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Excellence, Not Perfection

7 Apr

At church on Easter Sunday, the lady sitting behind me told me I had beautiful hair. I said thank you. 

But on the inside, I wanted to argue with her. I wanted to deny that my hair could ever be beautiful because it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to assure her that I have terrible hair. It’s so fine that if I don’t get it thinned every six weeks, it gets flat and just hangs there, lifeless. I wanted to tell her the only reason it looked halfway presentable is because I took the time to curl it. I wanted to point out the grays that seem to be multiplying like Easter rabbits. 

And as I was having these thoughts, it occurred to me – my efforts make a difference. And so does the raw material.

On Sunday, I DID have beautiful hair. End of story. 

I had beautiful hair because I took the time and effort to make it attractive. 

I had beautiful hair because, even at its worst, my hair has the potential to look incredible.

Just like every other part of my life. 

Our inner critics want to tell us that nothing we do is “good enough.” Our inner critics are right if the standard is perfection. Not a single one of us will ever be good enough to be considered perfect. That’s one of the messages of the Easter story; we don’t have to be perfect to obtain the rewards of perfection. Jesus’ sacrifice opened the doors of Heaven, and all we have to do is choose to walk through the gate. 

We don’t even have to change; we just have to be willing for God to change us. I think this is why Jesus warned us about judging others. The change doesn’t happen the moment we are baptized, or ask Jesus into our hearts, or say a silent prayer to God for help, or experience the sacrament of reconciliation. Conversion takes time, and some of us are further into it than others. 

“Good enough” is the lie Satan uses to keep us impotent. If you can’t do something right, he says, don’t do it at all. Which is really just a paralyzing invitation to laziness and a life of unfulfilling distractions from the resulting low self-esteem. 

The truth is, we all have it in us to achieve excellence, if not perfection. All it takes is a little effort, and others will notice. And even if they don’t notice, God does. 

Our second reading on Easter Sunday was proclaimed by a young woman who has Downs Syndrome. I love when she reads the epistles, which is usually once a month. Is her reading perfect? I guess that depends on your definition of the word. But she is always excellent. And always beautiful. You can tell she has practiced, that she takes her role seriously, and that she is honored to be a part of the liturgy. She is the embodiment of the presence of Christ proclaimed in the Word, and anyone who witnesses this on any given Sunday, but especially Easter Sunday, knows they’ve seen the risen Lord. 

Her life is God’s gift to her; what she does with it is her gift to God. To all of us, really. 

My hair is God’s gift to me. What I do with it is my gift to God. 

Substitute the word “hair” with “time” or “talent” or “treasure” or “faith.” And then remember that God is our father, our loving parent who cherishes crayon scribbles on notebook paper. This is the God that Jesus lived and died and rose again for us to know. Perfection be damned. It was on Good Friday. Our one-day-at-a-time excellence is more than enough.

Weekly One Thing

4 Jan

Some of you may recall that when I first started my blog, I kept a list of the “one thing” I felt God was trying to tell me at each Sunday mass. Sadly, I didn’t keep the list very well past 2012, and I didn’t add to it at all during 2014. While I’d like to think this was not indicative of my spiritual condition or willingness to listen to God, I have to admit my other choices were not ideal in 2014. We all have a rebellious period, though. Most of us experience it when we are in our teens; I decided to go through it in my late 30s. Fortunately, I’ve chosen to close that chapter.

So once again I will be listening for my “one thing” whenever I go to church. And for the sake of being accountable, and also to keep a record for myself and others, I’m going to start adding to that page of my blog again. If you’re on the same reading schedule as Catholics, I’d love for you to do it with me and compare what you heard. That whole “where two or three are gathered” thing . . .

Here’s the link:

http://holeyheart.com/weekly-one-thing/

A quick side note . . . just because I completely stopped doing it for a year doesn’t mean the exercise wasn’t useful. Apparently, my friend Laura was inspired by the “one thing” exercise and started doing it herself. This summer, she became the middle school youth minister at my church. And one afternoon when I was volunteering at their faith formation class, she encouraged the kids (including my son) to go to church listening for their one thing, and even gave them all prayer journals to take to church with them! I felt as though my own words had come back to me full circle. Thank you, Laura.

Living My Intentions, Part 2

2 Jan

I love the classical image of Janus, the ancient Roman god of transitions. Two faces, one looking forward to the future, the other looking back at the past.

My friends who are recovering alcoholics have been known to quote from the AA Promises: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” That is one face of Janus. Regret and guilt can be driving forces in our lives without us ever even realizing it. I remember how free I felt when I finally understood at “heart level” I’m powerless over the past and nothing I do today can undo choices I made two minutes, two days, or two years ago.

Even in recent years as I’ve learned to cut myself a little slack and have the grace to let myself off the hook, I still find lingering feelings of wishing I could change the past or punishing myself (or others) for mistakes I think were made. The former is an illusion and the latter is a waste. The past was either a blessing or a lesson, so the best I can do today is be grateful for it, learn from it, admit that I was wrong, or forgive.

One of my goals for 2015 is to do a more thorough job of looking back. It’s great to take annual stock on New Year’s Eve, like I did yesterday, but how much more effective would I be if I checked myself daily? An annual review may reveal the big picture, but daily reviews can uncover the patterns that unconsciously permeate my everyday life. So I’ve made a 30-day commitment this January: take inventory of my behaviors and attitudes before I go to bed each night. I can’t wait to see what I learn about myself, and how it changes the way I approach the other face of Janus, the one looking toward the future.

As I’ve written before, I prefer setting “goals” and “intentions” rather than making “resolutions.” Usually I don’t choose the intention; if I quiet my mind and observe myself through the last month of the year, the next year’s intention reveals itself. I usually know in my heart what I need to work on, but making a resolution about it is setting myself up for failure. An intention, on the other hand, becomes a guiding theme weaving its way through all areas of my life.

My intention for 2015 is “simplify.”

If 2015 is anything like 2014, I will be offered many opportunities to do the exact opposite of my intention. And if 2015 is to be a truly “new” year, maybe I’ll resist the temptation to complicate and clutter.

Along with an intention, I like to set a few specific, measurable, and attainable goals, and one “BHAG” (that’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal). This year’s small goals are:
1. Nurture my creative side;
2. Set up a will;
3. Meet with my financial advisor;
4. Finish the back porch;
5. Reduce my sugar consumption;
6. Pursue an additional career path/income source (oops, did I say “simplify?”); and
7. Take a vacation for my 40th birthday in September.

My BHAG is to craft a story that has been germinating for nearly a year and a half (this is the “big hairy” part) and get it into the hands of the man who inspired it (this is the “audacious” part only God can facilitate).

All this talk of looking at the past and planning for the future is a gentle reminder that I have only the present moment, whether it’s January 1, December 31, or any day in between. What can I do today to meet my goals and live my intentions? What lessons did the past 24 hours hold for me? Life doesn’t exist in the past or future, but only in the now.

And right now, I can copy, paste, publish, and share. Thanks for your encouragement through the past few years of Holey Heart. Happy birthday to my blog, and Happy New Year to you!

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.

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