“Pay Attention, This is for You”

I’ve just finished reading Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and general bad-ass. This isn’t meant to be  a book review. I liked the book – okay, I loved it – but that doesn’t mean you will. She’s a recovering alcoholic and swears like a sailor. In fact, she reminds me a little bit of Anne Lamott (if St. Anne had gone to seminary and taken up Cross-Fit). The only thing more fascinating than Nadia’s 6 foot-tall, tattooed body is her beautiful and gritty theology.

Pastrix3Nadia, like me, like all of us if we admit it, are slow-learners. We might have gotten straight As in school, have college degrees, be able to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle (at least the first half of the week), but when it comes to the really important stuff, like life and death, change, anger, love and just general human challenges, we generally don’t rise to the occasion. Most of us (all of us really, but if you want to keep pretending this doesn’t include you, that’s okay) just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again – whether its going out with the wrong guy, losing our temper, saying ‘yes’ to too many things to make ourselves feel better, or having “just one more drink” when we should have stopped two drinks ago.

Chances are that at one point in our lives, we learned our lesson well; we made the mistake, faced the consequences in an emotionally, physically, or fiscally painful manner, and thought, “I am never going to do that again.”

And we don’t.

For a while.

And then we do.

We let our guards down; we think we’re different people, or that the experience changed us on some cellular level. Sometimes it does, but often as not, when the pain fades away, the old scripts and habits resurface and we are back to where we started – dating the jerk, yelling at our kids, drinking the vodka, or handing over the credit card.

There have been seasons in my life when I have beat myself up over my apparent need to have certain “Life Lessons” repeated ad nauseam. They almost always have to do with how to love someone better (usually my husband, my kids or myself), or how to forgive more quickly and completely (usually my husband, my kids or myself). I seem to be continually enrolled in Love and Forgiveness 101.

Nadia’s book helped me understand that there is no shame in this repetition; it’s part of the human condition, but it’s not completely unavoidable either. We usually have a choice. We can race through life, insisting on learning our lessons the hard way, crashing and burning, leaving us, our loved ones, and even society scarred in the process, or we can watch for the warning signs and make adjustments. (Congress, take note. We’re in a downward spiral here.)

Now Nadia is not one of those crazy, “God directs everything I do” kind of people and neither am I. I do plenty of things that God isn’t directing and in fact, probably isn’t crazy about, but when I remember that I am still a student – that I haven’t, in fact, graduated to perfection just because I’m a grown up – I can be attuned to the lessons I still need to (re)learn. Throughout her memoir, Nadia describes the experience like this:

“God comes and gets us, taps us on the shoulder and says, ‘Pay attention, this is for you.’ Dumb as we are, smart as we are, just as we are.”

Unfortunately, it’s too easy to ignore the tap and miss the lesson. The universe is full of opportunities to learn, but we have to be open to the interruption. Every day, we hear and see things that could remind us who and how we want to be in this world. We encounter stories and people and problems, songs and articles and traffic jams and most of the time, we don’t pay attention to what they might have to teach us. We simply take them at face value, as entertainment, or annoyance. They go in one ear and out the other. They fly across our screens with a flick, or a click of a finger and they are gone, hardly registering. The moment is lost.

I hate that.

I hate that most of the time I’m too preoccupied to pay attention when God says, “This is for you.” Someone in my home loves to sing in the shower and I could share the joy, but instead I think about how much water is wasted.  Listening to Kiko play the ukelele could relax my heart and soul, but instead I fret about the homework that still needs to be done. When Tim stops me for a hug after work, it could remind me that I am loved, but it could also annoy me if I’m in the midst of something else. I wish I weren’t too busy, too anxious, too wrapped up in my own little world to see the very things that could get me to slow me down, so I don’t crash and burn.

But I’m trying. Nadia’s stories have inspired me to stay in the classroom a little longer each day. Whether I’m in Love and Forgiveness 101, Silence and Stillness for Beginners, or Holding Your Tongue for Dummies, I’m trying to take more notes and listen when the teacher say, “Pay attention, this is for you.”

 

 

Holy Thursday on a Wednesday

Last year, I wrote about one of my favorite annual traditions: washing my family’s feet on Holy Thursday. It resonated with many of you and some even said they were adopting it as their own this year. For those of you who missed it, I am linking to it here, but I have to be honest, it almost didn’t happen this year.

baby-feet

We are leaving for Mammoth today, so any foot-washing was going to have to happen a day early. It takes quite a bit of effort to create the experience and as of yesterday morning, I hadn’t done a lick of it yet. No songs, no letters, no time set aside. I started to rationalize: the kids are probably getting too old; they are so excited to go to Mammoth they will probably forget anyway; they would understand if I skipped it. But deep down, I knew. Nothing I needed to do was more important than creating this sacrament of love.

I was right.

Keara soaked up the moments, then hugged me tight.

Molly got tears in her eyes as we belted out her favorite song together.

Finn could hardly suppress his grin, saying “This is one of my favorite things you do.”

The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, said that of all the things the Catholic Church made into sacraments, he can’t believe they left this one out and I’ve got to agree. I hope that at least once in your life, you experience having your feet washed as a loving gesture, instead of a paid service, but I also hope you have the privilege of holding someone else’s feet in your hands and blessing them as Jesus did. It is a gift to both giver and receiver to be so vulnerable and to experience such intimacy and grace. This is sacred space. 

A Flash Mob Made Me Cry

If they are honest about it, most writers want to say really important things, to have each story, paragraph and line convey something deep and meaningful. To be honest, I am one of those writers and my desire for significance frequently tempts me to say nothing at all. This week was no exception; I wanted to say something holy and  grace-filled as Easter approached, but I found my heart silent, until I saw this…

Since the video is five minutes long, I will keep my commentary short.

After morning carpool, I watched this video in my driveway and tears began to stream down my face. I don’t know why they came, but I have learned that when tears come unbidden, we are in sacred space. Our hearts are hearing a divine whisper and our body is responding in kind, but all too often, we shut it down and wipe them away. We actually run from the holy.

Poet Mark Nepo wrote, “Our ear is only a petal that grows from the heart.” What my ear heard in those five minutes, my heart loved. What my eyes saw, my soul celebrated. And as the crescendo played out before me and the children danced, I imagined the joy of this coming Sunday morning and the Alleluia choruses that will be sung the world over. I heard Rob Bell speak at USC last night on his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, and strangely enough, he spoke of Nepo’s truth as well. Real seeing, he said, “happens when our eyes and our heart are looking at the same thing.” 

Whether we celebrate Easter or not, we are like the symphony in the square. We each have our own instrument to play, our own voice, talent and energy. My hope is that you will use yours this Sunday morning as you gather with your people – whoever and wherever they are – in Starbucks, in church, or in the middle of an Easter egg hunt. Let your ear be the petal of your heart. See the flash mob of joyful, exuberant love that surrounds you. Be brave and begin like the cello player, setting the process in motion. Be aware of the miracle of it all. And if the tears come, let them fall where they may. You are in sacred space.

On the Brink

On the brink of a new day.
On the brink of a new day.

This blog is a departure from my usual storytelling and I hope you’ll bear with me. One of the websites I check in with frequently is Sojourners online magazine. They have a published a series of articles on the rise of “The Nones,” those Americans who don’t identify with any religion, or who would say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It has caught my interest and although I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.

Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.

As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.

As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them.  Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.

I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.

DaringGreatly_final525In the New York Times best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown identifies a phenomenon she calls “the disengagement divide,” or values gap. It is the space between our “aspirational values,” those we claim to live by and our “practiced values,” the way we actually live. It’s the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The gap is inevitable, on both a personal and ecclesial level. But while the first one is manageable, the second is unwieldy to say the least.

On a personal level, we can take responsibility for the gap. We know that perfection isn’t possible, that we fall short each and every day. But if we are healthy and self-aware, we seek forgiveness and make amends. We get up and try again. Though it is a Sisyphean task, a majority of us strive to make the breach as small as possible.

Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.

I think it is the “disengagement divide” that the “nones” are fleeing more than anything. A few “nones” might have left the church because of bad music, or a lack of parking spots. A few more might have left because it wasn’t convenient, either to their psyche or their schedule. But I imagine that most “nones,” especially those who identify as spiritual, but not religious are leaving because “the disengagement divide” has become a chasm.

We call ourselves Christians. Right there in our name, we claim whom we follow, Jesus the Christ. That gives us a certain set of “aspirational values” to live up to. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but it does mean we mean have a lot to strive for. Above all, we have to love God and we have to love our neighbor as we have been loved by Christ himself.

Institutionally, we have not done that very well and we have not apologized very often, or taken the necessary steps to correct it either.

Instead, churches have created another sub-group: the “RBNS”s, who are “religious, but not spiritual.” Despite its best efforts, or perhaps because of them, religion has a way of becoming legalistic, of creating in and out groups, and when you are on the inside, it’s awfully tempting to let go of the struggle that true spirituality requires. Belonging to a religion can make it too easy to follow a list of rules and regulations and claim the perks that come with membership.

Spirituality on the other hand is a relationship, an encounter with the Divine that calls us to transcend this material world and the hold it has on us.  It asks us to go deeper. It is through spirituality that we struggle with despair and hope, love and fear, doubt and certainty. Journeying with the Holy Spirit in this way allows us to transform ourselves, our relationships and hopefully the world around us, in a way that mere religion can’t.

Ideally, churches are there to hold us while we engage in this life-long process, but when filled with members (or leaders) who are “RBNS,” our struggle is looked upon as a failure on our part. We are told we just need to “get saved,” or “confess our sins,” or simply trust that they’ve got it all worked out for us from a place of authority. If we would just fall in line, everything would be okay and if we can’t, because we are gay, or divorced, or want to talk about women’s ordination, or whatever is taboo in our religion, that’s when we head for the door.

I haven’t done so, not yet and it saddens me that so many of my peers and the younger generation have done so. I understand it. I am not surprised by it, but I think we will all be sorrier for it. Our churches get more rigid without the leavening yeast of youthful creativity, passion and resources. The “nones,” and the SBNRs relinquish the hard-won wisdom of their religious ancestors, forcing themselves to reinvent the spiritual immunizations that will keep their children mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this difficult world.

I think it comes down to community, another word that gets tossed around a lot in these conversations. Churches are crying out, “You need us! You don’t think you do, but you really do!” The “nones” are shouting back, “I’ve got my own community, thank you very much and it’s way less hypocritical than yours!” There is truth in both of those statements.

We were made for connection and belonging. We need community to hold us together, to remind us of whom we are and what we are about, to lift us up when we falter and praise us when we succeed. Church communities can do that better than any other when the gap between their “practiced values” and “aspirational values” is small. When Agape is the operative word in theory and in practice, we see Church and Community at their finest. But when the gap is large, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world to be in free-fall, knowing that the people who were supposed to love you in God’s name are nowhere to be found and are perhaps even the ones who gave you a shove off the ledge.

I know there are churches out there that do it differently. I have read hundreds of comments from men and women who want the “nones” to know that their church isn’t like that, that they love with their whole hearts and work earnestly to welcome and include everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, sure and not-so-sure. I’ve listened to sermons from their pastors, been witness to their diversity and cheered for the life-giving work they’ve done. I like to think my church falls into that category as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we have the word “Baptist” or “Catholic” or even the word “Christian” in our name, we are going to have an uphill row to hoe. Despite our protestations, we are associated with leaders who have not walked the talk and institutions that have allowed the “disengagement divide” to flourish for too long.

Though I’ve been on the ledge and even felt a nudge or two in the back, I’m not letting my “church” get rid of me that easily. I’ve benefitted too much from my religious background, education and traditions to let it go. My community is the church and the church is the people of God. I have far more faith, hope and trust in them as individuals and as a group than I do in an institution, whose leadership is charged with protecting tradition and the status quo.

Through his work as a community organizer, President Obama observed in Dreams from My Father that “communities are not a given in this country… Communities need to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expand or contract with the dreams of men” (and women I have to add).

I have big dreams for my community, the people of God, but I am pretty sure God’s dreams for us are even bigger. We have a garden before us, a plot of land to tend. I don’t want to fight against SBNRs, people who aspire to something beyond themselves. I want to fight with them to uphold the values that transcend our differences in religion, culture and language, values like Love, grace, beauty, compassion, mercy, justice and equality. I know that wherever those things are found, God is.

I am happy to tell you that Sojourners decided to use this blog as part of their Meet the Nones series. You can check it out here, and read other perspectives as well.

Strong Enough

LORRI TIPPETT 6/1/1968 to 11/22/2012
LORRI TIPPETT
6/1/1968 to 11/22/2012

Our friend Lorri passed away on Thanksgiving morning. I didn’t write about it; I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t make sense of it;  it didn’t make any sense. One day, a healthy, 44-year-old woman is walking around, talking, laughing, loving. The next day, she isn’t. An aneurysm, a coma, a passing, and she’s gone and all the time you thought you’d have together, and all the plans you’d made are gone too. There was no story for me to tell. There was just sadness and the bare truth that life is too short and none of us are guaranteed even one moment more than the one we have right now. But at her memorial service on Friday, a story unfolded before me that I wanted to share, a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman, whom some of us were privileged to know.

The celebration of her life opened with the worship band from her home church playing a song called, “Strong Enough” by Matthew West. The lyrics go like this,

“You must think I’m strong/ To give me what I’m going through./ Well, forgive me if I’m wrong/ But this looks like more than I can do/ on my own./ I know I’m not strong enough/ To be everything that I’m supposed to be./ I give up. I’m not strong enough./ Hands of mercy won’t you cover me?/ Lord, right now I’m asking you to be/ Strong enough/ Strong enough for both of us.”

Having attended more Roman Catholic funerals than evangelical memorial services, I was shocked as the service began with this powerful anthem with its heavy drumbeat, but I was  immediately taken by the message and the power of music as it pulsed through the room. The song choice clearly acknowledged that her “celebration of life” was inextricably linked to our pain and loss.

As I gazed up at the stage, I caught sight of the drummer. Unlike the rest of the band, dressed casually in dark denim and tee shirts, I saw a flash of white and the slash of a dark tie. It took my breath away. I watched him keep the beat, strong and steady. With his eyes closed, he poured his heart and soul into playing that song. He wasn’t singing, but I knew this was his song. It was his prayer and cry. Up on stage, in the recesses of light, Lorri’s husband Todd played this anthem, finding the strength to make it through the next hour and hopefully the next week, month and year to come.

Todd and Lorri
Todd and Lorri

When the song was over, Todd stood up, put his coat back on and walked off stage to sit once again at the side of his son and his mother-in-law. There were more songs and poems, slide shows and readings and then Todd got up to speak. I don’t know how he did it, but we were all blessed to see Lorri through his eyes. She had been in real estate, selling dirt lots and dreams to countless families in the Chino Hills area. Todd captured the essence of what she did for him with that very same metaphor. He said, “She found me when I was a dirt lot and left me a million dollar man.” She was his coach, manager and cheerleader, but most importantly, she was his biggest fan. That was Lorri’s gift; she made everyone feel as if she were their biggest fan.

My children were no exception. Though the kids were emotionally and physically exhausted as we drove home that night, they would not have missed her service for anything. They wanted to go to show their love and respect for “Miss Lorri” and her family. Tim and I weren’t positive we should bring them, but we were so glad we did. Even in her absence, Lorri taught my children a lesson about the impact that even one life of honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity and faith can have on an individual, a family and a community around the world.

Lorri’s too-short life also taught me a lesson. While it isn’t practical to “live every day as if it were your last,” it is critical to live as if each one matters. As I go through my days, I find myself checking in:

Am I loving with my whole heart? Am I wasting time on things that don’t matter? Is my worry overwhelming my joy? If this day were my last, am I living it well enough?

That last question, more than any other, has become a transformative one for me. I don’t want to close my eyes on a day I am not proud of. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be good enough.

So thank you Lorri Tippet for the way you lived your life, the way you loved others and for all the lessons you taught us, in this life and beyond.

l.wXGtdiVVYDJXFmCw

P.S. “Strong Enough” was purchased on Itunes on our drive home. If you don’t know it, take a moment and check it out.

You Can Stick Your Sorries in a Sack

Based on the assumption that I am failing to meet everyone’s expectations, I find myself saying “sorry” all the time. Though I still know I am ‘enough,’ at least on a cosmic level, in an every day, nuts-and-bolts kind of way, I often feel like I am falling short. As a result, I find myself apologizing all the time, and quite frankly, I am sick of saying “I’m sorry!”

I say sorry to God if I get distracted during my prayers. I say sorry to Tim if I haven’t shaved my legs in a few days (oh, let’s be honest, a week or two). I say sorry to my kids when I run out of their favorite breakfast foods. I say sorry as I head out the door to work and sorry if I get home late.  I say sorry I can’t buy you that; sorry I can’t donate more; sorry I can’t stay later; sorry I can’t talk; sorry I can’t show up at all. Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!

Does anyone else have this problem?

One of my all time favorite lines from Seinfeld is from their trip to India. George and Jerry get in an argument and although Jerry apologizes profusely, George is having none of it. He is so mad, he spits out, “You can stuff your sorries in a sack, mister!”

That is what I would like to do with all my sorries. I’d like to stuff them in a sack, take them down to the river and drown them.

I am not even sure what all my sorries mean. An apology should be offered to a party who has been wronged by one of your actions, or choices, so when did I start thinking that saying “No” was a synonym for wrongdoing? When did I start thinking that my not-so-terrible choices warrant an apology?

Today, I am making a pledge to not say, “I’m sorry.” Just for today, I am banishing that word from my vocabulary. If I make a real mistake, then I will apologize, but I will not use that word.

From here on out, I will not allow “Sorry!” to be my automatic response every time I cannot be every thing to every body.

Writing that last line, I have my “aha” moment. How in the world did I get it in my head that I could be everything to everybody all the time?

Will you please excuse me while I go take off this messiah complex and slip into something more comfortable?

Ah, my own skin, much better.

It’s clear how closely my sorries are tied to my Superego. Psychologists say that’s the part of us that aims for perfection. I say it’s the part of us that believes we need to be ‘super.’ Author Rob Bell writes that we each have a “Super,” living inside of us: a super-mother, a super-man, a super-worker, a super-volunteer. You get the picture. (He also writes that we should take it out back and shoot it. It’s the only way we will ever be free.)

When we are young, we are simply ourselves, but the “Supers” come on hard and fast. As a kid, I needed to be a “Super-student,” able to get straight A’s in a single bound. As a teen, I secretly wanted to be a “Super-model.” As a young wife and mother, I aimed for “Super-woman,” a perfect balance of Martha Stewart, Mother Goose and Playboy bunny.  The avalanche of sorries that come out of my mouth are a clue that I’ve finally maxed out. Instead of dropping one impossible image of perfection for the next, I’ve just kept piling them on. Currently, I’m trying to add one more (as yet undefined) “Super-something” to the mix and I’m just not up to the task.

Repeating “Sorry” is my coping mechanism, but I’m willing to try something new. The next time I want to say, “Sorry,” I am going to smile instead. I am going to repeat a mantra I picked up from the poetic Anthony de Mello, SJ.

“Behold God beholding you… and smiling.”

It reminds me that I do not need to be perfect. That good really is good enough. That whatever else I do, or don’t do, God is smiling at me (and at you too.) I can drop the mask. There is only Ali, and I don’t need to apologize for being human, for having limited time, talent, or treasure. I have a feeling that if I can remember to smile, instead of reaching for that all-too-easy “sorry,” it will feel absolutely super.

Shady Intentions on a Soccer Saturday

Just as I was sitting down to write this blog, I happened to check Facebook and find a post by one of my favorite bloggers in the world, Glennon Melton, and I almost stopped writing RIGHT THERE, as in RIGHT NOW, as in FOREVER, because Glennon has a way of writing that makes me think, “Why do I even bother? Glennon says everything I want to say, but she says it so much better!” Now, if you go to Glennon’s post from today, you might possibly wonder why I would want to say that and today, I don’t, but there are lots of other times when she does, like here and here.

But then I remembered something that Glennon said last month as she was reading a book by Cheryl Strayed,

Dear God, she’s amazing. And I felt myself start to panic a little. OH MY GOD. SHE’S SAYING ALL THE THINGS I WANT TO SAY, BUT BETTER.  I actually thought about CLOSING her book and NOT reading anymore because my heart was panicking and shriveling a bit.

Sometimes, that’s honestly how I feel when I read Glennon, or Anne Lamott, or Paula D’Arcy, but then they go on and on about grace and abundance and then I breathe deeply, and then G (the Big G upstairs) reminds me that I am enough and that I believe in Love and then I can finally try to write again.

So I’m back and ready to tell you a story about my weekend.

It was a hot weekend here in San Diego, like hot hot, like “Texas-hot,” as my kids like to say. They’ve only been there a handful of times, but boy, do they remember. We are also in the midst of soccer season, which means our family had four games in two days. Tim is the manager of The Lad’s team, so we got to set up goals once, take down goals twice, pay the refs, and turn in the scores. Along with all the other parents, we also got to cheer on the sidelines.

Those sidelines were a mass of brightly-colored umbrellas, beach chairs, water bottles and spray fans. There were canopies and sunshades and baseball hats – anything and everything that could provide some relief for the humanity that was slow-roasting in the heat. A friend of mine turned to me and said, “Surely, there is a blog in here somewhere.” And so I looked around to see what I could see.

I saw kids, and I saw parents. I saw players running, kicking and heading. I saw goalies diving, missing, and saving. I saw coaches coaching, cheering and scolding. I saw it all, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect on any given “Soccer Saturday in the Suburbs,” as Tim likes to call it.

So I kept watching Finn’s game, until I was distracted by a commotion happening behind my chair.

As you can imagine, making shade on a weekend like this is serious business. The fans want to be comfortable, but we also want to provide some protection for our players as well. I’m not talking about the players on the field, who were out competing in the sun; I’m talking about the guys on the sidelines, the subs who were resting up to get into, or back into the game.

These 13 and 14 year old young men WOULD NOT STAY IN THE SHADE and it was comical to watch the parents do everything they could to make them, without actually making them.

When the boys were smaller, keeping them in the shade was an easy thing to do. Someone would bring a pop-up tent and someone else would bring a blanket and the team mom would tell them to sit on it and they would. Job done. But as they got older, they wanted to be up on their feet, standing by their coach, or sitting on a chair, and our job got a little harder, but we could shoo them back under the canopy and there they would stay.

But now these boys are young men and we can’t shoo them anywhere. They stand where they want to stand, where their coach asks them, tells them, or allows them to stand. It is no longer our place to tell them where to stay anymore. Their autonomy certainly doesn’t keep us from wanting to protect, however and that is where it gets comical. Each time the subs would move, a parent would move an umbrella with them. It is no easy task to get an umbrella stake into hard-packed dirt, so a mom, or dad would spend a couple minutes twisting, stomping and pushing the sun-protection into the ground. The players would stay put for about 30 seconds and then move on. Parents would wait a minute or two, hoping the players would realize their mistake and come back to the shade. They rarely did, but if they came back, it was instinctively, or by accident, never by conscious choice. Eventually, another parent would jump up and move the umbrella to the new spot and get it settled and then the boys would move on again. This went on for a good 30 minutes, or so before we finally just gave up and followed them up and down the field, like little rajas, holding the shade over them, because really, WE JUST COULDN’T LET GO.

This was the life lesson I was waiting for.

As parents, we want to protect our children. When they’re small, we know what’s best for them, and we can provide it, whether it’s shade on the soccer field, or restrictions on the television. We put a jacket on them when it’s cold, and sunscreen when it’s hot. But as they get older, we think we know what’s best for them and we struggle to provide it, whether they want it or not. The older they get, the more often they are going to step out of the shade we provide. We can twist and push and stomp all we want, but that doesn’t mean they are going to stay put. Our wisdom and support only serve a purpose when our children choose to stand under it.

I cannot follow my almost-grown children up and down the sidelines of their lives, trying to “protect” them from every element that might sap their strength, or burn them a little bit. (Thank goodness I still have Molly to shoo back under the canopy.) Keara and Finn need to be able to move freely, mix it up, and hear what’s happening on the field. They don’t need to be hampered by their well-intentioned mother, telling them to back up, sit down and take it easy. Champions are made in the full light of sun and I need to be brave enough to let them take their place in it.

P.S. We saw a lot of soccer this weekend and a lot of parents, who took great pains to keep their children cool and hydrated on a hot day. Kudos to you. I am not speaking of any one team, or parent. The only parent I am calling out is myself!

Fast or Slow, It’s Okay.

Occasionally on my morning walks I run into my friend M.  We tend meet at the same place every time, at the top of a very long hill, finishing up our “work out” routines. I’ve walked; she’s run. I’m about to go down; she’s made her way up.

Usually, I’ve just come out of the canyon wearing my Ugg boots and beanie with an empty coffee cup in my hand. My heart rate probably hasn’t surpassed 90 bpm. In contrast, she’s just run several miles up and down the hills of our neighborhood and stands there – a 6 foot tall, glistening, blonde goddess.

It’s lovely to see her, to give good mornings smiles and high fives, but sometimes, I sigh as I continue to walk down the hill. She’s just so beautiful, and fast, and disciplined, with her boys and her husband, her job, her schooling, and her fitness. Whew! I know she would never want me to feel that way, but sometimes, I just can’t help it.

But most of the time, I know this is true: if I didn’t go slow. I wouldn’t see this.

Rock 1 Or this.

Rock 2

Or this.

Rock 3

And if I didn’t see those things, I wouldn’t be be able to share them with M on Facebook, or a text message, or on my blog.

And if I didn’t tell M about them, she might not see those things.

And if she didn’t see those things, she wouldn’t be able to say nice things like this.

“Wow Ali you are awesome!!! Thanks for the reminder. I don’t think I tell you enough what a blessing it has been to read your blogs.”

And this.

“I love your writing. I hope your book will get written soon. I’ll be first in line to buy it:)”

And if she didn’t say things like that, then I might not see things like this:

It’s okay to go slow.

To find Presence takes a certain kind of discipline as well.

That in our weakness, others find strength.

Everyone has their own path and their own gift, their own way of finding meaning in their lives. And the best we can do is share those gifts with one another and say thank you when they are shared.

Thank you, M, for making my day.

For some reason, this was my theme song as I walked in the canyon today.

Enjoy!

Is There a Saint Ali?

Dedication: To all the living saints I know, and to the rest of us who try. 

Growing up in a fairly traditional Roman Catholic home, I had access to the stories of the saints. I could even tell you a few of those stories to this day, but I was never obsessed with them like some kids were. Saints were interesting, but never all that inspiring. Even as a young child, I knew that I was far too human, and far too flawed to ever be like one of those women, or men. I couldn’t see myself kissing the wounds of a leper, or praying to receive the stigmata. Yuck! I certainly couldn’t see myself opting for a violent death if given a choice. Even as I got older and Pope John Paul II began the beatification of “everyday” people who lived holy lives, I still wasn’t that interested in who made the cut and who didn’t.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I came across a definition of a saint that I could relate to. According to Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, author and theologian, a saint is a person “who can will the one thing.” This actually felt like something I could aspire to, a version of sainthood that had nothing to do with personal morality, righteousness, or miracles. In my mind, it had everything to do with finding the purpose for which you were made, embracing that purpose and living it out as best you could. By the time I discovered Kierkegaard, I had already found my “one thing.” For ten solid years, I “willed the one thing.” I willed the heck out of it.

My purpose was to love my family, not in a la-di-da, “Isn’t it sweet, she loves her family so much” sort of way, but in a real, concrete, “007, this is your mission” sort of way. Yes, it encompassed the physical care of my family: the cooking, the cleaning, the driving, and the disinfecting, but it also included the soft sciences as well. To this day, it still includes the touching, the loving, the praising, the presence, the balance and my focused attention. Every day, as I spend time with my kids and my husband, I try to look them in the eye and ask myself, “Who is this person? Who do they want to be, and how can I help them get there?”

If being a saint is “to will the one thing,” then five years ago, I thought canonization was mine for the taking, if I could just die tomorrow.  Well, obviously, that didn’t happen and thank goodness. I’d rather be a saint, who lost her title in heaven, than leave my purpose here on earth unfinished. I am still alive and well, but something unforeseen happened. I lost my opportunity “to will the one thing.” No, nothing tragic happened. I haven’t lost my kids, or my husband, or even my purpose. But what I have lost is the oneness of it all. As I have approached middle age, as the economy has stalled, as my children have gotten older, I have been asked to will not ‘one thing,’ but many things. Now, some of you may scoff at that and I will allow you to do so without defensiveness or judgment.  I know that it was a privilege to be home with my kids and to have such a single focus for so long.

But my new reality is that my life is asking me to will many things, in addition to the “one thing” I really love. I am not just talking about having more obligations on my plate, though that is a part of it. I am talking about tasks that require real passion and effort, focus and sacrifice on my part and the part of my family. And I have to admit that at first, it felt like a betrayal of my “saintly” calling to extend my will beyond the one thing. I have spent many nights asking the same questions about myself that I’ve asked countless times about my children. “Who is this person? Who does she want to be, and how I can I help her get there?” While I don’t have any precise answers to those questions yet, reading The Gift of the Red Bird by Paula D’Arcy introduced me to a new definition of a saint, one I liked even better than Kierkegaard.

D’Arcy quotes Keith Miller who said that saints “were not people with the greatest education or even the largest results. But what they said correlated almost 100 percent with who they were and what they did… An amazing and invisible power may be released when a person’s words and her inner life match.” I read that line and it stopped me in my tracks. That’s a saint I would like to know, someone unconcerned with personal perfection and holiness, not limited by an adherence to “the one thing,” but fully, genuinely, authentically themselves.

Do you know those kinds of people, the ones who say they believe in something and then actually try to carry it out in all aspects of their daily life? The kinds of people who make you believe that if they’re nice to your face, they’re also going to be nice to you behind your back? The kinds of people whose very presence makes it easier for you to be a better person? When I think of the people I have most admired in my lifetime, they were saints in Miller’s sense of the word, and only a handful of them were religious. They are people of integrity and authenticity. They are people who nurture, who love and who open their hearts to seemingly everyone. These are people who give 100% of themselves to whatever they are doing at any time.

This is the kind of saint I would like to be, but it’s a very tall order, even greater than the other two, I think. By historical precedent, the first “requires” you to follow a set of rules, strictly, almost fanatically. The second seems to be manageable if you really focus on the ‘one thing’ to the exclusion of everything else, and as much as I enjoyed that time of life, I know the purpose I chose was too limiting. God wasn’t going to let me off that easy; taking care of 4 people (even if you do it well) is not all that He asks of anyone. This third definition though cannot take place without a complete transformation of self over the course of a lifetime. In this definition of saintliness, there is no perfection expected, or even possible. We all make mistakes, slip up, and growl like a junkyard dog on occasion. We all roll our eyes in annoyance, or get stuck in the morass of self-pity when things seem to stack up against us.

We are human, but we can be saintly humans.

I want to be a person of integrity. I want people to be able to believe in me and the promises I make. When I smile at you, I want you to know that I am smiling for real, on the inside. When I work for you, write for you, speak with you, I want you to have the real me and hear the real me, because that is best I have to offer.

I want to be a saintly blogger, a saintly mother, a saintly wife, friend and volunteer.

I want desperately to be this kind of saint, but when I see all the ways I fall short, it’s easy to get discouraged. However, there is hope. Just last week, I heard another definition of a saint. It doesn’t detract from the other three, but rather increases the odds of getting there. My good friend Nancy Corran said, “A saint is just a sinner who got back up.”  Well, amen to that.

That is one kind of saint I know I can be.

And I hope you know one and know that you can be one too.

Working Out My Heart

I’ve been working out at the local YMCA for several years now. I take virtually all the classes, except Zumba (takes too much coordination), TRX (hurts my shoulder), ­Yoga (actually kinda boring), Pilates (grossed out by the heavy breathing), Kickboxing (see Zumba), Spinning (no way! I actually like being able to sit down). Okay, maybe I don’t take all the classes, but I have my favorites and I show up faithfully.

In the beginning, it was hard to get myself to go there – mentally and physically. It seemed to take so long to see any progress at all and I was left with a constant stream of aches and pains, discouragement and self-doubt. But ultimately, I wanted to move through the world with more confidence and grace, so I put my head down and kept going back for more.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing déjà vu when it comes to the aches and pains of working out a new muscle and it’s funny, because I haven’t changed my workout routine at all, except for one small thing.  As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve begun walking slowly around my block and it shouldn’t hurt a bit.

But it does.

It hurts terribly and sometimes it takes everything I’ve got to get back out there and walk the next day. I’m strengthening a muscle that I’ve neglected to use properly, despite all my exercise and hard work. The muscle I’m talking about is, of course, my heart. It turns out I’ve been relying on another body part to do the heavy lifting of day-to-day operations.

Modern psychology tells us that we operate out of one of our three centers: our Head, our Heart or our Gut. In my own, very simplified language, this is how they work.

Head people think first, before they decide how to act.

Heart people feel things deeply and allow their emotions to guide them.

Gut people seem to live by the adage that it is far easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission. They trust their instincts to jump right in to any and every situation.

Can you identify with one of those centers? In a new situation, what do you listen to first? Your head, your heart or your gut?

For a long time, due to my incorrigible optimism, I assumed I was a heart person, because I felt happy so much of the time. But alas, I’ve discovered I am not a heart person. I’m sure that’s no surprise to anyone who truly is a heart person. No one in touch with their actual feelings is happy all the time. Heart-centered people experience real emotions, like joy and sadness, agony and ecstasy, not just bland hopefulness.

I am also not a gut person. Given the advice to “trust my instincts,” I break out in a cold sweat. The “Act first. Think later” philosophy of gut-centered people makes me cringe. How do you know if what you are doing is right or wrong? It seems to me you don’t and that you must be wrong almost as often as you’re right. However, it sure does save a lot of time on front-end decision making.

Through the process of elimination, you’ve probably figured out that I am a head person, but perhaps you knew that all along. I suspect that my previous blogs have revealed that I spend a lot of time thinking about things. My cranium is my comfort zone. To me, only the brain can be trusted. A heart will betray you; emotions change far too often to be relied upon and following your gut will get you into trouble; your tag line might as well be “frequently wrong, but never in doubt.”

But a brain? Well, a brain is a beautiful thing – it’s rational, logical, dependable, except when it’s not. It can also be paranoid, delusional and let’s face it, the epicenter of mental illness. I haven’t gone down that path, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the limitations of my control center. Basically, I’m a brain walking around on two feet and that is not what we were meant to look like.

So I recently sought the advice of a wise woman I know about how to find more balance in my life. I wanted to know how to get what I know in my head to move into my heart, how to make my gut instincts feel like something more than morning sickness. She laughed, and thought I was joking, but when she saw my face (and the notepad and pen in my hand), she got serious. She gently removed the pen from my grip and said in essence that my heart and gut probably don’t speak anymore, because my brain just shouts them down. I could just imagine my overzealous mind berating the centers “beneath” her, “Quiet down, you two! I’m in charge here, so don’t try to confuse the issue with your mucked up feelings and half-cocked instincts. Who do you think you are? Me?”

This wise woman challenged me to step away from everything my mind loves for at least an hour a day: the computer, books, work, writing, plans. For one hour a day, I’m just supposed to feel things. My instinct that this would be difficult was right on, but after I threw up, I was able to accept the challenge.

And so I began to walk – with mixed results. When I demoted my mind, my heart began to speak up. I hear whispers of things long forgotten, pangs of real emotion, vague sensations in my gut. I try to go home and act on them, before my mind has a chance to talk me out of it. Some days, it just doesn’t work out and my head remains firmly in control.

I have no doubt that this process of “re-centering” myself will make me healthier in the long run, but in the meantime, I ache. These new sensations are frequently uncomfortable, and I long to ‘quit the gym’ so to speak. But then I remember my early workouts at the YMCA and why I kept going – to move through this world with more confidence and grace.

So on these walks, I keep my head up and my heart open, because I know we will always be our most graceful when we are balanced – head, heart and gut.