Today is a Day for Laughter

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The Lad graduates from high school today and I wanted to find some way to commemorate this day for him and for myself. Finn’s graduation feels different from Keara’s in 2015, in part because she was our oldest and we’d never experienced the milestone before. However, it also feels different because Finn is different. Keara took graduation seriously; it felt momentous to her. Finn, on the other hand, is LIGHT, completely nonplussed by any of the pomp and circumstance.

LIGHT is one of the best words I have to describe him, but I don’t mean that he is lightweight, or shallow by any means. He is graduating with honors, was accepted to Cal Poly SLO, and loves to converse with people of all ages and interests. It just means that if given an option, Finn is going to choose a smile, a silliness, or a not-so-subtle gesture to add levity to any situation (at least for himself). For a couple years in his early teens, his mischievous grin went MIA, but over the last eighteen months, we’ve seen it flourish in ever new ways, as evidenced by the photographs at the end of this note.

Anytime I find myself shaking my head at his exploits, which I admittedly find embarrassing sometimes, a friend, or family member will gently remind me, “It’s Finn,” as if that explains everything. And in some ways it does. Who he was at two with his chubby cheeks and impish grin is who he has become again, albeit with more facial hair. Finn “coming out to play” is sure to make your burdens a little lighter and your day a little brighter. And that’s true in our home as well. In good times and bad, Finn is usually the elixir for whatever ails his sisters.

So, today is a day for laughter, courtesy of the Sufi poet Hafiz.

“Laughter”

What is laughter? What is laughter?

It is God waking up! O it is God waking up!

It is the sun poking its sweet head out

From behind a cloud

You have been carrying too long,

Veiling your eyes and heart.

It is Light breaking ground for a great Structure

That is your Real body – called Truth.

It is happiness applauding itself and then taking flight

To embrace everyone and everything in this world.

Laughter is the polestar

Held in the sky by our Beloved,

Who eternally says,

“Yes, dear ones, come this way,

Come this way toward Me and Love!

Come with your tender mouths moving

And your beautiful tongues conducting songs

And with your movements – your magic movements

Of hands and feet and glands and cells – Dancing!

Know that to God’s Eye,

All movement is a Wondrous Language,

And Music – such exquisite, wild Music!”

O what is laughter, Hafiz?

What is this precious love and laughter

Budding in our hearts?

It is the glorious sound

Of a soul waking up!

This poem and note are a love letter to my son on this special day and a word of wisdom as well: Laughter is the glorious sound of your Soul waking up! When your pleasure in the present moment cannot be contained, laughter is what spills out and when you create opportunities for others to laugh, it will give even deeper purpose to your Joy. As long as it is not at someone else’s expense, laughter is a sign of your soul expanding; it is the sound of God rejoicing in and through you and all of creation.

Finn, you don’t need to be a clown, but keep being one of God’s Holy Fools, reminding the rest of us to wake up and look at this beautiful world with the childlike wonder and gratitude that comes so easily to you.

 

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Some typical Finn moments
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Adding laughter with love and affection
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A screenshot of his Instagram feed as P1nn_. Every single video will make you laugh out loud.

A couple stand outs from his senior year…

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Finn did his best impersonation of his Uncle Joe’s senior portrait from 1975, which included using hair dye on his mustache.
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Matching lab coats and eye patches with his favorite science teacher.
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Photobombing the anime club as Pikachu (and they let him).
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Joining the staff photo at the Serra High School Winter Formal. Finn is seated to the right of the principal, Dr. Renfree, and was mistaken for her husband on at least one occasion. 
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Senior swim night with Daniella, a huge fan of Finn’s humor
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Founding member of the Bike Friday, which includes a stop at the donut store on their way to school. Some days they had a dozen friends ride along. Pictured here with JT, Harley and TJ.
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One of Finn’s favorite self-portraits. I don’t know why. 
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Want to guarantee Finn’s joy and laughter? Just add water.

A Birthday Life

 

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I know this is a kind of strange and unpleasant image. It wasn’t exactly where I thought I’d start this post, but it’s kind of fitting.

I woke up this morning, feeling under fire, kind of like you do on a Monday morning, when the weekend has sucked up every last ounce of your time and energy. I set my alarm, said my prayers, and started making lunch for my kids. There was only a heel of bread, enough turkey for one kid, expired mayonnaise and an apple that looked good on the outside, but was turning dark in the middle. But don’t worry! After fifteen years of making lunches, these things are not a problem. It’s a simple matter of sleight of hand and a confident presentation.

But twenty minutes later, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, a lesson caught up with me. As I poured expired milk down the drain, I saw the brown center of the apple, peeking out from under the dishes. Oops! That was a #signoflove, but who’s got the time? I dumped out the cold coffee pot. It didn’t move. I turned on the water and hit the garbage disposal button, but still Love didn’t budge.

Okay. I get it.

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If Love remains in the compost pile of a dirty kitchen sink, then Love remains in the compost pile of our lives. Apparently, this was a message I needed to hear.

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 45. I looked in the mirror. I didn’t love what I saw, so I looked around and I liked that a lot better.

I saw a husband, who is also my best friend. He’s the provider of stability and sound advice, but also the purveyor of all things creative and silly.

I saw three kids, each unique in their gifts and their challenges, but unified in their love for me and each other.

I saw countless friends and family who remembered me with texts, messages, phone calls and cards.

I looked around this morning and saw that I didn’t have a birthday “day.”

I have a birthday life.

Everyday, I can wake up and celebrate.

In the predawn darkness, I have a warm body lying next to me, a heart keeping time with mine.

In the silence and stillness of the morning, I sit with God and remember I am Loved.

In the busyness of my days, I have work to do and a healthy body and mind to do it.

In the fall of the evening, I have the privileges of my life to be grateful for and the hope of getting to do it all over again tomorrow.

Amidst all those daily routines, I also have access to hot coffee and cold beer, not to mention clean water and fresh food. There are sunny skies and good people in my life who bring me laughter and conversation and full-bodied hugs, any time I need them. The Pacific Ocean is only ten minutes away and I have a car with gas in it!

Who gets to live this life?

I do!

That’s what I remembered this morning.

This life is a gift. It’s mine; it’s the only one I’ll ever get and I want to celebrate it – all of it – even the stuff I didn’t ask for.

No one gets everything they want, or keeps everything they have. I may prefer to smile, but tears have something to teach me as well, as do hard conversations and unpleasant truths. While I tend to shove those packages to the back of the pile, sometimes they’re the greatest gifts of all, because they give me the opportunity to rediscover who I am and who I want to be.

At 45, I just want to be grateful, but I’m not always.

I just want to be here, but I often fantasize about being somewhere else.

I just want to Love, but instead, I close up shop when I’m feeling lazy.

At 45, I have a birthday life, but I don’t appreciate it as much as I should.

So, that #signoflove in the dirty sink?

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Yeah, thanks for that Universe, as well as everyone else who reminded me of my birthday life and helps me live it. You’re the gift that just keeps on giving and for that, I’m grateful.

 

 

Grateful for the Seasons of my Life

Team Kirks: Me, Finn (16), Molly (13), Tim and Kiko (18)
Team Kirks: Me, Finn (16), Molly (13), Tim and Kiko (18)

This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.

Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.

I’ve written a few times about Family Camp- you can catch up here and here – but to be clear, here are a few more things you should know.

  • My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
  • It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
  • Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.

I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.

The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.

Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)

For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.

Gratitude for Seasons 2015

This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”

Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.

But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.

And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.

At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)

And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.

Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”

Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?

Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.”  But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.

So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.

Brother David Stendhal-Rast
Brother David Steindl-Rast

He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”

The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.

And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.

Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.

You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.

And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.

Because gratitude comes in two forms –

Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.

A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.

For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.

Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.

A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.

That’s why  the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,

We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.

It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.

Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,

“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life.  “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”

That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.

I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.

And after the poem, look at this.

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People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable. 

Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.

As the mystic, Theresa of Avila,  said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)

You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.

David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb?  You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.

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The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time

Seriously, who killed it? We did.
Seriously, who killed it? We did.

magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty,  and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:

Of course, Brene Brown shared the idea. She's full of ideas.
Of course, Brene Brown shared the idea. She’s full of ideas.

In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.

That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.

A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.

So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.

And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.

I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.

I’m grateful for it all. 

For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day,  I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.

Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.

If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here. 

Salt in the Water

Philomena was the last film I saw over the holiday season. I kept hearing how good it was, but I was hesitant. As a birth mother, I didn’t know how much it would hurt. Some of the movie really hit home with me. Not most of it, just some. What Philomena Lee experienced as a young, unwed mother took place in a different time and under a different set of circumstances all together.

The scene I related to the most came near the end when she was able to watch a collection of home movies of her son growing up, from the day he was taken from her to the day he died. His joys, his accomplishments, his loves played out on the screen before her, while tears filled her eyes.

Sarah at a few months
Sarah at a few months
Sarah, a few years later
Sarah, a few years later

I know that scene. I lived it out for years, over and over again, equally delighted and devastated. In those moments, captured on screen, or in a 4×6 snapshot, you see everything your child has gained by being lost to you: the adoring mom and dad, a beautiful home, pretty clothes. But most of all, what Philomena and I witnessed were the countless opportunities our children had that we could not provide. It seemed they could be anything they wanted to be, unhampered by us, young women unprepared to be a mother.

I watched most of Sarah’s young life unfold through pictures – her days at the beach and preschool graduation, her 1st day of Catholic school and the pride and joy she felt holding her baby sister. To celebrate her fifth birthday, Tim pulled them all together for me in a movie called “Sarah Smiles.”  As Hall and Oates crooned the hit song, I watched my baby girl’s life go by in three-second frames. From start to finish, her blue eyes and huge grin never faded though her chubby cheeks and pale pink skin gave way to wispy white hair and a freckled nose. When our “open” adoption became more open and I met Sarah for the first time just before her 7th birthday, I took a hundred pictures in one afternoon. As the years have gone by and we see each other more regularly, I still have to hold myself back from chasing her around with a camera; I don’t want to forget a single moment.

Author and poet Mark Nepo tells the story of a Hindu monk, frustrated by the constant complaints of his student. One day, he told the young man to throw a handful of salt in a cup and drink it. When asked how it tasted, the student said, “Bitter.” The monk then asked him to throw a handful of salt into the lake and to drink from it. He asked how it tasted and the young man said, “Fresh.”

Our life experiences, especially the difficult ones, are the salt in our hands, but whether we taste life’s bitterness, or sweetness depends on the vessel from which we choose to drink. The cup is so much easier, always on hand and socially acceptable. The lake takes an effort; it’s a walk and we have to get down on our knees and reach out to find the sweetness we desire.

In the movie, Philomena found the sweetness. She had been wronged; her child was stolen from her. She endured a lifetime of punishment for a few moments of pleasure. But despite all the church did to prevent her from finding or reconciling with her son, Philomena forgave them. She rejected the cup of bitterness, telling the nun who kept them apart, I forgive you, because I don’t want to remain angry.” The journalist telling her story thinks she is a fool for doing so. He is angry, drinking cup after cup from her life and wondering why she won’t join him. But what need did Philomena have for a cup when she had made her life the size of a lake?

I had hoped to watch the film with Tim, or my mom, someone who had walked through my adoption with me. Maybe we could relive some old memories and talk about the past, but instead I saw the film with Keara and I am so glad I did. As the credits rolled, I realized we were right where we were supposed to be. It was a profound moment, realizing this movie wasn’t about my past; it was about my present.

I looked over at Kiko and tears filled my eyes. I squeezed her hand and thought about how my time and influence with her are waning. She is almost seventeen years old and I don’t think I truly understood until that moment what a privilege it is to parent my own child.

We think we have a right to it; we know we have a responsibility, but do we ever acknowledge what a gift it is?

In the darkened theater, I leaned over and whispered to her:

It has been my privilege to raise you and I have taken it for granted. I am so filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be your mom, to watch you grow each and every day, to experience life through your eyes and to be changed by your choices. Thank you for loving me and for letting me love you the way I do.  

As I tucked Finn and Molly in to bed that night, I told them the same thing – how grateful I was for the opportunity to be their mom. It is a gift to hear their voices, to watch them walk through the front door, to go to sleep each night each night with them safely beneath my roof. I have taken it for granted that I could touch their hair, kiss their cheeks, hold their hands, but it’s all a miracle. Somehow, they are mine to care for. Everything I lost when I let Sarah go, I have experienced three times over, which makes it all the more bearable and yet bittersweet.

Parenting is so much salt in our hands. It challenges us physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually and when things are hard, I choose the cup too often. I can cite convenience, busyness, or stress; I can point out how at least one of them  is moody, messy, hungry, entitled, or demanding at any given time. I can always find an excuse, but the truth is I don’t want any bitterness, or even indifference in my life. I want the sweetness that comes with gratitude, grace and Love, the freshness that comes from knowing it is all a miracle. So I will continue to take a walk each day, to get on my knees and reach out my hands to the fresh water. I will drink it all in.

Thank you, Philomena, for reminding me how.

What’s Better? Bigger or Smaller?

I grew up in a big church community and by big, I mean really big – something like 3,000 families – and Catholic families at that, with a minimum of three kids, but more likely four or five, or an occasional eight. The church sat over a thousand people and most of the services were standing room only. There were a dozen communion stations and a hundred pews. There was big music and an even bigger Jesus behind the altar. In my young mind, everything about that church shouted, “Alleluia.”

On any given Sunday, there were babies crying and toddlers whining, old folks coughing and parents shushing, but it didn’t matter. A thousand voices raised in song, a thousand voices saying, “Amen,” a thousand pairs of knees hitting the ground in unison drowned the distractions out.

That church community was a second home to me. For eight years, I went to school in the shadow of the church steeple and on Sunday mornings, I was back under it for mass and then over to the school gym for doughnuts. You don’t spend that much time in a place without it leaving its mark on you, for better or worse. Thankfully, in my case, it was virtually all for better, but there were a few things I had to unlearn and a few I am still unlearning to this day. The biggest of those was that size matters.

Because my church was big, I developed an unspoken belief that bigger was better, at least as far as faith communities go. Why pray alone when you could pray with 30 classmates, 300 schoolmates, or 3,000 other parishioners? Why sing solo if there is a choir to sing with you? Why go your own way when you could join a parade already in progress? If one was good, two was better and it grew exponentially from there. For someone who struggled to fit in, I liked the safety of being one little piece of a very big pie. I felt like I was part of the in-crowd, part of something powerful, universal and true.

When it comes to community and solidarity, there is power in numbers. A big church means you are doing something right, doesn’t it? The prevailing wisdom is that if you are getting people in the door, contributing and singing along, you must be preaching a mighty fine gospel.

When I grew up and left my hometown, I spent many years trying to duplicate my childhood experience. I wanted big and loud and joyful and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a part of who I am and what I like best in just about everything from church services to family dinners to birthday parties. But looking back on it now, I see that what I really wanted was to be a part of a church that was part of a scene and I cringe to think how I scorned small churches, with their cassette-tape choirs and single-service schedules. Surely, I thought, they should just give up.

So it is with great irony (which I often think is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work) that our family has found ourselves drawn to a small church community and by small, I mean really small. There are only a few rows of pews, a tiny, but valiant choir and a single service each weekend. But from the time we first walked in the door, Tim and I felt like we were home. The message is loud, the personalities are big and the spirit is joyful. The mission is Love, inclusion, equality and service. It has moved us towards greater humility, compassion, social justice and a lived experience of gospel values. Over time, this community has taught me that size doesn’t matter as much as I thought, but I’ve never quite shaken the feeling that my kids were missing out on a crucial experience of being a part of something big. There is no “safety in numbers” for my kids at this church. Keara and Finn are the only two teens in regular attendance and Molly is one of a half-dozen elementary schoolers. The saving grace is that everyone there knows their names and that is something you just can’t get in a big community.

But I witnessed something at church last Sunday that helped me see in a new light why bigger isn’t always better. It was the First Communion for five of our young members, which is about half of all the children who attend the church. It was exactly like my First Communion and yet totally different. Each child was dressed in her, or his finest. They were surrounded by parents and godparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They walked to the altar timidly, but eagerly. Cameras flashed, videotape rolled and the priests smiled, but that is where the similarities ended. When I received my first communion, I went to the altar with 70 of my classmates. I was one member of a big, white, satiny army and besides my family and friends, hardly any one there could have picked me out of the crowd.

Not so for the little ones this past weekend. The priests blessed each child by name and praised them individually in front of the community for their hard work and unique gifts. Each child was welcomed to the table as a beloved child of God, which we were reminded, we all are. Each child received a gift from the community that reflected their greatest passion, which we hope they will use in the service of others. There was no safety in numbers, no anonymity for these children. Instead, as I looked around at our community, I saw love and gratitude in every visage for the precious gift of these children and my eyes filled with tears and I thought, This is what smaller can do.

Smaller makes us more aware of each and every person and more grateful for each and every gift. It makes us more cognizant of what we have to lose and the part we play in the outcome of everything. It’s hard to remain anonymous in small.

So although I long for my kids to experience what it feels like to get swept up in the movement of a youth group, or a mass of two thousand, I know they are getting something else that is valuable. They are getting called by name. Their unique presence is cherished. They are both receiving and being a blessing each and every time they show up.

Our culture likes to super-size everything – from movie franchises to mega-churches. If some is good, then more is better. I know I always go for the 42 oz Diet Coke instead of a 12 oz can. I love my weekly trip to Costco. More for less? Sign me up! But the last few years have taught me that although bigger is sometimes better, smaller can also be sweeter. There is a beauty in both that I can appreciate more now than ever before. And if at some point, our budget, or time, or church community ever gets expansive again, I won’t be totally relieved to lose the intimacy I have known in these smaller spaces.

“Somebody That I Used to Know” and Other Expressions of Gratitude

My cousin and fellow blogger, Allison Sebastiani, recently started a campaign called Gratitude Mondays. Each week, she publicly thanks someone who has had an impact on her life. I loved her idea, but I didn’t make a public promise to do the same. It was a nice invitation, but I didn’t think it was meant for me. I was wrong. Before the week was out, I received my very own invitation made up of one part coincidence, two parts gratitude, and whatever parts are left over to humility.

The kids and I were visiting Huntington Beach last weekend and my brother invited us to go to church with his family on Sunday evening. As I sat in the back row of St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, my mind drifted to memories of a boy I used to know. He was tall, redheaded, freckle-faced, funny, sweet and kind. He wasn’t just any boy. He was my date to junior prom and senior homecoming, though not my date to anything in between. As teenage girls are known to do, I liked him and then I didn’t. I wanted to go out with him and then “something suddenly came up.” I am not proud of the way I handled my friendship with him, but at the time, it seemed perfectly acceptable. At 17, hormones and emotions ruled the day.

As I sat in his childhood parish, Allison’s “Thank You” challenge came to mind and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this now 40-year-old man, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. I never planned to write this blog, but I knew what I would like to tell him if I ever got a chance. I would like to tell him that he holds a place in my heart as one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met. He was my first model of what a gentle man is and what a gentle man does, a model I used to judge just about every man I dated after him. (Thank goodness Tim passed with flying colors!) I would like this man to know that his smile made my day, day after day, at Mater Dei. I would like him to know that his quirky sense of humor, his ability to be himself, his kindness to his family, friends and strangers were all things I appreciated about him. I would like him to know that being asked to those dances, getting dressed up and spending those evenings with him are some of my fondest high school memories.

At one point in our friendship, he gave me a picture of himself as a toddler and from that moment on, I always hoped to have a redheaded, freckle-faced little boy of my own. Though I never got the hair, Finn’s freckles are part of what makes him my pride and joy.

So as I sat and kneeled and stood and sang, my heart filled up like a helium balloon with thankfulness for who this man was and the role he played in my teenage life. He was just so good and I wondered how I could track him down and tell him so.

But of course, I didn’t have to. As I walked into the communion aisle, who was coming out of the pew directly across from me at the exact same time? My redheaded friend, of course! I about jumped out of my skin I was so excited. I mean, GOD IS GOOD! This is the invitation I had been waiting for – the chance to tell him all the things I want him to know! This is awesome, I thought to myself and then I immediately punched him in the arm to get his attention, just like I used to in high school. He looked up from his holy reverie, shocked, because really, no one expects to get punched in the communion line, but come on! It’s been twenty years! He looked at me with really big eyes and kind of half-smiled and then returned his focus to the little space in front of him, occupied by his wife and their 3 young children. He seemed a little nonplussed to see me after so long, but that’s okay, I thought, because he doesn’t know what’s coming! He doesn’t know that I have a heart full of gratitude and a bunch of nice things to say to his wife about him. He doesn’t know any of that, but as soon as mass is over, he will!  

I kept an eye on him to find where they were sitting. I planned to run over as soon as the last song ended. I pointed him out to my kids, who have seen his picture in old photo albums. Keara giggled and said, “That’s your ginger, mom?” with a huge smile on her face. They were excited to meet an old friend of mine.

But a funny thing happened before the last song ended. He left! He and his wife and his three darling, freckle-faced kids walked out of the building, without once looking my way to even nod, or wave goodbye. And as I watched them walk away, all the air got sucked out of my helium balloon of happiness. I went from walking on air to concrete boots. Part of it was that I wouldn’t have a chance to express my gratitude, but part of it was my wounded pride. In my fervor, I assumed my feelings would be reciprocated, at least in some small way. Though I didn’t expect the same level of excitement, I thought I might generate a friendly feeling, or maybe even a glimmer of curiosity about what I’d been up to all this time. And although I can’t know for sure what was going on in his mind, I don’t think I warranted a second thought. And that makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me any less thankful, which is why I’m writing this blog.

I wish I could tell you his name and post our prom picture, so I could give him the credit I think he deserves. I wish I could use social media to track him down, but after the way our chance encounter played out, I have a feeling the publicity wouldn’t be welcome. Back in high school, our song was the 80s hit “I’d Melt With You,” but apparently it’s been replaced by Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” He might like it better, but I don’t think it has quite the same ring to it.

What I need to remember is that gratitude is a gift – to us. It makes our hearts larger, softer and more open to life. It makes us bigger, kinder, more positive people. Expressions of gratitude are a gift we give to other people and as gifts, they can be accepted or rejected. We can’t force it down their throat. A lot depends on who’s offering, but it doesn’t change the fact that the attitude of gratitude (pardon the cliché) is what’s most important.

I limped out of St. Bonaventure with my thwarted plans and busted-up ego. I called Tim and told him the story and he laughed with (or at) me (I’m not sure) and I felt better. I had dinner with my kids, my parents and my lovely little nieces. I laughed and loved and was grateful for their company and I was able to tell them so. I hope someday to be able to tell my redheaded friend as well, but first I have to make him stick around long enough to listen to me.

“Be Happy” Monday

Humbled. Chastened. Abashed.

I’m not quite sure what to call it, but I think that is what I felt as I sat at my computer this morning.

It started out simply enough, a quiet cup of coffee together before Tim headed off to work and the kids woke up. We’d been on a family vacation for a few days. The house was a mess and the pantry was bare.

There was work to be done.

I knew I would be busy this day, with home and office work, with emails to answer and send, calls to make and return, pages to read and write. But I thought of how Tim was leaving for work before 7, shaved, showered and dressed – with shoes and socks on even – and how he wouldn’t be back for at least 10 hours. I thought about how most my work could be done in my pajamas and slippers, without ever leaving the comfort of my own home, or car, or neighborhood. In gratitude, I wanted to go the extra mile. As I looked up at him to say goodbye, I said, “Is there anything special I can do for you today, babe?”

I thought he might mention a favorite meal for dinner tonight, something he needed from the market, or a chore he wanted me to do.

Instead he took my hands in his, looked me in the eye and said, “Could you be happy when I get home tonight?”

Gulp.

I laughed and said, “Of course, I’ll do my best!”

And he laughed and kissed me goodbye and left. Within an hour, I had the kids up and all the breakfasts and lunches made and packed. I collected the swimsuits and towels and water bottles and hats and backpacks and fins and got them to their right owners. I applied sunscreen and hugged and kissed and sent my little lifeguards off to their 10th consecutive day at the beach.

And then I stopped and thought, “What did he mean by that?” and then I sat down to write.

Last year, my friend Nanette took me to a two-day seminar called, The Extraordinary Value of a Man. Go ahead and laugh. I know I did when I heard what it was called, but I adore Nanette and would go anywhere and listen to anything just to spend two days with her. I heard many things that weekend that made me uncomfortable as a middle-of-the-road feminist. I hate to hear traditional gender roles and stereotypes discussed as facts. I understand the danger of essentializing genders, of saying, “This is how men are…”, or “This is what women want…” As an academic, I understand how powerful and therefore how damaging those cultural messages can be. But as a woman and a wife, I heard many other things that were true of my husband and myself and the way we relate to each other. So although I think the seminar might have been more appropriately called The Value of an Extraordinary Man (because there is a big difference), one particular line helped me to understand better where this morning’s strange request came from. I had scribbled in the margins of a handout from the weekend,

“When you’re happy, he’s winning.

Let me clarify; I don’t think it’s strange that Tim wants me to be happy. I do think it’s a little strange that he asked to me to be happy. Generally, I’m a happy person. If you ask people to describe me, my smiley demeanor is one of the first things they will mention. Happiness, at least on the surface, is my default setting.

What I think Tim was really telling me when he left for work today was that he needed a win. When he comes home tonight, what he really wants to know is that what he did all day matters, that I have benefitted from his hard work and effort, from the sacrifices he makes to provide for our family, not just financially, but across the board in every way. He doesn’t want more accolades, or appreciation, or even fawning servitude. He just wants to see me smile. If the kids are smiling as well, that’s even better.

So what about those emotions I mentioned when I sat down to write about this? How could such a simple request bring about such a strong reaction? It certainly wasn’t his intention to make me feel that way and if I know my husband, he’ll apologize as soon as he reads this, even though he simply answered my question.

Tim didn’t call me out. He didn’t criticize me, or admonish me to do more. He simply asked me to be the one thing I claim to be  – happy. When I look at my life and the many things I am fortunate enough to have, I don’t know how I could be anything else. We have everything we need, and many things we want. We have health, home, family and friends. We have each other. Are there stresses and worries and things that go wrong? Absolutely. Is there pressure to succeed and perform at ever higher levels? Of course. Are there fights and parenting dilemmas and tension every day? You bet.

Can I still be happy at a certain time (around 5pm), on a certain day (Monday, July 30, 2012), in a certain place (our home)? I am certainly going to try. Depending on what happens at 4:59, making his favorite dinner might have been a whole lot easier. It doesn’t change the fact that my happiness is one of the things he is most proud of.  It’s chastening to think that the gift I share so freely with others has not been so freely given in my own home.  However, a little humble pie might be just the motivation I need to make it happen tonight and any other night I might forget to be grateful for all that I have.