(Rare photo of me and my sisters, together, last month.)
Take my arms.
They are short. Thick. Better to hide them. Sweat under the constraints of fabric, then to reveal them in public. Something I told myself for years. Believed, for years.
I suffer from arm and shoulder envy. I wish I had been born with horizontal shoulders (mine slope) and arms that have definition and length (mine are fleshly and stumpy).
Yes, exercise is a factor. Yet, finding the delicate balance to achieve definition without building muscle is tricky. (Thumbs down to the hefty, muscular arm-look on me.)
There are surgical options—liposuction, for too much fat. Or, the more extensive arm lift or brachioplasty for fat and flabby skin. But the $3,800 to more than $5,000 it would cost, is an extravagance I can’t justify.
So, I’m left with the only reasonable option. Change what I can through exercise and diet. This, I’m doing.
In the meantime, do I hide my arms, while I wait for their appearance to change? Or, do I bare them and enjoy the comfort of going sleeveless?
On the rare occasion of sporting something sleeveless, I cover up with one of the many lace, crocheted or thin linen tops that I keep stocked in my closet.
Last month that changed. I was tired of wearing extra, unnecessary clothing—of sweating more than necessary—of satisfying my vanity at the expense of my comfort.
Ignoring the usual flurry of demeaning thoughts that whip through my brain when I see my bare arms in the mirror, I went sleeveless. I greeted a house full of people. I hugged, shook hands, served food and posed for photos.
No one shrieked or laughed at me. No one pointed. Sure, my arms are not what I wish them to be. But they aren’t hideous. (A word I have used to describe them.) They’ve never hurt anyone.
It’s the flaws that can’t be seen that are hideous, and hurtful.
I can be prideful. Critical. Impatient. Unloving. I lie. I’ve cheated and stolen. I’ve shut people down. And cut people off. I’ve failed friends and family. I’ve tried to save people, when I know that only God can do the saving. And when they weren’t grateful, I blamed them.
I’m a flawed human being. And my arms are just a reminder of this truth.
Instead of being the source of envy for perfect looking arms and shoulders, instead of being the cause of my whining to God about what He hasn’t given me, my arms will be reminders of my imperfect human self. They will remind me that I need God’s forgiveness to infinity for the flaws in me that are hurtful. They will remind me that I have and will continue to experience His gifts of substance—grace and mercy, redemption and restoration—cosmic, overwhelming gifts He makes available to us, humans.
Way better, than having perfect looking arms.
What I have in common with the cowardly lion.
I’m writing a novel. There, I’ve said it. I’m not telling how long I’ve been writing it. Or, how many drafts I gone through. What I will say is that in addition to skill and creativity, the right and left brain dynamic duo, courage is needed to finish any kind of marathon writing or art project.
I love the sound. It’s strong, unbendable, fierce and feisty. My impression was formed in part from the cowardly lion’s spoken word solo on The Wizard of Oz. Here’s the first three lines:
What makes a king out of a slave—courage.
What makes a flag on a mast to wave–courage.
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk—courage.
Some of the song is nonsense, but we get the picture. This lion longs for courage. It’s in the way he pronounces the word, exaggerating the hard “C” sound and finishing it off with the shake of his head and gnash of teeth as if he is tearing off a chunk of meat.
When the trio suggests that he join their trek to Oz to ask the wizard for this intangible, the lion readily agrees. Little does he know that courage is already his, waiting for a time to reveal itself.
Courage is one of those innate God-given human traits that we all have inside us. You can’t see it, touch it or measure it. You can’t prove its existence through science. Courage is stuff of the heart and soul, blooming under pressure, when the end goal trumps the fear that keeps us from pursuing what is right and good for us, and others. It’s a character trait that grows stronger with use. And little exercises of courage prepare us for bigger acts of courage.
I started writing seriously when I was about 18. I saw and still see it as a vocation from God. I wasn’t good at it. But my belief was that God would give me wisdom and provide opportunity for me to grow and become who He designed me to be. Writing was and still is a faith walk for me. I started from ground zero. Learning the craft and building confidence to write and finish a writing project was and still is mentally and emotionally taxing. I have one of those brains that spin thoughts off into six different directions. I also had trouble finishing what I started. So I took steps to force myself to write for deadlines. My writing time went from taking two weeks to taking two days to finish a 600-word magazine article. Then, as a newspaper reporter, I learned to write stories within hours, forcing myself to stop spinning off into more research, fighting against the anxiety that I didn’t do enough to write a good story.
Writing a novel has been a depressing, frustrating, fearful, fun and exhilarating experience. Many times, I’ve wanted to quit. I’m not good enough. The story won’t matter. I’ll never get it right. These are fears I battle. But the story is an important one. When I remember how it imbedded itself into my soul and how it never lets go, I know it’s part of what God wants from me. In the process of writing it, I am changing, growing, risking, rising above fear. And the courage that I need to keep going reveals itself whenever I need it.
Missing My Mother
This week, I am thinking more about my mother, Sybil Marie Felicioni Duffy. She died 12 years ago. A brain aneurysm, the ticking bomb in her head that no one knew about, exploded. And she was gone.
The people you love—mothers, fathers, children, friends—they are an integral part of you, part of your inner circle, the core of your world. They are something of you, but with their own separateness. When they die, you feel the loss as if some part of you were torn away; as if some part of your structure and order, some part of your sense of wholeness is gone. And you implode because of your loss. In time, you regroup and reorganize. You live on, your world rearranged. But you never forget that the person you loved occupied and shared space with you in the core of your world.
I wanted to write about my mother. It’s difficult because I am feeling a fresh, new wave of the loss of her.
I still hear the sound of her voice in my head. I can still see her face and her smile. I still dream of her. Songs and books conjure memories of her. So do things in my house–the creamer with painted leaves in my kitchen cabinet; the stack of Bon Appetite magazines from the 90s that I use; her copy of The Big Fisherman, about Peter, Jesus’ disciple. Inside the cover, she wrote: Merry Christmas 1959. Down further, she wrote: Reread Sept. 1970. I have jewelry of hers such as the mustard seed enclosed in a clear glass ball, missing its chain; a book of accordion music; and a watch, a gift I’d given to her that came back to me with a note. In it she said she knew that I gave her the gift because I loved it but she was returning it to me because she wanted me to have it.
She comes to mind whenever I make cards or arrange flowers, and when I decorate a tree for Christmas. Also, when I make cookies, write a letter, or make a salad. And, when I make stuffed cabbage, or peppers or spaghetti with white clam sauce; and when I watch old musicals like “The King and I,” “Sound of Music,” and especially, “Carousel”; and when I read to my nieces or grandchildren. When I laugh, sometimes, I hear her laugh. And when I look in the mirror, sometimes, I see her eyes. I see her in my sisters’ faces and my brother’s face.
The evidence of her is all around me and in me. And I miss sharing space with her in the core of my world.
Pick Yourself Up …
It was one of my grandmother’s sayings. She’d say it when I lay crumpled, blowing on my bloody, skinned, stinging knees after a fall.
“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.”
I didn’t know that her homespun wisdom came from the lyrics to a 1930s’ film, Swing Time. This morning, I googled the saying and found a clip. So for your enjoyment, here’s Ginger Rogers encouraging Fred Astaire to try again.
And here I am, again, posting a blog after more than a month. My last post was March 20, five days before I left for the UK. My sister and I spent 9 days sightseeing and exploring family history. I had a post in mind when I returned, but postponed it because it involved Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and I haven’t read the book, yet. Afterwards, I got busy with other things. Time passed and now we’re in last week of April.
I’ve read that most bloggers abandon their blog within the first year. I don’t plan to be another statistic. I reduced my optimum frequency goal of posting twice a week to a reasonable and realistic goal of twice a month, I don’t have a huge following. I chuckle at “huge” because I don’t know if I ever will. That’s not what drives me.
One of my goals in blogging is consistency. Being consistent will chip away at the fear of writing publically. The more I do it, the less intimidating the process will be. Here’s my six month plan: from May to October, I’ll write two posts each month. After October, I may increase frequency to four a month. If I’m ready.
Beyond consistency is meeting my own expectations for developing a blog that helps to meet the needs of people who want encouragement to live free despite their fears. That might be you.
We, bloggers, are like fishermen (women) casting our lines into a virtual sea filled with viewers with various needs. When we share our blogs across the network of social media, we hope to attract followers.
My hope is to attract readers who want to explore fear and its impact on their lives and what it takes to live free.
The fear of failing at blogging will be with me a long time. And, every time I lose momentum or miss my monthly quota, I will hear its terrible voice announce that I am another one of its casualties.
But Ginger, Fred and my grandmother are on the sidelines telling me to pick myself up … and start all over again.
Other words encourage me, too. They come from Micah, an Old Testament prophet. They are part of an anthem that builds my courage to start again after I have fallen or failed. I hope they encourage you.
“Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy, though I fall I will rise: Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is a light for me.”
Overcoming Fear: Nothing Simple Here.
The fight against full-blown hysteria in the middle of fear is like pushing against a door to keep it closed, while someone is on the other side, pushing the door open.
I fear that my post about overcoming my fear of the night may have sounded simplistic, as if prayer were enchanted words that vanquished fear and God were a genie bound to obey commands:
“And I knew I needed to apply truths about God to my fear of the night. Lights off, I closed my eyes, prayed non-stop reminding God of His promises to keep me safe. And finally . . . the dark turned its eyes away for good.”— Fear No More, Mar. 1.
So let me assure you, there was nothing simplistic about the process. Prayer is not magic and God is no genie.
To overcome fear, you have to go to where it grips you and stay.
For me, staying in the dark that night was like:
- Not being able to escape wave after wave of contractions squeezing and raking my insides until I gave birth to my children.
- Not being able to close my mouth or push away the sharp and noisy instruments that cut, scraped, sprayed, poked and stitched my gums for periodontal surgery.
- Not being able to stop when I’m driving in fast moving traffic across a bridge, or through a tunnel, or in a single lane bound on both sides by jersey barriers, and I’m having a panic attack.
The fight against full-blown hysteria in the middle of fear is like pushing against a door to keep it closed, while someone is on the other side, pushing the door open.
I was in therapy dealing with childhood abuse when I tackled my fear of the night. The approach to healing emotions was cognitive and rational. My therapist trained me to apply the truths about God, written the Bible, to my life. I found that He is trustworthy and He has my best interests in mind. These two discoveries enabled me to pray using Bible verses that affirmed His care for me in the night.
But there was also something unexplainable and miraculous in the process that occurred in the dimension of spirit. First, I was infused with courage to endure through the fear. And, second, the thoughts, images and impressions that revved my fears dissipated. This, I believe to be God’s intervention. I believe it because when Jesus encountered people, he could have ignored or dismissed their fears, (As God, He knew their thoughts) but instead, He considered it important to bring them to the attention of the person.
Frank Herbert’s character, Bene Gasserit, in Dune described fear as a “mind killer” and “the little-death that brings total obliteration.” That must be why Jesus addressed fear because he knows its destructive potential. His answer to fear is to have courage and trust Him.
Simple to write.
Difficult, but doable in practice.
Far from simplistic.
Fear is Looking at You
If fear were a wolf–this is how you would feel at its stare. A character in Jodie Picoult’s Lone Wolf says, “If you’ve been lucky enough to look into a wolf’s eyes, you know that they penetrate. They look at you and you realize that they are taking snapshots of every fiber of your being—that they know you better even than you know yourself.
That’s how it was with the dark. When I was a child, it penetrated to my core. Insisted that I acknowledge its power over me. Like some hideous monster, it refused to turn its flint eyes from me. In its presence, my daytime bravado shattered.
Under its influence, fear flourished. Awake, I tried to fight it. Don’t stare at the closet door, or, the shape of things. Close your eyes. Don’t think about the invisible monsters lurking under your bed waiting to grab your foot. Asleep, nightmares spawned scary creatures under my pillow. I woke up crying. And was spanked. My father didn’t understand my needs. He didn’t know he was supposed to protect me.
We left my father. Moved in with my grandmother when I was a toddler. But my fear of the dark continued. In the daytime, I pretended it away. In my family, fear was a character flaw.
By the time I was in elementary school, fear of the dark evolved into fear of dying in my sleep. It began with a nightmare about the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz. It grew, after a real obscene phone call in the night. I awoke, phone to my ear, a man asking if he could put his tongue in my mouth. Afterwards, my body shook and I couldn’t get the call out of my head. Finally, I dreamed a dead body fell on me. Why these experiences spelled imminent death in my sleep, I don’t know. Still, I told no one.
I remember the rise of anxiety, the stampede in my stomach, and then, the sense of resignation, the next night, as I headed to my bedroom, my death as real to me as my arms and legs.
Raised Catholic, our prayer included, “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” but thoughts of God as my protector never entered my mind. Like cardboard dividers in my drawer that separated socks from underwear, a mental divider separated daytime religious instruction from nighttime fears. An hour later, a good scolding at my reflection in the bathroom mirror successfully dispelled my irrational fear of dying. But my fear of the dark persisted.
By my late 20s, the monsters in my room were serial killers and the evil in my dream were demons. But my faith in Jesus Christ, an intangible notion while growing up, had become real and relevant. And I knew I needed to apply truths about God to my fear of the night. Lights off, I closed my eyes, prayed non-stop reminding God of His promises to keep me safe. And finally . . . the dark turned its eyes away for good.
Proverbs 3:24, was written for me: “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Do not be afraid of sudden fear, nor of the onslaught of the wicked when it comes; For the Lord will be with you. He will keep your foot from being caught.
Fear: the sleeping wolves at my feet.
Though blindfolded, the girl’s expression shows determination. Though bound in a straight jacket, her posture shows strength. And, the turn of her face, shows that she knows where she wants to go, or from where her help will come.
This came to me as I examined “White Noise” while talking by phone to Shaunte Gates, the Washington DC artist who created the work seen in the photo.
We had bought the piece a year ago from Shaunte, who by now is more a son-in-law than our daughter’s boyfriend.
Its stark, stunning beauty drew me—the red flower tucked in her hair—the red splash on her blindfold—her profile—the straight jacket—the wolf curled at her feet, sleeping and resting its beautiful, wild head on her foot.
On the phone, I explained a recent discovery about the nature of fear. Like faith, fear is organic, part of our spiritual chemistry, shrinking or growing depending on whether we feed or starve it.
I had been ignoring the fear of disapproval and of not measuring up to my writing mentor’s standards. Its stealthy attacks caused me to question the entire book I was writing. Without realizing it, fear took control and I had lost my way.
Once I recognized that I was reacting to fear, I ended my working relationship with my mentor. He wasn’t at fault. The book is better because of his expertise. But I need more emotional support than he could give me. The process of writing my novel stirs up my past like a wind whips up dead leaves, bringing its debris of painful emotions and severe self-evaluations.
That evening, during our conversation, Shaunte reminded me of his use of wolves in art as representations of fear. He had me reexamine the girl with the wolf displayed in my living room. He pointed out that the wolf, like fear, was present, but not a threat while it slept. When I looked at the girl, a light bulb went on.
With all that hampers her—the wolf, the straight jacket and the blindfold, she holds her body, erect, and her face is purposely turned because despite her condition, she knows where she is going and from where her help will come.
Since that evening, the girl with the wolf has become a visual reminder of an essential truth. The things that keep me from living free—fear of disappointing others, of rejection and ridicule—will always be sleeping wolves at my feet. And yet, I don’t need to be afraid of them because the author of my freedom, the savior of my life, Jesus Christ, is more powerful and His evaluation of me is true. If He wants me to write, I can look to Him to help me keep going when the wolves at my feet, awaken.
Hiding No More
Brown crabs the color of the wet rocks they skittered about on became visible when I focused my attention on them. But to a glancing eye, their shape and movement was invisible.
I crouched down to photograph them, intending to use them for my new blog. I didn’t realize at the time, how alike the crabs and I were.
I was in Barbados after Christmas with my husband. We were visiting his parents and enjoying walks on the beach and good West Indian food. We spotted the crabs on the rocks beside the boardwalk that ran along the coastal city of Bridgetown.
Despite the frothy pounding of waves, those crabs hung on. Only when the waters receded, did they amble about the rocks. But they never left. The rocks were their home, a place of safety. A place to hide.
Hiding is a protective instinct built into all living creatures. We hide from what we fear, physical and often emotional. Sometimes the danger is real, but sometimes it’s imagined. Sometimes we fear what is good for us. Adam and Eve did. After they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they feared God and hid from him. The way they reacted is typical of humans who are afraid of being called out on their sins, faults, or fears.
The night after I saw the crabs, I dreamt that I was invisible. I could see everyone around me but no one could see me. I awoke with an “aha” about the crabs and me. I am a writer who has written in a safety zone, reported on other people’s stories, and spun fiction. But many of the stories from my own life—the insights gained, the miracles realized, the healings of emotions, the full circles granted —stories that can give courage to those striving for freedom—have been hidden away, in my journals.
As a woman who has been freed in so many ways, it’s time to pass the freedom on to others who long for it. Sure there’s risk involved. What if I offend someone? Sound stupid? Misspell something? Hurt someone’s feelings? I don’t want to. But I may. If I want to encourage others to stretch themselves and live courageously in a world that wants us to conform to its mold, I have to stop hiding among the rocks. I hope you will join me.
It’s taken a long time to get the courage up to start this blog. I am on a journey and I hope you come along. We’ll explore fear and courage and healing of emotions and living life well. We’ll talk about transformation and truth, and our inner lives–the one no one but God sees. And more. I can’t wait to get started.