reconciling things

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

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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“It is the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.”

Dostoevsky, The Brother’s Karamozov

The West calls it divinization. The East calls it theosis. It is the journey, goal, and purpose of the Christian life lived out in this world, getting us fit for the next. “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God,” to quote St. Athanasius. The whole sacramental life, one long process of healing.

Although the stain of original sin was dealt with at my baptism and although Jesus imprinted my soul with an indelible mark as his, living in the truth of this takes a lifetime. A lifetime of learning what it means to belong to him. A lifetime of learning to trust, a lifetime of discovering what it means to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)

I am healed. I am also healing. Slowly.

Recently my body reacted so badly to stress that it has taken me two months to put the pieces back together. The alarming rate at which my body rebelled and the unusual ways it rebelled, even made one of my doctors comment, “Are you sure you haven’t been reading the book of Job?”

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I am the daughter of pastors. I am the granddaughter of pastors. I am the great granddaughter of pastors. When I got married I was a pastor’s wife. I was soon after ordained and became a pastor myself.

And now I am a Catholic.

How does this happen? Well, I have shared about it in multiple posts and this video. However, the seeds of my conversion go back to my childhood—way way way back into my childhood.

I have the most intentional parents. They do things for a reason. There is no “we do this because this is the way we do it” about them. Ask them about almost anything from why they put their TV where they did to why they chose to homeschool their kids and they could produce a paper on why. (Not to infer that everything done with intention is correct, but a heck of lot better than going through life without intention.)

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Dear children, my children,

There are some things in life that are scary. You won’t want to face them. Sometimes those things are outside in the big confusing world. And sometimes they are inside, in your big confusing heart. Wherever they are, you must not be afraid to face them. There will be a deep temptation not to face them. It is much pleasanter to turn away from them or to pretend they are not there. That can work for a little while. Alas, eventually, you will come face-to-face with them. The day of reckoning is so much worse than if you had just faced them in the beginning.

The other side of that scary however is so much fruit. Jordan Peterson says, “That which you most need to find will be found where you least wish to look.” Children, if you want to find the treasure, you will have to dig through some mess to find it. Have courage.

Jordan Peterson goes on to say, “It has been known for decades, explicitly (and forever implicitly) that self-initiated confrontation with what is frightening or unknown is frequently curative. The standard treatment for phobias and anxiety is therefore exposure to what is feared. That treatment is effective—but the exposure must be voluntary.”

This means that I cannot force you to face scary things or to ask hard questions or to dive too deeply into your own heart. That is your job—and your joy as well. Because if you ask tough questions from the world, from God, from yourself, you will get real answers. True, they may not be the answers you want. But truth is always more beautiful in the long run than a half-truth or an outright lie.

My children, never live a lie. Never say one. Because what you say and what you do must match in order for you not to lose yourself. Speak what is transcendent—true, good, and beautiful. Then, please, I beg you, have the courage to live what is true, good, and beautiful.

I was thinking of the hard questions I did not ask of myself, of God, of the world or of others who I let into the deepest parts of my heart. I am no great model of courage now, but when I was your age, I was even more cowardly. I was afraid to ask questions for which I didn’t want to know the answers. Before I got married I asked questions—about externals. Very pragmatic and outward things. I did not ask deep questions of my own motives and desires. I did not ask deep questions of your father either. I was afraid to face myself, him, my family, the world at large. I was just afraid. I let that fear guide me and I didn’t have anyone in my life to say, “Ask the damn questions! Dig until you are satisfied and until you find beauty.”

So, I am telling you now, dear children. Ask. Dig. Do not be afraid of the questions, the answers which Rilke says you may not be given, because you would not be able to live them. But if you keep living the questions you may live your way into the answers.

You’ve seen the memes. Maybe you have posted them. You know the ones that the punch line goes how you have never really been tired before you had kids. The exhaustion of new parents is the literal worst.

Except then you have a toddler. You’ve heard the jokes and maybe seen the books about how toddlers are assholes.

Then there is the sucker punch of the threenager. Worst than terrible twos, so I am told. But, just wait…soon they will be five. And on it goes. Wait until they are in middle school. But that’s nothing. Wait until they are teenagers.

And if they are girls you hear, “Oh, the drama of girls! Daughters are such a storm all the time.” But, if you have boys you hear, “I so don’t envy you all those boys around. The mess! The noise!”

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Anything…when idolized and leveraged for the sake of control or avoidance…can spin out of control and become addictive and problematic. Even the behaviors and attributes we consider noble and good.”

Matthias Barker, LMHC

Our family is at a new stage of healing. There is a dumpster in the yard. A big one. It’s an eyesore, but this is what healing looks like. Healing isn’t linear, tidy, pretty, or picturesque. There is no Instagram filter that will make it look respectable. There is no pithy quotes, hashtags, or sound clip that makes it fun.

My exhusband has so many gifts. You could scarcely find someone more talented. However, as with many people who have creative genius, there comes a degree or two of madness. For the past three years I have scarcely looked in my garage, attic, basement, or barns. I literally did not have the emotional bandwidth to face the madness. (Do you monitor your emotional bandwidth? Do you notice that when you are operating at full capacity, that everything runs sluggishly?) Remnants of projects never finished, dreams that never got out of the clouds, plans without possibilities—all just shoved everywhere in ever nook and cranny.

Also, as with many people who grew up under communist regimes, who stood in breadlines, whose core memories are doing without basic necessities, there is a tendency to hang onto more than is needed, more than is healthy, a visible sign of the unresolved trauma and fear. What if someday we won’t be able to find xyz? Never mind that it could just be rotting in their own hands because they have not the need for it or the means of using it.

Add to the mad genius and the childhood trauma inflicted by communism, alcoholism. There you have a perfect storm for disordered living out of a disordered mind. (There is a show on Lifetime…)

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This last Sunday the Gospel reading in the Liturgy…I have been thinking about it ever since. It won’t let me go.

I have been pondering the Paralytic who laid by the pool of Bethesda, waiting for the angel of God to stir the waters of healing. We don’t know his name. In Scripture he is defined by his condition. That and the fact that he lay by the edge of the water for a long time. We don’t know how long. We do know that he had his condition for 38 years. He had no one to put him in the water. So, he just hung out there with his longing and his paralysis, watching other people be made well.

I wonder if he felt jealousy or resentment? Perhaps. I would like to think though that he could see others make it to the water first and cheer for them and say, “I am so happy for you” and truly mean it. I will persist in imagining him that way. The idea of a bitter and resentful man who had contempt for those who are healed simply because it could not be his has no appeal for me. I would rather believe he was inspired with hope than throwing an inner tantrum of “When is it going to be my turn?!?!”

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Several recent events have caused me to reflect on my parenting and the culture I am creating in my family. They may not at first appear to be connected, except that each incident has built on the previous as I have taken a mental step back to consider whether the motivations and intentions of our family culture are working out as I had hoped. (I will share these events, but will obscure or even change some details to respect the privacy of people. The spirit and tone of the interactions remain true.)

The first event was meeting a woman at a small gathering of Catholic women. We had similar circumstances to our lives, both moms with big families, making it work under unusual circumstances. I was the newbie in the group. And so there was lots of question asking and gathering of details. This lovely woman said she didn’t make many of these gatherings because, “I’m a mom, you know. I am only now after so many years of single parenting going out again. When you are a mom you have no social life. I know you can relate.”

Narrator: But, Daja could not relate. Daja actually went out frequently and made as many casual friendships as she could gather like Pokémon.

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Three years ago I wrote this, exhausted by the life I was trying to hold together. I was crumbling under the weight of the expectations I put on myself, that the world was only too happy to reinforce. I was one big paper cut and the world was a lemon. However, one night in my journal rather than expressing hurt, it was all indignation. What I felt was all the injustice of my circumstance and the expectation that I was so supposed to hold it all together with no resources except what grit I could glean from my barren heart. And this angsty little quasi-blues lyric came out.

Sister, if you are struggling with a decision right now to stay or go, remember this: the most important place for you to stay is at the foot of the cross. One thing we can take from Passion Week (last week!) is that women knew how to stay at the foot of the cross when most of the men fled. Fitting then that the first person to be made aware of his resurrection was a woman. Resurrection comes to those who don’t run from their pain.

Being present for Jesus in his Passion, uniting my suffering with his, is the only way I made it through those days—and all the days of betrayal and rejection that were still to come. Here’s the little lyric:

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It is not so early in the morning on Bright Monday, but my house is still completely still. There is a deep sleep in the air, the kind you wear like a winter coat. It’s heavy with contentment. I am sitting here drinking my coffee and reflecting on the weekend, the culmination of Lent, and what it means to be really human.

This weekend was a lot. If it were a person we would say she was so extra. She was a lot to take. She did too much.

And not going to lie, it was exhausting. You could feel the Triduum coming afar off. It loomed. Ordering extra food for the school, students almost buried in choir practices, altar servers polishing the brass for hours. Smells of all good things coming from the kitchen—but no one allowed to eat anything except the penitential soups and breads provided. When I say it loomed, it loomed.

Holy Week arrived with processions of palms, expectation in the air. Tenebrae on Spy Wednesday, foot washing on Thursday, Veneration of the Holy Cross on Friday while the Passion was chanted (the most beautiful I have ever heard it). The entire college community maintained silence from noon to 3PM on Friday. That alone was enough to make me want to find a spot to cry. Instead, I baked Hot Cross Buns in total silence, reflecting on his Passion.

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