I’ve only been selecting a word of the year for four years running so I don’t have a long history with this, but I’m gradually learning the value of finding a concept to cling to for enhanced focus. In 2017 it was listen. For 2018, believe. And last year, gently. I even wrote a post about that one.
This year, my word is meaningful, and sitting here at home for 5 weeks in the midst of a pandemic, I am more sure than ever that this particular word was not chosen in a vacuum.
Yes, I got lost there for a bit in the panic and tedium of current events….
I’ve read and watched the news too much. Become fearful and then blasé while scrutinizing the numbers nationwide.
I’ve spent hours sewing masks for my family and wondered if they’d even be needed (and they are).
I’ve pulled every undone project I’ve got (scrapbooks, albums, and quilts) out of my closets and spread them around my dining room, exciting myself with the possibility of finishing them and overwhelming myself with work.
I’ve read a few books, mostly novels, and enjoyed them. But I knew I was using them to escape my anxiety. At times, I chose reading over prayer.
And I’ve walked and walked….alone, and with my kids, dogs, and husband. Around my neighborhood and inside my home. Trod circles going nowhere, arriving back to the place I was before to find it much the same.
And the whisper that I heard in the midst of it all on Easter weekend was this…
Your word is meaningful. Remember? Take it to heart.
Nothing goes unnoticed by the One who sees all.
Before I chose my word for 2020, I asked God for guidance in prayer. I asked that my word be significant for me and what lay ahead. And this word popped to mind clearly and vividly, and it was unshakable for many days.
In the early weeks of this pandemic, I almost forgot it. But I’m determined not to forget it now.
I’m hugging my kids more when they walk by. Playing many more rounds of board games with my youngest son. Prioritizing those projects and accepting that what didn’t get done over many years doesn’t need to get done in a couple weeks.
Meaningfulness is about intention. So for me, that’s only doing something with love and for the glory of the One who made me. Or choosing not to do it if I can’t do it in this frame of mind.
Having this kind of focus changes the energy of any activity.
How about “your” word? The choosing of it was not an accident.
God was, and is always, with you. The divine imprint is everywhere.
So pick up your word and dust it off. How can it be applied it in a new way – in a way that will bring joy to your soul amidst the current circumstances?
Ask your Creator for fresh eyes to see. It’s a habit we can all cultivate, worldwide pandemic or not.
No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account.– Hebrews 4:13
And now that we’ve entered 2020, I’m encountering more and more gifts in this review process.
Having done broader Examens of the last year, I’m seeing that my ‘reads’ of people are often incorrect. In other words, I am oblivious to what others are really thinking. I assume that all is well when in fact others have opinions – strong likes and dislikes – of which I am unaware – or worse yet, that I’m choosing to ignore. Sometimes at the peril of my relationship with them.
But rather than go ‘deep’ here and tell you a serious story, I’ll give you a fairly lighthearted example from my marriage and you can extrapolate for your own life, however much that might be helpful.
Recently, our vacuum cleaner broke. It was a Sears canister-style model we had for about 8 years – a sleek blue, with a retractable cord, internal bags I replaced when full, and a cool orange indicator light on the handle that told me when the carpet was really dirty (and it was – all the time!!). I liked it, despite the fact that the cord stopped winding and I had to use a wrench to keep it extended; despite the fact that I was constantly buying bags; and despite the fact that the contraption was HEAVY and unwieldy with its 2 segments.
When the motor finally quit my husband practically leapt for joy.
“THANK GOD!! I HATE that thing,” he said with no shortage of enthusiasm.
I was shocked. And taken aback.
I had picked it out myself and didn’t realize the depth of his dislike.
The truth was, I guess somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew he didn’t like it. I just didn’t really care. His feelings on the matter weren’t important enough to me. And when the truth came out, I had to accept my culpability.
He pointed out that the dead vacuum was quite large and always lying around, just waiting to trip someone.
We got a light, upright model. One he picked out and that I agreed was a great choice.
And when it arrived, he stood it up in the middle of the family room. Then he looked over at me and said,
“If you ever miss the old one, you can just do this.”
Then he lay it on its side so that it became an awkward obstacle in the middle of the room, stepped over it, and walked away.
I laughed until my sides hurt.
We are never too old to have a ‘learning’ moment, and this was one for me.
Too often, we assume we know what’s best and we don’t take others into account.
So – here are a few questions for the new year and each day as you walk through it, one by one:
Where was grace shown to me today?
Where did another person (or people) accommodate me? Tolerate me? And did I truly consider that person’s wishes?
Do I try to see situations from others’ points of view? Do I ask directly for their insights?
Do I modify my behavior after hearing what people I care about tell me?
Can I smile and laugh when there’s a disconnect, instead of letting it blow up into a bigger problem?
It was July of this year, and I was climbing California’s mountains in my rental car, just outside the town of Groveland, on my way to help lay 2 beautiful people to rest – the third memorial service I’d attended in almost as many months.
On the twists and turns of the switchbacks, I passed a puzzling, funny road sign. Its traditional yellow diamond shape held a message completely foreign to my East Coast sensibilities.
‘Turn off A/C’
I obeyed and rolled down the windows, deciding that the natural breeze actually felt quite nice after my cross-country flight.
Later, I asked my dad about the sign, and he said most modern cars can handle the hills, but these old notices warn drivers not to stress an engine’s radiator on the steep inclines. They are meant to be helpful.
That tiny piece of memory – me, the curvy road in terrain that varies by season, the weird sign – has come to encapsulate much of how I feel about my year.
It’s been a strange one, at least by my silly standards, as if I could ever plan or anticipate what might happen next.
Lots and lots of ups and downs. Joys and sorrows. Achievements and successes and births, and struggles and woundings and saying goodbye to people so dear to me that I choke when I picture their faces in my mind.
Amidst all of it….blessings….right?
Well, they say there’s always a blessing to be found when we look closely enough, but certain situations make us all wonder.
Sometimes blessings are very difficult to see. Or slow to emerge.
And that’s hard.
On balance, my year has been a good one, but I’ve seen people I care about suffer immensely.
I’ve seen people pass through pain so scarring and deep I know they’d much rather avoid, rationalize, or escape it – do anything other than live with it in real time.
And we’re all moving through territory we’ve never encountered before.
How about you? How has your year been? Too much? Just too darn much for a neat, quick summation?
But thinking only gets a person so far, so more recently, I’ve been spending some time learning about Ignatian spirituality and doing ‘The Daily Examen,’ a process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola and used for centuries by the ministry he founded, the Jesuits, and anyone else interested in finding God in the midst of a day or other length of time. It has helped me see blessings when they are not readily apparent.
If we accept it as Truth that God is always with us, it’s not difficult to enter into His presence. We can find Him everywhere. God is closer than breath.
So for Day 1 of this brief series, here are 6 simple steps based on the Examen to help all of us see God in the last 24 hours. Try this over the next week, and consider broadening the exercise to a larger period of time, asking God to help you decipher your life’s events in 2019.
Close your eyes. Imagine God smiling down on you, and you looking up at God.
Ask yourself, “What am I thankful for?” Don’t leap ahead, just give thanks for whatever springs up.
Before reviewing the past, ask for the grace to see yourself as God sees you.
Walk through your day (or week, month, year) one moment at a time. Where did you feel joy? What troubled you? Challenged you? Where and when did you pause? Did you see or feel the presence of God at any particular point? Stay with that for a bit.
What is your response? How is your spirit?
Looking ahead, what comes to mind? With what spirit do you want to move forward?
Suffering and happiness are persistent lows and highs. They just vary in their intensity.
But when we ask for guidance to see our ups and downs in the light of God’s ever-present and eternal love for us, we can be nourished and calmed on the journey. We can find deeper joy regardless of our circumstances.
And we learn we are not riding solo. We are never left to handle life’s switchbacks and strange signs alone.
Thank goodness I didn’t wreck the car when I saw them…I was staring so much.
They were three men walking in a line like ducks toward the school, one following another, on the sidewalk opposite me as I pulled out of a parking spot on a one-way street in historic downtown Annapolis.
They were slowed by the bumpy terrain – a place where bricks placed in a herringbone pattern are made uneven by centuries of wear and large roots of trees busting through at sporadic intervals.
Or maybe it was the men’s daughters who shortened their steps.
Tucked behind each dad, sheltered from passing cars and just barely in view, was a little girl holding her father’s left hand. In his right hand, each dad carried a tiny backpack.
And that last precious little girl? Oh – she was engulfed in story, her left arm waving around as she kept her face toward her dad’s, looking up for his responses. And he was nodding and smiling – fully focused, fully present to whatever it was she was telling him.
Three men. Three daughters. So beautiful.
I still remember being small and holding my dad’s big hand. It was warm and soft. And I knew I was safe when I was with him.
And I still remember what it was like to have help from others when I was vulnerable. Friends hauled my backpack for me in high school on more than one occasion when I sprained my ankles.
Perhaps your experiences are similar.
The truth is, we’re all still children at heart. We want two hands to be there for us. One to hold, and one to carry our stuff.
Hours after seeing the fathers and daughters, a dear friend of mine called and shared some concerns with me about one of her children.
In the beginning of our friendship, she used to apologize for taking up my time, but now we have an understanding. Our relationship has matured and we know – we are here to help carry one another’s burdens. We are here to hold each other’s hands.
I tell her my fears and she tells me hers. She admits her mistakes and I reassure her that I’ve made them, too.
We metaphorically link arms, and while one of us protects the other from the world’s traffic, the one who’s feeling vulnerable and small waves her other arm about and tells her story for as long as it takes.
We walk together over the uneven path.
As you’ve probably witnessed, the world consistently fails to appreciate the finer points of real, lasting, and genuine adult relationships. They are tender, sacred domains where vulnerability, weakness, and heart-to-heart sharing is not mocked and scorned, but cherished.
Only in admitting to one another that we are not perfect can we find communion.
Real love means letting down our guard with someone we trust, and offering to guard one another in return.
Our hearts are made for Love.
We crave it.
We want it in its purest form – born in perfection from the place where it is, was, and always will be – safe and eternally trustworthy, from beginning to end.
And to get more of it, we must give it away.
The next time you feel frail, weakened, or exposed – will you turn to a loyal friend – and better still, your Father in heaven – and say, ‘Show me where I can lay down this heavy load?’
And when someone comes to you with a backpack of worry, regret, or just fatigue from too much responsibility, will you help him or her carry it for awhile, while holding out your tender hands, offering your strength and protection?
Yes, we can do this. We can travel the jagged landscape of life, making one another’s burdens lighter with the love of God working through our hands.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
For much of the Northern Hemisphere, October marks the beginning of sweater season, a time when we seek out coziness. Warmth at this time of year might be a cute fall welcome mat or a mug of steaming cider. Or it could be something more enduring, like the loving arms and lilting laughter of family huddled together on a jolting hayride, memorable for decades to come.
All of us want the kind of joy that comes with feeling snug and secure, and the confidence that we are headed toward something good. And we like anecdotes, images, and items that point us toward that soulful desire.
Because I try every month to bring you 5 things I encountered which were in some way pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, honorable, just, or worthy of praise (per Philippians 4:8), this October I wanted to find a balance between the warm and fuzzy feeling we’re looking for, and the lessons we can learn in its presence. Here goes…
1) We are all lovely. And we all bear scars. Lions are my favorite animals so I will stop to look at just about any lion picture. But this one – this one took my breath away. It was posted on Instagram by African Animals with the caption “Fought for his kingdom.”
Since Christ is called “the Lion of Judah,” you know what I thought of immediately and about what He does for those who love Him. But I also paused just to study this cat’s gorgeous face. His scarred eye. His tough, humble stature. God didn’t spare beauty in any single creature. Let’s think of this the next time we gaze into the face of another person long enough to see past their hurts.
2) We are working toward a bright but hidden future. I am not an insect aficionado, and probably neither are you, but who knew these guys could be so adorable? I was walking my dog Luna, saw this little caterpillar almost hidden in the grass, and scooped her up to investigate.
Her hair was not as soft as it looked – it was wiry – and being defenseless, she immediately curled into a ball. Google told me that she’s a pyrrharctia isabella – The Wooly Bear. She eats all kinds of common plants and hibernates under rocks and logs in the winter, so in all likelihood, she was having a fairly industrious day when I gave her a terrible fright. In the spring, she will become a very pretty but seldom-seen moth. We’re a lot like her, plugging away at our tasks, never sure if our efforts will pay off in the way we hope (perhaps not even really thinking about their long-term import). Yet we must trust in the promise of goodness to come. And it does come to those who wait and believe.
3) We can beautifully pass love on. I attended 3 funerals to support grieving friends this month, so I spent some time considering how we mourn and ways we can honor our loved ones who have gone on. During these days, a priest I greatly admire posted this poem on Facebook. From what I understand, it is often used as a meditation in Reform Jewish liturgy before Kaddish, a hymn of prayer praising God and ending with a plea for peace throughout the world. The poem is exquisite in its sensitivity and expresses the deepest wishes of so many of us.
“Epitaph” By Merrit Malloy
When I die Give what’s left of me away To children And old me that wait to die.
And if you need to cry, Cry for your brother Walking the street beside you. And when you need me, Put your arms Around anyone And give them What you need to give to me.
I want to leave you something, Something better Than words Or sounds.
Look for me In the people I’ve known Or loved, And if you cannot give me away, At least let me live on in your eyes And not your mind.
You can love me most By letting Hands touch hands, By letting bodies touch bodies, And by letting go Of children That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, People do. So, when all that’s left of me Is love, Give me away.
4) We can and should find practical ways to recycle things we are no longer using and make kids in need smile at the same time. This month, I learned about LEGO Replay, a pilot program sponsored by LEGO through which you can donate your old used bricks for less fortunate kids. Just box up your old pieces, visit the LEGO Replay website, print off a shipping label, and call UPS and tell them you have a box for pick-up. The pilot program will run through the spring of 2020, so jump in now to participate. For more information visit the LEGO site here.
5) We want to encourage one another. I was in a Starbucks when I saw this sign:
Curious as to what people had written, I pulled out a few of the notes. Here’s what they said:
You can tell from the handwriting that these message-bearers are of varying ages. What’s wonderful is…
Good will is ageless.
I pray these people will share their uplifting messages daily in the ways they speak and interact with others, because our voices, words, and body language matter. Very much.
If, however, we find ourselves struggling to be gentle and kind – there is hope for us. One thing I know that helps for sure – is prayer.
P is for prayer and it can be brief – like 15 seconds, just saying thank you for the day. R is for reading the Word of God, and I follow the Scriptures of the day that the Catholic Church is reading around the world, but you could use whichever biblical book(s) you are currently studying. W is for writing – a short time of journaling your thoughts. R is for reading again, a short segment of spiritual material. Currently, I’m reading 2-3 pages from Treatise on the Love of God by Francis de Sales. And finally, P is for prayer – a closing conversation with your Creator. The whole process could be long or quite brief, though I generally find, the more time I spend in prayer, the better my days go.
That’s it for October’s Wholesome List. However you are growing in your spiritual life, I wish you peace, love, joy beyond all human understanding, and lots and lots of warm fuzzies in your heart. May we all become ever more thankful in November!
September wasn’t a typical month. Yes, there was the back-to-school hoopla and a re-establishment of routines, but for me, two events also consumed a fair amount of my attention: a 5-day girls’ trip to Des Moines with my mom for the International Convention of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, and my oldest son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. (For a few more details, you can check out the highlighted links.) If you’re a parent, you know you can’t leave town or host an event without doing A LOT of prep work.
What this meant, in effect, was that I did a poor job of leaving myself a bread-crumb trail of observations for my monthly “wholesome” list. What I DID do, was contemplate what it means to: 1. try to live virtuously, and 2. belong to organizations that affirm and uphold values such as faith, trust, honor, kindness, justice, and thriftiness. Being part of a group holds us accountable to the values we profess.
Not all of us are “joiners,” as they say, but I would guess that most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people.”
A friend of mine told me she once heard a priest ask the following in a homily:
“If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
That certainly would have gotten my attention.
For those of us who are Christians, it is a very pointed and appropriate question.
Rather than offer you 5 wholesome items to consider this month such as films, songs, or even yogurt, I have a few questions for reflection. See if you agree with me when I say that I think checking to see if our outer lives are truly aligned with our inner desire to be “good people” is a valuable and wholesome exercise.
Do I have a personal creed that I (try to) live by?
What are the components or virtues of this creed? Is it altruistic and centered on serving others, or not?
How am I doing? Do my daily decisions (big and small) reflect my desires to live by my creed? If not, where do I need to make changes so that the virtues I want to develop further will manifest themselves in my life?
Do those I love know which virtues matter most to me and why?
Am I a good role model to the younger people in my life?
If we want to live with purpose and intention, we need to think about what we do and why we do it.
God didn’t create us to be automatons. He gave us reason and choice to promote His love in a world that needs to hear of it so very, very much.
To my Christian brothers and sisters – do not lose heart if you read these questions and realize you are coming up short. I know I am.
Remember that Jesus fills the gap between us and heaven, and He sent us the Advocate, “the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:17) Don’t give up when the battle is hard. The Holy Spirit fills our hearts and minds with wisdom, knowledge, and holy respect for the Father, and when we rely on Him – and not ourselves – He guides us to the Father’s will.
Think of a time when you offered up a faint prayer – a cry for help – and it was answered in a powerful, inexplicable whisper of peace that filled you from head to toe. You somehow knew the next step to take, the next words to say.
This is a small example of grace. Though we deny and forget God, He has never forgotten us. He’s loved us since before time began.
Perhaps we can take a step today to recommit ourselves to valuing and practicing the virtues He cares about most, leaning into His strength to carry us through.
I didn’t intend to take 8 weeks off from writing. But when late June arrived and the kids were suddenly home and alert every day between 8 and 3, eating all the time, leaving their drinking cups in every room of the house, and asking on an hourly basis for rides to other side of the planet, well, the warning signs were there that I would have a hard time keeping to a schedule. I beat myself up a bit, “shoulding” all over myself but that got me – predictably – nowhere. Yes, summer. I finally surrendered to its charms and just lived it.
By the end of July I had decided I couldn’t muster a Wholesome List. I would wait and give you one at the end of August – a double doozy of 10 good things to think about as we leave this season behind. Here it is, broken into two parts.
In July, I learned or observed that:
Surprise bouquets are the ABSOLUTE BEST. On the second day of the month, a dear college friend shocked me…..FOUR bouquets of tulips arrived on my doorstep from The Bouqs Co.! Gorgeous! (See photo below.) These sustainable, eco-friendly growers were new to me. They only cut what they sell, clipping flowers the day they are ordered. If there is a delay in the shipment, they will send more blooms to make up for those that might have died or wilted in the process, which is how I ended up with 4 beautiful bouquets. I was bowled over and felt oh-so-loved by my old friend. Go on – you know what to do. At the right time, make someone’s day.
Colorizing old films reawakens our hearts to history. When I was a little girl, I once asked my mother if when she’d grown up, the world looked black and white, like the pictures we’d seen of her. The truth is, we all get used to thinking of life ‘long ago’ that way – as discrete and removed from our current technicolor days. On a flight to Sacramento, I watched “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a 2019 documentary made by Peter Jackson, who restored and colorized World War I footage stored for the last century in the Imperial War Museum in London. He interviewed veterans and made the filmed soldiers “talk” using the veterans’ voices. As in other wars, boys lied about their ages to enlist in WWI. The faces of the kids in the battles – they were just like those of my 16-year old son and his friends. If you’d told me – there’s Jack and Joey and James – I could have believed you. It’s vital to pay attention to the beauty of every single life and count the true cost of conflict.
Maybe ‘killin’ it’ – in so many ways – isn’t so great. Stop and savor. Then do it again. While reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb, I came across this quote from the late psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm. He said, “Modern man thinks he loses something — time — when he does not do things quickly; yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains except kill it.” Sounds right to me. What do you think?
Bigger (natural space) is better…for my soul. In July, I visited Yosemite for the first time since I was 2 with some of my extended family to honor my grandparents who spent weekends there in the 1950s. The vistas are breathtaking and there is a majesty in the space that can only be experienced, not explained. Tension evaporated off my shoulders as I stood in the sunshine on Olmstead Point and took in the huge, panoramic view of Clouds Rest and Half-Dome in the distance. I find it impossible to think self-importantly when I can see that I’m a speck. From dust we came and to dust we shall return, but oh how He loves us as we stumble along our way.
In the love of family is always the right place to be. I have a new nephew. He’s a beautiful gift my brother- and sister-in-law brought into the world in June, and our family is so thrilled that he’s here. The tough part is that he’s been having some health issues. He’s got a ventricular septal defect (VSD) — or “hole in the heart” — an opening between the heart’s lower chambers, and we all want desperately for him to be healed. Nevertheless, holding him – seeing his beautiful face and praying daily for God’s help – is joy itself. This is why we are given to one another – to reconnect us to what’s most important – Love.
In August, our family vacationed in Ireland. My husband and I visited the Emerald Isle on our honeymoon 21 years ago, returned two years later with friends, and hadn’t been back since. We wanted to experience it with our kids – who give me something to think about nearly every single day.
If you want to see a place from a new perspective, give a kid a camera. You will get to see what interests her (or him), and if you’re lucky, some uniquely entertaining photos.
It doesn’t matter where you are – or how old the kids are – they will wrestle in the backseat. We drove at least an hour every day visiting sites and enjoying the scenery. (Listening to audio books such as The Lightning Thief – book 1 of Rick Riordan’s ‘Percy Jackson’ series – also helps pass the time). And honestly – they never complained. But – they did cut loose as needed.
Live music blesses everyone. We caught some in Killarney and again in Galway, where we stumbled upon a show of world-renowned traditional Irish musicians and dancers – Trad on the Prom. My daughter does Irish dance, so it was a treat for her to get a photo with all of the dancers, including 6-time World Champion Claire Greavey. And I knew the evening had captured our oldest’s heart when I caught him trying to video Gerard Fahy – a master of the uilleann pipes, which have an ethereal, ghostly sound and are nigh impossible to learn.
You don’t forget how to drive a manual, but doing it left-handed takes special fortitude. To get around, we rented a stick-shift Volkswagen Tiguan. My husband had driven in Ireland on our previous two trips but after this one – where he negotiated the tiny parking garages and narrow streets of 1,000 year-old Dublin before tackling the backroads of the Atlantic Way, constantly on the alert for daredevil mainland Europeans, I am sure of this: 1) I am glad he never asked me to drive, and 2) my guy can truly do anything.
The moments we remember most are the ones that brought us together. Like the adorable baby pigs we cooed over at Muckross Traditional Farms or how we got tired of bangers and mash and went for Indian food one night. Or better yet – when I made us pull over in a near-downpour in the Burren to see the Poulnabrone Dolmen – a tomb dating back 5,000 years that basically looks like a weathered table – and everyone hated it except me. I will never live down the teasing (and love) that came out in the laughter of that 5-minute stop.
And finally – A bonus observation! – The monks who isolated themselves some 1,000 years ago on Skellig Michael to pray and worship God in the quiet and rough elements were strongly disciplined in their practice and correct in their thinking. Traveling on a one-hour boat ride to see this sanctuary firsthand reminded me that carving out time for the Lord is a necessary part of my spiritual journey. Every era is turbulent in some way – ours is no exception – and our internal lives are challenged daily. To find the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), I need to regularly do as Jesus did – and go to my solitary places to seek Him – the only Source of refreshment and new life.
Many blessings to you as we head into September. In closing, I can find no better words than more of those from St. Paul – who inspired me to begin these monthly lists in the first place:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)