1. The Tether

The tether. That thing that binds us to our families of origin, not by any desire of our own, but through the mere act of existence. We spend our lives exploring the roots of this connection, be it to an unending wellspring of love or the heavy, unshakeable burden of pain. 

In its healthiest form, the tether is meant to eternally connect us to a place of love and acceptance. It ties us to the hearts of those who know our deepest flaws and greatest mistakes and yet love us anyway. It is the place we can always return to and the greatest security life can offer us. The very existence of an umbilical cord, that first biological connection in utero, suggests the importance of this tie between humans. 

A broken tether leaves us in freefall. It exposes us to the greatest anxiety a human can know- the potential of being detached and alone in the world. To be deemed unloveable by the humans we need most to love us, or the person who committed to do so until death do part, shifts something in our interior life that we can never fully regain. It is antithetical to the existence of humans, the deepest pain one can experience. And yet, almost all of us will experience it at some point in our lives. 

Like so many others, my life has known a series of these breaks. I carry the frayed cords with me and finger the scars where they once attached. For a long time, I stared at the empty space where someone once existed, screaming my pain into the void and trying to call them back. There is a sort of blind madness that eventually settles in- the push and pull between the self-destruction of unlovability- and the desire to be better, to be lovable. It is a tension that consumed the early years of my adulthood, that even now I wrestle with. 

As I grew older, I skirted the great abyss of that pain with whatever resources I could find. There are days of my early twenties that I can’t recall and can’t account for. When you’re misbehaving, no one asks you about the pain you’re in. They only demand that you be better, that you figure it out… and quick. Fingers point, and you feel the shame. But you don’t change. You can’t just yet. Not for lack of desire but for lack of nohow and the unrelenting conviction that you deserve nothing more than the chaos you’ve created for yourself. The world confirms what you already know- you belong on the outskirts- you are screwed up, immoral, wrong, bad, unwanted, unloved- you don’t belong at all. 

When I was 23, unwed, and pregnant, a well meaning friend asked if I loved the father of my child, a man with whom I’d had only a casual relationship. When I responded in the negative, she asked, “why did you sleep with him, then?” The question floored me, not for the directness of it but for its naivety. Not only was it weighted with disapproval and disappointment, but it seemed to lack an essential understanding of human need. Love was a luxury I had yet to attain in my 23 years of life. Sex was the closest substitute I had found. The why was not a question worth asking. Nor was it one I could answer. How could I have said that I simply wanted to be known, that I wanted to be seen, held, and desired, for whatever span of time was available to me? I wanted a reprieve from the constant ache and the exhausting anxiety of aloneness. I could not afford to contemplate the rightness or wrongness of a thing. The human soul requires sustenance and when deprived, it will beg, borrow, or steal to be fed.  

There were many in my life who viewed my pregnancy and decision to keep my daughter as an unpardonable sin. And so, what is goodness? Even then, it was something I believed in, something I aspired to. I once believed in the absolute value of right and wrong, in every moral platitude that had been thrown my way since I was a small child. In righteousness and fervor and good intentions. I had been raised in a church that marked the path to heaven by good behavior, and I had tried with every fiber of my being to walk it. But somewhere between 13 and 23, I had come to believe that I was innately and irrevocably on the wrong side of it. I could see the same unanimous consensus reflected in the eyes of teachers, parents, and pastors alike. I was the unwelcome guest at their table- too much to manage, too far gone for hope. All of my strivings could not save me. 

I wish I had understood then that that was the point. 

The best I could do was assemble a sense of connection and belonging among the other misfits and miscreants whose spheres I orbited. I found myself most comfortable in the craggy, shaded cracks of existence, where there was little expected and no one to disappoint. I eschewed those who professed to believe in my potential. I wounded those who got too close. 

Still, I desired so much. I desired to know the dappled, laughter-ridden love I caught glimpses of in passing. I desired to give voice to the being inside of me who felt good and kind and smart and capable. I desired to understand the presence I felt when I whispered passionate prayers to the being who had been so tangible since childhood. I desired wholeness. I desired love. And most of all, I desired a reprieve from the unidentifiable, aching pain that had defined so much of my life. 

I am trying to articulate something here, something I barely understand now. I follow the path from where I am today back to that weary, broken place of my youth and try to understand it all. It was desire that propelled me… but not that sustained me. Several things mark that path. The love of my daughter lines each twist and turn since I was 23 and stands as the greatest gift I have ever known. And too, there are friends and mentors, voices who spoke without expectation and outlined the shape of love in their simple presence. But there is something more. 

It turns out that the goodness I had tried to embody in my youth was irrelevant. Christianity taught me to behave a particular way. The church as I knew it was not a place of unrelenting love but rather of judgement and condemnation. It set expectations unrealistic for a child who had already known trauma and pain and despair. The emphasis was on the behavior… not on the grace. It wasn’t until motherhood that I discovered the reality of grace (grace, that element so crucial to our survival). I would have otherwise been consumed by my own fallibility. At certain points, I almost was; at certain points I became convinced that my flaws were too great to parent the being that I loved so entirely. And this was my entry point to the truth of the God that I sought. 

I will pause here to clarify something. It is difficult for me to use the term “God.” That name has been usurped and mistreated for so long that it does harm to some who hear it. Many who have been wounded by the church, or who have their own ideas of what that name holds, cringe when they hear it. And so, as I write, I use the term “Elohim” in its stead, one of the traditional Hebraic names for God. Names are inventions of man after all, but they should encapsulate and communicate the essence of that which we refer to. My favorite name for God is actually Ruach Elohim, the term used in the third line of Genesis. Ruach means breath, wind, mind, spirit… all of these things at once. We often reduce Elohim to such a finite idea- few names allow for his bigness. And while Elohim is not human, and therefore neither male nor female, I refer to him in the masculine, because that is most comfortable to me. Substitute whichever word best connects you. 

And so, where every other tether was broken, the one between myself and Elohim remained intact. I know, because I had tried to sever it on a multitude of occasions. But just as my daughter did not need me to be perfect, neither did Elohim. More to the point, I was humanly incapable of the perfection I yearned for, even perhaps of the goodness. It was precisely this that allowed me to meet my maker. In my lowest place of despair, I was profoundly overwhelmed by the ugly pieces of myself. I was convinced I was detrimental to my own daughter, that she would be better off without me in her life. I was certain Elohim could never love me as he did those “blessed” individuals that lined the pews of my church, the place where I often wanted to hide my hands in shame. I knew that change, to the degree that I desired, simply was not possible. 

And then I was made to understand. In this place of despair, I encountered someone who already understood the mystery. There will be things you cannot change, he said. It is true. That is the grace of God. Your own goodness is of little value. It is the Holy Spirit within you that provides goodness. Without our brokenness, there is little room for Christ, for others, for grace. 

I came to understand this in that season:  it is by grace that we measure empathy. And it is through empathy that we gain the ability to connect to others. Our brokenness is not the end point. It is the starting point. It is the place where we meet Elohim, where we learn the truth of love, where we are vulnerable enough to connect with others. I think of Rumi- the wound is the place where the light enters you.

These wounds are fundamental to our existence as humans, as fundamental as the joy and happiness that we also strive for. We must hold these things in tandem. Which leads me back to the broken tethers. I have gathered the broken tethers of my life and held them as evidence of the ways in which I have been unlovable. But I was wrong. Each of those tethers left a gaping hole in me. But each of those holes provided space by which the Light can enter. They are not my broken places. They are the places that stand to become the strongest and most whole. 

These essays are an exploration of the frayed and broken tethers in my life. There are many that I seek to understand and even some that I seek to repair. I invite you to join me in this exploration.

Published by dainsworth

The tether. That thing that binds us to our families of origin, not by any desire of our own, but through the mere act of existence. We spend our lives exploring the roots of this connection, be it to an unending wellspring of love or the heavy, unshakeable burden of pain. We create new ones. We watch as old ones fray. And sometimes, in life's most painful moments, we witness those tethers break. (un)tethered traces the paths of old and new connections through family, love, the modern church, and fourteen-years of single-parenting. I begin this blog in a time of deep uncertainty, having recently left my position at the boarding school where I lived and taught for the past five years. Technically, I still live in Charlottesville, VA, but the next steps in life could take us anywhere! There are many unknowns ahead, but I know I am not alone in this. I hope this will be a place of solace for all who are wandering/wondering through this time.

15 thoughts on “1. The Tether

  1. This was one of the most heartwrenching work of art I’ve seen in a long time. You are a brilliant writer, and the world should definitely see that. Keep posting! Never stop writing (though I don’t think you ever will)

  2. Your ability to bare your soul is the gift of a lifetime, Dana! Thank you for sharing it with all of us. You are very loved!

  3. “So many of those around me firmly believed that they had earned their station in life…”

    Thank you for saying what is socially unacceptable to say out loud. It’s a thousand tiny cuts to have failure and then have everyone around you ‘advise’ you and critique you and question you so that you have to work even harder to keep yourself buoyant, to remember what is positive about you. Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t know how to handle money or know how much money is worth. It is a circumstance of being paid low wages for good work. It is a circumstance of age-ism. Or of having a special needs child.

    I have cut and pasted your words, printed them out and taped them to my wall. I need to know that I am not alone. That there is someone who can relate to being a single mother who worked her way through school, yes I have a master’s degree too. And yet, I am un/under employed, temporarily housed until not-sure-when? by a sister who I had previously been out of touch. My belongings sit in a storage space. And I see privilege all around me. All the ‘lucky breaks’, all the ‘I just ended up in this job’, the jobs that make a life, give an identity, credibility and social standing. Jobs that raise a family, that buy a car, that give a person the ability to be a part of the world, to contribute to something that people respect.

    “But I also did not imagine that it would be this relentlessly hard for this relentlessly long.”

    My daughters remember me as a stressed out person. They don’t want to think about the poverty as a result of a deadbeat father, or my lack of biological relatives as a result of extreme family dysfunction, or the fact that I chose to divorce their father to create a stable environment for my girls. Maybe they will one day. Maybe they will see me with a good job, maybe even a home.

    Anyway. Thank you very much for your writing.

  4. I was surprised upon reading of your encounter with “grace”, since I’ve had a similar awakening. Like you, I’ve had some “church” experience, so could easily relate to that. I’ve moved on from those confines to a broader understanding. Just recently I came across a thought that the apostle Paul expressed in his letter to the Romans, that “God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.” By “all”, Paul means that no matter what a person’s background is, and no matter their current situation in life, this is something common to every human being. Every person must accept this truth so that, as you say about the light getting in, we can understand that Elohim longs to show us that They are overflowing with grace and mercy. I’ve also been somewhat of a “wild card”, but Jesus did say that those who have been forgiven much, love much. I hope and pray that Elohim will shower grace and mercy over you and your daughter – so much that someday you’ll say, in the words of David, “my cup overflows”.

  5. Your story in the Huffington Post touched me deeply! May I suggest you investigate whether your area has the following programs: some counties have programs that hire people to be caregivers and assist the elderly with their day to day routines, and they are always in need of people (there’s also a private company where I am, Visiting Angels, which I think is national, that does the same thing). Organizations that provide respite care for children with special needs also are usually looking for employees.This is my Plan B for if I ever lose my job. Also, your county may have programs to help you, and provide supplemental funds and/or food. My county has an Affordable Housing organization, although the llist is long. Best of luck to you! I’ll be sending positive thoughts!

  6. Dana, dear one…your masterful writing is a gift that your sharing will open many eyes and hopefully hearts as well.
    Tried to get in touch with you today but have no number. I believe you have mine. Please call me. Elohim has put you on my heart for the last two days for a reason. Cell phone is the only way to reach me. Grace is the operative word.

  7. Dana, you are an amazing individual and you have a special gift for communicating through your writings! The world is blessed by your presence.

  8. Well, you sure can write. As somebody who has long wondered if I have the talent to write professionally, the depth of your struggle to make a living despite your obvious talent is discouraging. But beyond my wholly unimportant musings about a career I’ve never had, your story does yet again lay bare some fundamental flaws in our little capitalist society. If hard work and talent aren’t enough to keep one housed in Virginia, much less in NYC or Los Angeles, it’s less a means to broad based prosperity and more a threat to the basic survival of the vast majority of Americans. This wouldn’t happen in Western Europe.

    Keep going, that’s all you can do, and know one can absolutely be successful in their work, even if a cruel and brutal system doesn’t always allow one to make even a basic living doing it. It’s not you, it’s the system.

    1. Touché, Drew!
      As an American living in Ireland? I know of only support & opportunity being extended to Needy or Vulnerable Women in Crisis. Many Craftspeople, Writers, Civil Servants, and, Teachers, were once “rescued” by The Irish State, aka “welfare”, in order to become educated, trained, and, qualified in a discipline for which they showed “potential”. These Women, then go on to become, quietly, some of the greatest ” Champions” for Opportunity to Ireland’s Needy, and, Immigrants. In America? We refer to this as: “Paying it Forward”.

      Unlike Right Wing Republicans, across America? I cannot accept that ” Support” and “Opportunity” should be reserved only for the privileged, the wealthy, and, those whose families have employment, property, and, political connections.

      America NEEDS return of the “Safety Net” programs designed during The 1960’s Presidency of Democrat Lyndon Johnson. That Administration envisaged opportunity for ALL Americans under “Great Society” Job Training, Education, Housing, Health Care, and, Disability Services. The BEST part of those programs? They WORKED! Americans who would’ve been cast in dead end jobs, or, become homeless? Such individuals were given Grants, Work Study & Internships so they could complete College, affordably: NOT crippled by Bank Loan Debt, which Millions of College Students, across The USA, have been, since the 1980’s (when Republican Leadership in Congress & White House Restructured the majority of Student Aid Packages from Grants to Loans).

      It IS possible for The United States to remain a Capitalist Society, while still
      re instating “Safety Net” Education and Social Welfare Programs. How? Simply put, as Johnson & Nixon Administrations did:–by raising Wealth and, Property Taxes.
      Trump hails: ‘Make America Great Again’

      Perhaps what The Majority of Ameeicans, and, indeed, The Global Community, are Crying Out For, IS:
      “Make America FAIR, Again!”

    2. Drew, there is something terribly flawed with our North American system of capitalism, when 10% of the population does well, while 90% have such a struggle to survive. Some of those 10% are born into their privilege; the rest have “sold their soul”, or given ownership of their soul over to whatever power it is that rules the world and is responsible for this imbalance. Solutions have been proposed; unfortunately again in our N.A. system, they’re squashed before they have a chance to bring about reform. Hope is not dead though; as dainsworth wrote, it’s the areas of brokenness that allow the Light to get into our souls.

  9. I too was Unhoused, with my 14 yo daughter. Your work has touched my soul deeply during a challenging time your extraordinary Soul voice echo, found us. Reading you is like visiting with my own heart. Shabbat Shalom and Namaste. Jenna

  10. Your Honesty; Self Awareness, and, Refusal to allow your the Light of Your I
    Spirit to be either Subdued, or, Quenched… These flavor your Writing with SOUL.

    The Fact that YOU, above so many other, “established” writers, had Courage to Write about America’s Dark Under belly, namely, Homelessness, enriches your Writing.

    As a formerly homeless person (2.5 years); I’m so pleased I stumbled, today, upon your writing (on Ariana Huffington’s Site). I asked to join your WordPress Site, today.

    I look forward to accessing your Work!

  11. Oh my heart! I found your writing through Kelly, and I am so moved. You cut straight to the marrow of things, and I feel so grateful to know I am not alone.
    I am also a single parent, with that feeling of perpetual, long term struggle, and no breaks in sight. I also come from a history of church and religion and intense family situation as an oppressive influence in my life.
    You take pain and transform it into something beautiful. Your raw vulnerability and honesty is so clear and fluid.
    I am so grateful you exist in the world.

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