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

But alas, I gave in. I usually do.

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

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

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

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

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

What if we are called to be Mockingjays?

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

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

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

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

Can we sing a song of hope?

Of beauty?

Of peaceful rebellion against authoritarian voices?

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

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

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

Repeat it beautifully.

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

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

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

It’s ours.

It’s yours. It’s mine.

We can all be Mockingjays.

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!

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.

Last week I went to Ventura to speak to a group of women. My cousin Megan had invited me. This was not a difficult audience; I felt like we were all part of the same tribe – women, wives and mothers. Easy-peasy, I thought. However any time I am going to get up in front of an audience, I like to collect my thoughts before I go on. I usually excuse myself for a last minute trip to the bathroom, so no one sees me closing my eyes and centering myself. If they see a random woman in the audience doing some deep breathing, that’s one thing. If that random woman, suddenly becomes the “expert” they are supposed to be listening to, I think it affects my credibility.

So before she introduced me, Megan led me to the little bathroom in the back of the meeting room and left me to my own devices. And as I took my first deep breath, it hit me.

This isn’t hard.

I am not saying that public speaking isn’t challenging, or that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to say and how I’m going to say it, because I do.

But on the day before this day, this day when I was crouched in a bathroom, trying to do deep breathing exercises (while not gagging on the smell of cleaning fluids), I had received an email that a mother I know, a mother I call a friend, a mother of 4 children, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

So when I went to center myself, I was immediately thrown off-center by the realization that my friend may be off-center for a very long time to come, that she was probably in the furthest orbit she had ever been in from her center in her entire life. That when you receive a cancer diagnosis as a mother of 4 children, still at home, who still consider you the center of their entire existence, your own center pretty much looks like a nuclear bomb just went off.

Obviously I’m just guessing here. I’ve not faced it myself, but I do have a little bit of history with mothers, with mothers of four children, with mothers of four children and a cancer diagnosis.

When I was 15 years old, my own mother was diagnosed with cancer, Acute Myeloid Leukemia, to be exact.  I was the second eldest of her four children, ranging in age from 16 to 6 years old. She was 39 years old and it was not looking good. One day our mom was home and the next day, she was gone, not to return for almost 4 months. Chemo, radiation, isolation and a bone marrow transplant, fifty miles away from home, were on the docket.

She survived; we all survived. In fact, we thrived.

Our center was still there; it was just in a “geographically undesirable” location – on the 11th floor of the UCLA hospital. Instead of gravitating home after school, we gravitated up the 405 Freeway. Instead of relying on her to center us all the time, we centered each other. We also became the center of our school, church and community. My older brother Charlie became the family chauffer. I became the homework helper and babysitter. Tim and Amy, 9 and 6 respectively, became amazingly adaptable and compliant, endearingly so. There was nothing we wouldn’t have done for them. And there was nothing that people wouldn’t do for us, if we simply asked and frequently when we didn’t. At that time in our lives, nothing seemed impossible, if we stuck together.

And when our Mom got home, our center moved to the family room couch and slept and drank Ensure and got stronger every day for a year, until finally she was up and around and dancing and skiing and cooking burned chicken again – just like she used to.

So on that morning last week, before I stepped up in front of 40 women, I was extremely grateful for that new perspective. This isn’t hard. It’s my new motto. What my friend has to do is hard. What my mom had to do was hard. What sick women and men and children all over the world do every day is hard.

Fighting cancer is hard.

Since that morning, any time something uncomfortable, or painful, or challenging comes up, I think of my friend. I remember, This isn’t hard, and I go on and I do it – better, braver, and more happily. Glennon Melton always reminds her readers that We Can Do Hard Things, but I think it’s even easier when we remember what the hard things really are.

So to my friend, and to all the women and men and children out there who are fighting against a diagnosis you do not want, a disease you cannot control, a tragedy that has thrown you off-center, know how much you are loved, how much we respect your fight and your process. Know that we are here to help. I believe with all my heart and soul that you are held lovingly by The Center of the universe and if you can trust in that, you will find your own center once again. Until that time, we will keep you at the center of our prayers, our love and support and hope it helps.

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.

If you recall from my post “The Big 4-0,” I decided to give up worrying for 40 days and believe it or not, it has gone well, really well. Almost, I was tempted to think, too well. But never fear, that nirvana came to an end, thank goodness. There’s no humor in “too well,” and no growth either.

A couple of times over the last few weeks, I found myself thinking, “Why aren’t you worrying about that?” The “that” in question could be anything from a big presentation, to a deadline at work, the Lad’s lost basketball game, or an encounter with a cranky teen. Normally, these are things I would worry about: “How am I doing? How did I do? How did they do? Why are they doing that? What should I do about it?”  Honestly, these are the thoughts that can dominate my mind on a stressful day. But I had been enjoying my worry-free state.

However, the other morning I woke at 4:30 am, with a familiar ringing in my ear. No, it wasn’t a phone call. It wasn’t my alarm clock, or the smoke detector. It was simply a voice I had been avoiding. It was the siren call of worry and no matter how deeply I buried my head in my pillow, no matter how many times I tossed and turned, no matter how many deep breaths I took, worry had a hold of me. The details are inconsequential, but thankfully, I had a new perspective to manage it.

The first thing I did differently was not worry about how I was failing in my quest to not worry. I forgave myself for having these emotions and for not being able to talk myself out of them. That may not sound like much, but it’s a huge first step for a struggling perfectionist like myself. The second thing I did was resign myself to being awake at 4:30 am. I knew that staying in bed was a recipe for more worry. Instead, I decided that distraction was an appropriate alternative, so I caught up on the latest Project Runway episode. (So long, Jerrell!) And when the dawn finally brightened the night sky around 5:30 am, I went on a walk.

Over the last few weeks, any time worry looms on the horizon my technique has been to visualize myself in the river of Love. Worrying, I stand on the shore, fighting with the Universe to make things go my way.  When I am in the river of Love, I am surrounded by a rush of water, of current, of the inevitability of things. I become aware of my stance, my posture. I lean into Love and watch it sweep away the barnacles of worry that cling to me.

So on this early morning walk, I thought about Love and what a powerful antidote it can be to worry and how I wished that I could remember to love and to be in love more. I started singing a line from one of my favorite U2 songs that “Perfect love drives out all fear.”  (I know that Bono is quoting scripture, but it sounds so much cooler when he says it.) While I walked, I saw a yellow leaf on the ground and I had to take a second look. It was a heart, sort of, from a certain angle and I found myself thinking, “Wow, you almost had me there, Universe. Almost, but not quite. Nice try.” I kept walking, wishing I had seen a sign of Love as concrete as the sidewalks I was treading.

And then it happened. Looking down at my feet, I saw it. A real sign. A real heart. The Universe was going to get me after all.

If I disdained the first message of Love I was given, as not being perfect enough (Ugh! That is so not my favorite part of myself), Love would try again. I still had to be paying attention, but there it was, Love at my feet, written in stone.

I stopped. I sat. I laughed and then I cried. I must have looked like a lunatic, but I got the message loud and clear.

Love is here. Love wants me. Love is as present to me as my worry is, if I will but open my eyes and see.

And now that I’ve seen it once, I’ve begun to see it everywhere. I see it in leaves and trees and rocks and sand. I see it in shells and dirt and even in places I hate, like the dimples on my thighs. Apparently, it was here all along.

What is worry, but fear with lots of scary details?

And if I trust Bono, and I usually do, then I will keep seeking my entry point into that river of perfect Love that casts out all fear.

My Pop and I, circa October 1971

A popular blogger, Glennon Melton, coined a word to describe the world as she sees it. Life brings joy and pain, good and evil, comedy and tragedy, frequently in the same day, sometimes in the very same moment. All in all, she says, it is a brutiful world, beautiful and brutal, all wrapped in one extraordinary package.

I read her description of her brutiful life and was captivated, not only by her story, but also by her word choice. I love new words, so when my father inadvertently gave me one a few days ago, I was delighted.

My father and I don’t live very close to each other and we aren’t terribly good about using the phone, so we usually rely on email to stay connected. It’s a good venue for us. I like to write and he likes to read. I share my latest ideas and he usually has some valuable commentary. On this particular day, I had emailed him an essay by one of our favorite authors (Ron Rolheiser in case you were wondering) and I shared the connections I had made between the article, his life and my own. He got back to me and ended his response in this way:

            Wishing i could hug you right now to send my love and joy in you my wounderful daughter.

Pop

I have to admit that as a former English professor, I frequently need to remind myself to appreciate what he says, instead of judging how he says it, but that day, my impulse to correct his grammar quickly fled in the face of the sentiment his sentence held.

He called me his wounderful daughter. What a gift! I know he meant wonderful, but whether it was a Freudian slip, or serendipity, being wounderful felt even more significant. It felt profound.

Somehow, I have been made wonderful in his eyes, by my wounds.

He thinks I am wounderful.

Like any father, he wanted to protect me from injury and he thought he could do it through sheer size, force of will and determination. He was an intimidating, 6’6”, successful breadwinner, with a 7-foot wingspan and a size 13 shoe. He thought that if he could keep the world at bay, including teenage boys and the smut on TV, his little girl would be just fine. Ultimately, and obviously, he discovered he couldn’t. He watched me tumble and fall too many times to count, from little ego bruises, like the 7th grade softball team I didn’t make, to major heartbreaks in friendship and love. He helped me recover, and hoped that I would learn about myself and the world around me from the pain I experienced. He watched me learn about courage, compassion, and humility. He watched me cry, thinking I would never stop and then he saw me laugh again. Through it all, he was there to bind up my wounds with his fatherly supply of unconditional love.

Our animal friends have been given adaptations. They have hard outer shells, leathery skin, horns, beaks, claws, speed, agility, and size. All these evolutionary gifts help them avoid being wounded. Their very ability to survive depends on their invulnerability.

But humans haven’t been given many physical gifts. We are slow – slow to mature and slow to move. We need to be kept warm and cool; we need artificial protection of all kinds, from clothes and sunscreen to armored tanks and bike helmets. We have few anatomically-given ways to avoid being wounded, but we have psychological weapons in spades. We have sarcasm and introversion, indifference and aggression. We have pride and arrogance. But none of them keep us from being injured in the first place. The wounding always comes first. We grow our armor later.

But hopefully, no matter how defensive we become, there remain chinks in our armor, ways we can still be wounded, and places where we are vulnerable. Wounding frequently draws blood, but sometimes it is the only way we know we are still alive: by feeling something coursing through our veins, filling our hearts and spilling over.

I would rather be wounderful than wonderful any day. In the first place, I am approachable; I am human and in some way, beautiful in my pop’s eyes. In the second, I am plastic, perhaps pleasant, but never vulnerable, which is the essence of humanity.

If you have the choice, if you are brave enough, be wounderful. It’s the only way to truly experience this brutiful world.

Tomorrow, Lent begins. For those of you not familiar with the season, Lent takes place for the 40 days before Easter. It is traditionally a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. If you had Catholic friends growing up, you may have overheard, or participated in earnest discussions about what to “give up” for Lent. Until I was 16, it always boiled down to candy.  For a kid with a serious sweet tooth, and the dental work to prove it, giving up candy for 40 days was a real sacrifice. And it seemed that Heaven itself blessed my offering, for on Easter morning, all my hard work was rewarded by a basketful of sweet, candy goodness. I still get excited when I see row upon row of pastel-colored Peeps, sweet and sour jelly beans, and rich, gooey Cadbury Creme eggs in the aisles of my local Target.

But alas, we all must grow up and although I still love candy, I’ve definitely outgrown “giving it up” for Lent. There are many things, spiritual and otherwise, that I’ve grown out of, but I’ve tried to hold on to the season of Lent. As an adult, I’m always on the look out for new ways to commit to this season and what it’s supposed to bring about in me and my spiritual journey. This morning, I came across a great reflection, which you can check out here if you like. That Time of Year Again – Busted Halo.

Sr. Bernadette makes some very good, very funny points in her essay, and offers a series of questions to help you figure out what action, or “inaction” you might take this Lenten season to become more like Jesus, the man that Christians purport to follow with their lives. There was one question in particular that struck me at my very core.

“If I choose to fast from something in my life, what would make me feel its absence so keenly that without it I would need to cling to God?”

Wow! When you put it that way, I obviously can’t fill in that blank with candy. I may love my Sweet Tarts and Sugar Babies, but do I really need God to help me do without them? I don’t think so. I can just as easily pop in a piece of gum, or brush my teeth and temptation is avoided. There is no reliance on any Higher Power, except my own will power.

Her question made me ask this question of myself, “What compulsion, or habit of mine do I have so little control over that I would have to turn to God to actually be able to do without it?”

Without a conscious thought, I had my answer. It came unbidden, as impulses from the Holy Spirit often do, but I quickly buried it. (Which, by the way, is what we often do with those impulses.) It seemed too strange, and more significantly, too impossible. But after messing around with a list of the typical vices we try to get rid of, from caffeine and alcohol to technology, I gave up and went back to my first thought.

For Lent 2012, I have to give up worrying. I have developed a compulsive need to ‘fix’ things these days. I am not talking about appliances, and messy closets. I am talking about people and situations over which I have little control. But that lack of control doesn’t stop me from spending many of my waking hours and more than a few of my sleeping ones worrying about how things could be different. I go over in my head what I could have done, should have done, might have done and might still do to correct these “problems” as I see them. I long for things to be resolved, ultimately to my own satisfaction.

I realize that this habit of worry is neither productive, nor life-giving to myself or anyone I love. It is not contemplation, or even problem-solving. It will not produce better results, or fix anything at all. It merely prevents me from being in the Now and embracing the present moment. How can I enjoy a morning hug from my Molly, or a Starbucks run with my teens if I am mulling over all the ways they need to be ‘fixed?’  How can I sleep peacefully next to Tim at night if I am thinking of all the things that I’ve left undone?

How can there be any peace if it all depends on me?

And there is the crux of the matter.

There can’t be.

For me, worrying is the act of separating myself from God and His love. If I consider Sr. Bernadette’s question, worrying is the one thing that “would make me feel its absence so keenly that without it I would need to cling to God.” I have no other way to combat my worry besides seeking the presence of God. God is not worried about the same things I am. He simply says, “Hand it over. It will sort itself out, in its own way, in its own time. In the meanwhile, do your best. Use your mind, your heart and the gifts I’ve given you, but don’t forget to swim in the river of Love. When you worry, you’re standing on the shore.”

I’d love to know what you’re thinking of giving up. What would make you turn to God every time you were about to turn to “it”, whatever it is? I promise not to worry about you, but I will send good thoughts your way over the next 40 days and hopefully, we won’t pick up right where we left off today.

 

Was it just me, or did anyone else confuse a Tasmanian Devil with a whirling dervish in their childhood? When I was younger, I knew of only one difference: Taz was an actual star of a cartoon show. That was it. I had no idea whether a whirling dervish was man or beast, good or evil, though I tended to think the latter. Whenever the phrase was used in my childhood home, it had a negative connotation. It meant I needed to slow down, to stop being so wild. For the sake of my mother’s nerves and my backside, I needed to be still.

I hadn’t thought about my juvenile transposition of those terms for many, many years, but recently a friend posted this picture of me on Facebook, which was taken at her wedding last summer.

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Uh-oh, I thought, but I figured that it might get even worse, or better, depending on how you look at it. I was right. Apparently, we were just getting started. This moment followed.

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My partner and I were like turbines picking up steam. Though I haven’t seen the photographic evidence, I have vague memories of being sprawled across the dance floor, on our bums, laughing hysterically.

When I saw these photos, my mother’s phrase “whirling dervish” immediately came to mind. It had been 30 years since it had been used to scold me for playing so wildly with my friends. It was always followed by an encouragement to read instead, to pick up our messes, or at the very least to go outside! And since I am now an adult with access to cool technology like the Internet and Wikipedia, I decided to look up the term for myself. Imagine my surprise when I saw beautiful images like this one below.

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Whirling dervishes are not a menace to society, some wild, uncontrollable animal, or a tic that overtakes someone like a seizure, or a stroke. A whirling dervish is someone who dances in circles in order worship and discover God. They don’t even refer to themselves by that name. Technically, they are the Mevlevi sect of Sufism.

 In my research, I also discovered a beautiful quote by a member of that sect, Sherif Baba. He said,  “The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl, all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”

Amen to that. When I read why a dervish whirls, my need to spin on the dance floor with my lovely friend on my arm became crystal clear. We had joyously celebrated her marriage a few short years before and now, she is going through some events that are unexpected, unwanted and frankly, unpleasant and yet together, we were celebrating the marriage of another friend. The bride’s childhood had been marked by a tragic loss, but her commitment to her new husband signified a belief in hope, joy, love, and the promise of all those blessings in greater measure in her future. Life spins on its axis and we are constantly called to accept changes in our circumstances and perspective.

 I tend to seek God in stillness, in the slow, silent moments of the dark morning, or the star-filled night. I find it difficult to see the Divine Presence in the fractal events of my life, particularly when they are upsetting or tragic. I am more likely to view them as something to be borne, something to be gotten through, rather than an opportunity to “sense the totality of God.”

 But the dance floor offers me another way. If I follow the example of the whirling dervishes, I might remember that sometimes, God can best be found in chaos, in change, in the very eye of the storm. If the Divine Presence is the centrifugal force of life, then sometimes we must spin in order to lose our own egos as the central reference point for all things. There is wisdom in letting go, in dancing through life, “so that the true form of the world can be seen.” 

I recently read Alan Brennert’s novel Moloka’i and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is set around the turn of the century in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. To control the leprosy epidemic, everyone found infected with the bacteria, was sent to live in isolation there. For many patients, that isolation lasted their whole lives.  Historical fiction like this is my favorite genre, because it appeals to me on two levels. The reader in me gets lost in the story, while the scholar in me absorbs all sorts of new historical facts and trivia to bore my friends and family with later. In my nerdy opinion, historical fiction is the perfect combination of fact and fiction, research and escapism, a fabulous two-for-one deal.

However, reading the novel reminded me of an experience I had a couple months back. It made me think about historical fiction in a more personal way, because it wasn’t in a book anymore. At a cocktail party in my neighborhood, I saw all too clearly how our own personal historical fictions influence the stories we tell ourselves each and every day. While the fiction is probably harmless most of the time, it may actually cost us something valuable in the long run: our ability to see ourselves as we are today.

As Tim and I walked up to our hosts’ front door, he reminded me that I was his wingman. I wasn’t allowed to go mingle, if he didn’t find a buddy to talk to. He doesn’t usually worry about that happening, but this wasn’t our normal social circle, so I acquiesced. For my part, I straightened my skirt and checked my make up one more time. I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew we were both responding to some personal insecurities, but figured our secrets were safe with each other.

So imagine my surprise when our hostess asked us to put on a nametag, complete with three adjectives that described us in high school. It was, after all, a fundraiser for a youth organization. Oh boy, I thought, but honesty was probably the best policy here as anywhere else. Tim jotted down Lone Wolf, figuring that pretty much said it all, while I scrawled geek, klutz and swimmer under my name. We looked at what the other had written and shrugged. We’ve been together for so long and shared so many stories from our childhoods that we knew exactly where the adjectives had come from and accepted them as some approximation of the truth. I knew that after several moves, Tim had only a few friends at any given time growing up. He frequently ate alone in the cafeteria, and spent many of his afternoons, kicking a soccer ball at the backyard fence, scoring goal after game-winning goal for an audience of one. He knew how awkward I had felt as a child, skinny and freckle-faced, more at home in water than on land. He’d counted the scars I still have on my body that testify to the face-first, flat out falls I took on the black top, off bikes and into thorn bushes. He has also tried to heal the scars on my psyche from years of feeling inferior to so many of my peers.

So we stuck on the wounded egos of our teenage selves and started to mingle. I couldn’t believe all the casual friends and acquaintances we met, who were apparently all popular, smart, beautiful and athletic. Honestly, the ratio of class presidents, cheerleaders and homecoming queens to the rest of us was a little ridiculous. But what was even funnier was how they responded to our nametags. They thought we were kidding, or at least really exaggerating who we used to be. I assured them we were not. They thought we were “one of them,” and until that night, I had thought so too.

Not a single person at that party would have pegged Tim for a lone wolf. At this point in his life, my husband is known as “Coach Tim” to a large swathe of the under-15 population in our community and their parents. He’s spent years coaching our kids’ sports teams, from softball to soccer. He is sarcastic and funny, hangs out with the guys, but prefers to chat with the ladies. And as for me, I haven’t tripped over my own feet (much) since my second child was born, and I have become a fairly self-confident and capable woman, athletic even, since discovering Pilates.

The night was fun, but I didn’t love reliving my past. I put those words down, thinking they were harmless, that I had moved beyond those labels and memories, that they were “history” and I know Tim did the same. But when we reflected on the last things we had done before we walked into that party, we saw the evidence that our past is hardly history at all. He was making sure that he wouldn’t be the lone wolf, and by adding another layer of lipstick, I was re-arming myself against the superficial judgments of other girls. Despite twenty years of love and success, our historical fiction is still a palpable presence in our lives.

Does anyone ever get over who they once were, and thought they might always be? Is it worse for the class presidents, valedictorians, or homecoming queens, who perhaps never lived up to the promise of those early days? I don’t know the answer to that. My story runs the other way and they aren’t exactly the kind of questions you’d ask a casual acquaintance over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

By the end of the novel Moloka’i, a cure for leprosy is found and the patients are free to move back into society, leaving their “shameful” past behind them. But virtually no matter where they go, they face prejudice, scorn and outright discrimination. There are no jobs for them, no places to live, and frequently no family willing to love them. They are technically “free,” but they are bound by their past and the evidence is written all over their bodies and souls. A few of them find the freedom they seek, but many of them return to the leper colony, Kalaupapa, where they are known and loved for who and what they are.

As I read this book, I was taken back to that cocktail party and the way our histories can continue to haunt us. Thankfully, for the most part, I am free. I laughed with everyone at what my nametag said. I am no longer that geeky girl, who lacks the self-confidence, courage and grace to be fully herself. However, when I went home that night, done socializing with the world at large, I was glad to be alone with Tim, my own personal Kalaupapa, where I am known and loved for who I was and who I try to be today.