Friends in Low Places

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I always had the idea, it seems, that I had to be punished for something.  Or that I couldn’t have good things.  In any situation, I was supposed to choose the hardest thing possible.  When Tex and I talked about what ministry setting I would undertake after I left Conestoga, I had a choice between a shelter for abused women in Kansas City, or assisting Larry at his church in Ceresco.

“What’s the problem here?” Tex looked at me, confused.

“Oh, can I work with Larry?”

“Of course!”

Oh.  Didn’t I have to suffer?  Didn’t I have to do the sacrificial thing?  The hardest thing?  Wasn’t working with Larry too… good?  

I officially became Larry’s student assistant at Ceresco and Valparaiso UMCs.  My duties would include assisting him in worship every Sunday, preaching once a month, and starting a choir at Ceresco.

It was a gift of grace.  A chance to recover and heal.  The congregations were thrilled to have me in an official capacity.  They were so kind to us. After all the pain from Echelon Hills, it felt so good to be embraced as a couple.  No ghosts or mean people lurking in the shadows.

When we came back from our honeymoon that summer, we were invited over to dinner with other couples at someone’s house.  After dinner, a bunch of other parishioners pulled into the driveway, honking their horns and cheering.  We were gently escorted to a pick-up truck that led the parade into the tiny town of Ceresco.  All of the cars and trucks honked their horns as we all waved to people on the streets.

I had no idea what was going on.

We ended up at the church, where many more people were gathered.  There were decorations in the fellowship hall, and a table full of presents and … groceries.

We were presented with various foods, mostly canned things from people’s gardens, fresh baked goods, etc.  I was informed that the event was called a Pounding.  It was a traditional event that small rural towns held for newlyweds, to celebrate their marriage and fill their cupboards with food.  So we were given a pound of this and a pound of that…

I was falling deeper and deeper in love with Nebraska.

When people back East asked me how it was going at Saint Paul, I told them that it was like I’d been curled up in a small, dark, closet and someone opened the door.  I could breathe.

My perspective on humankind had been very narrow to that point.  I didn’t know anything else.  Messiah College certainly didn’t challenge my thinking, except to make it even narrower.  My father ingrained his psychology into me, perhaps as a last ditch effort to make one of his children his protege.  I wanted to please him.  So I ate it all up.  I majored in psychology.  I thought his thoughts, talked his words.  Used his books to write college papers.

To Rollo, we are all determined by the first three years of our lives.  How we were treated and how we responded to our mother was foundational.  This included how well we did at potty training.  My father believes that a child’s personality is formed in those three years and the basis of it cannot change.  We all have romantic/sexual impulses toward the parent of the opposite sex and display jealous behavior toward the parent of the opposite sex.  Everyone, regardless of gender or culture or anything else, are all shaped by these same basic forces.

Any personality anomalies were always the fault of the mother.  Though I took on his thinking for the most part, I did suspect that the father had a hell of a lot to do with traumas too.  At least that was my experience.

My father believes he remembers his birth and that it, like any birth, was traumatic.  Being in that warm, cozy place, and then being forced out into the cold, bright world is part of all of our shared birth traumas.  Much of our lives is a desperate but of course futile attempt to get back to the womb.

That’s the gist of all the lectures I endured at Rollo’s dinner table.

During my first semester at SPST, Gene advised me to take a class with Tex called “Power.”  Tex is a sociologist, and was the professor of Church and Society.  The class was about the different forms of power in our society, how that plays out in humans and societies, and most importantly, the Church.  There was no question about taking the class.  I wanted to take as many classes as I could with both Gene and Tex.  The Brookhaven, Mississippi connection was a strange serendipity that seemed much more significant than mere coincidence.

“How the hell have you heard of Brookhaven??”

Tex’s classes felt like community.  And that was one of his goals.  Class participation was a very important part of our grade, but he and the other professors also believed it was an important part of our learning to be leaders of the church community.  We were challenged to think, to back up our thinking.  At Drew, I just had to read and spit back what I read without fully processing it.

I grew up on country music.  My Mom was always playing country stations on the kitchen radio, so I grew up hearing Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, etc.  I can still hear my Mom singing, “Hey-hey, Good-Lookin’, wha-a-at you got cookin’….”  I liked Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash myself, but by the time I got to seminary, I hadn’t caught up with the whole ’90s Country thing.  I had too much else going on.

Well, country music is a big part of Tex Sample, of course, from a sociological perspective.  He loved it, but he also saw it as the Gospel music of the blue-collar community, the soul music for white people.  A theme of Tex’s classes was Friends in Low Places by Garth Brooks, with the assumption that Jesus, the author of our church ministries, is a friend to people in low places.  Tex’s theology and practice of ministry, much like that of St. Paul ST’s, involved Jesus being the minister to the poor, the down-trodden, the “least of these.”  It wasn’t all just believing in Jesus so you get to heaven, but that we have a responsibility as Christians and the Church to be Jesus in the world.  To do social justice and ministry.  And of course, John Wesley would have agreed.

Every once in a while, someone would burst out singing Garth’s signature song or Tex would play it.  It was a … thing… at St. Paul.  I learned to love Garth Brooks among everything else.

Tex is a preacher and a teacher.  When he taught, he was all over the room, gesturing, expressing, telling stories.  He used stories of his crazy family members in Mississippi to illustrate his points.  His storytelling abilities reminded me so much of my brother Don.  Tex had us laughing so hard we cried.  And then within the same hour, he had us with tears in our eyes for other reasons.  He was dramatic, passionate, and all of it stemmed from his own deep commitment to Jesus Christ and the Church.

I was in awe.

I was a sponge in that class.  I laughed hysterically.  I cried.  Lectures felt like really good sermons that made you want to go out and be a better person and buy lunch for the next homeless person you see.  When I left classes, I always called Larry and told him all about it.  I was so wound up!  I wanted to change the world!  I wanted to preach the Gospel!  I wanted to get people to get off of their butts and reach out to the least of these in every community.

I was shaken to my core, too.  Tex described the world and humanity in completely different ways than Rollo.  It felt like doors were bursting open all over inside of me, letting in intense light and pulling me outside of myself.  I was often breathless, but not so much from anxiety as excitement.  Life!  The world was suddenly so much bigger than I’d previously thought.  People were so much more complex than I’d thought.

People were not all the same.  We were not all formed the same way.  First of all, I had permission to truly realize how different I am from my father just for being female– and that I wasn’t inferior.  I had a whole different perspective simply because of my gender.  Hell, I don’t remember being born, but if I did, what I was feeling was like I was being born again.  So how could birth be traumatic?  It was full of so many possibilities and wonder.  I was being changed.  I felt like I was being set free.

In Biblical terms, scales were falling off of my eyes and I could see in a whole new way.

…And it scared the livin’ hell out of me.

I realized how safe my father’s thought processes were.  They kept the world small and manageable for him.  People were this and that, good or bad, male or female, etc.  There were so many days I went back to my apartment, called Larry… and sobbed.  Sometimes it was like throwing up a lot of pain.  But a good bit of those soul-cleansing tears were … joy. Like literally being unbound.  To think, to feel, to wonder, to question… and get excited about ideas and answers and the diversity of the world.

I was exhausted.  The text we used for class was a particularly dense, sterile scholarly work, and my classmates complained daily about its difficulty.  We had to outline each chapter and hand those in for each reading assignment.  I did the best I could, but it was daunting material.

One day, toward the end of the semester, Tex asked me into his office after class.  He said he really appreciated my outlines, and they showed that I had a good grasp of the material.  (Really??)

“Has Gene asked you to work for him next semester?” Tex asked me.

Well, yes, Gene had asked me to be his student assistant at a lunch we recently had with his wife Sarah and Larry.  I’d just about lost my lunch that day.  I was still so starry-eyed with these men that it wouldn’t have been any more exciting if Johnny Cash himself had asked me to dinner.

“Yes.”

“Damn!” Tex punched the air, toward the floor.  “I knew he’d get to you before I could.”  I sat there and grinned like a fool.  I couldn’t believe this.

“Would you be willing to work for both of us?”

Um, let me think.

“Of course!” I said all too calmly, but inside I  thought I was going to throw up. I was feeling like that a lot those days.

As Tex’s student assistant, I would read and outline books he wanted to use for sources in the writing of his own books.  I also transcribed recorded interviews some of his previous students had done with what Tex called “hard-livin’ folks.”  He said he really appreciated my work and my summaries of what I read, that that would be really helpful to him.

My face hurt from smiling so much.

I’d thought I was stupid.  Simple.  “Just a woman.”  Even the Carl Michalson scholarship at Drew didn’t convince me I had any brains or gifts.  But these two men, both scholars, professors and well-known authorities on preaching and ministry–liked me.  They thought I had gifts for ministry.  They thought I was smart.  They both traveled all over the U.S. preaching, doing lectures and seminars across denominations.  They both published several books.

The first time I had to preach in front of Gene, I was so dizzy and sick with anxiety I didn’t think I’d survive it. Despite that, it went well.  I, of course, wanted him to be speechless with wonder.  Be astounded at my gift.  Never mind that I came to learn more about preaching from him and be better at it.  I wanted him to crown me a worthy protege.  I wanted him to say something like, “Now I see that God has indeed brought us together…”

That didn’t happen.  Gene is very introverted and not as expressive out of the pulpit as he is inside it.  He was positive about the sermon and delivery and gave me some feedback about what needed improving.   He was mostly positive, but he wasn’t “blown away” as I’d secretly hoped.  Despite this, I felt like Ray in Field of Dreams when he first got on the mound to pitch to Joe Jackson.  He said, “I’m pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson…”

Before I began my first sermon for Gene, I thought, I’m preaching for Eugene Lowry… 

Whoa.

I basked in the community of SPST.  I loved the noon meals, the sharing of prayer concerns, the mixture of students and faculty around the tables.  Most days, I stopped to look out at the city skyline of Kansas City and wonder, how did I get here? 

It all seemed too miraculous for little ol’ me.  At the same time, I was terrified something would take it all away from me.  I didn’t think I deserved all this magic.  This affirmation.  This excitement.  Every week I drove my Ford F150 5-speed with a stick on the floor the four hours to Kansas City.  I listened to all ’90s country on the radio during the trip.  When I returned to Cereso on Fridays, Larry would have a hot supper ready for me.  Then we’d go to the church for choir practice.

I don’t play the piano.  But I do sing.  I got someone to accompany us on the piano, as I figured out how to get this group of parishioners to be a choir.  We started off with hymns.  I had them all watch Sister Act as a group. We had fun times of fellowship.  I did my best conducting them in worship, trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

My preaching at Ceresco grew as I came home passionate and excited about all that I was learning in KC.  My thoughts were challenged, stretched, impassioned.  People continued to respond favorably to my preaching, and the choir was a hit.  I was recovering from my months in Conestoga, my call to ministry beginning to heal.

My marriage continued to be a source of shelter, hope and love.  Larry and I thrived on being partners in ministry as well as in life.  It felt right.  It all felt so right. And good.

We were able to get Gene to come to Ceresco and do his Jazz and Christianity lecture/concert and to preach for worship.  I was so excited to share him with the congregation that had welcomed us so warmly and loved us.  I’ll never forget that Sunday morning, Larry walked behind us.  Gene and I, both in our clerical robes, processed in at the start of worship.  Walking beside him in worship in our robes, felt so significant.  Like we were … colleagues. That whole time in seminary and in Ceresco felt like dreams kept coming true.  That such things were possible, even for me.

Despite all that, my ordination interviews loomed ahead in January of 1992.  I still didn’t know many folks in the Nebraska Conference, except the ones I met during the Conestoga debacle.  I remembered Carol saying that whole experience could reflect badly on me for ordination.  In the weeks leading up to the interviews, I had the packet of questions, essays, etc. that I had to fill out.  I had scores of pages I had to write in answer to the questions in the Book of Discipline.  Writing was my forte.  But I was afraid that somehow I was yet to be punished for unnamed sins.  I couldn’t have it this good.  Perhaps, I thought, it would all fall apart when I came to apply for ordination.

I really expected them to tell me to forget the whole thing and go home.

 

Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

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I was in love.  With Larry.  With God.
I felt I belonged.  With the church.  I was called to preach.  I’d had a rollercoaster, exciting, voices-in-the-cornfield (or movie theater), life-changing year that landed me in the middle of the country.  Missouri?  Nebraska?  I couldn’t have pointed to a U.S. map to tell my New Jersey friends where I lived.

How the burningbushblazes did I get there?

DearSweetJesus, if I could go back to 1991 I would hold that girl named Peggy Michael and hold her tight.  I would tell her to take deep breaths.  I would tell her that just because God seems to lead, that doesn’t mean God won’t lead you through hell a time or two.  And that if God calls, it doesn’t mean that that particular call lasts for 40-some years.  It may just be… let’s say 19.  And that’s ok.

I was breath-less in 1991.  I was engaged to be married.  I was entering my first appointment as a part-time student assistant to the Conestoga Parish in Nebraska.  Larry and I visited Raymond, Malcolm, Pleasant Dale and Denton United Methodist Churches that spring, with our District Superintendent Warren, who was counting down the days till he could retire.  We met Doug, my “senior” pastor, who served the four churches full-time after having been trained during a week-long pastor’s school.  He would start the alternate route toward ministry, Course of Study, during the summer of 1992.  I’d been in seminary for two years.

But he still looked down on me.

Maybe because I was a woman.  I don’t know.  I never got the sense that he liked me.  At all.

I would be a student, first and foremost, Warren reminded me, and my ministry would be on the weekends.  I was to preach at two of the churches in the Parish, as would Doug, and then we’d alternate week to week.

I was appointed as of July 1.  I lasted till October.

Larry was serving the Ceresco/Valparaiso Churches, just north of Lincoln.  I would move into his parsonage in August, after our honeymoon.  Meanwhile, when school let out for the summer, I stayed with Verna, an elderly widow from Larry’s church. She loved me.  When we lay in bed, she’d call out to me across the hall and keep a conversation going till she literally fell asleep mid-sentence.

Larry and I just purchased a 1989 F150 pick-up truck, after my Dodge Colt bit the dust.  We co-signed the loan, but my name was on the title.  It was the first vehicle I’d driven that didn’t have my father’s name on it.  I’d driven three of Dad’s hand-me-down cars till that summer.  In the truck, I towered over everybody else on the road.  I felt… invincible.

Driving to the four churches through the summer Sundays was an adventure.  Each church was a little different, but all welcomed me warmly.  They responded to my preaching and worship services.  I didn’t do much else, as I would be in school during the week come fall, so my main responsibility was to cover half the preaching and worship.  That was the arrangement via my DS.

Malcolm and Raymond were both more rural, in small towns.  Without a GPS I still managed to find my way, getting hopelessly lost a time or two.  Pleasant Dale was a small town where Doug and his family lived in the parish’s parsonage.  Denton was a tiny white church in a small town of the same name that was well-endowed by a rich member who’d passed away and left a fortune to the church.  Therefore they never had to worry about paying the bills and they had plenty of money to refurbish the small white building.  They were very proud of their church.

I learned to drive gravel roads, dodge families of turtles or large snakes sunning in my path.  (“Toto, I don’t think we’re in New Jersey anymore.”)  When farmers in the churches would say, “Well, you have a mighty nice fiancee who lets you drive his truck!”, I grinned broadly and patted the side of the truck’s bed and bragged, “Oh, but it’s my truck!”

I Am Woman.  Hear Me Roar.

I wrote letters back to New Jersey to tell of my rural adventures as a circuit-riding preacher.  I loved the little towns, the small congregations that were so kind to me.  I loved preaching, drawing on images from our shared lives and the broader world.  They liked me.  They liked my preaching and worship.  They said things like, “Wow, everything in the service flows!  It’s all related!– the scripture, the liturgy, the hymns and the sermon!”  Well, … yeah.

That’s simply how I thought it was supposed to be.  That’s what I learned from Robert back in Echelon Hills.  Didn’t everyone do it that way?

Doug and I didn’t see a lot of each other, except for the meetings of the Administrative Councils and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committees that I was able to attend during the summer.  We were polite and respectful, but we had very little in common.  He did mention once that he heard that St. Paul School of Theology was… (gasp) liberal.  

And Doug was not.

As we headed into the fall, Doug would drop hints about me getting a youth group going for the parish.  That hadn’t come up with Warren, and I often had to leave on Sunday nights for Kansas City.  We didn’t really talk in-depth about it, and he didn’t push it.  But there simply wasn’t time.

Then one Sunday, instead of following Doug to the churches where he preached that Sunday, his family stayed in Pleasant Dale to hear me.  That made me nervous.  What would they say?  What would they tell Doug?  Were they genuinely curious or were they spying for him?  I’d already gotten a bit paranoid around Doug, that he was measuring me somehow, taking notes, and even talking to Warren.  I didn’t trust him.

Doug’s wife and girls both responded very positively to my worship service.  They talked to me afterward and told me what they liked, and laughed at the stories that I’d shared.  When I saw Doug at the next meeting, he told me more of what they said.  How they’d told him “how good” I was, and gave him bits and pieces from my sermon that day.

He wasn’t smiling.

Larry and I went back to New Jersey in August of that year to be married at my father’s church in Absecon.  Well, that’s a long story too, but we can address that later.  There was a lot of stress surrounding our wedding for a variety of reasons.  For each of us, we agreed, it was just a formality.  We knew who we were together and that we were devoted and committed to this marriage.  The rest was just details. We’d get through it.

But the stress of my appointment with Doug was wearing me down.  I loved the people of the parish, and they seemed to like me.  I felt my worship ministry there was effective and well-received.  But I felt the deep conflict and tension with Doug.  He never confronted me, never spoke anything negative to me directly.  But I heard from Warren frequently about the things Doug complained about.  I heard he was talking to parishioners behind my back, sowing seeds of conflict.  He’d tell them that I was “supposed to be leading a youth group and I wasn’t working hard enough,” etc.

I had many talks with Warren over the summer and he listened.  He seemed supportive.

By the time I got to my wedding, I’d lost 15 pounds.  I couldn’t eat at the reception. I nearly fainted during the pictures as it was so hot and I hadn’t eaten anything.  I could hardly enjoy the event,  with the stress with certain family members and the added weight of what awaited me back in Nebraska.  My anxiety was constant and exhausting.

It came to a head when I had to attend meetings regarding our pastoral salaries.  In the UMC, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee sets the salaries under the advisement of the UM Conference, approves it, and sends it on to the annual Church Conference for approval.  Every year it felt like the whole congregation was deciding if you were worth your salary, and that it wasn’t up to just one or two people.  But about 300.

I learned, as I faced this meeting, that Doug had been talking to different members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee as well as others in the congregation.  He was telling them I wasn’t working very hard.  That I hadn’t started a youth group, which was my main responsibility according to him, and that I didn’t deserve the part-time salary I was getting.  He told them, I learned, that they should cut my salary and give the difference to him.  

That was the last straw.  I was exhausted.  I was stressed out.  It was affecting my school work and not doing a lot for my marriage.  I was living in Kansas City four days a week as it was, and had to do homework on the weekends as well as the preaching and worship.  This was true for a lot of other students, as well, but they didn’t have Doug as their “senior” pastor.  It was making me literally sick.

I talked to Warren yet again.  He was getting tired of listening, I think, or maybe he was looking forward to retirement, but he wouldn’t intervene.  He was very condescending.  I didn’t feel like I could go to the committees as I was afraid Doug had them convinced that he was right or that his full-time status gave him more authority in their eyes.

I didn’t know what to do.  Warren didn’t tell me what I could do.  So I resigned.

Well, gosh, it turns out you can’t resign in the UMC.  Nobody mentioned that one.

I requested a special Pastor Parish Relations Committee meeting with the DS present, and Doug absent (I was allowed to do that).  I read my letter of resignation, stating all of my reasons, detailing the pressure I’d been under, the talking-behind-my-back that I had learned about, and that my schooling was too important to sacrifice.  I did know that I should have warned Warren.  But I also knew Warren.  If he’d known, he wouldn’t have “let” me do it.

As soon as I finished reading the letter, Warren got ticked off.  Very.  He dismissed me from the meeting.  When we got home, he called to tell me that he was furious with me for doing it the way I did it and that for my information, I couldn’t, in fact resign an appointment.  He seemed very agitated and afraid then, as he explained that the current bishop had a very bad temper and he would  not stand for this.  I had to write a letter stating why I wanted out of the appointment and the bishop would decide if my reasons were legitimate.

I was trembling.  I threw up after the phone call.  I was terrified.  I felt like a failure. I felt defeated.  I’d failed even before I’d begun.

Back at school, however, my classmates were much more supportive, saying I did the right thing.  My professors mostly agreed that school came first and that I needed a different ministry setting.  That that one was toxic.  That Doug had some issues with my place as a woman and as a seminary student and that came through.

I wrote the letter.  I got out of the appointment.  But Warren pointed a finger at me and said, “Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again.”

I was assigned a temporary mentor;  a kind, older pastor in Lincoln who was very supportive and pastoral to me.  He was assigned to “counsel” me.  I was also assigned a woman mentor, Carol, who was a very political presence in the conference.  She was more removed emotionally, less warm, and and her role was to simply tell me how the United Methodist Church works.  She told me that this could reflect badly on me as I came up for the first level of ordination, the interviews being that coming January.

18 years later, in a cold room at the Conference office in Lincoln, Carol was the D.S. sitting next to the Bishop who admonished me as I made my exit from pastoral ministry.  Carol was the one who exchanged glances with the Bishop when the Bishop said, “I heard that you never really were committed to ministry…oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

And I knew where she heard that from.

In 1993, when Bishop Martinez visited the Nebraska students at St. Paul School of Theology as we were anticipating graduation, he told us he truly hoped to give us all strong first appointments after graduation.  He noted that our first appointment could either cast a shadow over or be a building block for our future ministries.

He was right.

What I’ve Learned So Far

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We’ve just gone through what one of my seminary professors would call a “shit blizzard.”  Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.  And it was very expensive.

Whenever things are hard or seemingly insurmountable, I try to think about what I can learn from all this.  This past month, I think, is teaching me a lot.

I’ve stopped trying to figure out why my parents believe some of the things they believed and passed on to us kids.  I hated being analyzed by my Freudian father, so I try not to analyze others.  But some of the things they ingrained in me are coming up again as they face the end of life.  They are 89 and in failing health.

My mother has always believed that if you did all the right things, ate all the right foods, exercised like a mad person and were basically a good human being, that you wouldn’t get sick.  (And you wouldn’t be fat) Our family has been fairly fortunate when it comes to health.  There have been a couple of health scares, but we’re all still here.  No one in our family has had any disabilities or health issues that have limited our ability to function on a day to day basis.  When other people weren’t so fortunate, my parents seemed to assume there was a reason for it, there was a personal responsibility.  It must be that person’s fault somehow.  And there has strangely been little in our family to challenge that belief.

Another belief that was ingrained in me is that if you have problems, you’ve done something wrong.  It’s your fault.  Granted, yes, we bring on some of our own problems.  But the onslaught of bad things happening in the past month that has drained our finances and changed some plans were largely things that “just happened.”  Life happens.  Excrement happens, as the saying goes.  People have said to me, “wow, you guys can’t catch a break!”  And yes, it feels like that.  We didn’t do anything to cause our engine to blow on the one vehicle, and we didn’t invite that deer to cross our path on the interstate and total our other car.  It just happened.

With the idea that having problems or negative emotions is entirely one’s own fault, you get weighed down by shame.  Shame that you’re depressed.  Shame that you can’t get out of bed.  Shame that you didn’t have thousands of dollars in reserve to cover unforeseen disasters.  I’ve carried a lot of shame in my lifetime.  And I’m tired.  I’m putting it down.

My parents are afraid to die.  They are Christians, my father is a retired pastor.  I don’t exactly know what my father believes, he’s strange that way, but I know my mother believes in heaven.  But just as problems are a source of shame and guilt, death, finally is the ultimate failure.  She hasn’t thought this through, of course, because obviously everybody dies.  It’s not rational, just as a lot of beliefs that make us crazy are not rational.  Her fight to keep on living on this earth is a fight to not be a failure.

I grew up learning that feelings are bad.  If you’re crying, if you’re sad or depressed, you’re not in control of yourself.  You’re weak.  You’re hysterical.  My father would give me or my mother a pill when we got upset.  To make it go away.

To this day, I have a hard time crying when I need to.  If something bad happens, I automatically “suck it up,” pretend I’m calm and in control of the situation.  After a while, however, it all builds up and I finally cry.  A lot.  But it’d be helpful if I could cry in the moment.  But it’s ingrained in me that feelings are a sign of failure, a sign of a problem, and problems are a source of shame.

I used to call my parents, years ago, when something went wrong.  But I learned painfully, that that wasn’t going to be a comfort.  It turned into me defending why this bad thing happened and explaining what I was going to do about it.

When my mother’s best friend and a woman I adored died very young of melanoma, we couldn’t cry.  I sobbed at the funeral, but after the funeral, I could not cry around my father.  He’d ask me “what the hell is wrong with you?”  My mother couldn’t cry either.  I had to leave the room when I needed to grieve.  I thought I was going crazy because my sense of grief was earth-shattering and devastating.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel good again.

In a Facebook world, it’s easy to think everyone else has it easier.  No one else is struggling to pay the bills after disaster strikes.  Everyone else had a job that enabled them to save money over the years and live comfortably.  Everyone else’s kid graduates high school, goes on to college, finds the right partner and lives happily ever after.

Intellectually, I know that’s not true.  We only put our greatest hits on Facebook.

I’ve learned that we compare our insides to other people’s outsides.  I assume that everyone else can see my insides– how anxious I get, how shy I can be, how impatient I sometimes am, or critical.  And I assume that what I see of other people is exactly who they are.  If they are always smiling in their pictures, they all have close family ties with extended family, they all have a best friend who will be there for them forever and no matter what, and they seem to have no worries.  No failures.

But sometimes the benefit of a “shit blizzard” is that you realize that other people do, in fact, understand.  That bad things happen to good people.  I admit that when we hit that damn deer, the first thing I thought of was the fact that another car just bit the dust.  It wasn’t until the cop came and looked in on us and asked us if anyone was hurt that I realized, Oh!  One or all of us could have been hurt.  One of us could have died.  It was a holiday weekend with heavy traffic, and yet in that moment, there were no other cars in our atmosphere that we could have swerved into, cars that could have been hit by the flying deer, or cars that could have hit us from behind when the deer stopped us so abruptly at 75 mph.  So I felt a strange thing in the midst of disaster:  gratitude.  I don’t know why some people die in a freak accident and others don’t.  I will never say it’s God’s plan for that person to die.  I’m just grateful in that moment that on that day, it wasn’t me or my loved ones who died.

I have no idea what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people around me.  People in Walmart who are rude.  The cashier who doesn’t look me in the eye and is distant.  The woman with the screaming child.  Even the guy who puts all the carts away in the parking lot.  They are human beings with lives going on.  They’re not working because they love work necessarily.  They’re trying to have a life, like me.  To be able to pay the bills, to have a working vehicle, to get along with their parents or partner, to get through whatever is facing them.  I try to see them now.

And the people who seem to have no worries at all, I try to remember that that’s probably not true.  Jim Carrey said recently that he wishes everybody had the chance to be rich and famous so they could see that that’s not the answer.  As Gilda Radner said in her memoir, “it’s always something.”

I’ve been very fortunate.  I’m relatively healthy at almost-53.  I have asthma, I’m a bit hard of hearing, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, but I have ways of coping with all of that.  I’m married to someone so precious that I couldn’t have made him up.  I have a wonderful daughter who I’m very close to.  I have two terrific step-children who I have good relationships with and two lovely step-grandchildren.  Not everyone has all that, and it’s not necessarily their fault.  I’m remembering to be grateful.

My faith in God has been challenged and wounded by a lot of painful experiences in the Church.  However, despite that, I can’t deny that it is God’s grace that has given me strength and love to get through the tough stuff.  The stuff that brought me to my knees and kicked me in the gut.

I’m still learning.  I love my parents, but they were wrong about a lot of things.  They didn’t know better.  They couldn’t give what they didn’t have.  I pray that when they do die that they will somehow be comforted that it’s not a failure at all.  It’s a part of life.  I pray God can get through their terrors and assure them of the faith in eternal life and renewal and love that they lived their lives espousing.

Meanwhile, I’m learning.  Life isn’t fair.  What is fair?  According to what?  Crap happens.  Evil exists. Mean people reproduce.  Crazy people get elected and are given power.  We just have to do the best we can with what we’re given.  And not compare what we have or what happens to us to someone else.  We don’t know what people are going through or who they really are, unless they trust us enough to give us a glimpse.  And when they do, that’s a little part of heaven, I think.  A little eternal life in the moment.  But I do believe in God and I do love Jesus, and I believe that the main thing that all good religions share is the challenge to use our lives to Love.  To love however and whenever we can.  To have our lives be about love.  And we will struggle.  No one ever said we wouldn’t.  I don’t know where we get the idea that if we’re good we won’t suffer.  Even Jesus said that we’d struggle a lot.  He never ever said life isn’t painful.

So that’s my life lesson for this insane spring.  Life is hard.  But it’s worth it.  I’m doing the best I can.  When I mess up, I try to learn from it and move on.  I’m trying not to be afraid.  Fear doesn’t make bad things go away, it just makes it harder to deal with the bad things.

Right here, right now, life is good.  I don’t have to know how the story turns out, I just have to do my very best with each moment, each day, and try to be kind to each person I meet.  Because I have no idea what they’ve been through, what fears they carry, what wounds they have that are causing internal bleeding.

We’re all just doing the best that we can.