Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Missing myself

Who is that old woman prowling around my house? She keeps opening the refrigerator, looking through the pantry, hoping to find a long-forgotten stale Frito or a moldy chocolate chip. She finds nothing so she goes down to the basement to take clothes out of the dryer. Then she walks upstairs (forgetting to bring the laundry with her) and looks through the bookshelves, trying to find the copy of Olive Kitteridge that has gone missing. Unable to find the book, she goes back to the kitchen and starts prowling for food again. Earlier she made herself a filling, healthy salad with grilled chicken for lunch. Then she had some Greek yogurt with blueberries. Still, she prowls. She eats the last two tiny sweet gherkin pickles and puts the pickle jar in the recycling bin. Then she decides it’s time to finish off that last tablespoon of coconut.

Oh, wait—I think I recognize her from another life. Yep, that is me. The old me would have had barbeque potato chips in the pantry and some frozen, home-made (it makes me weep just to think about them) oatmeal pecan date cookies in the freezer. In the refrigerator she probably would have had half a Lost Dog Cafe “pointer pizza” with whole wheat crust, feta, pine nuts, and spinach. I miss her. I miss the pizza.

I have been working hard to change my wicked ways. I got through Thanksgiving, Christmas, Ground Hog’s Day, Valentine’s Day, a trip to Austin, and Fat Tuesday. I haven’t had a single croissant. I had pizza once. I’ve almost completely given up alcohol and carbohydrates. I even got through yesterday—St. Patrick’s Day—without having a beer. And now, today, March 18th, a day of no significance whatsoever, I’m losing my will.

Since the beginning of November I have lost 30 pounds. I’m nearly there, though I’m not exactly sure where “there” is. A former vegetarian, I am now eating mostly protein (i.e. meat—ugh) and vegetables. It feels like an alien creature has taken over my body. And where are my clothes, especially my 50 pairs of jeans, the staple of my wardrobe? Hmmm . . . donated to the thrift store because nothing fits me now. I had to get them out of my house lest I consider growing back into them. Nothing to eat, nothing to wear.

At this moment, the thing I miss most about her, the woman I used to be, is that she would be thinking about dinner right now. She would have a big bowl of capellini with olive oil (maybe butter and olive oil) with a ton of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Undoubtedly she would have a glass or two of good red wine or maybe a beer. She might even have splurged on some Talenti Belgian chocolate gelato. (Insert the sound of weak, pitiful whining . . . )

I’m going to go prowl through the kitchen now, maybe steam some broccoli and cry. I miss her.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The stick

It’s the staff Moses carried on his way to the Promised Land, the rod St. Patrick used to chase the snakes out of Ireland, my defense against the ‘possum in the basement rafters, an obsolete security system. To me it's a thing of beauty—shoulder high, smoothed by hands over the years, with a lightness that belies its strength. Yet in the eyes of others it simply may be a big stick.

When he was a boy, my little brother Mark had a knack for finding things in the woods—extraordinary things like a motorcycle and ordinary things like the stick. The stick just appeared at our house one day when I was in my teens, and when I got married and moved away, I decided to take it with me. I didn’t ask him if I could take it. Mark was still a kid; he didn’t protest.

It moved with me many times over the years. It has been placed by the front door, in the corner of my bedroom, beside the fireplace. In every house it found a spot where it felt useful and it stayed there, standing watch, protecting me.

Three years ago my little brother Mark was murdered. Even the stick couldn’t have stopped the bullet that was fired point blank into his back. And Mark’s stick stays with me, my connection to my little brother, my defense against a cruel world. It always was and always will be such a special stick.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lessons in grief and forgiveness

“Please, Lord, teach me a new way. Open my mind, my heart to your wisdom, not to my own failed, flawed thinking. Help me to learn from the example set by Jesus to forgive all wrongs. Yes, it’s hard. I want to own my hurts, to hold on to them, and I don’t know what replaces them. But it’s time. I don’t know how to do it. Just teach me. Please teach me.”

That prayer I wrote in my journal about a month ago. And I am writing this, here and now, to testify to the amazing power of God. He listened. He answered my prayer and my heart is filled with gratitude. God has been leading me further and further down this path I am trying to describe. I didn’t see it coming, but now I recognize that, all along, the pieces were coming together. He was showing me the way, teaching me how to forgive.

For the past few months I have been participating in a wonderful weekly Christian support group called GriefShare. I joined the group because I could not seem to get past the grief of losing my father, my brother, and my friend Mike in little over a year’s time. Three deaths in a row, including the murder of my brother, was a big load to carry. In late January the group worked on the topic of forgiveness. After the session, as I worked at home through the forgiveness exercises, I became more and more angry. Reading that God expects me to forgive others as He has forgiven me made me so furious that I threw the GriefShare workbook across the room. “What have I done that is so bad to deserve this injustice? Nothing compared to what was done to me—being mistreated by that SOB, my brother murdered by that lunatic, my father’s death, Mike’s death, my aloneness.” I seethed. But I began to sense that holding on to the anger and bitterness was only hurting me more. It doesn’t hurt God when I am angry with Him. It just leaves me frustrated, withdrawn, with an aching emptiness in my chest. I wanted to cry, wail, and scream. I wanted to punch God in the stomach, throw rocks through plate-glass windows, slam my car into something. I kept cycling through this little dance—retreat, move forward, retreat—without accomplishing anything, without learning how to forgive. The workbook said to keep praying about it, so I prayed. I realized that God is stronger than my feelings and I had to turn it over to Him because I can’t do it myself.

The following week, the GriefShare lesson was on getting stuck in grief. I knew that I was stuck and I didn’t want to acknowledge why I was stuck. “No, not that, Lord. Don’t ask me to forgive. It’s just too hard.”

Everything I have read and heard about forgiveness says that for me, a Christian, it is what God requires me to do. Forgiveness is what I need to be more Christ-like as well as what I need to heal emotionally. I don’t want to be a bitter, nasty old woman. Can I detach from and give up my “story” of heartache, my litany of woes, the list of all the wrongs done to me? I have developed a relationship—an unhelpful, sick relationship—with my story. But do I really want this sad story to define who I am for the rest of my life? Do I still need people to understand how deeply I was wronged? What good does it do me if it keeps me wallowing in the pain? O, the pain—how dramatic! Seeing the dysfunctional cycle for what it is was one step in the journey. Jesus knows my whole story. He has felt everything I have felt and He emerged triumphant. Can I aspire to be more like Him? There is nothing for me to gain from the retelling. Still I know so well how hard it is to forgive—it continues to be the most difficult thing I have ever done.

 “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
C.S. Lewis

The following Sunday in church, the pastor spoke about why Jesus had to die; He died for our sins. And the root of our sin, of my sin, is living for myself and simply believing that I know best. My self-reliance, my stubbornness have not necessarily been good traits. Obviously my own perceived strength was not useful—it kept me stuck inside my grief and my sense of having been treated unfairly. Who am I to think that I know better than God? I have to stop stepping in to tell Him how to run my life. I don’t know best.

And then that moment—that one sure moment, the epiphany when I felt the Holy Spirit smack me upside the head. I was in the laundry room putting clothes into the dryer and thinking that the next day was my son’s birthday. As I left the room, it hit me—I had spent 38 years adding chapters to the sorry story of my life. That was it. I wanted it to be over. Not one more day. I fell to my knees at the foot of the basement steps and cried out to God to forgive me for my arrogance. Until I see my own flaws, my own sins, I cannot begin to forgive others, therefore never setting myself free of bitterness and resentment. I sinned by thinking I was too good to have bad things happen to me. I thought I had been treated unjustly. I had ignored God’s goodness, His multitude of blessings, the death that Jesus suffered on the cross for my sins. In my arrogant, self-centered life, only my feelings were important to me. I realized that I was not going to move beyond my grief and sorrow unless I forgive hurt that I’ve been carrying around for 38 years.
    “When the Lord shows us what’s wrong in our lives, He always provides a remedy for change.”    
David McCasland
I admitted to God that I could not figure it out by myself, that He would have to teach me, to show me the way. He gave me eyes to see so that I could trace back the sadness in my life, well beyond the deaths that I have been grieving in recent years. I saw that my own sheer willpower wasn’t working; it just kept me stuck in a cycle of feeling sorry for myself instead of trusting God’s will. I saw that I needed to do what I thought was impossible for me to do—to truly forgive. “I can’t do that,” I told myself. “That is just too much to ask. How can I ever forgive that?” And when I recognized that forgiveness is beyond my ability, I had to give it over to God. So I prayed that God would take this unforgiveness from me and lift the burden from my heart.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV)

When the Holy Spirit begins to move, just step back and watch the awesome power of prayers answered! I found a Christian book on forgiveness that is changing my perspective. A hand-out in the GriefShare group walked me through, step by step, what I needed to do. I saw that forgiveness doesn’t just happen. Time does not heal all wounds—Jesus heals wounds. Forgiveness is a choice. I chose to forgive, by name I prayed for the people who hurt me, asked God to forgive everything, and prayed that they would be blessed in their lives. No holding grudges. No hanging on to one little bit of the wrong and maybe throwing out a zinger at some point. I have to keep doing this again and again. I have to keep trusting that God’s way is infinitely better than mine.
See that no one repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Thessalonians 5:15

Note that it doesn’t say “to those you want to forgive” it says everyone. Everyone! This is reason enough to forgive, to hold no grudges, to wish no ill befalls those who have wronged me.

Every day I ask Him again to forgive my arrogance and to help me to choose to forgive those who have hurt me. Every day I ask Him again to renew my trust in Him. And every day I walk deeper and deeper into a life closer to Him. Ultimately it is this that will heal my heart.