Triple Word Tuesday

Connect the Dots…


(I know it is triple word Tuesday, but I just have to say a few more words: commencement speeches are wasted on people who are graduating. This speech is worth the time to really listen, and is not boring or too much of a lecture!)

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.”

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Sugared Walnuts

Continuing on my quest to try the recipes I’ve been collecting, I ambitiously set out to make my first ever risotto. As I have complained previously, ingredients readily available elsewhere are sometimes difficult to find in my small midwestern city. However, since even in my town, people have not only heard of but actually eat risotto, I expected no trouble. Three grocery stores later, and I returned home with two boxes of pre-packaged risotto, after having read the directions to know the rice was separate from the seasonings, so I could use it in my dish. (I complained incessantly for several days, which paid off in that I believe I now have a “local” source for Arborio rice…Sam’s Club!)

This dish was time consuming, but not difficult. I was not pleased with the garlic: since you add it to the squash uncooked, and it basically only warms, it tasted raw. I will need to experiment with adding it sometime during the cooking process. The recipe suggests 20 minutes of stirring and adding the liquid, but I found it took more like 30.  It was worth it, though!

One serving of my first risotto!

Flashback Friday

My mother says that, as a child, I could and did sleep anywhere. We would be shopping, for example, and my mother would stop to talk with someone. When ready to move along, she would turn to find me lying on the sidewalk, sound asleep. I have struggled a little with sleep this week, which leads me to feel nostalgic for moments like the one depicted above!

Living the Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

–Ranier Maria Rile

Letters to a Young Poet


Be patient toward all that is unsolved within your heart. Yeah, right.

Because patience is something we are all busy cultivating, in this culture of instant gratification. Because patience is something we humans are so good at right from the start – ever been around a young child who wants something? Yes, patience is a virtue we only possess if we actively seek and practice it, because we are not (most of us) born patient.

Lacking patience, how does one live within the questions long enough for the inner self to discern, then make known, the answers? It is not easy. Have you ever had an itch that would not go away, despite extreme bodily contortions to reach and scratch it? Living with the internal itchiness of unresolved questions can be truly uncomfortable. I’ve been given the advice to trust my gut, which is fine if your gut is a trustworthy ally. Mine tends to be a trickster, responding from fear but pretending otherwise. (And then prompting me to eat because food will make me feel better.)

Rilke’s suggestion that, gradually, without realizing it, we might live into the answers someday isn’t particularly comforting. I mean, how are we supposed to move forward without answers?  Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford, uses the image of connecting the dots. That each decision, each step we take, is a dot. He goes on to say that the dots cannot ever be connected moving forward, they can only be connected looking backward, in retrospect. We have to keep choosing and trust that the dots will connect.

My tricksy gut tells me he’s right. Cultivate the patience to wait for the answers to make themselves known, while trusting that the choices I make in the meantime will connect in a coherent way someday. Remaining where I am because I am afraid to move forward without all the answers, may seem safe. But the truth is, I’m just stuck. To get unstuck, I need to cultivate my inner Wile E. Coyote (from the Roadrunner cartoons). I need to be willing to keep moving forward right off the edge of the canyon into the unknown. Now, Wile E. always looks down, and in doing so loses his faith that he can make it to the other side, causing him to plummet to the canyon floor. That’s where the trust part comes in: take a step and keep going, trusting that I’ll get to the next dot. Because I will. Even when Wile E. Coyote falls, he gets back up and tries again in the next episode.