Breaking wide open

I’ve never known extreme pain. And I am almost embarrassed to admit it. I’ve had my heart broken by boys, and I’ve ridden rollercoasters of change and uncertainty. But abuse? loss? poverty? I have been too fortunate {wince}.

Instead, my heart seems to break wide open each time I enter into a story of someone else’s extreme pain. There were many times I laid in bed at night, my mind running rampant, after hearing a child’s story of years of parental abuse at the child/adolescent psychiatric hospital where I spent my days. Then there was the time last year when I could not return to my online class discussion board for a week because the child trauma stories shared blackened my mind and literally made me sick to my stomach. And now this… A cherished blogger sharing stories from her current trip to Haiti—stories of children left orphaned after earthquakes, with nowhere safe to go, no food to eat, no clean water to drink. The word orphaned alone fills my eyes with tears and makes my stomach swirl. A vulnerable child, left utterly alone in the world, dear mother and father lost forever. My feeble mind attempts to imagine that extreme pain.

I swing back and forth on the pendulum of human suffering—embarrassed by my privilege and fortune, then overcome with sadness and outrage at the chaos of unjust pain, now unsure whether my breaking heart is a sign of weakness or strength. Yet lately there has been a still, small voice that sings the words from a song over and over again in my ear:

Break my heart for what breaks yours.

God, my heart breaks again and again for what I know breaks yours. I don’t know what that means or what that does, except that it can move me to action. If I will simply allow my cracked-open heart to move my feet forward, in any way I can.

Today that means I am moved to sponsor an orphaned child in Haiti through the grass roots, non-profit collective Help One Now. Would you consider doing the same here? Or letting your heart break wide open when pain moves across your path?

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5 ways to deal with unraveling

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I’ve been in a muddle lately. My mind has been wound up so tightly for so long, taut as a tightrope, ready to send whatever is demanded of me—words, ideas, PowerPoint graphics, meals, wisdom, hugs & kisses—flying through the air and landing squarely where it needs to. I’ve been an athlete training for the big race (my research defense? my graduation?), I’ve been a superhero with adrenalin pumping through my veins.

But now it’s all unraveling. The tightrope couldn’t hold the tension forever, and now my mind is swirling into mush and my heart is following suit. So what does a psych nurse do but analyze and analyze until she’s found the root of her muddled demise?

It’s got to be the horrendous workload this semester. The 18 units and the increasing research appointments and the extra research study, oh yeah, and Brandon’s research too.

Or maybe it’s this unending heat, that’s still going strong into October, that keeps us hibernating for 5 months every year. For goodness sake, I just want a taste of what the rest of the country keeps swooning over with its Pinterest pinning of orange leaves and crisp mornings and pumpkin lattes!

No, I know, it’s that ugly word that I hate to admit: loneliness. Truth be told, we don’t have an abundance of close friends here in the desert, and independent as I may think I am, I also really need close friends to survive. Cancelling all of our visitors this semester might have been the worst mistake yet.

My mind keeps running with the next perfect excuse for why my mind has unraveled, and yet a few days later I still don’t feel any relief. Don’t I just need to figure out where my funk is coming from so that I can reason my way out? Why does it seem like the muddling is getting worse?

And then, my wise and gentle husband reminds me of what really happened this past week: Our family got the stomach flu.

A light came on in that muddled head of mine and I recalled what might be the wisest words my mother has ever bestowed upon me: When you are sick, every emotion and thought must be taken with a grain of salt. Meaning: Don’t listen to yourself when your health is under attack! 

And so I will grab this morsel of wisdom that offers me a free ride past all of my musing and complaining and analyzing and muddling. But, I am a perfectionistic/planner psych nurse, remember, and so I will instead come up with a short plan for how to combat my off-kilter heart and mind:

  1. Pray. Not because God might wipe my depression away, but because I find peace in that space, where my heart becomes still and my mind bends to a greater presence than my own.
  2. Get outside. Find moments when the temperature is tolerable and bask in nature’s bounty of sunshine, purple mountains, and wide-open spaces. There is something about touching God’s creation that recreates something within me.
  3. Ask for help. Buttressed within my walls built of pride and…well, pride, is the notion that I can do it without having to ask others for help. I’m a can-do girl, and I don’t need to bother others when I can do it alone. There is truth there, but really, I am not living fully and abundantly when I “do it” alone. Getting things done is not a measure of success, in and of itself.
  4. Be with others. So my closest family and friends aren’t here. So? I am learning that I am an extrovert, which, at the very least, means that I need regular connections with others. It could be as simple as sharing a cup of coffee with a friend or listening to a group discussion on theology at our home church. I just need to experience in simple ways that I am not alone in this human condition.
  5. Write. I haven’t wanted to write here for awhile. Because I’m tired of complaining about how hard life is right now. Because I’m tired of worrying about others worrying about me. Because why did I start this blog in the first place? (Constantly wrestling with that one.) Oh yes, again, as my wise and gentle husband reminded me today—because writing helps me grow. Right now I need it to be as simple as that.

Rest: Watch how I do it

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Have you ever noticed that it is only when you are fighting sickness, or an injury, that you think of health, and long for it?

Or when you’ve seen only gray skies for a week straight and would give anything to see the sun peek from behind the clouds?

That is me and rest right now. A restful spirit is really the farthest thing from what I am at this moment, and yet I keep coming back to the topic—reading about it, writing about it, meditating on it—as if by focusing on it I could begin to experience real rest throughout my being. I want a taste of rest, dear God.

I’ve placed a Bible verse above my desk—printed on a beach background paper—that seems to speak to me in a new way each day.

 Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

(Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

 Today, for the first time, I see God’s invitation to me to walk with him, to watch how he does it. I’m going away to the high desert of Northern Arizona today—to spend a weekend being intentional about rest, peace, and communion with family. It’s just a little A-frame cabin, off the grid, on a dirt road, with no neighbors in sight. Human neighbors, that is. (I’ve written about this mystical place on my old blog here.)

I have a little hunch that God’s spirit is going to show up there. That I’ll get the chance to walk with him on the sparse hills of majestic sunsets…that I’ll get the chance to watch how he does rest—with his little boy Soren playing in the dirt, with his dainty birds singing in the trees, perhaps even with my spirit as I stop. And take it all in.

What speaks to you from the verses up above?

What grounds me

Being a superhero with my little boy. Soren in his Spiderman suit and mask, me with a pillow as my Captain America shield, we run back and forth across our little house, calling forth the bad guys from corners and closets, wrestling with each other to see who is the toughest superhero, feeling that we can conquer anything with our superhero powers.

 My homework for the day is a distant thought from our good-fighting-evil world.

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Being a superhero for my family. After pretending to be Captain America all morning with my Spiderman, we do our usual Monday grocery shopping, I unpack the bags of yummy items intended for lasagna, salmon strawberry salad, and melon & mint orzo, Soren eats his favorite quesadilla (that must be made on the stove, not the microwave!), I relish my 45 minutes of quiet lunchtime with a fruit smoothie and Downton Abbey episode, and then it’s back to homework for a few hours (thank you, Soren, for your long naps these days!), until Brandon gets home and I can head off to the pool for a monotonous but always refreshing 1800-yard swim, and then it’s back home again (although this drive I’ll turn off the radio to give my mind 10 minutes of silence for the day), to put the lasagna on the table, chat with my boys, give Soren his bath (with superheroes of course), read his favorite Batman book, sing “Jesus Loves Me”, listen to Brandon say a sweet prayer, and then, whew! it’s time to face homework again for a few more hours, this time Bran and I are trudging along side by side and he turns and says softly to me over our regular Classical music study playlist, “Monique, you’re the superwoman of this house.”

All that work is worth it right then.

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Fighting it out with the one I can’t live without. It’s a simple, stupid comment, and yet it pierces something deep within me, I’m still not sure why it stung so bad, but anger, enormous amounts of anger, boil up to the surface in an instant, and before I know what is happening, a strawberry is flung at his back, I am out the door, driving towards those purple mountain majesties at dusk, screaming (really screaming!), pounding my steering wheel, and then crying, so that the tears almost make me stop driving, and then in an instant it is gone. I am back to being angry, this time stone-cold angry, and tired, so tired from doing so much and now feeling like I am doing it all alone. Angry at my partner, my lover, my best friend, who seems to have abandoned me in that stupid, simple comment.

But I can’t leave my boys for long, and Soren needs his mommy to kiss him goodnight, and my stomach is growling so angrily that I’ve just gotta put something in it, so I return home, say hello to Soren in the bath, and he says to me, “Mama, can you say hi to Dada?”

How can I keep up my anger when my precious little blond boy just wants to see his superheroes be on the same team again?

Yet I pout and he pursues and we do our little fighting dance that we always do, until my heart gives way, because I don’t want to be alone anymore, and there is so much to share, and who else can hold my daily struggles and joys but him? So he beckons me to his lap, I lay my head down, he gently runs his fingers through my hair, and I talk and he listens, and I find my heart settling in once again.

This is what grounds me.

A game plan

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Last week—in the nervous anticipation of a new school year—I threw my hands up and let go. To hell with it all, I’ll just rest.

This week—in the inevitable starting up of demands and a quickly filling calendar—I took one step after another, and listened. Is that a game plan I hear?

First, I am reminded of my phrase for living this year. Simplify: life-giving or necessary. In essence, this means I am to simplify my life, stripping off anything and everything that is holding me back from living out my most beautiful and passionate self. This means taking a tedious inventory of the people, events, and commitments in my life on a daily basis, asking myself if each one is either life-giving or necessary. Anything that does not fit into those categories must be let go. At least for now.

I thought I did a pretty good job of pruning my life at the turn of the year. I quit blogging in January, I stopped stressing about my social life (or lack thereof), and I did my best to choose exercise because it was my pill for mental sanity, not my attempt to get thin. But I am learning just now that saying no to things in my life for the sake of simplicity may require more than turning down what does not bring me life. It may also require that I say no to things that do bring me life.

I stumbled across a video this week [here] of Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) discussing the importance of saying no to things that we want in order to “say yes to the thing that we really, really want”. She perfectly sums up this idea by calling herself the bodyguard of her great work, which at the moment is a new novel. (Watch the first 3 minutes, it’s worth it.)

 

That is my new game plan. I hereby name myself the bodyguard of my great work, which is the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree that will be mine next May. I will protect it, nurture it, and determine to say no to things that may even be life-giving—such as writing or exercising or visiting family & friends—if at that moment they may be a hindrance to what I really, really want: to successfully, and with great passion, finish my doctoral program.

But there is one side note. I also do not want to lose my sanity, my growing and vulnerable heart, nor my precious, deep connection to my family of three. And so there must be balance. Ahh, that one word that always draws me back, always concludes my inner struggles, always ends every debate. In the end, I am the bodyguard of my great work, which can only be accomplished as I remain sane and wholehearted and intimately connected with others.

Guarding my prize is the goal, simplifying is the strategy, and balance is the secret weapon.

So rest.

Oh yeah. This is what it feels like. Burnout.

The summer semester ended with a flurry of paper-writing and research protocol-revising and Power Point slide-making, and then I crumbled to the floor in a dead heap. This time every muscle in my body remained tense because they knew of no other way to be. This time my brain shut down entirely because the fuel had all been burned out. This time my heart hid in a corner because where else could it go? There was nothing left to feel but exhausted.

Now, after 2 weeks of my best attempt at rest, I nervously await the rejuvenation of my muscles, the alertness of my brain, and the eager anticipation that is supposed to fill my heart up again. There is just one problem: the fall semester starts in 4 days and none of that re -charge/-juvenation/-freshment/-newing has come yet.

I still have nothing left.

Being the planner and optimist that I am, I have been trying to come up with a plan for how to conquer this last year of school while carrying the heavy, dreary burden of burnout. The funny thing about burnout is that you don’t have any energy left to think or fight your way out of its miserable weight upon you. It just sits, and you sit under its weight, because it has sucked you dry. And so my feeble desire to plan a way out waits, in a small corner of my heart, for something to come and rescue me.

So rest.

That’s it? These 2 words are all I’ve been given over these last 2 weeks of contemplating, meditating, praying, reading, and conversing. And yet, the bounty of grace-filled words that have been written on the topic of rest over the last few weeks has been amazing. First, I encountered a radical and thought-provoking piece on practicing the Sabbath in my college alumni magazine here. Then, an inspirational blog for women called SheLoves Magazine devoted the month of August to rest, where I have been moved by blog posts here, here, and here. And then, I began reading The Message Bible (yes, a Bible, and another topic for another day) and stumbled upon Matthew 5:3:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

That’s it. There’s no plan, no formulated fight to push the weight of burnout off of my shoulders. All I can do is acknowledge that yes, I am at the end of my rope. And no, I do not have any idea as to how I will muster the strength and passion to finish out this program. So let’s see what will happen. Let’s see what will happen when I start my semester still tired, still weary, still empty. Maybe there will be more room for the Divine Spirit to move. Maybe I will actually listen to my weary soul and create rest stops along the way, as blogger Desiree Adaway encourages us: “We all need time to stop our work, not when it is completed, but when we need to stop.”

 And so, with tired hands and an empty heart, I reach out for tomorrow with a white flag named rest waving across my face. And I will continue to revisit, as often as I can remember, the sacred and almost-too-simple words God gave to me in this time of rest:

“Monique, please stop. Stop your worrying, your self-bashing, your striving to be perfect in everything. I know, and you know, that great things are happening in you, and through you, to the world. You are more than good enough. You are who I designed you to be. Celebrate this with me today. I love you. So rest.”

 

Why I am here: My writing creed

I need to write.

I think this truth has been hiding, held captive inside of me my entire life. In this very moment, I am beginning to believe these simple words. I need to write.

Let’s rewind. I have always been told that I should write. For as long as I can remember, my mother has been telling me what a gifted writer I am and that I should write. As any rebellious child would do, I shunned her encouragement and went for science and medicine instead. Only a handful of people know this, but I won awards for writing as a kid. My English teachers graciously cheered me on. I secretly thrived on writing poetry to let loose my teenage angst. I wrote my valedictorian speeches for junior high and high school.

But I didn’t want to write.

After pursuing a career in nursing I thought I had escaped my writing call. Then I got to grad school. My peers kept telling me how much they loved my writing. And blogging became an outlet for me to express the tumultuous life change happening inside of me. Personal writing became a way to touch the Divine—to worship, so to speak—when I knew of nowhere else to go. And making my writing public ushered in an experience of vulnerability that illuminated my arrogance, my insecurities, and my fears. Which is why I left blogging a short while ago.

I see now that I’ve always been afraid to write.

I’m a perfectionist. That is why I like science, why I like diagnostic categories, why I like detailed grading rubrics. And it’s why I am so afraid to write. There is no rubric for a perfect blog post, no clear-cut categories for good or bad writers. Words are not perfect or imperfect. There is no either/or. The words must simply come from me. They must be my own and they must speak truth, my truth. Easier said than done.

I’m starting to see why I need to write.

Opening my heart and letting it spill onto paper (or my laptop screen) is my worship. By that I mean that writing becomes my unique way of participating in the act of creation—creating is a gift bestowed on us by the Divine, and to participate in creating is to experience his (or her) life within us. You could say writing is my art. And God knows I am so much more than a perfectionistic scientist.

So I need to write.

To experience the Divine in me. To process the profound changes occurring deep within me. To release any fettered emotions that are holding me captive. To do something different than my daily black & white work of diagnosing, writing scholarly papers, and doing research. To face this gift inside of me that I cannot tell is my demon or my angel.