Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


DIY: A to-do list for what-to-do when the world falls apart (sort of.)

Recently I got hit by a tsunami. I thought I might drown. Good news! I did not. Though I am still getting knocked over by stray waves, I am getting my land-legs back. And I am getting back up to my usual hypomanic magnificent speed. Down but never out. God be praised!

The nature of my personal tsunami does not matter. It needs no explanation. We all know what it feels like when the earth beneath our feet disappears. To lose all control. To gasp for air. To struggle to find a port in the storm.

Navigator, navigator, please tell me what to do. And the navigator said, Look within yourself and see. Your creator created you with all that you need. Pick up pen and paper. Write it down and make a list!

So I did and this is mine. A work in progress, not totally done.

A to-do-list for what-to-do when the world falls apart (sort of.)

  1. Sing in the shower at the top of your lungs.
  2. Dress up weekdays in your Sunday best.
  3. Call your loved ones.
  4. Eat dinner with friends.
  5. Write a snail-mail letter or two.
  6. Rattle some rosary beads.
  7. Go to church.
  8. Write a sermon or two.
  9. Ride your bicycle.
  10. Jump in the pool.
  11. Get your hair cut; polish your nails.
  12. Put a peacock feather behind your ear.
  13. Tell some stories.
  14. Perform on stage.
  15. Check in at the office.
  16. Volunteer.
  17. Pass on those fabulous frocks that no longer fit.
  18. Buy some more. (Hello, Anthropologie!)
  19. Weed your books and color code your shelves.
  20. Reorganize your underwear drawer.
  21. Sort through your socks.
  22. Vacay on a staycation.
  23. Get out of town.
  24. Clean that oven which you hardly ever use. (Baking soda and vinegar!)
  25. Deep clean your toaster. (Shake upside down for 10 minutes. Wash the crumbs down the drain!)
  26. Declutter your kitchen counters from all that kitsch.
  27. Alphabetize your spices.
  28. Retire dusty photos and frame a few more.
  29. Remove sticky tape from stainless steel fridge. (Equal parts vinegar/ dish soap!)
  30. Rearrange the art on the door.
  31. Shred all that stuff that needs to be shredded.
  32. Shampoo your clean hair.
  33. Pop that short story (to yet another publisher) into the mail.
  34. Rehab your (35-year-old) daughter’s doll house.
  35. Scrub the miniature floors.
  36. Wash the tiny clothes.
  37. Play with your cats.
  38. Read some trash.
  39. Binge watch whatever you want.
  40. Eat some chocolate cake.
  41. Shed the shame.
  42. Refrain from blame.
  43. Talk about it.
  44. Cry about it.
  45. Laugh about it.
  46. Go to therapy — as much as you can afford!
  47. Hand out $20 bills to homeless folks.
  48. Donate to your favorite lost cause.
  49. Be god-damned grateful for your 23,145 days on earth!
  50. Dance like no one is looking and shout for joy!

As I said, this is a work in progress. Never ever really done — but I am feeling my soul restored — more and more — with each and every item I check off.

So, dear readers, when the tsunami hits and your world falls apart, take a look within and make a list.

Healing is a DIY project. God built into your body and soul all the tools that you will need.


The Parish Priest & the Manic Maid of Orleans

I believe in reincarnation. At least professionally I do. Career wise I have been reborn three times. My first incarnation was in the education field as a Montessori schoolteacher. My second incarnation was in the business world as a Systems Development Manager. And my third is an ecclesiastical calling as a parish priest. Three times seems to be a charm or maybe just good karma. I am now into my 25th year as a parish priest.

For those of you who may not know, the priestly vocation is one of the last generalist professions around. We are according to the Book of Common Prayer supposed to “share in the renewal of the world as pastor, priest and teacher.” Pretty heady stuff on a cosmic level. But down here on earth, we get to work with people of all ages and at every stage of the faith. We get to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to be present at life’s greatest sorrows. And we change hats. We change hats a lot. Pastor, priest and teacher are just three of them.

There is also administrator, supervisor, coach, cheerleader, truth teller, tear dryer, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, choreographer, confessor, bartender, party planner, mediator, crisis counselor, shepherd, building manager, parking lot attendant, babysitter, coffee maker, janitor, plumber, secretary, editor, publisher, facilitator, fundraiser, community organizer, liturgist, preacher, chaplain, wedding coordinator, funeral director and bandleader.

Give me a little more time and I can think of some more.

Bandleader is really the best metaphor for what a parish priest does. The priest doesn’t make the music, the parishioners do. But the priest makes damn sure the music gets made. And to be a good bandleader — with God’s help — you sometimes have to do a little bit  or a lot of all of the above.

On a day to day basis, this calling can be head-spinning-hectic. But I can also honestly tell you it is never boring. Sundays come round and round but no two days are ever alike. And I get bored very easily.

So twenty-eight years ago, as a Systems Development Manager, I called my staff into a meeting to announce my departure. But before I tell you about the meeting, let me tell you a little bit about my second profession. I worked for Freddie Mac in the IT department, back when IT meant mainframes and COBOL and Fortran and JCL (and no, I will not explain these terms, you can Google them.) My team of a dozen programmers supported the financial systems of this Secondary Mortgage Giant. General Ledger. Budget. Payroll. And I was their bandleader — Joani who didn’t even balance her own checkbook.

So I called a meeting of my dozen disciples.  All of them nerdy, techie wizards. I told them how  gratified I was to have been their manager. I applauded all their hard work and thanked them for all they had taught me. But it was time for me to go. I would be leaving at the end of summer to start seminary in the fall. Most of my staff, knowing of my churchy involvement, congratulated me and wished me well. But Julie, the newest member of my staff was silent. Perplexed she paused for a moment. And then she asked me this question.

“Joani, do you hear voices?” A bit taken aback, I too paused and then I answered her. “No, Julie, I don’t hear voices. Do you?”

Joan of Arc in the Cathedral at Reims

Now my namesake, of course, is Joan of Arc. In fact, a WWI poster of Joan of Arc hangs on the wall behind my desk in my Emmanuel office. Mounted on a white stallion, banner furling, sword drawn, Joan is beautifully decked out in shining armor. The poster boasts “Joan of Arc saved her country, so can you.” Well, Uncle Sam, eat your heart out. Who better to lead the charge than the Maid of Orleans.

The Maid of Orleans who heard voices.

Joan heard voices — the voices of angels, the voices of saints, the voice of God. At least that is what she proclaimed. And these voices led her at the tender age of 17 to leave her tiny village. So Joan followed the voices all the way to the court of the defeated Dauphin. And there in King Charles’ court she proclaimed herself a soldier and the savior of his kingdom. The voices gave her the balls to demand an army and the king was so desperate he agreed.

Led by voices, saintly and angelic, Joan did win a glorious battle or two. The glory quickly faded. Captured by the English, Joan was abandoned on the battlefield and crowned a heretic.  And we all know what happens to heretics.

Burned at the stake.

Now the truth be told all of us hear voices. We all have voices in our heads prodding, reminding, encouraging, calming, chastising, urging — lots of voices clamoring for our attention. And it’s a spiritual matter, discerning these voices. Which ones should we pay attention to? Which ones are on our side? Which ones are making any sense? Discerning voices is something all of us do just about all of the time.

The only problem is when the voices seem not your own. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices — St Margaret and St Catherine and the Archangel Michael. She said this is not me talking, I take my orders straight from God. And in the Middle Ages only crazy people heard voices. In the Middle Ages only the possessed heard voices. Crazy, possessed heretics were burned in the Middle Ages.

So it was a very long time, centuries in fact, before a reluctant church placed a halo on Joan’s head. In fact,  Joan was added to Holy Women, Holy Men, the Episcopal calendar of saints, just a decade ago.

It’s dangerous to tell people you hear voices.

But now twenty-eight years on, I need to change my answer to Julie’s question from a “no” to a a qualified “yes”. Yes, I have heard voices not my own. Tuned into the universe, riding wave after wave of manic bliss I have been convinced that God has important things to tell me. There is no booming voice from heaven. It’s more like God and I are on the same page. Lit up inside — as if by fireflies –my fingers fly like lightning on my keyboard. The Creator of the Cosmos inspires my every word.

One summer I wrote twelve sermons in ten days. Brilliant. Profound. Quotable. Publishable. For twelve Saturdays, I pulled them out one at a time before climbing into the pulpit each Sunday. Some of them were damn good indeed. Some of them not so much.

The bipolar brain does not walk in straight lines. The bipolar brain, at its manic best, zigzags and spirals. This brain is like a blender on max combining the most unusual things in the most unusual ways. “Touched with fire” bipolar folks have quite a history of being marvelously creative. Kay Redfied Jamison’s fabulous book “Touched with Fire”  is a veritable who’s who of poets, sculptors, writers, painters, musicians, composers — all of a manic-depressive temperament.

Where would all the art galleries and concert halls be if all this madness had been medicated away?

Emptier maybe but on second thought maybe not. Leave that blender on too long and the bipolar brain breaks. It splinters into a bazillion little pieces. Concentration shatters. You’re no longer sure just whose voices you’re hearing in your head. And whoever they are, they all seem to be clamoring for your attention. So instead of great art pouring out of your brain, out comes the ravings of a lunatic.

So yes, Julie, I have heard voices. Sometimes the voices are my own. Sometimes not. Sometimes maybe the voices of saints and angels. Sometimes maybe — I dare say — even the voice of God. The wisdom of course is learning to discern the difference.

This gift of discernment is by definition pharmaceutical and therapeutic. It is a gift best practiced at the psychiatrist office and on the therapist’s couch. It’s a gift best practiced with friends and family. It’s a gift best practiced each morning when you face yourself in the mirror. It’s a spiritual gift, given by the grace of God.

And for this gift, I am deeply grateful each and every day.

So friends, do you hear voices?


Nothing but cats. You’re welcome.

Have you read the news today? Not so good, right? How’s your love life? Nonexistent? And your bank balance? Kind of low?

Well, you’ve come to the right place! Nothing but cats. Take a stroll through mindless bliss. Scroll through pictures of nothing but happy cats. Let me introduce you to the two drunk acrobats who share my space: Cheshire and Charlie.

They just turned two. And they have crazily done me a lot of good. Maybe they can do the same for you.

So….

Morning yoga.

Nap.

More napping.

Afternoon yoga.

Cat in a box.

Table cloth tunneler.

Toilet paper thief.

Cheshire Cat.

Trash Can Cat.

China Cat.

Cat who can’t get down.

Triangulated Cat.

Cat’s in the bag.

Cats in cahoots.

Dragon slayer.

Scaredy Cat.

Toilet Paper Thief, the Movie.

Litter mates.

Nothing but cats. You’re welcome!


Pajamas, a Personal Manifesto

I am addicted to pajamas.

I recently invested in a Pier One wicker dresser just for my pajamas. I have over a dozen pairs: short, long, cotton & comfy. I even have a linen red polka dot night shirt. Nobody ever really sees me in them but that does not matter. I collect them for myself and recently from my favorite store Bloomers — I brought home a brand new pair.

Sometimes spelled “pyjamas” and nicknamed “PJ’s, jimjams, and jammies”,  pajamas derives from the Hindustani word for lightweight drawstring trousers traditionally worn by Islamic Continental Indians.  Perfect for lounging.  Perfect for sleeping. Perfect for so much more.

Like interchangeable monastic robes,  each pair I wear depends upon my manic-depressive mood.

Mostly manic and  mostly mystical, in the sanctity of  my sacred space, I call home.

Yoga stretching.

TV watching.

Blog blogging.

Day dreaming.

Coffee drinking.

Netflix binging.

Life contemplating.

Psyche orienting.

Decompressing.

Soul relaxing.

Head raising.

Life strategizing.

Event planning.

MAC typing.

Day scheduling.

Church organizing.

Kid connecting.

Friend texting.

Book reading.

Breakfast eating.

iPhone tapping.

News consuming.

Pillow hugging.

Couch surfing.

Spotify hopping.

Coffee drinking (Yes, again, coffee drinking.)

Mood mellowing.

Evening praying.

Inward looking.

Brain cycling.

Tightrope balancing.

Politics pumping.

Crazy resisting.

Fire dreaming.

Self affirming.

Spirit restoring.

World saving.

All in my pajamas: fleece, flannel, cotton, short and long, worn through and brand new.

All in my pajamas, in an hour or two, I collect my thoughts and reconfigure my gut, at least for the next day or so.

I recommend it most highly  — in these exceedingly strange and stressful times.

Pajamas, my personal manifesto. A way of life.


An Unorthodox Easter: The Gospel According to Gary

My son Zach from a very early age was a Far Side fan. You remember Far Side, of course — those twisted little windows into reality that appeared in the funny pages each Sunday. Gary Larson was the Svengali of subversive. Insect like people living in the suburbs, cows channel surfing on the couch, dogs dishing out wisdom, and the occasional person observing life’s absurdities. It was actually a little scary that Zach at age six without any parental explanation got it. And got it he did. Zach collected every compilation of Far Side Cartoons published. And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.

For Zach, these were kind of like the “lost gospels of Gary Larson.” Sifting through them, I came across my most-favorite-by-far Far Side Cartoon of all time.

Etched in black in a white rectangle 3 ½ inches square, the scene is set. Jesus sits slumped over on a barstool. He cradles a cup of coffee in his hands, steam rising like incense. He has more than a five o’clock shadow. His clothes are rumpled and dirty. His hair is wild and uncombed. Behind him is an empty coffin, a stand-in for the empty tomb. The caption reads:  I wonder what time it is…I feel like I’ve been dead for three days.

From the Lost Gospel of Gary Larson

Irreverent right? Sacriligeous right? Heretical right? Hysterical right? I go mostly with hysterical because to me it is so hysterically true. What better Jesus to greet us on Easter morning than the Jesus who knows exactly what it is like to stumble and struggle in the darkness. What better news after walking through the hell of Holy Week — than to wake up surprised as anybody — to live and breathe again.

This is my kind of Jesus.

Heretic (of a kind), I am proudly so. Remember, this little blog is titled Unorthodox and Unhinged. And I come from a long line of the unhinged — who know all too well what it is like to stumble and fumble through the dark.

The darkness the world calls depression — definitely the down side of bipolar disorder.

Growing up we knew my mom was not like other moms. Reading my mother was like reading a weather report: cloudy and dark or bright and clear? When she was the latter my mother was the life of the party, a fabulous storyteller, she infamously shopped- ‘til-she-dropped. Back in the 70’s in a single shopping spree, my mom spent $1000 in a Hallmark Store! Birthday party favors, greeting cards, and Halloween decorations galore!

But more often, my mom took to her bed for days on end, and we dared not darken her door. To smooth out her moods my mother medicated herself with drink and abused prescription drugs. Add lithium to that cocktail and she was practically catatonic — seemingly beyond resurrection.

My mom came by this honestly, her mom before her, my Grandmother Cady, had taken to her bed for three long years. My grandmother had retreated into the tomb of her darkened room. And during these years, my mother had to drop out of school and become the mother who cooked and cleaned and grocery shopped for her father and older brother.

I understand much better now what triggered my mother’s illness.

And like my mother before me, I too fell down the bipolar rabbit hole — quite late at the age of 48. I will not bore you with the details but sixteen years ago, while I was rector-chief cook-and bottle-washer-24/7 at Holy Cross and going through a divorce, I crashed and burned. My days had become so dark I could barely get out of bed. And when out and about, I could barely wait to get back into that bed again at the end of the day.

After preaching every service, making every pastoral call, facilitating every forum, being at every Bible study, leading every vestry meeting, sitting in on every committee, negotiating every dispute, and even singing in my own choir – I was depleted, body, mind and soul. The parish found me wanting but I had nothing left to give. Absolutely nothing left. So I went home to numb the pain and prayed: Please God, do not make me go back there. Please God, I just want to go to sleep and not wake up.

Now these dark days seem like ancient history to me now, but never say never again. There is better living through loving relationships and chemistry and therapy and sound sleep and satisfying work and writing and storytelling and drunk-acrobat-cats and laughter and long walks and books, lots of books. This is how I crawled out from under and back to life — a little bit like Jesus in the Gospel according to Gary Larson.

This is my salvation and continues to be.

Jesus is the only savior who makes sense to me. Forsaken and lonely, lost and afraid, scruffy and dirty, tired and worn, this savior who loved so well and lost so much. This savior, who I believe, was just as fricking surprised on Easter morning — as you and me — that he was alive again.

Resurrected, I believe, to call us all out from the dank and darkness of our everyday tombs.

So my friends, a very happy Easter! Let us rejoice, with but one voice, for the God who’s been three days dead.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!


Splash! Dash! Dunk!

I am no Hemingway…

But like the Old Man of his Pulitzer winning novel, I have long had a problematic relationship with large bodies of water.

Sea water and pool water.

As a child – by the sea, by the beautiful sea – my fair, freckled skin would fry to a crisp. Bright red and hot to the touch – it took just 15 minutes splashing around in the waves – until I was thoroughly cooked.

Slathered with Solarcaine I was waylaid on the sand.   To shield me from the sun, I had to wear my father’s t-shirt and my mother’s floppy hat – while my siblings boogie-boarded and had  a grand old time.

The sea was not my friend —  but neither was the neighborhood pool.

My older sister, Maureen, once she reached driving age, chauffeured us in a fish-tailed Plymouth station wagon to our swimming lessons.

I flunked.

I flunked swimming lessons three times.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

Terrified of heights, I never learned to dive. The best I managed to do was doggy paddle the length of the pool. By the time I finally passed, I was at least a head taller than all of the other pollywogs in my class.

Yes, I have long had a problematic relationship with water.

Water won. I lost.

So water and I made a deal.

“I’ll wear my swim suit, Water, but I will never get it wet.”

Be it by the pool or by the sea, I would find a comfortable chair, slather my fair and freckled skin with SPF 100, sit under an umbrella and read a book – or two – or three.

Slather, rinse, repeat.

And that is how  I thought it was going to be — for all eternity –with water and me…

Until.

Cross training for my first half marathon, I signed up for twice weekly water aerobics at the local rec center.

Now most people think water aerobics is just a bunch of old ladies splashing around in the pool.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Barbara, the instructor, worked us like a drill sergeant. The routine is demanding and never boring. Armed with noodles and styrofoam barbells, water shoes and swimming gloves:

Like frogs we skim  the surface.

Like divers we explore the depths.

Like cyclists we pedal the length, the breadth.

Like bells in a belfry we swing both to and fro.

Like flying fish we shoot out of the water.

Like dancers we pivot and turn.

Like soldiers we march.

Like taskmasters we kick our butts.

Like yogis we stretch.

Like runners we run.

Like rowers we row ourselves ashore.

Like dolphins we submerge and rise again.

Water is buoyant – it bolsters my spirit and lifts my mood.

Water is a solvent – solving and dissolving my daily cares.

Water is a liquid –it pools my soul.

Water crashes in waves – washing over me and making me clean.

Water ebbs and flows  – its moods and mine obeying the moon.

Recently, a bit off my game, I have discovered my gym’s heated salt water pool. Miraculously I have managed to make it more days than not this new year. A self directed hour of flying, stretching, running and rowing. A self directed hour of renewal.

Water. Baptismal water.

Thank you, Lord God of the Universe, for the gift of water. Over it the Spirit moved at the dawn of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan.

And in these baptismal waters — splash, dash, dunk — I  die and rise again.

P.S. Yes, this is an update of previous post!


64 is the New 46!

An alchemist am I.

In the medieval sense, an alchemist is a philosopher who takes what is base and spins it into gold. A scientist in pursuit of the elixir of life.

Yep, that’s me, fits me to a “t.” But alchemist also fits in the 21st century sense.

According to my EVO Planner, this is how my brain is wired.

Alchemists gravitate toward the abstract and theoretical. They prefer experimenting with their ideas in the real world, and develop a lot of their key ideas while interacting with other people. They are mostly focused on the future and the possibilities it holds.

Ah, music to my alchemist ears: focused on the future and all the possibilities it holds.

I am about to turn 64. Can you believe it? (Here is where you say, “No, you could not possibly be turning 64!”) And vanity has made me ever grateful for my mother’s genes – people have mistaken us both in our lifetimes for a bit younger than we actually are.

64 is two times 32, right? And if you ask me that is how I feel. Two rocking 32 year olds – with a peacock feather streak of color in my gray hair. (Thank you, Olivia at Salon de Zen.) I am not my mother’s or my grandmother’s Oldsmobile, so to speak.

And 64 for me is far larger than my 46. Not simply numerically but expansively. Sure, I am 17 years older but I am also, 17 years more evolved, 17 years more alive than I have ever been.

At 46 I actually faced some of my most difficult days. My marriage imploded. The church where I was rector crashed down around my ears. In my darkest of days, it actually hurt to open eyes and it seemed better perhaps if I no longer did.

But this darkness led me to light.

I took a two-week cruise on the good ship Dominion in 2003. I actually LOVED being on the psyche ward. It totally saved my life. And it set me on a 16 year trajectory of redefining and reclaiming, resurrecting and reimagining who I am.

With God’s help, of course, I am a person of faith. But also with more than a little help from friends and family and therapists and work.

And….

I am going to tell you the truth (not to sound conceited.) The biggest help to me was me. Me, myself, and I.

I have made a bazillion daily decisions over the last 6,0205 days. Each a little choice, each a small turn in the direction of my future and not my past. Step by step by step, the steps add up until a few small steps add up to one enormous leap. A leap into the fullness of my life.

And I am grateful for the sun that has come up everyday and thankful for every breath that I have been blessed to breathe – that have brought me happy and whole to this day.

So 64 is the new 46! And in no particular order, let me count the ways.

  1. Coffee.
  2. Colored pens.
  3. Shelves full of books.
  4. A closet full of dresses.
  5. Half a dozen pairs of walking shoes.
  6. A dog named Bailey.
  7. Two Tabbies: Cheshire & Charlie.
  8. Baptizing babies.
  9. Performing on stage.
  10. Six million rounds of the rosary.
  11. Walking in God’s great outdoors.
  12. Three half marathons.
  13. Three little pills I take each night.
  14. Three years with Sondra on the therapist’s couch.
  15. Ten years prior with Mary.
  16. Four rocking adult children: Rebecca, Zach, Colleen & Jacob.
  17. Four gospels to preach.
  18. An office to call my own.
  19. Colleagues who are more than colleagues.
  20. Coworkers who have become friends.
  21. Digital connectivity in cyberspace.
  22. Gathering folks in God’s name.
  23. Regular dips in the pool.
  24. Fire in my fireplace and pillows to rearrange.
  25. My soul sister, Mical.
  26. My soul brothers, Neal and Chuck.
  27. A little bit of chocolate every day.
  28. Canadian sister Maureen, big bro Tim & baby brother Joseph — age 58!(and maybe the other siblings, too.)
  29. Story District: Invisiblia, 2nd Tuesday & Top Shelf.
  30. Grandchildren: Bella, Jude & Meir; Zhen, Zakai & Zellie.
  31. Great-little-nieces: Virginia & Astrid.
  32. DNA, genetics, and ancestry.com.
  33. A writer’s life: 151 posts @ Unorthodox & Unhinged.
  34. A big red bike I barely ride.
  35. Being Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity at EEC.
  36. Pie (my favorite food group) at Killer ESP.
  37. A full refrigerator with food ready to eat.
  38. Christmas that lasts at least a month.
  39. Birthdays that last at least a week.
  40. Saturday Night Live on a Sunday afternoon.
  41. Cult related documentaries, articles and books (Think Wild, Wild Country and Going Clear.)
  42. Excursions to The Porches, the Oakhurst Inn, Mandarin Oriental and the Line.
  43. Sharing my hometown library, the largest library in the world: LOC.
  44. The rhythm and color of the liturgical year.
  45. Singing an off key soprano whenever I can.
  46. And coffee. Did I say coffee?

64 is the new 46!