Wrestling Well Through a Hard Season {an (in)courage guest post}

“I have one question for you,” she said, leaning on the kitchen counter.

Dirty dishes in hand, I stopped loading the dishwasher and looked at my friend.

“Have you said goodbye?”

Her words were gentle yet pulsed with concern.

My eyes slid closed to hold the tears at bay; I bit my lip to quell its quiver.

My sister’s death was eighteen months behind me, but I was still slogging through the muck of grief.  I didn’t want to hear this question, much less ponder and act on it. Saying goodbye meant letting go and I was not ready to face the finality it would bring.

Three days later, my friend, Anna, and I attended a getaway with a few friends. Her question had not left me since she released it into the air.

I opened my journal in the quiet hours of the last morning of the trip and started writing. My pencil scratched furiously, unspoken words pouring forth from its tip. Tears dripped down my nose as the things left unsaid made their way from the shadows of my heart to the page bathed in light from the window.

I reached the end of the second page, signed my name, and let the journal fall to the floor. Turning to look at Anna, I said the words at the exact moment I realized what had just happened…

Join me at (in)courage to read the rest of the story.

 

 

 

 

When There’s Nothing Left To Do But Burn It All Down

Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but throw all your experiences, beliefs, and structures in a pile, light a match, burn it all down…and then go about the heavy lifting of sifting through the rubble and rebuilding.

During the last few years, I’ve learned so much about myself through a variety of self-help books, personality theories, personal growth tools, retreats, goal-setting exercises, belief vs. lie exploration, journaling, and conversations with trusted friends. I’ve realized how much childhood trauma and the beliefs we develop early in life affect us in adulthood. I’ve learned how the body remembers emotional pain. I’ve learned the importance and worthiness of loving myself just as I am…without judgement or shame.

I had lunch with a friend this week that turned into an afternoon-long discussion of how my perspectives have changed during this de/reconstruction. Let me tell you, the whole conversation was a balm to my soul. I allowed myself to be honest and open and gave myself permission to answer whatever questions she asked.

We were both nervous to broach the topic at first, because it’s just plain scary when your close friends start deconstructing their belief systems. If you’ve not deconstructed and reconstructed your own beliefs, you’re suddenly faced with a choice: distance yourself for fear that the actively deconstructing person is no longer someone you can relate to or enter open, respectful, and honest dialogue to learn from one another.

We chose the latter. I invited her to ask me anything she wanted—and she did. My answers flowed readily and freely; when I came to an issue I’m not yet clear on, I said so. When I knew I had a strong conviction and opinion about other issues, I said so. During our entire conversation, I neither apologized (or felt apologetic) for the views I expressed, nor did I feel compelled to convince her to agree with my viewpoint.

As a dyed-in-the-wool former evangelical and an Enneagram type 9, this was HUGE for me—especially since some of the things I said regarding gender roles, sexuality, purity culture, and the nature of God were things I never fathomed crossing my lips. Yet, as soon as they did, I felt more freedom to stop hiding behind the fear of what I’m supposed to believe and live as the person I was created to be, to have my own thoughts and opinions that were formed through careful thought and personal intuition rather than merely absorbing and adhering to the traditions handed down the family line and presented as the only possible worldview.

Layers upon layers of these beliefs entangle every aspect of my life because I was so entrenched in environments that sheltered me from any other perspective including attending conservative, evangelical churches in the bible belt; being home-schooled; employment at Christian institutions; attending a conservative, evangelical college; growing up in a dysfunctional home with emotional and verbal abuse; witnessing borderline physical abuse; both witnessing and experiencing religious/spiritual abuse; experiencing psychological abuse; the principles of purity culture; patriarchal hierarchy; and body-shaming.

It’s an absolute dumpster fire and I’ve come to the place where there’s nothing left to do than light a match and burn it all down so I can rebuild a healthier, stronger structure in its place.

God gave me a brain and the mental capacity to use it to think critically…and that is exactly what I’m doing. Looking at all sides, considering different perspectives, and following the path of my personal curiosity about the world.  I have an innate desire to learn; I’ve hungered for information and words and texts since I learned to read. I enjoy hearing other perspectives and sifting through them to find the pieces that resonate with me. Majoring in English taught me not only how to approach literature from a myriad of perspectives and theories—it taught me how to approach life and all its intrinsic complexities with many lenses.

I can’t speak for my friend, but I know that I walked away from our conversation with a deep peace, a better understanding of my deconstruction process, and the hope that it won’t cost me everyone I’ve ever associated with in conservative, evangelical circles.

Will there be disagreement?

Yes.

Will there be awkward moments of stumbling through new territory on the shifting sands of deconstruction?

Absolutely?

But I think it’s so, so worthwhile to wrestle out your faith and find the truth that resonates in your own soul. If we refuse to do the hard work of examining our own lives, we grow stagnant in beliefs that are no more than ill-fitting, old hand-me-downs from the past. So often, I’ve witnessed proclaiming Christians berate and belittle others who do not believe as they do, demanding they fit into a prescribed box and shunning them when they do not.

Is God not bigger than the containers we’ve built to hold him in a way that our finite capabilities can process and accept? If God is as powerful as we say we believe he is, is it possible that all the legalistic, fundamental chains we’ve bound ourselves in don’t exist in his plan for us?

So, although I am still very much in the process of deconstructing the beliefs that were thrust upon me from the very beginning of my life and reconstructing them into my personal beliefs that I can firmly stand on, I want to record some of the things I am actively adopting and/or working through. These may serve as an outline for future blog posts as I dive deeper in this process.

Here’s where I’ve currently landed:

I believe God exists.

I believe God created us in his/her image.  (On that note, I suspect God is more non-binary than we’ve realized. And yes, I know that’s going to be a very hot button for a lot of people. I’m not going to try to convince you…I just invite you to be curious enough to wonder whether he is all-encompassing enough that we could have missed the mark on this with our finite human capabilities.)

I (think I) believe Jesus was born to a virgin, crucified, and rose again.

I believe that salvation/relationship with God is more of a journey than a moment/recitation of the sinner’s prayer.

I believe the bible is more of a wisdom handbook than a black and white road map for all issues humans might/will face. It is a collection of texts written by many men, across thousands of years, to address a variety of cultures, people, places, and periods. It is more fluid than it is rigid.

I do not believe in the absolute hierarchy of the “umbrella of submission” whereby a wife is to submit, without question, to her husband. I believe humans fall under the submission of God once they profess their faith, but on equal footing as men and women rather than God–>man–>woman.

I believe “sin” has been mis-defined to some degree by the church and that God is concerned about it on a far more personal level than what we’ve taught. (Less checklist-y, for sure, and perhaps more cognitive-based than behavioral. Again, I’m not [yet] saying this is absolute, but worth considering.)

I believe that Jesus is love and believers are to live in that love, thereby exhibiting the nature of the trinity to others.

*deep breath*

When you’ve been raised not to question the authority of the church and those who stand at the pulpit, putting forth questions and unpopular beliefs like some of those above, it’s terrifying. You wonder where the debris will fall when you’ve blown up everything you were told and oppose what you are expected to cling to. You fear losing people because they just don’t understand where you are or how you got here.

I’ve spent my whole life making sure everyone else was okay. I’ve avoided conflict like it’s my job. I’ve sat down, shut up, and suppressed my emotions, thoughts, opinions, and voice since I was a child. I’ve listened to the voices—both internally and externally–that told me I was too much, not enough, irrational, rebellious, too sensitive, making things up, not saved enough, allowing satan to build strongholds in my life (yeah—as an eight-year-old…fun times). I was made to distrust my intuition, taught to equate mental health with spiritual health, robbed of my dreams, and promised that the ultimate end goal, the fatted calf of the church—marriage and a family–would be mine if I just followed all the rules.

I pasted on a smile.

I buried my heart.

I disconnected mind from body, from soul.

I made myself small. I disappeared.

Enough.

I’m waking up.

And I’m no longer apologizing for being me.

This is who I want to be.

 

 

———-

*Note: I am open to respectful, thoughtful discussion in the comments both here on my website and on social media; however, I reserve the right to remove any dismissive, cruel, and polarizing comments. I’m not interested in perpetuating unhelpful and hurtful religious agendas. *

Movie Theater Therapy: A Reflection and Review of the New Little Women Movie

courtesy IMDB

I saw the new Little Women movie last weekend. As a lifelong reader and writer who holds an English degree and adores the texts of 19th century American writers, I’m always wary of films based on books, but new versions of the classics take it to a whole new level of skepticism.

Here’s my short review: For a modern re-telling it was well done. No retelling of a classic will ever be perfect, especially for literary purists. Even the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (which I love!) is set in the original period in which the book was written. This one wasn’t and I’m glad. Shakespeare’s works are woven into modern films and it was long past time that this one had a turn to connect with a new generation.

I missed the opening weekend of this film because I wasn’t feeling well. A couple weeks later, I searched for a local showing to no avail. It was nowhere to be found and internet searches revealed a host of less-than-generous reviews. My friend Madlin found it at a local discount theater and we jumped at the chance to see it in theaters, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter. I’m sure the movie was pulled from theaters early because it’s still a very sweet story—something that is drowned out in our quest for action-packed, racy dramas even in young adult genres. Our culture wants salacious story lines and this one didn’t deliver that–thankfully. It held true to the classic themes you expect from the original novel. I loved it and I think it’s worth seeing (especially if you have tweens/teens).

Now, a deeper dive into my thoughts on the movie.

Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has been a favorite since I first read a condensed version, gifted to me by a family friend, around age 10. In college, it was a pivotal text in my favorite upper-level literature class, Dr. Thompson’s New England Writers. One of my favorite memories from the class was the day we formed a circle with our desks and discussed which character resonated most with ourselves. I’ll never forget the impassioned argument between two classmates when he spoiled a climactic plot point she didn’t know about yet. (Hint: it had to do with Beth.) She literally threw her book at him. It was hilarious.

I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the Alcott home where Louisa penned the novel loosely based on her life with her sisters in Concord, MA in August 2009. Last year, while on the Epic Book Tour, we found ourselves with a few free days while in the northeastern part of the country and I lobbied fast and hard to take Anna on a brief literary tour of the sites that enthralled me nearly a decade ago. Orchard House was at the top of our itinerary. I couldn’t wait to share the magic of the historic house with Anna. There’s just something about walking the halls of literary greats that makes my heart beat a little faster and my eyes light up a little brighter.

So, when I heard a new film version was to be released this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, I knew I was going to see it—regardless of whether I sat through it with squinted eyes and clenched teeth, worried it wouldn’t live up to the original work.

[Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’ve read the book, you already know the basic spoilers, but I’ll also give away specific scenes from this film. Proceed at your own risk.)

Walking into the theater, I braced myself to hate it. I hoped to walk away with at least one positive thread that would redeem whatever mess Hollywood made of my beloved characters.

I walked out with a tear-stained face, drenched sleeves, and a full yet aching heart.

My reaction, due in part to the experiences I brought to the viewing (known in literary theory as Reader Response), took me totally off guard.

Though I’ve watched the 1994 movie dozens of times since college and know the major plot points by heart, the last time I read the novel was in Dr. Thompson’s class ten years ago. Back then, I identified mostly with Meg’s character; she too was the oldest of four siblings, quiet and sweet, and her dreams were those expected of young women of the time—nothing brash or lofty. On the other hand, I related to Jo only in that she was a voracious reader and writer. That was where our similarities stopped—back then.

Because this new interpretation of the book is set in modern time, I saw Jo in a new light. With each scene, I realized how much Jo’s character resonated with me. I also realized just how much I’ve changed since I read Little Women in college. This dawning knowledge had me a little emotional even before the news of Beth’s illness was revealed in the movie.

In the book, Beth is struck by scarlet fever after visiting an immigrant family but in this version, she’s diagnosed with cancer. This is where my heart first started constricting and my breath shallower. Of course; why would they not give Beth cancer?

Jo is Beth’s closest sister in both the book and the film. In the movie, Jo returns home for the holidays after Beth’s diagnosis; Beth’s health has obviously deteriorated. The two sisters lie in bed together, talking. Jo apologizes for not visiting more often and Beth dissuades her guilt with the acknowledgement that Jo is pursuing her dreams in New York. At one point, Jo tells Beth, “You’re my person.” Meg has John; Amy has Laurie; Jo has Beth.

This is where I lost it completely. Just the day before I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “What happens when you lose your person? The one to whom you text your random thoughts? The one you test your questions about life with? The one you explore your identity with? The one who knows you best and calls you on your crap? The one whose memories you share the longest? The one you sold tadpoles from your swimming pool with? The one who was always up for exploration and random road trips to cheesy roadside attractions? The one who threw a funeral-themed graduation party when you were depressed by the end of your college years? What happens when that person is gone, and you lose the reflection of yourself through their eyes? What happens when you’re left flailing in their absence?

(Even now, I’m tying these words through tear-filled eyes.)

A few weeks ago, Anna returned from one of Bob Hamp’s training sessions and we were talking about attachment and how you develop your perception of yourself as a young child through the eyes of those closest to you. Ideally, this attachment comes through your parents, particularly the mother. I realized as we talked that my deepest perceptions of myself and my identity were tied closely with the way my sister saw me and shaped me. She probably knew I was more like Jo long before I realized it.

During Jo and Beth’s conversation in the same scene, Beth tells Jo she wants to see the ocean. The next scene shows Jo and Beth sitting on the sandy shore, gazing at the expanse of waves before them. Beth tells Jo to live her life for both of them, to “do all the things.” It is their last conversation; the next scene is that of Beth’s funeral.

By now, I was literally covering my mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. My head was pounding from the sheer force of keeping the emotion from erupting. I could barely see through the tears. My heart felt like it was being shattered into pieces all over again.

Madlin realized what was happening and told her daughter, who was sitting between us, to switch seats. She moved over and grabbed my hand as I sobbed through the next few scenes.

In February 2016, I flew to S.C. to spend a couple of weeks with Jess before the busy season of launching Anna’s book and the book tour ramped up. I flew into Greenville and then drove to the coast where Jess was doing treatments.

That weekend, Mom and my brother drove back to Greenville to take care of a few things and left Jess and I at the hotel. I was nervous because Jess’ health was not good and she required some assistance with her care. Namely, she had a port that had to be flushed each night and she couldn’t do it by herself (though she did try, stubborn sasshole that she was). Now, I’m not a fan of needles, but I was determined to do what I needed to do. And I did, though it was not without a lot of anxiety, a few ridiculous errors (there’s really no telling how much saline solution I shot onto the ceiling from the syringe trying to get the air bubbles out), a little humor, and a few frantic texts to #the4500 when I could not get the line flushed after many attempts.

February 2017

But the moment I remember most from that weekend is sitting on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Jess longed to be on the beach with her toes in the sand, but she was too weak to get there so we settled for the balcony. We sat in the sun, talking about how my life had changed. She offered her best fashion and makeup advice to turn me from a “tired teacher to a professional business woman” for the book tour. I hinted at my misgivings about even going on the book tour, afraid to be even further away if something were to happen, wondering if I should just not go. She was quick to shoot that notion down. She told me in no uncertain terms that I could not pass up this opportunity to travel the country like we’d always dreamed of doing.

She told me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I was where I was supposed to be. Essentially, she told me to go do all the things she couldn’t.

So I went. A week later, we were back in Greenville. The night before my early morning flight back to Texas, I went to tell her goodbye. We talked for a few minutes, but it was late, and she was tired. As I left her room, I leaned against the doorjamb and said, “Bye, Little Buddy. I love you.” “Love you, too,” she returned quietly.

“…the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away. They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which is very hard to overcome.”

(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women p. 340)

As I closed the door, I felt a sense of finality. I wouldn’t realize until later that I knew in my spirit that this was the last time I would see her. It was February 19th.  Eight weeks later, almost to the day, she was gone.

Grief is such a complex process.  I probably should’ve realized that I was setting myself up for all the feelings by seeing this movie, but it truly blindsided me because of the modern setting.

One of the last scenes in the movie shows and angry Jo running, day after day, attempting to burn the negative energy of the grief that consumes her. At one point, Marmee runs up beside her and stops her.

Jo bursts, “How am I supposed to live like this? How long will it feel like this?”

Marmee replies, “Beth wanted you to do all the things. And that means you must feel all the feelings, too.”

For months after Jess died, I tried to suppress the emotions. The book tour made it easy to avoid confronting my emotions because it kept me busy and distracted—something I’m eternally grateful for. Without that distraction, I would’ve sunk deep into a hole I’m not sure I would’ve been able to climb out of. But then after the book tour ended, I slid down a slippery slope of avoidance and anger. I questioned God and every belief I’d ever held about Him. After months of this, I found myself enrolled in a three-part personal development program (Discovery) that would ultimately lead to a great deal of healing. The first time I truly tapped into my emotions over losing Jess was in D1 in March of this year. Sitting in the movie theater for two hours last weekend was almost as emotionally gut-wrenching as those three days I spent at D1. (And if you’ve been to D1, you know how intense that experience is.)

Before Discovery, I wouldn’t have given myself the freedom to fall apart in a movie theatre. I would’ve stuffed it down and avoided the feelings. But after 30-some years of stuffing and avoiding them, I’ve learned to just let the emotions come, to ride the wave and give into the current. The feeling will pass; it’s not the whole picture, it’s simply part of the puzzle of what makes me.

It’s me doing all the things and feeling all the feelings.