The Great Divide

“Trump is like the catalyst of an earthquake that just divided two continents of thought. Once the Earth divides like that, there’s no going back. This is a marked time in our history where people had to jump from one side to the other. And depending on what side you choose, that is going to be the trajectory for the rest of your life,” she said.

A North Carolina woman is quoted as saying that in an NPR article, “‘You are no longer my mother:’ How the election is dividing American families.” She does not believe the rift that has erupted between her and her mother will be healed regardless of the election results.

She was not the only one in in the article to express an opinion like that. A 77-year-old woman who separated from her husband in 2016 because he voted for Trump expressed the same opinion.

“I think the legacy of Trump is going to take a long time to recover from,” she is quoted as saying. She is also estranged from two of her grandchildren and other relatives as a result of the Trump presidency.

A professor of psychology and neural science at New York University said the “political sectarianism” has become moral, which will have permanent ramifications.

“Because Trump has been one of the most polarizing figures in American history around core values and issues, people are unwilling to compromise and that is not something you can make go away,” he is quoted as saying.

As bad as this sounds, I was relieved to stumble across this article this morning. For years and years I’ve been railing against the polarization which has been dividing our nation. I believe very strongly that as a nation we can only stand if we are united, if bipartisan committees at both the state and federal level bring the strengths of both parties to the table and hammer out real solutions to our problems.

I’ve railed against every group that I’ve seen furthering that divide. Although I’m Catholic, I’ve railed against anti-abortionists for their either-or thinking. When Jesus was challenged by the religious leaders of his time to make an either-or decision, he found a life-giving third option. Don’t believe me? Prayerfully read in John’s gospel the story of the woman caught in adultery. I have said over and over that we cannot prevent abortions with either-or thinking; we must find a life-giving third way. And I’ve been slammed as a result of my position.

I have railed against politicians who are furthering that great divide, which lately has been the Republican Party. In Congress, we see them propose a bill and when it fails to garner support from Democrats point their partisan fingers at their colleagues when they should be looking at themselves in the mirror and experiencing deep shame. If they had the common decency to sit down with their colleagues to hammer out solutions together, bills would pass and the finger-pointing could cease.

So, feeling this way, I’ve been ashamed to discover that I’ve been cutting people from my life simply because they’re Trump supporters.

No, I should have worded that sentence differently. The chasm has not developed because they are Trump supporters but because we don’t have a shared reality. We cannot discuss issues of great importance because we can’t agree on what is true.

My sources are mainstream media sources that are highly credible because their reporting stands up to fact-checking. I read articles from both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal because each has a different perspective. I read articles produced by the Associated Press and Reuters because they do not attempt to lead readers with loaded language and because their writing is almost always sourced. Obviously, I also check NPR which leans slightly to the left, but ranks very high when it comes to credibility.

The Trump supporters from whom I’ve become estranged believe — ACTUALLY BELIEVE — the alt-right sources they prefer present factually accurate information — EVEN WHEN THE STORIES DON’T STAND UP TO FACT CHECKING. Like Trump, they believe the truth is fake news. THE TRUTH.

I’m yelling. I’m sorry.

For the most part, I’ve maintained relationships with Trump supporters who are near and dear to me by avoiding political discussions. I know that for the most part, they aren’t so much Trump supporters as Republican and he is their candidate. I can respect that, though as a moderate who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats over the years, I have to honestly say I don’t fully understand that perspective. Shouldn’t you look at more than the candidate’s party? Shouldn’t you look at their political record? Shouldn’t you look at their values to see whether they align with your own?

But, I digress.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to maintain all of the relationships that have been important to me over the years. A longtime friend, who like me has straddled the fence for years, became emotionally involved with a Trump supporter and she is now as fanatical about Trump as he is. Even though I am an award-winning journalist, she believes he knows more about media credibility than I do. I want to shake her and scream at her and hope that his influence somehow rattles lose and rolls away. However, I know that women in love do not betray their paramours for common sense. Ask the friends and family members of any abuse victim; they will confirm that statement.

So, I just avoid having contact with her — which also means reducing the amount of contact I have with her brother, who has been very dear to me in recent years. Putting him in the middle isn’t fair, and truth be told, I suspect he would pick her if forced to choose. So, I walk away because that’s easier than being rejected.

Doing so is difficult. Losing my beloved friend is also difficult. Reading about families across the country experiencing the same kinds of trauma is painful. As a woman of faith, I must have faith in the Lord; I must believe his hand is leading me. As a woman of faith, I must have hope and I must somehow promote peace. I have to believe God keeps bringing to mind a passage from the Prophet Isaiah for a reason.

Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
” (43:18-19, NIV)

I have to believe the ever-creative, healing power of God can do a new thing, can help us bridge the great divide which separates from one another. I have to believe that we can forget the partisanship which is destroying the foundation of our great nation.I have to believe God will lead us through the wilderness that surrounds us today.

Open Letter to Kristi Noem

Dear Kristi,

I haven’t seen you for a while. Our last encounter was last September when the Madison area was dealing with what I believe was called a 500-year flood. I was in the Emergency Operations Center. Calling me by name, you asked how I had been affected. I told you my ice cream was melting because I was without power. You suggested we go eat it.

Of course, since you are now courting the national spotlight, it’s not surprising you no longer have time for the local media. My stories won’t launch your political career to new heights. Considering how you have mishandled the COVID pandemic in South Dakota, I personally hope you discover that in seeking national attention, you’ve made a tragic misstep and you soon find yourself floundering like a fish out of water, struggling for political life the way I struggle for breath as I write this.

Does that sound melodramatic? At least it’s honest. I don’t pull some less than credible study out of my hat and lie not only to the people of South Dakota, but to the whole nation. The science on masks is not mixed. The science on masks is clear. They make a difference. I know your political idol, a man who claims to be a business genius but actually managed to bankrupt a casino, has encouraged folks not to wear masks, but he has not studied infectious diseases and he has not listened to experts in the field.

While you have simply failed to act appropriately, have failed to promote masks and social distancing, he has sabotaged the nation’s response to the pandemic. But, of course, you already know this and don’t care. Standing with him has resulted in the kind of contacts and donations you covet — and need if you are going to launch your career onto the national stage. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart,” and it’s clear your heart is not with the people of South Dakota. Your heart is with the political operatives who promise to make your dreams come true.

If this sounds personal, Kristi, good! Because since we last talked, I’ve been battling Stage III cancer. It’s been a rough journey. I had a bad reaction to one of the drugs in the standard chemo cocktail, and had to take a fairly significant doses of dexamethasone to tolerate the alternative used. The side effects were grueling and I had to cope alone because of the pandemic. While we did not get a cure, the chemo knocked back the cancer and my oncologist was pleased. He said the results were better than he had expected when we started.

Now, I am on immunotherapy. Every three weeks, I get an infusion and every nine weeks, I get a CT scan. These days I shudder just thinking about the CT scans because the iodine in the two pints of water I must drink tastes metallic and leaves an aftertaste that lasts for hours, tainting the flavor of anything I eat or drink. But, it’s a necessary evil.

Because I am immunocompromised, I’ve been self-isolating since the first community spread in South Dakota. With two exceptions, I have worn a mask whenever I’ve been indoors with others present. Twice, since resuming in-person interviews, I have forgotten to grab my mask from my purse before entering a building where others were present — twice in six months. I have eaten in a restaurant once — and only because I had scheduled my car for routine maintenance after a CT scan, which means I hadn’t been able to eat for hours and was hungry. Had the outdoors tables not been full, I would have eaten outdoors. I’ve only entered one business on a regular basis — the local grocery store about every two weeks, always wearing a mask.

My point, Kristi, is this — I have been taking precautions. But the people around me have not. When I go to the grocery store, few people are wearing masks. When I cover a county commission meeting, only one or two others in the room is wearing a mask. When I do in-person interviews, few volunteer to wear a mask and some think it’s odd that I do until I explain I have cancer.

Unfortunately, my mask protects others. They are doing nothing to protect me, thanks to your poor leadership. You have managed a public health crisis as though it were a political issue, and failed to provide the kind of leadership we have needed. I’m not saying you should have closed businesses. I am saying you should have advocated wearing masks, limited gatherings, and worked to creatively address the economic ramifications rather than relying on an easy answer — increase tourism.

Because of your poor leadership, I’m sleeping in a recliner so that I can breathe, wearing my warmest pajamas and swaddling myself in blankets even though I have the thermostat set at 75 because I have the chills, and am suffering with a severe headache that OTC medications don’t break. I have a low-grade fever and runny nose. The possibility exists that I have a cold, but the bread I was baking earlier this week burned and I didn’t smell it — not the bread, not the burning.

I won’t know until next week whether I do have COVID. I was tested yesterday. The nurse, dressed as though she were dealing with a hazmat situation, was clearly unhappy with being asked to swab yet another nose. She dealt with it in a perfunctory manner, and my nasal passages are still sore from the experience. I don’t know if she was unnecessarily forceful or if that is the way the test is routinely conducted. I do know that in a year filled with blood draws and medical procedures, that test was memorable.

So, Kristi, the next time you see me, don’t try to pretend we’re friends. You have demonstrated with your callous disregard for human life that I am nothing to you. If I die, you won’t care one iota more than you have cared for the hundreds of families who have already lost loved ones to COVID or the thousands who suffer as I do.

You, Kristi Noem, don’t care about South Dakota or South Dakotans. You, Kristi Noem, care about being in the spotlight and you will sacrifice all of us if that will give you a few more minutes of fame. Shame on you.

Sincerely,

Mary Gales Askren

Embrace Reality

I have wanted to be holy since I was a child.

I would kneel before the statue of Our Blessed Mother and dream of being chosen for a Marian apparition like Bernadette at Lourdes or the children at Fatima. Had I known that being chosen by God brought challenges and burdens, I might not have prayed so fervently. But I was a child, and not knowing any better, wanted Mary to give me a special message with a sign — preferably one with beautiful colors like Our Lady of Guadalupe gave Juan Diego.

Adolescence followed childhood and those dreams faded — from lack of encouragement as much as anything. I wanted to go to a Catholic boarding school and enter religious life. My mom wanted grandchildren. I was concerned with sins of the flesh, having read a biography of St. Maria Goretti more than once. My mother encouraged me to spend time alone in the dark with a boy, hoping — I would guess — temptations of the flesh would overcome my reticence. I wonder if she ever knew we spent those hours she so carefully manufactured talking.

Her death tore my dream world apart. Suddenly, I hungered for love, thirsted for love, and craved love — or some reasonable facsimile — more than I had ever wanted to be holy. Desperation like that destroys more than it ever creates and so it was in my life. A violent relationship was better than no relationship. A drunken encounter was better than agonizing loneliness. Death was more attractive than life, which is how I found myself waking up in an emergency room one December night.

Oddly enough, God does not abandon us when we choose paths that are far from holiness. I lived with a man and wrote songs based on the psalms. I avoided church, having lost faith in organized religion, and God told me that my children were a sign of his faith in me. I struggled to find a way to understand and express my innate call to the spiritual life, and God led me back into a Church community. Always, he accompanied me, guiding me with gentleness, recognizing in my sinfulness the wounds which must be healed.

Eventually, my life of faith took on a more familiar shape — regular church attendance, ministries which used the gifts God gave me, and the joyful intimacy of a rich prayer life. I began to experience a sense of being chosen — not for a special message, but to be part of his family, his body, the church. I began to learn what it meant to trust him and I experienced the deep peace which comes from knowing his love in my life. Bliss. Contentedness. Joy.

But God is never satisfied to leave well enough alone. He has to stir things up. That fall, that blessed and holy fall, I attended a retreat and — I don’t know. I honestly do not know. I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, not with words but with the deep stillness which can come with centering prayer, when something happened. I call it an anointing of the Holy Spirit because I was filled and emptied at the same time. I felt as though I were encased in light, although no one around me seemed to notice anything special. I surrendered completely to God, murmuring over and over, “Anything, Lord, anything. Anything, Lord, anything.”

When I shared the experience with my spiritual director — a no-nonsense ranch wife who happened to be married to a deacon — she told me I needed to come off that mountain and get a job. I was unemployed, but felt God had given me a special gift that I needed to prayerfully discern before jumping into work that might not be his will for my life.

For me, that moment of grace came after seven difficult years. A decade before, I had felt called to religious life. The vocations director of the congregation I sought to join didn’t see me as a good candidate and had told me she didn’t think I was called to serve. Now, I would argue with her that a good reporter does serve, that a good reporter builds community and reflects God into the world in the way a story is covered. Then, I accepted her judgment and eventually, feeling unwelcome, withdrew from formation.

Then, I set out to prove she was wrong. I quit a job I loved and accepted a position for which I was ill-suited, running a nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children. I was fired 16 months later, and went through three more jobs in the following five years before attending the pivotal retreat. During that time, I went through what St. John of the Cross called a dark night of the soul. I blamed the poor decision I had made in leaving the job I loved for the spiritual hardship that followed. I did not, after being touched by God, want to make the same mistake again. I did not want to simply get a job without discerning God’s will for my life.

Now, I can see that my spiritual director was right and chuckle about my resistance. The night of my spiritual epiphany — for lack of a better word — I sat outside on an Adirondack chair and wrote down words and thoughts as they came to me. Later, when I reread those pages, two words jumped out at me — obedience and humility. I didn’t begin to understand either in the context of my life. But in the years that have elapsed since then, I have come to understand that God was telling me something very simple and fundamental — embrace reality.

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, S.J., explains that obedience as a spiritual discipline involves embracing reality, accepting the experiences and events in our lives as God’s will for us. In her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sr. Joan Chittister explains that humility in Benedictine spirituality involves embracing reality, accepting the experiences and events in our lives as God’s will for us. That night, when I surrendered to God, he gave me the keys to living that surrender, though I am still learning how to live it on a daily basis.

I do know, though, it means using the gifts he has given me in the ways that are presented to me. I know that it means I need to accept both open doors and closed doors, trusting that his hand is leading me. I am learning to understand the inner movements that are his little nudges to do this or that. But, most of all, I know that his will for my life can only be found by embracing the reality of each and every day.

Media Bias & Reader Bias Reflect Our Humanity

A month or so ago, I was sitting in the local coffee house, chatting with a guy I had met while putting together a story. He shared with me a quotation — which I don’t remember — that he felt was an insult to my profession. He didn’t share it to insult me, but because it reflected a bit of his worldview.

I surprised him. I agreed with the accuracy of the observation, and then I shared with him a story. During the last gubernatorial election, both my colleague at the newspaper and I exercised significant influence over what local readers learned about the candidates.

When Candidate A came to town to speak at an event, I covered it, noting key points and trying hard to accurately reflect what the candidate said without using language which reflected bias. My colleague, I had noticed, often used the word “claimed” when reporting on a candidate whose political positions weren’t consistent with his own. However, candidates he supported always “said” or “stated.” I didn’t want to be guilty of that crime.

When Candidate B came to town to speak at an event, my colleague was assigned to cover the event. He managed to do so without even mentioning the candidate. He did not snap a picture. He did not talk to the candidate. If the candidate spoke, he did not make note of it. It was as though Candidate B had never been there.

That set the tone for the rest of the election coverage. Candidate A had been pleased with my coverage and subsequently notified me when a campaign event was to take place. I never wrote another story, though I did — sometimes — show up to take a picture. More importantly, my colleague did not cover these events either. I argued — successfully — that it wasn’t fair to cover one candidate’s events and not cover the other candidate’s events, that to do so reflected bias.

When Candidate B came back to town, I covered the event, arguing that my colleague had already shown bias in his coverage and would undoubtedly do so a second time. I managed to write a story about Candidate B’s second visit that was recognized with an award by the Associated Press.

Every time a reporter tackles a story, the reporter brings to the story his or her own humanity, his or her own experiences and worldview, his or her own — yes, I will use the word — bias. That bias — that humanity — is reflected in the stories the reporter chooses. (Some are assigned, but most editors have more to do than drum up stories for their reporters.) It is reflected in the details a reporter includes and in the details a reporter excludes. Bias — humanity — is shown in word choice, in the structure of the story, in the way research is conducted.

I recently wrote on a controversial topic. I started by reading coverage on the topic by major newspapers and the Associated Press. Then I spoke with someone who had been advised not to speak with the press. Fortunately, I have an established relationship with this individual, who has a great deal at stake, and was able to have an informative, off-the-record conversation.

At that point, I talked with the editor and we outlined the issues we felt needed to be addressed due to the local impact. I contacted a couple key players, both of whom felt they had been burned by the press. I was able to convince one to provide written answers to questions. With the other, I was luckier because I have previously dealt with them in what they felt to be a fair manner. I was granted a personal interview.

After the interview, I started thinking about what I had learned. I could circle back and rehash the same stuff that others had already gnawed over with thoroughness — or I could find another angle. I made my arguments for both approaches with the editor and we decided together to go with a different angle.

If, as my sources alleged, they had been misrepresented by one of the major newspapers, I had nothing to gain by going head-to-head with that reporter. They are big; we are small. Big wins, hands down in the U.S. of A. The basic premise is they have more resources to do investigative work, and therefore are infallible. By approaching it from a different angle, I could explore some of the same issues without — to use a colloquialism — getting in a pissing match. I contacted one of the people who is responsible for mitigating the local risk and allowed his informed opinion to help me weigh the rest of what I had learned.

I was satisfied when I had finished. Questions still remain, and will for sometime yet, but I know I did the best I could at this point. I educated myself about the issue, but I did not go into my interviews with any agenda apart from getting the facts. I recognized that my sources were going to spin the information — that’s human nature — so I asked the same question from several different angles until I felt I understood the heart of the matter. Then, I did what I could to mitigate my bias by checking with my editor as I worked, and I closely edited my work, keeping it overnight to look at it a final time before filing it.

Here is the flip side of media bias: readers have biases, too. They come to stories with their own humanity, their own experiences and worldview, their own preconceptions. And so, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — media bias is actually reader bias. The reader says, “This does not agree with what I think, with what I have heard, with what I believe, and therefore the reporter is biased.”

Sadly, that has led lots of folks to seek out self-reinforcing “news” sources so they don’t have to consider ideas with which they disagree. This, in turn, has increasingly polarized our world and led to either-or thinking, which saddens me. We need one another, because we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. If we pull together instead of against each other, we will be able to build on all of our strengths and mitigate all of our weaknesses.

I think recognizing our personal biases is the place to start.

Our Dangerous World

We live in a bleak world right now — bleak, because the ground beneath our feet is shifting; bleak, because the winners and losers are easy to identify, but more often than not, the true enemy is within; bleak, because we are increasingly isolated from one another.

Today, as I cleaned my kitchen, I was thinking about a political discussion I’ve been having with a friend. At one time, we agreed about most things. However, as our ideas have been influenced by different information sources, we have grown apart.

On a personal level, this has been difficult. Shared values create a strong foundation for friendship, and ultimately, politics is about values. What do you believe is important? How do you believe our nation’s resources should be invested? What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?

When that foundation is damaged, everything changes. The sanctuary of frank conversation no longer exists. The habit of easy discourse and laughter must be broken so new patterns of interaction can be developed that respectfully circumvent topics leading to discord. Underlying those efforts is the fear that even prayer and good intentions won’t be enough to salvage something.

As I was mulling this over, I found myself thinking of a movie from the 1990s called “The Swing Kids.” Set in Nazi Germany, it is about the friendship between three young men. They all love jazz — two love dancing; one is handicapped, but is an amazing musician.

Because jazz is verboten — forbidden — they each encounter problems with the authorities. One, the handicapped musician, ends up killing himself. One of the dancers is influenced by the materials used to indoctrinate Hitler’s Youth and embraces Nazi ideals. The other is repulsed by his experiences and makes a public statement of opposition by jazz dancing at a dance hall. He, of course, is arrested.

It’s easy with the 20/20 hindsight of history to know which one made the right decision — the young man who was repulsed by Nazi ideals. But, we don’t yet have 20/20 hindsight about the times through which we are living. We don’t know how the nationalism — so like that which led the world into war in the 1930s and 1940s — will shape our world in its current incarnation.

What we do know is that we can all be pawns of powers which hide behind the curtain and manipulate us with messages. The Internet makes it easy. Any individual can put any idea out there and be believed. The idea doesn’t have to be true. The idea doesn’t even have to be plausible. The idea only needs to resonate with a few people who pass it on to others and suddenly it is being embraced as real and true.

As a person who works professionally with words, this dynamic scares the living bejesus out of me. If we can’t trust the written word, what can we believe?

I try to stick to mainstream news sources — reading both those which lean left and those which lean right to have a more balanced perspective. By doing so, I hope to avoid the greatest risk of being manipulated, but even then I am not immune. A while back a video clip taken out of context made the news. As the full story emerged, the incident reflected bad judgment, but not the message it had been edited to imply.

I had jumped on the bandwagon of consternation, and experienced remorse for doing so. That raised alarm bells for me. If I — alert to the dangers posed by the Internet these days and taking preventative action — can be so easily misled, how might others who are less cautious be influenced? And how might they act on what they believe to be true?

That’s what frightens me the most. How might people act on what they believe to be true?

We live in volatile times. Gun violence is becoming normalized. Elected officials role model bullying. Changing weather patterns are creating personal stress on wide swaths of the world’s peoples. Making things worse, the Internet seems to fan sparks into fire all over the place.

I don’t know what we can do on the personal level to address any of the big problems, but I refuse to concede that nothing can be done. Maybe we can at least be kind to one another. Maybe we can hold our friends in our hearts with love, even when we have differences of opinion. Maybe we can resist all that threatens to destroy us by doing good — in our families and in our communities, knowing that by doing so we send ripples of hope into the world.

Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be making an effort to shine light into the darkness of these times.

Stop! Look! Listen!

I lead a retreat three years ago, in June 2016, about remembrance, and its place in our spiritual life. I opened the retreat by telling a story.

Storytelling lies at the heart of my approach to leading retreats. I learn about God through my life. I pray. I reflect on Scripture. And, as much as possible, I knead to Word of God into my life — to borrow an idea from French mystic Madeleine Delbrel. As a result, my life becomes the tool God uses to teach me and to draw me into a deeper relationship with himself.

That particular story began seven years earlier, and wound through life experiences and dreams — the nighttime kind, not the wanting-in-life kind. It ended with me reviewing an old prayer journal one Saturday morning and finding an entry that made me laugh out loud. I realized when I read the journal entry that I had entirely misinterpreted an experience in prayer, and that God had fulfilled his promise even though I hadn’t noticed until that Saturday morning.

I concluded my opening remarks by saying, “I have really come to believe that remembrance is an important dimension of the spiritual life. … Remembrance helps us to give credit where credit is due, and when we begin to see God at work in our lives, we become more sensitive to his hand turning us to the left and to the right. For me, journal writing is a way of becoming more open to that guiding hand.”

This morning, I find myself thinking I should probably make a habit of practicing what I preach. I should review my journals on a regular basis to see how God is at work. This practice would enable me to be a more intentional co-creator, collaborating with God’s hand rather than running around willy-nilly chased by emotions, ego and pride.

Not surprisingly, since God has not seen fit to send angels my way, but occasionally speaks to me through dreams when I am being especially recalcitrant, a dream provided the necessary nudge. I dreamed I had to solve a problem. As my alarm relentlessly drew me out of sleep, I was scrambling to solve the problem, knowing that if I failed, the repercussions would be irreversible and devastating. As I was pulled from the dream by the fast current of awakening, I realized I couldn’t solve the problem because I didn’t understand it.

I woke feeling distressed with a question on my lips. What if I got it wrong?

A dream through which God hopes to work (plans to work? works?) usually lingers rather than fading. And so it was on that occasion. The question lingered. The dream image of being pulled away from a conference table and out of the meeting room lingered. The growing awareness that I hadn’t understood the problem we were attempting to solve lingered.

As I wrote in my journal that evening, I realized I was wearing blinders. I realized I was spending less time in prayer, meditation and reflection than is necessary for me to live attuned to God’s voice. I realized I had allowed myself to become so busy — an unfortunate pattern in my life that always proves to be counterproductive — I could only see the immediate present and ways it deviated from what I wanted.

I realized it was time to stop, look and listen. I needed to stop doing so much I sacrificed my prayer time. I needed to look back, to review journals and to identify how God has been at work. If I can’t see him at work, I can’t remember what he has done, and if I can’t remember, I am not open to the guidance he provides.

Finally, I needed to listen. I needed to listen to the way he was speaking through the circumstances of my life and the desires of my heart. The listening has been greatly facilitated by the decision to work less and pray more. I’ve needed to adjust some routines, but already I am more at peace.

Reviewing my journals and reflecting upon what I find on those pages helps, too. As I remember times over the past year when I have experienced peace, joy, love, and the other fruits of the Spirit, I am filled with a quiet certainty that God has been at work. I may not understand his ineffable ways, but I can trust the evidence he scatters through all my days. And so, like the psalmist, I will remember.

The Magic Of Books

I firmly believe the answer to any problem can be found in a book. I further believe that synchronicity brings us into relationship with the book we need when we need it.

However, if I am to be honest with myself, I must consider the possibility that my belief in synchronicity — a concept psychologist Carl Jung developed over a period of 30 years — is a holdover from graduate school and my foray into reading Tarot cards. I wanted to write my thesis on the works of Canadian writer Robertson Davies, specifically a trilogy (I think) in which a reading by a gypsy fortune teller was woven into each plot.

This appealed to me because I had read somewhere while earning an undergraduate minor in psychology that Jung used Tarot cards with his patients. Assuming my memory is accurate, he didn’t use them for fortune telling, but rather to open the minds of his patients to new connections through the archetypes found in the cards. Having been raised Catholic, I shied away from anything related to the occult, but I was still intrigued.

When I ran across the reference to Tarot cards in a novel in one of my grad classes, my ever-creative mind found a valid loophole for exploring them. I felt I needed to understand the cards themselves before I could understand Davies’s use of them in his novels. I felt that as long as I limited the scope of my research, I wouldn’t slide into anything my Catholic conscience would consider sinful.

And thus it began.

I ended up reading Tarot cards off and on for 20 years — far more off than on. I only read them regularly for a little over a year. After that, they lay in the bottom of a dresser drawer until I finally gave them away. You aren’t supposed to read the cards for yourself, but I could never resist the temptation to do so when my life was in transition. Yes, during difficult times, I looked to Tarot cards, hoping God would use them to provide some guidance, because he never saw fit to send angels or burning bushes to give me direction.

Eventually, God managed to wrap my head around the idea that I needed trust him to work in my life one day at a time. Eventually, I learned I don’t need to know what is going to happen when my life seems to be unraveling around me; I need only know that when all that makes my heart ache and my stomach churn and my head pound finally passes, and the dust settles, all will be well. While I may find myself in places I would not have dreamed possible, I will be grateful.

Of course, I would be negligent if I didn’t say this: Sometimes those periods of uncertainty last for years. The path of faithfulness is not for those who lack courage. Trusting God for daily bread when you are unemployed — tough. Trusting God to give you wisdom to traverse the minefield of a relationship in turmoil — tougher.

But you do it. And books can help — if you are receptive to the possibility.

Whether finding the right book at the right time is simply synchronicity, one of Jung’s meaningful coincidences, or whether God works through synchronicity to provide needed sustenance is a mystery. Personally, I lean toward the latter, but I tend to think God does work in the circumstances of our lives.

Granted, the gift of a book seems like a pretty small miracle when compared to some of his splashier jobs — creation, the virgin birth, the resurrection. But when it comes to miracles, I don’t know that size matters. Miracles essentially do two things: they get our attention and they change the world.

The right book at the right time can do exactly that. The right book will get your attention, and it will change the way you deal with a difficult situation. That change will affect the outcome, because it creates a space for God to work.

So, lately, I have been wrestling with a relationship in transition. A separation I chose, because it seemed like the healthiest option, is more difficult than I expected. I knew I would be sad, but I did not expect this profound sense of loss, this post-knocked-through-my-middle, will-I-ever-breathe-again pain. I vacillate between thinking I made a horrible mistake and knowing I made the best decision possible considering the circumstances. The problem with pain is that it likes to tug you into despair.

Fortunately, I experienced a book miracle. I found a book of essays called: Beautiful Hope: Finding Hope Every Day in a Broken World. I am trying to read and reflect on one of the essays every day or so. This week, I was both comforted and encouraged by one called, “Expect the Impossible” by Father Jacques Philippe. He wrote:

“Faith and hope are like the wings of love; they give power to launch out ever further, to take flight unceasingly, without getting exhausted or discouraged. When hope dwindles, love dies down; the heart is invaded by uneasiness and worry, which stifle charity. Hope keeps the heart free to love, and to give itself.”

I smiled when I read that. “Got it, God,” I thought. “Don’t give up hope.”

Hope on that particular day was truly a miracle.

I Hurt

I suppose I should get out of bed. That’s what I told myself for well over two hours. I should get out of bed.

If I have something to do, I manage it. You don’t live with depression for as long as I did without developing a few strategies for coping with an energy-sapping roommate like that. The first was always: fulfill obligations.

This morning, I did get up and dress for Mass. I even managed to drive to the church — a new church since the priest in town thinks Mass is a theatrical production, not a worship service. I don’t have patience for shenanigans like that. Unfortunately, the website for the new church hadn’t listed the correct time, and I didn’t have the energy to start looking for a different church.

I went home and went back to bed. Sleep is a wonderful way to escape emotional pain — when emotional pain doesn’t keep you awake, poking and prodding with unanswerable questions until your bed is a tangle of sheets and you’re physically exhausted from tossing and turning. I did manage a couple hours of deep and dreamless sleep; my body was probably exhausted — it happens.

As I lay in bed, I remembered a passage from a book I read more than 20 years ago. I had picked it up on a discount table, where I found most of my books in that pre-ebook era — Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller. I was no longer in therapy, having unraveled most of the knots which resulted from the physical, sexual and psychological abuse I had suffered. However, I hadn’t found my way back to God.

I vacillated between feeling unworthy — I had been raised Catholic after all — and being angry with God for the plethora of obstacles he had flung in my path. In my late-30s, I was a single parent with two children, receiving no child support, working two jobs with a combined income that still placed us well below poverty level, and had no day-to-day emotional support. Instead, I always seemed to be mothering some young woman or another who latched onto me until she found her bearings.

I was putting one foot in front of the other, but that was about as good as it got. In some ways, I was grieving what might have been. I was smart. I was willing to work hard. What might have been had my life been different? But, there was also the despair of knowing my life wasn’t going to get much better. As a single woman in a low income bracket without the redeeming quality of physical attractiveness, I was always going to be disposable.

I knew that and the knowledge hurt. I wanted desperately to find a relationship with God that would carry me through, that would make the burden bearable. I don’t know that Muller helped me find my way back to God, but he did offer what was for me a life-changing idea. He said we have to enter into our pain and learn what the pain has to teach us to experience healing. He writes about counseling a client, “For just a moment, imagine letting go of the ‘Why’ and just allow yourself to say, ‘I hurt.’ Nothing more, just repeat that phrase a few times slowly, ‘I hurt.'”

I hurt.

How many times over the years have I gone back to those simple words, lived with them, and then slowly allowed healing to enter into my life? Two? Three? Four? The emotional wounds that are nearly as incapacitating as physical wounds don’t come often, but when they come, they take a toll. They not only disrupt your emotional equilibrium, but also churn through your life like a tornado, tearing apart relationships and routines, leaving everything in disarray.

You have to rebuild or move on. I’ve moved on after devastating job losses. This loss is different. I don’t know what I will do, what I can do. I spend hours laying in bed, wrapped in a warm knitted blanket, and mentally review the carnage. I say those two simple words over and over, “I hurt. I hurt.”

In a book which has offered me much encouragement over the years — The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher — Penelope loses the love of her life during war. When she receives the news, she recalls a poem her lover read to her, a poem from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, which contains the lines: “There will be time to audit / The accounts later, there will be sunlight later / And the equation will come out at last.” As she recalls the lines, one phrase — there will be sunlight later — stays with her “And it seemed as good a way as any to start out on the left-over life that lay ahead.”

There is always “the left-over life that lay ahead” which must be lived. I know this, and I will undoubtedly manage to live it. But right now, the way is not clear. I can only cling to the words that were a life raft in the past, and hope they will once again help me to keep my head above water.

I hurt.

I can only trust “there will be sunlight later.”

No Fool like an Old Fool

Everything is a matter of perspective. The kaleidoscope on my prayer desk reminds me of this. The mirrors refract images of the objects contained within. Shift the kaleidoscope, the pieces shift and the pattern changes.

With physical kaleidoscopes, the patterns are always beautiful. In life, shifting patterns can break your heart — show you things you don’t want to see. I know; I sit here bleeding all over the carpet — metaphorically. I can’t afford to replace the carpet in my rented apartment, so I am careful not to damage it in any way.

I wish I were as careful with my heart, with my life, with the people in my life. I am not prone to falling in love at the drop of a hat. I’ve had several sexual liaisons over the years — though none within the past 20 years (I’d say 30 years if I could just forget that guy who weaseled his way into my life because he needed admiration and I have a penchant for appreciating others) — which created that artificial bond that replicates but is not love.

Consequently, having never loved, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that (a) I was incapable of love and/or (b) I was not lovable. I don’t know exactly when that happened. Before I recognized imitation love for the fiction it was, I imagined I could love anyone. A couple abusive husbands and several disappointing pseudo-relationships later, my attitude had changed. I went through a phase where I believed that I had simply become involved with the wrong men, and still thought “someday” was possible. That gently slipped into an acceptance of the single life.

I loved my friends — primarily women. I loved my daughters — definitely women. I adored my granddaughters — girls rather than women. I slipped into a casual, bantering manner with men, and entered into a love affair with God. I spent long hours in prayer and meditation, allowed my heart and mind to be transformed by that relationship. I slowly began to craft a life with faith at its center.

Then I started working on a project for a friend and fell head over heels in love with her brother — want to spend my every waking moment with him love, can’t sleep at night because I am thinking of him love love, imagining the wedding before I knew his middle name love. It was crazy-making and wonderful all at the same time. I would listen to love songs and dance around my apartment, dreaming of him.

For the first time in my way-too-long life, the chemicals unleashed by physical intimacy were not leading me into an inappropriate relationship. (If God is truly merciful, and I make it into heaven, I am going to ask my sainted mother what she was thinking when she told me, after I was sexually molested at the age of 12, that a man grabs a woman to show he likes her. That was poor sex education.)

For the first time in my life, I was in love — no reservations love — with a man simply because he was so incredibly amazing. Smart and funny. Hard-working and responsible. Kind and generous. When we were together, I didn’t feel old and fat and ugly; I felt alive and appreciated. Before long, the hours we talked when we were together were extended by hours of conversation on the phone.

I jumped in with both feet. As much as time allowed, I started doing things I might do if we were together, weaving my life into his as much as circumstances allowed. I didn’t notice for a long time that he had drawn a line — you can come this far and no farther. I like you, but I do not love you. We are friends, but we will not have a life together.

I didn’t notice, and then the kaleidoscope shifted and a shaft went straight through my heart. I noticed. Mystery writers use the intuitive way the human mind creates patterns as a plot device which enables the detective — often amateur — to solve the crime which drives the plot. Of course, those new patterns often lead the crime-solver into danger. As an avid mystery reader, I should have recalled this, but I didn’t.

I withdrew the shaft from my heart, and probably severed the chances of crafting something different, more realistic and balanced. I will miss the gravelly sound of his voice at night, the chuckle of his amusement tickling me into laughter, the peace of knowing there is always someone just a phone call away who will listen to anything I have to say. I will miss the generous friendship that was faithful enough, steadfast enough to hold firm when I was lost in a dream. And, I will miss loving him.

Don’t Prove Yourself: Be Yourself

Stop! Stop! Stop!

I wanted to scream at the cynic talking to the young artist last week. The cynic was saying, in effect, “People creating art in South Dakota are just fooling themselves; they aren’t doing anything of worth. Art only matters if it is validated in major art centers like New York City.”

When I tried to offer another perspective, he talked right over the top of me. I finally pointed out that I listened when he spoke, and asked him to listen when I spoke. He agreed, but couldn’t seem to help himself. I was not allowed to complete an entire thought.

I finally got my message down to a sound-bite: “better” is not a word you should bring into a discussion about creating art.

My art is not better than the work that dear friends create, nor is their work better than mine. Our work is not better or worse than well-known artists working today. Rather, our work is different.

Even artists creating work within the same movement have individual, recognizable styles. I can tell a Monet from a Renoir even if I am not familiar with the individual pieces. That’s the beauty and joy of being an artist — that the medium we choose gives voice to what is in us, gives voice to who we are as remarkable individuals sharing a journey through life.

After that discussion, which disturbed me more than I could articulate at the time, I found myself thinking of my artistic journey. I stumbled into being an artist. In my heart of hearts, I longed to create images from the time I was young, but I didn’t have much natural talent. Still, when the opportunity arose, I took a design class, thinking a design class wouldn’t require talent, that I could learn something about creating art without revealing how hopelessly inept I was.

What I found was a mentor, though Signe would probably not see herself in that way. Signe helped me to see that art went far beyond what I imagined. After the design class, I took a drawing class, a color theory class and a painting class. With that foundation, I just began to practice.  Signe believed in painting from life, so I painted still lifes — often fruit and vegetables, but also plants and pieces of pottery or copper from my kitchen.

I would challenge myself with color exercises, limiting my palette to three or four colors plus white to see what I could accomplish. I would paint at night after my children went to bed, first at the kitchen table and later in a studio I set up in the corner of my living room. I would paint to find a center of peace that existed no where else in my chaotic world.

My abusive marriage was ending; I was a single parent; I had dreams of becoming a university professor but didn’t know how to get there. In the midst of all that, I had to provide emotional stability and a home for my children. I also had bills to pay, and little money with which to pay them. When I painted, all that dropped away and I entered into the present moment in a way that healed and strengthened me.

I have often joked that I paint to stay sane, but it’s not really a joke. It was my truth then, and it has been my truth every year during which I have painted since that time. Granted, sometimes I’ve allowed life to send me on a meandering detour which took me away from my brushes and easel, but when I paint, I am whole and more authentic than when I am not creating art.

It’s not about the art. It’s not about the validation of public recognition. It’s not about proving myself; it’s about being myself. It’s about being authentic, about being the person I was created to be.

I was well into my 30s when saw a major art exhibit for the first time. A friend and I went to the Chicago Art Institute and I saw the work of Cezanne for the first time, and Renoir and Seurat and Monet and Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. I saw other works as well, but it was a piece by O’Keeffe that tipped the scales for me.

The Modern Art wing was under reconstruction so “Sky above Clouds IV” was hung over a doorway. I looked up and thought, “I could do that.” I’d been at the museum for hours by then, and was suffering from what I’ve since learned is called museum fatigue. My response probably seems disrespectful of a great American master, and I could probably claim fatigue.

In truth, something else entirely was happening. An inner shift was occurring. Having studied the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists intensely, I’d strolled casually through the other galleries, pausing here and there to look at work by an artist whose name I recognized. I was saturated with richness of it, with the diversity of styles and images, with the timelessness of it.

I had realized that creating art is about bearing witness. Creating art is about staking a claim in the great ocean of time and saying, “This is where I live. This is what I see. This is what I experience as true in this place and time.”

When I said, “I can do this,” I wasn’t talking about replicating that piece. I was acknowledging my call to be an artist, to be a witness. I knew in that moment that unless I created art, my life would be wasted.

Nearly 30 years later, I feel the same way even though entire years have passed when I have not picked up a brush. I feel that creating art has given meaning to my life even though I’ve not gained national, international — or even regional — acclaim. My art — and my writing — are my legacy, but they are also more than that.

Creating art is an honest and public acknowledgement that I am living in this world in a way that is authentic, that uses the gifts God has given me and allows others to bear witness with me of life in this place and this time through one set of eyes. That’s enough. That’s all any of us ever needs to do.

We just need to live authentically. We just need to be ourselves.