Playing It Safe

21 Nov

I have been a writer ever since I could pick up a pen and craft a sentence. My elementary school had an annual “young author’s contest,” and every year, I participated and placed. Ironically, my very first “book” was not a story at all, but about the true meaning of Easter, with illustrations. (It was in the shape of an egg; how cute is that?) I was six years old and won first place in my grade. Funny how our souls know our life’s purpose long before we do.

When I was in 6th grade, my annual contest submission not only won my grade level at school but also went on to win honorable mention in the city-wide contest. I attended a ceremony at the Marriott hotel where famed children’s author Lois Lowry gave a speech and presented our awards. I know this not because I remember it, but because I kept the printed program, along with all my childhood stories.

What I DO remember is what happened when the results were announced to my sixth grade class. One of my classmates said, dripping with sarcasm, “Of course she won. She always wins.” And it wasn’t just anyone who said this. It was cutest, funniest, smartest, most popular boy in the class. I’d had a positively paralyzing crush on him for three years and counting, and his words crushed me. That’s what I remember.

I still wrote stories in seventh and eighth grade. But I started to bury my talent. In high school I wrote mediocre poetry. Four years of high school literature introduced me to “real” writing, and when I compared myself to that, I just quit writing stories altogether. An F on my senior term paper ended any ambition I may have had to become an English teacher (never mind that the teacher failed over half of all the Honors English term papers that spring), and I avoided literature classes in college, mostly out of laziness.

Instead, I majored in mass communications and excelled at a skill few others could master – editing. You know, using a red pen on OTHER people’s writing.

I also found an “outlet” for my outspoken nature as an opinion columnist on the school paper. I titled it “Just Say Yes,” making the most of my unusual last name. Occasionally my spiritual side would leak out around the holidays or other special occasions. I felt somewhat legitimate when an “anti-fan” created a Christine Yesolitis hate page (back when the internet was in it’s infancy) called “Just Say No.”

I had lots of artist and writer and photographer friends in college, all of whom seemed much more talented and focused on their dreams than I was. I envied them and their passion, but I decided to play it safe, taking a pragmatic approach to my education, career, and creative aspirations: learn the skills I would need to land a newspaper job so I could edit and opine myself into a position where I could really influence people.

It would have been an excellent plan, except that columnists don’t get hired fresh out of college; they work their way up as beat reporters and feature writers and calendar editors and copy desk assistants. They work as part of a team. They pick up the phone and make cold calls to sources. They play the “game” and promote the “agenda.” I’m an introvert, I was not much of a team player, and if you hadn’t noticed, I don’t care much for agendas. I had too much integrity (or stubbornness?) to write the way some editor told me to write.

By God’s grace I fell into graphic design. By God’s continued grace I found job after job in the non-profit world, where my strengths could grow and my weaknesses could be avoided. I’ve been blessed to use my artistic abilities to design books that other people have written. But I couldn’t keep ignoring my true calling. By God’s grace, a radio personality challenged his listeners to stand wherever it is God tells them to stand and do whatever it is God tells them to do, and by God’s providence I heard. Really heard. And that’s when I started writing for the bulletin. It was almost exactly five years ago; December 6, 2009.

I was 21 years old when I first heard the call to write about the Sunday scriptures, but I didn’t answer the call until I was in my mid-30s. I had some good excuses. I was busy working various full time jobs and having relationships and trying to cross off all the benchmarks on my “list” – marriage, babies, trip to Ireland, etc. I also told myself that I didn’t know anything about theology and that I wasn’t a very good writer. The truth is, I was afraid that I might really be good, and what that might mean.

I still am, by the way.

I share this abbreviated review of my creative self because I suspect we all have histories like this. Some comment or rejection causes us to question our creative self-worth, and like the third servant in Sunday’s parable, we bury our talent and justify it by being practical and realistic. We’re not that talented, we say. Surely God won’t miss our meager contribution to creation. We’d probably just muck it up anyway.

I have admittedly taken the easy route for a good stretch of my journey. Maybe I haven’t completely buried my talent, but I’ve been a bit too afraid to fully use it. I’ve felt like too much of a hypocrite to let loose. I’ve made some very human mistakes just like anyone else, but I often keep making them long after I know better, and it’s embarrassing. If only you knew! Who am I to use this unhoned gift of gab to talk about the spiritual life when I myself haven’t mastered either language or love?

This past Sunday’s Gospel, the parable of the talents, is one of the very few times when Jesus talks about condemnation. The woman at the well? No condemnation. The woman caught in adultery? No condemnation. The thief hanging on the cross next to Jesus? Not only is there no condemnation, he is promised entry to Paradise! These people broke commandments and got slaps on the spiritual wrist. But a fearful servant who played it safe and buried his master’s money because he was too insecure to take a risk? Condemnation, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Most of us play it safe because we doubt our own worth. We think we will be condemned for failing. We think that whatever meager talent we might have could not possibly make a difference. We think our sinfulness and imperfection makes us unsuitable vessels for God to work through.

The master in Jesus story calls that sort of thinking lazy and wicked. I call it SHIT – “Simply How I Think.”

I need to change how I think.

Those of us who were taught to have a “fear” of the Lord may also subscribe to a belief in a demanding God “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter.” This belief doesn’t have to be a source of insecurity about our worth, but a source of hope! God can harvest where He did not plant and gather where He did not scatter! It doesn’t matter if He gave me a true artist’s measure of talent, or the ability to draw only stick figures; whatever I create is added to the beauty of creation if I’m doing it to serve my creator instead of my fragile ego.

And that’s the key difference. Ego plays it safe. Ego does whatever it can to protect itself and its fantasy world. Ego Edges God Out.

A friend recently posted these inspiring words on his Facebook feed: “Small minds cannot comprehend big spirits. To be great, you must be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. More importantly, you must be willing to be wrong and fail . . . Will you remain quiet about whatever it is that you have been quietly pondering in your heart one more day? Decide today. Promising yourself ‘tomorrow’ will leave you in the end with nothing but empty ‘yesterdays.'”

All of us are hypocrites one way another, if we have the courage to actually have standards and attempt to live up to them. Not a single one of us can use that as an excuse for burying our talent.

Inviting God in doubles our worth. The servant with ten talents grew it by ten. The servant with five talents grew it by five. And the servant with one talent would have grown it by one if only he’d had a little faith in the master he feared so much.

I gain nothing by playing it safe.

Jesus makes it pretty clear, however, that I have everything – everything – to lose.

Tending the Temple

9 Nov

For about a week now I’ve been feeling nudged to write about Jesus cleansing the temple. I didn’t realize it would be today’s Gospel reading.

Many of us think the story is evidence that Jesus was angry about commerce in general. Some even interpret it as a treatise against capitalism, citing this story (one of a few that is found in all four Gospels) as evidence that Jesus was a socialist.

Jesus was not a socialist, nor was he a capitalist. These are modern constructs, and my guess is Jesus could and would take issue with either one just as easily, because any “social construct” has, at its core, a small group of people exercising control over the masses, usually the most vulnerable, in order to further solidify their monopoly on power.

That’s essentially what the cleansing of the temple was about. Remember the Gospel a few weeks ago about giving the Caesar what is Caesar’s and giving to God what is God’s? Today’s story is the sequel. In fact, in the synoptic Gospels, these stories are sequential.

All people in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus used Roman currency. But the Jewish temple could not accept coins with Caesar’s head on them. It was dirty Gentile money. Jews needed Jewish money in order to pay the temple tax and buy animals for ritual sacrifices in the temple. Hence the need for the money changers. They needed to “give to God what is God’s.”

I can only imagine the disgust Jesus must have had at seeing all the gold and livestock in His Father’s house, not because He was against commerce, or stood up for animal rights, but because of the economic and especially spiritual barriers the Jewish culture had placed between people and their God. It is no wonder the poor and the sick flocked to Jesus; they had no other access to God because they couldn’t afford it.

Think about that. These people believed they must worship God in the Temple at Jerusalem in order to receive God’s blessing, yet they couldn’t even participate in that worship because they hadn’t been materially blessed enough to enter. If you read the Gospels looking for how the Jewish elite excluded their own from being connected to their God, you might see the story of Jesus in a whole different light. It makes me question how my own Church excludes people from full participation. Christ held Himself back from no one, and nothing angered Him more than the barriers and corruption that kept people from His Father. I think if He saw the practices of His Church today, some folks would be in for a good whippin’.

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” Jesus said. He meant it as a foreshadowing of His death and resurrection. But sometimes, a structure becomes so faulty, so corrupt, so top-heavy, so complicated, and so dangerous, the best thing to do is to tear it down and start over.

I was blessed to have been a part of my parish from the day we started. I was a senior in high school and we had 300 families. Most of us knew each other’s names. We did not have a physical church building in which to meet, so we borrowed space from the local Methodist church, the Lebanese church, and a Henrico County middle school. We held meetings in people’s homes and set up an office (with only one or two paid staff members) in the dilapidated old house that sat on the property that would become the huge parish complex we have today. Our focus was on learning and teaching that “church” wasn’t a building, but a community. We called ourselves “the village,” because it takes a village to raise a child, to comfort a widow, to serve the poor within and without.

Almost 25 years have passed. Three building campaigns. More that 2,500 families and growing. We have a huge staff managing 60+ ministries. We’ve done a lot of good for a lot of communities, especially for our beloved Haitian brothers and sisters.

But we no longer call ourselves “the village.” I miss that. My unwieldy megachurch is less of a community now than it was when we had nowhere to meet but each other’s homes. We may not exclude people in the same manner that the Sanhedrin did in Jesus’ time, but our sheer overwhelming size excludes people from feeling the personal experience of Jesus. Oh, the staff will tell you that they desperately want more volunteers for the various ministries. But the onus is on the newcomer (or old timer like myself) to find our place in the parish community.

There are times when I’d like to see Jesus tear down the walls and take us back to the days when we were a real community. I long for it. I may even leave my megachurch to find a smaller, poorer Catholic parish that makes do with less, has fewer, and more focused ministries, and doesn’t live the “bigger is better” mentality. Or maybe I’ll find another denomination that keeps faith simple, theologically and practically.

The ironic thing is, today is not just any old Ordinary Time, “green vestment” Sunday, but the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica – the first church building erected. It is a reminder that I need to keep a balanced perspective and not throw the baby out with the bath water, or the money changers. We need a physical space and communal rituals and outreach projects to unite us as community, and just as importantly we need to tend the temple within. Access to the Father is not “either or,” but “both and.” Living a God-centered life needs both a healthy individual heart and the support of a community of like-hearted individuals.

I recently heard someone say, if you ask any great artist what makes a great piece of art, they will tell you it is not what was added to the painting, or sculpture, or musical composition, or piece of literature, but what was edited and taken out. I think the same is true of faith. We humans can complicate anything we put our hands on, and faith is no different. Across all denominations we add our own perspectives on what the Christian life is “supposed” to be and overlook the core teaching of Christ – put God first and treat people the way you want to be treated. The rest is just “temple tax” and ritual that loses its usefulness if it is not fulfilling its purpose – helping us to put God first or to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I have a category on my blog that I call “Tending the Temple.” It’s where I post about all things “self-care” related, spiritual and material. It’s a category I’ve neglected a bit in recent months, and that should tell me something. I’ve neglected it in my life, too. However, there are some wonderful habits I’ve maintained or picked up. I can’t wait to share more of those with you as the journey continues. Thank you so much for joining me and encouraging me. Sometimes this whole blogging business feels self-centered and ego-driven, but then one of you will comment on how it helps you, and I’m reminded that my feelings about this ministry (and that’s what it is) are not always facts.

Today’s epistle from Paul to the Corinthians is the scriptural inspiration and foundation for my website: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple,God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

So we are called to tend our temples, and care for our church communities, whatever they may look like. I think Jesus is less concerned with how we do it and more concerned that we just do it the best we can, without harming others along the way.

Excuses, Excuses

4 Nov

I don’t often write a reflection on the daily readings, but it’s been such a long time since I’ve written any reflections, today’s Gospel passage from Luke compels me. I always know it’s my higher power at work in me when I have no good excuse to say no.

Which is kind of what the Gospel is about. Luke 14:15-24.

Jesus was at a dinner party (presumably with some pretty well-to-do folks) and told a parable. A man invited his friends to dinner, but all of them had excuses for not going. So he invited people off the streets – crippled, blind and lame. Then he ordered his servants to invite people from out of town, making particular note that the ones he first invited, his busy “friends,” were no longer welcome.

Whether or not Jesus actually says the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like …,” we know that parables are meant to reveal to us how God’s world works. And I need to constantly remind myself, “kingdom of heaven” is not synonymous with “afterlife” or “apocalypse.” Especially in Luke’s gospel, the focus is always on today, the here and now, the present. When we say “the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” we don’t mean that the world is about to end.

(Ok, some Christians do. It’s all about “end times” and “tribulation” and “rapture.” That’s not reflective of ALL Christian theological perspectives, though. In fact, that’s a very recent American evangelical theological invention that takes huge liberties with the words of sacred scripture. If all that “rapture” talk doesn’t sit well with you, you’re in good company, with a lot of other Christians, including Catholics and other “reformation” denominations. You can read more about that here: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-rapture.)

Back to the matter at hand. The Kingdom of Heaven. It’s here. All around us. And the invitation stands.

Exactly what is the invitation? To dinner. I don’t know about you, but when I share a meal with someone, even a stranger or someone with whom I disagree, I feel a kinship with them. Breaking bread is a powerful church symbol because it reflects the bond that forms when we gather to eat, drink, share stories, and create community. What better antidote to the loneliness and isolation that accompanies human existence? I sincerely hope my own religious faith reforms itself to allow all present to partake of the “meal” of the Eucharist, and it looks as though there are movements in that direction thanks to Pope Francis.

I never say no to an invitation to share food with someone. I’ve been lonely for far too long in my life. Breakfast, lunch or dinner with friends or family is my favorite recreational activity, no matter what the setting. I would drop just about anything to join any of you for a meal.

Do I have that same attitude toward God’s invitation?

Well, not so much. For example, I’ve been nursing a HUGE resentment that I need to take my girls to religious ed class on Thursday afternoon. I am going to be brutally honest here: it is the single most inconvenient part of my week. Class is at 4:15. My son gets off the bus at 4, and we race down the highway for a half hour to get to church late. Class goes until 5:30, and during that hour, my son does his homework while I try to make the most of the quiet time (which is poisoned by my resentment). We get home at 6, with three cranky and very hungry children. And because I’ve been gone all afternoon, it’s at least another half hour before we eat. By that time we are all hating one another because we’re hungry, angry, tired, and also a bit pissed because we didn’t get to play with our friends after school. It’s a lethal combination.

I have plenty of excuses for not going. We are a busy family. Thursday is one of the few days we could eat dinner at home together. My church is on the other side of town. There’s a lot of traffic. My kids have homework. I have housework. Rar rar rar.

I do it because I made a promise when they were baptized. I do it because my ability to teach religious faith to my own children is limited and I have no discipline for formal instruction. I do it because they need something as a foundation on which to grow spiritually besides my sometimes lack-luster example. The men and women who volunteer as catechists at church are amazing. I was a teacher myself last year (when they offered much more convenient Sunday classes – hint hint!) and I love the materials they use. It is a good program, even if it doesn’t fit in my schedule the way I’d like.

Today’s reading challenges me to have a different approach to God’s invitation to spiritually feed me and my kids. Last night, I prayed about it. I asked God to help me with this resentment. And this morning, I read Luke. I love how God works!

The theme of the reading is simple – all are welcome. All. The most twisted and broken among us, the foreigners. We all need the love of God, but how many of us actually want it? If we are church-going people, it is our responsibility to live in such a way that the broken and the foreign to our ways KNOW without reservation they are unconditionally invited to share in God’s love, and they need only show up and be present to receive it. And if we ourselves, as church-going people, make excuse after excuse for why we can’t show up and be present, we are only hurting ourselves.

So this Thursday when I show up, it will be with a new attitude, and maybe some snacks for the journey. I’ll leave the excuses and resentment at home.

The Gift of Empty

22 Oct

I desperately miss writing. I’ve had a very busy couple of months at my day job, and with my freelance design work. I’m juggling the girls’ dance class with my son’s Scout activities, their homework and social lives with their spiritual formation. (The other day when I was picking up the girls from their religious education classes, I ran into a friend from our children’s infant and toddler days, and we both unapologetically lamented the fact that we’d become “those” parents who just dropped off and picked up their kids from church class. I have no guilt at all; I taught a class last year, and I can’t do it all year after year, and no one expects me to, either. Still, I’m about as engaged in their church activities as I am in my laundry.)

Post-divorce, I had to spend a lot of time focusing on myself and recovering the “me” I’d lost. And rightly so. Divorce, and especially the circumstances that lead up to it, can often rob us of knowing who we are, and it takes some time and effort to get that back. But this year, I wanted to shift my energy away from myself and back toward my family, especially my children. Unfortunately, in shifting that energy, I’ve found myself completely overwhelmed by my commitments to other people, and scant time and energy to keep myself spiritually and emotionally fit.

Back in the summer I scheduled a backpacking weekend for myself for mid-October, and the only reason I kept that commitment to myself is because it was on the calendar. I actually felt somewhat guilty leaving town for two days, instead of working on something for a client. Her heartfelt encouragement to enjoy my weekend helped me cut the ties for 48 hours, but my weekend in the woods was not enough to recharge my batteries. It actually drained me even more.

What I want to do more than anything right now is shut down all the relationships, all the commitments, all the activities, and just write. I’m “this close” to having an introvert melt-down. The saving grace is that I could find 30 minutes on a Wednesday morning to type this out, to post it on the ‘ole blog, to let everyone know that, in spite of the cheerful pictures I post, the adventures I take, the spiritual nuggets I share, and the ridiculous humor I engage in with my Facebook friends, I feel pretty damn empty right now. Not depressed. Not sad. Not self-pitying. Just empty.

And that’s okay. It’s a season. It will pass. And it’s also what Holey Heart is all about – acknowledging my emptiness. The emptier I am, the more God can fill.

Someone asked today, how do you do it? My answer is simple. By the grace of God. When I’m feeling overwhelmed and empty, I ask Him to do for me what I can’t do for myself. And the gift of empty is knowing that, when I’m full, I’m not so much full of myself as I am full of the love of a power greater than myself.

So I’ll keep plugging away at the freelance work and the day job and the dance classes and the Scout activities and the church stuff and the friends online and offline. And I’ll ask you to pray for me. Pray that I will not forget in the midst of my busy life to ask God to reveal His will for me and ask for the power to carry it out. Because that’s the only thing that will get me through.

Salvation From Serpents

18 Sep

One of the things I love about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that I don’t have to believe that any of it is factual to see the truth in it. Do I really believe that the Red Sea actually parted just like it did for Charlton Heston? Does it even matter whether or not I do?

Fortunately my faith in God has never depended on blind belief in any particular translation of an ancient text. It’s based on experience; mine, of course, and also the experiences of others. So when I listened to this weekend’s Old Testament selection about Moses and the seraph serpents, it wasn’t with a literal ear, but with an ear longing to relate my own experiences to the story, and I was rewarded with an interesting interpretation.

The story takes place well into the Israelites’ wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt. They’d starved and thirsted. They’d been fed with manna and quail. And they were weary from wandering in circles and living the Hebrew version of the Groundhog Day movie. They grumbled against God.

How many times have I done the same thing? I beg God to save me from whatever mess I’ve gotten myself into, and no sooner does He provide a way out and I’m complaining about my new circumstances! My discontentment will follow me wherever I go, if I allow it.

So in the story, God punishes this discontentment with serpents to bite the people, killing some of them. This does not sound like the God in which I believe! My God is loving and compassionate and would never deliberately harm me! This is why people reject Christianity, I think to myself.

And that’s when I ponder, maybe God didn’t send the snakes. Maybe the Israelites attracted them, and God simply chose not to stand in the way of a crisis.

And maybe they weren’t literal reptiles. They are called “seraph” serpents. The word means “burning.” Most people interpret this to mean “poisonous snakes.” But a seraph was also a sort of angel in the book of Isaiah. What if they were spiritual “serpents” who were attracted to the Israelites who were “feeding” them with resentment after heaping resentment? (I do believe in spiritual beings, both light and dark. Again, based primarily on personal experience.)

How many of my own resentments grow when I feed them until they turn on me, poison me, and bring me to death’s door, spiritually speaking? How often does my anger at God bite me? I’m a figurative snake handler.

God provided Moses with specific instructions for a remedy. Make a serpent, mount it on a pole so everyone can see it, and instruct the people to look at it, so that they will be saved. Christian theology interprets this as foreshadowing of the Crucifixion of Christ, as the words of Jesus in this weekend’s Gospel clearly state. But as a stand-alone story, it is also an analogy for how I can be saved from the spiritual serpents that plague me when I am grumbling against God.

I need to take a good, hard look at my resentments.

For me, this takes the form of a written list. In one column is the name of the person I resent. In the second column is why. It’s a freeform exercise, like brainstorming. I don’t judge myself, and I don’t censor myself either. I write it all down. I don’t consider whether resentment is justified or just a selfish indulgence. I just get it out on paper. Like mounting it on a pole. Then I look at it, hard.

Making this list is kind of like drawing out the poison from a snake bite. Sometimes I have to make a little cut in the skin of my pride and suck the poison out. It can be painful. I have to be careful not to let it get into my spiritual bloodstream while I’m doing it. I have to sit still.

I also have to consciously make the decision to let go and forgive. Like Jesus on that cross, I have to say, usually out loud, as much to myself as anyone, “They didn’t know what they were doing. They were sick. They were poisoned. They were hurt, and hurt people hurt people.” I don’t believe it yet. At this stage it’s just an intellectual exercise, but it’s a start.

Then I have to look at myself. In what ways have I engaged in the same behaviors I’m resenting? If I’m being honest in my search, I will find an absolute gem of a gift – compassion. I will find my own dark side, and I will sit with it. I will ask, where did that dark side come from? What payoff do I get by indulging it? Is my dark side just one of my talents or survival skills taken to an extreme?

And I go back to my resentment list and recall that anger is nothing more than a mask for fear. I fear these people on my list, and in fearing them I give them power that isn’t really theirs. Why? I name the fears. I remember that fears and worries are like prayers for a negative outcome. That fear is the opposite of love, that it will destroy me as certainly as any physical harm. I take the power back. I look in the mirror at my own darkness and find compassion for myself, and for them, and I cut the strings that bind me to the pain they may have caused me. I forgive. For real.

I look at my darkness and ask, what gift is there in this negative trait? There’s always a gift. Maybe I’m overly critical; that’s just the extreme form of being discerning. Maybe I’m competitive; if I tone that down I’ll discover a healthy drive to achieve excellence. As I look at every negative thing about myself and search for the positive within it, I find gratitude. Gratitude for all these wonderful gifts I never realized I had, and gratitude for that pain that drove me to look in the first place.

I ask God for help to see the patterns, and I ask Him to remove whatever of these characteristics keep me from being of service to others, and to help me stop hurting people. And I ask Him to show me how to repair the relationships that have been harmed by my poisonous resentment. Maybe I was only 10 percent of the problem, but I want to clean up my 10 percent.

Then a miracle happens. When I accept my faults, and when I start to take responsibility for them, no one can use them against me! I walk secure in the knowledge that I’m human and that God loves me.

This weekend’s gospel included the most well-known, often-quoted verse in the whole of scripture. Even atheists know it. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

It’s too bad that’s the verse everyone knows, because John 3:17 is even better. I wish Christians of all denominations would display this at sporting events and on their license plates and church billboards, because most have them seem to have forgotten it.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

The seraph serpents, the resentments that eat away at us – they are not a condemnation. They are the gift that compels us to look within and then turn to the source of salvation.

Follow Your Bliss

17 Sep

As a kid, I loved my birthday. As an adult, meh. Sometimes it’s a good day, sometimes not so much. The whole late summer/early fall season is my “New Years,” and if the 15th of September isn’t all that great, I can trust there will be several days of celebration and reflection that make up for it.

One of those days is always, without fail, the day AFTER my birthday. September 16 is Trav’s birthday. Trav is one of the first friends I made when I was a freshman in college. He was a daily presence in my life for the better part of two years. He was the one who inspired and encouraged me to pursue a semester in London when he applied, and for that experience I will always be grateful. Like me, he was a mass communications major. Unlike me, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. Trav wanted to make movies.

He was an artist, a writer, and a brilliant storyteller. Stories, especially told through the art of filmmaking, were his passion. He and I and the rest of our “family” of misfits saw movies together at least once a week, and usually a lot more frequently. To watch anything with him, even (especially?) Mystery Science Theatre, was a joy I appreciated then and wax nostalgic about now.

When we first met, Trav asked me, “What’s your bliss?” Most new friends ask you what your major is, or what you hope to do with your college degree. I could have answered those questions. I was a mass comm major and I wanted to work at a newspaper when I grew up. But my bliss? I didn’t know how to answer that question. He proceeded to ask me if I knew who Joseph Campbell was; arguably one of the greatest intellectual forces of the 20th century, he said.

I had plans, but no singular passion, and I felt incomplete and inadequate. How would I ever live a happy life if I didn’t even know what my purpose was? Such was the melodramatic musing of the 18 year old version of myself.

For the last 20 years I’ve pondered Trav’s question on September 16. This year, I finally have my answer.

Life is my bliss.

Experiencing life. Fully feeling all of it. Embracing every opportunity. Exploring new landscapes, in the outer world and in my inner one. Getting hurt and being healed. Giving all and giving up. Loving hard and loving well. Being grateful for all of it.

Actually, it’s the same answer I would have had 20 years ago when he first asked that question, had I been able to verbalize it. I couldn’t name just one thing. I wanted to live life with an open and giving heart; whatever else happened in my career was just the road I happened to be walking, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t have a particular passion; I had some talents, and I wanted to be useful.

So now I embark upon my 40th year of existence. I’d like to assume I’m at the midway point, but recent developments in the lives of my friends and neighbors have taught me that’s not a safe assumption. Cancer is out there, and it doesn’t discriminate. War is out there, too, and so is evil. Life has enemies that take many forms.

So when I think about my “bliss” at 39 years old, it’s not about my bliss as much anymore. It’s not just about my getting to experience life. My “bliss” is about helping other people experience life as fully as I’ve been able to. I’ve been blessed with a really awesome life, with loving parents, in a land of opportunity that has pretty much been handed to me as a gift. I want to spend the second half of my life giving that gift to others in whatever way I can.

I think ultimately that’s everyone’s “bliss;” to be able enhance someone else’s experience of existence. I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason any of us is here; to grow strong and healthy enough to be able to allow others to grow strong and healthy and in turn serve others. There will always be evil in the world, in the forms of disease and dictators. I can’t do much about that, but I can make one person’s quality of life better. And maybe they will pass it on.

I heard a great quote this morning from Stevie Wonder. “Use your heart to love somebody, and if your heart is big enough, use your heart to love everybody.”

That’s my bliss. To grow my heart big enough to love everybody, and to use my gifts to help their hearts grow big enough to love everybody, too.

Solitude On Saturday

14 Sep

It’s Saturday, and by now you know the drill. Me too. I think I may have finally, after four years, accepted it.

Most weekends without my kids are “me” weekends filled with activity that, truth be told, are just distractions from the reality of single parenthood. I’ve hiked and biked and day tripped. I’ve cleaned with fury, and exerted myself to the point of exhaustion in my yard. I’ve gone on dates like a person who has starved and doesn’t know when she might eat again.

This weekend, I just worked. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t go go go. Later in the evening I decided to take myself to a movie I’d been wanting to see, and the thought of being accompanied by a date, while it crossed my mind, didn’t even feel appealing. For the first time in a long time, I craved solitude.

First I took myself to the new Southern Seasons store that just opened up in Richmond. This place makes Whole Foods look like it’s charging “Walmart prices.” It’s a gourmet foods store. I bought myself a $5 pint of soup and $5 slice of artisan cheese. Browsing the candy section, I felt like Audrey Hepburn’s character window shopping at Tiffany’s. Who pays $2.50 for a candy the size of a quarter? I don’t care how pretty it looks!

Then I took myself to see Boyhood. It’s a “slice of life” movie filmed with the same ensemble of actors over the course of 15 years, following the characters as they grow up (or just get older). It was the perfect movie for this single mom of little kids on the cusp of herb39th birthday. The story is told from the perspective of the boy in the family, but actually it is about each one of the members of the family and how their life choices affect them.

Some of the mom’s life choices echoed my own, and seeing how those choices played out long term was both painful and inspiring. She also was a single mom, and she was distracted from focusing on her kids under the guise of trying to make their lives better: moving near her mother, going back to college, dating men who appeared to be mature, while feeding her resentment and self-righteousness toward her kids’ slow-to-grow-up but good-hearted dad. By the end of the movie she has gone through two alcoholic husbands, several moves, with only one or two friendships with other women as an emotional support system. Near the end when her son is packing for college, she explodes at him with grief and frustration, sobbing, “I just thought there would be more.”

I do not want to end up like her.

After 15 years of being apart from her children’s father, she never did learn to be comfortable in her own skin. She was so focused on making a better life that she missed out on just being present to her kids. She wasn’t a “bad” mom; she cared about her kids, and she protected them from abuse. But never was there a scene where she just had fun with them. At one point early on in the film, the son complained about the jerk she married, to which she responded, “I wanted us to be a family.” He says, with the wisdom only a nine year old boy can have, “We already were a family.”

I haven’t been dating jerks, and I certainly haven’t had my sights set on marriage in order to “complete” my family. I was married long enough to know how much work feeding and nurturing a love relationship is, and there’s not enough of “me” to give to parenting and marriage, at least not right now. I’m sure a lot of married moms feel that way, too; I did. But at least when you are married to your children’s father, the work is like a long-term investment so that when the kids do finally fly from the nest, you have a relationship with someone who has shared the whole gut-wrenching journey with you. Being single, any significant energy I give to romance is robbing it from my kids.

It’s Saturday, and today I’m investing in myself. I’m committed to being present to my kids. I’m grateful for solitude, for the strong, heathy women who are my role models, and for the men whose friendship (with and without “benefits”) has made no demands or promises.

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