This was delivered as a sermon at the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Danvers, MA on December 4, 1994
Today's reading from The Divine Comedy was written by Dante when he was thirty five years old, or as his commentators write, "midway through his allotted threescore years and ten." At mid-life Dante awakens to find that he is lost. He writes as he begins his epic, "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood." He goes on to describe that place where he was lost,
"How shall I say what wood that was! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!"
At age forty, perhaps midway in my allotted years, I too became lost. The title of my talk today is "Lost in the Kitchen." During the last few years I have spent countless days and nights lost in the kitchen. In 1991 I began a journey, just like Dante began a journey, in search of something. I did not know what that something was. I did not even know that I was beginning a journey and it certainly was one which I did not choose voluntarily. It took me to psychiatric hospitals and treatment centers. It took me away from my wife and children for many months. It took me away from my profession. It took me through pain and suffering the likes of which I will never forget. To paraphrase Dante, death could scarce be more bitter than the places I have been. But those places, those stops along a most difficult journey, have changed me. They have transformed me and I will be forever grateful.
There is a line in "Amazing Grace" which goes, "I once was lost, but now I'm found." I stand before you today to report I once was lost but now I am found.
Who was this man who was lost? Many of you have known me since I joined this church in 1981. I became a member when my family and I moved to this area so that I could join a law firm in Danvers. I was active in the church and eventually served as Chairor of the Board. My children were dedicated here. My wife, Merry, and I took part in various cabarets and shows put on here at the church. I practiced real estate law and became a successful partner in the firm. I helped some of you buy and sell houses. I was active in other service and charitable organizations in the community. I had a nice house in Topsfield and two healthy children who would attend church school on occasion under the usual duress. I had a few financial investments. I was living the American Dream. I had made it. From the outside everything looked great. What went wrong?
My life has not been an ordinary one during the last three and a half years. I would like to tell you that my world was turned upside down, but that would be a vast understatement. I have fallen into black holes. I have been raised to great heights and then dropped to the ground. I have been spun and twisted and dragged and squeezed and stretched to the breaking point so many times. And yet I have survived. I have proven beyond a doubt that I am a survivor. For many months survival was my only claim to fame, but it was enough. Eventually, I was able to do the work which would lead me beyond survival and would allow me to flourish. Let me tell you some of my story.
In January of 1992 I sat in this room and made a New Year's Resolution. For many years, Ed Lynn had a tradition of collecting a resolution from you on the first Sunday of the New Year and then returning it to you at the end of the year. I had not made a New Year's Resolution in many years because I viewed it as a setup for failure. The last one I had made was in the mid 80's and it was "To get control of my life." That was a joke. That resolution certainly had failed. But in 1992 I needed resolve. I remember sitting down in the back row and making a simple resolution, "to stay alive in 1992." A mere six weeks later I was very close to failure on that resolution, and I was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward for the third time in nine months.
In 1991, when I was forty, my world fell apart. Or I fell apart. Take your choice. The distinction is not necessary. Many things were happening in my life. My business was struggling. I was working unreasonable hours under great stress. I had suffered reversals in my financial investments. My relationship with my wife was not good. My mother had a major stroke. My life was a mess. I was ruled by fear and depression, bouncing back and forth from one to the other.
But from the outside every thing still looked fine. I was well trained to put up a good exterior no matter what happened. I fought hard to keep up the front, the calm and collected persona. I fought hard to stay in control, but eventually the burden was too great and I could fight no longer. I surrendered and took to my bed for several days. I did not want to get up. I was hospitalized for major depression.
This was my first hospitalization. I could not imagine that I was really that bad, but I did not know what else to do. I was scared. After all, psych wards were for crazies and it had not been that long ago that I had been living the American Dream. What if the halls were filled with drooling zombies bouncing off the walls?
I will always remember stepping off the elevator onto the floor of my unit. My first sight was a man named John, drooling and sliding along the wall of the corridor. It was clear that I was in the wrong place. But I was not in the wrong place. Later, when his medication was lowered, John became a good friend. He, like me and most of the rest of the patients were in need of a few days off from the real world--a safe place to take a time out from the demands of every day life.
That first night in the hospital I laughed like I had not laughed for a long time. The steam in the pressure cooker had been released. Gradually it felt like I was getting a grip on life again. I had the ten day cure at that hospital. I could now make my way back into the mainstream of life.
I vowed that this hospitalization would be my last. A few days in a psych ward gave me the breathing space which I needed and I was ready to tackle my problems. Well, I went home and I lasted three days. Three days and I was back in again and this stay would be longer.
After my second hospitalization I managed to hold myself together in some ways, but it was only temporary. Over the next year I would go to the hospital again and eventually spend three months in extended care treatment facilities in Arizona. It was there that I finally turned the corner. It was there that I finally found me.
My first psychiatrist recognized my problem early on. He said, "Jim, your problem is that you have no sense of self." He was right. It took me a year to figure out what he was talking about, but he was right. I was lost. I had no concept of what "sense of self" meant. I had to be taught. I had to experience it. His solution to the problem was to have me read Iron John by Robert Bly. Now Iron John is one of the big books in the men's mythopoetic movement. By use of myth, Bly talks about how a man needs to go on a journey deep into the woods and then deep into the water of the pond in the woods to discover himself. I admire Bly's work. He has a lot of good things to say, but it did not speak at all to me who was completely lost. I did not know the first thing about finding the woods, never mind walking through them. All of the best literature in the world would not have helped me at that point.
I was lost in the kitchen, my own kitchen. After my second hospitalization I spent three months at home. I would sit for hours each day in my chair facing the window. I became an expert on the issues of the day as I read every word in the newspaper. But mostly I sat and stared out of the window at the trees.
I would like to read you a poem which I wrote titled "Depression."
Sitting in the kitchen and staring
At newspaper, tabletop and chair.
Thin, worn and empty.
Living in the deadly space of not there.
Walls prop me firmly upright.
The window is my opening to away.
To float out to treetops beckoning.
To be away from here.
An achy thump hangs on my neck and shoulders
As if a Louisville Slugger delivered by some foe.
Eyes squirm shut,
Pierced by stilettos from behind.
Eyebrows draw heavily over closed sockets
Limbs, extra pieces, pull down.
I shrug and shrink into my body.
Chin falls to chest to rest.
I tried to be part of the world today.
To mix with others and be normal.
But my leaden shoes dance behind
The beat of a song with no melody.
Small talk wounds.
To nod, to react, to speak, to smile,
To pretend is so hard.
To be alone in a crowd.
The fun house barrel slowly revolves its prey.
I tumble slowly and grasp the slick, laughing walls.
Feet planted for only an instant.
I slip slowly toward the edge.
The edge is beyond but reachable.
The trip, an endless reminder of the dark.
My world has become narrow, small and black.
No pinprick of hope to light the night of day.
I cry out within so no one will hear
The me sucked dry and buried.
Long ago I cried for help and no one came.
I will not let them now.
I slide deeper within and go back.
Wrapping arms around knees.
Floating in the soft warmth of comfort.
Twin heartbeats lull we babes to sleep.
We were safe then.
Alone, unknowing and unworldly.
Back, back, back.
To before the pain began.
I was alone in my kitchen with my depression. When my family was home I was still alone. They would pass by on their way to the family room but I would sit and watch from a distance. They would interact with me, but I was unable to interact with them. They were invisible to me and they knew it. Months went by like this. It ended with my third hospitalization and then my trip to Arizona.
What was going on in my kitchen? Nothing was going on. I was lost and left alone with me and there was no me. I was just insignificant by myself. I had always been defined by many other things like wife, children, job and money. When all of those things were put in jeopardy, there was nothing left. There was no core sense of self to rely on. This core had been stripped from me by a childhood of severe physical and sexual abuse. I had no inner strength. I had long since faded away.
Let me give you a small sense of the affect of my abuse. I wrote this poem titled "The Family Tradition."
The Family Tradition
Arms flail and hands slap in quick bursts of rage.
Cheeks of cherubs sting and wound.
I cry, But I -- slap -- the answer is drowned.
I cry, But I -- slap -- the victim is down.
Peace is attained at mighty a price.
That voice chokes softly lying in the night.
That voice will not rise, trained to survive,
To make sense of chaos, to just stay alive.
And into its fears it winds layer upon layer.
Til ghosts of Gene Autry dance on the wall.
Til dust of eyelashes raise quickly then fall.
Peace, for whom peace, for a young boy so small.
The light of the hallway shines in round the corner.
To listen for footsteps, for life giver-backer.
But silence and their peace is the only answer.
Hope drains slowly out of eye onto pillow.
The whys do not matter for nothing will change.
Todays bring todays, then todays again.
Tomorrows bring tomorrows, then nothing,
I began my comeback at a place called The Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. The Meadows was a wonderful treatment center where I spent five weeks working on my childhood abuse issues. This was the most difficult work which I had ever done. All of those abuse issues which I had denied and repressed for so long were now with me. The demons of the past had awakened. My days and nights were filled with anger, terror and pain. This was not fun in the desert. This was hard work which had to be done in order for me to move forward--for me to reclaim my birthright, for me to reclaim myself.
Each morning at The Meadows the seventy or so patients would gather together for a community meeting. One by one we would list our affirmation for the day. The affirmation could be anything that struck you. During my first week, John, a patient who was almost ready to leave, came up to me and said "I have an affirmation for you." It was "I'm good enough the way I am." I practiced it a few times and thanked him for his help. The next morning it came my turn to state my affirmation and I could not remember it. I searched for John afterwards and said, "John, what was that affirmation again?" Again he said, "I'm good enough the way I am." This went on every day for a week. I could not remember the affirmation because I did not believe it. Here I was, a truly broken man. This was not good enough. Not by my standards. Not by the standards of those who had taught me. Eventually I was able to learn the affirmation. And more importantly, I came to believe it.
I came to believe that I am good enough the way I am. I am good enough, not because of all of those old measures of success, but because I am here on this earth and in this universe. I am valuable and I have inherent self worth, simply because I am. That was the beginning and from that flowed many changes in my life.
Let me shift gears here. I could spend days telling you the details of my journey. After The Meadows I spent another two months in an extended care treatment facility in Prescott, Arizona. That is a complete story in itself. And there are many other details of my journey which still need to be told. But we do not have days or even hours, so I would like to skip ahead to the results of my journey thus far. I say "thus far' because the journey is never ending.
What did I get out of this journey? I received a storehouse of riches that I did not know existed. I received so many gifts.
The gift of wonder. I sit in awe of the universe and its intricacies and complexities. Last year I stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon and felt the vastness of the earth and my place in it. At night I went to a talk about the stars and I saw the milkyway for the first time. And I could not help but wonder about all the other countless universes out there.
The gift of beauty. I had not seen beauty for many years. Now I see it daily. I am talking about fierce beauty, the kind that can take your breath away. I see it in meadows. I see it at a turn in the trail on a mountain path. I see it in the bloom of Indian Paintbrush on the high desert of Northern Arizona. I see it in the eyes of my children.
The gift of softness. The hard edge has been taken off the way I present myself to the world. I no longer need that steely exterior, that layer of protection. I can express my need for warmth. I can ask to be held. I can cry.
The gift of compassion. I was deeply wounded and from those wounds I can be there for the other wounded. I can reach out to others and help. When they talk about pain, I know what they are talking about, and when I respond they know that I am one of them.
The gift of serenity. I always thought that serenity was a state of quiet bliss. I searched for it for a long time but never attained it. What I have learned is that serenity is learning to surf on the waves of this turbulent and ever-changing ocean which we call life. My surfing is getting better and better.
The gift of connectedness and community. I spent much of my life alone, even in the midst of people. I was lost in the kitchen, lost in the world. I have learned now that I am never alone. I am connected to the people whom I meet in my life. Many people here in the church were a great help to me when I was sick. There are so many hands out there for me to reach out to when I need help. And I can now be available with my hand extended to others.
The gift of right livelihood. I now have the ability to choose my life's work based upon values which are important to me rather than upon a legacy of what was important to others. I am about to embark on a new career in which I will be able to help other people make transitions and renew their lives.
The gift of passion. I have the ability to feel strongly and to act upon my feelings. In the past I would choose the safe zone where nothing could harm me. But passion does not allow that. It forces me to take risks. It forces me into action. For me, it is a sign that I am alive.
The gift of authenticity. This means the ability to be myself with all my strengths and weaknesses and to tell you about it. To live not as who I thought you wanted me to be, but as who I am. No struggle has been more difficult than this one. I have lived my life to please others in fear of rejection. No longer. As the poet Popeye said, "I ams what I ams."
Finally, the gift of hope. For me hope is the belief that life is good and will continue to be good. This belief is not built on some pie-in-the-sky idea. It is based upon my experience. As a result of my journey I have experienced the essential goodness of the world in my life. Now I recognize that essence and I trust that my experience will be repeated. This does not mean that life will always be rosy. No, life is often painful. But my hope is based upon a faith in the essential goodness of life. This hope and this faith carried me on my journey through the darkness and into the light.
That light is the light of today. I choose to no longer live trapped by the past. I choose to live in the light of today. And the light of today shines as a beacon toward tomorrow. In closing, I offer you this ancient Sanskrit prayer:
Look to this day for it is life
The very life of life
For in its brief course lie
All the realities and verities of existence
The splendor of growth
The bliss of action
The glory of power
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision
But today well lived
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope
Look well therefore to this day.