To My Fellow White People

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. It was an insulated upbringing. My world was white. White staff at school, white classmates, white pastors at church, white friends. There was some diversity, but little enough that it was very noticeable. I never had to think about race. I fully assumed that my culture was just “normal life.” Anything else was “ethnic,” “exotic,” “other.”

My mom worked for the local police department for a period of time, so I knew some of the officers on a first name basis, and would roll my eyes if they pulled me over while driving around with my friends, knowing they wanted to scope out us high school girls. Never once worried about the results of such an encounter.

I would go for long, long bike rides down miles of suburban and country roads. I would jog around the local lake by myself. I would have friends over regularly for bonfires. We’d sneak around in the dark to TP each other’s houses. I worked as a lifeguard at the lake, and various other fast-food jobs throughout high school. Never once worried about my skin putting me in danger.

I went away to Marquette University in Milwaukee and finally encountered more diversity. Not really within my classes at MU, which was still predominantly white. But through the neighborhood, through volunteering with groups like Big Brother/Big Sister and different soup kitchens and after-school tutoring programs. I noticed the differences in Milwaukee’s communities of people of color, noticed the fear of wandering too far off campus into the “dangerous” outlying neighborhood.

I was fortunate to have been paired with a random, freshman roommate who became a sister for life. Her family was from India, and through her I ended up joining the Indian Student Association on campus, and participated in their cultural events and dance shows. I learned a Diwali candle dance and Bharatanatyam style dances. Most importantly, I was exposed to a huge friend group of people who mostly did not look like me. And, still ignorant to my white privilege, I remember thinking how FUN it was to be the only white person at some of our parties, and how cool I felt. Not realizing that for a lot of my new friends, the experience of being the only brown person in the room a majority of the time could be alienating and exhausting.

I traveled farther away for one semester to Melbourne, Australia, and there I made friends from all over the world. I made lots of friends from Australia, but also from Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, the Philippines, and lots of fellow Americans from around the States. And I began to appreciate the absolute beauty that comes from diversity, from seeing humanity in all it’s beautiful, colorful, varied, fascinating and messy differences. I was in the minority again, this time for being a Christian. Australia is very atheist, and there is a strong presence of Islam from different ethnic groups. I was beginning to see more of what my identity meant beyond “the norm.” The way I lived and acted, ate and worshipped was not the norm for most of the rest of the world.

Fast forward to young adulthood. I’ve gotten more political, started paying better attention really to the world around me. And the terrifying reality of white supremacy was showing itself to me. I started watching the sickening pattern in the news:

Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.

I started reading books:

When They Call You a Terrorist by Asha Bandelle and Patrisse Cullors

The Warmth of Other Sun’s by Isabel Wilkerson

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey

Defining Moments in Black History by Dick Gregory

Me and the White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Seven Sisters and a Brother: Friendship, Resistance, and Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Granny

Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkens

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

So You Want to Talk about Race By Ijeoma Oluo

The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman.

I started to learn more about the full history of our country. Of course I’d always known that white Europeans came over and wiped out the Indians, ended up kidnapping and stealing people away from their homeland in Africa to work as slaves, and established America. But SO MUCH got glossed over, and not fully examined in that history and the long-reaching after effects it has had on the very fabric and nature of this country.

There is a lot of history there and a lot to learn. And white people don’t have to bother since we are often not directly affected by race. Unless you marry someone of another color, or someone in your family does, or you or someone you know adopts a child of another color (and even in all those situations), it is very easy to remain ignorant. But we do so at the peril of Black and Brown lives.

America was founded on the idea of white supremacy, that the “Christian” (I don’t know how to call people who believed in manifest destiny and were totally ok with genocide and owning other humans Christians without the biggest eye roll in the world) founders of this country believed that they were superior to the people already here and the people they’d stolen away from their homelands to work for free and literally build the country. To stomach genocide and owning people, white people had to lie to themselves that those folks were less than fully human. And that lie has stuck around in a thousand different ways.

And not only has the belief that white is better, that white is “normal” and anything else is too [loud, ethnic, foreign, different, aggressive, etc etc] stuck around, but racist practices and laws were molded into the very fabric of America. Red lining, funding differences to predominantly black school districts, sentencing differences for crime, racial profiling; race laws are as prevalent as they are ugly.

Racism is still here, because it is a core part of America. White people NEED to recognize that, to educate themselves on the topic since our white schools did not teach us the full truth, and we need to speak up. We need to be calling our elected officials; we need to be voting in anti-racist politicians. We need to increase our exposure to diversity and read books, watch movies and shows, and follow black and brown artists. We need to examine our whiteness and what the invisible effects that has had on our lives. Me and the White Supremacy is a great book for that, and there are a lot of black activists out there doing the work that we can follow and support. The Great Unlearn / Rachel Cargle, Lisa Sharon Harper, Writing to Change the Narrative/Nyasha Williams, United Street Tours / Chakita Sharnise, Speaking of Racism, TNQ Show (The Next Question) / Austin Channing Brown, Latasha Morrison, Ibram X. Kendi, Black Lives Matter, there are many.

To my fellow white people: PLEASE do the work. Please learn about racism and white supremacy. Please be humble, be aware of our history and how that has affected us as white people over people of color, whether you feel it personally or not. Please try not to get defensive or to bury your head in the sand and pretend like we had a Black President so racism must be over. It is not. I promise you. And the longer we stay ignorant, the more of our black and brown brothers and sisters will keep dying. There is a lot to learn and a LOT of work to do to overcome it and become truly a country with Liberty and Freedom for ALL. And we need everyone on board.

Faith, hope, and love

Our living room has seen a lot of sacred moments. My husband and I got legally married in front of the fireplace, with our pastor, my best friend and future brother-in-law as witnesses (our wedding itself was in another state that wouldn’t allow us to use an out-of-state pastor). We’ve broken bread and drank bottles of wine in countless meals with beloved friends. We’ve delicately held newborn babies and attempted to nap with them on the couches. And, most recently, we’ve had church. My husband likes to turn on the twinkly lights on the mantle, light all the candles, and set up a little altar on our couch table with my old, wooden cross from Belize. The kids are running around and paying no attention, but we manage to get a few holy moments.

In the sermon from this past Sunday, one of our pastors was talking about faith as waiting and watching. Faith means not having black and white answers, but resting in the unknown, and staying calm in the face of mysteries. He quoted my favorite author of all time, Madeleine L’Engle, who I give credit to forming much of my early spiritual development. She was a mystic and blew my mind from early on with her open-handed approach to life and faith and Christianity. She was not afraid of mystery, but embraced it whole-heartedly. So I’ve been ok in gray spaces filled with unknowns and haven’t always needed to find the black and white absolutes.

I’m seeing a lot of talk lately admonishing people to “live in faith, not fear.” I’ve seen it mainly from people who are confrontatiously critical of the government-mandated social isolation and business closures affecting our country right now. “Live in faith” seems to be code for, go about your normal business and trust that God will protect you. When did faith become an anti-viral?

There are so many things wrong with this logic that it’s difficult to know where to start. First of all, God does not promise to protect us from germs. I know a lot of religious people that have gotten sick. Along that argument, for folks saying “no big deal” if they catch COVID-19, it is selfish and unloving to willingly expose yourself and to not prevent that exposure to those you encounter in life. Secondly, the Bible warns us, with Jesus himself providing a strong example, not to test God. Arrogantly saying that God will protect you from the global pandemic because you have faith would have been like Jesus throwing himself off the cliff to be caught by angels when tempted by Satan. Having faith does not mean ignoring science and best practices for healthy living.

I understand the push back against life as we know it getting a hard pause. The financial strain alone is enough reason to freak out and urgently want to reopen businesses. I know businesses that have shut down permanently from this, others that have laid off or furloughed employees (I myself being one of the millions of the unemployed from this virus). People are worried about the businesses they’ve painstakingly built or about keeping/getting a job so they can keep food on the table. There is a lot of stress for everyone right now, no matter your situation. Add to that the American mentality of “each man for himself” and not being in the habit of caring for the well-being of our communities as a whole, and you’ve got people protesting in the streets. (A small number of people by the way, seems bigger than it is from being reported in the news).

“Live in faith, Not fear” to me means that I will respect the recommendations and pleas coming from healthcare experts and front-line staff to stay home in order to stop the spread. I have faith that life will go on if we all do the smart thing and protect each other. And I value life more than finances. I don’t say that to demean people who are worried about their business. But maybe business can start over and rebuild, or get revamped and redefined? I have faith in our creativity and resourcefulness. Maybe we need to grossly overhaul the system and build in more safety nets to protect all of us in these scary situations. Maybe we can all learn to live on less and give up some of our privileged expectations and assumed comforts.

I believe that life is all about love and relationships. In the Bible, it says, “what is important is faith expressing itself in love.” I think it is more loving to sacrifice our financial security, our ability to go out and have fun, our social lives, and our routines in order to protect vulnerable people in our very communities. The numbers are staying relatively low because people have been doing that. The “antibiotics” are working, so don’t stop taking them because we’re starting to feel better.

This is a scary, unique, mysterious new reality we find ourselves in. There are a lot of questions and few concrete answers. So much has changed and will not go back to the way it was before the pandemic. We are living in a gray zone, a world of mystery with an unseen future. The faith that I have is a belief in an all-loving, all-knowing, all-seeing Creator who did not send this as a punishment or a test. I think blessings and challenges come from life itself, the random colliding of a million chance encounters and exchanges. I think that God sees us, knows us, and is present with us if we only pay attention. God will be with us in this pandemic, in our unemployment, while shuttering our businesses and tightening up our belts. God can guide us to live in a spirit of peace, joy and gratitude even in the midst of suffering. Here’s to faith, hope, and love.

On Walks

Surprise encounters with deer, turkey, bison and horses.

Smells of pine, pollen and manure.

The startle of finding clean-picked bones in the brush.

Sounds of birdcall, a few passing cars, fewer planes overhead.

The invigorating feel of the breeze, scattered raindrops, warm sunbeams.

The stimulation and inspiration of wisdom pouring through my earbuds.

The warmth of my blood coursing through muscle, the reverberating force of foot on pavement.

Writing on an old stone wall while neighbors pass by.

Taking the time to slow down,

and live.

Upside-down Easter

Easter weekend. In quarantine. As a full time stay at home mom on unemployment since I have been laid off because of COVID-19. What a strange time. I never thought I would be laid off twice in 6 months as a physical therapist! I certainly never thought the whole world would get shut down by an invisible virus, grinding everything as we know it to a halt. Everything is a mess right now.

The Easter story is one of absolute disappointment, shock, and dismay as the leader of this new movement within the occupied Jewish population in the Roman Empire was killed by the state. Jesus lived a radical life, eschewing the norms and wandering around the region, homeless, preaching and teaching about this “Kingdom of God.” Jews were excited to hear him talk, as an occupied people who had never recovered from being exiled, thinking he was finally going to liberate them and give them their own country/land/home. That he would throw off the shackles from the Roman empire who had wiggled its way into corrupt Jewish leaders.

And yet. He died. That was it. He had said enough things to royally threaten both the religious leaders with all his talk of free and unearned love and forgiveness, and the political leaders with his casual disregard for the empire, and they killed him. We could not stomach the free, unearned grace Jesus offered, so we killed him. It couldn’t be that easy, God! People have to believe/do/pray/say the right things before they get your love, right?? Religion did not care for Jesus’ disinterest in judgement and rules.

“Give to Caesar what it Caesar’s,” when asked about paying taxes. Caesar wants your money? So what, give it to him, big deal. I want your very life, your very soul. I want you to live completely contrary to the small-minded ways of this world. Fame, power, wealth are completely meaningless. Love, joy, compassion, peace – these are the things I value and want you to live for. The empire didn’t like that. A bunch of liberated people walking around, immune to the enticements the empire could dangle as false hope? What a threat!

I can only imagine the deep shock and depression of Jesus’ followers after his death. This man, the physical representation of God on earth, that they loved and believed in so deeply, many leaving their jobs and families to follow, was gone. The Romans were still in charge, the Church was still corrupt. They were expecting massive change and revolution, and it looked like nothing had happened. It’s hard living in that space.

It’s hard living in this space of so many unknowns. How long has this virus been here? Is anyone immune or are we all still in danger? How long am I going to be holed up in my house, unable to go out and enjoy the world and socialize? If I risk it, could I be a silent carrier and bring this virus to someone vulnerable? How is my community going to survive this, is my business going to survive this? How am I going to pay the bills? What is going to happen here?? How does this end? Is this going to keep happening every year? If a vaccine comes out, will it be safe? Can I trust the people in charge?

These are not easy questions or easy times. Conspiracy theories are flying around like pollen in the air. The level of crazy-talk I have seen on social media is a new shock for me. And I sort of get it. Believing in one of these conspiracies provides some sense of order and explanation. It can be oddly comforting to think that someone (the Chinese, the democrats, whoever) created this thing, because at least then someone is in charge, even if in an evil way. The truth – that viruses are a fact of life, are frighteningly transmittable in our global economy, are adaptable and deadly, and that we are not prepared for this – is scary to deal with since it can make us feel powerless. The scary truth is that we are powerless against so many things – viruses, hurricanes, cancer, tornadoes, death. There simply are no guarantees in this life.

After the despair of Good Friday, after the shock and bitter, total disappointment of sitting around on Saturday knowing Jesus has died, we get the story of Easter. Of resurrection. Jesus defeating death, returning to his people, and giving them a message of hope. What a twist. Jesus didn’t defeat the Romans, he didn’t liberate the Jews from their oppression, he didn’t create a grand kingdom and set up all his followers with a lavish life. Instead, he lived a counter-cultural life, showing us a different way to operate in the world. An upside down way, where the leader acted like a grungy servant and washed his friends’s nasty feet. An upside down way, that cared nothing for worldly power and influence and instead drew the outsiders, the powerless, women, slaves, children and minorities to him like moths to a flame. An upside down way, which opened to doors to anyone willing to admit their powerlessness, their need to be seen and known and loved, no matter their religion or ethnicity or sexual identity or station in life.

In Jesus, we get the promise of Easter. The promise that, ultimately, the viruses and the catastrophes and the corruption won’t win. That it may look like the powerful are in charge, but in the end, they are dying like the rest of us. I think about the promises in Bible, promises that Jesus made saying we are cared for like the flowers of the fields and the sparrows of the air. The flowers don’t worry about material goods, the sparrows aren’t worried about their next meal. And I see good, beautiful, kind people dying from hunger, dying from poverty and exposure and easily treatable diseases. Was Jesus lying? Or maybe, was the promise not that we would all have our every, human need taken care of and would never suffer? Maybe the promise was that, whatever life dishes out, and it will dish out both good and bad things to both good and bad people without regard, Jesus sees, Jesus cares, Jesus knows our suffering because he suffered himself, and Jesus is with us in spirit. That somehow, when this earthly blip of a life is all over, we will be taken up in his arms, seen and known and deeply loved.

Beauty from Ashes

I didn’t write a blog post last week because my mind is mostly consumed with COVID-19 and I didn’t want to write about it again. And yet, here we are, a week later, and that’s still mostly all I can think about. So I’m going to do a word vomit thing here and see if anything interesting comes out.

I actually can think of other things. The weather has been beautiful and I’ve been outside a lot with my kids, noticing the buds coming out on the trees and the growing strength of the sun’s rays. I’ve noticed my son actively trying to make me laugh more, and interacting and laughing with his sister. I’ve noticed my daughter starting to make up her own stories to tell us, and the pride she gets in her eyes when I listen and interact. I’ve noticed a lot of neighbors I’ve never seen before out walking by themselves or with unfamiliar dogs. I’ve noticed that I’m very caught up on my instagram feed, which has been full of live-streamed concerts and book readings and positive news stories.

Life has gone on in some ways. It’s just that I’m acutely aware of the fact that it isn’t for way too many people. Way too many people are sick, have died, or are entirely consumed with fighting this thing in our world’s hospitals and medical labs. It’s impossible not to feel affected by this, even though I’m still going to work my two days/week. I was brought to tears today to learn that Italy has made the horrific decision to only use ventilators on people under 60 yrs old, since they simply do not have enough. I was in Italy four years ago, and the sweet couple that ran the bodega under our AirBnb that we befriended over morning cappuccinos are over 60. Their elderly father still worked with them, who had to be in his 80s at least. If they get this thing, they are doomed. This is a conundrum I often face from being aware of suffering in the world, whether it’s COVID-19 or poverty or racism and white supremacist society or sexism or homophobia or child abuse or sex trafficking. The world is hell for some people, and I’m just over here living my life.

In this instance, at least there is something very real and concrete I can do to help, which ironically is to do nothing. To stay at home and not interact with anyone outside my immediate family. I’ve been doing pretty well with that surprisingly, for being a raging extrovert. Aside from work, one Target run for bubbles and sidewalk chalk, and one outdoor hiking date with my bestie, I’ve been home. Thankfully, the last 3.5 years of part-time-stay-at-home-momming has prepared me well. I adhere strictly to a nap schedule for the kids, so I’ve been “nap-trapped” for the last three years and unable to leave my home except for certain small windows anyway. I’ve been working on being ok with a slower pace of life, on being ok with feeling like I’m missing out on bigger adventures, on being ok with less social interaction. Working on tapping in to the here and now, being present in the moment, savoring the time at home with my kids.

And there were days that I was often distracted and on my phone before, and that has certainly increased. I do feel a strong pull to check in with social media often, as the only means of connection I have to the outside world. And I’m video chatting and texting friends more than normal to reach out and stay connected. It’s been hard for me not to obsess, to want to see every article and post out there about all this. Which I know borders on unhealthy and should be controlled. I try to leave my phone in others rooms still and really play with my kids, but I think we all get a few passes during this mess.

I was in Australia in 2006, and did some bushwacking in the forests outside of Melbourne, Victoria. One of the forests had recently been through a fire, and our professor told us that there is a certain flower that blooms only after the intense heat of a forest fire (I’ve recently googled it and several Eucalyptus species have specialized buds that are protected under the bark of their trunks. The buds only emerge after the trees have burned). After the utter devastation of a sweeping forest fire, beauty emerges not only despite of but because of the tragedy. Sometimes, suffering unlocks next-level joy.

This is intense, scary, new territory. The world has not faced this before, and there is no “right way” of being or acting currently. There is no normal. I am a fierce optimist, and so I feel strongly that this will be stopped, that there will be a treatment and a vaccine within the year, and (some) our lives will be able to resume. But the death toll and the damage is very real and will be tough to overcome. Hopefully humanity will pull together, set aside some differences (not by any example from our federal leadership in the US, sheesh), and support each other. We don’t know what the outcomes will be yet, but I’m sure there will be some beauty among the ashes.

Do Not Fear

All anyone is talking about is COVID-19. At my work, I’ve had 14 conversations about it every day with every patient who comes in. It’s all over the news, all over social media. 4oz Purell is sold out on Amazon, Costco is out of Clorox wipes. People are FREAKING OUT. Even though most of my patients seem to be Keeping Calm and Carrying On, and I only heard one person who stocked up on toilet paper themselves.

I’m not one to ignore or disbelieve science (although the science in this case is telling us that COVID-19 is pretty easy to prevent and control the spread, is easy to recover from and isn’t all that serious for the majority of people), however, the reaction to this thing has been a textbook case of living in fear. Do we all just love drama? Are we all so bored with our lives that we want to freak out and obsess over things and make them bigger than they really are? Is there too much real, serious, scary drama out there so we would rather distract ourselves with less threatening “drama” instead?

All I know is that living in fear is a crappy way to live, and gets us nowhere. Fear won’t stop the spread of viruses, won’t keep cancer at bay, won’t stop us from getting our hearts broken. Fear does nothing except limit our own lives.

I was talking to a friend whose extended family doesn’t vaccinate their kids, doesn’t put them in public schools (because the devil is there), and doesn’t even go to church because no church in America is doing it right. They are so driven by fear and the false sense of control that they think they exercise over the world, that they have isolated themselves away from the world and from the possibility of the riches gained by friends, community, diversity and knowledge. How incredibly sad.

The devil is everywhere, Evil is everywhere (including within our own selves), viruses are everywhere, corruption is everywhere. And? That is the state of this world folks, at least on our planet. Walking around all anxious, guarded, cynical and closed-off does nothing to change that. But of course, what else is everywhere? Good, beauty, love, joy, peace, friendship, altruism, cute babies and puppies. It’s all about what you look for.

I’ve purposely curated my Instagram feed to be either people in my life that I care about, “good news” accounts that look for positivity in the world, or educational accounts on things like racial injustice, politics or spiritual growth that make me a better or more knowledgeable person through exposure. I never watch the news, as the news in America is notoriously fear-based. I try to live holding the tension of managing risk alongside of living a full life.

Worrying about what may happen is really pointless, especially if (God-forbid), you get killed in a car accident tomorrow. We have no guarantees except for the present moment. Living in the moment to me looks like washing my hands, putting down my phone, and tuning in. Tuning in to my kids, to my husband, to my friends, to my patients. Noticing and enjoying the way the spring clouds are chasing each other around the fresh blue sky. Living in the moment means trying not to agonize over the state of politics in America, since there really is little I can do, save for mailing in my ballot and signing petitions/writing emails to my reps. Living in the moment means turning off my hypothetical thought-machine: to stop planning what I’ll do when the next big check comes in, or the next milestone is hit by my kids, or the next vacation day comes. Not that it is wrong to have plans, but I tend to circle back too much instead of making what plans I can and then moving on.

Personally, what I find so difficult about living in the moment is that it makes me ask, “is this it?” It makes me fully sink into what is happening, which usually feels like the daily grind. I’m not jet-setting, not staying out until 3am meeting exotic new friends, not running a company or a country or a world-changing non-profit. I am changing diapers, making forts, playing make believe, cleaning up the kitchen the 30th time that week, doing the 7th load of laundry, driving to work, doing the work (which after 9+ yrs doesn’t feel all that exciting anymore most of the time), driving home, wash, rinse, repeat.

I once met a few jet-setting, altruistic, world-changing volunteers working for JVI (Jesuit Volunteers International), who were working in poverty-stricken Belize, and I thought, Wow, they’re doing it! They’ve packed up, given up a cozy job or making any money at all, are living in a poor country helping to fix the world, and do you know what they said it felt like to them? The. Daily. Grind.

Our life is what we make it, and when we let ourselves be governed by fear, our life suffers. All the bad stuff, all the good stuff, it’s all out there, everywhere we look. Focus on the good. Manage the bad as it inevitably comes along. Live with curiosity, expect joy and love and happiness, and you just may see it happen. And stop touching your face.

Our Mother, Who Art in Heaven

I don’t believe that God is a woman, any more than I believe that God is a man. I’ve been very deliberate in this blog, and in my speech, over the last year or so, to stop referring to God as a “he” for several reasons.

I know the Bible refers to God as “he” often, and as Father, but the Bible also uses female imagery and pronouns for God, and we usually breeze by that. The Bible was written in a VERY patriarchal culture (one that was not getting the whole picture correct, in my view, and not meant to be exemplified in all those ways). It’s natural that the male, Hebrew and Jewish authors of the Bible used male pronouns for God most of the time. Women were literally seen as less than fully human in their time, so they wouldn’t dare refer to God that way.

However, from the very beginning, we see God describe the creation of humanity as “created in God’s image: male and female.” God is neither male nor female; God is not a human being. Women and men together, each give us an image of God. Aspects of God are nurturing and protective, such as verses in Deuteronomy where God is compared to a mother eagle with her young, and as a mother bear in Hosea. God says in Isaiah, “as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you,” and is compared to a nursing mother and a woman crying out in labor. In Matthew, Jesus says “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”

I think we really miss out when we only refer to God as Father and he. Not only do we all have very different examples of fatherhood, some great and some terrible, but each society and culture and time period have fairly distinct ideas of what masculinity embodies. In our current society, the stereotypical “male” is seen as tough, strong, confident, etc etc. Great qualities for God to have, but not complete. Not to mention the less than healthy stereotypical male qualities, like closed off, unemotional, “lone wolf.” Referring to God always as he may inadvertently get us attributing those unhealthy “male” behaviors to God.

When we leave out the feminine side of God, we miss those stereotypical female qualities such as gentleness, care, concern, and nurturing. We miss out on thinking of God as having a warm lap we can crawl into when we need comforting. We miss out on picturing God giving us back rubs and playing with our hair and giving us physical affection. We miss out on God dropping everything God’s doing to take care of us and to listen to our needs/complaints/worries/dreams. What a large part of who God is!

[And not to limit it to stereotypes either. I know plenty of men who are sweet and nurturing and good listeners, and plenty of women who are tough and gritty and driven, and they all equally bear the image of God! ]

I’ve been trying, as awkward as it sounds to my ears, to pray to Mother God sometimes, or switch pronouns to she/her when singing a song in church or reading a verse. And it has been powerful to do so! Thinking of God in a feminine way completely alters my interaction with God. It feels softer, gentler, more tender. And I believe that is how God wants to relate to us, at times. Just like in those verses when God compares Godself to a mother hen, a mother bear (fierce and protective, it’s not all soft and cuddly), a mother eagle and a nursing mother.

God is greater than our limited, human brains will ever be able to comprehend. It’s tempting and easy to put God in a box to feel like we get it. The whole Bible is written by human people who were trying to understand God. And they were doing so in a very distinct, temporary cultural mindset that greatly affected their understanding, just like we are. They got some of it correct, through Divine inspiration and wisdom, and I believe that they got some of it wrong (ummm, hello, never condemned slavery, all that stoning of sinners to death, violence and “God-ordered” genocide etc etc) because of their tainted lens. It can be scary to realize and admit that our current and historical understandings of God can be incomplete, or even flat out wrong at times. But thank goodness that God is still present, still saturated throughout all of creation, and is trying to reach out from behind the veil to reveal Godself to us.

Thoughts from a PT

A majority of my job deals with pain. People in pain, looking to get out of it. Sometimes they’ve only been in a pain for a short while, from an ankle sprain or muscle strain. Sometimes it’s been pain since 1980 or “since I was 12 yrs old.” I have treated patients as young as 8 yrs old and as old as 95, and have noticed some patterns along the way that may serve you well as you try to grow old well.

For one thing, there is a lot of relatively new research on pain and how it works that I think is pretty life-changing. First of all, pain is created by our brains, and does not come from our body itself. The body only sends data up to the brain, in terms of strain, tension, shear force, temperature etc, that is meant to be useful data for the brain to determine if the body is in danger or not. The brain processes the data and decides whether or not to send out a feeling of pain.

Imagine you are in the final game of your sports career, running the last play, and you sprain your ankle with only yards to go to score that touchdown/homerun/etc/whatever. You likely will not even register that your ankle hurts, because the importance of the moment will override the pain signals and your brain will shut the pain down. Or imagine that you are a mother, and your child is about to get hit by a car in the street. You are barefoot, and running over gravel and broken glass to get to your kid in time; you do not feel the pain in your feet until your kid is out of danger. Your brain has literally blocked the pain signal from your consciousness until it deems you are safe.

On the flip side, have you ever had a bruise that you cannot remember getting? You injured your tissues to the point of a nasty black, blue or green bruise, but have no recollection at all of the event? An injury without any pain? Or what about amputees who have “phantom limb pain?” Those folks have pain in their “foot,” when the physical foot is literally gone.

The brain creates pain (or not) depending on a whole lot of factors. The situation you are in, the mood and mental state you are in (depression and anxiety are strongly linked to higher experiences of pain), your history of pain. If you grew up with parents who freaked out every time you got a boo-boo, you are more likely to think pain is the worst thing ever and to catastrophize any experience of pain, and therefore experience more pain. If your parents were more of a “rub some dirt on it, you’re fine” type, you are less likely as an adult to experience chronic pain.

All that to say that pain is normal. It is very natural part of the human condition and it serves a very good and helpful purpose. Pain is only meant to be information to serve as a warning that our body is in danger. When we have experienced chronic pain, or have depression and/or anxiety, or are under chronic stress (which is pretty much the natural state of being for all of us in the 21st century) or are prone to catastrophizing pain, then our warning systems get jacked way up, and things that are not dangerous at all (like bending over to tie your shoes), get processed as dangerous and therefore elicit a pain response from the brain. It’s like a car alarm that’s overly sensitive and goes off if a leaf lands on the hood.

For folks that have had chronic pain, it is possible to turn down those hyped up warning systems. Meditation and relaxation techniques can help. Deep breathing, as simple as that is, works wonders. Working on “graded exposure” to activity – slowly ramping up time spent doing an activity like walking to keep it under the pain-freak-out-zone – helps to turn down the system. Understanding how pain works alone helps to turn down the system, with realizing that every pain does not mean that your body is broken or that your simple normal movements are not making it worse. Being careful not to overdo it, but to find ways to move that are fun (walking outside, dancing, biking etc) will help.

What I’ve noticed with treating patients over the age spectrum and over a wide variety of physical states, is that the older folks who are still living a good life with a high level of function have some things in common. For one, they have a strong social network. Human beings are not meant to be isolated and alone and there is tons of research to back that up. Having a healthy marriage, or strong community of friends, people to volunteer with etc in old age seems to do wonders for people. I had a patient who still went square dancing in his 80s, as a widow, and had tons of friends that looked forward to seeing him every week. That’s huge.

Another big factor I’ve noticed is being realistic. The old folks I see that are in the best place realize that they are not necessarily going to be painfree most of the time when in their 70s, 80s, 90s. Although that 95 yr old patient I had was in no regular pain and still walked with ramrod-straight posture and only a cane for balance assistance (“just in case”). It is certainly possible to be painfree in your 90s. People who have realistic expectations and don’t put “make me 20 again” on their list of PT Goals, seem happier and more active in life. Pain is normal, and our bodies simply aren’t made to last indefinitely. Some parts are going to get injured, or worn out, and may have some pain on a regular basis. No need to freak out about it. Acceptance of a minimal-to-moderate amount of pain seems to help people succeed in aging well.

Lastly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, but the phrase “use it or lose it” is SO SO true when it comes to aging. The longer you can keep moving, keep working on strength, balance, and endurance, the longer you can keep active. It is really pretty simple. Our bodies are so efficient, so if we stop moving a certain way or using a certain muscle, it gets shut down FAST so as not to waste energy. To avoid getting weak and tired, don’t stop moving. Keep doing that thing you love, or keep trying out new activities. Keep exercising in whatever way you enjoy exercise. Keep moving, and you’ll be able to keep moving. Strength is function-specific, so if you want to be able to keep doing push ups into your 90s, keep doing push ups. Want to keep having an easy time getting off the toilet, keep working on squats or sit-to-stands. You get the picture. Use it. Or lose it.

Everyone likes to think that they are special. Especially people who are injured and have been through a lot. “My doctor said I have the worst knee he’s EVER SEEN.” “My surgeon said I have the spine of an 80 yr old (in my 30s).” “You don’t understand, I have degenerative disc disease / arthritis / bone-on-bone / a disc bulge (BIG WHOOP, who doesn’t??)” Unfortunately, doctors and surgeons have often exaggerated the role that imaging plays in people’s actual experience of pain and function for far too long. People see their MRI, hear that they have bulging discs or severe stenosis or arthritis, and they panic or think that they’re screwed. Their back is broken, their knee is beyond hope, their shoulder is destroyed, the rotator cuff torn up beyond repair. That’s simply not the case. You can google the specific numbers, but there are a lot of people walking around with bulging discs, fully torn rotator cuffs, and bone-on-bone arthritis with NO PAIN. Pain is determined by the brain from a wide variety of factors.

So if you get injured, yes, by all means, go see a PT. Acute injuries need to heal properly. You may have muscle imbalances that need addressing or may be too tight/weak/out of alignment and need some tweaking. And if you are in chronic pain, search for a good PT who helps you get moving again in a safe, comfortable, relatively painless way. If you are in chronic pain, try relaxation techniques, meditation, or therapy if you have a lot of anxiety or have depression. But know that hope is not lost. People have been aging with degenerative changes and injuries for all of life, more and more as we live longer. Our bodies are shockingly resilient, and can rebound from even catastrophic injuries. Don’t underestimate the strength of the human body or the power of the mind. Seek out good friends, fun activities, and enjoy your life!

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A lot of the information on pain in here came from the Explain Pain course I took through NOI. Lorimer Moseley is the one doing a lot of amazing research.

Thin Places

We sang a new song at church yesterday, called Another In The Fire (by Hillsong UNITED), and it really caught my attention. There was a lyric: “there was another in the fire, standing next to me.”

The lyrics are alluding to an old story from the book of Daniel, about three men living in exile in a foreign land under a foreign ruler. They pissed the king off and he threw them into a furnace as punishment; only they didn’t die, and in fact the king saw four men (he only threw in three) walking around in the fire. They were saved by an angel and came out of the fire with not even a singed hair on their heads.

There’s another ancient story in the Bible, this one in the book of Genesis, about a guy named Jacob who had just done something really awful and sneaky and was running away from home to save his life. He ends up sleeping in the desert, and dreams of a ladder coming down from Heaven with angels going up and down it. He woke up and said, “God is in this place – truly. And I didn’t even know it!”

In the story of the burning bush, Moses realized that he was walking on holy ground (and it’s no different or more special than any other ground anywhere else in creation). When Jesus dies, the veil separating the part of the Jewish temple that was supposed to keep all but the most holy priests out rips clean in two. Over and over again, we see stories in the Bible of God pulling back the curtain and trying to get us to see that God is right there with us, and has been all along. I’m only familiar with Christian history, and would be curious if there are similar stories in other religions, of God/Allah/whoever trying to reach through and help us little humans see that we are part of Creation, part of God’s being everywhere, all the time.

One of the most radical things Jesus said, and that we still have such a hard time grasping, is that “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom of God, the backwards rule of the rich being poor, the poor being lifted up, the last being first and the first being last, the leaders acting like servants and absolutely no one being taken advantage of or stepped on: it’s here. The earth, all of Creation, is saturated with God already. Yes, our actual planet is super messed up, and people can act evil and there is a lot of brokenness and ugliness, and yet, God is here holding out a hand to us.

I think sometimes we act like everything is such a big mystery. And sure, there are a lot of mysterious things out there in the universe, things as yet undiscovered or not understood by science and our human brains. But when it comes to God, I think we’ve put up more barriers ourselves, making all kinds of rules and religions, trying to police who is “in” and who is “out,” when God has been screaming from the edges, the rafters, the margins the whole time, yelling “I’M RIGHT HERE!!”

The God I’ve come to know and (albeit, limitedly) understand, wants us to be in a relationship together. God isn’t trying to hide or be sneaky or make it a big scavenger hunt or riddle to solve. God desires for us to know and love our Creator, and to live with a full awareness of who God is, and therefore who we are (that is, wonderfully and lovingly made by God the Creator, full of worth and dignity simply by belonging to the human race).

If we could grasp that God is really here all around us, if the Kingdom of God is truly present on this earth, wouldn’t that change things up? Wouldn’t that make us stop caring so much about labels, gay/straight, citizen/foreigner, Republican/Democrat, Christian/other, etc etc as we realize that we are all humans and all already part of this Kingdom of God? If we’re already part of God’s kingdom, already loved by our Creator, wouldn’t that allow us to rest and stop striving, to stop trying so hard to convince ourselves that we’re doing it right and therefore prove that other people are wrong? Wouldn’t it help us see others through God’s loving eyes and want to help them, no matter what? Even if they didn’t “deserve” it, that maybe they are the people hurting and in need the most? Wouldn’t it help us see through the thin veneer that earthly power holds, that money or political influence are really laughable in the face of the entire universe?

I think if we could wear a pair of Luna Lovegood’s Spectrespecs (hardcore nerd reference), they would show the world teeming with God-particles everywhere we look. And if we dare, we need simply to extend a hand, to reach out and be united with our Creator. Whatever country you’re from, whatever religion you’re from, whatever color you are or gender or sexuality, God’s waiting to grasp your hand and to walk alongside your life with you.

And once you’ve done that, as I’ve tried, you’ll find that you can’t look at the rest of the world the same way anymore. You’ll see everyone as a child of God, deserving of God’s love and attention, and of human dignity. Your heart will start to bleed as you notice all the injustice, all the hurt, all the damage we’re doing to each other, and you’ll want to help. You may end up caring about people who look way different than you, or who speak a different language or identify in ways you cannot even understand. You may find that God has cracked your heart wide open, so much that it can feel nearly impossible to live in this still-so-imperfect world, but that, thank God, God is also surrounding you in a God-sized bear hug and is holding you up, lending you some superhuman God-strength to keep on living and loving through the awareness and through the pain.

Shaking It Up

This will be my third week seeing patients at my new job, after transitioning from the one-and-only job I had out of college and where I had been employed for the last 9.5 yrs. While the move has been overwhelmingly positive, and I am super grateful and glad to be there with some truly great people, I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been hard.

Change is hard. I assume it’s common in many professions to get into a rut, and I had been working at the same place for nearly a decade. I regularly take continuing education and try to push myself to keep learning and growing as a physical therapist, but a rut I was in. That has become evident as I’ve started at a new place. My new coworkers do things differently than I do, the clinic operates much differently than the clinic I came from. I feel like Phoebe from The Magic School Bus constantly saying “at my old school,” only it’s “at my old job.” (Forgive the cartoon reference, I have small children)

It was really hard, in that environment, not to get totally insecure. Since all the therapists at my current job were hired as new grads and trained up in a specific treatment style (one that I am not familiar with), I certainly felt like the odd man out. It’s been hard not to question my way of doing things, and wonder if I’m doing it all wrong. Of course, logically, I know that I have been successful in my treatments and I’ve had countless satisfied customers who have sung my praises. But I was feeling the old, familiar pangs of insecurity.

The good news is that change becomes easier over time. As I’ve stuck around, I’ve gotten more comfortable with their system and software, and have been getting more comfortable and familiar with all the staff. Comparing back to when I was first hired out of school, I’ve found myself feeling at home and comfortable in my personality WAY faster this time around. My initial flustered mindset has settled and I’ve regained my confidence with treating patients. I was almost brought to tears when the super sweet admin gal came up at the end of last week, put both her hands on my arms, and sincerely thanked me for working so hard that week, knowing it had been tough. I know that I am in a good and special place.

And now, I can say from a place of calm, that I am excited about the challenges that come with working at a new place will offer me. It will be good and healthy to get pushed out of my comfort zone. I need to be shaken up a bit after a decade of rut-forming. My new coworkers have their own exercises they like, treatment strategies and progressions they go through, and I can learn from them. And they from me. But now I’m looking forward to picking up some new skills and mixing it up.

Working in the medical profession, things are always changing. New research is coming out, new theories are being tested. I so appreciate that my current company strongly values education and strives to keep everyone operating at a high level in a systematic way. There is a great network of support.

When I got laid off, one phrase people liked to use for comfort was, “maybe it’ll work out for the best!” And while I don’t think that’s wrong to say, I chafed at it. It certainly would have been “best” to stay where I was, at least from a financial/benefits/numbers perspective. My blog post about “The Hill,” and biking to work, yeah that’s in the past now. I’ve got a longer commute, am away from my kids more on my work days, and lost out on a pretty sweet gig. But I am excited about where I am. I’m excited about the growth, the opportunities, and the challenges ahead. I will be helping to build this clinic’s vestibular program from scratch, which is daunting but fun.

And who knows where this will lead me. But it’s looking like someplace great.

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