The other morning, I woke with Otis Redding playing in my mind, “You’ve got to try a little tenderness….” I had spent the night at my folks’ house and as I walked down the stairs, humming along, my dad laughed. That song had been in his head for the last couple days too.  Kismet, I guess, or the fact that we are both currently reading Barking to the Choir.  I’m guessing “Tenderness” is just about the only song Fr. Greg Boyle knows how to sing.

Sorry friends, but I am obsessed with this book. I gobble up story after story and then I put it down, hard, and walk away, not because it made me mad, but because it made me so damn GLAD. I just want to cherish the feeling – of both surprise, “I’ve never thought of it that way,” and satisfaction, “I knew it all along!” I also put it down so that I can find my own response to his call. He says “Amen” to life in all its painful, poignant reality and his example demands that I find a corresponding, “Alleluia” within myself. To offer any less to this modern-day gospel feels sacrilegious.

I think I am beginning to understand how the early gospel began to spread and people became “Christians.” When the news is that good, that liberating, that healing, you can’t help but tell your family, friends, neighbors and even strangers about it. You want to jump up and down and say: Look! Taste! Touch! See how love and love and more love makes all the difference.  And in case you think I’m putting Fr. Greg on a pedestal, I’m not.  He’s only reminding us of the “original program,” as he puts it, which is simply the message of Jesus, which some of us seem to have forgotten.

So back to tenderness.

In some ways, tenderness is the key to it all, though it goes by many names: compassion, empathy, love.  Each of those words has its own nuance, but they all work on the same principle – the act of softening towards “the other,” so that some connection, healing, or relationship can be fostered. Tenderness, however, has a connotation of spontaneity, as if it’s something we can’t develop, or consciously create. Nonsense, Greg says.

Compassion and empathy have taken on clinical standing; they have been studied and analyzed to death with data. But tenderness? That kind of just wells up within us, right? It’s too soft, squishy, and personal to analyze, which is exactly why we should embrace it above the others, according to Greg.

Tenderness doesn’t just happen from your intellect; it’s your heart’s response in proximity to what is beautiful, vulnerable and beloved in our midst. The key to the “practice” of tenderness is to become familiar with what it feels like and know what brings it out in you. And once you know it, don’t run away from it; run towards it! Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, vulnerable feeling of tenderness. It feels dangerous (I might get hurt by admitting how much I care!) It feels embarrassing (I might look like an idiot for welling up in tears!) It feels inefficient (who’s got time to stop and marvel? I’ve got things to do. I’ll get back to it later!) For all those reasons and more, we don’t allow ourselves to feel tender towards most things. It destabilizes our ego’s ability to judge quickly, efficiently and “correctly.”

But we all have our Achilles’ heel, the thing that just melts our hearts, even when we’ve got better things to do. Currently, mine happens to be my nieces and nephews, especially the little ones. I wish you could feel my heart leap when I spy one, or all of them in a room. I think my heart literally pirouettes in my chest as I bend down and open my arms and call their names and they come running to me for a heart-stopping, germ-sharing, laughter-filled embrace. I am not so foolish to think it will always be this way. They will grow up and grow out of love with me, but I will cherish these tender moments as long as I can, which is also why I keep pictures like these on my phone. When I’m feeling cranky and judgmental – Instant Tenderness! (Snapchat filters are magical things at this age!)

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I also feel tenderness towards my own kids, toddlers of all kinds, some teenagers, and most teachers. Not the heart-skip-a-beat kind of tenderness, but a genuine softening towards their occasional negativity, bad attitude and tendency to see themselves as the victim of unfair authority figures. “I get it,” I want to say to them. “Let me get you a drink (milk, soda, or wine, as appropriate) and sit with you for a while until you feel more like yourself again.”

So the tender gospel of Barking to the Choir asks us to consider:

Where and for whom do you feel tenderness without effort, or reservation?

Maybe you’re not a kid person, but how about a baby?  A newborn? (One of the only places in our culture that men are allowed to display tenderness without shame!) Maybe it’s a majestic, endangered species, or newborn pandas, or packs of puppies. Maybe a telephone commercial with a grandmother can have you in tears? Cats must be the source of tenderness for millions of people in the world, because who else would be watching all those videos?

The next time you experience that rush of tenderness, whatever, or wherever it is, feel what it feels like in your body, your heart, your face. Get to know that feeling, and then hold on to it, because that’s where “kinship” begins. As poet David Whyte writes, “Start close in,” a place where the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Start embracing the tenderness you feel naturally and then take it a degree further, one step at a time.

If my heart melts for my little ones, can I extend some measure of tenderness to the runny-nosed stranger’s child, crying in the grocery store line behind me? Can I ask my heart to skip a beat, offer a smile and drop the judgements I’m making about his parents and their choices? What good do those judgments do anyway? And once I can do that, can I extend it even a step further to the homeless child in my own town, or the refugee child on a distant shore?  Can I eventually get to the heart-wide-open place where I begin to believe that there is no such thing as other people’s children?

Degree by degree, step by step, we expand our tender hearts until they include even our enemies. That is the mission and magic of Homeboy Industries.  Step by tender step, they move people from separation to solidarity to kinship.

Embracing tenderness, writes Jean Vanier, is the highest mark of spiritual maturity. It is not a sign of weakness, or sentimentality, or femininity in a pejorative way. It is a sign of strength and character and mutuality.

I am strong enough, centered enough to allow you to destabilize me through Love.

I am secure enough to be softened and changed by you.

I do not lose me when you win back some of yourself through my tender gaze.

I hope you’ll find something that makes your heart melt this week and then, that you will chose to find another and another, each one less likely than the last and that through the practice of tenderness, you will become the genesis of “kinship” in your own little corner of the world. This is critical work needed in the world today.

 “If love is the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the methodology. Otherwise love stays in the head, or worse, hovers above it. Or it stays in the heart, which is never enough. For unless love becomes tenderness – the connective tissue of love – it never becomes transformational. The tender doesn’t happen tomorrow… only now, only today.”

Greg Boyle, Barking to the Choir 

 

 

 

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This week, Tim and I saw Fr. Greg Boyle speak about his new book, Barking to the Choir, but really, his speaking is simply storytelling. At the beginning, or end of a story, he might tee up the point he wanted you to get out of it, but not always. Sometimes, you just had to sit with the story and see what it brought up for you. The impact of his storytelling forced me to recognize how few stories I tell here on my blog any more. When the kids were small, I told a lot.  It’s easy to tell personal stories when your kids are young, but as they got older, I tried to respect their privacy. Their stories are theirs to tell, not mine, even if I am the one learning the lesson. But after a while, I got out of the story-telling habit and then I kind of lost the nerve.  There’s not much vulnerability involved in a story about how your three-year-old is driving you nuts, but grown-up stories, personal ones? It makes me sweat just thinking about it, so I rarely wander down that path.

But the stories Greg tells? Those are risky stories, heart-breaking accounts of abuse, foolishness, pride, stupidity, ignorance, frustration – much of it his own. Nobody comes out looking perfect, but everyone comes out beloved – understood, and held with tenderness. In all that they do, Homeboy Industries is working to create the “Kin-dom of God” here on Earth, a kin-dom where no one is left outside the circle of mercy, compassion, tenderness and connection, a place where everyone belongs.

One of my favorite lines Greg shared was that at Homeboy, they never use a bar to see how the homies are measuring up. They only ever hold up a mirror, so the homies can see who they truly are, and then help them to become that person. In the mirror, homies see who they are in the eyes of God, innocent, untouched, replete with unique skills, talents, personalities and experiences. In the mirror, they see how they are made in the image and likeness of the Divine and they begin to live out that truth.

I heard that line and could have wept.

Like almost everyone I know, I am a master at using “the bar” to see how I measure up and it seems like the world is always “raising the bar.” Honestly, it’s the only game in town: discover your shortcomings and fix them! According to “the bar” method, we are never finished, never satisfactory, never worthy of the title “Beloved.” But the stories in Barking to the Choir show over and over again that the only antidote to “the bar” is “the mirror,” the blessing and transformation that takes place when we see, and are seen, with the eyes of love.

Though I know the power of “the mirror” and use it as much as possible with my kids and husband, friends and family, when it comes to myself, I am quick to reach for “the bar” and the inevitable disappointment that comes along with it. I am so grateful for Tim, who counteracts my self-criticism, by patiently holding up the mirror for me, time and time again, even as recently as last week, when I found myself with it (the bar) in my hand, assessing my performance as a woman.

How had I been doing in the wife-department? Dismal

How had I shown up to our conversations? Distracted

How had our sex life been the last month? Dissatisfying

To be fair, we’d had a full house since mid-December with Kiko and Finn home from college, but on Saturday night, they were finally gone and Molly was out for the evening. For the first time in six weeks, we were alone… in our house… after dark… for longer than a half hour. We’d been anticipating this evening for so long! We drew a hot bath, lit candles, opened a bottle of wine. Let the romance ensue! We talked; we laughed; we relaxed and then… nothing happened, (at least on my part.)

Has anyone else experienced that awkward moment, where all systems are GO, but some critical part of your libido says, NO?

I stalled for a few moments in the cooling bath water, unable to find my way, emotionally or physically, to that place of intimacy and connectedness with my husband I had been longing for so badly. What was wrong with me?

Strangely enough, it was Fr. Greg Boyle who came to mind in that moment. Even after taking the time for romance, I still had “the bar” in my hand and was reviewing all the ways I hadn’t measured up as a woman, or wife. Those are pivotal identities in a healthy marriage, but they had taken second, or third (or last) place while I prioritized some other things going on in our lives. We need to do that sometimes, but after twenty-five years together, we know not to allow the “urgent, but not important” to run the show for too long. I also knew I was going to need some help letting  go, so I said to Tim:

“Hold up a mirror for me, love. Help me see myself through your eyes on a night like tonight. Who am I besides a mother, seeker, teacher, writer, worker, volunteer, cleaner, driver, household manager? Who am I when I’m just me?”

And through Tim’s words, I began to see a reflection of myself again, this time through the eyes of love.

I saw an Ali who surfs and swims and stand up paddleboards, for the sheer pleasure of water on her face and sun on her skin and strength in her shoulders.

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I saw an Ali who smiles often and laughs easily, who touches everyone she loves because she just can’t help herself.

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I saw an Ali who loves adventures and food and a good drink and isn’t so worried about the calories.

 

I saw an Ali who isn’t afraid of sensuality, who is learning to embrace her middle-aged body, while also appreciating her husband’s.

I saw an Ali who knows how to stop trying to measure up, so she can relax and find herself “beloved” again.

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I did not expect Greg Boyle (along with Tim of course) to be the one to solve my “roadblock” on Saturday night, though I think he’d be tickled by his presence there. But that’s the power of a great story. Not only does it enlighten you in the moment; it sticks with you for the long haul and shows up in radical places down the road.

My takeaway is this: When you need a better story, ask for it and when you hear a better story, believe it.

Allow it to disrupt the narrative you’ve been telling yourself, which probably features a bar you can never live up to.  Make sure the new story includes the mirror of “kin-ship,” grace, and compassion, so you can see yourself in all your beauty, femininity, masculinity, and vulnerability again. Even the great doubters claim, “I’ll believe it when I see it,” so find a mirror that shows you who you truly are in the eyes of Love. Believe it  and then become it.

And if you need some more inspiration, pick up a copy of Barking to the Choir, or get to a source of water and look inside – a natural mirror does wonders for your perspective!

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A word here is long overdue. I’ve been writing and publishing, just in other forums. A Poetry of the Day series appeared on Facebook in the later half of April, along with some images and reflections about baptism, nature, and the nature of recovery on Instagram. I’ve also been working on a series of talks about spirituality and parenting, faith and community. Those won’t be out for a little while yet, but when they appear, I will definitely put the links out here.

Since it has been so long, I wanted to write something really good, really original and profound. A long absence should lead to a remarkable presence, right? At least in my mind that’s how it works, but it has also lead me to acknowledge the great truth:

Perfection is the enemy of the good.

With that in mind, I decided to write something and share a couple of really good things I have encountered this past week. I won’t overanalyze them, or even find a perfect thread to run between them. They are good in and of themselves and I wanted to make sure you came across them at least once.

The first is a speech from New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu. As you may know, New Orleans is in the process of removing and relocating four Confederate monuments and is facing intense criticism and resistance to this action. As a result, they have had to take extreme measures to do so safely, such as working in the middle of the night, and using the police force to protect their employees. I listened to Mayor Landrieu’s leadership on this action, his insight and the awakening of his consciousness (not conscience) on this issue and thought, “I hope this man stays in politics.” It is rather lengthy, but Tim and I were riveted.

His final words, quoted from Abraham Lincoln, are perhaps a clarion call to all of us at this point in our nation’s history. No matter where we find ourselves on the political spectrum, we all have a call to act:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish: a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”


The second video is from Notre Dame’s commencement exercises this past week, but it’s not Vice President Mike Pence’s address. The real speech of the day came from Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart. Fr. Greg is one of the great teachers, storytellers and prophets of our day. If you like the work of Brene Brown, you will hear echoes of it here, in the embodied flesh of former gang members, felons, and addicts, who have embraced the power of vulnerability and use their own wounds to help others heal theirs.

My favorite line?

You know, what Martin Luther King says about church… “It’s not the place you’ve come to, it’s the place you go from,” and you go from here to create a community of kinship such that God, in fact, might recognize it. You imagine with God a circle of compassion and then you imagine nobody standing outside that circle. You go from here to dismantle the barriers that exclude.

If you ever get a chance to see Greg speak life, or to go to a Homeboy event, I highly recommend it. He radiates holiness. If you can’t see him in person, read Tattoos on the Heart and there’s a good chance you will become more whole and holy yourself. If you are open to it, it will change you forever.


A week ago, Tim and I saw U2 at the Rose Bowl with about 90k other people. It wasn’t intimate, but it was awe-inspiring. Before the music began, they had poems from people on the margins, scrolling across the screen – voices sharing their pain and suffering and sometimes also the beauty, love and joy they found amidst those things. I finally recognized one poem and one name: “Kindness” by Naomi Shabib Nye, a poem that has haunted me for the last couple years.  Coincidentally, or not (sometimes it seems there are no such things as coincidences), I ran across this poem of hers, just a few days later. It struck me with its humility and good advice.

“I Feel Sorry for Jesus” by Naomi Shabib Nye

People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
But I bet some days He regrets it.

Cozily they tell you what he wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game

where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
Well.
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.

They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He’s been exhausted
for a very long time.

He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.
He didn’t go into
the golden chandeliers

and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I’m talking like I know.
It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.

I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.

And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again.

Like the poet and the people she mentions, I probably talk too much for Jesus and listen less than I should.

Amen friends, I hope you’ve found something good in this missive, worth your time on this long and lovely holiday weekend here in the States.

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The Sacred Heart embodied in a Homie. Image on the wall of HQ of  Homeboy Industries