Try

23 Jul

“Try and pick up those keys,” she said to me, pointing to my car keys sitting on the table between us, right next to her extra sweet sweet tea. Though we had only just become friends, I knew her well enough that I could see from her expression she was about to make a point. I picked them up.

“No, I said try.”

I’d like to say I “got it” the first time. But I picked up those keys again. It wasn’t until she quoted Yoda that I figured it out.

“There is no try, there is only do or do not.”

Duh.

That was when I learned to cut the word “try” out of my vocabulary. I replaced it with doing (or not doing) things well, or poorly. If someone asked me to do something that was outside my comfort zone or ability, no longer would I respond, “I’ll try.” Instead, I say, “I’ll do my best.” It’s a subtle difference.

Changing words is one thing. And important thing, yes. But banning the word “try” is only a surface change. Have I banned “try” from my attitude toward life? Have I really changed my actions? Or am I still attempting to change something I know I would do better to accept?

This morning I came across this video by Colbie Caillat called Try. The video is a powerful testament to true beauty.

When I look at my girls, I think they are beautiful. They have features about which they will probably be self-conscious when they get a year or two older. Tori has teeth that will need braces, and I’m so glad she doesn’t restrain herself from smiling like I did with my teeth. Olivia has a dark brown birthmark on her cheek. It has been my favorite feature since the day she was born.

I’ve definitely gone through stages where I’ve been more than self-conscious about my appearance. It’s an area of my life where I experienced abuse – from my peers, but also from myself. Yes, abuse. Let’s not sugar coat it and call it teasing. Just because the perps were my peers doesn’t make it any less painful or the damage any less lasting. They abused me, and when they no longer abused me, I picked where they left off, physically and emotionally.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look my best. I get laser hair removal, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s a fine line between changing the things I can, and obsessing over perceived imperfections. My world no longer revolves around pimples, thank God. Today I can focus on my beautiful features and accept the parts of my appearance that I don’t like. My hair, my eyebrows, my nose. I don’t have to like them to love them.

My friend who told me to try and pick up my keys has undergone a massive physical transformation since that day at the diner. She surrendered some of her fears, not to mention an addiction to sugar and cigarettes, and on the outside she looks nothing like that woman who taught me about the dangers of “trying.” But she was just as beautiful then as she is today. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to see her true beauty before the physical had caught up with the spiritual. Because I could see it in her, I can see it in me, even when my face breaks out and I’m overdue for a touch up on the chin hair.

Mustard Seed Faith

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The summer before I turned two, my grandmother inadvertently gifted me with my most valuable piece of jewelry. We were visiting her house in Pennsylvania, and my wee toddler self needed entertaining, so she pulled out a decorative box filled with costume jewelry and I was in heaven. Colorful flower pins, long strands of beads, chunky bracelets, and clip-on earrings preoccupied me for at least ten minutes, I’m sure, along with Grammy’s signature phrase as I rummaged through the box pulling everything out.

“Now wait.”

She was always saying that. When I was impatient to go uptown to Uncle Russell’s 5 & 10. When I wanted to go down in the basement to get her box of crayons. When I wanted to explore the attic.

She’s been gone almost 6 years, but I can still hear her voice when I’m feeling impatient. I’ve even heard it coming out of my own mouth when my kids are running around.

“Now wait.”

Ultimately she gave that big jewelry box and its contents to my mom, who still has it. My girls have played with the same costume jewelry. Among its contents was an unusual pendant to which I was always drawn. I always thought it looked like a lightbulb. Inside a tiny glass ball about half the size of a marble there is a hole, and inside the hole, a seed.

A mustard seed.

I’m sure the monetary value of this odd pendant is minimal, but I consider this talisman my most valuable because of what it represents to me – faith and possibility.

Most of us know the biblical parable of the mustard seed. The tiniest of seeds produces the mightiest of bushes that can shelter all the birds of the air. Christ said that faith the size of a mustard seed was all that was needed to move mountains.

Grammy was the paragon of faith in my family. She was widowed as a young mom of three teen and preteen children, and making ends meet in their small town was a daily act of faith. But she never doubted that The Lord would provide, and He always did, up until the time she died at almost 92 years old. A woman of few financial resources, it was nothing short of miraculous that she got to live out the best of her final years in a lovely assisted living apartment community, after achieving her dream of traveling to Russia at age 70. Her post script to every mealtime prayer we shared was, “Thank you Lord for many blessings.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing her pendant regularly, especially on the days when I struggle to let go of a person or situation that is causing me to worry. I just hold the pendant in my fingers, close my eyes, and remember that God has the person I love in His more-than-capable hands. Having a tangible object on which to focus is helpful.

The pendant broke last week. The ball fell off and the mustard seed came out. It was a miracle that I found the glass globe part; I’m pretty sure the seed is not going to turn up. But it’s not the seed that magically soothes my mind when I get all worked up. It’s my conscious act of letting go and trusting that all the people I love are exactly where they need to be, right here right now. If I’m uncomfortable about where they are, that’s my problem, not theirs. I can take my discomfort, and my accompanying desire to “fix them” and share it with a girlfriend or write it in a journal or say a prayer. I can accept and love unconditionally. I can remember that no act of faith on my part has ever resulted in anything but my ultimate good.

A friend of mine recently described faith this way – being in free fall and deciding not to panic until you hit the ground, only you never hit bottom. That’s not to say that faith is a remedy for all pain, sadness, or natural consequences – it isn’t. Faith is all about having an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of fear, anger, defensiveness, justification, and selfishness. Faith may not prevent pain, but it eases self-inflicted suffering.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Tiny. Inconsequential. Yet within it is the potential to shelter “all the birds of the sky.” Not just the blue birds. Not just the robins. Not just the cardinals or doves or hawks. Faith isn’t limited, and neither is the kingdom.

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Good Ground

14 Jul

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

Raising Adults

12 Jul

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and my son came home from camp today. A week ago, I had to carry him down the stairs, and his father had to push him toward the car, and the Scoutmaster had to pry him away from his dad’s arms at the camp entrance. Aside from the day we told the kids we were getting a divorce, camp send off is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.

I’ve spent the better part of this past week questioning whether I’d done the right thing. Thank goodness for all my guy friends who’ve assured me that, yes, he’s going to be better off having gone to camp, in spite of his resistance. He will thank me one day, they said. And God bless the Scoutmaster who sent email and photo updates of the boys every day. It was my lifeline.

Through his Sunday morning tears, my son told me the reason he was so upset was that he didn’t have any say in the decision; we decided for him. I told him we’ve been making decisions for him for 11 years, because he’s been a little boy. And now that he’s getting older, we will have to let him start making some of his own decisions. After he got back from camp, of course.

I’m looking forward to that about as much as I look forward to the end of summer break.

It’s gotten me thinking about why I sent him to camp in the first place – to foster his independence and help him find the confidence and community he needs to sustain him as he makes the journey toward adulthood. As hard as it has been to deliberately remove my son from his comfort zone, what got me through my self doubt was continually reminding myself that I’m not supposed to be raising a child. I’m raising an adult.

Based on the current outcome, I’m really good at raising children. I have three really well-behaved kids who sit still in restaurants (even without the aid of electronics), listen attentively on guided tours of historical places, are quiet in church, go to bed when I ask, and do their homework without much prompting. They are “free range kids” who have their run of the house and can be trusted (mostly) not to eat all the junk food if I sleep late in the morning. Occasionally they make their own beds and clean their own rooms, although the little one hasn’t caught on to this yet. They work out most of their sibling conflicts without much parental brokering. I’ve followed my mother’s method of childrearing – let kids be kids within boundaries which keep them safe, keep them on a predictable schedule and a regular routine, and use encouragement and scolding in equal parts. It has worked.

However, I know very little about raising adults. I am not convinced that I am one myself, and I’m not so sure I want to be one.

It’s Saturday, and I’m still a child on the inside. I want to go to camp. I want to pick blackberries. I want to play at the river. I want someone else to do the cooking. When I really was a child, I thought being an adult meant being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Turns out, that’s not what it is at all. Being an adult means having to wake up when I’d rather sleep, go to work when I’d rather play, cook and clean when I’d rather be out on my bike.

It’s Saturday, and being an adult doesn’t mean I get to make all the decisions for myself. Not really. It’s Saturday, and my kids make my decisions, whether or not they realize it. My clients and employers make my decisions. My mortgage company and utilities companies and banking institutions make my decisions.

My only real choice is my attitude. Will I decide to have an attitude of resignation, or an attitude of rebellion? Neither one suits me. How about an attitude of denial? That one works for a while, until it doesn’t. The bills and the laundry and the dishes pile up, demanding attention. The children whine more, and I wine more. Or crush candies.

It’s Saturday, and I choose an attitude of acceptance. And as my son opened the car door to face his mom again, he had a smile on his face. He was beaming, actually. He apparently chose an attitude of acceptance, too.

It’s Saturday, and he’s not going to be thrilled to learn that adulthood doesn’t mean doing whatever he wants. But, he’s off playing with his friends now. I’ll let that lesson wait until Sunday.

United In the Body and Blood

22 Jun

I was all set to write a different reflection today. It was already half-finished this morning. Then I went to church at St. Elizabeth’s.

My regular parish is St. Michael’s in Richmond’s well-heeled, mostly upper middle class West End. It’s a parish that boasts more than 2,000 families, including our former Republican state governor.

St. Mike’s shares a pastor and parochial vicar with St. Elizabeth’s – a tiny African American Catholic parish in Richmond’s northeast community of Highland Park, which couldn’t be more different from the West End, demographically, economically, or otherwise. St. E’s boasts a fantastic gospel choir, and one of Virginia’s most recent Democrat governor’s has been a member there since his days on city council 20 years ago.

Today both parishes celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. I was not familiar with the gospel music at St. E’s, and that made me feel a bit out of place. But then we got to the part where we all recited the Creed, and suddenly I was united with strangers and it struck me: this is what it means to be the Body of Christ.

In today’s brief reading from his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Two politicians who have both held the highest executive office in the state of Virginia hear the same homilies from the same priests and are fed at the same table along with the rest of us. Wealthy and humble. Black and white. Conservative and progressive. United in the Sacrament.

It was a powerful reminder of why I am Catholic when there are so many reasons why I could seek religious expression elsewhere. I certainly am not in lock step with the faith I profess by any stretch. But as I was taught in Catholic grade school, the word “catholic” means “universal.” It means that whatever it is that makes us diverse is not nearly as powerful as what makes us the same – the need for community, and the need for a Savior.

At communion, we sang “I Am The Bread of Life.” It’s my generation’s version of the quintessential Catholic hymn. To unite in song with strangers who welcomed me was deeply moving. I can’t wait to return.

A Gem from My Journal

17 Jun

I really fight journaling. But if I go back and reread what I wrote a year ago, two years ago, 26 years ago, I can see the benefit. I get to see how much I’ve grown, and I also get a reminder of who I really am.

Recently I reread last May’s entries. I had just ended a two-year, on-again off-again romantic relationship, and I was feeling lonely, contemplative, and also hopeful about the future. Someone whose guidance I trusted suggested that I use my newfound singleness to make a list of the top five qualities I was looking for in a partner.

True to my personality, I made the task much harder than I had to; I had several journal entries exploring this topic.

Also true to form, my first attempt was probably the most accurate. Rereading it a year later, I find the first list resonates more than the stuff I came up with later in the exercise:

1. Humility

2. In love with me – the whole me

3. Committed to spiritual and personal growth

4. Playful

5. Puts God first, followed by self-care, then relationships

Sure, there are other qualities that would be nice to have. Good cook. Kind. Funny. Responsible. Handy with cars and drills and yards and electronics and odd jobs. Patient. Good with kids. Great in bed. Straight teeth and thick hair and defined pecs. Mmmm.

I’m surprised that “common faith” and “same political views” didn’t make the top five. From personal experience I’ve seen how NOT having a religious faith in common can become a wedge in more than one relationship.

It’s not that faith is no longer important to me; I’ve simply come to see that there is no such thing as a common faith. I have friends who call themselves atheists whose faith in a “higher power” looks more like mine than does the faith of a legalistic catholic or evangelical Christian. It’s so personal, that relationship with God stuff. I’m kind of ashamed I ever pushed my own beliefs on others, although being able to talk about theology and learn from each other is and always will be important to me. (That’s why “humble” is at the top of my list. Only with humility can the chasm of faith be bridged.)

In some ways, having the same political beliefs is more important to me, and yet that didn’t make the list either. Why? Maybe it’s because as fixed as my political beliefs seem to me, I see far more that unites my beliefs with the beliefs of other persuasions. Focusing on what unites rather than what separates and differentiates helps all of my relationships, not just the romantic ones.

As I practice radical acceptance and trust in unity, I find these issues of belief are less and less important, as long as I feel respected and heard, and as long as I remember that I don’t have to change or lose myself if I don’t want to.

It’s interesting that last year I never journaled about my non-negotiables; I do have a few. No smoking, drugs, or alcohol abuse – period. No weird body piercings or unholy holes. No significant cultural differences (relationships are hard enough between two people of similar backgrounds). No excessive back hair, and no full beards or mustaches. A girl CAN have preferences without making a moral judgement.

There’s an old high school acquaintance I’m friends with on Facebook. Truth be told I don’t remember much about him in high school, but the man he is today inspires me so much. He’s had the courage to fall in love, and he just got married to the woman of his dreams. For the past year I’ve been seeing gushy love notes on his FB feed, and it has been lovely to observe (although, on my low days I kinda wanna slap him). The other day he posted this quote:

“Take a lover who looks at you like maybe you are magic.”

Is that a prerequisite for a healthy relationship? In my experience, the magic is only visible to one side or the other, and that’s just heartbreaking. Or, sometimes both of us see the magic, but not at the same time, or we just take it for granted, and that, too, is heartbreaking. If I ever find myself in a “we” that continues to see the magic in each other, day after day, year after year, I think that would be pretty amazing.

Have you ever considered your top five qualities? I also did this exercise back when I was married, and I made the mistake of sharing it with my then-husband. You know what he told me? He told me I was not looking for him – what I really wanted was to be married to myself! Needless to say, this did not go over very well.

But he was right. I’d been married long enough that I lost my identity, lost my integrity, lost my passion. I wanted someone (presumably him) to give those qualities to me. I was being lazy, though I certainly didn’t realize it. But once we were separated, I realized I had to be responsible for my own identity, integrity and passion.

I’m also responsible for those top qualities of a partner. Not just the top five – all of them. Because, as the old wisdom goes, we attract that which we fundamentally are. If I want a partner who is humble, is in love with all of me, is committed to continued spiritual growth, is playful, and puts God first, self-care next, and relationships following that, then I’d better be those things. For myself. By myself. Without leaning on a romantic partner to make it happen.

I don’t know how humble I am or am not – and that’s probably a good sign. I’ve certainly made progress on the self-acceptance front in a year’s time, and as a result, I find myself being more accepting and genuinely in love with people – all people, especially those who are different from me.

Spiritual growth sometimes takes a back seat to the responsibilities of single motherhood, but at least I’m persistent in the small things – gratitude lists, reading inspirational meditations, asking God to be a part of the mundane details and finding blessing there.

Am I playful? My inner child wants to break out so bad sometimes it physically hurts. I want to have fun, but I’ve forgotten what it looks like. I want to be creative, but I’ve been making money with my creativity so long, it takes the playfulness right out. Until I remember: that’s how I always played. It was serious business making ships out of egg cartons and dollhouse furniture out of recycled bits of this and that. It was serious business creating a newspaper, serious business writing half-finished novels, serious business drawing house plans and caring for high-maintenance cabbage patch dolls with my invisible husband. I’m serious when I play, still. I hike. I take pictures. I travel. I pick blackberries. It’s serious fun. So I make sure I dance around the house badly and make up limericks, and I make sure my kids see.

God, self-care, relationships. These are the tripod upon which my life rests. That doesn’t mean I neglect everything else; actually, being responsible falls under self-care a lot of the time. Bill paying and laundry are self-care too. But if I’m having a bad day and need a nap, I take a nap. If I’m lonely, I cut out of work a little early and have lunch with a friend. I get my butt to church even when I don’t feel like it. I never regret it once I’m there.

The top five qualities I wanted in a partner a year ago turned out to be a pretty good measuring stick for my own progress. Am I ready for seeing “magic” and allowing someone to see mine? Who knows. I think I’m a pretty good catch though, as long as he’s a good cook. Kind. Funny. Responsible. Handy with cars and drills and yards and electronics and odd jobs. Patient. Good with kids. Great in bed. Has straight teeth and thick hair and defined pecs.

Or none of those things. Maybe he’s just magic and that’s the only quality I need as long as I have eyes to see it.

Stop This Train

16 Jun

This weekend, my church – the one I’ve attended for the better part of 22 years – introduced us to a newly hired youth minister. He spoke to the congregation about his excitement for the kids at our parish, and it was hard not to be enthusiastic with him, especially since I have a middle school aged son.

What? Did I just write that?

While I was sitting in the pew listening to this guy, I was not thinking about my eleven year old. I was 16 years old again, wearing a short jean skirt, old T-shirt and a pair of leather flip flops, and feeling every bit the excitement of finally, FINALLY having a church leader who cared about someone “my age.”

He talked about the life of a teenager being pretty crazy, with all of the school pressures and sports activities and friendship issues being like a fast moving train, and his desire for Church to be a train station where they could come every week for an hour or two of peace.

And then I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I was 38 again, thinking of a song to which me at both ages can relate. Stop This Train by John Mayer.

I wanna go home again sometimes. Not to my big cookie cutter house in the suburbs. Not to my parents’ house that I grew up in. Not back to my childhood room with the pink gingham curtains and the 70s flower power wallpaper, although I’m nostalgic for it. Home is the old back yard. The sandbox. Michael Austin Perry next door wanting to make pirate ships out of egg cartons. Bike rides through the woods to the railroad tracks where there is now a 25 year old subdivision. Cabbage Patch dolls. Writing at my old black desk.

Except that home isn’t any of those things. Not really. 25 years from now home will be a big empty bed typing on an iphone. It will be River City Diner on a Friday Night. It will be kids running from the back yard to the front with Nerf guns through doors they don’t close and a dog who sits in the middle of the floor keeping his eye on everything. It will be the smell of magnolias in June. 25 years from now, I’ll be nostalgic for “Let It Go” and pee-stained toilet seats.

Yeah, I’m scared of getting older. I didn’t think I was all that good at being young, at least not at the time. Looking back, it looks a lot easier in hindsight than it felt at the time.

I wish our new youth minister luck. I hope he can turn our church into that train station. I need it just as much as the kids do.

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