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.

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.

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.

Tending the Temple

The Loneliest Bayou

Last week I went on the first vacation I’ve had since my son was born almost 13 years ago. (I don’t count the family trip to Disney two years ago as a “vacation;” that was more of an “event!”) My fella Floyd took me to his home state of Louisiana for five days, to do some sightseeing in New Orleans and visit his big, beautiful extended family.

To get to New Orleans from the Lafayette airport, we had to drive over the Atchafalaya Basin (yes, I CAN pronounce it!), which is the largest wetland in the United States. As we embarked upon the almost 20 miles of bridge through swamp and cypress trees, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and asked, “Do you know what is the loneliest bayou?” A brief pause, then both of us exclaimed in unison silliness: “Bayou Self!!!!”

I’m not in the habit of traveling with other people. In thirteen years of being a parent, I can count on two hands the number of overnight trips I’ve taken with my kids, and still have a few fingers left over. In nine years of marriage, we had one week of honeymoon, one week of a beach vacation with friends, and one long weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I went to a three-day conference on church stewardship in the middle of Kansas, and a three day direct sales conference in Las Vegas in July, pregnant. After my divorce, I took a long weekend to Washington, D.C. That is a woeful lack of time off.

Before I got engaged in 2000, I booked a two-week solo trip in Ireland which remains the gold standard of vacations to which all others will be compared. Two weeks of glorious solitude, away from my stressful advertising job, with a week of taking public transportation to hand-picked sights well off the beaten tourist path: the tiny town of Bunratty, the even tinier town of Kilfenora, the Poulnabrone dolmen, the seaside music town of Dingle, the Aran Islands, and a week of intense horseback riding in Adare. It was all about me and my interests.

When people I met along the way learned I was recently engaged, they were surprised I was making this trip all by myself, which should have told me something. But I couldn’t imagine having a traveling companion during those hours walking the countryside, or waiting for the sun to set so I could get just the right lighting for a photo of a rock wall. Being alone was, and still is, my comfort zone, and the way this introvert typically recharges.

Still, when I got married, I had fantasies of us vacationing together, and vacationing with our children, just like I did when I was a kid. I grew up with a family that travelled to see grandparents, and I loved family vacations. When married life didn’t deliver, I assumed it was because he didn’t like to travel. But after a few years on my own with only one long weekend out of town, I’ve had to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

The visit to Louisiana was not my first trip with my sweetheart. We planned a weekend trip to the mountains last fall, to see if we could handle a whole weekend of uninterrupted togetherness without getting sick of each other. I was nervous for days leading up to it, but we had a fantastic time, and found a new level of intimacy (the kind that develops when you learn more about each other’s bathroom habits and you let him watch you curl your hair and apply makeup). So when Floyd told me he wanted to take me to Louisiana (and promised no surprise “questions” or “jewelry” associated with said questions) I was excited and ready for a real vacation.

Or so I thought.

The Big Easy was not quite so easy for me. Uncomfortable emotions hit like unexpected tidal waves. When a client had a quick graphic design correction that turned into more than an hour’s worth of work, I was worried he’d be angry at me for wasting our precious vacation time. When we didn’t have a plan for our day, I felt anxious we wouldn’t make the most of our limited time there. When I was tired after a full day of walking and could barely keep my eyes open at 10 pm while my heart wanted to be out enjoying the night scene, I felt guilty. I felt sad we didn’t get to take a carriage tour of the French Quarter. And when I met his family at the end of the week, I was worried they wouldn’t like me, and PMS didn’t help. To top it all off, I felt shame for all the craziness going on between my ears.

I feel a bit crazy just admitting all of that now, and I’m seriously debating whether I’ll ever let this post see the light of day, except I know there’s probably someone else out there who might also have a touch of social anxiety, and maybe, just maybe, my sharing will give you courage to step outside of your comfort zone.

Because here is what happened, in spite of my dis-ease:

My fella didn’t get mad at me for working on vacation.

Although we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could do in New Orleans, I saw Bourbon Street and ate a beignet at Cafe du Monde, I rode the streetcar and walked through the garden district and sat on the limb of a beautiful live oak and drank my first Bloody Mary (with breakfast!) and ate crawfish and slept really hard every night and woke up refreshed every morning.

I didn’t bother to curl my hair, I wore only lip gloss, and I got stuck in the mud 4-wheeling on his brother’s farm. I learned I love roasted oysters and that kumquats are to be eaten with the skin on. I felt truly welcomed by all his brothers and sisters and in-laws at a big cookout at the Hollier home (yes, I can pronounce that, too!). I listened to his father reminisce about his mother, and I felt the loving presence of her spirit in the house Floyd grew up in, and in the souls of all the people who made him into the man I now get to hug and kiss and hold hands with.

If I had taken a five day vacation by myself, I’m sure I’d have had a relaxing time. I would have captured many wonderful photos and seen plenty of sights, and I wouldn’t have been plagued by the insecurities of traveling with another person after so many years of flying solo or not at all.

But now that I’m back at home, what I realize is this: for much of my life, I’ve been living in a self-imposed loneliness that has become my comfort zone. Solitude may have been a source of creativity and rejuvenation, and it certainly served a useful purpose in temporarily protecting me from the pain of rejection, not just in recent years, but going way back into childhood. Being alone has been an integral part of my identity for 40 years. But maybe I’m ready to let it go in favor of connecting more intimately with the people closest to me, instead of trying to escape from them.

While driving through the swamp, we could catch a glimpse now and then of a shack on stilts, where some Cajuns still live off the “land.” Floyd told me if you go wandering in there and don’t belong, there’s a good chance you won’t come back out. Those folks are serious about keeping to themselves and being left alone.

I don’t want that to be a metaphor for my heart. I don’t want to be the loneliest bayou anymore. I want my heart to be a big Louisiana-style outdoor kitchen, with more than enough seats for everyone and all their cousins, with kumquat trees and live oaks filled with tree-climbing youngsters, and three generations grilling together.

Ça c’est bon! And, merci beaucoup, Mister John Floyd. For weeks I’ve been thinking the reason I haven’t been able to write is because I haven’t had enough “alone” time. Turns out, all I needed was a good vacation, and you delivered!

Tending the Temple

New Year Reflections

2015 was the year I had a chronic case of writer’s block, as evidenced by my sparse blog postings during the past 12 months. There were many reasons for this, but the common denominator was this: I was (and still am, by the way) out of my comfort zone. It’s one thing to write about past experiences and lessons learned well after the fact, and quite another to open up about growth opportunities as they are unfolding in all their awkward glory. The year I turned 40 could best be described as the puberty of middle age, substituting zits for unwanted chin hair.

Last year at this time, as I straddled 2014 and 2015, I reflected on the intentions I’d set for myself and lived that year, and I set a few goals, as if calling them “goals” rather than “resolutions” would give them a better chance at fulfillment. I must honestly report that it didn’t work. I didn’t accomplish anything on my list: I didn’t write my book, finish my back porch, write my will, meet with my financial advisor, explore new career possibilities, take myself on vacation for my birthday, or do anything to nurture my creative side or reduce sugar consumption. On the contrary, I gained 10 pounds, I worked on a huge project the week my kids were on vacation with their dad after my birthday, and I fired my original porch contractor after two months of excuses and an attempted rate hike. I most definitely did not follow my intention for the year – to simplify.

Some years, I think I know my intention on January 1, and other years, like this past one, I don’t discover it until I look back on December 31. In retrospect, my intention for 2015 was “boundaries.” I had to set quite a few, mostly for myself.

For example, it was no longer acceptable for me to have as much “stuff” in my house. I read “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and got to work on my clothing, discarding more than 2/3 of my wardrobe and keeping only what “sparks joy,” and a few other items which have a sentimental hold on me. That’s as far as I got with the “konmari” method, but I will sort through the rest of my possessions slowly but surely. If I can get through the next phase of konmari – books – by the end of 2016, I’ll be happy. Preferably I’ll do it this month, since the pile of every book I own is currently the first thing one sees upon entering my house. Doing the clothes was a remarkable life changing experience, and I feel confident I’ll never have to purge my wardrobe again, instead simply thanking my clothes for their usefulness immediately after they no longer belong in my closet, and send them on their way.

I had to end a few relationships with abusive people. Not all abusive relationships are romantic in nature. Some can be work relationships, or even friendships. Lack of trust on either side in any relationship makes it ripe for abusiveness, and there is no place in my life for people who take advantage of me, curse at me, bait me, accuse me of lying, or make unreasonable demands. Detaching myself from their behavior doesn’t mean I love them any less; it just means I love myself more. I love the people I let go of this year, from a safe (and in some cases, blocked) distance. God bless them, and change me.

Oh, and did He ever! This year I came face to face with some of my most ingrained character defects, which may have been useful at one time but have outlived their place in my emotional toolbox (not unlike the 2/3 of my wardrobe that needed a new home). I wrote literal “goodbye” letters to behaviors like “people-pleasing” and “perfectionism.” Until this year I had no idea how these traits, which are often encouraged by the world in which I live, were actually facilitating dishonesty in my relationships. Old habits die hard, but at least I recognize them now for what they are.

Another boundary I set has to do with romantic relationships. I’ve been in an exclusive one for some time now, and about a year ago I turned that relationship over to God to let Him guide it, instead of relying on my own sometimes distorted decision making. I didn’t tell my partner about this decision; I just lived it, and this boundary has been one of the most fulfilling. Intimacy is just the other side of the same boundary coin. Our relationship went from being a nice casual companionship to a more spiritual connection between us. It’s a wonderful gift that enriches my life as we both grow on our journeys. It’s also opening some old wounds I’d thought were healed during the divorce process. It turns out my independent behavior and communication shortcomings are still there. The ego is strong, but God is stronger.

One of the best boundaries I set was to let my boundaries down. Sharing my feelings with this man was only one example. I also found myself in a volunteer position as a group treasurer, and I felt like I was in over my head. I had anxiety for two weeks, fretting over it. I needed to ask for help from someone more experienced. Doing this was humbling, but it gave me a new perspective on finances, and I’ll carry that into the new year with me. I went to the sacrament of reconciliation twice, which was incredibly freeing both times as I set down the weight of shame and guilt and received peace. I opened up to a new female friend whom I consider to be my spiritual advisor, and in doing so I’ve released some painful secrets and expressed some negative emotions that otherwise would have wreaked havoc coming out sideways at my family and my job. And I made amends with someone I really respect and inadvertently harmed.

Another boundary was committing to doing what I said I was going to do. If “responsibility” was my 2014 intention, then “accountability” was its 2015 cousin. All that people pleasing has often led me to saying “yes” to doing a lot of things I could have avoided. But I’m responsible for all those yes’s. Being accountable for meeting deadlines, attending meetings, teaching children, and singing at church has meant saying no to going on vacation, having quiet family dinners at home, or being able attend the morning church service with my fella. It means I get some bellyaching from my kids, too. But keeping my commitments has its own way of fulfilling me and building my self-esteem. I’ve learned a lot about my limits, and I’m less inclined to say “yes” just so someone will like me or to build up that ever-present ego of mine.

Being over-committed is another reason why 2015 had less writing. The busy pace of life with three kids and a significant other has left me with less of the prerequisite quiet time alone reflecting, meditating and contemplating required for sharing myself this way. It takes courage to write, and it also takes time. I hope that 2016 will be the year I find balance. That’s the intention that keeps surfacing during those too-brief moments of solitude I had as the year came to a close.

To that end, I’ve hung a calendar on my wall downstairs. I’m sure this is a no-brainer for most people, but it is a revolutionary act for me.

Later this month I’m doing a 14 day “detox” from processed foods, sugar, caffeine, gluten, dairy, and basically everything I routinely put in my mouth. I’m glad it will be only 14 days, and I may not last that long. I’m sure it will be great fodder for the blog though!

The porch, though not entirely finished, is further along and looks good from the street. This year, I’ll get the details done, buy some furniture in time for my favorite season, spring, and enjoy my blooming back yard. It’s a work in progress, just like me.

I want to write more this year. You may never see a word of it, though. I’ve found writing for public consumption activates my ego in ways that are not healthy for me, which is why there are so many half-written reflections on my phone and in the notebooks scattered all over the house. This year, I write for myself first. My friend Joyce gave me a beautiful journal for Christmas and I intend to use it regularly. I may also join a writer’s workshop. Two of my friends are teaching them, and I’m feeling the tug of storytelling. Doing it alone has been fruitless. Time to do something different.

And now for the hardest part of this reflection. The concluding paragraph. This paragraph has tripped me up on many a blog post that you haven’t read, because I just couldn’t finish it. There’s a lot of unfinished business in my life and it would be foolish of me to state “finish unfinished business” as my 2016 new year’s resolution. That is more like the work of a lifetime, and one I will never complete. But that’s kind of the point of this blog, Holey Heart. I am incomplete. We all are. Sometimes we get the gift of a well-crafted conclusion before moving on to the next unfinished project, and sometimes we have to move on whether we are done or not, knowing we probably won’t be able to go back.

All of life is a grieving process. On New Year’s Eve, my youngest daughter, now seven, started crying because she didn’t want the year to end. I know the feeling, but I still haven’t discovered how to pause time and stop the sun from rising and getting an extra hour or two of sleep before meeting all the demands of the next day. What I have discovered is that most of those demands are my own, placed on me by the choices I made yesterday. So today, may I make better choices. May I love my future self enough not to make as many demands on her. She owes me nothing, and I owe her a good, long rest.

Tending the Temple

Excellence, Not Perfection

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.

Tending the Temple

Weekly One Thing

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:


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.

Tending the Temple

Living My Intentions, Part 2

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!

Tending the Temple

The Gift of Empty

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.

Tending the Temple

Follow Your Bliss

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.