Category Archives: Family, Friends & Foe

The Unseen Crisis

Words seem inadequate to begin to describe the carnage and devastation that the bushfires in Australia have created (and continue to create). So far, 23 people have lost their lives, over 500 million animals have been killed, 1,300 homes are lost, and over 12 million acres of the land has gone up in smoke. We are not even halfway through the fire season …

Trauma, grief, and anger, have broken down the front door of so many lives. Uninvited, they bring with them emotional turmoil and confusion, making it hard to think or cope. Sometimes they turn the TV on and keep playing distressing scenes over and over again. They can also create all sorts of physical responses such as nausea, vomiting, trembling, dizziness, etc.

In the weeks, months, and years to come, Australians in their various communities, need to be aware of the unseen crisis that will continue in the lives of many of their family, friends, colleagues, and the stranger they encounter. What are some ways that you can help with this unseen crisis of continued distress?

Reach out and spend time. Listen. Don’t attempt to solve a problem, provide any great wisdom or cliches, or try ‘cheering’ them up. Listen and ask questions about the stories they want to talk about.

Respect a person’s requests. If they wish to be alone, respect their wishes. If they would like you to not talk or do something – don’t be offended. Respect their wishes.

Run around – do those seemingly menial tasks that are sometimes so overwhelming for someone finding it hard to cope with the magnitude of loss – cook a meal, pick up the children from school, do the washing, care for a pet, or offer your company in the difficult times.

Regularly check-in. The outpouring of care and relief amidst a crisis is helpful. However, it is often in the months after that the reality of loss becomes such a heavy burden. Connect people to the support they may need – doctors, social services, mental health therapists, financial advisors, etc. Offer to drive them to those appointments.

We cannot for a moment assume to understand what a person who has gone through trauma feels, thinks or wants. We don’t. Don’t assume. Respect. Ask permission. Listen. Most of all, be present. 

I know I speak on behalf of many Australians when I say a heartfelt thank you to all those who have gathered courage, kindness, and a vast array of skills to help – a special mention to the hundreds of fireys who have worked tirelessly.

Australian, we are in this together. Let’s be there for one another.
Connect. Commit. Care.

If you have not done so already, please consider a DONATION to help people and animals alike.

Counselling Supports for people affected by bushfires.

Defining Stories offers free counselling support to bushfire communities – please contact via webpage.

– A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference. – Eeyore

 

 

 

What is your Christmas Story?

To perceive Christmas through its wrappings becomes more difficult with every year.
– E.B. White –

Christmas! It’s here again. I am quite convinced that 365 days a year speed up the older you get, and here we are in another Jingle Bell Season.

I wonder what Christmas means to you? Amidst all the festive fuss that this time brings, what is the Christmas story that is read at your table of life? For many people, this is a season of festive joy and hope. Happy memories arrive at the door alongside family members and friends to celebrate and remember the birth of the Christ child.

There are others who have a friendly relationship with Christmas, even though they may be of a different faith or none at all. For many, it is a story of connectedness and togetherness, of eccentric family members and ancestral storytelling – if Christmas was an emoji, for many people it would be a happy one. But that is not everyone’s story…

The Christmas story for other people is not as joyful. Christmas, for some, is a trauma stalker, an uninvited guest that rushes in to remind them of loss, violence, grief, betrayal, or loneliness. Maybe that is your Christmas story? At your table of life, Christmas is not decked with holly but shrouded in black. You stare at it and tell yourself that this is not a ’normal’ Christmas story, and in a way that makes you feel even sadder.

I find it helpful to reflect on the ‘original’ Christmas story. A story that holds a context of political uncertainty and dominance; a tyrant empire that places burdens on people that many cannot carry. It is the story of a poor couple that birth a child in squalor conditions, a story of terror and having to flee for their lives… refugees… displaced… outcasts. The original Christmas story was a far cry from Melbourne’s Myer windows.

In a strange way, this story brings me comfort. What is a ‘normal’ Christmas anyway? What does it mean to ‘celebrate’ Christmas? So much of what we say and do is a social construct of behaviour and expectations that are then branded as ‘normal’. And all those who don’t fit that caricature are reminded in a thousand different ways how they don’t ‘fit’.

So, dear reader, if you celebrate Christmas with gusto – Enjoy! Merry Christmas!

I especially want to acknowledge all those who are reading this who don’t have a ’normal’ modern Christmas story. Your place and space and story are as valid as anyone else’s. ‘Normal’ can be a bully … and sometimes our Christmas story is a sad emoji.

The stories of our life are multi-tiered. Like a rich tapestry, there are shades of light and dark. Remember, you are not the sum of your Christmas story – your life has many, many stories: Stories of resistance, of skills, hopes, and dreams for the future. Christmas will come and go. Right now it may dominate the world you live in, but it is not the world.  So as you acknowledge your Christmas story, also acknowledge the many other stories around your table of life … for they are a fascinating company.

“As we become aware of ourselves as storytellers we realise we can use our stories to heal and make ourselves whole.”  (Susan Wittig Albert)

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Betwixt and Between (Epilogue)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson called Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is the Epilogue – follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

It is hard to recognise the kindness and mercy of Providence when your soul seems to convulse with heartache …

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

Now I can say that it was mercy that led me to the shadows and the margins.

C.S. Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. God is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?” (A Grief Observed). My carefully constructed ideas of God and church lay shattered. I looked at the pieces and knew there was no rebuilding – I had to let go. How hard it is to trust that letting go process. David Foster sums it up beautifully, “Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” Faith communities provide an instantaneous essential ingredient of what it means to be human: belonging. To leave is never easy.

Liminality is the ultimate life lesson in trust. It sounds very noble to say that we ‘choose’ to trust. I have found that I trust because I have no other options. No one throws themselves down some random rabbit hole in order to experience trust. Rather, the rabbit hole finds us, often through crisis or suffering, ushered in through our questions, or when our theological ideas no longer match our life experience. Liminality introduces us to trust.

For over two decades I had kept the oceans of mystery and paradox at bay. Suddenly the niggling doubts, the contradictions, the many questions that I used to wave to from a far and safe distance away, loomed like a tidal wave above me.

The ocean was no longer friendly. It had invaded my life and turned my world upside down.

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
Not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
By a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance
But looking at our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
Always the sand between.

And then one day
(and I still don’t know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine.
Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ (from an unpublished work)

I felt like I was drifting in an endless ocean with no shore in sight.

It was the observation of a friend that brought me back from the house of sadness. “Nic, I don’t even pretend to understand what this must all feel like, but as your friend, I can tell you that the world and religious structure you were part of is really, really small. I know you think it’s the centre of the universe, but it’s not. Your world is about to get so much bigger.” He was right. Falling into liminality was about letting go of so much. I do not want to downplay the grief associated with the loss I experienced. It felt as if I was saying goodbye to something or someone else nearly every day. But I was also saying hello – to a new world, to new friends, and to a whole new way of being and seeing.

A few years have passed since saying goodbye to so much of life the way I knew it. These days I find myself quite removed from this first half of life with its overtures of religious zealotry. It has been a time of healing, detoxifying, learning to breathe again, and acclimatising to a very different world. There is a sense of standing on a threshold, “betwixt and between,” as Victor Turner once described liminality. According to Turner, it is temporal space – the midpoint between a starting point and an ending point. It holds the idea of temporarily having fallen between the cracks of social structure. However, I would agree with the wisdom of a friend who remarked that our whole life is a liminal space. It is a way of holding ourselves in this world – with an open hand, instead of tightly clutching.

Liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation, was and is a gift. It highlighted to me the bars of my ideological and structural prison of fear, all dressed up in religious morality.

I also experienced a reunion with old friends I had left behind when entering my version of religious absolutism all those years ago. One of them was the joy of not knowing, and the other was the delight of wonder. That most ignored and banished exile of fundamentalism, wonder, has returned to me. Tentative at first, and then, detecting a safe place, she brought her suitcases and moved in …
… Every day she delights me with her songs …
… Every day she teaches me to return her gaze and open my eyes …

Liminality has also changed my taste for music. There is a new rhythm: an unforced rhythm of grace that is now free from being reduced to a necessary tick on my doctrinal boxes of orthodoxy. A rhythm that is tangible, warm, comforting, strong, and relentless.

All is grace!

So, dear Liminal Traveler, I offer you my story in the hope it will bring you a sense of connection to the many others who, like you, may have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, liminality is the ‘thin space’ of which the Celts have spoken, the rabbit hole where the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment, a most uncomfortable place that not everyone will care to hear about or understand.

May you be present in it, for it is indeed a most confusing and liberating gift. Holy.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deeply.
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

Hafiz

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is Part 4 – following the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The questions that started to arise brought with them red-hot anger. Hindsight is helpful. I now realise I was disappointed and disenchanted. When there is a head-on collision of values that have been denied, a deconstruction of idealism that had to do with identity and belonging, and a deep disappointment of personal and community expectations, anger is often the prevalent emotion and lead member of the ‘rescue team’. Ironically, with this anger, I faced the dilemma that the emotion of anger is shamed in religious spaces where being ‘nice’ is a virtue. The niceness culture in some parts of religious institutionalism is as caustic as rat poison mixed with icing sugar. It breeds shallow relationships that are held in place by the fear of judgment.

My inner torment was amplified by the fact that critical and robust dialogue was often interpreted as negative, and everyone was terrified about being ‘negative’. I had very few safe places or people with whom to process my questions, doubts, and thought processes. Pentecostals, in general, hold to a triumphant happiness theology. The rhetoric from pulpits is one of ‘victory’, ‘triumphs’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘better’, and ‘greater’. It is a victory over negativity, poverty, sickness, anxiety, and depression. The result is that anyone who is unable to live in that suspended, Eden-like utopia is considered with caution. When I began to raise some of the doubts I was wrestling with, I recall being asked by one church leader whether I had adopted a ‘new kind of spirituality’. It was a question that silenced me for a few more months. Institutions of any kind tend to guard the structure of certainty over people. It can become a dangerous place for anyone who has begun to fall down the rabbit hole of questions, and who has started deconstructing embedded dogma.

At the end of 2010, I resigned from a prominent role as Associate Pastor. I was terrified. It was a massive step made far more complex as my husband would continue to serve as Senior Minister for the next six years. My decision to step away from the high-profile role was complicated. Perhaps I can simply say that I fell out of love with certainty addiction. The black and white absolutism required of leaders in conservative religious institutions was something I could no longer hold on to with any form of integrity.

My self-assured stance on life and the world had been shaken and found desperately wanting. Perhaps, with a bit of fierce intentionality and some open conversations, my continued dislocation from the community would have been salvageable. However, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?” There is no going back once you wake up in the matrix – and, more importantly, once you begin to engage with people who have been shunned by some of these very institutions that I have been part of and helped to build.

The last blow to what was left of my extravagantly structured system of certainty came via a very familiar medium: stories. It started with conversations and friendships amidst LGBTIQA+ people of faith several years prior to my resignation. Since then, I have listened to many people who have had to navigate exile from their homes or faith communities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. I am indebted to them. They opened their hearts to me, and through their vulnerability, they opened my eyes to a dominant, patriarchal system of ideas that cloaks itself as orthodoxy and truth amongst religious institutions. The stories were hard to hear. The cruelty and brutality so many faced in the name of God was unfathomable. I realised that I had supported, enabled, and helped build a ministry within a wider religious structure that was responsible for causing much trauma. My own blind privilege had not even considered those who were suffering. It is so easy to de-humanise another when you are removed from their pain, ignorant of their plight, and assured of your own ‘truth’!

My eyes were also opened to the effect that ex-gay practices had on people. It is a deeply embedded ideology that is built on the assumption that there is something intrinsically ‘broken’ about anyone who identifies as anything else other than heteronormative. This ideology (and the practices/rhetoric that it enables) is as common as oxygen in conservative religious settings. It is driven by the idea that a person can be healed from their ‘brokenness’ and live a ‘normal’ (aka straight) life. However, some conservative religious communities have now conceded that this ‘healing’ is unlikely (No Shit, Sherlock!!) The latest form of ex-gay torture is to require LGBTIQA+ people to remain celibate. The toll of this torment and quackery is hard to put into words – anguish, disillusionment, mental health issues, and suicides. The day will come when the modern, conservative church has to face the reality of what this ill-informed dogma has done to people.

For me, there came a day when I was asked to talk about the trauma I had observed in the last several years amongst LGBTIQA+ people of faith. I could no longer remain a silent, horrified witness. So, I agreed to be interviewed on Melbourne’s JOY FM (April, 2015) – and all hell was unleashed.

The hysteria that unfurled was spectacular. The interview even managed to raise an extreme right activist out of retirement in order to write one more newsletter to his faithful followers – an e-mail that mysteriously made its way to many of our church parishioners. He demanded that my husband should keep his wife ‘under control’ – a violent rhetoric that seemed to find support from many others based on the e-mails and letters we both received. After several unpleasant confrontations and conversations, I became hesitant to darken the doors of the church. Until that day I had a lot of sympathy for people who found their lives dominated by anxiety, but this was the season when my sympathy became empathy. I had never known the crippling effect of anxiety until I became the focal point of the angry religious faithful. My earnest prayer became, ‘Lord, save me from Your followers.’

Once you break any sacred tribal rules of conduct and belonging, you often find yourself at the blunt end of a tribe’s most devastating weapon – shame. Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

Shame is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has
at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they
keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have
abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but
shame is slow … but still brutal.

The interview created the final rift. Friends I had known for years stopped speaking to me. The pain was overwhelming. I let go of the trapeze bar and found myself free-falling into a liminal space … (to be continued)

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Emperor has No Clothes (Part 3)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 3 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here and Part 2 (The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty) here.

I understand why people do not want to engage with questions, self-reflection, and critique. It is a humbling, terrifying, and ego-destroying exercise. Most of us will never go here willingly – to this place of no return. However, once we engage with that niggling divine doubt that will not leave us alone (like an itchy mosquito bite), we crack open Pandora’s box – and all hell breaks loose.

It came to me in the quiet, dark, early morning hours. We had just hosted another successful conference that was overflowing with people and goosebumps. Our lives and our schedules at this stage were stretched to maximum capacity. We were adrenaline junkies doing “God’s will” – and God was clearly “blessing” us. Lying in bed exhausted, I wondered whether this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will build the church”? Somehow, I thought, our lives now seemed a million lightyears removed from that of a lowly carpenter, his motley crew, and a humble group of villagers that would make up his growing ecclesiastical constituents. It was the question that never left me, and, like someone who had been underwater for a very long time, I came to the surface gasping for air.

Questions like these were the red carpet on which Paradox made her entrance into my life. Once you see her, you cannot look away. I became the paranoid version of Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, suspiciously examining the somewhat hyper-real environment I was part of and helped create. The safe ivory tower of religious absolutism that has carved such a mega place for itself in modern Christianity started to crumble for me.

I began to notice the consumerism that was hiding under the idea of “blessing.” If we are convinced that God’s blessing is inadvertently tied to more stuff, larger buildings, faster growth, greater mission conquests, extra campuses, and bigger numbers, then the pursuit of more becomes a holy crusade. The pursuit of manifestations and/or healing is also viewed in the same light. If you are “healed” you are blessed, if not, there must be something wrong with you. If there is one word that describes the motivational factors behind some of the empire-building of modern-day Christianity, it is “more.” “More” is the trophy held up in individual and community life as the proof of God’s blessing. The ideology of “more” is deeply embedded. Is it any wonder that the key questions asked at so many leadership conferences that I attended was, “How many people are in your church now” or “How many campuses do you have now?” People spend their life analysing and writing books on this – How to reach more people, raise more money, become more influential, etc. How beautiful the golden calf shimmers in the light of a “more = blessing” philosophy.

Consumerism was but one of the growing number of concerns that now hounded me in the “mega” space of religion. I began to notice the blindness I carried in relation to my own privilege. I had become accustomed to living in an empire that influenced politics, policed morality, and dominated social structures, yet was very quick to cry foul, or rather “persecution”, if it felt threatened. An empire that had to keep “producing” and “growing”. In the middle of it I had grown blind and deaf – it has hard to pay attention to the voices on the margin or the inner voice of caution when you are busy saving the world.  This kind of self-reflection brought with it a fair share of regret. I was complicit in enabling the empire. I was one of its fiercely loyal soldiers.

Brian Walsh writes, “A cold commodity culture in which everything is reduced to its market value will blasphemously obscure our vision that all this earth is hallowed ground” (Colossians Remixed). He is right. The dualistic ideals held in these sectarian enclaves of “us” and “them”, “holy” and “secular”, consistently reduces those who differ to “other” or “sinful.” It creates distance between human connectedness and a refusal to recognise the divine in the “other” who may not think, look, walk, or talk like “us.” Dualism creates binary thinking, while Paradox challenges it with endless examples of exceptions. Paradox must be ignored for the parade to go on …

 … but I could no longer wave.

I had too many questions ….

The values I had silenced began to rise.

[To be continued]

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.

I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.

Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.

In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.

Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.

I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.

People cheered. I had found truth.

In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.

Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.

Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?

My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.

This was not easy.

Holy Cows are very precious.

However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Meandering Paths (Part 1)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book. They are reflections of a very painful season in my life. However, hindsight also provides me with deep gratitude. May these posts offer some hope and courage to all fellow liminal pilgrims.

Never knowing which way was up

Until I drank the bitter cup

And then the sky it disappeared

And I was falling without fear

Falling, falling without a sound

Down down down down down down down

This is who I am, this is what I need

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is how I live, this is how I bleed

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is what I know, this is how I think …

Joel Sattler

 

Storytelling is the aorta that runs through my family and ancestors. It has nourished us for generations. The traditional German Kaffeeklatsch may start with just two or three people drinking coffee and eating Sahnekuchen, but within minutes the room is filled with invisible guests, joshing for their stories to be heard from another time and place. I was a fortunate child to grow up surrounded by such rich narrative.

The stories of war and displacement were never far from the lips of my Oma. She lost her husband, my grandfather, in the battle of Stalingrad. As a young mother, with my aunt who was a toddler and my father who was a three-month-old baby at the time, she had to flee her hometown of Lyck (Elk, Poland) as the Soviet Army approached in 1945. Her survival stories were harrowing: stories of despair, hunger, abuse, but also of hope. The man she married six years later would provide a safe haven for a young widow and her children.

My mother suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder all her life, most of those years without a diagnosis and unable to understand her own sense of consistent, heightened anxiety and insomnia. She was older than my father and remembers the war – running for bomb shelters, shaking violently as the fighter jets approached, the sound of Gestapo boots on the street, and her Jewish neighbour jumping off her balcony to her death so she would not be arrested. Her childhood was turbulent and traumatic.

The stories my parents and grandparents told shaped so much of my world. I grew up in a loving and nurturing home, but I was not shielded from these stories, and for that, I am so grateful. It prepared me for what I was about to experience as a seven-year-old when my parents packed up house and moved from Germany to South Africa.

Most immigrants can relate to the sense of disorientation and disconnection experienced when one settles into a country that is very different from their accustomed culture and social norms. I felt as if I was caught in a giant tidal wave of learning and new experiences. I did not find my feet for several years. I had to learn English and Afrikaans – an apartheid-torn South Africa had a dual-language approach. I also learnt Zulu. But all that took time. In the meantime, I became the focal point of playground fun and belittling. Children show little mercy when they can distract potential bullies to prey that is more vulnerable than they are. The school library became my safe place during recess and the Giant Illustrated Catholic Children’s Bible became a source of wonder.

I had no embedded idea about the blue-eyed, blonde-haired man I was looking at in that Bible. He reminded me of someone from Norse mythology or a Viking character that featured in one of the many stories my Oma told. It would be quite a few years later before I would encounter this man again. At that time, I learnt his name: Jesus.

It was the system called apartheid – an ultimate form of marginalization, bullying, and oppression of people based on the hue of their skin — that reminded me that the world is not really a safe place. My lack of friends at school was quickly compensated for by the children of the cleaners and helpers at my mother’s hair salon. It was with their help that I mastered Zulu long before Afrikaans. It was their presence that exposed me to the cruelty I now witnessed in person, not in stories. My Zulu friends could not go into the shops I visited, they had separate drinking fountains, it took them a long time to find a public toilet they were permitted to use, and they often had random grown-ups shout at and abuse them. They were not permitted to be in the streets of the area where I lived. I have a distinct memory of the neighbour across the road beating an African man unconscious because he took a shortcut across a nearby field. That neighbour then dusted off his suit and got into his car to go to church. I later found out he was an elder at the local Dutch Reformed church. To me, he remains immortalized in my historical narrative as the archetypal arsehole.

These were some of my pre-liminal stories and life experiences. I would dream of a better world. In my imagination, I was the super-hero who would put every bully in his place and liberate the oppressed. I was a child waiting to become a zealot, looking for a cause. More than that, I was a child desperately looking for belonging, safety, and predictability. I found it in institutional fundamentalist religion … (to be continued)

 

 

My Pug and Her Curious Relationship with Her Shadow

“There is no light without shadow and no psychic wholeness without imperfection.” – Carl Jung – 

 

My pug mauls her shadow. Not every day, of course. Just on those days when the sun is shining brightly and we happen to walk past our neighbour’s garden wall at a particular time in the morning. Suddenly she stops and growls, her hackles are up, and she morphs into Danger Pug. The enemy is obvious – the enemy is standing a few inches next to her – the enemy is her.

“Nikki,” I say, “Petal,” I say, “It’s your shadow. It’s you.” She stares at me with angry eyes. “You know nothing, human,” is the clear translation of the disdain she feels for me at that moment. To the pug, her shadow is and always will be, outside of herself … something that is irritatingly and dangerously highlighted on her neighbour’s wall.

I no longer try to dissuade her from attacking her shadow. She has told herself a story all her life: her shadow is her enemy. She is not open to feedback or willing to engage in critical thinking and a process of deconstruction to consider where this idea of ‘my shadow is my enemy’ comes from. Maybe her pug history and litter culture shamed her shadow? Or maybe it was talked about in hushed, embarrassed tones? Or maybe she was taught that her shadow is something to fear and despise … never to acknowledge it, under any circumstance. I will never really know. There is no invitation on her end to engage in any conversation about her shadow.

 

The pug is us! There is a Darth Vader Shadow in all of us. Parts of our actions, intentions, or sense of self that we do not wish to acknowledge. Something we try to hide or disown – and yet, in times of crisis, anger, or confrontation, we are suddenly horrified as envy, greed, selfishness, restlessness, power lust, etc, etc, etc, come out to play.

For many of us, our shadow has been disapproved and shamed since we can remember. So, as the poet Robert Bly points out, we spend our lives putting all the things that our parents, teachers, friends, family, etc, point out as ‘undesirable’ into an ‘invisible bag’. An invisible bag that becomes a mile long. A bag, that our society teaches us to never display or talk about. However, no good ever comes out of anything reduced and ignored through shame and scorn. It festers. It turns against us … and it begins to operate without our awareness or permission … Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde come to mind.

Every day we entertain a whole lot of ‘guests’ at our table of life. When we refuse to host the guests that come into our life that bring us a sense of pain or embarrassment, they become loud and dominant. And what happens then? We look for something or someone to maul … our neighbour (or, in the pug’s case, the neighbour’s wall). Robert Johnson said, “Unless we do conscious work on it, our shadow is almost always projected: That is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it.”

The profound words of Jesus come to mind, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Tied closely to our rage and hatred of our neighbour is deep self-loathing. We see on our neighbour’s wall everything we are trying to hide in our invisible bag. By attacking our neighbour, we are really attacking ourselves. Perhaps, far harder than attempting to love our neighbour, is to love our sense of self?

It is our ego, our idea of self-image, that acts like a security guard over our invisible bag. We are often given an invitation to relinquish our ego. As Richard Rohr puts it, “…to relinquish the identification with the values of others, the values received and reinforced by the world around us … we are asked to accept the absurdities of existence, that death and extinction mock all expectations of aggrandisement, that vanity and self-delusion are most seductive of comfort … How counterproductive our popular culture with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the incessant restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of the soul.”

Our ego has one vocation: to stop us from acknowledging our shadow and with that acknowledgement to recognise our connectedness to one another. To dismiss our ego is terrifying. Suddenly Darth Vader is sitting at our dinner table of life … and we have no security guard to call.

Mystics and religious writers all have different language for this moment. It is a ‘dying to self’, sometimes a ‘dark night of the soul’, or a form of ’surrender’ or ‘detachment’. It is only when we dismiss the ego and invite all of us to the table of life that we begin to awaken.

Whether we choose this path or not is determined by one big question – What dreams and hopes do we have about the life we want to live? How you answer that question determines your steps and informs your initiatives. The choice is ours. We are the narrators of the stories we tell ourselves. And as I write, the pug yet again mauls her neighbour’s wall, not once considering that she is attacking herself …

 

“We can’t eliminate the shadow. It stays with us as our dark brother or sister. Trouble arises when we fail to see it. For then, to be sure, it is standing right behind us.”  – Scott Jeffrey – 

 

 

The Table of Life: Despair and Hope

Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –

Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.

So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”

The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”

Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.

“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”

The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”

The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
Alain de Botton –

Tattered Teddies and Tattered Hearts

Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit –

It was a very difficult decision to let Baer go. However, Baer had gone to God. His little teddy body could no longer be mended. There were now gaping holes where once his beautiful brown glass eyes had looked at the world with somber wisdom. His soft teddy body had been stitched and re-stitched countless times. The last bit of survival hope came to an abrupt end when my little dog used his soft teddy paws to sharpen her puppy teeth. Baer had lived a fully loved life and it was time to say goodbye to a tattered teddy.

I often think about the solemn farewell ceremony I conducted as a five-year-old. Tattered teddies have so much to teach us. In a world obsessed about staying young and looking picture perfect, a tattered teddy would question whether these image ideals are integral to our sense of self or whether our values have been hijacked by a modern consumeristic culture? Why do we believe that our existence should be tatter-free? Perhaps, if we embrace unreservedly this wild ride called life, we, like Baer, will also become worn and tattered. Maybe that thought creates great angst for us?

The years I spent in fundamentalist religion had me believe that life was one giant escalator ride to triumph and that the gospel message was my ticket to living healthy and wealthy lives, where everything is awesome! However, I discovered rather quickly that this brand of religion claimed grace at theirs yet held a lot of judgement for anyone who was seen to be believing or behaving in a manner less than the tribal constructed ideal. There was little room for tattered teddies with tattered hearts.

Nowadays, I no longer cling to those ideas that tend to produce a never-ending spiral of anxiety, fear, and discontentment. I rejected the bogus thought that God judges vulnerable, tattered hearts and sends them to Dante’s hell like some heinous universal tyrant. I actively resist the dominant religious or cultural discourse that would like us to believe in a tatter-free existence. I call bullshit on it. It has created an endless count of broken-hearts, rejection, and disappointment. The false hypothesis that we can live tatter-free has us continually choosing the risk-free, ‘shiny’ options instead of learning to tell our stories amidst and with the messiness of life. We never own our own shit, fears, or failures, when tatter-free is the idolised communal choice. We can never apologise. And grace remains on the margins, amidst the tattered people with tattered hearts.

So, dear reader, next time someone tries to peddle you a tatter-free spiel about life, turn your back and walk away. You don’t need that sort of toxicity in your life. Confront the tatter-free judgement in your own mind, disguised under all sorts of fraudulent gobbledygook. Live that wild tattered life that you yearn for. And when, like Baer, it is time for you to go to God, may your tattered being give one last sigh – ‘It is well with this Tattered Heart!’