Friday, December 18, 2009

The Promise, Purpose, and Perils, of a Writer's Life: Why Every Word Counts

I cannot speak for other writers, only for myself, yet I’ve heard others say what I am about to say: that is . . . if you can possibly choose a career other than a writer, for Heaven’s sake, chose it. For in truth, most writers I know live isolated, tortured lives, engaged in a perpetual battle with their own melancholic demons, fending off constant fears of failure or that queasy feeling that they are nothing but a fraud. This is especially true for writers whose work is deeply polemic or poetic in nature.

I, myself, have been posing as writer for many years, so I know from whence I speak. Yet, this was not the life I chose: it chose me, a middle-aged dyslexic; sure proof that our benevolent Creator has a keen sense of humor. However, if this is your fate, as it seems to be mine, to live the writer’s life, then, this is what you must do . . .

Don’t give up your day job, at least not until Oprah picks your book. Do give up working a “regular” job, by that I mean you must find a job that puts food on the table without robbing you of that precious commodity we call time. This is not an easy task.

You must find a job where it doesn’t matter that you’ve only slept three hours because some insomniac muse sent you to your desk at three am. A job that doesn’t steal your precious energy and attention away from that new character in your novel named Ned. The young incorrigible, who has completely charmed you, seduced you, into discounting his shadow side along with the mysterious shoebox full of cash and the pearl-handled pistol under his bed.

You must find a job that allows for long periods of reflection, preferably with a place to lie down and nap as often as necessary. A job that values your finicky artistic foibles such as drafting character sketches of fellow sales associates on yellow legal pads in the guise of taking prodigious notes at the sales meeting. Or, someplace, where the work culture will overlook an urgent need to sacrifice the last of the neon pink Post Its for the final plot outline of that three-act play on the employee bulletin board.

When I say this is the kind of job you must have, I mean it. Because, though I do not know you, I, as a fellow writer, do have some sympathy for you and I do not want you to suffer the fate of so many of our formally creative counterparts. My ultimate goal is to keep your pockets free from stones, to steer you clear from raging rivers, high windows, bridges and the like. I want to keep the cork on the bottle and the pills on the shelf or better yet, back at the pharmacy. I want to keep the pen in your hand, the hope in your heart, and the focus on your work, which is, of course, is the only way you will be able to sustain your writer’s life.

If you must write, then write. Every day. For in this process, in this discipleship, you may discover why you are here and why you do what you do. You may come to understand that with every stroke of your pen, with every breath you take, with every beat of your heart, you are indeed writing your own life. And you—yes you—my friend, may come to understand that you—you yourself—play a vital part in God’s greatest poem. And every writer knows, every writer will tell you that every word has a purpose, every word counts.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What I Did Over Summer Vacation: Adventures on Spook Hill

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Yes indeed / You’re gonna have to serve somebody / It may be the devil, it may be the Lord . . .” Bob Dylan

Do you work here? She asked, gripping my forearm, desperate for another message from her beloved. I shook my head. At that time I had brought my Aunt for a Spiritual Reading with one of the mediums. Out of curiosity, and because it fit into our schedule, we signed up to attend the séance. Afterward, I stood outside stunned, unable to explain how, without effort on my part, I’d become a channel for a deceased motorcycle-riding man, a stranger in both life and death.

This unexpected turn of events and the unearthing of these latent abilities prompted a job offer: would I be interested in giving readings on Spook Hill the following summer? It certainly seemed that I could communicate with the dead, and it was true, secretly, I’d been communing with the spirit world all of my life. Though, I’d never exercised these psychic muscles in a public arena.

At first, it was fun. Each reading felt unique. Like when a man came to ask about his work without telling me what he did. I was shown a Native American man standing on a stage holding an American flag. The velvet curtains were parted to reveal red rock formations. As I described this scene we both laughed. Neither of us knew what it meant. I offered his money back. He declined. Later, he called to tell me that he’d been offered a job directing a theatre company in Flagstaff Arizona at the edge of an Indian Reservation.

With each successive reading my sixth-sensory confidence grew, but I soon learned that not everyone came for Readings out of sense of fun and curiosity. One young woman asked about her husband. Though it was hard, I shared with her what I saw; a man whose head was infested with hornets, a man beside himself with anger and fear, striking out at anything and everything around him. A small isolated farmhouse, a wall to hide herself and her children behind. The strong smell of liquor. My heart broke as she laid her head down on the table and wept.

Another time I saw the spirit of a man in military uniform sitting beside an elderly man. The soldier told me that the man was having trouble breathing but he was too scared to say anything so I should tell him to “focus on his exhale.” When I gave the man this message his eyes filled with tears. He told me that this was his buddy from Vietnam who’d been with him when he lost a lung to a sniper’s bullet. He thought he would die, but his friend had stayed with him reminding him to exhale until the medics arrived. He’d called out to him the day before when he was having a breathing attack and here he was sending messages through me proving that their friendship had transcended death.

People told me that they found hope and help with the messages I was able to provide, yet the more time I spent on the Hill the more I realized how dangerous this job was. Not in the way most people might think. We have all heard stories of haunted houses and unruly spirit’s, but the dangers I saw involved the more human pathos of ego and power.

Most human beings do not handle power well and all of us struggle with our own shadow side, our own unconsciousness, fears and addictions. But those of us who have tapped into what appears to be unique skills and/or abilities of a spiritual nature must be evermore vigilant in the management of our own ego. For these perceived “powers” have the potential to make us feel or others perceive that we are all-knowing or even God-like. This indeed, is a slippery slope.

As with the grieving woman who had clutched my arm after the séance, it was easy to see how anyone with a heart would want to console her. It was also easy to see how tempting it might be for a Reader to dabble in hyperbole or to consciously or even unconsciously throw enough words around so that they hear some of what they came for. This way the Reading could be considered a success and the question of whose interests were served could be avoided.

The more time that I spent up on the Hill, the more I saw a tendency for Readers to become so susceptible to feeding their own sense of personal power or their pocketbook that to protect their “stash” of Readings they behaved as if they were engaged in a contact sport. Everyone was fair game. Parlor tricks were not exempt, and a variety of subversive terror tactics were employed to gain and maintain control.

These might be as banal as proving their prowess by bending spoons and tipping tables, or as malevolent as accusing a male Reader of being a sex offender and dabbling in black magic to trip others up. By the end of the summer the allure of this insatiable ego-fueled power created such a lack of genuine love and respect for others that it spurred a mass exodus of Readers.

Those that stayed appeared to be sleepwalking as they joylessly stacked up Readings and collected cash. Those of us that left were threatened not to talk about experiences and some of us experienced headaches and physical illness.

Many of us learned the valuable lessons of letting go of the novelty of what we do. Most of us came to understand that not all people with spiritual gifts handle them with loving intentions. I learned that psychic power not grounded in a commitment to serve the greater good can disconnect people from themselves, from others, and from their God.

Summer has come and gone. The lessons of Spook Hill live on. Every time I am called to use my six-sensory gifts in the world, I am grateful for the reminder that the only real power I have—is to decide who I will serve.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

True Confessions

“Forgive me Father for I have sinned it has been over 30 years since my last confession.”

It had, in fact, been 33.
“And what,” Father B asked, “brought you here today?”
Not an easy question to answer. Except, it had a lot to do with a brown-eyed boy who waited for me back in the pew. Though I had little trust of religious institutions or the men who ran them, I was determined to support my son’s spiritual quest.
“Mom, I want to be a Catholic.” He’d informed me months before.
I, too, had been a Catholic once. Like my son, I received first communion in a ceremony of pomp and circumstance. Instead of a tie, I wore a white lace dress with a doily-shaped veil bobby-pinned to my pageboy haircut.
Father B looked at me as I sat down in the chair opposite him ignoring both his question and the optional pre-Vatican II screen, which I could have hid behind. What would be the use? He knew who I was; the entire congregation knew who I was; the woman whose partner was a woman.
The term gay or lesbian was never spoken aloud.
This small parish with its thriving parochial school embraced an ideology that skirted its Roman roots, preaching that “the people” are God’s church, therefore, “all people” were welcome, a friendlier version of don’t ask, don’t tell.
“I’m here to support my son,” I said, pointing at the ornate door I’d shut behind me upon entering the closet-sized room.
He nodded.
Parents were encouraged to receive the sacrament of reconciliation along with their children, and though there were other lapsed Catholics in the crowd, one by one, they all lined up to follow their child’s lead.
“Aren’t you going to go up, Mom?” My son had asked.
It seemed easier to nod my head and get in line than try to explain to a seven-year-old the theological implications of being gay. Moreover, I did not want to burden him with the still-fresh pain of my partner’s confession recent confession.
A surprise, even to her, she’d said, returning home late from Bible study.
Not only because he was a man, but a married man, with kids, and well, he was also the minister of the open and affirming church she’d been attending.
Who knew how open and affirming he’d turn out to be?
So, there I sat in a claustrophobic closet with a priest who smelled of peppermint and the garbled sounds of women’s voices floating up through the floor vent from the yeasty lunchroom directly below.
He cleared his throat, no doubt sensing I was not thrilled to be there.
“Have you been practicing your sacraments?” He asked.
“Father, I am a lesbian,” I said incredulously.
“In this church,” he said softly, “that makes no difference.”
Perhaps, it was the gentleness in his voice, it resonated with a kind of vulnerability, or maybe it was because my partner’s confession was colliding in my mind with recent news reports of pedophile priests, sex-scandals, and mounting legal fees, or maybe it just that my heart felt so scarred, so tender, or perhaps we were both in the wrong place at the wrong time, whatever it was a floodgate opened up inside of me and out spewed my own unplanned sermon on the hypocrisy of religious institutions and the men who ran them. How f—’d up it all was, how they perverted the true message of Jesus, how I did not buy any of it, how I did not trust him, and if all that wasn’t enough, to cap it off, I added that for all I knew he too could be sexually abusing the boys behind the altar!
When I finished, I sank breathlessly back into the chair and put my head in my hands and sobbed. After a long silence, I heard him say, “I feel your pain. I’m sorry.”
I stood up mumbling my own apology, preparing to leave, when my eyes met his. There was such compassion in his eyes that when he waved me back down, I obeyed.
“Please,” he said, “Do you believe in prayer?”
I nodded.
“Will you pray for me? I am scheduled for a surgery on Monday and I’m asking for prayers because . . . well, frankly . . . I’m terrified.”
In that instant, I realized he had honed in on the one thing I did have faith in, it wasn’t a religious institution or a person, but I did believe in the power of prayer and he’d asked me to give the one thing I could give.
“Of course, Father, I will pray for you.” I took the tissue he offered.
Outside of the box the congregation began to sing the Halleluiah chorus, and suddenly, we were both conscious of the time. I imagined my son horrified at the thought that his mother must have an extraordinary number of sins to confess.
“Are you ready for your penance?” He asked.
Wondering how many Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s my impertinent behavior had merited, I nodded.
He cleared his throat and, for the first time, said my name, “Bridget, I want you to trust God.”
I stared at him. Was he joking? A million Hail Mary’s would be easier.
“Father, I don’t think you know what a tall order that is.” I said, and got up to leave.
“Oh, I think I do.” He smiled. There was a strange twinkle in his eyes as he handed me tissue for the road.
I took the tissue and couldn’t help but smile back.
“Thank you,” I managed, as I stepped through the thick door into a crescendo of voices. The sound broke over me like a wave of warm water and I returned to the pew where I found my son kneeling, his hands clasped, his eyes closed and his head bowed. Grateful for his lead, I kneeled beside him, closed my eyes and thanked God for men like Father B: men who understood the true meaning of the message of the one they professed to be their God.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One Dyslexic's True Life Story

What happens when your biggest dream becomes a re-occurring nightmare?

Imagine you are in first grade and more than anything in the world you want to learn to read and write, unlike the other kids, you know what you want to do when you grow up.  You want to write books.

 So you stare hard at the blackboard as the teacher writes a sentence in white chalk. Everyone in the class seems to be able to read it, except you. The girl sitting beside you leans over and whispers, “It says . . . See Jane run.” You concentrate hard, but no matter how long or hard you look, it doesn’t make sense.  None. Not one wit of sense.

All you can see is a series of sticks and squiggles.  Symbols that in your mind have no meaning.  It doesn’t take long for you to figure out that you are not getting it—that you are not one of the smart kids.

 Had you known then what kind of determination and resiliency would be required to fulfill your dream, there’s a pretty good chance you may have hid in the pale pink tunnel at the edge of the playground and refused to come out for the rest of your life.  But, you were young. And innocent.  Back then, life stretched before you like a freshly paved asphalt road before anyone had a chance to paint the yellow lines. There was not one ounce of caution or resignation in your six-year-old bones.

Today, over forty years later, when you see letters or numbers or sentences written on blackboards, or even when you pick up a pen to write, your stomach still leaps with that familiar panicky feeling and the fear rises around you like an invisible vapor coating your pores with shame and inadequacy.

What if everyone gets it, except you?

This deep burn in your belly, you know, in your mature adult-self, is the price you have paid all of your life for the odd ability to see the world inside out and upside down. Most of the time, if you slow down enough, take a deep breath, and concentrate on the words, the dark feelings leave of their own volition. Yet, over the years, the memories have lived on in your cells and you do not know who you would be without them. So, you’ve learned to adapt, to slow down, to enunciate your words, to write them out when necessary, and to let yourself dream in spite of the ugly fog that threatens to swallow you whole.

In spite of your own shame and inadequacy.

In spite of other people’s impatience, frustration, and judgments.

Like that time in second grade when you were called to the nurse’s office to look into a special machine, to test your eyes. Inside, there was a picture of a small town with a stop sign and a cow.  The nurse asked, which came first the cow or the stop sign. You picked the cow.  This disappointed her.  She switched the plates in and out of the machine and asked you to pick again. You picked the stop sign, because you wanted her to be happy, but as it turned out she was even more disappointed than before.

Or that time in third grade when you wrote the spelling words on your arm like Jake Munson, but you got caught and had to stand up and apologize to the entire class for being a liar and a cheat. 

Or that time in fourth grade when the teacher made you stand in a corner and hold the weekly reader against the wall with your nose, because you had refused to read aloud to the class. She did not believe that you did not know these words. She said you were being obstinate and sassy and acting dumb just to draw attention to yourself.

Then, in college when you confessed to your best friend that you had always dreamed of being a writer, and she laughed so hard that the beer bubbled out of her nose and she convinced you that a business degree would be a far better fit because she wasn’t going to type any more papers for you and no one could read a damn thing you wrote.

As any dyslexic will tell you, there is something about seeing the world differently that makes you want to see it even more, that makes you want to try harder, that makes you want to master this unruly part of your self. So you keep at it, ignoring the naysayersl and one day, perhaps just to torture yourself a little more, you find yourself signing up for night classes as a “special student” and taking courses in typing, grammar and poetry, taking all those courses your friend had convinced you would be way too hard.  Staying up late, typing your own papers or pressing the pencil so hard on the pages of your journal that it would break off into a run across the page lead flying in all directions as you dared to dream even bigger. 

Novel sized-dreams.

And when the night course ended the teacher asked you to say after.  The fire in your belly roared in your ears as she walked over and handed you a stack of papers, your papers, dripping with red marks. 

“The parts I could read were stunning. You have a gift, I hope you will learn to type and go get an MFA.”

Many, many years later, your son starts sixth grade, and finally, with a nudge from a kind writer friend, you apply to a Writing program to pursue your MFA, even though you feel certain that there is no way in hell you’ll be able to keep up, much less get in. 

But, you do.  In fact, you receive a scholarship for your essay application. 

And now, here you are, three novels, countless short stories and many poems later writing reflecting back on your own definition of resiliency, thinking that some true story problems may take an entire lifetime to answer.








Monday, October 5, 2009

Group Healing:A Word to Wise


            My eyes were closed.  I’d been laying on the table for over an hour. I could hear voices around me. Nine energy workers, some certified in multiple healing modalities, others with years of experience, all with good intentions, at least, as far as I knew. Yet, my heart wanted nothing to do with them. It had placed a force field around my body, as if it were trying to protect me from something.

            But what? 

            My body knew, in that moment it just wasn’t telling me.  I could hear them talking: You’re not letting us in.  She’s blocking.  It’s not working we should break for lunch. Lunch won. The healing session had stalled out. I agreed; they couldn’t do what they’d come to do. So they left. I laid on the table feeling as though a team of surgeons had taken my heart out and sewn me back up.

A cloud of shame engulfed me as, one by one, I listened to them leave. I felt awful.  I felt guilty and worthless.  Somehow, it felt as though I had disappointed them even more than I had disappointed myself.

            Later, I realized that a group ego had emerged during the healing session, overshadowing the will of its individual participants, and it radiated anger, frustration, even, disgust. My friends and fellow energy workers could not read my energy, my body-consciousness was not allowing them access, but I could read theirs, individually and collectively. Each and every one of them had surrendered their personal will to this collective ego, which was being fueled by some strange combination of compassion, control, and competition. 

             Depleted. Defeated. Unable to move, my spirit did not deem this situation safe enough to surrender to the vulnerability that such a healing would require.  And what was my role here? Had I disassociated? I didn’t think so, I simply felt to awful, and I had set an intention not to abandon myself, not to leave my body. I was there, with my eyes closed, fully present to the pain.

A few minutes after they left the room I heard footsteps circling back to the table.  “Are you okay?” A familiar voice asked. A friend.

Reflexively, I nodded but like the healing session, my heart wasn’t in it. They had given up on me. They had abandoned me. The thought ran through my head that perhaps I was beyond healing. That’s what it felt like.

It felt as though someone had broken an unspoken contract, was it me or them?

One of my greatest fears has always been that I may be too damaged to heal? And, in that moment, the firing pins in my brain began to bombard me with a freight train full of negative thoughts. Was it them that wanted me to die or was it only that damn debilitating sense of shame and failure I had carried with me my entire life? I’d done enough healing work to know that sometimes you feel worse before you feel better but if I were to describe the feeling I had as I lie there on that table, I would say it was akin to having been energetically gang-raped.

            What the hell was going on? What had triggered this overpowering sense of self-hatred? These were my friends, fellow healers, light workers, I loved them all, but I had no words for the intense sense of violation and betrayal that vibrated through my body.

In Alice Miller’s book “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” she explains that people who have suffered trauma or abuse as a child often have a difficult time discerning “safe” situations as adults, hence a child who was victimized will grow up to recreate the same imbalance of power in her adult relationships.  She will unwittingly invite more opportunities to be victimized, and she may even believe that this is love.  But, for adults who want to heal these wounds and patterns she says we must learn to trusty our bodies for our bodies never lie.

And my body wanted nothing to do with this group of healers, friends or not.

But why? 

It took me weeks of introspective prayer, meditation, and intense discussions with other healing practitioners to figure it out, but I did. Whether my friends had formed a group with “no leader” to avoid contamination of any one person’s individual ego or to tap into the higher vibration of a well-intentioned collective or for some other purpose it no longer mattered because what I experienced was perfect illustration of how a healing can go awry when the collective ego overpowers and obscures the goal of the greatest good and healing for the person who is on the table.

So a final word to the wise, before you bare your heart and soul to any group, friends, colleagues, even seasoned professionals, no matter how well-intentioned, make sure there is someone there, someone you trust, someone who will sit with you, stay with you, advocate for you.  Because if something does go wrong, you will want to know ahead of time who is willing to skip lunch.



Friday, September 25, 2009

When One Woman Wins, We All Win: Why I Give $5 a Month to AROHO

“Never had much money . . . but I lived like a millionaire.” Jane Vanderbosh

Inspired by my late friend and fellow writer, Jane, I decided in December of 2001, to give $5 to anyone who asked for money that holiday season. The world was still reeling from the aftershock of 9/11, I was a single mom working for a small non-profit, a full-time graduate student, and I was hosting an international student to make ends meet.  Needless to say, I did not have deep pockets.

My friend Jane never had deep pockets either. Yet, in the months prior to her death, I witnessed with great admiration the generosity of heart that guided her life. 

When I shared my memorial plans for Jane with my son he shook his head silently. As long it did not interfere with his allowance, my foolishness would be overlooked.

In her apartment overlooking the lake, Jane spent her final days resting while an army of women attended to her needs. One day, after a chemo treatment, I sat listening to her read from a novel she still hoped to finish when someone knocked at her door.  I answered it.  There stood a man in a state of extreme agitation, rambling incoherently, and reeking of perspiration and stale beer. To my consternation, Jane invited him in.

When I returned from the kitchen with a pot of coffee, Jane was listening to this man so attentively, with such love in her eyes, that he eventually calmed down and stopped speaking, altogether. But before he left he asked her for money. Again. Jane sent me to the kitchen for an old jam jar that contained a wad of bills bound in a rubber band. She asked me to give him a five-dollar bill.  I did. Though, I doubted it would be used for constructive purposes.

After he left, I voiced this opinion. Jane smiled. The sun shone through the window highlighting the hollowness in her cheeks, and though her skin had taken on a gray palor of impending death, a hazy luminosity surrounded her. She waved her hand across the room. “Look at how lucky I am. It’s none of my business what he spends it on.  My business is only to give when I have something to give. Giving makes me feel rich.”

As I collected the empty coffee cups, she said, “Try it.” It felt like a dare.

Inspired, by Jane’s ability to manifest miracles and create abundance, I began by sending a check for $5 to the American Cancer Society. Within a few weeks, additional requests trickled in. Soon my mailbox was stuffed with complimentary address labels, shiny nickels, pictures of children with bloated stomachs or cleft lips, oily beaches smeared with dead fish, a myriad of newsletters and always, always, more requests.

As I wrote my $5 checks or stuffed $5 bills into Salvation Army buckets, or street musician’s cans or baskets for 9/11, I did feel rich.  I decided Jane was right.

That was until one bitterly cold day when I was walking downtown with my son and a man in a wheelchair shaking a battered cup wheeled in front of us. His hands were frostbitten, his eyes were bloodshot and he reminded me a bit of Jane’s visitor.  I peeled off my glove and pulled out $5 bill.  He thanked me and blessed me. My son shook his head and continued walking.

“Why are you wasting your money, Mom?” He pointed behind us as we got caught up in foot traffic. I looked back just in time to see the man, step out of the wheelchair, and walk into a bar.  None of my business, I reminded myself. Yet, deep down, I wondered if, in this instance I had been foolish in my “giving.”

I began to talk with Jane’s in my head (a life-long habit of talking with dead people) about my doubts regarding the path she had encouraged me to embark upon. I told her I needed proof that this philosophy of generosity actually worked. I remembered the man in her apartment and I argued with her in my head. What if he had used that money for street drugs, OD’d and died, wouldn’t that matter?

“That’s God’s business, not yours.”  I heard her clear as day

“I thought you were an atheist!” I countered aloud.

“I used a term you’d understand,” she said, and was gone, leaving me to my own internal wrangling.

Ironically, within a few days of my demand for proof, our host-student announced she was moving to New York. This left me short on rent, with an empty room, in record low temperatures that had spiked the heating bills through the roof. Then, I lost my wallet. Then, my job! Trying not to panic, I kept giving, even though every request tempted me to forget this crazy quest. 

Nothing works quite like fear to get me to my knees. Unlike Jane, whose sassiness had apparently survived her transition to the other side, I do believe in a mysterious force I call God.  So, I got on my knees and I prayed. I prayed for the strength to keep giving. I prayed for the courage to trust.

The very next day a package came in the mail without a return address. It contained my wallet, completely intact. There was also a letter offering me a six-month severence package, and my landlord called to say, “Forget the rent . . . just cover the utilities until you get back on your feet and . . . oh . . . Merry Christmas!” 

Why do I give to AROHO?  I give because I can. I give because I hold a vision for my work and for the work of all creative women. I give because I believe in an abundant and benevolent Universe. I give because beyond the struggle, I have seen the light, and when one woman wins we all win! So today make a decision to be someone’s miracle because you may just manifest your own. 


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An Introspective Essay on the Existence of Evil

“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” Edmund Burke

Once, while witnessing a particularly brutal beating metered out by my mother onto the body of my ten-year-old brother, I attempted to intervene by telling her that if she didn’t stop I would call the police. She shook her wooden spoon at me and laughed. “They’ll never believe you,” she said. I was twelve-years-old at the time and sadly, I believed her.

“She’s evil,” concerned friends or family members whispered on those rare occasions when they witnessed my mother not living up to the saint-like persona she projected in public. Others, who may have suspected things weren’t quite right, teachers, neighbors, even our parish priest seemed hesitant to speak up. This was before Oprah and Dr. Phil, when children were considered personal property and the Ten Commandments held more persuasive power than a few bruises on some kid’s back. 

As the eldest of six children, I had been raised to be obedient not only to my parents, God, and the Church, but to a deeply ingrained system of family secrecy. So, on those rare occasions, when people did speak up, I would dismiss their concerns with compassionate logical explanations, such as “She just gets like this sometimes,” or “It looks worse than it is,” and as I grew older, “She’s mentally ill.”

My mother did her part to protect and maintain this system of secrecy by diverting people’s attention. Usually this was accomplished by wringing her hands together with her face contorted in pain to indicate that her arthritis had flared up or by becoming despondent over some perceived injustice regarding someone else’s behavior. Most often my father, who, though certainly overwhelmed, managed to abdicate much of his own parental responsibilities by perfecting his avenues of escape; a smoke, a drink, an appointment at the office.

Yet, no matter what other people said or thought, I steadfastly refused to call my mother “evil.”  Whether this was born of wisdom or fear I’m not sure.  What is certain is if I chose to question her behavior, I risked exposure to the answer to the question of “who would believe me?”  In strange way, the potential pain I might cause myself or others, by revealing the lies, felt more threatening than the pain of living with them. So, for survival’s sake, in my mind, I simply split my mother into two people: the Dr. Jekyll who masqueraded as my mother and the Mr. Hyde who loved me.

Those who used the word “evil” would look at me like they felt sorry for me. How simplistic and ignorant I must be. They assumed I had no sense about the true nature of love or safety. In this regard they were right for well into adulthood I seemed unable to discern between the good or ill intentions of others.  Some said this was due to a natural innocence, others to an unconscious ignorance, and the hard-liners saw it as a calcified coping skill that had grown into a willful denial.

Fortunately, life has a strange way of teaching each of us what we need to learn. Over time, I found myself continually being drawn into circumstances where I became a key witness too, or the target of, someone else’s questionable behavior. Behavior that others deemed “evil.”

A former in-law who lowered his voice as he explained that smart businessmen keep two sets of books, one for the IRS and one with the actual numbers. The employee I caught charging hundreds of dollars worth of tools on the company account, who, in retaliation for my discovery, embarked on a slander campaign that derailed attention from his activities and made me the target of a generalized hatred: “Are you paranoid? I said good night,” he’d say, and then whisper again as he shut the office door, “fucking dyke.”  

However, the event that blew the rusted shutters off of my denial was when my partner of seven years returned home late from Bible study to confess that she’d become romantically entangled with the minister of our church. A married man with a handful of beautiful blond-haired children, a man whose sermons had led me to tears, a man who espoused the open and affirming stance of his congregation, as I was to learn to too late, to a fault.

Impelled by the pain that had seized my heart, I finally spoke up. For this life-long habit of silence in the face of physical, emotional and spiritual destruction had become a noose around my neck. Though the twelve-years-old within secretly wished that someone stronger and more articulate than I would step in and save me. But the pain had more to teach me. In the end, we learned together that the same shadowy system of secrecy that protected my mother protected this man as well.

Yet, the effort was not wasted, nor were the words that wobbled from my mouth, for I knew my heart was true, and as I came face to face with this man’s denial, I was forced to see my own. Eye to eye, I saw evil for what it really was. And it disappeared in the light of the truth.

So, this man, who could have been any man, helped me see that my pain was my project. It was my responsibility to embrace my own healing journey, to hold and assure the terrified child within that I can and will speak up! Furthermore, if I listen to myself, I will always be able to discern the truth, and define for myself in any situation the degree of deceit (my own or another’s) at work.  The only one who needs to believe me—is me.

Evil exists only when we deny the truth of who we are and nothing but an illusion can separate us from ourselves, from our truth, or from our God.