Being Brave

As I got ready to go walk last night, the clouds began to gather just west of our house.  I don’t like being out in stormy weather, maybe at the far end of my route when the rain and lightning start.  I also really needed the walk.  I made a compromise with myself, got in the pool, started walking in the shallow end and listened to another marvelous podcast with Krista Tippet who was interviewing Jane Gross about the “Far Shore of Aging”.  Walking through water slows you down, I don’t have a fancy gizmo to keep my iPhone from getting wet so I had to strain to hear the conversation, stop sometimes and improvise ways to keep moving so I could still listen.  I’m not sure when it happened but at some point,  the listening reached across into prayers for my friend Carolyn, and her mother June.   Carolyn is rowing her mother to that shore and I am humbled to get to be her friend through this time.

I am slowly plodding through a grant application process that is hugely important to our school success program at El Centro.  I have been doing some hard work related to the future of the NRRM and today I have to take another major step.  I could, maybe should, be working on one or the other of these responsibilities.  Instead, I find myself reflecting on bravery, courage and heroism.  As I prayed for Carolyn and June, I kept coming back to those words. That in turn got me thinking how my understanding of  those words has changed.

I’ve been introduced to three TV series that I would never have made myself available to before: The Walking Dead, Firefly and Dr. Who.  Sherod is quite disgusted with me—taking risks with these programs when I have steadfastly refused to watch TV programs like Deadwood with him in the past.  I don’t know how to explain that getting into these series goes along with getting a paddleboard and allowing myself to stand where there is no firm ground beneath me.  My mom was one of the most anxious, fear-filled persons imaginable.  That’s infectious.  These are some small, safe attempts to face into the fear and put it in a different place in my life.  I’m getting exposed to some fine TV, occasionally amazing eye-candy and finding it oddly reassuring that I can sit through some pretty horrifying zombie attacks.   It strikes me that one of the leit motifs of all three series has to do with the heroism that is clearly on display because the themes of all three are so epic.

On Saturday, I went back and watched Lost In Translation from the beginning.  It’s one of the movies I’ve watched several times since it first came out in 2003 and Sherod and I got to go see it at the theater.  In those days, things were hard with Maria so getting to go to the movies was quite out of the ordinary for us.  That it was a finely crafted movie that I loved gave it a special place in my heart.  I’ve been thinking about how different it is from this new, minor addiction of mine.  In a nutshell, the two protagonists, Bob and Charlotte, are as dislocated and disoriented by their own lives as they are by the fact that they find themselves in Tokyo, jet lagged and suffering terrible insomnia.  If there is anything epic in this movie it is their individual loneliness and isolation.

It’s hard to say that either of them is brave, much less heroic.  As the movie unfolds you see these two people, both of them married to other people, strike up a friendship that keeps edging closer and closer to something both much more trite and clichéd, and at the same time, more beautiful, more mysterious, deeper.  How will he or she or any of us acknowledge a truth about ourselves when it is very complicated, carries seeds of great pain and and can ripple awful consequences out far beyond our own aches and disappointments in life?  Sometimes, the most we can do is name such a truth to our own selves and carry our small and shining epiphany with gentleness and care, not needing to know or do anything more than that.

In this particular movie, the protagonists accomplish what rarely happens—they find there is a way to honor both what’s real about their chance meeting and the commitments and larger story of each of their lives.  This isn’t the stuff heroes are made of.  But I think it’s fair to say that there is something brave about not quitting on those difficult truths that could cause great damage, but that carried honestly and responsibly, allow us to see the cosmic, stellar, epic beauty of what it means to be a person.  I think there’s a paradoxical integrity as well:  we are the sum of all those pieces that don’t quite fit together and those that do.  In these middle years I find that there’s a way to accept, and sometimes celebrate, that this precisely, is our life.

Sin, Sorrow and Signs

Sin, Sorrow and Signs

It was hot today.  Really hot.  I sat outside for about an hour in the late afternoon and even my eyelids were sweating.  It’s been a stressful couple of weeks. Reflecting on sin, revisiting sorrow, struggling to find a way forward through hard times has been wearing. At lunch today, during a work-related meeting where everyone was testy as all get out, it felt like my head would explode.  Aaaargh!

And then, after a wonderful visit with my spiritual director, it was time for my ramble.  At 7:30 it was still hot but somehow, that felt good.  And when I got to the little park almost at the end of my current route, the Dr Elizabeth Hays Civic Park, I turned in to do the loop around it.  About halfway through the park, I noticed a rather large bird on the ground in front of me.  I slowed down until I stopped and could look closely.  It was a small burrowing owl.  We looked at each other for a couple of minutes and he was gracious enough to allow me to take this somewhat pitiful little picture before moving on.  I continued down to 441 then turned back.  Since I had my iPhone with me, I was listening to some music.  The music of Seals & Crofts dates me but I love their song Summer Breeze so I’m bopping down the street humming along and literally, just as they sing the lyric, “sweet days of summer, the jasmine’s in bloom” I walk by a hedge of jasmine so fragrant and sweet it almost makes me high.  After breathing deeply and thanking God for such loveliness, I go on.  Not 5 minutes later, I am walking by a house with a nice lawn in front and all of a sudden, the sprinkler system comes to life full force and drenches me.  Just drenches me.  Remember, it’s been hot as heck today and oh my God, it’s baptism, crossing through death to new life.  With the night breeze already picking up, I walked on refreshed and renewed, overwhelmed with gratitude.  And there was one last gift left to accept.  When I got home,  Sherod had the TV on and was watching one of my most absolutely all time favorite movies ever, Lost in Translation.  I missed about the first half but got to see the end and that is one of the best endings ever. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should. Tonight is the start of my weekend and all that’s left to say is:

“Goodnight stars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere ”

Good, good night…

Putting  Some Pieces Together

Putting Some Pieces Together

This morning,  when I read the post “The Grief We Carry in Our Bodies” I was deeply moved.  Earlier in the day, Sherod and I had had a conversation with a very perceptive, smart person who was probing my husband about his response to the Aurora killings. A combat veteran who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War, Sherod has always been very aware of PTSD.  Our friend was asking about any PTSD responses all the news coverage might have triggered for him.  He said no.  But the minute she asked him that question, I realized that especially over the weekend, I had been dealing with some pretty serious flashbacks of those bleak, horrible last bits of my my mom’s life.  I didn’t connect that conversation with the blog post and pictures of Dark Elegy.  The woman who created this piece of artwork interviewed mothers of the victims of Lockerbie, asking them to remember how their bodies had responded to the news that their child had died.  As I re-read that part, I found myself duplicating in my mind’s eye, how my body positioned itself in that hissingly quiet moment in my parent’s living room, when it was finally over, and the disfiguring suffering on my mother’s face had not yet smoothed out. My mind said, “she’s dead.”  In response, I drew myself up as tall as I could and held myself as still as if I might shatter if I moved.  The three of us who survived were still like that for several moments.  Then all the planning and preparations we’d put ourselves through in the previous two weeks took over and each moved to carry out the duties we’d been assigned.  I am stunned, even writing this, to remember (or at least believe that I remember) those moments in such detail.

This much I’m pretty sure of: my body understands when people talk about PTSD symptoms, though I would not be so presumptuous as to claim that I have been through anything like the trauma of Aurora or Vietnam, or Afghanistan.  The sadness on Friday, crying into the ocean and holding on to my spouseman for dear life, the flashbacks, my visceral response to Dark Elegy.  All of it leaves me pretty shaken and more aware than ever that our bodies really do carry the grief, and carry it for so much longer than I could have imagined.  No matter how busy, how focused, how distracted I am by everyday claims on me, my body won’t lie and say everything is just peachy keen wonderful, like I’d like to will my life to be.

Incarnation: Yet Another View

Incarnation: Yet Another View

About 6 or 7 years ago, I was selected to go to a writer’s workshop sponsored by the Lilly Foundation through the Louisville Institute.  I spent a week in DC, stayed at what was then the College of Preachers on the campus of the National Cathedral and got to experience very briefly what it is like to write intensely and almost full time.  Lauren Winner and Carol Gallagher, two well known writers in religious circles especially, led the workshop. Each afternoon, we gathered to share what we’d written, talk about writing and listen for pearls from the more accomplished among us.  It was wonderful.  One of the particular graces of that week was meeting a young Presbyterian minister called MaryAnn McKibben Dana.  She has a wicked good sense of humor. I remember thinking she had a wisdom far beyond her age when I met her and that sense has only grown as I’ve gotten to know bits and pieces more about her through her blogs Her first was called ReverendMother.  Her current blog is called theblueroomblog. She’s just published a book too, about keeping Sabbath with her young family.  She also allowed me to friend her on FaceBook and I am constantly confronted, intrigued and delighted by some of the places she points me to.  Yesterday, she posted a link on FB that spoke with enormous eloquence to the events of last week and also to the place I find myself in this year, dealing with grief and loss and incarnation all at once.  With my thanks to MaryAnn, I urge you to read this post.

The Works of the Flesh

The Works of the Flesh

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:16-21

Continuing on with the Exercises in Daily life includes the obligatory visit with St. Paul. I did not like spending time with this passage.  I imagine I began to try to leave my body around the time of my first surgery, when I was 18 months old.  I never stopped trying, probably until the last year. When I look at my life, I’d have to say that it is precisely that estrangement, that effort to live as if my body weren’t worth inhabiting, that has led me to do the things I most regret.  I have no problem acknowledging the list of “works of the flesh” enumerated in these verses as a good descriptor of ways in which I fall short and do harm. It’s the attribution I struggle with.

Another part of the work of following the way of Ignatius is called the “daily examen”.  You can find a good description of this approach to reflection and prayer in a wonderful paper written by Fr Dennis Hamm, SJ called Rummaging for God.  Here‘s a link to the paper.  Among other things, the daily examen is an opportunity to recognize and offer fractures, bruises and wounds, both mine and those I cause, to the Source of our redemption and healing.  At its best, this practice allows me to look at myself with honesty and at the same time, some gentleness and hope—the focus is not on all the ways in which I am a miserable wretch, but rather on the ways in which God continues that “slow patient work” with me.  So, no.  Presumptuous as this may be, I put this bit aside for now, glad to be reminded that there are so many ways, both subtle and not, in which I fail, but adamant that the deepest desire of my flesh is “wholeness and health”, what is holy, and good.

A Real Day Off

A Real Day Off

Who knew hard comes in so many different forms and fashions.  Over the past 3 weeks Sherod and I had to confront that our life work, the New River Regional Ministry that we’ve poured ourselves into is not immune to the economic seismic shifts the world is going through.  It’s easy to talk about courage and hope and generosity when there is an abundance of resources and everything is on the “up and up”.  It’s not so easy to live into those graces when times get tough.  Across the board, we’ve had to make significant salary cuts and in some cases, cut the hours of employment of people we’ve worked with side by side for 16 years.  The possibility of deeper cuts looms.  Between Sunday evening and Tuesday evening, I got about 6 1/2 hours of sleep and thanked my lucky stars for the years I spent in the Human Resource Analysis department at FedEx.  St Ambrose has a small preschool that’s been sort of chugging along but some changes in the state funding we receive for a big part of our program made it imperative to analyze our financial performance in a way no one has before.  I had to do it largely alone, using analysis “muscles” I hadn’t exercised in years.  I had to make sure I got it right–the jobs of 7 people depend on that.  I had to try to balance a strong sense of mission and ministry with the new financial realities we’ll be operating with from this point forward.  This wasn’t playing at being church, this was being church in dead earnest.  Sherod and I also had evening meetings every day since Monday. The meeting last night began at 6:30 in the evening and didn’t break up till almost 9:30.  We were wiped out.

We slept in a little later than usual, then we headed out to Black Point Marina.  When Sherod and I moved to Florida, we brought with us a 21″ trailerable sailboat, Los Locos, and put it in for a sail on Biscayne Bay at this marina, close to “Mount Trashmore”–the highest elevation in Southeast Florida.  About a year later, when we swapped her out for the larger and good vessel Promise, we sailed from the yacht broker’s marina on South Beach down to Black Point and berthed Promise there for a long time.  So going to Black Point, this time with One More Chance, the 17″ motorboat we traded down to after Maria came into our lives, was a homecoming of sorts.

Putting in at Black Point

Daisy and Boo came along–we’ve always brought our dog(s) with us on these outings. It felt unfair to leave them at home and both dogs enjoy the water though they are both chicken about joining us for a dip.  Our dog Polly, who came with us from Memphis, loved the water.  She’d swim with us till she was water-logged.  I miss her.

Are we going to go? Can we go? Let’s go!

There were also reminders of times we did this with Maria.  Sometimes she loved it, sometimes not so much–less and less, as she grew up, in fact.  Her daddy had her all figured out when it came to his things, that’s for sure…

I don’t think I will ever stop being amazed that I have access to a place where I look out and this is what I see at the start of the day:

I am also always amused and delighted watching the folks that come out to fish in the channel out of the marina. We wave at each other and there’s a sense of instant camaraderie:

We went out to Elliot Key

and the sandbar just north of Elliot

The Sand Bar

All those years ago, when we first came to Florida, Elliot Key was our favorite place to go–we loved to fish, swim and snorkel. One Thanksgiving we “hung off the hook” for the entire weekend with Charlie, Sherod’s son–best turkey-lurkey day ever!  We were frisky and playful and full of life when we were out there. At night we got to see the whole cosmos.  Today we got back in that lovely water again, though we eased in gingerly. I didn’t jump off the side like I used to.  We clung to each other for a long while and sadness kept bubbling up for us both.   I think we’re more accepting about the fact that sorrow finds us in so many different places.  Our lives are so busy and different now that each faces it on his or her own most of the time. It was comforting to feel the solid presence of my husband; he was more real than the grief.  And after a while, the sadness diminished.  We were both glad to be out in this lovely place, both glad to feel the breeze on our face, both glad to have a day off.

Mama Who Bore Me-Redemption

Mama Who Bore Me-Redemption

We’ve had some marvelous visits with our girl over the past 2 weeks.  All of a sudden, looks matter and she is making a real effort to be well groomed.  We get cross-eyed and dizzy headed by the perfume she’s taking to soaking in, but even that is part of the joy of this moment.  Earlier this week, she informed me that she now has 2 boyfriends–Jason and Daniel.  She met both of them at summer camp and she’s shown me the sweetest, tenderest love notes a girl could ask to receive–both of them look like they were written by a first-grader to judge from the penmanship and grammar, but they have all the awkward magic of a teenager putting words to paper.

After teasing Maria a bit about having not one but two boyfriends, I asked her how you get that many.  “Mami, you have to smell clean and look pretty.”

During those years when I was so twisted and torn about the whole thing of love and crushes and boyfriends and discovery, I didn’t know.  You have to smell clean and look pretty.  That simple.  That sweet.   Redemption takes many forms…

“Mama Who Bore Me?”

“Mama Who Bore Me?”

Spring Awakening debuted on Broadway in 2006 or 2007.    A couple of years ago, a production was performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center and I got to see it.  Two years later, I continue to reflect on the whole production, but especially, I have thought a lot about two of the musical pieces.  Doing the first week of the Ignatian Exercises, with it’s focus on sin has brought them into sharper focus.

As the lights come up in the first scene, there’s a young woman getting dressed—at first you only see her through the shadows of a space still in the dark of early morning.  As she finishes dressing, she moves to stand on a chair and sings.   I was mesmerized.  Like all good theater and music, the piece sang powerfully about my own life, my own sense of myself as a young person.  The friend I’ve known the longest, Carolyn, was here last weekend and went with me on one of my rambles.  We talked about being 18 and college roommates.  I had been determined to come to this country from the time I was a child and I’d pulled it off, only to fall apart inside.   The line, “Mama who gave me no way to handle things”, was a shocking reminder and recognition of all the ways I experienced my life from a place of powerlessness.

Mama Who Bore Me gets at a rather bizarre paradox that maybe exists in all adolescents and young adults, and certainly existed in me—in fact, it stayed with me for decades.  As we become conscious of ourselves and our existence, we cannot fathom that what is bad and broken and unholy in us is of our own doing and choice.  Surely, it is something passed on to us by others.  In the very same breath,  I would have been incapable of saying that there was hardly anything good, or lovely or worthwhile in me.

My body had been a battleground for good and bad all my life.  Once my dislocated hip was diagnosed, once all the drama associated with that truth about me had started playing out, everyone around me referred to my left hip, my dislocated, fragile, reconstructed hip that held me up against all odds, as my “bad hip”, that leg as my “bad leg”.  Conversely, my right leg was my “good leg”—dichotomy and contradiction was built into the common, everyday vocabulary about me.  Over and over again, it seemed like bad triumphed over good, that the pain, the ugliness, the isolation all seemed so much more powerful in defining me and my life.  By the time I began to discover desire, I am not sure I would have been able to see it as anything but bad, even if it was infinitely fascinating.  Adding desire to the mix of embodiment, only heightened my sense of being trapped and powerless.  As I listened to the young actor sing Mama Who Bore Me I ached for her and for the young person I was once.

The very first step of this first week of the Ignatian Exercises is an invitation to consider that sinfulness existed long before I came into the world and is something passed on, generation to generation.  What is so haunting and also helpful to me about Mama Who Bore Me is that it puts into words how we start reflecting on that and trying to give it meaning in our own lives.  At some point in my very early twenties, when I was depressed to the point of being suicidal, I finally got into therapy and began to make the connection that the profound, bone-breaking sadness I lived with had something to do with my experience of being flawed and bad, but not by my own choice or making. But I also began to understand that now, living on my own, in a new country, disconnected from all the people and circumstances I could blame for that sense of being so worthless, the decisions I was making also added to my sorrow.

I continued to consider myself powerless to do anything about that for many years.  I made some wretched choices along the way and caused way more damage than I usually care to acknowledge.  But perhaps the first real step into adulthood is when we quit worrying about how we came to be bad, sinful, broken, flawed—whatever you want to call it—and  accept that at some point, we simply have to carry the burden of that knowledge and start finding better ways to handle things.

In the summer of 1979, I spent incredibly long stretches of time alone in Fairfax, Virginia, living in the fullness of my depression and despair.  It was that same summer that a friend gave me the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  Though I had no car, I started learning to move around on buses and the subway in D.C., and got into a routine where after classes, most days, I packed a sandwich of peanut butter and banana, and took public transportation down to the Mall.  I was particularly fond of the Hirschorn Museum with it’s sculpture garden.  I would alternate between reading C.S. Lewis and going in to immerse myself in the artwork.  Often, my heart just raced with the sense of discovery and new horizons.  I still couldn’t love myself a whole lot but it began to seem just as possible that if something outside of me had made me “bad” then maybe something outside of me had actually made me and found that I was good.

In the Meantime

In the Meantime


I figured out a whole series of posts I want to do about sin when I went out walking tonight.  But in the meantime, here is a picture of happiness.  The spouseman hanging out with his buddy Tom, who has Sherod’s 6th grade sense of humor and the financial means to do things like buy a remote control whoopee cushion that gave the two of them endless hours of fun.  Today, they’ve gone fishin’.  Been a while since I saw Sherodsito look tickled.  Nice.



“Almighty and all-merciful God, I ask for the grace of growing in awareness of human sinfulness in the world and in myself, in history and in my present.  I ask to know the force of sin in all its power and complexity.  Grant me the courage, holy God, to see sin in all its horror and ugliness” ~ Materials from Joseph Tetlow, S.J., Choosing Christ in the World and Carol Ann Smith and Eugene F. Merz, S.J., Moment by Moment.

Several months ago, I began what is known as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.  I’ve mentioned them before in this blog.  Typically, you do the Exercises on a 30 day retreat.  When I went on my 8-day retreat in January, there were about 15 or 20 people starting their 30-day retreat, most of them baby Jesuits, who were only into their second year of formation, with many more years to go.   I still find myself praying for them all these months later, still filled with respect for the perseverance such prayer requires. I look forward to the day when I will get to do that myself.  But for now I have an alternative called the “Exercises in Everyday Life”—the same structure for prayer, reflection and discernment, done “in place”.

I am fortunate to have a spiritual director to take this path with me; she lives in another state and is comfortable meeting me most every other week for about an hour, in the space created by Google+Hangout.  R is, quite simply, a remarkable woman.  The losses she has endured make anything I’ve been through pale in comparison.  Her writing is stark and unrelentingly honest, a gift many of us consider powerful and generous.  She is generous in her listening as well.

In my first five months engaged with the Exercises, R patiently accompanied me as I stumbled my way through what amounts to the “work before the work.”  She gave me five sets of exercises that invited me to consider how God loves me, and who I am in God’s love.  It’s always been easier for me to think about God as “the ground of my being”.  We’ve laughed about how much I love granite and what a Nordic image that is. You need the granite under you when everything falls apart around you.  But it can get awfully hard lonely if all you do is take one step after another on that unyielding ground.

This afternoon during one of our conversations, I realized that the dinner my dad and I had with our old friends, the Croneborgs, on the night before we left Sweden carries another key metaphor of my life in faith: Eucharist.  I worked hard to “do right” with food on my trip; that combined with all the walking we did meant that I actually lost 2 more pounds while I was gone.  The restaurant we went to on that Wednesday night was typically Swedish; I chose the healthiest meal I could find—a delicious salad with prawns.  I only drank water.  It could have been a host and a drink of communion wine for it’s simplicity.  The abundance of memories, the sense of discovering people I thought I knew but only knew in the way a child does, the warmth all made this a banquet.  At one point, Mona and I found ourselves telling each other about moments of heart wrenching anguish related to our daughters and how they seemed amplified in the absence of our mothers. I didn’t know how much I needed to have that conversation until I had it.

This sounds terribly obvious, but I really do like being a grown up and having grown up conversations.  The years of struggle with my girl-child brought a lot of silence into my life and home.  I still love the silence—Sherod has left town to go fishing and I am almost resentful of having to give up the quiet when he comes back late tomorrow. But I lived in a very sad silence in the past decade and now find myself filled with words and conversations I’d like to have.  I suppose that’s why I keep this blog, along with my journal.  It is also why that night with Mona and Fredrik meant so much to me. The oneness in time and community I experienced still fills me with wonder as I think about our meal.  If I had any doubt about being loved beyond all reason, that night gave me incontrovertible proof that I live and move and have my being with a gracious, kind Friend.

It is from that place of certainty that I now really get started with the Ignatian exercises.  The first week focuses awareness on sin.  I started the post with the prayer I will say repeatedly as I do the exercises for this “week” (which will probably take me lots of weeks to get through–you know, the elasticity of time when you’re doing something that matters).  Given what I’m going through in my ministry, it comes at an appropriate time.  Engaging sin is not something I look forward to.  But if I found grace in the midst of bitter loss and sorrow, surely there is much for me to find in the “week” ahead.