Reading My Life

journal“Read at your own risk” is the inscription on the inside cover of my personal journals. When I started writing on loose-leaf paper in my late twenties, little could I have imagined that almost forty years later I would have accumulated so many notebooks. The early writing is sparse. I was in my first marriage and the relationship was not going well. My husband accidentally let it slip that he had “snooped.” It no longer safe to record my true thoughts, feelings, and even some activities. Before my marriage ended, I became so desperate to have this place of complete honesty that I bought a steel box in which to lock the pages.

These first entries were set in a binder. I progressed to lined notebooks. In the mid nineteen-eighties a friend gave me a book titled “Journeying Through the Days 1985.” Each day of the year was allotted a half a page of blank space. Under the day and time was a short scripture verse. Sunday was given a full page, and opposite was a beautiful picture from nature. Through the four years I used these journals, I stapled in extra pages. I needed more space. I went back to notebooks, finding I preferred the ones with spiral spines. The motley collection now rests in two large cardboard boxes in my basement storage.

So why have I kept a journal all these years? I quickly discovered that I could write exactly what I was feeling and thinking. Putting painful, hurt feelings on the page diminished their intensity within me. This was particularly helpful through challenging major life changes such as divorce, remarriage, and step-family life. While in therapy and at other times, I have recorded dreams that encourage deeper reflection. I wrote about important details of events that I did not want to forget, and this helped me to process them.

My journals became a place of solace, and, I would like to think, emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth. They may have prevented me from ever becoming a “mental health patient”, needing psychotropic drugs to manage my life. I discovered that the things that had upset me even as recently as the prior week or month, were of less importance than the energy I had poured out on them at the time. I could see patterns in responses and behaviours that I was not always proud of. I could see that I let situations or other people have more power over me than was warranted.

Over the years I have periodically picked up a journal from ten or so years earlier, and read my life as I had expressed it then. I began to see how easy it is to forget details of not just painful but also of joyous things. I recently re-read the scant but important notation following the birth of my daughter. I had forgotten the precise times, and quick succession of events. The memory flooded me with pleasure. I copied it and sent it to her. I can also acknowledge that I have learned a few things about myself, how I relate to others, and who I am in the world. It is a humbling reminder that I continue to be a “work in progress.”

Professionally, I have recommended journaling to others as a spiritual practice. Inevitably two concerns arise: Some feel they cannot trust others not to peek – hence my opening line, but tucking it away in a safe non-tempting place can also help. Early in my second marriage, my husband also started keeping a journal. Fortunately we have sufficient trust that I know he would not look at mine. Besides, being my closet confidant, he has heard much of what is there.

So why write at all when you have the opportunity to express the story to another? Sometimes I need to repeat things, if only to myself. Or perhaps I wish, or need, to say them first to myself before sharing with another. At four in the morning when sleep is elusive and anxiety or fears have invaded the treadmill of my mind, there is no one else who can listen. Other times I write to hear myself think, or to express feelings over and over until they dissipate.

Most importantly, my journal never talks back to me or tells me it’s bored or has had enough. It’s just there to accept all of me, all the bumps, bruises, joys, and sorrows, without judgment. It doesn’t say “you should do this or that,” rather it asks me to listen to myself, to my heart, and to clarify what it is I want or need to do in a particular situation.

The other repeated concern with keeping a journal is what to do with them when you die or can no longer keep track of them. Several years ago my husband went away with his notebooks, had a final look, and then burned them. I thought I might do the same. However, while recently reviewing some from the nineteen-eighties, I realized I couldn’t destroy them. They are the most honest witness to my life through all the years. I’m not keeping them so that anyone else will ever read them. I am keeping them so that from time to time over the rest of my life, I can see and remember details I have forgotten and will again forget.   All of my life matters – at least to me.

I am less worried about someone reading them after my death.   No one else will have the time, patience or interest. I can only take them ten pages at a time. Some pages are not worth the read. In places I can’t read my own writing. In parts the ink has faded. Even I get bored after a short time, and want to get on with my life now. Maybe I need to change the inscription inside the front cover to say “reading may put you to sleep.”

Regardless, I will keep writing with the beautiful fountain pen my husband gave me the first year of our marriage, as long as I have the strength in my hands, heart and mind.

Harper’s C-51, Church, Pounding Heart

Zoe-for-blog-MarMy heart was pounding as I pedaled my bike away from the protest rally at Toronto City Hall on Saturday March 14th. If you have been following the media conversation about the Harper government’s proposed ‘anti-terror’ legislation, you know a much as I do about it. If not, it seeks to expand the ability of police agencies in Canada to intrude, without adequate oversight, into citizens’ privacy, and paves the way to criminalizing dissent. Much of what I knew was re-iterated by people I trust, including Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, who spoke against the bill. Another woman at the podium said, “We’re being told to be afraid. I’m not afraid, I’m angry.” My own pounding heart contained fear and anger. I have to sadly admit that, as a sixty something Caucasian woman born in Toronto, I have more fear of our police force now than I have had most of my life. Think back to the G-20 ‘police state’ we endured in Toronto only a short time ago. While not enough to keep me from the rally, a part of me isn’t sure it is even safe to protest in this city any longer, sign a petition, or write about it on a blog!

I left the rally to see a movie titled “Stop the Pounding Heart.” A documentary, the film chronicles the life of a teenage girl who lives and works with her large family on their rural Texas goat farm. The family is deeply ‘religious’, and the children’s home-schooling appears to consist of religion, i.e. a literal understanding of Christianity, the use of guns, and bull riding. The only role open to the young women (already pledged by purity-ring to their father) is to marry, have babies and be ‘helpmate’ to their future husband. The literal understanding of scripture was familiar to me, but so far from how I now understand the tradition.

Sunday morning I went to church. In the sermon the minister suggested that Jesus never understood himself as God and that our traditional understanding of Jesus being “the only way” is problematic in our current reality, and in respect to other world religions.[1] This needs to be said loud and often. But then, the final hymn went right back to the theology that perpetuates Christian triumphalism: “Lift high the cross . . . till all the world adore his sacred name.”

Sometimes I wonder if as human beings on the planet, it is not time to move beyond what divides us, such as religion, and culture; to embrace what we have in common – the need for healthy environment, the need for love, support and community, the need for meaning and purpose.

In the Toronto Star today, Monday March 16th under the title “Atheist minister praises the glory of Good”, the article highlights Gretta Vosper, the charismatic, controversial leader of a Scarborough congregation. “Her services make no mention of a deity, and she certainly doesn’t read from the bible.” Vosper’s approach is one response to the evils perpetuated by certain understandings of Christianity.

I cannot go where she has gone, and here is why: In my twenties I was in the process of leaving Christianity behind. What I was reading in feminism and psychology made far more sense. I feel grateful now that I met a Christian leader (the late Dr. Han Burki of Switzerland) who gently accompanied me to a place of deep spiritual experience and healing. Much of this was accomplished through embracing biblical stories for their personal healing potential – for their value as myth, not history. Through years studying theology and continued reading, I also engaged in personal prayer/meditative practices that he encouraged, and spent time in silent retreat. These experiences along with my work with the dying, continually put me in the place of experiencing a presence within and beyond that I can only describe as loving and peaceful. Yes, it is fleeting. I prefer now to use the term Divine Mystery because I feel like St. Paul, I can only see through a glass darkly. In the words of the creed of the United Church of Canada, these are moments of knowing “We are not alone.”

So I encourage those of us who remain in the Christian, for that matter, any tradition, to go deeper into it to discover what is worth keeping; why it might be worth staying. An excellent book is Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, by Richard Rohr. If you are looking for a biblical and theological primer with significant connection to spiritual relevance for our time, have a look. Another book I just picked up, which looks promising is: The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, by John Philip Newell.

It is time to realize that it is only us – people who care about life, love, human rights and making the world a better, safer place –who can help heal the deep wounds, the pounding hearts of fear and anger created by sick religion and sick governments. I am committed. Now is the time. No one can do it for us. No one will do it for us. I don’t want my grandchildren to ask me in twenty years – why didn’t you do something?

[1] This is all my language.  What he said which was far more extensive and elegant!

Remembrance Revisited

remembrance I have stood silent for two minutes at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, many times.   Dutifully, I have worn a red poppy, recently, with reluctance.  My mind becomes a battleground in the yearly two minutes; I  question whether remembrance day does not glorify armed conflict, in a world unwilling to rid itself of guns, violence, and war.

Last year, November 11th fell on Monday.  I was to be teaching a class on death, dying, and grieving, to theology students at Toronto’s Emmanuel College.  Because the classroom faces Queen’s Park, site of Remembrance ceremonies – cannon shots and fighter jet flypasts – I could not ignore the eleventh hour, despite that, like me, the students had probably stood for two minutes of silence in church the previous morning.

In the early morning hours I had lain awake struggling with how to incorporate the act of remembrance into the class time.  One of the students, a military chaplain, was scheduled to present in the afternoon on suicide and complicated grief in the armed forces. The idea came with obvious force; I asked him to do his presentation early and end with two minutes of silence at eleven, which he would facilitate.  He agreed.

His presentation of sobering statistics and stories put a human face on the military.  I was riveted as he described how a soldier, age twenty-one, having returned from Afghanistan, one morning left his bedroom unusually tidy, came to the armoury and shot himself close to the chaplain’s office.  He spoke of a military culture that understands grief as weakness; where mass casualties are taken for granted, and in which there is little help or re-integration on return home.  Leading into the two minutes, he reminded us that the precise hour and day is when the last shot was fired at the end of World War One – framed as the war that would end all war.

My heart had been opened by his stories, but as he spoke, I felt viscerally something I had always known: My maternal grandfather fought in the trenches for four years.  He returned home at age 23; most of his buddies did not.  I only knew my grandfather as gentle and loving.  An aunt recounts the time she asked him about the war.  In a completely uncharacteristic voice and demeanour he replied:  “Don’t you ever ask me that again.”

I remembered something else about my grandfather and experienced the full irony of his death at age sixty-five, on November 11, 1961.  Two weeks earlier a knock at my classroom door summoned me to the school office.  I was sent home.  There I learned that my grandfather, at the bank to cash his pay cheque, had been shot during a robbery.  Two others were shot and died.  My grandfather lived two weeks.

But my reflection on November 11 was not over.  When my holiday plans for this past August included time in Dresden and Berlin, I did not know just how much more cracking open both my head and heart were in for.  Also, before leaving on that trip, I read a recently published book by Jan Hatanaka titled ‘The Natural Brilliance Of The Soul: A Soldier’s Story Of War And Reconciliation.”  This small book made a big impression. I began to understand and feel compassion for the untenable situation that the training, combat, and then return home, creates for the young people we send to war.  Self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and the rush that comes from high-risk behaviour shuts down the pain of thinking and feeling on return.

In Dresden and Berlin, massively bombarded during World War Two, there are constant reminders of the horror, the destruction, human loss, and cost of war.  The capacity for human evil is memorialized in little brass “stumbling blocks”, embedded among the paving stones of Berlin.  These blocks name those who lived in adjacent buildings that were taken and murdered by the Nazis. Both cities also speak to human resilience: Cathedrals and other buildings have been rebuilt with remarkable care, detail and beauty.  After the war it was the women who literally cleaned up the stones and rubble, the men missing or dead.  While those women were attempting to eke out survival in the post-war years, Canadian women were having babies – I was one of many, born in between 1945-55.  I felt both gratitude and guilt for the privilege of being born in Toronto in 1947.

One the trip, I wrote in my journal about the pain and deep sadness I felt witnessing places that knew such destruction and bloodshed. I also wrote about the amazing spirit of people to rebuild! I guess it has always been this way: evil, destruction, power, greed; in contrast to the human spirit, the impetus for good, compassion, and life which can never be totally extinguished.  One evening as I wrote, my iPod gently playing through my music, the following words caught my attention, evoking yet more tears:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age,
Perversely, with no extraordinary
Power, reconstitute the world.

(Poem “Natural Resources,” Adrienne Rich; music, Carolyn McDade)

This and every Remembrance Day I will no longer carry on the war in my mind, I will simply breath and remember where I “cast my lot.”

Facilitator, Educator, Counsellor, Artist