Ella

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Ella had been raised with humans since she was a wee calf, only two months old. She’d been abandoned by her mother, who simply walked away one afternoon while Ella was sleeping in the damp savannah heat under a baobab tree.

Perhaps the mother forgot her? Perhaps she walked off to check on a strange sound or find something to eat. Perhaps she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Perhaps she was too young for the experience, or it was more than she’d anticipated.

Regardless of the reasons why, the “what” was that Ella was by herself for a day and a night before she was found by a safari full of New Zealand tourists. That area wasn’t on their tour, but her bellows aroused their curiosity so they rerouted.

Ella was fine for a few hours after she awoke. It wasn’t unusual for Mama to go away. Calves had to learn to be independent early on, so mothers didn’t coddle them. But when sunset came and Mama still wasn’t there she started to get a little anxious. That hungry feeling in her tummy got more insistent, which only worsened her anxiety. It was a terrible self-reinforcing loop.

Ella began to whine, quietly at first, feeling sad and alone. She didn’t want to call the wrong sort of attention to herself. There were plenty of animals in the Savannah who would love to make a meal of a young elephant left unguarded by her parents. But after a few hours alone under the stars, Ella started the bawl openly, no longer holding back. She no longer cared if some predatory animal was drawn to her cries. Death was better than this, this half-life of loneliness and fear.

What would she do? How would she care for herself? Her Mama had been her world, her constant companion. And now as far as she looked across the flat scrubland, she saw nothing but thorn bushes and trees stripped of their leaves by the giraffes. She was still awake, red-eyed and hoarse from her keening in the early morning when the safari group found her.

A young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Halverson, married just 6 1/2 months, decided to take her as their own. They’d agreed when they were engaged that they didn’t want children, both having been raised by abusive parents. They didn’t trust themselves to not repeat the pattern. It was as if they both chosen to be teetotalers after being raised by alcoholics. They decided it was safer for everyone all around if they didn’t even try. But an elephant was another matter entirely. And who couldn’t fail to fall in love with her? Her huge dark eyes with her long ashes locked into them like a tractor beam. There was no chance of escape.

However, there were a few obstacles to overcome. How to get her home? An airplane was out of the question. If airlines charge by the pound for luggage, there’s no way they can get her on board. Perhaps a combination of train and boat? It was the only way it seemed. However, the moment they put her on the train for the first time they knew there was going to be a problem. She began to bawl when Jake stepped out of the car. He and Margie quickly realized one of them would have to stay with her.

They hurried to get another ticket and had to pay extra for the “privilege” of riding in the animal car. It wasn’t meant for people, and Mr. Gruber, the engineer, had to pay off the station manager to keep him from grumbling. Fortunately the weather was good, because the animal cars weren’t air-conditioned. No use wasting heat and air on them, the company thought. But Jacob would have a hard time. Even though it was early summer, the speed of the train would mean it would be rather chilly while it was traveling. Margie gave him her mink coat that he’d given her as an engagement gift to soften the blow. The other animals kept away from him once they caught a whiff of it, unsure of what it, or he, was. It masked his aftershave, however, and that was good. He was grudgingly accepted as one of them at least long enough to get Ella to her new home.

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Poem – The way home.

In my heart I didn’t know
what to expect
when they were stubborn.

All are not happy
about the fact
that you are going
through my fears
after all these years,

because it isn’t about making them
dependent upon you.

Grief comes from kindness,
regardless.

I’m trying not to mention
the time of year
you are going through.

I’ve heard she has been taught this time.

Never mind that.
Now I’m adrift too many years.

The way home is stuck in my heart.

Poem – adoption, alone

We are all adopted. We are all lost, drifting.

No matter how your parents
are related to you
biologically, legally
makes no difference.

We are all just trying to find our way home.

People who are dying often say they just want to go home,
even if they are in their living room at the time.

We all want to go home. We are all lost.
We all crave belonging.

The gang member, the biker, the kid in the black trenchcoat,
all are trying to find themselves.

We are all shuffling, rubbing up against each other
saying the secret passwords of our tribe
hoping they will let us in.

Every one of us suffers from a little bit of abandonment

now and then

every one of us
wonders where we fit in.

Even when we are
together
with family
we know
deep down
we are all faking it.

We all have to find our way
out of here
and back to where we belong.

We all have to find ourselves.

We look to others to do it.
We hope to see our own reflection
in them.

We join clubs, we go to conventions,
and momentarily
we feel home.
Momentarily
we feel that we are understood.

But when we get back from the meeting
back from the show
we are left
by ourselves, alone again.

If we are not happy
by ourselves
we cannot truly be happy
with others.

We are all faking it,
this connection.

We are always trying to go home
By going somewhere we are not.

Home remodeling for the soul.

I’ve realized that some of what I’m writing in this blog is like the “how-to” articles in home-repair magazines. They show you how to build a deck or remodel your kitchen. They show you the tools to buy and all the insider tricks to make it come together well. There are pictures and words, and somehow in the middle of it you figure out how to do it in your own home. Perhaps you don’t have a square deck – yours is rectangular. Perhaps you don’t want granite countertops in your kitchen, but the pictures of the cabinets going in explain something that you needed. This is that, but for the rooms in your heart and head.

Sometimes “home remodeling” hits closer to home. Your first and truest home is you.

This is my journey, and my work. If any of this helps you figure out things, all the better. Our paths will be different, but there will be some similar landmarks along the way.

I’m “growing up in public” as one friend tells me. Either he learned it from his therapist or from group work. Either way, it is a good phrase. It isn’t easy when you haven’t gotten all of your growing-up out of the way when you should, but late is better than never. Writing, beading, and drawing are how I do my growth-work these days. I use eating well and regular exercise to help keep me on this path. It is all connected, body-mind-spirit.

Recently I went to my spiritual director (kind of like a personal trainer for the soul) and she told me that there are many rooms our hearts, and Jesus wants to enter into all of them. This includes the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. Hmm. Kind of sounds like wedding vows when I phrase it that way.

One room we are working on is my childhood, and feelings of loss. I’m angry about the bad choices my parents made. I’m angry that they smoked themselves to death. I’m angry that they died young, leaving me to defend myself against a predatory brother and an insensitive, bossy aunt. I’m angry that they weren’t there for my graduation and my wedding, because of their bad choices and their lack of self-control. I’m angry that they left me alone a lot, even when they were alive.

But she pointed out that anger is a symptom. There is always something that comes before anger. I’ve been working on this technique recently, so I understood where she was going. Trace it back to the root. Dig down to the source.

The feeling before anger in all of this is sadness. It is grief. It is loss.

Instead of dealing with my sadness, my grief, my loss, I went straight to anger. Anger is useful but you can get stuck there. If you don’t dig out the root cause of anger, and dig down to the grief, you’ll be treating the symptom and not the cause.

She asked me to name this room. I call it “The Room of Abandonment”. I spent a lot of time alone as a child. There were a lot of things that I wasn’t taught before they died – basic things like taking care of a house inside and outside. How to cook, how to garden. I’m learning these things backwards. I still am terrible at plants, but I can get by without a garden. I’m not great at cooking, but I make do. I celebrate everything that I do figure out. I’m pretty awesome with hedge shears. I make a pretty fabulous stir-fry. My hummus is getting better too.

I felt abandoned before they died. I felt abandoned after they died too. I was just 25, so I was old enough to take care of myself. But being the youngest in a family where the older brother is abusive is hard. It was hard to claw myself out from underneath his mountain of lies. I didn’t have any perspective on what “normal” was.

So. This room. Look how I’m not really dealing with this room. This is normal. We want to turn away from hard things. So I’ve drawn it. I’ve made it into a prayer bracelet as well. I have reminders of it to force me to look at it. These are like writing notes to myself on my hand – “pick up spinach and cheese and Triscuits”. They are reminders for what I’m trying to forget.

She asked me to visualize what it would look like. I saw a light-blue room, empty, save for a chair. The walls are blue like a robin’s egg. The walls are windowless, but there is light. I’m not sure where the light is coming from, but the room feels clean and bright. The chair is an old wooden chair, like the one I rescued from my grandmother’s house when the time came for her to be put into a nursing home.

WP room 2.
(The drawing of the room)

My director told me to invite Jesus into the room, and to invite Him into any hard feelings. He wants to be there, to help me with them. This is some pretty foreign stuff. Jesus as a friend? Jesus wants to heal me? Jesus wants to hang out with me, in the boring times as well as the beautiful times? She says that Jesus wants to be with me all the time, in all the rooms of my heart. He wants to be with all of us like this.

It is like getting a notice that the President of the United States, or the Queen of England, or the Pope is coming over to my house and wants to hang out in my basement. I want to say no – come sit over here in my living room. It doesn’t have a lot of clutter. There are comfy chairs. There is natural light. Surely you don’t want to hang out in the basement with the spiders and the one overhead fluorescent light. There is a lot of clutter in the basement. It is really embarrassing. Nope- that is where Jesus wants to go. Not only does he want to hang out there, he wants to help me with it. He wants to help me clean it out, or be OK with it as it is.

When she asked me to invite Jesus into it, and I felt that while I wasn’t ready for Him to be in the room with me, He came in and put a fuzzy green shawl around my shoulders while I sat in the chair. The shawl was a reminder of His presence, and it was comforting.

While there in that visualization, with that shawl, I worked on my feelings. I’ve been working on this for days. I return to it again and again, refusing to turn aside. I’m trying not to obsess about it because that isn’t healthy either. Just like with yoga, it is important to have rest periods in this work.

When I started drawing the room, I felt that it needed something extra. I was wary of putting too much in the room. If I clutter it up with tools or toys then I’m being distracted from the work at hand. Often it is so easy to use noise and activity as an escape from being by ourselves. There is a lot of fear of silence in our society. We don’t like to be alone with our thoughts. This room needs to be quiet and clear, so I can process this feeling.

When I was thinking about it, trying to remember what events made me feel abandoned, I felt that I had to draw a rug under the chair. While I was drawing it, the events came to me. While inviting Jesus in, I started to see things clearer. He is helping me to deal with these feelings. I wasn’t ready to process this years ago. I’d put a wall around it because I wasn’t strong enough to deal with it. I don’t feel like I’m ready yet either, but I think that is normal. There are a lot of things that God calls me to that I don’t think I’m ready for.

One of the biggest things I realized was that I was taught shame about my body, and of being female. This was taught to me by my mother. Ignorance was masked by fear, which lead to more ignorance and fear. The body was always to be clothed, and periods and sex where embarrassments. Necklines were always high, and bras were always padded so no nipple showed. I learned about the mechanics of sex from a library book. I learned about how to deal with periods by accident, on the sly. Bodies and how they worked were seen as disgusting, shameful, wrong.

And then I dug down further, past the grief. All of it traces back to a feeling that I didn’t get something that I thought I deserved. All of it traces back to not being OK with things as they were, as they are. It has to do with not trusting the process, and the Director of the process, God. All of it has to do with not being ok with the Now. Anger comes from grief. Grief is a sense of loss. It is an unwillingness to accept change. That is an unwillingness to accept things as they are. It is a desire to shape the world to fit me. Nothing is ever “good” or “bad” or “half-full” or “half-empty”. It just is.

It is our society that trains us to define things as good or bad. We can unlearn this. I believe that all the sages from all the ages have been trying to teach us this.

Jonah praised God in the whale. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek. The apostle Paul tells us that all things work together for good, for those called by God. There is something in these ideas that is so revolutionary and yet so simple.

Sometimes I feel that I’m trying to make wine out of grapes, and it just isn’t ready yet. I’m reminded of my story of when I tried to encourage the tadpoles to be frogs sooner than they were ready by pulling on their tails. I think I need to hang out in that room for a little more, and let things ferment. I’m not very good with waiting, but I’m inviting Jesus into that too. I think He understands the quiet times, the waiting times.

WP room 3

Here’s the bracelet I made to remind me to work on this. The blue beads are for the walls in the room. The Green bead at the top is the green shawl from Jesus, to remind me that He is there with me. Going clockwise, the white bead is me. It has two millefiori on it, one on either side. The square brown bead represents the chair. The broken-looking beads represent the “stuff” that created the need for the room. They are made from recycled glass from Africa.

In silence, the tree

In silence, the tree.
Sitting under a tree, so often, alone.
Alone, but with God.
My abandonment by my parents made me
seek my true Parent, my Source,
my beginning and my end.
Where I came from, and where I will go.

In death, the tree
still. A place of silence for mourners.
Grown from an acorn in the hand,
nourished by the ashes of bones.
Live giving energy from the litter of leaves,
life from death.

The tree of silence,
the tree I walked so fast to I thought
my lungs would burst.
To sit under, alone
when my parents were again
arguing. Unreasonable. Unlistening.

Under that tree I knew God was listening.

It isn’t our tree. It isn’t a shrine.
It isn’t the bodhi tree of the Buddha,
sat under by bored and scowling monks,
waiting, waiting, waiting.
It isn’t the tree in the garden,
the tree of temptation.
Who would put poisoned candy
within reach of children anyway?
(Is that the truth of Sleeping Beauty?)

It is the tree of Zacchaeus,
desiring to see the Lord,
stunned that he was noticed
and singled out.

It is the tree in a flood,
a place of refuge, a sure point.
It is the tree of the cross.

I sit at the base, alone
yet surrounded by then and now and
future, of past and far away
witnesses to the
Glory that is God.

It is the tree in the backyard
At the group home –
I didn’t know where I was.
I didn’t know who those people were.
I didn’t know how to get home.
But I knew that tree was safe.

The light was bright on my
pale skin, but I knew the leaves
would protect me.
Natural sunscreen, that green shade.

How frightened I was by that rope,
frayed, high up
like a snake, a lariat, a noose.
The electric fear even now
lets me know
I am safe.

My fear of death, of
harm to myself at my own hand
is so great I feel a charge,
a shock, a jolt.
That knife laid out on the counter is a sign.
My fear of it lets me know that I’m safe.

God is stronger than my weakness,
And God needs my weakness to
get in.

Epthatha.

(I was at a retreat on 4-6-13 and we were told to sit in silence and think about something that was big that happened to us for 20 minutes. We were to try to remember the sensations of being there. I thought I was going to think about when my parents died, but the image of me sitting under a tree came to me. I decided to go with it, and I thought about all the times I had sat under a tree. There are a lot. And I thought about what that meant. I spent a lot of time alone as a child. I’m coming to understand that. I’m beginning to process that. I think the abandonment by my parents caused me to seek God.)

Spiritual midwifery

We can’t really teach feelings easily. It isn’t like we can say they have a certain color. We can’t use our normal senses to know that something is happening that we need to deal with. When you see the color red on a traffic signal, you know to stop. When you smell smoke, you know to look for fire. When you hear an ambulance siren you know to pull over to the right hand side of the road.

But we don’t have such easy clues with feelings. When we have feelings in our bodies we just have to experience them and learn what they mean. When we are children our parents teach us to recognize what it feels like to need to go to the bathroom. We learn that this feeling means we need to tinkle, while this feeling means we need to poop. Knowing what those feelings represent means that we then know how to handle them. We know to find a bathroom. We learn that we can’t ignore that feeling. The same is true of being nauseous. We soon learn that sad lurching feeling means it is time to get up close and personal with a sink or a toilet or a bucket. Something very unpleasant is about to come out. If we hold it in we will get very ill.

We don’t have that kind of training with other feelings. We don’t learn how to recognize and deal with pain, with anger, with anxiety, with grief. We don’t even talk about the feeling we have in out bodies when we feel these things. We don’t name what is going on, and we don’t train in how to deal with it.

When my parents died I was alone in my grief. I was young, and most of my friends were just as inexperienced as I in handling such an overwhelming situation. They didn’t know what to do so they did nothing. They left me alone. I didn’t have any idea of how to handle an estate, much less how to handle my feelings. Coming from a family where real emotions weren’t discussed didn’t help either. There was an elephant in the room and his poop was piling up. And there I was alone having to shovel it.

So I didn’t. I didn’t know what the problem was so I certainly didn’t know how to handle it. In the meantime I handled the estate and fended off my opportunistic brother. My brother disappeared for a year when Mom was sick and dying with cancer. You can be assured he showed up when it was time to handle the estate. He had not only not helped while she was dying, he had attacked me, saying I wasn’t doing enough to help her. Hopefully you see the irony in his words.

Because he was older, I was hoping I could look up to him. I was hoping to be able to get help from him. Instead I got pain, and deceit, and manipulation. In a time of great vulnerability I got swooped on by a vulture. There had been glimmers of this attitude of his all my life but especially while Mom was sick. She was so sad to realize how he was acting towards me. In a way, it wasn’t a surprise. The title of “big brother” was just a place holder. He had never protected me or mentored me as a child. Why would he start now? I said to her that it was like I was going to go on a hike up a rocky mountain, and I’d just bought a walking stick. I’d rather it break on the lower levels than break higher up when I needed it. My brother had shown me that he wasn’t dependable. I had learned that I would have to rely on myself.

But I still hadn’t learned how to identify and deal with my feelings about this. This was just a part of many co-occurring problems. Boundaries? There were no boundaries in my childhood. Both my brother and father stole from me. Both of them found it was easy. Both of them felt it was their right. Neither apologized or repaid me. Also, I’m just now coming to realize how much time I was alone as a child. Neglect is a form of abuse. I was tested and declared “gifted” in second grade. My Mom noticed how quickly I picked ideas up, so she thought she didn’t have to teach me. This makes no sense. Yes, I generally understand things quickly, but I still have to learn them. I didn’t come out of the womb with pre-loaded instructions like in The Matrix. She never taught me how to clean the house or cook or garden. I can write a fine English essay but I can’t keep house.

So there were many feelings at that time, and even now. Grief. Betrayal. Abandonment. Loss. I didn’t even know I was supposed to feel angry then. I didn’t even know that anger was healing. When you are angry you stop being passive. You stop letting things happen to you. In the beginning there is a sense of victim-hood. Move past that into knowing that you don’t deserve what has happened to you. Move right into a sense of here is my line in the sand, and from here you can go no further.

Perhaps we don’t recognize our own hard feelings because we are embarrassed about them. But if we don’t name them and face them we end up being consumed by them. When I didn’t process my grief, my anger, my loss, I turned it inward. It grew. It festered. I smoked pot for years to keep it at bay. Then I decided I wanted to get sober. I decided it was time to grow up. Four years after my parents died I quit smoking pot and all those feelings came back. I was constipated with grief. I was nauseous with betrayal. I got sick. I had been self-medicating for years but I’d only been covering up the symptoms, not treating the disease.

The result? I had a manic episode. Everything got amazing. Everything became suffused with the light of God. I felt safe and loved and protected in a way I’d never felt before, and certainly never felt with my family. But something was wrong. I didn’t sleep. For three days I was up, and my brain wouldn’t turn off. For three days I was higher than I’d ever been on drugs. I called other friends and they came to look at me and talk to me. They decided it was time to take me to the hospital.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that this was happening. My father had been manic depressive. It is as if you are raised in a household where a family member has diabetes. If you develop it, you figure out pretty fast what is happening and you know what to do. I was so out of my mind that the nurses at the mental hospital thought I had been taking acid or some other hallucinogen. It was a few days after being there and getting on medication (and sleep and regular food) that I started to approach being human again. One night I felt very ill, like I needed to throw up. I was on “constant eye” at the time, meaning there was always a nurse nearby watching me. One was very concerned when I had dry heaves and asked me what was wrong. I remember saying “I can’t speak it.” Out of the depths of my grief, that was all I could say. I didn’t have words. I didn’t know how to get this bad feeling out of me. Trying to vomit made sense somehow. Somehow she understood that it was grief that was eating me up inside. Through the grace of God she knew what was the cure. We went outside, by ourselves, in that cold January dawn and we sat at a wrought iron table. We talked about loss and pain and grief. It was then that I truly started to get better.

That nurse healed me more than any pill ever could. She identified the source of my pain and knew how to lessen it. It had become a huge ugly pearl inside of me That chunk of grief and loss and betrayal had grown and grown into something larger than any one person could ever think to process. It had grown up, layer by layer, year by year.

I think there are some feelings we can’t handle on our own, but our society prides itself on people being independent. We also have a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse. This is no coincidence.

I know it is hard to ask for help and it is also hard to know how to help others. What I am learning is that you don’t have to solve the other person’s problem. You just have to listen. Just like a midwife doesn’t make the baby come out, the caring person’s job isn’t to take out the problem. The job of both is to help the other person do it by being supportive and loving. As a spiritual midwife the goal is to make a safe place so the other person can give birth to themselves.