Friday, November 11, 2016

A Different Kind of War

Lest we forget.

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in America. We are pausing from our work and taking a day to reflect on the men and women who lost their lives in war, those who fought bravely and are still here with their memories, and those who are serving in dangerous or maybe just far off places defending the innocent or keeping the peace.

I am also pausing today and reflecting on the war. The battles that so many are fighting daily in the pursuit of health, or maybe just in the pursuit of some sort of peace. Specifically, the war on mental illness and addiction.

I think of those I know of who lost their lives to suicide or addiction:
my mother, my friend, my friend's brother, my new friend's son, another friend's son, and the friend of a friend back in my high school days (I went to his funeral even though I didn't know him. The pain of suicide was so near to my heart that I wanted to support his family and friends, and attend for my own grief journey as well), and this week a young man in our community died due to drunk driving. 

I think of my courageous friends who battled or are still battling various forms of mental illness/addictions (and forgive me if you notice I am mentioning you and my brief description of your journey may not be entirely accurate and I can't do it justice in just a few words):

*The woman who suffered sexual abuse as a child, battled marijuana addiction in her teen and young adult years, and as a wife and mother still faces extreme anxiety attacks from time to time. She is a gifted counsellor who offers compassion, wisdom, insightful prayers, and hope to many who are in need of support. 

*The man who fought such extreme anxiety in his young adult years that he was house bound for about a year (even going to the mailbox was no small feat). He now courageously bears his soul through his music and brings healing to others through his vulnerability on stage and in the studio. 

*The friend of mine who probably feels defeated right now. Pregnant again. Living separate from her children. Trying to just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other. Trying to believe that God can heal her and allow her to enjoy a good life with her kids. 

*The young woman who has experienced all kinds of trauma, who has good dreams and plans for her life, but all the voices in her head are so loud they make the everyday chores of life unbearable and she just wants to run and numb the pain. 

*The man who is burdened with regret over choices he's made that have isolated him from his family and friends. He gets up and goes to work each day to provide for the practical needs of his family, and opens the bottle every night to provide for the various needs of himself. 

These are the soldiers I am thinking of today.

The struggle to live a healthy life is real.

I'm not going to hide the fact that I am in the trenches right now. A few weeks ago I was wondering if I needed to start taking some sort of happy pills. So far, I am doing alright without them, but it's only because I am surrounded by wonderful people who are in the trenches along side me (I say that with full awareness that friends aren't always enough and the need for medication is nothing to be ashamed of, and may yet be in my future). There are days when I have no tears, but then friends show up and cry for me. There are days when I have lots of tears, and friends hand me tissues and listen and pray (and laugh with me as I awkwardly wipe my nose with this stupid piercing in the way! Thanks to Wanda for my new hashtag #notagoodseasonoflifeforanosering).

Here's the deal: I just turned 38. My mom took her life a month before she turned 38. For whatever reasons, she came to the point of giving up on life before she got to be 38. And for various reasons, I find myself having to fight very hard for a healthy life at the age of 38.

I think the main difference between my mom at almost 38 and me at 38, is that she chose isolation and I've chosen community. My mom inadvertently taught me a very important lesson: don't try to make it through life on your own. Having a pretty face, a nice house, and the ability to throw a great party is not really going to satisfy you.

Why am I sharing all this? And why am I doing all of this? Someone told me yesterday that the work I do on myself right now is like an inheritance I can give my children. So, even if I decide I don't really care enough about myself to have a great life, I am now more aware that the work I am doing isn't just about me. Similar to the soldiers who fought (or are still fighting) against evil regimes, I have to keep the bigger picture in mind. This is about peace in the present, but it is also about laying a good foundation for future generations.

I will leave you, fellow soldiers, with a song written by my good, ole pal, Matthew Perryman Jones. This came on while I was driving home yesterday after doing some soul-searching with my counsellor and my support group. I like to hit "shuffle" on my phone and see what songs pop up. This song was so fitting and I marvelled at how well God knows me and how He is fighting for me too, and I had to drive a little further down the road just to take it all in.

Homage for the Suffering
"Here's to you when the rain hits too hard, when the battles that you fight just leave you scarred.. when you're tired to the bone and you've got no strength to move on.."

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Musical Grandmothers

Mimi and Mama Dot.

My dad's mom and my mom's mom. They are pretty much polar opposites.

We call Mimi the whirlwind and Mama Dot the slow poke. Mimi is very loud and kinda rough around the edges. Mama Dot would have probably felt right at home having tea with the Queen. Mimi is known for waking us up by slamming kitchen cupboards, banging pots and pans, and serving up a nice, hot breakfast. Mama Dot usually slept in and let Daddy Bob make the breakfast (more like brunch). She would always tell me to go "freshen up" and tie my hair back before we sat down to eat. She had these hilarious, lovely slippers with a bit of a heel and puffy fur on the top of them. So fancy. It still makes me laugh to think of wearing any kind of heel when you are in your pyjamas. I think Mimi had some more practical slippers. I remember her white running shoes more vividly so I think she wore those more often. Makes sense.. she hit the ground running every day.

They both gave me the gift of music.

Mimi with "My Bonnie lies over the Ocean", "In the Good ole Summertime", and "Just a closer walk with Thee." To name a few. Oh and let's not forget her scary lullabies that we're not sure why she sang to us. "One night I went walking in the cemetery.. skin and bones." Hmm.. such happy thoughts to accompany you into dreamland.

Mama Dot with "Somewhere over the Rainbow", "Too-ra-loora-loora" and the last song I ever heard her sing before she left this world.. "Lord, make us instruments of your peace..". I still remember how her operatic voice rang out on the words "where there is sadness, joy!" I'm glad my brother and I were both there that day to receive her blessing.

Mimi sings everywhere and whistles too. In the kitchen, at the piano, on the porch swing, in the garden, entertaining others at the old folks' home, family gatherings.. you name it, music is present. I really hope that I will get to sing with her at least one more time before she passes on. The last time we sat at her piano together was so magical. I love her rendition of "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine..", and she was probably the one who taught me harmony. I always hear her alto part on "Amazing Grace".

Mama Dot sang in the church choir, at bedtimes, and maybe not quite as often as Mimi. Her voice and style matched her hair and makeup. Perfection. Although.. there was this one bedtime routine we had that allowed me to see her silly, spontaneous side. I feel pretty special about that.  She would carry me down the hallway, dancing and singing "a doot, a doot, a dootily-dootily doot..". Then she would tuck me in and kiss the "sugar spot" at the back of my neck.

Last week in Kindermusik, I watched two grandmothers have a blast with their granddaughters. They were willing to roll around on the ground with them as pigs in the mud, sing aloud even though at times quite off key, and joyfully and sweetly encourage the little girls to try new things and express themselves. They made me think of my grandmothers. It was beautiful to behold.

My grandmothers obviously played a big part in making music an everyday household item for me, and for that I am so thankful. I imagine I will get to be a playful, musical grandmother one day. I know I have definitely been that kind of mother. The kids and I have made up all kinds of songs on a range of subjects: potty training, socks, our pets (for example, a beautiful ukulele song Talia wrote for our dog), and Eva and I recently wrote a catchy one about a chicken on a farm. I am sure Mimi and Mama Dot would be happy to know that their legacy lives on.

"Blessed are those who spoil and snuggle, hug and hope, pray and pamper, boast and brag, for they shall be called grandmothers."
-Author Unknown

Monday, October 17, 2016

Oh Good Grief

Grief is a bitch. Please, pardon my language, but she is, and I will tell you why.
She is unpredictable, exhausting, interruptive, rude, messy, and she thinks the world revolves around her.  She does not give a flying flip about your schedule or your priorities. You can try to ignore her, but she will just silently stare at you from the corner and wreak havoc on your life in her passive- aggressive way. Then, maybe one day you decide to address her, and she comes out swinging and knocks you flat on your back.

I was working on a post all last week, but nothing was flowing right. I've been writing a letter to my mother in honour of her birthday which was this past Thursday. I told myself that I would post something to somehow consecrate that day and make it special. Life happened (and keeps happening) and her birthday came and went. I wasn't able to pause life and give that day the attention that I wanted to. I was really caught off guard at all the emotions that surfaced (predominantly anger), and even some sickness and crazy stiffness in my muscles that I think are probably related.

How do you know when to give in to your feelings and when to fight them? People say, "oh, listen to your body and let it tell you what you need." Well, if I listened to my body, I would be staying in bed a whole lot more, the kids would be eating junk food and constantly staring at screens, our animals would be dead (well, the kids actually feed the cats so they might survive), I wouldn't have a job, and I would be too isolated to experience the love of my community through the coffee dates, prayers, tears, hugs, music, and texts. And so, I guess it's back to that annoying concept of "balance". Collapse when you can.. get up and fight when you have to??

One of my dear, very wise friends is going through some grief of her own. She is good at reminding me to recognize what is going on in the present and grieve for what is there, instead of rushing forward to how you are going to fix everything or how it's all going to be ok in the end. Even as a little girl I was an optimist.  One of my dad's favourite memories is of me raking leaves and singing "the sun will come out tomorrow..".  I think in Christian circles especially, we try to rush through the suffering and death part and get to the celebration of the Resurrection. Jesus was called "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (or another version says "familiar with pain"). Familiar with pain? Not cool. Even He had to go through the agony of Gethsemane, the floggings, and the cross. I can so relate to His question in the garden, "will you take this cup from me?" I'm like, "Beam me up, Scotty. Get me out of this mess!".  For whatever reason, I am not being rescued from the mess this time. Can't go under it, can't go around it, have to go through it.

I was going to keep this short and bittersweet, but the words just kept spilling out. I will close with this beautiful quote that my friend shared the other day. I think this is an example of Good Grief.

“Someday you will be faced with the reality of loss. And as life goes on, days rolling into nights, it will become clear that you never really stop missing someone special who’s gone, you just learn to live around the gaping hole of their absence. When you lose someone you can’t imagine living without, your heart breaks wide open, and the bad news is you never completely get over the loss. You will never forget them. However, in a backwards way, this is also the good news. They will live on in the warmth of your broken heart that doesn’t fully heal back up, and you will continue to grow and experience life, even with your wound. It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character. The people you lose remain a part of you. Remember them and always cherish the good moments spent with them.” Christopher Walken

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Ash Tree

October 8, 2016

It is a rainy, very rainy morning.. we've entered the season(s) that everyone talks about when you mention you are from the Northwest. "How do you manage to get through the rainy fall and winter and.. pretty much Spring too?" "Do you find it depressing?" Thankfully, my moods are not really affected by the rain, but I have learned that I HAVE to grab every amount of sun I can possibly get when it is there.  I become frantic about getting the kids out the door and MAKING them (and me) soak up the sun.. like we are solar panels who have to get out in the light to recharge. I guess it's like a lot of things in life, "you don't know what you got till it's gone".. and so when the sun comes back I notice my friends and neighbours are all out cherishing its presence too.

I tossed and turned this morning, wanting to sleep more, but my mind was full of thoughts, ideas, questions, concerns, inspiration, hesitation, and the to do lists.. and the love/hate relationship I have with to do lists.

Somehow, out of my swirling thoughts, came this idea of doing a blog.  A friend recently encouraged me to write my story, and it seems like typing has become easier than writing with pen and paper. Sad, but true. I do have a journal that I actually write in though to keep up that almost extinct form of communication (pretty sure my friend didn't even think about whether it would be typed or handwritten, but I used to fill notebooks with my writing so I thought about it). Also, the other reason to blog is that I've realized the importance of sharing my story with others. I've experienced how quite often we bring healing to others and they do the same for us by the sharing of our stories.
So, here I am. Blogging.
And then came the question of what would I call it.. and then me laughing at myself as I came up with the title "Song of the Ash Tree." What? Couldn't it be something simple like "Ashley's Thoughts" or "Life of Ashley"? Anyway, I decided to accept the fact that I'm kind of a hippie, poet, artistic, musical person and that the title suited me well.

Therefore, this first blog shall be about the ash tree and my Anglo-Saxon roots.

When I got to travel to the United Kingdom in 1998, I decided to do a study of my name which I knew was of Anglo-Saxon origin. The most literal meaning of my name I found was "from the Ash tree grove".  So, obviously, I then needed to study the ash tree. I vaguely remember I wrote in my journal back then (which is currently in a box somewhere) that the ash tree was a sturdy, flexible tree that grew well in harsh environments. Ha! Wow. I'm pretty sure my parents were not aware of the qualities of the ash tree when they named me. And I'm sure they were not aware of the harsh reality that I was about to grow up in. The harsh environment of alcoholism, then suicide, then motherlessness. Maybe my mother did study the name (she was a teacher) and maybe she chose the name deliberately. My dad just remembers that I was either going to be Ashley or Stacy, and I think they were kind of influenced by the Southern classic "Gone with the Wind", and chose Ashley (even though it was a male name in that story).  I also recently discovered that there is an Ashley River in Charleston, SC, which I've heard was one of my mom's favourite places to visit. And that is kinda crazy because some of my old friends will remember that I called myself "Ashlee River" (signed my letters and papers that way) for about two years. Interesting.

Here is what I found today about the ash tree:
Ash is a hardwood and is hard, dense, tough and very strong but elastic, extensively used for making bowstool handles, baseball batshurleys and other uses demanding high strength and resilience.

Very strong, but elastic. I recently performed the song "Elastic Heart" by Sia. "You won't see me fall apart, 'cause I've got an elastic heart." 

My brother describes me as resilient. He saw me go from being a confused, depressed little girl staring blankly at a TV screen, to someone who could stand in front of crowds and sing my heart out, and someone who would learn to care deeply for others and be strong for others. He brought tears to my eyes recently when we were talking about how I am handling some current struggles in my life. He said, "Your friends are all probably looking at you wondering how you are not falling apart right now.. but you've been doing this (surviving) since you were three". 

The problem is my strength can actually be (and probably is) my greatest weakness. Strength is what made my best friend from high school (and other close friends and relatives) call me "reserved". Strength has allowed me to sometimes isolate from community, and just manage on my own. Strength has made me an enabler (fixer of other people's problems). Strength has allowed me to just "keep on keeping on" when there were times I probably should have allowed myself to collapse.

I am now in a season of allowing myself to fall. Fall into the arms of my Saviour and into the arms of safe community. And hey.. guess what?  It is Fall. This ash tree is going to shed some leaves and concentrate on her inner growth for awhile.