Tag Archives: looking back

Abrahamic Space

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I love the Islamic depiction of Abraham. Though the Christian tradition portrayed him as so sure and certain, I had come to know Abraham through my prayer and meditation as a figure that struggled perpetually to find the Truth. One who wrestled and agonized, who God continued to challenge throughout his life.

“Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” is the beginning of God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12. This pushes him to continue to spend his life in that space in between… finding solace in neither This- not yet knowing where That is, he must negotiate a space somewhere in the middle. Though he loved his father dearly, he could not abide with the idolatry that was not only a part of his society, but had put food in his belly and a roof over his head all of his life. He literally becomes a voice in the wilderness- leaving his family and society behind to go find God.

The rest of the promise in Genesis 12 is that of making him a great nation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning the story of Abraham with this great promise lays a foundation of certainty. Yet though the promise gave him the strength and courage to leave behind his home and family, surely he wrestled with it. The idea of him puffing his chest out with pride and arrogant assurance, pushing the villagers aside as he set off to establish a nation is absurd.

He left with a heavy heart. The Qur’an tells us in many places of how he continued to pray for his father over the years.

The Qur’anic depiction in Al-An’am beginning at 6:74 of Abraham’s leaving home and beginning his search in the desert is so poignant, so tender and human. There were likely many who did not believe in the idols, who saw the vanity of the practice, but did not act upon it. In acting in line with his convictions–despite the social consequences–Abraham is shown the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth. The veils are dropped from his eyes so that his heart would be strengthened.

There is the certainty of knowing that the idols are false, but when darkness falls, he searches for light- only to be disappointed when faced with the temporal nature of the stars. His repulsion for that which sets sends him to expand his search- to look beyond, to look under, to find that which is bigger. He turns to the moon, only to realize that he’s made the same mistake. “Surely if You do not guide me I will be of those who go astray” he calls to God. The search and the struggle of the search help him build his relationship with God. Each verse indicates hours and days watching, questioning, nights awake searching the heavens. Questions, answers, questioning the answers…

Though frightened and unsure, Abraham pressed on. He left all he’d ever known–the physical “certainties”–to search for something that existed only in his heart. He was scared, but still he went. This is what makes Abraham so inspiring as a religious character, and so prescient as a role model. This is where his faith and bravery lies: though he was scared, still he followed. Though he had no physical proof, still he had faith in that to which his heart alone attested. Though his mind fluttered and whirred, still he did not leave the tree that had sprouted from the convictions of his heart. Each time his mind returned to the branch, the tree strengthened, the roots deepened, and he was brought closer to God.

Abraham’s relationship to God is marked by great sacrifices: to ask a tribal desert-dweller to leave their family and society is worse than death. Indeed, what makes Abraham’s story so relevant to our lives today is that even now we still find this to be a terribly frightening prospect. We define ourselves by our families, our culture, our geography, our language, our food, the religious practice we were raised with… Abraham left all of these things and embarked on a unique path. He would not lose that rugged individualism and continued to live and act in ways that were far from the societal norms, but were in alignment with the convictions of his heart, and his relationship with his Creator. Abraham shows us that questioning does not necessarily mean the dissection and death of faith, but is rather the basis and edification of True faith.

In working with Muslim immigrant families while living in The Netherlands, I saw these children and youth- who others saw as caught between two worlds- as living in Abrahamic Space. Little did I know at the time that 5 times a day they asked God to help them follow the Path of Abraham as part of their daily prayers. I often wonder if Muslims ever think about what that really means… to leave not only your country, but your father’s house… to wander in the desert-exposed to every danger imaginable- in order to find God.

I wonder how many believers of any faith think about the amount of questioning Abraham engaged in to become so close to God… If we really consider the magnitude of the actions that he took as a result of the answers he received… If we ever wonder how religions founded by someone so unique, intellectually curious, and individualistic could become so rigidly conformist and anti-intellectual… how we could ever come to fear that space in between- that Abrahamic Space of the Middle Way.

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Center stage: Storm. Healing: enter stage left.

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Went to go see Oz, The Great and Powerful last night. Came in this morning to write some of my musings– (J and I had a great discussion comparing Oz with The Artist. Or rather, he was defending the cad-ish qualities of the main character, and in my insisting that the differences in this cad and that cad were significant, I realized that the films are actually quite similar in theme and talked about it –out loud–to myself for a while as he looked on with a sometimes inquisitive, sometimes confused, sometimes irritated look on his face)– and I saw this in my FB feed: Thanks to Elict the Greatness Within for this story!

I couldn’t have put together a better Thursday morning post if I tried.  Thursday does mean “Thor’s day”, after the Nordic god Thor.  Usually when we think of Thor, we think of giant, mountain-crushing hammers, and hot blondes (though legend usually ascribes him as a ginger), thunder and lightening, and terrible, terrible storms.

What we don’t usually think of is how Thor, being the son of the head-god Odin and the earth, is a protector of humanity, a healer, and one who makes things sacred.

I remember sitting in my etymology classes in high school thinking that gods & goddesses had the most random collection of things they were associated with.  God of storms & protection? Healing & hallows? What the hel?  But as so beautifully demonstrated in the life of James Harrison, above, the storms or sicknesses in our lives lead to the healing that enables us to make life hallowed for ourselves and others.

This is a fact of being human.  Its why its represented in stories like Oz, where the storm brings opened perception for the Wizard and for Dorothy, and why storms and healing are so often coupled in the religious stories of the world.

How have the storms in your life opened your perception of the world?  Moved you from silence to sound, from black & white to full color?  How have your hurts and trauma enabled you to help others?  How could they?

Looking back to go forward

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Watched this short film this morning called “Overview” about astronauts’ experience of seeing planet earth from space.

I couldn’t help but be struck by how the first trip to the moon, the focus was all about the moon; folks didn’t think about how turning around to see our planet, let alone how it would impact them.

In the age of the Facebook meme, we see many truisms about not looking back, going boldly forward in order to succeed, to live the life of our dreams… yet that has not been my experience.  Looking back over my life from the right perspective infuses past pains with great meaning and clarifies my sense of purpose, rejuvenating my passion and enthusiasm, or sometimes even redirecting my path.

Looking back from the right altitude cultivates this sense of reverence for the path I’ve led, the suffering I’ve survived, the decisions I’ve made along the way, and gives me the courage to face whatever is in front of me.  It helps me clearly see what work needs to be done, as well as what dross needs to be cleared away.

 

Registration is still open for the web class “Planning with Vision & Values” at http://www.lifelinedevelopmentcoaching.com/planning-with-vision–values.html

He Stood Right Here

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I thought my old blog was lost– I’d done some reflections there on stories from the Abrahamic tradition that I wanted to reprint here- I found it today searching for something completely different….

Here’s a post I did about my DV activism from 2009.  I’ve come a long, long way since then, but the story of where my passion for the work I do with folktales is still just as powerful:

 

“He stood right here, in this spot,” Brother Alakoum emphasized pointing at the ground next to where he stood as he looked out over the massala, “stood right here and asked for money for Bridges TV.”

Earlier in his portion of the presentation, Br. Alakoum had told the story of a man from our community that was such a tyrant that his family celebrated his death at Chuck E. Cheese. He wanted to stress that the issue of domestic violence is real in our community, and its time to move to Zero Tolerance. “You think its being a man to have your house afraid of you, but then your family celebrates your janaza at Chuck E. Cheese.”

The panel discussion entitled “From Domestic Violence to Domestic Peace” was held during the Friday night halaqa spot at ICC in Tempe. I’d printed 40 of each of the flyers we had to give out. We’d run out. 50 – 60 people were there, many new faces. Panelists were Dr. Aneesa Nadir, Founder and President of ISSA-USA, Ahmad Daniels, Executive Director of CAIR-AZ, Ahmed Alakoum, Executive Director of MAS-AZ, and Jacqueline Freeman-Ennaffah President of AMWA-AZ and founder of I AM: American Muslim (that would be me)

I’d spent the afternoon trying to untie the knot in my stomach. Each event I’m involved in concerning domestic violence brings an onslaught of feelings of insecurity and helplessness, inadequacy almost to the point of despair. Each of these attacks serves to prove to me how important this work is- how much Darkness would stop it- but staying on top of the wave instead of being crushed under it takes tremendous effort and God’s Grace to get through.

Women’s Studies professors aren’t generally well-recieved in any religious congregation, let alone a mosque. Talking about feminist theory and women’s emancipation will likely repel this audience even more than the average American. Yet, I am convinced that the issue of domestic violence will not be significantly reduced until faith communities become proactive in preventing abuse and intervening when it does occur.

Why is this issue so important to me? Why should anyone listen to what I have to say? If being a Women’s Studies instructor has no authority here or even arouses suspicion, what can I possibly say to this audience that would matter to them?

I was raised in an abusive home. My father sent my mother to the hospital a few times. We learned very quickly not to talk about it. Dad convinced us with his screams, Mom with her tears. My extended family knew mother’s stories about broken bones and bruises were lies. They tried to get my brother and I to tell them what was happening. We merely regurgitated the half-truths we had been trained to tell. I remember so clearly the suspicion in my uncle’s eyes, the pleading in my grandmother’s face, but my tongue was tied in a knot I didn’t know how to loosen.

A hostage, a puppet, my mouth bore the words that had been planted there. I hoped as much as I feared my eyes would tell the Truth. No one ever acted on what they saw in my eyes, only what they heard come out of my mouth. I thought they didn’t see. I realize now they must have felt as tied and helpless as I did.

I learned there is no safety in the world.

I am a product of both my mother and my father. Growing up with the violence, the distrust, the lack of respect, the lovelessness, ripped something inside of me. That hole would yawn wider and wider as the years went by. I would try to fill it with just about anything. Nothing worked. It seemed too big even for God.

My parents were not just at war in our house, they were at war inside of me. There was not communion between my male and female sides, there was competition. There was not communication and comprimise, there was name-calling, ultimatums, and threats. I was not given a foundation of trust, respect, love, dignity, equality upon which to build my relationship with myself, with God, with the world around me. Instead, I was raised on the rim of a volcano, never knowing when the ground beneath my feet would crumble or explode.

My dad never hit me, but hearing him hit my mom, listening to the way he talked to her, seeing how little respect he gave her, taught me about being a woman. Woman was something despised, sometimes pitied, but seldom loved. She was an object. A slave. Not really human. She was not appreciated, she was not respected, what she contributed was not important.

My mom clung on for years. For the kids. We all wish she hadn’t done that. It would have been better to not have Dad there. It would have given us the chance to be a family, instead of a collection of refugees, each huddling in their own corner, hoarding supplies, listening for signs of the next raid.

It has taken me a long time to learn to forgive my parents. Both of them: him for doing it, her for staying.

I haven’t forgiven myself yet. For the cowardice I exhibited huddled in the dark on the top of the stairs while they screamed, while he hit, when she was chased. For being the reason they were still together. For getting sick so they would fight about him not giving me my medicine on time. For being alive and the reason they would argue about money or later, visitation. For needing anything ever from my mother who was clearly struggling to stay alive herself. For continuing to love my Dad even when he’d caused my Mom so much pain.

I haven’t forgiven myself yet. I don’t know how to loosen the knots of emotion and the guilt-ridden consciousness of a child that takes all blame upon themselves. My intellect cannot comprehend it, and my heart is afraid of feeling it fully enough to let it go.

So I do this work. I hope that parents will hear, that they will listen, though the arc of change is slow and incremental. I hope that leaders will pay attention and take this problem for being the real threat to the community that it is. I do this work in the hopes that fewer children will grow up carrying the same burden that I do. That fewer children will have to work so hard to trust God and believe that they can experience love. That fewer souls will be ripped in quite this way.

I do this work so that more children will have fewer barriers in their relationships with themselves, with God, with the world around them. That more children will be brought up on a foundation of equity, justice, trust, honor, dignity.

And today, humbled and in awe of the immensity of God’s grace–of the enormity of what happened last night in that mosque, faces turned upward, next to the projector screen–I am so grateful for the plowers and planters like Dr. Aneesa Nadir. Those constant and patient souls that have banged their hearts, minds and souls against the hardened earth of this community, who have spent their years breaking up the surface, dropping seeds, praying for the right balance of rain, sun, and temperature to bring the seeds to fruition…

Oh Lord, hear our prayer

Dark places and hard times

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Was listening to a webinar yesterday led by Fabienne Frederickson on the breakthrough mindset of successful people, and she said something about “those times we’d rather not re-live.”  I was struck by her very careful word choice…  We all know the times she’s talking about: those times that squeeze and even pinch us.  The ones where we’re struggling to get a breath.  Where our sources of comfort turn brittle.

The places that show us that we’re still not over those abandonment issues. Where the sense of betrayal is so intense it becomes physically palpable.  I remember one such time, I literally heard my heart breaking.  It made a sound- like cloth being ripped down the middle.

I noticed that she didn’t say “those times we all wished had never happened” or “those times we’d rather forget”.  She said “those times we’d rather not re-live.”

There is an acknowledgment here.  A nodding to the difficulty, of course, but an awareness of the role that difficulty played in making us who we are today.  Like bones that need the muscles to pull on them and create resistance to keep them strong, so too do we need those difficult times to lengthen our souls so we can reach to the sky.

Remaining in that awareness keeps our heart and mind open so that we can effectively navigate the rocks and choppy waters when we’re in them.  In the tale of Vasilissa, the little doll in her pocket often replies “Say your prayers. Get your rest.  The morning is wiser than the evening.”

When we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis, stepping back to surrender to the moment brings us peace.  That peace enables us to see solutions we would be blind to if we let anxiety and fear take over.  When anxiety reaches a certain level, it literally severs dendrite connections in the brain. When the anxiety levels reduce, the dendrites will reconnect- like a game of Red Rover.  Its easy to understand how rising fear and anxiety levels diminishes our ability to find the solutions right in front of us.  We need to find our rest.

Once rested, it all seems to fall in to place.  Things don’t seem as terrible as we’d thought. We’re on the other side; we got past the trolls under the bridge. We’ve made it through the night and find ourselves in the light of morning.

So was all that really necessary?  Did we have to go through all that to get here?  As Joseph Campbell would ask, what is the gift in that dark place?  (I love how this post handles that question!  I mean, what do you do when your hood pops up and smashes your windshield while driving down the road??  I got all kinds of messages from my closet collapsing, I can only imagine how much she was able to mine from that experience).Baba Yaga crashing through the forest

Returning to the story of Vasilissa, at first glance, it’d be easy to say that the work she’s forced to do for her step mother and step sisters and the work she does for Baba Yaga are equally soul-crushing, yet both are freeing her in different ways.  Both are teaching her vital lessons about who she is, who others are, and how the world works.  Both are teaching her about power- though in different ways.

It is because of this work, because of this hardship–not in spite of it– that Vasilissa is able to return home with the light of Wisdom gone before.  Because of having worked through the difficulties that this light- scary though it is- is her helpmate rather than an adversary.

For Christians, today is a yearly reminder of the power of those hard places and dark times.  Easter morning is a celebration of the triumph of the light, the return of spring after a hard and long winter–a theme in religions and cultures round the world and throughout recorded time… yet there would be no celebration had there not been the cave.  No heart-expanding world-shifting forgiveness had there not been such deep betrayal.  This is where the Christ figure paves the way and shows the example– release of bitterness when faced with persecution from those he’d helped.  Forgiveness at the hands of betrayal.  Reaching for connection in times of abandonment.

The tendency to close down and harden in such times is fierce.  To choose instead to open up and soften –after a period of solitude– unlocks a deeply transformative power into our lives and in those around us.

How do we do that?  Release our grip on resentment and bitterness.  See how we contributed to our relationship with the metaphorical step-families in our lives.   Look past our fear of the Baba Yagas to see what they gave us.  Choose openness and dialogue instead of walls and defenses.  Practice looking past what makes us afraid to the Love it has to offer.

After betrayal, where?

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hanging bulb I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison in high school.  The story of a wide-eyed and idealistic young black man heading to New York to make his way in the world and the disillusionments he met along the way scared me, broke my heart, and shook me in numerous other ways.

On a recent trip to New England, I went to go see the Huntington Theatre production of Invisible Man in Boston.  The performance was riveting, and the story again stirred me on a very deep level.  I’d spent the train ride from D.C. to NYC working on the curriculum for my upcoming class using the Baba Yaga folk tale of Vasilissa.  The unreasonable expectations put on Vasilissa by her step-family resonated with the inner adolescent and young adult in me.  They weren’t giving her tasks and chores to encourage her development or even help the family: they were doing it to get her killed. To destroy her.

This is a betrayal that claws at the soul.  Those that are charged with building up and fostering development instead tear down and sabotage, even seek to annihilate.  It can push us into an identity crisis, questioning our value and place in the world.  The tale of Vasilissa triggered this in me, so I wove inner adolescent work and its occupation with identity into the course.  Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes uses the tale of “Wasilissa the Wise” in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves as a means to reconnect with our intuition.  That intuition will be deeply damaged if we’re cut off from ourselves because we haven’t forgiven ourselves for being betrayed in the first place.Vasilissa guided back home with new insight

And that’s often what happens.  We think we ought to have known better.  We replay the scenario over and over again in our minds, highlighting the details that hindsight spots so easily.  We beat ourselves up.  We blame others.  We swear never to let it happen again.

Riding home on the green-line, the performance of Invisible Man and my work with Vasilissa danced in my head while I pondered betrayal.  How do we recover from these soul wounds?  How do we emerge with a heart that is stronger–expansive and supple–instead of thickening the walls and pulling away from the connections we long for and need like water?

The next day, we traveled to Salem.  Being the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, my musings on betrayal–and how to move on afterwards–continued.  When we returned to Boston in the evening, I sent my partner on to the symphony without me so that I could meditate and journal on the subject.  He willingly went solo once he realized that me not attending meant no appeasing my Southern sensibilities about appropriate attire for cultural events and he could just go on in his jeans and sneakers.

I returned to the flat we’d rented for the week, and settled in, ready, as Rumi would say, to welcome whatever knocked.  Betrayal drudges up all manner of emotions:  anger, resentment, hurt, acute vulnerability, blame, shame, fear, suspicion, and more.  I let the feelings rush through me, observing the images and memories they brought to mind, and the stories that had been attached to what it all meant.  I noticed how my impulse was protective.  How the narrative that strung the memories together urged security, called for an oath of “never again” and sought to make good via extra fortification, heightened cynicism and lessening trust of others.

So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security.  Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community.  When we embolden defenses instead of connection.  It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny.  If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.

How?

How do we move past betrayal and not allow it to close us up?  To add thickness to the walls around our hearts?  I asked these questions as I embraced the parts of me that longed for revenge.  The parts that were bruised and bled.  The parts that howled in pain.

What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise? 

“That people suck” a part of me answered, adding, “Don’t trust anyone!”.  I almost had to laugh. That couldn’t be the answer: I know where that narrative leads, and its not a place I enjoy visiting, let alone living.  It is a place where Fear rules instead of Love.

So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security, to close off, to quit trusting (myself as well as others).  Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community,  when we embolden defenses instead of connection.  It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny.  If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.

Again, the question surfaced: What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?

I stuck my foot in my heart’s door and wedged it open.  Listening now with open heart:

How did it make you more aware? What did it teach you about yourself that’s brought you further? How did it help you recognize and appreciate the good people in your life?  What did it teach you about operating in illusion? 

Finally, I pulled out my journal and began to answer the question.  A good question it is, for it holds many keys…

Looking back to move ahead

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After all the bustle and festivities of the holiday season in December, January can feel a bit like a hangover.  The twinkling lights that brought so much pleasure are the source of frustration and scratches and scrapes as they have to be pulled from trees and bushes, the ornaments wrapped safely so they’ll be there next year, the garland twirled at the bottom of the box to act as a cushion.

Many people set to making resolutions; others seem equally invested in denouncing these promises to ourselves as fruitless, seeing them as an exercise in self-flagellation instead of a call to our higher selves. How and why do our resolutions turn into instruments of self-torture?  Why don’t we keep our promises to ourselves?

Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions

January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions who is also seen as the god of doorways, thresholds and gates.  Perched at the beginning of the year, one face looks behind at the past, the next is set on the future.  In ancient times, he was invoked at the beginning of most rituals, as he held watch over heaven and all the other gods, and was an important part of harvest and marriage ceremonies.

Janus is also reported to have minted the first coins- a nod towards the importance of our invoking what he represents for all of our transactions and manifestations.  Yet how many of us cross the threshold of a new year, open the gate to a new era in our lives, or move through the doorway into a new venture or relationship and want to “never look back”?  Does it really work like that? Why don’t we want to look back? Are we afraid of something? Do we think that looking at the past will somehow suck us back in to it?

How does this approach to a new year show up in our daily lives? So often in my work with clients, I urge them to develop a Janus perspective when setting goals.  It becomes very easy to get bogged down when only focusing on all that needs to be done. When that to-do list is long, it can be incredibly easy to become disheartened and feel like we’re making no progress at all because the list never seems to get any shorter.

Its when we look behind us and recognize what we’ve accomplished and how far we’ve come that we become encouraged to keep moving forward and empowered to take the requisite steps to achieve our goals.  It cultivates gratitude, and builds self-esteem.  We’re gathering proof of what we’re capable of, writing a story where we take care of business and figure out solutions to problems that threatened to overwhelm us.

I’ve found that incorporating recognition of my achievements into my weekly goal setting session not only inspires me and builds my confidence, but helps me in setting realistic and attainable goals.  How many negative stories I’d get caught in and pull myself down with simply because I wasn’t taking the time to really look at how my time was being spent, how many components were actually involved in a project, and the reality of how I moved through my week and my life!

It’s important to examine our mindset at beginnings.  So often, we think that changing our material circumstances is the answer to our problems, not recognizing that, actually, our mindset interprets and thus creates our circumstances.  How upsetting it is to see how many people posted negatively about 2012 on Facebook, then layed out expectations for 2013 to be better…  sorry, ya’ll, but if you’re not finishing the year mining for the good to bring with you to the next, you’ll find little good to come.

There is a story about a man that was sitting on the porch of a general store at the entrance of a small town.  A family on vacation pulled in to stretch and get snacks.  The father approached the man and said “What are people like around here? We’re thinking of moving somewhere before the kids start school.”

“Well,” thought the man, “what are people like where you are now?”

“Oh, they’re terrible!  They’re cold and selfish and would just as soon kick you in the teeth than help you.”

“That’s what they’re like here,” the man replied.

The father thanked him for his insight and they moved on.

A little while later, another family pulled in to the general store.  While the mother took the daughter inside to go to the bathroom, the father wandered over to the man on the front porch.

“You from here?” he asked the man.

“Yes, I am.”

“What are folks like in these parts?  Sometimes we think we’d like to leave the city.”

“Well, what are folks like where you are?” the man asked.

“Oh, we’re in a great neighborhood.  People are friendly and look after each other.”

“That’s what they’re like here, too.” the man replied.

What stories are you telling yourself about what people are like, who you are, what you’re capable of? What stories have you bought in to about what is possible or even likely?  How does that effect what you see and how you interpret what you experience?  Pausing at the beginning to take a look back before we move forward can help us to keep what’s working and fix or leave behind what isn’t. It raises our awareness of ourselves and our lives so we don’t move forward on autopilot, then wonder why we keep finding ourselves back where we’d worked so hard to leave behind.