Sylvia Ann Turns Seventy

Today is my mother’s 70th birthday and although I could think of a few things she’d like more, I’m hoping the gift of words will be enough for now. Her favorite gift will come in a week’s time when our whole family – all 20+ of us – will gather in my sister’s backyard for dinner and drinks and dancing. Cutting a rug with her grandbabies, sons, daughters and in-laws is her idea of heaven!

A few months back, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They renewed their vows in front of family and friends with a big celebratory dinner. At one point in the evening, my siblings and I, along with our spouses, each shared a few words about what their marriage has taught us.

How had we grown and benefitted from their love and commitment to each other and to our family?

As you can imagine, we talked about love, loyalty, commitment, hard work, inclusion and integrity. You don’t make it fifty years without knowing a thing or two about those qualities. It was hard for me to decide what to speak on, because I wanted to talk about ALL THE THINGS. (No surprise there, I’m sure.)  But what I landed on was faith, and that brief reflection is probably one of my mom’s favorite things I have ever written. So, in honor of the woman who raised me, I’m sharing it here today with all of you.

If you ask my mom, her family is the best thing she’s ever done, and if you ask any of us, we’d probably agree. Our mom taught us that Love was never just a feeling. You had to live it out too through service, loyalty, and sacrifice. She embodies the art of “showing up,” sticking to your guns, speaking the truth (as you see it), and then releasing the outcome, because she loves you so damn much. My mom lives by the motto that with God, and with her, you get “forever tries.”

Happy birthday, Mama!

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Sylvia’s Squad on June 10. 2017. She’s the short one in the middle, between my dad and me. 

50th Anniversary Speech

I had a whole other speech planned for today that I was really excited about, but I had a light bulb moment this past week. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before, but sometimes a thing is so obvious, you can’t even see it. It is the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. It’s synonymous with your very existence. Your life simply wouldn’t be your life without it.

And as the eight of us were preparing for today and staking out our topics so we wouldn’t repeat each other, we forgot this one, which for me, is the foundation of everything else they gave us and that is their FAITH. Not so much their faith in each other, but their FAITH in God, their faith in something larger than themselves, their faith in the power of Love.

Of course, my parents’ Catholicism is important to them and as their children, being Catholic gave shape to our entire lives – what we did, and how we learned, who we hung out with and eventually, who we became. In turn, it has shaped the way each of us has raised our own children. But what I so appreciate about my parents’ faith was that it didn’t stop at the church door. Catholicism was the home in which my parents worshipped, but it wasn’t the only place God was found.

My parents’ faith was never just about how you spent your Sundays. It was never just about your outside behavior, saying the right prayers or doing, (or not doing) the perfect thing. Our faith informed our lives – day in and day out – in how we spent our time, the books we read, the music we listened to and the talks we had.

But most importantly, their faith in God animated how we treated each other.  They insisted on respect, on forgiveness and reconciliation, and on time spent together. My parents’ faith did not allow anyone to be dismissed, or ridiculed, or accepted with anything less than unconditional love. No matter how mad we got at each other, or at our parents, no matter how badly we, or they, messed up, no one got to walk away feeling unloved or unwanted.

I just want to close by saying that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the story of my family’s life. We have all taken turns being “prodigal” – in big and small ways– wasteful and ungrateful for the gifts we’ve been given in each other and in our lives, but each of us has also heard God whisper in our ear that it was time to go home, God reminding us of the wealth of Love that was still ours, waiting for us. And when we finally turned around to face the hard consequences of our actions, we have always seen, not just our parents running towards us with their arms outstretched, but an army of Love Warriors – our sisters and brothers, in-laws and children – coming to bring us home – to family, to faith, and sometimes even to ourselves.

I look at my parents’ faith and the culture that faith created and I know what heaven looks like. It looks like this; it looks like all of you sitting before me. It looks like a communion of saints, through the forgiveness of sins and a faith in resurrection – not just as a one-time deal – but rather as a daily practice of starting over again with Faith, Hope and Love. So thank you for being a part of this heaven tonight. Thank you for helping them create fifty years of heaven for all of us.

Cheers!

 

The “Days for Grieving” aren’t over, especially here in California. Forest fires rage. Lives, land, homes, businesses, pets and precious things have been lost and more are threatened. It feels surreal to find my heart swell with love and gratitude in the midst of the mess and pain of this world. But that’s the gift a mother offers us, isn’t it? For at least a little while, in the shelter of her arms, or in the space of her memory, you can breathe a little easier and believe that everything’s going to be okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best is Yet to Be

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Last week, I wrapped up my 45th circle around the sun and embarked on a new year. Thanks for the well wishes and love! I spent the day, the entire week actually, mostly in silence and stillness, at La Casa de Maria, my favorite retreat center in Santa Barbara, CA.  If the name sounds familiar, it’s because we spend a week there each year at Family Retreat.

In solitude, the familiar grounds were unfamiliar territory. At first, it felt like a haunted house of love. Each corner I turned, I half-expected to see a pack of children running by, or hear the peals of their laughter or find myself wrapped in a knee-high bear hug. Instead, there was just me, nodding politely to one stranger after another. Eventually the nods gave way to new friendships, quiet, engaging conversations and I remembered that Love can look like that too. La Casa was still my home, just an empty nest, much like the one I’m preparing for here in San Diego.

When I got back this week, I returned to my daily routines, including my favorite class at the gym, taught by a former college football player from Alabama. He too was celebrating his (33rd) birthday this week, so while we were warming up, he asked the question: What was the best year of your life? People rattled off “the college years,” “twenty-one,” and “before I turned 30,” but as one of the senior members of the class, he looked at me and said, Well?

The one ahead, I answered.

I don’t know how to answer that question any other way.  While it may not be empirically true, it has to be true on some level. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we believe our “best years” are behind us, what is there to strive for? I can’t spend my life looking backwards, thinking, “Remember the good old days? The ones where I was more beautiful, successful and fit?  Had more fun, more freedom, more sleep, and more sex?”

Yeah, I remember those days, but I don’t know if they were my best ones, because I’m only halfway through the ones I hope to live. So as long as I’m growing old, I’m going to keep trying to grow up. The best might still be ahead of me if I keep becoming more of whom I’m meant to be and more of what the Universe needs. I truly believe those two things are one and the same and that the process can happen every day – even at the gym.

One of our rotations on the turf that day was a minute on the speed rope. In my group of (mostly) younger women, they dropped the rope in frustration. It kept getting hung up on the artificial grass and ruining their pace. More than anything, they wanted to keep their heart rate up, and burn more calories. I wanted that too, but at 46, what I want even more is to learn a new skill, and to not let myself quit when something is pissing me off and making me feel incompetent. Truly, our best years are behind us if that’s our go-to strategy. When our coach noticed my persistence, he came over and said with a smile, “You know Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney said, ‘You’ve got to believe that the rest of your life is gonna be the best of your life!’” Hodge may be a baby, but he’s an old soul, (or at least he knows how to talk like one.)

I do have bigger goals for my 46th year than mastering the speed rope, but I don’t know what they are yet.  It took me until I was forty to learn that naming artificially-constructed goals – things the world would see as markers of success – doesn’t work for me. Instead, I’ve learned to trust that the next “right thing” will arise from the fabric of my life. It will show up as a challenge, a failure, or a heartbreak and my goal will be to see it as an opportunity and rise up to meet it.

If the past is anything to judge by, it will probably require a lot of Love, which means a lot of everything: courage, vulnerability, commitment, patience, wisdom, empathy, humility and joy.

If my birthday gifts are any indication of what I’m going to face in this year, it’s going to be a doozy.  Let me just say, “Thanks for the reminder (in advance).”

 

 

 

We’ve all heard the quote from Robert Browning that I opened with, but few remember all the advice he offered:

“Grow old along with me!

 The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

who saith, ‘A whole I planned,

youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”

 

 

According to the poet, the Universe has use for the whole enchilada, not just the first half, so keep on cooking friends and I’ll do the same.

The North Star of Love

Things are getting weird around our place, (as if they aren’t strange enough on a regular basis.) And to be honest, “weird” is just a euphemism for weepy and fraught and emotional.

Two weeks ago, Molly turned fifteen and finally got out of her back brace after three months. She’s moving and grooving, surfing, running and hitting hockey balls with her buddies. We were even able to capture one of her very first waves.

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Last week, Keara moved home from her second year of college, which prompted us to (finally) paint over the walls of our eighteen-year-old nursery, complete with ladybugs and flowers. The kids’ pencil-marked heights are lost to us forever, but the baby books and toys are packed away within reach.

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In LA at the Museum of Neon the day before she moved home.

And finally, last night the lad had his senior prom to be followed quickly by finals and graduation in the next week. He took it upon himself to create his own announcement, which, like this prom picture, captures his personality perfectly.

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Finn and JT figured if you had to pose for photos, you might as well have some fun.

 

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Looking ready for the next phase of his adult life…
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Letting you know how he plans to face it…

I think my favorite moment as he showed me his design was the quote he chose to go on the back, which he had attributed to Anonymous: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”  I made him look it up and to our surprise, it was written by Thomas Merton, one of the greatest spiritual teachers I’ve ever read and apparently, on the way to being one of Finn’s as well. We had to laugh at that one.

All of these moments have brought me up short with emotion. For years, it felt like we were captains of a ship on a relatively calm ocean. We managed the tides and even the occasional storm by paying attention and adjusting our sails. We were in familiar territory. Now it feels like every season brings a radical new swell, pushing us in disorienting directions. People are jumping ship (as they should) and then crawling back on board. It can be hard to navigate these waters, which makes me so grateful for my co-captain in all of this.

Together, we are trying to keep our eyes focused on the North Star of Love. Here is something he shared on WMD this week, his own creative outlet on Instagram and Facebook.

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“Getting Touchy Feely with Ulysses”

“Trouble has beset my ways, and wicked winds have blown
Sirens call my name, they say they’ll ease my pain, then break me on the stones
But true love is the burden that will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known

I’m sailing home to you I wont be long
By the light of moon I will press on”

This song is brutal. And it’s beautiful. Just like life. The title refers to the main character in The Odyssey by Homer. ulysses was far away when he started his long journey home, a journey which took him ten years and included lots of drama and challenges, including angry gods, life-threatening storms, the Cyclops, and some tempting sirens to name a few. I suspect that the song is auto-biographical as well. Last summer, Ali and I saw Josh Garrels play at The Belly Up Tavern and he intro’d the song with a story about life the road as a musician, with his wife and their young kids back home. He gave the impression (if memory serves) that he needed to embark on a similar journey to get back “home.” Back to his family…back to the man he used to be… back to the man he wanted to be again.

I can definitely relate. When Ali and I first got married, we lived at the beach and had what felt like a three-year honeymoon. Then kids happened. First Keara (according to plan) then Finn (not according to plan) much sooner than expected. Honeymoon definitely over. I did not handle the stresses and sacrifices that came along with these additional humans with much grace or maturity. While I did not do anything rash, like retreat to a man-cave, spend all of my evenings out with “the boys,” or have an affair, even though I was present to my family, it wasn’t the right kind of presence. I was there, but I wasn’t who I wanted to be… I wasn’t who they needed me to be. So, like Ulysses and Josh Garrels and countless other people through time, I embarked on a journey towards home, one that was made possible by the responsibility I felt, as well as the memory of our relationship before we had kids.

“But true love is the burden that will carry me back home
Carry me with the memories of the beauty I have known”

I’m including this line again because it’s that good. It’s about as good as it gets, in my opinion. Love often gets a bad (cheesy) rap. We’ve made it too sweet & fluffy, and happily-ever-after. But Love is so much more than that. Love is a freaking bad-ass, when it has to be. Like this past spring, when Molly spent ten days in the hospital recovering from back surgery, Ali spent every night there with her, and then about two more weeks at home on the floor in her room, waking her up to take her medicine and helping her in and out of bed to go to the bathroom. There’s nothing more bad-ass than a mother’s love.

Before I heard this song, I would have never thought of Love as a burden, but it absolutely is. And not in a negative way, but in a way that compels you to ACT and to move TOWARDS relationship and TOWARDS compassion.

Josh Garrels is a poet and an incredible songwriter. And this particular song is my favorite. It kills me every time I hear it. It makes me sad for letting my wife and kids down in those early years, and it makes me happy because it reminds me that wherever we find ourselves in a particular moment does not have to be our final destination. There are no guarantees, and there are plenty of forces that try to knock us off course. (Occasionally it’s high winds & Cyclopes, but mostly it’s our own stubbornness and lack of vision), but there is light, and there is hope, and there is Love. And Love is a bad-ass, and it always leads the way.

“I’m sailing home to you
I won’t be long
By the light of moon
I will press on.

So tie me to the mast of this old ship and point me home
Before I lose the one I love,

before my chance is gone
I want to hold, her in my arms.”

Note: In case you’re wondering, I did, in fact, make it home, and it didn’t take me nearly as long as it took Ulysses. Also, my wife and kids were there waiting for me, and they welcomed me with open arms.

 

Our family will not be together in the same ship for much longer, but we all know how to navigate by the North Star of Love.  We know Love is a blessing, a burden, a compass, a communion and commitment. It will navigate us through the rough waters of these next few weeks and months and I pray it will always bring us home to ourselves and to each other, no matter how far apart we may be.

 

In Love in Holy Week

As you can probably tell from my lack of posts, this Lenten season has not been a particularly devout one for me. The week before Lent was a blur after Molly’s surgery and Ash Wednesday coincided with her re-admittance to the hospital. The day made no impression on me until late that evening when a hospital chaplain stopped by and offered to pray with us and offer us ashes. Tim and I accepted gratefully, but when Molly indicated she wanted them, I almost knocked the bowl from the chaplain’s hands. Something deep inside me was repulsed by the thought of marking the body of my suffering child with a sign of her mortality. It seemed morbid and inappropriate, but I let it pass and it did Molly no harm. Still, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the season.

The next day, however, something my former pastor Nancy Corran preached to our community came back to me. She said, “If your life is a Lent this year, if you are suffering in a desert already – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – whatever it is, don’t feel like you have to pile more on. Let your life be your Lent and let God Love you through it.” Those were some of the most profound and compassionate words I had ever heard a priest say, but the privilege of my life had always precluded me from taking her up on her offer. This year, however, I decided it was time. My life was Lent enough.

But Holy Week is here and Molly is back at school. She hardly needs any medication and can manage most things on her own. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know she was six weeks out from surgery. And so I began to wonder what I had learned during my “life as Lent” experiment. Jesus’ forty days in the desert showed us that a Lenten practice isn’t about a transaction to be completed, but a transformation to be undergone. He went in to the desert a newly baptized man, but emerged a man on a mission. What about me?

While there were no great changes of heart, my sense of mission has deepened this Lent. More than ever, Love is the ground from which I want to ”live and move and have my being.”

Last night, I read the Passion account from the Gospel of Mark and I was struck by the fact that the word “Love” is never mentioned. 1 John 16 may remind us that “God so Loved the world…” but in the eye witness accounts, Love fades away. Instead, fear, betrayal, pain, cruelty, guilt, and abandonment each take their starring turn. Love may be the motivation for Jesus’ actions, but it’s never explicitly stated and if there is one thing I have learned from all my years of study, it’s that we can’t see what we aren’t told to look for and through it all, Love is what we should be looking for. Any time I see a story about Jesus where Love is not mentioned, I know it’s not the whole story and I have to look again. God is Love and so for Jesus to be unloving, or unmotivated by Love was not possible.

Love is what sent Jesus out of the desert ready to serve humanity: Love of God, Love of self, Love of neighbor. They were all one in his heart and mind and it is that Love, that deep internal knowing of perfect relationship that allowed him to walk through the desperate time we call Holy Week. Jesus’ Love is what makes it holy, because he was wholly committed to Loving us and showing us what Divine Love looks like.

This week, it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of worshipping Jesus, for who he was and what he did. But he didn’t ask us to worship him; he asked us to follow him. He didn’t want admirers; he wanted disciples, women and men who were willing to do what he did, however imperfectly, (because that’s the only way we do can anything). Perfection is the enemy of the good and that was never something Jesus wanted to get in our way. We just have to read the post-Resurrection accounts to see that’s true.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the painful and tragic story of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our own culpability in his death and ask for forgiveness. I am saying that maybe we could use this Holy Week to try to Love as Jesus did.

On Holy Thursday, how can we humble ourselves before our friends and family as a sign of our Love for them?

On Good Friday, how can we allow ourselves to not need to be right, or defend our positions and reputations?

On Holy Saturday, how can we rest and just let things be as they imperfectly are, instead of rushing to make everything all right already?

On Easter Sunday and every day after, how can we celebrate the truth that death is not the end of the story and that Love conquers all?

Today, I’ll be washing feet. Tomorrow, I’ll be shutting up. Saturday, I’ll be unproductive and Sunday, I will be smiling and singing Alleluia. I hope you’ll join me.

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Here are some of the other posts I’ve written about Lent and Holy Week in year’s past.

“So Long Sad Lent”

“Rethinking Lent”

“The Day Before the Bad Day” 

“It’s Holy Week in Belgium” 

 

Where Does it Hurt? Everywhere.

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Three days ago, on June 10, deeply saddened by all the pain I saw around me, I posted this on Facebook.

So much pain in the world these days – over the last couple weeks.

The continued migrant drownings

The 19 women burned alive by ISIS for refusing to become sex slaves 

The Stanford rapist sentence and what it reveals about the travesty of our justice system – especially for women and minorities 

The political race/system in the US, which is about to get even uglier

 And yet, this poem by Wendell Berry has given me hope today.

 Hate has no world.

The people of hate must try

to possess the world of Love,

for it is the only world;

it is Heaven and Earth.

But as lonely, eager hate

possesses it, it disappears;

it never did exist,

and hate must seek another

world that Love has made.

With optimism, I wrote,

Let’s keep making the world of Love – again and again and again.

Yesterday, after the Orlando shooting, I was less hopeful, at least momentarily. When I first heard, I went numb with shock, then every cell in my body started to hurt. We were in the car and Tim pulled over so he could comfort me, while I cried myself out in the passenger seat.

 
We sat there together, holding hands, and I tried to believe Berry’s words – the ones I had posted just 48 hours earlier. But this time, I couldn’t stop thinking of Warsan Shire’s poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon.”

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

I felt that in my body, in my heart and mind.

It hurt everywhere and I kept thinking, “What can I do? What can we possibly do to make a difference?”

Yesterday, for a moment, I forgot the answer.

Today, despite my grief, I know.

If it hurts everywhere, then it means that we have to BE everywhere.

We who believe in LOVE – of every gender, culture, nationality, religion, belief system, political party, orientation – We have to LIVE everywhere, WORK everywhere, HEAL everywhere, LOVE everywhere. This is our task.

There is no backing down to hate. This is no time to fight fire with fire – to join it with our own version of the same.

This is the time for the kind of Love that Krista Tippett calls “muscular, resilient,” instead of the watered-down version we’ve been taught to pursue, dependent on our feelings, eroticized, romanticized, limited to personal agendas, and over-attached to its own happiness.

This is time to embrace what Rilke taught:

“It is good to Love – Love being difficult. Love is perhaps the most difficult task given us, the most extreme, the final proof and text, for which all other work is only preparation.”

This is our time and this is our task – to Love everywhere – more deeply, more actively, more faithfully (which is to say when we are full of doubt), more vocally and consciously. Whatever it means to you, wherever you are, Love someone today.

If you haven’t been deeply disturbed by the tragic news of the past weeks, then you haven’t been paying attention. Or perhaps, you do not yet know that we are, in fact, all connected. In every one of these news items, I saw myself, my child, my family. I grieved for them, as I would grieve for my own, if not in degree, then at least in kind.

  • The continued migrant drownings

(my ancestors who crossed the Atlantic to come here)

  • The 19 women burned alive by ISIS for refusing to become sex slaves

(my 14-year-old daughter)

  • The Stanford rapist sentence and what it reveals about the travesty of our justice system – especially for women and minorities

(myself and all the times I drank too much in my younger years, and, if I’m completely honest, my young, white, athletic son, who knows and is and Loves  so much better and yet, at 17, still has so much more to learn)

  • The political race/system in the US, which is about to get even uglier

(my neighbors and friends with whom I avoid political and religious discussions)

  • The shooting in Orlando and the threat on the Pride parade in Los Angeles

(our gay daughter, friends and family members)

If our Love is muscular enough, there is no pain in the world we cannot connect to and carry with those who are directly affected. It doesn’t mean we have to fix it, but the least we can do is acknowledge it, which will hopefully inspire us to do more.

 

 

To the Women I’m Raising

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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.

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Dinner and a Drawing

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.”

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This week’s chalk wall – the Wall of Fame was temporarily replaced by Month of Love in honor of Valentine’s Day.  

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.”

 

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“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.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

meditation image

Over the last few rainy days, I have been reflecting on my most recent blog. What am I really talking about when I talk about Love? There are clearly some things I don’t mean. Obviously, for me, Love isn’t just romantic, sweet or mushy feelings, but it isn’t simply an obligation to a person, community, or cause either. Recently, in another writing project, I defined Love in this way.

Love means saying, “Yes” to all that life brings me: to all that is, has been and will be.

When I am in Love, I have forgiven myself and others for past dramas, disappointments and detours. When I am in Love, I am not anxious about the future; I don’t have to force my own agenda, or protect myself from what might happen. Most importantly, when I am in Love in the present moment, I am at peace with what is: myself, my circumstances, the people and possibilities around me. When I am in Love, I don’t need to change anything and when I am really feeling it, I don’t even want to.

But I am not always able to Love like this, which is why I intend to practice Loving even more in 2016. It might sound funny to think of Love as a behavior we have to practice, but we do. Like anything we want to be better at, we have to give it our focus and find ways to improve our abilities, especially if it doesn’t come naturally.

I came across a great image to help inspire me in these early weeks of the new year. It is from Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening. (If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, I highly recommend it.) Mark tells the story of a friend who wants to paint his family room. He gets home with all the supplies from the hardware store and preps everything in the garage, but when he wants to enter his house, he can’t get in. He has a bucket of paint in each hand, the drop cloths and rollers under his arms and the paintbrush in his mouth. He struggles to open the front door, refusing to put anything down, (because we hate to put anything down!) and just as he’s about to get in, he slips and falls and ends up covered in red paint. He could laugh about it now, but you can only imagine how angry and frustrated he must have been when it happened.

These are the words of wisdom Nepo gleams from the story:

…In a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: We cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door and the take up only what we need to bring inside.

As far as I’m concerned, it is the beginning of Love when we recognize that we are in front of a closed door in the first place. If nothing else, we’ll know we’re there by the way it feels in our bodies – the clenched jaw or balled-up fists, tension in our stomach or neck, our deep sighs, or raised voice. When we notice ourselves getting angry, anxious, or insisting on our own way, it is Love that allows us to stop, take a deep breath, and put our baggage down, whatever it is – our fears, expectations, justifications. Instead of seeing the situation, or person in front of us as an obstacle to be conquered, we see them as a doorway to something new.

In that moment, we are doing the most Loving thing we can. We are saying a resounding, “Yes” to what is, instead of ignoring, denying, or fighting against it. Once we’ve put things down, the rest is just a little bit easier. We can choose to act, instead of react. We can assess what we need to pick up, what is truly important and what will actually help us (and them) on the other side of the door. The rest, we leave behind. Loving actually makes us lighter! (How’s that for a New Year’s diet plan?)

The best way I know how to reinforce this kind of Loving is through my meditative practice of Centering Prayer. For twenty minutes each morning, I “put things down,” over and over again. Inspired by Jesus’ kenotic, or self-emptying, communion with God, Centering Prayer asks me to release my self-centered thoughts, desires and agendas. When I find my mind wandering through daydreams and to-do lists, I repeat my sacred word and put it all down. This practice reminds me that it is not my will that needs to be done.

Sidenote: In case you’re wondering, I have been meditating daily for almost three years and I still have to “put things down” at least fifty to a hundred times in those twenty minutes. I know, shockingly bad statistics there, but my first teacher told me that the only way to fail at meditation is to fail to do it. I choose to use that as my guide still.

Coincidentally, my meditation practice ends about the time my children’s alarm clocks go off. That’s when my real practice begins. My morning agenda is clear: get everyone fed, dressed and out the door on time. My expectations are much higher than that: I want morning hugs, smiles, thank yous for lunch, beds made, teeth brushed, dishes cleaned. You can imagine how many “closed doors” I encounter in those 45 minutes. Every morning, I have 45 minutes to practice Loving my kids in their tired grumpiness and haste. I have 45 minutes to respond to teenage stimuli with Love, patience, forgiveness, encouragement, and physical affection. I have 45 minutes to fail at Loving the way I want to, and when I do, (and yes, I find myself covered in red paint pretty frequently), I apologize. Love also means cleaning up the messes we’ve made. And then, when they leave, I just “put it down” again, even the self-criticism and frustration. I have to Love myself too, or I’ll never get anywhere at all.

In 2016, I want to meet more minutes of my days like I do those first forty-five, fresh off the meditation mat when the challenges are small and the challengers are people I care deeply about. It’s a different story entirely in the real world where I encounter people I don’t much like with even higher stakes. Pope Francis may have declared it the Year of Mercy, but I’ve declared it the Year of Love and I want it to last a lifetime! I will keep trying. At more and more of those closed doors, I will take a deep breath and drop my shoulders. I will think of the red paint I’m carrying. I will remember the crime scenes I’ve created when I refused to put my baggage down and then I will face that door with the freedom that only Love can bring.

So, yeah, in case you were wondering, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about Love.

Big Magic: Brianne and Michael

Last Saturday, Tim and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of a darling couple. I’ve known Brianne since she was just a little tyke and she’s known her now-husband, Michael, for almost that long. The wedding took place in the same church where we were married over two decades ago. It was great to be back and recall the excitement and the nerves that accompanied us that day, but also the joy and the Love we felt. Watching Brianne and Michael, I am pretty sure they were experiencing the same.

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In honor of this Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share with you the letter I wrote to them and enclosed with their wedding gift. I am grateful for my health, my family and friends, and my home, but I am most grateful for the opportunity to Love and to witness Love wherever it takes place, whether it’s halfway around the world, or in my own backyard.

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The happy couple

November 21, 2015

Dear Brianne and Michael Blackmun –

Granted this is an unusual wedding greeting – a missive inside a card. Wait until you open the box. It’s an unusual wedding gift as well. But you two, like Tim and I, make for an unusual couple. Personally, those are my favorite kind. So, when you open the box, this is what you will find. Two coffee mugs, two dish towels and one very special book called Big Magic.

I often give one of my favorite books on marriage, The Zimzum of Love, to young couples just tying the knot. You two, however, having been together for ten years, need a little less advice perhaps than most in that area. I love how madly in love you two still are after all this time and I’ve got a little secret for you…

You might have been told your feelings will fade, that it won’t always be like this, but I look at you and I think, “They’re wrong.” Brianne, you are clearly in love with LOVE itself (so am I – it takes one to know one) and so I think your marriage will always be full of love – the romantic, playful, silly, affectionate kind of love. Yes, there will be hard times and struggles and dry spells, but I think they will be weathered with affection, good humor, grace and forgiveness. Your marriage will always feel like an adventure, in good times and bad, something to be eagerly embraced, thinking, “I wonder what tomorrow will bring.” Brianne, this gift of Loving joyfully and whole-heartedly is not something everyone has and Michael brings it out in you, so appreciate it and use it well! You hit the Love Jackpot, not just in finding the right guy, but in having a heart made for it. Congratulations!

But there’s more, so on to Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. The author calls it basically a permission slip for everyone to use their creativity.

Brianne, you are one of the most creative women I know. I remember going to your college graduation party with your degree in studio art and looking at all your work and being blown away by the tender beauty of it all, especially your heart sculpture. I hope you have that piece somewhere on display still! You decided not to pursue your art professionally, which I totally understand, but what I want to say, as you’re making this lifetime commitment to Michael, is that I hope you have also made a lifetime commitment to your creativity. Your artful heart and creative spirit are the essence of you. I hope this book will encourage you to continue to find expressions and outlets for the art that wants to be born from your soul. It is so important, for you and the world.

A marriage is only as healthy as each of the people speaking their vows and our culture makes it so easy to hide our truest selves behind all sorts of masks. But a marriage between two hiders can’t become the fullest expression of Love and happiness. It can work for a while, maybe even a lifetime, but it won’t allow each person to flourish and become all they are meant to be in and for the world. In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert will remind you over and over again to be Brianne! Be Michael! Commit to practices of concern, compassion and courage in your Love for each other and for yourselves as well.

You have so many gifts and cards to open that I will stop talking now.  This isn’t meant to be advice. It is just meant to be encouragement to listen to what your heart already knows. You and Michael clearly Love each other and are committed to the well-being and freedom of the other person. Keep living that out, all the days of your life!

With so much Love, hope and faith in you two!

Ali and Tim

P.S. – I couldn’t end without sharing one of my favorite poems from one of my favorite poets. This kind of Love works, but only if you’re both doing it!

“The Gift”

Our

Union is like this:

You feel cold

So I reach for a blanket to cover

Our shivering feet.

A hunger comes into your body

So I run to my garden

And start digging potatoes.

You ask for a few words of comfort and guidance,

I quickly kneel at your side offering you

This whole book –

As a gift.

You ache with loneliness one night

So much you weep

And I say,

Here’s a rope,

Tie it around me,

I

Will be your companion

For life.

Adapted slightly from Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi mystic and poet.

P.P.S. I wrote that letter before the wedding and sharing it here allows me to write a second post-script. I know that brides and grooms are technically supposed to be the ones writing the thank you cards after the wedding, but every time I leave a wedding, I feel like I’m the one who should be saying thanks. Not only are wedding days wonderful parties (and it doesn’t matter how big, or small the budget), they are also beautiful expressions of the energy, hopefulness and joy that Love builds and brings to the world. Since Love is my favorite emotion, weddings and newlyweds are some of my favorite things. Thank you, Brianne and Michael for delivering big time!

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Celebrating new Love with the Love of my life!

My “Second” Marriage

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.”

September 18, 1991, the birthday of Sarah Moses
This is Tim, my “first” husband, and I just after I gave birth to Sarah Moses on September 18, 1991.

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 Rohr spoke 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.

Team Kirks makes new vows 2008
Team Kirks makes new vows 2008

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.

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