Surprise! I’m not Cinderella!

Sometimes I have to laugh at myself, especially when I’m blindsided by a new insight into the way I function.

I have been keeping a journal since 1979. since giving birth to the child who changed my life. I was not only a young single mom, but also a motherless daughter. Each role made me acutely aware of the other. Becoming a mother made me long for my mother; I wanted to talk with her, ask her questions, be pampered a little, tell her I finally knew how much she loved me. Being a motherless daughter filled me with a desire to be known in ways I could never know my own mother, and so I wrote.

I wrote my way through college, where I was worn out by the juggling act it took to fulfill the responsibilities of classes, work and family. I wrote my way through a relationship that began with laughter and ended with a marriage undone by abuse less than a year after vows were exchanged. I wrote my way through therapy, where a gifted counselor helped me to unravel the Gordian knot of inner chaos resulting from the violence and losses which spilled across my life.

I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. When I shredded my journals — all of them except my spiritual journals and a few covering pivotal periods in my life — I had a trunk and four paper boxes (boxes in which reams of paper are shipped) filled with journals. Over the years, I have come to know myself quite well, to see the rhythms of my life — to understand my need to create; to understand that sometimes the most important work happens when i do nothing at all, when my subconscious is working diligently to incorporate new information or knowledge; to understand how I’ve been shaped by my life experiences and choices.

And yet, on occasion, a surprising new thought will emerge. This morning, as I was reflecting on this past week, I wrote, “I think something in me has unwittingly been embracing the Cinderella motif.” Unexpectedly, those few words unleashed a torrent of memories.

I suddenly remembered lying in my childhood bed, fantasizing about being rescued by a prince. In my dream, it was not my beauty that attracted him — i knew quite well that I was not an attractive child; I’d been told often enough to accept it as truth — but my hard work. I would imagine serving a beautiful woman and doing so with such diligence that the prince noticed me and elevated me to the position of his wife.

Later, at college, I also remembered, I sat in a class on human development watching a movie which reinforced this idea. In it, a bedraggled young aboriginal woman was sold by her father to a suitor for one cow because her father didn’t value her. She left with the young man, and returned later as a stunning beauty, transformed by the gift of being appreciated. Granted, today that kind of movie would be considered politically incorrect, but it communicated the message the instructor was attempting to make about self-fulfilling prophecy — that we tend to become what others see in us.

My mind skittered across jobs I’ve had over the years, and I thought, “Damn! That’s exactly what I’ve been doing!” (Yes, I do swear to myself, though I try not to litter conversation with that kind of language.) For years, I’ve been working for transformational recognition — working and working and working.

Not long before I left the Lake Preston Times, I was stunned by the blowback of what I believed to be an innocuous email message. I had written a local columnist to remind  him that it was his turn in the rotation, something others in the rotation appreciated. Instead of the confirmation I expected, I received a rather abrasive reply in which he indicated he would no longer write a column for our paper.

I immediately sought to mend fences and sent him an email message apologizing for anything I might have done to offend him and to ask if we could talk about his decision. When he didn’t respond, I called and invited him to lunch so we could talk about what happened. I learned at lunch that he had decided to stop writing a column for the newspaper because I did not share his political opinions. As gently as possible, I reminded him that our political opinions had always been different and that our working relationship was based on other shared interests.

He then apologized for his written remarks and we went on to talk about other things — including my work situation. The newspaper’s publisher had been having financial difficulties and had cut my staff significantly, increasing my workload. I was upset because I felt the publisher’s cuts should have been divided between his newspapers, and that other cuts might have been more effective in the long run.

As the columnist listened, an expression of dawning understanding grew on his  face. “He’s trying to get rid of you,” the columnist said. I could not believe it — would not believe it. I was working hard. I was hired to write stories and to take photographs for the paper; I was hired to edit submitted material and to choose which press releases to include in the paper; I was not hired to design ads, process photographs for publication, mop the floors or do any of the other tasks which had fallen to me. But, I was doing them.

The columnist, of course, was right. I was eventually replaced by an editor whose salary was significantly lower than mine, and job responsibilities which had fallen to me were redistributed to other employees. Until this morning, I remained baffled by my inability to see what was so clear to the columnist. It was unfathomable to me that an employer would even consider getting rid of an employee who worked as hard as  I did, who was as conscientious about doing the work well.

Even hearing similar stories from others about employers replacing experienced staff with new hires to save money did little to help me understand my blindness. But this morning my perspective expanded; I discovered the myth which has unconsciously been affecting the way I have approached work environments. Somewhere, deep inside, the unattractive little girl who was repeatedly told, “You’ll never amount to anything,” has been trying and trying and trying to be transformed into the respected princess by doing work which would gain the recognition of someone who valued her efforts.

As sad as that is, and it is sad — how many times have I misread situations because of this unconscious influence? — something else struck me as I thought about this new insight. How many other individuals are walking around with similar unrecognized scripts influencing their lives and their decisions? How many others are wounded by an inability to realize their dreams because they are fettered in an ineffable way to past misconceptions? How do we help one another overcome these barriers?

I don’t have any answers for those questions. Instead, I find myself hoping this insight will lead me to think and act with more kindness and greater compassion toward others, especially when I don’t understand what is affecting my relationships with them. After all, that is the example that Christ set. From the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Can I strive for less?

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Thy Will Be Done

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I’ve been stuck on that line of the Lord’s Prayer for a very long time. It’s easy to rattle off. The whole Lord’s Prayer is — at least if you’re Catholic or, I would suspect, if you belong to any of the mainstream Christian denominations. You learn it when you’re young, repeat it often at worship services, and pretty soon it’s one of those wordstreams so familiar you don’t have to think about it.

But when you start to think about it, you have to swallow twice and do some pretty serious self-assessment. Do I seek to do God’s will in my life or simply seek God’s seal of approval on what I want to do? (Or do I even worry about God, his will for us — me specifically, and the way I live?) At least, that’s been my experience.

I began to ask these questions about the time I sought to enter religious life 13 years ago. The editor of the newspaper for which I worked had assigned me to do a story on a vocations initiative begun by the religious order which ran the local hospital. As I interviewed the  vocations director and a couple of the other vowed women in the order, I found myself thinking, “This is it! This is what I’m supposed to be doing at this juncture in my life!”

I finished the interview, wrote the story, went home, and contacted the vocations director by personal email. I can still remember the excitement, the ebullience, the joy. If I’d been a runner, I would have embarked on a marathon that would have taken me across the state and into the next — and South Dakota is a pretty wide state, so that’s saying something. I began to attend vocations retreats and met with the local priest to begin having my marriages annulled.

Only once before had I made a decision that I knew both at the time and with 20/20 hindsight was right — when I decided to pursue an art career. For the most part, I had lived a tumbleweed existence. Growing up, I’d not been encouraged — and sometimes not been allowed — to do what interested me, and had often been forced to do what I did not want to do with no reason beyond “because I told you so,” so decision-making was not one of my personal strengths.

When I left home, I didn’t even know how to buy clothes; Mom had either purchased (as in the case of intimate apparel) or made (as in the rest of my wardrobe) every garment I owned. While I did learn over time to make the small decisions  with some degree of ease, I remained baffled by the big ones. I was like the little bird in the children’s book, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? I didn’t know what constituted a healthy relationship or how to choose a career path, and was constantly asking people for guidance. That, I can say unequivocally, is no way to live.

Shortly after I visited the Chicago Institute of Art for the first time, and had an epiphany, I discovered a book while browsing at the now defunct Waldenbooks called DO WHAT YOU LOVE, THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW by Marsha Sinetar. I can’t remember any of her specific points, but I do recall that as a result of reading the book, I was able, for the first time in my life, to choose a course and stay the course. At least, I was able to stay the course for nearly a decade, until that old  decision-making handicap reared its ugly head again, and I found myself setting aside my personal dream and all I had worked to achieve to accept a position which I believed would allow me to help others. I was not only unable to help others, but I also crashed and burned rather gloriously.

I was just starting to recover from that heartbreaking setback when I wrote the story about new guidelines for entering formation that the local religious order had adopted. Older women were now being accepted; divorced women were now being accepted if their marriages could be annulled; women with children were now being accepted if their children were grown and supported their decision. Since I had wanted to enter religious life as a child, a longing which had been adamantly opposed by my mother who fully expected me to provide her with grandchildren, this appeared to be one of those mythical second chances which are few and far between in life.

The vocations director wasn’t equally confident that God was calling me. At one point, she accused me of wanting to join the community because it would force them to assume my student loan debt. At another, she gave the impression she believed I just wanted to sit around all day and paint, expecting others to provide for me. Eventually, the spiritual director she chose for me helped me to see that the barriers I’d encountered, which included an inordinately long delay between asking to enter formation and being allowed to do so, indicated the community was trying to gently guide me away from the vowed life.

I withdrew from formation, and then I grieved. For nearly two years, I grieved. And I was more lost than ever. When I was young, I just expected to find my path sooner or later. The decade I’d spent building an art career had been challenging, but satisfying; still, trying to pick up those pieces no longer attracted me. I was lost in a desert, just taking one step at a time.

I began to study Ignatian spirituality for two reasons. First, because the title of a book on the Jesuits caught my attention, CONTEMPLATIVES IN ACTION: THE JESUIT WAY by William Barry, SJ. That’s me, I thought; I’m a deeply prayerful person, but I have to be doing something. I thought Ignatian spirituality might help me find my way again. Second, because I thought Ignatian spirituality might help me find my way again. (Yes, I know I repeated that sentence twice; it was intentional.) St. Ignatius wrote about discernment in his Spiritual Exercises, and contemporary Jesuits have used the Exercises to teach folks about discernment, known elsewhere as decision-making. I hoped that I could learn at this juncture in my life what I’d not learned earlier, how to make good decisions.

Ironically, it’s led me back to painting. One of the premises of Ignatian spirituality, at least as I understand it, is that God wants us to use the gifts he gives us, and painting is undoubtedly a gift he has given me. For a long time, that was a stumbling block for me. Jesus spoke of our obligations to the poor, to those in need of healing, to those who hungered for justice in their lives. How could I paint when the needs around me were many and varied? And then God showed me that he can use the gifts he has given me in ways I could not have imagined. I made a scrapbook for an elderly woman on a whim. She died not long after, and her husband found great comfort in that scrapbook. Who would have guessed?

I can’t honestly say I know at this point how God will use my gift of art in the grander scheme  of things, but I’m willing to trust him, to trust that his hand is guiding me in this. At present, it’s enough that painting draws me into a deeper relationship with him and allows me to celebrate with a brush the wondrous way in which he works in this world. That may be all I ever know, but the deep peace which painting provides affirms over and over that he is present in it.

Who would have guessed his will would lie so close to my heart?