Giving Space and Learning Grace

I talk a good talk about giving grace and learning people’s stories and giving people space to be who they are, but in reality, I am pretty judgmental and not very gracious in lots of situations.

For one example, this morning I sat next to a woman in church who kept sighing the whole way through the bad poem that was read, through the sermon, and through the strange liturgical singing prayer thing we did. I found myself really getting angry with her every time she’d loudly answer what I believed to be rhetorical questions asked by the pastor. I have a low tolerance for people who I perceive need to be in the spotlight. But then I stepped back and thought about how I don’t know this woman’s story. Maybe she had a past that really resonated with what the pastor was saying. Maybe she had low self-esteem and needed to feel like she knew the answers. Maybe, just maybe, I was being the opposite of the person I really want to be. We’re in church for crying out loud and there I was judging everything about someone I didn’t know. I was stealing her space, and I was shaming her in my head.

For another example, as I said above someone read a poem in church today, and all I could do was sit there, like I was in poetry workshop, and critique the poem for its lack of poetic-ness and poor imagery. Even better was that it was up on the giant projector screen, so I could critique the word choice, the line breaks, the rhythm or lack thereof, and basically everything about it. I stopped listening when there were too many mommy references. Maybe this poet had a hard time composing because of the pressure of Advent. Maybe she wrote from the heart and not from the head. Maybe she needed to process peace for her own rejuvenation and healing. And, again, I was being the opposite of who I want to be. I was stealing the poem from the poet and from all those for whom it could have been a blessing. My negative waves were likely tangible.

For a third example, I stopped at Caribou this morning before church, and I ordered a medium hot press in my mug. From my perception, the barista apparently thought I didn’t know what size my own mug was, so she charged me for a small. Then the barista at the bar only made a small hot press, so then I had four ounces less of coffee. There was also a whole over ring debacle, in which she made me wait in line while she fixed it, then re-rang my order. From my perspective, she was inept. But maybe the new computer system really had her rattled this morning. Maybe she had a rough night last night. Maybe she was nervous because I was a fellow employee. Maybe, I needed to give her grace instead of judgment, and maybe I could live with only twelve ounces of coffee, instead of sixteen. I scowled, I was short, and I took every opportunity to give her grace to do just the opposite. What an ass!

All of this to say that I am working (still and forever) on giving space for people to be who they are, and I am working (still and forever) on giving grace to people when they miss my high-held expectations for them.

I hate this lesson. I hate realizing how often I fail to recognize the divine spark in my fellow humans. I hate thinking about how this makes people relate to me, like there is some secret handshake to be my friend, equal, comrade.

There isn’t a secret handshake with me. I do believe in grace. I do believe in space. I do believe in all those things I say I believe in.

Being a real person is hard work.

Giving Thanks and Counting Blessings

This year I am thankful for so many things, and I am trying to get into the habit of counting my blessings each and every day, instead of waiting for a holiday to prod me into it. Here is a solid list of things I am grateful for, and they are in no particular order.

1) Mental Health: As I look back through this blog, I notice my thoughts and moods look like a roller coaster (not a fun one), going from high to low, back to really high then back to really low, and there are some flat places like where people stand in line to get on the coaster and then off again. Only I never got off again. I just stayed on the thing and rode it again and again, like when my youth group went to King’s Island one year and rode the Adventure Express ten times in a row, seeing the same sights over and over again. Then when we got off a couple of girls puked in the trash can. That’s an accurate portrayal of how I feel about my life for the past five years or so, but the past year from about August back to the August of 2013 was especially excruciating. Seeing the same sights over and over again began to kill me. Slowly. And definitely made me want to puke in the trash can.

Unknown to most people I was suffering. I thought about killing myself at least once or twice a week, and the thought wasn’t a fleeting whim of considering suicide. I dwelt on it. Sometimes for several days at a time. The days were dark, my thoughts were heavy, and I didn’t want to go on.

Unknown to most people I was also addicted to several things, the mildest of which were beer and cigarettes, but there were other darker addictions, too. There will be other posts, other writings, other stories wherein I discuss those things, but not now, not when there is so much to be thankful for.

Unknown to most people, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to escape my life and do anything but what I was doing.

Fortunately, I remained.

Fortunately, there was an end to my suffering.

Fortunately, there were Zen gardens, long conversations, fellowship, and grace.

And life is not excruciating right now. Now I have no suffering. I am only blessed.

Right now, I am filled with joy, and not the fleeting kind. I am filled with that joy I was looking for this time last year. The kind I had no business of even trying to write about, because I was so far from it, I wouldn’t have known it if it had bitten me in the ass.

Right now I feel mentally well. And content. And at peace. This wasn’t a magical transformation, but a transformation of hard work, diligence, and perseverance on the part of myself and many others.

I am thankful I am not where I used to be.

2) Vocational Health: I am blessed with the ability to work a minimum-wage job with very little stress. My goal each day is to be the person who brings a smile to someone else’s face. I don’t look at my job as making a cup of coffee; I look at it as bringing grace and joy through food to a guest of my hospitality.

I can’t explain how it feels for me to not be teaching; I do miss the thoughtful conversations with my students and my colleagues, but not the rest of it. I enjoy having those same conversations with my coworkers and customers, but moreover I enjoy clocking in, serving people, clocking out, and coming home. No planning, no grading, no emails, and no bull shit. The worst thing that happens at work now is I make someone’s coffee wrong, so then I remake it and no one is harmed.

Probably the best part of my job is my manager, who is the best friend I’ve made since I moved here in July. When she is filled with happiness, her excitement is contagious. When someone does something she appreciates, she tells the person. When someone does something wrong, she has a constructive conversation with the person, not with everyone who works at Caribou. There’s no guessing where you stand with her. No head games.

People who manage other people shouldn’t fuck with the people they manage. Each person should know exactly what she is doing right, or exactly what she is doing wrong, and how it can be corrected or continuously improved.

Nebulous feedback is only detrimental to coworkers. I am so glad I am out of the land of nebulous evaluations and the RISE model that causes all educators so much pain for so little helpful feedback or constructive criticism.

I am thankful I am where I am.

3) Physical Health: This is an area that I still need to work on, but I know I can do it. On Monday, I am going to go swim for the first time since I’ve been up here. I’ve been walking pretty consistently, and I plan to start running three days a week. I also plan to move my bike and bike trainer into the house, so I can bike twice a week. My physical health goal is to swim on Monday and Wednesday, to bike on Thursday and Saturday, and to run on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. I certainly feel better when I am active, and not just physically. I can tell in my emotional demeanor when I have the chance to do moving meditation and when I don’t.

I’ve been drinking a few too many beers, been smoking a few too many cigarettes, and been having a few too many eat whatever I want days. I know this is not necessarily healthy. I also know that the opposite extreme is not healthy for me either. I do not live well on a restricted diet. I do not live well without the option of smoking a bit now and again. And I do not live well without an occasional alcoholic beverage.

I am well aware that moderation in all things is best for me, and I am striving toward a better and healthier relationship with what I consume.

I want wellness in regards to exercise and food.

I am thankful for being able to tell when enough is enough.

4) Relational Health: I have more friends than I have ever had before. I have a better relationship with my wife than I’ve had in about a year. I am more appreciative of my family than I have been in a long time. I value and cherish people in a way I haven’t before in my life.

Without family and friends, I am fully aware that I wouldn’t be where I am today, and I especially wouldn’t be so mentally well.

Every day, I thoughtfully consider that I might not even be here today were it not for my family and friends who’ve loved me unconditionally.

I am thankful I am here today.

5) Locational Health: Is this really a thing? Haha. I am so happy we live where we live. There are several state parks within a short driving distance. I frequently walk on an island, which is part of what I’ve always wanted. I didn’t imagine the island would be between two rivers in the middle of a huge city in Minnesota, but I have an island to walk around. I can drive half an hour and be in Minneapolis, or half an hour in the opposite direction and be out in the country surrounded by cows. We live in a quiet and working-class river valley, but I work up in the Heights, so I can see everything at night after work or in the morning before work, even the stars. I can drive back to Indiana in one day, so I can visit easily, or I can drive one day in the opposite direction and be in Canada.

I am thankful I live in a second place I love.

6) Spiritual Health: Advent starts on Sunday, and I am so excited to see what God has in store for me for the next year. I have been using Common Prayer before work each morning, and I love how God speaks to me through those words. I can find one phrase or idea and carry it through my day.

I am thankful for God’s grace, peace, and love.

Stairs. Babies. And Dust Shaking.

When your 67-year-old mother falls down all eleven steps in your stairwell at 5AM while she’s visiting your new house for the first time and because she is trying to be nice and not disturb anyone by keeping the lights off, let me tell you it gives you a whole new perspective on your relationship with her, her mortality, and your strange premonitions. Well, it gives you all those things if you are me, which you aren’t, but you get the point.

I was startled and horrified when I heard the soft bumping that was more than a cat descending the eleven steps that lead down to the first floor and right into our double front doors, which are entirely made of glass, but I knew exactly what was happening, because I’d been seeing it from inside whoever was falling down the stairs since I moved into this house in July. I’d say at least twice a week I’d have what I’ll call a vision or a premonition where I seemed to be inside someone falling down the long flight of stairs. The person would miss the top step and then slide, tumble, bump to the bottom, so when at 5AM, I heard a noise that resembled someone falling down the stairs, I realized my premonition had some true, and somehow instantly I knew it was my mom.

When I heard the ruckus, I jumped out of bed, got dressed, and ran out into the hallway to find my mom at the bottom of the stairs in her nightgown. She was just sitting there. Silent. But sitting. We picked her up and dusted her off. Luckily she only hurt her shoulder, her hip, and one hand, and they were just bruised. Every possible scenario ran through my mind that morning, the things that could have happened but didn’t. And I learned a few things from it, things similar to what I learned about my dad and posted here (seven years ago, wow, I’ve been writing here for seven years).

1) She is my mom, and while I see her as sort of a force that will always be in my life, she is mortal. The fall could’ve been much worse, but it wasn’t this time. However, it did make me think about how she’s 67, which is still young, but how we are all aging and it only seems as if we are getting older faster these days. I know time is relative, but, man, how I wish we could go back to when the summer lasted forever and I couldn’t wait for school to start again. Some of my best memories were playing softball while my parents watched, or helping my mom set up her classroom for a new school year, then dropping into Hardee’s to see my dad for lunch after we’d been outside all morning swimming in the pond. Yeah, so we’re all aging and time is going faster, and one day my parents will be gone, and one day I’ll be on my own in this world. All of those things went through my head as I celebrated my banged up and bruised mother that day.

2) I’ve always been a strange duck when it comes to intuition. I’ve been reading more about it lately and I’ve been more open about this facet of my life lately, and I find that I am not alone, that there are lots of us who sense things deeply, who can feel others feelings, who carry heavy burdens for things that don’t belong to us, and who can see things. Anyway, since July when I moved into this house, I’ve had what I like to call a vision or premonition of someone falling down the stairs. As I mentioned above, this one was weird, though, because it was like I was inside the person as they were slowly tumbling down the steps. I couldn’t tell if this was something that I was being allowed to see from the past, or something that might happen in the future. (I’m not really very good at deciphering these things yet, even at 40, and they’ve happened all my life.) For some of you who’ve known me for a while, this may come as a surprise, but I’ve had visions/premonitions/dreams since I was about 2 or 3 or as far back as I can remember, and I can see things (you might call them ghosts) pretty consistently. I may write more about this later, but my point is that when I heard my mom start to fall, I almost instantly knew it was her, and I could almost feel her path inside me, because I am pretty sure it was the one I’d been seeing since we moved in. The visions of falling down the stairs have ended now, so I know I was intuiting her fall. And I’m not surprised by all of this, but I wish I could become better at really understanding what all of it means before it happens.

3) Finally, I think this helped me understand that for far too long, I’ve been carrying a grudge against my mom for how she handled my coming out to her. I wrote a whole nonfiction/memoirish piece about it when I was in graduate school (writing class is excellent therapy, just an fyi), and I won’t rehash all of that here, but I wanted my family to be one those families that just embraced who I was and then we would move forward. While my parents tried to do that, I just happened to come out in the midst of the AIDS crisis to parents who were just a bit more conservative than I thought. While they were always very kind to any girlfriend I may have had, my mom also spent time copying scriptures about homosexuality from her bible and passing them to me during church, my dad didn’t say much one way or another, and it was apparent to me that all their hopes and dreams for me, for a normal life with a big white wedding and 2.4 children were dashed on the rocks below them. There were choice things said about my sexuality in times of great stress that I won’t repeat here, because we finally are past all that. But I realized when I saw my mom at the bottom of the stairs, I’d been just angry at her for so long, I wasn’t sure how to recover from it. One of my friends said over the summer, “You give everyone else grace, but not your mom. That’s my observation about your grace.” She was right. I had been holding an almost 20-year-old response to my coming out against my parents. Dumb. Unkind. The opposite of grace. So with me at the age of 40, after my mom fell down a flight of stairs, I forgave her, finally and completely, like I should have years ago. I do love my family a great deal. I’ve been wrong. And callous. And I’m done with it.

Shortly after my parents left, like a couple of hours after they walked out the door, two of our grandchildren came to spend the week with us. I love all four of them to the moon and back (I’m that grandma, the one with the pictures and the stories), but for some reason I feel a very special bond with Simon, the youngest one. I would assume it’s because I’ve been around more while he’s been younger, or maybe it’s because whenever we watch them while their parents are out, I put him to bed and I get to rock him to sleep while he drinks his bottle. Whatever the reason, I feel a kinship with this almost 9-month-old kid. I can say the experience of caring for the two boys for the weekend taught me a bit more about life. Since I have no children of my own (three amazing grown men and their beautiful significant others don’t really count in this example), I’d never experienced waking up when a 3-year-old has night terrors and is screaming outside our bedroom door. Though I was so tired, I was also moved to compassion, since I, too, have suffered from nightmares from a very young age. When Bec got up to be with him, I told her I’d handle the next crisis in the night, so at 4AM when I heard little cries coming from the room next door, I got up with Simon. He’d been sick for a few days with some stomach issues, diarrhea mostly. Aside from a summer of having baby foster siblings, I have relatively little experience with babies, so I mostly just guessed why he might be crying. Diaper? Changed (and gross! colossal blow out) and pajamas changed, too. Too hot? Too cold? Found another little blanket. Hungry? Read the back of the formula canister at 4:23AM and fumbled my way through that. Snuggles? Oh, yes.

What I learned from this is much akin to what I learned when my mom fell: outside of each other, humans have nothing tangible that really matters. At many different points in our lives, we solely rely on each other for love. We need each other in ways that I hadn’t even considered before. We must rely on each other. And because I have faith in God, I’d say that we were created to see the image of God in each other. We were created to complete each other.

Basically, October 14-18 was a huge learning curve for me. I’m 40. I’m tired of learning lessons like these.

Here’s the last bit of this post, which I think is related to the rest, though maybe only tangentially. I’m not really sure what I want to say about this poem, and I may have posted it before, but having recently moved and knowing the usual connotation of the phrase “shake the dust” from your feet, I love Anis Mojgani’s reappropriation of the phrase in this poem. Shaking the dust is not about leaving something behind because it didn’t please you or you didn’t please it; shaking the dust is about repositioning yourself in relation to your surroundings, so that others may somehow see you the way you see yourself and not inside the little, tiny, constricting box they’ve put you in. This poem really is beautiful.

A Buggy Little Adventure

This day was supposed to be awesome. Bec planned an excellent all day date with her sister Ann and me. Bec and I would start by going to church, then meet up with Ann, head to St. Croix State Park, have a picnic lunch, then hike a 5-mile loop by the river.

Here is how the day really went.

Bec and I got up early, and did what the morning wants people to do. Drink some coffee. Take a shower. Walk the dogs. Not necessarily in that order, but you get it. Then we made the 20-25 minute drive to St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. Some folks would take what happened next as an omen of some sort. We, however, did not. We made it before the service started, so that’s a bonus, but as we were getting out of the car we were greeted by this little gem in the car next to ours:

ZombieBaby

We met up with Ann at around 10AM and headed about 2 hours north, northeast to St. Croix State Park. The foliage was gorgeous pretty much the whole way up Interstate 35, with bright yellow, rustic oranges, loud reds, and sumac turning a dark crimson along the sides of the road. Basically, there was all kinds of beauty everywhere I looked. When we got to the park, we had a picnic on an overlook with this view of the river:

River2

And this view of my delicious Summit Porter:

Porter

But, sadly, that is all we were able to do at this state park, because we were being eaten alive (I mean almost carried away like an alien abduction) by mosquitoes. We got quickly into the car and drove through the rest of the park, like good little lazy Americans, using fossil fuels to see nature’s beauty. We did stop at two other places in the park. One was an overlook where the river looked like this:

River1

I also saw a loon after we heard it diving and splashing around in the weeds by the edge of the shore, because the last place we stopped looked a bit like this:

Marsh

So we drove, sadly, back toward the Cities with only a picnic under our belts. But then Ann had a wonderful and brilliant idea: Fort Snelling State Park! We all agreed that would be a fine time. And it could have been with cool stuff like this memorial for the Dakota Indians who were imprisoned during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862:

Memorial

Or this cool historical marker (I’m a sucker for historical markers):

HistoricalMarker

Or the fine company: HarrisButts

Or the natural beauty of a river island (Pike Island): Clearing

I could have had a good time pretending I was Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn or Becky Thatcher (if she ever got to do anything cool, besides have the hots for Tom), but there were also lots of these little bastards:

So as I said at the beginning today was supposed to be awesome, and it was. I had so much fun picnicking, hiking, and being abducted by mosquitoes… oh, wait… I learned something today: ALWAYS WEAR MOSQUITO REPELLENT WHEN HIKING IN MINNESOTA. ALWAYS. DOUBLE ALWAYS. AND TRIPLE. I kept saying, as we were walking, “This is what hell is probably like. You are with people you love, doing something that’s supposed to be super fun, but there’s one thing really horrible about it. You think all the while, oh, this isn’t bad, but then there are the mosquitoes. These mosquitoes are Satan’s minions, torturing us.” I think I just thought the last sentence of that and didn’t ever say it out loud, but now I am saying it, because it is true.

But I really did have a great time with two fantastic women. In fact, it was one of the most fun days I’ve had in a long, long time. I’m re-learning flexibility. But I’m also learning to WEAR BUG REPELLENT!

Unique by Corby Jaye Roberson

While I was moving things, I found one of my most prized possessions, a poem I wrote when I was in seventh grade. I’m posting it here for the simple fact that if I lose the written copy, I’ll still have this cyber copy. I love how much and how little I’ve changed in 27 years.

Here is the title page:

Unique
by: Corby Jaye
Roberson

Hartford City Junior High
7th grade
April 8th, 1987

Here is the poem:

The world looks down on people like me,
The ones that want to do or be different.
I don’t think that just because I’m different,
That I should be looked down upon, lower
Than people that do the same old thing day after day.

But I don’t really care if the people do look down on me,
Because if I’m what I want to be,
That’s my choice not the world’s.

If everybody did or was the same,
The world would be very dull and boring,
And maybe then people would want to do or be different,
Not the same!

So I’ll just me, because that’s all I can be,
And I don’t care what the world thinks.

Here is the story behind this poem: I totally forgot that it was the last day to submit anything for Young Author’s, so I faked sick during P.E. and went to the nurse’s office. Then I laid on the cot and wrote the poem you have before you. I made the cover during lunch and then turned it in to Mrs. Warner, my English teacher, just after last period. I was as shocked as anyone else when I won the competition at our school and had my poem submitted for the Indiana Young Author’s Anthology, which I never received. I was pretty proud of this poem, and I wasn’t the least embarrassed that I wrote it at the last minute, because it had been rolling around inside of me, since about, oh, kindergarten. Growing up I always felt a bit out of step with everyone else, and I didn’t really care about how out of step I was until the next year, during the same month, when I had a life-altering event happen to me. I don’t really want to divulge that here, now, but I will say that I spent a good portion of the next 25 years trying to get back in step with everyone else. And, well, now I am done with that. So there.