Fair Well 2020

This year has been like a creepy stroll through a fun-house at the county fair– a maze of bewildering, distorted experiences where the walls narrow and bend while the floor beneath shifts in chaotic uncertainty and the exit seems to snake so far into the future that the tipsy-turvy wobble of reality starts to feel normal.

If I could find a way out, I would hide among the livestock and let puffs of pink sugar dissolve on my tongue while pondering the slanted profile of a goat.  Hiding for the rest of 2020 is tempting.  It’s been a hard year with way more steep drops and hard climbs than the ricketiest roller coaster.  I’m not a fan of roller coasters so I’m over it all. I’m ready to say farewell to 2020 — blow a goodbye kiss to it through my masked face and wait for next year.

But if I have learned anything, it is to be grateful for each day that I am given.  I used to think this kind of gratitude meant that I would be in a persistently good mood, that I would never be annoyed at the people in my life, and that I would be completely satisfied regardless of my circumstances.  It would be the pinnacle of my spiritual evolution with some ceremonial demarcation comprised of wrapping my head in a turban and singing Kumbaya to my cats.  And as much as I probably should wrap my head in a turban until I can see my hairdresser again, gratitude looks nothing like that. Read more

Poetry of Life

In my early twenties, I came across a poem in a gift shop in Savannah, Georgia.  I bought the book and decided that I wanted to live the way the 85-year-old author would if she could live her life over.

These are her words:

If I had my life to live over again,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax.
I’d limber up.
I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances,
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would, perhaps, have more actual troubles but fewer imaginary ones.
you see, I’m one of those people who was sensible and sane,
hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments.
If I had to do it over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else- just moments,
one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute.
If I could do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had to live my life over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances,
I would ride more merry-go-rounds,
I would pick more daisies.

– Nadine Stair

As young as I was, I understood the wisdom in her words.  I recognized my own tendency to carry a parachute in my purse “just in case.” I knew I worried too much about the future and too little about making the most of the present.  I didn’t eat enough ice cream and I was terrified of making mistakes.

The fanciful imagery of her words reminds me of giddy laughter, fireflies, and long, lazy naps with the cat.  Over the years, I thought of how those images juxtaposed against the harder realities of life – loneliness, loss, and suffering so painful that we can’t imagine anything as hopeful as a daisy.  What Ms. Stair wrote was a reminder to make beautiful moments right now regardless of our circumstances.

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Not to brag, but…

I know we aren’t supposed to brag but I’m not good at many things.  I didn’t make the cheerleading team in sixth grade.  I remember the awkwardness of getting picked near last for teams in P.E. class.  I didn’t even make grade school chorus – and everyone made the chorus.  Everyone, that is, except for me and a boy going through early adolescence whose voice cracked mid-syllable like a banjo with a broken string.   Eventually, his voice became smooth and steady while mine remains a unique mix of southern, nasally, whine.  It’s as if I speak my own dialect and apparently it should not be put to music.  As such, I feel like I get special dispensation when it comes to boasting.  After all, I feel like God would want me to focus on my strengths after so many obviously traumatic childhood experiences.

All that is to say, I am really good at finding shark’s teeth.  (I know I probably should have made sure you were sitting down for that.)  Last time I went to the beach I found 38 shark teeth in less than two hours.  Since I am a self-proclaimed-shark-tooth-finding expert, I feel obligated to teach others several important lessons from my experiences:

  1. There are treasures everywhere if you are only patient enough to look.  Slow down and pay attention to the gifts in your life.  I bet if you look close enough you will find way more than 38.

 

  1. Life is messy, but it’s also full of miracles. Notice them.  Like the debris of crushed shells on the beach, if we aren’t careful then all we will see are the broken pieces of our lives.  We can never lose sight of the way God redeems our suffering often surprising us with unexpected gifts of awe.

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You’ve Got Talent

Growing up, I was never in the talent show.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  I could barely pass math, so the notion of talent seemingly passed me by.  Life felt too narrow to think of talent as anything other than singing, dancing, or playing a musical instrument – none of which I could do.

As I grew, so did my broadening of what I consider talent.  The last several summers I attended a talent show for special needs campers as part of Catholic Charities Camp I Am Special program.  My son is one of the teenage buddies responsible for a special needs camper for a week.  It’s impossible to convey the scope of what this entails, the way these teenagers empty themselves in the compassionate care of their camper, and how this emptying fills them in ways that their social media feeds never do.

I don’t know if that’s considered a talent by the world’s standards, but Camp I Am Special culminates their week-long activities with a talent show featuring buddy and camper.  Sometimes this entails a lightsaber duel, a song, or for more limited campers the simple twitch of their foot to music.  It’s humbling to watch.  Each time I vacillate between joy and tears. The tears aren’t of pity but rather for the purity of love embodied.  Appearing limitless despite what physical or mental limits exist, this love is enveloping.  The talent show is an expansive experience that broadens how I think of differences, gifts, and abilities to give.

This year, I not only witnessed it, but I was also an unlikely participant.

Mid-way through the talent show, a young man was singing and dancing to Y.M.C.A. by The Village People.  He knew how to engage the crowd getting them to clap, sing, and spell letters with their limbs.  He bounced off the stage and jaunted down the aisle of spectators high fiving them as he passed.  On his second trip down the aisle, he whisked me out of my seat and before I even knew I was standing, he spun me under his arm.  Never letting go of my hand, he pulled me towards the stage where I joined him for the remainder of the song.

I thought about being self-conscious, or how silly I might look, or how I might mess up the timing of my letters to the lyrics (which I did).  Yet, as I stood on stage in what was my very first talent show, I realized it wasn’t about doing it perfectly or being the best or shining in the way gold sequins under the spotlight do.  It was about the gift this young man had to bring joy to others, to remind us to abandon worldly standards of beauty, value, and contributions and consider that loving one another is always going to be the show-stopper.

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Whale of a Summer: the Good Life

I got the new Vineyard Vines catalog in the mail.  One of its pages teased:  92 summer days ahead.  I couldn’t help wonder if whoever wrote that sent their kids to Catholic School.  I checked my own school calendar for accuracy and calculated we only have 68 days of summer.  How’s that for a penance?

I don’t know why this struck me anyway.  Maybe it was all the crystal blue water splashed on the pages selling pastel-colored polo shirts for $85 a pop.  But, I couldn’t stop thinking of that number.  It was so finite.  So, use it or lose it.  While summer has not officially started, I can’t help but feel a little panicked about its inevitable passing.  It reminds me of how fast all of life is passing.  I wonder how many whale logo purchases it would take for me to slow down and have some of those carefree moments like the people in the catalog.

I was grateful to Shep and Ian for reminding me to embrace the days ahead that sprawl out like a bath towel on the beach.  Too short.  While I don’t love lists because I can never find them after I make them, I made a plan for summer that would make any whale smile.

Forget about being mindful:  Lord have mercy. There is so much pressure to be in the moment.  I lost a great bulk of my mind during childbirth and what’s left of it doesn’t want to focus on putting a fork in the dishwasher.  Most of what I do is just not that interesting and I know that would probably make Oprah sad for me.  However, the season of life I am in is hurried and hectic, mundane and meaningful, and relies heavily on mercy and grace.  So, I don’t have a lot left for mindfulness.  Instead, let your minds wander.  We use to do this as children — boredom would breed great imaginings, inventions, and undiscovered places.  Let your minds drift away to a happy memory, a hope for the future, or a childhood dream.  This makes putting a fork in the dishwasher so much more pleasant. Read more

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

Encouragement: the Secret Worth Sharing

I have a secret file that I keep on my computer.  I know that makes me sound a bit like a CIA operative working on top secret missions.  (I cannot confirm or deny this).  Admittedly, I have a pretty good cover.  A married mother of two who writes about Jesus, hangs out with cats, and moonlights for the government while wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt.  You can’t make this stuff up.  Or, can you?

Anyway, back to reality. I have this file that I keep on my computer labeled “encouragement.”  I know you thought it was going to say “delusions of a Christian writer,” but it doesn’t.  It simply reads encouragement.  If you were to open it, you would find emails I saved from people who took the time to tell me how my writing touched them.  I am not sure what compelled me to start it.  (Maybe because I was consumed with self-doubt, terrified that the vulnerabilities I shared would humiliate myself and my family, and perhaps, worse of all, that I was leaving a paper trail of evidence supporting an extended stay in a mental health facility.  You know, just your small, everyday concerns).  When I would get an email of appreciation or encouragement, it made me feel less alone, braver, and best of all, that I was making a difference.  I cherish them.  Each kindness feels like a gift from God, encouragement made holy through the sacred gift of love in which it was made.  Deleting them felt akin to throwing a fresh bouquet of flowers in the trash.  I couldn’t do it.   So, I started my secret file, a hoarder of happy words. Read more

Marie Kondo Craze and Life-Changing Joy of God

Oh the craze of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant and author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  She has the country folding their clothes like origami and looking for sparks of joy in the mess of a categorical closet clean-out.  Her method, known as KonMari, has followers purging closets and piling clothes.  If the big, fat mess you make doesn’t give you a panic attack, then you proceed to touch each article of clothing.  If the sparks don’t fly, the item does, but not until you thank it for its service (and people think I am weird for talking to my cats).

I was looking at my closet and thinking how insane it would be to pull everything out.  I mean, I hung it up already.  It’s already clean and ironed.  It seems kind of sadistic to pile it like a heap of dead leaves.  After all, how much joy am I going to have from wrinkling perfectly ironed clothes and then rehanging them?  Then, I worried I wouldn’t find any sparks in my pile.  I would be like a homely girl that doesn’t get a Valentine.  No spark for you.  How sad would that be?  (It’s very sad.  I’ve been that girl).  I could be inspired to donate my entire closet, and end up joyless with no origami in my dresser.

Pondering her method, I wondered what it would be like to take a mental inventory of our lives and discover what sparked joy?  Would we start a fire?  Saint Catherine of Sienna said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”  But that wasn’t about deciphering joy, it was about discerning who God created you to be.  Sometimes that seems even harder than cleaning out closets and organizing tchotchkes.  Whenever I examine my life, trying to answer the weighty question of purpose, I feel a spark of panic, not joy.  Maybe Kondo would have me thank that question for its dubious service, and send it on its way.   Perhaps that works with the material, but when it comes to setting the world on fire for God, we don’t want to dismiss the unique purpose he created for us.  “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28). Read more

Beauty in Being Good Enough

I always felt unremarkable, which I think I could have been okay with if the world didn’t always send messages that made me feel as if ordinary was an outrage.  When I was a kid, the word average meant you were like everyone else.  It meant you were okay.  You were enough.  You fell into the middle and you weren’t worried about being out-twirled at baton practice or made fun of when the metal bar fell on your head.

Those were happy days.  If, somewhat unremarkable.

But at some point, and maybe it was when I started paying attention, everything changed.  Being average meant you were like the less-than sign used in math – pointing in the wrong direction, open to the mundanity of mediocracy.  A losing symbol in a world that equates greatness with worthiness.

Whatever happened to good enough?

I suppose that is why I am so fond of God. While he asks me to be good, he has always believed I am good enough.  Of course, I didn’t always know that because I was too distracted with headlines on glossy magazines, books on bettering, and tried and true tips that felt like a tongue twister of tortured suggestions. Read more