Every January we are inundated with messages of losing weight to prepare our bodies for summer as if it’s as complicated as training for an Olympic sport instead of simply shedding coats and slipping on shorts. To be considered “ready” we are encouraged to lose weight, pump iron, and color ourselves caramel.
The message is clear. The preparation is all-important. Where you are now is clearly not good enough. You aren’t worthy of summer vacay unless, until, all that urgent striving sculpts you into the picturesque airbrushed model on the magazine cover who hasn’t eaten in three years and works out five hours a day.
I don’t know if it’s more demoralizing or depraved, but many of us buy into this if-then mentality. We do it in an array of scenarios: organizing our house before we can host friends, getting the promotion before we can pride ourselves on a job well done, or securing the relationship before we cement our self-worth. The perception that our arrival is more important than our pursuit is most damaging in our relationships with God. We often think where we are in our spiritual journey defines how much we please him, how much he loves us, and how worthy we are of his mercy. Read more
I can’t help but shake that feeling a new year brings that I’m supposed to “do better,” “improve,” or “make it count.” Bold directives that remind me of the anxious anticipation of waiting for my turn in a grade school relay race. Messages that don’t make me want to run as much as they make me want to run away.
In these heady days of a new year, I feel uber-aware of every action, or worse, every inaction. It’s a similar feeling to the relief of confession. I love the clean slate but I also want to lock myself in the house or duct tape my mouth closed so I won’t risk sinning again. Once we delve into the grit and grind of life, both a new year and a clean soul can easily tarnish like the best of intentions.
Only, I’m not a new person despite the change on the calendar. I sat down to work and immediately googled Lab Rescues of Florida. I am not planning on getting another dog in 2021, but somehow the urge to read the personality traits and health history of every adoptable dog was a pressing priority. Likewise, while I intended to work at my desk with ergonomically correct posture this year, I slouched on the couch hovering over the keyboard, spine twisted like a buttery breadstick. By mid-afternoon, I passed my water cup in lieu of the curdle of reheated coffee. None of it felt very ‘new.’
Every year, each family member picks a word to guide or inspire them for the next 365 days. (Last year, my word was brave. I learned that was like praying for patience and I spent the year facing all kinds of situations that terrified me.) When my husband asked me about my word for this year, I was hesitant. We debated the merits of the words “freedom,” and “embrace.” I was afraid if I chose “freedom,” I would have a slew of rescue dogs living with me by the year’s end. Read more
As a teenager, I often went on long walks at the beach with my best friend. I can’t tell you what we talked about because I’m sure it was inappropriate and since I am of a certain age, I don’t really remember anyway. Going on walks meant we could scout the locations of cute lifeguards we knew or wanted to know. While we had no intention of actually speaking to the bronze boys on the towering orange chairs, or even so much as making eye contact with them, just knowing they were there gave our journey a purposeful feel. Years later, I had no idea I would be walking on that same stretch of sand with my husband while participating in a three-day, thirty-mile pilgrimage from Jacksonville Beach to the Our Lady of La Leche Shrine in St. Augustine.
I had never done a pilgrimage so when I heard about the Baby Steps Camino put on by the Order of Malta, a Catholic lay religious order, I thought that my experiences as a teenager walking past miles of strategically spaced lifeguard chairs gave me the necessary foundation for the 10-mile daily walk.
It felt decadent to cast aside adult responsibilities for a day in the sun. My husband and I prayed the rosary, walked in silence, and talked about all kinds of appropriate things (although I can’t remember what they were.) We allowed ourselves to look for the occasional shark’s tooth and other treasures in the sand. We paused for a picnic lunch under the glory of the December sun. Most importantly, we pressed on. When we were hot, tired, and when my feet got wet and my toe got bloody, we just kept putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a lot like what we do in life when we remember that our final destination isn’t of this world.
While most people fret over not knowing what to buy someone for Christmas, I have a different sort of problem. I love what I buy for others so much, I inevitably want to keep it.
I recognize that my propensity to want to hoard other people’s Christmas presents makes me like Dr. Seuss’s mean-spirited character, the Grinch. In fact, I’m afraid if I took one of those mail-in DNA tests, I might discover that my ancestry doesn’t descend from royalty like one hopes but from a tribe of hairy, pot-bellied, avocado-colored men whose hearts are two sizes too small.
Besides worrying about this fundamental flaw in my genetics, it’s a terrible nuisance to realize you still have more Christmas shopping to do because you kept many of the things you bought for others. My husband, who is a gifted enabler, lovingly wraps the gifts I hoard and puts them under the tree for me. I think it’s a relief for him because he doesn’t have to work as hard at trying to figure out what to give me for Christmas. So, maybe on some level what I’m doing is altruistic.
I know this behavior hardly conjures scenes from the nativity. I suppose I wouldn’t have made a very good wise woman anyhow. I would meet sweet baby Jesus with the gold I bought for him forged into a stylish bracelet around my wrist while explaining to him that his gift would arrive on the next camel.
I’ve tried to have a good attitude about the necessary sacrifices of living during a pandemic. I considered mask-wearing a clever and inexpensive way to hide wrinkles, with the added benefit of no longer worrying about whether bits of salad were caught in my teeth. I pretended my stint at homeschooling was like a long (albeit dysfunctional) episode of Little House on the Prairie. I put away the Pinterest worthy tchotchkes on the desk so my now work-from-home husband can actually use it. I’ve done the FaceTime happy hour, the social distanced visits in the sweltering back yard, and the scavenger hunt for mundanities like toilet paper, disinfectant, and flour. But when I went through the McDonalds drive-thru and was told that they are currently not serving ice cream cones because of COVID-19, I was done. I tried to keep the hysteria out of my voice when I asked the cashier what the who-ha she was talking about. No ice cream cones?
I don’t want to get off on a tangent of how I am not sure if I want to live in a world without ice cream cones. And, I don’t want to debate anyone about the COVID germs lurking on the paper-wrapped cone that McDonald’s altruistically saved me from (or how I typically remove the paper before consuming the cone). I get it. Everyone is doing their best in this madness. We are all trying to be tolerant, make lemonade with this bushel of lemons, find the joy in the simple things, remember what’s important, and otherwise paint sunshine and roses over the choked vines of 2020.
But sometimes all of the ‘not that big of a deal in the whole scheme of things’ concessions we make leave me melting like ice cream on a hot summer day. Only now, I have to melt in a cup. I know if Jesus is reading this post he’s likely to put his head in his hands while wondering how he is going to save my whiny soul. And while a vat of self-serve ice cream seems like an obvious solution, I know that what will save me is the same thing that leaves me grateful despite the wonky and worrisome year it has been – his mercy.
One of the reasons that I write about mercy is because I know it’s the small things that we do for one another that often mean the most. It’s easy to think life is about the right job, the fancy house, or the latest trends. But those things don’t mean much when we are going through a difficult time. Instead, it’s the mercy of someone holding the door for you when your hands are full; giving you the benefit of the doubt when you’ve said something that would be easy to misconstrue; receiving forgiveness for something hurtful, and being listened to compassionately when you share your worries with others. Those are the kinds of things that make a difference – that remind us how important it is that we love our neighbor. Small mercies offer relief when we are tired, overwhelmed, overburdened, and over all the wonky and weird that has become our new reality. The simple mercy of remembering that we belong to each other is a light no matter how dark the times. So, let your light shine with warm and radiant acts of kindness towards others. They are even better than ice cream.
Hi all~ It has been a difficult year for most of us. We’ve all been asked to sacrifice a great many things — mostly cherished time with the people we love. We can all use a little more kindness right now. I am trying to be mindful of that during the hustle and bustle of this season. Acts of compassion are the best gifts to give — and to get. How will you share mercy this advent? ~ love, Lara
Read more: Gratitude: Beyond the Glitter
I sat down to write about gratitude and stared at a blank page. I stared out the window. I stared at the cat. I thought of all the ways this year has been hard for me personally and on a global scale. Certainly, there is a lot in between the microcosm of my life and the macrocosm of the pandemic. There has been deaths, unemployment, division, divorce, disease, and depression. And, while those things exist regardless of COVID-19, adding a heaping of quarantines, isolation, mask-wearing, and closures on top of life’s inevitable loss has sometimes felt like an overflow of despair.
So, the words don’t come easy. The spiral of sobering hardships has been like a forced global detox that has stripped life’s glitter leaving exposed the vulnerability and value of life. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s something to feel thankful for. Life feels raw and uncertain but also miraculous and precious. And most days, the sobriety of it all scares me. I miss the glitter of distraction that let me think that I was in control; that a long life was promised to me; and that happy times were the hallmark of a good life.
While I would not have chosen the trials of this year, I feel strangely grateful for what they have revealed. Underneath the glitter this is what I found:
- Control is contrived. Much of life is outside of our control. That’s not defeatist; it’s liberating. This year has been one of the most difficult and the most freeing. My health issues felt so outside of my control that for my sanity I had to surrender them. Surrendering the big things made it easier to surrender the small things. It’s a relief to know I can let things go. I may have more real problems but by giving them over to God, I don’t have near as many worries. We can either rely on ourselves and build a teetering house of cards, or we can rely on God and live secure in the foundation of our faith.
Fully embracing the mundanity of my middle-aged life, I watched a documentary about an octopus. I won’t get into the details because you too may be interested in octopi documentaries so I don’t want to spoil anything. Yet one of the most interesting things I learned is that after an octopus lays her eggs, she quits eating and wastes away. By the time the eggs hatch, she dies. It’s like a Disney movie where the mom always dies and there’s an orphan having a coming of age adventure with lots of catchy songs that get stuck in your head.
For days, I kept thinking of the octopus laying there protecting her clutch of eggs while succumbing to starvation. I don’t know the biological reason for this. I just know that parenting in the later years feels like a separation comparable to death. And I apologize if that feels too dramatic for either a documentary or a Disney movie, but parenting during these years of increasing independence requires me to let go of all the details I have spent almost 20 years shaping. Having the privilege of being a mother has been the great honor of my life. As any mother knows, it requires stretching in ways that at times felt impossible. My role now is not so much to stretch but to contract, to loosen the grip on one of my greatest treasures so that the lull of life’s tide can carry him in a new direction. It feels counter to every instinct in my body. Yet, I understand that this has been my job all along – to give everything I could for him not because he is mine but so that the world can someday be his. Read more
I was in the grocery store carefully picking through packs of organic chicken legs. They were buy one get one free which made buying chicken that day a little like playing a card game such as Go Fish or Memory. It’s important to find a price match or it isn’t really a win. Wilson Phillips was singing Hold On (For One More Day) somewhere in the background completely oblivious to poultry-buying strategy. My brain was maxed out from using math and matching skills simultaneously, so I wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics of their song.
Then I heard the line, “Or are you comfortable with the pain?” I froze much like the shrink-wrapped chicken I was cataloging. I looked around trying to understand why this moment suddenly felt less mundane. Why a line from a song I have heard countless times stood out as significant.
Had I, the girl who carries a small pharmacy in my purse, somehow become comfortable with pain? It seemed like such a ridiculous notion amidst the Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, and pain analgesics that I carry in bulk like a Red Cross volunteer ready for war. Of course, everyone experiences physical and emotional pain on occasion but accepting it as the norm seems as defeatist as throwing your hand in Go Fish or not taking the free chicken in the buy one get one deal. Who does that? Read more
In the bathroom, I noticed that the small vase on the pedestal sink had broken. It lay in pieces while the plant it once held in water splayed like a dying fish whose gills move in slow silent puffs of suffocation. I asked my son who was just outside the room staring at his phone or iPad or another electronic brainwasher if he knew what happened to the vase. Brilliant as he is, he told me it broke. I asked him if he broke it and indeed, he had. When I inquired as to why he didn’t clean up the broken glass he responded with a casual, “I forgot.”
I probably should have prefaced this story by saying my son is not three. I have teenage boys, not toddlers – although there are remarkable similarities. I wasn’t upset that he broke the vase. I am at the point in my life that when something breaks, I think “great that is one less thing I have to ask myself about whether it sparks joy.” Not having to answer the question that made Marie Kondo a household name, certainly sparks joy. So, the broken vase wasn’t the issue.
At issue, is how obvious it was to me that there was an issue when in between the time span that he presumably washed his hands and turned off the faucet he seemingly forgot to see shattered glass and a wounded plant. The incident reminded me how in our increasingly polarized society people only see what they want – the rest they just forget about. Read more
It was Sunday afternoon and I was sitting on the couch drinking my Kava Stress Relief Tea. I would explain why I was drinking stress relief tea but it’s still 2020, so I feel like certain things speak for themselves. An old friend called and even though I was right next to the phone I got so excited to speak with her that I spilled the entire mug of tea all over myself and the couch. Needless to say, the stress relief tea inadvertently induced a fair amount of stress (and mess, as well as possibly some third-degree burns).
I finally got the edits back from my publisher and I have been working furiously to finish them by my deadline. Editing is nothing like writing. When I write I feel as if I am creating something and when I edit it’s like I’ve become a psychotic serial killer cutting my carefully chosen words and obliviating their well-meaning existence. The hope is that I am creating something better, but like a serial killer, I am not quite sure if I’m just deluding myself. It’s grueling. Most days at least one eye is twitching, my brain throbs, and sleep is sporadic.
The purpose of editing isn’t meant to be sadistic though. It’s meant to make things better. In writing, and in our relationships with God, we have to let go in order to make space for something new. If you are like me, letting go is hard. We get attached to things in our lives. We get attached to our carefully-curated self-image, our jobs, our words, our plans, and the people we love. It’s a normal part of our story. Yet, what we sometimes fail to recognize is that the best part of our story comes after we edit. When we take out obstacles in our lives that our keeping us from God, we can draw closer to him. When we let go of what our lives are supposed to look like and how our relationships are supposed play out, we make room for new experiences and more authentic interactions. Yet, so often we are desperate to move forward, while at the same time refusing to let go of what keeps us stuck. It’s so hard to let go that we stay trapped in our same old story. I know letting go is scary. After all, I used serial killers to describe it. But with careful discernment and trust in God’s providence, you can do it.