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answered prayers…

not long ago i read the book “going bovine” by libba bray.  it’s a brilliant book about a sixteen year old boy named cameron who has mad cow disease.  while cameron is dying of mad cow disease, he goes on these crazy adventures, perhaps in his mind, trying to find a cure.  he encounters all sorts of interesting characters and has all sorts of surreal experiences.

throughout his adventure, he is aided by a punk rock angel named dulcie.  she shows up every now and again to give him clues…to help him out a bit along the way.  dulcie explains to cameron about ‘the wishing tree’.  she tells him that it is a tree that grants wishes.  the branches are filled with people’s wishes. cameron questions her…wondering how everyone’s wishes could be granted no matter what.  this is dulcie’s reply:

“Well, you have to know what to wish for.  Take this one.”  She plucks a wish from high on a branch.  “I wish I were famous. Okay, first question: Why does this person want to be famous?  To be worshiped?  Adored?  To get noticed? To make gobs and gobs of money?  You have to look inside the wish and find the heart.  So maybe what this person really wants, the heart of it, is to find somebody who adores her.  She goes out to wherever it is people go to become famous and just gets knocked down and out and around like a pinball flipper.  And one day, as she’s walking on the beach totally bummed, this person comes along, and to him, she’s a rock star.  He adores her, and with him, she feels adored, famous.  In a roundabout way, she’s gotten what she really wanted.  Wish granted.”

to me, that is how prayer works.  in this way, i do believe that all prayers are answered.  i don’t believe in a god in the sky making arbitrary decisions based on how hard you pray or whether you do x, y, and z.  why would god do that?  why would god heal one baby and not another?  why would god want to punish us?  i don’t think god does or would.  i think this is a very human idea.  and humans are flawed…wounded…myself included.

when i was a child, i prayed often…even though i wasn’t raised to believe in god.  our family wasn’t religious.  we never went to church.  my parents only saw the hypocrisy of religion.  i see that too, but i have always felt very connected spiritually.  it is something i have thought about and experienced for as long as i can remember…even as a small child.  as this small child, when i prayed…i never ever prayed for something concrete.  this made no sense to me.  why would god grant me a barbie and not the poor girl down the street?  i only prayed for peace and strength.  as i got older, i added understanding.   and now, i feel like i have all those things, although i can forget that i have them at times.

i think to pray, we have to open ourselves up to the power of the universe…or god, whichever word you feel comfortable using.  and this power is for all of us…for all of our higher goods.  i think prayer, or setting your intention, is just making the space for the thing you desire.   but just like in the book, i think people often don’t know what they are really praying for…i don’t think people often realize what is at the heart of their prayer or wish.   christopher reeve could have prayed 24 hours a day to be able to reverse the damage to his body that his accident caused.  i don’t believe any amount of praying would have done that for him.  but it seems to me, that he found peace…his truth.  i think that is at the heart of many prayers.

if someone is losing their house because of a bad financial situation, isn’t the heart of their prayer to feel safe?  to be taken care of?  is it really about a house?  we believe all too often that something outside ourselves will make us happy…and i think that usually we are mistaken.  it can feel good to connect and share things with others, to walk the path with someone, but the peace really comes from within us…we just make the mistake of thinking the thing outside of ourselves is what gave us the peace.  don’t get me wrong…we need each other.  we need connection…but we can’t get our self worth or peace from another person or thing.

time after time in my life i have thought i wanted or needed one thing, only to be heart broken or disappointed when i couldn’t have what i felt i needed.  i can’t remember a time that this didn’t turn out to be a lesson for me…i can’t remember a time that i didn’t get what was at the heart of my wish.  sometimes it takes longer then we want it to.  but i do believe in this way…all of our prayers are answered.  we just need to stay open…go with the flow of life.  make room for the answers and they will come.

not long ago i went to some garage sales with my mother.  i picked up a book i was interested in and went to ask the woman running the garage sale a question about it.  after i looked at her for a moment i remembered…i remembered that i knew her.  that odd feeling of recognition mixed with confusion swept over me…followed soon after by panic.

the panic came from the realization that i had gone to high school with her.  high school was a living hell for me.  a war i went through…walking away with many deep wounds and scars that have haunted me my whole life.

i have run into people from high school before…and usually i run…quite literally run.  if i can’t run, i hide and run as soon as i can.  i have post traumatic stress disorder.  i acquired this condition from the traumas i lived through in high school.  and while i am quite sure i’m not delusional, it can feel like life or death to me…like i’m in vietnam and i’m not sure which one is charlie.  it could be any of them.  so i’m sorry if you’re not, but i’m not interested in finding out who you are, what i meant to you, what we did together in high school…you all are the enemy…you all are going to stay far away from me or you’re all going down.  that’s what ptsd feels like to me.

i spent my high school days hiding from those who had traumatized me. but they found me…every day they found me for a year and half and re traumatized me…and it was hell.  i wish i would have had the self worth to fight back…but i did not.  i didn’t have the self worth or support of others protecting me.  so i went inward and hid.  it was very damaging to me.  i still struggle with the the beliefs about myself i created because of that abuse.

so when i realized the woman at the garage sale was from high school, i started to fill with shame…and for a split second i thought of running…but then something happened that has never happened before.  i felt a little space open up in me…another option…a choice i had never seen before.  instead of running, i looked at her and began talking to her.   and as i talked to her,  something very surprising started to happen… i started to feel connected to her.

we talked about what a hard time junior high and high school was.  she shared with me that she doesn’t like talking about or thinking about that time period either.  we talked about ingrid, my best friend who died in junior high.  she remembered ingrid.   she remembered how close ingrid and i were…and how horrible it was when she died.  she told me that she had just been talking about ingrid with some other friends, remembering that time and how tragic it all was.  this was very healing for me to hear.  as odd as it might sound, it never occurred to me that anyone else from high school was affected by ingrid’s death…or affected by anything at all really.  i never really thought about it in these terms, but i guess i felt i was alone in all that…the only one was was wounded by that time period, as illogical as that idea might be.

we talked about that time bit…how devastating it all was.  and then i did something previously unimaginable to me…i asked her for her email address…i asked her if she wanted to get together and talk.  before that moment, i never would have thought a time would come that i would want to talk to someone from high school.  a while back my therapist suggested that i might want to talk to someone from high school at some point.   my reply to her was “why the fuck would i ever want to do that?!?”  she said because i will get to a point that i won’t be triggered anymore.  really?  i had never even considered that idea before she said this…that this might ever happen in my life…but it has.

soon after the garage sale  i started emailing back and forth with my new/old friend from high school…getting to know each other a bit.  i don’t find it ironic that she and i seem to be the same kind of people…have similar beliefs and outlooks on life.  have gone to the same church, same groups, experienced similar things in life.  i don’t find this ironic, but i do find it comforting.  connecting with her feels very comforting and familiar…like an old friend.   so much so, that i have kind of forgotten i went to high school with her.  we have plans to go to a concert together…for both of our families to hang out.  how wonderful it is to have friends.  we made plans for me to come over her house last night and hang out…talk.  i was looking forward to this.

while i was driving to her house last night i was not feeling particularly excited or anxious.  i just had that good content feeling of looking forward to an evening with an old friend…and then it hit me.  i was about to spend time with someone i went to high school with.  and for a fleeting second i panicked and thought i should turn my car around and go back home.   luckily i have healed enough to be able to observe that feeling…to look at it rationally, know where it comes from and usually make a decision about what i want to do based in reality…the here and now…not the past.

so on i drove to her house.  and when i got there she said she had been wondering if i was feeling nervous about coming over.  we talked about that…and about high school.  we spent the night talking mostly about the past.  we talked about the things we experienced,  and although we experienced different things during high school…we do have similar feelings about that time period, which was very eye opening to hear.  i am not the only one who went through that time period.  and while i did have a uniquely horrifying experience, we all were just trying to get through it with as few scars and wounds as possible.  some of us did better then others, but we all were scarred to some extent i think.

then we did the unthinkable…we broke out the year book.  i joked with her that this was kind of like immersion therapy for us.  in immersion therapy when someone has a fear…say of spiders…the therapist will try to desensitize the patient to spiders.  first maybe talking about spiders, then maybe showing the person a picture of one…until finally…a real live spider.  the point is to realize that you are safe…to become desensitized to the spider and not be so triggered by it.  so we immersed ourselves in our yearbooks with an odd mix of humor and horror.

and the thing that stuck out to me the most looking at the yearbooks was this…i was looking at children…pages and pages of pictures of wounded children.  insecure children who wanted to feel safe…who wanted to feel important…who wanted to feel loved.  and the ones who didn’t feel those things in their lives…well they hurt others or themselves in their confusion.  for most of my life i have blamed myself for what happened to me during that time period…but i was a child.  i am just starting to wrap my mind around the idea that it wasn’t my fault…that i wasn’t responsible…that people should have been protecting me in all areas of my life, and they weren’t.  the fact that i made it through that time period at all amazes me.  the fact that i came out of it a person who at age 16 put myself in therapy and alone came up with the goal that i would go on to college, and did just that, makes me proud of myself.  the fact that i didn’t die of alcohol poisoning or in a car accident leaves me grateful.  i’m grateful to be here.

i’m grateful to finally feel i am not running from my past anymore. i’m grateful to have a new friend.  my friend is still friends with a few people from high school.  she told them about her and i meeting…talking…connecting.  one of her friends said hearing about us connecting was healing for her…that she had a lot of pain and wounds related to that time period and hearing about us connecting was the first time she felt good when thinking about anything related to high school.  that was very healing to hear and it kind of blew my mind.  i have been running from this for so long, and when i stopped running, i inadvertently helped others from that time period.   in making peace with my past, it seems i have helped others make peace with their past…and that’s a beautiful thing.

innocence found…

my daughter maggie loves birds, among many things.  we have a few bird feeders near our window in the living room and even though she sees birds all day, everyday, she still gets so excited when she sees one.  she looks at me and does that surprised gasp…like a child seeing the gifts under the christmas tree for the first time…wide eyes, face filled with joy, hands over her mouth.  then she’ll whisper “mommy look!” and point at the window.  i find it so endearing and sweet.  she’s my muffin.

another thing she loves is taking our dog gracie for a walk…so last night we did just that.  maggies always wants to hold the leash and walk her, and she’s getting very good at it.  at one point, while walking gracie, maggie saw a bird.  she got very excited and gasped, yelling, “mommy!  a robin!” and she took off running with gracie.  after about two steps, she tripped over her little four year old feet and feel down, skinning her shin pretty badly.  as i ran to her i could see the pain in her face…the look of terror…as she started to sob.  i’ve seen this look on my kids faces before.  it looks like they are shocked…shocked something could hurt so much…like they are realizing something about life they didn’t know before.  she was crying so hard that she wasn’t making much noise.  i scooped her up and held her, making my “shhhh, shhhhh, shhhh” sound and holding her close.  there was nothing else i could do.  all i could do was be there with her and love her.  i couldn’t make the pain go away for her.

this has been my least favorite part of being a parent…realizing my kids will feel pain that i can do nothing about…pain that i can’t prevent.  at times that idea fills me with desperation…desperate to protect them, to keep them safe, to keep them from ever being hurt.  my son quincy is 10 now and i have watched as he has learned the things about life i would rather he doesn’t…pain, death, war, cruelty.   i have not enjoyed this one bit.

i remember the first time it dawned on me that he would soon learn things i didn’t want him to know.  we had just exited the highway and were at the end of the exit ramp…the place some people mindlessly throw garbage…garbage we all get to look at.  he was so little…and as we stopped he said “look mommy.  a man must have lost his cup.”  he was noticing the cups on the side of the road.  he had no idea what liter was.  it never dawned on him that someone might throw their garbage there…so it must have been a mistake.  my heart ached in that moment for all the things he would learn…things i didn’t want him to know.  things i didn’t want to exist.  i wanted the world to always look to him as it did that day.  the man must have lost his cup.  my eyes filled with tears as i said to him “maybe he did sweetheart.”

i have learned a lot since that day.  i have accepted a lot.  i can’t keep things from them forever.  i can’t take their pain away.  they have their own lives to life…things to learn.  i can be a protective parent, let them have their childhood.  i keep the news off in our house.  we speak kindly to each other.  but over the years i have slowly shifted the way i think about all this, the way i handle it with my kids.  i think this shift has come from me being able to deal with the pain in my life better.  i have learned for myself to try not to put big judgements on these things…the pain of life.  it is just part of life.  and i have found in doing so, the pain is much more tolerable and temporary.

in his book “breathe, you are alive”, thich nhat hanh writes:

There is a crack in everything.  Life is broken, and it is its brokenness that makes it livable.  But we are somehow of the mind-set that cracks have to be patched.  patching the cracks is trying to control life, rather than engage it.  To engage life we have to find the cracks and enter them, rather than deny or patch them. 

 it’s the holding on to the pain that really hurts…that really creates suffering in our lives.  if we feel the pain without judging it, it will pass.  if we accept it as just another part of life, it seems less menacing.   life isn’t supposed to be painless.  holding this belief, trying desperately to avoid the pain, robs us of our life.

i want more than anything for my children to live their lives…i want them to live their lives out loud.   is that easy for me?  no.  i cringed when i bought maggie a bike, thinking of ingrid’s death, but i bought it anyways…i actually suggested it.  it’s still so hard for me to think of them riding bikes, being out in the world with so many uncontrollable variables…but that’s where life is.  so i can worry and feel anxious about it, and i do, but i don’t show them that.  i do my best to just love them and be here for them.  i have realized that is all i can ever do.  in doing that, hopefully they will feel they have a safe “nest” to launch from.  i want them to spend their time thinking about all the things they want to do in life, not how i will feel about it.  i want them to fly.

for professor banks…

i lived in san diego briefly about 25 years ago.  while i was there, i started attending the local community college.  one of the classes i took was philosophy.  i loved philosophy…still do.  i love talking about ideas.  and what made that class even better was the professor…professor banks.   she was the kind of professor who really wanted to discuss…she didn’t seem too concerned with tests or grades.   she wanted us to examine our ideas and share them…she encouraged us to question everything.   i really loved her class.

i never finished that class, or any of the other ones i was taking back then.  i had not dealt with the traumas of my past and the pain started to really affect me.  i decided i should move back to chicago, where i knew more people…where i felt i had more support.  i remember being so disappointed in myself…so disappointed i couldn’t stay.   i talked to professor banks about it and said my goodbyes.  she asked me if i wanted to give her my address so she could send me the papers i had written.  she hadn’t graded them yet.  i remember being kind of surprised.  thinking back on it now, i think i was surprised that she valued them…she valued my ideas…she valued me.  i gladly gave her my address and moved back home.

a month or so later i got a package in the mail from her.  i had forgotten all about those papers and here they were.  she had read them all and written comments to me…even though i wasn’t going to finish her class.  another professor might have thought it didn’t matter anymore…why waste the time?  but she knew it mattered.  discussing my ideas with me mattered whether i was going to formally finish her class or not.  in the package she also included a copy of the book the prophet by kahlil gibran.  she bookmarked the page on self-knowledge and wrote this inside the front cover:

“For Mahra, a true “Lover of Wisdom”, Be ever faithful to yourself”

i remember how it felt to get that from her.  i felt seen.  i felt like she had seen in me what i could not see…my light.  she believed in me even though i did not believe in myself.   i never forgot that.

that book is probably the possession i treasure most.  i treasure it because she gave it to me…and i treasure it because of the truth it contains for me.  it spoke to me when i first read it all those years ago…and it speaks to me even louder now.  and whenever i read it, i think of professor banks and feel grateful that she saw me and felt it important enough to send it.

i thought of her today while i was cutting the grass.  i have no idea why.  i thought i would contact her and send her my blog address.  i got excited by this idea.  i would love to discuss ideas with her again. so i called the college to try to contact her.  they told me she died 6 years ago.   then i remembered the letter she sent me in 2001.  i had written her to thank her for the book…to tell her i have kept it all these years and how important it was to me.  i told her about my life and how i had healed so much.  she wrote me back a beautiful letter.  i have always cherished it.  you can click here to read the entire letter.  in it she said:

“Mahra, I certainly do remember you and have thought of you often over the years.  There was never any doubt in my mind that you would go on to successfully complete your formal education.  What was more important to me was that you understood that true education is about embracing yourself and the formal aspect helps to shape and enhance what life is teaching you.  Education is a life long  journey.  We go on integrating both the formal and the informal and delighting in the outcomes.  It’s never easy, and it hurts at times, as you and I well know, but it’s so worth it isn’t it.”

“I, too, couldn’t get enough of all there was to learn.  So, m’dear, it would appear that we are kindred spirits.  What a delight!  Pass it on!  First to Quincy and your husband and then to the next young man or woman you encounter in whom you recognize that hunger for wisdom and truth.  It did not begin with Gibran and will not end with you and I.  We are all linked in this journey and it all began a “zillion” years ago deep in the human heart that recognized that we are so much more than we seem to be at any given moment.  I know you understand this and it fills my heart with joy. The joy is based on the fact that the years go rushing by and class after class pass through my care and I look to you and students like you who “get it” to continue passing on the “light” that illuminates the dark recesses of indifference and a willingness to settle only for mediocrity that ends in hearts burdened with haunting dissatisfaction that infects everyone they encounter, especially the young.”

when the woman on the phone told me that she died, i started to feel regret.  why hadn’t i kept in contact with her?  what more could she have taught me?  i wanted to talk to her more…i wanted to feel that connection…i wanted to tell her thank you again…i wanted to let her know what she meant to me.  but as i read her letter today, i began to feel such peace.  i learned what i needed to from her.  i am lucky enough to have told her how i felt about her…she knows.  the connection with her is still there…and always will be.   and most importantly i am sharing my light with the world and others…just as she shared her light with me…and for that i’m so grateful.

when i first became friends with cathy, which was almost 30 years ago now, she lived with her father in park ridge.  one of the things i loved about cathy’s room is that she always had interesting things on the wall…cartoons, pictures cut out of magazines…a wolf,  a guitar, the dalai lama…you know, very important things.  i loved how she taped them to the wall so they were always in view…visual reminders of what was meaningful to her.

one day when i was over there i noticed something that had been cut out of a magazine and taped right in the middle of her door.  it read “joy in spite of everything”.  i remember reading it and feeling a new space open up in my understanding of the world…a possibility i hadn’t seen before.  it felt like such a bold statement about life and what was important…what one could choose to focus on.  the idea that we could even have a choice was new to me.

i had already been through quite a bit of trauma in my life…experienced deep pain.  when people would talk about positive affirmations, i wanted to punch them.  it felt so invalidating.  how could i “put on a happy face” in the midst of what i had experienced?  how could i “think positive” while feeling such deep greif and pain?  i could not. but this idea…joy in spite of everything…that was something totally different.  the idea that right along side the suffering, the pain,  real things we experience in life, there could also be joy.  joy in spite of  everything…not joy instead of everything.

over and over again in my life i had gotten the message that how i felt wasn’t ok.   my feelings seemed to make people uncomfortable.  i hadn’t met anyone who could sit with them…sit with me while i felt them.  people always tried to get me to change my feelings.  i couldn’t have changed them if i tried…my feelings were so deep.  there was so much pain…so much loss, i felt like i was drowning in them.  how could i just make the pain go away after all that had happened?  i could not.  but what i could do was start to see joy in spite of it.

this idea rang so true to me that i immediately asked cathy if i could borrow that little strip of paper that she had cut out of a magazine.  i took it and photocopied it…then laminated it…purposefully taping it to my door at eye level.  i wanted it to be the last thing i saw every day before i went out into the world…a reminder to myself of what is possible.  that sign has been with me all this time.  it has been taped to many doors…it has been up in all the places i’ve lived.  i have photocopied it many times and given copies to people.   the sign is sacred to me.

i believe in those words…joy in spite of everything…it is an ideal i strive for.  there is always joy.  we just might not be able to see it through the pain and confusion, and that’s ok.  i don’t think many of us, if any, will reach the point in this lifetime that we always can see the joy in life at every moment, no matter what…but whether we can see it or not, it’s there.   and the more open i am to this truth, the more i can experience it.  i am not talking about not feeling our feelings of pain and grief…i am talking about being open to see the joy in life, in spite of those feelings…right along side of them.

in times of great pain, there is still music…the sun still sets…the wind still blows, making the trees sway back and forth…the birds still sing.   there is so much joy and beauty in life.  i have, at times, experienced such deep pain that i couldn’t see any of those things…i couldn’t see the joy.  but there always came the day that i noticed, despite the grief, the beauty of a flower or how good it feels to pet my dog.  i might still be experiencing pain, but found myself stopping to listen to the sound of a creek…and it would surprise me…it would surprise me that i could feel joy in the midst of such pain.

it doesn’t surprise me much anymore.  i know it is a constant in life…the joy…it’s always there.  and my job isn’t to try to force the joy…my job is to accept whatever it is i’m feeling.  and in accepting that, i allow myself the space to start to see and feel the joy… in spite of anything.

the other day while my husband and kids were eating lunch,  my husband and  my son were joking around about something…at one point my husband said to him “well, i’m not going to send you to siberia.”  my son asked what siberia is so we started to explain.  we explained where it was and the climate…and then i explained a bit about the labor camps.  i told him that my grandfather was sent there from latvia, that he died in the camps.  my 4 year old daughter had been listening to all of this and had a question.

“can you make snow angels in siberia mommy?”

i was taken aback by her question but told her that you can make snow angels anywhere that there is snow.  i imagined my grandfather making a snow angel in siberia.  did he?  did he find joy in the camps?  did he find meaning in his life?  i can only imagine what he endured.  i know many of his friends and fellow latvian officers were killed.  i know he was brought to trail by the russians and sent to a labor camp.  i know he never heard from or saw his family again.  i know he never made it out of the camp.

in the book, “man’s search for meaning”, victor frankl writes of his experience in a concentration camp during the second world war.  he explains why he wrote the book in the preface, saying, “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”  he explains some of the horrors they experienced in the camps…but also that the prisoners found bits of joy, humor, love, connectedness, meaning, in spite of their horrific situation.  he did not say it was easy, or that everyone could connect to that which is greater, that which connects us…the beauty of life…but some did.  he tells a story of a fellow prisoner rushing into his hut one evening to ask them to come outside and watch a beautiful sunset.  he tells of art and humor…sacrifice and hope.

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action.  There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed.  Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.  They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

what made these few different?  were they just better people?  stronger people?  i would argue no.  i think they just knew something that perhaps the others didn’t…that we are more then our situation, more then the circumstances of our lives, and they were able to remember that truth in the most difficult of circumstances…it’s during the most difficult times that most of us forget the thing that is most important…we are spiritual beings having a human experience…life is full of pain and suffering…the pain that we can experience in this life can feel at times unbearable…and it is real…but that is not who we are.  we are not our pain.  we are our light, and that light is in all of us.

so did my grandfather make snow angels in siberia?  probably not.  but i hope that for one moment he watched a sunset or listened to a bird and remembered that he was more then anything that would ever happen to him.

little epiphanies…

i have been thinking about writing a blog for some time now.  oddly enough, i find myself a bit apprehensive.  i am a very honest person, very upfront.  i find myself at this point in my life questioning, well, pretty much everything.   should i be so honest?  should i be so upfront?  i have been hurt by sharing who i am with others, but i have also made connections…helped people…helped myself.   so this is where i am starting from, where i often start from, full of questions.

i have done a lot of “work” on myself…to learn, to heal, to grow, to understand, to explore, to find peace.  i used to think that after years of “work”, i would one day have a huge epiphany and be at peace…reach full self actualization.  i would be “done”.  then a few years back i realized i was having little epiphanies…that i had been having them all along and that there probably wouldn’t be a “big” epiphany.  i can see the shifts my little epiphanies have had on my perceptions, and for that i am very grateful.   so that’s what i think it’s all about…little epiphanies.  it’s these small shifts or small changes in perception that have made all the difference… i’m nowhere near where i started from…or where i’ll end.

i want to dedicate my first post to my friend diana.    getting to know her and reading her blog have inspired me to finally start my blog.

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson