Tending the Temple

Surviving the Matrix

I envy my mother. She is not on Facebook. She doesn’t know her friends’ and acquaintances subtle and not so subtle political leanings (except for the few who actually talk politics when they have lunch or a phone call), and she doesn’t care to. What a luxury.

She doesn’t receive a daily (hourly) feed of the people she loves collectively losing sanity and sensibility. She hasn’t witnessed everyone she knows become unpaid content providers for the largest news source in the world. She gets her news from TV and radio. The old fashioned way. The one sided way. She has never been trolled. She doesn’t feed trolls. She has never inadvertently become a troll. She doesn’t know what a troll is.

Oh, to be like my mother. It is too late for me. I’m too far gone to be saved. I’m in the matrix, fully aware, unable to take a pill and escape.

In the wake of Charlottesville, I’ve joined many of my friends in losing our collective shit. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a friend or two because of how jacked up we all are. On the positive side, I’ve learned who is “safe” for me also. And it’s not who you might expect. It’s not always the people who agree with me. It’s the ones who are capable, and more importantly, WILLING, to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s the people with empathy in the face of the self-righteous nuclear fallout that is social media.

For months I’ve been using a tool which helps make the “matrix” more manageable. The “unfollow” button. It allows me to restrict content in my newsfeed from people who are temporarily toxic to me because of their smug, smoldering rage. A few years ago “blocking” and “unfriending” seemed like the only options you had when dealing with toxic posts, but neither of those options is anonymous. The person knows when they’ve been unfriended or blocked.

My experience in non-virtual life is that boundaries work best when the other person doesn’t know I’ve set them. For example, at one time there was a person in my life who liked to gossip and criticize. And for my part, I really enjoyed participating! Then I realized that I didn’t like how I felt. I couldn’t say to this person, “It’s wrong to gossip and so I can’t talk to you anymore.” That would have provoked a lot of anger and ugliness, and this person was a fairly significant part of my life, not someone I could just cut off or avoid. I had to set the boundary for myself and not tell her. I had to take responsibility for my behavior and avoid gossiping, rather than avoid her.

Initially I kept our conversations very brief. Basic information exchange, nothing more. After a few months, my gossip habit had stopped and over time I could have more intimate conversations with her, while avoiding the temptation to get into gossiping or criticizing other people. I had a few slips, but I’m happy to say this relationship is a very healthy one today because of HOW I practiced the boundary. I tended to my side of the street and didn’t treat her to my condemnation. I followed the dictates of my faith and was a person of peace.

If only there were a way for me to have that kind of boundary in Facebook! The good news is, the “unfollow” option is one such way. I can stop the flow of tempting yet toxic content, in a totally anonymous way, without certain friends and familiar members knowing I’ve unfollowed them. If I’m tired of cat pictures, unfollow. Tired of Trump posts? Unfollow. It works for the pseudo-news sites that pop up too. On the top right corner of every post there is a little arrow. Click it to see the options. Unfollow.

You can refollow friends at any time. You can still see their posts by going directly to their wall. You just won’t be barraged by their posts and opinions on your feed.

The one danger of the unfollow is that it can create an echo chamber if you unfollow everyone who has a different opinion. Thankfully not everyone with different world views is toxic; I only unfollow people whose posts make me tempted to engage or think uncharitable thoughts. If you find yourself thinking uncharitable thoughts about every post with which you disagree, then perhaps you have an anger problem yourself. That’s the time to heed Jesus’ advice and remove the log from your own eye.

The unfollow tool is great for restricting what comes in, but it doesn’t stop those same toxic people from seeing what we post, or from commenting, or from getting into online confrontations on our own postings. Some people I know deal with this by only posting innocuous photos of their pets or kids or dinner plates, or sharing funny or inspirational quotes and memes. That’s one very solid option; in fact, that was kind of the whole point of Facebook before it got warped by politics, media, fake news, and the mass manipulation of public opinion.

Most of us want to feel free to be candid about our opinions and beliefs. This generation is not private about anything. We value our ability to express ourselves. Gen-Xers like me especially value this because growing up we felt ignored and dismissed. We still do, as the media and marketing machines are focused on baby boomers and millennials. Justice is important to us. Freedom and liberty is important to us. In general we distrust authority and want to make sure the world knows why. All these traits are what make us vulnerable in the matrix of Facebook. Meanwhile the millennials have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, and very little resilience to the emotional upsets of life, and they more than any other group engage in a collective shaming of anyone who doesn’t submit to the prevailing narrative they are fed by their helicopter-parent media. Meanwhile baby boomers bemoan the loss of the good old days of Woodstock and civil rights protests, or Ronald Reagan. It’s a recipe for a multi-generational clash of values and perspectives.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t possible for most of us, but even the most innocuous post sharing sadness or dismay can be met not only with sympathy, but personal attacks about why feeling that way is wrong because it’s based on a false view of things. And both sides do it to each other. I’ve done it, and you probably have too. We are human. Let’s cut ourselves some slack as we take that log out of our eye.

The tool I find most helpful for this dilemma is the “friends list.” Facebook allows us to create lists of our friends based on their relationship to us. There’s “Friends,” which is every person with whom we are connected on FB, but under that there are subcategories, like “Acquaintances” or “Family.” Maybe you’ve never used these lists before. I didn’t until just a few weeks ago. But you can change your privacy settings on any post to be seen by ONLY the people on a specific list.

The best part is, you can create your own custom list. That way I can be friends with people from work, but restrict them from seeing my political posts. I can be friends with volatile family members, but restrict them from seeing a heart-felt post about something personal in my life. I can be friends with people whose politics is completely opposite of mine, or even the same, and who feel the need to do battle on my posts. I will not tolerate my friends being ugly with each other, and the best way to set this boundary is to deny them the opportunity to sully their own dignity on my little piece of internet real estate.

I now have a “safe friends” list. This list includes people I trust to not get their nose out of joint if they disagree with me or one of my other friends. They are diplomatic and moderate and open minded and supportive. If I feel the need to share a news story with like-minded people, and can restrict the privacy to “safe friends” and feel confident that it will be accepted with respect and calm.

There are a few other people who are not in my “safe” list. People with whom I need to keep a safe distance on social media because I value their friendship too much in real life. I feel no need to make politics a wedge between us, and I do my part to keep those divisive topics out of our friendship. So while I’m sure they are, in reality, “safe,” I restrict them from seeing certain posts, in the same spirit that I restrict my children from seeing me when I’m overly emotional and reactive. I value our relationship too much.

These two tools, unfollow and friend lists, are allowing me to safely stay in the matrix of social media without losing relationships or losing my voice. If this helps you in any way, please share. Perhaps we will see a return to civility in the social media sphere. Maybe we can prevent a second civil war.

All the Zero Days

Going Fast vs. Going Far

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That quote was in my head when I began last weekend’s 26-mile trek in southwest Virginia over Sinking Creek Mountain, Brush Mountain, and Dragon’s Tooth – my first “semi-solo” hike on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s another hiking axiom I’ve heard, as well. “Hike your own hike.” Ever since I started hiking again three years ago in 2014, I’ve struggled with hiking my own hike when I’m in a group of hikers. Sometimes, I am capable of keeping up with my companions, but more often I have a slower pace. My natural tendency is to think I should just go alone rather than hold anyone else back.

Fortunately, others don’t feel the same; on my first long distance hike from the Pennsylvania/Maryland border to Harper’s Ferry last fall, the group leader stayed at my pace while the others took the long miles in stride and out-paced us by at least a mile. He was happy to do it but I felt guilty almost every step of the way. He could have gone faster if he had left me alone. But I wouldn’t have made it over the mental hurdles that hiking alone would have thrown at me on that trip. I’ve had a lot more practice and conditioning since then, and I thought I could handle “alone” just fine this time.

So, this weekend I got a taste of both alone and together, and my ultimate lesson is that alone has a bitter aftertaste when it equals fast.

My plan was to meet my group (who had already been hiking since dawn Friday morning, and some of them since Wednesday) at the shelter where they planned to camp. The closest parking area was about three miles down the hill, which means I had to hike up three miles, alone, to the Sarver Shelter. (Side note: Google “Sarver Shelter” and you’ll find several stories about the ghost that supposedly haunts the ruins of this homestead.)

Those three miles up, alone, were lovely. I was truly hiking my own hike, getting a sense of my own natural pace, resting when I needed it without the shame I often feel at getting winded faster than the more seasoned hikers. I stopped and took photos at scenic overlooks, or interesting wildflowers, knowing I wasn’t irritating anyone with my camera. (I’ve been on hikes with people who do get irritated by that sort of thing, especially if it keeps them from maintaining their steady pace.) Being alone meant I wasn’t carrying the burden of someone else’s judgement.

However, I was carrying the extra unnecessary weight of something else – my own ego.

Three miles alone is very different than 16. And as often happens, there were aspects of my physical hike that mirrored the mental one. I was physically carrying my ego, in the form of a 2 lb, 1 oz bear vault. (That doesn’t count the weight of the food.)

Ounces equal pounds, pounds equal pain – another trail axiom. After three miles uphill on day one, I didn’t feel the pain. But after about seven miles on day two, I felt that pain for every one of the 10,000 steps I took to catch up with my group, alone.

Why on earth would I add two extra pounds to my gear? The reason made sense at the time; I didn’t want to hang a bear bag, which for me requires the help of other people. The canister would afford me complete freedom from waiting for everyone else to be awake to get my morning food. (Also, the last time I tried to be the one to get bear bags down, I cut off circulation in my finger. So it scares me.)

Thanks to the bear vault, I could wake up early without disturbing anyone else, and could get an early start on the trail alone, so that I wouldn’t lag so far behind at the end of the day. That was my plan.

It was a sucky plan.

I got about a 30-minute head start on the rest of the group, and the first wave of them overtook me at about 2 miles, while the second wave caught up with me at 3.5 miles. Downhill from that point, I flew down the mountain to our next stopping point, earning my new trail name “Hopper” because the guy following me – trail name “Rudy” – had to jog to keep up as I hopped over the rocks.

If you want to go fast, go alone. But expect to get blisters. Expect to get winded. Expect that bear vault and ego to get heavier with every step. At the bottom of the hill, not only was I winded and ready for a good, solid snack, I needed a serious break, and something for the hot spots on my big toes. The extra weight and speed gave me a pain I’d never experienced before, and I wasn’t adequately prepared to handle it.

Fortunately, Rudy was. He generously offered me some of his KT Tape to wrap my potential blisters. It’s like a medical tape, and it works great to keep friction from forming a blister on your feet if you use it before you have a problem. After wrapping my toes and having a snack and refilling my water bladder, I still needed more rest, so as the group went on, I stayed behind, alone, to relax, to receive “trail magic” (an orange, from a couple who does trail maintenance), and to hike my own hike.

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The next 2.5 miles were the most brutal I’ve ever hiked. After a short downhill stretch, it was a 1,500-foot elevation gain. Also, the weather was unseasonably warm for April, reaching into the upper 80s, humid, not a cloud in the sky or a breeze in the air.

I thought I could handle it. I thought it would be no different than the 1,500-foot elevation gain I’d accomplished the day before as I’d hiked alone into our designated meeting spot. I thought wrong.

I made it up that mountain checking my GPS every half hour or so and being depressed at my slow progress. My pace had slowed from a 20-minute mile to something more like a 90-minute mile. The ache in my shoulders was indescribable, and nothing I did to adjust the pack helped. I was sweating and stopping to catch my breath every 50 feet. I was praying a lot.

I was thinking about when my son was born: 36 hours of the most physically grueling experience I’d ever endured. I had wanted to go drug-free, which I did because I was so committed, and I told myself, if I could birth three babies drug free, I could make it up Brush Mountain. With a quarter mile left to go, I jokingly said to God, “If this is like labor, I’ve gotten to the point where I’d be begging for an epidural!” I rounded a turn and started another steep climb, and as I looked up, I saw Rudy, sweating and smiling.

He had heard the clicking of my hiking poles and had come down to help me carry my pack the rest of the way to the top. I almost cried.

According to Rudy, my pack weighed more than his (and he’s a big guy) – around 30-35 lbs. If his estimate is correct, I was carrying at least a third of my body weight.

There’s no weight limit that’s set in stone, but guidelines used by most backpackers are that individuals in good health should be able to carry about 20% of their body weight. A more experienced backpacker may be able to carry 25% of their body weight, and a very experienced and well-conditioned backpacker may be able to carry as much as 35%. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Gender and age make a difference even when a hiker is in really good shape.

I had about 5.5 miles left to go carrying that pack, despite the brief reprieve. Sure, it was mostly downhill. But even downhill miles are heavy, and hard on the feet and knees. I rested on the top of the mountain while Rudy and our leader, “Flops,” went on ahead to catch up with our other two companions. I put one foot in front of the other and trudged down, doubting myself more with every step. Then I ran out of water.

I was trying to figure out the logistics of quitting. There was a parking area and road at the bottom of the hill, about a mile from our designated camping spot. Maybe I would have cell reception and could call a shuttle to come pick me up. There was no way I’d be able to make it up the next hill to the shelter. Sweat was pouring out of me; my clothes were soaked. My tape-wrapped toes were starting to ache again. I couldn’t even imagine having energy to set up my tent and cook my dinner. I kept thinking about the next day, and climbing the dreaded “Dragon’s Tooth” peak. It wasn’t as long a hike, but the way I was feeling in that moment, I didn’t believe I could safely climb the summit and climb back down. Not with 35 lbs.

I had made up my mind. According to my map, there was a small camping area and stream near that parking lot. I would stay there for the night, and hope that one of my companions came back to check on me when I didn’t get to the shelter. Just as I’d made that decision, the area came into view, and the sound of rushing water urged me onward. And there were tents. Familiar tents. Familiar shirt colors. “Is that you guys?” I yelled? I didn’t wait for the answer. “I love you!!!!” I shouted as I nearly ran down the hill with a big grin on my face.

That afternoon, I baptized my sweaty, soaked body fully clothed in the creek. “Hopper” came up from the frigid water a new woman, refreshed by the spirit of community. I changed into dry clothes, and ate whatever snacks I wouldn’t need the next day, starting with that heavy orange. I expressed my doubt about being able to continue tomorrow, and Rudy said, “Well, you don’t have much choice.” He was right. There was no cell phone signal there in the hollow. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’re going to sleep like a log and wake up feeling like a million bucks.” I hoped he was right.

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I considered leaving my heavy bear canister and some of my gear behind, hidden by the side of the road; I could come back for it later. I considered leaving my wet clothes and Jetboil stove and fuel as trail magic for a hiker in need. One of the other hikers, “Inferno Man,” offered to carry the bear canister. “Nah, I packed it. It’s my responsibility to carry it out,” I said. He was visibly relieved.

After replenishing my calories and enjoying our companionship by the fire, I crawled into my tent. I left the flap open and stared at the stars. Rudy was right; I did sleep like a log. I did wake up feeling like a million bucks. I wasn’t even sore. I replenished my water, ate breakfast, and started to pack up as the others started out. Vlad, who was prepping for a hike in Europe requiring the ability to carry 50 lbs, offered to carry my Jetboil and my stuff sack of clothes. Inferno Man took my sleeping bad. I had eaten some of my weight the night before, and burned much of my trash. My once-heavy pack was now a reasonable weight and felt more like a day-pack.

The hike up and down Dragon’s Tooth was not easy, especially the rock scramble down. There was a lot of cursing. But I was not alone. This time, I hiked with Inferno Man, who was nursing a sore calf muscle, and our conversation made the miles fly by quickly. We climbed the rocks at the top, which I would have been unable to do without him spotting me and guiding my feet. His presence on the rocky path down gave me the encouragement I needed. About a mile from the end of our multi-day trek, we caught up with Flops (so named because she had hiked in flip flops due to the ugly blisters on her heels.) She jogged down the last stretch of the journey and I speed-walked to catch up with her. I was like a horse headed back to the barn. Flops stopped about a mile from our final destination to change into her flip flops, and I pressed onward, leaving her and Inferno Man behind to keep each other company. I started running down the hill like the trail runners I had seen. If you want to go fast, go alone. I made it to the road, a half mile to go, and there, at the base of the shelter, was a the hostel shuttle, dropping off two hikers.

He offered me a ride for the last half mile to the hostel, where Rudy and Vlad were waiting for us. I jumped in and didn’t even take off my pack. I couldn’t believe I had made it! I was so pleased with myself! My homecoming at the hostel was glorious.

Until it wasn’t.

While I was reliving myself on an actual flushing toilet, Rudy had gotten in his car to pick up Flops and Inferno Man. As they pulled up the driveway, Flops shouted out the window, “Next time you get a ride, wait for the folks behind you!”

A double serving of humble pie.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I want to go together. I really do. As much as I enjoy my solitude and solo activities, I’m desperate for companionship, encouragement, comraderie, support, shared memories. I love being of service to others when I can get out of my own head for half a minute and see those who are around me. I guess years of believing I’m not good enough, that no one could ever actually want to be my friend, have warped my basic social sensibilities. I hate that.

But fortunately, I learn from experiences. I learn from pain. Last weekend, I learned that I need to lighten my pack. I learned that I don’t have to try to be a super hero. I learned that we all have liabilities, whether it’s a heavy pack, or blisters, or a pulled calf muscle. I learned that people are worthy of trust. I learned that I need to focus on being trustworthy and reliable to others.

I learned that I can go far, if I go with others. If I wait for others. If I ask others to wait for me.

Next time, I will have at least two less piece of gear – my bear canister, and my ego. Hopefully the lighter load will be a little more manageable, for everyone.

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Tending the Temple

Loneliness vs. Depression

Author and blogger Jason F. Wright recently wrote a column on loneliness, encouraging readers to reach out to someone if they were feeling lonely (including the suicide hotline). You can read it here.

After reading it myself, I read some of the comments criticizing him and assuring us all that loneliness has a name – depression – and that the only truly “helpful” advice is to tell people to get professional help.

The piece was timely for me. I recently discovered that I have been lonely, some days debilitatingly so. I use that word “discovered” because it came as a surprise to me. I would have assumed a feeling like loneliness would be pretty easy to identify, but that was not the case. I’ve felt tired. I’ve felt sad. I’ve felt unmotivated. I’ve felt apathetic. At times I’ve felt despondent. Hungry. Sorry for myself. Sometimes I’ve felt physical pain, in my neck, my back, my chest, my gut, my eyes. Sometimes I’ve felt rejected by others, and sometimes I’ve felt like rejecting others myself. I’ve also felt a lot of shame about having all these feelings. I had a lot of feelings I could identify, but wrapping it up in a bow and calling it “loneliness” was not immediately obvious to me.

The obvious name for it was depression, and I did call it that from time to time. As the article suggested, I did reach out to my spiritual director when I was feeling especially depressed. It took every bit of effort I could muster to send those texts to her, and I could do so only because 1) I was desperate to unload the burden just a little, and 2) I trust her unconditional love, her non-judgement, and her ability to restrain herself from giving advice.

(Side note: When you are feeling those feelings and can finally muster the courage to tell someone, there is a very real risk that “someone” will assault you with well-meaning unsolicited advice, the worst of which includes, “Have you considered professional help?” and “There’s no shame in taking medication if you need it.” I can’t publish the words I want to say when I get advice like that, but I can say I’d rather be slapped in the face than hear those things, because it would sting less. What I can publish is that yes, I’ve used professional help and medication in the past, and neither worked very well and are very expensive, especially when your insurance has a deductible of thousands before you get any coverage. Finding a good counselor was like finding a needle in a haystack. Regarding antidepressants, the side effects were worse than the feelings I was looking to cure. I don’t say that to discourage others, nor do I look down on those who need and choose pharmaceutical solutions; they just aren’t for me. If someone has the courage to share their darkest pain with you, don’t offer solutions. She isn’t sharing with you so you’ll fix it. Sharing with you is the fix. Hug her and affirm her and thank her for opening up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Then shut up and wait for her to ask. Maybe a listening ear is all she needed.)

I also reached out to a very special group of friends for support. No broadcast status updates to everyone on Facebook for me; I don’t want to draw attention to myself in the midst of my emotional darkness. But reaching out to this select group and asking for their prayers helped lighten the burden, especially the feeling of shame. I can’t overstate how ashamed I was of the way I felt, and my instinct was to hide myself. But we are only as sick as our secrets, and sharing my secret struggle, not with the world, but with individuals I trusted, dissipated the shame. Thanks to their unconditional love, now I can share about this experience with the world in a way that maybe will help someone else instead of make people feel uncomfortable or sorry for me.

One woman with whom I shared is around my mom’s age. She said she experienced the same thing when her husband retired and was at home all the time. The irony, of course, is that her loneliness set in precisely when she was no longer spending time alone. She asked me point blank, how much time do you actually spend with just yourself? The answer is complicated. Although I’m a single mom of three, with a boyfriend who’d be happy to see me every day, I do have solitude built into my days. I have alone time each morning when the kids go to school, then I go to a job that usually involves just me in my office, alone. I tend to think I have a lot of alone time. But even during my “alone” time, my head is focused on others. Worrying about my son’s grades. Working out the family schedule and folding everyone’s laundry. Creating for clients. Answering emails. Learning music for church. My recreational time is spent with the fella or with hiking pals, not giving myself undivided attention.

Last weekend the fella took me to the Outer Banks for a much needed getaway. We did lots of fun things together: seeing the site of the first flight, climbing a lighthouse, flying a kite at jockey’s ridge, and eating gourmet dinners. But the part of the trip that rejuvenated me the most was the hour I spent alone walking on the beach to catch the sunrise Saturday morning. That one hour fueled me more than anything.

I had an epiphany that morning. I don’t have many complaints about my relationships with the people in my life. I have a pretty solid relationship with God; I can see Him at work in my life and in the lives of so many others, and I trust His care. But my relationship with myself kinda sucks.

I judge myself so harshly. I hold myself to impossible standards. Regret and anger turn inward, and I neglect self-care that used to be a regular part of my routine – weekly trips to the Y, yoga classes, support group meetings, nutritious food, writing and journaling, and most importantly, spending time alone.

It is paradoxical that one of the solutions for my loneliness is to spend time being truly alone. But it makes sense. I am lonesome for a relationship with the only person who has known me since the moment I was born and will be with me until the moment I die – myself.

Unlike my boyfriend, my close friends, my children, or even my parents, she knows and, more importantly, understands everything about me. She’s been with me through every heartbreak, every mistake, every triumph. Yet I routinely reject her. And then I wonder why I struggle with depression?

We can’t have meaningful social connection with others unless we first have that connection with ourselves. Healthy relationships are not possible without self-respect and a sense of self-worth, neither of which can develop if our focus is always on our relationships with others.

Loneliness is NOT the same thing as depression; loneliness is a symptom of depression. I think it is also a cause. There are studies demonstrating loneliness and lack of meaningful social connection are the precursors to addiction, more so than any other factor. This also helps explain why 12 step fellowships are effective for so many alcoholics and addicts, and those affected by alcoholism in their families. These programs give a sense of community and connectedness through shared struggles, and the 12 steps themselves, if actually followed, restore a relationship with oneself. No wonder there are 12 step programs for all the addictive behaviors to which we turn when we are avoiding ourselves – booze, drugs, food, sex, shopping, gambling. 12 step programs have a failure rate, too, probably because not everyone actually does the work required in the steps, or goes to meetings routinely enough to break though their isolation.

Mental illness is real. Clinical depression is real. But not everyone who experiences the symptoms of mental illness or clinical depression does so because of a chemical imbalance they can’t control. Sometimes addressing these crippling symptoms is very much within our control. A friend of mine who’s an avid cyclist reminded me that just 20 minutes of cardio a day can have the same effect on the brain as antidepressants. Another friend who’s a yoga instructor says her spiritual practice of yoga and meditation, along with some other spiritual practices, are what stave off her depression. Still another friend said that it’s when he’s helping other people that he finds relief from self-pity and low self-worth. “If you want high self-esteem, do esteemable things,” he says. And there’s always that reliable stand-by, the Gratitude List.

I practice all of these techniques occasionally, and I know from experience how much they help with my symptoms. That’s not to downplay that some people do need professional help. As my former counselor told me, sometimes we need the pharmaceutical solution to get us to the place where we are capable of embracing the effective non-pharmaceutical benefits of talk therapy and other activities. I understand that. But you can’t medicate loneliness away, either.

For me, depression is resentment and anger turned inward. It’s what happens when I set unrealistic expectations for myself, fail to meet them, and then hate myself for it and assume everyone else does, too. Often it comes out sideways in my judgement and criticism of other people, or envy and jealousy. In my recent struggles with loneliness and depression, my reaction to this cycle of negativity has been irritability, fatalism, and cynicism, a “why bother” attitude.

This week, I stopped asking “why” and got down to the business of “bothering.” I bothered myself to go on two early morning hikes after the kids left for school. I bothered to read my daily readers. I bothered to eat breakfast and have nutritious meals instead of fast food. I bothered to share my “dark season” with a couple people who would understand. I bothered to do some work I’d been procrastinating. I bothered to journal. To put myself first.

It helped a lot.

I’m bothering to write this because there’s no simple fix for loneliness and depression, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Feelings can be overwhelming. Reaching out can seem too hard a task. Medication and therapy may be financially out of reach, and a depressive episode doesn’t schedule itself during office hours. Self-love is a choice that is always within reach. Not the feeling of love; the action of love. The kindness of taking a bath, eating a salad, walking in the sunshine and really feeling the warmth.

I recently saw a quote from Anne Lamott’s most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, her newest book. “Love is seeing the darkness in another person and defying the impulse to jump ship.”

I bother to love myself. To accept myself just as I am, knowing only love has the power to transform loneliness and depression into unity and compassion.

Holey Heart

Recycling With Joy

In my garage there’s a bin I use to collect recyclables. An assortment of cereal boxes, milk jugs, and jelly jars accumulate there until I put them out for pickup.

Lately, though, the cardboard boxes aren’t making it out to the curb. My youngest child “liberates” anything made of cardboard and transforms it into homes for small toys, or “computers,” or anything else her imagination can conceive. Back before Christmas she turned a Cheez-Its box into a working Shopkins vending machine using plastic wrap as the glass front. A vending machine! The other day she tried to save an old bologna container out of the trash, and I drew the line.

She’s eight, and clearly she’s made in the image and likeness of God; just like her Heavenly Father, she uses everything. She’d rather play with trash than anything else.

This Sunday in St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we heard: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Olivia chooses the discarded refuse of our modern suburban life to create and experience joy; like my little one, God also recycles the very things we try to discard, whether that’s people, or personality traits, or even less than ideal circumstances.

It reminds me of an old adage I’ve heard about ministry. “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” I can attest to that. Two years ago I felt God calling me to get involved in music ministry, even though I didn’t think I could fit it in my already busy schedule with three kids. Deeper still was a feeling of inadequacy about my musical abilities. And yet, I did as I was called, and much to my surprise God used me, not only to encourage young musicians in my church, but to become a cantor leading our entire congregation at our evening service.

If you had told me two years ago that I’d be doing this in 2017, I’d have told you about the time when I was 22 and subbing for our church cantor and totally choked, or a number of other stories documenting my musical failures. I guess God does qualify the called, because people clap after Mass. I don’t believe church music should be a performance, but rather, an invitation to participate. Still, it feels good to sing strong and well and to be acknowledged. I can boast in nothing but God, because it is only through his grace that I can stand up there and not panic.

I also think of times when I made serious errors in judgement, yet God made use of them (and not just to teach me a lesson the “hard way”). I was fired once. I made a mistake that cost me my job. But because of that mistake, I looked for freelance work on Craig’s List. I took a $30 design gig because I was desperate for anything. The client liked my work and sent me a few other small jobs. Eventually that freelance gig became a part time source of regular income, supported me through the early days of my unemployed divorcehood, and also stretched me creatively and professionally. I’ve learned how to publish books, have gotten referrals, and gained the confidence to produce my own inaugural publication, soon to be for sale on Amazon. If you had told me when I was fired in 2006 that I’d be self-publishing my first book in 2017, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s because of my hard work, yes; but it’s also because God used my failure as a foundation for something new.

I recall when my dog died two years ago. I never knew how much that could hurt my heart. I’d never understood before how people grieved their pets so hard, but when Jake died, I discovered a compassion and empathy I previously lacked. In fact, every tragic thing I’ve ever experienced is something for which I am now grateful, because those experiences have allowed me to connect with my fellow humans on a deeper level, whether it’s the death of a pet, or a terrible year of bullying in middle school, or a painful and confusing divorce. God has used all these to help me be a better friend.

When my ex and I first started accepting the reality of separation and divorce, our first concern was, of course, our children. And he said to me, “I feel as if my whole life has been preparing me for this,” meaning being a divorced parent. His own parents divorced when he was very young, and there was a lot of unpleasantness for him, but God didn’t let those experiences happen in vain; thanks to God’s grace, and their father’s choices, priorities, and sacrifices, my children have a very different kind of “broken” home than their father had. Our family may be broken and blended, but we are a family first.

If you had told me six years ago when we started living under separate roofs that we would be able to handle birthdays and holidays without awkwardness and resentment, I would have been skeptical. It is not without ups and downs, but God uses even those. We are better today at communicating than we were when we were married, because we have to be, whether we like it or not. God uses our relationship to teach me to be a more inclusive person, to put myself in another’s shoes, to express myself even when I’m scared, and to focus more on the common good and less on my own personal convenience.

I can think of friends facing what most of us would consider a “tragedy:” cancer diagnosis, a child with special needs, chronic unemployment. I could also tell you how God is using these circumstances to enrich the lives of so many people in a positive way. Never will I believe that cancer or disease or the indignity of unemployment is “God’s will,” but I will always believe human tragedies are God’s opportunities.

This, for me, is the real grace being illustrated in the Beatitudes, which we also heard this past Sunday. Only when we grieve can we know what it is the be comforted. Only when we long for righteousness can we truly appreciate justice. Only when we find that God is all we have do we realize that God is all we need. When I turn to God in my need, I receive blessing beyond measure. If I had no needs, I’d never know the joy of receiving God’s blessings.

All of this weekend’s readings were in some way speaking about the quality of humility. It is what all of us are called to as Christians, but do we really embrace humility? I don’t think so. More often we embrace perfectionism, which is about as arrogant an attitude as Lucifer thinking he could be an equal with God.

Perhaps a better way to think of humility is “joyful acceptance.” That is the humility of the Beatitudes. My daughter joyfully accepts the discarded boxes as the raw materials for her creativity and inventiveness. Joy is what shames the wise, the proud, the strong, the powerful. Resentment and resistance only embolden the Enemy.

There is a lot going on in the world today, especially my own country, which concerns me deeply. It triggers my very human desire to resent and resist. But as a person of faith, I know without question that God is using it all, even the worst of it, in ways I may never see or understand. This is God’s justice, which goes so far beyond any attempt at human social justice. So I strive to accept it with joy, just as the early martyrs of the Church accepted unimaginable persecution with joy.

What we resist, persists. What we accept, is transformed.

Holey Heart

Hope for the Tribeless

Sometimes when we hear the Word of God proclaimed on Sunday, a word or phrase jumps right out. This is how I know it’s the living word of God, as if He is speaking right to my heart, and this Sunday, that word was “belong.”

My regular readers may recall this past Saturday, I was bemoaning my feeling of not belonging. This is a chronic problem (both the feeling, and the act of bemoaning). It goes back as far as I can remember; even as a three year old I felt I didn’t belong with my peers in preschool. It’s an enduring theme in my life story, and I’m sick of it. I’m also kind of embarrassed that at 41 years old I’m still struggling like a three year old.

Thank goodness feelings aren’t facts. The living word of God challenged my idea of belonging this Sunday through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“It has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

The message didn’t really hit home until Mass was half over. I stood at the mic like I do every Sunday, leading the congregation in song during communion. The refrain was familiar, one of my favorite songs:

We belong to you, o lord of our longing,
We belong to you.
In our daily living, dying and rising,
We belong to you.

Side note: you can see the composer, Trevor Thomson, singing an abbreviated version of the song here:

https://youtu.be/uHdGJvbjy7E

Listening to the sound of my own voice singing those words, I had a revelation. There is only one solution to my feeling of disconnect, and that is to do exactly what Jesus did in Sunday’s gospel – reach out to others. When Jesus started his ministry in the Roman city of Capernaum, in Galilee, the land of the Gentiles, he did not wait for disciples to come to him like most rabbis did; he went out and recruited.

His first recruits were two sets of brothers, fishermen who were bemoaning their lack of a catch after a long night of casting nets and coming up empty. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said to his bewildered new friends Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

When we follow Jesus, community is the result. We don’t belong to a community, or a church, or a political party, or a country, or even the world. We don’t belong to our parents, or our children, or our friends, or our lovers. We don’t even belong to ourselves, though we may sometimes think we do.

We belong only to the One who created us. The one who died for each and every one of us.

Even when we don’t believe in him, we belong only to him. Even when we don’t like the others who belong to him, or they don’t like us, still we belong to him.

You and I may be united in nothing else except that we both belong to the same creator. And miraculously, that is enough.

In the waters of your mercy,
When the old becomes the new,
Souls united in the myst’ry:
We belong to you.

Filled with gifts and filled with goodness,
Spirit breathing life into
All who seek to find their purpose:
We belong to you.

When we share the bread you’ve broken
With the many and the few,
We are blessed and we are broken;
We belong to you.

We are called to share your word, Lord,
In all we say and all we do.
As our journey moves us onward,
We belong to you.

After Mass, I put into practice the message my heart received. I invited two of my friends who were at there to join me and the other musicians in singing. We could use a few more regular vocalists and had been hoping some additional singers would respond to ads in the bulletin. What would Jesus do? Ask, person to person. Time will tell if anything comes of it; ministry happens in God’s time, not ours.

Feeling “tribeless” is only the first step in recognizing a greater truth – that all our tribes are just illusions. There’s only one tribe, and we are all members whether we like it or not, with one leader, whether we acknowledge Him or not. There is hope for the tribeless, and it won’t be fulfilled by finding the “right” church or moving to a neighborhood where I feel like I fit in or making friends who “get” me. Those things are nice and help us feel comfortable, but a tribe isn’t a comfort zone. If Jesus wanted a comfort zone he would have started his ministry in Nazareth where he grew up, or Jerusalem where he found himself as a teenager. He’d have stayed with his fellow Jews in the land of Judah and certainly wouldn’t have crossed the Jordan into “enemy territory.”

Tribes weren’t important to Jesus. Rivalries certainly weren’t. Relationships were. Relationships with each other, yes, but first a relationship with Him. Sometimes I can get so caught up in feeling excluded that I inadvertently exclude others with my sour attitude. That net doesn’t catch much fish. Jesus crossed the Jordan into my “no man’s land” bringing the hope of belonging to him. When will I finally leave my empty nets and follow where he leads?

Single On Saturday

Tribeless On Saturday

It’s Saturday, and I’ve never felt more single in my life. Not romantically; like a stranger in my own country. I feel tribe-less.

I have friends marching in Washington the day after other friends attended inauguration balls. Still others share red- or blue-tinted outrage on social media, and I feel tribe-less. I’m not outraged by much these days; resentment is a luxury I can’t afford, and I have too much for which to be grateful.

A few days ago a good friend, who would attend Saturday’s rally in D.C., asked those of us staying home if we’d like our names added on the back of her poster so she could carry us with her. I thought it was a lovely sentiment and was moved by the idea, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t think I belonged there, on the back of my friend’s beautifully crafted piece of art (created by another mutual friend who was homebound with the flu).

I could have gone in person. It was my ex’s weekend with the kids. My fella is out of town on business. I know plenty of people going, so I wouldn’t be by myself with 500,000 strangers. But I don’t belong there.

I won’t go into details about why I don’t believe I belong there. For the record, I wouldn’t have belonged there on Inauguration Day, either.

Never have I felt so separated from my fellow countrymen. I hesitate even using that word “countrymen” because a good portion of the people I love would say it’s a misogynistic, non-inclusive word.

I’m a writer, and I’m afraid of using the word I want to use. Let that sink in.

Ok, maybe I get a little resentful sometimes.

In 2010 I attended a march at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, on those very same steps. I thought I had found my tribe then, a couple hundred thousand of them, but I was wrong. Many of them have since been distorted by fear and resentment. Winning became more important than principles.

My mom and dad were there with me, and they are still in my tribe. We don’t always see things eye to eye but I trust beyond the shadow of a doubt their unconditional love. I have that trust with my children, and my brother. Do I have that level of trust with anyone else?

I feel like a pariah in my own country. If my conservative friends knew what I believed, I’m afraid they would disown me, or worse, lecture me. If my liberal friends knew what I believed, they, too, would give me labels I know aren’t accurate. This is why I’ve been so solitary my whole life, I remind myself.

It goes beyond politics. I see division in my church, too. Theological differences. Hatred of my Catholic faith communicated in snide comments or outright insults. Some of my favorite people call themselves “recovering Catholics,” and when they use that term to describe themselves, they unknowingly insult a large part of my identity. In those moments, I feel like I don’t belong. I’m not looking to convert or re-convert anyone. I made that mistake before, and I learned better.

In the midst of all the marching and chanting and celebrity ranting on TV, I sit at home doing very real battle with my deepest fear – that the people I love unconditionally are not capable of loving me back unconditionally. That your tolerance extends to some but not all. I am not angry at the hypocrisy so much as saddened by the rejection. You draw battle lines not realizing I’m on the other side.

I’m the independent voter stuck in no man’s land (can I use that term, “no man’s land?”) with thousands of other voiceless, tribe-less people seeking a spiritual solution while the rest of our country lines up on the left and the right demanding political solutions that are doomed to failure.

This Saturday, I found a few in my tribe. A motley crew of people who couldn’t be more different from each other. A long-haired, metal-head biker recovering addict. A mom of a special needs child who leans right, and a recently ordained deacon who leans left. A millionaire real estate broker, and a bank teller who moonlights as a rock music critic. A high school classmate who homeschools her four kids, and friend of a friend whom I’ve met only on Facebook, living as the only liberal in his conservative Texas town. I know who they are because they have the courage to be themselves unapologetically. I have so much to learn from you.

14 years ago when I was awaiting my first child’s birth, I was a member of an online support group of other moms with the same due date. One of them was a Catholic, conservative, vegan yoga instructor in northern Virginia whose online name was “Pixiepunk.” I said at the time, “It must be neat to live inside your head!” I know nothing else about her except that she has a daughter my son’s age. If you’re out there, Pixie, I’m pretty sure you’re in my tribe, too.

When I was a teenager, I got into an argument at Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house, about caring for the homeless. I had to leave the table in tears, but 25 years later, I still still have a heart for the homeless and I still share thanksgiving with them, and we have learned to talk about other things and respect each other’s differences. Maybe they are in my tribe, too.

My biker friend posted on Facebook, “Some people will only like you if you fit inside their box. Don’t be afraid to shove that box up their ass.”

One of my mom friends said the only answer is prayer.

Still another posted a selfie of he and his wife holding a handmade sign reading, “What happens next is up to us.”

These are the anthems of my disconnected, leaderless tribe of misfits who don’t fit into anyone’s box. Who might not be welcome at a woman’s march because of their pro-life stance. Who might not be welcome at a church because they are ok with monogamous committed relationships between two people of the same gender being acknowledged as a legal marriage. Who dare to disagree with some of their respective political party platforms. Who just want the shouting to stop, and the listening to finally begin.

It’s Saturday and I’m listening. And I’m longing to be heard, and loved anyway.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” These words from the Gospel of John remind me that I’m not a tribe-less member of a leaderless tribe. I have a leader who loves me even more unconditionally than even my parents, and his love is all that matters. His power is the only power that is real. Righteous indignation is his alone; it is too toxic for me. Far too toxic. May I practice his unconditional kindness and strive to find unity in Him alone.

Tending the Temple

So, Help Me God

January 20 is the inauguration of one of the most controversial leaders our country has ever had. Some of my fellow Americans are ecstatic at the hope of a new administration and a return to former prosperity. Some are struggling with fear and anger at worst case scenarios and likely outcomes.

When it comes to politics, I am one part cynic about elected and appointed leaders, and two parts trust in the goodness and decency of people. I could have said that no matter who was take the oath of office on January 20.

Some of you reading this are in the first group, some in the latter, and maybe a few of you are like me, balancing cynicism and faith. Many of us find ourselves asking the question, in the midst of such deep division, what are we supposed to do? I have a lot of friends traveling to D.C. Not for the inauguration, but for the women’s march on Saturday, and I applaud them for taking part in one of the most American of rights, to assemble and make their voices heard. I participated in a similar rally several years ago in the national Mall, and it was beyond words.

But not all of us can get to the inauguration to celebrate the peaceful transition of power, or make our way to the march the next day. Earlier this week I asked myself, how am I going to participate?

First, I’m going to pray for the people who are traveling. May they be safe and return home to their families. All of them.

Next, I’m going to pray for the friends with whom I disagree. All of them. My love for you is more important than our political differences. I’m going to pray you feel the same way.

Then I’m going to pray for the people in power whom I fear, whom I resent. I know hating them only hurts me and gives me the rush that comes with the illusion of power. I know fear and love cannot co-exist in my heart. I can be concerned, but I trust the ship will right itself no matter who is at the helm.

After I pray, I will look at my feet and ask myself, “Where are my feet?” And I’m going to tell myself that I’m right here, right now, and in this moment I have a roof over my head, food in my pantry, gas in my car. I have a job, I have my health, I have my family. I have everything I need just for today. I’m going to choose to trust God that He will continue to provide, and I’m going to do my part to support myself.

Then I will make a gratitude list, not just for all the gifts I have in my personal life, but for the gift of living in a country where even in the midst of deep division we can count on a peaceful transition of power. I will be grateful for elections, and mid-terms, and presidential term limits, and the balance of power. I will be grateful no one gets to stay in that office indefinitely. Rotation of leadership is healthy.

Finally, I will reflect on the oath our new president will take.

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

There is so much richness in those 35 words. Faithfully. The best of my ability. Preserve, protect, and defend.

I will never be President of the United States, but I can’t help but feel as if we all could stand to take that oath on Inauguration Day, renewing our commitment and citizenship. His job is my job, too. Sometimes our leaders’ best sucks. They have all fallen short one way or another, which is why we have a congress, a Supreme Court, and 50 state governments to share the burden. This country won’t work unless we all do our part to keep the ship upright, even if that means some of us lean left during the storm, while others lean right. If we all leaned the same direction we’d sink.

Most presidents add four additional words after reciting the oath. “So help me God.” I prefer to say it with a comma; it changes the meaning ever so slightly, from statement to humble request.

So, help me God.

Help me be a good citizen. Help me be a good neighbor. Help me preserve, protect, and defend. Help me to be my best. Help me, God. Help us all.

Single On Saturday

Snowed In On Saturday

It was Saturday, and I was snowed in.

My favorite internet meteorologist had given us a heads up about the weekend’s impending storm a week in advance. By Wednesday night I was confident Richmond would be getting a good snowfall, and my excitement grew. Normally, early January depresses me as I pack up Christmas decorations and fall off my new year’s resolution wagon. But the possibility of a snow day, even a weekend snow day, never fails to brighten my spirits.

My favorite thing about a snow day is how it puts a stop to our normal busyness, sometimes for days at a time. It is a reminder of just how powerless we are in the face of Mother Nature. It is a forced Sabbath. And as long as I’m prepared with all the necessities – bread, milk, toilet paper, hot cocoa – I’m happy to be homebound for a day or two watching the gentle quieting of the world.

This Saturday, I did not eat the bread, drink the milk, or even open the new package of TP. But I did enjoy the cocoa in the company of one of my favorite people – Floyd.

I’ve been writing about Floyd on Holeyheart.com since the very beginning. I may not have used his name, but he is the “fella” to which I’ve referred now and then. In fact, he is one of the main reasons I started this blog in the first place.

I had been separated from my children’s father just a few weeks when Floyd and I became more than just acquaintances at church. The kids were not with me one Sunday morning, and he asked me how they were. I said they were good, they were at their dad’s this weekend (I’ve since learned that’s “code” for “I’m single.”). I guess that’s when our relationship started, because he immediately suggested I read a book that helped him get through his divorce, and the next week, he gave me a copy.

After that, we’d occasionally chat on Facebook, or say hello to each other after Mass. I had a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, and getting into a romantic relationship right away was very specifically on my “NOT To Do” list. It wasn’t even on my radar (although I can’t deny the butterflies I felt whenever he was near me). Dating was not his intention either. One of our first conversations was about how he’d made the decision early in his divorce not to get into a serious relationship again until after his kids were done with high school. He knew his focus needed to be them, and this gave me pause about my own future plans. He still had a high school senior and sophomore, and an eighth grader, making him a “safe” friend for me. Also, he was quite a bit older than me. Neither of us saw it coming.

I turns out the only things necessary for a romantic relationship to take root are time, attention, and a little bit of chemistry. By the end of the summer, it became apparent to me we’d better go on a date, because the flirting and innuendo were making us both a bit silly. I figured we’d go out a few times and it would fade, like most of my pre-marriage dating experiences.

That was five and a half years ago.

My divorce, however, wasn’t even final yet. I was not ready to be in a relationship, no matter how nice the guy seemed. I resolved to break up with him; a solid, “no contact” kind of break, otherwise we’d just end up back together. I talked to him about it, and I’m sure he tried to understand. He promised to honor my request, but he was understandably hurt.

So was I. I may have had good justifications for ending it, but what I really wanted to do was take his hands in mine and pray with him that God would guide our relationship. Praying with a partner is, in my opinion, the highest form of intimacy there is, but I avoided it. I thought I knew better. If we prayed together, I thought, it would make breaking up that much harder, that much more painful. I had been through it before and it was excruciating. I didn’t want that for him, or me.

So, on Christmas Eve 2011, when he whispered “I love you,” into my ear during the sign of peace at Mass, so softly he probably didn’t even think I heard it, I knew he meant it. He wanted what was best for me, even if that wasn’t him. And as a distraction and an outlet for all the feelings I was experiencing as a newly separated mom of three who had just had her first real post-divorce heartbreak, not with a jerk, but a truly wonderful gentleman, I started this blog one week later.

That was five years ago. Needless to say, we got back together. No contact did not work; forcing solutions never does. I’m a little embarrassed to say I don’t know how many times we got back together after needing “space.” He’s had more first kisses from me than I can remember. About two years ago, I decided to do what I had wanted to do in the beginning – turn my relationship over to God. I let go of my fears and gradually opened up emotionally. Ever so slowly, the world’s most patient man started to trust I wouldn’t walk away, and opened up more with me. I let myself fall in love with him again, as he did with me. It has been the most uncomfortable two years of my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yes, uncomfortable. One of the pieces of emotional baggage I’ve uncovered in recovering from my divorce is a deep fear of intimacy. This came as a surprise to me, because when I was married, the lack of emotional intimacy was one of my biggest complaints. Turns out, that wasn’t my ex’s problem . . . it was mine. It has taken five years of being in a relationship with one person for me to learn it’s ok to let the person I love see me weak, anxious, falling apart, angry, tired, sick, on my period, gassy, grumpy, stinky, and downright afraid. I’m still not convinced it’s ok to leave dishes in the sink while he’s here, but I leave them there as practice.

This weekend, we planned to be snowed in together. At my house. (With my dirty dishes). Dating when you have three kids leaves very little opportunity for one-on-one time for more than a few hours at a time. We’ve gone on a few trips together in the last year, but trips usually offer plenty of activities and distractions that can get in the way of emotional intimacy. 24 hours of togetherness with no distractions made my heart beat fast, and not the “good” way. The only people who get to have that much uninterrupted time with me are my children, and they have to love me. He doesn’t have to. What if I had to fart and couldn’t hold it in that long?

Apparently, it doesn’t matter if I can’t hold it in that long. We had a really great 24 hours, during which we lazed around on the couch under blankets, watched TV, ate snacks, and engaged in one of the most intimate acts two people can do together.

That’s right. We cleaned my refrigerator.

Even my mother, who isn’t timid about tackling my dirty dishes or making my kids’ beds when I’m not here, has never broken the boundary protecting that inner sanctum from outsiders.

I had condiments with expiration dates from ten years ago. There’s a certain amount of shame attached to that truth, and I shared it with a man whose opinion matters greatly to me.

I’ve unlocked a new level of intimacy with this man who for some reason still wants to be in my life after the ups and downs I’ve put him through. After letting him see the contents of my fridge, there’s little else I would keep from him. I hope we get a few more snow days together this season.

Holey Heart

The Gospel of Christy

“And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”

These words are found in today’s Gospel for the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, and it is these words that connect me to the Blessed Virgin. Like Mary, I’ve spent the last year doing quite a bit of reflecting in my heart, though not so much in my writing for public consumption.

New Year’s is the anniversary of when I started this blog. Perhaps one day I will share the real motivations that lead to my first blog post, but for now, it is something I keep and reflect on in my heart, a distant memory.

Sharing my reflections became more difficult this year. Like many writers, I’ve gone through a phase where I’m questioning the value of my words. Most of the time my inner critic silences me by calling my work pretentious, self-indulgent, and self-centered. Why would anyone care what’s going on in my inner world?

Yet, when I consider the Gospels and their lack of detail about the early life of Jesus and his family, I wish I knew more about Mary’s inner world. I wish I knew what she felt when they had to move hastily to Egypt, and how she felt when they learned of what Herod did to all the baby boys back in Bethlehem. I wish there were a record clearing up once and for all whether she really did remain a virgin, as Catholics believe, or if she and Joseph went on to have a “normal” family after they returned to Nazareth, as most protestants believe. I wish I knew more about how she managed her household, and what being “full of grace” looks like when you have a child and a husband and are barely making ends meet. A “Gospel of Mary” would have been nice.

Instead, I’m prompted to write another installment in the “Gospel of Christy.”

And it came to pass, in the year of Our Lord 2016, that our heroine took on two new challenges in that first month. She fasted from sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy, red meat, alcohol, and processed foods, and consumed a sour concoction before every meal, to cleanse her body. She did this for two weeks faithfully, and at the end of her fast, the Lord sent a massive snowstorm upon the whole city, a sign unto her that it was now okay to indulge in hot chocolate with her children. And she rejoiced in her heart, because she had successfully completed her two week fast with God’s help, and had lost the bloated feeling in her gut. She learned that loving herself in this way felt very good.

At that same time, an angel of the Lord named Sarah came to her on a social media platform and invited her to join a 6-week writing workshop on Tuesday mornings. And as she was blessed with a flexible work schedule, our heroine did join the workshop and rediscovered the joy of writing, not for a blog, but for herself.

The angel shared a powerful writing tool that she herself had learned from a powerful messenger of God: the “life in ten minutes method.” She was instructed by these angelic witnesses to set a timer for ten minutes and write using the prompt, “Right now I am…” and then read it out loud after the timer went off. And in this way, Christy learned how to keep a journal and continued the habit long after the workshop ended.

At the same time, Christy experienced a form of writer’s block, finding it difficult to complete essays or share her thoughts publicly, even as her private writing became more honest and intimate. But she did not beat herself up; she fully accepted that now was a time for inner work, and that God would give her the power to write for public consumption when the time was right.

As the spring approached she planned a trip with her beloved to visit his homeland. They made the journey together by air and by cramped economy car in southern Louisiana, taking in all manner of unfamiliar foods, such as crawfish and catfish and roasted oysters, and even a bit of alligator. His family was welcoming and gregarious, and as they left that place to return to their own homes, she longed to return one day. She was grateful for her first vacation in more than a decade.

And as spring proceeded, Christy protracted a seasonal illness that rendered her singing voice nearly mute. As she’d been singing at the Sunday evening service for several months, this came as quite a hardship for her. It was humbling having to sing knowing her voice was capable of much more. Months passed and still she could barely hear herself. But as suddenly as the illness came on, it lifted and she was able to breathe and sing once again. The joy of leading the congregation in song was something she would always cherish, even as she recalled the years of insecurity and believing she was not good enough.

And it came to pass that her firstborn son became a teenager, and she rejoiced in her heart that he still found joy in playing with Legos and nerf guns, even as she stepped on plastic blocks in her bare feet and found foam darts in her purse.

On the very anniversary of his birth, a new family member was added; for her son’s father had remarried and begat a male child, whom they named Finn, round of head and strong of lung. And Christy marveled at this baby and his mother, who endured great trials, and was filled with peace and gratitude that she herself was beyond the stage of night waking and cracked nipples and wiping behinds.

In the heat of the summer she took her children to the beach and to a water park, enjoying their first, though modest, family vacation. She traveled with her beloved to the hill country, taking in the cool mountain air and hospitality of his brother and other family members at the Homested  Resort.

As the summer waned, Christy felt overwhelmed by all the activity of her family, as though she were losing herself in the commitments to children and work. But with the help of her journaling she made some changes, setting aside two days of her work week for yoga, meditation, and getting caught up on household responsibilities.

As her children returned to school, she joined with three strangers to take a challenging journey by foot on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. For three days they hiked 42 miles in the crisp, autumn air, ending in Harper’s Ferry. On that day, Christy committed herself to her childhood dream of completing the entire trail, even if she could only do it one section at a time.

As the year came to a close, Christy was inspired to publish her first book – a weekly planner about how she managed her busy life. She worked on it night and day at a feverish pace, and by Christmas she had completed the first draft, and held the copy in her hands, proud of the accomplishment. As she gazed at the cover, she wondered what new opportunities this book would open for her. She looked to the future with hope, even as she felt the ache that accompanies watching one’s children grow out of their childhood clothes and toys.

And after the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, ushering in 2017, she tucked in each child, kissed them goodnight, and gave thanks to God for the blessings of another year, and offered herself to Him for another year of service and learning how to love and let go.

This is the gospel of the single momma. Give God the glory.

Holey Heart

A Christmas Reflection

I wrote this Christmas Day.

It is quiet in my house this Christmas afternoon. The kids just left with their dad for celebrations at his house, and a blessed stillness settles over my home, a very welcome change of pace after a week of to-do lists that were far too long. My to-do list today is simple: take a shower; drive to my parents’ for turkey dinner and grown up gifts; spend the evening in my fella’s company.

In front of me is the nativity crèche. I set it up just a few days ago, the last of my holiday decorating. As I contemplate the baby Jesus in the manger, it strikes me that the quiet in my home is not one of emptiness but of fullness. It strikes me that the brokenness of my family has given my children an even bigger family with more love (and presents!) than they had six years ago. It strikes me that in my single state, I am less alone than ever. The God in the manger is a God of great paradox, and He has blessed me with the grace to see and appreciate this mystery in my own life.

I went to Mass twice last night – once with the kids and later at Midnight to sing with a small candlelight gathering of night owls. I heard the scriptures proclaimed twice. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and it shines from a small crèche in my family room. He came to fill every emptiness in my holey heart. He came to be the glue holding every crack together. In fulfilling ancient prophecies, He offers me fulfillment as well.

Yesterday afternoon I was in darkness. I had a panic attack in the morning. I get them on occasion; they seem to be triggered primarily by hormones in combination with stress or feelings of insecurity. Yesterday’s was brought on by a to-do list and the dark side of my perfectionism at choir practice. I went to my walk-in closet and cried out to the Savior whose birthday I was celebrating, “I can’t do this alone!” And he reminded me that his name is Emmanuel, God With Us. I felt his presence for the rest of the day as my anxiety slowly subsided. Jesus is real and I know because I felt his love.

In the second reading last night, Paul said, “The grace of God has appeared, saving ALL and TRAINING US to reject godless ways and worldly desires.” That word training really jumped out at me. This whole business of being a Christian is not just a one time decision followed by a lifetime of perfect love and peace. It requires practice and training. As an amateur musician, I am astounded by my church’s music ministry leaders, especially at the Christmas services. Our main cantor is a well oiled machine, not only because she has natural talent, but because she trains and practices. I know from personal experience it is much easier to face the inevitable nervousness of singing behind the mic at church when I’ve practiced a lot. The familiarity of discipline takes over and carries me in spite of my feelings. That happened for me last night.

That same process is how being a believer works. God could have atoned for our sins the moment he was born. He could have perished when Herod had all the male babies killed; his death was all that was required to settle the score. But God willed that His son live long enough to teach us a few things, to “train” us to be eager to do what is good. Atonement was only one part of Christ’s mission. He came to show us the actions we would need to take so that we could have life and have it in abundance, not just in eternity, but in the present moment.

That is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. Like most training, it is not always fun. It pushes me outside my comfort zone. Sometimes it pushes me beyond my abilities. My voice cracks on the high notes. I need to remember that if we could do something perfect the first time without training, we wouldn’t need practice, whether it’s singing or loving.

Christ would rather I love poorly than not at all.