On grief and time angst

Nine years ago today, I was 21 and walking from my 19th century English novel course on the UC Santa Cruz campus. I was crossing the bridge beneath the redwoods and returning an urgent call from my mother. Prepared to hear that a grandparent had passed, I instead hear that my father’s body was found in his car at LAX airport, with bullet wounds to his torso.

Some years May 1st passes through and I barely remember his passing. It’s not until a note from a relative arrives on my phone that the guilt sinks in that I forgot. This past week, though, I’ve felt the angst of time slipping away. I was crabby at a party where there was too much small talk. I got angry that all my travels meant I fell out of practice with writing. I avoided Netflix with much determination — that at least this week my free evenings would be productive.

This time of year reminds me how ephemeral life is. Even though Dad chose to leave this plane of existence, death became a reality 9 years ago. And I feel it perched on my shoulder ever since, always inquiring if this way of life or that person is truly how I want to spend my limited resources. Or, as Rilke puts it: “Ah, the knowledge of impermanence | that haunts our days | is their very fragrance.”

I’ve found myself in desperate collection of kindreds in this existential angst. I know them immediately. There’s an urgency to getting to the real stuff of life. There’s a joy and an appreciation of beauty big and small. And there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. There’s also a calm grace and acceptance of limitations. These are my people, and I immediately recognize them as home. It’s how my dear friend Kat and I met — huddled away in a corner at a party, talking God, recovery, and different kinds of therapeutic approaches. I know nothing I bring to her will be too woo woo. And it’s such a relief to have those people on speed dial.

Each May 1st, grief shows up in a different way, from a slightly new angle, and it reminds me that it never completely leaves throughout the year. I am a mix of guilt and acceptance about today being more about me than him. In a way I’m grateful for what the time angst has propelled me into choosing. Here’s to what it brings in the future.

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Photo by Mark Scandrette | Artist unknown

And I miss Dad. He was a giant pain in the ass and my biggest cheerleader. For those of you who know the heavy weight in the center of your chest that is grief, I’m right there with you. And I’m here to talk, if you need. No two people grieve the same way. But there’s something unquantifiable and comforting about simply being around others who know grief. So here’s my little note out into the internet abyss. Hi, I get it. You’re not alone.

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Dad teaching my sister how to bowl

The start to my spiritual journey

15 years ago today, at age 15, I accepted Jesus into my heart.

I shudder writing that out, since much of my theology and language around spirituality has changed. Beneath that knee-jerk reaction, is an invitation away from my deconstructive ways and towards an appreciation of my past self. I hope the same for all of us — that we may take “a long lovingly look at the real” of the beginnings of our spiritual journeys. Here’s mine.

The Christianity I was raised in was more cultural than about transformation. We went to a small Presbyterian Church in Thousand Oaks, my father led me in bedtime prayers, and I understood the importance of tithing to the church and international causes. But it ended there. After my parents divorced, we stopped going.

At age 9 I was introduced to a spiritual Christianity through the Trinity Broadcasting Network and my charismatic nanny. That’s right, Benny Hinn touching people on the forehead and healing them every day at noon. I am proof that God can use ANYTHING despite itself. I was always skeptical of that culture, but it was my spiritual launching point.

During that time I would hide under my pink quilt after bed time each night with a bible and a flashlight, reading mostly Esther and Ruth on repeat. I had found my mother’s old bible in the garage and searched the scriptures partially out fear of hell, partially as rebellion against my mother, who would poke her head into my room and tell me to turn off my flashlight and go to sleep. At these moments I imagined myself a martyr, but my poor mother just didn’t want to deal with a sleep deprived child the next day. It must have been such an odd thing for my mother to have to manage.

Once I hit high school, I realized I wanted to belong to a faith community. I found it in an evangelical ‘mini-mega’ church located next to the highway. It was large enough to get lost in the crowds — which when you’re an awkward 15 yr-old going to church alone is ideal. There were lots of mainline churches in my town, but all the teenagers had known each other since they were born, so it was full of cliques and long-standing inside jokes. At the evangelical church I felt welcomed and invited to return by a bubbly junior with curly red hair. So I came back. The more Christians I met, the more I found this whole other culture I could become a part of. There were Christian ska and hardcore bands! There were Christian young adult novels! I spent a lot of time in the two small religion aisles at the Barnes N Noble, trying to figure out my new identity.

At 30, I’m still at times mystified by how quickly and deeply I fell in love with the spiritual journey at that age. There was this sense of a cavern of deep longing within me as a child and teenager (and now), and in spirituality it began to make sense. Though I didn’t have the words to grasp it at that point.

15 years ago, it was the night after my mother’s birthday, and I was sitting alone in my room, on my pink quilt, with a young adult Evangelical novel. I already considered myself a believer, but in the book the main character asked Jesus into her heart. I realized that up until that point, my spiritual seeking had been motivated by fear, but I wanted it to be about something else. So I picked that moment, away from the influence of church or others, to say this is what I want. It felt empowering and relieving. The moment felt transcendent yet ordinary.

In the past 5 years around this date, I’d feel a little embarrassed and maybe some shame. There were certain exclusionary beliefs from that time I’m now repentant of (yes, that word). And also, staying too long in past laments gets in the way of genuine growth and new discovery in the present. When I find myself going to that overly critical place, I gently guide myself towards reflecting on what are the parts of this story that I can appreciate, still see in myself, and giggle at a little (I mean, TBN, really?).

I love that teenage girl who sat alone in her room and intentionally vowed into a spiritual journey. That she was independent and critically thinking. Who knew she wanted something more than what was already. Who was a little mystic with her head in a book. Of course she found a home at a mega church. There were some great people there. There was space for her to be a big personality and run around barefoot. There were adults who mentored her in writing and leadership. The youth pastor laid down a foundation for Kingdom of God theology à la Dallas Willard. She was taught to be welcoming and invitational. That 15-year-old worked with what she had — a Trinity Broadcasting Network introduction, an evangelical culture, and a novel. I’m not sure I’d want a different beginning to my spiritual journey.

Certainty and Uncertainty

You know what I love? Consistency. Predictability. A plan. In Myers Briggs terms, my J is strong.

You know what drives me bananas? The unknown. Waiting and seeing. Trusting God when I haven’t the faintest idea of what’s going to happen next.

Like I mentioned last month, I’m in a liminal space. This month it feels more real and beyond just my changed relationship status. I’m sitting with questions of what’s next — I finish my three-year spiritual direction training in May, I’m adjusting my identity to being single, and entering the 30-something age bracket has come with its own set of expectations I hadn’t realized (like buying nice furniture and thinking about retirement). I can’t address this with a tactical plan right now…and have a sinking suspicion that not a lot actually needs to be addressed. But the fear of not knowing the future pulls me into an anxiety vortex that is hard to get out of once inside.

I’m not alone in this experience. I’ve heard the same feelings of uncertainty from many of my thirty-something peers living in the Bay Area about a variety of things: we can’t own a home here, do we move elsewhere, if we stay here where do we fit future babies in our tiny apartments, and how do we loving tell our parents we don’t have room for our grandparents’ furniture in said tiny apartments?

When I shared about my uncertainty, my friend Erin read this scripture to me over Skype and we both laughed at how frustrating it was: “Make a plan, but it will come to nothing. Give your plan, but it will not be done. For God is with us.” (Isaiah 8:10). God can be so annoying sometimes — trying to massage out my rigidity by turning my plans on their heads. I’ve learned by now to not run ahead of myself. But it doesn’t save me from sleepless nights where my anxiety makes me kick my bed covers like they’re attackers.

I have no magic solution, only an invitation to patience and presence:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” — Rilke

I tend to forget that part of living the questions is simply living: going to therapy, exercising, writing, working, art-making, mentoring, giving and receiving spiritual direction, goofing off with friends, balancing a budget/saving/giving, dating, reading, cooking, and prayer at the center of it all. It will build and weave into what the future looks like and who I am in that future space as well. I have an abundance of examples from the last 30 years to support this. And anxiety can give me temporary amnesia to the provision that has come in the past.

Let’s be honest, I’m still in planner mode. I have a detailed vision statement for myself that I revise in a Google doc. It helps me remember the person I have become and am becoming. It steadies me when I see what God has done within me — that it’s all been more rich and vibrant than my own previous plans.

In the invitation to simply live, there’s a deeper call to embrace grace. That’s the real work I sense God doing in this season within me. For me to sit with the reality that I don’t have to perform, please, or perfectly execute on anything, let alone my future. That perhaps I’ve been holding an inaccurate image of God as the parent I have to earn affection from. So I pray with the reality that I already have God’s attention, love, and participation. Since, at the end of the day, it’s not the certainty I want, but God.

Image: flickr/tom_hall_nz CC BY 2.0

The Space Between Ending and Beginning

2015 is ending and 2016 is beginning tonight.

“Out with the old, in with the new!” I flippantly said to a coworker who wished me a Happy New Years.

Easier said than done when one of those endings is a romantic relationship.

While it’s certainly for the best, I’m still in the midst of grieving the loss of it. I feel about 3 inches shorter.

It’s these moments of moving from endings to beginnings that are opportunities to truly live rather than escape. To build and heal, rather than fester. To reflect and try something new. To care for yourself and trust. The liminal space can feel vulnerable, unknown, and annoyingly empty. The beginning is not quite here yet, the grieving still is happening, but the loss has happened.

Living and accepting our reality will not feel very spiritual. It will feel like we are on the edges rather than dealing with the essence. Thus most run toward more esoteric and dramatic postures instead of bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and God’s joy inside themselves. But the edges of our lives–fully experienced suffered, and enjoyed–lead us back to the center and the essence, which is Love. — Richard Rohr

So this is what I’m doing. Sitting, savoring, suffering. All of it. Then I take a break to go out with friends, have fun, and work out hard. There’s no fast-forward button to a month from now, where I’ll certainly feel more peace. I have the clarity and feedback from trusted friends, but it’s not sinking in. The logic adds up, but it doesn’t feel like reality yet. This space between feels like a waiting room. And in the meantime I’m grateful for my incredible community who make it impossible to feel alone and who show God’s holy comfort.

I know many can relate to the desire for 2016 to be better than 2015, whether it be personally, professionally, or politically. I know there are those of us who want to just get right into the beginning, the change, the action of building something new. I hope on this day of reflection you can feel into the rough edges of 2015, and that they will lead you back into the center in 2016. And from that center of Love is where you’ll find the next beginning.

This is 30

Since I was 23, I’ve dreamt about turning 30. For some reason 30 felt like actual adulthood. Forget the whole my mom was married at 25 and had me at 27 thing, 30 was truly arriving. My best friend and I would talk about our 30-year-old selves — professional, poised, having fancy dinners on Valencia Street, being in mature love relationships, and dressing to the 9s. I’d finally gain mastery of heels and lipstick when I hit 30. I had even created a list of “Things to do before 30.”

A month ago, I looked over the list. I had completed about half the items on it, answering the bulleted desires with outcomes I hadn’t expected when I wrote it. But the rest of the list didn’t resonate any longer, so instead of guilting myself to power through completing it, I deleted it off my phone. This is what turning 30 feels like to me now: being honest with myself and letting go of previously set expectations for the sake of being more me. Choosing imperfection. Not the manicured ideal I had at 23 (I still feel like a little girl when wearing heels and lipstick), but just an honest human with limitations. Like the other night when I was trying to shoot a banner photo, after carefully laying out each candle, I found our apartment only had 29 birthday candles in our junk drawer. I laughed, shrugged, and took the photo. I was tired and wanted to take this photo before going to bed. And I’m pleased with how the photo turned out. This is 30 to me.

If I learned nothing else from my 20s it is that the best things that happened to me weren’t planned or expected. Many were random rabbit holes I went down while waiting for “the plan” to happen. Each time the current draft of “the plan” blew up, I found myself left with the delightful gifts from the rabbit holes. Like making a music blog to get over a bad break up, which turned into housing musicians in my living room, which turned into going to Seattle to see some of them perform at a festival. Or trying seminary in the hopes of becoming a theologically educated therapist, and then finding seminary culture not to my liking after a semester. Instead I worked for a Christian formation nonprofit and got an excellent training in what mattered most to me. Which turned into participating in a 3-year certification program in spiritual direction that was a better fit for my particular giftings. I fell in love a few times, and got my heart broken about the same. At moments, I had thought each was the one. A few of them are married now and procreating in cold states. And I kiss the dirty, warm San Francisco ground that I get to live this life here. I’d love to be married, but I never regret not marrying them.

Over the years God’s invitations to release have gotten louder and clearer: go with the flow, stop holding tight to future details, and be grounded in the present. Sure, I save money each month for the future, but it’s a “?” savings account. I know I’ll need it at some point: moving, a car, a home, etc. Other that being intentional about saving money though, I’ve been focusing my energy away from making specific plans and living into the life themes I always wanted to live: companioning through spiritual direction and mentorship, writing regularly, loving well, and connecting with the divine. The specifics of where, who, and how will change. White knuckling onto a plan will not alter that reality in any direction. Since I was 20 the Spirit regularly has peeled back my fingers one by one off of my plans, and my envisioned 30-year-old self is no different. Of COURSE real 30-year-old Dani looks different than my 23 year old self had expected. She’s better. She makes decisions in order to be the best version of herself, like drinking less coffee and alcohol to keep a clearer mind. Same with the social life — it’s decreased so she can rest and write more. In other ways, she’s just more of the person she was at 23. Still an extrovert, goofball, friend, external processor, klutz, spiritual seeker, and a writer. There was a time I questioned the gifts of these traits, but now I’ve finally begun to embrace them and make choices that highlight them. After years of struggling to know, accept, and communicate who I am and what I want, it feels like a huge relief to see it becoming a bit easier for me to do.

A big part of this shift was bringing writing to the forefront of my priorities. The last few months I’ve felt more fulfilled than ever because I’ve made time to write several times a week. It means I say no more, and not just to things I don’t want to do. Saying no to good things for the sake of focused priorities is a bummer. But it’s also one of the best decisions I’ve made. There’s a lot less noise, but a lot more me. I hadn’t planned for that at 23. I thought she’d be even busier than I was then. Instead I have distilled my time, relationships, and projects to what really matters most. Life feels more potent and free. This is 30.

Everyone said this shift happens when you turn 30, and continues to deepen in the 40s, 50s, etc., and I am grateful to not be an exception to the rule. I also acknowledge it’s not just aging that brought this about — it’s been a long journey through therapy, spiritual direction, cultivating relationships that encourage and challenge me, and a lot of frustrated prayer. In short, I feel invested and partially responsible for this shift, so I am proud and grateful I chose in as much as I could, and didn’t run away. I fought and want to continue to fight for the healthiest version of who God made me to be.

I live my life in themes and symbols, and each year at my birthday I pick a new one as my intention for the year. This year, though, I don’t need an abstract symbol to guide how I want to live — I simply want to continue focusing on being more direct, more open, and more myself.

I spent a lot of Novembers in my 20s planning potential epic 30th birthday parties. An open mic night where all my friends perform, a themed dress-up, or at a cabin in a beautiful location for a weekend. And then last year I realized parties really stress me out. I will always be “on” in those settings, and being on isn’t enjoyable for me, because I’d rather be real than be on. Instead I want to go on an adventure and also be leisurely. So today my boyfriend and I are hopping a plane to Palm Springs. We’ll lay by the pool, rest, eat, drink, and explore funky desert art like Salvation Mountain.

This is 30.

Bring it on.