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.