One Person. A Hundred Monkeys.

One Person. A Hundred Monkeys.

I got the sad word today. My friend and mentor Sharon had died.

I met her many years ago when I arrived for her five day workshop for abuse survivors.  (She’d staffed and trained staff for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Life, Death and Transition workshops.)

Sharon scared me that week. And yet also made me feel safe. She pushed me to go to places I wanted to avoid and pushed me to do work I didn’t want to do. And when I survived all of it I began to hope that healing was possible.

So I kept going  back to workshops.

I was convinced that telling parts of my story would be the end of me. She pushed, and I told and far from being the end of me, it was the beginning. When I needed to wail with the grief deep in my bones, it was Sharon’s hand on my shoulder keeping me grounded, reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

At the close of one workshop Sharon said, “Perhaps one day after you’ve finished your school (I was getting my graduate degree in counseling) you’ll get the training and work on staff.”

Of course, I didi just that. I did my training and then started working as an apprentice in workshops. What an honor it was to be working with that staff. And what an amazing learning experience. It is no exaggeration to say that at least 75% of what I do as therapist I learned from working with them: Sharon, Shannon, Connie, Nancy and David. They were all brilliant and they taught me things about working with wounded people that can’t be learned in a classroom.

Sharon had a masterful intuitive sense and an absolute commitment to what it took to hold a space safe enough for people to do such deep work. As staff, we could do what we did because we knew Sharon was there. She held the safe space for all of us.

She insisted that being on staff meant taking care of your own stuff first. And it meant taking care of any issue that arose between the staff. We had to be clear with each other before we could work clearly with participants. She also taught me about knowing when to say goodbye, retiring her Safe Harbor Workshops long before anyone wanted her to, but also before she grew tired of doing the work.

She was smart and wise and most of all, loving. She (along with the rest of the staff) changed my life. I’m in private practice today because when I finished grad school, I didn’t want some boss saying I couldn’t take a week of vacation to staff a workshop. She made me an infinitely better therapist and a healthier person.

Staffing was hard and demanding work, but such rich work. Being able to share in it along with that staff is one of the greatest blessings of my life. The gift of it still fills me with wonder.

I know Sharon touched hundreds of lives. Through the work that I do now, both as a therapist and as staff of a similar grief workshop, her influence and her work flows on to many more people.

At the close of each workshop Sharon told a story. It was about the hundredth monkey.

The government started studying animal life on a group of Pacific Islands. They noticed on one island monkeys started washing their food. It spread one to another – monkey see, monkey do. That wasn’t so remarkable, except when the number of monkeys reached a critical mass (for simplicity, we call it the hundredth money), monkeys on another island began washing their food.

“We never know,” Sharon said as we stood in our goodbye circle, “who will be the hundredth monkey, who will be the one to be the tipping point.”

On days when I feel discouraged by the amount of need I see and the seemingly impossible mountains before us, I think of that story. And I press on, for who knows who will be that person to be the hundredth monkey, the one voice that begins to tip the scales in favor of love.

I’ve seen it happen, you know.

I’ve seen a stranger step into my life and tip it in ways beyond my ability to dream or to imagine. For such a life, and that it touched my life,  I am grateful

 

 

 

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

(Today’s post comes by way of Alicia Davis-Porterfield, writing in the Ministry and Motherhood Blog. I gladly share this with her permission.)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned . . . Isaiah 9:2

It was dark, in those days. Very dark. Rome ruled Israel, the latest in a long line of conquerors. David’s line seemed all dried up after a succession of useless kings who led a great people to ruin. Caesar had ordered a new census with an eye toward his coffers.

The more people he could account for, the more taxes he could raise; the more taxes he could raise, the more people he could conquer. And so on and so on.

There was no one to challenge him in those days, no one who could shake the grip of the Roman Empire. Israel was a conquered people doing the will of a Caesar they neither chose nor revered nor trusted.

And so it was that Joseph put Mary on that donkey to take the long trip to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. They were not going for a great family reunion, tables laden with favorite foods and local delicacies. They were not headed home for a religious celebration with its own time honored traditions and deep roots in their faith.

They were doing the bidding of Caesar, whose command had come at just the wrong time for their lives, just when Mary’s pregnancy was coming to an end. When she should have been home in Nazareth surrounded by relatives and neighbors who could help her through the trial of labor, she was far from home, alone with only Joseph to attend her.

There was nothing about this story that seemed right, nothing that felt warm and homey and comforting. Mary got pregnant too early and under circumstances no one could believe. Joseph, confused and angry, was ready to quietly un-engage her, until an angel intervened.

And if that wasn’t enough, Caesar interrupted the whole thing with his call for a census, requiring a trip to Bethlehem, a place far from the home and family they knew. They would travel all that way, endangering themselves and the baby, so their conquerors could collect more tax money. This is not a happy story. Not yet.

If you are hurting or angry or confused this Advent season, you are in good company, at least according to the actual Biblical story. If you are lonely or grieving this Advent season, your story is their story, a people who had been conquered for centuries, wondering if God had forgotten them. If you can’t be full of good cheer and cringe at the thought of crowded malls and gift extravaganzas and to-do lists longer than your arm, you are not being a Scrooge or a Grinch.

In fact, you may know better than most the real struggle in this story we know almost too well. Perhaps those with troubled hearts might just have the ears to hear the depth of pain and longing the “holly jolly” approach has written right out of the story. This is the quiet story, not the one of hustle and bustle and ringing cash registers.

This is the story that makes room for pregnant teenagers and confused husbands and people who wonder what God is up to—or even sometimes, if God is up to anything, but who go anyway. This is the true story, according to scripture, the story that has almost been drowned out by demands for good cheer and forced festivities that actually have little to do with the nativity.

The birth of Christ was as far from a Hallmark Christmas special as it possibly could be. Don’t be snowed by the hype. If you are hurting in any way, if your heart is troubled, if you are limping instead of leaping, this is your story.

Advent is a time to prepare for the light coming into the darkness, which means that there is indeed darkness in the story. It does not have the last word, praise be to God. But the darkness is there, the struggle, the loss, the grief, the disappointment and anger–no matter how hard the marketers push to convince us otherwise.

If you are searching for that light, longing for it amidst the darkness, limping into Advent, you are not alone. The Bible tells us so.

 

Alicia Davis Porterfield serves, mothers, and writes in Wilmington, NC. After the recent death of her adored and adoring father, she is definitely limping into Advent.

 

“They’re not handling things well”

“They’re not handling things well”

pic-lossA client or friend tells me they’re concerned about someone whom they love, a family member, significant other or friend. “They’re not handling things well,” they tell me. Sometimes that person about whom they are concerned is their very selves. Because words mean different things to different people,  I ask them to explain.

Usually it comes down to this. The person has had a significant loss. They are sad. They are grieving. They may even be a bit depressed. I point out that such reactions are perfectly normal given the situation.

We have a skewed idea of what handling things well means. We praise people saying, “She did so well. she never cried during the funeral.” Excuse me, but aren’t most funerals at least little sad? You miss the person and your going to be missing the person the rest of your life.

Having a feeling doesn’t mean you’re not handling things well. Now if you cannot get out of bed or your anger is peeling the wallpaper off the walls, then we need to talk. But simply being sad because you’ve had a loss comes with the territory.


 

Losses come in all shapes and sizes. Join me on my free webinar (late January/early February) as we talk about other kinds of losses and why they matter.

If Nobody Died Why Am I Grieving? More info and registration here 

Mat on Cats

Mat on Cats
cats
Pre-mat version of my cat

She purrs on my lap as I focus on one section of fur. Finding a sliver of space to slip the comb in, I slowly work the teeth of the cat comb back out.

My best guess is that as my cat’s blood sugar got out of control with her developing diabetes, my cat didn’t feel vey good and her grooming suffered. However it happened, she developed large mats of fur along each hip.

So now we work each day working them out. My job is to keep combing until we hit pay dirt – a section of matted fur pulling loose and getting free. Her job is to allow me to do it.

We’re making headway, the two of us. In some ways it’s become a meditative time, an exercise in mindfulness as I focus on the fur before me. I think it may also be a pretty good metaphor for the healing process.

1. We don’t always know our lives are getting matted up until after it’s done.

One day we realize that everything’s in a tangle. We have to do something different.

2. It can be a slow process and you’re not always sure you’re making progress.

Some mornings I work, not really sure if we’re making headway or not. The mat looks the same. Or, it’s become more disorganized with raggedy patches of fur now sticking straight out but still matted up. All I can do is keep working patiently, trusting that even the little bits of fur that are coming out are a step in the right direction.

Likewise, as I work on my life or help someone else work on theirs, there are stretches in which it feels like nothing is happening. We’re focusing on making different choices but everything feels the same. We’ve been working on our insides but our outsides look unchanged. All we can do is keep trusting the process, trusting that all of these small steps are yet leading us to better places.

3. When we least expect it, a big chunk breaks free all at once.

As I work on my cat, something starts loosening up. I pull gently with the comb, and suddenly a large chunk of fur breaks free. One more piece down.

Most of our journeys are travelled by one small step following another. But when we least expect it, a lightbulb moment breaks upon us. We find the one puzzle piece that fits everything together. In a moment of clarity, we realize that everything our therapist has been telling us is ACTUALLY TRUE – and we see that relationship, that job, or even ourselves in a whole different light. Something shifts inside and we know the ground has shifted beneath our feet, in all of the best ways.

So, as you consider the work of healing and change in your life, remember my cat and be patient with your own mats.



One of the ways lives get tangled up is with grief. Sometimes part of the tangle is not realizing that what we’re feeling is grief – or that we have a right to grieve. If that’s you (or someone you love), check out the recording of my webinar, Is My Grief Weird? Find it here.

For other webinars, visit www.BetterDeeperLife.com.

Death of a Pit Bull

Death of a Pit Bull

I learned this morning that Hector the Pit Bull had died. I never met the dog nor his owners. I only knew of him from his Facebook page.

pit bull
Hector and his family

This was no ordinary pup with publicity. Hector was one of the pit bulls seized from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation. Some of the dogs were too far gone psychologically and had to live in a rescue the rest of their days.

Then there were the dogs like Hector. His early years were spent in brutality, pain, violence, and terror but his rescuers saw past the beginnings and saw past the dreaded pit bull label. They gave Hector a chance.

Not only was he adopted by a family, but he became a certified Canine Good Citizen* and certified therapy dog. As the end approached his family took him to his favorite places, gave him a soft bed in which to rest, covered by a warm blanket. A canine companion stayed by his side. He ended his days on this earth surrounded by his adopted family, who were just some of the people who loved him.

He began his life in a life no dog should have.

He ended his life in a way every dog deserves. Oh, what the heck – in the way most of us people would want as well… given loving attention, lots of treats, a faithful dog by our side and nothing but love at the end.

I have a friend who wants to know if a book or movie “ends well.” She doesn’t want to invest her time if her heart is only going to be broken at the end. Hector’s story ended well.

I don’t know about you, but I can go a long time on the light and the love of such a story. I know such stories sustain many animal rescuers as they wade through the horrors they must encounter in the course of their rescues.

Such light and love sustains me in my work as well. Sometimes someone will ask me, “How do you do it? How do you listen to such painful stories?” Some of the stories my clients tell me are indeed heart-breaking. Some of them make me angry for the injustice that has been done. We don’t get much choice about our beginnings, and some of their beginnings have also been tough.

The joy of my work, however, is that the beginning of their stories isn’t the end of their stories. As we work, I get to see the light come back to their eyes… or maybe shine for the first time. I get to see them move through the pain into the healing, to stop listening to the lies about who they are and what they deserve in this life.

Hector’s past wasn’t his present.

What about you?

*Canine Good Citizen requires that a dog pass a test safely handling things such as encountering strangers and strange dogs.

“Don’t just stand there despairing.”

It’s been a rough week on this corner of the planet. A boy is killed, apparently for the color of his skin, and the long simmering racial divides of a community erupt into what looks like a third world uprising: unarmed protesters against authorities in full military gear. And we wonder how it will be different.

A man who was obviously enormously talented in moving us both to laughter and to tears as well as making our hearts soar (and who was by all accounts a lovely human being) takes his own life. We try to imagine – or try not to remember – the depths of such black despair and we wonder how it will be different for others.

In other parts of our planet centuries of conflict are being played out with weapons old and new. Hatred stoked by the centuries erupts into killing and cruelty, and we wonder how it will ever be different.

Along the border of our own nation there is a struggle between too much and not enough. Children fleeing from too much danger, abuse and hopelessness find themselves rebuffed by communities feeling already over-stretched by not enough resources, not enough answers for the problems they themselves face. We wonder how it can ever be different.

There were events in my own life this week that didn’t make the news. A former client shared an email with me that she’d sent to her friends, “outing” herself as one who has struggled with the great black dog of depression and who now consciously chooses to live her life in ways that allow the light in. It was a brave and heartfelt email, and a reminder that for her, life is very different.

Last Saturday I also attended a meeting of the Steering Committee of Baptist Women in Ministry, NC. As we talked about next year’s meeting I thought back to the first meeting I attended so many years ago. Thirty, maybe forty people huddled together hoping for hope that locked doors might be opened. Our theme, taken from a song lyric, was “One by one, truth will grow.” As we met on Saturday I thought about how different things are now. We provide not insubstantial scholarship money for a woman student at each of the Baptist Divinity Schools in NC. And in recent months women have become pastors at both Watts St. Baptist in Durham and Riverside Church in New York City. One by one…

This week I’ve been reading John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. In it he quotes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and Mayanmar activist) Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent most of the last twenty-five years under house arrest. “Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.”

It seems as good a word as any for this week. Don’t know how to resolve the Middle East or global warming or immigration or race relations or the scourge of depression? Do what you do know. Do one thing. You may think you’re only touching one life but you do not know how many other lives that one life will touch and how many lives those lives will touch. You may only write one letter but you do not know if yours will be the letter that’s the tipping point. You may only clean one stream or befriend one person who is of another race or political party or from the other side of the tracks. But you do not know where those steps will lead.

Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.

A prayer for prayer

God,
I don’t pray enough.
But I suppose
you already know that.

I know I should
have a routine.
I know I should
clear out a space in the morning
or create a time in the evening.

I know I should
be more disciplined
more focused
more earnest in my seeking
more regular in my gratitude
more focused in my asking.

I know I should have a prayer list or maybe a prayer journal
or at the very least
a time and a day
for settling into prayer.

God,
I want to do all of those things.
I need to do all of those things.
I know that it’s important
to do all of those things.

And God,
I am trying.
Honest I am.
But for now
surrounded by shoulds,
this is all I can manage.
A quick word
here and there…

Remembering
to turn off the radio
so we can talk as I drive.
A chat as I walk my dog.
Sitting on the patio in a soft summer evening.

Mostly, God, I want that
what I know I should do
not to get in the way
of what I can do.

At least for today.

We can work on tomorrow together.

from heart prayers 2 by Peggy Haymes