Streams in the Wasteland – Visions for New Quaker Community

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

I am making a way in the wilderness

and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:19

Last year, during a time of travel, I stayed for a time at a hostel in a village near Taos, New Mexico. The place had a look and smell as if decades ago, a bus full of hippies broke down on that side of the mountain and they just stayed. I worked on my novel during the day and kept a second eye on two-year-old twins that had taken an interest in me.   I made sure that her kids didn’t run in the parking lot and their mother cooked me dinner. I felt myself. People listened to me. It felt easy to be understood and to share in community responsibilities. People were welcoming but not intrusive. In the evening, we all sat on the smoking porch where the staff started venting to me about the “tourists”.  At that point, I had been there for two days. I felt totally myself. And felt, for the first time in a long time, that people were seeing me for who I truly am.   I had stayed there for a total of 4 nights.

One night, a man from the neighborhood walked up to our group, explained that he was going to have his brother’s car the next day and asked if anyone needed a ride into town. Two people said yes and then he said he would ask the potter up the road and quietly left. In that moment, I was cured of my desire to be a member of the current Religious Society of Friends.

The gap between what Quakers claim to be and what I have seen and experienced with Quakers is so enormously wide, it has at times caused me a great deal of anxiety and emotional distress. Over time, I have come to the conclusion that this distress is not the result of my having a mental health condition, but rather has been a sane response to insane circumstances.

I continued to self-identify as a Quaker after that experience in Taos. I continued my trip and traveled as all over the US, visiting Friends & Meetings from various branches. I stayed with several Friends in homes and communities. I had a good time. My travels landed me in Portland, where I enjoyed working for a brief time at a NWYM Friends Church.

I am openly gay. I am a person who has a reputation for speaking truths that people in positions of privilege don’t want to hear. In the end, I had experiences at that Church that could be charitably described as unfortunate and unfair. What happened was jarring and so incongruent with my personal Christian-Quaker beliefs, that I cannot imagine ever taking part in a regular Friends Church or Meeting again.

Despite this experience and others like it, I remain a Quaker. I cannot just go join another religion.   I am not going to join a UU Church or become a Methodist. I am a Quaker because only corporate decision making under the guide of the Holy Spirit feels sacred to me. But right now I am without an official Quaker group to belong to. I do see this as extremely problematic. There is no such thing as individual Quakerism, no matter what the people in Quaker Facebook groups might tell you.

I hope to one day be part of a Quaker community that looks more like that hostel near Taos than any Quaker Meeting or Church that I have ever attended or visited. I have been calling the idea a “Radical Quaker Meeting.” Over the last year, I have thought through and threshed out with others some details of that conceptualized new Meeting. A collective economy, the expectation that all gathered Friends would be released into ministry, and that it would be intentionally anti-oppressive come up as key features of this would-be Quaker meeting.

But even that description might be too much analysis. I want to be in a Quaker Meeting that is simply based on the commitment that we love one another and help each other stay faithful. I want to be in a Quaker community that puts the needs of the least empowered in the center; a community that lives out “the last shall be first” in all their dealings. I want to be at a “business meeting” in which the central questions are: How are we called to connect with God right now? How are we called to love each other? How are we called to welcome others into that love?

I want to be in a Quaker Faith Community that is built on faithfulness and loving relationships. There are plenty of other Quakers, would be Quaker, sidelined Quakers, “Public Friend” Quakers, Quaker Leaders and former Quakers who want this too. Quakers who have hurt me want this. I imagine that Quakers whom I have been critical of might want this too. My discernment process in the last year has been one of noticing the messages, desires and experiments of other Friends in addition to noticing my own longings. I don’t conceive this to be “my” idea. I am describing what I see as an emerging desire of many different Friends in many different places.

So what is the problem? Why can’t we just start building Quaker communities grounded in loving relationships? Why is Quakerism so crazy-making?

Across many Meetings, branches and regions I see a repeating pattern. Quakers have been disciplined to believe that a faith community based on loving relationships is not practical or sustainable. The expressed and unexpressed sentiment of many Quakers and Quaker organizations is that we are a fragile people whom could be shattered or destroyed by even ideas that are different than are own. We don’t have the time or inclination to build relationships. We need to focus on protecting our assets, time, resources and image. That is the message I keep hearing from some Quakers.   Those Quakers assume scarcity.

My recent negative experiences have absolutely nothing to do with who I am as a person and I don’t think they represent the true character of the people who caused me harm. (Every single individual from that Church is welcome to come to my house for tea and a chat, if they want.)   I did experience homophobia there, but the reason for their actions is not essentially about the fact that I am gay. I experienced very similar attitudes and was challenged by similar sets of oppressive behaviors in non-evangelical branches, but they presented as classism and/or ableism. The common thread is that all these behaviors and attitudes against me have been fueled by fear and the desire to control me.

The problem in that church and in other Quaker organizations is that the oppressive Quakers were not in relationship with me. Oppressive Quakers have often told me (and at times argued with me) about what my intentions are, what my hopes should be, what my personal history is, what my needs are, and/or how I should self-identify. I have often felt sized up as part of an economic equation. The central question oppressive Quakers seemed to have about me is, “How much do I have to gain or lose by this person’s involvement in my community?” They did not know me. They did not want to know me.

Fundamentally, it comes down to the idea that there is not enough. The sense of scarcity creates fear, which fuels the idea that people need to be controlled. Fears have been expressed of what they might lose if I was supported on my faithful path. Which to be frank, is totally fucking absurd, because what I want most is to be in community with Friends who are completely liberated in their faithfulness.

I think the idea that Quakers are fragile is a bunch of hogwash. The only thing that is really fragile about Quakerism is inequalities amongst us. Quaker communities can be built upon relationships with each other, regardless of available resources.

I live with a seven year old (and her family) who is also a Quaker.   She has seen me sit at her kitchen table and cry over how I was treated. She knows that I am gay. She knows that unfair and unfortunate things have happened to me.   Her parents have modeled solidarity and peace-making. She talked to me privately about how she stood up for a classmate that was being bullied. One day she looked at me and said, “You need to stand up for yourself!”

This child relates to me as a person. She doesn’t have a biblical analysis of my sexual identity. She isn’t repeating any liberal agenda sound bites. She is not spiritualizing me. I am not the subject of some intellectual exercise about how people with my identity should be treated or act. She isn’t referencing some kind of contrived “loving community formula” in her interactions with me.

This child also knows something that the community near Taos knows too. We have enough.   There is enough to go around. It is not necessary to try to control other people. There is no reason for fear among us because everyone in this house wants each other’s needs to be met. Nobody in this house is materially wealthy and we are all in a state of transition. Regardless, we assume abundance.

Each week our household meets and talks about what our hopes are and what we might need in the coming week. This is a beautiful new way that I am experiencing Quaker Community. I hope it will expand into some kind of house church and will grow to include more Quakers. We support each other in faithfulness, strive to meet each other’s needs, and make an effort to not drive each other mad. We have enough.   It is Quakerism without all the ideas and without all the fear. We like each other, we want each other to be happy each day and for our souls to each continue to be liberated over the long term. We can be Quakers together, despite not having many resources or structural supports because we have a commitment to being faithful to our God and a commitment to caring for one another. That is all that is needed.

The person in the New Mexico who had an opportunity to use a vehicle walked around the village looking for other people who needed a ride. There was no committee formed, no endless wordsmithing of a “minute of support of the promotion of economic equality”, no protest signs declaring who is to blame for wealth inequalities or judgment of the people who didn’t have a car of their own.   A person who had extra space in his car shared that space with real actual people. My Friends, that is what sanity looks like.  That is the kind of community that I want to be in with you.

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Dreams Stay With You

The sound track of the beginning of my Quaker convincement is an 80’s song.

 In a big country, dreams stay with you, like a lover’s voice…

 Do you know this song? When I first started attending Quaker Meeting, I was living alone in the Chicago Suburbs. Having been stuck in an internalized ablest mindset for years, my day consisted of not much more than going to the gym. The hours stretched before me all day, everyday, and I never quite knew how to fill the time.  So for hours almost everyday, I would get in my car and drive around the far suburbs, taking semi-rural highways where I could speed along and sing along with the radio.

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert, but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.

On those long, seemingly useless drives; some radio station had “In a Big Country” in heavy rotation. I loved the song. It spoke to me, to my condition. I had been going to Quaker meeting for a few weeks now, and through silent worship, a tiny little spark was igniting in me. It was flicker, only, with a reasonable sounding part of myself scolding me for even having this vague hope.

“I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert” I sang to myself, “but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.” In the middle of this gray Chicago wintered depressive state, an argument with myself had begun. My status quo understanding of myself was “I can’t.” Quaker worship was bringing that lie into the Light. So, with this spiritual opening I assured myself that I wasn’t changing “No, I don’t expect flowers in the desert”, I told myself, “I don’t expect the impossible, but….” A small shifting had begun.

As I look back, it seems to me that a divine something was reaching out to me on those long drives, sending me a message to take a long hard look at my current situation:

I’ve never seen you look like this without a reason,

Another promise fallen through, another season passes by you.

I never took the smile away from anybody’s face,

And that’s a desperate way to look for someone who is still a child.

Another Season passes you by. That’s what it felt like then. That not just days, but entire seasons of my life drifted past me as I sat stuck, believing that I had an illness that prevented me from participating in life. The voice in the song is somewhat sympathetic, but mostly just calling for me to get off my ass; to stop believing the lie I was living.

And in a big country, dreams stay with you,

Like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside..

Stay alive..

 

(I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered)

 

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert,

But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime..

I did think that pain and truth were the things that mattered. And I thought I had learned the truth. After years of “treatment” I believed that these empty days, they mind-numbingly boring, soul compressing, muted days were what my life had to be.

During those days, the “flowers in the desert” line was the part I sang. I was holding myself back from too much hope. But I know now those were not the meat of the message coming through to me. Now, when I hear this song I sing these lines back to my previous self:

So take that look out of here, it doesn’t fit you.

Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded.

Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming.

Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted.

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered

But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered.

 

This was the first message that came to me after I began Quaker Worship. I see it now as a Divine Rally. As I was reassuring myself that I wasn’t wanting too much, no flowers in the desert, my wiser self screamed back at me. Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming. Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted

 Those seemingly pointless drives did have a higher purpose; I think sometimes spiritual practices come when we are not looking for them. Maybe it was a blessing, maybe specifically for me that that 80’s song was played in heavy rotation during that winter. A better part of myself was calling me out through that song. Saying not only that I could have bigger dreams, or any dreams at all, but that I needed to be SCREAMING for them.

One day the message finally broke through. I remember being at a stop light and literally looking for the sun on a gray February afternoon. I couldn’t find it through the overcast. And then it occurred to me that it’s light was all around. Even on that short day, I wasn’t in the dark. That meant something, some how. I didn’t make any life changing decision at that point; no mission or dream sprang to life in that moment looking at the February sky. But I still remember that moment, that wave of grace rolling over the dullness of my life then. I wasn’t sparked with energy, or blissful peace or emotional conviction. It was just a wave that passed over the dullness somehow allowing me to hope. The understanding that I was “in the Light” a phrase I was learning at Quaker meeting to vaguely mean, to me, in God’s love. I could see the sun in wintertime. It was still all around me, even on that gray day. The little flicker of hope turned into a very small flame while I sat at that stop light.

While I was singing “I am not expecting to grow flowers in desert,” the song sang back to me. But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered. You can’t stay here! The song argued with my compliancy. You can’t stay here, all your hopes have been shattered! I didn’t even remember what my hopes were at the time. I had stopped believing for so long. I had no plans of leaving at that time. I did end up making a life-changing move across country within months. But on that day, I didn’t even know what a leading was, much less that I was beginning to have one.

In a big country dreams stay with you, like a lover’s voice fires a mountainside…stay alive.

 All these years later, I sometimes still need that song. “It” still happens. Promises fall through. But, my life is a “big country where dreams stay with you”. I believe that a lover’s voice (or maybe a future me) fires the mountainside. On the toughest days she calls back through time:

“Stay Alive!” She sing-shouts back to me.

These days, when my hopes are shattered and I find myself walking through another wintertime, one of the first things I notice is that I can still see the sun. The Light is present. I have not been shattered; God has not discarded me.  I don’t even need to “come up screaming” anymore.   I just live and breathe. And know that, if anything, God can grow flowers in the desert.

So, I stay alive.

Song lyrics written by:  Stuart Adamson, Mark Brzezicki, Tony Butler, Bruce Watson

Letting The Wolf Run

The images and feelings that came to me during the reiki session I had a few days ago are still with me.  To be honest, I am not exactly show how reiki works. But, as my reiki healer, Dani, stands behind me and begins the healing work, I experience what feels like is a subtle shift in the energy around my body. It’s vaguely like the sensation of having the hairs on the back of your next stand up or the sensation that comes with feeling like someone is watching you, minus the creepiness.   As I fall into a deeper state, some personal matters distracted me. I was thinking about these things when I became aware of a vision of a forest in the periphery of my consciousness. The problems I was thinking about started to feel like they were physically close to me, while the forest rose in the background, shooting up on the outer arc of my awareness.

As the reiki session continues, I became more aware of the forest and I notice a gray wolf running through the pines. She races. Her head and her tail are down. Her fur is matted. She is fast. My minds eye can barely keep up 1004040809061wolf-running-059-wwith her. Her focus never leaves the ground in front of her. She seems distracted, possibly reckless.   The wolf is frightened. Is she dangerous? I imagine she was caged and beaten and has recently escaped. I don’t feel threatened by her because she is far away. But she is loose; I am a bit alarmed.

I went to that reiki session because something was bothering me. A week before, I was working on my novel and setting the stage for my protagonist to be betrayed by outlining all the passive-aggressive things my antagonist might do to her. I spent days brainstorming all the ways in which this antagonist might chip away at my protagonist’s identity and self-worth. My brainstorming evoked plenty of real life memories. I ended up in a frenzied state. I was up until 5AM, a “voice” yelling at me that I am worthless and useless. Voice did not stop until I muttered, “I agree. I agree. I agree.”

I know that having a voice screaming at me at all hours of the night is something that others might find strange and frightening. I’m not concerned that Voice “exists”. Voice has come and gone in the past few years. He hasn’t been this encroaching in over 6 months. He has never told me to burn down buildings or any such nonsense. He has never suggested that I hurt anybody. He just makes me aware. When something in my world is not quite right, he is there screaming about it. His judgments are typically spot-on, but he is sooo melodramatic. He has a point about my uselessness. My existence in the world isn’t particularly helpful to anyone right now. But Voice exaggerates; this uselessness is not my fate. There is hope that one day the universe might find use for at least one of my creations.

The afternoon after Voice harassed me all night, I thought about the experience and realized that Voice is trying to sabotage me. I surmised that Voice fears that I will write this novel and that would prove him wrong. I find it difficult to write when he is screaming at me and I don’t much care for losing a night of sleep over this state. I talked to my therapist about the experience and she agreed that he is my sabotager. I thought I needed to get more grounded because I was not sure how I could continue writing my novel if Voice is going to scream at me from here on out. I also know from experience that if I numb out Voice, my ability to write anything will be completely shut down. Reiki felt like a good response.

During times of emotional distress and/or when I’m having intense extreme state experiences, I find it helpful to have a reiki healing. A healing often evokes a transliminal experience for me. I feel that these visions are like dreams in that they may be a reflection of what my subconscious is processing. Uncovering what my psyche is working on can help me make sense of my experiences in a way that empowers me. Also, reiki relaxes me. It feels like taking a sedative, but without the cognitive fog and need for extended sleep. The session I had that day helped me to relax into an equilibrium from which I could respond to extreme state experiences and continue to be creative.

When I picked up my writing after the reiki session, Voice remained silent. As I was writing, the wolf came into my periphery of my awareness in a vision that replicated my vision during reiki. I just noticed her; I didn’t judge her presence in my psyche nor become distressed by her appearance. What is she trying to tell me? Where is she going? I am aware of how traumatized she is. I know that she is frightened and just needs to run. And then it occurs to me, writing allows this frightened and traumatized wolf to run from her captors. This is healing me. Writing this novel is allowing me to run from the captors of my past.

While I am “letting the wolf run” I have a hard time staying in my chair; my mind can easily start racing and rehashing unpleasant experiences. I wouldn’t mind giving a few people a piece of my mind and I catch myself physically gesturing these imaginary confrontations. It’s an unpleasant and rather awkward experience. If I get sidetracked into neurosis, I am not writing at all, but I know that “letting the wolf run” is how I can work through trauma. I just need to keep it under control.

So, I decided to plan out how to intentionally “let the wolf run” while also actually producing content. I realize that I experience different levels of distress during this creative process. As I write fiction about traumatic events, my distress levels increase.   At a certain level of distress, I pace around my apartment and cry. I can tolerate that level of distress, though I am obviously not getting much onto the page. I call that an 8. If I push past this level, I know that Voice will start screaming at me. I can’t even think about my story at all in that state and I don’t find Voice a useful partner in my creative process. I judge that I can tolerate level of distress up to an “8” for four hours and can produce content if I keep it around a 7.

The next day, I meditate and then spend four hours “letting the wolf run.” I describe all abuses my characters might endure. I am aware of my distress level, knowing that I’ll stop if I start pushing past 8. I break after each section of my writing and journal about what is bothering me. I take a walk around the block, careful to return my distress level to a 5, before going back to the novel. After four hours, the timer goes off and I stop writing. I am done “letting the wolf run.” I paint to expel the rest of the energy. I have let the wolf run, but have kept Voice silent. I feel peaceful and hopeful.

I know how I am going to write this novel without letting Voice derail me. Maybe he will even cease to exist. I know how to work through past traumas instead of just shutting down. The reiki session gave me the equilibrium to understand how to respond to these rather complex states of consciousness and personal challenges. I feel grounded and empowered.

How Quakers Drove Me To Madness

Before I came into Quakerism I was a career mental patient. I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, left my job as a Chicago Public School teacher and went on disability. I researched my condition and read that I had a chemical imbalance that would get worse with time; I read that I needed to take medications or I would become violent. In addition to the drugs, I was taught to track my moods on a chart each evening. The chart rated my feelings such as “irritability” “excitability” “distractibility”. I was to monitor my moods and make appropriate life style changes. For instance, one night watching an episode of The West Wing got me excited about some political idea. My then therapist told me that I should stop watching The West Wing.

My life turned into a series of intensive outpatient therapy programs, self-care activities, group and individual therapies, medical appointments and the occasional self-help book. Because CBT therapy taught me that I had distorted thoughts, I stopped trusting my instincts and perceptions and as a result became dependent on other people to define me and dictate their expectations of me. I became a good patient, a good daughter, a good aunt. I was docile, well-behaved, subdued. Family members had a manual that explained who I was and what was to be expected of me. How I was to respond to the world became prescribed. When side effects of the medicine manifested, like gaining 100 pounds, having swollen joints that made it difficult to walk, not being able to add, and being unable follow small talk – I was taught to accept these side effects because the alternative would be a lack of stability and safety.

In this state of despair, confusion, and low self-confidence – while not being able to problem solve or communicate – a stranger felt that I owed him my body. Having lost all sense of self-esteem and agency I complied with his expectation. A few weeks later I went to my first Quaker Meeting.

At the time, I did not recognize the connection between these events. I don’t remember googling the Meeting, driving there or walking in the door for the first time. But, I do remember my first Meeting for Worship. I remember the serenity of the space, the feeling of communion with God that reminded me of the Eucharist of my youth, and the idea that I was connected to the people in the room even though I had never met them before. And I remember how the bench I sat on creaked when I shifted my weight.

Over the next few months of weekly Silent worship something started to happen for me. Slowly, I became angry. I know that isn’t the typical effect of Quaker worship. I imagine that people especially don’t want to hear about a growing sense of anger from a mentally ill person, but that was my experience. I think I sensed that anger wasn’t a socially acceptable response to Quaker worship. I wanted to be a good Quaker, so I wasn’t honest with myself or the people around me about what I was experiencing. Instead, I deflected it and got irritated with other people.

Being that I identified as mentally ill, I identified these thoughts and feelings as delusions. But looking back, I don’t think that’s essentially accurate. I absolutely was experiencing severe emotional distress and extreme anxiety, but when I think about my unrest at that time, I think I was coming to a Truth about myself. I later recognized myself in these words from Margret Fell: “Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest.” I later looked back at this time and realized that the Light was dealing plain with me, ripping me up and laying me open. This was my early experience with Quaker worship. I was being torn apart. At the time I suspected “illness” but in the Light the truth of my life could not escape. I had given up my identity, cognitive function, physical health, economic independence and dignity. In the Silence, I was coming to the unsettling Truth that my life was completely derailed. In the Light and the silence of Quaker worship I believe that God pulled me to the only sane response to my situation – anger and unrest.

I didn’t have an awareness of this at the time; all I had was my anger and unrest. These feelings and lack of awareness led me to have a breakdown/breakthrough. The fact that I ended up in the hospital points to the idea of a breakdown, but what happened to me there was a turning point in my life and thus I recall it as a breakthrough. I was still on high dosages of Depakote. So high in fact that the doctors said they could not raise my dosage any higher. So, they took me off all my medications (I was taking 13 pills/day at that point) and started me on a new regimen. When I came off the Depakote, it felt like my brain opened up for the first time in years.   This had such a profound impact on me that I changed my name. When I left the hospital I had the sense that my insides did not match my outsides so I decided to spend that summer traveling to sort myself out.

It will not surprise Friends that my summer of traveling and sorting myself out landed me at Pendle Hill. I first came to Pendle Hill as a sojourner, and then realized that I wanted to apply for the student program. In my application letter I wrote about my recent experiences and how I wanted to live somewhere where I could learn to manage my illness, not have my illness manage me.

When I started the term, I fell into community life and largely forgot the stated intention on my application. It’s not that I had given up on the idea of not letting my illness manage me, it’s just that I was too busy doing my daily job, learning how to throw pots in the studio, going to classes, and making new friends to think much about mental health. I was healthy. I even graduated from therapy. At that time, I would never have thought that I was recovering. I didn’t understand recovery as a concept that could be applied to my situation. I just thought that my environment was working for me and I guess I thought that as long as I was in a nice environment, my health would stay stable.

I was unaware at the time that Pendle Hill also provided me with opportunities that would transform how I functioned in any environment. One aspect of the change came from a deepened spiritual practice and Meeting for Confession. (Yes, we invented that.) During that first term I went to worship, took a prayer class and learned from my spiritual nurturer how to be present with God while doing mundane tasks. We talked about Brother Lawrence and the spiritual practice of peeling a potato. I brought this idea of work being prayer into my housekeeping job and as I scrubbed baseboards in the wee hours of the night held in the Light the troubling events that led up to my summer of travel. I brought to the Light the negative memories I had from my Meeting and forgave the people who hurt me. And then I came to a deeper understanding. I had to forgive myself for the sexual experience I had committed previous to joining Quakers.

I wanted to confess this, so a group of Friends gathered for a Meeting for Confession. I read my confession and my friends spiritually and physically held me. It was the most gathered experience of my life. I felt sacred accompaniment as I laid this burden down. The experience of Meeting for Confession didn’t end with this gathering, though I/we didn’t know that the experience of confession and laying down of my old self was continuing over the next months.

I started to realize that I wasn’t only confessing to my compliance in the unfortunate sexual experience. What I needed to make amends for was what I started to call “a life-less lived”. I needed to move away from the life in which I limited what I believed about my self-worth, my character, and my life expectations that led me to make such a poor decision. I had a series of clearness committees to sort this out. First, I had a clearness committee to be clear that I would never go back to my old life. The next clearness committee was about writing about my experiences. Looking back, I can see in that clearness committee I gained an understanding that I was being led into a writing/creative vocation. I look back now and see these clearness committees as a part of the Meeting for Confession because I was laying down an old self, making resolutions and finding a new path.

The second lasting influence of the year was my spiritual nurturer. She taught me how to interact with myself in a completely new way. When I was irritated by something we didn’t talk about how to avoid or reduce the feeling of irritation. Instead, she would ask me, “What is God inviting you to?” Instead of responding to life with therapeutic tools, I learned how to be faithful. The questions she taught me to ask, “What is the invitation?” “Where do you feel that in your body?” “What image comes to mind?” “What feels like home?” “Where is God in that?” all slowly led me forward on my spiritual path. She kept me from problem solving, reduced my anxiety, turned me from self-analysis to a more sacred self-reflection and taught me how to recognize Grace. This was the greatest gift of my life. I was starting to explore a real relationship with my God and was slowly forming into who He knows me as, not what can be represented by a diagnostic manual. Before learning these skills I never once considered making a life decision based on what made me feel connected. And in the years leading up to Pendle Hill, my choices always reflected the question, “what will keep me stable?” Asking myself, “what is God inviting me to?” was a tremendous shift.

Another learning that would have a lasting impact was from my permaculture class. The teacher, Joel taught us about design principles and how to use everything in the garden. When we called something a weed, he would correct us and rattle off 2 or 3 things that plant could be used for. There was no reason to pull out or poison plants in the garden, it was better to find a purpose for them that aided to the overall garden design.

The biggest impact came from the arts and spirituality program, which helped me reestablish my sense of creativity. During my sojourn, I felt like God was calling me to write. I spent that week sitting on the back porch of Firbank penning a novella. When the semester started, I found myself forging a close friendship with a sculptor. We spent countless hours in the studio her working on various feminine figures, me working on an endless mosaic project. During my time there, (with the kicking art studio, other creative types all around me, and an extremely supportive and patient teacher) I fell into doing some kind of creative work everyday. Over time I started to identify as a writer and an artist, but that took awhile. At first, I was just playing in the art studio. By the end of my second year at Pendle Hill I had written a memoir about how my spiritual journey had entangled with mental illness and was developing it into an art book series that I would use in ministry. Without trying, but by paying attention to invitations and listening to what felt right for me, I had developed the beginnings of a ministry centered on both creativity and mental health.

Spirit led me into this vocation and ministry so slowly and silently that I didn’t realize that it was happening. Others didn’t seem to realize or recognize it either. So, when it came time for me to leave Pendle Hill to start a ministry I encountered a number of external and internal blocks and what turned into a fight for my identity. During this time I was identifying both as “mentally ill” and as a writer/artist. But this was shifting. I remember being irritated, for the very first time, when someone said, “Bipolar is just a small part of who you are”. I think in my heart I stopped recognizing “bipolar” as ANY part of who I was. But cognitively I still believed the medical model that said that I had a chemical imbalance that would only get worse as time went on.

While I was ready to move forward with this ministry, there was an assumption that I had had my “healing experience” and that I would lay down my creative work and return to my life as a mental patient in the care of my family. Pendle Hill as a transformative experience wasn’t completely realized. For my part, I still believed that I had a “chemical imbalance”, so I was unable to say why I felt these changes were permanent or articulate well why I felt the advice was misplaced. I was reminded to think about my stability, but I knew I felt called to share my writing. I left divided between two conflicting ideas about myself. In the year after I left Pendle Hill my mental health became both worse and ultimately better.

During that year a splintering occurred. The part of me that believes myself to be a mental patient broke off from the part of me that knows myself to be a creative person and whole member of the community. Sometimes I acted and thought of myself as an artist/writer/Quaker and during those times I surrounded myself with people who responded to me as an artist/writer/Quaker. But, I also literally had a voice in my head that was telling me that I was deluding myself if I believed myself to be a valuable part of community. “Voice” insisted that my perception of myself as writer/artist/Quaker proved that I was a delusional. And when I shifted my perspective to that framework, I sought out people who confirmed my status as a mental patient. This shifting became so intense that I almost killed myself.

I know that none of this sounds like good news, but it was a process that I needed to go through. I didn’t have a breakdown; I had a breakthrough. And what made that possible, in addition to excellent medical/mental health care, was what my spiritual nurturer taught me. While I was splitting, I was still asking myself the questions she taught to me. When I responded to emotional distress and extreme states with questions like, “What is God inviting me to?” “Where am I feeling this in my body?” “What feels like home?” my response to these conditions shifted and helped me not find relief from them, but to live into them and find out what I needed to know from them.

Eventually, that path of looking for Grace and continuing to sit in the silent truth of the Light led me to healing and recovery. I realized how a childhood trauma had impacted my life and my overall self-concept. I came to this understanding standing next to Lake Michigan after a painful Meeting for Worship while visiting 57th Street Meeting in Chicago. Voice harassed me through Meeting, followed me to a coffee shop where he screamed over my journaling, and then menaced me as I walked to the lake. Standing next to the lake, hearing a flood of insults, I tried to center and see what God was inviting me to. I slowly became aware that Voice was an echo of my history. Because I could respond faithfully, I could hear what Voice was saying about me, know where in my past he came from and walk away from his opinions entirely. I stopped believing him.

It was around that time that I decided to leave my Meeting. I listed good reasons at the time, but looking back I think I just needed space to adjust to this new concept of myself. And to be clear, I still had residual emotional distress, I had to piece my life back together and I had to work through anger. I didn’t trust people, particularly Friends. I realized later that the anger I directed towards other people who I thought were stigmatizing me was really anger at myself for having spent all those years as a mental patient. I also continued to have transliminal experiences such as hearing voices and seeing visions. But I kept responding to them by trying to see what God was inviting me to and as a result started to see that these experiences could be used for good.

Through googling about the benefits of mental illness, I stumbled upon The Icarus Project and the Mad Pride Movement. Finally, I found the framework for everything I had experienced in the past years. I found that many people see the “chemical imbalance” explanation of mental illness as a myth and understand that mental trauma is the result of a number of social and psychological factors. Most importantly, I found the concept that people with severe mental illness can and DO recover. I read about the concepts of mad gifts and started to think back to what I learned in permaculture class. I wasn’t a weed that needed to be pulled out or poisoned. I am, just as I am, part of the overall design and if there are things about my mind that make me different, this does not mean that I am useless or dangerous. Extreme states can be cultivated and used for the good of community.

I took this idea and decided to focus on writing a novel about a biblical figure that is outcast because of a socially constructed condition. In the past, I had a series of imaginings about homelessness so real that part of my psyche seems to believe that I actually slept on the streets. If I can imagine extreme and abstract situations with such vivid detail that the act of imaging becomes experiential, why not put my sensory experiences into a fiction piece that can help show people what the experience of living without shelter looks and feels like? That’s what God is inviting me to. He doesn’t want me to make the extreme states go away. He wants me to use them for good.

I also started to workout. When I came to terms with the childhood trauma, I felt for the first time since my youth that I wanted to live to be an old lady. Previously, I think I always believed that I would die in some kind of self-violent way. I know I am recovered from that experience because soon after coming to terms with that trauma, I looked at my 300-pound body and thought, if I want to continue to live I need to fix this. I started a faithful fitness and diet program.   I’ve already lost 40 pounds.

As I shed the idea that I was a mental patient with a “chemical imbalance”, I started to take more responsibility for behavior, which led to better relationships. Specifically, the “chemical imbalance” theory had been particularly destructive for my family. My mother recently told me that she never believed the things the therapist said about me, but that she didn’t know how to be supportive, so they tried to help me “manage” which put me in an unnatural perpetual child role. Once my family and I could see that recovery was possible, the difficulties that developed from my parents having to care for an adult chronically ill mental patient started to heal. The mental health system put us in a dysfunctional arrangement in which they felt responsible for my “care”. With my liberation, I am able to take part in a healthy family dynamic as just another adult who can care for all members of my family. When free from self-involved symptom management, we found that I am a person capable of loving others and contributing to my family in meaningful ways.

Eventually, I returned to my Meeting. When I found the language to understand my process of recovery and liberation, I wanted to share it with others. When I realized how important Quaker spiritual practices had been to my transformation, I knew I needed to reconnect with people who share my faith. I also became more involved with the consumer/survivor movement. In December, I was able to attend the Alternatives Conference – a peer advocacy conference where I learned leadership skills, communication strategies, sharing resources for healthy community building, and maintaining healthy relationships during crisis. I was able to help found The Philadelphia Radical Mental Health Collective.   I am involved in The Icarus Project – a radical mental health community and have found many allies in the consumer/survivor movement. I am an active and contributing member of many communities – a feat unimaginable when I was living as a mental patient who was warned against emotions evoked from solitary TV viewing.

These days writing, researching, creating artwork, community involvement, exercising, and prayer fill my days. I continue to cultivate and share my mad gifts while I recover from mental trauma and liberate from management-focused treatment protocols. I believe that Quakers could do much to promote self-determination, recovery, liberation and human rights of people of with a psychiatric diagnosis. Looking ahead, I want to help people caught in chronic disability to use spiritual discernment to find their way to a more fulfilling life. I want to help Friends understand that Quakerism can be a part of the path towards recovery and transformation.

Through Quakerism I found my God and myself. I started to see myself as God sees me. And in knowing myself as God knows me I was able to find a community of people like myself who see me as a person and peer, not a diagnosis. In this journey and in these Quaker and Mad Pride Communities, I found something that I had not experienced in all my years as a person managing an illness. I found hope.

 

 

 

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Earth Day Openings

Was kind of lost in worry and went for a walk and prayed, kicking at stones on the road through the woods.  When standing on a foot-bridge and fretting, I felt God pressing at my shoulder.  No, I don’t want to feel God pushing me now, I want to be normal, already.  But he doesn’t stop, just keeps pulling my left shoulder. Finally gave in and reluctantly and abashedly let him turn me all the way around.  I found myself facing, for the first time, the greening canopy. It just hung out before me patiently waiting for me to notice.  I walk these woods all the time.  I’ve been pining for that moment, that moment of seeing the first horizon of green.  I’ve been studying brown trees, earnest that they would spring to life before me, but all of my meticulous praying did no good.  So, I would shift to praising the tiny grasses and ground cover for popping through the browns, but still I was yearning for green to be above me.  In fact, I was starting to feel indigent. I needed hopeful green to be all around me already!

I wished it to be here, to see those light greens and know that there are months of warmth and sunshine ahead.  And today, when I finally gave in and let God move me, I saw that it, – Spring, beauty, re-creation, new life –  is in fact finally here.  I almost missed it. If I had stayed in my fret and worry, staring mostly at the blue laces on my black sneakers, the budding greens would have come and gone without me.  If I had ignored the pressing at my shoulder, I would not have noticed that my prayers have been answered.  I scanned the canopy and sighed. Relief. Trust affirmed. I know that every little thing will work through its own season. Walked home with my head up, letting the rocks below go unexamined.

earthday