Busy, Busy, Busy

Today begins six weeks in which I will be incredibly busy. I have done what I could to prepare for it, though it wasn’t enough. After all, the past few weeks have been busy in their own right! When I start to feel pressure from the things I know are on the horizon, I have a tendency to give anxiety free-reign. And as I feel more anxious, I grow less patient, less able to take minor setbacks in stride. As anxiety reaches fever pitch, I begin to resent the conditions in which I find myself – as if I didn’t have a hand in creating them.

Because a lot, though not all, of what I will be doing in this busy period is work related, I will have a tendency to blame my job for the outcomes of my anxiety – if I snap at someone, if I drop the ball and let a friend down, if I miss an appointment. So my challenge is to remain centered and on task in my own life, and to not allow myself to abdicate responsibility for my actions.

Parker Palmer, my go-to guy, says this, in A Hidden Wholeness:

“The notion that we cannot have what we genuinely need is a culturally induced illusion that keeps us mired in the madness of business as usual. But illusions are made to be broken. Am I busy? Of course I am. Am I too busy to live my own life? Only if I value it so little that I am willing to surrender it…”

So, heading into Monday, I am pausing to take a deep breath. The next weeks are a marathon, not a sprint, so I need to pace myself and remember what I truly value!

The Songs Stuck in My Head

For the past week or so, there have been two songs in my head which refuse to leave. More specifically, there have been two lines, one from each song, which keep playing on a loop in my brain and I can’t seem to shake them. The fact that I had not heard either song in at least 25 years (possibly longer) made me that much more curious to understand: why these lines? why now?

Both songs are by Christian recording artists I listened to in my youth. The first by Keith Green (written by his wife Melody), Make My Life a Prayer to You.  The line that keeps playing over and over is, “…oh its so hard to see, when my eyes are on me.” The second is an even bigger memory stretch, by an artist named Honeytree, from a song called, I Am Your Servant: “…when you are lonely, you’re the only one to blame.”

Sometimes when song lyrics float to the surface of my thoughts and refuse to leave, it is because they are catchy and I happen to love the song at that moment. Sometimes, the song is connected to a specific memory that I’ve been playing over in my head. But sometimes, like in this instance, I believe the lyrics are a message I am meant to decipher then use in some manner. Deciphering whether the source of that message is my own heart or subconscious, or whether it is the result of Divine intervention, doesn’t seem to matter as much as parsing the message.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at these two lines, put them together and come up with the idea that I need to focus attention outward, toward others. And it certainly makes sense, as much navel-gazing as I’ve been doing recently. It also feels like a call to trust both what my heart and my friends have been telling me: that I have something to offer to others that can make a difference in their lives and I need to stop holding back out of fear or misguided feelings of unworthiness.

On another level, though, I can’t help but notice that both songs are calls to live a Christian life: one of faith, prayer, and service. I have always striven to live by Christian ideals, though I have not always been what could objectively be considered a practicing Christian. Is this a call to deepen my faith life?

Here’s what I believe today, thanks to a wonderful and illuminating conversation with my friend, Wendy, yesterday. If life is a series of dots, as Steve Job says, which we have to trust will connect in a coherent manner even though we cannot see the connections as we move forward, I am in the process of stepping onto the next dot – I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I’m ready to trust that I am being led where I need to go. In my daily, active life, as well as in the life of my spirit.

It didn’t take me long to find video of Keith Green on YouTube. Eventually, I found the Honeytree song, but I had to pay $.99 to download it in order to hear the entire song. I had forgotten some (though clearly not all) of the lyrics. The final stanza includes the lines, below, which seem like a perfect way to end this reflection:

I am a servant, getting ready for my part.

There’s been a change, a rearrangement of my heart.

At last I’m learning, there’s no returning once I start,

to live’s a privilege, to love is such an art…

A Poem by May Sarton

Now I Become Myself

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

May Sarton


Flashback Friday

The other night, a friend told me that if he could go back in time, he would choose 1973. His reasons were good ones, so I offer my own riff on his reflections: that brief period of childhood just before you fully enter into the self-consciousness of adolescence, old enough to have some freedoms and young enough not to abuse them (much). So the flashback photo is Christmas, 1972 or 1973 – whichever the actual date, this is the time period I’ve been remembering fondly all week.

Left to right:

Back: Jeff, Gwen

Middle: Jenifer, Shirley, Jack, Chris

Little ones on laps: Matt, Anne

Fearing Less

This morning, my friend Tricia and I made good on a challenge we gave ourselves: we spoke to a group of people not as the “experts” our job titles make us, but as Jen and Tricia, two people trying to fear less in our lives. It was a little daunting, but it also felt like a step I was ready to take after sharing so openly on this blog.

I shared with them a story that I haven’t shared with you all, yet. And I think it is about time to do so.

A few years ago, I went on a retreat at Prairiewoods, a Franciscan Spirituality Center here in Cedar Rapids. What attracted me to the particular retreat was that it was led by an Iowa writer named Mary Swander and based on the themes of her book The Desert Pilgrim (read a review, here). The book is set primarily in New Mexico, and the retreat was intended to look at Christian mysticism and healing. In reading the book, I discovered some interesting ways in which my life and Mary’s intersected, and that we shared a love of some of the same mystical places, such as the Santuario De Chimayo.

The retreat was an interesting experience, and I was very much enjoying being at Prairiewoods. On Saturday morning, the Center had offered retreatants the opportunity to schedule massages prior to our evening prayer service. I was given the last massage time slot, which would mean entering the evening retreat activities a few minutes late. During the massage, I was physically uncomfortable, had difficulty breathing, and became concerned (as did the massage therapist) about how I was feeling – especially since prior to getting on the massage table I had been fine.  The therapist was highly intuitive, and laid her hands on my back, saying, “I want you to know that, whatever issues you are dealing with, there are many people in this world and the next who love you. They want you to know they are with you, and care for you.” I felt significantly better after that, and as the massage ended, I felt ready to join the rest of the group. The massage therapist asked if I would be alright, and I replied that I was fine.

After dressing, I stepped outside into the frigid but clear February night, on my way to the building where my group was meeting. Suddenly, I was struck with what can only be described as an interior lightning bolt and I fell to my knees on the sidewalk – overcome with the certainty that I was going to die. And I don’t mean the existential concept that we all will someday die. I mean, the actual very real certainty that I was going to die that night. I was terrified. I only managed to get up from the ground because I didn’t want to die outside, alone. Once inside the retreat building, I realized that I was both crying and hyperventilating and that these facts might be too disruptive for the quiet prayer service in progress. I detoured to the ladies room.

Once locked in a stall in the restroom, I couldn’t shake the certainty of my own death. I imagined myself falling to the floor, and once again found strength to act by simply not wishing my last moments to be alone on a restroom floor. With a great deal of effort, I brought my breathing under control and dried my eyes. I joined the prayer service, luckily conducted by candlelight, and the calm and prayerful atmosphere helped to settle my nerves a bit. Still, my heart was racing and I could feel my fear as a palpable thing.

At the end of the prayer service, while the lights were still out, another retreatant said, “Mary, I sometimes get these messages while in prayer. Usually they are for someone else, and I don’t necessarily know what they mean, but I believe I’m meant to share them. I received two messages during this prayer service, may I share them?”  Mary threw the question to the group. We looked around, realizing that we were strangers to one another – and none of us had known this man who spoke prior to that morning when the retreat began. I suppose it was mainly curiosity that led the group to give its consent. He said he had a message for another woman in the group, and stated what that was. Then, he turned to me and said, “Jenifer, God says: I have a new path for you. Be ready.”

Given my internal state of panic and fear, I took this message as confirmation that I was, indeed, going to die that night. When we finished the formal activities, the group went its separate ways. I went to my room in the adjoining building, locked the door, turned on every light and took a seat on the bed. I sat up all night, waiting for Death. As I write this, with the perspective of time and distance, and after a great deal of thought and soul-searching, I realize this sounds somewhat dramatic and a little silly. But I am, as earnestly as possible, attempting to convey my experience of that literal “dark night of the soul”.

When morning arrived and there was light outside my room (as well as the electric ones inside it), I had come to a realization. I had a choice to make. I could either change my life, or I could die without ever becoming the person I wanted to be. Which did I fear more? Truth be told, I feared them both. But weighing more than 350 pounds, I knew there was a very real chance of the second coming true. I didn’t know whether I could change my life, but I knew I didn’t want the only “new path” available to be one in the afterlife.

Looking back, I can see that this event was the first in a long string of moments which have allowed me to rebuild my life. I am slow and stubborn, so God has (unfortunately) had to send more than one painful and/or frightening message my way. But I realized, preparing for our presentation this morning, that the one I received on that retreat was absolutely true: God had a new path for me. Each day, one step of that path is revealed. My job is to take that step or learn the painful lessons that come from allowing fear to choose otherwise. Slowly the shape of the path is revealed, and slowly I am preparing myself to be ready for what comes next.

Salad Days

So, I wanted to share a post about salads as entrees and how I have come to love them in a way that I never expected. I began by giving the post the title, above, then got sidetracked looking up where the term comes from.  Luckily, I found all I needed to know on Wikipedia.

The origin of the phrase, “salad days” appears to stem from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when Cleopatra, regretting an affair in her youth (with Julius Ceasar no less) utters the couplet:

my salad days/when I was green in judgment, cold in blood.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to quote Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which summarizes several other possible meanings of the metaphor:

“Whether the point is that youth, like salad, is raw, or that salad is highly flavoured, and youth loves high flavours, or that innocent herbs are youth’s food … “

I love this summary, and the characterizations of both youth and salad.  Perhaps, subconsciously, I have made similar connections and this is why I delight in salad as my main dish. It is youthful, highly flavored, raw and herby. Innocent, in that I prefer salads without a a lot of fancy preparations – just start with a nice mix of greens and lettuces, then toss in any fruit, nuts, veggies on hand. A little highly flavored cheese (in the salad pictured above, the cheese is smoked gouda). No need for meat, expensive dressings (I prefer a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and a spritz of olive oil) or anything sophisticated. The flavors are varied and lively. Yep, young and yummy. I feel energized after eating a really delicious fresh salad.

So, a late-bloomer as usual, I have finally in mid-life discovered my salad days…and they are good. Deliciously good!

The Rememberer

My Nana, Marie, was one of a kind. While I didn’t know her in her hey-day, I’m told she was fun-loving, funny, and had a great personality and sunny disposition. At one point in her life, she owned a business, a diner I think. Nana gave birth to six children, the first of whom was born while Nana was a teen, and who was raised as Nana’s sister. Nana’s adult life, and consequently the life of her family, was not easy. Among other things, Nana was an alcoholic, at a time when very little was understood about that crippling disease – and when the “treatment” was to lock her up for months at a time in the state mental hospital. (If you think they didn’t understand alcoholism back then, believe me, the understanding and treatment of mentally ill individuals was worse.) As the son who lived in town, my father often found himself in the role of caretaker to his mother. His stories, told with the distance of time, are both funny (in a macabre sense) and hair-raising.

I was a kid and didn’t know anything about that stuff. To me she was just my Nana Marie, and I loved her. Nana was a great baker. I can still remember the coconut cake, decorated with silver dragees, she made for my sister’s first communion. I also remember baking bread with her at her house. We made a tiny, child-sized loaf just for me, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on the top crust.

Unlike my siblings, I got to spend some quality alone time with Nana. As luck had it, I was the only one who attended half-day kindergarten at the school across the street from her house. I have truly happy memories of time with Nana, going with her to the beauty parlor, baking, walking on errands in her neighborhood. After kindergarten, I moved on to the Cathedral grade school, and my half days with Nana ended. She passed away shortly after that.

Years later, in graduate school studying counseling, I first learned about the disease of alcoholism. Not that I hadn’t known of it before, but I learned details about its long-term effects and generational impact. I also learned more about the gritty realities. And I was horrified to realize that my parents had knowingly allowed me to spend time alone with someone whose alcoholism made her, by their own admission, untrustworthy.

That summer (when I was working on my MA), my father’s youngest sister visited from her home in Florida. We sat outside one warm, June or July evening, chatting and telling stories from the distant past. My aunt, who had been removed from Nana’s home to live with my grandfather and his second wife, made a comment about not understanding how a mother could let go of her child and never want to have contact again. And suddenly, a side of my mother emerged that surprised us all. She was on fire for the truth: and out came the story of how badly it had hurt Nana to lose her youngest child. Though kept secret from my aunt, Nana had written and called. Had begged for contact and been denied.  Mom said, “I can’t let you go on believing she didn’t want you. Losing you broke her heart.” I can’t speak for anyone else who was there, but hearing that story broke mine.

As the vehemence of the conversation wound down, I remember saying, “Still, I’m a little shocked you let me spend time alone with her. I was awfully young, only five, and you knew she didn’t have good control.”  And my mother, the woman of fierce compassion, responded, “She would call and beg me. I almost always said no, but sometimes, I just couldn’t bear to. She always promised she wouldn’t drink if I said yes, and she knew that if anything ever happened to you, it would be the last time.”

I sat on my parents’ porch late into the night, after the conversation had quieted and people began moving inside to get ready for bed. I thought about the sad stories I’d heard, and the things my parents saw and experienced in caring for my grandmother. I thought about how it was not right for children to endure these things, to have such grim pictures of a parent indelibly imprinted on their memories. And I realized something that has brought me a lot of joy ever since. I saw that my mother had given Nana more than quality time with one grandchild. What my mom did for her was to give her a rememberer: someone whose only memories of Marie are good ones. Shouldn’t we all have at least one person who remembers us as our best self? I am so happy to be that person for my Nana Marie.

These Remain

I am a person who sees synchronicities and connections. (As the narrator in one of George MacDonald’s fantasies says, “I was constantly seeing, and on the outlook to see, strange analogies…between physical and metaphysical facts…between physical hypotheses and suggestions glimmering out of the metaphysical dreams into which I was in the habit of falling…Of my mental peculiarities there is no occasion to say more.”)  Sometimes, these strange connections are only in my own mind, but at other times they are quite apparent to others. I once asked a friend if these odd coincidences happened to her. She replied, “Sometimes. But not as often as they do to you.”

Anyway, all of that is a rambling introduction to a coincidence which occurred today. Saturday morning, and I was doing anything to delay heading to the gym. So I engaged in my favorite tactic: I checked out my Gmail inbox. There was a new post from a blog I follow (and have mentioned before) Spiritual Travels. Today’s post describes her thoughts about the apostle Paul, while visiting Ephesus. She concludes the post imagining Paul in his modest home in Ephesus, writing his first letter to the Corinthians, which contains his oft-quoted verses on love. (See them here)  Like many, I have always loved these verses. I like hearing them read at weddings, though I believe what Paul referred to was so much bigger than the love between two people — that everything we do must be animated by love to be worthwhile, that love is more than an emotion, it is a high standard to which we should aspire.

Being reminded of that high standard – love which is faithful and kind, doesn’t boast, never fails – was a wonderful beginning to the day. When I did leave for the gym, I appreciated the beauty of the day, and found myself remembering to be authentic as I interacted with those around me. After a challenging workout, followed by a much-needed shower, I headed out for coffee and lunch. (Yes, the need for caffeine outpaced my need for food by that point in the day!)

Sitting at a table, bathed in warm sunshine pouring through the window, I enjoyed my coffee while reading A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer (I know, I quote him a lot. But he speaks to me in a way few writers have.)  In this section, he is talking about metaphor as a way of inviting diverse people into deep conversation, using the seasons as a metaphor to bring forth spiritual insight.  He says (emphasis mine):

“…As spring’s wonders arise from winter’s hardships, we are invited to reflect on the many “both – ands” we must hold to live life fully and well — and to become more confident that as creatures embedded in nature, we know in our bones how to hold them.

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring: these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope and love. But in the spring we are reminded that human nature, like nature herself, can hold opposites together as paradoxes, resulting in a more capacious and generous life.”

I sat at my table, the sun warming my back, and looked around at all the people enjoying a Saturday afternoon break at Panera Bread. Undoubtedly, each of them privately struggles, whether with doubt, despair or pain. And yet, in that moment, most were talking and laughing with friends and loved ones. And that is when the synchronicity of the day came around, full circle. As I thought to myself:  “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”