Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How Seminary Ruined Me-- Okay, that's hyperbole.

That was a meltdown. Nuclear.  Full on panic attack unlike one I've had since my doctor hopped me up on artificial hormones to stimulate menstruation about three years ago. I don't do synthetic hormones. They leave me curled in a ball over stupid things, like track balls that fall apart and loss of internet connection. At this moment that the pox upon my house. When I lose internet, I feel like a wee mouse trapped in the sands of time, waiting for it to choke me out with the pile up of work, one grain at a time. I should probably say, I work from a home office, so my productivity and livelihood are on the line.

I got a "new" laptop bequeath by the company tech gurus in place of a former version that wouldn't connect to my internet at all. This one drops the VPN, virtual private network, every few minutes, so I have a USB wifi adapter, plugged into it. This is one I scrounged from a bottom drawer, a burial ground of power supplies, adapters, chargers and thumb drives. It was my daughter's last year and even then it threatened suicide daily. I am melting down because it has renewed its bid for death and it is my final pitiable not to call the AT&T guy again. I told my company tech gurus that something wasn't right with wifi ticker in the heart of this ol' laptop. Nope, they insist, it's my ISP (internet service provider, aka AT&T). AND, apparently, the ISP of the hotel where I stayed the week after picked up this repurposed computer. And the ISP at my colleague's house, and my dad's house. The latter two work from home sans VPN connection issues. As the old 90's song says, "Things that make you go hmmmm."

So here I am making a bad choice. I'm blogging. I should go for a walk and get away from the very tree of the knowledge of good and evil, instead of trusting the darn thing. I've already removed the USB bus controller-detector-something-or-another twice today and refound the hardware plug-ins. I have to hop a plane in two days and  I'm only halfway a major project. Instead of using time efficiently, I'm blowing my energy on a much more entertaining and less pressing demonstration. Once again, I have a great idea, but, as is typical of me, it's a bit complicated.

The irony is that it's the first day back from Spring Break. It's Bright Tuesday. I should be refreshed and "Christ is Risen," darnnit.

Instead I'm having a panic attack, meltdown, confession to the frickin' wind about why I need to stop complicating my life with fun but demanding projects. Like a community garden on my lawn for less than $100- this year. Like maintaining this job from two states away, a job in education which, before all the federal and state crises felt like Nebuchenezzer's fire. Now it's been fired up with all sorts of wood. It should be relinquished for something with less stress, travel (especially during Lent), and with more freedom to support the parish ministry to which I'm mentally committed.  Like the small mission team to Project Mexico I thought I needed to do THIS SUMMER when we've been working to discipline our budget and get other parish priorities in line. Like the financial stability I should have protected before we hit nearly every wall. There I said it.

My stomach has been a ball of knots today. I spent most of last night without sleep. It started with calculating the mission trip cost and the step of faith it means for my daughter and me. I prayed about it. Insomnia and prayer are the only healthy mix. I've learned that is the best use of night-time non-sleep periods. Yet, in spite of being tired and wired, I didn't get up and do my much need de-stressing run. If done in the wee hours of the morning, it is de-stressing because it doesn't derail our family and parish demands. Put it off till after work and it becomes physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing, if not impossible.  (At least a good friend gave me a treadmill, which helps relieve my stress.) There was no decompression today.

I spent the last 20% of my workday, sobbing and berating my computer. "Please. Puleeze. PLEEEEAAASEE. WORK."

I was begging the Belkin to flash lights that said I had internet. I can't even order a new adapter without this one.  For pity's sake, my entire livelihood is wrapped up in this stinking USB port.

My husband was responding to my distress. He was frantically trying to finish Liam's school day, clean up the flour from making prosphora with a ten-year old boy, and shopping for a new adapter, alternating with sweet pats and attempts at placating my panicked soul. I ended up on my knees with nappy wipes, dust mopping. I was waiting for my computer to re-start for the umpteenth time, hoping for some magic. I sopped dust bunnies and gasped with tears. I was confessing that I'm obsessed with all the things that don't matter.  Accusations filled my mind. Why do people think I am collected enough to send them Scripture, advise them on diet and stress, or make any sort of spiritual guidance. Broken. That's me.

I got my connection, after I moved my computer back to the treadmill desk and started walking again. Buying the USB is not a wise decision, thinks I. I have to anyway. Maybe we'll get a break from my school for expenses.  We'll be fine. I'm grateful for umpteenth blessings of generosity provided in the past year. I'm a bit conflicted about a few too.  We've had so many since the first year we left for seminary.

Not that God didn't send manna and quails in our distress before seminary. I can't forget a single time that a friend or anonymous person came along and made sure our brakes worked, our car was fixed, our food storages were full. Always it was pay it forward. When we left for seminary my brother offered to mitigate any financial distress and my dad promised we wouldn't starve. My parents paid my son's tuition when we couldn't manage to home school both him and Ophelia.

Meanwhile something broke in my gut. I have digestion issues galore. I've learned to live on little food and to want to give up more. I enjoyed the ascesis, sort of. I mean, I wanted ascesis. When we left for St. Tikhon's, I'd just finished The Way of the Pilgrim, and I dreamed of learning to live on less and less. I have in a way. I can eat fewer foods than most doctors can imagine. I can put up with a lot more work and stress than I believed possible. All at a price. I've aged. I feel it's a way of a wayward pilgrim, my sort of pilgrim.

But it had a bad outcome in me. It ruined me. I've become dependent. It still eat in my stress. Just now, I was sneaking nut tainted sugary nothings in my pantry. Sneaking from nobody but my own health, naturally. Staring at that jar of carmelized nuts and fruits, I reflected on the first ginormous pile of Christmas gifts my kids recieved from wonderful FOCA initiative. I had been told it would be a bit embarrassing. It kicked off something in my spirit. An acceptance I struggled to accept. We never spent more than $35 dollars on any one of us for birthdays or Christmas. That year, they spent hundreds. We had to face those folks at a FOCA gathering in Memphis the following year. I had a lump in my throat. We learned fast to list less.

I won't go into the litany of ways we were 'rescued' over the past five years- trust me, we Orthodox know the cliche "litany" when we use it. We have about fifteen in our Sunday services. Okay, that's hyperbole. Barely.

Needless to say, in the high stress world of being a sole provider-- now I know how my hubby felt when I stayed home to with our little ones-- and while a spouse is in a demanding graduate program, I learned to receive. I gorged on those gifts. I stuffed them in while I could. I got too good at accepting.

It ruined me. Not him-- my husband, for the record. Just me. I got entitled. I made excuses. The abbess at Holy Transfiguration, Mother Christophora, once advised us against admitting we are 'exhausted' because it means we give up. We are saying we cannot discipline ourselves. That is exactly what I did. I gave up trying to live within those tight reins I had eagerly desired. I gave up and went onto entitlements. So much for the noble Cinderella Man who pays it all back when his own need is over. All the longing to purge my soul of those silly American wishes to 'just win the lottery' or let it roll over onto the overdraft line of credit? I was going to beat those back in seminary. It was going to be ascesis while we were near a monastery. Instead, I just learned to receive, to write thank you notes to everyone but God. Thank you notes are NOT my strong suit, so that was a feat. Still it wasn't the gratitude that prompts a reciprocation.

My gut knew it. I eat healthier than most people I know. And more expensively. A raw and nearly vegan diet with lots of restriction is COSTLY, yet I still knot up and get sick and bound up. It's not that I'm all Clinique and boutique. Here's your first evidence, though. While at seminary I got a reputation as a foodie. A foodie? I was first offended. Then I didn't mind.

I don't buy expensive clothes still. I still try to plant my own herbs. We drive beaters and try to walk, but we also insist upon buying our new appliances 'green.' That's expensive. New anything is expensive.

We still expect weekly dates.

 I still want a $3 bottles of wine in my weekly budget. Not too much, but really, do I need that? I gave up ice cream. Surely I can give up chocolate, and wine. Should I go back to cheap flour and sugar?

There's a part of seminary, where I complained to to other seminarians about needing more organic food and more choices in that little coal mining town, that I used those to excuse my indulgence. It was just enough to become careless. There's a part of the choice changes that spiritually confuses me. Organic and fair trade planting for a better and brighter future, right? Only if I'm not mortgaging my present.

A few minutes ago, my husband got a call, as my meltdown was ebbing. Apparently we were 'on' for food for my daughter's tennis team tonight.  We must have forgotten. We certainly overlooked it. Since he couldn't shop for fifteen girls and deliver to the school within 10 minutes, when the bus was leaving, he's chasing them to Danville High School with a cart full of junk food I'm sure. I imagine him lost and frustrated. Our silly Tom Tom lasted  a mere year before pooping out. -- Did I mention that technology is one great tool of the Evil One?

I am here blogging and feeling such regret. Elder Porphyrios' admonishments about spiritual violence in our moments of personal anger are haunting me.  Fr. Joel had to bear my spiritual violence of melting down to the walls and the room. I had told him I wished he wasn't there to hear me crying and confessing and dusting the floor. I wish I could have secretly unpacked my anger and sins. That's hardly confessional though. It feel cathartic but it's a mere stepping stone towards the sacrament I will need to accept this week- the one of Reconciliation and Repentance. If he hadn't overheard, I think I might have stuffed those sins pack in the pocket where I've been tucking all that self-entitlement. While I was sobbing, I battled the timeless wishes for genii and lotteries and flowers with bon bons. I was wishing he'd just break down and promise a full body massage. He was offering real help and I was so mad I just wanted some darn flowers. As he flew out the door apologizing and memorizing directions to Danville, I told him thank you for going to get Ophelia. I checked her grades and asked him to tell her congrats. They are perfect as always. I told him to leave Liam, even if I don't get to go out for a run tonight. I need to give up something. If not, I'm just entitled, and further entitlement is just one more piece of junk to pile on the things I really want to discard in my spirit.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Running Confession

     I worry that I should be taking my running to confession. Laugh. Go ahead. I know it's funny.
Running ought to be its own ascesis. Exercise is good. Not enough Americans do it. For me, it’s the difference between feeling healthy and feeling very very sick. I have some girlfriends who would love to have older children and the freedom I enjoy, to get up and run daily. Sometimes, while my heels slam the pavement, I feel guilty that I get this and they don’t, but that’s not why I want to confess my running addiction. I want to confess because it can feel like feasting, or justify not fasting.

     Now, when I tell you that I run or walk 50-70 miles a week, it’s easier to see what I mean. To many, that’s a heap of miles, not mention time. I’m not the fastest or slowest runner out there. To athletes, like I’ve become this is normal, even modest. Why do I think it might be a confess-able sin? I plan my running like a daily movable feast- arranging my days, weeks, travel, phone calls, meals, to achieve my daily schedule. I've even refueled on fasting days because of my walk or run.

     Yet at the same time, my run, especially in the spring, is one of the most productive times of reflection and contemplation. For instance, during yesterday’s run, it occurred to me that Great Lent falls at just the right time of year. It ends the bitterest of my seasons- winter. In winter, I hole up. I hibernate, sleeping and eating, forgetting to call friends. I feel like I’m sloughing through cold dark days. The isolation knots up my gut. When I get out and run first thing, the intestines unwind. I feel geared up, like I have more productive days.

      After four years on the mountain, I anticipated this winter back in Indiana. It was supposed to be the usual cold, grey, snowless dullness. Instead it turned out to be more like our Northeastern Pennsylvania winters. Snowy, icy, precipitous. I ate like I usually run, gobbling up calories like miles. I have battled some mysterious digestive malady for nearly a decade now, so my gut knotted up like a serpent. My limbs swelled. I tried offsetting it, running and walking longer on the treadmill, but I learned this year that a treadmill raises the heart rate about a third less. The body no longer responds to uneven changes in the landscape and becomes lax with the unchanging tread. I don’t know how or why, but my gut knows this and winds up.

      Two days ago, my protestant uncle asked me what Orthodox Christians give up for Great Lent. You mean besides meat, cheese, wine, olive oil? I thought. I don't eat meat, can't do dairy, so I explained that I gave up the NPR news I digest for two hours each morning during my run. I love listening to the stories, but when I picked up the signal, I dropped the prayers I made in the early hours. I used to run a circuit that hemmed my friends’ homes. I’d say a prayer as I passed their streets and homes. Mid-Lent I realized that if I was going to run, I’d have to fuel. If I wasn’t giving up the running and the fueling for long Wednesday and Friday fasts, then I had to find a sacrificial ascesis. I shut off the radio. I returned to my musical runs and let the prayers flow again. Funny but the serpent in my gut is unwinding. It seems to be crawling off its rock and sliding away. The obsession with eating is unraveling. It took five weeks of Lent but I found the mental and spiritual will to fast.

     I realized during the run, that it was about getting back to a kind of balance and I thought of Abba Anthony’s spiritual battles. St. Athanasius tells us that Abba Anthony fought demons in his solitary ascetical struggles. Recently I read of his vision. Concerned that he was spending too  much time weaving baskets, Abba Anthony prayed. God sent an angel. The saint saw the angel first weaving, then stopping to pray, then returning to weave. Abba Anthony supported himself by weaving, trading his baskets for his meager provisions. To him, this vision was a clear direction that he should balance his life between activity and prayer. It was balance, not elimination of the needful things.

     Great Lent falling behind the weary battles of winter is a blessed spiritual battle, which when undertaken, God used to re-orient me to the balance between activity and prayer. I’ve been the first to tell friends that my spiritual state is requires such balance. Good days should include time focused upon my family, with productive work, Scripture reading, prayer, a long run, contact with friends or a chance at hospitality and a bit of written reflection.  Thank God through the wisdom of His Church, that I have this fast to whip my soul back into awareness of this needful balance of all good things. 
This is a whole lot of epiphany for the last day of Lent. Is it required to confess running now?