Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Addiction and the Bolton Strid

I have noticed a trend recently. More and more obituaries including the cause of death of a young or middle-aged person, and that cause being a drug overdose ending a years-long hell of addiction. I read another story today about a beautiful young woman who in college tried heroin...tried it....tried it...and she was hooked.

The problem is that you don't know, when you try a drug, if you will get addicted. What sort of gamble is that?

In the north of England is a picturesque little creek called the Bolton Strid. It is, in this one area, only about 6 feet across. It looks innocent enough and people can be tempted to jump or wade across it. The problem is that nobody who has ever fallen in to the strid has survived. In fact, they don't even find the bodies. Apparently if you go about 100 yards upstream, the creek is about 30 feet wide. So, in effect, this quaint little creek is just the river turned on its side. Nobody knows how deep it goes or how many underground caverns there might be that hide the bodies that he waters gobble up. Nobody in their right mind would be fool enough to risk jumping across the strid, with so great a risk.

There isn't much of a difference, really, between hopping the Bolton Strid and trying heroin or meth or cocaine or opioids or, perhaps for those who are genetically predisposed, alcohol. It can be so tempting. The risk looks so small. It can promise so much.

I get it. I get the temptation of drugs. Maybe not of cocaine or meth. But there have been times in my life, quite recently in fact....ok.....to be honest...ongoing....I have times when I am so tempted to track down and gulp the leftover Percocet from some family member's surgery because I am in pain. Emotional pain. I just want to not hurt so bad. I want to not feel so intensely the despair or guilt or loneliness or hopelessness. It is just too much and I want it to stop, even just for a few hours. Yet I know that one pill could so very easily lead to another. And another. And those pills change your body and change your brain and before you know it you may never, ever be the same. That is truly terrifying to me.

I would imagine that on a hot day, a jump in the water would be nice. If you are worked up into a sweat, covered in mud, or perhaps dying of thirst, a babbling brook or a nearby river might seem like the answer to your prayers. You long to feel relief. The water calls.

When I look at pictures of the Bolton Strid I am appalled that there are no fences around that stretch of water. There are only signs warning people away. I noticed the same thing at the Niagara River, just above the falls. You can walk right down to the edge, jump in, and be gone. There is nobody there...nothing there...to protect you. You have to make the choice yourself. You have to make the decision to stay away from the edge. You have to keep yourself safe.

It makes me stop and wonder what can I do to keep myself safe? What about others? People I love? What sort of fences can I set up?

I am not an addict but I can see how I could easily be one. I've been known to flush the tempting substance down the toilet to prevent myself from covering my pain with pills. I read recently that the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety but connection. That is something to think about the next time the longing for immediate relief in the form of a substance rears its ugly head.





Monday, November 13, 2017

Living Below Sea Level

I live below sea level. Well, not physically. Physically I am about 2275 feet above sea level in the Southern Appalachians. But emotionally...well, emotionally I'm below. My husband calls me The Netherlands. Prone to flooding. Dependent on dikes and windmills to keep the water out and the land dry and productive.

I have have days that are dry and sunny and all is well, thanks to the dikes and the weather. But dikes have to be maintained and dikes aren't foolproof. Waves can overpower them. Cracks can form and let in the sea. And weather can be unpredictable Some days my life goes from sunny to storms. My world floods. I drown. Again. Time to repair the dikes. Crank up the windmills. Pump out the water. It takes work. Hard work.

My husband says The Netherlands are beautiful. Me, I prefer mountains. But God has made me The Netherlands anyway. (I'm only a small percentage Dutch and not prone to cleaning as they do. I guess it's all that water they have.)

Much of The Netherlands is alluvial soil, brought in from eons on floods. This is what makes the earth so rich, so productive. I see that pretty much anything in me that is beautiful is the result of my weathering the storms and the floods. I pray I can grow a crop of tulips.

I remember the old tale about the little boy with his finger in the dike. I don't want my husband to have to be that boy. He says he doesn't mind. He signed up for the job. My tulips are for him.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Plan D and Real Estate

Sixteen years ago this month I started to feel the first tremors of the coming earthquake which would change the trajectory of my life. For the past 12 years I had been a mom. Just a mom. Well, not really. I had earned a bit of my keep by screening kids' books for a catalog and fact checking for a magazine and occasionally substituting for the school librarian. I had toyed with the idea, now that my youngest was in school, of getting my Masters Degree in Library and Information Studies, seeing how I have an unusually strong passion for information and the past decade or more of my life had entailed reading children's literature for often several hours a day. But before grad school was the GRE. That formidable opponent. And the realization that I hadn't had a math class since 1983. And I had a bad case of Mommy Brain. Sigh.

But while I hemmed and hawed over my future pursuits, the ground was quaking. My husband worked for a wonderful kids' magazine, a startup that relied on outside funding to exist. It was close to being self-supporting, but not quite there. Then 9/11 happened. The financial world reeled. And then our world did.

By November we knew there could be changes coming to the magazine due to the rocky financial landscape. What would happen? Plan A, stay the course. Plan B, enact a few changes and budget cuts to stay afloat. Plan C, perhaps more drastic changes. We were eager but upbeat about what the future held and considered ourselves relatively flexible people, able to ride the waves.

The first, or was it second (?), week of December I was standing at the kitchen sink when my husband walked in the room and said, "Well, they are going with Plan D." Plan D? Yes, Plan D. Pull the funding. All of it. No magazine. No job.

8.9 on the Barker Family Richter Scale.

We were faced with a number of options, all of them involving relatively drastic changes. With 4 kids in Christian school and a desire to stay put if at all possible, we rooted around for what to do.

As I said before, I had been at home with the kids for 12 years. In my previous, childless life I had worked both as a Registered Dietitian and a secretary/receptionist but my registration had lapsed years earlier and I had not kept pace with the technological skills now needed for most office work. I was, in effect, unemployable except at the most basic level. Then my husband said those words.
"Time to get your real estate license, honey."
Sometimes the aftershocks are just as terrifying as the quake itself.

In his defense, he wasn't just pulling things out of a hat. He and I had been fascinated with real estate since we had bought our house in 1993. We would crawl in bed at night and look through the weekly real estate newspaper together because in the olden days this is all you had to go on. I had helped a number of friends find houses and had even gained a bit of a reputation as the go-to person if you were looking for a house. So, to my husband it made sense. Put my real estate fascination and skills (?) to work. Literally.

And so it began.



Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Where I Disagree Openly and Loudly With Elisabeth Elliot

I'm sorry people but I just flipped a biscuit (and one I didn't bake, either, as I'm so not the Queen of Domesticity). I read this quote by the ever revered within our circles Elisabeth Elliot.
“The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on all speak loudly about what you believe.'The beauty of Thy peace’ shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.” - Elisabeth Elliot
You've got to be kidding me. Where on earth does she get off on equating a tidy house with tidy soul....and does one even want a tidy soul?

A disordered life may have absolutely nothing to do with a disordered soul. It may have much more to do with circumstances, free time, finances, skills and gifts, temperaments, wiring of the brain, cultural emphasis, and priorities. A messy room is supposedly the sign of a creative person. A messy desk, a genius. People with ADD have a real struggle with organization, an issue totally outside of their spiritual condition. Some people have the inclination, the time, the motivation to be super tidy and put together. Others place other priorities ahead of housekeeping and personal appearance and others may just be struggling to keep their head above water.

My concern with this quote is what it is telling young women. Does how you keep your house really a reflection of who you are on the inside?

In one of Elisabeth Elliot's essays, "Little Things," she emphasizes this idea again, telling us how important the little things like neatly made beds and flat toothpaste tubes and swept corners are. She was taught this herself by a woman who chided, "Don't go around with a Bible under your arm if you didn't sweep under your bed." And to that I want to ask what the **** she is talking about.

And she goes on with "So many lives seem honeycombed with small failures, neglectful of the little things that make the difference between order and chaos." Holy crap! I'm the freaking Swiss cheese of failure here.

Since when....SINCE WHEN...was the measure of a woman how tidy her house is or how neat her appearance? I know that may have been a thing in the 1950s but DANG! It sure ain't biblical.

Yes, Jesus tells us to be faithful in the small things and we should. But should those small things not be matters of eternal value? If indeed we are given the answer to what God requires of us and if indeed that answer is to "do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God," then I think the little things we do should be about that kinds of business.

Now I'm not saying that you have no business cleaning your house or making sure your hair is brushed. Some people can't function otherwise. But to make the assessment that the state of a woman's house or her appearance or her organization is indicative in some way of the state of her soul is ignorant at best and ultimately cruel. You are putting on a woman a burden God never asked her to bear.

Did Jesus not call the tidy, goody-two-shoes Pharisees "whitewashed tombs"? I bet they sure looked great on the outside, and had smooth sheets, too. And Mary, she shirked her domestic duties and plopped herself down at the feet of Jesus to listen. Yes, making a meal was a good thing but spending time learning and listening to Jesus was the better thing and he said so.
I truly believe that to be faithful in the little things may have quite the opposite outcome than Eliisabeth Elliot was shooting for. If I am really faithful to what God is calling me to do, it might mean spending more time listening to a heartbroken friend, caring for a curious and lively granddaughter, reading books about experiences I've never had so that I can understand my friends better. It might mean rubbing my daughter's back after she's had a tough day at her very strenuous job or listening to my husband hash out a difficult thought or spend hours combing back through the real estate listings trying to find the best property for a client. It might even mean taking a long walk to keep my mind clear and my body healthy. And if in all of this there is a dust bunny population explosion, then so be it.
I know people who are doing wonderful good in this world and just don't have it in them to include a tidy house in the mix. I am not saying that organized and neat is wrong but I am saying that to equate a disordered house with a disordered soul, that is just plain wrong. And to publish it for women all around to read, well that is even worse.
I know Elisabeth Elliot has written down a great amount of wisdom through the years but this time I think she gave her preferences and her cultural upbringing with spiritual coating that God never intended.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Panic Responsibly

It has been a heck of a year. Lots of bad stuff has happened with the typical forecasts of more to come. Some people are able to handle the bad stuff with a clearness of head and a calmness of demeanor and a reliance on accurate information and critical thinking skills. Others go into widespread panic mode, freaking themselves out and spreading their existential angst over everybody near them, like a cold, wet blanket of doom.

One of the first things I remember learning about emergencies is that you are supposed to stay calm. I now see why. Panic does you no good. Think about all the collateral damage done by panic. Wikipedia has an entire entry, and a quite long one at that, for human stampedes. Take a spin through these disasters and you'll see that, even when there is a tragic event, a fire or shooting or collapse of a stage, that triggers the stampede, it is the stampede that does by far the most damage. In fact, there have been situations such as in 1913 when in the Italian Hall in Calumet, MI, somebody yelled "fire" and 73 people, including 59 children, were trampled to death in the panic to exit the building. This situation is particularly horrifying because there was, in fact, no fire.

Perhaps because I am genetically wired to anxiety, I pick up on each message of coming oppression or inevitable disaster. The nice thing about having been on the planet over 5 decades is that I have seen these prognostications come and go with almost ludicrous frequency.

I remember hearing in 1976 that Jimmy Carter, our newly elected president, was the antichrist because his name, James Carter, started with J.C. like Jesus Christ and that James and Carter had the same number of letters as Jesus Christ. Then it was Gorbachev was the antichrist because his birthmark was the sign of the beast. Then Bill and Hilary Clinton's posse of government officials were going to come take the children away from Christian parents, to be raised by the state. Then Obama was the antichrist or Hitler reincarnated, with a plan to put all of us Christians in prison, a la Holocaust. And throughout all of this there have been the ever present predictions for the end of the world, one as recently as for this past September 23, though that dude changed his mind the day before, so as not to embarrass himself, I presume.

And through all of this, much of this panic has been spread by those who claim to have put their faith in a sovereign, loving God. I don't get it. I don't get the paranoia. The distrust. The hand wringing. The fear. And the spreading of fear. To be honest, it just isn't helpful. It isn't encouraging. And it isn't even true.

What is true is that none of us...NONE OF US know what will happen today or tomorrow or next week or next year. I don't think we are supposed to. Henri Nouwen in his book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life says this:

The Christian Community mediates between the suffering of the world and our individual responses to this suffering. Since the Christian community is the living presence of the mediating Christ, it enables us to e fully aware of the painful condition of the human family without being paralyzed by this awareness. In the Christian community, we can keep our eyes and ears open to all that happens without being numbed by technological overstimulation or angered by the experience of powerlessness. In the Christian Community, we can know hunger, oppression, torture, and the nuclear threat without giving into a fatalistic resignation and withdrawing into a preoccupation with personal survival. In the Christian community, we can fully recognize the condition of our society without panicking. 

Paranoia, conspiracy theories, and Chicken Little's mantra of "the sky is falling" really do nobody any good and oftentimes do nothing more than spread gloom and doom to an anxious world that needs, more than anything, compassion and encouragement. It is irresponsible to cry "fire" into social media and stand back as people stampede each other to death in an emotional frenzy. Can we be what Nouwen says we can? Can we recognize the brokenness in our world without panicking?

Whether it is North Korea or mass shootings or earthquakes or hurricanes or the moral demise of society, there are wise and helpful ways to respond. Panicking isn't one of them. So in the midst of all of these tragedies, stay calm, trust God, and reach out in compassion to your neighbor. And if you must panic, panic responsibly and keep it to yourself. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

On Institutions and People

I'm no history scholar. I grew up in the American South. Tennessee, to be specific. I do not remember ever learning that the Civil War was not about slavery. That came later. That came from the mouths of friends who were concerned about the role of government in our lives and feared the encroachment of Big Brother. States' Rights seemed to be a dream of the past. One they would fight for as well.

I appreciate the view of smaller government. I do. I understand. But the problem is that in the situation surrounding the Civil War ("The War of Northern Aggression," some call it), those states' rights were protecting something the South held dear. Slavery. (I fully expect to get a history lecture from somebody telling me this isn't true. Sigh.)

It is one thing to hold an ideal surrounding an institution. It is another thing when that ideal impacts the life of a living. breathing person.

One of my passions is waking the Church (not one in particular but the Church at large) to the damage done when a church chooses to protect its own name over caring for a person within the church, such as when there is sexual misconduct or abuse within the church. Everybody scuttles around and pretties everything up in order to protect the institution and the victim gets lost in the shuffle, often being treated worse than the perpetrator. The same often happens in cases of domestic violence, when the institution of marriage is held up as so sacrosanct while the person within the marriage who has been violated is viewed as of no value whatsoever.

Even in parenting, you can have a principle that gets placed before the person you are trying to parent. Think of the parent who demands their child stop crying and when the child doesn't stop crying it is seen as disobedience and punished as such and come to find later that the child is crying because he is intense pain, be it physical or emotional. And somehow the parent was putting his allegiance to a principle (my authority) over the care of the child (why are you crying?).

Any time an institution or a principle, which is created for the human being, gets priority over the human being itself, something is wrong. Jesus said that about the Sabbath. That he made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.

I know people love the principle of small government. I know they love the principle of states' rights. But principles should never, ever come before people, be it parenting or church or the governing of a nation.

You can't visit atrocities on an entire race of people and think it is OK just because it is legal, as was done in the American South. You can't defend the people who defended the right to visit such atrocities just because, in their eyes, that form of government was more important than an entire race of people. They really weren't heroes.

When will our heart break for every man, woman and child ripped from their home or born into slavery or sold away from their family? When will our heart break for that and not defend it in the name of states' rights? When will we mourn for our collective past instead of celebrate it? When will we weep?

Somewhere along the line we are going to have to start looking at people as people and put them first.



Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Legacy of Loneliness

My father was the only child of a rather reserved house painter and a chronically depressed nurse. During the Depression, he mother would drive from their small town in central Massachusetts into Boston and work all week at Massachusetts General Hospital, leaving her young son and her husband to fend for themselves in a very stoic environment. His childhood was, from what I have gathered, intensely lonely and that colored his ability to relate to people for the rest of his life.

He came by that loneliness honestly, perhaps. His mother suffered much the same fate. She was an only child as well, the daughter of a Standard Oil executive from Ohio and a younger woman from the Deep South. Her parents's divorce circa 1903 when she was around 5 years old was a devastating blow and changed the course of her life. She spent six months with each parent. As an adult she refused to visit the South.

My mother was an only child as well and I heard from her how badly she longed for siblings her entire life. Beneath the backdrop of her Depression era childhood was the constant theme of loneliness.

I have always been against the idea of only children for this very reason, having seen my own parents suffer so much. Yet you don't have to be an only child to struggle with loneliness.

If I am totally honest, I would have to say that a common thread throughout my childhood, especially into my teen years, was loneliness. Perhaps that is what comes from being the youngest. The one who is left out and left behind when the others have moved on with their lives.

Yet I have a daughter who struggles terribly with loneliness. She isn't an only child. She, like me, has three siblings, but she is not the youngest. Yet she can feel that loneliness with the same intensity.

It left me wondering....can loneliness be inherited? And I looked it up and found articles that say that indeed it can. Depending on who you read and what study it can vary in terms of what percentage of loneliness is genetic vs. environmental but studies show that there is indeed a genetic predisposition to loneliness. In effect, your genes may help determine if you interpret your circumstances as lonely or not.

I find this in some way comforting, like it isn't all in my head. I'm not imagining it.

Now, from what I've seen, all the studies have been on people 50 or older and my primary loneliness was in childhood, though I can certainly experience intense bouts of it still today. The studies talk about how, because loneliness is so dangerous...a strong a predictor of early death as obesity or smoking...people need to learn to read the cues and find ways to address loneliness in healthy ways, the same as we would address health concerns. I think it is so important to take loneliness seriously. Treat it like high cholesterol or high blood pressure or diabetes.

What makes us lonely? What keeps us lonely? How can we learn to reach out to each other in our loneliness?

And for kids? Kids have so few resources. How can we love and care for and teach kids to let us know when they are lonely? How can we be a community that wipes out loneliness?

These are just some thoughts. I would love to hear your ideas.