About this time two years ago, Tim and I took our eldest child, Keara, to college for the first time. It was a tough day for all of us, and it brought back a lot of memories of another “leaving day” that I had experienced twenty-five years earlier. You can read about it here.  Even when we heal, there are parts of a broken heart that will always be more tender. But two weeks ago, on a midweek morning, with no fanfare, Keara packed up a car and headed back to her third year at CSULB. What a difference 700 (or so) days make! With the day already at 90+ degrees, even a long hug was out of the question, so I stood in the street and waved goodbye as she drove away with David Bowie blasting out the car window

But that doesn’t mean this Fall will be easy. In a few days, child #2 is moving out and heading to college about 100 miles away. This time, it feels just the same and totally different. The same part is that it’s a portion of my heart walking out the door and setting up residence in another jurisdiction. You learn to function that way, but you walk with a limp for a while. The different part is that it’s Finn. If you don’t know what I mean, check out my post from June. The house will be quieter, less fun-loving and jokey, but just less loving too. When Finn’s been out of the house at dinner time this past year, Tim, Molly and I have kind of looked at each other sideways across the table, each of us thinking, “Just the three of us, huh?”

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Graduation Day: Finn and Dr. Renfree, principal of Serra High School

Molly probably feels the most anxious about the 40% population drop, a little ripped off by her change of circumstance.  I was the “big sister” in my family and never experienced the sense of abandonment that the younger ones must go through as siblings move out on their own, one after another. However, Molly is thrilled with Finn’s decision to move in with my parents and attend junior college for two years before transferring to San Luis Obispo.  For one thing, it’s 200 miles closer; for another, he can’t dictate (exactly) when she can and cannot visit him. She’s got her own key to Grandma’s house! She adores her big brother and some of the most tender moments in the hospital this last Spring were when he sat by her bedside. No matter how she felt, Finn always got a smile.

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February 2017

A mama knows that the fabric of her family will eventually be stretched by time and distance (and other things), so she spends the first decades of her kids’ lives stitching them together, so that when the bonds are tested, the Love of her family will stay strong. Undoubtedly, some of the threads will come loose and the edges will fray, but she prays the integrity of what she’s woven will hold.

With that in mind, I approached this summer with the goal of creating as many opportunities as I could for the five of us to be together, tightening the threads, and stockpiling enough hugs and laughter to last us for the months (or weeks) that might pass before we are together again. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t, but there were beach days, dinners out, movie nights, evening body surfing sessions, Scrabble games, Slurpee runs to 7-11, conversations across the table, sing-a-longs in the car, and Snapchat videos shared.

Every once in a while, I would find myself wondering – a little anxiously if I’m honest – “Has it been enough? Have I been enough? Have I done enough before I let them go? Will our fabric hold?” It takes a lifetime for those answers to unfold, but I was getting all teary-eyed thinking about how my time of biggest impact was coming to a close.

And then Keara left.

And then the date of Finn’s departure neared.

And then Charlottesville (and our President) happened.

And then my tears dried up.

I’ve got nothing to cry about.

(I’m not saying I won’t cry, or that there’s anything wrong with crying about our kids leaving, but it gave me some serious perspective.)

My son is going to be just fine, and there are so many things in our world that are not fine at all.

I’ve raised a white, middle-class, soon-to-be college-educated young man in a two-parent American, “Christian” home. He has been privileged in every way his whole life. Of course he’s worked hard and honed his skills, but every door has been opened for him, except the ones we couldn’t afford (but those were few and far between and he didn’t need them anyway). Every step of the way, from parents to teachers, coaches to employers, police to waiters, he has been given the benefit of the doubt, not just because of the color of his skin, but because of the smile on his face, the kindness and confidence he exudes, the vocabulary he’s developed (in part from having two parents with multiple college degrees between them).

All of it comes “naturally” to him and that’s a form of privilege.

So is that fact that he can wear clothes from Goodwill, and loiter in the local park with his friends all hours of the day and night without “concerned” neighbors calling the cops.  So is the fact that he can go to school for the next two years without taking out a loan. So is the fact that when he needs a job, we can call upon dozens of professional connections to help him get a foot in the door. So is the fact that he can “follow his heart” and pursue a career in photography. If it all goes belly up, he’s got some money in the bank and many, many places to land.

To be sure, he isn’t guaranteed a damn thing. He is going to have to bust his ass to make his dreams come true. He may fail many times, but this kid has multiple choices and multiple chances to succeed. Anything he accomplishes will be based, not just on his own talent, grit, hard work and luck, but also because the world welcomes him with open arms as a straight, white man and that’s privilege.

Last week, when everything in Charlottesville went down, Tim and I had Finn to ourselves on a 20+ hour road back from Montana. It was a gift to have so much time with him, right before he leaves the nest. We talked race, religion, politics, enneagram, technology, social media, national parks and the environment, our dreams, fears and failures. We offered our takes and heard his and I have to say, I am less worried about him than ever. I believe in him – his talent, skills, vision and work ethic, but most especially, his heart.

I haven’t posted anything about Charlottesville, because I didn’t want to add my voice to the fray. There were so many good, and important things being said by people who were there and people who have wrestled with these issues their whole lives, people like Brené Brown and Brian McLaren and  Ruby Sales, among countless others.

But I do want to highlight two voices I came across that were kind of hidden away, but are every bit as worthy of wide-scale attention.

The first is a bit of parenting advice from Brian Vincent from Farmville, Virginia, a born and bred Southerner, who contributed to a forum on BitterSoutherner.com.

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“As I looked at my girls this morning, I remembered that I have the most potent weapon against this kind of ugliness, right at my fingertips. We can Raise Warriors. We can raise children who speak out in defense of love, and denounce hate at every turn. We can combat a long history of calculated disparagement of ‘others’ by educating and reminding our children of this country’s history, while emphatically celebrating its diversity.

Step your game up. Engage in the uncomfortable waters of contentious conversation. Fight back with sharp intellect, and a heart filled with fierce morality. Teach your children that this war will not be won with physical combat, but with a spiritual warrior’s discipline and adherence to love. Be bold.”

@The Bitter Southerner

The second is from the Native American award-winning poet,  and author, Sherman Alexie. His brilliant poem, HYMN, was written just days ago. You can find the whole thing here, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it, but here is an excerpt to get you started.


It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.

So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet

For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?

Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?

Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?

My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.
I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.

But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist

To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.

I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.

I will sing honor songs for the unfamiliar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.

I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.

I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.

And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.

We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.

We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.

Finn gets it. He knows he’s got a head start and that to judge, dismiss, divide and denigrate others is a bullshit way to make it in the world. What do the gospels say? “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from him who has been entrusted with much, even more will be demanded.” We have been given so freakin’ much, we’ve got to start giving back, somehow, in some way. Maybe Finn won’t in big ways for a while, but the fact that he gave me the “okay” to publish this is a start. He’s just a kid after all, but I’m the adult and I’ve got to step up my game.

Welcome to the world, Class of 2017.

I’ve known some of you since the day you were born and I’ve watched you grow up, go to school, play sports and skateboard in my front yard. I’ve surfed and studied and supped with you. I’ve watched you float and falter like all kids do. I have fallen in love with your hearts and witnessed your potential to change the world, so get to school; get to work; get to learning how to Love. We’re counting on you.

 

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Many of my friends and readers have children leaving for their first year of college in the next week, or two.  My heart is with them. Just last fall, we sent Keara, our oldest daughter, off to school. It may have been only 120 miles away, but it was far enough to create a distance and level of vulnerability that was difficult for us to accept.

One of the ways we managed to honor our emotions, but empower her was to “bless” her on her way. It was a really moving experience for all of us, including her younger brother and sister, who felt her absence as keenly as we did. It’s a tradition we will continue this year as she packs her bags at the end of this week and again heads north.

If you are looking for a way to “let go” in Love, here’s the blessing we used, but I want to affirm that what is in your heart and mind, what is authentic to your family’s language and experience, will always work best. Too often, we are afraid to articulate the Love and the deep truths that reside in our hearts. We hold back out of fear that we will stumble, sound silly, or maudlin.

What if we cry ? Maybe we will!

Will our emotions make us look weak, or scare our kids? Maybe they will!

Who knows? Who cares?

They can handle it! Showing our vulnerability is actually a sign of great strength.  If you don’t believe me, check out the brilliant  research of Dr. Brené Brown. 


From “A Meditation on Leaving for College”

I love to ritualize moments in my family’s life,  and so we often do blessings and prayers as people hit certain milestones, but last night, I decided to try something different. I didn’t want “god-language” to get in the way of Keara’s hearing what we had to say.

I played a short guided Metta meditation by the Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, with her husky voice and New York accent. It is a gentle introduction to the Buddhist practice of blessing, which involves the simple repetition of these four lines, beginning with yourself and radiating out to others.

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live your life at ease.

That’s it and yet, it says almost everything. In safety, we do not act out of fear and all the negative consequences it brings. In contentedness, we are not greedy, grasping, envious, or backstabbing. When we are strong, we protect the weak, not just ourselves. To live at ease does not mean we live without suffering, but rather, that the end of the story is already assured.

We sat through the guided meditation as a family, each of us in silence, and in our own space and then we gathered around our daughter and sister, the one who is leaving our shared space, and we blessed her with the following words:

May you feel safe.

May you feel content.

May you feel strong.

May you live your life at ease.

And in those moments when you cannot feel safe, content, strong and at ease, then may you take a deep breath, center yourself and draw on the resources you’ve been given.

Remember your gifts, your talents, your deepest desires and what you are working towards.

Remember your history, what you have accomplished and the obstacles you’ve overcome.

Remember your family and friends whose Love will never waver and whose support you can always count on.

Remember that Love is your birthright, the place you came from and the place you will find your home.

For it is there that you will find the freedom to become most fully yourself, and committed to your future,

Where you will find the courage to embrace hard work, to overcome setbacks, to process your confusion and disappointments and learn from them.

May you always come home – to yourself and who you truly are – gloriously Keara Moses Kirkpatrick, a creative, passionate, determined soul, who is a gift we call our own.

Amen.

Amen, Keara. That is our wish and our blessing for you as you move into your own space in the world, physically, spiritually, and professionally. You know where to find us whenever you want to come home.


Good luck friends as you send your children on their way towards greater freedom and responsibility. The risks are greater, but so too is the reward.

 

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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They check in, but they don't check out!
They check in, but they don’t check out!

My little brain is constantly amazed at how certain themes invade our consciousness at different points in our lives. It’s like we open a Roach Motel in our minds and a breed of previously unrecognized (and perhaps even unwanted) ideas from the Universe just march right in, one after another. As promised, “They check in, but they never check out!” This convergence of divine wisdom changes us; the new ideas find a home and we are never the same again.

A couple of years ago, I began to see #Signs of Love, every day, all the time. Apparently, Love was what I needed to know. By encountering hearts everywhere, I understood that divine Love animates the world. Recognizing Love in everything from stones to sunlight, I began to love myself, my family, friends, and even strangers more. I had more Love. I was more loving.

Opening my mind to the #Signs of Love changed my life.

Signsoflove

However, as time went on, I saw fewer and fewer #Signs of Love. At first I worried about the loss. “Where are my #signs? Where is the Love?” I wondered, but after a while, I got the message: Let go of what you think you need. When we are learning to walk, our parents do 90% of the work. As we get stronger and more independent, we need less “hands-on” assistance. In fact, too much help hinders us, making us dependent on something we don’t really need anymore, retarding our growth.

So I came to accept that although I would really like them, I don’t need daily reminders of the power of Love from outside of me. Rather, with every heartbeat, I am reminded that Love comes from inside of me. I also receive countless #Signs of Love from all over the world, from friends, family and even strangers. They see Love and share it with me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Truly, a divine economy. We share what we have in abundance, so please, keep them coming.

In the last year, new themes have arisen, but they aren’t nearly as photogenic, which makes them harder to share. I’ve mostly kept them to myself, but one in particular has haunted me. No matter where I go – in my life, my reading, my friendships, or my work – I’ve been brought to the same threshold over and over again. In a hundred different ways, in countless locations, in various tones, the question is asked: “What are you going to do with your life?”

It’s disconcerting, because I want to retort, “I am doing something with my life.” I’m raising a family; I’m teaching; I’m writing; I’m volunteering; I’m making a difference in my own little way. But it isn’t a silly, or insulting question, either, because frequently, I’m the one asking it.  My life may be half over, but that means I still have a whole half to live. That’s great, but here’s the rub.

When I was ten years old, I knew who and what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a wife and a mom. I wanted to read and write. I thought if I could do those things, I would be happy and I was right. I do those things and I am happy. But apparently, it isn’t enough, because the Roach Motel in my head says I can’t stay here.

The problem is that I have no idea where I am supposed to go. Thirty years ago, the goals were clear. Today, not so much.

For the last several years, I have modeled my search for work based on the quote by Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I loved that idea and it has brought me this far, but recently theologian Howard Thurman disrupted my chain of thought. He wrote:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

That statement floored me. When was the last time you thought about it? “What makes me come alive?” What did you say then? What would you say now?

We should think about it, because according to Brene Brown, it really matters. Meaningful work is a cornerstone of a meaningful life. We can’t be indifferent about it. Squandering our gifts, opting out of what brings us joy and purpose, deadens our souls and the souls of those around us. If we, as parents, bury ourselves alive, we are teaching our kids to do the same. I don’t want to do that. Keara, Finn and Molly are just getting started.

In my journal, I posed the question, What makes me come alive?” and this is what I wrote:

Loving God, my husband, my kids, my family, my friends; praying; reading and studying about humanity, our struggle and spirit, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Writing and talking about the things that fill my heart and mind. Sharing what I know, what I have, and who I am. Taking time to be well: spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually and helping others to be well too. Encouraging, listening, journeying with people who are ahead of and aside and behind me on the way.

Hmm.

Though I looked, I couldn’t really find a lucrative job description in there. If something occurs to you, let me know (really!), because so far, what I’ve come up with is spiritual director, or modern day monk and I don’t think either of those career paths is going to pay the kids’ car insurance, or college tuition.

That is the tension Tim and I haven’t worked out yet. How can I be truly alive, the center of a home that hums with energy and beats with love and contribute more significantly to the family’s financial stability? We’ve been stuck in a reductionist, either/or mentality, believing I have to choose one, or the other: get a job, or keep being alive. We are typically pretty smart people, which makes our lack of creativity on this subject so frustrating, but we are also stubborn, which opens up the possibility that an answer lies before us that we simply refuse to see. The Roach Motel keeps telling me there is a third way we simply haven’t discovered yet.

To that end, we are taking a risk. In the fall, I will be starting a two-year program at The Rohr Institute. It is called the “Living School for Action and Contemplation,” describing itself as an “underground seminary” which empowers students “to live out their sacred soul task in their homes, workplaces, and all relationships, within a more spacious stance that is at once critical, collaborative, and joyful.” The school is based in New Mexico, but most learning is done online, with two weeks a year on campus. I will still be able to teach, to parent, to be present to my life here, while “coming alive” in a more intentional way.

I haven’t shared our decision with many people, mostly because it feels a little foolish.  I won’t finish with an additional degree, or improved job prospects. I’m afraid people will think Tim is signing off on it for my sake, that our complex and heartfelt decision will be reduced to “Happy wife, happy life.” I doubt myself and wonder if I am just putting off the inevitable job hunt, buying myself two more years of “not-choosing,” two more years of putting my own desires ahead of those of my children.

They have everything they need and most of what they want, but there are many things left on the table. Some of them are silly like iphones; some are practical like laptops and some of them are so heartbreakingly beautiful, or simple, I want to cry. From attending art school without going into major debt to popping for a full-price movie ticket on a Friday night, I think, “If I could just die to myself, maybe I could make more of their dreams come true,” but then I take a deep breath and remember. My emotions might be real, but the fear is not. We live with an abundance of food, clothing, sunshine, education, opportunity, family and love. Scarcity is not our truth. When the Roach Motel says, “Listen” and I do, I come alive, thinking of all I will learn and experience in the years to come, the ways I will be challenged and changed and I pray that I bring it all back here to better serve the people I love the most (which includes all of you).

Once again, all these questions and doubts lead me back to the threshold and poet Mary Oliver’s wonderfully provocative question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” to which I answer, “I am doing it.”

I am loving and learning, praying and teaching, reading and writing, kissing and hugging and holding. I am breathing in and breathing out. I am moving forward, and falling back. I am reaching high and falling low. I am dreaming big and coming up short, day after day. Meanwhile, I am alive.

And I have to ask, “What makes you come alive?”

DIY-Christmas-Gift-Wrapping-Ideas-Button-Gift-Wrap-Creative-Gift-Wrapping-IdeasWith Christmas rapidly approaching, this will probably be my last post before the holiday. I write and wonder how you all are doing. Is your tree up, with lights and ornaments? Are all your presents purchased? Are any wrapped? Have you baked those cookies you plan to deliver to friends and neighbors?

My own answer to those questions would be no, no, not yet and most certainly no, which is pretty typical for the Kirkpatrick family. Between owning a retail business and working in education (me and the kids), the season doesn’t really feel festive until the shop is closed, school’s out and grades are in. We try to get in the spirit early, but meh – the 20th is when we start gearing up for fun.

Tim and the kids are always great about asking me what I want for Christmas and I always have ideas: boots, clothes, perfume, massages, a vacuum. This year though the Universe sent me a little holiday gift and I didn’t ask for it and it wasn’t what I wanted. It came wrapped up in a book with a sky-blue cover and a little red heart on it by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection

Sweet title, sweet book, I thought. I was wrong. It is heavy-duty stuff about shame and worthiness, fear, faith and authenticity. I was getting through it though, until I got to page 55 and a chapter called, “Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.”  I almost skipped that one, because I am not a perfectionist. I have plenty of compassion for myself. I eat dessert every night. I draw myself hot bubble baths of a regular basis. When I’m just not feeling up to the challenge, I have no problem leaving the house looking like a wreck. However, I read on to see if there were any bits of self-love I was leaving on the table.

I wish I hadn’t. I started to read the chapter and within a page or two, my face started to flush, my heart beat faster. I pressed on, hoping it would go away, but it didn’t. Instead, I added nausea to my list of symptoms, as highlighter and pencil lead flew across the page, marking up sentence after sentence. As she described one perfectionist tendency after another, I became more and more mortified. The worst part was that I was totally unprepared! Like any good perfectionist, I hate to be caught off-guard, unaware, or uninformed about anything, especially my own personal business!

There were two things she clarified that struck me especially.

Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. It is not self-improvement.

“Um, yes it is,” I thought, until she explained: Rather, perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Self-improvement is about moving in the right direction and I work hard at that, but apparently, people with my problem think that if we do everything right, improve enough, we will never feel those things. Those experiences (blame, judgment, shame) are for other people, so instead of taking the risk of doing big things imperfectly, we tend to do less than we are capable of.

Brown calls this life paralysis;

it’s all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self worth is on the line.

I read these ideas and thought of all the book ideas I have stashed in my files, the thousands of pages of written, and unedited work on my computer, the hundreds of speaking leads sitting in a database on my desk, and the teaching job that pays me less than I could make at Starbucks. I live out a perfectionist’s paradox: I might be capable of more, but I’m too afraid to find out I’m not. Instead, I stay where I am, tucked away in my tiny little corner of the world, blogging from my cheetah-print armchair, looking out of my bedroom window at the blue sky and waiting for my family to come home.

Brown names the gifts of imperfection as courage, compassion and connection. I want to experience more of those, but first, I need to accept the gift of imperfection, the simple ability to forgive myself and move on when I make mistakes, instead of feeling like a failure. I need to not just dream big, but actually work on making those dreams come true, despite my fear of ridicule. 

My friend Leslie recently asked me to name a word for 2014. Fearlessness, I said, without hesitation, but the only way I can work on that is to first unwrap the gift of imperfection. Imperfections are not inadequacies, Brown writes, and to believe that would set me free. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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