i wish you every gentleness

The Cloak Brandi Strickland

“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.

Today is the thirtieth day of the season of non-violence–a sixty-four day block of time between Jan. 30 and Apirl 4 (the anniversaries of the assassinations of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, respectively) which is set aside annually & was originated by Ghandi’s grandson.

Why designate a season of non-violence?  Of course, it is a celebration of the contribution these and other modern day public figures who have lived out their lives passionately, teaching the way of non-violence.  But most importantly,  it is one way to engage ourselves in a conversation about the power of gentleness.

I have never heard nor have I ever spoken these words:  Happy season of non-violence!  And though I think, Happy season of gentleness! evokes more of the resonance I personally want to create in the world, these are not words that have ever occurred to me to say.  Hmmmmmm….

There is a season in which everyone walks the streets wishing everyone else everywhere merriness and joy and P.E.A.C.E!  Culturally, however, we only give ourselves permission to show this much good will publicly for the thirty days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The rest of the time, we might say, “Have a nice day,” or “Be well,” but these phrases don’t carry quite the same message.  They don’t really speak to the practice of non-violence the way, say, May you know gentleness today, or I wish you every gentleness might.

I write about gentleness, confessing my own need for it, my own need to practice, practice, practice, confessing that I lapse into violent thought and sometimes (still) words and actions that come from habits deeply imbedded in my neuron-pathways from pre-birth.

I write to watch myself.  I write to know myself.  I write to change myself.  I write, hoping that what I have experienced will move others into their own way of being present to themselves and their own needs to watch, to know, to change.

What follows are excerpts 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.  I share it with you today, celebrating my own season of non-violence, celebrating how far I have come, celebrating my own willingness to carry on.

bend them with gentleness meme flickr

image:  meme by Brett Jordan.  Use with permission via Creative Commons.  Rights reserved.

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 decide 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.

peace is every step cover tich nhat hahnimage:  “Peace is Every Step” (Book cover) by Thich Naht Hanh.  From my suggested reading list & a favorite of mine.

We must tell the truth. We must heal this abuse. We must stand together, become formidable, and thrive toward a culture of gentleness.

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.

what on earth am i here for flickr Cc

image:  “Good Question” by Bob Jagendorf. Used with permission via Creative Commons.  Rights reserved.

Part III:  You Can’t Get There From Here

Have I experienced violence at the hands of someone I love?  Yes.  I am one in three.  But 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.

D. Ellis Phelps

In order to move on, I must embody 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.

Love and Hate by Mai le via CC

image:  “Love and Hate” by Mai Le.  Used with permission via Creative Commons.

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.


Do you live in an emotional landscape, longing to be in a different place?  What ideas, patterns or habits might you need to relinquish in order to move on? 

Are you one of the one in three?  If so, call for help: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

I’ll be posting more of this story over the next few days.  Click the follow button to the right to get my updates in your email inbox.

d. ellis phelps is the author of Making Room for George, a love story.  Balboa Press, 2013.

a dime’s worth

Though this poignant, haunting video features worthy men and though this song was written in 1930 in the heart of the Great Depression, this unconscionable, societal neglect of our own who have served and yet, who suffer greatly also includes women.

In the song a beggar talks back to the system that stole his job.[3] Gorney said in an interview in 1974 “I didn’t want a song to depress people. I wanted to write a song to make people think. It isn’t a hand-me-out song of ‘give me a dime, I’m starving, I’m bitter’, it wasn’t that kind of sentimentality”.[6] The song asks why the men who built the nation – built the railroads, built the skyscrapers – who fought in the war (World War I), who tilled the earth, who did what their nation asked of them should, now that the work is done and their labor no longer necessary, find themselves abandoned and in bread lines.

Wikipedia

And here, I ask:  why should a women who has served society– birthed our children, cooked our meals, washed our clothes, raised our young, nurtured our health, AND OFTEN ALSO worked a full time job as CEO, secretary, CPA, teacher, care-giver–ever find herself in danger, in need of shelter or food, and unable to find a safe, honorable place in the world?

My volunteer work at Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas brings me face to face with this need on an up close and personal level.

Saturday I met a woman who has been living at Haven temporarily. I’ll call her Darla (not her real name).  She has brain damage that causes her speech to be halting, says “I forget things.”  She told me that Haven’s social workers have found subsidized housing for her and last week they took her to see what will be her new apartment home.

I’m thinking that’s great!  Right?  I looked into her green eyes.

“Are you looking forward to having a place of your own?”    She took a deep breath, hesitating.

sadness_149 from hipish.free.frimage:  free stock from hipish

“I’m afraid the man who gave me this brain damage will find me.  I’ve been thinking I need to hire someone to check on me everyday.  I mean, I know this is silly, but I’ve been feeling safe while I’ve been here.”

My heart clenched.

“Does this man live in San Antonio?”

“Yes.  He does.  I don’t contact any of my friends I used to know or go anywhere I used to go so he can’t find me, but I’m afraid he will.”

This story is not unusual.  One in three women worldwide will experience violence against them in their lifetime:  that equals one billion women.  And the fact is, this violence is no respecter of persons.  Regardless of whether a woman is intelligent or not so much, employed or not, married or not, beautiful or not, popular or not, she is devastated and usually debilitated by domestic violence.

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.

D. Ellis Phelps

What I want for this woman and for all women (and men) who are ready to go to any length to change their lives and leave abuse behind is a culturally ubiquitous commitment to healing this societal disease. I am not alone in this.  Many have joined to bring awareness to the need to stand against violence.

I am for standing together.  And of course, I want perpetrators to be held accountable and to be rehabilitated.  I want those who experience suffering to be comforted.  I want provision for all who experience lack.

But most importantly, I want to be part of a culture reconsidering the current reactive approach to widespread abuse and rage.  What we do now is like sending in the National Guard and the Red Cross after the fact to clean up the mess of a natural disaster.

These entities are necessary and powerful forces for good, providing aid in times of crises.  And let’s face it:  no amount of education will turn a tornado from its destructive pathway.

But education will stop abuse.  Education of the spirit.  And practice.

there is nothing so strong as gentleness meme

image:  meme used with permission by the artist, Brett Jordon via Creative Commons.  Rights reserved.

The practice of loving-kindness.  One word at a time.  One glance.  A smile.  A gentle in-breath and exhale replacing a mean retort. The decision not to hit or yell.  Ever.

The decision to ask for help. The decision to give help in healthy ways.

These are actions we each can take one moment at a time, actions that will change our world for the better.

Ask:  What simple (but not often easy), let’s say a dime’s worth of action can I take today to make my world and that of those around me more gentle, more kind?  How can I change even my thinking, especially my thinking  (this requires spiritual intervention), around someone or something I think I hate or feel the need to punish.  Can I offer forgiveness and loving-kindness instead, even for one instant?  Yes.  One Holy Instant can change everything!

Share your victories and positive choices here and share them with others.  Collect a #formidableWoman badge from this page (at right) and post it on your own website or blog.

Help us reach critical mass and tilt the collective-consciousness toward a culture of gentleness.

peace eLKayPics flickr CC

image:  “Peace” used with permission of the artist, eLKayPics via Creative Commons. Rights reserved.

d. ellis phelps is the author of Making Room for George, Balboa Press, 2013.

The Choice for Love

 sadness_149 from hipish.free.fr

photo courtesy of http://hipish.free.fr/graphics/feelings/sadness/?id=149

The day I saw my reflection in the microwave glass, standing in the kitchen of my posh, suburban home, drinking Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, I decided to leave alcohol alone. But it was later, much later, and with careful counseling; active listening in recovery groups; abstinence from alcohol and mind-altering, prescription drugs; and prayerful surrender that I made the life-changing choice for self-love and acceptance.

Sunday mornings in Central Texas where I grew up, were for going to church and Sunday school. Sunday afternoons were for being with family, eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes made from scratch with brown gravy, canned English peas soaked in butter, white bread (also spread thick with butter); drinking sweet iced tea; and watching the Cowboys on television: my dad’s regular nap time. We attended the First (Southern) Baptist Church as did all our kin except for my grandmother who swore we would all go to hell because we didn’t attend The Church of Christ. Early on, as you might guess, I got confused about religion.

There were volatile arguments between my grandmother and my dad over religious choices.  Of course, these might have fallen on deaf ears for most eight-year-olds, but not on mine. I practiced deep thinking, said my prayers fervently, and read the scripture in the King James Version of the Bible (a gift from my father bound in black leather with my name inscribed on the front cover in gold), and I listened. I was looking for answers to questions I could barely formulate as yet.

My reasoning probably went something like this: maybe if I listen hard enough, I will understand who’s telling the truth and then I can settle this thing once and for all or, at the very least, keep myself out of hell. Or maybe I thought: if I go to church, read my lessons, sing in the choir, invite Jesus into my heart, and behave really, really, really well, my dad will stop throwing my mother’s head against the wall and shoving her down all the time.

Yes. I lived with family violence regardless of church, regardless of prayer.

Violence is a learned behavior. My father learned how to treat a woman from witnessing the way his father treated my grandmother and he learned how to treat a child from the way his father treated him: beatings with a horse whip; tongue-lashings; harsh, unforgiving judgmental attitudes. And from birth, I began to learn this destructive pattern as well. Of course, I had no idea how it would eventually surface in my adult behaviors or even that it would. In fact, I swore it would never happen to me nor would I ever perpetrate such unhappiness and wrongdoing upon myself or others. How little I knew.

I’m cognitively unsure about my eight-year-old-reasoning, but I can say that I listened well, to everything, like a dog on point. And I tried to be good at everything. I did my chores. I did my homework. I made straight A’s and I never, ever talked back.

Until I did.

When I left home for The University of Texas in the fall of 1970, I was determined to leave all that chaos at home. But guess what? I’d learned what I’d lived. Rebellion had been rumbling in me like a stampede about to happen and when I added alcohol to the mix, wild abandon broke down the gates of any inhibition that lingered in this small town Baptist girl.

As was the prevalent mind-set on campus, “I loved the one I was with,” and I was with many. I took up smoking, cigarettes and pot. I perfected the art of cursing; peppering every phrase with a well-placed explicative. I went to class, but slept through the early ones. I played Spades in the dormitory hallway passed midnight and studied just enough to get by. I drove drunk, bought and sold dope, and blacked out, forgetting my way home more than once.

Most of these mild diversions may sound typical of college life to many, and really they were typical. I was never arrested (only by luck), after all. I functioned well, albeit often hung over. I landed a role as a dancer in the chorus line of the UT production of Cabaret after my first audition, winning the role over many dance majors with whom I competed. I served as a dormitory advisor and a resident assistant during my sophomore and junior years, both honorary positions. I excelled as a student-teacher during my senior year. And I got my degree.

I was educated and ready to live life, but emotionally miserable.

“So,” you ask. “What does any miserable, twenty-something-year-old woman do to get happy?” Get married and have a child. Right? Wrong.

I did get married and have a child I wanted very much to have, but I was still miserable.

“So what was the problem?” you asked. The problem was deep-seated rage and self-hatred—fear in disguise.

By the time the day came that I saw my reflection in the microwave glass, my five-foot-four frame supported a mere one-hundred and five pounds; I was drinking close to a fifth of straight whiskey daily but could not get drunk no matter how I tried; I smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. I carried at least three prescription drugs in my purse at all times (for nervousness, headaches, and chronic bowel distress); and I was depressed, misguided, and suicidal.

As you may have guessed by now, I’d stopped attending church as soon as I left home, abandoning virtually all of its teachings in return for agnosticism. I’d seen my first of many shrinks; had multiple affairs; and found that I had no idea how to be happy. My marriage failed, ending with an affair that broke up two families, creating painful waves of dysfunction to this day.

My second marriage and my drug and alcohol free lifestyle have survived, however, for thirty-three years. Why? Not because I am holy now. I am far from it. Not because I have returned to church. I haven’t, though I did time and again, but found no match for my version of spirituality in organized religion. Not because now I am finally married to the right man. This relationship has been tumultuous at best. Not because my life is trouble-free. It hasn’t been. We’ve faced years of federal investigations by the IRS, the SEC, and the FBI for alleged misbehavior and received subsequent judgments that took our life savings. We’ve raised a potpourri family. We’ve been through surgeries, illnesses, counseling and treatment and we’ve watched our parents age, move in with us, and die. Sometimes we thrived and sometimes we just survived and sometimes we nearly killed each other, but here we are. Here I am.

Here I am, healthy as I am, and able to be as authentic and as honest as I am with you because of choice. Not a once-in-a-life-time choice, but a consistent, committed, daily choice to love and to accept myself with all my strengths and weakness no matter what rather than to self-destruct and in the process also destroy others and any chance of life-giving relationship.

Here I am because I choose to look at myself honestly and with great reverence for the path I’ve walked. I choose to acknowledge the grace that has accompanied me on this path. I choose to forgive myself and others completely and quickly. And I choose to hold my head up high.

Here I am because I choose to let go of fear and live in the present not the past.

Here I am because I choose to live and learn without regret. And because I choose to live this way, I know how to let you make your own choices, understanding deeply that church or no church, there is wholeness in all of us that seeks its own level that will rise above all apparent unhappiness and create new life—given half a chance.