“A tidy life.”… I woke up this morning after a fitful night’s sleep due to residual cough and congestion, with those words in my head. I have always wanted one of those. One where all the pieces fall into place, where actions and consequences are in alignment in my timing, not at the whim of some seemingly random force (call it God/Goddess/Universe/Spirit). One that makes sense to me, that I don’t struggle with the ‘how comes?’ As a therapist and minister, people ask me, “How could a loving God let horribly unthinkable things happen, like the death of children or genocide in Aleppo?” My pat answer (not sure I can use it anymore with integrity) was, “What if God didn’t let it happen? What if it was ‘life getting lifey’ and God is the energy that gets you through it?” I have said all the words, done the dance, put the intention out there and still find myself coming up empty with consistent answers for myself and perhaps even for others.
18 years ago I woke up in the family waiting room of the MRICU (Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit) of Thomas Jeffferson Hospital in Philadelphia at the end of the life of my husband Michael who was awaiting a liver transplant. He had lived there; and I with him, for 5 1/2 weeks preceeding his death. That morning, I made the choiceless choice to turn off life support, since that was all that was sustaining some measure of functioning. All these years later, it still feels surrealistic. It set me on a trajectory that led to this moment. Career change (that’s when I enrolled in seminary and became an interfaith minister and then a freelance journalist) ensued. It included exploration of who I was after a paradoxical marriage and as a single parent, dancing with various relationship partners, dipping my toe into the waters, but never having the courage to dive in completely. I witness the union between others (having married over 300 couples and counseled countless others), professionally and personally. About some I can say, “I’ll have what they’re having.” and about others, I would cross the street to avoid what I see happening in theirs. I have no clue at the moment the magic words or actions that it would take for me to be truly ready for a full immersion relationship.
I got up multiple times throughout the night to breathe in steam from a pot of water on the stove, which harkens back to the days when as a child with asthma, my mother would take me into the bathroom and turn on the shower. These days, being environmentally concsious and not wanting to waste water, this seemed to be a better choice. It occurred to me that while it might be nice to have a partner to take care of me when I feel like this, I wondered what he could really do. I would have slept in the guest room, so as not to wake him up. I have learned to be self sufficient when I am not feeling well. I felt like a burden as a child (even though my parents didn’t see it that way) since the asthma was a consistent presence. I became ultra responsible, not wanting anyone else to pick up the slack to take care of me. Bizaarre for a therapist, not to reach out to talk to anyone, since I reasoned that they couldn’t resolve this existential angst I am feeling at the moment. I promised I would today and thus far, friends have reached out to me after having a sense of what I am going through and others just happened to call at the right time.
In one of the calls, I was chatting with a friend who has known me since the early 1980’s. She shared with me that there are times when I ‘play therapist’ with her, when what she truly needs is a silently listening presence. Hard for me to do when what I want is to put a halt to her struggle. She has been in therapy for much of her life and does peer mental health support work as well, so she is aware of the dynamics that go into a solid counseling session. As I sometimes desperately desire to heal her wounds (and those of anyone else who is in emotional pain), I recognize that I don’t want to sit with my own pain and instead, steamshovel my way through it. That is the part of me that doesn’t like the messy stuff. I want to clear a path and plant a garden without getting too caught up with the rocks and rubble that are still the foundation. Just as a garden needs fertile soil to grow whatever is planted and is free of choking weeds, so too, do our inner patches, require tending. Sometimes we get mud on our shoes that we track into the house, or dirt beneath our nails that require a great deal of scrubbing and soaking to get clean again.
Lately I have been uncovering aspects of myself that I don’t find appealing, that reveal the vulnerable, sometimes exhausted woman who worked for so long to create a facade that is now crumbling. Is my life easier than some? Yes. Am I living in a war zone? No. Can I pay my bills? Yes. Is income as easy and consistent and commensurate with my abilities? Nope. Do I have loving and wonderful people in my life? Absolutely! Has everything in my life worked out, sometimes better than I had imagined? For sure.
I consider this poem to be a consummate example of the ways in which our lives can be a mess with a purpose:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
This feels like a temporary blip of a gremlin clamoring for attention, but one I needed to acknowledge, so that it doesn’t drag me under. Will my life ever be tidy? Maybe for a little while, but I need to keep cleaning it up and sometimes just let things fall out of place so I can set them up again. As I enter into a new year, I am willing to pick up the broom and do a thorough and clean sweep of ineffective beliefs and behaviors.