Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Getting Your Head Examined & Exorcising Your Soul

My dad was not a brain surgeon but he was a very brainy history buff. He collected surgical implements of the medieval kind.

In his library, there was a tattered black suitcase on the shelf. Its mysterious contents under lock and key. I remember sneaking the key out of his desk — super curious to find out what was inside. And what I found scared the bejesus out of me.

The suitcase was a Civil War version of my dad’s little black bag. There were saws for sawing off legs. There were pliers for extracting bullets and yanking out teeth. And there was a hammer and a chisel for cracking open skulls.

A hammer and a chisel to tap into the brain.

Brain surgery is not just medieval, it is ancient. Archaeologically speaking, it is the oldest documentable surgical specialty — dating back nearly 10,000 years. 10,000 years – that’s Neolithic. Carefully cracked skulls have been found in Stone Age caves in France. 4000 year old bronze surgical tools have been dug up in Incan Peru. 5000 years ago the word “brain” was first recorded on Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, penned several textbooks on the subject — 500 years before Christ was born.

We may think that such a primitive practice was purely for magical purposes. Not so. It was a medical practice wielded with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, head injuries, and even headaches. Some of those carefully cracked skulls, found in those caves, show clear evidence of recovery and healing.

And brain surgery was the cure of choice for those possessed by demons and deemed insane; for those who heard voices and raved like lunatics.

The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

Guy of Pavia, 14th C.

In fact, Christian clerics – learned in Greek and Islamic literature – were the brain surgeons of the middle ages. Even though the study of anatomy was prohibited, no king would be without such a doctor in his court. No pope would be without such a physician in his conclave.

So where was the surgical exorcist when my mother needed one? There was no crucifix — there was no holy water in my father’s little black bag.

Growing up, my mom was in and out of psych wards.  Her manic-depressive mind was a mystery apparently  no doctor could solve. Her darkness was deep and unrelenting. Her mania zany and out of control. Her behavior sometimes beyond belief. Her thoughts no longer her own.

Once she streaked in the woods behind our house. Free as a forest nymph, she ran wild until my dad wrapped her in a raincoat and brought her back inside. And once, during a hospital stay, my mom had a three way conversation with herself, invisible celebrities (specifically Regis and Cathy Lee) and me.

And during that same visit, she told me that God had opened up holes in her head  — so that the evil spirits in her skull could pass through.

 I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Her every circuit firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — my mom, like her mother before her, flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

And I was next.

Sometimes my thoughts also  have not been my thoughts.

In my most manic of days, I too have been so lit up inside – as if by a million fireflies – that I thought I could fly. Driving down the highway – ever so much faster than the legal speed – I truly believed that my car would lift up off the road — like a plane taking its leave of the runway. Down Interstate 95, I would fly over — not under — every overpass. Euphorically grinning from ear to ear. Oblivious to the risk.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. I believed I could actually glimpse their gossamer wings outside my window. Better to not tell anyone though. Not the psychiatrist. Not the therapist. They might shoo the fairies away.

I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – a world of things unseen. A magical place, a mystical place where the veil between the worlds was torn. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Sugar plum fairies dancing in my head —  I never actually thought I was Joan of Arc. But like her, why could I not also hear voices?

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”

In my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were the thoughts of God. Swept up by angels — mania tastes delectably delicious. So exquisite. Surely this must be what heaven feels like. Right?

Who would want to medicate such mania away?

Now this happened to me once once upon a time a very long time ago — fifteen years ago to be exact. And it has not happened to me again. Not since I began to get my head examined. Once a quarter by my psychiatrist. And weekly – yes, weekly —by my LCSW. Thanks to them (and me, of course!) my bipolar brain buzzes at optimal speed.

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a cherry on top. With psychotic features. Seems pretty damned scary when you see it in black and white! But it isn’t really.

When our brains go awry, it manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Thoughts can be distracting or delightful. Creative or destructive. Inspiring or terrifying. Thoughts spinning out of control.

The outward and visible signs of such thinking can be alarming to those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you become disturbing — even to yourself.

You lose your bearings.  You have no longitude or latitude. You are lost and adrift at sea. Your head goes dark — and you have need of something like a brain surgeon.

So, I take one little pill a day to keep the crazy at bay. It’s called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. It’s not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it smooths the way. It makes my head less cloudy and my thinking more clear.  Seroquel, my little surgical, chemical exorcist.

So friends, consider this. Sometimes your thoughts may not be your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts may be intrusive or obsessive. Maybe your head races. Maybe you hear voices that are not your own.

Know this. You are not alone.

One out of a hundred — of just about everyone — walks around with a bipolar brain similar to mine. 20% of just about everyone, at any one time, walks around with a mental health issue. (Though sadly only 40% get professional help.) There is help out there.

There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon. Much more likely, a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist will do. Maybe a little medication. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying — like this Peacock who flew over the cuckoo’s nest — once upon a time.

Get a referral from your pastor or your doctor. Check out community mental health resources like CSB of Alexandria. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a also a treasure trove of resources.

It might just be time to get your head examined. It might just be time to exorcise your soul.


Remembering Mork: The Inner Sanctum of Outer Space

Five years ago, Robin Williams, gifted actor and comedian left this world by his own hand. The world was incredulous. How could a person so full of light struggle with such darkness? He was Mork, right? The hysterical alien who took up residence in Mindy’s attic.

We loved this lovable visitor from outer space. Weekly, he traversed the universe to inhabit our TV sets. But it was Mork, the out-of-this-world persona that we knew – not the personal inward workings of Robin Williams.

He died on August 11th of 2014. Three days later I posted this. U&U was just a few months old back then. A few of you may have read it but most not. And so, I am posting this update to honor and to remember this remarkable soul.

You are only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Robin Williams said.

So….

In 1966 the universe  — namely my universe —  tilted.  Thursday nights at nine o’clock on NBC, I boarded the U.S.S. Enterprise. “Space, the final frontier” called to me.. This was a mission, this little missionary, could barely conceive of – to “explore new worlds, seek new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Well I was “no man”. I was an awkward eleven year-old, a little Roman Catholic cosmonaut. Star Trek sounded like heaven to me. So in 1966, this little Trekkie was born.

I am a Trekkie still — a closet Trekkie.  I don’t go to conventions or dress up like a Romulan or speak Klingon, but I am still quite an officianado of Star Trek – especially the original Star Trek. I have all 80 episodes on DVD and a commemorative edition that came with a fluffy, purring, pink Tribble. I dorkily have plastic action figures of the crew, including the Captain and his coffee pot. Nothing could clear the room quite so quickly at my house as when I hunkered down to watch the reruns marathon style.

(An extended ritual I go through about once a year! I am especially fond of the episodes where the brazen and brash Captain James T. Kirk quite literally loses his shirt.)

This 1960’s series is still  a great solace to my dorky soul. While the cast and crew battle the unknown forces of the universe, I am comforted by the plethora of “M” class planets. “M” class planets are scattered all across the Milky Way and each one is capable of sustaining human life. I think “M” stands for miracle. Miraculously even the aliens speak English. The 430 crew members may be  “Lost in Space” but they are  never ever really far from home.

Star Trek was light years ahead of its time. Light years ahead of the space operas that came before it. But it is missing something that those quaint and quirky sci-fi series deeply understood. What is it like to truly be a stranger in a strange land?

My Favorite Martian blinked off the air the same year that Star Trek blinked on. Exigius, the exo-anthropologist from Mars crashed his one-man spaceship in Hollywood Hills. Stranded, he was taken in by a newspaper reporter who passes him off as Uncle Martin. (Sitting on the biggest story of his lifetime!)

Weekly Uncle Martin tries to keep his antenna down and and stay undercover. The going gets difficult though — especially when he breaks out in Martian mumps and measles. Things get crazy and confused. The laugh track prompts the television audience exactly when to laugh.  And the audience does as they are told. They laugh in all the right places not just because it is funny but because somewhere inside them it feels kind of true.

“Being a stranger in a strange land” was a sure fire formula for sit-com success. After My Favorite Martian came ALF – the furry Alien Life Form from  Melmac with an appetite for cats. 3rd Rock from the Sun debuted in 1996 with a house full of  extraterrestrials disguised as a college professor, a curvaceous military expert, and a teenager. And of course, there was the hilarious 1970’s series — Mork and Mindy.

Mork, from stardust he came, to stardust he returns.

Mork – the world of course knows – was played by the manically comic and the manically gifted Robin Williams. And on August 11th of 2014, the world was stunned to learn that Mork had died by his own hand. After battling a lifetime of depression and addiction, he succumbed to the darkness.  Mork hung himself quite literally from a metaphorical tree, the frame of his bedroom door. And the whole world wept for the loss of this amazing man who never failed to make us laugh.

So how could this possibly be? He was hilarious. He was happy. He was a comedian beyond compare. He was “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Patch Adams”. He was our ever-shining star of stage and screen.

But even stars run out of fuel. Even stars implode. Even stars turn dark.

Mork’s mood disorder – likely bipolar disorder  — was the demon that plagued him most of his life. Depression and its companion mania are commonly misunderstood. Happiness and sadness are ordinary human emotions. They ebb and flow with the ups and downs of everyday life and they ebb and flow in  us all.

But different in kind are the moods that manifest themselves in the heights of mania and in the depths of. depression. It’s not about being happy or sad; it’s about the size of your universe. On the up side you are exploring the galaxy with Captain Kirk. On the downside you can barely climb out of your black hole.

Barely is the operative word. While those who live with depression struggle to get out of bed —  they, in fact, regularly do. The effort it takes  to change out of your pajamas can be painstaking. Brushing your teeth can feel like a burden.

And yet — even so — depressed folks get to work on time. Depressed folks work hard and get promoted. Depressed folks run companies. Depressed folks run marathons. And depressed folks also run like crazy to escape their depression. Depressed folks are very good at disguise. Depressed folks are marvelous actors. They have to be.

And this is how a star implodes. Every last little bit of fuel is exhausted. Every energy source is completely depleted – be it physical, spiritual, or emotional. And you are Lost in Space. The universe may be expanding but so does the void within you. You have absolutely nothing left. Today is an unthinkable burden and the thought of tomorrow is unbearable. And you go to bed not wanting to wake up anymore.

You believe yourself a “foreigner and a stranger on earth….looking for a country of your own” (Hebrews 11:13-14) A country not of this world.

People tell you to be patient; that the pain will subside; the crisis will pass. But you do not believe them. How could they possibly know if they haven’t suffered so? You just want it to be over, now and forever more. So in the depths of despair people take their own lives. In the U.S. more than 47,000 people in 2017 died at their own hand. 23,851, virtually half, by firearms.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There is no greater taboo – than suicide — a taboo that sorely needs to be brought out into the open and talked about.

Difficult as it may be, we need  to speak this truth in love. When we believe a loved one, family member, coworker or friend is thinking of hurting themselves  — we need to ask them just that. With compassion and concern: “I am worried about you. I have noticed (whatever you have noticed) and I want to ask if you are you thinking about hurting yourself?

It’s a myth that discussing and naming a loved one’s suicidal thoughts — puts these thoughts into their heads. Not true. Directly asking a person whether they are thinking of suicide can save that person’s life. Mentioning it out loud can be an enormous relief. Mentioning it out loud allows your loved one to name and claim the demons that haunt them.

If your loved one answers yes – or if you believe the answer is yes — then call 911. Stay with them until help arrives. Don’t be afraid to appear foolish or wrong. You cannot diagnose your friend but you can perform first aid, call an ambulance and get them to  professional help. And if you need help finding the words — sign up for Mental Health First Aid.

In ages past, the Church classified  suicide a mortal sin, denied the dead burial in sacred ground, and condemned the sinner to the fires of hell. Christianity was not alone in its error.

Historically in Judaism, suicides were also segregated in cemeteries and the dead buried with lesser rites. Islam views suicide as the gravest of sins and anathema to eternal life. Muhammad says that anyone who throws themself down from the mountain will eternally be falling into the depths of hell. For Hindus, suicide violates the code of “ahisma”, the code of non-violence and one who takes their own life will forever wander the earth as a ghost.

Blessedly for Christians  — and believers of other kinds —  this theology is mostly no more. But old beliefs die a hard death. Its seems virtually beyond belief that anyone could still believe in such a cold-hearted god – a god so devoid of compassion. But people still do. So  —  biblically speaking  — let me speak to the matter of suicide and how God decides the disposition of our souls.

Frederick Buechner writes: Saul may have fallen on his own sword; Judas may have hung himself from a tree. Out of the depths of despair, both may have condemned themselves to hell. But God did not.

God  understands the depth of despair because  God himself has been there. Our God knows what it is like to lose his own life — to be emptied with nothing left to give. God knows what it is like to lay down his life and to lift it up again. That the whole world would taste and see that God is good.  Be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Scientologist, Wiccan, Agnostic, Atheist, Romulan, Vulcan, Klingon, Earthling, or none of the above.

We may be lost in this space and in this time, but lost to God — NEVER.

At least, that’s the God I believe in. And It’s the same God I believe that Episcopalian Robin Williams believed in, as well.

From stardust he came. To stardust he returned..  All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Nanu! Nanu!


Confessions of a Not-So-Dangerous Bipolar Soul

I am not a mental health professional, nor do I play one on TV.

But I am openly and optimally bipolar. A mental health evangelist, I share first person stories on Unorthodox & Unhinged to create awareness, dispel stereotypes and encourage healing. You can quote statistics until you are blue in the face and make no difference. Stories, on the other hand, bring to life the challenge of living with a challenging brain.

The tragic events of just the last ten days raise important mental health issues, of course.

Bipolar Disorder is a medical diagnosis. You can find it in the DSM-V, the fifth version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. Approximately 1% of the population walks around with a bipolar brain. Likely I inherited mine; it is how my brain is wired. (Thanks, mom!)

Hate, on the other hand, is a sickness of the soul. It is an emotion 100% of us are capable of. No one is born hateful. Hate is learned behavior. Hate festers and grows like weeds in gardens where we least expect it. Left untended, hate crowds all that is good.

A disturbed mind fueled by hate is a potentially lethal combination. A combination that becomes all the more probable when that person is armed and loaded. A probability, we all pray does not become reality. But reality it is.

I write not just from a bipolar point of view but as a mom and a grandmother, as an Episcopal priest and a struggling minister of the gospel.

In these dark days, I will tell you my personal story, not that you may agree with me nor to tell you what to think. My hope is that my story will encourage you to share yours. I believe that our stories may align, intersect and connect more than we might think. Our stories can help us connect at a deeper level.

So, as you may likely know —

I am no Second Amendment Sister. I am a Million Mom Marcher from way back when. No toy guns were allowed at my house. Only water pistols and Super- Soakers. My kids were crack shots — gunning down dandelions and blowing away begonias in the backyard. No BB guns, not even cap guns crossed our threshold. At least until….

The dawn of Nintendo 64. One showed up under the tree on a Christmas morn with Zach’s name on it. I think Santa put it there. If Santa put it there, it was a really big deal. Mom and dad wrapped up books and board games. Santa gave you stuff that knocked your socks off.

So welcome Mario and Wario (his evil twin.) Welcome Kirby and Donkey Kong. Welcome Huey, Dewey, and Louie.  Lots of fun and games. Lots of jumping over walls, catching stars, and grabbing gold coins. Lots of keys and magic codes to climb from level to level. Zach played for hours on end while his little brother watched in wonder — hoping against hope to take control of that controller. Just two and half years old,  Jacob picked it up and has yet to put it down at the age of thirty-one.

Jacob mastered Mario. He crushed Kirby. He tackled Tetris. He whooped Wario. And “bang, bang, bang,” — arcade style — he bagged hundreds of ducks. The first “stick that made thunder” had made it into our house.

As Jacob matured so did the ratings on his video games. I never really censored the games he played but I would lean over the screen to see just how much blood and guts were on display. “Is that a peace and love game?” I would invariably ask him. “It’s just mummies, mom. It’s just zombies.” So, I bought him “Civilization”, peaceful and educational. “How’s that going, Jacob?”Great, mom! Gandhi just conquered Genghis Khan!”

Jacob has grown up to be quite the indie gamer. And you will find no gentler or loving soul than Jacob. He founded Gaming in Public. On a Kickstarter project, he raised $20,000 for a Hobbit-Inspired game called Super Dwarf Madness.

Super Dwarf Madness is not exactly about peace and love. But it is not all that far removed from Elmer Fudd and his blunderbuss or Yosemite Sam and his six-shooter. “Sticks that make thunder” cartoon style.

Yosemite Sam was “the roughest, toughest, fastest gun-slinger west of the Pecos!” but he couldn’t hit the side of a barn. And every Saturday morning, Bugs Bunny got away with nary a scratch. It was a kinder and gentler time. Remember Sheriff Andy Taylor? No gun. Remember Deputy Barney Fife? One gun and no bullets except the one in his pocket.

These were the only guns my dad would allow in our house: celluloid guns; cartoon guns; sitcom guns; maybe a water pistol or two; maybe even a cap gun. But never, ever the real thing.

Guns were for my dad a very real and present moral dilemma. You see, my Rockefeller Republican father was Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in D.C.. A general surgeon, he took out gall bladders, repaired hernias, removed tumors. He loved his work. But extracting bullets from young men, my dad told us, he hated having to do.  He said that he had lost way too many young men on his operating table. Tragic and traumatic, so young and full of life, never to go home again. Never.

NEVER have a gun in the home, my father taught us. NEVER. Guns in the home were anathema to him.  In the heat of passion, it was best to err on the side of safety.

A lesson learned from my dad that I have taken to heart.

In my 64 years, I had never ever even seen a real gun – much less handled one, until a few years ago when I visited the home of a sharpshooting friend. Law abiding in every way, she only shoots tin cans and paper tigers. Proud of her sport, she took out her collection and introduced me to her “sticks that make thunder”. She taught me the difference between a rifle, a shotgun, a pistol, and a revolver. Patiently she explained cartridges, caliber, clips, millimeters and magazines. And she drove home the importance of safeties – the tiny little lever that keeps a gun from firing.

This tiny little lever between this life and the life to come — is called a safety.

Now there is a stereotype that people like me are not safe. Mall shooters and campus snipers are indeed disturbed and deranged. Of that, there is no doubt. But bipolar-me is no more likely to gun you down than anyone else. Regardless, the media often diagnoses the dangerous, as a soul likely off their meds. But it’s simply not true or at least very rarely true. Self-harm, rather than harming others, is much more likely with folks like me.

I have never had a plan to do away with myself. But I do know what it’s like to not want to wake up anymore. Depression can eat you alive just as surely as cancer can.

“Do you feel safe?”, the nurse at Dominion asked me. “No”, I replied. So, she took away my shoelaces and my belt and my cell phone. Dangerous weapons, I guess. First light every morning and last thing every night, we had to answer the same question: “Do you feel safe? Rate yourself on a scale from zero to ten.” Zero and you can go home. Ten – or anything close to ten – and you get to stay a little longer. To stay your hand from doing yourself in. To stay your hand from doing what cannot be undone.

Especially, if at home, you had a gun. God forbid, if I did. Thank God, I did not.

God has nothing specific to say about guns, of course. And biblically confusing, Yahweh vacillates about whether we should be beating those plowshares into swords or those swords into plowshares. But Jesus – he’s pretty clear on the subject. Clearer than Ghandi. Clearer than Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I say to all who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. The one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek…Love your foes and treat them well….  Be just and lenient as your Father. Be not a judge…Be not an executioner. Pardon and you will be pardoned”  Luke 6 (trans. Garry Wills)

This is not faithless passivity. This same Jesus, a very angry Jesus, turns over the Temple’s tables.  Not just a place of prayer, ‘the temple was the center of worship and music, the center of politics and society, a place of national celebration and mourning. It was the focal point of a nation and its way of life.” (N.T. Wright)

Righteous anger is the antithesis of hate. Angry for all the right reasons, Jesus threatens to tear the place down. Forty-six years it took to build, but Jesus says he will raise it again in just three days.

Not resurrected stones, but literally flesh and bone. Not a resurrected building but resurrected life.

In my tenure as Emmanuel’s Associate for Worship, we have prayed a prayer inspired by an America Magazine article written by Jesuit James Martin. We have had to pray it way too many times and I hope to God we never need pray it again, but sadly, I know we will.

Genuine prayer is more than pretty words. Prayer is the act of God stirring souls to rise up off our knees. Prayer is the daily doing of loving, speaking the truth in love, and the hard work of reconciliation. Real prayer makes a real difference.

So I pray this revised prayer once more.

Lord God, in the wake of tragic gun violence in Virginia Beach; Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio: we ask you to embrace the souls of all the dead and to comfort and heal the wounded, to console family and friends and to strengthen the hands and hearts of first responders. In Christian charity, we pray for those who took these innocent lives. Cast out hatred from the human heart. Relieve the anguish of disturbed and troubled minds. Deliver us from demonizing and dehumanizing those different from ourselves.

We cry, Lord Christ, as you wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We are weary, Lord God, weary, as when an exhausted Jesus fell asleep in the boat after wrestling with the demons of his day. We are angry, God, angry at the corrupt powers of this world that prioritize principalities over people: angry, as was Jesus, when he upturned the tables in the temple. Grant us courage and strength to preserve and protect the lives of all God’s children. Turn our tears into compassion, our weariness into advocacy, our paralysis into acts of love.

 Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For further reading:

More on mental health

More on video games


Good Housekeeping according to Mary, Martha & Joan Louise

I have always been a Mary and not much of a Martha. This is not so much a matter of theology as it is a matter of biology.

As a babe, barely out of my mother’s womb, I preferred the library to the laundry room. As a toddler, my favorite toys were blocks and rocks – in that order – not pots and pans. As a grade schooler, the household chore I excelled at most was getting out of household chores. In high school, rather than dust the bookshelves I would read the books. My mom’s favorite magazines  were Family Circle and The Lady’s Home Journal. I preferred  my dad’s Scientific American and Journal of the American Medical Association. (Not that I could understand either, but I liked the pictures!)

The domestic arts are just not part of my DNA. And now all grown up  — my house and my home —  will never quite qualify for that “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”.

Good Housekeeping, of course, has been the magazine of choice for homemakers since it was first published in 1885. Recently while plowing through boxes of books, I discovered two vintage issues: October 1953 and March 1957. Each is nearly 300 pages and a bargain at 35 cents. The contents are packed tight with domestic delights. Featured articles include: “Hostess with the Mostest”; “Mother is a Lady”; “Man Talk”; and the “How Did We Ever Get Along without Cellophane Tape?

Each issue has thirteen categories covering every conceivable domestic discipline: Fashion; Needlework and Sewing; Medicine and Health; Bureau and Chemical Laboratory (Don’t ask! I don’t know!); Textile Laboratory; Decorating and Building; Beauty; Teenagers; Children’s Corner; Food; Appliance and Home Care; and Automobiles. Apparently the 1950’s iconic mom could change a tire just as expertly as she could change a diaper.

(Homemakers, of course, can be any gender. But this was the 1950’s. Hang in there with me, please!)

One issue has a ten page “Hotdog Cookbook”. The other has the “Wisconsin Reducing Diet” based on cheese.

But best of all are the ads – advertisements for every household, cooking, cleaning and beauty item under the sun.

I wash 1400 pounds of laundry a year…but I’m proud of my pretty hands.” Jergen’s Lotion only 10 cents plus tax. (Transfigured just like new!)

“Only the Sunbeam toasts with Radiant Control…that gives the same UNIFORM TOAST….Bread lowers itself automatically…Toast raises itself silently.” (Resurrection Bread!)

“Palmolive Soap is 100% Mild to Guard that Schoolgirl Complexion Look!” (Baptized like a newborn babe!)

“Crisco ends pie crust failure… Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (Baptism by ordeal!)

It is comforting to imagine June Cleaver — of Leave it to Beaver — in her shirt-waist dress, pearls and pumps — her house neat and tidy as a pin and nary a hair out of place. June Cleaver, the iconic reincarnation of St Martha of Bethany. Manic Martha, my mom’s patron saint.

Growing up on 24th Avenue, the household chaos was measured in baskets of laundry, beds to be made and dishes to wash. On the high side, our house was House Beautiful. On the low side, our house was Mad Magazine. Raising a family of six kids in the suburbs with a workaholic doctor for a husband would make just about anybody crazy — and so it did my mom. My mom on the high side became a manic Martha extraordinaire.

So, I became a Mary — a  quite contrary one. My mom loved to cook. Not me. My mom loved to shop. Not me. My mom loved fashion. Not me. My mom loved to decorate. Not me. My mom loved to clean. Not me. My mom loved to collect stuff.  Not me. My mom loved to plant stuff. Not me. My mom was definitely a Martha. I was decidedly  a Mary.  

Or at least so I thought. Until the day…

I was magically transformed into Martha Stewart on Speed. The magic potion that worked this wonder was a decidedly delicious anti-depressant cocktail.  It’s counter-intuitive but chemically speaking these little pills can push the “max button” on the bipolar blender. Maximum speed. Maximum energy. Maximum ways to mix and match a million little things.

So, I stayed up nights hanging pictures on my walls, turning sheets into window treatments, and spice racks into towel racks. I created collages and decorated bulletin boards. I framed post cards. I potted plants. I arranged and rearranged knickknacks and whatnots. (I even dusted them!) I alphabetized my bookshelves and cleaned out my closets. I fluffed pillows already fluffed. I vacuumed floors already vacuumed. I even manically made my bed over and over. But I did not sleep in it, at least not very much.

But I would crash there when my addled brain ran out of steam.

Good Housekeeping”  is actually a great guide to the bipolar brain.  A bang-up barometer, indeed. In therapeutic language it’s called monitoring your “ADLs” – Activities of Daily Life. Laundry. Housework. Yard work. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Cleaning. Taking out the trash. Making meals. Doing dishes. Folding clothes. Checking the mail. Paying bills. Playing with the cats. Taking a walk. Phoning a friend. The rhythm and routine of daily life attests to the state of our health and wholeness.

Keeping house is literally about keeping healthy. When a loved one does way too little housekeeping or way too much, it’s time to be concerned. It’s time for a loving conversation to see what’s really going on. It may be time to talk with a counselor. Time to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. No, you are not crazy. It’s just the right thing to do.

And I, myself, have become a bit of a convert. Home is where the heart is and my home has become a sacred place — an outward and visible sign of my inward psychic space. Order, color, texture, sight, smell and sound – orchestrated and arranged — keep my bipolar soul – healthy and whole.

Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha — biblically speaking — helps to keep our heads on straight. Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha  brings peace and balance to unquiet minds –  bipolar and not.

And it is not just me who says so. Jesus says so (Ha!). Jesus said so right there in Martha’s living room — while Martha fussed in the kitchen and  Mary listened at his feet.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing is needful; Mary has chosen the better part; and it will not be taken away….” Luke 10:38-41

All things in moderation, my dad, Dr. Peacock, so wisely used to say. Good Housekeeping a blessing in disguise!


Take off your “TOMS”; You are standing on Holy Ground.

I am no Imelda Marcos. I stumble in stilettos and wobble in wedges. Flats are my friends. Gravity is kinder to me when I am low to the ground. I am not what you would call graceful, much more of a klutz. I took ballet briefly as a teenager but never managed to dance on my toes. Jealous of my classmates in tap shoes, I lacked Shirley Temple’s “je ne sais quoi”. And on top of all that my feet were fat — at least so my mom told me!

(Note: If you are too young to know who Imelda Marcos and Shirley Temple are, you can google them!)

My closet as a kid looked like the inside of a men’s shoe store: Hushpuppies, Keds, Weejuns, saddle shoes, oxfords. I might as well have been a boy. I lusted after shoes of a more exotic kind: red patent leather, sexy black velvet, shiny white, sparkly sequined and even those with little heels — but it was not to be. My fat little feet did not fit into them. I wore a double-D width, a size not often kept in stock at the local Stride Rite store.

Shoe shopping with my mom along with all six kids was a bit of a nightmare. The salesman would line us all up to measure our feet with that shiny metal foot gauge thing. Then he would disappear behind the magic curtain at the back of the store. Then Abracadabra!, he’d return, arms filled with boxes, which he dealt out like a deck of cards. Each of my brothers and sisters would get at least two or three pairs to try on. I would invariably get one and only one. I did not even have to lift the lid to know what was inside my shoebox — a sturdy pair of red oxfords with matching red shoelaces. 

“Don’t cry” my mom would tell me. “I told you not to cry.” Shoe shopping day was definitely not my dancing day.

As you can imagine, the Peacock family shoe budget was astronomical. There were new shoes for school, new boots for winter, new tennis shoes for gym, new dress shoes for Easter, new sandals for summer and new shoes simply because you grew out of the old shoes. It did not stop there. Both of my parents had quite an appetite for shoes. My mother’s were all stacked and color-coded in plastic boxes piled high in her closet. My dad’s wing-tips and tasseled loafers were all lined up like soldiers, shoe-trees in each and every pair.

Lucky for me as I grew older, my feet grew thinner. My foot ware became more fashionable — stacked heels, platforms, espadrilles, Chinese canvas Mary-Jane’s, Herache sandals. desert boots, and my first pair of Birkenstocks. Charged on the parental credit card, I bought shoes for my every mood: practical and pretty; trendy and traditional. With shoes, I could make a statement. With my shoes, I could stand my holy ground.

“Toms Shoes, One for One”

Now all grown up, my go-to shoes are Chucks and TOMS. I have seven pairs of Chucks: black, purple, red, pink, gray, turquoise and champagne– and just as many TOMS: red polka dotted, lilac & off-white lace, star studded black, burlap canvas, casual gray, and faded denim.

And my manic mind justifies the expense. I spend because it’s all for a good cause. At least for the TOMS. For every pair I purchase here at home, TOMS gives a pair to a needy child in places faraway. What better reason is there to get out my debit card and shop away on my Mac into the wee hours of the morning? 

Bipolar brains like shiny things and we like them right away. So why have one pair of Top Siders when you can have two? Why have one pair of rainboots when you can have three? And of course, four pairs of black flats are certainly better than one.

 Manic me is no good with money – much like my mom. Well not exactly like my mom. My mom’s spending sprees made no sense. She bought the craziest things out of catalogs. She would spend as much money in the drug store as she would in a jewelry store. She often bought the same thing again and again simply because she forgot she bought it.

I on the other hand, clothe my spending in virtue. I am generous to a fault when it comes to my children, breaking the bank for their every endeavor — even when they don’t ask for it and even though they are grown.  I am no philanthropist, but there is nary a charity dear to my heart that does not get an electronic check. But I really should check first just how much my checking account can bear. 

And then there are TOMS where I believe myself to be standing in the holy of holies — and on the holiest of ground.

Shopping and religion are not all that far apart, you know.

Laura Byrne Paquet, author of “The Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping” writes in the July 14thWashington Post:

Shopping has had quasi-religious overtones for much longer than most of us realize. In medieval England, markets sprang up in churchyards on Sundays. By the 1500’s, the deans of Saint Paul’s in London were irritated by tailors, scriveners and souvenir hawkers cluttering up the nave itself…

Spectacle plus publicity equals crowds. And few institutions have been better able to manufacture spectacle than religion – with its artworks, music, monuments and rituals – merchants learned from the masters…

Some observers believe shopping has become a substitute for belief itself. As British philosopher Juian Baggani writes, “Preachers seduce us with the promise of a better life to come, advertisers seduce us with the promise of a better life to come right now. Both offer an escape from the mundane reality and endless striving that real life is made of.”

As a bipolar Episcopal priest, this is a bit of a conundrum.  In my bones, I have felt deeply the impulse of both. Personally, and professionally, I am uniquely equipped to discern the difference, right? Well, at least, when both my feet are planted firmly on the ground.

Just how many books, how many dresses, how many pairs of shoes does it take to fill up that God shaped hole in my soul?

Well, I will not preach poverty for I never took such a vow. Life is too short to wear boring clothes and my living space is a sacred place. And every book is holy, right? 

But I will confess that I have acquired far more than I need. Probably enough stuff for the rest of my lifetime.

I am not about to convert to KonMari (God forbid!) – much of my clutter brings me joy! But on balance my consumer soul could use a cleanse. Press the pause button, exit out of that website, put that debit card down. 

And my conscience also compels me to consider: Who made all these things? Under what conditions do they work? How much are they paid?  Does it come from a sweatshop or is it labeled Fair Trade?

(And here is a little book, if you would like to explore more about that: “Shopping” by Michellle Gonzales – a Christian Exploration of Daily Living.)

So, let me end with this. A made up prayer, that you might also want to pray.

Good God, bless me, please, with a bit of sales resistance. Teach me to better live within my means. Make me ever grateful for my daily bread.  Shield me from a shopper’s gluttony, my favorite of the deadly sins. Keep my heart light and soul generous. Remind me always that it is better to give than to receive. And that the most important things in life cannot be bought.

And as Saints John & Paul of the Beatles so wisely said, “Money can’t buy you love.”


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?