Posted in Beauty, Health

The Deep

This is one of the oldest, most natural and primitive of human fears. It is the tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎) that was in “the deep” better translated as chaos than “formless and void” in the Genesis myth. It is why ancient myths predating that had gods carving up the world out of conquered sea monsters or serpents.

It is almost always true that when I am not writing as much as I would like on the interwebs, I have not been writing enough elsewhere: In that journal that sits by my bedside and in my poetry journal. I have a tendency to forget the importance of processing life as it happens. Really, it’s not so much that I forget. It’s more like I am afraid of what I’ll write. As a species, we humans have conquered the void. We’ve sailed to the “edges” of the earth. We can board a plane and sail on wings, high above the sea, and travel to another continent in a day. Most of us believe, we even put a man on the moon. What I think a lot of us are really afraid of – what I am really afraid of – is the sea of chaos that resides within: the anxiety, the fear, the painful memories, the wonder, the mystery, our great potential to both heal and destroy.

My eight years of academic training in religion primarily consisted of writing research papers on some topic of dispute in Christian circles. I was trained to do weeks of research and reading, weighing and considering three sides to every story, before I sat down to write. I would evaluate all of the possible data and opinions I could find. I would read twelve different translations of a single Bible passage or study multiple theological positions about everything from “predestination” to human sexuality. And then I would sit down to tentatively write a paper. Almost everything began with a title that hung my weeks’ of preparation, investigation and my hesitancy out for my professors and my peers to see. Everything was: Towards a Theology of… [fill in the blank with divisive theological or social issue].

I can’t fully blame the training. It only reinforced a fearful and hesitant predisposition. My professors always encouraged me to argue more, to take more of a stand on an “issue.” But when I did it seemed to get me in trouble. Like when I turned in an “extremely well written” final paper exploring the instructions for warfare in Deuteronomy 20. I contended, and still do, that there is no way a god of love would ever command “holy war” or instruct for women and young girls to be taken, listed right next to livestock, as spoils of war. My professor found me to be “treading into heretical waters” but still gave me an A for arguing clearly and concisely.

Fortunately and unfortunately for me, writing is the primary way I process life. And I have often approached life, and my writing about my life, the same way I approached those papers. I stopped writing when I met my ex-wife. I didn’t write through our engagement. I didn’t write about our wedding day on or remotely near the time it happened. Instead, I found myself 6 months after we had been married, cracking open my journal and writing about the events of the year and a half that had past. My children were each at least a year old before I reflected on their births in my writing. The same with my subsequent divorce. My lifelong friendship with Amanda, that blossomed into something new and beautiful, yet deep and rooted. My ordination. My 2 year struggle to find placement in a church. My expulsion from the first church I served. And deconstructing a lot of things I believed for the first 35 years of my life, about god, the world, and myself. Much of this showed up in series I wrote last year around this time. It’s no wonder that in much of my writing, I am still wrestling with the positive and negative impact of my mother’s life on me, nearly a decade and a half after her passing.

A few months ago, something in me snapped. In October, my daughter who had been expressing suicidal ideation since July expressed it for the first time in front of me. I came home and wrote about it that night. While my heart was broken (and still is), I think the change within me was less of a breaking and more of an autocorrect to a lifelong pattern of dealing with and processing my surroundings. In December we received the results of her extensive psychological evaluation. And I have sat on them more than long enough:

We have known since she was four years old that my daughter – like me – has the neurological disorder, Myoclonus Dystonia. This disorder primarily affects the muscles, causing sporadic twitches and muscles spasms. We have known for nearly as long that she has some sort of “mood disorder.” The severity of that has increased with time. Over the last several years, that has been complicated and exacerbated by divorce and living in between two households.

What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know for ten years – is that my daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. She is a High Functioning Autistic little girl, a “pattern consistent with Aspergers.” What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know – is that this whole time this has heightened and intensified her mood disorder. Or as the doctor who performed her evaluation informed me and my ex-wife, more likely, the Autism could be a primary driver for her anxiety and depression.

I worked for a year as a social worker with at-risk teens, struggling with depression anxiety and suicidal or violent tendencies, when the search for ministry placement wasn’t going anywhere. After my short time serving as a pastor, I work another two years, serving adults with developmental disabilities, many of them on the Autism spectrum. And yet I felt utterly ill-equipped and unprepared for this diagnosis.

But, I have spent more than enough time in my own “deep” battling the monsters and serpents that have reared their ugly heads and have raged within me. I have spent hundreds of hours in therapy recounting and learning coping mechanisms for my own crippling social anxiety. I have spent the better part of the last four years boxing with my own demons publically in the arena of spoken word performances.

Last year during Lent, I aired out a lot of that struggle and triumph in this space. The theme that I explored that I come back to most often, is the concept of the ripples. I never want to underestimate the impact of my own words and actions on the world around me, especially those closest to me. I have undoubtedly – and often unknowingly – fucked up. I have yelled, cried, begged and pleaded with my daughter to tell me why she is feeling a certain way when she literally cannot do so. I have often thought she was being willful and obstinant when she was rather frozen by going into a social situation with family she doesn’t often see or making a transition that from her mother’s house to mine or back, that her neurotypical brother seems to (in relatively little time) learned to do with ease.

Yet, I am not utterly ill-equipped and unprepared. I have those years working with troubled teens and adults with cognitive and emotional disabilities. More recently, and perhaps more importantly, several young adults on the Autism spectrum have found a home in the open mic community that I have the privilege to facilitate and host each week. I am learning from the fearless public performances of these brave souls and in private conversations, what to say and do and what not to say and do, when it comes to dealing with a child on the Autism spectrum. One friend and amazing poet who is on the spectrum, upon learning of my daughter’s diagnosis sent me several helpful websites and gifted me with a book for Christmas: What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew. With each passing day and week, I am learning a little bit more about “life on the spectrum.”

We often don’t like to see in others – especially those we love – things that remind us of our own “deep,” the monsters we fight, the things we don’t like about ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to project my own inner world on those people, and thus fail to see them. I want to see my daughter. Her deep is not mine. Her parents did divorce. But her father is not largely absent from the equation like mine was during my most formative years. I know about my own anxiety and depression, that developed in a dysfunctional home and was compounded by a lot of toxic by religiosity.  But everything I am learning about Autism is from doctors, books, websites, and most importantly from the friends dealing with it that the universe has brought my way. I need to be careful and more mindful of the ripples I send out. But I am also deeply and profoundly thankful for the ripples the universe has sent my way, preparing me for this, for the beautiful yet complicated gift that is my daughter.

Posted in Health

On the Ledge

On the ledge is where I found my daughter tonight. She was holding onto the fence and holding one foot out over the water. Fear and trepidation don’t even begin to describe what I felt as I quickly contemplated moving towards her. One’s mind doesn’t even begin to calculate all of the logistics and possible outcomes until after the panic has subsided. After the child is safe: The stream is only about a foot deep. The water is cold this time of year, but moving very slowly. The drop is probably only 6-8 feet. She would be okay. She would likely be hurt, but relatively intact. As quickly as it began, she ran at me – seemingly as if into my arms – then ran off again in anger. But safe.

Everything feels like a relative term these days. What does it mean that she is safe tonight? What does it really mean that she might have been okay? That she might have survived? This is what life looks like for all involved these days: For me, her mother, her brother, my dearest Amanda who has fallen head over heels in love with my kids in the last two years. We are all living in a blur of fear, anxiety, and hurt. This is all punctuated by frenzied moments like tonight when my daughter has a fit of rage and everything seems to move in rapid-fire succession and then by moments that turn into hours and feel like days when she is sad, angry, or obstinate and the world stops to revolve around her feelings. Her refusal to go to school, to transition to my house, go back to her mom’s house, or simply shower or get dressed. Our needs to go to work, meet deadlines, do homework, our desire to play games, have family time, enjoy each others’ company – in either home – all seem obfuscated by her emotions, which seem to grow larger by the day.

In between, we do manage to do all of these things. I go to work. I host an open mic. I am excited to be going out this weekend to speak to youth about poetry, stage presence, and performance. I try to write new poetry regularly. Her mother is working two jobs. Amanda works 70 hours a week and still somehow pours out an inordinate amount of time and energy into my children. And my son continues to go to school, do his homework and play video games. But it is all marked by the tension of the everpresent now: a 9-year-old little girl, who has some serious mental and emotional health issues.

This is why I have been off of the blogging grid since spring, and generally unable to write in prose. I am scared of what I will write down. I don’t want to look at any of it in print. The good times, laughter and lightheartedness of the summer passed too fast. And it was all marked by my daughter being in an inpatient treatment facility for most of July. It was a place where she was the only pre-teen in a “home” that was not my home, not her mother’s home, a place I felt she should have never been. Not at that age. Not surrounded by teenagers.

Likewise, Fall has almost slipped completely by, with weekly follow up meetings with counselors and social workers and genetic testing, to find that two of the medications that various doctors have put her on so far are both very unfitting for her genetic makeup. Last week, on World Mental Health Day, my ex-wife and I sat for an hour with an intake specialist at one of the best mental health facilities in West MI. A full and extensive psychological evaluation is forthcoming.

She has not outright threatened suicide. I am not even sure the word is in her vocabulary unless she learned it during her stay at the inpatient care facility. She has said things like, “Everyone would be better off without me… run me over with the car… and I want to hurt myself.” She has destroyed other people’s property: her Grandparents’ and her brother’s, her parents and other significant adults in her life, and even her own.

I am beyond scared. I am worried about my daughter. I am worried about my son, who is – as hard as we try not to let it happen – being robbed of precious time he needs. Time to play, be lighthearted and soak up positive affirmations.

Everyone is one edge. It feels as if we are all out on the ledge. I am trying, straining, to live in the now. To measure and evaluate all of the variables of the present logistics, the situation we all find ourselves in. And I am striving – we all are – twisting and contorting not to preoccupy ourselves with the infinite possible outcomes.

Posted in Beauty, Health

The Aftermath

25 years ago today, a jury acquitted Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind on charges of assault and use of excessive force in the now infamous caught on tape beating of Rodney King. In some ways not much has changed in 25 years. Now the footage is captured on iPhones instead of camcorders. But police brutality, especially against people of color, is still rampant in the United States. Victims of police brutality are still scrutinized and blamed. Rodney King certainly wasn’t an innocent man. Amadou Diallo was! But in either case – or any of the plethora of like cases we have been inundated with over the past quarter of a century – the narrative is always similar. It always becomes a story about how much the victim did or did not deserve the severity of force rather than primarily about those who abuse the power of a badge and a gun.

These are things I have been thinking about, at least since the fall of 1992. Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator. From beginning to end it was a scathing indictment of police brutality and race relations in America. And from “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” to “Who Got the Camera?” it was a completely different commentary than what I got from the Evening news with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and drastically different than what I heard from my parents. I am not being hyperbolic or speaking flippantly when I say that listening to that album with my headphones on was a large part of why I ended up going to seminary. I just no longer see the church pulpit as my avenue for trying to be an agent of change in a sick and heartbroken society.

What I haven’thought a lot about is the aftermath of a highly publicized event on a city and all of its inhabitants. From the violence that erupted in L.A. to the mostly peaceful demonstrators and vigils in Ferguson, there is some level of violence, lots of civil unrest, negative impact on local businesses, whether from looting or the enforcement of curfews. Already tense relationships between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities are heightened. And in this state of affairs the media descends on a city and saturates the entire country with coverage of their story… until the next big headline. I say none of this to minimize the importance of the people being heard. It is more of a judgement about our poor listening skills, about how we only talk about ugly truths when the worst things happen, we turn people and whole cities into talking points until there is another headline about a President’s tweet, or the unrest in Syria or a viral video of a bluegrass band covering AC/DC diverts our attention.

I am thinking a lot today about what the aftermath must be like for the communities affected. I am thinking about it largely for two reasons. Yesterday I listened to a heartbreaking report on NPR on how L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and sports and business mogul, Peter Ueberroth’s attempts to Rebuild L.A. were in large part a failure. And in many ways the city is still reeling from the aftermath of the verdict and the subsequent civil unrest.

I am also thinking about it because one year ago today in a much less publicized case I was a “defendant” for the first time in my life. The plaintiff was my ex-wife. We stood in front of a judge. There were no lawyers. He didn’t even bang a gavel. He simply pronounced us divorced. We had already been separated for 6 months. We had been growing apart for years, creating a void that was almost unbearable for all, including our two children. People find all sorts of ways to cope with the dysfunction of an unhappy home. I was distant and drank too much. I threw myself headlong first into the search for ministry placement. Then after a heartbreaking two year search and a very short lived time as an underpaid “resident pastor” I threw myself into being an online, Christian “social justice warrior.” My family suffered, I suffered, my art suffered. But divorce, while many things, is not a cure for dysfunction or broken hearts. The civil unrest of divorce creates a vortex of new pain and an aftermath that requires a lot of rebuilding.

I am working my ass off to rebuild. I am working to resurrect a bridge of communication that was completely dismantled between my ex-wife and myself, so that we can successfully co-parent two children whose dreams of a happy home and a white picket fence, with both parents together were shattered. I am working on reestablishing a relationship with the two most important people in my life, my 9 year old daughter with trust issues and clinical anxiety and my wide-eyed, usually optimistic but heartbroken 7 year old son. Some days the effort seems futile and fruitless when my daughter calls me the night before a “daddy’s weekend” and says she is not coming to my house anymore and hangs up on me. There are lots of fits, temper tantrums and some trying to play mom and dad against each other. But there is also a lot of precious time spent playing baseball in the yard, letting my son get unlimited turns at bat to kick my ass and letting my daughter make up her own 15 strikes before your out rule. There is ice cream and hugs and snuggles. And I cannot let myself forget things when they break my heart or during the void I feel, the 10 out of every 14 days that they are not here with me.

The aftermath is hard. Somethings take a lifetime and constant effort to rebuild. Time certainly does not heal all wounds. But love – love and tireless effort – can bandage those wounds and hold us tight as we walk through the flames and sift through the ashes and strain towards compassion, growth and new ways of navigating life and finding joy.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 29

I am exhausted. And I am sitting down to tackle two pieces of daily writing with an hour left in the day. Tomorrow we have an 8 am doctor’s appointment for my son. Then I have to be to work at 9:30. The kids are spending the day with Amanda. Then tomorrow night dinner, a little play time, then back to their maternal grandparents early Wednesday morning before I am off to work again. I imagine myself, roughly in this same place again tomorrow night. Though, hopefully an hour earlier.

Tonight we played the kids’ favorite game “hide the stuffed animals.” It’s just like it sounds.  When it was my son’s turn to hide things, he lost his own Pikachu (the replacement we just got him because he lost one at school on the playground). He started to freak out. Showers were delayed. We overturned couch cushions, looked in every drawer, the shower, refrigerator and oven (these are all places our plush little friends have went to hide before).

You don’t have to be the most intuitive reader to sense the cliché coming right about now. I found Pikachu when we all gave up looking, in a place we had already looked 10 times. He was behind my son’s box of Hot Wheels cars and tracks. Technically we had only looked frantically inside of the box, digging through piles of tracks and mirco-sized hot-rods, El Caminos and fire trucks.

Such is the way of life. People often find this true with possessions, with contentment, with finding the right job, with finding true love and on and on. We give up, we let go and then poof: we find what we were looking for in all of the wrong places. Such was certainly the case in my life when a only a month after my ex-wife and I split up, I asked Amanda on a date. I have known her since 1996. She is one of a very few people I have had a sustaining friendship with, throughout my whole adult life. I can count them on one hand. I thought about asking her out once in 1996. But a mutual friend at the time beat me to it an before I knew it, I was in their wedding. She came to my wedding.

Then things fell apart for us both around the same time. We started hanging out more to commiserate about our common experiences of heartbreak and failed marriages. Then the unthinkable happened. She took me to See “Inside Out.” She took me because she knew how much it meant to me on so many levels. I had seen it just a few months earlier on opening weekend. It was the last movie I ever saw with my children and there mother, the four of us together. I was crying – like snot running down my nose crying – throughout. This was not the first date! That was yet to come. This was a friend who decisively does not love all things Disney-Pixar the same way I do, going to see an animated film with me on a Saturday night, at the cheap theater, right before it hit Blu-ray and digital release. We could have waited a couple days and rented it. But she took me just because she deeply cared about me. People don’t just do that kind of shit. They really don’t. It is a lucky person who can count more than one friend that is so willing to forgo their own interests on a Saturday night to watch you blubber during a children’s film. It’s the same kind of person that a year or so later, gives up their Saturdays off in exchange for Tuesday to pick up your kids from school, so you can continue to have one night with them each week. She’s a keeper for sure!

But there is a danger when we take these amazing, life changing kind of experiences, moralize them and couple them up with a phrase from Jesus or Buddha: “He who loses his life will find it” or “He who envies others does not find peace of mind.”

Sometime you don’t find Pikachu. Sometimes you can give up, let go, be as relaxed as possible about the job interview and still not receive the call back. Sometimes you can give up on looking for love, friendship, happiness and still find yourself lonely and depressed. There is a danger in making moral lessons out of our good fortune. Because it is just that. I don’t use the word blessing often anymore because of a lifetime of negative connotation. But I am hard-pressed to find a better word to explain the way I feel about the second chance at life and love and fatherhood, all with this amazing partner I have by my side. I no longer want to tout my good fortune/luck/blessings to others like ‘If you’d only _________ everything would be okay.’ I lived that way most of my life and still found myself in what seemed like a bottomless pit.

I am thankful we found Pikachu. I am thankful Amanda and I found each other. But I never want to stop looking. Not for another Pikachu. Not for another partner. But for all of the many ways I can be a better father, better partner, better friend, a better human being.