Tending the Temple

Don’t Forget the Presence

It’s 7:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve. I fell asleep around 8:30 last night, utterly exhausted from the emotional, physical and financial strain of the past few weeks; months really. The pace I’ve kept since school started in September has been catching up with me during the pre-holiday rush, and I’ve had a breakdown or two. I’m simultaneously comforted and saddened to know I’m not the only one.

So at 7:30, I’m already showered and dressed. I’m enjoying a cup of tea and making a list of all the things I need to buy and do before 1:00 this afternoon when the kids come home. Get the salmon and mac ‘n cheese for dinner, and treats for breakfast Christmas morning. Pick up a last-minute gift. Wrap the rest of the presents. And don’t forget the presents at Floyd’s house!

I did most of my shopping last month. Thanks to Amazon, I had most of my kids’ gifts done and wrapped the first week of December. And to prevent the attempts at shaking and peeking, I took them to Floyd’s house for safe-keeping. It’s Christmas Eve, and they are still there!

So don’t forget the presents, I say to myself at 7:30 in the morning. Don’t forget the presents.

But in the hustle of last minute buying, wrapping, cooking, dressing up, churching, eating, unwrapping, and singing at midnight mass, I need to remember something just as important.

Don’t forget the present.

I will never have this Christmas Eve again. Never again will my kids be 14, 11, and 9. It’s all to human for my heart to grieve over the loss of 13, 10, and 8, and all too easy to forget the present.

I may never again have both my parents at my house for dinner for this most special of family meals. I don’t like thinking about that possibility, because they are both healthy. But far too many friends have unexpectedly lost a parent in the last year, and I need to remember I’m not immune. In the stress of the season, it’s all too human to take them for granted, all too easy to forget the present.

Ultimately, Christmas is a holiday about The Presence. The ultimate Presence of God, taking on flesh so that He could truly Be with us, Emmanuel.

So today, as I shop and wrap and dress and cook and eat and sing and “keep Christmas,” I will remember the present.

And the presents. Please don’t let me forget the presents!

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Single On Saturday

Single On Labor Day

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and I’m calling into question beliefs I didn’t even know I had until they were revealed by the events of my Labor Day weekend.

Perhaps you’ve heard the following words coming out of the mouth of a self-righteous office manager, or your ex. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” It’s a snarky, judgmental thing to say, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever said it, but I’ve certainly thought it, especially in my past professional life working at a stressful magazine advertising job.

I didn’t realize until last weekend that I’ve attributed this very common human attitude to my divine Higher Power.

Last Sunday afternoon I headed to the mountains to join a backpacking Meetup group from Washington, DC. I thought I knew where I was going. I didn’t read the directions, much less print them out. We would be camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and I knew how to get there. I felt totally confident winging it. I even left early.

Unfortunately, what I didn’t realize is the parking lot for our camp site was NOT in the park. It was about a 45 minute drive from any park entrance. And I didn’t discover this critical detail until 6:30 pm, the time I was supposed to be joining them.

I could have tried to find the lot on my own in the setting sun and hike in the dark for a mile to the campsite, but that didn’t seem like a very safe choice. The park ranger who was helping me with the map suggested I just stay there at the campground in the park; after all, there were plenty of open sites, and it would be dark in an hour. I’ve never camped solo, but I didn’t really want to drive all the way home, either; after all, I’d come ready for sleeping outside in a tent. So I decided to stay, do a little writing, go to sleep early, and drive to my group at dawn.

I was pretty humbled by a hard lesson in preparation and thinking I know more than I do. Being solo was my divine punishment, I reasoned. I’ve never truly believed in a “punishing” God in the traditional sense, but rather a God who doesn’t stand in the way of the natural consequences of my mistakes. Clearly, I had made some this time, and I believed I deserved to be alone, “sent to my room” as it were, to think about what I’d done.

I did not believe in a God that blesses someone who makes a mistake in judgement. The God I believed in would have said, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” The God I believed in would have left me to reap what I’d sown. And this was the God who, until this past weekend, I was attempting to trust? No wonder I had difficulty!

The God I believed in would never “reward” me with a serendipitous invitation to an bluegrass concert in the nearest college town with two interesting strangers who showed me the best night I’ve had in years.

Fortunately, the God I believed in is not the God who showed up at that camp site Sunday night. And because the God who DID show up did indeed bless me with a serendipitous adventure the likes of which I’ve never had, I’ve decided that’s the God I’m going to believe in from now on.

But buried within my distorted belief about God were some even more distorted beliefs unconsciously operating for some time.

1. Being alone is punishment, or at the very least, a natural consequence.

I’m not sure where this belief originated, but it’s an old one, and it has been reinforced by countless experiences where isolation and rejection were the natural consequences of being my awkward, imaginative, open hearted, genuine self. Over time I’ve developed some skills to avoid this consequence – becoming a chameleon, intuiting other people’s desires, giving them what they want, being someone they are comfortable around. These tools have served me well professionally, but at the cost of remembering how to be myself.

2. If I’m alone, obviously it’s my own fault and I’ve done something wrong to deserve it.

I’m an introvert and I do like some solitude now and then. I definitely prefer working independently rather than as part of a group. But I crave regular social connection. Introverts get lonely, too.

Prolonged loneliness has done its share of damage to my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing more human than to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” when I’m in pain, and loneliness is painful. But that kind of self-pity is just a subtle attempt to control the uncontrollable. The truth is, I may not have done anything wrong. Rejection is not always about me; sometimes, it’s about the other person or group, and sometimes it’s God’s way of protecting me. Obsessively trying to find fault in myself, and then twisting myself into a pretzel to change, is about the most self-centered approach I could take to loneliness, and it has definitely added more pain to my life.

3. I deserve to be alone.

Obsessive fault-finding naturally leads to this ridiculous belief. This is resignation, not acceptance, and it is patently false. What I deserve is healthy relationships and a balanced approach to solitude and sociability.

4. Being alone is unsafe, or at the very least, difficult.

The people who invited me to the bluegrass concert were both Shenandoah National Park employees in their twenties. They were seasonal workers living there in the park. And when I told them I was nervous about camping there by myself, they both brushed it off. Melissa, age 23, said, “I love camping by myself. There’s always lots of other people and families around who will get to know you and include you.” Matt, age 27, said, “You’re never really alone in the park.”

It is true. When I had been there with hiking groups, everyone walked at their own pace, and I ended up walking by myself a lot, which was lovely. I passed other people on the trail, and made brief connections with other hikers who were not part of the group. The trails are well marked, and there are frequent sign posts to direct you. So I decided I didn’t need meet up with my D.C. group on Monday morning. I picked a nearby loop trail, got myself a paper map at the visitor’s center, and set out on my own.

I rediscovered solitude. I didn’t worry about keeping up with people who hike faster than me, and I didn’t feel the need to slow my pace to keep an eye on the stragglers behind. If I wanted to climb down a rocky ledge to get a better view of the waterfall, I did it. If I wanted to take pictures of the valley or return the calls of a crow flying overhead, no one was around making fun of my bird noises.

For three years of being a single parent, I’ve been focused almost entirely on the limitations of flying solo. I can’t just go to the grocery store when I need milk. I can’t keep my house as clean as I could when I had someone else to mow the grass. I run late a lot, and family outings are a lot harder with only two hands instead of four.

One Saturday this summer I took the kids to see fireworks with another single parent who has two kids. Five kids between us, but the extra set of hands to carry drinks and snacks, those shoulders to carry my little one when the walk got too long, the second set of eyes when the girls had strayed from the picnic blanket too far, and mostly having someone else to enjoy watching our kids be kids was like a cold glass of water after being in a desert.

I found myself feeling deeply depressed that it was only a temporary relief from the limitations of being single. Single on Sunday sucked. But two months later I can see it is my long-term aloneness that gives me such deep appreciation and gratitude for a simple moment of togetherness. I never had that gratitude when I was married and had partnership every day. And as difficult as being a single parent can be, being a married parent was even more difficult in some ways.

Life is hard, single or not. It’s my experiences of isolation and fear of rejection that have made me capable of unconditional love and acceptance of the people who do cross my path now. Some of them are quite different from me, but they have become the truest friends I’ve ever had. I may not share my home or my bed with any of them, but I do share my emotional life, by burdens and joys, and my stories of adventure and lessons learned.

Being single, whether as a parent or on the trail, may have its limitations, but nothing is more limiting than operating under old beliefs that do me more harm than good. It’s my attitude that is my greatest limitation. I’m so grateful for my mistake last weekend. It forced me to face some of those old attitudes and try out some new ones.

Holey Heart

Waiting for the Healing

This weekend I cut my left index finger on an immersion blender. (It’s one of those “wand” blenders that is portable, you can use it in just about any container.) Some of the stuff I was mashing got clogged in the bottom, and I decided to clean it out with my finger without unplugging first. My right hand inadvertently squeezed the “on” button, and within nanoseconds I popped my bleeding finger in my mouth, ran up the stairs before I could terrify my children, and sat there afraid to pull it out and find out how bad it was.

(Yes, I do know that the mouth is one of the germiest places in the body. It was instinct. What can I say?)

Upon surveying the damage, I realized right away how lucky I had been. Neither cut had gone through muscle or bone. Still, I was totally unprepared for this relatively minor medical emergency. I had only a small box of Bandaids and a tube of Neosporin. No medical tape, no gauze, no peroxide. Getting three kids in the car and driving to the drugstore with a bleeding hand was not an option, but luckily my dad came to the rescue and brought me everything I needed to wrap up my finger and get started on the healing process.

My littlest daughter Olivia was the one most concerned about my injury. She even cried. I assured her that everything would be fine, but that it would take a while to heal. “It’s going to hurt for a few days,” I told her. “Then as it starts to heal, it will probably feel itchy and a little uncomfortable, but that’s how I know it’s healing. And I may have to wear the bandage for a few days.” Explaining what to expect seemed to calm her down, and as each day passed I have shown her the wound and how it is getting better.

This has gotten me thinking about how healing works. For the most part, healing is a natural process over which I am almost entirely powerless. The body’s reflex is to repair itself; it’s not something I can force or stop. But healing is something to which I can contribute by my actions; I can cooperate with it, or I can obstruct it and prolong my pain or even make it worse. And the appropriate actions to take change depending on what stage of healing I’m in. During the first few days, it was important to keep the wound bandaged to hold the cut together and keep infection out. But by Monday night, I could see that the wound was already not as deep as it had been, and I decided it was time for some air to get in and do its magic. The same cut on someone else might have taken more time to close. I have a friend who cut his finger a week earlier, and his was still bandaged more than a week later. What’s right for my healing may not be best for someone else’s healing.

I have to wonder if the same holds true for spiritual healing. There’s “God’s part,” which would be the natural process itself, and then there’s “my part,” which is knowing how to tend the injury without getting in God’s way, when to ask for help or go to see a doctor, and examining the wound from time to time to determine whether to keep it covered or let the air get to it.

My pastor says that back when he was a child, Advent was referred to as the “little Lent,” as reflected by the use of purple as the color of both liturgical seasons, a symbol of repentance. I personally have always like to think of both Advent and Lent as being seasons of spiritual healing, with the repentance part being a bit like the examination of our wounds and the physical discomfort we feel during the physical healing process – frightening, irritating, necessary, and thankfully temporary. This past weekend, however, was Gaudete Sunday, or the “pink candle” Sunday of Advent as I referred to it as a child, which always features scripture readings about joy and hope and gladness. It’s a bit like that day I take the bandage off and let the air and light hit my healing but still visible wound.

While the Third Sunday of Advent is usually a welcome break from the somber message of repentance, this past weekend it was very difficult to think about rejoicing in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. It seemed almost sacrilegious to hear the words of the prophet Zephaniah, “You have no further misfortune to fear,” or the words of St. Paul to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Yes, we Christians are called to be people of hope no matter what situation befalls us, but in the earliest days of grief and loss, words of hope and joy ring flat, if they ring at all.

I venture to guess that no one reading this experienced a personal loss on December 14, 2012. But like my four year old daughter, we are sitting on the sidelines empathizing with the pain we were witnessing, and our feelings are very raw. Some of us have probably cried. And like my little Olivia, we need the calming words of someone to say, “Yes, it still hurts. And it’s going to hurt for a while, even while it’s healing. But if we do our part to take care of the wound, it will heal. Yes, there will always be a scar, but the wound will heal, I promise.”

I’m not sure how we, on the sidelines of this tragedy, will heal, or how long it will take. I don’t know what actions we must take to help the wound to close. There are many people who throw out solutions like gun control and mental health parity and armed guards and prayer in schools. In my opinion, all of those ideas have some merit, just as having an emergency kit in my home has some merit, or going to get stitches might have had merit. But these solutions are in many ways just a Bandaid; they might make us feel better because we believe we have to do something, but I question whether they will have any practical effect on the deeper wound. I now have emergency supplies. But I chose not to get stitches because I thought that might be expensive and unnecessary, and judging by the looks of my finger today, I did not make the wrong decision. Healing involves us doing our part, whatever that is. But before I jump into solutions, it is good for me to remember that the bulk of the healing process involves doing nothing but waiting for time and nature to do its part.

The urge to do something after a tragedy seems to be a powerful human reflex – to meet evil head on with good. The words of John the Baptist in this weekend’s Gospel offer me something practical to do while I’m waiting for the healing to happen. The crowds were asking John what they should do to “prepare the way of the Lord,” and his answer was simple. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” He told the tax collectors not to take more than the law allowed, and he told soldiers to stop using their power to bully people and to be content with their pay. Generosity, justice, and contentment. These are the things we should cultivate as we watch our national wound heal day by day.

I find it interesting that Ann Curry (formerly of the NBC Today Show and my personal favorite media personality) offered nearly the same suggestion – that we commit 27 acts of kindness for each person lost in Newtown. I can’t think of a better way to tend our wounds in the aftermath of this unthinkable violence.

Pink Sunday is all about hope and healing, and as we watch the little ones being laid to rest this week with heavy, aching hearts, I can’t help but think of the darkness of that first Advent into which Christ was born. Violence was as much a way of life back then in Roman-occupied Hebrew lands as it ever was now, as was poverty, government control, racial discrimination, terrorism. I also think about the early Church and the Church of the Middle Ages which celebrated this season of Advent just as we do today – they, too, experienced unspeakable violence and destruction of human life on a daily basis. Even so, they embraced Pink Sunday year after year. We need Pink Sunday today as much as any generation or era that has ever gone before, don’t we? No matter how far we think our society has progressed, the truth is that we still very much live in darkness. The need for a Savior is as relevant to us as it was to the ancient Hebrews. The Christmas story teaches us that God comes in the midst of the darkness and that healing is possible. Advent is about doing our part to get out of the way as we wait for the healing to come.

Musical Meditations

Always

God spoke to me this morning.

Yes, it’s true.

Every morning when I’m getting dressed I play my Pandora radio on my iPhone, and this morning, God spoke to me through my phone.

This is what He said:

The moment the song started, I hit my knees, rested my head on my bed, and listened, hard. And for the first time in a really long time, I heard.

The miracle is not that God spoke. He’s been speaking for generations. The miracle is not that I listened, either, because I’ve been doing my best to listen for a good 36 and a half years. The miracle is that I HEARD. Through all the racket those voices in my head can make, I heard.

Those voices and vices are always going to be there. I have a choice. I can give all of me to God, vices and all, and pray for second chances.