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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.

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.

High Maintenance

21 Aug

Last week a male friend from work called me a “high maintenance” woman.

(Yes, he lived to tell about it, but my revenge is to immortalize him as fodder for a blog. That’ll teach him!)

To which I replied, “Any woman worth keeping is worth maintaining.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. Not sure where the girl with low self-esteem went, but her replacement has a quick wit and a healthy sense of her own value.

I have never wanted to be high-maintenance. I’ve always tried to be sweet and accommodating and understanding and compassionate. I’ve been a great listener, an encourager, and not usually demanding. Although there was a time when I’d smother a guy with advice (and clothing suggestions), I’ve learned in more recent years to keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked (most of the time). I’ve diffused conflict with humor, and I’ve done my best to meet my own needs so thoroughly that I wouldn’t need to ask for help from a romantic partner. I rarely asked for much of anything, and if I felt neglected I stuffed those feelings and made a gratitude list about my partner, or nursed a silent list of resentments and sulked in self-pity.

That doesn’t sound high maintenance does it? (All the men I know are probably laughing right now. Yeah, I hear you.)

The girl with the low self esteem also believed that a woman worth keeping was worth maintaining. But her perception was distorted. When she plugged her experiences into the formula, the answer she got was that she must not be worth keeping, since no one seemed interested in maintaining.

That kind of thinking has a self-perpetuating momentum to it.

It never occurred to her that she hadn’t ever given them the chance, or that she had a habit of turning toward good-hearted guys who simply weren’t capable of maintaining.

People are not high maintenance. Relationships, especially those worth keeping, are.

They require open communication and honesty. They require courage – courage to be ourselves, and courage to allow the other people to be themselves, exactly as they are, right here, right now.

Relationships require time. Time is an investment, and some investments are inherently risky. Time creates attachment. Even though we each have 24 hours in a day, not everyone is able to invest the same quantity or quality of time in a relationship. That doesn’t make them “bad” people; it does, however, make a relationship with them a riskier investment.

Relationships require an emotional investment, too. Some of us (yours truly included) seem hard wired to make generous donations of emotional capital only to bankrupt ourselves with emotional charity. Abundant giving to a child or to a geriatric parent or grandparent or a sick family member is laudable. But if I’m over-giving to a grown adult who isn’t willing or able to give back, that’s not healthy, in spite of what our culture and maybe even our religious faith may have taught us.

Love by its very nature is unconditional, but healthy relationships are not. I think it’s ok to expect a return on investment in a relationship between equals. But as the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone, especially if you don’t even tell the stone what you expect. You can’t go to the hardware store and expect to buy bread.

Which takes us back to having the courage to accept ourselves and our “partners” exactly as we are, even if an honest assessment means we aren’t really partners at all.

In hindsight I can see that believing myself to be “low maintenance” has lead me to settle for low maintenance relationships. Wanting more is often seen as “high maintenance” in a disposable culture that values ease and comfort over effort and endurance. But I do want more. I want effort and endurance. I want relationships worth keeping. I’m high maintenance and proud of it.

What I’ve learned from meditation and journaling about this whole “high maintenance” business is that maybe I’ve acted low maintenance because I didn’t have the time or emotional capital to invest in a relationship worth keeping.

That’s a difficult place to be – knowing your value, wanting the best, but not being able to afford it. I could mortgage myself. I could go into emotional debt, but I would have to work twice as hard to pay it off, if I even could pay it off. That leaves less time to invest in that “relationship worth keeping” later down the road, when the infatuation wears off.

There’s another choice. I could invest in myself. Every bit of time and emotion I focus on myself will earn interest, or so I’m told. My parents taught me to save up for the things I want. I saved for two years while my gorgeous bedroom set was on layaway, bringing home one piece at a time. I saved for almost a decade and worked overtime to be able to afford a two week trip to Ireland, and the down payment on my first house came from my savings. I know how to do this in “the real world,” so it’s just a matter of applying those skills to my “emotional world.”

I didn’t deprive myself during those years of saving; I was just more frugal. I can be frugal with my time and my emotions. I can learn to maintain myself, which is not the same thing as never asking for help and resigning myself to loneliness. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers,” and it’s as good advice for 39 years old as it is for 6. Supporting myself means asking appropriate people for appropriate support, not being a rugged individualist boot-strapping my way through two jobs, three kids, and single parenthood.

Education is another way we can invest in ourselves. When I was first separated I read a fantastic book about rebuilding after divorce, and one of the chapters was on “growing” relationships – that is, temporary situations that help both parties grow. It’s an investment of time and emotion, just as going to college is an investment. But we don’t expect to stay in college perpetually, do we? We expect to graduate with skills and confidence that will serve us going forward.

Most relationships are of this variety, whether we admit it or not. I have a double major in depression and emotional unavailability with a minor in codependency. I just got my master’s degree in detachment with love, and I’m hoping to earn my doctorate in acceptance before this life is through. Having kids is a bit like a practicum course, and some of my dating experiences have been like unpaid internships, most valuable for the experience they provided.

And that’s where I’ll end the metaphor, because relationships aren’t like a job you qualify for with higher education, interview for with your best rehearsed answers, and use as a stepping stone to the next best paying gig. Relationships are a gift that you have to be ready to receive, and there is only one I’m guaranteed to have – a relationship with myself. And I can have a relationship with God, but only if I want it. I’m not entitled to anything else, no matter how hard I work. Everything else is a gift of grace, which I can hold only if I learn to let go of the things not meant for me and keep my hands and my heart open instead of clenched tightly in fear.

Being open requires daily maintenance. Worthwhile maintenance. The highest of maintenance.

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.

Billboards

11 Jun

One of my favorite movies is L.A. Story. It’s about an awkward TV weatherman in Los Angeles (Steve Martin) who falls in love with an awkward British tuba player (Victoria Tennant) with the help of a highway billboard sign that communicates with him. I was 15 when I saw it in the theater. I should probably pull out the DVD this weekend.

I thought of that movie today. You see, on my way home, I drive past several billboards, which I never really noticed before. Until today. I’m not sure they were talking to me, but I’m not one to write things off as coincidence either.

“You’re more ready than you realize.”

“Act natural.”

“Hello life.”

“Conquer the new.”

“This is the year.”

“Sometimes you need to go back to go forward.”

Yep. That’s what they said. Word for word. In that order.

Some people hear the voice of God in prayer. Or in the whisper of the wind. Or in a sunset. Or in music lyrics. Or in their children.

I see God on highway billboard signs for two universities, two amusement parks, a hospital, and beer.

God is where I look for him/her/it. The point is to open my eyes.

Thoughts On Hiking

5 Jun

This past weekend I went on a 10 mile hike in the Shenandoah mountains with a group of seasoned hikers. The weather was perfect, and the majority of the journey was under a beautiful, shady canopy of trees. There was a lovely waterfall, an old 1930s cemetery, an abandoned homestead, sweet mountain laurel in bloom, and a cozy cabin for thru hikers on the Appalachian trail, infused with the smell of hickory smoke from the previous night’s fire.

Unfortunately, as an amateur attempting to go at the pace of a seasoned hiker, I lagged behind a lot and was more focused on catching up than seeing the sights around me. Heck, most of the time just breathing was a challenge! But, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and got to see just how much I could push myself, which is something I would not have done on my own, without the guidance and “peer pressure” of the folks who were more experienced than I.

One of my good friends says, “Stick with the winners.” Meaning, surround myself with people who have already achieved the goals I wish to accomplish, and be frugal with the time I spend with folks who may have good intentions or are really fun, but are mired in their present circumstances. Fortunately, I have several “winners” as companions on my spiritual journey. While the pace they set may leave me panting and aching, it’s worth the effort to keep up, sometimes.

And sometimes, it’s not.

I’ve found that spiritual journeys are a lot like hiking journeys. What makes the hike “good?” Certainly the scenery is a factor, and the weather. I love being able to linger and take pictures and immerse myself in the moment. When I go at my own pace, I get to have a relationship with my own journey, and ultimately with myself. But on my own, my progress is slower (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Another facet of a good hike is physical exertion. It makes me stronger, and healthier. There’s the rush of adrenaline. There’s the pride of accomplishment, of knowing I stretched myself and have grown. If it were not for the leadership and guidance of a community (of hikers, or seekers of God), I’d probably miss out on the growth opportunities inherent in any activity involving more than just myself.

A balanced life is one which I have a little of both. Sticking only with the winners can be exhausting, especially mentally. It’s only human to get caught in the trap of “better than/less than,” and being only with those who’ve “made it” (or appear to have “made it” a bit more consistently than I) can be inspiring one minute and demoralizing the next, depending on how my attitude is doing.

The times I’ve journeyed alone are often when I’m able to internalize and “own” the lessons those winners have mastered. Maybe it’s a few days of sitting with my feelings and journaling about a painful incident in my past, instead of spilling my guts to anyone who will listen. Maybe it’s getting to know new people at a Meetup group, instead of stewing at home wishing one of my comfortable, “broken in” friends wasn’t busy with kid stuff or husband stuff or house stuff. Maybe it’s riding a motorcycle for the first time, or climbing a tree like when I was ten, or learning to trust that God will always, always lead me to places that are good for me, even if that’s away from the seasoned winners for a spell. They got seasoned because they, too, had time alone with themselves exploring new landscapes and revisiting old haunts with new eyes.

It used to be when I was “hiking” my spiritual journey on my own, it was a self-imposed isolation filled with self-pity because “no one understands me.” Others were either too controlling, too smothering, too boring, or just couldn’t keep up. What an arrogant piece of work I was! And if loneliness got the better of me and I “hiked” with a group, I was critical, judgmental, resentful of having to accelerate or slow my pace. And needy. And afraid of abandonment. And insecure. Really insecure.

Today I crave being with people so that I can grow. I crave walking the road less travelled on my own so I can heal and recharge. Some hikes are healing hikes, some hikes are growing hikes. Today I get to choose.

Tending the Closet

8 Apr

Spring has sprung, and when the seasons change, I feel an uncontrollable urge to change my wardrobe. There’s something so exhilarating about pulling out the short-sleeved tops that have been in storage for six months. Spring is also a great time for me to go through my closet and drawers and purge. Actually, I started this year’s purge on one of our many snow days, and I have a huge pile of old stuff to go to Goodwill.

I have way too much clothing, and purging is not something that comes easily for me. Some of those t-shirts have sentimental value even if I haven’t worn them in 10 years. Some of the pant suits may no longer be my style, but they are good quality and actually fit me, so it’s difficult to justify getting rid of them.

But there’s a side benefit to letting go of the old. It makes room for the new.

This spring I’ve added several new “basics” to my wardrobe. I’ve been wanting a jean jacket for several years, and this year they are finally back on the rack! I haven’t worn a jean jacket since I was in eighth grade! I got this one at H&M for $20. Click on the image to go to their website.

jean jacket

You know what I love about this jacket? It goes with just about any outfit. Right now I’m wearing it with my cream colored khakis, long-sleeved tee, and dressy necklace. It looks great with my simple black tube dress from TranquiliT.com, or just about any of my other spring and summer print dresses. I have a feeling it will be my “signature accessory” until Richmond’s hot, humid summer days (and nights) kick into full gear.

My clothing snow purge resulted in a startling lack of pants for work. Most of what I had  did not fit, was woefully high-waisted, stained, or had holes in the knees due to 11 years worth of kneeling on the floor playing with babies, picking up toys, or folding laundry. I have a hard time finding pants that fit, partly because I’m 5’1″, partly because I have the hips of a 13 year old boy, and partly because being size 2 doesn’t mean you can’t have a muffin top. Flattering pants that fit are a luxury I can’t find, much less afford. I’ve tried the pricey stores, with no luck, and  the big box stores rarely have petites, unless you count the “old lady pants” with the elastic waist bands.

Last weekend I was doing some window shopping at one of my favorite stores, New York & Co. Not every store carries petites, but the Short Pump location does, so it’s worth braving the Broad Street traffic for clothes that fit me. On Friday I hit the jackpot. Everything in the store 50% off! One of my cardinal rules is that if it fits and it’s on sale, I buy it in every basic color. Well, I already have plenty of browns and khakis, so I got the 7th Avenue Pant in blue heather, light gray, and chocolate. There are no words to describe how good it feels to wear nice clothes that fit perfectly.

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I recently learned about something called a “modular wardrobe,” which is basically having just a few pieces of clothing to mix and match. Having a modular wardrobe makes fashion less stressful and less expensive, and I’ll be exploring how to downsize my clothing collection even more over the next few months as I continue to purge and purchase more versatile pieces.

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