Monday, July 28, 2014

Fear and Truth

Cracked Grace
Fear and Truth

I must become less afraid of alienating people when I share what’s true for me.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Grappling with Forgiveness

Grappling with Forgiveness
Semi-conscious, eyes not yet open, I was wary of wakefulness. Persistent as my tongue checking a canker sore, my first thoughts zeroed-in on a painful experience from the past. The person’s actions, though long ago and far away, were stuck on instant replay in my psyche. For weeks, I hashed and rehashed events I thought I had released to the farthest regions of my conscious awareness. No longer dulled by the remnants of sleep, “Why don’t you just forgive ________?” I asked.
Forgive and forget, right? I don’t put much store in forgetting the hurts of my life. I put them on a hard-to-reach shelf with the intention of simply letting them lie, and that works with the majority of them. Forgiveness is different. Rarely do I let the most grievous actions simmer undisturbed, so they continue to fester until I’m ready to address them. When it’s particularly difficult to forgive, I often procrastinate on doing the hard work of forgiveness. I answered my own question with, “Not yet.”
Like a mantra, I repeat: Forgiveness is releasing, letting go, moving on, no longer holding someone else—and especially myself—hostage to the pain of the past. Such often-stated words (clichés, even) regarding forgiveness irritate and frustrate me. Forgiveness is not akin to the now-popular but rather blithe (in my opinion) act of choosing a stone and tossing it into a body of water—symbolizing all those clichés regarding forgiveness. “Whee! I’m free!” Not so fast.
Forgiveness also involves a changed, different relationship with the person who dished up your pain. And it takes focused energy and determination to make that change. Toss as many stones as you want, but when you step away from the shore, it will take focused energy and determination to make those relational changes.
It’s the scope of such changed relationships that often holds me back from forgiving. That scope—that new, changed relationship and what it might entail—presents conflicting thoughts and emotions. You can restore a relationship, but that relationship will be different. What you allow in your life and what you refuse to let in must be adjusted in that changed relationship.


Hours after waking, the prospect of forgiveness continued to tug at me. The phrase, “grappling with forgiveness” came to mind. I looked up the definition of a grappling hook to be certain I was grappling: In combat, grappling hooks are used to set off trip-wire-fused land mines. They also are used to locate IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Grappling hooks are claw-like. They are pointed. They have sharp edges. “These look too menacing,” I decided. “I’m not doing that kind of grappling.” But those hooks also are “used to dredge for submerged objects.” Perhaps I am grappling after all.
In considering an altered relationship post-forgiveness, one must be aware of the land mines and IEDs that threaten the soul. One must consider submerged issues and actions. Grappling it is.
In this grappling, I want to defuse the land mines and IEDs. I want the submerged objects to be excavated and in full view. And I can neither ask nor expect the person whom I forgive to do those things.
I can ask myself to do those things. When I ask, I question what might the future (if any) be of the relationship.
Where might I encounter land mines and IEDs—in public, at places of worship, at social events with friends, on social media, at family gatherings? How will I approach (or avoid) such precarious situations? What can I do—what will I do to make them less precarious? How can I bring a sense of peace and even grace to these areas?
Where and how might I encounter submerged issues that affect the terrain on which I stand? Where and how might I encounter once-submerged issues and actions that no longer are beneath my awareness? When necessary, how will I navigate terrain that requires more sure-footedness than I believe I have?
Each situation requiring or even containing a yearning toward the outstretched heart and hands of forgiveness is unique. Because of that uniqueness, I cannot answer these questions for anyone but myself.
The grappling hook is heavy and the rope holding it grows taut. Weary of grappling with forgiveness, I must ask the hard questions, find the good answers, and then act upon them.





Sunday, June 29, 2014

Breathing Was (Not) Good Enough

“Is He Alive?” We Wondered
A Shady Place in Summer

It sounds like this.
Late summer afternoon heat crept into his limbs. The warmth tired him and the nearby tree, abundant with its shade, beckoned him from beneath its boughs. Seeking respite from the sun, he lay beneath its leafy arms and succumbed to the siren call of cool sleep. Passersby noted his slumbering form and left him undisturbed to rest away whatever may have been his troubles of the day.
Sound idyllic? Like a nap stolen on a sweet summer day? The description is accurate, but it leaves out some important details.


But it was more like this.
The scene was no park, nor beach, nor sheltered place of idle, pleasant repose. The Citgo gas station parking lot of Military Trail in Lake Worth, Florida, has the just-described tree with its long limbs to provide shade and shelter from the searing heat of the South Florida sun in late June.
No grass cushioned the man I saw sleeping there yesterday just as we were about to pull away after getting gas. Clad in jeans, a shirt, and shoes, an unidentified bottle of refreshment nearby, he slept. Off to the side of the station, he wasn’t readily visible, but we saw him and noted his prone, unmoving figure. “Is he alive?” we wondered.
Samaritans we were not, but we did pause in our travels long enough to determine whether we could see the rise and fall of his chest, signifying breath and life. Confirming that breath and life, we drove on.
Today, I tell myself I’m just like those passersby in Internet-posted videos who see someone in distress and do not stop to help. I made the judgment, which may be accurate—or not—that he was passed-out drunk, or homeless, or drug addicted. Beyond waiting to confirm he was alive, I deemed he was not my concern.
I wonder, would I have done the same if he were well-dressed? Would I have done the same if he were in an upscale neighborhood or shopping mall and not in a depressed area that has more than mere hints of blight?
I also ask: Did I miss the chance to aid an angel of whom I was unaware?
I cannot answer these questions.
Instead I ask a question to which I know the answer: Did I pass by a chance to show compassion, care, and concern to another human? It is to my shame that I whisper in response, “Yes.”


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Best-O Pesto: A Taste Bud Delight

Best-O Pesto
Hands-Down the Best Pesto
You Will Ever Taste
I’m semi-famous (almost famous) for my pesto. In basil season (which in Florida is all year), family members stand at my elbows, impatient for that first taste. Bowls full of this green delight are often eaten at a sitting. Follow my directions and use the ingredients I list and you, too, will have friends and family at your side, ready to taste, savor, and enjoy.

Ingredients
3 cups packed fresh basil leaves (no stems)
4 good-sized cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
¾ cup fresh grated Pecorino Romano
¼ cup pine nuts
½ cup olive oil (I prefer mild tasting.)
1/8 cup chopped, curled parsley (not flat or Italian parsley, also no
  stems)
1/8 cup melted, cooled butter

Wash the basil leaves and spin or towel dry. Place in a food processor with the steel blade. Add the olive oil and pulse briefly. Add pine nuts and garlic and pulse briefly. Add Romano and parsley and process until smooth. Pour melted cooled butter through the top of the processor while it’s running. The finished pesto will have a thick, grainy consistency. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Serve on hot pasta or bread. When serving, do not mix the pesto into the entire batch of pasta. Make enough (double the recipe, if necessary) so each person has a ¼ cup (or more) for their individual serving of pasta.

The Rules
For the Best-O Pesto, You Must Follow My Rules:
Use fresh, green basil. If growing your own, Genovese basil is the best. Sweet basil also works well. Pecorino Romano balances the strong flavors of the garlic, basil, and pine nuts. You may use Parmesan (fresh grated, please), but the flavor will be sharper. Pine nuts are a must. Yes, they are pricey, but Trader Joe’s sells them at a reasonable price. They can be stored in the freezer. I prefer mild-tasting olive oil because, like the Romano, it balances the mix and prevents one flavor from outshining the other. I recommend curled parsley because it, too, provides balance to the flavors and the flat and Italian parsley taste and aroma are too strong. I prefer angel hair pasta, but pasta preference is all yours and not one of the rules.
If making large batches, pesto freezes well and can be stored for several months.

Note: When I first began making pesto, I used the recipe from Molly Katzen’s The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. However, I have tweaked the recipe so much over the years that only a few similarities remain.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Rubble Squats

Rubble Squats
Life Marked By Stones
It’s gone and I’m beyond distressed. Fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, floods . . . houses get ruined, destroyed, daily. Rubble squats where once stood a home, a place that wrapped its walled arms around people and kept them safe, secure, and warm. Those walled arms allowed them to slumber, ceiling overhead, the dark kept outside where it belongs.
Homes vanish at nature’s whim, the carelessness of humans, or by choice, to make way for something else. Those something elses can and do take the form of offices, stores, shopping centers, resorts, playgrounds. Those something elses take the form of highways on which we partake in the dance of travel, of movement, of getting where we want to be, where we think we should be, and where we think we must be.
Vivid pictures of that home had slipped across the miles and years of memory and into my expectations. A white house on a corner lot—brick fireplace on the east side. A bay window in the dining room, also facing east. Brick steps leading to the front door were embraced on each side by tall azalea bushes whose color blazed bright every spring. Five-foot-tall elephant ears once dwarfed the children in their shadows. Old-growth heirloom camellias, a hydrangea bush that blushed blue before summer’s heat dried its blossoms. Camphor trees with roots once dug for sassafras tea in the years ignorant of its toxins. Wood floors, polished to a reflective sheen. A swinging door gave passage from the kitchen to the dining room. An arch opened the living room to the dining room. An extra room off the kitchen and dining room had its windows long ago closed in. Its wall became shelves for hundreds of books. Windows throughout the house had separate panes of glass held in by wood painted bright white to mark the sections that let in light. A single bathroom for a family of six. A pile of leaves behind the garage composted and fed the abundance of worms just beneath the soil’s edge. A single-car garage on the side of the house stored a push mower with rotating blades, clippers for the azalea bushes, paint, tools, the things that make up a life—a home.
In the days preceding my journey there, I imagined pulling up and marveling at the yard and how small it would seem through adult eyes as opposed to child memories. I would have been courteous to the current occupants and grateful for any time they allowed me to observe and maybe even step upon and touch the ground on which my child feet once walked.
Possibility figured in my imagination—perhaps once again those wood floors would hold me up as I walked into the door, perhaps my eyes would look through the bay window and see as an adult as well as a child.
Google Maps could not find the location when I requested directions from my Central Florida home to those brick steps three hours north of me. I hadn’t lived there for fifty years. Maybe my memory had failed me on the exact address. The street was there and that was enough for me.
We exited I-95 and wound our way toward the neighborhood and nothing was familiar. The house on the first corner held no recognition for us. Once several blocks long, the street was short—only three blocks.
West of where the house and street should have been were massive piles of rubble—the remains of my childhood home. Stunned into mute grief, we continued to drive in the neighborhood. We found the cemetery we once used as a shortcut on our way to school. I scanned the grounds through the locked gates, and as I turned away for a moment, I saw a young man on the street. I called out to him, we spoke at length, and he confirmed what I already knew. Eighteen months earlier, the DOT razed the west end of the neighborhood for an I-95 exit.
So recent, yet so long ago. Time didn’t matter because gone is gone. I turned again to the cemetery. Entering a locked cemetery absent malicious intent didn’t seem wrong to me. I climbed through an open area in the fence. I explored the area alone, with reverence, respect, and silence. It was and is still a cemetery for Black people. In the years it was our path to school, the burial ground was overgrown and untended. It now has a sturdy fence and the locked gate discourages vandals. Grass grows around the graves. A paved road provides access. Flowers adorn many areas, and new graves are interspersed with old—some dating from the 1800s. New headstones stand near cracked and broken markers, some with dim letters that appear to have been etched by hand into unyielding stone.
Do the old-growth live oaks miss the feet of children playing at their roots?
I took that path to learning and I continue to learn. Part of what I’ve learned since my feet stepped on those grounds and since I was awed by the azalea bushes in the spring is gratitude. I am grateful for the years I spent in that house. I’m grateful that the cemetery is well tended, that the souls there rest undisturbed. I wonder, however, if the feet of children are missed by the ground and the old-growth oaks towering above miss the shenanigans and laughter.
What remains of my life on that street and all my childhood memories is a cemetery. As I processed the initial, stabbing grief of losing the home I knew and loved, I instead stepped lightly around another place of grief and loss and love.





Monday, May 5, 2014

Cracked Grace: Virtue Isn't Boring

Cracked Grace
“Virtue Isn’t Boring”
“Virtue isn’t boring; it’s essential.” Always, on, always aware, and with thousands of Bread and Circuses vying for our attention, judgment, and dismay, the virtual is often leagues beyond virtuous. It’s often difficult to find the path to what’s honest, true, and satisfying in a calm, comfortable environment.
That environment is free from shrieking voices, lewd photos, videos, and ever-attention-grabbing muck that calls with the siren song of just one more click, just one more photo, a few more coarse words, just one more bit of gossip, anger, and chaos. That gossip, anger, and chaos pull us away from the quiet side of virtue held in a baby’s laugh, a sunrise, an embrace between friends.
Stepping away from the siren call of stuff, sensation, and oversaturation, we find that virtue is the sweet aroma of a rose floating across our psyche, a touch, a meal shared among loved ones, a dance into the imagination of a garden, a symphony, a sand-swept shore.
Virtue. Seek it, embrace it, live the truly good life.



Friday, April 18, 2014

Feed These Beasts at Your Peril

Black Dogs of Depression

The black dogs of depression began sniffing near my heels on a recent day. I felt them creep toward my eyes and produce tears that brimmed in my lower lids like cups too full yet not quite spilled.
Dense, dark clouds blocking the sun validated the day’s forecast of heavy winds, rain, maybe tornadoes. The lack of blue sky and sunlight helped me rationalize the weighty thoughts and feelings springing into my psyche. Those feelings, however, reflected more than weather woes, more than the occasional dark day in my usually sunny Florida skies.
Sensing the black dogs approach, I gazed beyond the sky, knowing that more than clouds beckoned them near. Depression having been my nemesis for years beyond which I can count, when its dark scent heralds demons coming my way, I’ve gained the wisdom to know it’s a matter of life for me to act. If I don’t, the black dogs and all they entail might overcome me.
I sharpen my senses and begin the critical task of surveying my environment. I am aware that what I see, when I sleep, what I eat, where I go—or don’t go—and my actions and reactions either sustain my soul or provide a feast to lure the dark beasts nipping at me. To quell the beasts’ advance, I ask: What scraps of life have I tossed their way that they circle round me, salivating for more?
The question and its answers are essential because once the feeding begins, such beasts are never satiated; they will circle, sniff, and tug at my soul, until my most vulnerable marrow is exposed. Indeed, I ask, what scraps of life have enticed them? What did I choose from the “Menu for the Black Dogs of Depression” and put on the plate of my life?


Menu for the Black Dogs of Depression
Feed Them and They Will Keep Coming Back for More
Loneliness: Isolate yourself. Avoid social contact and interactions.
The God Hole: Fill the God hole with stuff, distraction, sensation—anything that isn’t spiritually enlightening and sustaining.
Sloth: Black dogs drool when they spy the vulnerable wasting time, frittering away opportunity, and letting food-crusted dishes, clutter, sweat-stained laundry, and dirt accumulate.
Junk Food: High-sugar, high-fat, white-flour-laden, nutrient-lacking food, and a scarcity of fruits and vegetables open a path for the dark side to edge into your psyche and provide a platter to serve up the scraps of your soul.
Alcohol and Drugs: Soul-killing substances are top of the menu for seeding dark clouds—and days and nights—of the soul.
Negative, parasitic people: Those who suck the life out of you, people who sap your time, energy, and strength—physical and emotional—leave little to ward off the nipping canines that howl, growl, and seek a place to sink their teeth.
Garbage In/Black Dogs In, Too: Words, music, movies, videos, angry rants, and rage, all rent a kink in the armor of your psyche where the black dogs can latch and then hold on.

Menu in front of me, appetizers, entrees, and desserts scanned, I noted the items on my order: isolation, lack of exercise, poor diet. Awareness was my first step away from the snarling, salivating beasts. Next, connection, exercise, and eating well made them fall back into the shadows, far from my heels, far from my psyche.
I remain alert, aware, and watchful because these carriers of depression aren’t cute, they aren’t cuddly; you don’t want to bring them home. These fierce, snarling, destructive hounds of hell will never be full. They are rarely satisfied. Leave a place in your life or heart open, and they charge, hungry, and cruel. When you refuse to provide them a single entrée from their life-wrenching menu, they will back away, heads low, tails between their legs, but nonetheless sniffing and ever-alert for their next meal.
I have power in the tools I use to keep the black dogs in the shadows where they belong. I keep those tools close by, knowing that life—and my menu—are likely to change.
From where I sit this day, my heart holds no fear of those recent dark days. The black dogs have trotted away and neither do I anticipate nor am I wary of their return. These feelings of safety, security, and serenity are a result of me seizing the gift of awareness—and giving my heart, my psyche, and my soul the care I deserve.
Depression enters and becomes a part of one’s life and heart for many reasons and wears many faces—not all as dark as described here. I must be watchful in all facets of my life to maintain the edge of awareness necessary for me to keep the dark side at bay.

* * * * *

The term black dogs of depression is nothing more than a metaphor. I mean neither disrespect nor disservice to black dogs when I use this term. My two mixed-breed Black Lab/Virginia coon hounds will vouch for me.

Important Information About Depression
Mild depression and situational depression are not unusual at unsettled stages of our lives. That unsettled aspect often lends the name adjustment disorder to such forms of depression. When our lives are askew, it is more important to be aware and not entice the black dogs with items from the menu presented earlier. Situational depression can often be addressed, soothed, and ended by positive lifestyle activities and choices.
NOTE: It is important to be aware that clinical depression is a serious, sometimes life-threatening condition and must be treated by a mental health professional. If you or someone you know or love has or shows signs of depression, it is of utmost importance to receive help right away. Signs of depression and resources for information and treatment follow.

Signs of Depression
Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or unhappiness
Angry outbursts, irritability, or frustration, even over small matters
Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, such as sex
Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
Tiredness and lack of energy, so that even small tasks take extra effort
Changes in appetite—often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased    cravings for food and weight gain in some people
Anxiety, agitation or restlessness—for example, excessive worrying, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself for things that are not your responsibility
Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
Frequent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

The following links provide more information on depression: http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/detecting-depression
Google the term depression for additional resources for depression and anxiety.