My Way Isn’t Working

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Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine. Now if stubbornness were a virtue, I’d be golden. Don’t be misled, I don’t mean the never-give-up type of perseverance that has brought me through some really rough times. I mean the hard-headed, I-got-my-Irish-up stupid type of stubborn that has a tendency to land me in trouble. Yeah, there’s no spiritual reward in that kind of stubborn. Trust me on that one.

Still nursing my injured foot, I lasted five whole days on the crutches before I did anything overly stupid. Then I decided I could cook dinner and hobbled around the kitchen on one crutch to do it. Not only did I make the foot incredibly sore but I also burned my hand in the process. Given another four days, I decided to walk the half mile from my lousy commuter student parking space to my sociology class using only one crutch, not taking into account the fact that I had to then walk back. I was in tears by the time I got back to my car. That was three days ago and as of this very moment, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, with my foot iced and elevated, crutches by my side, sipping on a cup of strong Irish tea and pondering ways to bake a batch of snickerdoodles without putting weight on my foot – or if there is any way I can get away with putting just a little weight on it.

My younger son watched me get up yesterday and head into the kitchen on one crutch and called after me, “Uh, Mom, should you be using TWO crutches. You’re never going to get off them if you keep this up.”

Darn kid. Why did I ever teach that one to talk? But he makes a valid point. I know if I use both crutches and stay off my foot as much as possible, it doesn’t hurt and the swelling goes down considerably. So why do I keep trying to do what I usually do? Because I can’t stand not being able to do things for myself and in my own way. Because I can’t stand having to ask for help. Because the only way for this foot to heal is to be still and wait.

Be still and wait. I’m perfectly fine with being still. Sometimes. At times of my choosing. For finite amounts of time. Oh alright, I’m okay with being still when it’s on my own terms. And waiting – also, for finite amounts of time and on my own terms.

How many times have I needed God’s help and wouldn’t ask? How many times did I decide to limp along and make things worse rather than be still and wait for the healing or answers or guidance that I needed? How many times am I going to charge ahead with only half of what I need? How many times am I going to let my stupid pride trip me up, both spiritually and physically? What’s going to take to get through this thick head of mine?

Maybe spending a third week on crutches will get me to sit still and ponder these questions. Maybe after a batch of cookies…Hey, this office chair has wheels, I’m sure I can manage on my own.

Okay. Okay. I’ll admit it. I can’t stand being laid up because I can’t stand not being in control because not being in control scares the shit out of me. But I also have to admit, my way isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to let go, be still and wait.

In Good Hands

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I’ve had years where Lent sort of builds and somewhere just before or even during Holy Week, something shifts. Some years its been quiet, like last year’s time spent in solitude on Cape Cod. Some years, it quite dramatic, like the Holy Thursday I ended up in an empty church late at night, sobbing on my knees before a statue of the condemned Christ as I realized that He had been with me through everything I had survived and He understood what no one else ever would. But this year, it seemed like Lent started a few days early. After sort feeling my way forward, I suddenly found myself faced point blank with the question: What did I really believe and how far would I go to stand by that belief? No sooner had I declared that above all I trust that nothing can take me out of God’s hands than the Gremlin tried it’s damnedest to do precisely that – in church no less – and in the one church I had always run to for safety. Because of that trust, love trumped fear. Part of me shattered that night but not in bad way. Some illusion that I’d held on to fell away. And the realization that home really wasn’t home anymore became clearer than ever.

It took a day or so to gather my wits about me and I so wanted to get to church that first Sunday of Lent but another Sunday snowstorm (a now weekly event here in New England) put the kibosh on that. An injured pastor coupled with a pipe break early in the week called yesterday’s services into question as well. Thankfully, by Sunday another pastor was able to fill in and while the hall and kitchen were a mess, the water damage had stopped at the very edge of the sanctuary. The weekly Sunday snowstorm kindly waited until mid-afternoon before dumping another six inches on us. I was so grateful to be home in this little Lutheran church, with it’s handful of what the pastor refers to as “Moonlighting Catholics”.  You can’t miss us, we have many little tells. We celebrated a baptism and thus that became the main focus of the service as we were reminded that in baptism we are claimed for Christ and nothing, absolutely nothing, can take us out of His hands. Each of us is called by name and we are His. The truth of that rang so clearly for me. Everything I had come to on my own ten days earlier echoed back to me. It’s a far cry from the days of the figuring that since I was in the world, I was somehow saved by accident or by default, by some sort of divine Salvation Cupcake rules that I wasn’t privy to understanding. That wrapped around me like a much needed hug.

Where does that leave me? I’m not quite sure. Some of the pieces of that shattered illusion have been rearranged into something else, by hands other than my own. That new image is still unclear to me. Patience – a virtue, but not one of mine – is what is being called for this time and for once, I won’t argue. The remaining pieces, I still have to pick through to understand what can stay and what must go. But despite the soul-rattling start to Lent, I am more certain than ever that I am in very good hands. I have been led to where I am right at this moment. I have finally stopped fighting the process. (Cue the collective gasp from my longtime readers – yes you actually read that right – and some of you can stop smirking right now.)

God Ain’t Santa

Flashback: Christmas 1981

The one thing I really wanted for Christmas that year was a Matchbox Sounds of Service Garage.  I had written it carefully in my letter to Santa and come Christmas morning, there it was under the tree.  It was carefully wrapped but already assembled with batteries in it, ready to go.

Newsflash: God Ain’t Santa

erectprIt took me a long time to figure out that sometimes gifts from God are already whole and complete. But most of the time, it’s like getting an Erector set… one…tiny eighth-of-an-inch screw…at…a…time…and then getting the tools and instruction manual last.  As you know, patience is a virtue, it isn’t one of mine.  So my conversations with God tend to go a little like this:

God: “Here.  Hang on to this.”

Me: “Why?”

God: “It’s important.”

Me: “But what is it?”

God: “You’ll see.”

Me: “Yeah, but when?”

God: “Later.”

Me: “Can’t You just tell me?”

God: “Nope. You’ll know when you need to know.”

Me: “Do You have any idea how absolutely frigging infuriating You can be?!”

He never answers that last one but I can always feel the Divine Smirk.

The thing about that Matchbox garage is that I knew exactly what I wanted.  When it comes to my spiritual life, nine times out of ten, I have no clue what it is I’m asking for.  Yeah, there are those times when I know I want wisdom or clarity or courage but more often than not I see something I can’t quite name, something just beyond my understanding and all I know is I want that, whatever that is.  And that’s okay because unlike Santa, who requires an exact list, God already knows what the vague and nebulous that is.

Every year, Deacon Ron asks me what gift I will ask of God for Christmas.  This is one of those years when what I want is something I can’t quite name.  I saw it last week in a little boy.  He was about eight years old and was sitting a couple of pews in front of me at Mass.  He caught my eye as he was so thoroughly captivated by everything happening on the altar. Meanwhile, his little sister had fallen asleep in their mother’s arms.  When it came time to receive Communion, their mother was trying to position the sleeping girl on the pew and while she wasn’t looking, the little boy darted out of the pew. With his hands jammed into the pockets of his winter coat, he put his arms out like airplane wings and ‘flew’ his way up the aisle. Oblivious of the adults piously processing forward, he ran ahead and cut in front of the entire line. After receiving the Body of Christ, he turned and flashed his mortified mother a smile that I will never forget. For a moment, the world stopped spinning beneath me.  All I could see was his face and all that I wanted was what I could see in his eyes.

For the life of me, I can’t tell you what I saw.  Innocence? Joy? Freedom? Love? Grace?  Some concoction of all of those?  I don’t know. But I want it.  I pointed it out to God in that moment as the world stopped beneath me.

THAT – right there – that – I don’t know what that is, but You do and I want that more than anything.”

And I felt God smile.

I really hope this isn’t going to be one of those Erector set gifts that is going to come one little piece at a time. Much assembly required and batteries not included…yet.  But for some crazy reason, God seems determined to teach me patience.

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The Great Do Over

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One of the best rules of childhood is the Rule of Do Over. No matter what game we were playing or what crazy competition we had going on, when things didn’t go down quite the way we’d planned, the Do Over could be invoked by anyone at anytime.

Sometimes it was immediate.
“No fair, my shoe came untied! Do Over! Everybody back to the big tree. We’ll race again. Ready. Set. GO!”

Other times it was delayed.
“Chris just rode her bike into a telephone pole. Do Over next weekend!”

True story, having just learned to ride a bicycle, I came flying down the hill on my bike in a practice run for a race against the neighborhood boys, lost control and slammed face first into a telephone pole. I knocked out two teeth, and scraped myself up really good. So the bike race ended up delayed until the following weekend and I rode my little heart out despite the bruises, bandaids, and missing teeth.

Somewhere along the line though, we all grow up. The rule of the Do Over is cast aside and everything we do is FOREVER and EVER. God help you if you screw up the FOREVER stuff because at that point, you’ve royally screwed up your life beyond all hope of redemption.

Or have you?

I used to think so. The string of mistakes that started at 19 snowballed out of control until, at 34, after living with the fallout from those mistakes, I finally slammed on the brakes and took my life back. Sounds great doesn’t it? Yeah, well, it wasn’t. Not then anyway.

I stood there with all the busted up pieces of my hopes, my dreams, the what-might-have-beens, the what-I-wanteds, and all those jagged pieces were tangled up in pain, hurt, fear, confusion, and disappointment. The people around me were full of ideas of what I could or should do next. And me? I couldn’t move without some broken shard or another cutting even more deeply and by that point, I had had quite enough of being hurt. The oft-repeated question from my therapist was, “But what do you want?” I had no answer. All I could do was make it abundantly clear that I would not make a move until I was damn good and ready. What direction that move might take was too far ahead to even think about. All I wanted was to get through any given day without feeling like I was going to come apart at the seams.

That was seven years ago and while on the outside, things may look very much the same – same job, same car, same living situation, – on the inside, everything has changed.

Deacon Ron’s favorite question for me from the very beginning has always been: “So what are you and God up to?” If you’ve been reading my posts for any length of time, you know what a wild ride that has been. My relationship with God has been stormy for years. Patience is not my virtue. Trust, more precisely – the lack thereof, is my biggest issue. God has the distinct advantage of having time – as in all of the time or better yet, being beyond all time. Thusly, He’s perfectly content to wait out my little temper tantrums. Little by little, as I’ve stopped – okay maybe not stopped – allow me to rephrase – as I’ve cut down on yelling at Him and started listening to Him, a path forward has been presented, one I had caught a glimpse of at 19.

And my response is quite simple: “Are You freaking crazy?!”

But it kept coming up so I finally said, “Okay. But if You really want me to pursue this, I have a lot of things in my in my way:
The RA
My age
The fear
The time away from the kids
Did I mention the fear?
If You want me to do this, You’re going to have to take care of this stuff because I can’t. It’s all beyond my control.”

Well apparently God wants me to do this because instead of seeing this as a list of obstacles, He’s treated it like a Honey Do list and just started crossing things off one by one.

My RA went into a nasty flare around the time I was on the Cape back in March. My friend, who has the gift of healing, offered to pray with me when I got home. As he prayed with me, the pain in my hands lessened and by the next day it was gone entirely. My vision, which had slipped badly, returned to normal overnight. The RA has been in remission since the first week of April. With my somewhat baffled doctor’s approval, I’ve stopped taking all of my RA medications and I feel the best I have in fifteen years.

I no longer wake up feeling like I’m 80. That has taken some getting used to, but in a good way. I find I’m no longer afraid to make plans beyond this week because I’m not worried about whether or not I’ll feel well enough to keep them. The freedom in that is bigger than anything I can put into words.

My kids aren’t little anymore. I find myself with two rapidly maturing and increasingly independent young men. While they still aren’t thrilled if I spend time away from home, they aren’t quite as panicky about it as they used to be. Again the word that comes to mind is freedom. I cherish the time I have with them. Yes – even when they’re beating the crap out of each other. But to know I can leave them for a few hours and their world won’t stop spinning is a huge weight off my shoulders.

Over the past few months, I started to notice something else was missing. The Gremlin. That bastard hasn’t been jabbering at me. And it’s not like I suddenly have some newfound ability to tune him out. He just shut up. Completely. He’s not gone. But he’s silent. And the fear that he wielded so well in his diatribes has been replaced by quiet and peace.

Huge things were being crossed off my list of impossibles in a ridiculously short span of time. Then I came home one Saturday to find the Fairfield County Catholic waiting for me with a huge front page add for Sacred Heart University. My next step had quite literally shown up on my kitchen table. I took a deep breath and took it before I could chicken out. I called and started the process to return to school part-time in pursuit of my bachelors degree in theology and religious studies.

When I walked out of the admissions office after being enrolled as a returning student, I did the happy dance all the way to my car and then burst into tears.

You see there was one other thing I hadn’t dared to list off to God:
This way was open to me at 19 and I didn’t take it. Therefore it was closed, locked, bolted, bricked over and never to be spoken of ever again.

The reasons I gave for not taking it then depended on how much I was beating up on myself at any given time. Those reasons ranged from I stormed away from God in a fit of rage, was an emotional basket-case or was just plain flat too weak to handle it. All of which have some degree of truth in them and none of which I really wanted to face. But in order to do this now, I had to.

The past few weeks, this has been pretty much all God and I have talked about. Or more accurately, I rambled on and on while He waited, infinitely and maddeningly patient, until I ran out of words. Then when I could finally be quiet, the answer came.

“What made you think you were supposed to do this then? You weren’t ready then. I wasn’t done with you yet.”

Could it really be so simple? That all this time I’d spent kicking myself – with plenty of help from The Gremlin – that there’d been absolutely no reason to? My life has been one hell of a rollercoaster ride and the life experience I will carry into my classes now will bring far greater meaning to them than my 19 year-old self could have ever imagined.

Like that long ago bike race, I needed a little time to recover after my wreck but here I am, at 41, invoking the Rule of Do Over, taking a path I was shown at 19 and have been preparing for ever since.

To Still The Stones

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It had been one of those weeks when all I wanted to do was change my name, crawl under a rock to hide or most preferably: BOTH. Fridays are my freelance days. I work from home, on my own schedule, and sometimes that means disappearing to find a couple hours of quiet. Quiet was definitely in dangerously short supply by the end of this week. For the first time in long time, I walked out towards Stratford Point. Being a weekday and a bit on the chilly side, I had the entire beach to myself. I had been hoping to get my favorite spot below the lighthouse but the tide was up and my last quarter mile was completely under water. I found myself out of beach at the foot of a massive concrete retaining wall, the base of which was buttressed by large boulders. It was a perfect place to finally sit and rest.

I had nowhere else I needed to be and had shaken off the stress of the week on my walk out there. I listened to the waves crashing at my feet and felt the sunlight wrap around me. The nagging Gremlin voice in my head, for once, had been completely silenced. The immensity of that gift is beyond words.

That stretch of beach has a vast array of large stones scattered about. Often times in the summer, I bring my sons down to this part of the beach around sunset and this past summer we started experimenting with balancing stones. Being boys, they were rather fond of balancing them for the sole purpose of knocking them down again by throwing baseball-sized rocks at the towers. It could be a painful experience for anyone caught in the crossfire. As I sat there, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never come down to balance stones on my own. I could actually take my time finding the perfect stones and balance them as high as I chose without worrying about the boys accidentally stoning each other while my back was turned. That was too good to pass up.

I started out with a few smaller towers but they kept shifting and falling. I decided to work with larger stones, some weighing at least 20 pounds or more. But again, as the tower rose, the stones would shift and fall. I learned the hard way, as I seem to learn nearly everything, that trying to catch large, falling stones is a really, really dumb thing to do. Frustrated, I retreated to my spot on the boulders, rubbing my smashed fingers, knowing they’d be black and blue later. I love mechanical puzzles and I have a wicked competitive streak. I often time myself with a new puzzle, then try to beat my best time with each consecutive attempt. That was the way I had approached the stones. I had tried to build higher, faster, concentrating not on each stone but on an image of what the end result would be. That was why I had failed.

Balancing stones requires patience, not exactly my strongest virtue. I knew I needed to try it again. Slowly, this time. As I balanced the first stone on its pointed end, something happened that I had never noticed before, a vibration in my hands that stopped as the stone settled into place. With each subsequent stone, I felt the same vibration and I could feel if the stone would balance or fall. More than that, I could feel when the lower stones were about to shift out of balance. Sometimes that meant discarding one stone in favor of another so as not to topple the entire tower.

Stop.
Breathe.
Wait for the stone to be still.
Only then could I let go.
The end result was impossibly balanced.

Many of the towers I’ve built in my life went up too fast or on shaky stones. Except in life, when I tried to catch what I should have let fall, I smashed far more than my fingers. As C.S. Lewis said, ‘Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn. By God, do you learn.’ And I have learned. I feel the vibrations as it seems it may be time to discard one stone in favor of another and I know I need to wait for the stillness before I can let go. I have no idea what the final result will be, but I know that somehow it will be impossibly balanced.

Tiny Stitches

Anyone who knows me will tell you, I often say, “Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine.”

And yet I can sit for hours upon hours with a needle in hand and stitch beautiful patterns. Well, I could. I haven’t for almost six years now. First it was my eyes and then my hands that wouldn’t cooperate. I got so frustrated that I gave up. I miss it far more than I could ever put into words, which is saying something because words are kind of my thing.

My favorite embroidery piece hangs in my mother’s living room. I stitched it on fine Irish linen with the best thread I could find. I spent close to $200 on the materials at a time when I caught hell for even buying a bottle of nail polish for myself. I was at the darkest point in my life when I started working on it. I’d screamed for God to help me and when I realized He was suddenly right there with me…I froze. I didn’t really expect Him to care. For the next couple of months, I wasn’t exactly talking to God but I wasn’t exactly not talking to Him to either. I sort of tolerated Him being around. Yeah, I know how arrogant that sounds. It wasn’t really arrogance. It was fear. I mean… What if He left?

Like I said, it was a dark place to be in.

But when I had my needle in my hand and that linen spread out on my lap, the darkness wasn’t quite so dark. After the first ten stitches, I fell into a rhythm. I didn’t think about anything. I counted without even knowing it and I lost myself in the tiny spaces between threads. Somehow, when I got lost in the stitches, it was okay that God was watching over my shoulder. After awhile, I actually liked that He was right there with me while I worked because I just couldn’t handle His closeness when I wasn’t working. I’d freeze like a deer in the headlights.

It took me six months to finish that project and I typically worked on it for four hours a day, some days more. I did the math once. It’s close to 70,000 stitches. By hand. One stitch at a time. It was a lot of time spent with God at a time when I really needed to trust Him and I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

I picked up a new pattern today. It’s not quite as intricate as what I used to do and I’ll be lucky if I can work on it for more than thirty minutes a day. I’ll probably end up patching my weaker eye so the pattern grid doesn’t make me go cross-eyed. Hopefully my temperamental fingers will cooperate. I don’t know what made me decide to try and pick up a needle again now but I did. Maybe I’m not quite ready to let the RA take this away from me. Not yet damn it! Maybe I need some time to get lost in the threads with God watching over my shoulder.

One thing I learned about embroidery: Before you can even make the first stitch, you have to find the absolute center of the fabric. You always work your way out from the center. It never quite works out if you don’t. It takes a very long time and lot of work before the pattern really takes any shape. Sometimes you screw it up. Royally screw it up. So you throw your scissors across the room and you cry a little. Then you tell yourself, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” You rip out a few hundred tiny little stitches and rework that section again. But when it’s done, it’s always beautiful and it’s worth every single stitch it took to finish it. Kind of like life I guess.

The other thing I learned: Looking at that piece, most people see four brightly colored birds. I still see those 70,000 stitches. I’m the only one who can still find all the mistakes. More than that, I’m the only one who even looks for the mistakes.

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Life Lessons From Frozen Chicken

I have a problem with patience. Actually the problem is I don’t have much of it. I have a saying my kids know by heart: Patience is a virtue. It isn’t one of mine.

There’s a lot going on in my life lately. Too much of go go go and do do do are cutting into my quiet time to just be. I missed out on Mass last week thanks to the blizzard and I’d missed the Tuesday and Thursday Masses before the storm too. I was too tired and too stressed to go. I had too much to do. In the end though, instead of feeling like I’d accomplished more during that time, I felt more rushed and more exhausted. Guess what, more rushed plus more exhausted equals less patient. Not good. That four days spent snowed in was good for me but when it was over, I dove in and tried to make up time. It’s a silly thing really. Time comes and it goes. I don’t know how much I have. None of us do. I have no control over so many things that impact my time and yet what do I stress the most over? Time! It felt so good to go to Mass Sunday night but the ‘just be’ didn’t last long.

Monday was another one of those crazy days. I woke up with a blinding headache. I went to work. I got out early and rushed home for five minutes. It was just long enough to pick up the boys and rush to a scout event that involved lunch at McDonald’s then driving twenty minutes each way to tour a television station. The boys didn’t eat at McDonald’s. I couldn’t believe it. All the times they beg me to take them and this one time, they won’t eat. So on the way home from our television station tour, the first question was, “So what’s for lunch?” It was 3:00! We’d gone out for lunch. They didn’t eat and now they wanted lunch while I was figuring out what to cook for dinner. When we got home Eugene wanted a fried egg and ketchup sandwich. The toast had to be perfect golden brown. Then it had to be layered bread, ketchup, egg, ketchup, and bread. Andrew wanted a frozen French bread pizza. So despite the headache, I did my best short order cook impersonation.

Meanwhile, I still had to start dinner when all I really wanted to do was sit down and close my eyes for ten minutes. Eugene requested chicken soup. That was simple enough to suit me. I had some frozen chicken breast in the freezer. Now a patient person would put the frozen chicken breast, package and all into water to thaw a little. Not me. I decided to pry the chicken out of the foam package. It was frozen solid and stuck fast. I, who can’t open soda bottles, decided I would use brute force to free this solid ice bird from it’s foam tray prison. I’m not exactly sure how it happened but the next thing I knew, my thumb was stuck. It got wedged between the chicken and the foam. I couldn’t get it loose and now working one-handed I couldn’t get a good enough grip to pull the chicken off the trapped thumb. On top of that, it really hurt! I was getting frostbite on the fingertips of my right hand while trying to free the left thumb. I struggled for a few minutes and finally had to call for Andrew. “Andrew! Come in here! Hurry! My thumb is stuck under the chicken!” To his great credit, he managed to break the foam so I could pull the thumb out before he burst out laughing. We laughed until our bellies hurt and tears streamed down our cheeks.

Two minutes under hot water in the sink was all it took to get the rest of the tray unstuck from the chicken. As I chopped the carrots for the soup, I had some time to think about how ridiculous it was of me to try to force something that was obviously not meant to be forced. And for what? To save two minutes? Instead I ended up with very bruised thumb and a slightly bruised ego. How many other things in my life do I try to force? How much unnecessary pain do I cause myself? Is it really a lack of patience or is it really a need to control the uncontrollable?

It’s funny the things life can teach you. Who would believe I’d learn life lessons about patience and control from a frozen chicken? God has a twisted sense of humor. I like that about Him.