And the Cherry on Top is the Big Apple

shutterstock_129949166Finally I get to tell you a bit of what’s really been going on in my life.

For many months now I’ve been in a state of limbo. That feeling you get when you sense one season is ending and another is coming—but you have no idea what it means.

Dave has felt the same way. And yet over the years, we’ve learned to trust that inner knowing. So this summer, we began to make long-needed upgrades to our house. New exterior paint. Adding a bathroom upstairs. Shoveling out eight years worth of accumulated junk.

This fall, we learned what we were really up to. We got news that Penguin Random House was moving one of its imprints—Convergent Books—to the New York City offices, and was inviting Dave to move with it. As many of you know, Dave helped to launch Convergent a couple years ago while working as an editor for WaterBrook Multnomah.

On Tuesday, Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House, announced the move, along with some other changes at the company. An article in Christianity Today noted, “Convergent, which focuses on books for ‘progressive and mainline Christians who demand an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith,’ will be led by David Kopp.”

Since I write out of my life so much (a nice way of saying I’m good at spiritualizing my self-absorption), it’s been tough to blog when I couldn’t give you the scoop. Even once I knew what was coming down the pike, it had to stay a secret until it was officially announced. Now that it has been, I’m not quite sure how to explain what I feel.

Honestly, I vacillate wildly between sadness and excitement. I’m devastated about leaving my community here in the Springs—those precious, amazing friends I’ve made both inside and outside of recovery. And moving away from my oldest son will be very hard.

But I’m also anticipating good things. In recent years, I’ve found so much help and encouragement among the tribe of Christians Convergent Books was conceived for. So in many ways, this move represents a kind of spiritual convergence for me personally. I can’t explain it all now, but I think it’s going to free me up to write my next book.

In the meantime, it comforts me to remember that I can carry all of you with me to New York.  And after seven years of learning how to form true connections in recovery, I get to take my friends here in Colorado Springs with me, too. Used to be, when I moved away, I moved away. Out of sight, pretty much out of mind.

Recently Dave and I had one of those long conversations about the trajectory of our life, marriage, and careers. We came to the conclusion that God is a genius for bringing us together, that life has always proved right in the end, and that moving to the Big Apple just might be the cherry on top of our dreams.

This morning, my eyes fell on a book title by Anne Lamott that pretty much sums up my feelings and my new prayer mantra as well: Help. Thanks. Wow! 

P.S. Check out the amazing  Convergent Books blog when you get a chance. Right now there’s a great video by Kathy Escobar on her new book, Faith Shift. 

P.S. S.  I’d love to hear from you today. Please forgive my being so behind in answering emails.  I’ll get there!

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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

“Does Daddy Drink Because I’m Bad?”

sadboy“Because Daddy’s sick.”

Throughout my childhood, this was my mother’s explanation to my siblings and me for why our father behaved erratically, why we had to move across the country to get away from him, and why he was no longer part of my life.

On the one hand, I applaud my mother’s wisdom. She was on the right track with “sick.” It described my father’s chronic drug addiction and mental illness in a way that didn’t denigrate him or make us kids feel like we were to blame for his absence.

But at the same time, without further elaboration and discussion, sick left me a bit confused. In my child-mind, sick was what happened when you got the flu. It didn’t change how you behaved, and it didn’t make people want to divorce you.

Never once in my memory did my mother use the word “drug” or “addiction.” An unintended, unfair (to her) consequence is that I grew up furious at her for leaving my poor, sick daddy. “You should have waited for him to get better!” I’d shout.

Of course, today I understand my mom did the best she could with what she knew—and she probably deserves an award. Especially when you consider how back in the 70s, she had few resources at her disposal and there wasn’t near as much awareness around addiction.

It wasn’t until seven years ago, when I got into recovery for my own alcoholism, that I began to grasp the complexities of the disease my mother had been up against. Now I get how hard it must have been for her to understand my father’s chronic relapses and empty promises—much less explain them to four little kids.

Even in our more enlightened age, discussing addiction with a child can sound like an intimidating proposition. Especially since kids are bound to ask painful questions like: Does Daddy drink because I’m bad? or, Why doesn’t my mom love me enough to stop taking pills?

But the importance of educating ourselves and getting comfortable with such conversations can’t be overstated. Kids need to process out loud just like adults do. And the child of an alcoholic or addict probably needs repeated reassurance that their parent’s unloving behavior has nothing to do with their own worth or lovability.

I recently got acquainted with a mother in recovery who stayed sober long enough to finally regain custody of her blonde toddler son. For months, she faithfully brought him to meetings, sitting him on her lap, kissing the back of his head dozens of times in the course of an hour.

A few weeks ago, she showed up without her son in tow. She’d had a bad relapse, and her boy had been returned to foster care. Needless to say, this child has a long road ahead of him. And I can only hope and pray that somewhere along the way a compassionate adult will talk with him in an age-appropriate way about his mother’s alcoholism.

Which brings me to Carolyn Hannan Bell’s books, Daddy’s Disease and Mommy’s Disease: Helping Children Understand Alcoholism. By doing what their subtitle says, both of these books fill an important gap in resources for families affected by substance abuse. They’re written and illustrated for kids—probably older children, since they’re a bit heavy on dialogue.

But honestly, I think these books are just as helpful for adults who don’t know what to say as they are for kids who don’t know what to think. The mom and dad in these two stories gently lead the way and show you what to say. I hope you’ll buy one for yourself or someone who needs this message.

I know I’ve only brushed the surface of a big topic here, so if you have wisdom to add, please comment.

Daddys-Diseasemommy's disease

Ready. Set. Go.

photo (4)
I was so happy this wasn’t mine, I took a picture.

It’s only eleven a.m. and already so much has happened.

A friend has cried at my doorstep. Beautiful, honest tears I felt grateful to bear witness to.

Men have shown up to work on a remodeling project down the hall from my office (lots of pounding and drilling).

I have gone for a jog and while running, woke several times from the trance of my thoughts to be where I was and remember God.

I grabbed the last doggy bag from a dispenser at the park and noticed someone had left a small empty bottle of alcohol inside, and I thanked God from my heart it wasn’t me.

I got my feelings hurt by someone who was trying to helpful but was clumsy.

But here’s the most important thing that’s happened today so far. After Dave and I exchanged our usual morning greetings, I surprised myself by saying, “It’s going to be a great day today. For both of us.”

Dave agreed it could happen, but I thought I could see doubt in his eyes. Which gave me an idea. “What if we have a contest? We could attach a big prize for whoever manages to have the best day?”

“Sure honey,” he said. And I knew what he was thinking. It wouldn’t be a fair challenge, since he obviously has a lot more stress, a lot more opportunities for things to go wrong at work than I do here at home with Edmund and a construction crew.

So maybe such a contest would have to take into account the size of the gap between what the person faces—in terms of difficulty—and how they respond, in terms of finding joy.

Which means, I’d have to work really hard at turning a potentially mediocre, ordinary day into a great day. What would that look like? Some ideas that come to mind right off:

  • I’d have to keep close tabs on my thoughts and my ego.
  • I’d try to wake up a lot, and stay in touch with my soul.
  • I’d want to take time to make some other people feel good—even if it’s just a short to text to let them know how much they matter to me.
  • I’d need to practice radical acceptance of every circumstance I encounter, not judging it good or bad.
  • I’d try to stay in a place of deep surrender, letting go of any sense of entitlement or expectation.
  • I would try to hold a posture of gratitude in my heart all day.
  • I would smile a lot for no reason, which is a good way to trick yourself into happiness.
  • I would forgive myself over and over again for failing to doing these things perfectly or even well. Oceans of compassion.
  • I’d spend a lot of time looking at Frye boots online, trying to decide which ones I want Dave to buy me this fall for my sobriety birthday.

I think I’d win, don’t you?  Feel free to join the contest—or let me know what you’d do to win, so I can steal your ideas.

Ready. Set. Go.

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.

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Inside Every Monster

clareElsaesserThis past week, Dave has been out of town on a backpacking trip with his kids, and I have been taking care of business at home—which has included reorganizing my office (Okay the re part is a lie—it never was organized to begin with).

In the process, in the bottom of a drawer, I came across an old handwritten note from Dave. Normally, I wouldn’t share such a thing on my blog—especially since so many women never receive a single such letter in their lives. I’m aware how fortunate I am.

But I have a reason for sharing this one. Here’s the note—minus some goopy stuff.

 Heather,
This is a love note to you. I love you with my whole heart. You interest me. You interest me more than any other woman. You are a continually unfolding gift to me. …You impress me with your courage to face your life, and live it, and grow it to something you can’t see now or hardly name. Good things are ahead for you and us, let us pursue and wait in faith together. I think a new Heather who was always there is walking out into the Light. It’s not my life or my work, but I’m here—a witness. I’m lucky. Thank you for your love and your beauty. You grace me . . . I love you, Dave

It’s an amazing letter, isn’t it? But here’s the shocking part. Dave always dates his notes—and this one is dated Feb 7, 2007. That’s six weeks before my big surrender in March of that year when I finally did walk into the light, tell the truth about my alcoholism, and reach for help.

How on earth could my husband have written such a note during what were in retrospect the darkest days of our marriage and of my alcoholism? I drank to black out almost every night. I physically attacked Dave in drunken rages and often woke up in the guest room.

How could he have written that I “grace” him? How could I not even remember ever getting this letter?

Seven and a half years later, I think two things are true. Part of Dave must have sensed that I was nearing a breaking point, on the verge of a huge shift. But more important, I now realize that it probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Dave hadn’t done what he did in this note.

Which was to see past my monsterish behavior to the hurting girl who was trapped inside. Which was to say to me, “I see you, Heather. I know you’re in there. I know this isn’t who you really are or what you really want. I believe in the better you.”

By some miracle, my heart must have heard him, even if my head didn’t know it.

So I guess I’m sharing this note as a way of reminding you, and maybe inspiring you, that if it is at all possible (it might not be for you right now), one of the kindest and most powerful ways you can help an alcoholic or addict—or for that matter, anyone you love—is to look past the ugly actions that come from their wounded places and affirm the goodness of who they really are underneath.

I think that’s what Dave did for me. Of course, loving a broken person toward their better self can seem like a herculean task. I so get that. But I know if Dave was here, and I showed him this note, he’d agree. With God’s help, anything is possible. And inside every monster is a miracle waiting to happen.

P.S. I’d love to hear from you today. I’m not sure if I’m done with summer break, so let’s just agree that while I’m trying to get pregnant with a next book (God’s not really cooperating :)), I’m bound to be sporadic on my blog. Love and miss you guys.  

P.S.S. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to Dave’s Q and A he did for my blog a while back.(Warning: super cute picture of him).

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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.

 

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CLICK TO ORDER