The Freedom of Uncertainty (Step One to Spiritual Freedom)

I’m not a huge fan of new-year resolutions or of the whole farewell, time-to-assess-my-life thing that tends to dominate this week for others, but I have to admit that this year has been a wild one for growth. It’s been three years coming, but this year in particular has been the one where I even blew myself away.

Looking back on who I used to be, I barely recognize myself—in a good way. These have all been changes that I needed and growth that I wanted, even if I didn’t like the means of growing at the time. I’ve been trying to pin down what has been the most important lesson or change this past year, the one that kick-started all the others. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing this year would have happened without the less-astounding, more internal lessons of the previous year—learning to sit with uncertainty.

When I first began my baby steps out of the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, I never intended to go very far. I wanted to get away from the abusive environment that dominated those churches and “schools” and find a church that held onto the “truth” of Christianity without all the bullshit.

For a while, I clung to the core of my religion as my anchor while allowing myself to question the things around it. Some fundamentalists warned me that if I started down that path, I would lose my faith. But I told myself that if my faith couldn’t stand up to questioning, it wasn’t worth having. I felt certain that I would eventually find my answers.

But for every answer I found, another question appeared. They got bigger and bigger until even the core seemed unstable. All the books and scholars I found couldn’t fully reconcile the doubts and contradictions I had; the answers only covered the surface, never getting deep enough to reset the foundation.

I was faced with a choice. I could turn away from my questions, push away those who reminded me of my doubts, shut my mind off, find reassurance in the imperfect answers that had reassured me before, and live the rest of my life in a religion I was too scared to leave.

Or I could let it all go.

I’ve never been very good at ignoring cognitive dissonance, so I let go.

I wanted to start studying other religions and belief systems immediately to find a new one that I could rely on, but I knew that if I did that, I wouldn’t be doing it because I actually believed in that religion. I’d be doing it because I’d needed to fill the vacuum left by Christianity. I made some tentative attempts at engaging other religions, visiting a Buddhist Temple and talking with some Mormons, but my own desperation scared me.

Probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was choosing to be “agnostic.” I’m not talking about the softer form of atheism that claims agnosticism or even the agnosticism that finds answers and comfort in not having answers. I’m talking about confronting my doubts and embracing the fear that maybe there really were no answers to my questions. It was an agnosticism that denied myself my need to explore spirituality until I no longer felt the need to run from the possibility that this was all there was.

For almost a year I held myself to this agnosticism, refusing to even attempt to come up with answers to my questions. I started collecting books, attempting to fill my bookcase with at least one major book about every major belief system I could. But I didn’t read them. I merely let them sit there, their presence reminding me that each of these religions or non-religions (atheism/agnosticism) claimed to be “the truth.”

It was torture. There were days when I just sat in my apartment, crying and rocking, trying to pray to a god I didn’t believe in anymore, trying not to pray to that god. I felt like my world might crumble and disappear right in front of my eyes.

But the world didn’t end. I didn’t cease to exist. Life around me continued on exactly as it had before.

And I learned the lesson that set me free: even though my worldview might make me feel like it holds the world together, in the end, it doesn’t do anything.

Without the preconceived notion that “I’m right,” any worldview had the potential to be right. Some seemed more believable than others, but there was absolutely nothing that was self-evident. There was always room for questions. Always room for other answers. Always room for new discoveries.

Eventually I did get to a place where the doubt felt almost like an answer—not the answer I was looking for. It didn’t solve anything. But learning that it was okay to simply not know freed my mind in a way that nothing else could have. I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.

It is because of that year of uncertainty that I have been able to sprint through so much internal work this year. It’s because of the year of unidentity that I’ve been able to make so many strides in creating my identity into who I was always meant to be.

Part of me would have liked to return to Christianity, and I admire the friends I have who took a similar journey and found a place for themselves within Christianity. But I honestly don’t think I was meant to be a Christian. My spiritual life now feels so natural and so fulfilling, an expression of the things that have always been inside of me waiting for permission to come out.

As I head into the new year, I’ll ignore the pressure to make new-year resolutions as usual, except perhaps the resolution to continue to live the full breadth of life, facing down fear, embracing uncertainty, and finding myself through it all. And I encourage others to dare to take that journey themselves.

It’s worth it; I promise.

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Solstice Song: My Prayer for the Coming Year

Okay, it’s not a “prayer” in the traditional sense, but it is an expression of my desperate hope that we will begin to confront the cultural aspects that provoke violence and suppress healthy expressions of emotion. If you’re a musician, I was hearing a swing beat as I wrote this. If you’re not a musician, ignore that last statement and just read it as a poem. Maybe one day, if I can get my partner to record a melody to it, I’ll post it here. Happy Solstice and Merry Christmas.

“Solstice Song”

Here’s to hoping
That the night will turn to day–
That our tears will lead the way back home.

Here’s to believing
That there is more to life
Than the violence and strife we see.

In our grief may we find
A better frame of mind
Than to leave the whole world blind again.

Though the world seems torn apart,
If we keep an open heart,
We may see a way to start anew.

Here’s to dreaming
That love can heal the earth
And guide us to our birth in peace.

Here’s to living
The change we want to see;
We create our destiny ourselves.

Though today we mourn the dead
There’s still life for us ahead.
We can break the cyclic thread if we choose.

Let us toast to new beginnings,
For they follow every ending.
Hope and love are now ascending with our hearts.

Dear Santa: Finding Hope and Magic in the Impossible

I’m heartsick over the events of December 14. And I almost wanted to nix this post because it seemed entirely too . . . I don’t know. But I’m keeping it because I really need my own words right now. My heart goes out to all those who are grieving. May you find comfort where you can, and if you find it here, I’ll be honored. Outside of this introduction, I’ve chosen not to edit my post to try to make it fit with the tragic events that happened since I wrote it. This post isn’t about guns or death. I can’t talk about that right now. Instead, it’s about hope. Somehow, I feel it fits while not really fitting at all.

I believe in Santa Claus. I write him a letter every year and leave cookies and milk out for him on Christmas Eve.

old_fashioned_santa

People usually think I’m joking if I say that, but I’m totally serious. There’s always the simple, slightly snarky answer that I do so out of spite because of the way that fundamentalism demonized the poor guy. And while that does indeed play a part, that’s not the main reason. I didn’t start believing or force myself to believe because I was pissed off. I really feel like I’ve believed in Santa my entire life.

No, I don’t think that a jolly old fat man physically flies around the world and pops down chimneys to give people presents.

But there is so much more to the world than just what is physically there, after all.

You rarely find people who try to argue that there is no such thing as time or North or mammals. There are those (me among them) that argue that those concepts are human constructs and not inherent in the universe, but even as abstract human creations that provide a structure and lens through which to view life, they are granted a form of existence, if only in our minds.

The same goes for Santa Claus.

He is the construct through which I view Christmas. It’s so much more than just a holiday. Christmas and Santa Claus are the season and the symbol of hope.

outdoor-christmas-tree-lg

Christmas is a light holiday. We decorate our homes with twinkling candles and set our neighborhoods glowing during the darkest time of the year. There is so much freaking symbolism in that, it’s amazing that we forget it so easily! To take a season that could easily be the most desolate season of the year and turn it into one of the most joyful speaks of the inspiring resilience of humanity.

Terry Pratchet brilliantly draws out how the winter solstice was very often about the return of the sun. In The Hogfather, when an assassin attempts to kill Discworld’s version of Santa, the characters learn that his existence is necessary for the sun to rise. It’s not that there would be no light without the Hogfather, but the ability to believe in things that “don’t exist” (things like the Hogfather or, more importantly, mercy and justice) is what makes that flaming ball peaking above the horizon a “sunrise.”

In other words, our ability to hope and imagine is what makes life worthwhile.

In that manner Santa Claus is also a symbol of wonder. There’s one scene in the Polar Express that embodies this concept so well. The three children are staring out the train window at the shops going by. One sees only the presents. The other sees only the mechanics of the spinning pieces. But the little girl—she sees the magic.

So much of life is based on perspective that simply shifting your point of view can almost turn your world upside down. Santa Claus is a reminder to shift my perspective to that of a child every once in a while and see the magic that fills the world around me.

I’ve heard some Pagans try to differentiate between “magic” and “magick.” But to me, it’s all the same. There is no magick without magic, and where there is magic there’s also magick. I see magic in nearly every aspect of Christmas, to the point that I sometimes feel like a fool with the exuberance that I approach Christmas.

Even the presents hold hope for me. We live in a nation that is obsessed with getting stuff. Going to the mall, even during Christmas, is enough to make me sick. But the presents aren’t just a product of an overly materialistic society. They hold magic as well.

Yes, I love getting gifts. I won’t deny that. But really it’s not about the gifts—I swear it’s not!

It’s about the hope of good things to come. So often, that hope requires that we suspend our disbelief in the impossibility of something in order to allow ourselves to wish for it—and then the absolute joy that comes when, almost magically, that something comes true.

For children, perhaps that is toys because toys are the things out of reach for them. For me, I find it’s not objects for which I ask Santa but dreams and goals—the things that are still out of my reach. And I don’t wake up to discover my dreams wrapped up under the Christmas tree, but I do plant the seed in my soul that maybe, just maybe, that dream is something I can attain.

Perhaps I seem naïve for seeking out such innocent wonder, enduring hope, and impossible dreams. I’m not naïve though. I’ve experienced far too many horrors to be naïve. But in a world that is torn apart by violence and hatred, I kind of think we could all do with a little more of a belief in the impossible things.

I know that a world of abuse and sorrow exists, but I also know that a world of beauty, love, and hope exists. Christmas reminds me that world is still there, no matter what the year may have brought. Santa Claus shows me how to embody that world within myself.

A Retail Worker’s Thank You

This is the time of year when customers can be at their best and at their worst. As anyone who’s ever worked retail has quickly learned, there are times when retail is torture; there are also times when retail can be amazingly fulfilling. Today, I want to take some time to express some of the things that I appreciate in customers as a retail worker.

  • Thank you for coming prepared with shopping lists or ideas. I really appreciate the customers that understand that I am not an on-demand psychic. Finding a gift takes mutual effort. When a customer comes in knowing what they are looking for, or at least a good idea beyond “I heard about it on the radio but don’t remember what it was exactly,” it makes it so much easier for me to help them. And the customers that are willing to interact, give feedback, and put in their own efforts to finding something are such a pleasure to work with. I’m thrilled when we finally arrive at the perfect item for them.
  • Thank you for treating me like a human being. Simple things like saying ‘hi,’ responding to my greetings, and acknowledging my presence and efforts can really make my day easier. With the hi-tech culture we live in today, I am especially thankful for those customers who refuse to talk on their cell phones when checking out. It’s nice to know that they remember that I am not one of those self-checkout machines but a living, breathing human standing there ready to help them in any way I can.
  • Thank you for watching your children in the store. Sometimes I wish I could outright hug parents who actually keep an eye on their children while they shop. I can’t thank such customers enough for not expecting me to babysit and for not viewing the store as a play pen. Even if a store is for or contains a section for children, that doesn’t mean the store is safe to play in, and it definitely doesn’t mean that merchandise is available for play right that moment. Customers who keep their children away from danger and prevent them from damaging merchandise deserve some sort of super-customer award.
  • Thank you for respecting my time. While I love to spend a half hour or more with a single customer during the slower months, that’s not always possible during this time of year. I love it when a customer tells me, “thank you, that gets me started. You can go help someone else now.” That allows me to slip away while they’re still looking without feeling horribly rude that I left them hanging. It lets me know whether I’ve met their needs sufficiently instead of having to guess that I helped and apologetically take my leave. Perhaps that’s just a personal thing for me, but I really appreciate that tiny little cue that I am okay if I need to leave.
  • Thank you for recognizing the limits of my power. While at the place that I work, my co-workers, boss, and I willingly do whatever we can to make a customer happy, there are limits. I cannot magically conjure up items that I haven’t been given enough time to order. I don’t control the weather. I’m not consulted on the design or layout of books, cards, or toys. I’m not even in charge of price or whether there’s a sale. I do feel responsible if a customer is unhappy though . . . even if it’s not my fault. I want to help, but there are limits to what I can do. Sometimes the best I can do is offer empathy. And it’s easier to empathize when I myself am not being unfairly attacked. I’m so glad that there are customers out there that can see I’m not the one they are angry at (e.g. customers who don’t yell at me because of the design logo on the back of the card).
  • Thank you for respecting closing times. I love that Planet Fitness, before they were open 24/7, explained they closed because their employees had lives too. That’s a very fitting description. I have a life outside of my job. Sometimes I have really important obligations to get to; other times I just really need a night with friends. I’m not going to kick anyone out because they stayed one second beyond closing time, but when a customer shows a conscientiousness regarding the time and makes an effort to let me close when I am supposed to, it really makes me feel valued. Especially closer to the holidays . . . like on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve . . . I try to respect that some people are desperately finishing up last minute errands, and I love it when they respect that I have family celebrations later too.
  • Thank you for handing me your payment. I have to smile a little wider when someone actually puts their money into my hand rather than tossing it on the counter. It’s just a tiny little thing that goes a long way to letting me know that they see me.
  • Thank you for not waving your decision to come to a local store rather than go to Amazon in my face. I can’t even begin to express how much I loathe Amazon. I love people who make an effort to shop local and fair trade, but I don’t appreciate people who use that decision as a coercive tool to try to get something out of me. Telling me Amazon has it for cheaper doesn’t do anything other than remind me that Amazon is playing dirty. If a customer wants to come in and tell me they saw something on Amazon and are wondering if I have it or can get it, that’s great! I’ll do my best to find what they want. If they want to come in and bitch about Amazon, I like that too. But more than anything, I love a customer who understands that buying local isn’t like buying from Amazon—and that’s the point. They don’t mind paying the extra cost (which isn’t really “extra” when you take into account that Amazon often sells below cost value) because they know it goes to benefit their local economy, pay good wages to workers, and fight the monstrous corporations that are trying to systemically suck the life out of the entire world. And I feel passionately enough about this that it just might turn into a blog post of its own later, but for the time being, thank you for not going to Amazon, and thank you for not expecting me to be like Amazon.

If you’re a retail worker, what are some of the things that you appreciate from customers?

As a shopper (because we’re all shoppers at some point), what are some of the things that you do to try to make the exchange with a retailer rewarding for both of you?

Happy shopping! Happy working! Happy Holidays.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others: Lessons from Nanowrimo, PTSD, and General Patraeus

This month has been intense, and I can honestly say I’m glad it’s over. It started out rather benignly, with my dedicating my writing to the Nanowrimo craze. I knew I couldn’t expect myself to write the encouraged 50,000 words over the next thirty days, but I decided at least to try to write on the same project every day. I was aiming for a loose 10,000 words.

It was a significant break from my usual writing schedule—juggling five or six writing projects for five days and taking two days off on the weekend. I knew it would throw me off, but I thought, “Hey, it’s just thirty days.” In the interest of avoiding too many boring details, let’s just say that I lasted less than a week on my new schedule. The weekend got too busy, and my body reverted back to the “resting” phase.

Shrug.

I didn’t think it was so bad. I picked up again at the beginning of the second week. Towards the end of it, the same thing happened, but with more days missed—days that I normally would have used for writing. Desperation and frustration started to creep up, and inspiration fled. My writing quality on my novel plummeted. The words became filler words that I knew would be cut later. I lost interest , became bored, and turned to the comfort of movies.

And I hated myself.

Why couldn’t I even meet my own gaddamn writing goals? Furthermore, what was so bad about me that I couldn’t eke out the required 1,500 words a day to meet the Nanowrimo goal? After all, some of my favorite new books were ones that had been started during Nanowrimo. If those authors could do it, but I couldn’t even stay focused on the same project for two weeks, surely something must be wrong with me.

Yes, I actually considered dropping writing.

Looking back at it now, it was kind of a silly mood. I’ve been writing steadily for five days a week for almost a year now with the my kind of odd schedule. It works for me. It’s a slower process as far as novels go, but it gets me new poems and short stories almost every week and ensures that I’m much more likely to edit and submit short pieces to journals and competitions. Objectively, I’ve been doing well. I’d even written two stories and the beginning of an ode to my vagina during the time when I was supposedly not writing anything else other than my novel. It was silly stuff that was just for fun, but it was a flow experience nonetheless.

And isn’t that writing? Doesn’t that qualify?

Yet when I fail to measure up to an arbitrary competition that hasn’t even been in place for as long as I’ve been writing, I start to doubt myself.

Leaving the Nanowrimo disaster for a moment, I now turn to PTSD. (I promise to tie it all together in the end.) Most people who know me know I have PTSD. Even the people I think I am hiding it from figure it out eventually, probably much sooner than I am guessing. To me, the main thing about PTSD that sticks out are the meltdowns—from flashbacks, memories, triggers, panic attacks, nightmares, etc. Those are the big ones and the ones that I fear will give me away (even though it probably has something more to do with the subtle cues like my intense startle response, my intimidation and tendency to freeze up when I feel threatened, and my incessant urge to apologize even for things that aren’t my fault).

I’ve tried my best to be alone when the episodes happen, or to stave them off until I’m alone if I feel it coming on.

But I fail. So far, I’ve managed to have some sort of fairly obvious episode in the car, at work, at the grocery store, in several churches, during sex, in front of my grandmother, in a souvenir shop, and in front of multiple teachers.

Brene Brown has this awesome TED talk on the power of vulnerability, and for the most part, I try to keep in mind what she says. But this vulnerability–this one just doesn’t seem like it could possibly be a strength. I’m embarrassed when it happens. I’m scared. I half expect people to tell me to get up and leave because I’m too crazy for them to hang around. No matter how much I try to tell myself that it’s a sign that I survived, I’m afraid it tells others that I’m broken.

So how does General Patraeus fit into this?

Well, he was my epiphany.

His scandal made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t imagine why in hell he would be forced to step down because of an affair while President Clinton was allowed to remain in office. I’m not saying that Clinton should have been impeached for having a love affair. Just the opposite. I think making someone step down because of who they’re having sex with is the epitome of American stupidity. As long as everything is consensual, why does it matter?

So far the only reason I’ve heard for his resignation that sounds remotely legitimate is that he was setting himself up to be blackmailed, which put national secrets at risk. Of course, if we didn’t have this stigma around affairs . . . or even divorce, there would be nothing to blackmail him over. It’s not the sex that is the problem, but the shame and the fear of discovery.

I don’t know the status of his marriage, and I wouldn’t attempt to speculate about the health of his relationship or his reasons for cheating on his wife. It’s none of my business. But I would hazard a guess that the affair easily indicates a certain unfaithfulness to himself too. People in happy relationships don’t just happen to fall into someone else’s bed and try to hide it. Somewhere along the way, Patraeus failed to own his shit, to use the words of my friend Gail Dickert (check out her youtube channel for some pretty badass shit-owning).

Of course, she wasn’t speaking about Patraeus. She was telling me “own your shit,” and it was in reference to claiming my power in situations where I feel powerless . . . . So let me stop projecting my own lessons onto Patraeus and apply them to myself.

I’m not like the average person. I don’t fit the molds or measure up to the ideals of “normalcy.” I’m happier mixing herbs, reading tarot cards, exchanging dream interpretations, burning incense, playing board games, coloring with crayons, and hugging trees than I am with discussing business, struggling to one-up the Joneses, or running the career rat race.

I might briefly flip out over the fact that I’ve already got white hairs, but I’m not interested in hiding myself behind product or trying to stay “young.” I enjoy wine, coffee, and fine furniture, but my life isn’t defined by how much I can show off to my friends. I’m radical and passionate about human rights, disdain corporations, and distrust technology.

I write like a read. My brain needs multiple things to work on. It takes me forever to keep interest in just one book just like it takes me forever to write just one novel. I need variety to keep my inspiration flowing. I enjoy being alone—scratch that, I need time alone.

None of these characteristics, or the many others I could probably mention, are weaknesses. They do put me at odds with many people, but in and of themselves, they are just . . . information about my personality. They only become weaknesses when I feel ashamed of them because I want to “fit in.”

The same goes for my PTSD. All it really says about me is that I survived trauma and that I’ve got the scars to show for it, just as I might (and do) have the physical scars to show from when I fell off a bike. But when I try to hide it, when I try to push away the truth of who I am, or when I’m ashamed of myself or afraid of myself, it gives others power over me—power to tell me I’m broken, power to tell me I failed, power to tell me I’m weak. When I own myself—every part of myself—the power remains with me.

And maybe failing to force myself to comply with others’ expectations and definitions—whether in writing, PTSD, or something else entirely—is really a victory for me. In a way, it’s just my body and mind demonstrating their own power to own my shit despite my efforts to disown it.