I Am Not Where I Thought I Would Be

Baltic Sea clouds

It is my last day of being in my 30s.

Last night I dreamed I held a sleeping newborn baby in my arms. I don’t remember anything else about the dream: only the sleepy warmth of that baby, and that she was not mine, and the pleasure and pain of looking into her face, and the love on her mother’s face as I gently returned her and walked away.

I am not where I thought I would be.

Life rarely turns out how we expect it to. No one has the life they imagined at 20. Lives are far more complicated than we can possibly dream, good and bad.

And I realize there is a lot of good in my life. I have a home. I have a job, if not my dream job. I have a good parish, and at least some connections there–people to pray for, people who pray for me. I have some pretty amazing pets who are great little companions. I have objects and instruments–musical instruments, pens and pencils and paper, cooking and baking tools, bicycles–that bring me enjoyment. I have friends and family, even if I’m separated from them a lot of the time.

But I am not where I thought I would be.

Up until recently, some part of me still half expected to be dealt an abbreviated version of just about every little girl’s dream life: meeting someone, falling in love, building a home, having children. The usual path, with variations.

Now I feel like I’m passing a point of no return, into uncharted waters.

As always this time of year, I want to call Mom so much, and yet, it occurs to me that even if I could, she couldn’t really have Big Life advice for me anymore. By the time she was my age, she’d been married for what, sixteen years? She had a big family. She was a homemaker. She had plenty of concerns and challenges, but totally different. I have sailed beyond her reckoning.

Likewise, many of my siblings have families of their own, very different circumstances. They have entered a world I can’t completely understand.

I don’t know of anyone quite like me.

I guess what I worry about above all is that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. What if I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque? What if I got lost in the fog for awhile and then headed toward the wrong star?

What if I’m outside of God’s will somehow, and have been for years?

I know that’s not how it works. But I also don’t think there’s an actual vocation to the single life. So where does that leave me? What am I?  Where am I going? How do I keep going without the graces that come with an actual state, like marriage or holy orders? And, on a more practical level, what’s going to become of me as I age, alone?

At some points in our lives, we can’t really ask “what does God want me to do with my life?” We have to be content with “what does God want me to do in this moment?” But a) it’s really hard not to look up sometimes, and b) the first question still matters, and sometimes, it crushes me.

In any case, 40 is coming at me like a storm across the waters. I can’t avoid it, and I don’t think any sort of Pollyanna grin can prevent it from tossing me around for a period. It’s going to hurt. I’m going to feel regrets and anger and confusion. I’m going to feel doubt and loneliness.

But it won’t last forever. There will be rough days, I’m sure, but this isn’t the end of the story.

I’m not where I thought I’d be. I’m not really sure where I’m going. I feel like I’m forging my own path, now more than ever, and there’s no map for where I’m headed. I’m not very good at accepting that unknowing. But who knows, maybe at 60 I’ll look back at 40 and laugh.

Hey, Dad

Guercino God the Father.jpg

My parish has Perpetual Adoration, with parishioners taking turns being there in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Anyone can come and go, but, at least in theory, every hour has at least one person committed to being there every week. Wednesdays at 6AM are mine.

I usually start off with a rosary, then do morning prayer, and finish off with some time meditating on the Mass readings for the day. Today’s Gospel is a nice one–Luke’s take on the Our Father:

LUKE 11:1-4

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished,
one of his disciples said to him,
“Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.”
He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name,
your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread
and forgive us our sins
for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us,
and do not subject us to the final test.”

The Our Father is my fall back prayer when I just don’t know what to say. I never get tired of it, and it seems like there is always something new to discover.

What stood out for me today was the intimacy of Jesus giving this prayer to his apostles. What do I mean by that? Well…bear with my clumsy words and clumsy analogy for just a minute.

Before I begin, let me say that in real life, I had a pretty sheltered and stable upbringing. I have a cool father and family.

But for just a moment, imagine you’re a broken little kid from a broken home, unsure of yourself, lonely, longing for love and forgiveness and acceptance. And then you meet this guy, Jesus, who takes you under his wing, claims you as a brother.

He has a relationship with his father you can only envy, and his father is everything you’ve never really had: loving, forgiving, merciful, kind. And your new friend tells you to call him father. “Daddy,” even. It’s sort of embarrassing and sort of wonderful. He’s totally bringing you into his perfect family, telling you to forget whatever came before.

“I can’t,” you tell him. “I mean, what would I even say to him?”

And so, he tells you. He encourages you, and gives you words. It’s so generous, and so gentle.

I’m not good at talking to strangers. I’m not good at new situations. I love that Jesus not only shares his Father with us, but also takes the time to give his disciples guidance as they learn to pray, gives them a formula to fall back on.

Maybe some of them were awkward introverts like me. I kinda like that idea.

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One Bucket at a Time

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I am so overwhelmed this week.

Work has been a series of problems I can’t solve. I can’t seem to concentrate long enough to get the house organized. My car needs an oil change. I have a stupid milestone of a birthday next month, and even if it doesn’t really mean I’ll be a different person, it feels like some doors I’ve been hoping to open for ages will be locked to me forever. Winter is coming, and I’m pretty sure some of the paint on the house wouldn’t make it through, so I had to face a fear and contact a contractor to come give me a quote, and now I’m scared it will cost more than I can manage and I’ll a) have wasted his time and b) have to start the search all over, or else spend all winter fretting about the house. My lawn needs mowed, even if it’s nothing but weeds. My bushes and trees need trimmed. And on top of everything else, there’s this:

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I have two apple trees in my back yard. This is one.

I had good intentions back in, oh, April. I was going to stay on top of everything in the yard this year. I’d mow and weedwhack and weed and pick up every apple as it fell, if I didn’t just pick them first and can or freeze bushels of something or other.

Yeah, nope.

So here I am. I walked out there this evening with my bucket, took a look, and almost just sat down in the dirt and cried. It’s endless. How am I ever going to pick up all those apples?

But then I took a deep breath, maybe said a quick prayer to St. Francis de Sales, who in my book is the patron saint of “it’ll be OK,” and I set down my bucket. One bucket, I told myself. Don’t look at the acre of apples to be gathered. Concentrate on picking up a few apples at a time, concentrate on filling just this one bucket. Don’t think beyond the bucket just now.

One bucket at a time, I carried apples to my yard waste bin. And then I took my obnoxiously optimistic big orange bucket out front and at least started on the weeds, a bucket at a time. I didn’t finish tonight. But that’s OK. I can take my bucket back out there tomorrow. And the next day.

It’s a good reflection to apply to the rest of my life, too. I have many tasks to accomplish, and I tend to get so caught up in the big picture–all those apples!–that I figuratively sit down in the dirt, overwhelmed. But I don’t have to do it all this instant. I just have to concentrate on one little piece at a time. Just keep filling my bucket.

I’ll finish off with such a perfect quote! After writing the above and after my prayer to him, I went searching for some of St. Francis de Sales’s comforting words, and this is what I turned up almost immediately. I think someone thought I needed a double dose of this message!

 . . Undertake then all your affairs with a calm and peaceable mind, and endeavor to despatch them in order, one after another-for if you make an effort to do them all at once or in disorder, your spirit will be so overcharged and depressed that it will probably sink under the burden without effecting anything. 
– St. Francis de Sales, from Introduction to the Devout Life, Chapter X

Prodigal

Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Return of the Prodigal Son
On the surface, the story of the prodigal son is one of the most comforting Gospel readings: God portrayed as a gentle and loving father, waiting with open arms to welcome us home, no matter what we’ve done or how far we have strayed. So why do I find it such a hard reading to accept?

All too frequently, I identify with the oldest son, not in that I resent a lack of goat roasting parties, but in my rigid mindset toward guilt and reparation, my struggle with the concept of unbounded love and mercy. How is it logical or just to forgive and reward the repentant sinner?

I speak primarily about how I analyze my own guilt. I stand as the oldest son, and I sneer at myself, the prodigal. Ask for forgiveness, and move on? How is that fair? I’ve done wrong. I know I’ve done wrong. I sometimes see life as a ledger, and I’m so far in the red, there’s no digging out. No hope.

This is part of why I have trouble approaching the sacrament of reconciliation. On top of having to say I did the same stupid embarrassing things again and again and again, on some level, it feels like a sham, a trick. It can’t really be that easy, can it? I just come back, sincerely say I’m sorry, and bam, I’m not only forgiven but welcomed with abundant graces?

This Gospel teaches us that yes, it is that simple. That beautiful. That…unfair. The truth is that God isn’t fair. If we all got what we deserved, we’d all get damnation.

Instead, God is merciful. Infinitely so. That’s hard for me to wrap my head around. It isn’t clean and tidy, it isn’t this plus this equals that. It doesn’t make sense.

And so, a lot of the time I am the prodigal son, but I get stuck at the point in the story where I’ve squandered my inheritance and am starving in a pigsty, miserable, afraid to go home. I tell myself I’m not worthy of even being where I am. I wallow in my shame, while my Father mourns. I don’t even give him the the opportunity to embrace and console me.

That’s pride. That’s foolishness. Do I think I can sin so big, God doesn’t have the capacity to wash it away?

It’s time–it’s always time–to dry my tears and go home.

___________

LUKE 15:11-32
Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”

Held

Love heart

The kind of day when you really need to accomplish something so you don’t feel like a total failure, but the idea of doing anything at all is so overwhelming, you feel like you can’t move.

The kind of day where you finally get up the gumption to cook something with ingredients, and then can’t get the lid off the kalamata olives, and instead of calmly trying various approaches, you break down in tears over how cruel and unfair life can be, that it would give you hard-to-open olives on a day when getting out of bed was hard.

The sort of day when you wander onto the Internet and are confronted with stories of people who have it so much worse than you ever will that they might as well exist on another planet: sweet mothers dying of cancer in their thirties, refugees with nowhere to belong, innocent children in pain…and instead of making you feel better about your life, you sob, because you feel so guilty about feeling so miserable.

The kind of day where more than anything, you are trying to forgive and let go, but then you realize how bitter your thoughts are, and you cry out to God to teach you mercy, because you just don’t understand.

It’s been that sort of a week.

It feels like my whole life is falling apart and spinning out of control, and it seems counter-intuitive to “let go and let God.” I’m dizzy, I’m confused, I hurt, and I want to grab on and grab on, and there’s nothing to grab onto.

And as I write these words, I realize that’s OK, because even if I have nothing to grasp, I’m being held.

That is something to hold onto.

Little Matters

Saint Bernard Church (Burkettsville, OH) - clerestory, the Wedding at Cana, detail

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee,
and the mother of Jesus was there.
Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.
When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
“They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her,
“Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings,
each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus told them,
“Fill the jars with water.”
So they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them,
“Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”
So they took it.
And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine,
without knowing where it came from
— although the servers who had drawn the water knew —,
the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him,
“Everyone serves good wine first,
and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one;
but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
and so revealed his glory,
and his disciples began to believe in him.

JOHN 2:1-11

This Sunday’s Gospel was the Wedding at Cana. As you’d expect, much of Father’s homily was about marriage, and as the apparently perpetually single person I am, it was a little hard to glean what still applied to me. But as so often happens, despite myself, a few new insights poked through.

Father started out by speaking a little bit about wedding practices at the time. Weddings were huge celebrations, with the party sometimes lasting days, until the food and drink ran out. Running out quickly was, frankly, embarrassing.

But this couple ran out. And Mary noticed this, and quietly interceded for them.

They ran out of wine: it’s the sort of thing I’d tend to think too small and too human to pray about. What does it matter in the grand scheme of the universe if a party doesn’t go perfectly? What does it matter if I’m worried about driving home in yucky weather, or finishing a not terribly important project at work, or finding a budget-friendly-yet-flattering dress for my brother’s wedding?

But Jesus responds to their situation with preposterous generosity. Preposterous! Not only does he provide wine, he provides a LOT of wine. And not only does he provide a lot of wine, but it’s seriously good wine.

The Wedding at Cana is often interpreted to be a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, or Jesus’ way of establishing marriage as a sacrament, and showering blessing on both the specific couple and, symbolically, all couples and all marriages. And all those interpretations are valid. But it was also something very simplean overwhelmingly generous response to a very human and earthly problem: they have no more wine.

It gives me hope that it’s OK to ask for help when I’m feeling frustrated by ordinary problems in ordinary life. I find that very comforting.

So this is Christmas….

2014-12-25 21.02.52I didn’t get Christmas cards out this year. I didn’t find every present I feel like I should have found, and most of the ones I did get home aren’t going to be nicely wrapped. I never got Christmas lights up, beyond a few LED candles in a few windows. I didn’t get around to baking or candy making or any such thing last weekend, and I work until five, so it ain’t gonna happen today, either.

It doesn’t feel much like Christmas.

But you know what? I doubt that first Christmas felt much like Christmas at first, either. On the surface, nothing went the way it “should” have. The first Christmas took place in a stable. There weren’t multi-colored cookies all laid out, perfectly wrapped presents heaped up, everything all well thought out and organized. I know I’ve harped on that a bit already this year, but in a year where I’ve spent Advent struggling to find joy, it helps to know that God can bring light out of darkness, and that there is often a deeper plan.

And hey, the wise men didn’t make it there with gifts until sometime later. So I guess I’m in good company all around.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Advent Reflection: Finding Joy

Adventwreath

Early Wednesday mornings, I spend an hour in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. As part of my prayer, I typically say a rosary, and since it’s Advent, today I said the Joyful Mysteries.

As I was going through them, it struck me: every “joyful” mystery also came with a double helping of sorrow or anxiety.

I mean, think about it:

The Annunciation
Mary is a very young woman, not even married yet, and first of all, she comes face to face with a VERY SCARY angel, who has to start off by telling her not to fear, and THEN tells her she is going to be the mother of God’s son. No pressure. Yikes!

The Visitation
Immediately after the above, while still in early pregnancy (not pleasant, from what I hear), she sets off on a long journey on foot to visit and assist her cousin. I mean, it’s wonderful that Elizabeth is having a baby, but…man, how tiring and miserable would that have been?

The Nativity

I imagine Mary preparing a space for the baby. Maybe Joseph made a beautiful cradle. Maybe she had little clothes laid by. And then? She ends up giving birth in a stinky stable, far from home, likely without many relatives around. Poor Mary!

The Presentation at the Temple
A few weeks after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph, as good Jews, go to present their child at the Temple. There they are reminded that they are poor (meh, turtledoves are fine–we know you guys are broke), and THEN hear a bunch of scary prophesies about their new son.

The Finding at the Temple
If you’ve ever been somewhere very crowded–the mall, an airport, a fair–and had a child disappear for even a few minutes, you can identify with Mary and Joseph’s panic. Except it wasn’t a few minutes! Jesus disappeared on them, and they searched for DAYS! Granted, they did find him, but…goodness!

Yes, there is also joy in each of these if you look deeply, but mostly the joy came not from the situation, but from their acceptance of God’s will for them, not getting riled up by the circumstances.

Advent can be tough for me. I’m single, I don’t have kids. I get melancholy remembering wonder-filled evenings as a kid when we’d light the Advent candles and turn off the lights, and read a prayer by candle light with all of us elbowing and jostling to poke at the candles.

I miss all the saint days for which we had fun traditions: putting out our shoes for Saint Nicholas on December 6th, making pinatas for Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th, candles for Saint Lucy on December 13th.

I miss baking cookies as a family, making fudge, making Christmas decorations.

I’ve spent long years wishing I could see all these things through the eyes of my own children, which doesn’t seem likely now.

It’s hard.

Maybe I’m crazy, but it helps a little to realize that even some of the most wonderful happenings in all of time weren’t untainted by loneliness and anxiety and sorrow. It also makes me a little more inclined to look deeper at my own days, to find that kernel of beauty and joy that I might otherwise miss. I want to value the moments I do get to spend with family–nieces and nephews and siblings, instead of burying myself in envy. I want to pick up an Advent wreath and start a few traditions of my own, even if I do so alone. I want to value the freedom I have to stop by the adoration chapel before or after work now and again this month.

Sometimes, joy is where you find it.

Doom Doom Doom Doom Doom

Storm clouds

Ever had days where you feel like you were supposed to do something critically important, but you can’t remember what it is? Days where you feel like you did something absolutely unforgivable, and someone is going to find out at any moment, though you can’t think what you’ve done? Days where it seems like every possible decision you could make is liable to ruin everyone’s lives?

Oh, I hate those. I think of them as Days of Impending Doom. Over the years, I’ve finally learned that keeping to a healthy diet that works for me has a huge impact on my emotional ups and downs. So does getting in a bit of exercise regularly–just walking helps a lot. So does playing music. So does getting in time for prayer and confession. So does finding ways–even small ways–to do things for others.

If I manage at least some of these, my doom days are reduced, but they still show up, regular as clockwork. I know they’re messing with my head. I know they’ll pass. And yet…they still lock up my life.

On those days, everything seems to take on giant proportions and it seems like there are no right choices. A few months back, there was one Saturday where I decided to buy tortilla chips–tortilla chips!–and ended up paralyzed and teary in the snacks aisle at the grocery because I couldn’t decide if the greatest good was to buy the cheapest, the most locally made, or the ones that were vaguely healthier than some of the others. This all sounds silly, I know, and it does to me too, after the fact…but it seemed really, really important at the time. Continue reading

Contemplating Crosses

Wooden cross

Awhile back, a family member started a discussion on her Facebook page where people posted in-the-moment photos of their living rooms. Her goal was primarily to make hard working mothers realize they weren’t alone, that not everyone’s home looks like a Best of Pinterest spread. I really liked the concept.

But one young woman walked into the conversation and essentially said there was no excuse for anyone to have a messy home, no matter how busy they were or how many kids they had. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “You just pick up as you go along.”

On the one hand, I think she was coming from a place of naivete: she didn’t yet have uncontrolled Others in her life, like a spouse or children, and (bless her heart) her views are likely to undergo some adjustment someday. On the other hand, I got the impression order was really and truly not a mystery or a hard thing to her. She honestly and simply couldn’t understand those who felt differently.

In an intellectual sort of way, I know “you just pick up as you go along.” But that requires a) that you have figured out where to put things away or what it means to pick up and, and b) that you actually manage to do it consistently. And I don’t. Yes, I resolve repeatedly to do so. Sometimes I manage a week or two of working toward it.

Continue reading