Archive | November, 2009

The Personal is Political

30 Nov

The other night while out to dinner with family friends, I talked with their college age daughter about the women’s studies class she currently takes. I was shocked by her relative disinterest in the subject; she talked about it with about as much enthusiasm as someone taking chemistry. I wondered, “Is she in denial? Or, is it possible, things have changed enough that these ideas just don’t seem that big of a deal?” When my best friend and I took women’s studies in college we were all over it. Up late at night talking and reading passages aloud from our text books – and no we didn’t fit the stereotype. We weren’t lesbians, man-haters or bra-burners. 

That class forged friendships and healing amongst an eclectic group of women  – old, young, hispanic, asian, african american and white. All of us had a story of how being female impacted our lives. Most of these influences started in the home and then continued in the world at large. People disclosed of molest, rape, objectification, violence, pressures of beauty and aging, discrimination in the work place, legal issues and clitoral circumcision. The personal was political. What affected us personally impacted the way we intersected in the world and vice versa.

Yet for all that consciousness raising, here I am still trying to untangle the mess of how I conceptualize the world based on my early childhood experiences in relation to masculinity, femininity and power. And there is still much pain there, which I channel into the “political” aspect of the cause rather than really get into the core of the personal wound, which would ultimately release me.

There are always exceptions to the rule but for many girls, they notice daddy leads the more exciting life. Typically, dads are the ones in public effecting change on large-scale levels, although this pattern is breaking down dramatically. But when I was young and in my family, my dad was the more educated of my parents and made substantially more money than my mom did. He was dynamic, charismatic and adventurous whereas my mom struggled with fear, depression and anxiety. Which parent did I model myself after? It doesn’t take a genius to guess my dad. By the time I was nine or ten, I didn’t want to associate myself with my mother at all. I wanted to divorce any aspect of my femaleness from her as my role model. I remember a therapist once telling me that until I learned to integrate the part of myself that was like my mother, I would never be whole. I cringed. I was so much more like my mom than I ever realized. Weak. Vulnerable. Frightened. Needy. I was also way more like the negative sides of my dad than I cared to admit. Prideful. Willful. Egotistical. Domineering. 

Somewhere in this family scenario I didn’t learn how to embrace my power in healthy ways. As each of my parents developed emotional difficulties, their lives began to take center stage and my power couldn’t be actualized because it would take me away from serving their needs. So I hid my power, realizing that even though I was my father’s daughter and he loved me being an extension of him, he ultimately couldn’t handle me being a strong, dynamic person in my own right. If my power leaked out, which it inevitably did (and does), I immediately felt afraid, ashamed or like I had done something terribly wrong. God forbid I be myself, or worse yet, emasculate a man. Yet sitting on my power had its costs too. It led to resentment, zealousness, unhealthy yearning, depression and pride. And I know this internal friction has cost me opportunities for partnership and marriage because somehow I still see relationships as meaning someone has to give up their power.

It’s jacked up. Somehow there has to be a way for one to be in her power and know that it is safe. I must leave behind my old family schema and distortions and see – it is a different world. I can be powerful in a healthy way vs. abuse, repress or flaunt it. I must realize good will result from my sharing myself – not bad. And I don’t have to wield a gun or kick-box to be a force to reckon with. Here’s to boy and girl power!

I Will Praise You with the Harp

27 Nov

I attend a prayer group on Wednesday nights. On the eve of Thanksgiving, I made a point not to miss it, as I think it’s important to remember the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving before excess football and tryptophan set in rendering the brain comatose. The facilitator asked us to pick a verse from the bible that we felt encapsulated our feeling of thanks for the year. Leafing through the bible, I intuitively found myself in Isaiah, not because I had any particular verse in mind but because I’ve always felt that our intuitive impulses yield great dividends. (I’m also mad for Isaiah). And sure enough, a sentence at the beginning of Isaiah 40 popped out at me. In my NRSV version at home, Isaiah 40:2 reads, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” However, I was using someone else’s bible and the translation read something like, “Speak tenderly to Israel for her sad days are over.” And immediately, I took the personification of Israel and attributed it to me. “Speak tenderly to Lise for her sad days are over.” I know that the translation using the word “sad” pulled me into myself and away from the context of the passage, which meant that the Lord would deliver Israel but so be it – this year I’m thankful that an era in my life is over forever. After a 32-years long oppression from the weight of my mom’s alcoholism, her death delivered me from a sadness that created its own form of exile.

Yet, filling in yesterday morning at a psychiatric hospital, I was acutely aware that many have not experienced such liberation. Spending an hour with the in-patient adolescents, I was touched not only by the fact that for the rest of their lives they would remember spending Thanksgiving in a psych ward but that many of them actually preferred being with us than in their broken homes. Similarly, the military folks I’ve been getting to know experience a type of exile beyond the geographical exile of deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. To put it lightly, there has been a lot of suffering in this world since the fall from Eden.

Being in seminary, I have been seeped in the theology of God restoring cosmic order through the crucifixion and it impacts me profoundly because I understand healing. For me, joy did cometh in the morning; God did bring relief. But humans will continue to suffer and those who have been touched by God’s grace return the gift by helping others. Therefore, I love that last night I was reading an analysis of psalm 42 and 43 by N.T. Wright in his book The Challenge of Jesus. In it, Wright points out a man who has previously experienced God yet now suffers and in that suffering is waiting for God to make his presence known again. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my heart longs for you, O God…” “I say to you God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” And yet the psalmist has hope that he will be delivered and filled up again. When that happens, he says, “I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.”

I am so struck by this cycle of suffering and redemption. And as I think back on all I’m thankful for, I’m grateful for being part of this cycle. “I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.”

And yesterday, while buying some flowers for the dinner party I went to, a bouquet of yellow roses shouted out at me to take them. My mother’s favorite flowers were yellow roses. I think she was wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. Then on the radio, “Tupelo Honey” played – perhaps a song request called in from heaven by my dad. God is good.

Tis the Season for Reflection

23 Nov

I am not a bah-humbug person but I’m definitely of an age where holidays inevitably breed a degree of melancholy and reflection on years gone by and family members no longer here. By the time you’re forty, each season brings “a remembrance of things past.”  

When I was a little girl I had some gloriously idealistic Christmas holidays. In particular, the years my dad and I would fly to Wisconsin to spend time with his parents were magical, complete with snow, skating on lakes, baking cookies and dad taking me for brats at the local pub on the UW Madison campus. One year we even flew our beloved dog Boomer to Wisconsin so he too could have a white Christmas. Thanksgivings with dad were also good because they were lazy (at least for dad and I). One of his girlfriends always cooked while we watched football and read books (that sounds terribly sexist now). I must have helped in the kitchen but I have so few memories of doing so. And time with my mother was also meaningful. Even when her alcoholism began to creep in, she was generous beyond repair and loved making Christmas special for me. 

Then sadly the perfect moments shattered. The more money my dad made the more lavish my gifts and the less time he helped chop down or decorate the tree. I would have given anything for his time; not his money. His sobriety; not his drug addiction. My mother’s drinking also escalated to the point where by my freshman year in college, I chose not to go to either of their houses for the holidays. It became too traumatic. Too depressing. 

Stripped of the family foundation, I had to decide how to spend the holidays on my own. In college, I worked at Mrs. Field’s cookies every Christmas season because the customers were always polite. They liked their after-shopping cookie. And I’ve had some exotic holidays – in NYC, the Big Sur; England; even in Sumatra. But as I grew older and my friends started to marry and have kids, more and more, I retreated during the holidays. It was too painful to plug myself into other people’s families when I hadn’t created one of my own and I had long boycotted the gift extravaganza that is Christmas in America. It just wasn’t (and isn’t my scene). 

A few Christmas holidays, I’ve spent alone at a retreat center in the mountains with a church on the premises. That was very meaningful and one holiday, my mom even joined me there for the day. That I will cherish always. It was the year she was released from jail. After she left my cabin, I couldn’t stop crying. 

Now I do a mix of things. Some of the season I spend with friends and relatives; some of it I spend alone. Last Thanksgiving my grandfather died so the family met in Wisconsin for the funeral four months after my mom committed suicide. Then at Christmas, I attended all three of my church’s services. I’m sure this seemed very odd to many, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be. In God’s home on the birthday of his son.

And this Christmas, I may surf thanks to the Honda commercial I just saw that gave me the idea. 

What I do know about this season is that it is for reflection and that if you don’t have time to do that, it won’t be meaningful. And if there are any feelings associated with the period, you won’t have time to process them until they leak out unexpectedly.

It is a quiet, special time, if you let it be. If you make your own traditions and reflect on the wonder of Christ’s spirit.

Why We Struggle With Idols

16 Nov

Recently, I heard a sermon on idols and our proclivity to give things in our life, (whether good or bad) more importance than God himself. That in itself, is idolatry.

I used to define addiction as anything that pulled us out of ourselves. In many ways, I think of idolatry as a form of addiction. If we substitute the word “ourselves” for “God”, we basically have a similar phenomenon. Addiction (aka idolatry) is anything that pulls us away from God. 

The sermon I heard was a week ago and without my notes, I can’t really remember the salient points of how to counter idolatry other than to 1) pray about it; 2) become mindful of it and 3) throw the idol away, flee from it and/or transform one’s relationship to it so that it has less of a stronghold. But despite not having my notes on the sermon, I’m obviously still thinking about it, or I wouldn’t be writing on the topic.

What comes to mind is that idolatry is more complex than just habit or laziness or becoming less focused on God. When push comes to shove, even though we may like the gratification of our idols, I don’t think any of us really wants to be obsessed with anything – good or bad. I don’t want to be obsessed with my talents and hobbies anymore than I do my relationships or some unhealthy substance or behavior. Nor do I want to be obsessed with my delusions. And yet, over and over, we fall into idolatry on a regular basis. Why?

I think because when we move towards consciousness and start to give up the things that are gripping us, something major happens. As we move away from idolatry to face God, we also have to face ourselves. Look at “the man (or woman) in the mirror”. And quite frankly, that is PAINFUL. When we start giving things up – things that buoy us and keep our deepest wounds at bay, then we get to the next phase of worship: SACRIFICE. When we sacrifice our numbness so that we can be better people, be in relationship with God and ultimately have happier lives, de-thawing can be brutal, (particularly when your whole life sometimes feels like a sacrifice). For a moment that feels oh so much longer, facing primitive wounds can feel like falling into an existential pit of pain so *&^%$ deep, you think you’re going to die. 

And this is when we need God the most.

Comfortable with Chaos

12 Nov

I don’t write much about my work on this blog. For confidentiality purposes, it’s not really appropriate to say, “I was really touched by this moment in a session or when a patient said —–  today.” Instead, the work stays between me and the patient (and maybe a supervisor or colleague). Early in my career I wrote about psychology and drama therapy compulsively, leading to some academic publication, but now my interests are moving in new directions. And yet here I am this morning needing to write about my work before I get on with my work.

Recently I left a permanent clinical position in an eating disorder program. While there, I learned an enormous amount and will continue to fill in there when staff are out sick and/or on vacation. However, this was a highly structured program that only utilized my background as a verbal psychotherapist. I led psycho-education groups, worked within a cognitive behavioral therapy model and facilitated groups, individual and family therapy sessions. I didn’t use any drama therapy, which is my clinical specialty area. Most people haven’t heard of drama therapy so I’ll explain that it uses aspects of theater (improvisation, role play, story telling, poetry, etc) for symptom relief and therapeutic insight, much in the same way art and music are sometimes used for therapy.

Anyway, I am now working per diem – which means I’m employed by the hospital (and others) kind of like a free-lance person. I’ve done this in the past and actually like the freedom and variety it affords me. Clinical work is intense and this provides a little buffer by letting me structure my own schedule according to my rhythms and needs. So here I am back doing drama therapy, the thing one hospital hired me to do a long time ago. And it’s really a trip to once again look at the differences between sitting and talking with people about their problems vs. “playing with them” – the issues and the people themselves. 

A beloved mentor once told my class, “In order to be a drama therapist, you have to be comfortable inviting people into your intra-psychic container, entertain their demons and then send them on their way.” He was right. There is an intimacy and edge that occurs when you start having people move their bodies, free associate and improvise that just doesn’t typically occur with talk therapy. Like in theater, you are working in the moment, live, not knowing what is going to happen. How will the “audience” be that night? Who are the players? And where is the flow? 

So yesterday I ran a group and after operating in a very structured way of practice, it felt messy to be doing experiential work. I had to work with resistance in a playful manner – using humor and making myself the play object. The object of the group’s anger at authority; at the lack of control in their lives. I had to deal with those intellectually guarded and those not so and find common ground between them. I had to plunge into the unknown and invite people in. And ironically, (or not), those sullen who weren’t into being silly, were suddenly engaged, laughing and reflecting. And those who were playful, were suddenly crying – a nerve hit. And the work did what it was designed to do – gave patients an opportunity to “act out” within a safe structure vs. “act out” in life.

I realize to do this work, you have to be comfortable with chaos – something I’ve never been. So how is it then, that this drama therapy stuff keeps being a part of my life? Twelve years of it? Does God keep wanting me to walk into the unknown? To remember that through art, there is possibility? That even in people’s darkest moments of despair, there are pockets of joy and that even when true insanity presents itself, art provides an organizing format, giving structure and meaning to chaos? I don’t know.

I do know that this drama therapy stuff is a theme in my life, even when my soul yearns to be more quiet. To sit behind a computer and write. To work with people in a different manner than this configuration and yet – here I am. Continually in awe and a little frightened by the power of drama therapy. And the edge it stirs in me. After twelve years of doing it.

And maybe it’s also a payment of a debt. For the role drama therapy played in meeting my demons. And to the man that entertained them. For the four years I was his client in his play room during which he took my chaos; taught me how to organize and love my insanity. My story. And bore witness to my life with love, patience and integrity. Thank you, DRJ.

It’s Greek To Me

5 Nov

Looking back, the impulse to take Greek my first quarter of seminary probably originated from a moment of insanity, particularly when just about everyone (including my own pastor) encouraged me NOT to take it. But every time I prayed about which classes to take, I kept seeing the words – “Greek, Greek, Greek” in my mind’s eye, as if written on a chalk board. “Okay, I guess I’m supposed to take Greek.” Signs usually don’t get more clear than that. 

Greek has an alphabet different than our own and looks like hieroglyphics. But that isn’t what makes it difficult. What makes Greek challenging is its many different case endings and declensions. I quickly learned that if I didn’t study on a daily basis I was screwed. And that because I’m on a scholarship and have to do well in this class to keep the scholarship, the stakes are much higher. Why didn’t I just wait until the end of the road instead of making things more difficult now? 

I guess because ever since I was a little girl if you told me no, or that something was too hard, I felt all the more determined to find out why. This streak germinated more from curiosity than defiance. The adults said not to  touch the stove because it was hot. Well, I wanted to find out just how hot, so I put my hand straight down on the burner. I found out all right. I was told not to jump into the lake; I went straight in, even though it was in the middle of winter. And I discovered the water was quite cold. Hearing, “Greek is hard….”, I needed to know just HOW hard.  Okay, okay. It is hard.

But I also felt the Lord calling me to take Greek and in its own bizarre way, it’s becoming a metaphor for my very walk with God. I need to do it daily; I actually enjoy it; I’m not always good at it; in fact, at times, I’m utterly lost. Sometimes in fact, I feel almost frozen with fear –  looking at a page I can’t decipher. And I hear God saying, “Stay with it. The unknown. The struggle. The ambiguity. The not knowing. The mistakes. Don’t give up.” And then suddenly, a light bulb goes on. And the sentence translates itself. I can see the forest through the trees. And I hear the Word of God literarily. In the native tongue it was written. I hear words like “euangelion” or “pistis” or  “basileia” and suddenly the Good News, faith and Kingdom take on an entirely new meaning, echoing through the chambers of my being in a very different way.

I also feel God challenging me through learning this language to love myself as He loves me because I am not “perfect” at Greek and I often don’t like myself when I’m not perfect. God isn’t interested in whether I’m perfect; He wants me to get to know Him. And part of that process is that I learn for learning’s sake; whether I parse the verbs correctly or not; whether I can distinguish the accusative from the dative or not.

Finally, God is working out one more little thing in having me take Greek. He’s telling me that as a girl I have a right to be educated. I have a right to learn this very special language that at one time represented the height of ancient culture. I remember from my history books that rare was the girl who read Greek – not because girls were dumb but because girls weren’t considered worth educating. Capable of education. And it was that desire for knowledge that made me first want to know more; hearing my pastor know this very special language and feeling like he had keys to this incredible universe that I was ignorant of. I wanted to know how to read. I wanted to join the community. I wanted to know God.

Now in reality, knowing God has nothing to do with what language one does or doesn’t speak. I know that. What matters is that in my tenuous efforts to learn Greek, I am learning to know God. And that is worth all the discipline in the world. For me, learning Greek symbolizes a leap of faith very much akin to experiencing God.

Taking Up Our Cross

2 Nov

Years ago I really struggled with the Christian notion of “taking up the cross.” It seemed an indictment to self-sacrifice, passivity and misery. I really didn’t get it. 

At age eight, I knew I had a cross to bear in my mom’s alcoholism. And then later in my dad’s drug addiction. So I knew a thing or two about sacrifice and misery. Why then would I sign up for more of the same? To celebrate in the name of Jesus? I didn’t get it. I basically thought Christians were simpletons or fools or both.

I just listened to a podcast sermon given by a pastor of a LA based church whose five year old daughter was diagnosed with a tumor the size of a football. You could hear him choking up as he spoke. He talked about Jesus being a rock and refuge in times of despair and that God gives and takes away. There was nothing simple about this sermon. On the contrary it was rather complex, as is the deepest of suffering. This man’s faith did not negate his feelings of overwhelm and sorrow at his daughter’s life threatening condition but he also knew, we all have to take up our cross.

I have stopped feeling resentful about this notion of taking up the cross because my entire understanding of it changed when I experienced the grace of God. We take up the cross because Jesus took it up for us and in that, we have the sustenance to do the same for others. It is not an act of selfless co-dependency but rather a choice inspired by love. Once I experienced God’s love, I was no longer running on empty, giving to others but not completely full myself. Not only that, my perception of what I’ve experienced in life dramatically altered, as did my thoughts about my basic circumstances. 

Being a therapist, I’ve known for a long time that we all suffer and that we all need kindness and compassion. And for the most part, I’ve been glad to reach out to others serving in this way. But the real difference in me, is that when the s—- hits the fan in my life, I no longer move to a place of resentment as my knee jerk reaction. Instead, I see that nothing I experience compares to the sacrifices that were made for me and through this miracle, I am restored and whole. And that becomes the template from which I can ride the ups and downs of my existence. It’s the difference in being a victim or having a choice. For me, taking up the cross is a choice that ultimately empowers me vs. leaving me there a doormat with life walking all over me. Because for me,  the cross is more about love than suffering. More a gift to self and others than an act of self-deprivation. Because in this process of finding God, I’ve never felt more touched or loved after years of feeling empty and lost. 

“At the cross You beckon me
You draw me gently to my knees, and I am
Lost for words, so lost in love,
I’m sweetly broken, wholly surrendered.” 

What a priceless gift, undeserved life
Have I been given
Through Christ crucified.” Jeremy Riddle – “Sweetly Broken”