I Remember

I remember what I hated about grad school. I had forgotten.

I remember the excitement of discovering new ideas and information. I loved that. Sometimes I’d be so excited by what I was learning that my senses would open wide, and I would absorb everything, not just what I was reading. I can recall, for example, the night I opened Rollo May’s slim volume, THE COURAGE TO CREATE. I can still feel the texture of the couch under my thighs, the taste of Maxwell House International Coffee on my tongue (yes, I confess, I really did drink that stuff), and the soft glow of the lamp in the darkened living room. Creativity wasn’t dependent upon an illusive muse, I learned. Creativity could be cultivated.

My mind exploded. I think we all have a secret dream, one that we hide for fear of being ridiculed. (Or perhaps, I was alone in that, having been shamed often while growing up by teasing neighbors and relatives.) The desire of my heart was to be creative. It didn’t matter to me whether my creativity shaped words or visual images. I just wanted to be creative. Unfortunately, visits from muses were few and far between, and they never lasted long enough for me to complete anything substantive. (I had started, by that time, three novels — none of which had progressed beyond the first chapter.)

After reading May’s book, I began to work at cultivating my skills so that I was prepared for the muse when she arrived. By doing so, I discovered that as much as I love writing — and I do take pleasure in crafting language to shape ideas — painting allows me to dig deeper and reflect a more authentic vision. That authenticity lies at the heart of the best art, so I knew I needed to paint to realize my dream of being a creative person.

But, that’s a tangent — which, of course, indicates painting is on my mind tonight. I didn’t get to paint today, though I did consider trying to squeeze in an hour at the easel before turning the house over to the housekeeper for cleaning. I finally admitted that I needed more than 45 minutes (with 15 minutes for set-up and clean-up) and opted instead to extend my prayer time. Still, I’m restless tonight; I really need to paint tomorrow.

At grad school (the topic of this post, for those who have been distracted by my meandering thoughts), I also delighted in meeting my classmates. They fascinated me. I ended up in a summer romance with a tall young man who was trying to find himself by taking a variety to classes to discover what resonated with his inner self. I met a nurse who spent more hours on the road in a single week than I would have tackled willingly in a month, but who somehow managed to find time in her life to mother me. I met a stunningly beautiful model who married a German businessman she met while on a photo shoot in his homeland. I met an adulterer whose perfidy wasn’t limited to enjoying physical intimacies with men other than her husband, but who also managed to rob me of an assistantship with a few well-chosen remarks to a couple influential people. (Truthfully, my delight in her friendship ended when I learned of this betrayal.)

That’s what I enjoyed most about working in the newspaper industry, too. I delighted in meeting people, in talking with them, discovering what excited their imaginations and gave their lives meaning. It wasn’t unusual for me when assigned a news story to discover, during the course of an interview, information I could later develop into a feature story. The sheriff who built a plane. The public works director who built engines for race cars. The rancher who invested in a resort for those who could afford $10,000 in annual membership fees. Everyone has a story to tell; the trick is discovering the story and retelling it in a way that honors the person.

But, again, that’s a tangent. What I hated about grad school was writing papers. Conducting the research fascinated me, and organizing my ideas was  instinctive, for  the most part. I didn’t have to work at it. But putting the ideas together with all of the proper footnotes, end notes, citations and references was a nightmare — especially in those long-ago days when papers were typed on machines that didn’t identify misspelled words or allow corrections to be made easily. (I still wonder if Wite-Out clumped on the brush for everyone or if I mishandled it in some way.) It didn’t help that as a single parent, I often didn’t have the opportunity to sit down to work on a paper until after the girls went to bed. In other words, I was usually tired before I pulled the typewriter out of its case and rolled two sheets of paper, separated by carbon paper, into the carriage. It’s amazing I completed as many classes as I did.

All of this came to mind today because I was proofing my daughter’s thesis. She’s embarking on a doctoral program this fall, and I’m trying to help her wrap up her (second) Master’s degree so she can devote her attention to the new program. Something else came to mind, too, though.

When she was born, I was a college drop-out. I took one look at her, and wanted to give her the world. I knew I could only do that by setting a good example, so I went back to college  and somehow managed to graduate just .08 short of honors even though failing grades for a full semester — that dark semester when I was in such despair I attempted suicide — wreaked havoc on my GPA. Then, I demonstrated the importance of pursuing personal dreams by striving to build an art career, while working two jobs and raising two girls.

It was hard — raising the girls, trying to meet not only their physical needs, but also their emotional and developmental needs, while pushing myself to go beyond just meeting those basic needs. It was hard to bear the full burden of responsibility, to know that I alone was responsible for ensuring those precious children had solid foundations on which to build satisfying lives. I was blessed with friends and family who acted as sounding boards and helped out when possible, but the responsibility was mine and mine alone. I knew this every single day.

Now I know that I did not err in deciding to be a role model. I see Sara achieve more than I ever dreamed for myself, and I know those sleepless nights and other sacrifices were worthwhile. I wasn’t able to give Sara the world, but I did teach her enough to help her begin conquering it herself in her own inimitable style. It’s not the same thing, but it’s not bad — all things considered.


The Moon and the Stars

“When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established — what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

“I can see the moon,” Avery said to me this morning as I hugged her good-bye.

I had pointed out the moon when she and her twin sister scampered into the living room after getting dressed, but it was quickly slipping behind the house behind ours. Only when I lifted her could she see it again. Two days ago, she had pointed out the moon when we were playing outside after supper and I thought she might like to see it again. I wasn’t wrong. She was even more excited to learn that the moon would rise in the east this evening.

“The moon will be over there,” she told my daughter, when she joined us. Sara looked at Avery’s pointed finger  and then at me for clarification. “Tonight,” I said and she nodded with understanding.

Not all things in life are as easily understood, and one of those is that bizarre dynamic God set up when he was inebriated with creation — diversity, differences. He looked at every thing he created and said, “It is good.” While I question the goodness of some insects — mosquitoes, flies, ticks, any creepy thing that may bite me, but especially those than can carry some nasty disease — I am willing to endorse the majority of his creation as good. And being a creator myself — I consider painting to be an act of creation since the ideas emerge from the deep well of nothingness that is one of those places where I find God — I tend to wallow in diversity, too.

I never cease to be amazed by the intelligent people who can’t comprehend the need for diversity. They may enjoy skiing down the snow covered mountain slopes and baking (or do you roast?) in the Caribbean sun within the span of a few weeks without ever once saying to themselves, “The infinite variety of God’s creation is truly a wonder!” And because they can’t appreciate diversity that they can see and touch, they can’t even begin to imagine that diversity in the human family is equally wonderful, equally beautiful.

Instead, they get caught up in a right/wrong — or more likely my way/wrong — dichotomy. No where is that more evident than when folks feel inclined to make apostles of others, to teach them what they should think and believe. I know. Folks in my life who love me (I assume) are always attempting to convert me to what they believe. I know their efforts are doomed to failure for two reasons. First, what I believe is deeply rooted in my life of faith, in Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic church.

Second, my mind assembles parts and pieces, and the whole created must have the beauty and elegance of logic for me to consider it valid. Thus far, I haven’t seen that. Consider these parts and pieces:

  • We live in a global economy (total agreement).
  • America must be competitive (makes sense). (I conclude from these two pieces that products produced must be competitively priced.)
  • CEO and shareholder income takes precedence over worker income. (Makes no sense; if workers aren’t paid a living wage, they become dependent upon assistance programs which robs them of their  dignity. People robbed of dignity are often robbed of hope as well, and hopeless people do stupid things.)
  • Those who take home the lion’s share of a company’s wealth should not have to pay taxes to support those on assistance programs because they worked hard for their money. (Really? How are those folks supposed to live? They work, often more than one job, but aren’t paid a living wage. Someone else profits from their labors. How are they to pay for the basics of life — food, shelter, healthcare, clothes for their children?)

For me, a logical solution, a beautiful and elegant solution, would be to pay workers a living wage. OK, CEOs would no longer earn more than 300 times what their employees earn, and the wealthiest one percent wouldn’t continue to amass wealth faster than the average American, but more people would become self-sufficient again and regain their personal dignity; bit by bit crime rates would drop because the hopeless desperation which leads folks to do stupid things would be leached from communities. For me, answers lie in working for the common good.

But! To bring this back to the main point: I trust God enough to trust that he created this diversity of opinion for a reason, and since he works slowly — anyone who waits upon the Lord to answer a prayer can tell you exactly how slowly he works — I am willing to patiently wait to see what he is up to. I  am willing to believe that those driven by a worldview different from mine have their feet set on that path to accomplish something that God has set before them.

I just wish they didn’t need the validation seeing their beliefs mirrored in me. I wish their faith and worldview were large enough to trust that God is also working in me, though doing something entirely different. And honestly, how could anyone look at one of my paintings and even begin to imagine that I don’t march to my own drummer? Recognizing the independence of my spirit really should be a no-brainer.

Elastic Thinking

“God’s gift is often not what we expect. And sometimes it takes time to grasp that what we are experiencing is a resurrection. …And it’s usually difficult to describe, because it’s your resurrection. It may not make sense to other people.” (James Martin, S.J., Homily on Luke 14:25-33)

Later this morning, I will finish my morning devotions and block out a new painting before immersing myself in what I consider to be the business of each day — job hunting. But right now, I need to tackle the difficult task of setting out — as much for myself as anyone else — the way God is working in my life. 

It’s a resurrection, I think, or maybe a return of the prodigal daughter, though a nearly inexplicable return. Inexplicable, and requiring me to stretch the way in which I usually think about the parable (Luke 15:11-24), because it’s not really a return to God; my journey of faith has been central to my life for a very long time. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there’s ever been a time when I wasn’t aware of my relationship to God. During the dark years, I found comfort in the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11); surely if the anointed of God could do what David did and be forgiven, God would forgive me when I got my life back on track. During my spiritual but not religious years, I tried to live with a generosity of spirit that reflected an awareness of God in all things. 

Once I returned to the Catholic Church, my life was about consciously living my faith. Two mystical experiences shaped that way of being. The first occurred over ten years ago when I went to the church to pray. I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice say, “It’s together we’re the body of Christ.” When I turned to see who had spoken to me, I found myself alone. The other happened two years ago at the diocesan women’s retreat in Custer. As I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament during Eucharistic Adoration, I was so infused with a sense of God’s love for me that I could do nothing but surrender without reservation. I sat there, saying over and over, “Anything, Lord. Anything. Anything, Lord. Anything.”

In thinking about the latter experience, I am always filled with wonder. In 2006, five years earlier, my confessor had given me the “Prayer of Abandonment” by Charles deFaucauld for penance, and I had incorporated it — with great reluctance — into my daily devotions. “Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will,” it begins. At the time, I was in shock at a breach of trust that had altered my whole life, and interpreted that to mean I was willing to continue being victimized by others. And yet, something in me knew surrender was necessary if I was to grow in my faith. I lived in that neverland of confusion for a very  long time, knowing I needed to surrender, but fearing that surrender equally as much. And then, suddenly, in a heartbeat — without conscious volition — it happened. I was like a feather cast upon the breath of the Spirit, entirely willing to let God’s will be done in my life.

During the past couple months, I have been given glimpses  of the way God has worked in my life. Even that breach of trust which turned my life upside down was revealed as God drawing me into a more intimate relationship with himself through human hardship. While I can’t pretend to understand the full sweep of God’s action in my life, I do know this: that he  has been at work bringing me to this point where the desire of my heart is an inchoate longing to be a co-creator in shaping my life. I see now ways in which I was like the prodigal son, squandering the gifts he gave me, but not necessarily through licentiousness. Setting aside my art career to help a floundering nonprofit, for example, was not necessarily immoral, except for the toll it took on my spirit. But, I have made too many decisions like that over the years, too many decisions in which I tried to be someone other than the person God  created me to be. What an abominable waste!

And now, because I have wasted so much, I find myself facing the future with little but serious questions: Where will I find the financial resources to meet my obligations? Can I find meaningful work at my age? Will I be able to find a decent and affordable place to live? Will all of this come to pass before I wear out my welcome with Sara and Brodie? Each day, my work is to address those questions, primarily through job-hunting. Sometimes fear threatens to overwhelm me, though. What will happen if I can’t find a job? If I can’t pay my bills? 

Prayer is my life raft at those moments. I find myself appropriating the prayer Pope Francis suggested for the Church: I ask God for the grace not to be afraid of the renewal taking place in  my life. And it is a renewal, a new beginning, an opportunity to use the gifts he gave me. Through Ignatian spirituality, I am learning to see those gifts differently than I did in the past, when I cast them aside with little consideration for what that would mean. Like the prodigal son, who cried out as his father ran toward him, “I am not worthy,” I am acutely aware that any good that comes into my life at this point is entirely undeserved. But, I have to believe God would not have placed this longing in my heart or created these circumstances in my life if he did not intend to allow me to come home in a deep and profound way.

That knowledge has been the fruit of my surrender.