Why This Christmas?

 

 

My soul has questions. It came to me like this. I’m fairly certain my soul thinks this whole life thing is an interrogation. I face questions everyday such as: why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Where can I find meaning? Do humans all find the same meaning in life? Why are we so fractured? 

The list goes on. When I was a child the questions were a crushing weight (no adults seemed to have answers that I could hang my hat on); now, well, we get along better.

I suffered severe depression and anxiety from the latter part of 2016 until the fall of 2019. For those blessed to not have experienced this ailment of soul, body, and mind, allow me to make something inescapably clear: spirituality doesn’t work when you’re depressed. Honestly, the desperate struggle that I made to hold onto my spirituality contributed to my depression (that’s another story). 

My current working theory on this is that (western) spirituality becomes unhelpful when one is depressed because depression disconnects us from our body, and muddles the mind terribly (think slicing pain, forgetfulness, loss of will to live. You’re jealous, I know.). Traditionally in the West we have held our spirituality in the mind and spirit. See how the two don’t jive? Depression=mind muddled, disconnection from body. Western spirituality=lives in the mind and spirit, rather than in the body. See?

Leading up to and during this season of depression (not my first, probably not my last, but, hey, I’m getting good at it!) my faith slowly slipped away. You say Jesus, my mind says “but was he real? And resurrection…really? Even if it did happen, how is that relevant to my inability to get off this couch?” You say mysticism, my spirit says, “I still want to die, and no matter how much you meditate, that feeling won’t go away.” See what I mean? Spirituality just didn’t work for me anymore, so the faith of my mind and spirit, well, it slipped away. 

Not that I didn’t try to hold onto it. Desperately. If I was Jack Dawson and the door under Rose was faith, I was pushing her off to save myself. That’s how fervently I wanted to keep believing. Even if I didn’t go to church. Even if my relationships with practicing (mostly conservative) Christians continued to deteriorate. I wanted Jesus. I wanted the moral code that I had studied and followed for my entire life. I wanted to be able to read Psalm 139 without throwing my Bible against the wall. I wanted the comfort that spiritual songs used to bring me. But I couldn’t do any of it. Trying to was nearly torture. 

My beliefs in Jesus from strong, to non-existent, to a gentle acceptance of it all.

What stopped my clinging to the Christian tradition and finally pushed me over the edge, you ask?

The Christians. The people I would have called my community. The self-proclaimed gate-keepers of the Kingdom (so much for Peter, up there taking heavenly role). People who had seen me energetically greet refugees and immigrants from other countries. People who had funded missions trips I went on and bragged about my service and joy. 

I kept my distance from the entire Christian community during the course of my depression (except for a select few friends who manage to love and respect me despite our differences), not wanting to kick the hornet’s nest. Then, through a series of events involving a roommate (you know how that usually goes, damn it), word got out that I was–gasp–a universalist. 

The Christians couldn’t take it. I was met with, told I was wrong, told I was no longer invited to their community. 

A social media post about my new, more open and inclusive beliefs, that I hadn’t posted with the attention of offending anyone, was met with pages of cruel comments. I was told that I could say blank but I could not say blank. It wouldn’t have hurt, I would have written them off as your run-of-the-mill jerks, if it wasn’t people who had known me for so long. If it wasn’t the same thing that I had grown up hearing. If it wasn’t what my own blood says. 

It hurt. I was done. Christianity could die a cruel death (the tradition has a history with that sort of death anyway). 

That was, until Christmas this year. 

Of course, it wasn’t just Christmas season popping up that helped me find my way back to a loose hold on Jesus. I had remembered, over the past few months, the importance of stopping to smell the roses. I’ve never been a fan of how roses smell, personally, but it’s the concept I am after here: pauses are essential components of mental and emotional health. Pausing to absorb something good all the way into the body is a holy practice. Returning to meditative practices such as reading poetry slowly, taking walks, letting go of fear-driven action, and pausing to look at flowers, trees, my cat, etc. had begun to pull me out of the lingering fog of depression and anxiety (along with good food, deep rest, and frequent exercise) by the time Christmas decor appeared in the Anthropologie window display. 

My relationship with Christmas over the years hasn’t been particularly noteworthy–I don’t watch Lifetime movies and I’ll be fine if I never walk into another Hallmark store. 

As a child, I did love staying up late in my room on Christmas Eve to soak up the soft glow of the Christmas lights hung over my curtains. My family took a yearly trip to visit relatives that left me over-stimulated (I hadn’t yet learned the importance of 10-20 minutes per day with my eyes closed and my legs up the wall to reduce my ever-present anxiety), over fed with rich food that caused me severe stomach aches (gluten intolerance and dairy sensitivity, both unidentified until I was in high school), and uncomfortable (I have needed regular movement since I was a child, and was generally denied it on these trips). 

So, by the time I broke ties with my family when I was 18, I needed a break from Christmas. One year I was suicidal on Christmas and spent the evening in my car listening to beautiful, melancholy songs by one of my favorite bands, Gungor. Later, I spent two years overseas for Christmas (in a country that celebrates the holiday on a far less extravagant scale).

That was my break from Christmas. Last year, I felt pretty meh about it as well. 

This year is different. Oh ho ho, my friend, this year, some magic has infiltrated me. Did you know there are stickers in the shape of glittery gingerbread shaped men at Michael’s? Do you know how delectable the Holiday Spice Yankee Candle smells? Have you felt the utter joy of sitting on a couch in the dark, staring at the lights and ornaments on a two-foot-tall tree with your hand stroking a black cat’s smooth fur? 

I know it isn’t the Christmas things that are making me feel this way. Not entirely, that is. But since I have cultivated that practice again of pausing and absorbing, and probably due to the long break from engaging with Christmas, the Christmas ish is digging its way through sensations in my body, into my soul. The Christmas lights pinned against dark winter nights, the yumminess of Christmas cards, the warmth emitted by Thistle Farms candles, the exchanges of good cheer and song. It’s priceless, and it is bringing my heart, body, and spirit back together as one. 

 Last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church that I semi-regularly attend (per the insistence of my inquisitive soul that relentlessly longs for conversation about all that is impossible to put into words, i.e., spirituality), the Reverend Jan said something that made me catch my breath: “We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.”

We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.

Jesus. I need not leave behind Jesus. 

I need not leave behind Christmas–a holiday who is shrouded in painful memories for myself and many people–because it brings light into my dark spaces. I need not leave behind the stories of Jesus, and of unconditional, all-encompassing Divine Love that the Christian tradition handed to me.

Let the bullshit be as it is. Let Jesus be who he has been for you, Lydia. Let the Psalms be what they have been. Leave the rest out of your mind. 

If Christmas can be redeemed and redemptive in my life, than maybe Christianity can too. 

As my favorite Christian author, Sarah Bessey said in her new book, “I pray that you will bless the box you once needed for God and that you will treat it tenderly even as you leave it behind.”

 

There is tons more to this story. Religion and spiritual beliefs are an undeniable, inevitable part of my life (how else could I hold this soul?). I’ve experienced my greatest pain and greatest joy at the hand of religion, of this idea of Jesus, of God. I’ve read books about indigenous sacred beliefs that are arguably more peaceful and inclusive than the Bible. There is the reality that I am a white woman of European descent and I’m not sure about how I feel that my people have hijacked the holy book of the Jews. There’s a lot to this. Clearly. But for now, this is the story of Christmas season for me this year, and a splish of redemption in my story of spiritual exploration

Re-embracing the stories that hold meaning in my heart may be just as sacred and healing of a practice as staring at my Christmas tree and its’ beautiful orbs of light nearly every December evening is. Encountering abysmal darkness on the path of our lives is unavoidable. We may as well allow every light–even that of the smallest or most inexplicable candle–to glimmer over our secret souls. I can let the stories of Jesus, and my memories of Christmas, shape-shift before my eyes. Holding them loosely allows them to breathe, allows them to become relevant to my constantly changing experience.

 

That being said, I’ll leave you with a blessing:

 

May the scent and sensation of Christmas light fill your spirit. And if your spirit is lost to you this Christmas, and you are unable to connect enough with your body to feel the goodness of the Holiday in your bones, because of depression or any other suffering you face, may you experience a breath of relief and a whiff of hope on the heels of this season. 

“There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it.” ~ Joan Chittister

Favorite Things List

 

  1. (A list inside of a list) The books I have read during the last revolution around the sun, that have shown new light on my spirit: The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, Becoming by Michelle Obama, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, When They Call you a Terrorist by Patrisee Khan-Cullors, Rumbo Hacia el Norte por Luis Alberto Urrea, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.
  2. The cool humidity that seeps under the windows into my apartment on rainy fall days.
  3. Remembering (for the thousandth time) that what other people think about what I do doesn’t matter one iota.
  4. The sound of my pencil scratching across the page as I pour thoughts and feelings onto the page, and slowly some painful knot inside of me is undone.
  5. Movement & the way my breath changes when I ride a stationary bicycle, walk, do a yoga practice, or swim laps. The way my muscles tighten and slacken consistently, on the pendulum of physical action or inaction.
  6. The bold disregard of children–they don’t care if their words make sense, if they have been said before, or if they’re sharing horribly ignorant ideas. They just speak. They speak because they have a voice and they’re practicing the use of it!
  7. The circle of colored light that the Christmas lights strung over my bedroom window cast onto the wall behind them.
  8. The circle of Love that I enjoy; my intimacy partner, my cat, myself, wrapped around one another on rainy or sunny days. We whisper love to one another. We breath together in the kitchen after, before work. We trip over one another’s feet, paws, and feelings, We do nice things to make the  home more homely for the three of us, we eat together, we cry as one, we sigh when it is already Monday again. We ride the waves of beauty and struggle that life washes our way, together. No wonder the Holy Trinity is three: father, son, spirit, all hung together in unity, harmony, teaching us to exchange Love relentlessly.
  9. Fair compensation laid in my hand after I provide quality instruction, be it yoga, meditation, English, Spanish, or otherwise. I will never stop working because so far it has not ceased to give me a sense of dignity and a place in this world. I love when people tell me that my work was good, because it confirms what I already know, what I have worked so hard to bring into the world.
  10. Friends who laugh at the same things as I do, even from afar. Friends who I dream of going on adventures with, waking and sleeping. Friends whose messages bring light to my spirit. Friends whom I hold loosely in my hands, grateful for their existence, trusting the Universe to bring them to me in person, in Her own sweet time.

 

Shalom, all.

The Cloth I’m Cut From (Part 4)

 

Last Friday & yesterday there has been a homeless man posted on the corner with a limp cardboard sign. He panhandles early in the morning, in the burgeoning Arkansas heat. I encounter homeless folks multiple times every day because of the neighborhood I live in, & because it is nearly impossible not to in Little Rock. According to this site there are 9 homeless folks for every 10,000 members of our general population.

When I passed that man the first time, his hair slightly dreadlocked, I tried to make eye contact but saw that his eyes were unfocused. He was grunting & talking to himself, making jerky movements with his hands & neck. Signs of internal suffering were there as clearly as the dirt under his fingernails.

I won’t say that folks who are not Cut from the Same Cloth as I (any number not 4 on the Enneagram ) would not see this man with compassion. I do, however, know that an innate part of me makes it impossible to not identify a part of myself in that homeless man.

A couple of weeks ago I sat at my parents’ long dinner table with Christian conservative friends of theirs. The opinionated woman of the couple said, “I felt bad coming out of this fancy sushi restaurant while homeless people stood outside.” She laughed, the flab on her arms waving. “A lot of them are crazy, you know.”

That’s a perspective that I have never seen people from, a distanced other-ing. It is clear to me that circumstances beyond our control are what make or break us. Imagining myself in those oversized lace-less shoes on the street corner (pictured above) is easy.

Part of who I am is an active imagination, the compulsive tendency to identify with the suffering of others.

I missed that man when I drove by & he wasn’t there this morning. His suffering (although vastly different from my own suffering) feels familiar; it reminds me of my vulnerability. The Cloth I’m Cut From ensures that I tire of guarded, shallow interaction. The honesty of homelessness breaks open my heart in a way that grounds me. I want every person to have a home, but as long as they don’t, I want to see it on my way to work. 

 The sky was clear this morning, heavenly.

Until Earth becomes Heaven I want to bear witness to what makes it Hell. Probably because of the Cloth I’m Cut From.

The Power of an Education

I recently read (read=consumed) Educated by Tara Westover. Several elements of the story she recounts in this award-winning memoir are familiar to me: a secluded childhood, a paranoid father, & fundamentalist religion. However, Westover’s education did not start until she began, as a teenager, to self-teach in order to take the ACT & be admitted to Brigham Young University. This is where my story drastically differs from hers.

My mother spent 14 years curating, delivering, & facilitating an enthralling education for myself & my two sisters. She bought entire curriculum sets with my father’s hearty approval (which I am certain were expensive) that we followed devotedly. As I recall, the middle school & junior high curriculum was heavy with historical fiction that brought Native American customs, the U.S.A. before, during & after the Civil War, & the World War-era to life via narratives about children my age. I peeled through chapters nearly every day, moving freely from my bed, to my desk, to sitting against the wall (this is an important detail as I am a kinesthetic person–sitting still is extremely difficult for me– now teaching children in an environment that offers only tables & hard chairs for 8+ hours a day), as my mind lit up with imagination.

In high school, the curriculum shifted to a classical program that was steeped in WASP ideology (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) & theology. Still, it emphasized reading entire books & I read The Social Contract, The Communist Manifesto, The Last Days of Socrates, & an entire book by Frederick Douglass (I do not remember which it was), among many others. I distinctly remember walking up & down our driveway as I read the entire Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in one day. Despite the stimulating challenge of deciphering these texts, I rebelled against this curriculum primarily because I found it boring, lacking in diversity, & biased. I like to think that my arguments against it were well put together. The ability to put an argument together well: that came from my education.

Tara Westover’s book ends with a powerful & succinct attribution of all the changes she underwent, that wrought freedom in her life, to an education. That resonates profoundly with me because regardless of the content of the books I read, in reading entire works of classic literature, I learned to see a viewpoint through to its end, to follow lines of reasoning to logical conclusions, among other important skills.

Most of all, the thorough education that my mother brokered (& my father sponsored) for me prepared me for college, where I learned to trust my intellect over backward religious ideas, & to believe in the capability of knowledge to liberate & empower anyone–regardless of their social standing.

To this day, I love to read, to think, to argue. Those are gifts I attribute to my education. I believe every child deserves such an education. This belief is a big part of why I go to work every day. I am a teacher now, of various subjects, & passing on what I have learned–and continue to learn–gives me a sense of purpose. I hope that what I do empowers a new generation to harness their intellect for the sake of true freedom.

Why Yoga?

Yoga matters to me, especially right now, not because it is something better than the other somethings. It is not the hobby to put all hobbies out of business. It is not the one true religion.

Yoga matters to me because it is what I have right now. In days past, I had Jesus. I had the words of Jesus, my sweet tattered Bible, and the Christian community (a tad unreliably but nonetheless,) surrounding me. Those days were imperfect but that study, the weekly and daily rituals (praying before meals, attending a service weekly, eventually spending hours in prayer and meditation), blessed me, and kept me from spinning my wheels in the mud of meaningless suffering. Now (praise ye the gods!), amidst hard financial and emotional times, I have the practice and study of Yoga.

I didn’t realize how much it has come to mean to me, and how much this ancient study/practice has blessed me until I was at a workshop in a neighboring town (holla at ya, Conway) yesterday, and heard a teacher talking about why she sticks to the more pure forms of yoga (the closer to Krishnamacharya–the better! was her angle). The impact it has on the mind. The connection to the Divine as the motivation behind it. The beautiful (albeit fundamentalist ;)) chants before and after each two-hour-long practice.

I realized as she spoke that if I did not have yoga right now, my little hands would feel awful empty. The presence of something on my palms–be it yoga or religion, study, or exercise–actually helps me open up to receive and release. Yoga, like the words of Jesus, draws out the Divine in me. These ancient prescriptions conjure up spells of light, love, and hope, and without spells, my days would be much darker. I shudder to think where I would have been without the words of Jesus nurturing my soul. This year, I have been to some dark places, and it is yoga that is helping me emerge.

At a Vinyasa (movement with the breath) class today, my Yoga teacher, Sherri, guided us through breath retention and some hella-difficult classes. After a brief savasana (corpse/resting pose), we engaged with her in listening to a song with repetitive lyrics in Sanksrit (holy language of ancient India/the yogis/inis). Singing along, I felt movement rise from my hips to my head and, in spirit as in body, I was at church again. Moving with the beautiful sound, we were alive together, plugged into source like blue Omaticaya Avatars seated, entranced, around Home Tree. Tears soaked my face as the words resonated with a magically unidentifiable part of my being:

Oh, my beloved
Kindness of the heart
Breath of life
I bow to you

And I’m coming home

Ong namo guru dev namo

Divine teacher
Beloved friend
I bow to you
Again and again

Lotus sitting on the water 
Beyond time and space 
This is your way 
This is your grace

Ong namo guru dev namo

Guru dev, guru dev namo

This is your way
This is your way
This is your way

(Bryan Kearney / Snatam Kaur / Thomas Barkawitz)

 

That is why yoga, for now. I am grateful for the teachers, preachers, and friends who create space that is safe and holy enough for the scared and lost parts of us to come home. Spaces that are big enough for tough emotions, and small enough for Love to fill, are resting places on the journey.

Praise be to Ganesh, remover of obstacles, praise be to Lord Shiva, inspiration of many asanas (yogic postures), praise be to Buddha, for being the Awakened One, and always, ever always, praise be to Jesus, for loving me first.

I’m coming home.

 

Grace & Peace,

 

Lydia Nomad Bush

Untitled Poem

 

Sometimes a woman must go

with herself

to a place

where she can be alive to the dark, unfriendly, & inhospitable

emotions that stir

beneath the white lie

of her smile.

 

She does this because her emotions put

her mind back into her body, where

she can breath,

create,

slither out of the snares

she walks into: naked doe dissected

day after day.

 

Every month she bleeds but it isn’t the blood that

costs her  

dignity.

It isn’t the blood that threatens her, nor is it the emotions.

The threat is the short list of predators:

ego, fear, and

denial of herself as the doe, of life

in this barren land

as the scalpel.

 

Sometimes a woman must go

with herself

to a place

where she can smile

in the dark.

Tapa(s) That Mountain

 

Climbing Pinnacle Mountain today was difficult. Stomach problems made it painful internally but it was not even an *Arkansas* hot day. There was a breeze that accompanied me as I wheezed, heaved, & groaned my way up the East Summit.

Damn, I love that mountain.

Every bit of the experience was familiar to me (though I did not used to be this challenged on the way up…). The contours on boulders smoothed by hundreds of feet scaling them each week, the canopy of leaves overhead, the friendly faces who greet & cheer you on as you ascend & they descend the steep trail. I adore the crags on either side of the worn path. I love the coolness afforded by the vines and greenery all around. I love the feeling of my chest rising & falling at the summit as I gaze for miles & miles, soaking in the sherbet sunrise. I hear firecrackers, set off not far away & roll my eyes.

God, I love this place.

This walk triggers a plethora of memories. When I was a child the mountain seemed so long, the trek lest arduous but definitely more lengthy. During high school for a time I climbed the mountain weekly with a fierce group of young women. We explored the crags & swung off tree branches. It got easier for us every week, but never lost its’ lustrous challenge, it never stopped reminding us of the warrior-women within. None of us spoke out loud of how powerful it showed us to be, this weekly strength practice–we were taught to be docile & dainty–but I know we all felt it. And secretly shared it. If the other girls do not remember, then I will be guardian and remember-er, and secret keeper of these memories.

In yogic philosophy  there is an idea called “tapas”. According to Deborah Adele, Tapas is the fiery determined effort we can make to offer ourselves up to transformation, by way of strength training, meditation, or any other focused practice. Tapas is discipline, it is taking the difficult action because in your gut you know it is the right action. Tapas is the courage to step into the fire for the sake of being purified.

Pinnacle Mountain has been a place where I have cultivated Tapas. That summit has been & was again tonight the altar where I offer myself to God, to transformation, to my higher, truer, better self.

I love it. Oh, I love it very much.

Here’s to more cardio & less carbs.

Feel the holy burn, friends!

 

Lydia Nomad