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I don’t usually do much for Lent other than think about what I should/could/would do. But this year there’s something stirring deep down. A need for silence.

My brain works in a furious rush sometimes, and most of my life is filled with incredible life-giving moments, but sometimes the energy of those moments keeps me up at night because I just. can’t. shut. off.

My brain and my soul need a break. And I need to practice quiet.

I told someone yesterday that in grade nine a science teacher asked me to stop putting my hand up to answer questions so that other students would be more likely to participate. In grade twelve a teacher told me I take up too much verbal space.

Ya, I’m long-winded. And I’m sensitive about it. Nearly every time we leave a social gathering I ask Kathryn if I talked too much. It’s only just occurred to me in the last few months that I don’t need to (and don’t even benefit from) this compulsive desire to share and record every thought that comes swirling through my mind.

Kathryn’s highest love language is acts of service, and in my desire to love her well, I sometimes need to remind myself at bedtime that it is an act of service not to tell her every thought I have had all through the live long day. And then I have to tell myself it’s an act of service not to tell her I’m doing an act of service. The woman needs some sleep.

So, because of these heart stirrings, and because of a desire to deepen my internal peace, for the next forty days I plan to spend twenty minutes a day practicing external and internal quiet. I will sit quietly and focus on my breath and as thoughts come through my mind I will picture them as leaves on a river floating by, appreciated but not needing to be captured, and I will gently return to my breath.

Silence.

As I wake to the news of the election results in America, I pray these words with heartache and hope.

God of the universe who holds all things together:

Let us be instruments of peace.
Where there is hatred, may we bring love.
Where there is hurt, may we forgive.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Where there is darkness, may we bring light.
Where there is sadness, may we bring joy.

May we seek to comfort rather than to be comforted;
to understand, rather than to be understood;
to love, rather than to be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is by forgiving that we find forgiveness.
It is in death that we find new life.

IMG_20141023_171847936_HDR.jpg

Prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi

To feel understood in their pain,

For compassionate people who can truly listen,

For a real safety plan that reduces the vulnerability they and family feel,

For peace during the long wait for mental health services,

For the root of this pain to be addressed and not masked,

And endurance for the road ahead,

These things I pray.

“Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation… all the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you.” 
– David Wyte

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(Photo Credit: Brandon Mitchell)

I got to be near some pigs that were “unutterably themselves” this weekend.

I watched them cool themselves in some pretty nasty mud. I watched them root through fresh straw. I fed them corn cobs and scratched their heads and even grunted a few replies to their curious questions. I marvelled at their long eyelashes and the density of their bodies and how fast they could run in circles. I laughed and turned away disgusted as they shit and pissed right there in front of me.

I loved these pigs a little bit this weekend. I loved them even though we are so different, even though our interaction was so limited. I loved them because they showed me something I didn’t know, or maybe had just forgotten.

Along with these pigs were the dogs and the chickens; the gardens and the grass; the lake and the rain; the ants and the mosquitos; the sun and the sky – all reminding me of the hope and resiliency of creation,

the hope and resiliency of God in creation,

the hope and resiliency of creation in me.

I will tell my story.

I will open space for vulnerability where stigma and silence have reigned.

In this, I bring my darkness to light. In this, I find hope.

In this, I kindle a spark for you to bring your own darkness to light.

“You are alone.” “This pain will last forever.”

These are the two great lies of mental illness.

And so, instinctively, we fight or flee.

In telling my story, I challenge myself and you:

Stand still and hold the light.

I am, you anxious one. 

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

 – Rainer Maria Rilke

From Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver (2009).

“At the River Clarion”

1.

I don’t know who God is exactly.
But I’ll tell you this.
I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a
water splashed stone
and all afternoon I listened to the voices
of the river talking.
Whenever the water struck a stone it had
something to say,
and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing
under the water.
And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me
what they were saying.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered
the moss beneath the water.

I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through
all the traffic, the ambition.

2.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke.
Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then
keep on going.

Imagine how the lily (who may also be a part of God)
would sing to you if it could sing, if
you would pause to hear it.
And how are you so certain anyway that it doesn’t sing?

If God exists he isn’t just churches and mathematics.
He’s the forest, He’s the desert.
He’s the ice caps, that are dying.
He’s the ghetto and the Museum of Fine Arts.

He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell.
He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing
their weapons.
He’s every one of us, potentially.
The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician,
the poet.
And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?

Yes, it could be that I am a tiny piece of God, and
each of you too, or at least
of his intention and his hope.
Which is a delight beyond measure.
I don’t know how you get to suspect such an idea.
I only know that the river kept singing.
It wasn’t a persuasion, it was all the river’s own
constant joy
which was better by far than a lecture, which was
comfortable, exciting, unforgettable.

3.

Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
When we cut the ripe melon, should we not give it thanks?
And should we not thank the knife also?
We do not live in a simple world.

4.

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

5.

My dog Luke lies in a grave in the forest,
she is given back.
But the river Clarion still flows
from wherever it comes from
to where it has been told to go.
I pray for the desperate earth.
I pray for the desperate world.
I do the little each person can do, it isn’t much.
Sometimes the river murmurs, sometimes it raves.

6.

Along its shores were, may I say, very intense cardinal flowers.
And trees, and birds that have wings to uphold them,
for heaven’s sakes–
the lucky ones: they have such deep natures,
they are so happily obedient.
While I sit here in a house filled with books,
ideas, doubts, hesitations.

7.

And still, pressed deep into my mind, the river
keeps coming, touching me, passing by on its
long journey, its pale, infallible voice
singing.

(http://www.amazon.ca/gp/search?index=books&linkCode=qs&keywords=9780807068984)

“So you’re the Spiritual Care Guy, right? The one with the answers?” “Yeah…” he says with a grin. He knows by now that conversations with me aren’t often easy. “So where is God in all of this?” I ask. His grin disappears, and as tears fill my eyes, he responds, “My honest answer? I don’t know.”

We meet about once per week to talk about life here in the hospital. This is our hardest conversation yet. I have to fight to keep from ugly crying. “I overdosed a few days ago,” I tell him, though he probably already knows. I had a chance to spend a few days relaxing at a cottage – swimming, playing games, enjoying good food – and I threw it away. One minute the pills were in the bottle, the next minute they were in my stomach. It only took about twenty minutes for the sedating effects to kick in. The next thirty-six hours are a blurry haze.

“Do you remember our conversation from last week?” the Spiritual Care Guy asks. I draw a blank. He reminds me how we talked about self-sabotage and the impulse to self-destruct. I laugh at this twisted predictor of the events that occurred mere days ago. But the laughter doesn’t last. With tears running down my cheeks, I beg him for an answer to my need. I need to understand why I am so hell-bent on self-destruction, why 99% of the time I can be focused on healing and growth, fostering peace and resiliency; and the other 1% of the time, I throw it all aside.

His tactic tends to be asking questions rather than answering them and he asks me, “what gives you hope?” I stay quiet, waiting for an answer to surface. The only one that comes is love. Wild love. Untamed, organic, unabashed, illogical love. Love for my niece (and the one on the way!), my parents, my brothers and their wives, my dear friends and of course, Kathryn. Love for her, above all else.

And yet she is the one most hurt when I am emotionally dysregulated. “I WISH I HAD NEVER MET YOU!” I screamed this at her, turning my anger outward. I was angry that she wasn’t with me, that she wasn’t meeting my current need. Mostly, I was angry that she was at the cottage and I was stuck at the hospital. How is this love? How is this the way I choose to treat the woman I say I’d give my life for? In what reality do I think these words are okay?

The answer is that they are not ever okay. She deserves the best of what I have to offer. And now my instinct is to turn this anger inward, berate myself for the way I behave. “She deserves better,” I say. “She’d be better off without me.” I try to assess what I bring to the relationship and all I come up with is pain. But this too is an unhealthy road and does not lead to me loving her well.

I tell Spiritual Care Guy all of this, and he tells me about addiction and how those who are addicts must admit they have lost control in order to begin regaining it. It’s this way with mental illness too, really any type of illness. I must admit the areas of my life that I have lost to mental illness in order to begin rebuilding them. And I must acknowledge my strengths, the places in my life where my illness has not beaten me.

It’s a great mystery – love. The love Kathryn has for me. My parents’ unending support. The love of Immanuel. Love is where God is in all of this. I will never understand these gifts, but I can choose to cherish them and in each new moment, offer love in return.

Oh God, where are you when we need you most?

In our most vulnerable moments?

Without you, death seems inviting – a chance for rest and peace when none can be found in life.

The physical components of our brains fire and misfire and create chains we cannot break.

Habits and addictions weaken our resolve to choose life.

We are lulled into believing that death will bring freedom, that in death there can be peace.

Are you with us when we are broken?

Have you heard crying in the night?

Some say suicide rips a person from God, that there is no hope in that type of death.

But how can you turn your back on someone who is sick and suffering?

If depression is an illness, than surely you are the cure.

You draw all life to yourself.

You breathe and life lifts and fills and heals.

We are drawn to you in our brokenness.

We crave your healing touch.

How can suicide seem like sweet sleep, like the necessary release from this world into yours?

Why do I torment my loved ones and myself with repeated attempts at ending my own life?

What will it take for my brain to be whole?

What will it take for my spirit to be still?

What will it take for my life to be full?

A spiritual care staff member came to visit today.  A group of us gathered and he passed out sheets with questions on the topic of peace.  We took our time thinking through our responses and then sharing them with each other.  It filled a part of me that has lacked attention lately.

The truth is, I didn’t want to participate in this group.  I saw some of the other patients who were attending and thought they would have nothing to offer me in a discussion of peace.  I inaccurately judged both them and myself.

When a nurse that I have good rapport with encouraged me to attend the meeting, I decided to go and I checked my judgmental attitude at the door.   I have learned in past experiences that everyone has something to teach me.  In my role supporting adults with developmental disabilities I have often found myself in a place of awe at how those, whom society may think have little to offer, give me so much.

As we discussed the various questions, I reflected on the day in 2010 that we had to say goodbye to my dog, Sasha.  After I left the vet’s office, I went to the lake, to a spot her and I had visited together on several occasions.  It was early in the morning, and I had been awake most of the night.  I’ve never seen Lake Ontario so calm as it was on this morning.  The stillness of my surroundings nestled inside of me, and although I felt a great loss at losing my sweet canine friend, I also felt peace rooted in acceptance of my pain.  It was a moment etched in my memory that I return to from time to time.

Later, the question was asked, “is there a downside to peace?”  At first I stared blankly at the question, not sure of any adequate response.  Then unexpectedly, as I listened to the responses of others, they began to help me formuate a thought that has been milling in the back of my mind for a few weeks.

I have often quoted Max Erhmann, who wrote, “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”  I use this phrase to cultivate peace within myself, to relax from anxiety and find a sense of inner trust that all will be well.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about it and wondering, is it really true?  There are aspects of this life that I cannot accept as part of the universe’s design – when confronted with the brokenness of my community or myself, when I catch a glimpse of our devastation of the natural world, when I grieve for injustices occurring globally and in my own backyard.

Yes, pain is a natural part of life, but there is some pain which cannot be justified.  The abuse of those who are vulnerable has at times caused me great anguish.  There is no circumstance, no universe, where this type of pain is part of what “should be.”

So I’m left wondering, how do we cultivate a sense of peace in the midst of this type of pain?  I don’t have a good answer.  I do believe peace is something which must be cultivated, like a garden, and that we have the choice to act towards peace.  We do not need to wait for peace to come.  It’s likely that we must be intentional in our action and our awareness in order to experience peace.  Peace in the face of pain may at times look like healthy anger, it may look like lament.

In any form, the root of peace must be acceptance.  I cannot cultivate true inner peace while denying pain.  I must accept my brokenness to begin to heal.

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