What Can I Not Say?

Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.
Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.

Good morning, friends. Maybe you’ve noticed it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. Trust me, it’s not because it’s quiet in my brain or boring in my life. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, I can update you soon.

In the meantime, something I read today from Parker Palmer really resonated with me. The book is called, Let Your Life Speak. Which is kind of the opposite of how I tend to communicate truths that resonate with me. My approach is more, Let Your Mouth Spout.

I did that the other day when a depressed friend came by for a visit. She was in that place of internal exhaustion, where you wake up and realize you have nothing to give and you want the world to go away.

I gave her some great advice and shared spiritual tidbits that seemed inspiring to me. I was gratified when she told me, “I wish I had a tape recorder.”

It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I missed the real opportunity—to listen with kindness and care. To give her space and time to arrive at her own wisdom. To help her soften around her pain instead of suggesting it’s wrong to feel this way.

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes about his own struggle with depression. “Twice in my forties I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul,” he explains. “Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die . . . I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.

“I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: they need the rest.”

Naturally, lots of people tried to help Palmer. To cheer him up. To remind him how valuable his life was. To suggest ways to break out of his funk. And not surprisingly, none of it helped much.

He writes:

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels—and our unconscious need is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve done that, how easily I forget that sometimes the only thing more powerful than just the right words is just the right silence. The kind that bears with, not bears advice. The kind that inspires small, powerful acts of love.

“Blessedly,” Palmer writes, “there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.

Bill rarely spoke a word.”

This seems like a good challenge for me next time I’m with a friend who aches: How can I honor the sacredness of her struggle? What can I do to show that I care? What can I not say?

Let’s hope it’s a lot.



Hearing Voices

shutterstock_158676188Two nights ago, Dave and I watched the season premier of Homeland, a show about a brilliant but terribly flawed CIA agent played by Claire Danes. At one point in the episode, her sister, who happens to be a doctor, says to her something like: “What’s wrong with you is so wrong there’s not even a diagnosis.”

Ha! I thought this was such a funny line. Then I realized it was kind of familiar, too. It sounded exactly like the kind of thing the mean voice I hear in my head on a regular basis would say: You’re such a fraud and a failure! You’re bad and broken in ways that go way beyond what it means to be a regular human.  

My sister has a lot of experience with this mean voice, too. Lately, she’s been going to Alanon, which has been a great help to her—and me, too. Last week, she called to tell me something she heard a woman say after a meeting that was so powerful to her she thought it might change her life.

Really? I thought. A single idea could change your life?  And then she told me what the woman said: “I’m single and I live alone, but I’m in an abusive relationship.”

Meaning, with herself.

Wow. My sister was right. This idea could change my life, too. Of course, the notion that we’re hard on ourselves is nothing new, but putting it in terms of being in a potentially abusive relationship is a fresh, helpful way to look at the importance of how we talk to and treat ourselves.

Especially when you consider that, apart from God, the relationship we have with ourselves is the most constant, lasting, and influential one we’ll ever have.

No wonder in recovery we emphasize self-care so much. Being in an abusive relationship with yourself is pretty much the definition of addiction, don’t you think?  So it goes to reason that healing this relationship would be a big part of what it takes to achieve long term recovery.

This was brought home to me in a real way yesterday when I got a  call from a friend who’s in the same treatment center I went to seven years ago. She, too, was asked to write a letter to herself about her alcoholism and how she intends to stay sober.

I’ll never forget how much I cried and how surprisingly healing it was for me to write that letter. And it was the same for my friend. Something about intentionally talking  to yourself in an encouraging, compassionate way makes you realize how much of the time you unintentionally talk to yourself in ways that bring you down.

So maybe it’s worth asking questions like these more often: If that voice in my head were incarnated into a person—what would our relationship look like? What do I put up with that I shouldn’t? How might I set better boundaries about how I let myself think and behave toward myself?

And since that voice in my head isn’t about to reform or leave any time soon, how can I respond to her in a way that doesn’t just antagonize her further? How can I show that hurt, fear-driven part of myself the kind of compassion I’d show a sick friend?

I need to think a lot more about this, and maybe you do, too.

In the meantime, as we watch out for the mean voice in our head, we can also listen—with all our heart—for the voice of love that comes from our soul, created in God’s image.

I hope you hear that voice often.

Hugs and love, Heather

The Gracious River (Or, Why We’re All Wet)

Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy
Art by Kate Ladd, click to visit her on Etsy

As many of you know, since getting into recovery more than seven years ago, I’ve discovered that God is in the business of drawing people to himself quite apart from religion, the Bible, church, or professional Christians.

I didn’t used to think God could do that.

Today I recognize and celebrate how God works wonders not only through myriad religious traditions, but through folks in my own tradition that I don’t necessarily agree with. It seems no matter how narrow or stunted the funnel we hold up to God, given the tiniest opening for love, God pours himself into the world.

Which brings me to the excerpt I want to share with you today. It’s condensed from a longer version in author James Finley’s book, Christian Meditation. Just to set you up, a “river enterer” is Finley’s metaphor for a person who seeks to experience God.

I know it’s way long, but I think it’s worth your time.

I hope that those of you in the Christian tradition whose spiritual odyssey has been expanded and enriched in opening yourself to other religious traditions will relate to this parable.

Now imagine that you are a river enterer. Imagine, too, that you have learned to be a river enterer in the religious tradition that traces its roots back to Jesus. But there is something missing, something that is not right. Seeking to sort out just what the difficulty is, you study the history of your river-entering community.

You discover that at first it was very simple. Men and women simply entered the river. Soon a path began to form leading down to the water’s edge. Word got out, and a growing number of people began showing up to use the path.

One day, someone observed that river entering is so important it seemed only fitting there should be a ceremony celebrating the admission of new members into the river-entering community. And before long, there arose rituals with hymns and candles as people gathered at the river.

Then one day someone observed that river entering is so special that there should be some kind of little tent over the path that goes down into the river. Others agreed. And a festive, brightly colored tent was built over the path.

Then someone observed that river entering is so special that a tent was hardly a suitable way to honor all the ways that river entering enriched their lives. Others agreed. And so there was the first fund drive to raise money to build a large and beautiful building over the tent that covered the path that went into the river. And everyone agreed that it was an inspiring and uplifting building indeed.

Then someone wrote a book titled The Meaning of River Entering. Someone read the book, did not agree with its premise, and so wrote another book refuting the teachings of the first book. Someone read both books, disagreed with both, and wrote a third. Soon there was a proliferation of books on the meaning of river entering. A second fund drive was required to build a library.

Then someone suggested that a school be built to promote the study of riverology and the granting of degrees to learned riverologists. Another fund drive raised the moneys to build a fine school, a seminary of sorts.

Then someone observed that [the path to the river] was getting so crowded, it might be best if everyone did not enter the river. It might be better if only certain members of the community entered the river, and then distributed river water to the others. The decision was made to create a new ritual to celebrate authority invested in the riverologists to distribute river water to the community.

Somewhere along the way, the riverologists tended not to enter the river nearly as much as they used to. At some point they began to pipe river water into the building. And there were rumors that the water was actually shipped in from undisclosed sources.

This is the situation that has developed in the river-entering community in which you find yourself. It seems that most everyone is content to sip bottled river water, read books on river entering, attend river-entering ceremonies, and agree and disagree with each other about the meaning of river entering.

Disheartened, you walk alone one day down by the river, trying to grasp just how everyone got into this predicament. As you are walking along, you slip and fall into the water. In doing so, you discover that the river is so gracious as to accept you completely in your solitary mishap. All alone, unplanned—with no building, no teaching, no ceremony—you get completely wet.

You come out of the river and start walking down the shore, and you are surprised to come upon a group of people who have built a large building over a tent that is over a path that goes down into the river. You are inclined at first to tell them they can’t do what they are doing. You are tempted to tell them they are not even really getting wet. They only think they are getting wet. If they want to really get wet they are going to have to travel with you to join the river-entering community from which you came. Or perhaps some riverologists from your community could come to show them the correct and truly effective way to get wet.

But then, in recalling the personal journey that has brought you to this place, you decide instead to ask if they would mind if you used their path that goes down into the river. In doing so, you get completely wet. Relieved and grateful, you venture father down the shore to discover other buildings where river enterers gather. You use their path that goes down into the river and, in doing so, discover how completely wet you get, regardless of the color of the tent that is over the path.

Although the teachings regarding the meaning of river entering vary greatly, one thing remains clear: each time you enter the river you get completely wet. And in each community you discern the presence of seasoned river enterers, men and women who even in the scorching sun remain drenched in the graciousness of the river.

In venturing still farther down the shore you eventually come to the point at which the river empties into the sea. As you wade out into the water there is only water as far as you can see. Taking all this in, you are surprised to discover yourself being interiorly drawn back to the river-entering community from which your journey first began.

As you arrive back at your origins, you enter the large building and head straight for the path that goes down into the river. You are touched by the sincerity and devotion that went into setting up the festive little tent that covers the path. You are touched, too, by the depth of religious feeling and commitment that went into each detail of the building. You see all these things not as diversions from river entering, but as sincere efforts of men and women attempting to honor and reverence a grace and mystery they hold dear. You realize that perhaps you were a tad too judgmental. Perhaps, had you humbly done more river entering yourself, you would have realized that more river entering was going on than you had realized.

You enter the river, and in doing so you become completely wet. As those standing about see how completely drenched you are as you come up out of the water, they are moved to enter the river as well. You, together with them, rediscover the origins of your own tradition of river entering. Together you seek to give witness to the good news that we are, from all eternity, completely wet.

–James Finley

P.S. In recent years, Dave and I have had the privilege of attending numerous of Finley’s spiritual retreats. We always come away profoundly re-convinced of our absolute preciousness to God. Here’s a post where I wrote about this experience—it’s called “Smitten,” and it’s one of my favorites.


Getting Attention

Art by Laurie Anne Sikorowski, used by permission.
Art by Laurie Anne Sikorowski, used by permission.

This morning I read this and thought I heard God say, “This is better than any blog post you could write today. Post this and go jog instead.”

I harrumphed, and then agreed. Yet another way to quit deeper, right? I hope you get as much from this as I did.

Much of our anxiety and inner turmoil comes from living in a global culture whose values drive us from the essence of what matters. At the heart of this is the conflict between the outer definition of success and the inner value of peace.

Unfortunately, we are encouraged, even trained, to get attention when the renewing secret of life is to give attention. From performing well on tests to positioning ourselves for promotions, we are schooled to believe that to succeed we must get attention and be recognized as special, when the threshold to all that is extraordinary in life opens only when we devote ourselves to giving attention, not getting it. Things come alive for us only when we dare to see and recognize everything as special.

The longer we try to get attention instead of giving it, the deeper our unhappiness. It leads us to move through the world dreaming of greatness, needing to be verified at every turn, when feelings of oneness grace us only when we verify the life around us. It makes us desperate to be loved, when we sorely need the medicine of being loving.

One reason so many of us are lonely in our dream of success is that instead of looking for what is clear and true, we learn to covet what is great and powerful. One reason we live so far from peace is that instead of loving our way into the nameless joy of spirit, we think fame will soothe us. And while we are busy dreaming of being a celebrity, we stifle our need to see and give and love, all of which opens us to the true health of celebration.

It leaves us with these choices: fame or peace, be a celebrity or celebrate being, work all our days to be seen or devote ourselves to seeing, build our identity on the attention we can get or find our place in the beauty of things by the attention we can give–Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Mark Nepo is a cancer survivor, a poet, and philosopher.


The Aftermath of Surrender

Art by Wendelin Glatzel, click to visit on Etsy
Art by Wendelin Glatzel, click to visit on Etsy

I don’t know about you guys, but I excel at spiritual insights I can’t manage to implement. No matter how hard I try, the gap between what I know in my head and how I live that out keeps getting bigger.

I know it’s a human thing, not a Heather thing. But sometimes it bums me out.

Last week, though, a chance encounter with an old friend shifted my perspective a bit. I hadn’t seen him for ages and was anxious to catch up. For the past year or so, he told me, he’d felt certain God was preparing him for a specific role in a particular ministry.

A few weeks ago, they hired someone else. “It felt like the bottom dropped out of my life,” he explained. “I ended up sobbing on the floor in front of my wife.”

His honesty surprised me. In the past, I think pride would have kept him from disclosing such a personal disappointment. He would have put on a brave face for everyone but his wife.

Instead, I’ve never seen him more relaxed, real, and open. At one point he said, “I don’t understand God. I don’t get life. I don’t get how any of it works, anymore.”

But he said this without a trace of bitterness, and even with some relief. The longer we spoke, the clearer it was to me that my friend had undergone a huge surrender. He’s been forced to let go of a dream, to relinquish spiritual certainties, and to accept that God’s will is infinitely mysterious—and often, disappointing to us.

And yet, I’m tempted to say he seemed happy. Not the kind of happy that comes from getting what you want, but the kind that comes from giving up on what you want altogether.

As tough as that sounds, I almost felt jealous. It made me want to undergo a similar humongous surrender.

But not really, of course. Because surrender itself is bloody, hard work. What I really want is to live in the aftermath of surrender. That peaceful place where you’re finally okay with whatever happens to you or doesn’t. You have nothing left to lose because you’ve let it all go. No one can hurt your pride because there’s none left to protect.

Let’s be honest, though. Most of us experience only a handful of these kinds of huge surrenders in our lifetime. One of my biggest came in 2007 when I finally became willing to get help for my alcoholism.

Since then, it’s been a series of smaller but necessary surrenders. I say, necessary, because as much as I try to abandon myself entirely to God every morning—I tend to renegotiate as the day unfolds.

As some of you know from a previous post, God’s been encouraging me lately to “quit deeper.” At first, I thought this would look like something really big. A major surrender to rock my world.

Instead, it’s turning out to be a series of small relinquishments and capitulations: How can I let go here? What do I need to accept? What would giving up look like?

But maybe that’s okay. Maybe “quit deeper” happens one small shovel of surrender at a time. And maybe the gap between my best intentions and my ability to carry them out is part of God’s plan, too.

And it’s his grace that fills the gap.



Quit Deeper


It’s been about two weeks now since I told God, I want to quit.

I wasn’t even sure what I meant by that, but God’s response was quick. He said, “Quit deeper.”

Quit deeper? What’s that supposed to mean?

The best I’ve been able to come up with is that while I want to quit a bunch of stuff out there in the world, God wants me to quit a bunch of stuff on the inside. Like trying to control other people, caring what people think, or demanding to know what’s next in my life.

This morning, during my prayer and meditation, I was ready to do that. I’ve worked myself into a place of self-reliance again that I hate. It always happens the same way. At first, I don’t even notice I’m taking control. Then an enormous wave of anxiety and tension builds—sometimes for  days and weeks—until I can’t wait for it to break into the sweet relief of surrender.

I felt sure that wave was cresting, so I whispered to God: I quit. I quit. I quit.

But it didn’t work. Something inside of me still held tight, like a cold fist clutching my sternum.

Which brought to mind an old 80s movie starring Michael Cain called, The Hand. (Yeah, this is how my meditations go). It’s about a guy, an artist, who loses his hand in a car accident. Weirdly, no one can find the severed hand at the scene.

That’s because—yep, you guessed it—the hand is still alive! Soon it starts to crawl around all by itself, committing terrible acts of violence. (The movie is more funny than scary).

But seriously, sometimes this is how I feel about my spiritual life. It’s like I keep hacking off this egocentric, diabolical part of myself, and it keeps coming back to torment me. (Okay, I know I’m mixing metaphors again. Is it a wave that needs to break or a hand that torments? Sorry, Dave).

This morning, after I couldn’t find a way to let go, I got angry. At myself. At the way I keep ending up here.

Then it finally hit me. Maybe quit deeper means more than my usual, periodic surrender. Maybe I need to surrender to the idea that I’ll always need to surrender.

Ack! I hated this thought.

You see, secretly I cling to the hope that if I just keep trying harder, someday life won’t feel like life. Part of me is convinced that there’s some spiritual trick or breakthrough or technique that, once mastered, will allow me to live in a perpetual state of surrender, inner peace, and freedom.

Maybe we all dream this dream. We imagine being so enlightened that ordinary days will no longer make us restless. Busy days won’t throw us off balance. We’ll even welcome criticism and failure, because we no longer care what people think.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?

So maybe quit deeper means we get to stop believing God made us to be to be anything other than human. Maybe quit deeper means we get to stop listening to the voice that tells us God would love us more if only we tried harder.

Maybe quit deeper really means, Come closer.


If you like this post and need encouragement, you might like this one too: What if You’re Doing Better Than You Think?


A Lesson From My Roomba

roombaOne of the best gifts I got for my birthday is a Roomba. If you’re not familiar, it’s an amazing little machine that vacuums carpets and floors for you. When it’s done cleaning a room, it automatically returns to its home base to recharge its batteries.

Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The first time I used Roomba, I made a common mistake. I left the base outside the room where it was vacuuming, and so it couldn’t get home to reboot. Finally, it simply ran out of juice.

Which reminds me of my life some days. The way I zoom around, rushing to do what I vaguely hope is God’s work—but without relying on God’s power. By the time I notice I’m worn out and spinning in circles, it’s hard to find my way back to center.

Jesus told us“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

I’ve always loved this verse, but recently I noticed something new. The promise of rest is contingent on the invitation, “Come to me…”

Lately, I’ve felt too busy to come. I’ve been distracted and anxious, intent on getting ahead of the day before it starts. Clearly, some part of me doesn’t really believe that resting in God is more productive than racing around.

A few weeks ago, I was whining to myself about how busy I was when a strange thought popped into my head: Busy is an attitude. It sounded like something an annoying blogger (like me) would say. Or like something God might whisper in some else’s ear.

It took me a while to see the logic of the idea: Sure, stress is real. And some of us have more pressing tasks than others. But since we’re all allotted the same number of minutes in a day, and none of us can live more than one moment at a time, in a one sense, we’re all equally busy.

It’s when I try to carry around in my head an entire week’s worth of to-dos that I get overwhelmed and have a busy attitude.

Perhaps this is why in recovery we so often remind each other to simply “do the next right thing.” If I try to live ahead of where I am, I teeter under the load.

I also become scattered and  discombobulated. Yesterday, I was late for a phone appointment with my new sponsor. A short time later, I spaced out on a lunch date with a dear friend.

Normally, my best excuse would be that I’m busy, busy, busy! I’m doing important things for God, you see. I’m such an important person I can’t help it if I forget little things like appointments with people I love.

ARGH. Clearly, it’s time to take a lesson from my Roomba and return to home base. It’s time to get back to that secret place of stillness and prayer where God restores my soul.

It’s time to hear again God’s gentle invitation . . . and come.