Monday, June 22, 2015

loose change

A blind beggar sits, head lowered, hand begging for money.
 Etching by J. Zubau, 1865.
Why is it, when life reminds me that I’m a jerk, I’m so taken aback? Why am I continually surprised by my lack of generosity, my selfishness?

I tell myself daily that I’m a good Christian woman. I drive to work singing along to KLOVE and saying my morning prayer of praise/don’t let me hurt anyone today. Then I encounter someone who needs help, or is rude, or hurried, and I digress to what I truly am:  a self-centered ingrate.

The woman at the corner of the Davison and Livernois wasn’t very attractive. Her teeth were rotten and gappy; her pants were too tight and her shirt was dirty. I wondered why she put that big rock on her purse that she left at the base of the street sign. Did she think it would blow away? Did she suppose that the stone would deter a would-be thief? The purse was cheap; it couldn’t have contained anything of value. And if it did, why was she begging?

She held out her hand defiantly. How rude. Why does she think we owe her something? She held up five fingers and approached each car. Does she assume we are all wealthy commuters with at least five dollars to spare?

I could have kept my eyes focused forward. It would have been easy to ignore her. My window was up and my door was locked. As I waited in the left turn lane, I could have pretended not to notice her. But something compelled me to open my window a crack. “Honey, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to spare.”

I told her the truth, more or less. I knew that I didn’t have any bills in my wallet. I rarely did. Like most folks of my status, I use debit and credit cards almost exclusively.  And I really am cash-poor, I reminded myself. It was rare that I had anything left in my account in the days before pay day.

She was ticked. She looked at me in disgust and shook her head. “Even a dime? You don’t have a dime?”

I was ticked now too. “No, I don’t have a penny, I’m serious!”

It was a lie but it didn’t feel like it, not at all.

I drove a block or two before I checked my change purse. It was fairly full; the coins added up to at least two and a half bucks.

My face felt hot. Should I go back? The other day, when I saw that sweet old man on Six Mile, I almost turned around. He had a cardboard sign with “God bless you” scrawled on it. He certainly needed my help in a way this woman did not, I was patently sure of it.

I looked in the rear view mirror and applied my favorite lipstick:  Clinique’s “extreme pink.” I only buy it twice a year when I can get a gift with purchase at Macy’s.

Maybe I’ll stop tomorrow.  I could hand her the lipstick along with my wallet, and it wouldn’t be enough to cover the imperfections, neither her obvious ones nor mine that I hide so effectively each day. I know that I won’t stop; my wants have become needs. I’ve been blinded.

So I sit at my desk and type, and drink hot coffee from a pretty mug. Will I see? Can I change? Who is the blind beggar most in need? 

I’m a good Christian woman. Don’t let me hurt anyone today.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

lost and found

Several weeks ago, I lost the diamond from my engagement ring.

I was driving to work. I looked down at my left hand and where the stone should have been, only prongs remained.

I had been going through a few “rough months.” I was waiting for an answer to an important prayer, and it was taking much longer than I expected. (What else is new? I eventually got an answer, by the way. It was no.)  So as I looked down at my diamond-less ring, I reacted in the only way that made sense. After gasping with surprise, I laughed.

Really?” I said out loud. “Really???” Then I laughed some more.

When I got to work I took off the ring and put it in my wallet. I didn’t tell any of my coworkers, and I thought about whether or not I’d tell my husband about it when I got home.  I thought about the day he gave me that ring. We were 20 years old; I was pregnant and finishing my senior year of college. He had dropped out and was delivering pizzas. We stood in front of the Christmas tree at his house, which was decorated only with a cardinal ornament that reminded Aaron of his dad, who had died six years earlier. Aaron put the ring on my finger and I said yes, which at that point was really just a formality.

The diamond was tiny, but it was a marquis cut, which he knew I would like. He paid $500 for it, which was far more than he could afford. It had been on my finger for almost 30 years; since I only took it off a handful of times, my finger had “aged” around it. The spot where it stayed was much smaller than the rest of my finger.  It was as if the ring hid a part of me, a part that was allowed to remain young.

Because I’m not good at keeping secrets or sorrows to myself, I told Aaron later that day. I was surprised that he wasn’t very upset. He tends to be much more sentimental than I am, one who embraces a significance in material things that I choose to downplay.  This time, he was peaceful. “Don’t cry, honey. It’s all right.”

I took the ring off and put it away. I still have a tiny ring on my left hand – an “anniversary band” that we bought just a couple years after we married. The diamonds are so small they are almost invisible. It’s fine, I tell myself. I don’t need an engagement ring anymore, right? I’m an old married lady.

In a few months we will celebrate our 29th anniversary. In a time when families crumble more often than they stand, when the meaning of everything from gender to sexuality to marriage itself is being questioned and redefined, this seems miraculous.

How did two immature young people, unequipped for life, ignorant about everything, outlive the diamond?

I want to write with wisdom about the how. I want to say that I know now what it means to give yourself fully to another, to forgive unimaginable wrongs, to grow together instead of apart. I want to know why we have outlasted the diamond, so that I can tell my children and grandchildren. I want to be able to shout, “Do THIS! This is how you will survive! This is the secret!”

Instead I can only say that there is no formula to follow. There is only one thing you can do. Don’t quit.

When you have done something terrible, and you hate yourself and know your spouse should hate you too…don’t quit.

When you look across the table and wonder who is sitting there with you, and think you will never have another word to say…don’t quit.

When you are so tired, so, so tired of fighting or not fighting, tired of life, tired of struggling to pay bills or make money, tired of working, tired of the same four walls and the same sameness…don’t quit.

Perhaps there is one more thing you must do.  Make room for grace.

Because there is nothing that you can do completely on your own to make a marriage last. And please know that I am talking about good marriages here, marriages that are valid and meant to be, marriages that have not been nulled by abuse or neglect. This is not an indictment of the divorced, of those who had to leave marriages that never really existed.

This is just a word for people like me; people who wonder how in the world we are actually doing this.  Don’t quit. Make room for grace.

I have mentioned some challenges but grace opens my eyes and all I can see right now, in this moment, is blessings. When I look in my husband’s eyes, a fleeting memory is reflected:  a young man holds out a tiny diamond and gives it to me, trusting that I will accept it.

I can see the joy and exquisite beauty brought into the world by each of our children, the unique people that would not exist if we hadn’t taken this outrageous risk and been open to each other and new life.

I remember the death of our daughter and the way that she forged a bond between us that will never be broken.

I find that I am a better woman because of this man. I believe that he is a better man because of me.

I look around my tiny house, my little world, and it overflows with brokenness and sorrow and so much love and joy and so many PEOPLE (how are there so many people?! The children! The grandchildren! Look what we have done!) and I realize that there is not a large enough diamond in the world with value to rival this: THIS life that we have because we do not quit and we make room for grace.

Today I found this. I wasn’t sure when I began writing what I would find, but that’s how it is sometimes. We lose many things, no? That isn’t what matters, when it’s all said and done.

I pray that I may continue to find, through persistence and grace, that we have done just what we set out to do, perhaps without even knowing it. We will have found Love, which is God himself

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

what next?

Yesterday I wished one of my sons well as he set off for a trip to Europe. Venturing to Spain’s Camino de Santiago, he is one of a group of pilgrims who will walk the ancient trail together. His goal is discernment, or at least that’s what I’m told. He is, unlike his mother, extraordinarily private. While his career course seems set (he is well into his nursing studies) his vocation has not yet been decided. Will he marry someday? Remain single? Become a priest?  I don’t think he knows yet, and I’m certain I can’t predict his future. I am convinced, however, that he was on the right path long before he decided to walk the Camino. He is young man of faith, unusual in his maturity and commitment. He asks God and then does the (to me) unimaginable:  he is silent. He waits for an answer.

I do not do well with waiting, silent or otherwise. I pester God incessantly, making that persistent widow who demanded justice from the judge seem like a tiny flea on the back of his hand. I’m more like a bee buzzing around God’s head. Buzzzz buzzzzz buzzzz…..Why God? When God? I don’t understand! Will you answer, God? Why not, God? Why God??? What next?

God hasn’t squashed me yet. I imagine He wants to sometimes.  But instead of a swatter, I imagine Him sitting there holding a flower, waiting for me to light long enough to taste its nectar. What He has for me is far better than what I seek, I’m sure. But in the meantime I’m just that pesky bug who won’t stop moving long enough to find out that I never really needed to fly away anyway, and I definitely don’t need to sting so much.

Let’s pack that ridiculous analogy away. It sounded much better in my head. I am saying something quite simple that doesn’t need insects for explanation:  I’m frustrated. I pray, and I don’t hear back in a timely fashion. I’m faced with decisions that present no clear choice. I am surrounded by companions who seem to be in the same spiritual boat. So many are unemployed or at jobs where they are dying a slow death…others are faced with serious decisions about their children, marriages, and parents. We want to do God’s will, but what exactly does that mean? What next?

I’m a bit jealous of my son, and definitely not because he gets to walk 164 miles in the next 16 days. While I’m happy that he has this unique opportunity (I am his mother, after all) I envy his ability to step away from his daily life and focus on discernment. While my vocation was decided long ago, that doesn’t mean I know what to do other than be a wife, mother, grandmother and person who tries not to offend God or my neighbor. 

Because, is that be enough?

I attended, along with my eldest daughter, a Called and Gifted workshop last weekend. We were invited to take an inventory of experiences that allowed us to begin understanding the charisms we may have received from the Holy Spirit. As baptized, confirmed Catholics, we have those! They are not natural gifts or talents. Rather, they are gifts that allow us to give glory to God in ways that we could not achieve on our own. They are supernatural helps that let us participate in the expansion of the Kingdom, i.e. they are super cool.

As we were confirmed in what we suspected might be true about ourselves (writing may be one of my charisms, administration one of Rachel’s) there were some surprises, too. Might I have the gift of prophecy, wisdom, or faith? Hospitality?  Am I called to explore ways I can be a teacher or an artist?

I was simultaneously overwhelmed and awed. God is a generous giver, and He gives these super powers to all of his people for a unique purpose.  But He doesn’t throw them out randomly like t-shirts at a concert. He chooses just what He needs us to have, and He brings it forth when HE needs it - not when WE demand it.

It was no surprise that my extroverted daughter and I sought out the presenter and asked her questions. How can we better discern our gifts? Once we do that, how will we know what to do next? She told us that (shockingly) extroverts like us tended to overestimate their gifts, and to rush into situations where they might be used. She gave us some useful advice, which I will share here for your consideration:

“Wait for opportunities to come to you.”

OK then. So while I sit here waiting for those opportunities… what next?

I tend to believe that God, the most cheerful Giver, rejoices when he finds a cheerful recipient. But He doesn’t want us to spend so much time obsessing over the gift that we ignore the One who gave it.

There are so many questions, so many decisions, so many times I don’t know why or why not. Do I have the means to find answers, or peace? I imagine so. I know I have just the right gifts for me, as they are the ones chosen by Someone who knows me better than I know myself.

The young men who left for that pilgrimage wore shirts imprinted with a verse that will serve as their motto as they travel.

Thus says the Lord: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
(They left out the end part: But you said, 'We will not walk in it.' See, I’m not alone here.)

One young man on that pilgrimage also carries with him his mother’s heart; her prayers went with him and she knows he will safeguard them and make them his own. They will travel alongside his requests and questions, and they might make it straight to the ear of God.  It’s worth a try.

So I’ll wait here on the side of the road for now, asking “where the good way is”. In silence? Eh, some mildly irritating buzzing may or may not be heard.  I will keep asking for those answers, but this time I’ll try to be still once in a while. I might even hear something other than the sound of my own voice, and taste something much sweeter than what I’ve been feeding myself.

For good or bad? Only God knows. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

challenge the process; encourage the heart (AKA "tick people off nicely")

Recently I participated in a leadership seminar. Using the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), we took a survey, tallied results, enjoyed a very well-done presentation and discovered a few things about ourselves and others.

The presenter asserted that all are leaders, but that we have different leadership “styles.” I think it might be more accurate to say that some lead more than others, that some are quite content to sit in the back seat while someone else drives. No matter. Either way you look at it, it was an exploration of who we are and what makes us tick, and I dig that kind of thing.

I scored pretty much equally for two types of leading – two types that normally oppose one another. Well, that explains a lot! I’ve been pondering them lately and come to the conclusion that they are quite accurate and there is nothing wrong with exhibiting both sides of the leadership coin.
I scored big in “Encourage the Heart,” which means I am able to recognize and celebrate the contributions others make. I am someone who “makes people feel like heroes.” I hope this is true. I do try to look for the positive in others and to offer them true encouragement. However, my other style enables me to call people out if they are messed up. I scored equally high in “Challenge the Process.”

I’m willing to experiment and take risks. I’m willing to tell pretty much anyone if I disagree with him or her, and yes, I will die on that mountain. I don’t care too much if people like me. I want to do “what’s right” and I’m not afraid to speak up. (Well, sometimes I’m afraid, but I do it anyway, because I HAVE TO.) This part of my style explains why my father would say, “Cathy, you’d argue with the Good Lord!” and I’d answer, “Yes, but only if I was right!”

I found it interesting that the presenter portrayed the CTP personality negatively. (Also interesting that I was the only one in the group who had their highest score in that category.) He said that CTPers could come across as harsh and difficult. Come to think of it, ETHers didn’t sound so great to me either. It was as if all those types did was “have flowers on their desk” and “want to hug everyone.” Ugghhh.

He also said I was “fascinating” since I was a CTP and an ETH. (To which I answered, “I am!”)

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if gender stereotypes played a part in our understanding of leadership. As a CTPer I was reminded I needed to “watch my tone” when explaining why things weren’t working as best as I could. As a ETHer I needed to “stop being so emotional.” To me this sounds like typical reminders for women who try to play a “man’s” game (i.e. being a leader.)  
In one exercise “team” members were invited to comment on which type was their friend and/or foe. Guess which two types got the least love? Again, interesting.

So I’m here to do something typically CTP/ETC/Me:  I’m going to embrace who I am. I LOVE the idea of Challenging the Process when the process sucks. People like me  are the ones who incite much-needed change. We are willing to say what no one else has the nerve to say, to do what everyone else might want to do but is afraid to bring up. I’ll work on my “tone” but, oh what am I saying, the hell with my tone! My tone is fine. I’m an ETCer too, remember. I’m always starting with the positive and trying to make others feel good about themselves. I’m encouraging and I love to recognize others’ accomplishments.

Any way you look at it, the LPI is pretty interesting stuff. You can find some info about the five “practices of exemplary leadership” here. (Of course the best leaders combine qualities from all five “types,” which include Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable others to Act, and Encourage the Heart.) Which one(s) resonate most with you? 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

sea change

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to go to the sea.

I've been to the oceans, both Atlantic and Pacific, and enjoyed each for very different reasons. At nineteen I took my first plane ride, solo, to visit Southern California for two weeks. There I met up with my best friend, who visited her dad there each summer; soon after I arrived, my brother and his best friend joined us. Renee and I stayed at the apartment of a family friend named Dolores. We slept on her living room floor, and took in a kitten that we found on the patio. At night we met the boys at the ocean's edge, where we drank beer, looked out into the black sea and sky, and talked about the meaning of life. It was glorious. I was very young. The ocean made me feel small and strong at the same time.

My visits to the Atlantic came much later. My eldest daughter fell in love with an east coast boy. She had met him online and we traveled to the region first to meet his family, then a couple years later to celebrate our children's marriage. In Maine we walked out on rocky shores to see the urchins. Later we soaked in sun and shopped in tourist trap shops and ate lobster dinners. It too was glorious. We made friends who became family. It was a scene from a book:  young romance, good food, and the scents of sea spray and pine.

I'd seen the oceans and I'd spent much time in pools, lakes and rivers. Sometimes I was elated just to swim in the local park at Turtle Cove, more than happy to relax on the pontoon near my brother's trailer. Sleeping in a hammock, I was rocked to sleep as I traveled to islands in Brazil.

I loved  the waters, from Lower Crooked to the Amazon River. Both oceans filled me with awe. But I needed the sea. Turquoise and exotic. Faraway and warm. For so long, I've dreamed of taking a trip there. And now I've gone and come back, and I've so much to say that I'm not sure I can. For now I just have to feel it, but I don't want to forget.

For many, this might be laughable. A trip to Mexico for a week -- so what? A stay at a resort with a couple thousand other tourists? Big deal. But for Aaron and me, it was indeed a big deal. We had had no honeymoon, no trip for a whole week together for just the two of us. That alone would have made this magical - the fact that we finally gave ourselves this gift. But the gave to me what I have trouble finding elsewhere.

Ten years ago next month, Celeste was born, and four months later she died. When I wrote about her in my book, I thought, at first, that I was done telling her story. Soon I learned this was hardly the case. I found her inspiring me to change and to help others do the same. She provoked me to continue sharing with all the gift that we each have in this one life. She made me passionate about reminding people of this. She made me want to live a life of courage and grace, the kind of life that she had lived.

Those who have read Celeste's story will recall (I hope!) the image of the sea at the end. I share an image of "The Sea of Souls" that I believe, in some way, will greet us when we get to Heaven. The water is a place of healing on this earth, and I have no doubt that an eternal sea will be a part of the glory of the Beatific Vision.

One of my goals on this trip was to photograph the sea. I have in mind a very special project for Celeste on her tenth birthday into Heaven. I knew I would feel her in the sun and the sand, and  see her in the sky and especially in the azure waters. Oh my friends, she was there!

One morning we got up before sunrise and headed to the beach.  I don't recall if I've ever seen a sunrise....and I know I've never seen one like this. The sky was cloudless, and as the moon crept over our shoulders, the smallest amount of warmth broke the horizon. As I took one photo after another, catching the movement of the sun that we scarcely notice once it reaches midday, tears streamed down my face. A man and his daughter walked along the sand. The little girl smiled at me and ran after her dad. I snapped a photo just as she raced by.  She was dressed all in pink.

I looked at Aaron and he smiled, his eyes wet with tears as well. He showed me the time. It was 7:23. Celeste was thinking of us; her birthday into Heaven was on July 23.

Another morning we took a long walk around the resort. There was a chapel at the furthest point from the lobby; it was where couples who wanted a church-like setting said their wedding vows. It had a crucifix, pews and a statue of Mary, but of course no tabernacle, so it was pretty but not truly sacred. On the way back we found an empty area of the beach that was quite lovely. Of course we stopped to take photos -- there was a perfect palm tree framing the scene of the ocean. I took a shot of Aaron and he took one of me. I glanced at the pictures and thought they looked great. As we started to head back, I was overcome with joy. The natural beauty was just so overwhelming, and I  felt such profound gratitude. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving, and my heart felt Celeste so strongly. I knew that she had played a part in getting us there. I imagined her grinning and hugging Jesus and thanking Him for giving her Mama and Daddy such a special gift.

I took a moment to close my eyes and raise my face to the sky. When I opened them I saw her. A tiny monarch butterfly stopped for a moment on the pampas grasses that waved in the breeze. I approached and she was gone, and I begged her to come back, but that's not how it works. When visitors come from heaven they are usually unexpected and their stay is brief. The beach was beautiful, but she was eager to return to true paradise, and I can't blame her for that.

Later that day, or maybe it was the next, I looked through the photos again. This is the part where I say that I could not believe my eyes, which is hokey, but it's true. That palm tree where we took photos of each other? Someone had painted a heart on it. I didn't notice it when I was taking the photos, I swear. And even if I had, it was still perfect. What are the odds of there being such a perfect piece of graffiti in such an unlikely place? The odds were great, of course, because there are no coincidences. There is grace. There is love. And there are so many blessings for those of us willing to open our eyes and see with our hearts.

So I return from the sea, to home in a land of snow instead of sand, but the warmth remains. I'm committing once again to honor Celeste with a life of joy.

She deserves that. And so do I.