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”?

 

What’s Up, Doc?

I know I am not Bugs Bunny. I doubt if I have much in common with the Looney Tunes character who munched on his carrot with such insouciance. And yet, as Lent draws its mantle around me, something within looks forward with nearly the same cavalier abandon.

For some reason, many of the major transitions in my life have occurred at this time of year.  In 1998, after months of nagging phone calls from someone who did not have my best interests at heart, from someone who imagined — fool that she was — that I could be manipulated like a marionette, I acquiesced and accepted a job I did not want. I — fool that I was — imagined I could balance the job with my dream as I had done with other positions.

Seventeen years later, I still have not recovered from that error in judgment. The art career I had built through hard work and sacrifice while working (sometimes two jobs) and raising two children without a dime of child support is just a halcyon memory. The joy of walking into an exhibit space and being surrounded by the work of my hands — gone. The pleasure of hugs from and animated conversation with other artists at opening receptions — gone.

In 2006, Lent brought another leave-taking. With my art career in ashes, I rose like a phoenix to become a respected journalist, winning awards, watching my stories cross the wire, enjoying every day of work as though I had been created for that life. And then, in 2004, a short leave of absence from the newspaper became a resignation when the board of a nonprofit I sought to help irresponsibly failed to fulfill their part in the verbal agreement we had made. I could have walked away and let them deal with the mess they had made, but I did not. I shouldered the burden right up to the day that same board decided to relieve me of it — during Holy Week.

That experience cost me my home. I was so deeply wounded by the board’s betrayal and that breach of trust, that I had a difficult time getting on my feet again. I tried to retreat back into the profession which had given me so much pleasure, but we can’t go home again. With no local jobs, I was forced to move in order to find work — to move away from the river which was the subject of so many acrylic sketches, to move away from the view out my window that filled me with joy in all seasons, to move away from the friends and life I had built for myself.

I have turned over that sequence of events so many times the edges have become smooth. Thy will be done, I learned to pray. Thy will be done. Over and over. Over and over. Thy will be done. The prayer and the desire to submit myself to the will of our Father in Heaven led me into an ever deepening prayer life and an ever deepening trust in God. So, when the newspaper for which I worked experienced financial difficulties, and the publisher decided, during Lent in 2011, to save money by replacing me with someone less experienced — God bless those employment-at-will states which are an employer’s delight — I was shocked, but not unduly disheartened.

This year, I go into Lent feeling change is imminent. At the very least, my status with the nonprofit where I have been in training will change. But it’s possible other change may come as well. To prepare, I have given up fiction for Lent. (I have also given up sweets and snacks, but giving up fiction is the more difficult fast.) Usually, when I walk to work or take care of chores around the apartment, I listen to an audio book. And when I crawl into bed at night, I grab a mystery to distract me from the concerns of the day.

While this habit of escaping into fiction is not nearly as destructive as drinking myself into oblivion or drugging myself to the gills, the effect isn’t terribly different. Instead of embracing the gift of the day, instead being open to the blessings and challenges that make life rich with experience, I’m turning away. That’s no way to prepare for change. Change should be met with an open heart and an open mind. Change should be met with joy as a resurrection experience. Change should be cherished as a gift and grace.

I know this. I know it in my head. Now I cultivate the ground of my heart with prayer and reflection to receive whatever comes, using mindfully the time previously given over to fiction with plots, endings and closure. It’s an adventure, which today took an unexpected twist. For some odd reason, a phrase popped into my head when I grabbed a carrot for lunch, a phrase I haven’t heard in more than 40 years. “What’s up, Doc?”

I laughed with confusion, but couldn’t put it out of my mind. I begin to suspect that whatever comes, I’ll face it with grace and resilience. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even have a little of that rabbit’s arrogant confidence.

 

Taking Jim’s Advice

In case you opened this to see what words of wisdom my brother imparted — wrong Jim. I’m actually referring to Father James Martin, SJ.

Since reading his book, BECOMING WHO YOU ARE: INSIGHTS ON THE TRUE SELF FROM THOMAS MERTON AND OTHER SAINTS, (three or four times, actually) I’ve become a fan of his. I’ve read or listened to most of his books, including THE JESUIT GUIDE TO (ALMOST) EVERYTHING, which I also read more than once. In addition, I’ve become one of his 55,000 Facebook friends, and had the audacity to contact him personally on several occasions. He had the graciousness to respond, and signed his email messages “Jim.” And so I’ve come to think of him as Jim.

This morning, before I even crawled out of bed, I checked Facebook to see what he’d written about the Apostolic Exhortation the Vatican released today. Evangelii Gadium — or, for those of us more fluent in English, “The Joy of the Gospel” — is the first major document that Pope Francis himself penned. Earlier this year, an encyclical that Pope Benedict XVI wrote and Pope Francis lightly edited was released — Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) — but it didn’t sound like the pope who has inspired me from the moment his election was announced.

The words of Pope Francis so often inspire me that I put the Pope App on my phone so I could read his homilies. And because I am trained to recognize an author’s voice — it’s absolutely amazing what years of college literature classes will teach you — I’ve come to know the way he uses language, the poetic way in which he uses repetition to create depth of meaning, the inviting way in which he shows us how our lives can be transformed by the Word of God. Pope Benedict’s writings inspired me, but Pope Francis’s words excite my imagination — perhaps just a difference of nuance, but definitely a difference.

And because Jim had read the interview with Pope Francis which was published in AMERICA MAGAZINE, a national Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, before publication, I anticipated he’d read “The Joy of the Gospel” as well. Since I knew I wouldn’t get to it until after work, I wanted a hint regarding what it contained. What he wrote made it difficult to wait until this evening to begin it: “I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprisiing and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

As he briefly summarized Pope Francis’ vision for the Church I found it difficult to be the lone Catholic in this household. I wanted to share what he’d  written. “Francis is challenging himself … it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo … it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so …  it is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged in the world….” Near the end of his blog, Jim wrote, “My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document.Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call ….”

As I sat down with Evangelii Gadium tonight, I found I could only take my time with it. In fact, I read only the first section — eight paragraphs. Some sentences I read over and over, letting them seep into me. I made marginal comments and checked one Scriptural quotation. (Is that really in the Bible? Yes, it is! How could I have not seen it before?)*

Nearly an hour after I began to read, I knew I could read no more tonight. One passage had touched something deep and I needed to reflect on it, on the sense of affirmation I experienced as read those words for the first time — an affirmation as ethereal as an angel’s touch and yet undeniable. Pope Francis had written, “No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s} boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will” [3].

Start anew, as I am now. The other night as I sat knitting a blue cowl for Sara, I thought, “I’m pregnant.” Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. I am waiting, just as I did when I carried my beloved children, for the moment of birth, for that new beginning. It’s coming; I’ve felt it for months. Sometimes it’s powerful, almost tangible, as it was on those summer mornings when I felt I was living on the cusp of a miracle. At other times, it’s gentle, and the mystery of not knowing the shape it will take is balanced by a quiet certainty that in trusting God at this moment I am allowing his promise to ripen within me.

That is not to say I sit around and twiddle my thumbs — or knit. No, I get up in the morning and go to the $8 per hour Experience Works position that has been mine since mid-October, and put in the allocated hours (not to exceed 21 per week). At home, I do the laundry, help out with the dishes and the twins, and occasionally do a little cleaning as well. My primary job, though, is seeking employment. In the evening, I sit down at the computer I inherited when Sara and Brodie upgraded and do what must be done — job searches, resume revisions, application submissions.

But under the activity is a quiet assurance that God is at work, and when the time is right — hopefully sooner than later — a door will open that I cannot even begin to imagine at present. As I once rested my hand upon my swollen abdomen to feel my children move within me — not knowing in those pre-ultrasound days whether I carried a son or daughter — and knew an inexplicable contentment, I now rest my hope in the Lord and feel equally content, equally blessed, knowing my life will again be touched by the mystery of the new life.

This is me, lifting  up my head. This is me, not stripped of my dignity by life experiences that eroded my self-confidence for a time. This is me, experiencing joy which the Lord has restored to me. I may be 58 years old and virtually unemployed, but God has touched me with his boundless and unfailing love, and with great tenderness has opened my heart to the possibility of a personal resurrection.

Yes, Jim, I will take time over Evangelii Gadium. Thanks for the suggestion.

* “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means … Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment.” (Sirach 14:11,14)

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. 

Odd Role Model

(Note: I probably shouldn’t write articles to post at 1:30 a.m. after working 11 hours, the last nine of which were spent on my feet. But, since there is a point or two here worth saving, I just edited it rather than deleting it.)

Midnight possibilities have an ethereal quality. Right now, with my feet elevated after working a long shift and ibuprophen beginning to work its magic, I find myself bemused to discover I am being inspired by a recovering drug addict whose most recent claim to fame is portraying a comic book action hero in a popular movie. Not usually my kind of guy.

Inspiration comes from an article on Yahoo! about Robert Downey, Jr. I have to admit I haven’t seen “The Avengers,” but I’ve liked the way he plays Sherlock Holmes. (Note to self: see about getting DVDs.) Consequently, I was curious about the article, “Reinvention 101: 5 Lessons from Robert Downey, Jr.,” by Patrick J. Kiger. 

I was vaguely aware that Downey was making a career comeback, but didn’t know the details. Apparently, he had a bit of drug problem and spent some time in prison. Erratic behavior also prevented him from being the actor-of-choice for television or movies for a while.

Since 2008, he’s turned that track record around. Kiger reports that the nine movies in which he’s starred have grossed $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone. He points out that Downey reinvented himself one step at a time and had help. Since I’ve been mourning my art career, I’ve been wondering if I couldn’t resurrect it by adapting those lessons to my situation.

  1. Concentrate on getting ahead one step at a time. My first step might be to readjust my priorities. When I was working to build an art career, I blocked out a work schedule and stuck to it. Sometimes  I used the time to clean my studio or mix paint rather than to actually paint, but I worked at something related to creating art. I haven’t done that in years. Maybe it’s time to start doing that again.
  2. Don’t be too proud to accept help. Twenty years ago, I read voraciously and networked extensively in order to understand what was necessary to build a career, especially since  I didn’t have a degree in art to use as a springboard. Through the contacts I made, I learned about exhibition opportunities and learned how to begin marketing my work. Maybe it’s time to swallow my pride and start attending events again. Maybe I’ll meet someone willing to help open a door. I won’t know unless I try. 
  3. Believe that in the end, your talent will enable people to overlook your past mistakes. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. While I do exhibit the work of cherished friends and mentors in my home, the majority of the  paintings on my walls are my own — both portraits and landscapes. I never cease to be amazed by the way I use color and by the way I’ve incorporated other materials into my work. I need to value the original vision which is mine enough to believe others will find it intriguing as well.
  4. It’s never too late to develop self-discipline. In my case, developing self-discipline and taking things one step at a time might involve the same practice — scheduling time to create art and then doing it. I remember when I used to crawl out of bed in the morning and start painting without even getting out of my pajamas because I didn’t want to risk getting distracted by other work that needed to be done. I was that disciplined as an artist. I can be that disciplined again.
  5. Don’t be afraid to play with an ensemble. This actually appeals to me. I think of the group shows at the now defunct Oscar Howe Art Center that Jeff Morrison curated, and remembrance washes over me like a warm shower. What fun to brainstorm ideas with other artists and to see my work hung with those whose work I admired. I was both humbled and exhilarated to be among them as an equal. Once I have created some new work, I need to explore this possibility.

(Those wishing to know how these lessons are reflected in Downey’s career might be able to find Kiger’s article at SecondAct.com if it’s no longer available on Yahoo!)

So, I can now imagine how my art career might be resurrected. That’s a beginning. Author and psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen (GODDESSES  IN EVERYWOMAN, THE TAO OF PYSCHOLOGY and CLOSE TO THE BONE, among others) said “Whenever we attempt something new or difficult, we have to be able to imagine it before it becomes possible. It’s the combination of inspiration and perspiration that brings about tangible results.”

God willing, as I reflect on this plan, it will grow within me and before long the will-o-wisp possibility I begin to see tonight will take on substance and inspire action. God willing.

St. Jude pray for me.