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.

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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.

No Place Like Home

Finally! By the end of today, I will have everything I own under one roof. 

When I decided to move back to South Dakota in July, I had no idea what I was going to do. Worst case scenario: move into income-based housing and take early Social Security.  Ideal scenario: get another newspaper job. Workable option: get a clerical job of some sort and move back to Pierre. 

Pierre was the home of my heart. In that community, more than any other place else in my adult life, I had found a place to belong. I knew people, they knew me, and for the most part, we liked each other. Leaving Pierre is a decision I have never ceased to regret. I thought I needed a newspaper job; what I really needed was that home.

To begin yet again, I packed my stuff in a moving van — getting rid of living room furniture and dressers, so there was room for what was important: three desks, four easels, all my art and all my books. I drove — yes, me alone in a 16-foot moving van, the largest I was willing to tackle — through two mountain passes and across the never-ending (or so it seemed) terrrain of Nevada and Wyoming.

When I arrived in South Dakota, I dumped most of my stuff in storage, and moved into a friend’s guest/storage room. Within weeks, I was working — in the newspaper business, a real godsend. I rented a cozy cottage (i.e., small house with tiny bedrooms and kitchen that may — if I am lucky — hold half of my baking stuff) and have been rebuilding my life.

The challenge has been getting my stuff out of storage. Drenching rain, work and a bout of some kind of croupy cough that knocked me out for two weeks have all worked against me. I bought a small dining room set at the thrift shop across the street from work, so I had a place to sit, eat and write. I bought first an air mattress and then a futon, so I’ve had a place to sleep.

One weekend, I made plans to move, but ended up losing my help. I used the rented truck to move my art, the clothes I could find and what I thought were kitchen supplies. Unfortunately, I have no need for bundt pans, cookie cutters and a mixer at present, so the kitchen boxes weren’t terribly helpful. However, with that move I was able to get art on the walls and begin to envision how I wanted to live in this space.

But, when I got sick and had to buy not only the ingredients, but also the pot to make homemade chicken soup, I decided I couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Buying stuff might be good for the economy, but it isn’t  good for my bank balance. With winter coming, I will need snow tires and winter clothes. I can’t afford to spend money unnecessarily.

Equally as important — perhaps more important — is the need to create a home, to stop living transiently. I am not a terribly materialistic person, but I find comfort in surrounding myself with things that both reflect me — books and art — and reflect back to me evidence of the life I have lived. I sit down to eat a meal on Corelle plates with the iris pattern and I remember the friend who gave them to me. I look at the raku-fired bowl I made at a weekend gathering of artists and remember the fellowship of those years.

These small things are a bulwark against the never-ending march of time and all the changes it brings. These small things offer comfort in the midst of life’s inexplicable hardships and disappointments. These small things strengthen my emotional and psychological armor in a world that feels more threatening every day.

However, my need also makes me acutely aware of how blessed I am in this moment, despite the inconveniences I have been experiencing. So many people have lost so much in recent months. Hurricanes and wildfires have wiped out all evidence of the lives they have lived. 

And with disaster after disaster hitting our nation, we cannot even respond to all the  needs being created, to all of the trauma being experienced. There is too much. We want to turn in upon ourselves. We want to turn our backs on others. But we will pay a great price if we do that.

We will lose that within ourselves which makes us human, which makes us good. Our true home isn’t the roof over our heads or the things we own. Our true home extends beyond our local communities.

Our true home is the human family. Our true home is the world in which we live. We have to care. We have to bear witness to heartache and loss. We have to share resources rather than hoard them. We have to live with hearts and arms wide open to our brothers and our sisters.

We have to love.

What is Real?

Juliet thought a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Today, if she made that comment, a controversy would be unleashed. First of all, there would be a problem with the generalization; while there is a scent recognizable as “rose,” not all roses actually smell the same. Then there would be folks who have a problem with the whole identity aspect of the statement; names do matter — there is a huge difference between calling someone morbidly obese and saying the person has generous proportions; change a name and you change how something or someone is perceived.

Few, if any, would even remember that Juliet was actually saying, “I love a boy who will be rejected simply because he was born into the wrong family.” No one involved in the controversy unleashed by a young girl’s longing to get past cultural barriers will consider how she is affected or how the boy is affected. They will become entrenched in their positions and set out to annihilate one another.

Oh! Right! That is the dynamic that Shakespeare was exploring in one of his most popular tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet,” the way our allegiance to ideas can destroy what we love. When it happens in our personal lives, it can lead to remorse and personal transformation, but what happens when it plays itself out on a larger stage? Anytime groups of people are involved in this destructive pattern, the conflicts have a tendency to escalate.

I have been ranting for years about the destructive polarization we find in our nation today. I have been angry at every leader who has contributed — including the Catholic bishops who have misled the faithful in their dioceses, telling them to vote based on one issue only, which is not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. [I believe they are going to be held accountable before God. After all, Jesus did say, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).]

In recent months, it’s become glaringly apparent that information and misinformation have been used to reinforce entrenched allegiances and exacerbate the polarization. The GOP has denied the economic recovery to such an extent that 60% of folks who voted for Trump didn’t even know that economic indicators demonstrate we currently have a strong economy. I suppose that was a face-saving measure. After all, it would have been pretty humiliating to say, “Despite everything we did to thwart him, the current president’s administration has succeeded in cleaning up the mess made by the last Republican in office.”

Who benefits from this practice of denying facts? From denying the truth?

No one benefits. It’s that simple. No one benefits when important decisions are made as a result of misinformation. We create a self-perpetuating cycle of escalating violence until people are worn out by the pain and suffering, until there is nothing left from what anger has wrought except despair.

The Internet has a lot to do with the dissemination of misinformation. Folks can post anything they want, and fabrications can go viral, misinforming thousands — or perhaps millions — of people. However, distrust of the mainstream media also contributes. People are skeptical — due in part to the fact that it’s easy to label reporting which doesn’t reinforce our opinions as biased, but also due to the fact that bias does exist. What most people don’t realize is this: that bias is a reflection of our humanity, not as a result of a desire to mislead.

This blog reflects that bias. I am not Republican, and I have been appalled by some of the decisions made by elected officials who are Republican. Because some of these decisions have violated my core value system, I am hyper-alert to other transgressions. I cannot tell you nearly as much about what Democratic candidates said during the last interminable presidential campaign as I can tell you about the outrageous comments made by the president-elect. He offended me, and I watched him closely to make sure I had complete information regarding his unsuitability for the office he will — gag — hold.

That’s human nature. Because every reporter is human, every reporter is going to bring to every story values and biases that have nothing whatsoever to do with misleading or misinforming anyone. The filter through which they perceive information shapes the story they write. But, the same is true for all of us; unfortunately, few of us have the capacity to recognize this. Few of us can step back and take a good hard look at the way we process information.

So, what I am trying to say is this: Yes, the news we receive will be biased, and we’re going to hear things and read things we won’t like because we’re also biased. But, we have keep making the effort to educate ourselves; we need to reject “news” sources which are actually disseminating propaganda (or at least recognize the nature of the information we receive), and we need to be diligent in pursing stories that interest us — preferably by checking several sources.

Once we have educated ourselves, we need to make sure we are not using information to arm ourselves against others. We need to explore ways we can use the information we acquire to build bridges. For example, I will never be persuaded that cutting taxes for the wealthy or paying CEOs exorbitant salaries is beneficial to the common good — and that’s my criteria for good policy, something that works for the common good. However, I agree entirely that government has become so unwieldy it’s a joke. So, now, I have found common ground with my Republican friends — and I do have them, surprisingly — so how can we build on that point of agreement?

The more we work to educate ourselves and the more we work to build bridges, the more likely it is that we will avoid destroying what we love. And that, my friends, is real.

Life, Death and More Life

I don’t think I have made it through a day in the past month without crying. Please, I beg God, please don’t let me lose someone else I love during the Christmas season.

Technically, it’s Advent, and technically, Mom didn’t die during Advent. She died before the First Sunday of Advent, but it was December, and the heart doesn’t measure time with calendars anyhow. The heart measures time by experience, and my heart has Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time between tangled in a knot of heartache and grief.

About the time I turned 40, my mom’s age when she died, I suffered an existential crisis. Whether it was an early mid-life crisis or just the crisis of living past my mother’s age of death, I don’t know. I just know that I was desperate to make sense of my life, for the pain and disappointments and mistakes to make sense. I read over and over — until I had memorized some parts — Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. So much resonated with me, validated my experience, and in that, I found a way to make peace with my life.

About the same time, I read Motherless Daughters: Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. What I recall now, years later, is how typical my life was; I made the kinds of choices women make who lose their mothers during adolescence. That comforted me. She also said that for women who lose their mothers when they are young, that loss is one of the defining moments of their lives. And that has been true for me, too; I am a motherless daughter, and I have never stopped missing my mother. I have never stopped longing for her love — even after realizing that my mother would never have encouraged me to become a painter or to become a deeply spiritual person, two movements which give my life its deepest meaning.

Over the years, I learned to be grateful for the mentors God brought into my life, the women who mothered some part of me — Jessie, my counselor, whom I will always credit with the wholeness I was able to achieve as a result of our work together; Signe, my art instructor, who encouraged me when I entered her class with only curiosity, but no experience; Darlene, the co-worker, who listened with infinite patience as I wrestled with the life challenges I imagined I would have shared with my mother had she lived; and so many others over the years. And now, one of those precious, precious women is dying.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis — her lung tissue is thickening, so her brain and organs aren’t getting the oxygen they need. She’s been housebound for weeks, and the oxygen she’s being given has been increased. Most recently, the decision was made to begin administering morphine to help her body relax, because it naturally fights for the oxygen  it is not receiving. My heart is breaking.

Wanda, a Lutheran pastor, was my spiritual mother. I was a deeply spiritual person when I met her, and had a healthy spiritual life, but no one with whom to share my thoughts and ideas. Wanda and I had the discussions that I hungered to have with someone, and out of those conversations — often conducted over white wine (Wanda) and beer (me) — a deep friendship grew, a heart connection that endured even when we were not able to spend time together. We talked once in a while about getting a place together when she retired, but by the time she retired, she also knew she was dying. Like a good mother, a protective mother, she didn’t tell me. She just said she was going to move closer to her sister.

I saw her a few months ago, and was reminded with that visit just how much I love her. When I moved a couple years before she retired to accept a new position, I discovered she is one of those people who isn’t good at keeping in touch. And while I missed her, I always knew that I could visit her and would be welcome, which eased the ache. As time passed, the ache lessened, and I learned to live without her in my life. I continued to pray for her and to love her, but life brings these transitions and learning to accommodate them is part of living.

The visit earlier this year, and the conversation we had, even though her energy flagged after a couple hours, reminded me how very much her friendship means to me. Together, we hatched the idea of reshaping some of her sermons into meditations for a book. Wanda selected the ones she wanted to include, and I have been editing them. I hear her voice in them, and even recognize some of the ideas we discussed. I can remember sitting at a table in the pub that was our favorite getaway and saying, “But, Wanda, think about this: if there hadn’t been a cross, would the resurrection had have the same impact? If Jesus had died of old age or been killed in an accident, would anyone have noticed when he rose from the dead? His death had to be public and it had to be humiliating.” And there it is, in one of her reflections — the question I raised.

And so she lives now with me even as she struggles for each breath and her body is beginning to shut down. I have no doubt that she believes in the resurrection. We spoke of her death a few months ago, and she said, “I truly believe what I have preached at hundreds of funerals; I truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life.” Her sister said that Wanda’s mantra has become, “Life is good, but eternal life is better.”

I know this, too. I have no doubt that our Lord will wrap Wanda in his arms, and say, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant,” because she is a woman who has truly lived the gospels. But I am a selfish, selfish woman. I’m not ready to lose her — not now, the book isn’t done; not now, it’s Christmas.

Not now. But, I know this isn’t in my hands; it’s in God’s hands, and I must trust God to give me the grace to let her go with joy when the time comes. Until then, I reserve the right to cry.

Trash or Treasure?

“You shall be called by a new name, pronounced by the mouth of the Lord.” (Isaiah 62:2)

I don’t know why, but the idea of being called by a new name appeals to me.

I like being called “Mom” — very much. I think my primary vocation in life was parenthood. I base that assertion not only on my experience, but on what I’ve read. In her book, FOLLOW THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY, Sr. Joan Chittister writes, “Real passion focuses our efforts. It becomes the compass needle which presented with multiple options becomes the direction we take at every fork in the road.”

Providing a secure and emotionally stable home for my girls was the compass needle of my life for years. Sometimes, I erred — primarily when I accepted jobs in order to alleviate our poverty without really considering the impact those jobs would have  on our lives. But, overall, I think I succeeded. The odds were slim that either  of my girls would graduate from high school, because I was a single parent who suffered from depression, raised her children in poverty, and was scarred emotionally by violence. We beat those odds. My girls not only graduated from high school, but also graduated with honors from college — and the oldest went on to earn three more degrees, recently completing her doctorate. Granted, the work was theirs, but I think I gave them a stable foundation on which to build.

So, “Mom” is a good name, and “Grammy” works well, too. Hearing the twins’ beating hearts for the first time unleashed in me creativity I hadn’t experienced in years. For me, that’s a sure sign of love. I was grateful to be among their first caregivers and cried all the way from their home to the airport the first time I left — and the second — and the third. I prayed for more than three years to be part of their lives — never imagining where that would lead.

Writer. Artist. Woman of Faith.

These are good names, too, but they don’t pay the bills — at least they haven’t since I left the newspaper business. While many people my age have the luxury of enjoying retirement, spending my life in a state notorious for low wages and an average annual income that’s lower for women than men, I must work. Fortunately for me, I enjoy working. I enjoy accomplishing something. I enjoy the social interaction of the workplace.

But, at this stage in my life, I need something different in the workplace than I needed while my girls were growing up. While the girls were growing up, I needed a job that I could do well and leave, because what gave life meaning occurred outside the workplace. Now? I want to do work that is meaningful — not necessarily work that I have to take home with me,  but work that enables me to contribute to something greater than myself, work which makes me feel that I am doing what I was created to do, work that makes me feel that I have been called by name.

After the crucifixion, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene, but she didn’t recognize him; when he called her by name, she knew him (John 20:14-16). Currently, I feel as though I am walking in the dark. Raising my children is behind me. Building community by reporting honestly and with integrity is behind me. I go to the tomb — to the last place I experienced meaning in my life — but it is empty. It has nothing for me now. I explore new opportunities, seeking the one which will enable me to use my gifts and to find satisfaction in contributing to the greater good, but I have not found it.

Each time one doesn’t fit, I slip into the patterns of thought I learned at home, variations off a single theme: “You’ll never amount to anything.” But the other day, when I was knitting and allowing recent experiences to tumble around inside my head, a familiar idiom rose to the top: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

And I recalled the Scripture verse that I had meditated on earlier in the day: “You shall be called by a new name.”

And I thought of Mary Magdalene, whose name I share. And I began to wonder, as I turn from the tomb and I am called by name, could the name I hear be “Treasure”?

 

Motherhood as Visionary

“True visionaries are true believers.They have the courage of their convictions because they have convictions. They transform others only because they themselves have been transformed by the power and majesty of their beliefs.And steeled by their beliefs, they can willingly persevere in seemingly impossible quests to repair the world.” — Chris Lowney, HEROIC LIVING:DISCOVER YOUR PURPOSE AND CHANGE THE WORLD

I’ve been feeling my age lately — for several years, actually. I don’t have the energy I once had, need more sleep, need more time to sit quietly and reflect, am less  willing to exhaust myself by multi-tasking. Even working full-time seems onerous some days.

Sometimes I tell myself I’m just exhausted. It’s been a long and lonely life. I’ve worked hard but have little to show for it — in terms that our society sees and values. I have to remind myself that what I accomplished is significant, if not entirely tangible. I raised two girls by myself, with no child support and little family support. By myself, despite being deeply wounded by life, I  gave them healthy enough roots and strong enough wings for them to grow into remarkable young women. By myself.

I did this because Ioving them transformed me. At 60, I can still remember seeing my oldest for the first time and wanting to give her the world. I knew that I could only do this if I went before her and set an example, created a trail that she could follow. She was born on February 18; I started college in June. I was going to teach her the importance of education by getting a college education myself. I was not going to be a do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do parent.

Of course, having had a mother with an eighth-grade education and a dad whose educational endeavors didn’t extend past high school, I didn’t understand a great deal about the college experience. I’ve heard that studies have been done on the challenges faced by first-generation college students, but they didn’t exist when I was young. I just bumbled into the experience, learning as I went. I didn’t realize, for example, that I should not accept a financial aid package that included three different student loans because repaying them concurrently would  be impossible. I simply trusted the financial aid folks knew what they were doing and were doing what they could to help me. I didn’t realize that a college education only leads to a higher-paying job if you prepare for a profession that garners a decent income. I trusted advisers who  assured me that just getting a degree would make a difference in my earning ability.

The lessons were hard ones, and ones for which I’ve paid dearly. But, I don’t regret learning them. I’ve seen both of my daughters graduate from college with honors, and build careers. They’ve had other lessons to learn, but my desire to teach them the importance of education gave them a foothold to go further than I found possible.

And I stopped the cycle of violence in my family, which I consider to be especially remarkable because, in addition to the physical violence I experienced at home, I was sexually molested when I was 12, and wakened in my bed by a couple drunken strangers who took my virginity when I was 18. Today, domestic violence is a crime and rape crisis centers exist to help women whose sexual encounters are not consensual, but I grew up in a different world — one that didn’t acknowledge the toll those experiences could take on a women’s heart or psyche.

The world was starting to change when I was a young mother. One day, when I went to class with a choker of bruises that I hadn’t been able to hide with clothing accessories and make-up, a classmate who was earning a degree in counseling took me to the women’s crisis center. There I learned that (a) the abysmal mess I kept making of my life was an expression of my woundedness, and (b) my girls would repeat the same patterns if I didn’t address those issues in order to provide them with an emotionally stable home and to set a better example than my mother had set for me.

Because I did not want my girls to face the same demons that terrorized me, I worked with a gifted counselor for nearly five years. I faced with as much courage as I could muster all of the experiences I had locked in boxes and tried to shove to the back of my emotional closet. There were many nights, after my girls went to bed, when I would pull out my journal and write until the pain was so visceral, I thought I would die. I would rock and cry and rock and cry until I was too exhausted to do more than sleep. I will always love my counselor for walking  through those dark years with me, and I will always be grateful to her for helping me to find my way to a place where I could function with some degree of wholeness.

Her work enabled me to raise girls whose lives reflect none of the self-destructive patterns that characterize the lives of those of us who have been wounded by violence. While one of my daughters remains single, I have watched the other marry a truly good man and I have seen the way in which their relationship continues to grow. I see his commitment to her and to their marriage, and my heart aches with joy because she experiences every day something I have never known and will never know — love. She has no idea how hard I worked to do what I could to ensure her heart and mind were not scarred in ways that would make it difficult to have a healthy relationship.

I wonder sometimes how I managed to juggle the life I lived while raising those girls. I often worked two jobs in addition to cooking, caring for our home, going to the laudromat weekly with five or six loads of dirty clothes, and trying to carve out time to paint, an activity necessary for me to keep body and soul together. In reading Chris  Lowney’s book, I remember. I wanted to build a better life for my girls than I had, and that vision strengthened me. I may not have repaired the world, but I did persevere in what I believed was important.

I raised two amazing women by myself.

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?

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.