Reflections on Windows & Souls

Windows and souls, how fascinating. We seem to believe that our eyes are the windows to our souls and it seems like windows are also the eyes of the home. Windows fascinate me because I often wonder what goes on behind those windows and doors that I see on my travels around town and in distant places. These windows are from Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy.

Our souls refer to the very essential and fundamental aspect of who we are – our thinking, emotions and actions. Both humans and buildings have a physical structure – but is it only humans who have souls? Many cultures believe that inanimate objects have souls and I know places that have such special meaning, such a special feel, that I believe God resides there. Now this is my own doing that says that God resides in one place more than others because I also believe that our Creator is everywhere. Maybe this is one of those things that can’t be proven because it is us humans that seem to give soul to inanimate objects – like homes.

Austria

Back to windows. Windows, like eyes, are how we view the world from within our homes. In my 68 years I have looked out many windows – observing children, neighbors, traffic, mountains, dirty streets, storms, sunrises, sunsets, people passing, city lights, farm fields, those approaching. For some people, the only view of the world is from their windows.

I have also been very spooked when I thought people were looking in – but I also like to look in windows, from the street of course and not up close. We don’t seem to like people looking in our windows – it feels intrusive, like a violation. We want to invite people in through doors and we want control of who we let in. When someone invites me in their door I consider it an honor.

Somewhere in Europe – possibly Switzerland.

I feel the same way about my soul, my being. I only want people I trust to see into me through my eyes. I only let certain people in. Different cultures have different “rules” for eye contact but each one of us has our own preferences. I usually hide my tears by turning away. I have worked with young people who keep people out by hiding behind hair (remember the movie Breakfast Club) and dark or reflective glasses. Is it the same with windows? With windows we can keep the curtains closed.

We seem to be afraid of people seeing too much of who we are, we seem to be ashamed of so much of ourselves – and maybe without justification.  In those first few years of having a chronic illness, when I felt like all that was left of me was pain and fatigue, I didn’t want to let people see this me. I felt damaged, less than perfect, unlovable. I felt shame over who I had become and when we feel shame we hide – like the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible. Does the Koran have a story of hiding in shame? To hide my shame, I put on a facade, a happy face; and when I couldn’t keep that up any longer I went home and hid behind closed doors and blinded windows.

We should feel shame and hang our head when we hurt others, when we make bad choices, are dishonest, when we steal, lie, kill, are unfaithful. But not because we are different and fall outside what is generally considered normal or desired – like being healthy and pain free and thin (or curvy) and beautiful and muscular and tall (or short) and dark (or fair skinned). Sometimes shame is put upon us by others and sometimes we do it to ourselves. I did it to myself. I have a friend, Julie, and her story is a slight diversion but is a good example of having shame heaped on because of not being like the norm, being different.

I first knew Julie when she was John – I worked with him and he was an interesting and supportive friend. He always invited me to sit a spell and solve a problem or chat about the last book we read or help me with plans to take students to Ireland. But you guessed it, John transitioned into Julie. When he decided that he wasn’t living with integrity, when he was hurting so much from not being who she really felt herself to be, he came very close – holding-the-loaded-gun-in-his-hand-close to killing himself. Instead he talked it over with his wife (can you imagine that conversation?) and decided to become the woman she knew in her soul that she was, the soul that listened to God. She didn’t choose to be a woman – the only choice was to be true to herself. No one would choose to say they are a woman inside when they look like a man, not when the consequences are so dire. It takes a lot of courage and/or desperation to acknowledge this truth and then to make the choice to transition. This choice resulted, for Julie, in the shame and hardship of losing her job; loosing friends who wouldn’t dine and play with sinners; parents and children who no longer wanted them in their lives; a church (where John had preached, sang, served on the church governing board) that said they were no longer welcome to worship there. This choice to transition can also cause harassment, beatings and death. And feminists would ask who would give up the privilege of being male for being female.

Photo of church window in Switzerland taken by Julie Nemecek.

Sometimes our windows of opportunity are barred and doors are shut in our faces, but we can still choose to allow ourselves to be open to what life brings. Julie chose not to believe those who said she didn’t have a right to be present and seen, that her soul was defective.  Although she knows how to be cautious, she hasn’t barred herself off from others. In spite of the risks and rejections, Julie and her wife continue to keep their windows to the world open wide and to welcome those that come to their door.

I hold the notion that homes have a soul – have a personality – have life, reflective of the people who live there. But I don’t believe that we can tell what goes on behind the windows and doors based on their looks. When I was of the mother-of-young-children age I went through a period of personal turmoil and depression and therapy. When I told people they were always surprised and said that I always seemed to “have it all together.” I didn’t let them see through the window to my soul – but I did part the curtain a bit to give them a glimpse – a little, sometimes.

I have also been fortunate that people have allowed me glimpses of the lives that go on beyond their windows. I have heard their cries from emotional and physical abuse, substance abuse, infidelity, loneliness, neglect, death and poverty. I have heard the despair of  broken families, incurable disease, mental illness, lost jobs, and lost hope. And there are so many in the world who are living with the fear and disruption of war. These aren’t special people, these aren’t those other kinds of people. They are us. We all experience hardships and all have burdens that we carry. What amazes me is that most of time we still get up in the morning, care for children, do work, take care of business and each other. And we work to fix what is broken in our lives and hang on to our shredded hope. There is always the desire for a better life, for happiness, and peace. This hope may be guarded but we want something better.

We are, most of us, resilient people. We have special strengths that can be used, sometimes with a helping hand from others, to bounce back. So often I have found that if I pull open the curtains on my windows and open my doors to others, if I allow myself to be vulnerable, they find what they need within me to find their own way.

What we need to heal are human relationships that are honest and respectful. We need people who are open to sharing themselves and even more open to listening and respecting the stories of the other. I have observed and firmly believe that what heals is understanding and acceptance, not advice. When people feel understood and accepted, they find the courage to turn the corner and open their windows and doors without shame.

I had lunch with Julie yesterday and told her my plans for this post. She gave permission to share anything I wanted about her story. I am honored that she trusts me and admire her for her courage and openness. I am so happy that she didn’t shoot herself because she continues to enrich my life.

A New Day

Yesterday morning I woke up knowing I needed to change the name of my blog. It isn’t the first time I’ve thought about it but this morning was different: this morning it was a given. I woke up early and I really would have liked to fall back to sleep but I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind. My mind was racing. I was trying to come up with names that reflected who I used to be, who I am now, and who I am becoming. I came up with several that I don’t remember now – probably because none of them were right. I even told God about it.

I got up because I knew I wasn’t going to sleep any more. The first thing I did – even before I made coffee (actually my husband usually does this but he didn’t look like he was getting up right away) – was to log onto my blog. And there was a comment from Christna, from the other side of the world, suggesting I change the name of my blog and giving me a suggestion. This stunned me because Christna doesn’t follow my blog. She had visited this post once before and left a message, and is here again. I just sat here stunned, rereading her message. And then I smiled. I know that chance happens but most of the time things that happen seem to be a part of a big plan. There is a lot of rhyme and reason to my life – most of the time.

This morning I woke up and knew the name. A New Day. Yesterday, after I read Christna’s e-mail and drank a cup of coffee (my coffee isn’t as good as Jim’s), I picked up my camera and stepped outdoors to take some fall colors in the morning light. What I saw was a new sunrise coming through the clouds, signifying a new day, new challenges, new joys. Yes, A New Day works very well for me and I think Christna will like it, too.

A New Day

I don’t miss me any more, but I’ll tell you more about that on another new day. And I’ll have to update the page about my blog. What a glorious new day. Thanks for sharing it with me.

Time Heals

Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock (Photo credit: simpologist)

Time heals. We tell that to young people who have had their hearts broken. Sometimes we say it to people who have had tragic losses, when we know how much they are hurting but don’t know what to say to help them hurt less. If we are the one hurting we probably need to hear it, we need to know that the emotional pain will lessen – will get easier to bear. But when we are in the middle of our pain we also want to scream “How do you know? How can you possibly know that this all-consuming pain deep in my gut will ever end?”

The experts on grief say that the only way to find resolution is to face our loss and feel our pain. This is hard work and no one can tell us the best way to grieve because there are so many different factors, such as the type of loss and the personality of the person. The grief following developing a chronic illness (fibromyalgia with chronic pain and fatigue) was a different kind of hard than other times of grief. Developing a chronic condition, especially one that involves pain, seems to changes so much about our lives and our sense of self.

"falling apart"

“falling apart” (Photo credit: Quasimime)

I have heard many people say, on blogs and discussion boards, that chronic illness and pain makes them feel like their life has fallen apart and they have lost their sense of self. I felt like I had lost my internal bearings, my security, something at my very core, something very important, but it was difficult for me to identify exactly what it was. I kept wanting to say that I had lost my self, but obviously that wasn’t true; my self was still waking up in the morning, fixing supper, brushing my teeth, going to the store for a gallon of milk, going to work, having lunch with friends. But I also wrote in my journal that I didn’t think it was an exaggeration to say I didn’t know who I was any more – and this brought tears to my eyes.

What caused me to cry most often was my fear of not being able to work; I wrote about that here. But it wasn’t just “work” work, it was being able to do the work of living my life fully, to be who I had known me to be as a wife and mother and friend and grandmother and church member and aunt and neighbor and… In some inexplicable way I had lost “me” and I didn’t know if I would ever get “her” back.

What does it mean to lose our self? In part it involves losing our ability to fulfill important roles. If we define our self as a parent, we lose our ability to parent, if we pride ourselves on being a caregiver we lose our ability to give care, a clear thinker can no long think, a provider can no longer provide, a hard worker can no longer work hard, a gardener can no longer garden. Sometimes it felt lost – totally gone. Sometimes only altered. Most of the time I didn’t know what was happening to me and this was scary. So much of my life activity was changing – I’ve written about that here.

My fear of so many losses led to a lot of emotional pain. I cried, sometimes so hard I doubled over. I sobbed. And I was angry – really angry. I went through a few months of being numb to the world – of being depressed and feeling the sadness at the back of my eyes. And then I cried some more. This didn’t happen in public, although some of it showed up in the form of more swear words leaking out inappropriately and less time on the outside of my door. I spent a lot of time staring into space trying to figure it all out.

This work of identifying what I was losing, according to the experts, is a necessary task if I was to heal. There was another aspect, however. People who develop chronic illnesses frequently feel defective. The loss of physical ability made me feel diminished, like less of a person. I worried about whether other people, my husband, family and friends, would still like me. After taking care of myself, I didn’t feel like I had anything left to give so why would they want me in their lives. From my journal:

UP 050

I looked at the cows at the farm today and was struck by how boring their life must be. All they do is eat and poop and sleep and eat and poop. I wonder if I am struggling with whether my life has any worth if I can’t be productive, if I can’t do for and give to others. Radical thought: Could it be possible that the sole purpose of my life is just to enjoy being alive? Lord, what do you want from me at this point in my life? Your second greatest commandment is to love one another. What does love look like when I have fibromyalgia? Does how I love change because I am sick? There is a flip side of this. Does being sick change how I let others love me? Does being sick make me less loveable? This question has some emotional kick.

Becoming aware of my fears, bringing them out into the light of day and rational thought, made it possible for me to begin to manage them. But getting control of my fears and feelings of loss wasn’t enough – I also longed to find a part of me that still existed. I began looking for evidence that I still had worth and had the same core self even though I felt vulnerable and my life felt uncertain.

Our beliefs about ourselves, our sense of self, are formed and transformed within relationships with others – what others mirror back to us (for a review of the extensive literature on this see Mikulincer & Shaver). I knew it was important to balance the negative thoughts and feelings I was experiencing so I looked for validation of my worth from within my relationships. I needed to reassure myself that the people in my life could see worth in me even when I felt defective. Here is a list I wrote in my journal:

  • My husband still loves me and desires me.
  • A valued friend is always eager to have lunch with me and understands the impact fibromyalgia is having on my self-esteem because of having Graves’s disease last fall. She treasures me for all else that I am. She wants my help in picking out quilt fabric.
  • Another friend was excited to see me and wants to have lunch with me on Monday. She also told me my suggestions for teaching her pharmacology course were very helpful.
  • Our long-time friends still want to get together for dinner and cards every month.
  • An esteemed administrator said she has missed having me on campus. She also said she really enjoys my insights into the books we read for book club.
  • A colleague who works under me said I am missed and my sabbatical has just started.
  • A friend sought me out at the picnic last weekend and really seems to enjoy how we kibitz with each other.
  • Another very capable colleague/friend said she enjoyed having supper with us and believes I can accomplish the program expansion we are going to propose. She loves the colors I chose for my living room.
  • A newer church friend seeks me out and has invited us to two different events.
  • A long-time friend asked me to run over to their house to give my opinion on their living room decorating.
  • Three different people went out of their way to say hi to me when I was on campus last week.
  • A colleague said she appreciated my encouragement and insight into starting her Ph.D. program.

I made these lists in my journal several times over the next few years as I was struggling to find emotional healing. They were an important way for me to find meaning and re-define myself. I was looking for a new way of living that didn’t include the sick role but instead had integrity. I was struggling to continue my life history, my story line, to include living with a chronic illness but also to re-member who I was; to put myself back together. Parker Palmer wrote these powerful words that resonated with what I was experiencing.

Re-membering involves putting ourselves back together, recovering identity and integrity, reclaiming the wholeness of our lives. When we forget who we are we do not merely drop some data. We dis-member ourselves, with unhappy consequences for our politics, our work, our hearts.

A large part of being able to continue my life story was figuring out how to connect who I once was with the person who now has limitation due to FM. Although the wonderful people who are a part of my life help to define me, I also knew there was a core me that I didn’t want to lose but no longer knew (or remembered). I was searching for some continuity of me. Here is a journal post from the third year after developing FM:

 I found a picture of me when I was about 2 years old that delights me. When I look at the picture, I see myself now. That little girl striking a pose is so “me.” There I stand, looking up at the giants, with my feet firmly planted, my hands on my hips, training panties on, one sleeve pulled up, a smile on my face, and a goofy but cute hat on my head. (Personal Journal, 2007)

I hadn’t lost me after all; I just had to look way back to remember who I am. And knowing who I am on the inside gives me the courage to continue the work of emotional healing and maintaining wellness while living with a chronic illness. Yes, time heals.

Here are some bloggers who have impacted on my life and my healing in ways that relate to this post, at least somewhat closely. They are expressing their reality, and in many ways also reflecting mine. Maybe they will bring some emotional healing to you. Together we will make sense of physical and emotional pain.

http://megansayer.com/2012/09/14/hearing-voices/

http://throughthehealinglens.com/2012/09/22/savasana/

http://withreverence.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/turning-an-external-encouragement-in-internally-realized-strength/

http://theretiringsort.com/2012/09/20/leading-a-textured-life

If you have posted on a related topic or we have inspired a future post, please feel free to leave a link to your blog in a comment with a sentence or two describing your topic.

Building Characters

I just finished reading a new post by The Tawny titled Beautifully Designed. Tawny helped me start seeing a solution to a problem I have been wrestling with over the past few days and got my creative juices running. When these two things happen, the only thing left for me to do is write a new post on my blog.

First my problem. My daughter got laid off from a job she really loved and this has left her in a lot of pain because no one gets let go without it touching some nerves but it also brought up a lot of pain from a nasty situation that happened a few years ago. As a mother of adult children I know there is nothing I can do to make her pain any less, and this makes me feel really helpless because I want to kiss it and make it all better – like I could when she was little. It happened Monday and all week I have been feeling DARK. To be clear, my daughter losing her job isn’t my problem to solve, but the fact that I feel DARK and all my writing feels DARK is mine.

I have tried working on a couple of posts but have walked away from them because they feel DARK. I have reread some of my previous posts and they sound DARK. Why would anyone want to read my posts on the emotional and psychological impact of having a chronic illness when they are DARK and DEPRESSING?

So then I tried to figure out how to lighten up the posts I have been working on – maybe even make them funny. But having a chronic illness can make life pretty DARK and at this point in the progression of my acceptance I don’t want to sugar coat it. I have seen somewhat scathing reviews of books on coping that say “Just find the bright side.” or “Make lemonade out of lemons.” or “You will just need to deal with this.” There have been times when I have put those types of inspirational saying on my refrigerator but there have been other times when they make me angry. Sometimes they seem to overlook that we are on the dark side of a very huge mountain or the lemon we are holding is too big for us to manage right now, and we would deal with it if we knew how. Right now my daughter doesn’t want to hear any of the glib pieces of advise I could give her – that would make me feel like I was helping her but doesn’t. I’ve had to bite my tongue and it’s getting pretty sore.

Here is my dilemma: I don’t want to insult people by making light of something that is emotionally painful, frightening, and frustrating. But I also am a person who usually thinks life is really funny. In fact I have gotten nasty looks when I’ve made jokes about things other people didn’t find funny at the time. I also can be somewhat irreverent about topics most people are embarrassed to talk about  – and my friends usually enjoy this and egg me on, encourage me in my naughtiness. I don’t, however, joke about things like the holocaust or the devastation of having a chronic illness. I think DARK humor can veil a mean spirit.

Back to The Tawny’s post. She writes “In past blogs, I have written often about letting go of our old perspectives of the past and re-writing our life stories.”

Half of my own life work has been about helping people figure out the old beliefs about themselves and their world that are getting in their way of living life fully. My current goal is to help people re-write or modify their life story to include the changes that have to be made because of a chronic illness but to not let the chronic illness define their life story. Thank you for reminding me that this is what I did with my life and what I want to help other people do.

She goes on to say, “Our lives unfold like a good novel—but our lives can only be as good as we are aware of our character development and story line.  If we don’t know or believe there is a design, will we see one?”

I was drawn into the idea that our life story involves “character development”. Many people have agreed that I am a “character” and I have enjoyed letting my character develop as I have been aging. One of the blessings of getting older is that you no longer worry as much about what other people think. We still have a social conscience but we don’t have as many “shoulds” and “oughts” or “shouldn’ts” and “oughtn’ts”. 🙂 Thank you for helping me remember that I am a character in development and my life goal now is to help other people develop into characters that have integrity and foster healthy relationships.

I can live with the ambiguity of living with the darkness of chronic pain while at the same time laughing at all that is funny in life. Maybe I’ll start a series of posts on what researchers tell us about the characteristics of people who are resilient, fully-functioning, and have secure relationships in adulthood. They are characteristics that help us live in the light while experiencing the dark.

Here is the link to the entire post of Beautifully Designed.