These four faces made me a mother: the first by birth, the second by fire, the third by boy, and the fourth by grace. Every step I’ve taken in health and growth, spiritually, physically and mentally, has been to make me a better mother to them.
They gave me the question of my life: “How can I love better, bigger, and more fully?”
The answers have often surprised me and almost always cost me something I didn’t expect, but it has been worth it every time.
When they were small, I gave up my body, my time, my work, my sense of autonomy, and even some of my dreams. As they grew, I gave up thinking I always knew what was best, right, or even true for them.
Instead I just tried to love them well and set them free to be whoever God made them to be. In return, I’ve received the privilege of their presence, intelligence, humor, curiosity, compassion and company and I also received the gift of that question, the one that animates my life and keeps leading me down new paths and to new discoveries.
“How can I love better, bigger, and more fully?”
So Happy Mother’s Day to the kids who made a mom of me!
My first two children were twenty months apart, and although I know they can be a lot closer than that, they were much closer than Tim and I wanted them to be. It was a rough transition for us to go from a party of 2 to a party of 3 and then 4 in rapid succession. And after baby #2 arrived, I actually went to see a therapist. Tim was worried about me for some reason, ostensibly, because he would leave for work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would get home from work and I would still be in my pajamas and he would leave for work the next day and I would still be in those same pajamas. You get the picture. (I really wish yoga pants had existed back them. I could have totally fooled him!)
So one day I actually did get dressed and went to the therapist, and through laughter and tears, told her all about what was going in my life and how I was feeling and she said, “Aw honey, you aren’t depressed. You are having far too many emotions for that! You are just exhausted. I don’t think you have any idea how tired you are.” And she gave me permission, it was more like a prescription, to just rest. For a little while at least, to just give it all up! And that was the nicest advice, some of the best advice anyone had given me. Just let it be. Stop trying to do it all, and be it all, on time and looking good. But most importantly, she said to me, “You know, it’s okay to acknowledge the season of life you’re in.” Yes, I was young and healthy and just on the cusp of motherhood, but I was also in a winter season. Finn was born in late October and this probably took place in mid-December, so it was literally a winter season as well. The days were short and cold and so were my reserves of physical, mental and emotional strength.
There are seasons and then, there are seasons. There are seasons of the year, and seasons of our lives and within each season of our life, we will experience different seasons.
And as far as seasons go, I am a summer person. I love the light and the heat and the warm ocean water, and the long days. I am also by nature a sunny, happy person. My mind gravitates towards a sense of wonder and possibility in almost every situation. I don’t like to focus on the dark stuff. So when I had my first two kids so close together, what the therapist helped me see was that I was a summer person, in the spring of my life, experiencing a winter season. No wonder I was confused.
In Southern California, we use the word “seasons” loosely. Growing up here on the beaches, cold meant 60 degrees and the only days you couldn’t wear flip flops were the rainy ones, but even then you could probably get away with it, if you timed it right. I was operating on a completely different system. Winter was for occasional skiing and snowboarding. It was a recreational activity, not a way of life. And so, the weather of my daily life totally fed my optimistic, fun-seeking personality. Rain was supposed to go away in a day. Clouds only lasted until 10 am when the sun would burn them away. Actual natural hardship, or limitation was temporary, evaporating almost immediately.
So when I became a new mom, and entered this long stretch where my sunny self disappeared, it scared me and Tim as well. I didn’t know what to do with the darkness and sadness I felt inside; I didn’t know if the sun would ever come back, and I hated that thought. I had been through some difficult things before, but those seasons had passed when I was a child. Now, I was ‘adulting.’
I was the “adult” in charge of a marriage and the emotional, psychological and physical well-being of two little babies. And I was searching for a way out of this darkness I was in. I was looking for the light and I wanted it fast, because that’s how I thought it worked. I wanted to be where I thought I should be already – in the glory days of summer, but it wasn’t to be. Let me give you just one story from the winter that blanketed the Kirkpatrick family for about two years in the late 90s.
Even the worst winter storms bring on snow days, where everyone drops their cares and worries and has a good time. There were moments of real joy and laughter, but Keara was a handful as a toddler – strong willed, and mommy-centric. Her naps and our tempers were equally short, but Tim often came home from work early to help me. One afternoon, I was sitting on the couch, nursing Finn and reading stories to Keara. I saw Tim pull up in front of the house, but he thought it would be funny to ring the doorbell and I thought it would be funny to let Keara get the door. It wasn’t. She opened it, saw Tim and yelled, “No daddy home!” and slammed the door in his face. That kind of puts a chill on a relationship. It might have happened between the two of them, but it is a perfect example of the frost that covered our home. I may have been the one in the winter season, but everyone was feeling it. We were trying, and often failing, to connect with each other. Too often, like our two-year-old, we were more concerned with protecting our own turf.
We have warmed up from that winter and been through all the other seasons: the spring when Molly was born, the glorious summer when all our kids were out of diapers and none of them were yet teens and another winter when the Great Recession hit and we struggled to keep our business alive.
At this point in my life, at 44, in another fall, I am far more comfortable with the language of seasons (though I would still never choose to live in any place that actually had them), because I have been through them over and over again. I know the truth they represent and the wisdom I can learn from them.
In one of my darker winter days, I asked my spiritual director, a wise woman in her sixties, “Where is God in this darkness?” and she said to me, “If you want to know what God is like, look out your window. Look at life; look at the seasons of the year; watch the pattern of your days. God is not other than what is created. God is found in the pattern of creation itself.”
And really what she was saying is: Life is change and transformation, death and rebirth, light and darkness. Nothing good lasts forever.
I know that now.
I know that no season can last forever, no matter how good it is, or how badly I want it to.
I know that no season will last forever, no matter how dark or difficult it is, even if it lasts longer than I think I can stand it.
I know that wanting what was, or clinging to what is, or anxiously waiting for what will be is the surest way to miss the beauty of the season I’m in, or to learn any of the lessons it has to teach me.
And when I understood that, I could stop clinging to a vision of life where only eternal summer – light and goodness – could make me happy. My efforts to always keep it light are wasted energy, energy that could be better spent getting comfortable with darker days, digging in the soil, and nurturing whatever new thing is trying to come to the surface. What is born in the spring is what the world needs, not what fades away when its natural time comes.
Rob Bell likes to say that things come into our lives for a season and for a reason and if we stay, or cling to them for too long, what was once joyful, becomes bitter. We have to let them go. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminded the ancient Hebrews that for everything there is a season and a time for everything under heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
I always heard that passage, or the song by the Byrds and thought it applied to farmers and hippies, not 20th century beach girls like me.
But now, whenever I sense a waning of the light, I can hear my spiritual director saying, “Look out your window. What do you see? What do you know is true?”
Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints, is one of my heroes. Someone asked her once in an interview why she keeps talking about the Resurrection, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, because she talks about that story all the time, not just in the springtime when it’s topical for most of us, and she said simply, “Because it’s the truest story I know.”
And what she was getting at was not just the fact that Jesus died and was raised up again on the third day, although that is of ultimate importance to her as a Christian and a pastor, but also that it is the truest story she has experienced in her own life. Over and over again, her plans for herself, her life, and her church have failed, or been disrupted and when it happens, she is desperately sad, or wildly angry, or probably both, because she has a temper, but over and over again, they come back to life. They are resurrected. Sometimes they push back to the surface, just slightly changed, but sometimes they are unrecognizable, a lot like Jesus after the Resurrection. No one, not even his closest friends – not Mary Magdalene, not Peter, not his apostles on the road to Emmaus – recognized him, because he was a brand new creation.
Always, without fail, Nadia says, the things that arise from the death of her dreams are better; they are more life-giving for everyone. Even more importantly, she says, is the fact that every time she dies to herself and her own ego, her need to control and perfect, SHE rises again with more potential to Love the world – and everyone in it, from herself, to her family, to her community, to the stranger on the street and for her this is a big one, even a Wall Street trader. She says in her first book, Pastrix, “Every single time I fight it (the death, the loss, the disruption). And every single time, I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”
I love Nadia and her insistence on the resurrection, because it is one of the truest things I have come to know as well, but I didn’t always. Even though I have always considered myself a Christian, or perhaps because of it, I thought Resurrection was a miracle that happened once, long ago to God’s son. I still do believe that, but I also believe that God appears to be resurrecting everything all the time and everywhere, as Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr says.
Death is inevitable, but so too is resurrection as long as we have a deep commitment to Love and Faith and Life. Only in that soil is there an invitation and a space for the Divine to work in us. Life and Love will win out if we want them to and if we release our preconceived notions of what that life looks like!
Life is a constant repeat of loving something, and then having to let it go, not necessarily tragically, sometimes just naturally, because life is change. What we can trust, if we have a deep familiarity with the story of Jesus, or with the seasons of life itself, is that new life will come from what we have lost. If we don’t short-circuit the process through clinging, or denial, or impatience, a new season will flourish and bring new life. It won’t be the same as what we lost, but it can be even better. If we allow it, the soil of our lives can be enriched by the death of our fantasies about what we, or our lives, or our families should look like. And in that soil, we can plant deeper roots, and we can weather more storms and we can enjoy the autumns and survive the winters, because we KNOW that spring is coming and that summer isn’t the only season worth living for.
Mother’s day is approaching. It’s hard to forget it if you are on social media, as sentimental posts about the glory of moms flood the news feeds. Ostensibly, these images were created by men and women for their mothers, but obviously, they were created by moms for themselves. More than anything, they are a reflection of how we hope our kids feel about us. We share them as a tribute to our mamas, but really, we are just sending them as love letters to ourselves. A mother-child relationship is infinitely more complex. It’s a wonderfully complicated combination of love, devotion, and gratitude, with a healthy dose of resentment, and old wounds mixed in. If you don’t have mixed emotions about your mom, then you’ve done a lot of inner work, or you’re in total denial.
I know that traditional Mother’s Day offerings are flowers, brunches and pretty cards, but is there space for a little bit of honesty too? A bit of gentle teasing about all the things your mama really taught you?
The first things that come to mind about my mom can’t be romanticized, though they can be appreciated. She taught me how to burn chicken, go to church, play Scrabble and clip coupons. She taught me to love the beach, dancing and the Jackson Five. She taught me to prioritize travel, education and physical activity. She taught me self-discipline, thriftiness and that reading is a wonderful way to spend your time. I’ve used all those skills and they have served me well. If you want lessons, I will give you her number.
But there were some things my mother couldn’t teach me, because she didn’t know how to do them herself. My mother does not snuggle, except with babies. Her hugs are all shoulders and hipbones, even for those she loves deeply. Handholding is inefficient and slightly uncomfortable. Strong emotions are suspect, to be squashed if possible. Tears are dehydrating. Poetic language beyond her. If she feels something, you might know it, but probably not because she told you herself. Risk-taking is synonymous with irresponsibility, as is following your instincts and eating out too often.
Though they aren’t my favorite qualities, I understand where they came from. They are part of a family legacy, passed on to her from devout, depression-era parents, who raised eight children, making sure everyone got some, but no one got more than enough. That was true of candy bars, soda pop and probably even love.
While those are the easiest things to rattle off about my mom, they certainly aren’t the whole picture, so I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you a little more. It is Mother’s Day after all.
This is my Mother’s Day card for Sylvia.
For better and for worse, I am my mother’s daughter. I have learned and unlearned a thousand things from her, but these are the ones that I hope to carry on.
She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends. She shows up to every event on time and she does not gossip. Sylvia’s got your back. She is deeply faithful to her God and her husband. You do not make mass every Sunday and stay married for forty-eight years without saying to yourself, every day, “I’m in this for long haul.” She shows up where she’s needed. There is no task too big, or too small. From rocking a baby, to mopping the floor, to organizing charity events, Sylvia is on the job. Her home is open and so is the kitchen. Children, grandchildren, friends, friends of family, and friends of friends from foreign countries have all found a warm, clean bed and a full fridge in her house, just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. No checkout fee required, only the hope of a good conversation.
Finally, my mother loves her children deeply, though she rarely says so. Words are not Sylvia’s forte, but ironically, they are mine. I need things spelled out for me and so for years I mistook her acts of love and service as her children’s inevitable due. I thought that sacrificing a career and personal creativity, making meals, driving carpools, and planning family activities was just what moms did. I thought it was their job. I know better now.
It was a choice and it’s a choice she continues to make for all of us. Her job is even bigger now that we are all married with kids of our own. Instead of the four she started with, she now has four daughters, four sons, and twelve grandchildren. She makes sure everyone has some, and hopes that it’s enough. But I have to admit, she set our expectations pretty high and though she won’t say so, she probably feels stretched thin, meeting the “needs” of her ever-growing family.
So Mom, here is my Mother’s Day “gift” to you today. I’m sorry it’s in my native language of words, expressing perhaps too much honesty and emotion. Tomorrow, I will try to show my love for you in your native tongue of action. When I see you, I will give you a sideways hug, play a game of Scrabble, and clear a table. We can do some dancing, cuddle some babies and walk on the beach. Together, we can show our family how we love them.
P.S. If you think I’m being hard on my Mom, whom I love and respect dearly, I write this knowing full well my own children will have a laundry list a mile long of the things they need to unlearn from me and my “love.” It will probably include an overemphasis on deep breathing, inspirational quotes, and self-awareness, as well as an obsession with laundry day routines, repetitive menus and the reapplication of sunscreen.
Though publishing anything here has been difficult for me of late, I felt a Mother’s Day blog was a non-negotiable.
It must happen.
This will be my third one, which means that I’ve been publishing for almost three years. Blogging feels like dog years. It’s been a really long time and in case you haven’t noticed, I’m slowing down.
It’s not that I’m not writing. It’s just that I’m writing about things I can’t share with all of you.
When I started the blog, Keara was 14. She was just starting at an all-girls, Catholic high school, with all the innocence of an oldest child raised in PG household. For the most part, she wasn’t even watching prime time TV yet. Finn was 12 and puberty seemed a long way off. Molly was still a baby in my eyes and she was happy in that role. Their stories were mine to use and though I was respectful, they didn’t have much of a choice. They could say “yes” or “no”, but with mom looking over their shoulder, eager to hit “publish,” I never once had a kid stop me.
Over time, especially in the last year, that well has dried up. There are plenty of stories, juicy ones too: love, loss, betrayal, effort and reward, victory and defeat, but for the most part, they are no longer mine to tell. I am a witness to them; I may be a part of them. I am learning, growing and changing from them, but the major players no longer want to be on stage and without them, the theater seems empty.
How many one-woman plays can an audience stand?
I guess we won’t know the answer unless I keep publishing, which I plan to do, just perhaps less frequently.
The other day, I watched an interview with Sue Monk Kidd, best known for her novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair among others. She was married at 20, a mother of 2 kids and a working nurse by 25. On her 30th birthday, she announced to her family that she was going to become a writer. She was over 50 when her first novel was published. For obvious reasons, I was encouraged by her timeline, but what I appreciated even more was her wisdom.
When asked, “What do you know for sure?” Kidd replied, “What you pay attention to matters; the love I gave, the love I received are the most important things. Just to be is holy. Just to live is a gift. I know that for sure.” She also quoted Stephen Hawking, who said, “Real genius is radical humility, for when you humble yourself before what you don’t know, you open yourself to possibility.”
Listening to Kidd shifted my focus. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and though I hope for some authentic gestures of love and gratitude from my family, I’m going to pay attention to the things that matter. I can give love; I can be present. I will never be a genius, but life seems eager to work on my humility each and every day, which is great, because I want to be open to possibility.
Before she turned her hand to fiction, Sue Monk Kidd wrote three spiritual memoirs, which I discovered several years ago. Though I like her stories, I love her own. While reading When the Heart Waits, I took a passage and put it on a sticky note on my laptop. Though it isn’t always open, I see the title every day. It is called, “Sue Monk Kidd’s Prayer and Mine too” and it goes like this:
I don’t want to live falsely, in self-imposed prisons and fixed comfortable patterns that confine my soul and diminish the truth in me. So much of me has gone underground. I want to let my soul out. I want to be free to risk what’s true, to be myself. Set free the daring in me – the willingness to go within, to see the self-lies. I’ll try to run away, but don’t let me. Don’t let me stifle myself with prudence that binds the creative re-visioning of life and the journey toward wholeness.
I’m scared. God make me brave. Lead me in the enormous spaces of becoming. Help me cease the small, tedious work of maintaining and protecting, so that I can break the masks that obscure your shining in the night of my own soul. Help me to green my soul and risk becoming the person you created me to be.
Tomorrow I may regret these words, but tonight I speak them, for I know that you are somewhere inside them, that you love me and won’t leave me alone in their echo.
She wrote that prayer some time around 40 and when asked on the show, “Have you become the woman you wanted to be?” Kidd said, “I am becoming that woman, yes.”
At 65 years old, she is becoming. I love that. Twenty-five years later, her prayer is still being answered.
Too often, I think the answers should already be known (by me) and the outcome assured. I falsely believe that I should have already arrived, but Kidd’s response humbled me. If I can accept that I am becoming and always will be, the possibilities are endless, not just for me, but for all of us.
So Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who have given birth, or raised children and loved your little ones so much you thought your heart would break, but a special note of gratitude to everyone who has nurtured something new within themselves and had the courage to share it with the world. Neither are small tasks and both are necessary for the good of the world.
Just in case you think I’m exaggerating how much my family life has changed over the last few years, here is a visual perspective.
Here are some pictures of the kids taken within the last couple weeks, just two years later. I couldn’t even put the same filter on the images to make them look more cohesive. It felt dishonest, since they are so different and yet each image perfectly captures the attitude they put out the world: Keara crosses her arms, suspicious of it all. Finn is literally one of the most “laid-back”people I know and Molly is going to give you a smile and play the game, any time, any day.
This is the conversation Tim and I had this morning.
Me: I have a couple of good ideas for Mother’s Day gifts if you need any hints.
Tim: Do we give gifts on Mother’s Day?
Me: You’re joking, right?
Tim: No. Seriously, is it a gift-giving occasion?
Me: Really, you are joking, aren’t you?
In case you don’t know Tim personally, he jokes ALL THE TIME. There is no good reason for me, or anyone else, to take what he says at face value.
At any rate, he finally convinced me that he truly didn’t remember if he, or the kids, were supposed to have a gift waiting for me on Sunday morning.
I immediately forwarded him the link to “The Mother’s Day Debate” and thought I would share it with all of you, just in case someone in your life forgot as well.
“The Mother’s Day Debate”
My friend T and I were discussing Mother’s Day traditions last night – what we were doing on Sunday, what our kids, or husbands had planned, what we hoped for. We were definitely on the same page. We don’t need them to do something big; we don’t need them to do something fancy. We just need them to do something.
I definitely have friends who take the martyr approach, who are of the “It’s no big deal” variety – moms who are happy to overlook a lack of effort, sincerity, time, or money spent. I am not one of them, and as a result, there have been some rocky Mother’s Days around our home.
Before that second Sunday in May, I’d like to my kids know that:
There is such a thing as gratitude. There is such a thing as acknowledging the fact that each and every day, I serve you. I cook for you, clean for you, drive for you. I entertain you, love you, tuck you in at night, take care of you when you are sick, celebrate your accomplishments and mourn your defeats. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE doing this and I love you. I will continue to do this, whether or not I get anything special on Mother’s Day, Christmas, or my birthday. I will tell myself that deep down, you really do appreciate me and deep down, I really do believe it’s true.
However, I think Mother’s Day is a nice opportunity for my husband to reinforce the messages we try to teach our kids all year long: the art of acknowledgement, the joy of gift-giving, the impact of making an effort.
When they were all in elementary school, he had it easier. The teachers would help the kids make little balls of crepe paper flowers, signs of love, or traced handprints with poems written to melt a mama’s heart. Those were the good old days. I’ve only got the baby left in that demographic, and even her handprints aren’t that cute any more.
So now the onus is all on Tim. Somehow, he has to inspire the troops to really love on their mom. How will it turn out this year? It’s questionable – because they’re growing up and bought into the hype that it’s no big deal, that Mother’s Day is just another Hallmark holiday, that a hug and a kiss and a mumbled “Happy Mother’s Day” is good enough.
Sorry mister, it’s really not.
I’d like Tim to know that:
I know you are busy. I know the kids are lukewarm about shopping. I know you detest it. But I’d really like to get something from someplace other than Hallmark, Rite Aid and Starbucks, the three shops in a row at the strip mall a mile away from our home. I like to think my perfect Mother’s Day is pretty easy. A morning latte and blueberry scone, a trip to the beach, a plate of buffalo wings and a pitcher of dark beer for dinner, while we watch an NBA playoff game. You’ve said before that my Mother’s Day is a surfing man’s dream.
Tim might like to remind me at this point that I am not all that easy. That I forgot about wanting to go to church as a family, which always involves arguments about showers, clothing and shoe-choices. G**- Forbid, Molly has to wear something besides her slip-on, checkered Vans with a hole in the toe. Since it’s Mother’s Day, he has to do all the arguing. He might also mention that my morning latte is actually a “grande, two-pump, extra-hot, non-fat, vanilla latte,” which he can never order right since he only gets it for me once a year, and then despite his effort and embarrassment at ordering such a ridiculous thing, he has to see me be almost satisfied, instead of completely so. Finally, he doesn’t like dark beer, or buffalo wings, but I order them and he eats them, because after all, it is Mother’s Day.
Now, if anyone is getting defensive on my poor family’s behalf, let me just say again that a gift doesn’t need to be big. It doesn’t need to be expensive. It doesn’t even have to be a bouquet of over-priced flowers. It just needs to speak my love language, which means it needs to come from the heart. And if their hearts are blank, if they come up empty when it comes to me, well then, that’s a story for another day. But I am going to pretend like that’s not the case. I am going to hope that they just need a little bit of encouragement to dig deep, take some time and put down on paper a little bit of mom-love. Is that too much to ask? Colored markers speak volumes.
Tim might also like to jump in here and point out that for his birthday last week I failed miserably at this very challenge. Only two out of three of our kids mustered up the energy to make him a birthday card and his gifts consisted of two gift cards from that same strip mall I was just complaining about.
In my defense, he always says we don’t need to get him anything. I never say that!But okay, I’m humbled, but that’s not the point. The point is the ideal we are shooting for here people!
So what do you think, moms? Is Mother’s Day a big deal, or not? Does your family step up, or is it just another Hallmark-holiday to you? And what do you do to honor your mom, and your mother-in-law, and your sisters and all the other mothers you know and love and your own role in your family all in the same day?
P.S. As I finished writing, I looked up and saw this. It was my one of my best Mother’s Day presents ever. I actually have it hanging next to my bed to help me remember who I am.
Dedication: To all the living saints I know, and to the rest of us who try.
Growing up in a fairly traditional Roman Catholic home, I had access to the stories of the saints. I could even tell you a few of those stories to this day, but I was never obsessed with them like some kids were. Saints were interesting, but never all that inspiring. Even as a young child, I knew that I was far too human, and far too flawed to ever be like one of those women, or men. I couldn’t see myself kissing the wounds of a leper, or praying to receive the stigmata. Yuck! I certainly couldn’t see myself opting for a violent death if given a choice. Even as I got older and Pope John Paul II began the beatification of “everyday” people who lived holy lives, I still wasn’t that interested in who made the cut and who didn’t.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I came across a definition of a saint that I could relate to. According to Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, author and theologian, a saint is a person “who can will the one thing.” This actually felt like something I could aspire to, a version of sainthood that had nothing to do with personal morality, righteousness, or miracles. In my mind, it had everything to do with finding the purpose for which you were made, embracing that purpose and living it out as best you could. By the time I discovered Kierkegaard, I had already found my “one thing.” For ten solid years, I “willed the one thing.” I willed the heck out of it.
My purpose was to love my family, not in a la-di-da, “Isn’t it sweet, she loves her family so much” sort of way, but in a real, concrete, “007, this is your mission” sort of way. Yes, it encompassed the physical care of my family: the cooking, the cleaning, the driving, and the disinfecting, but it also included the soft sciences as well. To this day, it still includes the touching, the loving, the praising, the presence, the balance and my focused attention. Every day, as I spend time with my kids and my husband, I try to look them in the eye and ask myself, “Who is this person? Who do they want to be, and how can I help them get there?”
If being a saint is “to will the one thing,” then five years ago, I thought canonization was mine for the taking, if I could just die tomorrow. Well, obviously, that didn’t happen and thank goodness. I’d rather be a saint, who lost her title in heaven, than leave my purpose here on earth unfinished. I am still alive and well, but something unforeseen happened. I lost my opportunity “to will the one thing.” No, nothing tragic happened. I haven’t lost my kids, or my husband, or even my purpose. But what I have lost is the oneness of it all. As I have approached middle age, as the economy has stalled, as my children have gotten older, I have been asked to will not ‘one thing,’ but many things. Now, some of you may scoff at that and I will allow you to do so without defensiveness or judgment. I know that it was a privilege to be home with my kids and to have such a single focus for so long.
But my new reality is that my life is asking me to will many things, in addition to the “one thing” I really love. I am not just talking about having more obligations on my plate, though that is a part of it. I am talking about tasks that require real passion and effort, focus and sacrifice on my part and the part of my family. And I have to admit that at first, it felt like a betrayal of my “saintly” calling to extend my will beyond the one thing. I have spent many nights asking the same questions about myself that I’ve asked countless times about my children. “Who is this person? Who does she want to be, and how I can I help her get there?” While I don’t have any precise answers to those questions yet, reading The Gift of the Red Bird by Paula D’Arcy introduced me to a new definition of a saint, one I liked even better than Kierkegaard.
D’Arcy quotes Keith Miller who said that saints “were not people with the greatest education or even the largest results. But what they said correlated almost 100 percent with who they were and what they did… An amazing and invisible power may be released when a person’s words and her inner life match.” I read that line and it stopped me in my tracks. That’s a saint I would like to know, someone unconcerned with personal perfection and holiness, not limited by an adherence to “the one thing,” but fully, genuinely, authentically themselves.
Do you know those kinds of people, the ones who say they believe in something and then actually try to carry it out in all aspects of their daily life? The kinds of people who make you believe that if they’re nice to your face, they’re also going to be nice to you behind your back? The kinds of people whose very presence makes it easier for you to be a better person? When I think of the people I have most admired in my lifetime, they were saints in Miller’s sense of the word, and only a handful of them were religious. They are people of integrity and authenticity. They are people who nurture, who love and who open their hearts to seemingly everyone. These are people who give 100% of themselves to whatever they are doing at any time.
This is the kind of saint I would like to be, but it’s a very tall order, even greater than the other two, I think. By historical precedent, the first “requires” you to follow a set of rules, strictly, almost fanatically. The second seems to be manageable if you really focus on the ‘one thing’ to the exclusion of everything else, and as much as I enjoyed that time of life, I know the purpose I chose was too limiting. God wasn’t going to let me off that easy; taking care of 4 people (even if you do it well) is not all that He asks of anyone. This third definition though cannot take place without a complete transformation of self over the course of a lifetime. In this definition of saintliness, there is no perfection expected, or even possible. We all make mistakes, slip up, and growl like a junkyard dog on occasion. We all roll our eyes in annoyance, or get stuck in the morass of self-pity when things seem to stack up against us.
We are human, but we can be saintly humans.
I want to be a person of integrity. I want people to be able to believe in me and the promises I make. When I smile at you, I want you to know that I am smiling for real, on the inside. When I work for you, write for you, speak with you, I want you to have the real me and hear the real me, because that is best I have to offer.
I want to be a saintly blogger, a saintly mother, a saintly wife, friend and volunteer.
I want desperately to be this kind of saint, but when I see all the ways I fall short, it’s easy to get discouraged. However, there is hope. Just last week, I heard another definition of a saint. It doesn’t detract from the other three, but rather increases the odds of getting there. My good friend Nancy Corran said, “A saint is just a sinner who got back up.” Well, amen to that.
That is one kind of saint I know I can be.
And I hope you know one and know that you can be one too.