The Portals of Time

I wrote this in my diary on January 16, 2003 while I was studying for my final exams in France. For the first time in my academic career I’d become completely obsessed with my studies, partly because my entire grade was based on a single, final exam. But there was something else going on in my mind too. Unbeknownst to me, I was on the verge of suffering my first, serious mental breakdown, but it didn’t feel like a breakdown. It felt great! And, once more, I was enjoying the learning process and the new experiences. I loved going to the library and cracking open the giant book of French history, cross-referencing the advents of new ideas with the social-political climates of each era. Then I would listen to the music of different time-periods and contemplate how the people back then might have experienced it. Now it’s all coming back to me, the passion for history (hopefully) without the mental fragility and I realize it’s been 12 years and I’m supposed to grow out of this. At times I feared I had grown out of it. But not today. Today I’m holding on to passion even though I’m still uncertain as to where it will lead me. Here’s what I wrote a little more than a month before my 23rd birthday in 2003:

 Livre-Blanc

I had been studying diligently for my history course and figured it was time for a day off. So I chose Sunday. My original intention had been to go to the reformed church, but that just wasn’t possible because I had made a mistake on where the church met and was running late.

So I walked around a bit. The sun shone brightly yet the winter chill still nipped. However my new-found love for history caused me to walk around more attentively. Suddenly, before my eyes, the past began to open up before me! The names of the streets – Comte, Gambetta, Zola – were crying out from across time as if to say don’t forget me! The monuments saying in memory of the great battle. What great battle? Why was it important? What do the figures stand for? I start to feel their grip on me slip away as the scattered puzzle pieces become overwhelming and none of the edges seem to fit.

Solemnly, respectful of the ancient ones, I enter the cathedral. I shiver from the cold realizing that radiators are a luxury of modern times. I look up at the stained glass rose window, but my thoughts are interrupted as the boys choir sings.

The melody resembles a Gregorian chant, not a lot of arpeggios, no real chord structure – in fact, not much structure at all. It’s sung without emotion, without words that tell of a personal God, but instead, the actions of a distant God, only accessible through their religious leaders.

What Would I Have Done?

In Mrs. Jennings’ 3rd-grade class in 1989 we learned how to read the newspaper. We’d take turns bringing in articles and summarizing them for our classmates. A lot was happening in the world back then that we kids were only just becoming aware of such as the “Cold War.” At home on TV, we watched the Berlin Wall come down and the German people cheering and celebrating its demise. Long-lost relatives embraced one another. Passports were issued and people were able to see parts of the world they weren’t allowed to see before.

Mrs. Jennings tried to convey the significance of all this to us. Her husband had been in the military and she’d traveled the world with him. At the Berlin Wall, she’d bought a book chronicling the history of the wall with pictures, including pictures of those who’d tried (and sometimes succeeded) to escape to freedom in the West.

But it was impossible to talk about the Berlin Wall without teaching us about the Holocaust as well. Slowly, through pictures and written testimonies, the most horrifying act in human history began to take shape in our minds.

As I grew, I read The Diary of Ann Frank and Number the Stars. These were stories about young people, like me, and I couldn’t help imagining what it would’ve been like had I been there.

In high school I read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom and for the first time I realized that there were people sent to concentration camps who weren’t Jewish and those who helped Jews risked being arrested and tortured too.

For ten Boom’s family, it was an honor to help the Jews. Her father read the Bible every day and all of them were very familiar with the Old Testament (the Hebrew portion of the Bible). So there was no question as to whether or not they would create a hiding place for a Jewish family in their home.

I was sure Corrie ten Boom’s story wasn’t unique but for many years hers was the only one I knew.

In 1997, I went with a group from my high school to Washington, DC for a week and there we visited the Holocaust Museum. As I walked through each stage of torture and death camps, seeing the actual shoes of children who had died, photographs of emaciated bodies, statistics, walls of pictures of the deceased, I felt a heavy weight build up within me. How could humans do this to other humans?

Over the years, I’ve developed a profound interest in anything having to do with France. But I’m fascinated by theology, particularly Protestant theology. So, when Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for RELEVANT magazine detailing his return to faith (after writing his book David and Goliath) and mentioned a Protestant village in France where hundreds of Jewish people were hidden during WWII, I had to learn more.

I speak French and wondered if there were any French books I could download from iBooks on the subject. So I typed in the name of the village and stumbled upon a newer book by Caroline Moorehead called Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France. It wasn’t in French, of course, but it looked well written and detailed. So I bought it and, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

village-of-secrets

In general, history has not shown the French to be particularly heroic during the Second World War. They were quick to comply with the Germans and brutally rounded up Jews themselves. But in some of the more secluded parts of France, resistance seemed to come naturally.

Whereas (most of) the Catholics (who made up the majority of France) took orders from the Vatican and tended to see Jewish people as “Christ-killers,” the Protestants tended to see them as “God’s chosen people.” The French Protestants (Huguenots) had a long history of being oppressed by the Catholics, too, and they only took orders from God. That meant that if there was a human law that was unjust, they were willing to break it. Therefore the Protestants had no problems hiding Jews in their homes.

Villagers were hiding Jewish people (mostly children) throughout the war. Sometimes soldiers would come and the children would have to hide in the woods. Food and clothing were often scarce. Not every family was loving (although most were). Huguenots back then tended to be more moralistic than the branch of Protestantism I grew up in. Many of them, for instance, didn’t believe in dancing.

But I don’t want to pin Protestants against Catholics or anything like that. Moorehead was very careful to include all those who helped out, including some brave Catholics and Germans.

What I want to ask myself is, if I were called upon to take in someone whose life was in danger due to an unjust law, would I be able to do it? I hope the answer would be yes. And, for all the pain people who claim to be Christians have caused in this world, I believe this story is evidence that those truly following Christ will love, even risk their lives, for their neighbor.

The Stories That Might Have Been

When I was about 6 or 7, I wanted to be a veterinarian or a zookeeper or a naturalist – anything that had to do with animals. After all, I loved finding turtles in the backyard or taking care of my cat. I’d have loved to have been like Dr. Dolittle or Kiara from “The Dark Crystal” who could talk with the animals.

But, as I grew, I showed less of an aptitude for science and more of a talent for music. So I took piano and voice lessons. I loved to sing! I was a pretty good singer too. I mean, I was given many solos in the school choir performances, I never scored less than 100% on my dictation tests, and I was a regular church soloist. Naturally that should put me on the career path to music, right?

I did quite well in English early on too. In 7th grade I tested into the accelerated English class but opted out of it because the class conflicted with choir. When I finally did join the ranks of honors English in high school, my grades slipped (although my AA junior English teacher, Mr. Dant, is still remembered as one of my favorites).

When I miraculously made it into a 4-year college after high school (despite having only a slightly above-average GPA), I followed the music route only to discover that many of the other singers in the program were far more talented than me. So I switched majors to a newly developing passion: international affairs.

It seemed natural. After all, I’d befriended a few of the international students during my first year of college and even set out on my first overseas voyage – to Romania.

I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be. International affairs was good preparation for working in non-profits, at embassies, or for multi-national corporations. I thought I’d either go into missions or some other form of humanitarian work.

I studied in France hoping to find some clarity. But instead, I found chaos and when my sanity finally broke, it was writing that held me together. I wasn’t writing fictional anecdotes to whisk me away into other worlds. I wrote my thoughts, feelings, and reflections about the life I was experiencing. Soon after my return from France, I attempted to write the first draft of my memoir.

I thought by the sheer piles of writings I had produced, I must be destined to be a writer. But there’s something professional writers have that I can’t seem to grasp. How are they able to stay inspired and motivated?

I find solace in taking photographs, but my hand is not always steady enough and I’m not gifted with the artistic eyes to make anything of monetary value.

All the other odd and in-between paths I’ve passionately pursued have also lost their appeal, leaving me with the lingering desire to be “normal” by which I mean – to have a job I love and to be able to support myself. Is this even possible for me? It’s time to find out.

A Christmas Letter 2014

It’s Christmas again and there are four of us at home again – my parents, my sister, and me. The pattern hasn’t changed in a while. I think the last time I wasn’t home for at least part of Christmas was the year I had to work on Christmas day. But that was no big deal. Lots of people work on Christmas day. I only had to do it once.

When I was in college I spent one Christmas in Belfast with distant relatives. It was the year I’d been studying abroad in France and arguably the most memorable year of my life so far. But other than that, Christmas with my family hasn’t changed much aside from the fact that as we get older the tree gets smaller and the presents around it are fewer each year.

It is tradition for many people who we don’t hear from the whole year through to at last remember our existance come December and send us a card with a note inside wishing us a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The pile of cards we used to receive has significantly lessened over the years no doubt due to the progression of social media. Even I, who once wrote (somewhat ironically) a mass email lamenting the loss of the hand-written letter, have fallen into the fold of living my life online.

Part of the Christmas card tradition is the generic Christmas letter. My dad writes ours for the family, although he sometimes changes the first paragraph for each one to make it more personal. The letter is a summary the past year, focusing on highlights and ignoring forettable family squabbles.

So I’ve been thinking about my personal Christmas letter and what it should include, but I must say, it’s been a rather “off” year for me. What have I to boast of? You see, last January or so I decided, under the supervision of my psychiatrist, to ween myself off of the medicine I’d been taking and then to experiment with others in an effort to find something with less troubling side-effects. Psychiatry, I might add, is not an exact science. You can’t simply determine what your body needs through a blood test. The only way to know if a psyche medicine will work on a patient is to try it.
The rest of the year was all a consequence of my decision to change medications: Depression, two hospitilizations, and just over two months of out-patient group therapy. Achievements? Well, I survived and I did do some pretty significant work on the memoir I never can seem to finish.

But wait! This doesn’t sound like a Christmas letter! Christmas letters are full of hope, not disappointment. All right, then.

To cope with the depression, I took a lot of pictures and, for the end of the year, put them in a slide show for you. I’m very optimistic about the upcoming year. I’m finally on medicine that works again and I’m back in my reading mode (it’s often times difficult to concentrate when you’re suffering from depression). Believe me, I aim to learn a lot and to pass some of that knowledge on to you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Addicts and Alcoholics

I have my problems just like everyone else, but there are some things I’ve never had to deal with in my life. For instance, I’ve never experienced life as a drug addict or an alcoholic. I’ve never known what it’s like to have cravings for mind-altering chemicals. I’ve never had to go to rehab. That lifestyle is foreign to me.

But recently, through the outpatient mental health program I’ve been going to, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who struggle with such things. One of them is a gentleman who’s been living in a halfway house. One day he invited me over to meet his housemates who all have to remain sober and drug-free while living there. I asked a couple of them if they ever had friends over. “We don’t have friends,” they replied. “All of our old friends still use so we can’t hang out with them anymore.”

I felt sorry for them. No friends? I know how frustrating it’s been when I’ve needed a friend and all my friends seem to be too busy. I can’t imagine having to start making friends all over again. I asked them how they go about making friends and they tell me they meet people at AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings.

My friend invited me to an AA meeting and I said yes. It would be the first AA meeting I’d ever been to.

The meeting started at 7, but most people showed up early, bummed cigarettes off of one another, and socialized. There were young 20-somethings, seniors with white hair and receding hairlines, and many in-between those ages. All of them seemed grateful to be there – grateful to be alive.

Inside the meeting room were two giant, framed posters, one with the AA’s famous 12-steps on them and the other with the traditions. Around the room were pictures and posters mostly depicting prayers and people praying. The ambience was clearly intentional.

The meeting itself was conducted very formally. You’ve most likely heard something about AA before so the details of the meeting are not relevant. We recited the serenity prayer, sobriety chips were passed out, there were readings from the “big book,” and the meeting ended with everyone standing in a circle, holding hands, and reciting “the Lord’s prayer.”

When I was in the psyche hospital, I’d met people who were detoxing from alcohol. They wore wristbands that said “fall risk” on them and sometimes they would have to do reality checks to make sure they weren’t hallucinating. The people in AA were trying to stay sober. Some had been sober for just a few days; some had been sober for decades. They remembered all-too-well their own experiences with detoxification and, true to tradition, each time they spoke in meeting they’d say their name and “I’m an alcoholic.”

I’m grateful for this experience. I’m grateful for my friend who is a recovering alcoholic and pray he remains sober. As for me, I remain that sober, drug-free friend for those who need one.

Experiencing Momentum

It should come as no surprise that having a mental illness can isolate you. Maybe you’re depressed for no apparent reason. Maybe you’re manic and no one can keep up with you. Maybe you hear voices that no one else hears. No matter the symptoms, the world is hostile toward you and you’ve learned to retreat from it.

After my last hospitalization I was completely derailed. The volunteer work and the somewhat consistent side job I’d acquired were tossed aside. I had no idea how to bounce back. Then someone suggested a partial hospitalization program to me known as Momentum. I was too emotionally distraught to say no.

The word momentum is fitting program name. If you can make it out of bed in the morning, transportation, breakfast, and lunch are provided. Then you attend groups where you talk about your symptoms and learn how do deal with things like boundaries, emotions, mindfulness, and interpersonal relationships.

My first day I came in in tears thinking there was no way I was going to fit it. I made sweeping assumptions about the people there, none of which turned out to be true. My second day was similar: I self-isolated with my book, determined not to form attachments. But by the third day I began to sit with the other ladies and participate in conversations. I began to learn their stories and realize that they, too, were afraid when then first came.

As the days passed, I started to see the other patients in the program not as classmates or colleagues but as family. One of the exercises a therapist had us do was a kind of “mirror” – she gave each of us a sheet of paper and requested that we individually write words to describe ourselves, both negative and positive. Then we sat in a circle and passed our papers around. With someone else’s paper in hand, we’d take a different colored pen and write only positive things about one another. I was surprised by how many people had written the same negative things about themselves as I had about myself! Seeing the positive in someone else, on the other hand, was easy.

We’re not bound by common DNA but by common struggles. Each of us is trying to find his or her way in a world where we don’t necessarily feel like we belong. But we remind each other through smiles and encouragement that life is still worth liv

Value

In an attempt to find what is good about me, I began telling this story. It’s not completely finished. I could use some feedback.

I’m in junior high. I don’t want to be me. I want to be anyone but me. It’s so much easier to pick out my flaws than to find something good to say about me. Why is that?

I ask my friends why they want to hang around me. They are popular. I’m just awkward. I don’t fit in. “Why do you like me?” I ask.

“You’re a nice person and a good friend,” they say.

Of course I’m nice, I think to myself. I want you to like me. I want to have friends. But you don’t see me when I’m at home and I have my awful temper tantrums. You don’t see me yell and scream at my sister and my parents for no apparent reason. You don’t see me throwing things and kicking the wall in anger.

Which me is the real me, I wonder?

I cry really easily. My friends know this about me. They say I’m sensitive. Being sensitive teaches me empathy. It’s like when I see my friend walking down the street in front of my house. I shout at her from my window and she comes over. We sit in my room. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“I’m running away,” she confesses as she breaks into tears and tells me about the fight she’s had with her mom. This girl is not normally emotional so when she cries, her tears are real. I cry with her. This is empathy.

Fast-forward to high school. I’m on a singing tour for ten weeks with a group called the Continentals. I’m having trouble expressing myself with my tour-mates. I have an assigned seat next to a young man. We don’t talk but I cry. I don’t know why I’m crying but my silent tears create a barrier between myself and the other tour members. I can’t speak up because even I am baffled by my constant sorrow. Yet when I’m on stage a transformation comes over me. I smile and the smile is genuine. And even though I don’t have solos or speaking parts, people in the audience notice me because of my smile and they tell me so after the performances.

Another five years go by. I’m in France and it’s September. I find myself stuck between the desire to speak only French and the misfortune of being thrust onto a tour bus with a handful of other American students. For the most part I try and separate myself from the others, seeking out solitude. But on this occasion, I notice a girl from the group sitting alone. I sense she doesn’t want to be alone and I invite her to walk with me. She accepts and is grateful for the companionship.

Thoughts at a Party

The words are never there.

I’m there; at least I think I’m there.

I see people’s mouths move in conversation, their words flowing effortlessly. I want to be a part of it; the laughing, the gasping, the thrill, the intrigue. But the words are never there.

I stare hopelessly at my fellow human beings. What secrets about life do they possess that I lack? From where does their joy spring? Why can’t I live in that same joy?

They look back at me in puzzlement too as though to ask, who is this silent woman? But they don’t really want to know me. I’m sure of it. Once they learn what I’m made up of they’ll realize I’m not worth knowing.

Wait! Someone has interrupted my thoughts.

“What do you do with your free time?” the strange face dares to ask me.

I…I want an escape. Please somebody tell me there’s a way out!

What do I do with my free time? I watch TV. I used to read but reading has gone by the wayside. I haven’t finished a book in a very long time. This must change. I’ve never thought watching too much TV (and yes, Netflix counts as TV) to be healthy. I’m supposed to be smarter than that – but I’m not.

“What do you do for a living?”

I cringe at this one. I don’t even know what I want to do. I don’t know what I’m good at. I don’t think I’m good at anything. And when I tell you I do nothing, you’ll see no value in me like I see no value in me.

Escape. Where’s my escape? Excuse me. I have to go. It’s not you. It’s me. Help!

They can’t hear me but I know I’m screaming. I can feel it. God, what is this world I’ve been thrust into? No, I will not let those tears fall again! This is humiliating enough without them.

Just breathe. Maybe no one will notice the quick wiping of a tear caught just in the nick of time.

Silence.

The words were never there.

 

 

On Brennan Manning’s “A Glimpse of Jesus”

IMG_0444Have you ever found yourself saying or thinking:

“I hate myself.”

“Why can’t I be more like so-and-so?”

“I’m such an idiot!”

“I keep making stupid mistakes.”

“I can’t do anything right.”

“I’m a failure.”

“I don’t deserve to exist.” ?

I’ve said these things to myself many times before. In fact, it was merely by chance one day that I stumbled upon this book A Glimpse of Jesus: The Stranger to Self-Hatred.

Okay, it wasn’t completely by chance. I was looking to see what books they had at my library by Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, when this one popped up. I knew then and there this book and I would have a relationship.

There are four major themes in Brennan Manning’s book: guilt, love, reversal of values, and compassion. He says in chapter 1, “The script for self-hatred starts with a distorted view of God.” Many times the feelings we have inside are projected onto God meaning if I say, “I’m a failure,” I’m assuming God thinks I’m a failure too. If I say, “I hate myself,” I’m assuming God hates me too.

Unfortunately there is a huge push toward perfectionism in the church (and when I say “church” I mean all Bible-based churches). For example, if you cannot save sex until marriage or if you happen to be a casual drinker who hangs around in bars, you might feel those judgmental glances as you walk into church on Sunday morning. Those “glances” ignite an unhealthy guilt. Manning describes it best when he writes: “Unhealthy guilt is self-centered, it stirs our emotions to churn in self-destructive ways, leads to depression and despair, closes us up upon ourselves, and preempts the presents of a compassionate God.”

But what we need to know first and foremost is that God is a God of love. Yes, I know how cliché that sounds. I don’t think there’s one person in the Western hemisphere who has not heard that phrase in one form or another in their lifetime. But Brennan Manning says, “The unflinching, unwavering love and compassion of Jesus Christ, the stranger to self-hatred, is the ultimate source of our healing and wholeness.”

The Pharisee-like perfectionism, moralism and legalism of the modern church seems to miss this aspect of Jesus. Manning writes, “The glory of Jesus lies in this: in weakness and vulnerability, and apparent failure he has called forth disciples to come after him, willing and able to carry the cross and relive his passion through a life of compassion.”

Compassion is the operative word. It means to suffer alongside someone. We need to set aside what we think we know and show compassion to our suffering neighbors. Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to. Brennan Manning says it best when he writes, “if you call Jesus Goodness, he will be good to you; if you call him Love, he will be loving to you; but if you call him Compassion, he will know that you know.”

So the next time I find myself saying any of the negative things I tend to say to myself, I will be reminded that these are not the thoughts of a loving God. I will tell myself that however harshly I may judge myself, it’s based on the world’s perfectionist standards and not God’s love. God doesn’t judge as people do. God is compassion. I hope you remember that too.