Lessons from the Monastery: Part Two (Sixty Year Old Memories of Sensible Shoes)

Part Two in a series: Lessons from the Monastery.

I don’t find it hard to confess that dissatisfaction comes easily to me, along with the admission that my life has disappointed me. Disillusionment too, as my life is not what I thought it would be. I can admit this is true.

Well, that’s not exactly right – I had no plan.  No grand scheme.  I didn’t have any idea what I would do with my life as a youngster.

One thing I knew.

From that moment when I was swiftly rescued, “healed” in an only God could have done it miraculous sort of way.  As I grew up, I was told the stories over and over.

I was “the peanut baby.”  The miracle was something of God, everyone said so. And for whatever reason I began to believe that God had something special planned for me – for my life.  Eighteen months old I was choking on a peanut. I should have died. I will have to get my mother to retell the story because even as I ponder it now, there is much I cannot remember.  I don’t want to lose the details.

I have no memory of it.  In fact I have very few memories of childhood at all.

They are all gone, stuffed somewhere safe.  I haven’t in all these years of healing been able to find the key to unlock that precious girl’s life.

My life. My memories.

I’ve been going to the monastery with my mother.  Being with my mother is startling and even as I learn to trust her, I am afraid.  She’s a blurter.  And she has for memory everything, and more, that I don’t.  Her brain is iron clad; she is a beast of remembering.  And her stories come out at the oddest, least opportune moments; like the shock of ice-cold water.

So much so, that sometimes I cannot bear to be with her, sometimes.  I am learning to not be so afraid.

But today her memories were of her childhood.  A controlling father “much like your father” she said.  “Only mine was around less often, which was perhaps less damaging …” her thoughts trailing off.  In my mind, I too found I was wandering back to my dad’s controlling ways.  She’s remembering that her dad made her wear ugly shoes, because she was “hard on shoes.” Even though her sisters got any kind they wanted.

Those are sixty year old memories about sensible shoes.  Her father long dead and yet still, she remembers it today. 

God save me from bitter memories I say, not to her but inside to myself and to the ghosts.  Perhaps that’s why I keep them all locked up safe, because I don’t want to be bitter.

Today the speaker at the monastery spoke of stability and the descent into darkness as a way of becoming comfortable with uncertainty; a willingness to explore our pain.  Moving down into it and facing it.

No way!  I thought immediately.  This is simply nuts.

Then I remembered…

all the ways I learned to numb my pain, to forget.  And in that moment saw my progress – over time, over years.  A decade flashed.

I used to work hard at my job, to do really well and I received tons of praise and it was never enough.  I was never happy about it.  I was always afraid – of being unmasked, shown for the farce that I was.

The speaker spoke of learning to live deeply in the monotony of life, as do the Benedictines, monks, others – shall l I just say it?  The stay-at-home mom’s life was the epitome of mundane to me.

I see now that is was because I was running.

I couldn’t run fast enough from my internal demons.  Michael Casey, the Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, says that distraction seeks to avoid and that we need to accept life as it is given to us. 

Ten years.  More than a decade of running.  Looking back I can see progress.  My heart was full of self-deception.  I couldn’t feel my feelings for many years and I numbed my feelings with alcohol, work, shopping, obsessive busyness, Christian service, action and movement of every kind.

And now I attempt to live in this moment — to see what’s in front of my nose. 

The speaker asked: Where do you find sources of stability in direct opposition to the running?  What does life look like when you need some stability? How do you know when you’re running? What prompts our perpetual running? What stops it, for you?

I was able to see, today that I have come a long way.   There are still moments of grievous disappointment in myself, but I lay that aside knowing that life is a long, long path for which I am only partway there.  It felt good, even divine, to gaze backward seeing the timeline of the years to appreciate that I am altered – different  – shifting and less flustered and more resolved.

I am able now to go unhurried into the future.  And I can now appreciate the dailies of life. I look forward to remembering, when it comes.

The deep monotony is good, in order to simply be.


Inspired by Stability and Balance in Relationships and Prayer led by Carole Kretschman at the Holy Wisdom Monastery, March 7, 2012

Aging, Legacies and more Time with our Family

my parents did as well as they could

I often wonder if I am too hard on the memory of my father.  As the years go by the memories fade good and bad ones.   A couple of things happened this weekend that made me think of my father.  He died in his early sixties.  He should have had another thirty years.

92-year old Billy Graham was interviewed recently.   He has come to the time of his life when he spends a lot of time alone, requiring the care of others.  I suppose that stage of things makes one reflective.

When asked to give advice to those who are aging he said “Accept itAnd thank God every day for the gift of that day.”

I do dread getting old.  And yet I have this idea that I will just sort of live on in perpetuity with my body and mind falling apart.  I have joked that I want to be euthanized to save everyone the misery of my madness gone out of control.

My father wouldn’t accept that he was sick or was going to die, so much so that he refused to talk about when he was gone.   Even when he was diagnosed with brain tumors in regions of his brain that would leave him without speech and would impact his ability to sort out emotion.  And yet as he slowly left us, his body breaking down from the chemotherapy and his mind  slowly slipping away from us, he became meaner. And more confused about reality.  And eventually he couldn’t form words.  One or two here and there in the week that he died were like small gifts to those who received them.

His very last words to me, when I told him I loved him, were “I love you more.”

When he was still cognizant and before the surgery he did to his credit want to clear the air. Those last conversations differed for each of us daughters.  In mine, I spoke more than he did.  Fearful, I told him his anger and disappointment with me over the years had shaped my life.  He listened and accepted.  He spoke the words of apology.  It would have been miraculous and life changing had he not then gone on to spend an hour with my sister berating and criticizing her for how she managed money.  He wanted some money my parents had loaned her.

I felt responsible for that.  My conversation had been unexpectedly positive and though a lifetime of experiences told her not to she trusted him and met with him.  He crushed her as he had each of us so many times over the years.

That’s what he left us.  He left no letters for us.  He left without any parting advice or even the last word.  Ironically, the man who always had the last word in life refused to believe he was going to die.  He was going to get back out there to continue God’s work.  He believed he had time.

When asked of his regrets Graham said “he would spend more time at home with his family, study more and preach less.”  Wow! I think every MK and PK alive today longs to hear those words from their parents.  He wished he had spent more time with his family.  My dad prayed for healing to get back out there, not a few more months of life so that he could treasure his family and say his goodbyes.  He wanted to get back out there and reach our world for Christ. (At that time it was his work in China.)

Graham continued:

“God has a reason for keeping us here (even if we don’t always understand it), and we need to recover the Bible’s understanding of life and longevity as gifts from God—and therefore as something good. Several times the Bible mentions people who died “at a good old age”—an interesting phrase (emphasis added). So part of my advice is to learn to be content, and that only comes as we accept each day as a gift from God and commit it into his hands. Paul’s words are true at every stage of life, but especially as we grow older: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).

I miss my dad.  He was never content.  And I’ve concluded that he had to die for the rest of us to live.  I know those are harsh thoughts.  Do I really believe that God “took him” or did his life finally just end?  I will never know and it doesn’t really matter does it?  What I do know is the result of his death.  I could not break free from the chains of my experiences with him and my mother.  I did not have the strength or the knowledge of how to do that.   In the end, he left and I became free.

Could I have experienced the growth of the last eight years with him still alive?  Not so quickly.  Or intentionally.  Or in the same way.  He was such a force.  He was IRON in my life, but as iron sharpens iron, iron on something weak shapes it in the ways it wants.

So why so much talk of legacy and more time and regrets?  Because it is a bittersweet thing to lose a parent when they were a coercive fury in your life.  Choking.  Compelling.  And yet all that you knew of love.

Yeah, it’s mixed up.


PK: Preacher’s Kid and MK: Missionary’s Kid

Good Dad, Bad Dad (A poem I wrote in 2004)

Slowly, I Gave Up And Forfeited Living For Peace



Finding My Feelings.

I am listening to an NPR interview, on people who have lived with traumatic experiences and it adds to a growing unease I have had all week, a compelling need to write.  But I have had no computer.  I’ve borrowed one now. It is one of those times when I write to unearth what’s inside me.  To recover some bit of story that up until now was lost.

When My Father Died I Was Reborn.  This Is A Fact. 

To be quite honest I didn’t know it, but I was numb and deadened inside for most of my life.  I do remember brief moments as a child when I was conscious; happy and aware of it.  It was a beautiful time in Papua New Guinea running barefoot in the jungle, blithely unaware.  Even being thrown into the ocean at a young age, in order to learn to swim, was scary but for the most part an innocent lesson.  But I remain fearful of the ocean to this day.  I do not take any pleasure in swimming.   

 It Hurts Me Now, To Know How Much Memory Is Simply Gone

 I am a human being who lived more than forty years of life and yet today I cannot recall a good deal of it; I have very little memory of childhood.  And the memories I do have are full of the trauma we experienced.  I don’t want to only remember the dread and fear.  I do not choose to remember the ugliness; the ruthless cruel anger that we experienced.  I don’t want to focus on that, but you see it isn’t a selective focus at all – it is all I have left. 

 I am hopeful though that if I spend the time to remember what little is there, perhaps somehow, some day I will find more of the good memories.  I know those experiences must be there .  I would think that I and my sisters would not be as “normal” as we are able to be.  Would we not have become monsters — like — him? 

I am gratified that today I recognize goodness when I see it and so I must have experienced this at some time.  I see the tenderness and sweetness of casual, physical affection between a mother and her teenage children and I think “that is normal.  That is good.”  But I never experienced it.  By the time I was a teen, I loathed my father’s controlling touch, a hug or kiss at the beginning or end of the day was a salutation to him.  For me, it was a reminder of cage we lived in.  And my mother never had a physical connection or bond with anyone — at least not with her children.

Often Today, Unless I Force Myself To Allow It, I Cannot Feel. 

My dear mother, aged 73, called yesterday asking if she could pay for my children to attend the Messiah show that I will be in this December since we were choosing to “not afford it.”  After years of missing concerts and other things that were important to me due to their travel, she was remembering that this had hurt me as a teenager.  I was actively involved in orchestra and chorus.  She offered to pay the $30 per child so that my children can attend the concert.  She felt this was important to me.  I promised her I would think about whether I felt that way. I have learned that if I am not careful, I just feel what she tells me I’m feeling.   She wants to help.  She’s aware of old pain.  She attempts to remake life now, for the adult child.  It’s complicated.  I have no idea what I feel about this situation. 

Feeling things — for me, it takes peeling back the layers of the moment to find – my – feelings.  Crushing them was how I survived.  Now it takes such hard work to feel.  And to trust the feelings. 

Remembering what it was like growing up is hard for me.  Whether I was conscious or not, it was important to hide or be invisible.  I spent lots of time in my room escaping into a book; the fantasy of a romance or historical novel or a Ludlum mystery.   I hid in the music, playing the piano or the bass clarinet.  In the concerts that my parents received free tickets to over the years.  Music has always been an escape.

And I found myself when I was welcomed at church by my youth pastor and in his grizzly hugs.  There I found an acceptance of “ME” that I had never experienced in my life.  I had a budding faith.  I recall lying in my bed late at night, after church, praying out loud the prayer that I could not make myself utter out loud at church; too afraid of not getting it just right.  The need to be perfect was true for all of my sisters and for me if I couldn’t be perfect then I would not try. 

 I do not recall much conversation with my parents as a child and teen.  I remember no talks with parents, except being forced to speak about certain things by my father.  What does Easter mean to you, tell me!  What are you thankful for?  Everyone must participate. I recall being yelled at for grades that were below my “potential.”  I was dragged, not physically but emotionally, down to the counselor at school so that the person could tell me what a high IQ I had and why I could (i.e. should) do better at school.

 I recall gazing at my bitten & bleeding fingernails in the microscope in Biology, wondering if I would ever feel good about myself.  Somehow, my hands came to symbolize my brokenness, pain and the ugliness I saw in myself.  They represented the self-loathing and to this day, they remain so; if there is anguish inside it always manifests itself on my fingernails and indicates nervousness I can’t control.

I recalled recently, being spaced out started young, a pattern of feeling just slightly crazy or numb.  Constantly tuned out started as a way to cope with the unpredictable nature of my father’s anger which could be triggered by anything;   A slip of the tongue, a comment coming out a too sarcastically or being considered disrespectful, not remembering an instruction and doing something else, and of course having ideas other than his.  That made him the most furious.  Enraged.  He was never physically punishing to us, but verbally hounding, over and over again; “At you” continuously until you admitted your offense – whatever it was — random things that bothered him. 

I began to shut down.  Concede not fight.  Give in. Confess. Not rebel.  Slowly, I gave up and forfeited living for peace. 

Even some of my last memories of my father, when they came to visit in October before he got sick, were of making concessions to his disapproval.  I had been suffering from five months of deep depression that had slowly been eroding my confidence and energy.  When they came to visit “to help, to support” I was very sick.  I didn’t have it in me to cook for them, so we took my parents out to dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant.  It was admittedly expensive.  It was delicious.  It was challenging with young kids.  He disapproved of the extravagance and made it known.  He went on about it as I slowly shut down.  There’s no productive discussion when he is convinced of something.  No reminder of the symptoms of depression being an inability to make decisions shopping for groceries or to focus for a long time on cooking or overcoming the fear of messing it all up.  I would rather have climbed back into bed, but because they were there I was up, dressed and attempting to function.

That is one of my last memories of my father before his tumors began to grow and his personality and ability to speak became impaired.  He came to help, to be of assistance, but he spent his visit on the phone and laptop and but he only criticized when he engaged me.  That’s a fact.  That’s what happened.

As I remember, sometimes I wish I could sugar coat the memories or even just deny them.  But what would that accomplish? 

Today, I choose feelings. 

And, I move toward memory. 

And living, well that comes slowly.  But it comes.