Caustic Fumes

I survived, but failed to thrive.

That’s what I was thinking tonight as I shut off the TV and DVD player. I survived, but failed to thrive.

I’d been shredding journals off and on for hours. After Mass this morning, I went to my prayer desk and meditated on one of the Scripture passages I will use when I and another parishioner lead a Lenten retreat in a few weeks. Then, I tackled the journals.

Periodically, when the shredder became overheated, I would take a break to work on the letter I was writing to a young woman I met when I led a journal-writing workshop at the South Dakota Women’s Prison. Knowing that some of the women had little support outside the concrete block walls that formed their home, I told all of the women in the workshop I would answer their letters if they wrote. Some of the women took me up on the offer, but did not continue the correspondence beyond a letter or two.

Of the others, only Jess remains incarcerated. I have to admit, I know little about her offense. I made the decision when I began to volunteer at the South Dakota Women’s Prison to meet the women where they were. I didn’t ask about their pasts or the criminal activity that led to their arrests and convictions. I simply extended the hand of friendship. Over the years, Jess has grasped that hand firmly, and I am grateful to call her my friend because I have seen how much she has matured.

I’m not sure she received my best today, though. Shredding the journals seemed to unleash in my home a spirit of despair that I can only compare to the caustic fumes of corrosive cleaning agents.

As I shredded my journals from the 1980s, I found myself remembering the hollow-belly loneliness that drove me like a rabid dog into crazed relationships and sabotaged my efforts to build a professional career. And, I was filled with a deep gratitude for the counselor who patiently worked with me during those years, listening to me for hours as I attempted to unravel the mystery of my self-destructive behavior patterns, offering affirmation as well as guidance. She once told me — I don’t think this is a fabricated memory — that she learned as much from me as I learned from her. If she did say this to me, I doubt very much if it is true, but I appreciate the way her support and encouragement strengthened me.

As I shredded my journals from the 1990s, I found myself remembering the bitter struggle to take control of my life and all the ways in which I failed. Even working two jobs, I was forced into bankruptcy when I couldn’t make student loan payments while paying medical bills for the treatment I received for a precancerous condition. Surgery had been ruled out as an option because I, obviously, was unable to pick up the costs not covered by insurance — and who would have provided for us financially or cared for my girls while I recovered?

And then, there was the work situation where my supervisor’s leadership style and expectations did not mesh well with my work habits, a situation which eventually resulted in my decision to leave that place of employment. The worst year, though, was probably the year of my mid-life crisis. Mom died when she was 40. As I approached my 40th birthday, Henry David Thoreau’s quiet desperation* became a raging inferno in my life, which would have destroyed much had I not had faithful friends who weathered the storm with me.

I’ve not done much with journals I’ve filled since the turn of the millennium — primarily because I may need them as resource material for a couple projects I am considering. And so, as the day drew to a close, with six black trash bags filled with shredded paper in the apartment and another four in the overflowing dumpster outside, my heart was filled with the sadness for all those wasted years.

Granted, they were not intentionally wasted. I didn’t decide at some point to squander the gifts and opportunities God gave me. I simply did not have the resources to use them effectively. I did not have a parent or mentor who cared enough to guide me. I did not have the emotional capacity for healthy intimacy so I was unable to find someone with whom to share my life. And, I did not have the ability to evaluate new situations and choose wisely.

But, as I sit here writing, I look up to collect my thoughts and see an array of photos on the wall — Katie, Sara and Brodie’s wedding, Sara and Brodie holding the twins, Avery nestled on my shoulder, Paige snuggled close to me. And on the walls surrounding me are paintings and pastel drawings which are my work — some of them part of a series which is represented in museum collections.

How do we measure a life? If we measure a life by all of the ways an individual has failed, then I am undoubtedly at the bottom of the heap. But, if we measure a life by that individual’s legacy, then, maybe I’m more toward the middle. I’ve raised beautiful daughters who have grown into remarkable women. I’ve created beauty with brush and with words. And, though I have failed at marriage and intimate relationship, I have friendships that have endured as well as an ever-deepening relationship with God, who is love.

Seeing both sides of this today, the pain and the blessings, I find myself appreciating as never before the wisdom of St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: “Finally, bretheren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, watever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). Shredding journals today, and remembering the pain of those years, filled me with heartache tonight. But pausing for a few minutes to take note of the blessings which have also been part of my life brought me peace.

In this moment, as I head off to bed, I am simply filled with gratitude that God — or his angels — inspired me to open my heart to that which is good in my life so that as this day closes I am acutely aware of his love.
That’s a great way to end a day, a truly great way.

* “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” — from “Walden” according to some sources, a misquotation according to others.


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