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Saturday, April 12, 2014

How We Heal: Become Formidable and Choose For Love

"The Cloak"  18X18" Mixed Media Collage.  Image courtesy of the artist, Brandi Strickland.  Used with permission and gratitude.  All rights reserved.  Please visit Ms. Strickland's website here to view more of her work.

What follows is the transcript from a talk I gave to women gathered for the Diocese of South Texas Episcopal Women's Spring Gathering at Camp Capers in Waring, Texas, April 4, 2014.

Part I:  Why Am I Here?
I started writing Making Room for George because I needed to tell the story of what was happening in my life. 

But as I wrote, the writing morphed from a simple account of the events in my life into a journey itself--through my life’s history and choices-- and as I wrote, it was much like taking an inventory, bearing witness, explaining, and grappling with the transformational journey I have been making from the person I used to be into the person I am. 

After I finished the book, I realized that I would be speaking to people about the book.  I had to decided what it was I really wanted to say besides, “Buy my book.”  And as I asked for guidance and began to receive it, I had great resistance to the clear message that surfaced.  But it was so clear and so profound and it scared me so much that I knew this was what I was being called to do.

So this is what I have come here today to say:
The woman sitting next to you  in church every Sunday, well-dressed, intelligent, raising a straight-up child, holding a good job could be the very woman whose husband sitting beside her threatened her life and the life of her child the night before.
Statistics show that as many as one in every three of us has experienced some form of abuse by an intimate partner.
We must realize this is happening, maybe even to the woman sitting next to you right now. 
We must talk about it openly.  We must hold the door of our hearts wide open so that disclosure can happen.   We must proactively educate ourselves and our children as to what constitutes a healthy relationship.  We must teach each other how to practice respect and gentleness.  
We must not leave this work solely to organizations outside the church.  We must know what to do and be prepared to take appropriate action when any woman asks for help. 
We must tell the truth. We must heal this abuse. We must stand together, become formidable, and thrive toward a culture of gentleness.

Why do I want to speak specifically to this Episcopal group of women? It’s because my mother was a member of the Episcopal Church for decades and a member of the Episcopal order of the Daughters of the King.  It was she who taught me how to practice Centering and Contemplative Prayer.  It was she and her group of Daughters I called with my need for prayer over many years.  In this way I have a very felt sense of the power of prayer.  And I know the power of a group of women united in prayer.

Part II:  Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?

As an adult, I asked my mother why she didn’t just leave my father.  After all, she had a job.  This was her answer:  “Because he said he’d kill both of us if I did.”  So my mother risked her life and sacrificed her happiness to save our lives.

That’s valid. 

As it turns out, this threat is a common one made by many perpetrators.  Sometimes, in spite of such a threat, women summon the courage to leave and succeed, finding new lives in other cities or carrying on where they are, but with restraining orders in place, finding that their spouse’s bullying behaviors subside once they realize she has finally, really left and isn’t coming back.  Sometimes, the perpetrator hunts them down and carries out the threat.

A woman who lived across the street from one of my friends in an affluent San Antonio neighborhood was being held hostage by her husband, locked inside and not allowed out alone. None of the neighbors suspected anything was wrong until her sister called one of them to say there was going to be an intervention

Sometimes a woman has children and no job and no idea how she would survive and care for her children, so she tells herself after every beating or insult that he didn’t really mean it and that he won’t do it again.  In fact, that’s what most perpetrators do say.  They experience and express real remorse, but somehow cannot keep their aggression from surfacing again and again.

Sometimes, the woman is well-educated and has an excellent job and could easily care for herself and her children financially, but she has been brainwashed into thinking that the whole mess is her fault and if she would only do this or that differently, he wouldn’t lose his temper the way he does.  So the woman jumps through hoops:  taking cooking classes; losing weight; changing her hair; never going out; clinging; not-clinging; and so on and on and on...

The other reason women stay is because they love this man and because they would rather stay and risk a broken arm than endure a broken life with a broken heart.  My mother loved my father until the day she died and I love my husband despite all of our difficulties. 

Part III:  You Can’t Get There From Here

So why did I choose a man who slapped me to the ground and treated me with such disrespect and why didn’t I just leave him?

Einstein is quoted to have said:  “a problem cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

I can speak most authentically to this point by telling my own story.

I cannot leave the place I inhabit unless I leave it consciously, by first identifying the energetic pattern-cause and then by practicing the vigilant work of choosing again and again a new way of inhabiting my world.  In order to move on, I must embodying a new energetic pattern.  Otherwise, I will simply find myself back in the same circumstance or with the same kind of partner who may be slightly more or less abusive because that’s the kind of energetic space my consciousness inhabits, because that’s what’s familiar, because that’s what I’m attracted to subconsciously.

So when I found my husband, what kind of energetic-pattern did I embody?  What were my deepest systems of belief?

From as early as I can remember, I learned that violence is a way of life.  That it is part of loving someone.  That it is the way to handle anger, disappointment, and frustration. 

I watched my father become enraged with my mother, hit her, knock her down and bruise her.  I watched her cry and mourn and grieve and then I watched them reconcile and stay together for twenty-eight years.  I heard my mother say repeatedly that she loved my father, so I learned that this is how you behave when you love someone. 

I learned that violence is funny.  I watched the Wylie Coyote and the Roadrunner do territorial battle on Saturday morning cartoons.  I watched the Roadrunner drop the big rock or anvil on the Coyote’s head and squash him.  And then I watched the Coyote spring back and do it all again and I watched this week after week along with many other cartoon characters who did the same things, smacking each other in the face with skillets and brooms and the like. 

Implanted in those cartoons was the notion that these kinds of violent actions do not hurt, after all the Coyote never died. 

And the same idea was implanted in my experience because though my mother was sad and I was frightened, no one died.  So I became accustomed to living in tension and because I didn’t know better; I couldn’t know better, I agreed subconsciously with the idea that violent action, tension, and pain are all just part of the landscape of love.

My psyche studied the roles:  the aggressor rules; the victim submits; and the belief system:  when there’s been an attack, pass judgment, figure out who’s to blame, and punish them by attack.  This belief system implanted itself into every cell of my being, into my psyche, into my emotional blueprint, and therefore into every future relationship I would have, especially into the relationship I have with my own self.

I decided early on that to survive, I would be perfect.  And I vowed that no matter what, when I grew up, none of this would ever affect me.

I graduated high school, President of the Drama Club, Student Council Officer, in the top ten percent of my class, an outspoken, upstanding, virgin, non-drinking Christian who attended church beside my parents every Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon and Wednesday Prayer Meeting.  I looked like a young woman who was just fine.

When I got to college, I started drinking, having fun, and enjoying freedom--until I wasn’t having fun anymore.  Within four years, alcohol had released the rage within me to the degree that I had already blown through two serious relationships and I had become spiritually bankrupt, anorexic and suicidal.

So, I had left home, but I had failed to leave what I learned there behind.

Part IV:  The Only Way Out is Up

Here is a piece of my personal theology:  I believe I came into this life to experience what it is like to come to and awaken to compassion.  I believe I made a soul-contract in the life between lives to do this work.  I believe I wanted to be more compassionate toward people who suffer with being out of control to the point that results in violent aggression.  I wanted to have compassion for that kind of weakness.  And I needed to experience it and be out of control myself in order achieve the desired level of compassion.  

In my family of origin, I lived within the cycle but identified it as outside myself as “their problem.”  Then I took on each role inside of the two serious romantic relationships I mentioned earlier, playing the role of victim-dependent in the first and the role of aggressor-dependent in the second and playing out the belief each time that the “problem” was outside myself, that it was “his problem.”  Three months before I was supposed to marry relationship number two, he broke our engagement and we split up.  Four months later, I married my first husband, and we had a child together, me playing the role of aggressor-dependent.  We divorced after four years, because, of course, “he was the problem.”

Then, I believe I chose my second husband very carefully, albeit unconsciously, so that I could begin, in earnest, the work around these issues according to the contract my soul had made to learn compassion in this way.

This is the man, by God’s grace, who confronted my behavior and the reason, on the physical plane that I began to awaken.

What I saw when I began to wake was ugly.  I looked at all of the misbehavior, all of the missteps, all of the mistakes, all of the times that I knew that what I was doing would bring inevitable, irreparable consequences and I saw that I was bent on self-destruction. 

With the help of counselors and mentors and twelve step programs, I looked at my life and I understood that of myself, I had no idea how to inhabit my life differently.  I had reached the bottom and the only way out was up.

Part V:  How Do We Choose?

I needed to see all that I have seen about myself and my habits of thought and habits of feeling, all that I have seen about my systems of belief and how I misunderstand the Source of Power and misuse my own personal power.  I needed to see how completely and utterly powerless I was and still am to effect real change in my life in the absence of spiritual awakening and intervention.

I needed to see that my difficulties on the physical plane are a result of the life going on between my ears.  I needed to see my belief that attack has power; my belief that I need to play either the role of perpetrator or victim; my belief that how I behave is dependent on situations, circumstances and people outside myself; my belief that I am to blame or that you are to blame and one of us should be punished.

I would like to tell you that I no longer inhabit the space of attack, judgment, blame, and punishment, and that that system of belief no longer has power over me.  But that is not true.

A Course in Miracles says there is only one choice really:  We either choose love or we choose attack.  It is only by Grace that I am able to choose differently most days.  In most moments, I can choose for the Highest Good.  In most moments, I can choose for Love.

I have stayed in my marriage for three reasons.  The first reason is because of the soul-contract I believe I made between lives.  The second reason is because of financial and emotional dependency issues I continue to address daily.  And the third reason is because of the way I define love, a definition I borrowed from writer Gerald Jampolsky:  Love is an action, not a feeling.  And though I often do not like my husband’s behavior at all (or mine), I do want to love him; I do want to love myself.  I do want to choose for Love in in all of my relationships. 

My husband and I have inured each other repeatedly over time by our continued misunderstanding and missteps. We are here to teach and learn from each other.  We have come a long way together over the past thirty-four years.  Ours is a complex and tumultuous dance between two people learning to choose for love and I am a formidable woman as a result of this practice.

My hope is that my telling you the truth of my experience, will open the door for you to tell the truth about yours.  My hope is that this will open your heart and increase your understanding of how insidious and imbedded, complicated and rooted the dis-ease is that causes a woman to make the choices she makes. 

My hope is that you and I and others, one by one, will come together into the deep well of compassion and teach and learn from each other what it is to choose for Love.  My hope is that together we can re-frame our notion of what it means to love.  My hope is that by the Power of this Love and the work of our hands, we can bathe our world in this Great Gentle River until the time comes when no woman breaks.

i see


—face of god

when no



when only
this hand    

of grace

& none
    must run


when      whether
she          has carried


her feet
—no longer      bound

her head
—held high      uncovered

she        will walk
her own       way


her back     

her mouth
—white fire

her hips

& full

of promise

Part VI:  The Work of Our Hands

Lay on your hands, but first, stop the bleeding.

As a practitioner of energetic healing with clients, my training teaches me to look for the energetic cause of what may be presenting as pain manifested in the body.  So for example, someone with chronic back pain may need to resolve some emotional trauma from their past experience.  But, I am cautioned, that should I come upon a person lying in the road with a severe hemorrhage, do an energetic intervention, but first I should stop the bleeding.

For the purposes of this conversation, the immediate work we have to do is help the woman in crisis find safe shelter.  The energetic intervention will happen as we change our own minds and open our hearts, learning to practice gentleness and choose for love ourselves.  Only when we love, can we teach love.

In January of this year, I met with a few women and together we explored some aspects of current reactive approaches to violence against women and asked some questions about how we might become more proactive, offering greater support to women seeking refuge, renewing sensitivity, and become Women Empowered toward a culture of gentleness.

What I brought to the conversation was this information:  In Kendall County, Texas when a woman finally summons the courage to ask for help, she must first figure out who to call.  Once she does this, she may find the national hotline or a local shelter number.  If she calls the national hotline, they will then give her another number to call to reach a local shelter.  So now she has to make a second call.  On either call, the first question they will ask if “Are you safe?”  If she answers no, they will tell her to hang up and call 911.  By now this traumatized woman has had to make three calls.

If she calls 911 and the police come to get her, they will take her to the nearest shelter.  If that shelter is full, they will give her the number for the next nearest shelter that is not full.  She may be escorted there by the police and I quote, “If the police are not busy.”  The woman may also be given hotel accommodations until a shelter space is available.  I don’t know whether police must stay with the woman at that point or not. 

Once a woman is admitted to a shelter, she has access to counseling and other services, but, according to one shelter I interviewed, her stay is limited to sixty days.  Sixty days to get your life turned around, heal from serious psychological and emotional damage, change your habits of thought and habits of feeling, grieve the loss of the one person you love most in the world, sometimes find a job, find a place you can afford to live, and maybe find daycare for your kids. 

Chop chop.  Time is precious.

In light of this clinical and reactionary approach absent of poetics, spiritual presence, or true nurture, we explored the notion of how a system of ecumenical “safe” houses might help women in crisis and seeking refuge from spousal abuse.  Think Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.

In late February, I was privileged to hear Rev. Becca Stevens of Tennessee speak to the Episcopal Southwest Texas Diocesan Council gathering in San Marcos.  She has designed and implemented a two-year residential recovery and rehabilitation opportunity for women who have histories of prostitution, drug abuse, and other forms of bondage.  These residences are called Magdalene Houses and they operate without federal or state funding, are absolutely free to the participating women, and are fully self-supporting through their social enterprise, Thistle Farms.  This is an amazing model that could be used for the safe-houses I envision. 

However, for women seeking refuge from spousal abuse and those who assist them to be safe in such places, careful security measures would be necessary and this would change the Magdalene House model in some significant ways.

I believe this can happen by the work of our hands.

I heard this story recently from a non-Episcopalian pastor:  She told me about a woman she knew in another city who was being abused by her husband and was ready to leave, but that woman’s church-body insisted she reconcile with her spouse and thus would not support her leaving.  The pastor, who told me this story, took up a collection from her congregation and sent the woman money so that she could leave.

After I told the then director of the Kendall County Women’s Shelter this story, she suggested that her organization hold a round-table discussion among area ministers across denominations, asking them about their church doctrines on the subject of separation and divorce, especially in the presence of family violence.

Spring-boarding from that idea, I have created a list of interview questions I think might be effective to begin a conversation with Episcopal rectors.  In this way, we could engage them and their parishes in the conversation about the need for more hands-on, proactive involvement by the church body in calling women toward this culture of gentleness.

Here are a few examples.  As you listen, discern how you yourself might answer these questions.

1.  How would you council a woman reporting spousal abuse?
2.  What is your teaching regarding divorce and or separation in such cases?
3.  What system, if any, do you have in place for addressing the needs of a woman seeking refuge from spousal abuse?
4.  Do you have and do all of your parish members have ready access to toll-free telephone numbers for both the nearest local women’s shelter and the national hotline?
7.  Would members of your parish be interested in proactively obtaining training on compassionate conversation and developing healthy relationships toward a culture of gentleness?
8.  Would you or a member of your parish be willing to be the designated communicant in this continuing conversation?

These might be difficult conversations.  But we must have them.  We must take a hard look at what we are doing and what we are not doing.  We must open our sacred spaces; we must open our minds, our hearts and our homes. 

We must purposefully nurture loving kindness and let the choice for beauty, gentleness and harmony dissolve hatred and let the Great River carry all that does not serve downstream.

I believe this can happen by the work of our hands.

On a social-organizational level in Ann Arbor, Michigan, voluntarily trained response teams exist.  When the police are called to the scene of domestic violence or when an individual presents at the hospital admitting they have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner, this team is called.  They come to her at the police station, or hospital.  They listen.  They comfort.  They bring resource information and they accompany her through the process of getting the help she needs.  These are viable and powerful models we can follow. And I wonder why this isn’t happening in every city.

But further, what if every parish trained its own Teams of Compassionate Response, teams prepared to guide and assist such a woman, much like a Steven’s Minister learns how to be present to someone in a life crisis as a spiritual companion, but more adept at addressing the needs of a woman seeking refuge from a violent partner.

Are we ready to hold this woman’s hand and help her to safety?  Can we listen to her story without judgment? 

Knowing each of us must do our own personal growth work and change our own realities from the inside out, can we offer this tourniquet and stop the bleeding?

I believe this can happen by the work of our hands.

You might say, “There is so much work to do.  My life is full and I have no more time.”  I understand.

But here is one important way we can work together without adding an ounce of extra outward effort.  Let’s shift our discourse about this topic from the language of violence, for example naming a month “Domestic Violence Awareness Month,” to the language of gentleness, calling it “Safe Family” month or “Compassion Awareness” month. 

Let each of us become aware of our own everyday language and whether or not we are speaking the language of gentleness.  For example, instead of saying I am “fighting for what I believe,” why not say, “I claim what is rightfully mine and I speak my truth.”

There is a bowl of white ribbons on each of your tables.  Please take one and one for someone you love.  Let it be a gentle reminder of the work we have to do.  Let it whisper to you and to those who ask why you wear it, “I am a formidable women choosing for Love.”

And also on the table, you will find my “Call to Action.” (see Call to Action page on this blog)  These are love-in-action steps you can take to more proactively help women in crisis find safety and thrive toward a culture of gentleness.

Make no mistake.  Asking these questions;  being present to my own and others’ pain;  taking inventory of my life, my habits of thought and habits of feeling; watching what I say; watching what I think, telling the truth about it all out loud and in public:  is not easy.  But, for me, it is an inescapable calling. 

It is the voice of the Christ speaking to me, saying:  “Take up your bed and walk.”

And so I have told you my story and shared with you insights born out of my own brokenness.  I have told you that it is by Grace alone that I come before you today a more formidable woman.   

And since none of us can really rest until all of us are saved, until all of us are safe...

I ask you to come with me into this Great Gentle River where none of us are separate or different or better but where all of us blend together in the murky mystery of our humanity.

I ask you to become a teacher of peace.  I ask you to choose for love.  I ask you to commit to listening with an open heart.  I ask you to commit to using the language of gentleness.  I ask you to suspend your judgment of “the other” and nod to the Oneness of All that Is. 

All of these things I ask because I know--this is how we heal.

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