“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin
Yesterday I was reading an excerpt from a new book by an old pastor of mine. He played an important role in both my life and Dan’s. He baptized Dan at Riverside Church, married us, and performed Dan’s funeral. Even though I knew “of” his story—I had even interviewed him for a profile piece I wrote for my MFA in graduate school—I have never read it word for word in his own words, so I read the free “Look Inside” pages on Amazon as soon as he provided the link, and ordered the book. I knew he was an incredible spiritual leader, but hey, he can also write! He writes with a strong voice; I can hear his New York accent, the one Dan and I would joke about because when he said “Welcome to the family…” meaning the family of God, he might as well have been in the mafia.
Mike was a heroin addict dealing drugs in the Bronx until he ended up in a Christian drug rehab program called “Teen Challenge.” He went from having his throat slit because he owed money to his dealer, to pastoring a church. But the interesting part is how he got there, and for that, you’ll want to read the book, “How I Got There: The Tale of a Spiritual Pilgrimage” in his own words, not mine. He and his wife later led the church that Dan and I attended for years in on a youth hostel on the Upper West side of Manhattan, 103rd and Amsterdam. It was nothing fancy, but it felt real and truthful, and it changed our lives and pretty much everyone who entered those youth hostel doors.
I’ve been thinking about change again. It feels like last year, but looking back it was two years ago that I wrote this post entitled “Real Change.” I wrote it in the season of Lent while I was trying to figure out how real change takes place. I wondered whether people can ever really change, and even found to my surprise just now, that I’d written about Mike as an example of the prodigal son- the story of transformation. Meanwhile, I found myself relating more to the elder brother and quoted Henri Nowen, “It is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.” I talked about seeds that were sown, but not germinated. I talked about all of my striving and reflection feeling fruitless without the breath of God blowing on it, without the water and sun on those seeds buried in the dark soil.
I’m not sure if I’ve come very far in the two years since I wrote that post. Every year I chose a word to meditate on, and this year it was “change.” It started out just before New Years when someone posted a little saying on social media that said something like, “You’re about to be given a whole new 365 days. Don’t make them the same 365 days as last year.” I realized that at a certain point, everything, every year, had started to look exactly the same for me. After my first couple of years of raw grief, I’d latched onto a way of being, routines and traditions that would help me survive. They were crucial.
How would I survive going to sleep every night by myself after being married for years? The first few months required Tylenol Sleep, but after that I started watching sitcoms or Korean dramas on my computer in bed until I fell asleep…sometimes even my dreams were in Korean! How would I survive celebrating Christmas as a family of two when this was never the happy holiday I had envisioned for my daughter? The first Christmas Eve I got out all her presents to wrap after she’d gone to sleep and opened one that came in the mail from my close friend. The card said “I wish Dan was there with you to celebrate” and I burst into tears. So Christmas Eve became turning on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” getting out all of those unwrapped presents to wrap by the lit tree, and getting myself a glass of red wine. How would I ever go back to a church after sudden tragedy shattered my assumptive world view? I tried but couldn’t go back to a church like that one we’d attended and been so happy at in our twenties. So I wound up at a small, but warm congregation of much older people—many in their 80’s—where I could hide out in the back row and be mostly unnoticed while I sang hymns that had sustained people for hundreds of years.
But at a certain point in the last year or so, those ways of being, those routines and many other survival mechanisms like them, began to fall short somehow. I wasn’t even sure why. Looking at my computer screen late at night was messing with my circadian rhythm and I was waking up feeling exhausted. It just wasn’t a peaceful, acceptable way to fall asleep anymore. Wrapping Christmas gifts on the living room floor of our small apartment became too risky with an older child. Sitting in the back row became lonely. The words of the ancient liturgy weren’t nourishing enough without any human connection.
My old pastor, Mike, didn’t have a choice because he knew if he went back to the Bronx he would literally die. People were looking for him. So he had to give up drugs and drinking cold turkey and found himself in a room in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, letting others in recovery come by and give their testimonies and pray for him even though that didn’t necessarily feel safe or familiar either.
For the elder son, the need to change can be much more subtle and slow-going. Usually, when our way of being is no longer working for us, little things start to happen to redirect us. Sometimes we feel frustrated because we don’t understand and we want to keep doing things the way we always have because it feels safe. We can do that…it just means having that same 365 days over again, or maybe, a little worse.
I read a lot about the concept of time and what makes it feel like it slows or speeds up. Doing different thing apparently slows it down. That’s part of the reason time feels so much slower for infants and children. Everything is still new. But when routines became stale and no longer serve us, and we’re living the same 365 days over and over again, the years begin to pass by like a deck of cards. Was that this year or last year? Or three years ago? It’s hard to tell. And that can feel very, very depressing. It’s not necessarily the threat of sudden attack that catapulted Mike towards change. It’s a slow, insidious sameness that steals the days and years of our life before we realize it.
When I was in college one winter break, I visited a small church soup kitchen in the inner city of Philadelphia and sat with a woman named Millie. She was high on drugs and pivoting between laughter and giddiness, tears and despair. Who were we, privileged white college kids, to come in there and try to minister to her, I often think. We didn’t have a great understanding of life’s pains or Millie’s situation, but we sat with her and asked if there was anything we could pray for. “A changed life,” she said. A changed life. As we got back in our van, I saw Millie walking down the alley next to the church in the snow. I can still see her there in my mind’s eye. I wrote to the African American pastor of that little Baptist church for a few years, asking how Millie was. He would write of her sometimes, but at some point we stopped our correspondence. I don’t know what happened to her, but sometimes I still pray for her…”For Millie…a changed life” because it seems worth it and because she comes to mind twenty something years later. I would never compare my life with Millie’s, but in the last few years when I realized I needed a change, I thought of her words and thought that I understood them just a little bit better. The desperation, the plea.
Whether you’re in need of prodigal son change or elder son change, both can be dramatic. Both involve more than the word “change” suggest. A couple of months into this year I was journaling or praying, and thinking about my word, “change,” when I realized it wasn’t really what I was after. I wanted transformation. I googled around “the difference between change and transformation” because googling is what you do when you want deep spiritual change. It’s actually a very popular topic in corporate coaching. Corporations, apparently, want to transform, not just change. In one of their articles, I read that change means you can go back to how you were, but transformation means you can never go back. The butterfly can’t squeeze back into its cocoon. Maybe that’s what makes real transformation so scary. The cocoon can be so safe and warm. The dark soil so comforting for those seeds that have yet to germinate. This was me with the blue-light of my screen on my face in the dark each night. Me in the back row.
Change is painting my bedroom a new shade of white (literally because I like white walls!), taking a new yoga class, or adding flax seed to your yogurt. (That flax seed is showing up in all my writing lately!) Good, positive, healthy changes. The kind, though, that you can find suggested in a self-help listicle or in Real Simple magazine. The kind that, let’s face it, is kind of cosmetic, sometimes short-lived. The other big difference between “change” and transformation, is that change is starting something new, but transformation is usually more about letting go.
“Transformation is not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. And this disorientation of things falling apart is what nudges us into new ways of thinking.” writes Leeana Tankersley in a beautiful book called “Begin Again” gifted to me two weeks ago by my editor friend.
When you quit heroin cold turkey, you fall apart. But also, when you stop using all of the things that numb you, like binging Netflix, or chocolates, or scrolling over who knows what on your phone every time you have a second alone, you also fall apart. But it’s not the end. It’s the breaking of the cocoon, it’s the almost grotesque sprouting of the seeds. You let go first. You leave things behind. Comfortable things that you know and have come to rely on, but just aren’t working for you anymore.
“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Audrey is an expert at the monkey bars, and that’s pretty much the advice she would give me when she was “training” me to do them. “Just let go!” she’d say. I challenged myself a few years ago to get across the whole rung of bars, and I worked at it at a park where I walk a little bit every day until I did. She was right- you have to let go. You have to trust your hand to find the next rung. The longer you hang there, the more tired your arms get. Let go.