"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Light

A colleague asked me this week what I did before I was a teacher. I gave her the simple answer, the true answer: "I was in a cult." It had been a long time since anyone had asked that particular question, and the same amount of time since I'd really thought about what my answer meant. I realized that over the years, I've told the story in different ways. Each story is true, but none is all the truth.

In the early years after I left, the story was full of pain and outrage and betrayal. I had sought God in as clean a way as I knew how and ended up giving up my whole self to men whose good intentions were corrupted by the seductions of power. In obedience I married the man that was chosen for me. I foreswore material possessions. I strove to serve and study and to humble myself. I read and prayed and obeyed. I obeyed. I obeyed. And still at the end I was unchanged and my life made no more sense than it had when I joined.

There were some years when I was reluctant to talk about the cult at all, so I told the story in another way. I was a housewife whose life was centered around a small home-based church. My husband made enough money that I could stay home and be domestic to my heart's content. I had a built-in family with the church. We lived across the street from the head of our little church and shared everything. I gardened and canned and made a home. I took in foster kids. I sewed and volunteered and did respite care. I trained a golden retriever and went for long walks.

I wrote a book about my time in the cult. I called it God Has No Daughters. The title pretty much tells the point of view of that story. It wasn't until I tried to get the book published, after spending years writing and revising and polishing, that I realized how skewed and wounded it was. It wasn't until I was on the other side of the agency rejections and careful feedback from friends that I realized clearly that I hadn't actually left the cult behind.  I'm not sure how I managed to believe that I could simply decide to be finished with a decade of my life which started with a vow to God and ended with an affair (because that was the only way I could figure out how to leave). But for a long time that belief held. Until it didn't any more. When I had evidence of its wrong-headedness in my own writing.

In more recent years I've told the cult story as tragicomedy. Sort of a David Sedaris approach. I joined trying to get away from a rough childhood and a young adulthood fairly typical of the free love era. I was given a husband and we married in obedience to God and the elders of The Body (the name of our church). A primary tenet of the church was obedience, especially wives to their husbands. I tried. And failed. At this point in the story, my listener, without fail, laughs. The assumption is that, of course, I would fail at being a submissive wife. There is nothing about my personality, at least the part people see, that indicates I would find submission and obedience appealing let alone possible.

Last week, for the first time even as I laughed along with my listener, I wasn't sure how I felt about being perceived as the kind of woman who would naturally fail at attempts to be a submissive wife and obedient servant. One of the foundation blocks of my childhood is that anything can be achieved if I'm willing to work hard enough. And so failure at anything means I simply needed to work harder.

There is a new story wanting to be told about my time in The Body. One that is deeply shaded in the nuance and complications of being human. This one neither black nor white, but more like a winter sky at sunset full of gradations of gray and shot through with color that cannot in any way be seen as anything but beautiful. Not failure. Not betrayal. Simply a life lived toward healing in the gloriously messy way of all lives.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Varied Thrushes are year-round residents here. Except for an occasional glimpse of one in the underbrush, however, the only time I really seem them is when it snows. Then they move into our feeder area as though they'd had reservations for months ahead.

Usually there are a couple, maybe a half dozen at most. One year a particular thrush held my attention and concern as he attacked any bird who got even remotely close to him. It's not often you see a bird with issues, but this one was clearly suffering from some avian form of madness.

This year there are a dozen or more thrushes occupying not only the feeder area, but also the entire back yard. Granted it's been snowing or icing off and on since last Thursday. That's not enough to explain their abundance though. Not that an explanation is necessary, but I do like to know these things.

Ordinary birds, like robins with the orange arranged differently, there's nothing much about thrushes to excite imagination. Their call is a long haunting whistle—no beautiful trilling or melodic harmonies. They aren't majestic like eagles or whimsical like hummingbirds. They aren't endangered or even of concern for species survival.

Maybe it's because I've been housebound. Maybe it's because winter already felt like it had way overstayed its welcome even before this storm. Maybe it's that I'm desperately searching for some bit of light in this wilderness that is my life right now. Whatever it is, every time I spot a thrush, I feel a lifting of a weight I thought unliftable.  And just a smidgeon of delight.

Bunkie and I stand at the bay window in my dining room watching birds in companionable quiet. He clearly has dreams of somehow breaching the invisible barrier and finally, finally, taking down one of his tormentors. Although I have to say he doesn't look tormented. He looks alive and eager and a version of happiness that is uniquely feline.

I admire the black collars and orange headbands, the incredible symmetry of color distribution on wings. I marvel at the wind-up toy movement on top of the snow as one thrush dashes at another in a peckish flurry. With Bunkie purring under my hand, I'm grateful for the window keeping us in and the birds out.

I'm reminded of a day last week, before the storm. I was teaching, actually wandering the room talking to kids while they worked on poetry. My classroom looks out onto the playground, which was empty of kids at that moment. What I saw instead was eight killdeers motoring across the grass, their black and gray and brown and white markings standing out in stark contrast to the green of the field. It didn't take long before most of the class joined me at the window. Some had never seen a killdeer before. None of us had seen so many at one time. All of us stood in wonder for long minutes, absorbing the gift of ordinary birds in extraordinary numbers. When we finally returned to the day, we were all lifted.

Ordinary birds. Extraordinary presentation. Maybe that's it. In these sightings I get to be reminded that an ordinary life (and mine seems unbearably ordinary these days) is rich with wonder and surprise. It's there, the evidence that very small miracles are everywhere. Beauty offered, even in its simplest form, has the power to lift a heart and light a darkness.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


I am an alcoholic. Alcoholism and mental illness are prominent in my gene pool. My early life was more about shame than love, fear than adventure, rage than peace. I spent a fair number of years in self-destructive prophecy fulfillment (if you think I'm bad, then watch this). I also spent an equal amount of time in all-out war against the demons I was born with and the ones who joined the party in childhood.

A decade in a cult was meant to cleanse and purify and set me on a path away from myself. When that didn't work I chose a life of extreme respectability: teaching, country living, a good marriage, and golden retrievers. That did work after a fashion. It worked better after I stopped drinking, although the raw ugliness exposed without alcohol to blunt the edges nearly upended even that.

I've been sober and in recovery (two very different things) for over two decades now. Long enough that when someone opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass, I consider saying yes, because after all I'm doing so well. Surely one glass wouldn't make a difference. And I do get tired of being the different one at celebrations.

See how easy it is for the lie to worm its way back in?

Whenever a celebrity succumbs to addiction as happened in the last week, it feels like the enemy has scored another victory. I ponder that enemy a lot, although certainly more so during times like this. Whether you call it Shame or Addiction or Satan (or something else), this energy/being hates us with unfettered passion. Fame, wealth, freedom, power, intelligence, adoration—none of the things we measure success by are enough to shield us from that being for long.

I don't believe, however, that the enemy's victory is inevitable. Despite powerful lies that contain just enough truth to be difficult to refute, despite promises of erased pain, despite whispers of discontent, it is possible to stand up to the voice that is always slightly louder than the one that can truly save us.

I don't actually know what distinguishes my life as an addict from that of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Marilyn Monroe or my daughter. The one thing I do know they all had is that they were truly loved as real people by real people. And that somehow for them it wasn't enough. It seems trite to say they didn't love themselves enough, but even as I write these words, I recognize the truth in them.

For me, this war is fought day by day, hour by hour. It is fought not in direct combat, but rather by allowing the enemy full voice. I don't hide. I don't run. I don't deny. I listen. And in that Buddhist way of creating space around pain, eventually all that light and air diminish the enemy's voice.

In that sky-wide space I can hear the other. The quiet voice that speaks through the throaty hoots of owls courting in a February twilight. The steadfast hand that pushes crocuses up through frozen ground. The loving eyes that look at me from every person I'm lucky enough to call friend.

The paradox both settles me and makes me sad. It is not money or attention or being important that keep me sober or happy, although even now the temptation to believe otherwise is there. How could I not be more of everything if I had more money and freedom? Right?

The truth is, nothing in my life does more to keep me present with myself, and thus not needing the escape so tantalizingly offered by Addiction, than the grace of simple miracles. A bald eagle floating against a winter sky in the refuge. A cat purring in my lap. A dog dancing delight every single time he sees me. A gentle breeze, surprisingly warm and most certainly carrying promises that can be trusted. A husband handing over a bouquet of flowers for no reason.

All of that would be lost if I were to allow myself the indulgence of just one glass of wine (which will never be just one). Not the events. I could still have those. What I wouldn't have is the connection to them, the ability to feel them, the light they create in me and around me. I wouldn't have myself, and I would soon forget how dear that loss was.

I don't know why I'm okay and Mr. Hoffman (or any of the myriad others) is not. I wonder if he might have looked at my life and wished for something he saw there. I wonder where the turning point was, where he lost sight and hearing and hope. I wonder still those same things about Kathleen. The best I can answer for myself on this day is that it, the losing, happens one choice at a time, in the dark, in isolation. Just as victory happens one choice at a time, in the light, in full connection with our own flawed and wounded selves.