On loving, losing, and then loving again

When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I was a youth group leader at our church. Jill, one of my “kids,” had lost her mother to cancer when she was nine, and like other women at church, I felt drawn to take Jill under my wing. Her boyfriend Mike was also dear to me.

For my junior and senior years, I transferred to a four-year college about an hour away. On the way to Seattle, with my car packed full of dorm-life necessities, I stopped at the cemetery, knelt beside the grave of Jill’s mother, and prayed, “God, I can’t take care of Jill anymore. Take care of her for me.”

But in January of my senior year, Mike and Jill were both hit by a drunk driver and killed. Mike was 17 and Jill was 16. I never felt such raw grief before or since. But beyond the grief of losing two people I loved at the same time, beyond the feeling of wrongness when young people die, there was a sense of betrayal. I had asked God to take care of Jill, and now she was dead. My faith shattered.

The fact that everyday life continued around me felt like sacrilege. How could people go on about their business when my world had changed so profoundly? Nothing would ever be the same. The world, populated by billions of people, felt empty now that Mike and Jill were no longer among them.

But there was a time when I didn’t know Mike and Jill. The world didn’t seem empty then.

I didn’t consider that until two years ago. We moved to an intentional community and, shortly thereafter, a single mom moved there with her son, who was three-and-a-half at the time. Cooper and I fell in love with each other. His mom raised him alone 24/7, and I was happy to care for him when she needed to be elsewhere. But often, he would just show up, enjoying the free-range childhood that an intentional community on an island can provide.

About a year ago, Cooper’s mother decided, after a great deal of agonizing, to move two hours away to live with her boyfriend. Understandably, the dream of having a traditional nuclear family eventually outweighed the support she received from our intentional community.

I wept many times in anticipation of Cooper’s departure. How had I ever been content to live in a world without him? But I held him with open hands, believing in Richard Bach’s quote, “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

Cooper and I get to see each other every month or two, now. Because of the distance between us, and how rapidly children grow, we have had to fall in love with each other over and over again. In spite of the fact that I’ve set him free many times, he keeps coming back.

I’ve lost a great many people, but I have also been surprised by joy. And as risky as it seems, it inspires me to open my heart again and again.

Antidotes to chaos

Typically, I blog after having had an epiphany. Today, I am blogging in hopes of reaching one.

I am feeling tearful and fragile. Of course, I want that feeling to go away because I don’t like it. But I created a card deck that helps people put their feelings into words, and I believe that emotions are the inner guidance system by which we navigate our lives. That means I have to sit with and engage all the following emotions at the same time (mouse over each illustration):

Afraid  

  

  

  

  

Why? I could say all kinds of things. Money worries. Having a full-time job plus two businesses and a non-profit on the side. Learning to be earthmates with my soulmate. Raising a teenager with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and a tendency toward oppositional defiance. The tension of integrating into our family a father-figure who has already raised two teenaged boys to manhood, and can anticipate anything my son throws at him. (My son hates that.)

But those are all excuses. Bottom line: I’m not good at taking care of myself. I have a low tolerance for chaos and hate doing anything half-assed. So the more I do, the less chaotic my life will be. Right? I self-medicate with busyness.

The aforementioned soulmate is a Buddhist who gets up at 5:30 every morning to meditate and study the dharma for an hour. With a few exceptions (one of which I call “Facebook Man”), serenity has eclipsed his Irish temper. I have seen him get through an absolute train wreck of circumstances with tears, but an astonishing equilibrium and grace. His antidote to chaos is the time he spends on his cushion every morning.

When he suggests that I might benefit from meditation, I get all fit-pitchy and refer to the many times I have “failed” in my attempts. (I consider intrusive thoughts failure. I also consider intrusive theme songs from television shows such as Bonanza failure.)

I’m not sure why I want to throw tantrums whenever anyone suggests that meditation would do me good. Walking and shamanic journeying work better for me, but in the end, I don’t think it matters how I center, ground, and calm myself. It’s just imperative that I do.

Soul mates, courage, and happiness

The “Happy” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

If I were blind, how would you explain “yellow” to me? “It looks like the sun feels on your skin,” perhaps. Or, “It looks like lemonade tastes.”

Until about a year ago, the term “soulmate” was just as inexplicable to me as “yellow” is to a blind person. Nothing you could’ve said would’ve helped me understand what it means–until I met Eddie and discovered the exquisite agony of finding my soulmate. Exquisite because I have never felt compatibility or unconditional love like this before. Agony because Eddie and I could not be together.

The best definition of “intuition” I’ve ever heard is: knowing without knowing how you know. I have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of reincarnation, but when I met Eddie, I knew that our paths had crossed in many lifetimes. I also knew that we’d seldom been together. There were lifetimes in which I wasn’t allowed to choose my own mate. Lifetimes in which he was poor, I was a nun, he was a Jew, I was a slave, he was married, or we were both the same sex.

Though there were obstacles to overcome, we realized that in this lifetime, we could finally choose to be together. There was a price to pay, though. It would take courage to be happy. Eddie would have to unplug the life support of a marriage that had flat-lined years ago. He’d have to hurt people he loved and grieve the loss of what had been while simultaneously acknowledging and celebrating what could be.

The “Hopeless” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

It was as if Eddie had been in a ship that sunk so slowly, he didn’t realize he was underwater. Then, on realizing where he was, he swam toward the surface so quickly that his body could not accommodate his rapid ascent. He got “the bends” as his body caught up with his soul and the emotional work of processing endings and beginnings sometimes left him physically exhausted and ill.

Meanwhile, my heart and head were at war. I had never known or been known the way Eddie and I knew each other. I had never felt more safe. There were so many words we didn’t have to say, so much explaining we didn’t have to do because we were One. When I was with Eddie, I felt a sense of rightness that never wavered. But when we were apart, my head kicked in. The ghosts of failed relationships haunted me. I lived in fear of judgment. Eddie wasn’t a logical choice for a number of reasons, including financial ones, and it would take blind faith to keep putting one foot in front of the other and see where a life together would take us.

The “Loving” image from the Mixed Emotions card deck (c) 2012 Kris Wiltse

There’s a saying that I’ve lived by: leap and the net will appear. Eddie and I screwed up our courage and leapt. Life has been real, gritty, and often hard. But now, we are experiencing the enormous privilege of living it together–held safely in the net of unconditional love.

Recovering from emotional bankruptcy

Grief, by Kris Wiltse, for the Mixed Emotions card deck

Last Tuesday, while my son was at his father’s over spring break, I broke down. I came home from work, crawled into bed and cried, fell asleep, woke up, and then cried some more. My eyeballs felt like unhusked chestnuts from weeping, and I felt utterly depleted emotionally. It was a good thing it happened while my son was gone, because if he’d been home, I would’ve made it about him, somehow.

The problem? Maybe it’s the hormonal train wreck of my son’s adolescence and my menopause. Maybe it’s matters of the heart. Maybe it’s because I not only parent my son alone, but have started Whidbey CareNet, a nonprofit organization that provides free care for a hundred or more emergency responders on Whidbey Island. Maybe it’s because I have a 30+ hour-a-week day job, as well as two businesses (the Writer’s Refuge and Heron Lake Press) in addition to the nonprofit. Maybe it’s the fact that in providing care for a lot of people, I completely neglected to care for myself.

In any case, I had a week to pull myself together. Fortunately, several Whidbey CareNet providers have “grandmothered” me in and extend free care to me, even though I’m not an emergency responder. I received free craniosacral therapy and counseling, then went to a naturopath, who gave me a vitamin IV and prescribed supplements as well as dietary changes. I also spent time with three friends who make me feel nourished, one of whom offered me some CDs about the law of attraction.

I’ve been bah-humbugging the law of attraction since going through one of the most painful periods in my life several years ago, but I love my friend, so I took the CDs she offered. As I began to listen to them, I was reminded that when we feel good, it’s easier for good things to find their way to us. I had completely forgotten this, and made feeling good a higher priority.

When I awoke the next morning, I could barely walk. It was incredibly painful to put weight on my left ankle, even though I hadn’t injured it. An EMT friend checked it out, but it wasn’t a break or sprain. It felt like someone had taken the bones of my foot out, shaken them up in a paper bag, and then done a bad job of reassembling them.

I committed myself to feeling good that day anyway. We headed to the home of friends for Easter–friends I enjoy spending time with, and whose family I feel privileged to be part of. They lent me a pair of crutches to make it easier get around.

Then my son and I went to see a movie at our small-town theater, which is one of our favorite things to do together. When we purchased our tickets, we were told to hold on to the ticket stubs, because there was going to be a drawing for six dark chocolate truffles made by a local chocolatier. I knew those truffles would be mine, and I was right. They were a cosmic wink that let me know the law of attraction was working.

When I went home, I looked up “ankle” in Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body and learned that “Ankles represent the ability to receive pleasure.” Surprised? I wasn’t.

The next morning, I woke up in no pain whatsoever and was able to take a two-mile walk with a friend that afternoon.

Point made. Point taken. Thank you, Universe.

Judgment day

When I was in the fourth grade, my younger brother, sister, and I responded to an altar call at the Bible Baptist church in Rantoul, Illinois.

Now, it wasn’t like we weren’t Christians before. Mom had been raised a Methodist in Germany, and opting out of the state church to join a different one meant something. It meant you were conscious about your faith. Mom’s ancestors were Huguenots, who were driven out of France for being protestant, so consciousness around faith went back for generations.

cross in handWhy wasn’t that good enough? Because the salvation part was missing. So Mom took it up a notch, accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior, and encouraged us to do the same. Dad politely declined. (Actually, he threatened to start smoking again if Mom was baptized, but she did it anyway, and he never followed through on his threat.)

Salvation brought division into our family. The pressure on Dad to convert was unrelenting. We were right, he was wrong. We were saved, he was a sinner. Everything was black and white.

Eventually, I became a Sunday school teacher, youth group leader, Christian camp counselor, and a resident advisor in a dorm at a Christian college. The black-and-whiteness of my world made me feel safe, and Christianity brought order to my universe. But one day, I said to myself, “This is too easy. I can fit the God I believe in into a shoebox.”

I went out to my Grandpa’s pasture and prayed, “God, show me how big you are.” And then all hell broke loose. Mike and Jill, two of my youth group kids, died in the same car accident, and my faith shattered.

I continued to live by Christian principles, not knowing anything else, but eventually, after spending a year in Germany, I fell in love with a German man and we decided to move in together. Now, in Germany, this was no big deal—not even for Mom’s brother, a Methodist minister. But we decided to set up housekeeping in the U.S., and it definitely was a Big Deal for my family. For the first time, I felt the sting of Christian judgment.

Any kind of fundamentalism is based on a we’re-right-they’re-wrong sort of belief system, and judgment is its lifeblood. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, swearing was wrong. Consuming alcohol was wrong. Smoking was wrong. Secular music was wrong. Premarital sex was wrong (but so was masturbation). At the Christian college I went to, even dancing was wrong because it was a “vertical expression of a horizontal idea.” Thinking outside the fundamentalistic box was wrong. I could go on and on.

When it came time for Reiner and me to move to our new place, no one in my family helped—as they’d always done when I moved before—because helping would imply support for our decision to live in sin. Perhaps, by shunning me, my family hoped to encourage me to return to the fold, but it had the opposite effect. My family’s judgment hurt so deeply that I could no longer bring myself to judge others, and my Christian faith came to an official end.

Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental,” and I’ve tried to live by that since. I fail daily. But I often succeed, and my world is much richer now that I love people who are different from me. Now that I respect and defend their right to be different. Now that I’ve given up any attempt to evangelize them into my way of thinking.

I would love it if my mother respected my beliefs. The little girl in me yearns to be loved for who I am, not condemned for who I am not. But, I’m not going to spend a single second judging or trying to unravel her belief system in an attempt to make her love me as I long to be loved. Her faith nourishes and sustains her, helps her make sense of the world around her, and gives her a group of like-minded people to belong to. It makes her happy.

In the end, I respect the differences in others because it makes me happy. I like who I am when I’m not judging others. Love just feels better.

The Lighthouse

Men in boats about to capsize,
look to my light with longing.
Envy my firm footing.
Do not know whether they should hold on to
their wrecked ships or
swim to shore.

They assume I’ve always been here,
safe and dry.
They do not know about the storm so violent
that I could not distinguish the sea from the sky.
About the night I released my hold,
grabbed my baby, and swam
toward hope.

© 2011 Petra Martin

The fortress

The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:

Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in  endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.

Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.

At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.

It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.

Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.

The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.

What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?

I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?

And will he be there if I do?