This stillness was a survival response. Be still and stay alive. Be still and escape the pain. Be still and eventually this will stop. There was no “be still and know that I am God.” If I was still, that meant acute trauma was happening to my body in that moment.
My healing journey forced me (or, maybe more accurately, invited me) back into my body, back into feeling what had happened, but this time in a supportive environment. Yet along this journey, stillness was the exact opposite of what my body needed to find that sense of safety. Instead, I needed to move.
So hiking became my friend. I moved through the beauty of the hills, no matter the weather, even if I only had 30 minutes. Each day I moved intentionally and found that as I did so, my inner being became still, and the harsh emotions traveled into the earth beneath my feet. The thoughts and memories failed to take hold if I kept my body moving, because it was learning to escape and take control and find its power in those hills. The freeze response had no room to grip me in its patterns of terror. I had to remain present in my body as it moved through space in order to stay safe and not trip over rocks and tree roots. As I did this, my mind became still and I felt God’s presence surround me and live within me in ways I had not known before.
As my own healing began to take hold I began to learn about trauma and the different responses the body has developed to deal with it: freeze, flight, fight, and fawn. I experienced trauma from infancy, when flight and fight were not options. Fawning did not work, so freezing was the only response left (which eventually became a form of flight as I disassociated from my body). As I researched I discovered I was not alone in this experience. Recent books have focused on the somatic effects of trauma, including Bessel van der Kolk who says in The Body Keeps the Score;
“In our studies we keep seeing how difficult it is for traumatized people to feel completely relaxed and physically safe in their bodies. We measure our subjects’ HRV by placing tiny monitors on their arms during shavasana, the pose at the end of most classes during which practitioners lie face up, palms up, arms and legs relaxed. Instead of relaxation we picked up too much muscle activity to get a clear signal. A major challenge in recovering from trauma remains being able to achieve a state of total relaxation and safe surrender.”
The more I read, alongside my seminary studies of the Bible and other ancient religions, the more I saw how commonly people took up this practice of movement as a way to be with God after experiencing trauma. The Bible tells the story of the Israelites escaping from Egypt. They had lived traumatic lives as slaves to the Egyptians—beaten to make them work harder, given little food to eat, treated as lesser beings. After they escaped, which included hurrying through the parted Red Sea that was about to close in on them, the cries of the drowning Egyptians who chased them must have echoed in their ears.
For forty years as they wandered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, the only times they really seemed to recognize God’s presence was when they were walking. It was at those times that they could simply follow the pillar of fire or cloud. When they stopped walking they soon forgot God was there, and complained about hunger, thirst, or the leadership of Moses. Unable to be still and know God, they made idols to replace God. Yet when they walked, they did so secure in the presence of God. It was then that they knew God, as their beings stilled with each step.
Jesus himself knew movement as a way to reconnect with God too. He regularly went away to pray— whether walking up a mountain or sailing a boat across the sea, he got to the stillness through steady movement.
This seeking of the Divine, the search for God, the need for movement to accompany the search, is perhaps why so many people go on pilgrimages; traveling the path to get to a destination but, just as importantly, traveling as the destination, meeting God in the footsteps along the path. Each step allows something to move through us to create a space for God to come into. And, of course, it doesn’t have to be walking—I can find that stillness swimming laps or paddling a kayak or sewing or painting. Allowing my body to fall into a pattern that is freeing in its repetitiveness creates room for me to notice the Holy. And then I can listen, I can discern, I can feel and hear what might still need work. I can relax, I can be still and know that God is God and trust that I don’t need to be. I don’t need to be hyper-vigilant, I don’t need to be in control, I don’t need to know the big picture, I don’t need to do anything but let God be God!
As I work with others now in my ministry, we often find ourselves moving our bodies during spiritual direction sessions. We walk, dance, push, and run. We combat the frozen response to certain memories by paying attention to what the body needs to do in order to allow God in. If someone is in the midst of a flashback, we help them find the movement they wish they had been able to enact when the trauma was happening.
When we regain safety, we regain the ability to hear God speak, to feel God heal, to know God as a felt presence where there was maybe absence in the past. Our neural pathways are rerouted to create and make available new responses beyond the old patterns and thoughts. We can hear God speak into the pain and injustice and offer comfort that can be felt as our touch receptors heal. As people begin to feel their bodies once more through movement, they begin to know God in a wholly different, felt way.
Find those things that allow you to become still enough in your being to know God. Dance with the Divine, swim, play an instrument, walk, paint, knit, garden, kayak. What is it that allows your body to settle into a rhythm and find the stillness of emotions and memories and thoughts and pain? Be still in that place and allow the presence of God to come to your consciousness. Ask your questions from this place, and listen for the voice of wisdom to speak into the stillness. Know that there is nothing wrong with you if what others call meditation does not work for you, even if you have not experienced trauma. Some of us are wired differently, and that is beautiful. Some of us need to move, not as an escape but simply because our bodies need that. So move… and know God! Find your stillness, even when it looks different from that of anyone else. God created you to be complex and unique. So find what works for you. Move and seek stillness, and God will meet you there!
Dear Loved Ones,
I don’t know if you watched any of the inauguration. I caught some of it, and was most thankful to see Amanda Gorman read her poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’. Amanda is a twenty-two year old black woman, and the first person named national youth poet laureate, an honor she received when she was nineteen. And she was a bright beacon of light at the ceremony. The whole poem was powerful with images and truth, but the words that have stayed with me, ringing in my head all night, are these:
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace…..
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
I feel these words speak to the trauma we have experienced as a nation over the last four years, the waiting in terror to see what new pain would be inflicted on our communities, what new lies would be told, what new ways devised to gaslight and minimize our pain, or to stir up more division and violence, but they also speak loudly to personal trauma and healing.
Most people I work with get to a point where it feels like the trauma has won. The healing is too slow, new memories still come up, new feelings are allowed to have a space in the body, and the overwhelm can feel like it’s never going to get better. After working hard on healing, shouldn’t all this be done? Shouldn’t I feel better? How much more can there be to be uncovered and felt (often actually felt as never before), and talked about? Why aren’t I healed? Will I always be broken?
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
And yet, I find these very times of exhaustion and doubt are often a turning point in someone’s healing. The very fact they are asking the questions feel pivotal, as it’s often a time when the light at the end of the tunnel is glimpsed for the first time…. And it seems so far away. But it’s there! It’s as if there is a sudden realization that they deserve to be healed, are worthy of feeling love and peace, that it is a possibility for this pain to be transformed into a gift for the world…. And the fact that the trauma from their past still clouds all this is painful and scary, as, maybe for the first time, the love and hope work their way through the cracks in the defenses and survival mechanisms, break open with the healing.
And so, my dear ones who have braved the belly of the beast, know this.
The dawn is yours.
You are not broken.
You may not be finished, but you are not broken.
Whatever they did to you did not break you. You are beautiful and loved and healing…. And simply unfinished!
So continue to wade through the grief and healing, continue to wade through the lies and pain, continue to wade through the times of despair and sorrow. For now, as an unbroken, unfinished being, you get to help create who you are as a healed, strong, compassionate, brave, kind, loving, light filled person in our world! And what a miracle that is.
Dear Loved Ones,
Many of you know that I had to have Gibbs euthanized on Friday. My sweet, faithful, loving, friendly, spiritual, adventurous dog. He had gone lame in one leg after Christmas, and the vet thought he had probably frayed his ACL, and I was told to have him rest and be still. But by Thursday evening his breathing was shallower than normal and by Friday morning he was unable to draw an easy breath. I took him back to the vet, and they x-rayed his lungs, finding that both lungs were fully clouded, leading them to think he either had metastasized cancer or a fungal infection caused by spores breathed in. They could not start treatment for either as the treatments would clash. They told me to take him home to wait for the results. By the afternoon he was really struggling to breathe. He was sitting up, stretching his chest out like he was trying to make room in his lungs, and wheezing. I asked my friend to come down to my house, and we were soon heading back to the vet. They still had no treatment that would help him immediately, the drugs would take two weeks to kick in, and so I made the hard decision to relieve him of his suffering. It was painful to watch him trying to breathe, so I can’t imagine how hard he was struggling.
Since then, I’ve avoided walking in his favorite places, but today, as I was trying to write my sermon I realized I needed to walk. I pulled on a hat and some shoes and headed out on this warm winter day. And, without thinking, started on a route that we had walked hundreds of times. I headed over to the monastery and walked all around the grounds. Tears began to flow as I passed the bush he always had to pee on, as I walked past one of the sisters who would always say hi to him, as I passed the apartments where his buddy lives…. So many memories with each footstep. As the tears came, I thought about those last minutes with Gibbs and how sacred they were.
When we arrived at the vets that afternoon, I carried Gibbs in. They led us into a room, and I sat with him snuggled close. By then, I could tell he was exhausted, and just wanted to be held and loved. The vet came in and we talked options, and they took him away to put the line in his leg. When they returned, they had wrapped him in a blanket, and handed him back to me. We sat there together, my friend standing by our side. And he just moved in as close to me as he could get. I whispered some words to him, and held him, slowly stroking his head head and ears. Mary said goodbye, and I kissed him. When the injection went in, his head was laying on me, his body held close, safe and secure and loved. And then his pain was gone, his suffering over, his little body at peace.
There was beauty in those moments, even in the pain. That trust and love, followed by the peace. The passing of his spirit back to God. My tears turned from anguish at his suffering to relief at his rest. Grief would come, but in that moment I felt it was a blessing.
The scene reminded me of a sculpture at St. Ben’s monastery. It is of a group of Sisters keeping vigil with someone who is dying. The quietness and beauty and holding and love depicted in that sculpture captures the sacredness of community and death, and it is an image of how death should be…. Surrounded by love as that bridge is crossed. Surrounded by people who know that this moment is sacred and filled with God. Surrounded by people who carry hope in their hearts as last breaths are taken.
And it made me think of the countless thousands of people who have died alone during these pandemic times, family and loved ones kept away for safety. My heart breaks at the thought of their loneliness, and for the nurses scrambling to bring them comfort as they die, over stretched with patients and exhaustion as they try to bring compassion in those last moments. And tears flow once more as I wish that each being that crosses over could be held by one who loves them, could be surrounded by comfort and witnesses to that hallowed moment between life and death, to be accompanied across that threshold, for it is a holy experience for both the one dying and those left behind. God is tangible, and the air feels sparkly with the wings of angels and the blessing in the pain of saying goodbye.
I have long said that I’m not scared of death, but scared of dying. But I think, if I were surrounded by such love as I died, even dying would not be scary. If community were there, people who recognized the sacredness of the moment, if those wings of angels were heard beating as they waited to carry me away, if I remembered that great Love in that moment and snuggled in to it, then, I trust, it could be a time of peace and beauty and freedom from whatever struggle had led me to that point. The any fear would be replaced with peace and surrender would be easy.
In these weeks and months ahead we will continue to be surrounded by too much death. I pray that each person knows they are held by those that love them, whether they are physically able to be present or not. But, more than this, I hope that each one feels the Great Love, the Divine Love, holding them as they cross over the threshold, that they know the peace and beauty of this as they let go of life, that they hear the angels’ song as they breathe their last breath, and that fear is dissipated as peace flows through.
While I am sad, I am thankful that Gibbs knew this, and thankful that Mary came with me so I could know that I was not alone. And although there may be no more stories that begin with the words, “As I was walking with Gibbs,” I know that his love with stay with me for a long time.
On October 26th, after nearly a week of snow on the ground, temps in the low 20’s, and a cloudy sky, I took Gibbs (the dog) out for a walk at Quarry Park. I have spent a fair amount of time there, exploring the trails. But on this morning I decided to take some unknown trails and get lost. When I first discovered the park I did this often so I could find my way around…. Sometimes I take my spiritual direction clients out there for a session and it’s always good to know how to get back to the parking lot! But I haven’t purposefully got lost for a while. The park was quiet as we set off on one of the trails we knew, but I turned down a few trails I didn’t know, just to explore. We found a new to us quarry pond, a different grove of birch trees, some pretty mushrooms and a deer! After wandering for a while I thought it was probably time to make our way back, so I looked around me, set off in a direction I thought was right, and before long we were back on a trial we knew.
While I ‘get lost’ on purpose sometimes, I do so with intention. Either to make sure I know my way around the woods where I take clients, or to try a new path to see what I may discover…. New terrains, new vistas, new plants, new quiet spots to reflect, and so much more. Thankfully, I have a pretty good sense of direction, and was taught from a young age to be observant of my surroundings including turning around to see where I have been as well as looking forward. And I have yet to get totally lost on my expeditions, but have often ended up with wet feet before finding my way back to a path I know.
As I walked, I wondered why I don’t do this more in the rest of my life… explore different trails! And what I am missing out on by doing the same things. For sure, there is comfort in this, and I need a stable rhythm in my life to feel secure, but why do I so often go down the same paths in so many areas of my life? I find things that are easy to make for dinner and rotate them, but don’t get too adventurous in trying new recipes. I find an author I like and read through their books. I find a show I like and binge watch. The same with art and friends and things to do And while I don’t live with FOMO (as the young like to say…. Fear of missing out), I do, at times, wonder what I’m missing.
Every so often, I challenge myself to try something new, to explore and expand on what I like. I’ve been trying tofu recipes, for example, as I have never been able to cook it well. And this year I have chosen to mainly read books written by people of color… both fiction and non fiction, and I have enjoyed learning about the experiences of the authors and the ways they experience racism and society and life, getting a glimpse of life through their lenses. I got my kayak out this summer and began exploring the local lakes, and have been camping in some new places. And some times things have felt like a big miss…. Campsites not what they were made out to be, books that I didn’t enjoy, tofu mush! But I rest assured that I can always find my way back from my exploration to the paths I know and love. The well trodden recipes that don’t have tofu in them, the books I love, the people I find it easy to be with. They don’t go away, just because I’m exploring something new.
It makes me think of the time Jesus sent his disciples out to heal and proclaim the good news. He sent them off exploring new places without their things of comfort… no gold in their belts, no spare tunic. And when they arrived somewhere they were to stay until they had done what they went there to do, offering their peace. When they went out to explore, if they were unwelcome, they were instructed to return to the well worn path of life, shaking the dust from their feet.
I think this is the call for us. We can stray from the path of what we know to explore new things, and if it doesn’t work out, we can return to the path we know. That path doesn’t disappear because we open ourselves to new experiences. It is like God, always there to welcome us back. But the invitation is to try something new, to explore a little, to trust there is even more waiting to welcome us when we step outside of our comfort zones.
So wander off trail! Explore new things! Open yourself to learning something new. And see what wonders await you, knowing the well trodden path will always still be there.
Dear Loved Ones,
I went kayaking at a lake near my new church the other day. I’m part of a group on Facebook where people post where they are going and invite others to join them, so I met a woman at the lake and off we went. She had been to this place before, and showed me a cool bridge you can kayak under, and then said there was a canal off the lake that we could go through. We searched for it, coming upon two dead ends. And then I spotted a narrow opening and decided to try it. It was a long, skinny canal, trees overhanging and too narrow to paddle in. I through it must be the wrong place, but something compelled me to keep going. The beaches were brushing the side of the kayak, and you had to do a one sided paddle to move forward, ducking beneath the branches and scraping the bottom of the canal all the way through. But there was light ahead, a wider opening, where, if nothing else, I thought I would be able to turn around.
As I got to this wider part, my breath was taken away. It was a pristine little lake, covered in water lilies, some of which were flowering. Eagles were hanging out in the tress and beavers were swimming around, sometimes slapping their tails hard on the water making a loud, echoing bang. One beaver let me get super close to them before diving under the water, and the whole feeling was magical and Spirit filled. I hung out in this place as the sun set, reluctant to leave, but my kayaking companion was ready to go as the warmth of the day leaked from the air. We made our way back to the main lake, and back to land, but the peace and beauty of this secret lake has stayed with me.
And more than this, the narrow canal has stayed in my mind. It seemed almost like a birth canal, a tight passage to push through to get to a whole new world, and the world it opened onto was one worth the effort.
It made me think of these times we are in where things seem hard and tight, one where caution is needed to navigate. It feels, right now, as if we are making our arduous way through this canal… slapped by the branches of Covid, the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the deaths of more than 200,000 people in this country from a virus that could have been managed much better, by election campaigns that fuel fear and hate, by protests and racism and an ‘us vs them’ mentality. We are scraping along the bottom of human decency most days, and we think this might turn out to be a dead end.
Yet, somewhere ahead, we catch a glimpse or have a sense of, or hope there may just possibly be a widening, an opening, a place where more light is seeping through. And so we keep on, struggling through this time, figuring out where to put our paddle so we can move forward, trying to duck beneath the worst of the branches while other catch us off guard and at scratch us, slowly inching toward a place of peace and hope and light, one obstacle at a time.
The more I sat with this, the more reassured I felt, as I heard the whisper of truth…. “yes, this time is hard. But you are moving through it. And you are heading toward a place where there is more play and peace and light and loveliness. So keep going, keep going. Dodge what you can, know the scratches likely won’t run top deep, remember you won’t get stuck. So keep moving forward as best you can.”
I feel this is a blessing for all of humanity. Yes, this time is hard. But there is a place ahead that is worth fighting toward. Do what you can to reach it.
May it be so.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.