One week from today I will celebrate 31 years of continuous sobriety. April 11, 1987, was my first day clean and sober after losing everyone, everything, and trying to end my life. It has been an amazing journey filled with joys, pains, grief, love, adventures, and so much more than I could have ever imagined.
Nic Sheff, an alcoholic and addict, wrote his story in a book called Tweak. He was able to capture so well what I know to be true in these words:
“And though I have done many shameful things, I am not ashamed of who I am. I am not ashamed of who I am because I know who I am. I have tried to rip myself open and expose everything inside – accepting my weaknesses and strengths – not trying to be anyone else. ‘Cause that never works, does it? So my challenge is to be authentic. And I believe I am today. I believe I am.”
In order to be my authentic self, I had to find my way back to God. Glennon Doyle Melton expresses it best saying, “Recovery is an unbecoming. My healing has been a peeling away of costume after costume until here I am, still and naked before God, stripped down to my real identity.” The biggest surprise was that even stripped down to my real identity and becoming my authentic self, God loved me. I had always heard that God is love, but I assumed that love was only for the good people.
I didn’t believe God loved me. In fact, I felt so empty on the inside, and I just wanted to know God the way other people said they did. Jesus was their best friend. God spoke to them all the time. I tried so hard to find the perfect formula to make God love me. All the work I did in the church, starting the day with devotions, reading my Bible, not listening to secular music or certain tv shows, being a submissive wife, and more. But it just didn’t work.
In Anne Lamott’s audiobook, Word by Word she shares a poem written by her dog Sadie Louise. You read that right. Anne Lamott’s dog Sadie wrote a poem. One line from the poem reads, “Drunks drink because they miss Jesus.” Sadie the dog got that right, I believe. In recovery programs, it is better known as “drinking and using tries to fill the God hole in our soul.” Nothing could fill that hole until I let God in.
The person who helped me understand that had started out as my therapist, Jan F. She “made” me get sober. Ok, no one can make you get sober, but it was get sober or stop seeing her. After I finished with therapy, she became my best friend, as well as spiritual mentor and guide. On March 7 of 2008, she unexpectedly passed away from a massive heart attack leaving me hurt, angry, and questioning God once again. Her memorial service wasn’t held until April 5. During the weeks prior to her service, I slipped back into depression and began having panic attacks. I wanted to drink with every passing day.
It was at her memorial service the week after Easter that I found a sense of peace and acceptance. Her pastor shared the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus after their brother Lazarus had died. Martha runs out to confront Jesus, saying that if He had only come sooner her brother would not have died. I questioned God in the same way after Jan’s death. “God, if you had paid attention, she wouldn’t have died. You could have saved her,”
The pastor went on to say:
“Make what you will of this narrative. It gives license to those of us, who like Jan, struggle with times like these and even struggle with any understanding of God, to let God have it like Martha does. In fact, I suspect one of the lessons Jan learned, very much like Martha, is that it is far better to let God be the object of our anger and frustration, because God can handle it and transform it into something different, new and better, sparing anyone else upon which we may unload it from harm, and us from harming others, whether intentionally or not. So, we come to acknowledge our loss, to acknowledge the pain and even the anger of this loss, but also to recognize that our lives are already mysteriously being changed and transformed as we reflect upon Jan’s life and Jan’s death.”
It has been ten years since Jan’s death and memorial service. I still miss her especially on holidays, or when I want to share important life events with her, and particularly on my AA sober anniversary. I do believe in the Easter message of resurrection. I know that death isn’t the end. At times, I still feel the presence of Jan’s spirit.
As I approach the coming anniversary, I am filled with a sense of awe, a spirit of gratitude, and a renewed belief that God loves my authentic, real self. I also know God is asking me to follow an unknown road during this season of my life. I will celebrate this anniversary with family and friends who love me just as I am. As Anne Lamott says, “You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed in certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child.”
Period! No more needs to be said.
I need to make a confession. Late last year, I surrendered to the pressure of my classmates and watched the Netflix Sci-Fi series Stranger Things. It is a Stephen King’ish scenario set in the 80’s. In season one, a young boy disappears, and his friends soon discover that he has been taken to the “upside down.” The “upside down” is a parallel dimension to our world; it is a dimension that is a dark reflection of our world filled with monsters and despair. Spoiler Alert! The young boy does get rescued and returned to the world as we know it because of the efforts of his family and friends. However, there were still things that haunted him from the “upside down.”
I could spend some time presenting the spiritual and religious allegories of the show, but I will save that for another time. Several theologians have written about it already. I am more interested in the “upside down” because I found myself trapped in a place very much like it. My world had become dark, filled with hopelessness, and haunted by monsters that I didn’t want to go on. In late February, 31 one years ago, I felt there was no way out. I decided to end my life. The sermon in church today reminded me of this time in my life.
Much like the young boy in Stranger Things, I would be rescued. My rescue came from strangers at first, not family and friends. I had driven them all away. I was really alone, or so I thought. I knew God thought I was a hopeless case and had moved on to other things. I had one person who still accepted my calls. She was a friend from seminary days and a pastor of a small church in Maryland. Drunk and angry, I called her at 2:00 am. It seemed she was finished with me, just like God. She told me she could not go through this with me any longer. She made me write a phone number down and promise to call it. Then she hung up. I was devastated. I just told her I was trying to kill myself. How could she hang up on me? (I had no way of knowing that she had been going to AlAnon.)
I don’t know why I made the call to the number she gave me, but the Hotline counselor stayed on the phone with me until dawn. It was the beginning of my rescue from the “upside down.” Because of that call, I found my way to a therapist, who after two years of therapy would become my closest friend, confidant, spiritual mentor, and guide for the next eighteen years. I became part of the fellowship of a twelve-step program where strangers became a family who showed me that God still and had always loved me.
Although I have never returned to the “upside down,” I know it still exists. Many are trapped there without any hope. I often share my story with others, and I write about it on this blog because I want those who have lost faith to see that there is life on the other side. I want them to hear someone say that God always has and still loves them.
I have been given everything back everything I lost and more. I was blessed for many years with a job working on staff for the same type of Hotline that I had called. I was able to listen and talk with those who had lost hope. I am now in college about to finish my undergrad degree, hoping to pursue my masters, and begin a journey to follow where God is calling me. I am going to begin even though I am not sure where that journey will lead. I have genuine friendships, a family that continues to grow, and on top of it all, I have peace and serenity knowing that God is with me.
During this time of year, I hold tightly to my faith. While I escaped the “upside down,” much like the young boy I am sometimes still haunted by memories. As February ends, and March comes in to welcome spring, I am faced with the tenth anniversary of the death of the woman who was my closest friend as well as the anniversary of the death of Mama Pearl. Mama Pearl was a second mother to me throughout my life. While there is profound pain in these memories, there is joy in my remembrances of them. They will be with me in spirit as I celebrate 31 years of continuous sobriety in April.
I got lost in the “upside down” a long time ago, but God pulled me back through grace and love. I know I never have to return-even during periods of questioning or suffering. Anne Lamott wrote, “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” God met me in a place of darkness and despair and brought me out into a new life. I am excited to see where God leads me next.
I have been thinking a lot about recent events, both private and public. Don’t tell anyone, but I am sixty-six years old and, in a week, will become a great-grandmother. I am going to take a moment here to pause because I still have a hard time saying and accepting that. My life has had many twists and turns along what Robert Frost describes as the road less traveled. I have been standing at an intersection recently, but have made a decision to follow a path where I feel led.
So many times in my life, I have chosen to stand and wait, offering only “thoughts and prayers” to my journey. While taking time to think and pray before acting is essential, often I stop short of doing anything. I have been reminded that choosing to do nothing is a choice. This is true not only of my life journey but in my day to day actions as well.
The facebook posts after the school shooting last week followed the same pattern as other such tragedies. Posts offering “thoughts and prayers” follow shock and anger. Heated debate and name calling are next to appear. Soon everyone forgets as we await the next shooting or child abduction or horrific stories of abuse. Please hear me as I say that prayer is powerful and much needed. Yet, I have to ask if it is enough. I was reminded of a story that still haunts me.
A few years ago, I was driving on a busy four-lane highway to my church prayer lunch. The road is one where no one slows down for anything. People pass and bounce from lane to lane without the benefit of blinkers or common sense. As I made my way to church, suddenly the tail lights on the cars ahead of me flashed red as cars in both lanes came to a sudden stop.
I tried to see what caused the delay when I saw what looked like the front of a broken shopping cart coming across the front of the line of cars. I was surprised as I saw a broken walker being pushed by an elderly man. He walked so slowly that I wasn’t sure how he got into the road at all since traffic is usually constant. He had only one good arm; the other seemed to be at an angle as if he had an injury or perhaps the remnants of a stroke. He walked with a bit of a limp, as well. The walker had front wheels, but there were no wheels on the back. He made it past the cars reaching the safety of the grass median. However, the grassy area seemed to make it harder for him to push and maneuver.
My heart ached as a watched his broken body push the feeble walker. There was no expression in his eyes or face. It appeared that his spirit was broken as badly as his body. As the cars began to move, I felt a battle raging in my heart and head. I wanted more than anything to pull my car into the grass and see if I could help him. The logical side of my brain wondered how in the world I could help. What if he was violent? What if he was mentally ill and didn’t understand my gesture or offer of help? What if he was ill and I was exposed? Would I offer him a ride? What would I say?
I pulled into a parking lot for a down the road to think for a moment. I fought tears as I wondered if this man had family or food or a place to stay. I certainly had nothing I could offer him. My finances were already limited without trying to help someone else. Maybe I could go back and just say a kind word to him. The logical side of my mind asked what good that would do. Sure, go and say, “Hi, I saw you struggling to get across the road. I don’t have any way to help you but just wanted to say Howdy!”
In the end, I didn’t turn around even though I felt led to do so. I don’t know why this man touched my heart the way he did. I did say a prayer for him. I believe in the power of prayer. There have been many times in my life where I felt so very broken, and I prayed for someone to reach out to me. I am so grateful for the people who took time to pray for me, talk to me, and help me. How could I not return what had been so freely given to me?
I don’t know the life journey of the man I saw that day. I don’t know if he had friends or family or anyone to help him in his brokenness. All I did for him that day was pray. I know in my heart praying wasn’t enough.
Matthew West’s song “Do Something” encourages us to take the time to do something for others: I Said, “God, why don’t You do something?” He said, “I did, yeah, I created you.”
None of us can solve all of the world’s problems. None can address every issue or the challenges faced by others. Yet, each of us can find a way to take action. Yes, I pray and continue in prayer. I didn’t stop and help a broken man a few years ago, but I choose today to offer my thoughts and prayers – and then I take the next step. I find a way to do the next right thing to try and make a difference.
There are things I could never imagine happening to me. That is saying a lot considering I have a highly overactive imagination. I can imagine an asteroid crashing into earth close my home. My friends will tell you that they are not allowed to mention comets, or meteor showers, or a protentional eclipse. I can imagine a tsunami wiping out a beach as I sit in the sand. I can envision an earthquake while I am in a three story building. I am afraid that someone might break into the house when I am all alone and taking a shower (that might just be a throwback to Psycho). I can even imagine how our country might look like after the current elections. Yet, I could never have believed what would happen this week.
I arrived at my class at school, and we began a group team building exercise. The instructions were simple. Everyone was to stand in a large circle. The professor would read a statement, and everyone would quickly, without much thought or hesitation, step into the circle to the extent that they agreed with the statement. If you strongly agreed with the statement, you would walk into the center of the circle. If you slightly agreed, you would only take a small step or two in the circle. If you strongly disagreed, you would stand in place and so on.
The first statements were innocuous.
“I like chocolate.” Almost everyone was in the center of the circle.
“I like pizza.” People were a bit more spread out on this one.
“I am a dog person.” “I am a cat person.” There were some strong feelings on this one.
The statements then focused more on issues.
“I am a feminist.”
“I believe everyone has the same access to prosperity.”
“I believe everyone should have equal access to education.”
With each of these statements, everyone in the group shared the same opinion. We all appeared to be on the same page when it came to social issues and ideals.
After each statement, the professor would ask us to return to the circle if we had moved. After a few more statements, I heard this one.
“I believe in God.”
Without hesitation, I began my first step into the circle. As I moved, I suddenly became aware that no one else was moving. I hesitated for a split second. Do I keep going? Surely everyone is thinking about the question and will be stepping in. Maybe they are just waiting for the others. I took another step. The room was silent and still.
I kept taking steps towards the center of the circle. I could only see those in front of me or just to my side. Everyone was looking at me in the circle, but no one looked me in the eyes. I felt alone and exposed. I thought of the woman in the Bible who was caught in adultery. Everyone circled around her, pointed fingers, and said she should be stoned. Could this really be happening? I just wanted the professor to direct me back to my spot in the circle.
We quickly moved on to our next activity. I don’t remember much about what we did the rest of the class. I still felt as if I was standing alone in the middle of the circle. That feeling would stay with me for a while; in fact, I am still carrying a bit of it with me as I write.
I would not have been surprised if no moved into the circle had the statement been, “I am a Christian” or “I am religious” or “I go to church.” I know many people who want nothing to do with organized religion. I understand those who have questions about faith. I certainly have many questions about God, the church, the Bible, and theology. I am still shaken by the fact that no one moved into the circle. Even if someone had moved just a step or two into the circle, it would have been easier to understand. How could these people who share the same values about social issues and social justice not believe in God?
I have been thinking about this all week. As I began to process this, I looked at the world and the events of the past years. I remember bombings and killings in the name of God. I saw religious people who hated those who are different, people who say that God hates those who are aren’t like them, people who claim to follow God but turn their back on the poor, sick, and lonely. Politicians have been throwing around claims about God for months. Churches are splitting because they can’t agree to love one another any longer because of issues surrounding race, gender, who you can love or which bathroom people can use.
I must wonder if these bright, talented, young people I know, who want to change the world, look at all of this and decide that God can’t exist. In his book, “Blue Like Jazz”, Donald Miller writes about his experience at Reed College, a secular liberal arts college in Oregon. He and a few Christian friends discuss a way to talk to people on campus about their faith since students seemed hostile to their views. They come up with an idea to offer a confession to the other students. The confession below expresses what I have been thinking:
“So this group of us on campus wanted to confess to you,” Donald said.
“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.
“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”
“You’re serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.
“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” Donald started. “The thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that Jesus is God and all, and he represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent him well, but it can be very hard. Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus didn’t mix spirituality with theology. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, too.”
There is a lot more! I want to confess and apologize for not always carrying the message of Christ in my life, but I am going to keep trying.
I felt it was time to share this blog post again. I wrote it just after the shooting in Orlando and almost a year after the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.
It is time for me to live up the title of my blog/website…Cathy’s Voice Now…and use my voice regardless of how you choose to view me. I often hold back expressing my views; You see, I want you to like me. I have written blog posts only to hide them in drafts because I was concerned about how I might be perceived.
Today, I share what I believe to be true in this post. The anniversary of Mother Emmanuel AME shooting, the ongoing story of a man who raped a young woman while a judge thinks it was “boys being boys”, and now the Orlando shooting has hurt my heart. I can’t hide behind my fear of what you might think of me; I must speak.
A Sacramento pastor responded to the Orlando shooting that killed 49 people and injured 50 more with praise, stating “they deserve what they got.” In another statement “Claiming homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts” Pastor Steven Anderson celebrated the Orlando nightclub shooting.
I believe that hate is fueled when we see others as different from ourselves. We might believe they have it better than we do or that we are better than they are. We think our religious views are the only ones with merit. We believe the color of our skin, our gender, or sexual orientation makes us superior to others. When we see people as a race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, it is easier to hate because we no longer see the essence or soul of that human being.
I have many people in my circle of friends and acquaintances. What I don’t have are gay friends, straight friends, black friends, Buddhist friends, Jewish friends, handicapped friends, liberal friends, conservative friends….you get the idea. I simply have friends.
While many of my friends may identify with those labels, that isn’t who they are at the essence of their being. It doesn’t define the relationship we share. It doesn’t change their heart and soul. If I start identifying them by a label, I lose the person I know.
Here are some labels by which I am known…white, straight, Christian, old, liberal, intelligent, a writer, an actor, a student, mother, grandmother, friend, recovering alcoholic, and more. In my lifetime, I have also been labeled a drunk, a heretic, fat, irresponsible, just a woman, stupid, underachiever, worthless, and others. If you choose to know me, then know ME, not my labels.
If we continue to label people, we are contributing to an environment of hate. This time the “homosexuals” were attacked and murdered. The shooter didn’t see the mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, co-workers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sports enthusiasts, teachers, lawyers, doctors, law enforcement, military, or anything else beyond the LABEL. Some hate blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, poor, rich, white, women, and a multitude of other “labels”. They do not look beyond the LABEL. All they see is “other.”
Maybe next year it will be older white women with blue eyes. Sound preposterous? Couldn’t happen? Are you sure? No one ever imaged hated so deep it could kill almost 6 million Jewish men, women, and children. No one believed a person could hate enough to walk into a church and kill nine people in prayers. No one wants to believe a single shooter hated enough to kill and injury close to 100 people in Orlando.
Hate knows no boundaries.
John 13:34-35 (NIV)
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
I write about church and faith quite often. If you have followed my blog or read any of these posts, you might recall that church and I have had a challenging relationship over the years. (You can find these posts under the Faith tab on the blog.) I only returned to traditional church about six or seven years ago. I church shopped for a while before I found a place to stay for a while. I was part of this church for about five years, however just a few weeks ago, the congregation voted to disband and close the church. I won’t go into the reasons since this blog isn’t about that. It did however create the need opportunity to visit churches over the past couple of months.
As a child, I learned that the church sanctuary was a solemn place to be treated with absolute reverence. There were many rules including no running, no talking above a whisper, no laughing; you get the idea. Music was never that toe tapping hand-clapping sort of thing. It was more along the lines of hymns written in earlier centuries to tortoise paced classical organ accompaniment. It was only in the fellowship hall that we could have a piano with more lively music; however dancing was still out of the question.
On my summer visits to my brother in West Va., we would attend small charismatic type churches. Their music was piano, guitar, and a bit more old-time gospel. The preacher was scary. He screamed, threw things, and often took off his coat and tie with armpit sweat stains showing the intensity of the sermon.
Over the years, things have changed in worship style and music in many churches, but not in the one I was attending after my return to church. Occasionally the congregation might be moved to clap after the choir anthem, and someone would usually have an “Amen”. One of thing liked about this church was that the people enjoyed talking to each other. Before church and during the time in worship when people greeted one another there was a buzzing of voices, and it was sometimes difficult to get everyone seated again. As time went, on the voices and noise faded.
As I began visiting churches, I became interested in the church noises. One of the first I visited had a full band with music I love from contemporary Christian artists. I know many people love this type of “concert” setting, and while I enjoy it, I like a blend of more traditional hymns. From the moment, I entered the building, an excitement and joy could be felt. The next few churches I visited were much mellower. There wasn’t much noise at all, even during the worship.
I attend service at a small country church in the upstate every few weeks when I go to stay with my friend. I love this church. It has a history stretching back one hundred years. The organist/pianist is a precious 95-year-old woman. A small group of children in choir robes sing with a guitar accompaniment. The choir is small, but powerful. The sounds of children and babies create a sense of delight. The noises in that church are truly joyful ones.
I recently visited a church, and as I entered, laughter and chatter filled the foyer. Before I could find a seat, several smiling faces had welcomed me as if I already belonged. During the time in worship for greeting one another, the people seemed genuinely happy to be in worship with one another. Each time I have attended, children and youth have been part of the worship. Excitement and wonder are the noises that fill this place. I think I might just stay a while here. I like the noise.
Of course, I have to add a quote from Anne Lamott:
“I live for Sundays,” she says. “It’s like going to the spiritual gas station to fill up on fuel and clean the dirty windshield and mirrors. I usually show up nuts, self-obsessed, vaguely agitated, and I am at once reminded not of who I am, but Whose I am.
“Then everything falls into place, and I smile again at how crazy I (and most of us) are, but how at church, in fellowship, in the arms and eyes of Jesus […] I remember the truth of my spiritual identity. I love to sing in a group – more than anything, and to do the holy dance of swaying, and clapping. Plus, they say that clapping in church scares away the devil.”
I sat on the wooden pews in a small church waiting for the memorial service for a friend to begin. If the wall of this hundred-year-old sanctuary could talk, they would tell the life stories of so many people, including the story of the man to be memorialized that day. He had been married in that church, as had his parents, as well as his some of his children and grandchildren. In the cemetery next to the church were buried his wife, his parents, grandparents, and other family members.
A granddaughter spoke about him during the service remembering a long life spent in devotion to family, service to community, and dedication to his church and beliefs. No one could describe him without using the words “sweet man.” What an amazing legacy to leave for those who knew and loved him.
I thought about my friend Jan F. who died seven years ago. She left behind a note stating what she hoped would be her legacy. Anyone who knew her would have to say these words are true.
I wish to be remembered for:
– my loyalty as a friend and to family
– my passion – for animals, music
– my commitment to providing caring, sensitive, compassionate therapy to my
patients. I would go the extra mile for them.
– my love of music and singing
– my laughter
– my creative, innovative side
– my integrity – as a person and as a psychologist
and anything else someone can think of.
I couldn’t help but wonder what legacy I would leave for my children, grandchildren, and friends (family of choice). My family tree is broken and missing many branches. I don’t have a long line of ancestors to share. I have made many detours and mistakes in my life journey, yet I hope that the life I have created out of the turmoil and chaos of my childhood will speak for me. I hope those who know me best will remember the person I have become.
I don’t plan on leaving this earthly home anytime soon. I have always said that I plan to live to be at least 100 years old. When that time does come, I hope the legacy I leave behind is one that causes those who knew me to smile and to know that in some small way I changed their lives.
The text below is an assignment for my Religion and Society class.
“Experiment with Ahimsa,” following the model of Gandhi and his autobiography. After re-reading about Gandhi’s understanding of ahimsa and his experiments with Truth, conduct an “experiment with non-violence.” For some set time (3-7 days), attempt to refrain from all forms of violence towards other human beings and animals, including (but no limited to) anger, hate, gossip, personal criticism, evil thoughts, jealousy, and physical violence toward any other being. Try to remove violence from speech, mind, and action; and try not to support others if they engage in violent speech, thought or conduct. You must maintain a record of your experiences and “experiments with Truth”, using Gandhi’s book as your model to emulate.
As we discussed this in class, I asked about food and football. The Professor smiled and explained that we would have to make our own determination about how far we were willing and able to go with food in this process. Since football is a sport and there is no intention of harm, I am going to say that watching football wouldn’t be a hindrance to this process. ” In fact, he (Gandhi) was a path-breaker of sorts, even in football, when in 1896, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, still a young, relatively unknown lawyer in South Africa, was amongst a group of pre-dominantly Indian men, who helped form the Transvaal Indian Football Association” (Ayush Srivastava – The Goal). There was even a team called the Passive Resisters. Later, Gandhi would say that while his country was in turmoil against the British, people should be more interested in changing the country than sports.
While reading about Gandhi and his idea of ahisma, we learned that Ghandi believed non violence went far beyond “doing no violence or harm”. Gandhi taught that ahisma was non violence in our thoughts, intentions, actions, and our lifestyle. It was about compassion and love.
“Happy old age” was always an enigma. I didn’t know any “old people” who seemed happy. Bitterness, anger, and loneliness seemed to be the destiny for anyone that lived past fifty. I will admit that perhaps my vision was a bit skewed.
From the time I was four, I lived with my grandparents and my great grandmother. Vacations each summer were spent with another set of grandparents. Each of them was miserable in their own way. None of them showed any signs of a happy old age.
When I think about each of them, I remember the frowns and downward pointed eyebrows. None of them had that sparkle of joy or peace in their eyes. Their voices were dull and mean. Yes, that is the word I needed to find-mean. Perhaps all of that anger, bitterness and loneliness had poisoned their spirit to the point that their words and actions spewed meanness.
This seemed to be such a contradiction since all of them (except my grandfather) talked about loving God and hoping for the glorious day when they would see Jesus in Heaven. My grandfather was a drunk, so his meanness came straight from a bottle. Grandmother took me to church every Sunday morning and then again on Sunday evening. When I was younger, she would take me with her to her church group “circle” meetings. The old women sat in a circle and talked about a Bible verse of two for a while, and then went directly into bashing anyone not there, as well as other church folks. Time for refreshments meant time to discuss the terrible state of the world, the disappointing youth of today, and to ask the host for the recipe of the treat of the day. Of course, they chatted amongst themselves as they left about “those treats she made” and the recipe was thrown out at home.
At church I heard sermons from an amazing pastor about God and his love for us, but at home Grandmother told the story of a different God. Her God was vindictive and just about as mean as she was. God was clearly judgmental, and perfection was required for His love. I never measured to the standard my Grandmother set for God to love me. He was just another grey haired, white bearded, crotchety, mean old man in my mind. When I was in my late 30’s I left the church, and after 25 years I felt drawn to return. I attended a variety of churches and denominations looking for a place to call a church home. One Sunday, I was looking for a church and “accidentally” found a different one. It was the farthest thing from anything I would ever have considered, yet it was where I was supposed to be-for many reasons.
The congregation is an older one with some of the most beautiful grey haired, faces with wrinkles, older women you will ever meet. I come complete with tattoos and ever-changing hair styles and colors, and they have accepted me without question. Many of them have been friends for years, and they truly love and cherish each other. The ages range from 70 to well over 90. Every Sunday and often at Wednesday prayer lunch, I look forward to seeing these special women. Their faces show wrinkles and eyes are often clouded by cataracts. They may have to use a cane or walker. Yet, all I see are sparkling eyes and beautiful smiles. I listen as they willingly share stories of the church, their childhood, marriages, families, and more. Laughter often accompanies their stories. When one is sick or has to be away, you can feel the sadness from the others. These women all love God and Jesus, but they don’t have to tell you that. You can see it in the love they have for each other, their church, their lives, and the way they welcome anyone who enters the doors of the church. I can clearly see the God of love that the pastor of my youth shared with us.
I used to be afraid of growing old. I worried that I would become a bitter, angry, lonely old woman just like my mother and grandmothers. I’m not afraid any more, in fact, I look forward to watching my children, my grandchildren, and yes, even my great-grandchildren as they grow and change. I have some very special friendships that I cherish and plan to take them with me as I journey towards old age. My prayer is that I may be just as precious and joyful as the women at my church.
I was determined to take some time to catch up on reading for pleasure over the holidays. I looked at the titles of books I want to read or reread trying to decide what to start today. I was drawn to a book I “read” last year. When I first downloaded the book to my Kindle, I didn’t take the time to really read and focus on the book. I skimmed some and read some. It wasn’t that the book wasn’t good; it was that the book hit too close to home. I needed to really invest myself in reading this story. I decided to start “Peace and Freedom are My Names” by Irene Frances.
I “met” Irene on the internet last year. I read her blog and knew this was someone I wanted to get to know. I connected with her in reading that first post and made contact through the blog and facebook. I was excited to find that she, like I, at our delicate ages were both going to college. I am doing undergraduate work, while she is attending the Brisbaine School of Theology in her home country of Australia. I have loved watching her posts about studying Hebrew and taking tests. She has encouraged me when I felt overwhelmed at times. You can see her faith and genuineness in her smile.
I also connected with her in other ways. She is a survivor of an abusive childhood and learned to live with mental health issues, all while maintaining a strong and steadfast faith in God. We have both had our challenges with religion and church, but God has never given up on us. Her faith and journey have been an inspiration to me.
As I began to read her book again, I was reminded in the first paragraphs of the similarities in our stories. Many facts are different, but the feelings and ways of surviving were much the same. This passage pulled me in today: I was a nothing and a nobody. Nobody wanted me; I didn’t even have my own name. And I was worth nothing. It was a pitiable start to life of hell and torment that would eventually send me into a pit of madness from which it would take a lifetime to claw my way out.
Nobody wanted me. I felt that way much of my life. I didn’t even have my own name. I was reminded of that just this past week. A while back, I wrote a post about my name being changed a couple times in my childhood. You can read it here. My parents named me Carolyn Ann, but at the age of four my grandparents changed it to Cathy (Catherine Ann) when they adopted me. Just a short time before my mother died, she told me that while my name was Carolyn Ann, but they called me Lynn. I wasn’t sure if that was true or the imaging of an old woman. In the blog post above, I shared about finding my old shot records listing my name as Carolyn Ann and (Lynn) listed on one page. I also realized that I lived in Flat Top, W. Va. at my grandparents farm for a couple of years.
Last weekend, Jan and I were working on genealogy sites when I decided to try something to find an old newspaper article I remembered. The article was in the newspaper in W. Va. and featured a picture of my brother and I when I returned to W. Va. to visit when I was 8 years old. Imagine my surprise, when the article appeared in a site with filmstrip from old newspapers. I quickly signed up for the week long free trial and printed the article.
I decided to do a bit more searching when I discovered an article from 1952 about a meeting of the Flat Top Farm Women’s Club. After a brief description of the meeting and food served, the meeting attendees were listed. I froze when I read these names: Mrs. Grady Keaton (that’s my grandmother), Mrs. Joe Keaton (that’s my mother) and her daughter Lynn. LYNN…there it was in black and white…proof that my mother’s memory was intact, and that I was indeed called Lynn for the first 3 to 4 years of my life.
This has been on my mind ever since I found the article. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t let it go. And, then I starting reading Irene’s story again. In her book, she explains changing her name after her marriage. I am thinking about reclaiming my birth name of Keaton when I finalize my divorce, and I am now thinking about adding Lynn to that name in some way.
I know this will not make sense to many of you and that’s OK. You see, somehow, just seeing that name makes a connection to the childhood that was taken from me. I now know the truth about many things, in spite of all efforts by some to keep it from me. JanF. told me that my life was life a huge mosaic puzzle. I had the easy pieces in place; I had the outer edges. I would continue to add pieces as they were revealed, and one day I would see one of God’s most beautiful works of art. I asked her what piece of art that would be, and she replied, “Why, your life of course. ”
For more information on Irene Frances and her book available on Amazon, please check out her page on Peace and Freedom are My Names.