reconciling things

“Allow it all to happen: beauty and terror…” Rilke

I met my friend Jenn the summer I was 17, while we were on a missions trip to Pakistan. It was one of the most formative summers of my life. At the end of the summer she went home to Washington and I went home to California. Every morning we sent one another a fax. It was a newsy little note about what was going on in our lives–the dramas at work, what we read in our daily devotions, and whether the cute delivery guy talked to us. On the fax was always a list of “Day Brighteners.” These lists of gratitude formed from our existence–maybe not large and lofty things, but real things, things that really made us smile or laugh or made the confusion of adolescence less sucky. I guess those Day Brightener faxes lasted for about a year, until we had computers with email in our homes. I miss those faxes.

This last Lent I was going through my desert (Lent is like that, isn’t it?) and another friend friend Joan texted me every morning with a “pocket of joy”–one thing that brought her joy that day. And she would ask, “What is your pocket of joy today?” Some days I had to dig. I had to think really hard, because life was slogging hard. Sometimes through tears I would find a pocket of joy and text it to her. Lent is over, but I miss those texts.

Recently in discussing grief and getting through difficult things another friend told me when I first wake up every day to thank God for three things. Find three things first thing in the day because it would rewire my brain toward gratitude. He is not wrong. It works. But, it is also work. You have to choose it. It’s not automatic. If you don’t choose, the world will choose for you.

Gratitude is not the default in our world. Five minutes watching the news and you can find about a dozen things that suck big time. Sometimes it doesn’t even take that. Simply watching people who don’t know how to merge onto the interstate is enough to make me lament the fallen world. (It’s really not that difficult people. Get up to speed for the love all that is good and holy!) Yet, gratitude is the key to everything. Somehow it is the most powerful code to crack that opens up reality and possibility and joy and perseverance. It’s amazing what we can endure when we start on the premise that not everything sucks.

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When I gave birth to my first born child I thought (rightly so) that she was the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth. Although I had no idea how to parent her, no one could fault my love. I loved her so completely, I was so enraptured, I was sure no one had ever loved a child more. When she was just three months old I was pregnant with my second child. And people were aghast. So soon! Another baby! How will you care for two babies? My mother-in-law (may her memory be eternal) asked if I was going to discontinue my pregnancy. I was horrified.

No, I did not know how I would care for two babies. I was not sure I could love another child as much as I loved my first. I wasn’t sure how it would all work out. But one thing was for damn sure, I would not be ending my pregnancy!

My first born son, my second child, was born just 12 months after my first. How is it possible that I had not one, but two perfect children?! I loved him so completely. He was so beautiful! My heart could burst for this child whom I loved so much.

Did I love my first child less? Nope! Still loved her just as much and my love for her felt like it increased daily. And now I was experiencing it at the same time with the second.

And the third.

And the fourth.

And fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth.

My heart grew every time. The original love lost nothing in sharing it with another.

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When I was a teenager I had a sign on the inside of my bedroom door that said, “Fear of what you might lose, hope of what you might gain, or love of what you might give?” It was a reminder to me as I left my room each day that I could choose the motivation that fueled my day and my life. Even then, I desired more than anything to live in, for, and with love.

Years later friends began to joke with me that I was a “love hubber.” Meaning that I loved everyone without distinction. Which, of course, isn’t exactly true–there are some I love more than others. But, yes, in a general sense, I do love everyone. I was always taken aback by this little joke, because I felt like it was a way of saying that I lacked discernment. Yet, I am discerning. I know people can be false or have impure motives. I know people (including myself) are weird and neurotic. I know there are people who want to use others or have unrealistic expectations for me. All this I know to be true. But that is their choice. My choice is love.

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“Mary does not come into prominence for her own sake, but for that of her Son. Her human likeness and its psychological details is inaccessible to every historic-critical method, to the most understanding interpretation, even to the most ardent love. It rests veiled in the mystery of God… it is veiled, however, for the express purpose of disclosing itself in its religious significance, for on earth the veil is the symbol of the metaphysical. It is likewise the symbol of womanhood, and all great forms of a woman’s life show her as a figure veiled. This makes it clear why the greatest mysteries of Christianity entered the world of creation not through the man, but by the way of the woman. The annunciation of the Christmas message to Mary repeats itself in the Easter message to Magdalen, while the mystery of Pentecost reveals man in an attitude of womanly acceptance. The Church indicates the same association of concepts, when at religious services and also at the marriage ceremony she assigns woman to the Gospel side of the altar.”

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The great thing about getting old(er) and I hope wise(r) is that you learn to accept yourself as you are at the same time becoming what you should be. When you are younger you may care about what is fashionable or what people think or find it difficult if you stand out from the crowd. At school or youth group you wonder if you should fit in with the jocks or the nerds and whether people are still tight-rolling their jeans this year. You may laugh at jokes you don’t quite understand just so as not to appear dumb (or is this just me?). Or you may pretend to like movies that are stupid or over-your-heard or simply not your jam because everyone else won’t shut up about them. (Like the time I gave into peer pressure and watched the Titanic in the theater against my better judgement. That’s 3 hours and 14 minutes I’ll never get back.)

But then you get older. You have enough life experiences that you kind of stop caring—in a good way. If you are a well-adjusted grown-up you realize you can disagree without being disagreeable and find you can own your own opinions without bending to the group-thought. (Unless you are so Hollywood that you care about being cancelled….) You realize there is a difference between style and fashion. You don’t pretend to like pumpkin spice lattes or IPAs just because everyone else does. (Aside: IPAs are to basic guys what pumpkin spice lattes are to basic girls. Change my mind.) You can lean into your strengths, embrace even your “flaws”, and find where the beauty lies in the mess.

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  • The heart can hold two seemingly opposing things at the same time and it does not have to make sense to anyone. As Pascal says, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” I have learned to hold two truths in the last few years, such as life is fucking hard and God is overwhelmingly good. And also, one can be extremely lonely and very content at the same time. A less abstract example: my marriage should have never happened, but I would do it again for the sake of these nine children who make the world go around for me. (NEWS: My marriage was annulled this summer. There was much rejoicing.)
  • You can only ignore stress for so long and you cannot “power of positive thinking” your way out of trauma. You have to walk through it, acknowledge it, honor it, release it, lather-rinse-repeat. Because you may think mentally you are fine. And then your body will remind you—first in subtle ways. And then in increasingly dramatic ways that get your attention. (NEWS: I had an autoimmune flair that nearly killed me this summer. But, I am recovering very well.)
  • We all live with holes. When someone important leaves your life—because of death, divorce, misunderstanding, or pure malice, there is no filling the hole they leave in your life with someone else. That’s not the way life works. You may make new friends or fall in love again, but that does not mean the new person fills the role of the previous person. I mean, if you have ever loved anyone, you know this intuitively, right? Instead you just somehow learn to live with the hole, work around it, and find some kind of beauty in it. Your life becomes like lace, which wouldn’t be beautiful if it didn’t have strategic holes.
  • Which reminds me of the time my now 20 year old was about 7 years old and was following me around Target as I bought some accessories for a party I had to attend. He look at the fishnet stockings and said, “Mom, you should get different ones. These are full of holes.”
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It was right after daily Mass that I decided with an hour to spare I would feed my vanity and get a pedicure. Ordinarily I am a low-maintenance girl. My morning routine takes about 10 minutes, no lie. But a pedicure makes me happy and is really the only way I am wearing sandals in the summer. It’s vanity. I could have used a homily on modesty at that Mass.

I was sitting in the salon chair, mindlessly scrolling my phone because I forgot my book, which makes me look smarter and more sophisticated than others there and therefore feeds my ego. I joke, but it’s also kind of true. I refuse to read the fashion magazines, because I don’t need to add insecurity to the vanity I am there to feed. The only option is to feel superior reading Camus. Come on. You know you have your things that make you feel slightly better than others. I could have used a homily on humility too.

So, I sat there scrolling my phone, which rather than making me look superior just made me look like a bored millennial. Oh well. But, I was listening to the room. And it was chatty that day. It started out with some complaining about kids in general, then grew into complaining about adult children. One lady was about to go to a family reunion type function and getting the adult children to participate in whatever way she thought they should was not going well. Through the conversation it came out that she had sons. Well, she had daughters too, but apparently they had a smidge more sense than her sons. Another lady chimed in. She also had sons! In fact she had two! Back-to-back! And weren’t sons just the worst. The gallery practically erupted with tales of how difficult and stressful and just-plain-awful it was to have sons. They broke everything! They ate everything! They were so irresponsible! They needed constant supervision, because they could not be trusted to follow through on anything!

This attitude carried on to one lady’s husband. Men, amirite?! They are just so terrible. “Before I left today I had to give my husband some jobs to do. I told him he needed to do XYZ before I get home. Do you think it will be done when I get home? Probably not, but at least maybe it will keep him out of trouble.” Cue general laughter and agreement. Tsk, tsk. Men.

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As previously discussed here and here and here, life is hard. And it takes nothing away from God’s absolute goodness to say that. But, also, there are so many beautiful things in life. So many smiles from the Lord. So much tenderness. So many tiny and innumerable reasons for joy. The world is far more incredible and delightful then we sometimes feel it is when we get wrapped up in the cares of this world.

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Recently two of my young children pooled their money and ordered long desired Lego sets from Amazon. They read the estimated date of delivery and immediately started counting down the days. Every day they said, “Mom, just X more days!” I knew to what they were referring without them having to say so.

As the window of delivery arrived they asked if they could check the mail. It was 7AM. No, honey, the mail has not arrived. It’s too early.

Now can we check them mail?

No, it’s only 10AM. The mail has not been delivered yet.

Now can we check the mail?

Still no. I mean, you can check, but it is not here yet.

And so it went all day long. They sat on the stairs with the best vantage point of the mailbox. Waiting, expecting, any minute now. Every time I passed them on the steps I had to walk around them and step over them as they waited with so much anticipation.

But the toys did not arrive the first day of the estimated window. They were bummed. But, surely tomorrow! Tomorrow they would arrive. And the whole thing was repeated on day 2. At one point I got a little exasperated. “Guys! Waiting by the window will not get your packages here any sooner. Go do something productive!” Reluctantly they decided to play outside probably because 1) they didn’t want me assigning them a chore and 2) they could spy on the mailbox outside without annoying me.

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Do you remember TV from the 80s and earlier? Do you recall how each episode or made-for-tv-movie had a beginning, a middle, and an end? Whatever conundrum our protagonist faced was neatly wrapped up by the end of the show. Things eventually worked themselves out. Things fell into place. And in the most wholesome iterations, there was a little monologue moral set to gentle background music. It let you know the show was about to wrap up, lessons were learned, and the good guy wins in the end.

The grownup version of this is the quintessential Hallmark movie. Things may be messy and awkward, but around the 1.5 hour mark you know that things will fall into place, good will triumph, and everyone will smile along with the perfect montage.

I wonder if being raised on a steady and vapid diet of this has contributed to a generation or two that are just waiting for the day that things fall into place. As soon as xyz happens then everything will begin to get easier. As soon as I accomplish this one thing, my life will make sense. My life will really begin as soon as I do this certain thing or as soon as this other thing happens to me. It’s bound to, right? It’s in all the entertainment and content we consume. Shit works itself out.

Except it doesn’t.

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