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:

  1. 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.

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Forgiveness: Or are you comfortable with the pain?

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

Joy of Faith (and ice cream)

One of my doctors suggested I try a Mediterranean Diet after I had been diagnosed with a spontaneous carotid artery dissection. “Spontaneous” is the operative word here because it just happened and no one knows why.  It’s rare for people my age without some kind of underlying genetic disease or physical trauma like a car accident.  I had neither.

I have nothing against the Mediterranean Diet.  I like to eat fish and appreciate a plan that includes red wine.   For a few days, I considered it.  I wanted to be excited– to have some new regimen that would fix the broken parts of me.  I read a few articles that outlined the diet.  I even ate some walnuts. While I desperately want to heal, my diet is not the problem.  Whatever caused my artery to spontaneously dissect had nothing to do with what I ate.  I thought about the years I spent as a vegetarian, my almost-daily exercise routine, the half-marathons I had run, and the complete randomness of what happened — I realized I was basically that cliché of the uber-healthy person who drops dead.  Only I didn’t die.  By God’s grace, I am still here.

What I need most is not a new diet but to accept that we can’t control or fix everything (or sometimes much of anything). I’ve spent so much of my life not being spontaneous – thinking that if I followed the rules, the outline, the diet, and the plan, then I would be safe.  Of course, these things matter and it’s important to not be reckless with our lives or the lives of others. It’s just that we can easily get so focused on the regimen that we forget the reason for it.  I knew it wasn’t legumes and olives or even wine I needed.  It was ice cream. Read more

Crisis of a Wannabe Gymnast

Sometime in my late 20s, I lamented to my boss that I was having a mid-life crisis.  I think this had something to do with the Olympic games that were being held that year.  I loved watching gymnastics and couldn’t help but think that it should be me on television in a leotard flipping and flopping and flying on behalf of my country.  Never mind that I had yet to take a single gymnastics lesson in my life.  My heart ached to do something with so much passion that it would literally propel me skyward — while also managing to land me firmly on my feet. Plus, I liked the sequins.

At the time, I was married with no kids.  With a career in fundraising for a children’s hospital, the work I did was inherently meaningful – and we have already established that I had a kind boss tolerant of premature mid-life crises.  I had a house, some cats, a dog, a good husband, and a job. And yet, I had this nagging feeling that if not an Olympic gold medalist, wasn’t I meant for more?

The question of purpose arises intermittently like a bad stomach virus that leaves me longing for the merciful reprieve of a saltine cracker. Life’s epic search for meaning seems like it should take a straight path hurdling over obstacles, dismounting into some profound contribution to humanity, and landing with the specter of triumph (and yes, maybe even a gold medal around one’s neck.)  Instead, it throws me off-balance like a gymnast teetering on the brink of a disastrous fall.  My trajectory towards something meaningful can feel like an angsty wobble of futility leaving me more frustrated than fulfilled.   The great mercy in having been through this multiple times is that I now realize our contributions to the world aren’t always noticeable — even to ourselves.  That’s the humility of it.

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Works of Mercy: Stop the Wreckage

Do you ever just want to tell someone they are messing up?  “Hey, you! There is a train coming towards you at 100 mph and I am thinking you may want to get off the tracks?”  Presumably, we would all say something if someone was in physical danger, but when it comes to spiritual divergence it’s easy to stand idle and watch people get smushed.

Of course, we don’t want to think of it like that because we are good people.  We mean well.  In fact, it is often our meaning well that motivates us to keep quiet when someone is engaging in self-sabotaging behavior – and what’s more self-sabotaging than sin.  We live in a world where the prevailing message is to stay in our own lane, live and let live, and it’s none of our business.  There is an as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else mentality that might not be so absurd if it were possible.  If we all lived in bubbles and our actions didn’t affect or influence others then maybe this idea would float.   Certainly, we can’t decide for others.  We have control over so very little.  In many ways, surrender seems not only like the best option but the only one.

The work of mercy, to admonish sinners, feels heavy and laden with judgment.   The word admonish is strong and clear.  It’s also downright scary.  Who wants to risk a relationship they value by pointing out the devaluing behavior of someone they love?  Who wants to have the hard conversations of correction that no one wants to hear?  Why wouldn’t we all keep quiet instead of blowing some obnoxious whistle of alarm?

My answer to this is to avoid the smushing.  The smushing that can cost people their jobs; the smushing that destroys marriages; the smushing that creates addicts; the smushing that buries someone in debt; the smushing that ruins friendships…the smushing that could have been avoided had someone been brave enough to say something. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.  But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

It is important to do this work of mercy gently and in the spirit of love.  No one likes hearing that they are messing up.  No one likes to admit fault or acknowledge that their actions aren’t in line with their values.  This is the hard work of love and one of the most beautiful acts of love we can do for one another.  The people in my life who I am most indebted to, most loyal to, and most grateful for are those who have risked having a hard conversation with me.  They came into my lane, got into my business, and pointed out the risks and consequences that went beyond the bubble of my life.  I know it all sounds terribly dramatic, or at least just terrible.  But when you really think about your own life, you have either been lucky enough to have someone yank you off the track or unfortunate enough that you wished someone had.

Most of us have been in that uncomfortable position of knowing someone is doing something wrong and not sure if they should say something or “mind their own business.”  I certainly can’t tell anyone what to do but I know for me, I have never regretted a hard conversation made out of love and I genuinely feel grateful to those who have guided me.  What about you? Would you say anything?  Would you want anyone to say anything to you?

Read last week’s post: Mercy! Being Mama is Hard

Be You: But Not All About You

We toured colleges with our son last spring.  In every tour, in every talk, we heard a similar spiel: “We want to get to know you — get a sense of who you are.  The best applicants are the ones where students are themselves.”

I hate to be cynical, but all the “just be you” enthusiasm made me skeptical since most of these schools admit like 5 new students a year.  Statistically, it doesn’t seem like being oneself is as important as SAT scores, GPA, or any other metric that funnels the throngs of applicants into a thread of coveted acceptance letters.  Highly competitive schools with high performing applicants humanizing their cut-throat admission policies with a warm, fuzzy, encouragement to simply be oneself, and as surely as the sun rises in the east you will shine.

Of course, we have all heard the same messages in our own lives.  It’s not a bad message either – to just be yourself.  In a day when diversity has become a means of deliverance, individualism has become an art of self-love.  Still, one can only play Mirror, Mirror on the Wall for so long without becoming utterly bored or an utterly boring narcissist.  Loving others has always been where it’s at – where we truly feel full, alive, and connected.  So, yes, be you but don’t be all about you. One of the things I love most about God is he loves unconditionally and universally.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3:28).  The world may classify its people into hierarchies, but God has none of that.  He made each of us unique and yet loves all of us the same.  How fun is that?  No competitions or emphasis on what makes you so special.  He eliminated that pettiness when he died on the cross for our sins.  It was the great leveler that gave each individual that has ever been or ever will be the same unequivocal opportunity for redemption.  Of all the world’s laws, treaties, pacts, covenants, and alliances I don’t know any that compares to him dying on the cross so that each and every one of us can have a shot at eternal life.

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Project Gratitude: Lenten Reflection

Hi all, 

There have been moments during this Lenten season when I felt as if a list of 40 Things I Can’t Find at the Grocery Store would have made more sense than journaling 40 Days of Gratitude.  The world has changed drastically in ways that seem more like dystopian fiction than reality.  The days of the week melt into one long collective moment of waiting.  While the Lenten season encourages a pause, few of us have ever experienced such a drastic lifestyle change based on showing love for our neighbor by isolating ourselves from them. From “the last shall be first” to “It is in giving that we receive,” this new social norm reads like so many of the paradoxes that we find in scripture — the greatest being that through death we may have eternal life.

A lot of life doesn’t make sense.  Perhaps it was never meant to. Like Jesus dying on the cross for the will of God, for the salvation of humanity, and out of merciful love for you and for me — maybe there is something greater to all of this — for all of us.  More than ever, this Lenten season has taught me how to be okay with uncertainty.  I may know less about life than I thought I did 40 days ago, but now I have more clarity about what it is I really need to know — all of which begins on the cross.  There are a great many things to be thankful for this Easter, but what could be more important than that?

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY 36: I am thankful for words.  They have the power to take us to far-away places and to ground us in the here and now.  Words can console and affirm. In this time of social distancing, they connect us and remind us that the most important word, love, cannot be quarantined nor can it die.  Love endures.

“It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:7).

 

LENT DAY 37: I am thankful for being a mother.  Motherhood teaches us to endure beyond what we think is possible, wise, or just.  It stretches us to the edge of sleeplessness, worry, and flat out aggravation.  It rearranges priorities and for a good while household furnishings too.

But, my heavens does it teach us love! I can think of no better example of Christ’s love than the love we pour out for our children.  A love that is both sacrificial and joyful.  A love that is both boundless and bound for all time.  A love that is forgiving and yet requires no apologies.  A love with no conditions, no caveats, and no end.

It is the love that comes from God because it is the life that comes from God.  What an incredible blessing.  What an incredible God.

LENT DAY 38: I am thankful for everyday heroes.  They battle over evils of apathy, ignorance, and selfishness by doing simple acts of kindness.  They know that serving others isn’t just for warriors or royalty or storybook rescuers. True heroism is a simple willingness to love, serve, and not count the costs.  It doesn’t require a cape or a mask.  Just a big heart.

 

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Project Gratitude: Week (who even knows anymore)

Hi all,

What I have appreciated most this past week is how simple life has become.  Family dinners are lasting longer than seven minutes and teenage boys are speaking in complete sentences.  I don’t bother anymore with makeup or real clothes.  Hair washing is optional.  Other than walking the dog, shoes are obsolete. I like to pretend that I am one of the Ingalls girls from Little House on the Prairie or one of the March girls from Little Women because life is no longer about accumulation or accomplishment but just the simplicity of being and being together.  I know I don’t have the corsets or the bonnets like they did but I did make soup out of a ham bone.  I feel like that has to count for something.

While I hate the tentative and devastating circumstances of this quarantine, I love the way I have seen the community show up for one another; the way the undeterred faithful huddle in front of their televisions to participate in the mass or to listen to the holy and profound words of Pope Francis; and the way my typically sleepy neighborhood is filled with children’s laughter, family walks, and driveways with pastel chalk mosaics.  Somehow life’s excess has been stripped away, and in its absence, I find that I have been left with so much more.  For this, I am profoundly grateful.

Here is what else I am thankful for: 

LENT DAY 29:  I am thankful for little things.  Cupping the warmth of my morning coffee; the velvet rush of the taste of chocolate; laughing with a stranger in the checkout line, and the warmth of the sun that reminds me to look up.  Little things bring big gratitude.

 

 

 

LENT DAY 30: I am thankful for good Samaritans.

My neighbor saw a man with cerebral palsy riding his wheelchair in the middle of a busy four-lane road and then onto an interstate on-ramp.  Fearing he was going to kill himself or someone else by causing an accident, my neighbor, along with some other motorists, used their cars to slow traffic and create a barrier around the man who appeared to be in despair.  Some of the Sisters from the Home of the Mother at Assumption Catholic Church came to the aid as well.

The story of the good Samaritan isn’t just in the Bible.  It’s the story of ordinary everyday people answering the call to comfort, serve, and love their neighbor.  It’s a story the world needs us to write wherever we are and however we can.

LENT DAY 31: I am thankful for healthcare workers.  Enduring long hours of the impossible, honoring the dignity of each patient, offering assurance, compassion, and calm, they are the heroes of our time.  Every day they manage to do what can’t be done. They are warriors for life and we pray that your lives will be forever blessed because of that.  Truly, we thank you.

 

 

LENT DAY 32: I am thankful for the Saints.  “Every Saint has a past and every sinner has a future,” Oscar Wilde.  Saints remind us of who we can be if we choose to act with the best parts of ourselves.  Their lives weren’t easy.  Their choices were hard. They experienced humiliation, hatred, and sometimes horrible deaths.  Yet, the commonality between them was their paramount love for God and the eternal life that is their reward.

How I want to be in that number when the Saints go marching in.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY 33: I am thankful for the Holy Spirit.   The Holy Spirit is the fiery one of the trinity, the wild card that throws down courage, ignites fires, and takes us out of complacency into action in our communities.  I wouldn’t be posting right now if it were not for him.  Every day he makes this girl who was always scared of everything brave enough to write her truth.  We are told not to play with fire yet when I think of him, I can’t help but be drawn to the flame.  May you celebrate what burns bright in you and let your light shine.

LENT DAY 34: I am thankful for marriage.  Despite the inevitable melting and morphing of time, the constancy of having someone at my side during all of the iterations of life’s journey has been the greatest gift.  In the ordinary and in the extraordinary; the bad and the just bearable — marriage is cemented in the sacred sacrament of God’s love.  A holy and joyful adventure in unity.

 

 

LENT DAY 35: I am thankful for friendship.  Friends are a lot like shadows – they stretch ahead when our path is too hard, stand beside us when we are scared, and remain behind us when we fall.  They dance with us in happy times and remind us there is light in the darkness.

I love the shadows in my life who distance cannot divide, who safeguard my secrets, who believe in me more than I am capable of believing in myself, who know when to give me space and when to stay close.  The shadows of friendships edge the brightest parts of life, the ones that matter most– where laughter erupts, hurts heal, and acceptance is unconditional.

Yes, mercy matters and no one does mercy better than those we call friends.

 

What are you thankful for today?

Project Gratitude: Week Four

Hi all,

I would like to tell you that we have been well here in the Q (that’s what I’m calling the quarantine because it makes me feel like I am at a trendy restaurant instead of at home in dirty pajamas with a bunch of sickies).  In the past two weeks, all four of us have had to visit the doctor, three out of four of us have had fevers and are on antibiotics, and one out of four us had an emergency root canal and an oozing-infected eye.  Our house sounds like a cacophony of coughing, nose-blowing, whining (me), and an occasional wince (dying tooth).  All this while worries about the coronavirus lurk in the crevices of my head that aren’t already filled with infected sinuses.  In addition, we have implemented a new homeschool regimen, a work from home office, and an innovative exercise regimen of video games, backyard pacing akin to caged zoo animals; and playing keep away from the pollen that won’t keep away.

Still, there have been bright spots — praying the rosary as a family; the intimacy of Sunday mass at home; a birthday boy to celebrate; and time sitting outside just being.  I appreciate the simplicity of this life in the Q, the perspective it illuminates about what really matters, and the extra time it’s given me to be with my family — as germy as they may be.  For all of it, I am thankful.

Here’s what else I am thankful for:

LENT DAY 22:  I am thankful for teachers.  Most of us who are just days into our unplanned homeschooling gig, are feeling homesick for the nurturing, committed professionals we entrust our children to daily.

To the teachers:

What can I say?  Thank you seems too trite, like a mere nod to your efforts when you clearly are worthy of an embrace.  At the same time, that’s awkward isn’t it — to have all of us mamas hugging on you?  Besides, it violates social distancing guidelines.

What can I do?  Nothing I could buy could compensate you for the way you have stepped up, poured out, and gone above in your efforts to educate your students. (I know I should try anyway.)

How can I show you how much you have made a difference?  From teaching my children to love reading to showing them how we love others, you have shaped them.  From ordinary moments, you uncovered interests, carved out strengths, and careened them away from wayward paths by your own beautiful examples of Christ’s love.

When would I be able to tell you how much you staying after school to host clubs and sports and extracurriculars has given my children confidence, tenacity, and cherished memories with their friends?

Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”  Likewise, I can never tell you where my gratitude ends.  It’s kind of like the last 10 minutes of class after a long day.  It just goes on and on.

LENT DAY 23:  I am thankful for my home.  I feel like I’m on house arrest with this quarantine and being confined to this space makes me realize how grateful I am to have it.  It’s a respite from life’s tilt-a-whirl spin — the place I feel most like myself.   It is freedom from all the world’s want. Content in the stillness of pleasures as simple as the cat folding its doughy body into a warm circle on my lap, I know peace.

Home shelters the love of my family; it shelters my heart.

 

LENT DAY 24: I am thankful for play.  I am thankful for big boxes that invite me inside – for spontaneity and silliness.  I am grateful for moments where everything isn’t serious or dire or urgent — when self-consciousness isn’t more important than self.

Play nice.  But make sure you play.

 

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY 25:  I am thankful for nature.  This is where words fail me because what God creates in nature is so organically stunning that my words feel plastic in comparison.  So I will silence my words and listen to the ants march, leaves rustle, breeze whistle, birds chirp, and blooms whisper.   And I will be awed by the glory of God.

 

 

LENT DAY 26:  I am thankful for technology.  Most days, I would rather complain about how it pings at me; how it makes my already fragmented mind feel like it has 100 more tabs open; how it brainwashes my children; and challenges my own self-worth.  But today, huddled around the television with my family watching Bishop Estevez celebrate mass I realized how much good technology makes possible too.

I am grateful that in this time of social distancing, technology connects us.  It reminds us that we aren’t alone. It gives us a platform to reach out to others, to offer encouragement, and to share our faith.

Let’s show Covid-19, how we Christians do viral by using technology to spread love to our neighbor.

LENT DAY 27:  I am thankful for birthdays.  Life is a gift.  Birthdays remind us to celebrate.  It doesn’t matter how many candles are on the cake, or if no one can find the matches to light the candles.  It doesn’t even matter if there is a cake.  Ice cream is more important anyways.  What matters is that we recognize that every life should be celebrated and every day is a chance to be a gift to someone else.

(Happy 15th birthday to my joy, Alex. He didn’t get a train-shaped cake or the learner’s permit he so badly wanted today, but he has a mama that loves him more than anyone on this earth. I would like to think that makes up for all of it!)

LENT DAY 28: I am thankful for joy. It is of God – a glimpse of what awaits. Unlike happiness, it isn’t fleeting.  We experience it in the people we love, the memories we cherish, and in our relationship with Christ.

Joy to the World isn’t just a song we sing during Christmas.  It’s a call to love that we answer as Christians.

 

What are you thankful for today?

Project Gratitude: Week 3

Hi all,

Not sure about you, but I feel like I am living in the upside-down.  Don’t know what that is?  My point exactly.

No one could have known of the additional burdens we would carry this Lenten season.  The hardships of homeschooling, working from home, self-quarantining, toilet paper hoarding, and compulsive hand-sanitizing.  There’s too much news.  Not enough news.  Too much togetherness.  Not enough togetherness.  It would be easy to list grievances instead of gratitude.  Still, in all the viral mess that has come from this pandemic, I am reminded of the many things that I have to be grateful for.  I hope you are too.

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” 

~ Meister Eckhart

LENT DAY 15:  I am thankful for journalism.  Truthtellers.  Investigators.  Facts.  No bias and no bull.  It doesn’t always happen, but it is a great service when it does.  When we are better informed, we make better decisions; we make better citizens and communities.    Preserving the integrity of truth is paramount to a civilized society.

 

 

LENT DAY 16: I am thankful for hard conversations. Having an honest and uncomfortable conversation allows us to have healthier and more enjoyable relationships. Our feelings matter. Smushing down anger, hurt, and disappointment is like trying to deflate a balloon by sitting on it. It pops before it flattens. By letting go of our burdens, we are free to rise.

 

 

LENT DAY 17: I am thankful for food.  I hate being hungry.  Those who are around me hate when I am hungry too.  Still, I sometimes forget to be grateful for the abundance of food I have access too; the way it brings me together with people I love; and how it nourishes me so that I may live fully.

Now, if only I didn’t have to cook it!

 

LENT DAY 18: I am thankful for faith.  Schools, public events, and virtually life as we know it are under quarantine.  What a comfort it is to have faith that God will protect us, that his will for us is good, and that regardless of life’s uncertainty, we can turn to him during difficult times. Have faith that humankind will do all they can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by spreading acts of love instead.

In other words, share your toilet paper. Read more