PART 2 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

Imagine growing up with the underlying assumption that you are a worthy and deserving person. Imagine that your existence is permeated with an unshakeable sense of purpose and rightness—that you know without question that you have a right to BE simply because you ARE. Picture your parents naturally nurturing this feeling of inner worthiness in you because they feel that way about themselves.

Chances are, if you are drawn to read this post you did not grow up feeling this way about yourself. I assume some of you are thinking to yourself right now, but I am not worthy and deserving.

MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE? I am using my megaphone because I think this is so IMPORTANT! I would like you to consider that the only reason you might think you are not a worthy and deserving person with an innate right to be exactly as you are is because you have a belief that says otherwise. And that can be changed. I will repeat myself. Beliefs can be changed. And I have news for you: you are a worthy and deserving person.

Megaphone

As I shared in Part 1, a belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. We build our beliefs from our interpretations of events and encounters and this is a very subjective process (rather than objective learning), meaning it is influenced by your feelings, thoughts, expectations, and memories (rather than hard facts).

The first task of transforming obsolete, distorted and limiting beliefs is to find them! Beliefs are often well-hidden in that 90% of the mind that runs the show without our conscious awareness. The nature of beliefs reminds me of the story of the woman who sat in her house and remarked on her new neighbor’s failure to get the laundry truly clean before hanging it out on the line…and then one day she remarked on how suddenly the neighbor’s laundry seemed less dingy and stained, not realizing her husband had washed their windows that morning. Beliefs are like the windows through which we view the world. To notice them, we have to step back with an intention to see differently.

Window of belief

Belief-spotting has become one of my favorite forms of entertainment because the object of the game is to make my life better by exercising my power to change. Here are some of the clues I use for tracking down beliefs:

  1. Look for intense emotions…anxiety, anger, hopelessness. Lurking behind these common feelings are often the distorted self-esteem beliefs like I am never good enough, I am unlovable, it doesn’t do any good to ask for what I need, I don’t deserve good things, I can never win.
  2. Notice repeating patterns of failure and limitation in career, relationships and finances. For me, career and finance patterns are incredible places to look for self-defeating beliefs like the world doesn’t value the kinds of things I’m good at, money and other resources are scarce, money doesn’t really mean that much to me, I’ll never be rich.
  3. Pay attention to statements that shift the responsibility or blame elsewhere. “He/she makes me feel…I can’t change because they won’t let me…as long as I’m stuck with this car, house, job, relationship.” Any excuse or justification that relieves me of responsibility for my own life is hiding a limiting belief of some kind.
  4. Watch for sweeping generalizations like “I always…I never” and pessimistic predictions like “I’ll probably fail…I’ve never been able to…I don’t know how.” These are so common that once I started looking for them, I was shocked to see how daily conversations are permeated by negative expectations built upon faulty beliefs.

An important component of successfully uncovering and challenging these unhelpful beliefs is to become gradually more aware and begin noticing where these old ideas are embedded. It is essential to do this in a kind and gentle manner, not like a hardass security guard keeping vigilant watch and pointing a mean finger at infractions, but like a benevolent grandmother who says, “Ah, there, my darling. There’s one to notice.”

Noticing

Along the same lines, remember that you are working with beliefs formed when you were a small child, so treat yourself as you would a beloved child or grandchild. Be patient, sweet, forgiving and encouraging.

Using this approach has allowed me to radically shift my self-esteem beliefs, resulting in enormous improvements in my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. In Part 3 I’ll share about my eye-opening journey to change a cluster of self-defeating beliefs that I’ve held for 50 years.

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PART 1 | Beggars DO ride: the power to transform childhood beliefs

I am unlovable. There is something wrong with me. My needs are a burden to others. I am never good enough. My body is big and ungainly. I will never be pretty. I’m stupid at math. Thinking is better than feeling. The world is an unsafe and unpredictable place. It is dangerous to express anger. I can compensate for my flaws by making myself useful. Money and other resources are scarce. My wishes and dreams are unrealistic and annoying. It is not safe to ask for what I need or want. 

Do any of these sound familiar? They are all beliefs I formed in childhood and relied upon regularly as part of my primary interpretive framework. For the first four decades of my life, I was scarcely aware that these were the distorted filters through which I screened life. Such is the nature of belief programs. They run unchallenged in the 90% of your mind that operates below the surface of conscious awareness

To be fair, there were also positive beliefs. I am smart. I am good with reading, writing and spelling. I can figure most anything out by following instructions. I am strong and able. I know how to take care of myself.

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

By 1966, most of my self-esteem beliefs were already formed

A belief is a generalization about reality that feels true to you. Beliefs come into being as you assign meaning to events and behaviors. Most self-esteem-related beliefs are formed during the first 6 or 7 years of life and are the result of interactions with your parents and—most significantly—how you interpret those interactions. There are always multiple ways to interpret any experience, and this is key to understanding how beliefs are formed and how they can be changed.

Beliefs usually take time to form and are reinforced through repetition of similar circumstances and conclusions. One cross word from a parent on a bad day when you make an ill-timed request will not create a belief. Repeated episodes, however, of eliciting a parent’s annoyance or anger when you express a need will do the trick. I think perhaps it’s also possible that a single event of sufficient trauma can sear a belief into the brain in a day.

Once integrated into your worldview, a belief becomes a bias for interpreting future events. In other words, beliefs are self-reinforcing. The brain selectively collects data that support beliefs and just as preferentially overlooks contradictions. Beliefs quite literally alter your experience of reality.

The subconscious is unable to differentiate between real and unreal, true and false; it takes its cues from what you believe to be true and creates your version of reality out of that. It even uses the filter of beliefs to screen out memories that don’t fit your beliefs, which explains how five family members will remember different versions of the same event.

If Wishes Were Horses by Casey Craig

“If Wishes Were Horses,” mixed media painting by Casey Craig

I have no way of knowing how many times I had to hear if wishes were horses, beggars would ride before I learned to stop expressing my wishes. Although I didn’t understand exactly what the old saying meant, I eventually responded by ceasing to put my imaginative desires into words. Wishing is an innocent pastime and an important building block for a child’s future ability to dream, envision and set strategic goals, but to a parent trying to raise a family on a tight budget, a child’s wish may be a trigger for frustration. By adulthood, I had become a person easily irritated by anyone articulating a wish. Hidden beneath my intolerance was my own suppressed ability to dream, wish and express.

Since I know my parents are among my blog readers, I want to clarify these important points with love!

  1. I do not blame my parents for my distorted beliefs, although it was indeed my experiences with them that helped build my beliefs.
  2. I take responsibility for drawing my own conclusions about what their words and actions meant.
  3. Beliefs are not necessarily logical, sensible or true, and we can easily hold contradictory beliefs.
  4. Beliefs can be changed at any time! I am not crippled by my childhood!
Me and my folks in 1963

Me and my folks in 1963

What’s helpful to understand is that, in the period during which a child’s beliefs around self-esteem are being formed, there is a fundamental conundrum in the family: children are developmentally unable to consistently meet their parents’ needs and expectations for skills like self-control, quietness, neatness, and following rules. What this implies, then, is that unless parents are extraordinarily patient, self-aware, getting their own needs met, and in possession of a healthy self-image, they will unwittingly perpetuate what is often a multi-generational pattern.

The discomfort and depression that came of interpreting life through the filter of my negative self-beliefs for over three decades finally started me on a path to uncover and transform those self-defeating beliefs. In Part 2 I will share some tips, steps and outcomes from my adventures in belief-spotting, including the joyous realization that beggars can and DO ride!

God made a little Gentian—It tried—to be a Rose: A love letter to heterocentric Christians

Dear heterocentric persons of faith and good will (which includes most of my dear family of origin):

I want you to know first of all that I can intellectually and compassionately understand both your consternation and some of the vehemence with which you defend doctrines on sexuality and marriage. Can we start there? Can we begin with me saying with love that I hear you and I see where you are coming from? Because I do.

Like you, I have been culturally conditioned since birth to accept heterosexuality as the prevailing paradigm and the normative ethic, both socially and religiously. I can certainly understand why those for whom attraction to the opposite sex is as natural and unquestioned a behavior as breathing would assume that any deviation from the norm is, well…abnormal, and perhaps even a willful rebellion against what’s natural.

My personal experience, starting from a very young age in this same milieu—specifically in the 1970s in the Church of the Nazarene—I’m guessing was exactly the opposite of yours, and for me, equally natural, unfolding softly like a wildflower. I did try to meet the cultural expectations, but those attempts in high school and college were strange, awkward and felt like a fraud. In 56 years of life, I have never fallen in love with a member of the opposite sex. Not once.

To be clear, this is not because I dislike men or have been damaged by a man. In fact, I love and appreciate men very much, starting with my Dad, grandfathers, and brother, all of whom were unusually loving, gentle, kind and approachable. I hung out with boys a lot during my teen years and they mostly treated me like one of the guys, which made me feel safe and comfortable, a pal. Secretly, of course, what we had in common was our attraction to the girls.

I never once said, oh, I think I’ll squelch my heterosexual identity and give myself over to lust for my own kind in defiance of the Church’s teachings. As far as I can tell, I only ever went with the flow of my own innate selfhood. I was a Marva. And even as it became clear that I would face disapproval and rejection, I did not consider twisting myself to fit cultural and religious expectations because I felt purposeful as I was and courageous enough to stay that way. I knew somehow in a very deep place—seemingly against the odds—that I was unique and beautiful and loved by my Maker, who is famous for moving in mysterious ways.

The fact that I have always felt this unexpectedly deep confidence in the face of pressure to conform to the norm, remains my single most powerful and self-evident argument against the moral depravity judgment. If I am an abomination or a mis-creation, why do I feel so confident in my holy birthright? Why would I take a path so painful, rocky and counter-cultural simply for the sake of rebellion, and if it were a phase, wouldn’t it eventually end? And why, if the way I am is a deep perversion subject to the wrath of God, do I manifest in my daily life so many of the fruits of the Spirit? How can I be the happiest and most peaceful person I know?

That’s all I have to offer, my own story, my own sweet certainty of the sacred validity of my personhood exactly as I am, and these heartful inquiries. If you would be willing to sit prayerfully with those questions, I would be so grateful. For the moment, I would love it if we could we drop our defenses and simply see each other face to face, and heart to heart, without scriptural interpretations and a church manual as wedges between us.

In case you wonder, I am writing because I have this wild, idealistic notion that it’s possible to befriend and heal the misunderstood pink elephants of shame that have been standing in the shadowy corners of so many good Christian living rooms for so long. These elephants are the unspoken plights of our children and grandchildren, cousins and nephews, mothers and fathers.

One of the motivations that spurs me onward now is the desire to heal my own hidden hurt by bringing it out into the light. I didn’t even realize how potent it was until I heard last week’s announcement of the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality and found myself ducking and bracing as if I’d just heard the unmistakable freight-train-roar of a tornado bearing down. Or of thousands of pink elephants crashing out into the public square.

While millions of happy people of all proclivities and nationalities joined in celebrating a step forward in human rights, I took a step back and felt inexplicably sorrowful, in part because I knew how many of you would feel about the announcement. I’ve made the mistake of reading too many condemnatory articles and offensive comments. I’ve stepped away in despair from many unfruitful and unfinished conversations over the last 30 years.

I am also inspired to speak because of my desire to encourage others to not give up on living authentically. I am convinced we all have a purpose in the beautiful spectrum of being—simply because we exist—just as we are.

And finally, the deepest driver of all—the most potent of motivators—the craving for wholehearted love and acceptance—not the confusing contradiction of I love you, but, or the poison razor of love the sinner, hate the sin—but love without condition, in the manner of Christ.

I am convinced this unconditional love is abundantly available to me from my Creator. I feel it purposefully and joyfully in every cell of my body and every particle of the cosmic consciousness in which I am an avid participant. I don’t need any religious institution to validate my spiritual passport; I have traveled a great distance without external approval.

What would be lovely, however, would be to feel that my fellow humans, especially my own extended family, did not condemn me for being myself. I am totally coming out of the closet as a Marva. I can do no less if I wish to be free and whole. Perhaps my heart can be a bridge. I offer it freely as a gift to the troubled waters.

Much Love, Marva

image

A ukulele, a murder, and the shadowy road to trauma-informed compassion

Lately my soul has been inviting me on walks through some distinctly uncomfortable territory, through the valley of the shadow, the shadow of death as well as the shadow of disowned emotions and wounds, both personal and collective.

As a mystical idealist, I believe that to care, accept and have compassion for anyone is to embrace part of myself. To revile, judge and condemn anyone is to reject part of myself. This is my radical love-your-neighborself gospel, the good—and challenging—news of unity in practice, with no exclusion clauses. Have I perfected this? Hell, no. Again and again I have to remind myself—as often as necessary—that the light I see in you reflects my light and your shadow mirrors mine as well.

This ongoing spiritual practice was put to the test recently when the news broke that a beloved regional personality, Tanya Tandoc, had been murdered in Wichita. I instantly felt the rupture in the community as an uncomfortable physical sensation centered around my heart. Like thousands of others, I had eaten at Tanya’s Soup Kitchen, knew her by sight and reputation, and been within a few feet of her magnetic persona on several occasions.

As I read the preliminary reports and watched intense reactions ripple across social media that first morning, I felt strongly led to seek a point of peace within myself and find words to share as a gift toward community healing. I offered this:

The only thing I’ve ever found that makes sense of such a senseless situation and offers the possibility for healing in my spirit and in the community is this: every situation is either love or a call for love. 

As more details of the situation emerged, I realized with a conflicted pang that I had a direct connection to the person who’d turned himself in to police and confessed to the killing. Curt Mitchell once sold me a beautiful Riptide ukulele at his music store. My niece still plays that ukulele out in the mountains of Colorado. Somehow this humanizing connection invited me into direct dialogue with the shadow, challenging me to integrate my own ideals by practicing compassion for this fellow human, this person my beliefs and deepest intuitions tell me is part of me, uncomfortable as that may be to consider.

Love, unity and peace were the themes of my 2012 Christmas card featuring the ukulele Curt sold me.

I watched my own reactions as well as those in the community in recent weeks. We are quick to choose sides, I noticed, to align with the victim and divorce ourselves from the perpetrator. The ego’s first instinct is typically to join in reviling anyone who could do such a thing. I hope he rots in hell, said commenters on news articles. He should get the death penalty. I saw a couple of different articles posted on social media about the characteristics of a psychopath, an invitation to an armchair diagnosis that puts more distance between us and the killer. He must have been mentally ill, we might conclude, and comfort ourselves with all the ways in which we are not like him.

But what about all the ways in which we are like the killer? I am willing to consider that Curt and I might have more similarities than differences, starting with a love of music and a history of abusive self-medicating for emotional pain.

I started this post a week ago, without knowing exactly how to carry it to resolution. Then, this morning, I awakened to the news of the Charleston shooting that took nine lives in a church: a white killer and black victims, a weapon at a Bible study, a hateful act in a loving place. Now I have another name on my heart, Dylann Roof, age 21, inviting me to linger a bit longer in the valley of our collective shadow.

When people seem to lose their moorings in consensus reality and break laws and social codes, we rush to answer the question: What is wrong with you? This reductionist approach is abetted by over 300 handy, but subjective labels from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

An emerging alternative is called trauma-informed care, which is based on the notion that we are complex products of our experiences. Our feelings and behaviors are messages containing clues about our hidden wounds. The more meaningful and potentially-redemptive question becomes what happened to you? The search for the traumas that underlie diagnostic labels is the deeper work that can lead to hope for reclamation and restoration.

I cannot imagine killing anyone, but I can imagine myself sitting face to face with Curt Mitchell or Dylann Roof and caring enough to wonder what wounded their spirits, what led to such a grievous breach in their connection to the sanctity of life. To sit with them in the valley of the shadow, even at this distance, is troubling and uncomfortable, yet I cannot turn away. If I want to live in a healed world, I cannot afford to disown any part of myself.

My bias is that we are all born beautiful and innocent, and this makes me think of a massage therapist who once answered my curious question about how she coped with the variety of bodies that ended up on her table, not all of which might necessarily be particularly attractive or naturally lovable. I imagine them as newborn babies, she answered thoughtfully, and I offer up a little prayer: “May I have the privilege of facilitating healing.”

“I imagine them as newborn babies.” Me welcoming my niece Claire to the world in 1998.

I wish I knew how to share the depth of my discomfort here in the shadowland of these issues. I have no desire to sound glib or holier-than-thou. I didn’t even want to write this post, but there are stones of despair on my heart and I am listening to my intuition about how to lift them. I am sitting uncomfortably with ethical conundrums like how we justify punishing killers by putting them to death or how we rationalize sending human beings out to kill in the name of the republic, but don’t support them when they return home with invisible wounds. No wonder the steps of this dissonant dance are confusing in our culture. No wonder victims often recycle as perpetrators.

With a heavy spirit I went out to play ukulele with my friends at our monthly jam this evening. As I played and sang and sensed myself as a secure strand interwoven into the strong fabric of my community, my spirit felt sweetly repaired—as I knew it would—soothed by the balm of caring and connection.

Perhaps it is too little too late, but this healing and life-affirming community embrace is what I broadcast symbolically to all who feel isolated and estranged—this is the gift I offer to those deeply disenfranchised aspects of myself I see reflected as if in a broken mirror—this is my answer to the call for love. May my willingness to confront the shadow with compassion make a difference.

Curt and Dylann, what you did touched me. The idealist in me dares to believe that what I do touches you.

Lost and found: self-trust

I have an iconic memory from about 1966, when I was 7 years old. The traveling vision and hearing lab arrived at my country school for a day of testing, and I recall standing in line and paying anxious attention to the responses of the person in front of me. As it came my turn to peer through the lenses of the vision machine and indicate whether the apple was on the ground or the picnic table, I copied the reply of the previous kid rather than trust what was clearly quite the opposite.

“Are you sure?” asked the technician kindly, giving me grace to amend my answer as a rush of hot shame flooded my body. This story is deeply poignant for me, an early benchmark of self-estrangement and a distant mile-marker on a long journey of losing and eventually finding the courage to trust myself.

How is it that a child’s confidence in her own intuition and perceptions begins to erode? As I trace the trajectory, I find the first rupture in those early years between 3 and 6. As you know if you’ve read my recent posts, I lost my mom and baby sister in 1962. In 1963, my dad remarried and we moved from Connecticut to New Jersey. In 1964, my sister LaDeana was born.

Marva, first day of school, Princeton,1965

First day of first grade, Princeton, 1965, with LaDeana in the doorway.

In 1965, I lived in five houses and attended two churches and three schools in two states, a whirlwind of change and uncertainty. I have clear memories of the 2,500 mile trek with my dad from Princeton, New Jersey to Nampa, Idaho pulling an overloaded trailer of our possessions. I vividly remember a mechanical breakdown and being left in the home of strangers who lived near the highway while my father hitched a ride to town to get parts to repair our disabled rig. In my sense memories are these sharp puzzle pieces: something foul-smelling burning on the stove; the sun is down and no one turns on the lights; an older kid is jumping out from behind the couch and laughing at my terror; no one there understands what I know: parents disappear and never return.

My dad and I headed west in the Travelall. My new mom and sister followed by plane.

My dad and I headed west in the Travelall. My new mom and sister followed by plane.

By the time this extraordinary upheaval settled, I believe I had begun to lose some of my natural optimism and confidence. I remember feeling unsupported, tentative and vaguely anxious. I believed there were black and white answers, right and wrong ways of thinking and behaving, good sides and bad sides to be on. And one of my predominant perceptions is that no one was on my side and I was somehow on the wrong side simply by being myself. This explains, I think, why I copied the kid in front of me instead of feeling confident in my own perceptions.

Adding to my inner conflict was my deep desire to earn the praise, love and attention that seemed so illusive in my life after my mom’s death. The resulting assumption—that I was not good enough—conditioned me to place attention to the needs of others high above my own, tuning my inner radar to monitor everyone else’s frequency while losing touch for long periods with my own inner beacon.

This is the briefest of glimpses into my earliest recollections of losing faith in myself, but what seems most important 50 years or so down the road is not how I lost my self-trust, but that I eventually found it again.

My friend, Dr. L. Carol Scott, has an elegant theory about the seven childhood treasures we need for success as adults, all of which are capacities that arise for development during the first seven years of life. Carol calls them precious gems. There are no guarantees, of course, that we’ll get the tools and support we need to cut and polish our treasures at a developmentally-appropriate juncture in childhood, but Carol says it’s never too late.

Top on her list is trust. I consider self-trust to be my Crown Jewel, the key to self-actualization. I remember having it…I remember losing it…and I feel so rich to have uncovered it again, because it changes everything. Trusting myself, I believe, has been the key that allowed me to begin trusting others and trusting life.

At first as I began to look curiously into my own heart in 1995, all I could feel was the frustration of disintegration. My entire being was separated into endless compartments. I started by investigating and honoring my sense of disconnection from my true self, a tiny step in the direction of reintegrating. The day I created and colored this visual representation of my feeling was the day my inner child stepped out of the shadows and showed herself in detail for the first time. She needed to know, I believe, that I was serious about honoring our truth, no matter how difficult.

Disconnected

With the support of my therapist, I excavated deep into the darkness of my grief, fear and anger to find and polish my lost treasures. I discovered I had a creative instinct for what would heal me. Through journaling, art projects and personal experiments in trust, I finally recovered the gem that I consider to be of greater value to me than any other quality or possession.

In Carol’s metaphor, trust is a treasure, but I’ve found that trust is also a muscle. It strengthens only through repeated use, through conscious risk-taking. About ten years ago, I made a solemn promise to myself and have kept it even when at times I feel silly or uncertain: if I have an intuition I will trust it and act upon it. Oh, what a beautiful gift, this recovered birthright. There is no one on earth I trust more than myself.

HAVE YOU SEEN ME? Starting the search for my missing self

Two days before the 33rd anniversary of my mother’s unexpected death when I was 3, I started psychotherapy. I was not consciously aware of the time frame’s deeper significance, yet my soul led me unerringly to a very symbolic jumping-off point for a lifesaving journey.

Long before I knew the exact date of my mother’s death, I used to suffer inexplicable sadness and insecurity in the months of May and June. I didn’t realize until at least a year of self-examination and reflection in therapy that my body had always known and expressed in its own peculiar language the information my conscious mind could not recall. Somewhere inside me was a cellular calendar. Somewhere, locked away by years of repression and purposeful forgetting, was a guardian who watched over the feelings I had not been able to process.

On my way home from my first therapy appointment on that day in 1995 I went by the art supply store and bought a sketch book to use as a journal. I came home and created this title page in recognition that there were mental rules I would need to break in order to get well: don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t ask, don’t expect, don’t wish, don’t dream.

Breaking the rules

Again and again, my wise inner self dropped breadcrumb clues that would lead me home to myself. The journey to which I committed that day was the search for the true self hidden under many social expectations and unspoken rules, griefs and wounds, assumptions and misunderstandings.

I am grateful my Grandma Somerville saved a pair of my pajama bottoms from 1962. I have no idea why. She gave them to me many years later. By then, as a teenager, I could not put them into context. So deeply ingrained was my idea of myself as someone who had always been big and mature for my age, I could not conceive of ever being small enough to have needed those pajama bottoms. Nevertheless, I saved them in a box with other remnants of my extinct early civilization, like fragments of unintelligible text that needed some kind of Rosetta Stone in order to make sense. Therapy helped me locate and decode the buried fragment of my home language.

When I started therapy in 1995, however, I had no ready emotional access to my own vulnerability and grief. My primary coping script was crafted around the twin values my father modeled—competence and control. I was insular, independent, perfectionistic, a caretaker of other wounded souls, and skillful at numbing my feelings through various means, both deceptively constructive and perilously destructive.

The furthest task from my mind was that I might need to make contact with a part of myself that was the opposite of that: dependent, sensitive, vulnerable, heartbroken. Like a bloodhound, I used the pajamas and other creative clues and tools to track down my carefully hidden inner child.

Have you seen me

I was my own unsolved mystery—a cold case file—and so I set out to collect and study as many scraps of physical and emotional evidence as I could find. This included everything from photo albums to my childhood rocking horse, and faint tracings of sense memory to inner travel maps made of imagination, words and feelings.

Repeatedly I chose to ignore the instinct to harden and defend against the feelings that arose as I slowly pieced together my version of my trauma narrative. Bracing and controlling would be of no use in processing this material. Instead, against all impulses to the contrary, I stayed with my story and continually softened into ever deeper compassion for the little girl who had once been me, who held in her sweet hands and sad heart the secret to my wholeness.

I called this project RECLAIMING MY HISTORY, 7-21-1995

I choose life: a journey beyond childhood grief

When I look at pictures of myself from the first few years of my life I see a child who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful. I have a photo album that offers a poignantly graphic version of my story. Just after the snapshots documenting my third birthday in 1962, the pages fade to black. It’s not that my story ended, but that I abruptly lost my storyteller.

My parents, Morris & Pat, in college, circa 1955

My parents, who met and fell in love during college in Idaho, had been married for less than 7 years. My dad Morris was a pastor of a tiny church in Connecticut 1,400 miles from our nearest relatives, my mom Pat served as pianist-soloist-music director-program organizer-Sunday School teacher all rolled into one. A few weeks after the birth of my first sibling, our mother was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable cancer focused in her small intestine. Less than a month after open-and-shut exploratory surgery, the most important person in my life was dead of starvation, all nutrients hijacked to support a basketball-size tumor.

In the narrow window between diagnosis and death, my mom helped from her hospital bed to navigate a bewildering thicket of considerations before deciding to accept an offer from her older brother and his wife—3,000 miles away in Oregon—to adopt Faye Anne. Born in April, my new sister disappeared in May, my mom in June, a two-month-wide tornado that roared through my life and ripped half its contents away.

The year after my mom’s death, my dad remarried and we moved to a new home in another state, minimizing the evidence of our loss, forging a new family unit in which old frames of reference and familiar rituals dissolved, with strange procedures and stressful expectations taking their place. I do not remember talking much about my mom again during my childhood. The subject felt closed for discussion, an unspoken taboo that I would not dare to question for decades. I did not see my sister again until I was 12, and then only for a brief visit. 

Marva Lee & Faye Anne together again, 1971

Like many children who experience trauma, I recall little of this. I can draw an accurate floor plan of the house where I last saw my mom, even correctly placing furniture in the diagram. I can cite surprisingly lucid details about random, mundane events that happened two days before her death and in the week after the funeral. But my mother is nowhere to be found. She has been packed away in an unlabeled box in a memory-hoarder’s dangerously-cluttered attic.

These few paragraphs are a synopsis of the first volume in the library of my life. Elsewhere on the shelf is a book describing the debilitating weight of unresolved grief I carried for 30 years. There’s a dark memoir that details how to numb pain with drugs, alcohol, work and perfectionism. Another volume tracks my gradual loss of self-esteem and trust in my own instinct and intuition. The biggest tome in the set is all about trying to control what cannot be controlled. Recurring themes are sorrow, shame, self-destructiveness, anxiety, neediness, and over-compensation, all signs that hint at their roots in trauma.

I started deliberately shifting themes and writing a new story twenty years ago. I awakened in some kind of soul‐darkness one February morning in 1995 and lay there in the grip of an existential terror so paralyzing I wondered if I might already be en route to some hellish afterworld. Gradually the panic began to give way to resignation and I became aware of a tiny light in my field of awareness. I understood that the light represented what remained of my once‐indomitable and radiant spirit. I suddenly saw with dramatic clarity that to continue on the same trajectory was a form of slow suicide. I recognized that I had the power to choose whether to extinguish my light or nurture it back to full illumination.

Three words came into my mind that morning and rang like a bell that continues to reverberate in my consciousness two decades later: I choose life.


My life is now my most convincing evidence for the power to change one’s story. That I, who never expected to live past the age at which my mother died—28—am writing this at the age of 56 is more remarkable than I can say. By all rights I should have died a dozen times or more, taking into account the many dangerous circumstances in which I made crazy bets with death simply because I didn’t care if I lost.

Slowly and deliberately I began reinvesting in myself after emotional bankruptcy. I stopped daily self-medication with alcohol. I’m convinced the single most healing step I took was to find someone to listen and hold my story with me, an objective professional who shocked me by crying. “What happened to you,” she said, “was a tragedy.” Mute with surprise at this pronouncement, I felt something novel wash over me, not a familiar wave of shame, grief or despair, but something new: compassion for myself.

These are the redemptive messages my therapist Gail willingly repeated as often as necessary for me to finally begin believing them: You are lovable. You have the right to feel sad and angry. If you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you will not fall apart. Each of these were prisms of insight that allowed me to recolor my entire context.

Facet by facet, I slowly salvaged the diamond of self‐love. I was astounded by the relief of being allowed to speak my own truth, to tell my version of my life without excusing or defending. I believe it is possible to save someone’s life by the way you listen to their stories.

Just as my mental health challenges did not all arrive at once, but arose at intervals as my unaddressed grief and unfelt feelings accumulated, so my return to wholeness did not happen in some instantaneous turnaround. Five years of therapy, self-help groups, journaling, body work, anger work, forgiveness rituals, meditation, reconnection with nature, support from family and friends, and learning to trust myself and others again—all of these are part of the task of writing a new story that eventually brings me to this grace-filled chapter of my experience.

My life feels deeply purposeful these days, not because of what I’m doing, but because of who I’m being—my authentic self. After years of fear, mistrust and isolation, I am deeply embedded in my community in a variety of courageous ways, offering myself as living inspiration to others. This week I heard the news that I passed my state certification exam to serve as a peer support specialist, positioning me to give back to others the kind of non-judgmental, compassionate listening that encouraged my healing as I brought my story out into the light for transformation.

If I look at pictures of myself these days, I see a woman who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful.