Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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 And he collected some of the unpublished ones as well – the ones that never made it into the newspapers.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!


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Inked!!

Henna does not hurt.

Partying like it was 1999 – which it was – I spent a little sliver of my sabbatical at Venice Beach. I stayed with my new age, hipster, therapist friend Carey. We went rollerblading. We got our hair braided into a thousand little braids. We got our picture taken with a few outrageous costumed personalities. And we got “tattooed”.

I got a little tiny henna shamrock on my left shoulder.

It did not hurt.

Back home, I would slip my shoulder out of my sleeve and show it off. I showed it off to my kids. I showed it off to my coworkers. I showed it off at church.

“O my God!” people squealed, “Is it real?”

I’d smile slyly and then reveal the truth – the half truth.

“Yes, it’s real, at least for a little while until the shower washes it away.”

My shoulder did itch though. It itched for the real thing.

So on that same Sabbath break, on pilgrimage to the Emerald Isle, on the next to last day of my stay – I walked into a Dublin tattoo parlor. Cheered on by fellow pilgrims – both on my left and on my right – I bravely went forward to get the real deal.

“Could I please get a little green shamrock on my shoulder?”

“Sorry, mam, no appointments today. How about tomorrow?”

My shoulders slumped.

“Tomorrow? I’m leaving on a jet plane tomorrow. Don’t know when I will ever get back to Dublin again. Maybe I’ll get one when I get back home.”

Maybe.

Landed safely stateside, I told my friends this story. I told my coworkers this story. I told my kids this story – the story of the almost shamrock tattoo.

And I told it so many times over so many years, that my kids grew  sick and tired of hearing it. So sick and tired, they decided to put a stop to it once and for all.

Christmas, 2011, they gave me the real deal as a gift. And January of 2012 we all went together to JinksProof Tattoo. Zach and Colleen watched as the artist stitched a little four leaf clover on my left shoulder.

It hurt.

First they outlined it. Then they colored it in. Needle worked into my skin, my little shamrock is shorthand for who I am:

A Celtic soul.

Bipolar Boudica.

Druidic priestess.

Earth mother of four.

Rebel with a cause.

Squeamish of needles –

or something like that.

But this outward and visible sign is tattooed where I can discretely hide it away. I can cover it up with a sweater, a shawl, or a blouse – and choose to show it only to those I choose —  a game of peek-a-boo of sorts.

And this is our family rule when it comes to tattoos.

Just one, tasteful and discrete.

Rebecca, my earth mother eldest,raised under a different roof,  broke this rule, I believe.

Colleen, my social justice child has a little peace dove on her foot.

Zach, my film maker son, has Elvis’s TCB Lightning bolt branded on his arm.

Jacob, my youngest, has considered getting a falcon (maybe the Millennium Falcon?) on which part of his person I am not sure.

Just one and we are done. Well, not quite.

In my electronic inbox July 15, 2015, at 10:51 pm to be exact, my colleague Chuck MCoart sent me a link to a piece in the Huffington Post. No message, just “Possible blog post idea” in the subject line.

So I clicked on the link and up comes a  story about a tattoo. A very special tattoo. A semicolon. There is a picture of a young woman with one tattooed to her wrist. Her name is Amy Bluel and she founded The Semicolon Project.

inked-photos.jpg

A semicolon represents a sentence the author could have ended, but chose not to. The sentence is your life and the author is you.”

Amy got the first tattooed semicolon  when she lost her father to suicide in 2013. She was jut 18.  Amy in her young life has experienced far more than her share of pain. She is a survivor of the foster care system, sexual abuse and has lived with depression, darkness, and her own attempts at self harm.

But she says it was her father’s suicide “that brought more pain to my life than anything I have ever experienced.”

It could have been her end too.

Period.

But instead Amy chose the semicolon. She chose to go on and she founded the Semicolon Project “a faith based non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.”

A great idea for a blog post! But in all honesty I couldn’t blog about it unless I honestly got one myself.

Because in all honesty, about a dozen year ago my own bipolar brain was clouded by such darkness. I know what it’s like to want to put a big black period at the end of my sentence. To go to sleep, say goodnight, hoping not to wake up anymore.

Joani Peaoock. The End. Period. Goodbye.

But alleluia, I did not. I paused before making a complete and final stop. I punctuated my life with a semicolon – so many semicolons – and I have gone on. By the grace of God and the blessings of meds and therapy, and the company of a hundred friends, and the love of my children, and valuable work, involvement with the community – I am still here. Marvelously, gratefully, jubilantly still here.

So I got one that very July 15, 2015 afternoon. I walked into Great Southern Tattoo and got a little black semicolon on my wrist, a little outward and visible sign of hope and healing. I got one so that I will always remember and never forget — the joy of waking up each and every day – no matter how lousy that day might be.

I got it to remember that every single day is a Holy Day.

And yes, it did hurt; to hurt is human; to hurt is essential to being fully alive.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Emmanuel is screening Ed Hardy:Tattoo the World, Sunday, January 28th at 6:00 PM. This 75 minute film explores the history of tattoos while telling the story of the filmmaker’s life — one of the most consequential contemporary tattoo artists. Come for popcorn, librations and a great discussion. 1608 Russell Road, Alexandria, VA 22301.


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“Besties, Bromances & Soulmates” -Post-Election Therapy

besties-bromances-and-soulmates-picture

This time last year, I was feeling “Bookish”.

Having met Meredith Maslich, at the Story District rebrand bash, I was psyched to learn that she heads – Possibilities Publishing – a unique, boutique, partnership approach to the book trade.

Maybe I could turn Unorthodox & Unhinged into a book?  A radically manic idea! Meredith and I met over coffee to discuss the possibility. But the journey, from blogger to author, is in reality a gargantuan leap.

Long story short: U&U has not morphed into a book.

But short story long: U&U has made into a book.

A reflective piece I wrote, Make New Friends and…, is the opening chapter in Besties, Bromances & Soulmates, this year’s Possibilities Publishing anthology. Between its covers, half a dozen writers explore “pivotal relationships” and the gift of friendship through short story, essay, fiction and non.

So is it any wonder that”Thank you for being my friend”, the old Golden Girls’  theme song, is ringing in my ears. And this post election week, it rings all the more dearly and resonates all the more deeply.

Our country has just come “through the great ordeal”. Well, we are not actually through anything.

Post election, I am experiencing waves of grief. I am stumbling, disoriented as if awoken from a bad dream. My bleeding heart liberal sensibilities have been overwhelmed. Knocked down and beneath these waves, I struggle to come up for air.

How about you?

As a coping mechanism, I have poured myself into my work. In just two days, I plowed through two week’s worth. I have stayed up later and gotten up earlier, cramming 27 plus hours into my day.  Possibly by abandoning sleep, my busyness will belay my fears.

Mania, for a day or two or three, is awesome.

Mania, for a week or two or three, not so much.

So how do I – do we – rein in the mania when we are feeling so unmoored?

Well, very simply, by tightening the ties that bind.

By calling friends,

talking with friends,

having coffee with friends, dinner with friends,

walking with friends,

hiking with friends,

biking with friends,

Netflix/Hulu binge watching with friends,

cocktail partying with friends,

road tripping with friends,

book clubbing with friends,

bar hopping with friends,

pew sitting with friends,

praying with friends,

couch surfing with friends,

shooting the breeze or catching a movie with friends,

cooking with friends,

baking with friends,

crafting with friends,

board gaming with friends,

protesting with friends,

witnessing with friends,

volunteering with friends,

peace making with friends,

reconciling with friends.

Common ground, mutual support, trust, concern and compassion.

Love, respect, and admiration.

Friends restore one another’s souls and revive one another’s spirits.

This art of “befriending” is fueled by our tending to our friendships. Befriending the other, the new, the stranger, in this post-election season, is desperately what we need. Not rushing to an easy or happy-clappy reconciliation, but working towards deep, honest, life affirming connections.

Working towards a radical “we”.

Which brings me back to Besties, Bromances & Soulmatea perfect little book to honor a friend or tuck into a Christmas stocking (or for Chanukah, Kwanzaa, etc.). These half a dozen stories celebrate the  pivotal relationships in our lives.

Friendship begets friendship.

Love begets love.

December 11th at 4:00 PM, this little book is going to be launched. Its a friendly affair with author readings, book signings, and refreshments at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Rd in Alexandria, VA.

Bring a friend, a family member, an acquaintance, a coworker. Invite a Muslim friend, a Mormon friend, a Jewish friend, a Buddhist friend, an agnostic friend, an immigrant friend, an LGBTQ friend, an African American friend, a Hispanic friend, an old friend, your BFF, your next door neighbor, or the new guy who just moved in from across the street.

Ask a Hillary voter or a Trump supporter to come along.

It’s the Christian thing to do.

The price of admission? New warm hats/gloves/mittens/scarves in all sizes for our friends at Carpenters Shelter in Alexandria. Click here to RSVP.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

JoaniSign


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Mental Health Day

ferris and the ferrari

Ferris and the Ferarri

Remember Ferris Bueller’s Bacchanalia?

Ferris’s best class was cutting class. On the verge of graduation, he can’t resist the temptation to skip one last time. He “barfs up a lung” and calls in sick. He “borrows” a Ferarri and convinces his hypochondriac sidekick to go along for the ride. They take off through the streets of Chicago. Hilarious misadventure ensues.

Ferris hijacks a float in the city’s Van Steuben Day Parade, grabs a microphone, twirls it like a baton, and steals the show. All along the parade route, bystanders break out break dancing. Rock out, Chicago!

The Ferrari unfortunately does not fare as well as Ferris does.

The 1961 250 GT goes airborne twice to the Star Wars theme. It does not make it through the credits. Ferris and his friend run it in reverse in hopes of turning the odometer back. But there is no resurrecting the car. Driverless it takes a suicide dive off a cliff into the trees below.

“You killed the car.”

Ferris Bueller just celebrated his “30th” birthday. For thirty years the film has inspired high schoolers to take a “mental health day”. For thirty years the film has inspired really just about everyone to take one incredible and unforgettable “mental health day”.

“Mental health day” , of course, means you’re faking it. You’re lying. You’re goofing off. You’re playing hookie. You’re going AWOL. You’re sneaking around – hoping not to get caught.

Manically speaking, however — “mental health day” — I am here to tell you — is a very real thing.

I took one just the other day.

Hypo-manically flying beneath the radar, I climb, I soar, I swoop and ascend. I coast on clouds in blue, blue skies – on clouds of voluminous white.

My flight is fueled by work, by books, by friends, by family, by church, by walking, by music, by earth, by wind, by fire.

My flight is fueled by coffee and caffeine and extracurriculars.

I f*ing ace at extracurriculars.

I begin to believe that I have flown above my bipolar brain, that I’ve broken the bipolar sound barrier. I believe I’ve discovered anti-gravity.  My feet need never touch the ground again. The only direction to go is UP!

So I stay up later doing more and more. I stay up later and I get up earlier – because even in my dreams my head is racing. Racing, racing, racing and there is no finish line. There is no finish line at all.

And then hoped for things do not come true and along with that comes a rejection and a disappointment or two.

I can handle it. I can handle it. I can handle it, I tell myself. And then I can’t.

I wake up with a dull, twisted, knotted feeling in my stomach. It’s a nauseous feeling tinged with grief and loss. And this grownup woman is bereft as a child.

I curl up in the fetal position, the covers pulled over my head, and then a little voice says,

“I think it’s best, Joani, if you take a mental health day.”

A mental health day is a very real thing – just as real any day away for a virus or a broken limb. Your brain is broken and you are in fear of literally losing your mind. You feel your soul slipping from your grip. You pray not to sink beneath the waves.

Call in sick. Go back to bed.

Yes, call in sick.

But DO NOT, let me repeat, DO NOT climb back into that bed. Get up out that f*ing bed – no matter how f*ing hard it is. Make that bed up as best you can so that you can’t slip between the sheets again.

Eat something real. Wear something gorgeous and go out the f*ing door. Soak in the sun or walk in the soaking rain. Go outside no matter what the weatherman says.

Find yourself a table at a little offbeat bistro and order a gourmet meal. Walk down to the river. Read a book.

See your therapist. Visit a friend. Call your daughter.

Talk to God and rattle some beads.

Go home. Crank up the music and dance in your living room.

Take a shower, take your meds, and get a good night’s sleep.

Re-animate yourself.

Resurrect yourself.

Take a mental health day.

It’s a very real thing – a very real thing, indeed.

JoaniSign


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Hoovering and Hovering in the Vacuum of Space

A prescription for depression.

A prescription for depression.

Whenever I hauled the upright Hoover out of the hall closet, my children would invariably ask: Who’s coming over? Who is coming over that warrants hoovering up all this dust? Now unfortunately we did not just clean up for anybody and my children knew that when they heard the vacuum someone pretty damn important was coming over. And any of you who have ever seen my office or my car, will understand that cleanliness has never been my strong suit nor was it my children’s. In order to make room for company, we had to clear out the clutter… the pile of newspapers… the books… the magazines.. junk mail from the kitchen table… the dishes out of the sink… the Legos from the floor… And then once we had relocated the carpet… we would haul out the Hoover.

There is a painted slate with pride of place in my kitchen that says: “My house was clean last week. Sorry you missed it!” When my children were little, I blamed the clutter and the chaos on them. When my children were grown and gone, I confess the mess was mine and mine alone. It was not the vacuum in the hall closet’s fault, but a vacuum was involved, a vacuum that invariably tugged at my soul.   The tug was subtle, almost imperceptible and quite incremental. But it was definitely a downward tug– a tug to a slightly darker place.

So for a very long time, I hardly ever hauled out the Hoover. I didn’t really notice at first but I started sleeping a little later, staying in my pajamas a little longer, and going to bed a little earlier. Dishes would pile up in my sink and dirty laundry on my bedroom floor. My trashcans had to overflow before I would empty them. And my clothes rarely made it back into the closet. My mailbox got so clogged with letters and bills, both my creditors and the post office sent me threatening notices. And the dust that settled all over my house was so thick, I could write my name in it.

Remember that you are dust. And to dust you shall return.

And I thought I was okay. I really thought I was okay because I was getting by. But that is all I was doing – just getting by. I still got up, I still got dressed, I still got myself to work. But I would wait until the very last possible moment to go out the door. And once at work, I would leave at the earliest possible opportunity. Home again, home again, please, just let me go home again. Home again, home again, just to barely get by.

But I really believed I was okay. I was functioning and functional. I did not notice what others noticed. I did not notice that I was ill, really ill. I did not notice but my children did. My grown up children, Zach and Colleen and Jacob, noticed and they sat me down and told me so. They literally sat me down at my own dining room table — piled high with unanswered mail and cluttered with coffee cops.

And this is what they told me.

“Mom, we love you. Take a look around you. Things are falling apart. You are falling apart. You aren’t taking care of yourself and it scares us. We love you and we want you to be around for a long time. Please pay attention. Please take care of yourself.”

I tried not to cry. I tried to tell them I really was okay. But when they got up and left that day, I knew that they were right. I had been living in darkness, in a place that was empty and hollow and shallow and cold. I was living in that flat, flat space, in an empty hole in my soul, called depression.

This lack of insight, this lack of ability to recognize one’s own mental illness, psychiatrists call, anosognosia. It is different in kind from simple denial. You are not trying to hide from yourself what you know to be true. You truly do not see yourself as ill; you see no need for treatment; and you are virtually blind to the consequences of your illness on yourself and on those around you.

It is only in hindsight, distant hindsight, looking back over a decade that I can truly see how truly sick I was.

In the light I can see now, how dark, dark was that empty space. And I do not want to ever go back there. I work very hard so that I won’t have to go back there. But sometimes even while basking in the sun, that dark and empty space still tugs on my soul.

But cosmologically speaking, even empty space is not empty. It pops with subatomic particles, popping in and out of existence with quirky names like quarks, leptons, bosons, gluons, and muons. These include the now confirmed Higgs-Boson “God particle” that conveys mass and the yet unconfirmed graviton. Those quirky quarks are my favorites being “up, down, charmed, strange, top and bottom”. And, of course, let’s not forget the photons, the bearers of light.

The fabric of space hides itself in darkness. Dark velvety space is a fabric that matter bends and twists. Lit by the particles of light, the visible universe contains millions of billions of galaxies, each galaxy with millions of billions of stars, and untold millions of planets circling them. And here we are on this fragile earth, our little island home on the outer edge of the swirling and whirling Milky Way.

But much of what keeps the universe together cannot be seen. It resides in the darkness. Biblically speaking its as if God did not stop with “Let there be light” but also mysteriously added “Let there be dark”. Specifically according to that famous biblical scholar (not!), cosmologist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in his book, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, we learn that the universe is filled with both dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter is the equivalent of gravitational super glue. Surrounding galaxies like a halo, dark matter keeps stars and planets in their courses over visible matter by a factor of six. What we cannot see binds stardust together. And we are all made of stardust, crafted and created from the stuff born in the belly of stars.

And at the same time, as Hubble discovered in 1923, the universe is expanding. It’s not only expanding, it is speeding up. Based on the Big Bang, and a bazillon other variables, cosmologists calculated the speed. But space is speedier. Literally space itself is expanding. More space is coming into existence, stretching the distance between already distant galaxies. And again,  what is visible in the universe cannot account for it. But because of Einstein’s equation E=mc2, the conversion of matter into energy based on the square of the speed of light, we know something is really out there, really making this happen. Cosmologists call it dark energy.

So creation happens as much in the dark as it does in the light. In fact, more so in the dark.

Think back to those dark and difficult places and spaces in your life. Think back to those dark nights of your soul. Consider the burdens you have carried, the heaviness you have borne, the singularity of your sorrow. Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, did you walk alone? Walking through the valley of the shadow of death, did you catch a glimmer of Light?

Space opens up inside you. Space opens up around you. Space expands in all directions and light makes all that is good visible again. The Light makes visible  — your life again. The Light of the Sprit breathes life — reviving your soul.

Some call the Light, God. I do — because in God the night and the day are both alike. In God the dark and the light are both necessary. On the mythic first day of the seven days of creation, God created light out of the dark. He called the dark, night, and the light, day. And he called them both good. Yes, good.

Yes. Good news. Good news for a bipolar soul.

JoaniSign