Tim and Finn got up early this Father’s Day morning and headed out to do some father-son bonding, which allowed us girls to do our favorite things. Keara slept; Molly watched Friends and Hawaii Five-O; I cleaned. Now, cleaning isn’t my very favorite thing, but having a clean house is, so it ultimately worked out. It’s eleven a.m. and I’m done, except for some piles of laundry sitting on the garage floor.
I also had a chance to read an article about the inception of Father’s Day and what a rough road it faced to garner acceptance. The first Father’s Day occurred in 1908, the same year as Mother’s Day, but unlike Mother’s Day, it was decades before it was made official by Congress. Honoring father’s was considered a joke – in part because the men in charge seemed to think it was “sissy” to be thanked and honored by women and children. The second reason so many people resisted the holiday was the cultural image and expectations we had of fathers. For millennia, until the last half century, fathers were thought of as “providers” (first of sperm, then of sustenance) and little else. If a father made sure their offspring didn’t die, then they had done their job. It was the mothers who mattered.
Well, a lot has changed in the last fifty years. We know fathers matter now. The statistics have shown how much better kids with present, active, engaged fathers perform – scholastically, socially, psychologically, emotionally. It doesn’t mean kids without dads are doomed; it just means the kids who have them are privileged in some pretty significant ways. I know I was and I know Tim wasn’t.
But our kids have the privilege of being raised by Tim, who has turned out to be a pretty amazing dad. While most young men are driven at that time in their life by monetary goals and career success, Tim was driven by one thing: he wanted to be a good husband and a present father. As twenty-year-olds, when we dreamed about our life together, it was always about how we could be there for our kids’ soccer practices and sick days, how we could take time off to spend to spend at the beach, or go to the mountains, how we could show up for each other, each and every day.
Tim was a great provider – of both sperm and sustenance – but he provides so much more. He provides humor and a calming influence; he provides the voice of reason and the safety regulations; he provides theLove and pride, encouragement and wisdom we need to become all we are meant to be. Having a good father in the house is good for me too.
For all those men out there, who provide so much more than the basics, thank you. This is your day.
And to my own father, thanks for providing so much more.
For the record, feminism by definition is: ‘The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.'”
– Emma Watson in her speech at the UN in September 2014
A couple weeks ago, I read an essay by Courtney Martin, an author, activist and mother to two daughters. It was called “The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood.” In the essay, she commented that her husband, John, is relieved to be raising daughters. John is definitely male, but not an alpha. He doesn’t identify with the masculine stereotypes of yesteryear, so daughters seem like a more comfortable fit. He knows the message he wants to deliver – Be strong; be yourself; transcend your limitations, etc. John’s lucky; he also married a ringer of a role model– a super intelligent, strong wife, who wears the pants in the family, just like he does.
Sons? John’s not so sure what he would say to them. It’s confusing enough to be a young man in today’s world, much less raise one. (He’s right; it’s way easier to teach someone to step into their power, than to temper it.) Being a journalist, Courtney ran a little informal poll and found lots of men who felt the same way. Whew! I’ve got girls. I know the message I want to convey: empowerment, strength, personal freedom. It’s disappointing they don’t feel like they could give boys those same messages, but I get why. The implication for a boy, based on historical evidence, is that male empowerment, strength and freedom comes at a cost, usually to everyone else. Patriarchy flourished over the past millennia on the backs of the “other,” namely women, the weak and the poor.
Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game, by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashion of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which really angers some long-time feminists.
But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. It’s NOT because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a vote about it in the first place! We didn’t help make the rules; we didn’t get to pick the venue, or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored, or what determined the winner. It was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were just so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It may have been a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc. and then face criticism if they don’t meet some pre-determined standard.
Young women are ‘leaning in,’ but not to the patriarchal, “winner and take all” game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists, of both genders, are trying to invent a new game – one where everyone can play to their own strengths. Everyone is invited to the conversation, to take leading and supporting roles, to find their niche in a system that honors all of who they are – the masculine and the feminine – the parts of themselves previous generations had to deny when they were locked into the essentialism of their gender at birth. (Essentialism is just a fancy word for the false belief that men are THIS and women are THAT – biologically and entirely, with no exceptions.)
Now, I know that oversimplification might ruffle a lot of feathers in the blogosphere, but in broad strokes, I think there is something to it. We want more parity, but not just according to the old paradigms. (Change happens on the margins, so if you want to see more examples of where this happening, look no further than the young women flocking to the Bernie Sanders movement over Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or the huge emphasis on the T and the Q in the LGBTQ community. Gender non-binaries are where it’s at!)
So what does all this have to do with raising a feminist son?
After I read Courtney’s article, I sent it to Tim, who I thought might understand where her husband was coming from, but in fact, Tim was super disappointed in John’s perspective. In his email back to me (and my mellow brother-in-law, Nathan, who is raising three girls), he wrote:
“I feel the opposite. I’m happy to raise strong women, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise a son that isn’t a typical alpha-male. The world needs less of those, so I’m glad I get to play a part in moving things forward rather than backward. But whoever we are raising, I think that we need to raise them with less gender constraints and more humanity.”
Hot damn! Is it any wonder I love that man?
I just wish his perspective was more common among Courtney’s husband and their peers. If any of them have sons, I know they will step up to the plate, but I wish they were more excited about the prospect. We need to change the narrative about parenting. We can’t change our daughters’ futures unless we change our sons’ as well! We can’t leave our sons in the dark, while we lift our daughters into the light. It is going to take the evolution of BOTH genders to bring about real gender equality.
But I know Tim and I aren’t alone on this belief. In our circle of friends, we know a ton of boys who are being raised to see girls as their equal, and to treat them with the respect due a peer, not a princess. Some of these young men are even willing to be vulnerable, to have conversations with each other about their dreams and disappointments. They are intentional about who they are and how they want to be in the world. Finn and his friends give me a lot of hope for the future and so do a couple of other people out there in the wider world.
One of them is Glennon Doyle Melton. She’s on the other side of the country in Florida, but I share a lot of her work on Facebook and sometimes link to her through my blog. About a year ago, she wrote something about her son Chase that she reposted recently. I think it’s a perfect model for how to raise a feminist son. She wrote:
When Chase was eight, a woman approached us at the grocery store and said, “What a handsome boy! What do you plan to be when you grow up, young man?” Chase looked at her and said, “I plan to be kind and brave, ma’am.”
Chase wants to be a human being who is kind and brave and he is already that. He knows that his “success” does not depend upon whether he lands some job or not. He knows he’ll be a success if he continues to practice kindness and courage wherever and with whomever he finds himself. Today he is a kind and brave sixth grader and one day he’ll be a kind a brave high schooler and one day maybe he’ll be a kind and brave teacher or artist or father or carpenter or friend. His roles will change but his character will remain. He is already who he wants to be. So he can just go about being himself forever. Following his curiosity. One Next Right Thing at a time.
Glennon and her husband Craig are not raising their son to play the old-school game, of winners and losers. If you are yourself, if you are a person of character, if you are conscious and compassionate, YOU WIN! This kid is going to be a feminist, but not just because he is growing up in a home with sisters who are his equals, and a strong mom. Perhaps most importantly, he has a strong dad, a man who doesn’t derive his power from dominance, or by diminishing the ideas and gifts of those around him.
The second example is a little closer to home. Here in San Diego, there is a little church called Sojourn Grace Collective. It was founded about two years ago by a couple, who pastor together: Colby Martin and Kate Christensen Martin. We’ve stopped by a few times and we love what the church is about. But what I love especially is that Kate is on fire for feminism and Colby is on fire for Kate (duh, who wouldn’t be?), but for reasons beyond the obvious ones. Like Kate, he is all about changing the rules of the old-school game, even though, as an educated, straight white man, he could have won big time by playing for the patriarchy. He has a book, Unclobber, coming out in the fall about the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the church and society; he writes blog posts about why #BlackLivesMatter and he is just wrapping up a sermon series on Liberation Theology and how it changed everything for him. Kate preached her own liberation sermon Mother’s Day. You can check it out here.
But there is one more thing about Kate and Colby that is pretty special. They have four sons! They get to reverse engineer this whole feminism thing for the next twenty years by lifting up their sons! I want them to write a book about that next! Parents who are wondering how to raise boys in our ever-changing world could probably use it!
So, how do you raise a feminist son?
I think there are a thousand ways and more, but it has to start with wanting to. It has to start with realizing that feminism isn’t just about the empowerment of women and girls to be all they can be. It is about the liberation of men and boys from outdated cultural models that force them to be less than who they fully are. We have to free our children from the belief that masculinity is synonymous with material success and stoicism and that strength and forthrightness are not feminine. We have to honor them for ALL they are and encourage them to “lean in” to that above all else.
But first, we have to wake up ourselves to the fact that this “war” between the sexes is not a zero sum game; we are not actually on different sides. We are winners and losers together. Feminism is the path we need to embrace for now to get on the same team, but true liberation for both genders is about so much more. It is about the fullest expression of who we are as individuals and a collective humanity. It will always be a dance between freedom and responsibility, strength and vulnerability, struggle and victory. It’s about equality for all and we have to be willing to get into the new game ourselves, showing up humbly and authentically, ready to play.
Also, one of my favorite podcasters, Mike McHargue, is a super smart and super spiritual guy, who also proudly claims to be a feminist. Unfortunately in my opinion, he is raising only daughters. Sigh…So is his incredible podcast partner, Michael Gungor. Check them out at The Liturgists sometime. You won’t be disappointed!
Finally, let me be clear as I end this post:
Finn has never claimed the title “feminist” for himself, but when I showed him the definition of feminism above, he looked at me with a “Duh? Who doesn’t believe in that?” kind of look. “I believe in feminism,” he said, “but I wouldn’t call myself one.”
Any day now, many of my friends here in California will be getting some big news. The UC acceptance and rejection letters go out in the next week and the ensuing cheers and tears will be heard across Tierrasanta and the state. I imagine it’s just the beginning as the private universities send their letters in the weeks that follow. We got to be a party to the big reveal last year and next year will bring another round for us, but as the nerves build over the next week, this is what I would like to say to all the parents who are waiting…
IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.
No matter where your kids go to school next fall, IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.
But I’ll admit, it’s really easy to forget that.
When Keara was figuring out where she would go to school, I had so many hang ups. I was disappointed that we couldn’t afford to send her where she really wanted to go. I felt like I was limiting the potential trajectory of her life by putting parameters on her applications. I felt like a failure as a mom for our financial limitations. I second-guessed every free-thinking decision we had ever made. Maybe some of you will agree with my self-assessment, but Tim didn’t. He reminded me that there is little connection between where you start the fall of your freshman year and where you end up in life! There are no guarantees. I just have to look at my own life to be reminded of that fact.
When Keara began the college search process, I wanted to give her exactly what I had – every opportunity – academically, socially, financially – to go to the school she wanted. My parents said, “Pick out a school and go!” so I picked out a great school and I went, but within a year and a half, I was homesick and partying and pregnant. The “best” school simply turned out to be the “best” place for me to learn some really hard lessons about who I was and how I wanted to be in the world. I still finished my degree in four years by attending summer school, intercession and every semester I could, at five different universities. I graduated at 21, was in grad school at 22 and carried on to get my dream job at a local university as an adjunct professor before 25. But you know what? That didn’t turn out to be “the best thing” for me either.
Ultimately, I have found the “best” place within myself by integrating my body, mind and soul. I ended up in the “best” place of my life, through trial and error, love and commitment, through facing hard things with all the courage I could muster and the skills I had at the time. I created the “best” place I could by surrounding myself with people I could trust and striving to be that for them as well. My “best” place continues to be wherever I find myself fully engaged in meaningful work, surrounded by people I care about.
Friends, this isn’t just my story. It’s your story too. Look at the life you’ve created! Your college experience was a part of it, but only one part. You might have great memories of those years, but you probably could have created them at ten different campuses across the country, or even a hundred. They are specific in details, but not content. You might have gone to one school or three. It might have taken you four years or seven. You might have had starts and stops, dramas and things that derailed you for a while. You probably changed course, at least a couple times and IT’S OKAY. That’s life!
No life is protected, or perfect. We know that, so let’s be clear with our kids about what we most appreciate about our own lives. It might help them know what to aim for.
Aim for wholeness. Aim for goodness. Aim for meaning, purpose and impact. Aim for independence, in the context of loving, healthy relationships. Aim for respect and wisdom. Aim to learn continually and to use that knowledge compassionately and effectively.
Moms and dads, I know you are nervous; I know you are anxious for your kids. I know you feel like you have a lot riding on the decisions these schools make and that a lot is riding on the decisions you make. I know your kiddos have put a lot of time and effort into these applications and into their last twelve years of school. But no matter what happens, no matter where your child goes to school in the fall…
IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY.
I keep writing IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY in ALL CAPS, over and over again, because that’s how I reminded myself to believe it last year, as Keara worked her way through the application process. It’s how I am preparing myself for next year when Finn is waiting for the news. But just because I have to remind myself of something doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Our fears (especially those we share culturally) can sometimes outweigh the facts, make us reactive and get in the way of good decision-making. (Look no further than the success of Donald Trump to see the truth of that.)
At 18, our kids are in process – they are figuring out who they are, what they want to do and what they are capable of. We need to let them figure that out and remember that they can and will figure those things out virtually anywhere. What we’ve given them over the last 18 years of their life is a far greater indicator of their future success than the name on their college degree.
P.S. Whatever happens next fall, CONGRATULATIONS! You’ve successfully raised decent, well-educated, productive members of society, who have a strong desire to continue their education and contribute the world in a significant way. That is truly good news!
P.P. S. Keara ultimately ended up in an excellent program for her major at CSULB, a school about 100 miles away from home. She loves it and has admitted that although she longed to go back east, she doesn’t think she would have lasted for that long that far away from home. Despite my anxiety, it really has turned out even better than OKAY.
I wanted to write a blog today, on International Women’s Day, to honor the women I love the most in this world. Although I have incredible sisters, cousins, teachers, pastors, and friends, these laughing ladies have my heart. They are my heart.
As I was looking for a photo to go with this blog, I realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of the women in our family together. I have lots of the whole and lots of the parts, individually and in different combinations, but of the three of us together, very few. I know why that is, but it saddens me that I haven’t made it more of a priority. Being sisters, “sitsering” each other, standing together – creating that bond for them is one of my greatest desires as a mother and one of the most difficult to fulfill. Keara and Molly are so different from each other. The gap of five years between them is nothing compared to the gap in the way they see and experience the world. In a simple binary way, one is athletic, while the other is artistic. One is petite, while the other is zaftig. One is a night owl, the other an early bird. One wants to compete, the other wants to create. One likes romance movies, the other art house films. Raised in the same home, by the same set of parents, our girls have turned out completely different – at least on the surface.
I know my two girls better than probably any one and so I feel like I can say with confidence that despite their obvious differences, they have the same heart. They may show it differently, but their motivations are the same. They want to make the world a better place; they ache for the pain of others. They aren’t afraid to stand up for justice and say what they believe when it comes to right and wrong. They value family, big and small, by blood and choice. They value adventure and travel and education and loyalty. That is the big picture, but that shared heart doesn’t always come through though, particularly in their interactions with each other. I guess that’s why I’m writing this.
In addition to what I hope they see they have in common, I also want Keara and Molly to see in one another the legacy their mother left behind. Someday, I will be gone and I pray that removing me from the picture will not remove the maternal tie that binds them.
In Keara, I hope Molly will see my legacy of creativity. I use words, most of the time, but Keara has taken that desire to create to a whole new level. She uses her head and heart, her hands and body. From her makeup to her cross stitch, her music to her humor, Keara always finds new ways to express what is inside of her. I hope Molly will witness Keara’s engagement with stories, ones she’s read and heard and watched, as a legacy of my love of stories, from my time as an English graduate student to my obsession with reading good books. I hope she will respect Keara’s fierce originality and independence and find its genesis in my own quirky style and desire not to be like everyone else.
In Molly, I pray that Keara will come to appreciate how she has always wanted to be a ‘mother,’ to others. Like her own mother, Molly wants to heal people with her touch and presence. She wants to lift others up and make them see themselves as whole, beautiful and special. Like me, Molly is disciplined about her practices – with sports, academics, food. Although it might seem strange to Keara, we work better on a schedule and we know it. Like me, Molly seems to want traditional things – a home and family and career and there is nothing limited or prosaic about that. Within those confines, beautiful things flourish.
I don’t know that my girls will need this pep talk. I don’t know that this pep talk will even work, if or when they read it. I only know that when I look at this picture of the three of us, my heart is broken open with joy for the connection these momentary laughter and smiles represent and I hope continues for the rest of their lives.
P.S. My own sister and I grew up thinking we were about as different as two women could be. Ten years apart in age and at least that far in temperament, she is now my best friend. We share the same heart.
Last week, Richard Rohr published a meditation that included this line.
“Love is the source and the goal, faith is the slow process of getting there and hope is the willingness to move forward without resolution and closure.”
It blew me away and so I wrote it up on our chalk wall in the dining room. We have 4 grids: Wall of Fame, Prayer List, Quote of the Week and Do-er’s Choice. We also keep a bucket of chalk on the table. Though I conceived of it as a place for family expression, probably about 80% of the time, I am the only one who expresses herself there. Occasionally the kids will chip in with a “Thanks, Mom,” or a “Way to go” on the Wall of Fame. A little more often, they will add someone’s name to the Prayer List. When they were small, they would jockey for space to draw in the Do-er’s Choice lower quadrant. When inspiration strikes, Tim will commandeer the Quote of the Week for a song lyric, usually from U2. So what I thought was a fun and inexpensive way to get the kids involved has mostly become another place for me to do my “mom-thing.” It does however, on occasion, open up some family conversation, so I just put things up and see what happens. Sometimes they ask, but mostly they ignore it.
However, I loved Richard’s words so much that I wanted to make sure they saw them. During dinner last week, I pointed out the quote and asked what they thought.
Clearly, I threw them for a loop, because they kind of nodded, said, “Uh-huh,” and moved on. Our dinnertime conversations cover topics like school, friends, our goods and bads, sometimes song lyrics, and these days, even politics, but rarely do we stray into theology. At the end of a long day, it’s just too much and on a normal night, if it were an obscure text from some 14th century mystic, I would have given up and moved on, but the idea is so central to my understanding of the world that I thought I’d try one more time.
“Let me draw you a picture.”
“Love is the source and the goal.”
On the left side is our ‘source,’ the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang. It began with what the scriptures in Greek called the Alpha; what we would call God. Richard Rohr, drawing on the work of the saints and the mystics across the ages, calls it Love. That’s why it’s a heart. God’s desire to be in relationship got the whole thing started and it’s what keeps the whole thing going. NOTHING operates in isolation or solitude. On a most basic level, that’s what Love means. From the tiniest sub-atomic particle to the global population, we are drawn toward each other and we are changed and charged by those connections.
On the right side is our ‘goal,’ where we are headed. That is also God, what the Greeks called the Omega point. That is also Love, for God is Love and despite all the setbacks, the violence and injury we do to each other, the primal urge is to draw back together. What is scattered is gathered again. It is the way of life and evolution, the way of Love.
“Faith is the slow process of getting there.”
The line from the left to the right is the length of our days. We go along; we live our lives. We are sure of our path and where we are headed, except when we aren’t. There are moments when our surety and safety are disrupted. Bad things happen! We get bullied; people die; we fail miserably at school, at a job, at a marriage. In those moments, we need Faith to see us through. Faith is our will to live; it is knowing where we came from and where we are headed.
“Hope is the willingness to move forward without resolution and closure.”
Even with Love and Faith, we will not move forward on that line without Hope, because things won’t be resolved as quickly as we’d like. In discouragement, it would be easy to stop, but Hope is the engine that drives us forward anyway. Life does not operate according to perfect plans, but even when we don’t know the answer, Hope allows us to trust that an answer will come eventually.
“Does that make more sense?” I asked them.
“Sure mom, we get the picture.”
Good enough, I thought. If they have the picture of Love at the beginning and end of it all, that’s good enough for me.
I sheepishly put down my pencil and the conversation moved on to other things. Sometimes, I think I overwhelm them with too many ‘big ideas,’ but I hope they will retain some of the biggest, the ones I repeat most often.
This is the truth of our lives. Love is where we came from and Love is where we are headed. Yes, we encounter circumstances every day that challenge that truth, but Faith allows us to carry on ‘as if’ it were true. And if we look for it, we can also find clear evidence to fuel our Hope. We can witness Love winning through compassionate giving, community building, truth telling, and resource sharing. I see it in my friends and my enemies. No one is exempt from the ability and desire to Love. And that truth gives me the Hope to walk further down the road in Faith toward even greater Love.
Even, and maybe even especially, during family dinners.
My first two children were twenty months apart, and although I know they can be a lot closer than that, they were much closer than Tim and I wanted them to be. It was a rough transition for us to go from a party of 2 to a party of 3 and then 4 in rapid succession. And after baby #2 arrived, I actually went to see a therapist. Tim was worried about me for some reason, ostensibly, because he would leave for work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would get home from work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would leave for work the next day and I would still be in those same pajamas. You get the picture. (I really wish yoga pants had existed back them. I could have totally fooled him!)
So one day I actually did get dressed and went to the therapist, and through laughter and tears, told her all about what was going in my life and how I was feeling and she said, “Aw honey, you aren’t depressed. You are having far too many emotions for that! You are just exhausted. I don’t think you have any idea how tired you are.” And she gave me permission, it was more like a prescription, to just rest. For a little while at least, to just give it all up! And that was the nicest advice, some of the best advice anyone had given me. Just let it be. Stop trying to do it all, and be it all, on time and looking good. But most importantly, she said to me, “You know, it’s okay to acknowledge the season of life you’re in.” Yes, I was young and healthy and just on the cusp of motherhood, but I was also in a winter season. Finn was born in late October and this probably took place in mid-December, so it was literally a winter season as well. The days were short and cold and so were my reserves of physical, mental and emotional strength.
There are seasons and then, there are seasons. There are seasons of the year, and seasons of our lives and within each season of our life, we will experience different seasons.
And as far as seasons go, I am a summer person. I love the light and the heat and the warm ocean water, and the long days. I am also by nature a sunny, happy person. My mind gravitates towards a sense of wonder and possibility in almost every situation. I don’t like to focus on the dark stuff. So when I had my first two kids so close together, what the therapist helped me see was that I was a summer person, in the spring of my life, experiencing a winter season. No wonder I was confused.
In Southern California, we use the word “seasons” loosely. Growing up here on the beaches, cold meant 60 degrees and the only days you couldn’t wear flip flops were the rainy ones, but even then you could probably get away with it, if you timed it right. I was operating on a completely different system. Winter was for occasional skiing and snowboarding. It was a recreational activity, not a way of life. And so, the weather of my daily life totally fed my optimistic, fun-seeking personality. Rain was supposed to go away in a day. Clouds only lasted until 10 am when the sun would burn them away. Actual natural hardship, or limitation was temporary, evaporating almost immediately.
So when I became a new mom, and entered this long stretch where my sunny self disappeared, it scared me and Tim as well. I didn’t know what to do with the darkness and sadness I felt inside; I didn’t know if the sun would ever come back, and I hated that thought. I had been through some difficult things before, but those seasons had passed when I was a child. Now, I was ‘adulting.’
I was the “adult” in charge of a marriage and the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of two little babies. And I was searching for a way out of this darkness I was in. I was looking for the light and I wanted it fast, because that’s how I thought it worked. I wanted to be where I thought I should be already – in the glory days of summer, but it wasn’t to be. Let me give you just one story from the winter that blanketed the Kirkpatrick family for about two years in the late 90s.
Even the worst winter storms bring on snow days, where everyone drops their cares and worries and has a good time. There were moments of real joy and laughter, but Keara was a handful as a toddler – strong willed, and mommy-centric. Her naps and our tempers were equally short, but Tim often came home from work early to help me. One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch, nursing Finn and reading stories to Keara. I saw Tim pull up in front of the house, but he thought it would be funny to ring the doorbell and I thought it would be funny to let Keara get the door. It wasn’t. She opened it, saw Tim and yelled, “No daddy home!” and slammed the door in his face. That kind of puts a chill on a relationship. It might have happened between the two of them, but it is a perfect example of the frost that covered our home. I may have been the one in the winter season, but everyone was feeling it. We were trying, and often failing, to connect with each other. Too often, like our two-year-old, we were more concerned with protecting our own turf.
We have warmed up from that winter and been through all the other seasons: the spring when Molly was born, the glorious summer when all our kids were out of diapers and none of them were yet teens and another winter when the Great Recession hit and we struggled to keep our business alive.
At this point in my life, at 44, in another fall, I am far more comfortable with the language of seasons (though I would still never choose to live in any place that actually had them), because I have been through them over and over again. I know the truth they represent and the wisdom I can learn from them.
In one of my darker winter days, I asked my spiritual director, a wise woman in her sixties, “Where is God in this darkness?” and she said to me, “If you want to know what God is like, look out your window. Look at life; look at the seasons of the year; watch the pattern of your days. God is not other than what is created. God is found in the pattern of creation itself.”
And really what she was saying is: Life is change and transformation, death and rebirth, light and darkness. Nothing good lasts forever.
I know that now.
I know that no season can last forever, no matter how good it is, or how badly I want it to.
I know that no season will last forever, no matter how dark or difficult it is, even if it lasts longer than I think I can stand it.
I know that wanting what was, or clinging to what is, or anxiously waiting for what will be is the surest way to miss the beauty of the season I’m in, or to learn any of the lessons it has to teach me.
And when I understood that, I could stop clinging to a vision of life where only eternal summer – light and goodness – could make me happy. My efforts to always keep it light are wasted energy, energy that could be better spent getting comfortable with darker days, digging in the soil, and nurturing whatever new thing is trying to come to the surface. What is born in the spring is what the world needs, not what fades away when its natural time comes.
Rob Bell likes to say that things come into our lives for a season and for a reason and if we stay, or cling to them for too long, what was once joyful, becomes bitter. We have to let them go. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminded the ancient Hebrews that for everything there is a season and a time for everything under heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
I always heard that passage, or the song by the Byrds and thought it applied to farmers and hippies, not 20th century beach girls like me.
But now, whenever I sense a waning of the light, I can hear my spiritual director saying, “Look out your window. What do you see? What do you know is true?”
Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints, is one of my heroes. Someone asked her once in an interview why she keeps talking about the Resurrection, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, because she talks about that story all the time, not just in the springtime when it’s topical for most of us, and she said simply, “Because it’s the truest story I know.”
And what she was getting at was not just the fact that Jesus died and was raised up again on the third day, although that is of ultimate importance to her as a Christian and a pastor, but also that it is the truest story she has experienced in her own life. Over and over again, her plans for herself, her life, and her church have failed, or been disrupted and when it happens, she is desperately sad, or wildly angry, or probably both, because she has a temper, but over and over again, they come back to life. They are resurrected. Sometimes they push back to the surface, just slightly changed, but sometimes they are unrecognizable, a lot like Jesus after the Resurrection. No one, not even his closest friends – not Mary Magdalene, not Peter, not his apostles on the road to Emmaus – recognized him, because he was a brand new creation.
Always, without fail, Nadia says, the things that arise from the death of her dreams are better; they are more life-giving for everyone. Even more importantly, she says, is the fact that every time she dies to herself and her own ego, her need to control and perfect, SHE rises again with more potential to Love the world – and everyone in it, from herself, to her family, to her community, to the stranger on the street and for her this is a big one, even a Wall Street trader. She says in her first book, Pastrix, “Every single time I fight it (the death, the loss, the disruption). And every single time, I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”
I love Nadia and her insistence on the resurrection, because it is one of the truest things I have come to know as well, but I didn’t always. Even though I have always considered myself a Christian, or perhaps because of it, I thought Resurrection was a miracle that happened once, long ago to God’s son. I still do believe that, but I also believe that God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time and everywhere, as Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr says.
Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win out if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!
Life is a constant repeat of loving something, and then having to let it go, not necessarily tragically, sometimes just naturally, because life is change. What we can trust, if we have a deep familiarity with the story of Jesus, or with the seasons of life itself, is that new life will come from what we have lost. If we don’t short-circuit the process through clinging, or denial, or impatience, a new season will flourish and bring new life. It won’t be the same as what we lost, but it can be even better. If we allow it, the soil of our lives can be enriched by the death of our fantasies about what we, or our lives, or our families should look like. And in that soil, we can plant deeper roots, and we can weather more storms and we can enjoy the autumns and survive the winters, because we KNOW that spring is coming and that summer isn’t the only season worth living for.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said that every person has three marriages in them. We marry the first time for sex, the second for security, the third for companionship. While I have great respect for the thrice-married Dr. Mead, I was grateful she added, “even if they are all to the same person.”
Three years ago, I told the story of how I met my “first” husband, in the post,“So This Guy Walks into a Bar…” I highly recommend starting there to understand my marital history, but on our wedding anniversary, I’d like to introduce you to my “second” husband. He is usually referred to in my blog as “Tim,” or “Babe,” his given and pet names respectively, but he is almost always reduced to playing the straight man in my stories. He is frequently the Ricky to my Lucy, instead of the real, flesh and blood man he is and I thought this might be a chance to improve upon that limited role, so let me tell you a story about how I met my “second” husband.
By the time Molly Grace was born, Tim and I had been married for almost ten years. The purpose of our “first marriage” had been met, as was obvious by the number of dependents we traveled with. And so as she toddled off to preschool, I was ready for a new experience and attended a religious and spirituality conference in Los Angeles. I’m sure Tim never gave a thought to the trouble I would find there, attending daily mass and singing worship music with my Catholic mother. But I found it. Speakers like Ron Rolheiser, Paula D’Arcy and Richard Rohrspoke to parts of me I thought I had lost forever in the oxytocin-fueled haze of breastfeeding and the drudge of diaper changes. They reawakened my curious mind and restless heart.
But by the third day, I was so full of new ideas that I almost skipped out early, eager to get home to Tim and the kids, but I had one more ticket to see an Irish poet named David Whyte. I had never heard of him before, but something urged me to stay and to this day, I am grateful I did. Whyte offered a piece of wisdom that would become the pattern for my life moving forward. He said,
“You must learn one thing ,
The world was made to be free in.
Anything or anyone
that does not
bring you alive
is too small for you.”
(Please don’t read the poem dualistically. Not every moment of every day, or situation can bring us to life and it doesn’t mean we leave. It just means we can start asking questions and getting curious about the situation.)
Whyte postulated that we were not created to stay the same over the course of our lifetimes. We do not hit thirty, or forty, or fifty and stop growing. We are a product of evolution, and as such, it is our God-given gift and responsibility to evolve ourselves, to stay on the creative edge of life, always adapting to survive and thrive in the new situations and habitats we find ourselves in.
I loved Whyte’s deep, Irish brogue, but as I listened, anxiety churned in my belly for he was naming the very sense of discomfort that had been creeping into my life during that time. Though I had told my “first” husband that I all I ever wanted to be was a stay-at-home mom, I realized that wasn’t true anymore. Although I loved my life, some part of me was buried underground and I wanted to go digging. I wasn’t looking for Tim’s permission exactly, but I certainly wanted his support.
After tucking the kids into bed that Sunday night, Tim and I crawled into a hot bubble bath, our favorite place for long conversations on winter nights, and I began to unpack my ideas. He was a great listener. He didn’t get defensive, even though it couldn’t have been easy to hear that after providing everything I’d ever wanted, I now found it “small,” and limiting in some crucial way. I looked at the discomfort in his eyes, and plowed ahead. (Since then, I’ve learned the art of greater conversational subtlety and patience and how to apologize when I push too hard.)
David Whyte had echoed Mead’s insights on marriage – that marriage is about freedom, not limitation. Being married doesn’t mean you can’t change; in fact, it means you both have a safe place to do so. You’ve made a commitment to be just that. When you say, “I do” at the altar, you don’t marry just one person. You are vowing to love and honor every version the person standing in front of you will become over the course of your lifetime together. I told Tim that my intentions were good, that I didn’t want to become someone he wouldn’t know. I just wanted to look in a mirror and see beyond the roles I played, to the ME I might become if I explored the depths of my heart and the possibilities of my life. And then I asked him, “Do you trust me?”
He looked at me in my excitement and pain and longing and he said, “Yes,” knowing it was going to cost him something, and praying it wouldn’t cost him everything.
And in that moment, I met my “second” husband.
My “first” husband rescued me, made me feel like a beautiful princess, and set about delivering my happily ever after. My “second” husband stepped back and let me rescue myself, knowing that true happiness could only come from within.
Brené Brown has developed a kind of litmus test for the maturity of partners in a marriage, or any deep relationship. She writes, “If you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything and if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who has done her work and does not derive her power from that man.”
Like any young couple, Tim and I spent years trying to shore up our power by attempting to fix each other, the faults and annoying habits obviously, but also the friendships and foes that caused our loved ones pain. When you’re young, you think everything can be improved with just a little more effort and care, but when you’re older, you know life is more about keeping vigil than keeping it all in line. Tim showed me how that night and in the years that followed by walking and talking with me, listening to my prayers and holding me in my pain as I discovered who I wanted to be. A few years later, he let me return the favor when the economy tanked and his business was on the line. I couldn’t fix a damn thing when it came to the Great Recession, but I could do what he had done for me.
Over the years, we have become successively new versions of ourselves, transformed by our personal and professional successes and failures, as well as those of our children, families, communities and the world at large. If one of us is feeling “small,” we both try to show up to do the work it takes to set them free. To be clear, it is hard work and we often fail. Like any couple, we fight and bicker; we fall in and out of love (but never out of Love); our tempers get the best of us, though we are quick to apologize. That is the humility of marriage; the mirror is always there in front of you, reflecting your best and worst qualities, if you dare to look.
On our 15th anniversary, a few years after we embarked on our “second” marriage, Tim and I renewed our vows. We invited couples who had supported us over the years and also modeled the kind of marriage we were trying to practice ourselves: a loving, respectful partnerships of equals. Tim and I recommitted to supporting each other in what Carl Jung called “the privilege of a lifetime: to become who you truly are.”
I am so grateful for having experienced a “first” marriage that was so full of romance and intimacy. I am still blessed with a “second” marriage that transformed my still-lovely lover into a safe house for growth and experimentation and finally, we look forward to our “third” marriage, whenever it arrives, but we’re in no hurry. It feels like we’re living the three marriages of a lifetime already. We have a lover, a safety net and a best friend at our sides every day.
So when I make cracks about Tim tuning out my stories, or mocking my attempts to try something new, know all this about him too. Though I may write about him as my sidekick, he is so much more than that. I am only me, because I have been loved by him.
A casual friend asked me recently how Keara was doing. Though she doesn’t know Kiko personally, she’s a reader of the blog and loved how we blessed K on her way to college last month. Though I had considered writing about how it went, I thought it might be too late. She assured me it wasn’t. On the hope she’s not the only one, I thought I’d follow up.
On Friday, the morning after the blessing, we packed up the car to drive from San Diego to Long Beach. I noticed some butterflies in my stomach, nothing too distracting, just an occasional flutter, a hint that today was not an average day.
On Saturday, her move-in day, I woke with a nagging sensation that something was wrong. I took a shower, asked Tim to bring me a cup of coffee and sat down to write and pray. Here is an excerpt from my prayer journal that morning:
We move Keara into her dorm this morning and it is very clear to me that I have two choices: I can write, or I can cry. Since I’ve already done my makeup and I am determined not to scare her, I’m writing to you God. All I keep saying, over and over again – even during my sit as I tried to return to my sacred word – is, “May you be safe. May you be content. May you be strong. May you live your life at ease.” I am praying that blessing for Keara and myself, over and over again.
I pulled myself together; we drove up the coast and created a semblance of a home in a 15×15 dorm room. I was so bewildered that day. I kept looking at all the parents and their eighteen-year-old children. What had seemed like such a good idea in the previous months suddenly seemed like bad idea, one of the worst really. I felt like I had Tourette syndrome. It took everything I had to not start shouting, “Does anyone else think this is a terrible idea? Take your children and go home. All of you!” Obviously, I didn’t do it, but Tim, perhaps sensing my need for solidarity, kept squeezing my hand and giving me appropriately concerned smiles. Before I knew it, it was 5 o’clock and Kiko was racing out to dinner with her new roommates, saying she’d see us in the morning for breakfast.
Sunday morning dawned and I found myself , unable, or possibly just unwilling, to get out of bed. I was physically nauseous, dreading the day ahead. Eventually I persevered, but only with Tim’s help and on his insistence. We picked Kiko up from campus and did one more Target run, one more cup of coffee, one more hug goodbye and that’s when it got ugly. I held her in my arms and whispered my morning’s blessing to her one more time, and then she started to cry and I started to cry and Tim started to cry. We let her go, got in the car and drove away.
And before we were even out of the parking lot, Tim asked me, “What are you feeling right now?” as if he didn’t know. But sad didn’t even begin to cover it, so I took a deep breath and told him.
“I know this is going to sound really weird, but it feels like the morning I left Sarah in the hospital. It’s that same sense of being hollowed out, of leaving half my heart in the high-rise behind me and driving away, ON PURPOSE, and knowing that things are never going to be the same again. She’s never going to be mine again…. And don’t turn on the radio, because God help me, if Lionel Richie is playing, I just might not be able to do it. I don’t care if you’re crying; DON’T STOP THE CAR! We can’t stop, because if we stop, I don’t think I can start again. If we just keep moving, I can do this. I know how to do this, but if there is one second when I can turn around and take it all back, I just might and that would be the worst thing ever! So please, just keep going….” As I trailed off into sobs. *
And so he did. We turned left out of the parking lot, found the 405 freeway and traveled south at seventy miles an hour, silently, in our pain and grief. We couldn’t talk about it, or listen to music, because we’d both start crying and Tim’s so responsible that he won’t cry and drive. He said the tears messed with his visibility and we still had two kids at home to raise, so instead we talked about stupid, silly things – work and politics and the weather. We made it home, went to church and out to dinner that night and the new normal began.
And it was okay.
Like the day after I left Sarah Moses and gave her up for adoption, twenty-four years ago this week, I woke up and took deep breaths. I listened quietly for the beating of a heart I thought was broken. I found a routine I could live by and if I lost track of time intermittently throughout the day, thinking about my baby girl somewhere far away, that was okay too. I knew she was safe; I knew she was content; I knew she was strong; I prayed she would live her life at ease, but I also knew the ease would come more easily if she was living apart from me. It’s the reason I let them both go, my two Moses girls. Love, my love anyways, would never be all they needed to become all they were meant to be.
I guess I didn’t share this story earlier, because it hurt so much and I couldn’t make sense of it. I didn’t have the right language to explain how, or why doing something that you know is so right can feel so wrong. And for me, sense-making is an important part of the healing process. Now, I may not have it all figured out yet, but I’m getting closer, with some help from my friends in the Living School.
A couple weeks after we dropped Keara off, I went on my annual pilgrimage to Albuquerque, NM and spent time with the faculty and my fellow students. We listened and learned and talked late into the night. We laughed and cried and fell in love with the world and each other a little more. It helped with my healing process, especially something called the Law of Three and ternary metaphysics. Basically, the Law of Three holds the premise that “three-ness,” like that we see in the Holy Trinity, is the basis of creation for the whole universe. Nothing new comes into being with out the dynamic interweaving of three distinct, but inseparable forces.
According to 17th century German mystic, Jacob Boehme, at first, there is a yearning, a desire for something. Then, there is the frustration of the desire; the will cannot get what it wants. As long as there are only two, there will be anguish. They will endlessly go back and forth, pushing and pulling without reconciling, or changing anything. (Think of U.S. politics.) If one is much greater than the other, it may “win,” but nothing new will come of it, because it is the friction, the pain itself, which is the “ground of motion.” It is only when a third force enters the equation that the two can be transformed and something new can be born. Frequently, this third force is gelassenheit, what we might call equanimity, the “letting-be-ness” of the surrendered will. In her commentary on it, Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Will, desire, and pain are not obstacles to spiritual perfection, but rather the raw materials out of which something yet more wondrous will be fashioned. Thus, these things are not to be feared, denied, or eradicated; they are to be transformed.” **
Don’t worry, I’ll stop there with the dry stuff. If you’re anything like Tim, you’re about to check out anyways. Here’s what it means to me personally.
Although I didn’t have the language of ternary metaphysics at nineteen, I knew what Boehme was talking about. Here is my simpler formula:
Desire + Will = Pain + Surrender = Transformation < A New Being
When I was nineteen and got pregnant with Sarah, there was so much pain (SO MUCH PAIN) as I held the tension between the desire to raise her and my will to give her the best possible life, which I believed meant not being raised by me as a single teenage mother. Only through surrendering to the process was I transformed. I became someone new on the other side of that experience, someone who knew that it was possible to have your desire and your will completely at odds with each other emotionally and energetically and yet completely aligned in terms of their purpose. It was in the alignment that the resolution was found.
I had that same sensation as we left Keara on her college campus. My will was for her to become independent and find her place in the world. My desire was to have her place in the world be next to me, in my arms and the shelter of my home. Those two forces created enormous anguish in me – as they have done, I imagine, in virtually all parents across time and space. But it is only by letting that pain be what it is, neither clinging to it (by over-involving and inserting myself into this phase of her life), nor rejecting it (by denying my pain, or shutting myself off from feeling it) that she and I, and our relationship, actually have a chance to become something new. I have no idea what that new thing might look like, but in faith, based on evidence, I’m not worried.
Here’s how I look at it. I think we are screwed, or blessed either way, or perhaps more exactly, we feel screwed in the moment and are blessed in the long run. But I think the blessing only comes if we believe it will come and live as if it will come. If we refuse to surrender and choose to stick with the pain, then we will view our path as either an inevitable frustration of our desire, or of our will, and then it will become thus – simply frustration, not transformation. If there is no surrender, no faith in a new arising as yet unknown and undefined, then there will be nothing new under the sun.
The process of giving Sarah up burned into my body, heart and mind, the lesson that you do not stop wrestling with the angel of God (who comes disguised as every moment of your life) until you receive the blessing. When something unknowable, but potentially precious is placed in your life, you have to grasp it, embrace it fully, know it intimately, see what it has to teach you. Don’t bury it in the desert and walk away too soon. Find some way, however small, to allow it to bless you before you let it go. You may always walk with a limp, scarred in some way, but you will be wiser and better for it and you take that wisdom out into the world with you. ***
Stephen Colbert has said recently in many interviews promoting the new Late Show that he can never be glad for the death of his father and brothers and yet, the very curse of their death has become his greatest blessing. He admits, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened” and he has found a way to embrace the paradox. His life, his work, his humor, compassion and drive all stem from the wisdom he gained in the struggle. He has surrendered both his desire for it to be different and his human inability to make it so.
We all have wisdom to share with one another, hard fought wisdom and the accompanying Love, compassion, joy and empathy that goes with it. If you’ve wrestled with an angel, don’t be afraid to show us your scars. It’s the only reason I’m here. My writing is the best proof I have of my ever-broken and ever-mending heart.
*If you don’t get my Lionel Richie reference, click here, or on his name, and it will take you to the original story.
My eldest daughter is not a big one for blessings, or prayers. She is not a big one for the subject of God in general. She is somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum – at times willing to throw down the gauntlet that there is no God at all, but other times, unwilling to go that far. I’m okay with it; I know it is her journey, but I am sad for her. My belief in God and Love in all its manifestations are the focus of my studies, my practice and my way of life and so I used to see Keara’s rejection of God as a rejection of me and all I have tried to give her.
Now, I simply see it as a reflection of her own life experience, her natural tendency towards skepticism and a posture of protection. But every once in a while I see a glimpse of a girl who wants to believe, a girl who opens her heart and allows Love in. Ultimately, my hope is that the seed has been planted, the seed of love, protection, openness, vulnerability – that it is okay to be soft, to let the ones who love you love you in the name of something greater than they are. Ultimately, I hope her life yields an abundant harvest of Love and relationship.
I love to ritualize moments in my family’s life, and so we often do blessings and prayers as people hit certain milestones, but last night, I decided to try something different. I didn’t want “god-language” to get in the way of Keara’s hearing what we had to say.
I played a short guided Metta meditation by the Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, with her husky voice and New York accent. It is a gentle introduction to the Buddhist practice of blessing, which involves the simple repetition of these four lines, beginning with yourself and radiating out to others.
May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live your life at ease.
That’s it and yet, it says almost everything. In safety, we do not act out of fear and all the negative consequences it brings. In contentedness, we are not greedy, grasping, envious, or backstabbing. When we are strong, we protect the weak, not just ourselves. To live at ease does not mean we live without suffering, but rather, that the end of the story is already assured.
We sat through the guided meditation as a family, each of us in silence, and in our own space and then we gathered around our daughter and sister, the one who is leaving our shared space, and we blessed her with the following words.
May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live your life at ease.
And in those moments when you cannot feel safe, content, strong and at ease, then may you take a deep breath, center yourself and draw on the resources you’ve been given.
Remember your gifts, your talents, your deepest desires and what you are working towards.
Remember your history, what you have accomplished and the obstacles you’ve overcome.
Remember your family and friends whose Love will never waver and whose support you can always count on.
Remember that Love is your birthright, the place you came from and the place you will find your home.
For it is there that you will find the freedom to become most fully yourself, and committed to your future,
Where you will find the courage to embrace hard work, to overcome setbacks, to process your confusion and disappointments and learn from them.
May you always come home – to yourself and who you truly are – gloriously Keara Moses Kirkpatrick, a creative, passionate, determined soul, who is a gift we call our own.
Amen, Keara. That is our wish and our blessing for you as you move into your own space in the world, physically, spiritually, and professionally. You know where to find us whenever you want to come home.
This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.
Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.
I’ve written a few times about Family Camp- you can catch up here and here – but to be clear, here are a few more things you should know.
My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.
I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.
The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.
Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)
For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.
Gratitude for Seasons 2015
This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”
Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.
But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.
And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.
At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)
And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.
Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”
Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?
Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.” But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.
So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.
He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”
The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.
And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.
Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.
You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.
And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.
Because gratitude comes in two forms –
Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.
A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.
For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.
Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.
A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.
That’s why the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,
We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.
It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.
Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life. “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”
That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.
I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.
And after the poem, look at this.
People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable.
Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.
As the mystic, Theresa of Avila, said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)
You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.
David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb? You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.
The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time
magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty, and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:
In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.
That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.
A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.
So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.
And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.
I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.
I’m grateful for it all.
For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day, I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.
Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.
If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here.