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.

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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.

Uncategorized

Dreams of Faith

The other night I had a dream about attending an emotional support group. In my dream, it was right before the holidays (a busy time for support groups), and people streamed into the room filling the large circle of chairs. In my dream, I knew most of them, and as each person took his or her seat, I felt the warmth of being surrounded by friends and familiarity.

Then, a stranger came in – a man and his special needs child. She was about 10 and a bit disruptive, making noise as he tried to take a seat and settle her down in front of him. No one said anything, but you could feel what everyone was thinking:

“I came here for help during a difficult time of year, and this stranger and his kid are ruining it for me.”

As the meeting was about to start, one person got up and left quietly. Then more followed. I, too, had felt uncomfortable and disappointed when my precious support group had been disrupted by this awkward little girl, but I was even more disappointed and embarrassed by the rudeness displayed by people who claimed to care about each other, people I loved and leaned on and trusted. I was angry, and I expressed my righteous indignation at those leaving but still within hearing distance.

“What do you people think you came here for? To feel better? The only thing that will make any of us actually GET better will be our unconditional love and acceptance of each other. How can you be so selfish?”

At this point there were only a handful of us left. I noticed the faces were those whom I trusted most, and I was glad to see them. But the man and his daughter had disappeared.

I woke up realizing my attempt to shame the ones who left did not create an atmosphere of love for this man, nor would it change their attitudes. The better thing to have done would have been to quietly accept and love the leavers just as much as I loved the ones who stayed. My dream-time righteous indignation gave me a glimpse of my real-life pride and ego that lives under the surface.

It was a powerful, humbling dream, coming at a time when I most need it. It’s election season, and there’s a lot of righteous indignation floating around, on all sides of the proverbial aisle, and in my heart, too. Righteous indignation about our choices. Righteous indignation about government control. Righteous indignation about injustice. Righteous indignation about private personal conduct and public deception. And sadly, a lot of it is justified. What’s not justified is my friends and family shaking their proverbial (and sometimes literal) fists at one another in our futile attempts to shame one another, to change our circumstances, to change the state of the world, as if we really had any power at all.

I try to keep my righteous indignation between me and God. I don’t want my anger, however justified, to poison my relationships. I know how my friends’ righteous indignation, however well-intentioned, makes me feel, which is the other reason I turn to God.

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

I read these words upon waking up from my dream, because it was Sunday morning and I wanted to review the scriptures before I got to Mass. These complaints of the prophet Habakkuk could have been written today, and God’s response is just as contemporary, urging patience and giving his prophet a vision of the justice to come. “The rash one has no integrity;” God says, “but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

The next reading was from Paul’s letter to Timothy. Again, the Word of God seemed to speak directly to me: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control . . . bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Am I conducting myself with love and self-control and being patient and tolerant?

Finally, I came to the Gospel account of the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith. Since scripture links faith with life and survival, it only makes sense that we’d want more of it. To me, “having faith” means having peace in my heart about the future. Most of us attempt to increase our peace of mind by having more income than expenses, a healthy savings account and retirement plan, investing in our children’s future college education, buying a home in a neighborhood with “good” schools, having a reliable car to drive – practical peace. There’s an emotional component to peace, as well. We believe we will have happiness when all our friends and family are also happy and peaceful, so we do everything we can to ensure that. And because we are such social creatures, we link our peace to the conditions of our greater society, believing we can only have peace about the future when society is living up to an enforced set of ideals. Sadly, this conditional peace is ever-elusive. We strive but always fall short, we hang our hope on the external, and fall back on righteous indignation when our conditions aren’t met.

The apostles were no different than us, and they were living in a very unstable period of history. No wonder they asked for faith. They, too, wanted peace for themselves and their children. They wanted an end to the tyranny of Roman rule and the corruption of the Jewish religious elite. They wanted the power to change the world.

Jesus’ response was an analogy with which many Christians are familiar, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This response has always puzzled me. Jesus answered a request for greater faith with a statement about power; there’s nothing more powerful than being able to control nature. But then he followed up with an analogy about the powerlessness we are called to as servants of God. To put it in modern mom terms, I’ve taken some liberties with his parable:

What mother tells her child who gets off the bus after school to throw her book bag in the house and go immediately to play with friends? Would she not rather say, “Do your homework first, then practice the piano. You can go play when you are finished.” So should it be with you. When you have done everything your higher power has directed, say, “We are simply children, and we’ve done what we were told.”

On the surface, I don’t see anything about faith or the power of faith in that parable. But faith is less about power and more about being faithful. If we want to be filled with faith (and all the hope and divine power that comes with it), we have to be faithful to become faith-full. Being faithful means doing the humble, everyday tasks of living, not receiving the power to change the world. In fact, it’s be acting faithfully in our small, seemingly insignificant obligations that we do actually change the world, one small step at a time.

Most of us want “comprehensive reform,” whether it’s global and political or closer to home in our own families, but God says no. God’s Word last weekend instructed me that reform is the result of incremental steps in favor of personal integrity, not rashly forcing solutions because I believe I’m right and have God on my side to back me up. God is the one in charge of forming and reforming the world; my part is to simply do my homework.

Righteous indignation is not a show of my faith; it’s a show of my ego. Like uprooting a mulberry tree and telling it to be planted in the sea, it is a useless show of power that does nothing to profit anyone, and probably poisons my relationships. Real faith is knowing God’s power is more than enough to settle all the scores and bring justice in the end. Real faith is trusting God to do his part in his time. My task is to love patiently while I’m waiting.

My Life In 10 Minutes (short pieces written in about 10 minutes)

Meant To Be

Yesterday was my 15th wedding anniversary. Not our. My. We are divorced, he is remarried. According to my church I am still married, because in my church divorce is a human construct that doesn’t really exist in God’s world, and if I want to get married again, I have to prove to my church that I was never really married in the first place. Not in a legal way, in a spiritual way. I have to prove that while there was a wedding, there wasn’t a marriage.

It’s called an annulment and is not too hard to get, although it certainly sounds intimidating. It involves gathering evidence and making a written report about what happened. It’s based on the condition of both people at the time they took their vows, not about what happened afterward.

That’s good, because after I took my vows I had three children with this man, and built a home and a life with him. That’s a marriage by most people’s definition.

I got married because he asked. I got married because I believed God wanted me to. I got married because I believed it was meant to be. I still do. My three children are my proof.

But “meant to be” is not the same as “meant to last.” The God who called me into this marriage was the God who called Jesus to the cross, and He was the God who called me out of it. I believe the divorce was meant to be. And meant to last. My former husband’s baby boy is my proof, and as I watch him grow from every-other-weekend drop-offs, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my God works in mysterious, painful, beautiful ways.

Uncategorized

Prepper Mom

Judging from the posts on Facebook I know I’m not the only one. I don’t like making the kids’ lunches. My first year as a single mom, I was unemployed and I qualified for my school’s free lunch program. It spoiled me; I made almost no bag lunches that year.

Fortunately my finances have improved. And I’d be happy to pay full price for school lunches for three children every day. Ecstatic, actually. They are supposedly nutritious, modestly priced, and well worth the time and stress they save me.

But alas, my kids don’t like school lunches. They would rather send their poor, sleep-deprived mother over the edge every morning by forcing me to pack lunch while at the same time dress them, feed them, make sure they don’t smell, brush their hair, inspect their feet for socks, and ensure they don’t miss the bus at 7:25.

Did I mention I happen to be friends with the now-famous “napkin notes dad?” He is one of the most inspiring people I know, and I wish some of his example could rub off on me, but I routinely forget to include napkins, much less write notes on them.

40 minutes is not enough time for me to get my kids ready for school and pack lunches. So I sometimes just postpone the lunch making for the two younger ones until after they’ve left, with the intention of taking them to the school office on my way into work. More than once this school year (that’s less than three weeks at the time of this writing) I’ve forgotten to take the lunches. Thank goodness for the hot lunch backup. Still, I have to face shaming from the 10 year old family dictator when she gets home.

More than once I’ve heard the advice, “Make lunch the night before.” That sounds great, but I’m even less motivated to make lunches at 8:30 pm than I am at 7 am.

One of the main reasons I dread lunch packing is the same reason I struggle with all meals – lack of preparation. Sometimes I’m missing the all-important protein. Other times I’m all out of chips or snack crackers, or a fresh fruit or veggie. The thermos and plastic containers need washing. Then there’s the worst of all – I have all the necessary foods but no plastic baggies.

Yesterday I did something new. I went to the store and spent $75 on lunch supplies. Including plastic baggies. And when I got home, I set everything on the kitchen table and prepackaged baggies of goldfish, teddy grahams, cheezits, veggie sticks, and triscuits. I pulled out three small baskets from the pantry and filled them with tuna packets, granola bars, lance cracker packs, etc. I filled the fridge with mini pepperoni, baby bells, carrot sticks, apple sauce and pudding cups, yogurt tubes, and juice pouches.

This morning, lunch was a breeze.

I’m curious to see how long the supplies will last. I’ll be guarding the pantry and the fridge like a hawk, lest the locusts descend for an after school snack. No! Water and ritz crackers for you! No ruining your dinner and depleting my store of sanity, little ruffians!

Family On Friday, Uncategorized

. . . and It Gets Easier

Yesterday I received a wonderful email from my brother, not only wishing me a happy birthday, but responding to my most recent blog post, “It Gets Harder.” If I were to copy and paste his entire eloquent email here, the title would be, “It Gets Easier.” But instead of copying all his words and private experiences, I’m just going to share some of them and write the flip side of Wednesday’s reflection.

“Truth and acceptance. It’s a concept I have seen you study in the deep, analytical way a scientist dissects molecules to understand how atomic elements combine to create some totally new form of matter,” my brother said. “It’s elusive and in our unique human experience as relative as it is absolute. I would never dare lecture anyone on truth. As the saying goes, ‘Only God knows…’ But I will offer one tiny, yet impactful observation: there is a light side and dark side to every truth. It is my belief that how we choose to accept the truth will in turn reflect either the light or the dark. Let’s choose the light, as it is our divine duty and human right.”

How we choose to accept the truth. How. That one word makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In my spiritual practices, “HOW” is not only a word, but an acronym for “Honest Open and Willing.” Embracing those qualities is “how” I can keep my focus on the light side of truths that are sometimes hard to swallow.

My brother was born with some physical limitations. I often overlook this fact because in my home, we never focused on it. Ever. To me, he was just an annoying little baby who became an annoying little toddler who followed me around, and then an enjoyable little playmate, schoolmate, friend, and confidant. My parents and my brother never let his limitations define what he could do or not do. Yes, he had casts on his legs. There was a surgery, some physical therapy in his puberty years, and some kind of leg brace he wore at night when he was a little older. Although I never saw it, apparently there was a little bit of teasing in school. But from my perspective, my brother was no different than anyone else.

No, that’s not quite right. From my perspective, my brother was better than anyone else. He was an exceptional baseball and tennis player, a multi-talented musician, and a social butterfly who was liked and respected by every clique in high school. He made good grades without even trying, excelling at math, science, and foreign language. Things that came hard to me came easy to him. I was never jealous of this, but I did marvel at it.

In his email, my brother shared, “I could drown in the sorrow of what will not or cannot be. But in doing so, I miss the point on how easy life is. It is in never having the ability to straighten my legs fully that I gained this perspective. When you face something that is so hard all your life, the rest of life is icing on the cake.”

I never knew his physical defect was hard for him; that thought never even occurred to me, because my brother approaches life with such a positive attitude without any apparent effort. He shared other things in his email about what has been “hard” for him, especially in more recent years. Yes, getting older throws every one of us curve balls, in our careers, families, and physical health. No one is immune, and everyone carries a hidden burden. And yet, throwing my words back at me with a twist, he said, “In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been celebrating the wins. Easy. (See what I did there?)”

Have I been letting my defects define me? My defects are not physical; they are emotional and they are just as real as my brother’s neurophysical defect, even if they are not visible. But are they even defects at all? I once heard a speaker talk about the difference between a “shortcoming” and a “defect.” He said, a shortcoming is like being a baseball player who isn’t very good at sprinting. He can’t control it. A defect of character is being a baseball player who isn’t a sprinter, yet tries to steal a base.

A baseball player who isn’t a sprinter need not resign herself from them team. Maybe her batting average is enviable. Maybe she’s one hell of a pitcher. Maybe her team appreciates her gifts and overlooks her shortcoming as long as she doesn’t try to be something she’s not.

What are my wins? When I was pregnant with my second child, I had anxiety about becoming a parent of two; I felt like I could barely handle being a parent of one. But within a few hours of her birth, I had showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and asked the nurses if I could drive us home now. (They said no.) My nipples never got sore and cracked. My body felt better than it had in a year, and when I did finally get home, I packed up all my belongings and a newborn baby and moved my family to a brand new house without a single anxiety attack. Everything about being a parent was surprisingly easier with two because I’d done this before. Taking care of a newborn without a learning curve gave me a confidence that carried over into taking care of a preschooler, which was uncharted territory.

Life does get harder. But it also gets easier. It gets easier because I’ve learned the hard way what I can reasonably expect from myself and other people. It gets easier because I’ve gotten better at communicating, and I know when to keep my mouth shut. It gets easier because I’ve practiced saying “no” and “enough.” It gets easier because my kids are becoming partners in their own choices and beginning to take responsibility for their own destiny. It gets easier because as I let go, I carry less. I don’t care less, but I do worry less, because I’ve had enough experience to trust things to work themselves out, usually in ways my imagination could never conceive. It gets easier because I get out of the way. I don’t bang my head against walls like I used to. I strive for contentment and practice gratitude, instead of striving for things beyond my reach and feeling like a victim. It gets easier because I have faith that meets every fear head on.

I could echo the closing words of my brother’s email, because they are as much mine as his:

“What I have learned most, though, is who I am not – and it is in this knowledge that life truly sets sail. So with 40 years in your rear view mirror, take comfort in knowing all of what you are, and just as importantly all of what you are not. I admire how true to self you have become. It gives confidence that for so many years I’ve seen you grasp for but could not always grip. You have it now. Truth and acceptance. I leave you with an oldie but goodie from the Church of John Leonard, ‘Faith is the emptiness of not knowing and the fullness of not needing to know.’”

Uncategorized

It Gets Harder

When I first became a mom, the first few postpartum days and weeks were hard. Really hard. Cracked nipples, swollen bottom, and sleep deprivation took its toll on me physically. The magnitude of caring for a being who was often inconsolable for long stretches of time quickly drained any emotional reserves I had left. The joy of new life was there too, but it was overshadowed most of the time by the ever-present anxiety of being in uncharted territory.

I got myself through those first few weeks the same way I’d gotten myself through many other challenging stages in my life – by telling myself it will get easier. This is what grown ups tell their children who are learning new skills like tying their shoes or reading or navigating the social waters of puberty, and they can say it with confidence because it’s true. With practice, many things do become easier.

But life itself is not one of those things.

I remember the moment this first dawned on me. My son was two months old, and I was bouncing him while walking around the kitchen at about three in the afternoon, hoping he would stop crying and fall asleep deeply enough that I could lay him in the crib without waking him, get some rest, and get dinner started by the time my husband came home at 5:30. So far that wasn’t looking likely. And with tears streaming down my face, my inner voice acknowledged to myself the truth – it does not get easier. It freaking gets harder. And as it gets harder, the skills I mastered yesterday get tested in new ways today. My skills continually improve. My cracked nipples and swollen bottom heal. But motherhood? That just keeps getting harder.

I’m glad I came to this realization early on. Knowing this truth has not made each progressively difficult stage of parenthood any easier, but it has kept my expectations a little more realistic. Imagine how much harder motherhood would be if I had clung to the fantasy of things getting easier?

More recently, I’ve learned it’s not just parenting that gets harder, not easier. Tomorrow I turn 41, and as I pass out of the milestone midpoint year, I do so with a new set of physical limitations. I have some subtle joint pain. My muscles ache after doing yard work. My eyes strain when I read. If I cross my legs, my feet get numb and tingly. “Old” people for years have been saying, “Just wait until you get older,” and “Growing old sucks.” They have been forthcoming about it. They may have said it with a chuckle, or they may have said it heartbroken, but they haven’t kept it a secret. Why is it I’m so surprised?

When I was a child, the world was a great unknown waiting to be explored, and the only limitations were my size, my skills, my age, and my parents’ rules. My teens and twenties were spent consciously overcoming those limitations, and still believing in a promise of limitless opportunity. In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been mourning the losses. Hard.

Grief is simultaneously crippling and healing. Crippling because the weight of it makes me want to not get out of bed in the morning. I’ve had memory loss and a lot of careless mistakes. Anxiety and depression have all but overtaken me at times this year. Healing because every ugly cry feels cleansing. In letting go of misplaced hopes, I’ve opened my hands to receive new gifts.

The end result of the grieving process is acceptance, especially acceptance of myself and my limitations. Acceptance of life on life’s terms gives me new choices, especially the choice to change my attitude, to forgive, to show mercy, to focus on what is essential, and to ask for help when I need it.

Life may not get easier, but it can get healthier as I practice acceptance.

The difficulties give me gratitude for the brief moments of respite – the sunset, the spontaneous hug from my child, the early morning writing, the exhilaration of singing at church.

Happiness may be elusive, but joy is not. Joy is the sweet in every bitter moment. I need only open my eyes and my heart and grab hold of it for comfort.

Holey Heart

Deadheading Discipline

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening. Not that you can tell by looking at my yard this summer – what a mess! Some seasons offer more challenges than others, the least of which is time to dedicate to weeding and planting and pruning. The excessive heat has not helped either, so I’ll blame that.

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is that it’s so rich with analogies and lessons for living. Recently one such lesson occurred to me, not while gardening, but while practicing yoga.

I take a yin yoga class every Thursday. Yin, I’ve found, is more meditative than your typical yoga class, and my teacher infuses each session with a theme or intention for our practice, reading quotes and inspired sayings as we soften into our poses and surrender to the practice of sitting still. The theme of the day was inner beauty.

She told us the story of the lotus flower, which has to struggle through the mud and muck before its blossom reaches the surface of the water to release a pleasing fragrance. It was a beautiful analogy for any of us who feel our circumstances are less than desirable.

After class, though, I was struck by another analogy on my way to the car. I thought of my roses, which have had a very hard summer. Between the heat and the beetles and some kind of disease that caused all their foliage to drop in late spring, they’ve suffered so much I considered just pulling them out of their beds and planting something else. But in one last ditch effort, I did a heavy pruning of all the diseased parts, and within a few weeks they seem to have recovered a little. My climbers even have flowers.

When a rose flower passes its peak and starts to fade, the plant puts energy into the “fruit” so it will have seeds. This is the natural reproduction drive of pretty much any green growing thing. This time of year especially, you’ll see a lot of gardens filled with overgrown, stalky, spent blossoms. Garden folk call this letting a garden “go to seed.” Eventually those ratty, faded blossoms will be replaced by dried pods that will release seed into the air or drop to the ground to reseed itself. It’s self-preservation, and it isn’t always pretty.

A well manicured garden doesn’t “go to seed.” Why? Because the gardener cuts the blossom heads as soon as the petals fade. With no fruit, no seed pod, no offspring, the plant, without any consciousness at all, instinctually is driven to survive by producing new buds which will eventually be new flowers, new opportunities for seed. This is called “dead heading.” As long as you keep cutting off the fruit, the plant will continue to put its energy back into making more flowers through its growing season.

God often seems to remove, to prune, the parts of my life that in one season seem so unspeakably beautiful. I’d rather He allow them to be perpetually beautiful. But that’s not the way God’s nature works. God may extend the beauty of the growing season, but he does it the way any gardener would, by removing spent blossoms. Short term pain for long term gain.

To me, the fading blossoms in my life are cause for grief. God’s pruning, too, seems cause for grief. To God, all is love. This weekend’s letter from Paul to the Hebrews, he reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” Like a gardener who does a heavy cold-season pruning to improve the health and eventual harvest of a plant, God removes every branch that does not bear fruit. He “pinches” back my early growth like a gardener pinches the early spring leaves of a mum, so that my growth will not be tall and undisciplined and wild and easily destroyed in a late summer storm, but coiffed and compact and full, strong enough to retain a beautiful round shape even after a hurricane. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

The spiritual life – like the natural world – is so full of paradox. As Jesus reminds us in this weekend’s Gospel, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If God is removing my spent blossoms instead of letting them go to seed, perhaps I need to remember that dead heading is the gardener’s way of sustaining beauty in the world before the seasons change. My growth is not just for my own self-preservation, but for the Master Gardener’s pleasure, and maybe this season He wants flowers, not fruit, for His glory.

What's For Dinner?

Simple Dinner

This is not an elaborate recipe, but it was a hit with my children – a reminder that when it comes to my family, simple is better.

My ten year old could have made this meal without supervision.

Step 1: Rice and water in the rice cooker for 15 minutes. Maybe a dash of salt.

Step 2: Cleaned chicken breasts in the pan, sprinkled with soy sauce, covered and cooked over medium heat. After about ten minutes, flip, another splash of soy sauce, turn down heat, cover, cook another 10 minutes.

Step 3: Put a bag of “steam in bag” mixed veggies in the microwave.

Step 4: Get kids to set the table.

Step 5: Put all the cooked contents in a pretty serving platter and feel like a sophisticated adult who has her act together. Enjoy the bliss of children actually eating their dinner and liking it. Savor the, “Wow, this is good!”

***

I sometimes over-complicate things. I set unrealistic expectations for myself. I forget that it doesn’t have to be so hard.