Tattoos and the Art of Process

This February and March mark the first anniversary of my chronic illness diagnosis (the anniversary spans a couple months because as some of you might know the diagnosis process for many chronic illnesses is long and weird–arguably I haven’t actually completed it yet). The onset of my illness and the many subsequent life adjustments that I’ve undergone, necessarily made 2016 a long, difficult, seminal chapter of my life. As the year drew to a close I began to reflect on what I had learned from it, how it had shaped me, and what I wanted to be different going forward. These reflections lead me to getting my second tattoo this January.

Chronic illness has challenged me to let go of my perfectionism in new ways. It’s difficult for me to accept that I am worthy of love whether or not I’m perfect, but as I struggled to process what being chronically ill meant about my abilities and my belovedness I was struck by the realization that nothing on earth that I love is perfect. The people who I love and think are amazing and beautiful are not perfect. The natural things I love–flowers, trees, the ocean–aren’t aesthetically or symmetrically, but I still think they’re stunning evidence that God is an artist and that earthly things contain the divine. So, why would the logic be any different in reference to myself? Maybe this line of thinking is obvious to many of you, but for me it was a new framework for gently addressing the flawed logic of my perfectionism. I wanted to give myself a reminder of this framework, and extend a symbolic peace offering to my body, so I settled on a tattoo that I felt would accomplish both.

Both of my tattoos have been symbols of process and reminders of the truest things about me. I find that having physical reminders of these truths can help me to embrace them, assisting me in the process of embracing myself, my purpose, and the world around me. The roses I got on my hip this January are a reminder to include myself and my body when I think about the beautiful divine imperfection of creation. The stars on my arm that I got three years ago serve to remind me that when life is dark there is light inside of me, in my relationship with my family members, and in my relationship with God. Art is amazing because of how it not only reminds us of what is true and visceral in life, but also because of how it changes our perspectives and our processes of transition and grief and creates space for the divine to manifest in our lives. For me, tattoos have allowed me to carry a little of that power with me.

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Pain and Isolation

Learning how to cope with chronic illness has been filled with challenges. Since my fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue diagnoses are only a few months old, I’m still in the beginning stages of figuring out how my body works, how to live within my new limitations, and how to manage and improve my pain and fatigue levels. I’m also still in the midst of processing all of the emotions, thoughts, and anxieties that come with this transition.

So far, this whole process has been completely unexpected, but one of the things that has struck me the most is how isolating chronic pain is. I knew that emotional pain could be lonely like that, but I hadn’t considered that consistent physical pain could have a similar effect. Now I’ll be honest, I’ve realized I’m not as good at being vulnerable as I thought I was, but even when I’ve tried really hard to be truthful with the people closest to me, I’ve discovered that it’s incredibly difficult to sufficiently explain what I’m going through. I think this is partly due to the fact that no one outside of my family sees me at my worst. But I also think that pain is inherently isolating. No matter how empathic and kind someone is, they can’t feel your pain with you. Which kind of sucks. Not that I wish my pain on anyone else, but isolation is probably my very least favorite feeling in the universe.

Tonight I spent about four hours laying in bed, feeling sick from pain. For almost two of those hours the pain was so intense that I couldn’t even watch Netflix, so I just lay in bed and cried. So I thought now might be a good time to try to write about my pain (because it’s still fresh or something? I don’t know, I might just be tired and making weird choices). To preface this let me first say that my pain levels vary a lot. To be honest, I am not sure if there are ever times where I’m both conscious and 100% pain-free anymore. I think my threshold for what registers as pain may simply have gotten higher over the pain few months. Second, since chronic pain is such a difficult thing to describe I’m going to try to use sound as a metaphor to talk about my varying pain levels, since most people I know can relate to what it’s like to notice sound.

Level 4: rock concert.
On a really bad day, when I’m having a flare, or worst of the worst, having a flare combined with sickness or pms, the pain is so loud I can’t concentrate. It’s like being at a loud concert with a friend, and they’re trying to tell you something, but even when they put their mouth two inches from your ear and yell you can just barely understand them. Except in this metaphor my friend is my own thoughts. When the pain is really loud I can barely think rationally, my mind can scream and panic, but it’s hard for me to have a calm conversation with it over all the noise. My legs will feel like I have walked 20 miles that day; they burn, they cramp, they twitch. It feels like my legs are sick, even though I’m technically healthy. My back will feel like someone has beaten it with a metal bat or reached into my skin and pinched my nerves and muscles until they’re bruised. My hips will feel like what I imagine your hips feel like after you give birth, like bones and muscles have been wrenched apart. Add to this oversensitivity to temperature, texture, light, and sound–and maybe a headache and/or nausea– and you’ve got a very bad day.

Level 3: secondhand tunes.
At times when my pain is noticeable, but I can still carry a conversation or even get a little work done the pain is like when someone is listening to music just a little too loud while you’re trying to read in the same room. It’s distracting and annoying, but you can manage for a while before you either have to leave the room or ask them to turn down the volume. Except that with pain neither of these is an option, so after a while I have to just stop trying to do whatever it is I am doing and instead watch Jim and Pam’s wedding episode of The Office on Netflix for the 527th time.

Level 2: ambiance.
Much of the time my pain is kind of like when you go out to eat at a restaurant that plays background music in the dining area (sometimes just a bit louder than you’d prefer). You can still concentrate on your meal and the conversations you’re having with your friends or family for the most part, but every few minutes the music crescendos or a lyric stands out and it distracts you for a moment. You might lose your train of thought for a moment, but soon enough you can reenter the conversation and the music once again ceases to be the center of your attention. However you still know it’s there, even if you’re not focusing on it. On these days I can do 3-4 hours of work, school, or other not highly physical activity before I need to rest and do something where I can sit comfortably and don’t need to concentrate too hard.

Level 1: fly on the wall.
On a good day my pain is like when a fly gets trapped in my room after I’ve left the windows open in the summer. Mostly there’s a faint buzzing that I can hear, but it doesn’t really bother me. However, every so often the fly will zoom right past my ear, or bump up against the window, which causes me short moments of irritation and annoyance. On these days I have to pay very closel attention to my body. I can do 4 hours of work or school AND I can do some light exercise AND I can have meaningful interactions with friends or family. Which is exciting! On these days I feel allllmost normal-ish. If people ask how I’m doing I’m likely to say, “I mostly just feel kinda tired.” Which is a vast improvement from a bad, rock concert volume pain day. But I have to be careful that my excitement over being able to function more normally doesn’t cause me to overexert myself, because that could quickly land me back in the bad day zone.

Obviously, this explanation doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of my experience. For one thing, there are degrees between each of the levels I’ve described. Plus, my levels might change as I learn to what works for me and what doesn’t. But this is where I’m at right now, and what I’ve experienced over the past 3 months. I’m still struggling to understand what I’m going through and to find helpful ways for me to think about it. I know that my worst days are some people’s good days, but I also know that my good days are still harder than my normal days used to be. I’m working hard to remind myself that I don’t have to be grateful that things aren’t worse. I’m allowed to mourn my loss of energy and comfort, because it really sucks to lose those things. And I’m allowed to still be in process, but I want to be taking steps to help myself in whatever ways I can. Which includes combating isolation with vulnerability, and hoping that the words I’ve chosen in writing this will be on my side in the fight to connect with people through the pain.

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Ignited Lent Action

I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability lately. Not only living sustainably in relationship with the Earth and the other creatures on the planet, but living in a way that is sustainable for my soul. For this reason, my co-editor and I decided to focus on sustainability as our March theme and in our Lent Action for Ignited Magazine (you can read more about those on our website). I was excited about thinking more deeply about ways to practice both global and soul sustainability, and to experiment with practices over the next 40 days. I thought maybe I’d try going vegetarian, and that I’d set aside time in my week for creativity, or going on an outdoor adventure with a friend, or something else that feeds my soul. But life, it seems, had other ideas and decided to throw me a curve ball.

For the past two weeks, the fatigue I have struggled with for months (maybe even for almost a year) has intensified to the point that normal, everyday activities make me feel worn out. My muscles ache, burn, and feel tense all the time, I wake up so tired that I can’t focus in class or remember the readings, my neck and back hurt almost constantly… today I slept for 14 hours and still don’t feel fully rested. Add to that list a particularly heavy course load and you’ve got a Hailey whose life has been thrown a bit off kilter recently.

My instinct when things spin out of my control is to try harder. Work harder in school, do more every day so that it all fits, give up all the “non-essentials” (which usually are actually pretty essential, I just don’t get graded on them). I have been trying so hard through my foggy-brainedness of the last couple days to think of a meaningful Lenten practice centered around sustainability. I decided to give up all non-fair-trade cocoa products as my global sustainability practice–something I have been wanting to do for a while– but couldn’t think of a good personal sustainability practice. It just felt like I didn’t have time or energy to do the practices I thought would be meaningful.

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Today, after 14 hours of sleep, on the way to a last-minute doctor appointment, I realized that right now, the most important way for me to sustain myself spiritually, emotionally, and physically is to take care of my health. Part of that is using my time and energy to take care of my body and my emotions, instead of pouring all myself entirely into staying on top of my course load. It also means recognizing that I don’t HAVE to be able to do it all. Depending on the outcome of the blood tests I am getting done tomorrow, it may be in my best interest to withdraw from a class, so that I can deal with my health problems without added stress from being overwhelmed by schoolwork. Finally, it means voicing my needs to my friends and family. I tend to get very lonely when I am tired and overwhelmed, but I also tend to get worse at asking for the support I need from people. In my exhaustion I just hope they’ll notice what I am going through and know what to do, but this only leads to frustration when people, inevitably, can’t read my mind. So those are the practices I am focusing on to cultivate some personal sustainability. I will put time and energy into cultivating rhythms that support my physical well-being (including a stricter sleep schedule and eating 3 meals a day). I will be gentle with myself and allow myself to only take on what I can handle without feeling overwhelmed. And I will reach out to people and ask for the support that I need.

To be honest, I’d rather be able to adopt practices that seem more interesting and unique, but I also need to recognize that self-care, particularly in times of stress, is something that I need to work on in order to sustain myself and be able to love others well.

 

The Heartbreaking Beauty of Shared Burden

I’ve been trying to marvel at humans a little more lately. There is so much in the world to make me despair of truth and goodness. Maybe becoming more aware of the intense pain and brokenness of humankind is a side-effect of growing up, but it’s also incredibly heavy and discouraging. When it all feels like too much, I remind myself of this quote by our dear friend, Mr. Rogers:

“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers-so many caring people in this world.”

I am not always good at looking for the helpers. I can become incredibly overwhelmed by pain and suffering and fear. And sometimes the emotional impact of that feels so isolating that I forget that I am not alone in feeling it. However, lately I have been working harder than ever to look deeper into the pain I see in the world and in the lives of those around me, and to see within it the intense love and selflessness that I believe must characterize humans just as much as our brokenness.

In the past couple of weeks I have had the honor to witness moments of this love and to watch people I know mourn together, care for others together, and beautifully share the burdens of being human together. The pain and love I see and feel in those moments feel so intrinsically linked to the heart of humanity and to the heart of God. Despite the hurt and frustration that this shared mourning results from, reflecting upon the love that inspires people to share in the heaviest parts of being with one another fills me with appreciation and awe for what we are capable of.

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I will do in life to add to be beauty of the world and to detract from some of the pain, and while I want to continue to do that, I am also trying to focus of becoming someone who simply lives beautifully and loves the people in her life deeply and without restraint, no matter what I am doing. The presence and connection we foster with people in our lives is so beautiful, even if it feels small. The burden of being human is large, and I am trying to let the beauty of sharing that burden with others loom just as large in my heart.

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Re-examining “Flaws”

Earlier this week I was talking with a friend about my dislike, and sometimes even fear, of change and how I wish I was better at embracing transition and uncertainty in my life. My discomfort with change has been something that I’ve considered one of my bigger flaws for a long time, so I was surprised when my friend responded, “Well, I think the world needs both kinds of people though.” I’ve found myself coming back to that a lot in the past couple of days.

Lately, I have been acutely aware of the fact that I am entering a new, largely unplanned and uncertain chapter of my life. As I try to prepare myself to roll with the punches, I have thought a lot about how I might work on being more comfortable with change and not having a plan. While I still believe that being fearful and avoiding change are definitely not healthy behaviors, I’ve been experimenting with imagining how my desire for stability (which is probably a more positive way to frame my discomfort with change) and my ability to create and carry out a plan can serve me in this next chapter.

Sometimes I forget that I can be a good, healthy, fulfilled person without fitting this perfect idea of what that looks like that I have created in my mind (an obvious theme is many of my posts). Hearing my friend affirm that even traits which I have been consistently framing as negative also have their positive applications, reminded me that the line between our struggles and our gifts is sometimes blurrier than we realize. For this reason I am trying to reframe how I look at my “flaws.” I know that, personally, I can get so entrenched in trying to solve the negative sides of certain traits, that I fail to appreciate how those same traits have positive sides as well.

Another example of this is my recent realization that I think about people a lot. Somehow I didn’t realize until I was at least 20 that not everyone is walking around with everyone they know and care about in their brain almost all the time. There are people that I haven’t seen in years that I still think of every day, not because there are unresolved tensions or emotions between us, just because I wonder how they’re doing, or I see something that they would like, or I spend time with someone that we both know. I once had a friend, in an attempt to make me feel loved and cared for, tell me that they thought of me often, “at least every couple of days” which did make me feel loved, but also confused because I thought of them ten times every day at least.

In my college years this trait has felt like more of a burden than a gift. For one thing, I am still learning to understand that people whose minds don’t work like mine can still love and care for me deeply, even if I don’t always live at the forefront of their brains. But I also have some suspicion that living with everyone you care about in your head all the time isn’t always helpful in periods of loneliness and isolation. I’ve felt like this is something weird about me that I should counteract in some way. However, as I’ve been reflecting this week, I wonder if I have underestimated the gift that comes with being able to carry people with you the way that I seemed wired to do.

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It’s becoming clear to me that some of my gifts and unique traits can feel like struggles because I haven’t completely learned how to use them yet. Which is actually kind of exciting because it means that there are parts of myself that I’ve been taking for granted that have the potential to be helpful to others and to myself if I take the time to acknowledge and cultivate them. Even if I am not always comfortable with those traits, learning to form them and use them in healthy ways is part of becoming my best self. A self that is necessary in the world, regardless of whether it matches up with my unattainable ideals.

New Project!!

Hi everyone, obviously I haven’t been very active on this blog in the last 3 months, this is mainly because I have been working on a new project that launched just yesterday! A friend of mine and I have started Ignited magazine, an online magazine by and for people ages 18-26 who are seeking to follow Jesus in our every day lives through art, social justice, and personal development. You can check it out at ignitedmag.com.

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Franny and Zooey, and Jesus, and Me.

“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?” –J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey.

When I was seventeen, my family took our yearly summer vacation down to the hot, dry, almost completely vacant haven that is Palm Springs in August. It is a tradition in our family that on long car rides, my dad will read books, articles, or scripture out loud to us for a few hours along the way. On this particular trip he brought a small, paperback book that I had never heard of, and frankly had little interest on. It was called Franny and Zooey. Despite my lack of interest, I was hooked within pages. There was something so honest and true about the dialogue-heavy story that made me listen attentively and want more long after the book had ended.

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That fall I convinced my mom to let me read a selection of Salinger’s other works as part of my schoolwork. I read Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. There are portions of Nine Stories that I now have almost memorized because I often carry it with me in my purse and reread it when I am bored. However, I never reread Franny and Zooey. Until this weekend, when, in an effort to center myself and direct my thoughts in a purposeful way, I reached for the nearest Salinger book, which happened to be none other than Franny and Zooey.

After a few minutes I came across a line that made me get up and find a highlighter. One of the main characters, Franny Glass, is trying to explain to her boyfriend the meaning of this book that she just can’t get off of her mind. The book in question is The Way of a Pilgrim and what Franny is stuck on is the concept of praying without ceasing which the main character in the book masters and shares with people he meets on his travels.

“–you only have to just do it with your lips at first–then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing.”

Like Franny, I am very attracted to the idea of this centering heartbeat. The idea of having a sense of peace and belovedness that is so deep that you are constantly connected with the greater power of the universe, is something that I feel pulls at the very core of my being. However, I often struggle, like Franny does, to balance how I feel about my real life with how I feel about this otherworldly pull on my heart. The belief that it is because I am defective that I cannot attain this level of centeredness and clarity, is one that I often find myself fighting. I’ll think that if I was really good, and committed, and if I just worked hard enough, I could live in a constant state of peace, unconditional love, and a ceaseless sense of connection to God and the world around me. Alas, as both Franny and I seem to forget, that isn’t really how being a human works. You can strive for all the right things and deny your own desires, but still fall short of perfection. And to be honest, I think that a great deal of my and Franny’s shortsightedness comes from an inability to accept what is right in front of us–the truth about ourselves.

In the book, Franny puts her life on hold, allowing herself to become obsessed with the idea that if she prays this prayer she will find peace. She fears that, by doing anything else, she will fall prey to the egotism and materialism that she feels is consuming her peers. While remaining humble and unattached to possessions are worthy goals, Franny uses the prayer to distance herself from not only her own passions, but also her fellow human beings. Here the parallels between Franny and I breakdown somewhat. My criticism is more likely exercised on myself than on others, but the effects of my fears and unbalanced thought-patterns are often similar. They lead me to feel isolated, disconnected, unfocused, and un-accepting of myself. Pretty much the exact opposite of a centering heartbeat.

In Salinger’s novel, the counterargument to Franny’s desperate self denial and feelings of isolation is presented in the form of her debatably insufferable, but somehow also wise older brother, Zooey. Although a complete mess himself, Zooey is able to speak a jarring amount of truth into Franny’s predicament. In a conversation that had me reaching for my highlighter every three of four lines, he forces Franny to examine her beliefs and thought process more close, specifically pointing out that if she is praying the Jesus prayer in hopes of finding peace and to isolate herself from the difficulties and evils of life, then she doesn’t really understand Jesus. Zooey argues that a Jesus who flipped over tables and loves even the most egotistical and frustrating of humankind, isn’t a Jesus that is looking for detachment. He argues that what sets Jesus apart from other profits and philosophers was that he didn’t need to “keep in touch” with God, that he simply knew that there is no separation from God, whether we recognize it or not. Which brings us to the quote at the beginning of this post–a quote that has been running through my mind incessantly for the past couple of days.

“But most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus knew–knew–that we’re carrying the kingdom of heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?”

Is it just me, or is that a stunningly poignant statement to find in a book that consists entirely of conversations between rich, dysfunctional New Yorkers in the 1950s? (I could go on and on about the literary genius of Salinger for hours, but that is not the point of this blogpost, so I’ll refrain.)

My best self (that is, who I am when I feel confident and connected to something bigger than myself) understands Zooey’s argument completely. My best self is excited and moved by the prospect of discovering how to bring the kingdom of heaven that I carry inside of myself out into the world. But the line between that life-giving excitement and an irrational belief that I should be something beyond the realms of humanity can be dangerously thin. Franny too, seems to struggle with reconciling even her most noble human desires with her compulsion to detach herself wholly from worldly things. I often feel that I shouldn’t want anything. Even things that are good and make me a better person. I shouldn’t want to work a fulfilling job, I shouldn’t want to find a life partner, I shouldn’t want to feel loved and wanted by people in my life. But, as Zooey seems to argue (I say “seems” because Zooey is not the most straight-forward of talkers), it is our desires that make us human. We can’t get rid of them. We can decide how much we allow them to rule us, we can decide how we use them, but whether we acknowledge them or not, they are part of us. Living out our desires for love, fulfillment, and connection in a healthy, God-conscious way, is one of the most important things we can do to honor our Creator. (Note: when Zooey makes this point he speaks very metaphorically, so this is more interpretation than paraphrase on my part.)

The fact that I will never be more than human, may seem really obvious to most of you. But accepting all of the imperfections of humanity, while still appreciating the incredible beauty and responsibility of carrying the kingdom of heaven, is seriously challenging for me, to say the least. Sometimes I can feel it all at once and it’s completely overwhelming. However, every so often I catch glimpses of what balance might look like, and I am driven to learn to internalize and believe the truth that as flawed as humans are, we are infinitely more loved.

*if you have never read Franny and Zooey, please go do so and enjoy it for yourself instead of relying on my crummy (and highly selective) summarization.