Vanity: I Look Like a Basset Hound

Lately, when I catch a glimpse of my face it appears to be melting like candle wax or colorful taffy in the hot Florida sun.  It evokes the hollow horror of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.” Since I haven’t taken any LSD, I figure this droop must be part of aging.  I spoke with my doctor about the way my origami shaped eyelids are folding in on themselves, and she said that she thinks I could qualify for the medically-necessary surgery to put them back in their proper place so my vision isn’t impaired.  I didn’t know whether to feel validated by her comment or virtually hopeless.

Earlier that day I was speaking with a friend who is teaching a class on the Book of Ecclesiastes and he mentioned its humanistic view of vanity which goes beyond society’s obsession with appearances.  The only thing I knew offhand about the chapter is the passage that begins “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

It reads like beautiful poetry, a cadence of simplicity making sense of a senseless world: “a time to be born and time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,” (Ecclesiastes 3: 2-3).    A time to be young and cute with body parts in their proper spot and a time to have your eyelids tied up with thread so you can see every new crevice of decay.  Somehow that line must have been edited out.  I suppose for the sake of brevity, not lack of validity. Read more

You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Virginia Slims cigarettes used to have an empowering ad campaign directed at women, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  If we ladies had come a little farther they would have left off “baby,” but it was the seventies and that’s as far as we had come: an anorexic cigarette, marketed specifically to our gender, empowering us to “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan.”  (That was another ad campaign for Enjoli perfume).

Personally, my idea of “coming a long way” has nothing to do with being someone’s baby or frying bacon.  Our world perpetually bombards us with messages meant to define the standards by which we measure our worth, success, value, and attractiveness.  These cultural norms permeate everything from what we put in our coffee to what we ink on our bodies.  A renaissance woman’s body would be considered chubby by today’s trends, just as the waifs of the eighties are considered a wisp of the athletically acceptable body type of today’s ideal woman.

And where is the God in any of it?

Would he measure how far we have come by what we smoke?  Or how we smell? By how we look in a pair of lululemon leggings? Or how capable we are of having a successful career while we fry bacon for our families?

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Mercy at the Bus Stop

I was doing my teenage Uber driving duties and thinking about the advice that encourages parents to talk to children in the car.  After all, they are a captive audience, don’t have to make eye contact (because God forbid, we have any of that), and both parent and child are physically restrained –that might not have been among the reasons listed but it does seem worth noting.  We were on the return portion of our journey into silence and I was lamenting the misery of it when I looked out the car window and saw a man sitting on a bus stop talking to himself.  Our eyes met and for a moment he silenced.

He was smoking a cigarette in the mid-day Florida heat.  I checked the temperature on my dash and it read 98 degrees.  I considered my relative comfort in the air-conditioned car and the ice cream in my freezer I planned to eat when I arrived home as a consolation from both the heat and the unwelcome hush of angst that tormented my drive.  I recalled the smoking man in the intolerable heat, sitting in solace, speaking to himself.  I thought of that moment our eyes met, and how for the first time that day I felt seen.  It mattered not to me what I was seen as or how I might have looked or what he might have thought of me. The moment reminded me of the universality of God’s mercy at a time when I felt somewhat desperate for connection.  I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me, but through him, I saw a reminder that suffering is not the only thing that is universal, God’s mercy is too.

While I consider my circumstances are likely better than his – the reality was at that moment, I felt as miserable as I perceived him to be.  It’s easy to compare ourselves to others.  We have standardized what we consider justifiable levels of loneliness, pain, emptiness, and grief, and if it doesn’t fall on the spectrum of horror or woe that we heard on the latest podcast then we feel like we need to buck up and go write in our gratitude journals.  Before I understood the mercy of God, I would have thought the same thing.  There were so many times that the pain and challenges in my life became a wedge in my relationship with God because I didn’t think I had the right to seek his mercy.  I didn’t bring God what appeared to be trivial and trite by the world’s definition of suffering because it felt too small and I had been given too much.  The problem with that thinking is that it separates us from God and from the mercy that heals, comforts, and forgives the wounds in our heart.  We may not be worthy of God’s mercy or deserve it.  Regardless, it pours out of him – a gift of unfathomable consolation that we choose whether to accept.

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Waiting at Red Lights

The other day I was rushing to get somewhere when I was stopped by a red light — a very long red light. Heart-pumping, brain-whizzing, grip on the steering wheel clenching, I felt certain the world would end if the stoplight didn’t turn green that instant.  I watched enviously as cars whizzed by wondering when it would be my turn, wondering if the light was broken, wondering how much longer I could possibly wait as all of humankind seemingly passed by at an unimpressive 40 miles per hour.

That’s what it feels like with God sometimes – an agonizing, monotonous wait. “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).  Certainly, God’s timing is not my own.  I have known this for some time and while I try not to begrudge it, there are moments in my prayer life where I feel the same urgency I did that day at the stoplight.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you,” (Matthew 7:7).  Stop at a red light and it will turn green.  Presto.  Prayer answered.  I feel like that scripture should come with a bible-sized addendum outlining exceptions, exclusions, and caveats to explain the time gap between asking and receiving.

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Discernment: Yes, no, or know

By definition, the word “no” has a negative connotation.  It conveys restriction, refusal, and denial.  It’s a flashing red light blinking a warning to stop.  It’s a shut door.  The end of a discussion. A command to pause.

I grew up in the eighties when war was declared on drugs, and the best-known weapon was the three-word slogan, “Just say no.”  I heard it from Nancy Reagan.  It was espoused on popular sitcoms like Punky Brewster and Diff’rent Strokes.  I read it on bumper stickers and posters.   Just. Say. No.

Easy peasy.  No was encouraged.  It was advocated. It was celebrated.  Like some algebraic equation, a negative turned into a positive.  But like all ad campaigns, it ran its course.  There was a new decade, new millennium, new drugs, and of course, new wars.  “No” is once again true to its definition.  It’s for the slacker.  The one who refuses to lean in.  The people who have limited constructs and little ambition.

Yes has become the world’s drug of choice.  We are encouraged to go all in, have it all, and do it all.  All for what?  At what price?  This 21st-century spin is blurring priorities.  Everything has become important.  Everything has to be done.  It’s encompassing, egocentric, and exhausting.

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On Purpose: what’s yours?

Most of us overcomplicate things.  I like to think I am better at this than most people but I know it is not nice to brag.  It’s one thing to overthink where you want to go for dinner (I have heard some people do this).  It becomes ever more complicated when we fixate on something as weighty as life’s purpose.

By middle age, if not as early as middle school, we realize life doesn’t always go as planned.  Yet we live in a world where the plan is all important – we have books about it, calendars, and self-imposed criteria for how it’s all going to go down like we are detectives Sonny and Rico on the 1980s television series Miami Vice.  If we just plan life with enough precision, our boat won’t crash, drug traffickers will meet their demise, and life will be as sunny as a sweat-less day at the beach wearing pastel T-shirts and a white suit.  That’s the script we are asked to write from ourselves from as early as preschool when a sing-song voice inquires about what we want to be when we grow up.  As if it’s merely a matter of picking what color space ship we want to fly during our mission to Mars.

I don’t mean to sound cynical because it can be fun to make plans, motivating to set a course, and rewarding to achieve goals, but you know what they say – “life is what happens when you are busy making plans.”  A friend of mine, who could be anyone really because to some degree I think all of us have gone through this – is questioning her life’s purpose.  Again, I don’t mean to brag but I have excelled in exploring the same question.  “What am I doing with my life?”  “What color is my parachute?”  “What is God’s plan for me?”  “Seriously, God, is that the plan?” I could go on because like I already said, I am really good at over-complicating things.  My friend puts it more succinctly and asks: “what are they going to write on my tombstone, ‘a good friend to all?’”   While that is better than “she was hit by a bus,” I certainly appreciate her perspective. Read more

Easter: the Rising

Sometimes I feel like a tiny bird with an injured leg from an encounter with the claws of a crazed cat.  I know how lucky I am to be here and how much worse things could be; yet, still, I carry a limp from my wounds that sometimes keeps me tethered to the ground.  (I might start telling people that when they ask me how I am doing.)

Life is so darn messy and most of us try terribly hard to tidy what we can.  In its constancy, it can feel like a marathon, and like the tiny bird, we merely hop along.  One of my favorite quotes is from Saint John Paul II who said: “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”  It conveys such unparallel joy – a skyward ascent of heavenly praise.  It hardly makes me think of hopping.

Indeed, we are the Easter people and we are meant to rise.  Lent is a time to unload the burden of sin we carry.  It’s a time to shed the miscellaneous and the excess.  It is a time to reconnect to God by disconnecting from our distractions.  Sometimes the Lenten experience feels empowering like a strenuous workout or the purging of an overstuffed closet.  Other times, it just feels hard.  All the emptying, sacrificing, and sustaining from a 40-day reflection can feel too austere for a hallelujah song.  No sweet little bird chirps that indicate winter’s hibernation is over.  Just a hop, hop.  Yet Easter is coming – not just at the end of this Lenten season.  Also, at the end of our lives.  In between, in the thicket of life’s doing and undoing, we rise.  Amidst the momentary affliction of life’s messiness, we remain upright.  “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it,” (Ezra 10:4).  Even when it’s hard or feels impossible — when there is not enough money, not enough time, not enough of your poor tired soul to go around — be strong and rise. Read more

Prayer: What a Catch

Last year, a friend of mine was taken to the emergency room.  She had the flu and was in critical condition.  Before I rushed to the hospital, I prayed a rosary for her.  The memory is like a blur.  My head was racing, my rosary beads were twisting, my stomach was clenching, my hands were shaking, and my heart was aching.  Even though I sat in a chair in my living room, every part of me seemed to be in motion.  I was anxious to get to the emergency room, but from somewhere inside a voice repeated.  Pray.  Pray.  Pray.

When I finished the rosary, I went on Facebook and begged others to pray for her.  I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I know it included “even if you don’t pray – pray anyway.”  I’m not usually that bossy in Facebook posts so I hoped people would get the seriousness of the situation.  Even if it wasn’t their friend or their situation, even if they were estranged from God, I needed them to pray.  I needed help for my friend.  I figured if someone didn’t have their own faith, they could borrow their neighbors and throw something up to God.  He’s a great catcher.  That’s what he does over and over again – he catches us.  He doesn’t get caught up in who knows who, or the grudges someone is holding against him.  He isn’t keeping score.  He just catches.

I don’t know how many people prayed for her that day but it seemed like an awful lot.  At the hospital, I prayed with her children.  Friends texted that they were praying.  I called our church and asked them to send a priest to pray too.  He came and administered the sacrament of anointing of the sick.  The doctors were doing everything they could, her friends and family were covering her in prayer, and she was fighting like the warrior she was. Read more

Marriage: Behind the Veil

It’s odd that we wear such fine attire on our wedding day when marriage is so messy.  It seems like it would be smarter to wear body armor or at least a sturdy raincoat to better prepare us.  Yet, the bride and groom don lace and bow ties, veils and patent leather, pearls and cuff links, willingly pledging themselves until death to the life of the other.

It’s all so genteel, it’s hard to imagine the years that follow are anything other than champagne and roses.  But champagne causes headaches, roses come with thorns, and marriage is messy.  It makes sense though because we humans are messy.  We come with pasts, preferences, and a penchant to think we are right.

Often there is no right, only two people who see things from different viewpoints. It can be ever so complicated.  I know marriages are not invincible.  I never approached the sacrament with body armor.  Like so many others, I began the journey in white lace, a full skirt, and optimism that outshined any intricate beading or sparkling tiara.

We start out thinking marriage is going to be a gentle dance like the carefully choreographed one we perform on our wedding day.  Inevitably, in marriage, there are missteps, clumsy moves, and moments when we or our partners let go instead of hold tight. Or sometimes, you just pick the wrong partner and no matter how many times you try to twist, they tango. Read more

Eternal Life and Disposable Society

My washing machine broke.  This had me spinning because it was less than three years old.  In fact, that was the problem.  The machine would fill, suds, rinse, and then, instead of spinning, it would make a few demonic sounds, stop abruptly, and flash an error signal with an incessant ping that required me to stop whatever I was doing and unplug the machine.

Of course, it wasn’t the only thing that became unplugged because I was left to deal with 50 pounds of soaking wet clothes and piles of unwashed laundry. Worse, was the feeling that I had been betrayed by this costly machine which promised to turn shmuck into shine.

Long story longer, I spent 60 bucks for a repairman to tell me that it was a computer malfunction and I should just buy a new washing machine because none of them work for more than a few years and repairs are too expensive to justify.  By this time, I was fantasizing about checking myself into a mental health facility.  I figured they could do the laundry and make my meals while I take a long nap. Then maybe if I am up to it, I would play a game of Parcheesi with another guest.

My husband suggested a simpler (although less satisfying) solution and off we went to buy another washing machine.  When I told the appliance salesperson about my trauma — figuring he was the next best thing to a trained mental health professional — he shrugged and said, “we live in a disposable society.” Read more