Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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?


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Sur/real: NPR Invisibilia w/Story District!

Woo hoo!

This past spring I was honored and overjoyed to be part of NPR Invisibilia’s first live event with Story District.

My Sur/real story of the summer of 2005 –navigating the space between the mystical and the manic — was one of six selected.

I felt a bit like an impostor – included with other heavy hitting storytellers I am in awe of. Working with Amy Saidman, Story District’s Artistic Director is an exercise in the craft of first class storytelling.

Each eight minute story is the end product of several coaching sessions, rewrites and rehearsals. It’s a rare and rewarding collaborative creative process.

And finally my knee-knocking performance April 17th at the Lincoln Theatre in front of a packed audience. Yikes!

Exciting for me but also I really hope my story might resonate with yours. All those listening who also have the gift of a bipolar brain. And those whose spiritual life lights up their world. This one is for you!

So take a listen to 47 minutes of great stories.

NPR Invisibilia Live with Story District Podcast

Or watch the the Sur/real performance on YouTube!

And please share! (I’m a shameless self promoter!)


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Bipolar Bit/Joani: One Day @ a Time
























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The Pseudo-Librarian, the Priest & Her Wardrobe

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1963. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Brown courdouroy smocked dress and white puffy blouse. Navy blue polka dot shift and striped Danskins. Parochial school uniform and Peter Pan collars. Mary Janes, saddle shoes, and Keds.

1973. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Peasant dresses, halter tops, and army jacket. Denim cutoffs, bellbottom pants, and macrame belts. Parochial school uniform and Oxford cloth shirts. Platforms, flip flops, and saddle shoes.

1983. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Pleated skirts and cardigan sweaters.  Padded shoulders and tailored slacks. Designer jeans, and tasteful flats.

1993. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Khaki trousers, corduroy jumpers, and denim overalls. Cotton turtlenecks, kilts and tights. Embroidered vests and cable knit sweaters. Black flats, brown flats, and tennis shoes.

2003. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Target basics and Talbot’s work clothes. Cotton sweats and running suits. Clergy shirts and clerical collars. Random flats, Birkenstocks, and flip flops — in every color under the sun.

And thirteen years on.

2016. Open my wardrobe and what do you see?

Funky tunics and interesting tops. Comfy leggings and skinny jeans. Prints, patterns, and primary colors. Autumn hues and basic black. Dressy dresses and dresses just for fun. Lululemon trousers and button down shirts. Bits of ribbon and bits of lace. TOMS, saddle shoes, ASICS, and a multitude of multicolored flats.

I have both lost and found myself in my wardrobe.

Middle child, parochial school girl, head of the class.

Flower child, high school nerd, and rebel without a cause.

Computer programmer, working mom, sometimes a wife.

Seminary student, kindergarten volunteer, and Del Ray mom.

Parish priest, divorcee, and mostly manic.

Half marathoner, storyteller, blogger, irreverent reverend, and pseudo-libarian.

I have lost and found myself in my wardrobe.

Clothes are the window dressing of the soul. Spiritual expressions of our psyches and personalities. Creative expressions of our passions and our moods.

In my darker days, my wardrobe was all solid colors. No prints. Basic and boring. I would buy three colors of the same pants and the same sweater.

All the better to hide in. All the better to disappear.

Those dark days are long — and hopefully forever — gone.

How do I know?

Because my wardrobe therapist tells me so.

My therapeutic fashion consultant, Stephanie Hernandez, helped me work through my closet issues.

Stephie is a very good friend of my awesome daughter Colleen. Stephie is a young LCSW with a passion for style and an entrepreneurial spirit. She’s the founder of  “Look Good, Feel Good” — “a therapeutic approach to finding your personal style.”

A brilliant idea! This bipolar soul signed herself up right away!

Personable, warm, and observant, Stephie first sat down on my couch and we had a chat. I walked her through a “regular day” so she could learn about my bipolar life — both at work and at play. I gave her a one minute tour of my condo and then we took a thirty minute walk through my wardrobe.

And then for the next half hour, we played dress up. Mixing and matching funky and flattering combos, Stephie helped me come up with outfits that I can wear just about anywhere: @ LOC, @EEC, walking Del Ray, or strolling DC.

Working with Stephie made me feel so much cooler and so much cuter than I actually am!

It was very therapeutic.

It was so much fun!

“Look Good, Feel Good Style”

It’s not just a catchy slogan, it’s fashion philosophy.

I recommend Stephanie Hernandez and her new enterprise most happily!

So friends, what’s in your wardrobe?

JoaniSign

Note: Also posted on Sex & The Single Vicar: Tales of Ecclesiastical Dating

 

 


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How to Get a Date Worth Keeping!

how-to-get-a-date-worth-keeping1

Blog post #79.

On one of my most popular topics — my so called dating life (or lack there of)!

Check the archives!

“Sex and the Single Vicar”

“Call Me Stupid, I am on OKCupid!”

“Disharmony, Smarmony: The eHarmony Expose”

and now…

“How to Get a Date Worth Keeping!”

It is fantastic. It is hilarious. It is poignant. It is true.

But….sorry, there is nothing to read here. This is a story you have to hear. You have to hear it live and in person.

Where?  When? How?

I am super psyched to tell you that “How to Get a Date Worth Keeping!” will be told at Story District’s 2nd Tuesday Show – “I Can’t Feel My Face: Stories about Altered States and Enlightenment” on February 9th at Town DanceBoutique.

(And there are 7 other great storytellers too!)

Want to come? Of course, you do. Here is all the info to get your tickets.

Story District. “I can’t feel my face”, February 9 at Town DanceBoutique

Come and cheer me on! Come and laugh (and cry) your ass off!

I would love to see you there!

JoaniSign

 


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Bookish

bookish heart pages folded

The true heart of a bibliophile.

This blogger wants to turn U&U into a book.

Doesn’t every blogger want to turn their blog into a book?

Now books are my thing – my very best thing. Besides being a professional Christian, I am a professional bibliophile. I do collection development at Bishop Payne Library. Like Juan Valdez who picks the Columbian coffee beans one by one, I help select thousands of new titles each year one book at a time. When you see me at the circulation desk drooling over the Times Literary Supplement, I am not goofing off; I am doing my job.

Not only do I help select them, in fact, I also read them. Not thousands of them, of course, but lots. My reading tastes are eclectic. Currently checked out on my library card are: Margaret Atwood’s “Year of the Flood”; Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”; a text called “Varieties of Anomalous Experiences”; “The Penguin History of Canada; “Collected Ghost Stories” by R.M. James; and Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” – just to name a few.

I even have thought of starting a book blog: The Year of Reading Manically – but that’s another blog post for another day.

Reading books and buying books do not qualify me to be a writer of books. Blogging does not make me an author. But all of this helps. It helps a lot.

Two months ago, I met Meredith Maslich at the Story District coming out party. Meredith wears multiple hats. She is both a Story District instructor and also the founder and editor-in-chief of Possibilities Publishing. – “a small , independent publishing house…living in the dynamic space beside traditional publishing where anything is possible.”

I checked out their website and gave her a call. Meredith was kind enough to have coffee with me and give me the lay of the land.

U&U is unique, she said, but you don’t just randomly plop your blog into a book. Folks already read it for free. You need a story, a real story that pulls it all together. You need a really compelling narrative arc (I love that phrase “narrative arc”.) You want to  make people really want to turn the pages.

So I asked myself and Meredith, “Now for me what would that be? “ “Look at your most popular posts”, she said ,“That will give you a clue.”

 Well that’s easy. My most popular post of the 66 I’ve published so far is Naked in Public – or Coming Out Crazy. It’s a funny, frank, and informative piece about my aversion to locker room nudity as a metaphor for coming out of my particular closet.

What makes it so popular though is not the compelling content but  the title. “Naked in Public” is a very catchy catch phrase often used as search terms on Google and other nefarious search engines.

The post also includes “The Joani Slideshow” produced by documentarian friend, Kristin Adair. It’s also been viewed a billion times – but only to disappoint the viewers. The closest to naked I get is a slide of me sitting on the couch, wearing pajamas, eating cereal, and watching The Andy Griffith Show. (So sexy!)

But talking to Meredith made me realize that all 66 of my posts are about being Naked in Public. With each post I continue to come out of my closet. I continue to come out crazy – in new and different ways: vulnerable, scared, liberated, and alive. I have come alive more each week, as I have helped others get naked too.

So that’s my narrative arc. That’s what my book will be all about – this thread that runs through U&U.

So I am taking a Story District class to help me pull the pieces together. I’ve joined Monkeys with Typewriters, a weekly Meetup for creative types (all half my age!) And I’ve signed up at Possibilities Publishing for an online tutorial starting in January – kind of like Authorship 101.

In 2016, I hope to write a book. And I hope like blogging, I will have the discipline in writing to crank out a chapter or two every week or two.

So dear followers, you will see and hear less of me. I will still post here from time to time – once a month or so. At some point next year U&U will withdraw into its cocoon hopefully to re-emerge as a real live book — both in print, of course, and downloadable for your Kindle. It is the 21st century after all!

So please, pray for me and wish me luck! I’ll keep you posted, one chapter at a time!

JoaniSign


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Labor Pains & Stretch Marks

great with child

Theotokos, God-bearer, Truth-bearer.

It was Advent of ‘83 and I was pregnant with God.

Well at least a little bit pregnant with God.

That frosty November, I was new to the Episcopal Church and flattered beyond belief to be joining the worship planning committee. You see, I grew up Roman Catholic and Sunday services were just endless reruns of Father Knows Best. We lay folks stayed glued to our pews. Fenced off from the altar by a rail, we knew our place. Only the priest was allowed to perform those magical mysteries and pronounce God’s hocus-pocus.

So miracle of miracles in Advent of ’83 at Immanuel-on-the-Hill, and pregnant with my second child, I played the Theotokos. I played the Theotokos in a very awkward and makeshift, hippy-dippy liturgical drama – Mary, Pregnant with God.

Such a brilliant narrative arc! It was a three Sunday cycle through the three trimesters. On the fourth Sunday: pant; blow; PUSH!

It was my shortest pregnancy of record – so different from the previous three.

Being the mother of three, I have spent the better part of three years pregnant. And what my brain might not recall from those twenty-seven months – my body most certainly does:

Seasickness on land; nauseated with just one whiff of coffee (Best pregnancy test ever! I love the smell of coffee.); expanding waistline; swollen feet; wobbly gate; expansive in mood; energetic in spirit; exhausted by the smallest of efforts; cranky and uncomfortable; floating on hope; anxiety ridden; excited as hell; bursting with life.

Ladies, did I leave anything out?

You know that horrible hymn? Come labor on? Well God blessed me and gifted me with wide-birthing hips. So assisted by my friend, Gravity, I did not labor long.

I delivered my firstborn, Zach in just two and a half hours. Dainty daughter, Colleen was born in just four. And Jacob, number three, was nearly spontaneously birthed on the sidewalk outside the Emergency Room.

There was no time for drugs. There was barely time to get to the hospital and push.

So with the baby born and nuzzling at my breast, naturally manic me was euphoric squared, euphoric to the 1000th power. Blissfully exhausted and wide, wide awake, every little fiber of my being was belting out the Hallelujah Chorus.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given!

Now everyone has given birth. Be ye male or female, young or old, everyone, everywhere has given birth. Made in the image of the Creator, we are all fertile souls. And even if we are not in the business of procreation, we are all in the business of co-creation.

Over the course of the last nine (well actually eight) months, I birthed my fourth amazing child. And at sixty years of age, this is more than a minor miracle!

Back in September my bipolar brain conceived her. Formed in the pit of my stomach. Nourished by my frazzled flesh and bones. She kicked my insides and stole my sleep. A labor of love, she stretched me beyond knowing. Expanding in the dark — she was born in the light.

This past Saturday on April 25th.

SpeakeasyDC was both birth coach and midwife. Unhinged is her name.

Eight amazing storytellers told eight amazing stories about living with mental illness, loving someone with mental illness, and working in the field. Three hundred people packed the house. Laughter, tears, understanding, and standing ovations.

The truth was told: my truth, their truth, our truth, God’s truth, nothing but the truth.

Labor pains and stretch marks, the truth will set you free.

So friends, ready to get a little bit pregnant?

JoaniSign