Humbled. Chastened. Abashed.

I’m not quite sure what to call it, but I think that is what I felt as I sat at my computer this morning.

It started out simply enough, a quiet cup of coffee together before Tim headed off to work and the kids woke up. We’d been on a family vacation for a few days. The house was a mess and the pantry was bare.

There was work to be done.

I knew I would be busy this day, with home and office work, with emails to answer and send, calls to make and return, pages to read and write. But I thought of how Tim was leaving for work before 7, shaved, showered and dressed – with shoes and socks on even – and how he wouldn’t be back for at least 10 hours. I thought about how most my work could be done in my pajamas and slippers, without ever leaving the comfort of my own home, or car, or neighborhood. In gratitude, I wanted to go the extra mile. As I looked up at him to say goodbye, I said, “Is there anything special I can do for you today, babe?”

I thought he might mention a favorite meal for dinner tonight, something he needed from the market, or a chore he wanted me to do.

Instead he took my hands in his, looked me in the eye and said, “Could you be happy when I get home tonight?”

Gulp.

I laughed and said, “Of course, I’ll do my best!”

And he laughed and kissed me goodbye and left. Within an hour, I had the kids up and all the breakfasts and lunches made and packed. I collected the swimsuits and towels and water bottles and hats and backpacks and fins and got them to their right owners. I applied sunscreen and hugged and kissed and sent my little lifeguards off to their 10th consecutive day at the beach.

And then I stopped and thought, “What did he mean by that?” and then I sat down to write.

Last year, my friend Nanette took me to a two-day seminar called, The Extraordinary Value of a Man. Go ahead and laugh. I know I did when I heard what it was called, but I adore Nanette and would go anywhere and listen to anything just to spend two days with her. I heard many things that weekend that made me uncomfortable as a middle-of-the-road feminist. I hate to hear traditional gender roles and stereotypes discussed as facts. I understand the danger of essentializing genders, of saying, “This is how men are…”, or “This is what women want…” As an academic, I understand how powerful and therefore how damaging those cultural messages can be. But as a woman and a wife, I heard many other things that were true of my husband and myself and the way we relate to each other. So although I think the seminar might have been more appropriately called The Value of an Extraordinary Man (because there is a big difference), one particular line helped me to understand better where this morning’s strange request came from. I had scribbled in the margins of a handout from the weekend,

“When you’re happy, he’s winning.

Let me clarify; I don’t think it’s strange that Tim wants me to be happy. I do think it’s a little strange that he asked to me to be happy. Generally, I’m a happy person. If you ask people to describe me, my smiley demeanor is one of the first things they will mention. Happiness, at least on the surface, is my default setting.

What I think Tim was really telling me when he left for work today was that he needed a win. When he comes home tonight, what he really wants to know is that what he did all day matters, that I have benefitted from his hard work and effort, from the sacrifices he makes to provide for our family, not just financially, but across the board in every way. He doesn’t want more accolades, or appreciation, or even fawning servitude. He just wants to see me smile. If the kids are smiling as well, that’s even better.

So what about those emotions I mentioned when I sat down to write about this? How could such a simple request bring about such a strong reaction? It certainly wasn’t his intention to make me feel that way and if I know my husband, he’ll apologize as soon as he reads this, even though he simply answered my question.

Tim didn’t call me out. He didn’t criticize me, or admonish me to do more. He simply asked me to be the one thing I claim to be  – happy. When I look at my life and the many things I am fortunate enough to have, I don’t know how I could be anything else. We have everything we need, and many things we want. We have health, home, family and friends. We have each other. Are there stresses and worries and things that go wrong? Absolutely. Is there pressure to succeed and perform at ever higher levels? Of course. Are there fights and parenting dilemmas and tension every day? You bet.

Can I still be happy at a certain time (around 5pm), on a certain day (Monday, July 30, 2012), in a certain place (our home)? I am certainly going to try. Depending on what happens at 4:59, making his favorite dinner might have been a whole lot easier. It doesn’t change the fact that my happiness is one of the things he is most proud of.  It’s chastening to think that the gift I share so freely with others has not been so freely given in my own home.  However, a little humble pie might be just the motivation I need to make it happen tonight and any other night I might forget to be grateful for all that I have.

No matter what faith tradition you come from, or even if you come from none at all, we’re all familiar with some version of The Golden Rule:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

We learned it in our kindergarten classrooms, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the nose-pickers and glue stick-eaters, pretending we weren’t one of them. We heard it echoed at the start of every school year, when teachers established the rules that would govern the classroom. From playground politics to sticky-fingers in the supply cabinet, they could always refer back to that ethic of reciprocity, forever posted in a prominent place for all to see.

Following The Golden Rule was tough enough to do back then, but in many ways, I think it’s even tougher to do now. Oh, we might think we’ve got it down, waiting patiently in the Starbucks line, holding the door for strangers, and wishing acquaintances and friends “Happy Birthday” on their Facebook pages, but every day, from gossip (celebrities count!) to driving (don’t we like to see a blinker once in a while?) to how we greet our loved ones when they come home, we are challenged to act only in ways we would want to be acted upon.

Because of my faith tradition, I have had the added bonus, (or onus) of following Jesus’ precept to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” As a young person, I thought the two rules were synonymous, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see how much more challenging it is to follow the latter, instead of simply abiding by the former.

Take carpooling, for instance. Are you familiar with the “Golden Rule of Carpool?”

Carpooling is a fact of life for most families, a necessary evil one moment, and a lifeline the next. With careful planning and selectivity, a carpool can magically reduce your driving workload in half, sometimes even more. It can give you time, peace of mind and a little more money in your pocket (or a lot with gas at $4/gallon.) However with the wrong people involved, carpooling becomes an exercise in frustration and masochism. Any experienced parent knows this, which is why we manage our carpools so carefully.

So on the surface, it would seem that the “Golden Rule of Carpool” is pretty straightforward. Carpool with people you trust. Show up on time and on the right days. Deliver children to the destination in a timely manner. Bring them home again safe and sound and having learned no new curse words from the moment they entered your vehicle until they left it. That is “doing unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

But is there a difference between that and “Christian Carpooling?” Recently I was challenged to think about what it means to truly follow in my Rabbi’s footsteps and “love my neighbor as myself” when it comes to the daily grind of transportation.

I’m not speaking of the times when we “rise to the occasion,” as my mother calls it. I am sure we’ve all stepped up and helped out a friend, or neighbor in need, due to sickness, injury, or hardship. In those cases, we don’t even mind doing all the driving ourselves, if it truly helps someone. We feel kind of good about making the sacrifice and deep down we expect that someone would do the same for us, if circumstances were different.

But what about those times when there is no need, no ‘occasion’ to rise to? What is The Golden Rule when it comes to someone else’s convenience, especially if it slightly inconveniences you? This was my dilemma.

My three kids have gone to a jr. lifeguard program every summer for the past four years. The beach is about 15 miles from our home and I have carpooled with the same two families every year. We have the “Golden Rule of Carpool” down pat. We show up. We drive safely. We even treat all the kids to Slurpees once, or twice a week. There is music; there is laughter; there is dancing; there is joy. This is my wheelhouse; sandy, salty, sunburned, wet-headed kids are a favorite of mine.

My carpool was planned weeks ago. We even included a new family for two of the four weeks when they needed our help. The passenger manifesto was maxed out at seven, (which is why so many of us can never get a Prius though we long for one.) I had an IPod full of summer pop music to wake the kids up on the morning commute, and I was looking forward to hearing all about their adventures when it was my turn for the afternoon drive home.

And then on Saturday night, just two days before the program began, I got a text from a mom I know in the neighborhood. I wouldn’t call us friends, but we are definitely friendly.

Her: I saw your kids are in Junior Guards with one of mine. Can we carpool?

Alas, No, was my easy answer. We are all full up, with 5, then 7. Sorry!  But, I added with Christian charity, if you get in a pinch, give me a call and I will try to help out! 🙂

She responded back quickly with Do you know such and such? which I did, of course. That family provided our #6 and #7 for part of the program.

Me: Yes, they are with us. Sorry!

To which she replied, Oh, you have 7 and I only have 1! Boo… hoo… 😦

At which point, my guilt kicked in. Something about those numbers tugged at my heart and I gave up on the “Golden Rule of Carpool” and switched to the concept of “Christian Carpooling” instead.

(A downside to a daily practice of meditation and prayer is that you become more and more aware of how everything you do is an act of faith.)

I started to think about how many carpool parables Jesus might use if he were alive today in Southern California. I thought about how I had “many” and she had only one. I thought about how I was part of the “inside” group with my carpool all organized and fun. I thought about how it must feel to be on the “outside,” just she and her child. I thought about how truly golden it would be if I reached out and included them, however I could.

I thought about all those things and then I did nothing.

But the very next day I got a phone call from her, asking again very nicely to please include her child in our carpool, at least at least for two weeks before the other kids joined in.

On the spot, I caved and Tim just shook his head. I have a long and checkered history of taking on other people’s carpool problems, but I couldn’t help it. Though I didn’t want to change my plans, it just didn’t seem right not to make her problem my own.

Is that last statement a sign of Christianity, or co-dependency? Is there a difference? Is that why we have so many co-dependent Christians?

And so in the midst of my Sunday chores, while my kids were out back, swimming and eating popsicles, I began the shuffling of responsibilities, the emails, and phone calls to the original parties: the “Would you mind…?” and the “How about…?” and the “Does this work for you?” When I got to the end of the driving assignments, I had apparently made a mistake, because then the text messages began. Our new carpool member couldn’t drive certain days and times and though the requests weren’t unreasonable by any means, I had to be the dispatcher, and start over again.

Sigh.

Why does “Christian carpooling” always come back to bite you in the butt?

I would like to say that my charitable impulse to include our new carpooler made these chores a breeze. I would like to say I felt good about rearranging our schedules. I would like to say I did it all with a smile on my face and love in my heart, but I would be lying. I didn’t. I was actually pretty darn bitter about having to spend time on a beautiful afternoon on something I didn’t want to do in the first place.

While I think I did the right thing by helping out this mother and child, I sure wish that when I have an impulse to do the right thing that impulse would stick around a little longer and carry me through the execution phase as well. But I guess an impulse is just that – a pulse. In my case, a split-second surge of goodwill, of trying to love my neighbor as myself, caused me to lose an hour or two to general crankiness, which I directed at the people around me. It was “the Cheese Touch” all over again.

When Tim called me out on it, I didn’t know what to say except this: I wish I were more holy, more Zen, more able to have my inside emotions align with my outside actions. I’m trying to get there, but when I struggle so much to get it right when it comes to something as simple as carpooling, I’ve clearly got a long way to go.

Post Script: We are three days into the jr. lifeguard program and our additional passenger is lovely. Neither child, nor parent has added one bit of stress, or unpleasantness to our days. In fact, the conversation is better with this one around.

Note to self: Make the effort. Withhold judgment. Love your neighbor.

Disclaimer: If you read this and knew I was writing about you, thank you for carpooling with us for these next few weeks. It’s a pleasure.

Many, many years ago, I was a part-time faculty member in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at SDSU. It was my dream job – or rather, it was the job I dreamed of having, when having a job was just a dream.

At twenty-one, I was finishing up my B.A., applying to grad school, and engaged to be married to the man I loved. Tim and I went back and forth about whether I would get my doctorate and take a tenure track position wherever it was offered, or whether we would put down roots in San Diego and open a surf shop. Obviously, the surf shop won. One of the deciding factors was that I wanted to be a full-time mom to the kids we would have someday. While doing my research, I didn’t get the feeling that a university professor could take years off to lie on the floor and read board books and push around wooden trains.

So I dreamed of a part-time position, teaching and mothering in tandem, and my dream came true. From the time I got my master’s degree until I became pregnant with our third child, I had steady and regular employment at several different campuses around Southern California. And when I finally left, it wasn’t because things weren’t working out the way I hoped they would.

I left, because I wasn’t who I thought I was.

I had always loved to read and write. At twenty-one, I couldn’t imagine that wouldn’t always be the most important skill I had to share with my students and if I couldn’t teach them how to love reading and writing, then at least I could teach them how to do it well. So I taught them how to read critically, how to say what they meant, and sometimes even how to find something meaningful to say.

But after a few years of teaching, of watching students come in and out of my classroom, becoming better readers and writers, I realized that it wasn’t actually what I wanted to teach them any more. I realized that there were more important things I wanted them to know. I was teaching them how to write, but I wanted to teach them how to be.

Does that sound arrogant to you? Pompous? Conceited? If it does, you’re right and unfortunately, those words describe most of the college professors I had ever met, or at least the ones I disliked the most and I DIDN’T WANT TO BECOME ONE OF THEM. I didn’t want to be another authority figure, who ostensibly taught their subject matter, but in reality, filled lectures with their own personal philosophies. It didn’t matter if it was communism, atheism, socialism, patriotism, Catholicism, or simply hedonism. Although I couldn’t have named my ‘ism’ at the time, I knew I was struggling to teach without it.

And so, uneasy in my professional life, I carried on for another year or two, until I stumbled across an essay in an Oprah magazine from January, 2001. I still have the original page, tucked away in a file. It was written by Parker Palmer, someone I had never heard of at that point and it was called, “Are You Listening to Your Life?” Palmer’s words resonated with something deep inside me.

He said, “I was in my early 30s when I first began to question my calling, teaching at a university and doing it reasonably well, but I felt stifled by the confines of academic life. A small voice inside was calling me toward something unknown and risky, yet more congruent with my own truth.” He admired Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. He had read their work and allowed it to change him. He went on to admit that “Clinging fearfully to my academic job even though it was a bad fit, I tried to teach the way I imagined my heroes would. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable and sometimes grotesque, as when I caught myself preaching to students instead of teaching them. I had simply found a ‘noble’ way to live a false life, imitating my heroes instead of listening to my heart.”

And as I read those words, curled up on my couch with a cup of tea on a January afternoon, he spoke to my heart and he broke my heart. I remember the tears streaming down my face and my heart beating faster. Becoming a college professor was all I had ever wanted to do professionally. I had never conceived of a time when I would not want to read literature, write about literature and teach literature. I didn’t even know what else I could do. I just knew what I had to do, even though it seemed impossible. I knew it was possible, because I saw him do it first.

Frederick Buechner, an author and theologian, defined vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I knew that there was a deep need for good writing instruction – any school principal, college dean, or business leader will tell you that, and I knew that I could meet that need; I was good at it. I had the reviews and renewed teaching contracts to prove it. But after my many years of teaching, I also knew that I would not find my deep gladness there.

I couldn’t teach, or preach in my classroom any more – it just didn’t matter enough to me if they knew how to write a thesis, organize an essay, or correctly punctuate a sentence. I still loved literature. I still loved being around young people. I still wanted to influence their lives. I just knew that my vocation was not teaching. I felt that staying in the profession was a disservice to my students and myself. It was no longer an authentic way of communicating who I was and what mattered to me. Maybe it was naïve to quit and get out of the work force, but I wasn’t able to see another way to listen to my heart and I had the privilege of making that choice.

For the next ten years, I found my “deep gladness” being a mother. As a bonus, nothing about that career choice kept me from sharing my “isms.” I didn’t have to hide my personal philosophy from “my students.” I was and still am allowed to teach, preach and even screech what I believe. As a matter of fact, it’s my responsibility to teach them how to be and as a bonus, I get to teach them how to write as well. It is one of the perks of my job, but as a full-time position, it’s rapidly coming to an end. They are all proficient writers, but even more importantly, they are beyond-proficient, decent human beings and so once again I have become uneasy in my “professional” life. While it has brought me “deep gladness,” I believe I can do more to “meet the world’s deep need.”

Though I wasn’t sure what I was “supposed” to do, a few years ago I started to write for an educational non-profit.  I began to speak to different groups when invited and last year, I started this blog. I hear from time to time that it has helped someone to think about how to be in this world and those comments always make me smile, because deep down I know I am still teaching, though maybe not in the traditional sense.

Ironically enough, I recently came across Parker Palmer again, this time in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Though I got it at the library, it is covered in my sticky notes, of different sizes and colors, some for me, some for Tim, and some for my friend T, who reads every great book with me. She already has her own copy on order from Amazon.

In the very first chapter, he lays out a problem many of people face, myself among them.

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished, or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.

At twenty, I pursued a career in good faith, thinking I knew who I was. At thirty, I took a leap and fully embraced it, but in the smallest terms possible, within the four walls of my home and the four people who lived there. At forty, I am knocking those walls down again, while trying to remain faithful to who I am and the truth I hold within. It is the truth I have learned over the last twenty years of teaching and writing, parenthood and marriage, business and friendship.

I am here to love. I am here to be with people, to support, and to serve them. In my best moments, when I am patient and humble and kind, I am here to help people see for themselves who they are and what they are capable of.

And it doesn’t matter whether I do it in a classroom, or a conference room, on paper, or in person. It is my vocation, “where my deepest gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

What is your vocation? What are you called to do in the biggest terms possible? How are you living it out?

That isn’t a loaded question. I think we all live out our vocation in at least some small way in our lives. It’s what gives us the ability to find joy, to smile and love and ultimately, to carry on, each and every day. 

Recently, the Lad and I watched the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We hadn’t planned on it being just the two of us, but one by one other family members dropped out, citing work, sleep, or just something more generally FUN. In hindsight, I don’t blame them, but Finn and I were compelled – me because I loved the book. Him because, well, I don’t really know.

It was a strange movie to watch with my son, because it is so much about the power of a good father-son relationship. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, sends his quirky son on elaborate adventures, designed to teach Oskar how to be brave and to experience more of the world than he would have chosen for himself. With patience and creativity, Thomas Schell embraces his son for who he is: intelligent and curious, but also compulsive and fearful.

That dynamic alone made it an interesting movie for me to watch with my son. I kept sneaking peeks at him to see what he thought. My husband Tim only has fuzzy memories of his own father, who died when he was 10. I know that a large part of Tim’s “fathering” is a result of the absence, not the presence of, a loving and involved father. While Thomas and Oskar interacted on screen, I would look at Finn and wonder, “How will he remember his dad? Is Tim making him brave? Is he making him kind? What kinds of things is Finn learning, beyond a killer ping pong serve and a sweet jump shot?” Deep down, I know the answers to those questions. Tim and Finn interact very much like Thomas and Oskar. They are cut from the same cloth, from broad shoulders to tender hearts and a wicked sense of humor.

But while I got lost in my reverie, the movie was passing me by. When I tuned back in, it was 9/11 and Thomas Schell is in the World Trade Center and then he is gone and it is Oskar and his mother who are left to pick up the pieces. In the beginning of the story, the mother is the observer in the family who admires and appreciates the connection between father and son, without needing to be a part of it. She knew her husband had Oskar, in all his weirdness, covered.

And then he doesn’t.

And although she does her best, it is nowhere near good enough for Oskar, who in his grief and anger and guilt screams, “I wish it were you that day,” to which she sadly replies, “I know. I do too, buddy.”

She knows her husband would have done it better. She knows she is failing Oskar in some crucial way and yet in that moment, in her own grief, it is beyond her ability to do better.

Again, I had to look at my son, who made sure he never looked at me during that scene.

What would he say, I wondered, if he had to choose? I know it’s a morbid question, but I am glad that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me who he prefers. I don’t actually know what any of our children would say.

I am the caretaker. Of that, there is no doubt. They love my cooking and the way clean clothes land miraculously on their bed every few days. They count on me to help them with their homework and projects and I am the only one who can rub their backs just right before they go to bed at night.

Tim is the player of all sports and card games, the Dairy Queen-on-a-school-night kind of parent. Grades don’t matter much to him; it’s all about whether they learned something, or not. He may feed them cereal every night when I am gone, but at least they get fed.

Between the two of us, we make a home and though it is unimaginable that we could do it alone, this movie gives me hope.

I don’t want to give away too many details here, but ultimately, the mother moves past her own grief and discovers a way to help Oskar heal. When he recognizes the sacrifices his mother has made for him, the love she has shown, he says through cathartic tears, “I thought only Dad could think like me.” (Which for a head person like Oskar – and myself – is the ultimate compliment.)

Linda Schell had thought so too, until she actually tried. Her willingness to embrace Oskar for who he is allowed him to reframe his story – the one he’d been telling himself his whole life, and especially since his father’s death – that his dad was the only one who loved him, the only who could love him. It turns out, that wasn’t true at all.

I immediately thought, Look, Finn, Love Wins.

It isn’t easy. It’s bound to be messy. It certainly requires more of us than we think we’re capable of, and frequently more than we want to give. But if we don’t give up, if we open our hearts, if we keep doing what Love asks of us, even when it seems impossible, then we can change our lives. We can change the lives of those we love. Heck, we just might be able to change the world. In the midst of tragedy, Linda Schell did it, and although she is a fictional character, there are thousands of people like her in real life that do it all the time.

And as the film ended and Linda held her son close, I gathered my own little man, who is growing quite big, in my arms as well. I kissed his forehead and rubbed the top of his ¼” crew cut and hoped I could remember forever how his freckled face looked as it turned towards my own. He is 13-years-old and before I know it, he may not be compelled for any reason to watch movies with his mom on a Saturday morning. Very soon, the Lad may have other plans, thank you very much.

But until that day, I will savor these moments. I will cherish each and every time I get to curl up on a couch with him, share a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. I will stand watch as he processes the vagaries of life on the silver screen, the pages of a novel, the columns of the morning sports page, and especially in his daily routine. And I will remind him every chance I get that Love Wins if we have the courage to choose it.

Last week as I was walking I had a really hard time getting rid of Patty – you remember her – my “neighbor” who haunts my morning walks. If you missed that story, you can catch up here.

So there was Patty, just yammering away – I can’t even remember exactly what she was worried about – but she was digging into the past, projecting into the future, finding the most minute and gruesome details to chew on and the more I tried to leave her and my ego, my mind, and my worries behind, the less I seemed able to do so. I resembled nothing so much as a dog gnawing a bone.

I tried to breathe in and out, to place myself in the present moment, to enjoy the nature around me, but I was barely taking it in. I felt like I was simply a brain, walking around on my own two feet. Does this look familiar?

And so I began to pray that I could move out of my head and into my heart– that God would help me to truly feel something. There are so many things I think I know, but so few things that I truly feel. And so as I walked I asked God to help me feel, to soften my heart, to give me an experience of real emotion. But after praying for feelings for a minute or two, I started to get nervous. I chickened out and began to backpedal. I know what it feels like to feel things, and I don’t particularly like it.

I said in effect, “Just kidding about that God. I don’t actually want to have a heart that feels things deeply. That hurts too much, so here’s my new and improved prayer. I pray for the feeling to want feelings. I pray that you give me the desire to desire feelings. Someday I will want things to touch my heart, but I’m not there yet, so let’s just go slow. Give me the courage to feel things and then I will pray for things to feel.”

Whew I thought, that was a close one. Baby steps really are the way to go when it comes to these kinds of things.

I continued on with my walk, thinking I had dodged a bullet, and relieved that I had made it quite clear to that I wasn’t up for the challenge yet. I went back to Patty and my old self and walked on home.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any ‘#signs of love’ on my walk that day.

But a funny thing happened when I got home. I started getting everyone ready for school – smoothies and bagels and 6-course lunches for four, and then Keara remembered to do something important she forgot, which made a major mess in my kitchen where I was already making a mess and suddenly, wouldn’t you know it, I felt something! Standing there in my kitchen, I felt something ghastly rising up inside me, something like rage, something like judgment and frustration and bitterness! And wouldn’t you know it, I acted on those emotions, because in my experience, that’s what you do when you feel something. And I raised my voice, and I grabbed her project and I finished it for her – the right way of course- and tossed the finished project at her and asked everyone to please get out of my kitchen, thank you very much and I would just handle everything myself and deliver everything they needed if they would just please go away and be quiet!

So that went super well.

And I barely had time to make my apologies before they had to leave for school, but I did. I gave them kisses and hugs and said I was sorry for losing my cool and for acting crazy. I told them they were lovable, sweet, kind children who didn’t deserve the temper tantrum their mother just had. Keara also got a quick reminder that it would really help me out if she would try to remember to wrap up messy projects sooner rather than later.

And Tim, who missed it all because he was upstairs, shot me a quizzical look on his way out the door, which I just waved away, with a “Have a nice day!”

And when the house was silent, I could hear God laughing and I started laughing too, because really, what else can you do?

Apparently, God has selective hearing, just like my husband who tends to be good at hearing what he wants to hear and really good at tuning out the rest. God listened when I asked to experience genuine emotion and ignored me when I took it back. Within minutes God gave me real emotions – they just happened to be really negative emotions. Perhaps I wasn’t specific enough.

I don’t believe in unanswered prayers. I believe that much of the time, we just don’t like the answer, so we put our heads down and pretend that we don’t see it sitting there the whole time.

Obviously, I got the answer to my prayer that morning. God listened to the brave part of my prayer – the part that admitted I was ready to grow and change, and be free of the prison of my mind and the safety it affords me. I also believe He heard the second part of my prayer, where my courage failed and I asked to be left a little bit longer in the cell of my comfort zone.

Is it any wonder that He gives more credence to the prayers that align us with His will? The ones that make us more loving, more compassionate, more fully human and therefore more divine? Is it any wonder that He ignores the rest?

While part of me wanted to say, “See! Don’t give them to me; I don’t know how to handle them responsibly,” the other part of me knew that I was one failure closer to success. Next time I could, and perhaps even would, do better. Next time, I might even experience feelings of deep joy and excitement and what might my response be then? I don’t know, but it might be wonderful to watch.

So I will keep trying to say that brave part of prayer over and over again. I will keep trying to stay open to Love and how it makes me feel and if I respond like a two-year-old, that’s okay.

I’m working on it.

Dear Readers,

Don’t worry! It’s still me, still Ali! Still writing, and hoping that you are still reading!

Yes, my blog has a new look and a new name, but in all the important ways, it’s the same old story.

I read something, hear something, see something, or feel something and it turns my world upside down just a little bit and I immediately think, I have to write this down. And so many of you generously take the time to read it. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.

I decided to rename my blog #Signs of Love to reflect my growing understanding that Love is everywhere. Eight months ago when I started to write these stories, I didn’t know that, not the way I know it now.

I knew that Love could be anywhere, in theory. I knew for a fact that Love lived in my heart, in my home, in my relationship with Tim and the kids, my family and friends. I knew that Love was found in hugs and kisses, laughter and loyalty, and sometimes even in loss, pain and tears.

The rest of it, I took on faith. I had been taught well that God is Love, but when I look at where I thought Love lived and what I thought it looked like, it was a pretty limited image of the Divine Spirit. Love looked like a Happy Days rerun.

Alas, even the best shows have to end someday and so did my personal fantasy of Love. Don’t get me wrong; I still get to watch it in syndication every day. My home is still full of Love and so is my life, but I’ve also expanded my viewing repertoire.

A few months ago, I shared the story of the first Sign of Love I sawwritten in the stone beneath my feet. You can check it out here, if you forgot what it looked like.

When I wrote about my friend M, I shared a few more Signs of Love that I had found on my early morning walks.

Just last week, while meditating in the canyon, I saw another Sign of Love, reminding me that in Love, we are always enough.

But those are just a few of the Signs of Love that I see on an almost daily basis. They really are everywhere and almost every one of them has a story.

 

This one showed up when I consciously asked Jesus to join me on my morning walk. Yes, it was a little awkward, but I thought he would surely be better company than my “friend” Patty.

 

 

This one showed up when I thought of my friend who has cancer, the one I wrote about in “This Isn’t Hard.” I prayed extra hard for her to feel Love that day. Her heart looked a little skimpy.

 

 

This one was in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s after a disastrous trip to the market. I was stomping out of there, late and huffy and there it was. How can I stay mad when a Sign of Love literally shows up at my feet in the cracks of parking lot sealant?

 

No matter where I turn these days, Love is there.

think God is trying to teach me to let go of my preconceived notions of what Love looks like and how it behaves. I think God is trying to teach me that even when I am not “in Love,” It’s still there. I think God is trying to teach me that even when I am convinced that Love has abandoned me, that Love is not living up to Love’s side of the bargain, I am wrong.

Signs of Love are everywhere.

Or maybe, as Tim has suggested, I’ve just gotten in touch with my inner-hippie, and that if I don’t stop this nonsense soon, I will lose all credibility as a thinker and writer. I’ll simply be lost in my own cosmic world.

But I hope you’ll stick with me. I promise I won’t be posting all the Signs of Love that I see, but if you see any, I hope you’ll share them with me. That’s what the # sign is for at the start of the blog. You can put post them on Twitter, using #signsoflove and I will see them. Put them in a comment, or friend me on Facebook and show me there.

Your Signs of Love don’t even have to be in nature – I’d just love to know where you find Love when you aren’t really looking. I am coming to see that sometimes, it really is the best place.

Rachel Held Evans wrote a great blog recently about the concept of being ‘enough’ and it got me thinking seriously about what that would actually mean – to feel like you were ‘enough,’ simply by the fact of your existence.

I’m not talking about being enough because I work hard, or prepare meals, or work out at the gym, or read good books, or go to church or do laundry, or get paid. I’m not talking about being enough, because I do anything right, or of value.

I am enough, simply because I am.

Talk about a radical idea…

Last week I made a hand-written sign to put above my desk where I sit and write. It said, “Things don’t have to be perfect. Good enough really is good enough!!!” If you’re familiar with my blog, you know that wanting things to be ‘perfect’ is one of my vices.

It’s something I’m working on, with imperfect results, of course.

Case in point, the first sign I made wasn’t just right and I was about to make a new one to improve the spacing and color coordination, when I caught myself. Apparently when I created the sign, I hadn’t actually meant it. I considered it a minor victory that I stopped myself and said, “This sign is good enough.”

I apologize to my kids frequently for putting them on the wrong side of the column – the side where I put things I can make perfect, things that I can control. Don’t ask me why ANYTHING is in that column at all. It’s a fantasy, but it’s especially insulting to other human beings when you make them your own personal perfection projects. My kids don’t deserve that! No one does. Tim, by the way, was off that list about 15 years ago, which I think is the reason we’re still happily married today.

Ah, but back to my sign. By creating the sign, I was trying to remind myself not to obsess over my writing, my work, my kids, my finances, my house, my life. I was trying to encourage myself to see that things really are okay, and that okay is okay.

But after I read Rachel’s blog, I saw that my signs didn’t go far enough. By telling myself to let things simply be ‘good enough,’ I was still saying flat out that they could be better, that they probably should be better, but that forgiving myself for not making them better was the best way to go.

But Rachel’s point is this – we are enough. Simply by the fact of our existence, our birth, our presence in the world, we are enough.

If I get the dishes done before Tim comes home, I am enough. If I don’t, I’m still enough. If I make a healthy, home-cooked meal, I am enough; if they eat McDonald’s, yep, I’m still enough. If I smile at my neighbor, work in a soup kitchen, and turn in a kick ass assignment for my boss, I am worthy and even when I don’t, I am enough.

And honestly, I don’t think feeling like I am enough would let me off the hook. It doesn’t mean that I can lay around the house all day, watching reruns, eating Cheetos and feeling good about myself. Well, sometimes I can. But for the most part, I imagine that having the sense that I am enough would give me the desire to treat other people as if they were enough – my kids, my spouse, the annoying checker at the supermarket. If I am enough, so are they, and so how in the world could I treat them as if they left something to be desired? However they are, they are enough to merit my love, my respect, my time and for the checker at Vons, at least a smile.

I went walking on Saturday morning, with this radical concept of enough-ness, rattling around in my head. After reading her blog, I got why she says we are enough – at least in theory. And I started to reflect on how I can know something is true and yet have that knowledge barely scratch the surface of my heart. And then I laughed, because of course, for me, knowing something is very different from feeling something.

I know I am enough, but do I feel like enough?

Not by a long shot!

So that was my task as I walked that morning. I prayed that my heart, this hard little shell that I have lodged deep in my chest, would crack open just a little bit, and allow what I know in my head to drop down into my heart, to give me just a glimpse, just a taste of what it feels like to be enough. I would have loved a rush of emotion, a complete transformation, a ‘born again’ moment, but alas, no such miracles were forthcoming.

But at one point under the balcony of trees in the canyon, I stopped and I just breathed in and out, trying to be present to myself, to my heart and mind. I lifted up my insecurities, my perfectionist impulses, my ‘to-do-to-be-perfect’ list and I dismissed them. I just said, “Here. I don’t want them. Take them and don’t give them back.”

Of course they didn’t really go anywhere. I talk a good game, but apparently my well-trained compulsions are on a short leash. They always come back to me, even when I don’t call.

So what I hoped for didn’t happen, but this did. After a minute or two of standing there, wishing like crazy that I could feel something that felt like being enough, I opened my eyes, and this is what I saw.

heart nature

And I knew that my prayers, my desires, my longings were heard. Somehow, the request had gone out. I did not get the answer I wanted, right when I wanted it, which would have been perfect, but I got a sign of Love, of Presence, and of Grace.

And it wasn’t just good.

It was simply enough. 

There are many things I should be doing this morning, but I had to sit down and write this first, before I write curriculum, or emails, or even my list of things to do.

I wanted to tell you a story about a sign of love. They seem to be everywhere these days, like I can’t take a step without somehow being reminded that there is a force in the Universe that wants us to Love; a force that wants us to see that Grace is everywhere. If we keep our eyes and hearts open to the possibility, we will always find it.

Today is Friday, which means the Trash Man Cometh, and it’s our week for recycling, which means that all three cans need to make the journey down our long driveway to the curb. Usually, this is Tim’s job, but he was up and gone to work before dawn this morning. I just knew he wouldn’t have taken the trash out that early, so I scurried out the door in my boxer shorts and slippers to make it before the trucks came rumbling up the hill.

And wouldn’t you know it? He had taken the trash out to the curb. I don’t know if he did it after his 12-hour day yesterday, or before his 12-hour day began today, but the darn things were gone from our side yard and sitting pretty at the street. So I took my last trash bag down to the curb and as I was walking back to the house, I was thinking about how lucky I am. I thought about how hard he works to support our family, how he never looks at me as if I don’t contribute enough, or complain about what isn’t done. I thought about how grateful I am to be married to him and how just yesterday I had hugged him and quoted one of our favorite lines from Chris Rock, the comedian, who said, all his dad ever wanted was to hear his family say, “Hey, thanks for knocking out the rent.”

And then I looked down at my feet and saw this embedded in the concrete of our driveway. I don’t know how long it’s been there. I don’t know how many years I have walked right by it unaware. But it was there all along.

Kind of like Love.

The kind of love that takes out the trashcans before dawn, or does the dishes every night after dinner. The kind of love that makes the coffee at night, so that it greets me when I wake in the morning. The kind of love that works a 12-hour day, goes to Open House and then studies for a vocabulary test with the 10-year-old, because he makes it so much fun that I can’t even compete.

Those signs of Love are around us every day. Yes, I love the reminders written in stone, and concrete, in leaves and sky, but I also need to keep my eyes and heart open to the ones that are present in the million different ways that my husband loves me.

I recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy. I know I’m late to the party, but I always am when it comes to new Young Adult book series. I don’t know if it’s my inner, snobby professor, or my loyalty to The Little House on the Prairie series of my youth. Perhaps some part of me hasn’t wanted to betray the Ingalls family by falling in love with the Potters, the Cullens, or even Katniss Everdeen.

But alas, I gave in. I usually do.

For those of you who haven’t yet succumbed, let me set the stage. The Hunger Games are an annual, reality TV show set in Panem, a futuristic North America. Think Survivor gone dark – very, very dark. There are alliances, betrayals, and back stabbings (literally in this case). Twenty-four “contestants,” children between the ages of 12 and 18, battle to be the sole survivor. Everyone else must die. In the wealthy Capitol of Panem, the citizens watch on big screen TVs and cheer as one child after another is murdered.

In the books, a Mockingjay is a songbird, which becomes a symbol of rebellion – against The Games, against oppression, against the tyranny of The Capitol itself. When a song fascinates a Mockingjay, it will repeat it perfectly, even after hearing it only once. Other Mockingjays join in and the song, begun by one lone human being, is spread everywhere.

In the Districts, the poorer outlying areas of Panem, the Mockingjay is useful. In District 11, it sings the song of ‘quitting time,’ the end of the workday for the beleaguered population. In District 12, its songs bring some measure of joy and beauty to the grey-faced inhabitants of the coal-mining province. In the contest arena of The Hunger Games, the Mockingjay helps the heroine and her allies find one another, a way of saying, “I’m okay. Are you?” When words are not safe, the Mockingjay sings for desperate humans, communicating things they cannot say. Ultimately the Capitol cannot silence Mockingjays.

Panem is a fictional America, but there are some striking and uncomfortable similarities to our culture today. In the affluent Capitol (which may be more like Hollywood, than Washington DC), the citizens are obsessed with cosmetic surgery and reality TV. They overeat and purge, while others starve. They rely on their high tech gadgets and silent laborers for just about everything and have little to no compassion for their fellow men and women. Above all, they are characterized by their smug superiority, their certainty that this is the way of the world, the natural order of things, simply the way it is supposed to be.  If we are brutally honest, we might see versions of ourselves in the citizens of The Capitol. I am sure that was Suzanne Collins’ intention.

But I live near a canyon, and as I woke to the sound of dozens of songbirds out my window this morning, I thought of something else as well.

What if we are called to be Mockingjays?

Not The Mockingjay, the violent, desperate, rebel whom Katniss Everdeen, the hero, becomes.

I am talking about the songbirds, the ones who hear a beautiful melody and repeat it, taking the simple notes far and wide, sometimes for themselves, sometimes simply for the benefit of another soul, in need of hope.

Can we be Mockingjays? Do we have the courage to confront The Capitol voices in our heads? The ones that tell us how to look and behave, what to believe and treasure? The ones that tell us that the way things are, are simply the way they should be?

Is there another note being sounded in our lives, however faintly?

Can we sing a song of hope?

Of beauty?

Of peaceful rebellion against authoritarian voices?

What if others are waiting to hear our song, so they can join us and repeat it, so others can hear it too?

I felt a little foolish writing this blog about a teen novel, but then I thought, Go on! Be the Mockingjay you imagine. And all I can do is encourage you to do the same.

When you hear a song of truth, beauty, hope, love, or peace, repeat it.

Repeat it beautifully.

Repeat it as many times as you can throughout your life, until your song is heard by someone who will sing it with you.

Don’t think it’s someone else’s job. Don’t think another Mockingjay will do it better. Don’t think that you weren’t made to do it.

Its not Suzanne Collins’ job as a writer; or Bob Dylan’s as a singer; or even Billy Graham’s as a preacher.

It’s ours.

It’s yours. It’s mine.

We can all be Mockingjays.