Author Archives: Madeline Bialecki

Hiking in southeast Michigan

Our community college offers enrichment programs for retirees at very reasonable prices. I signed up for a summer series of five events (a lecture and tour of the Zoo’s Penguinarium, a talk on hiking in Southeast Michigan, two hikes and a canoe trip on a voyageur canoe).

The hiking talk was at the Community College on Monday, and I learned loads of useful information that would have helped when I was hiking in the Cotswolds (without a cell phone or map) or in the Lake District in northern England in November (when it got dark much earlier than in July) or in Sedona last January (where it was so cold when we left it did not occur to us to bring water). I came away from that talk thinking that I could be the poster child for what not to do when hiking. Note to self–always bring cell phone, printed map (in case my cell battery dies), compass, water, snack, flashlight.

The first hike was this morning at Stony Creek Metro Park, one of a network of thirteen parks in Southeast Michigan.

Stony Creek encompases more than 4,000 acres and has trails and paths for walking, running and bike riding. We walked along a trail through prairies and woods for a little more than two miles. Here are some pics I took along the way.

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Bees seemed to love these flowers.

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Polar bears

In the process of simplifying/purging, I came across photos from a Sepember 2009 trip to the shores of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, to see polar bears. The hunting lodge where we stayed is on the migratory path of the polar bears and between hunting seasons, the camp owners decideed to offer opportunities to see polars bears.

We flew in on a four-seater plane, landing on a clearing along the Bay. The accommodations were austere (cabins only had heat at night and the bathrooms were in the main lodge) but the food was fantastic.

The camp was enclosed by a high fence and we only left the camp with armed escorts. Every day, we ventured out on makeshift touring vehicles (think ATVs pulling, small flat-bed trailers with old car seats bolted to them). Our guides were two man who had grown up in this remote area of Manitoba, 150 miles from the nearest city.

The opportunity to see polar bears every day, in their natural habitat, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We were fortunate to have an aspiring photographer on the trip (my camera batteries died the first day), and these are his photographs.

I remember how blessed I felt to be one of eleven people on this trip, standing on the shores of the Hudson Bay, with beautiful flowers and fall colors all around–and polar bears in abundance.

A mother and cubs in front of the lodge
Cubs playing in the river

Be seen and heard

Shh.

Be quiet.

Don’t speak.

Be seen and not heard.

Make yourself small.

Cower in the corner.

Become invisible.

Keep the little girl inside you little.

This is my beloved Son; listen to him, God said of Jesus.

Did God say of me, This is my beloved daughter; listen to her?

But who can hear me when I am being quiet?

How can you listen to me when I am not speaking?

If I remain tucked in the corner, trying to be invisible,

how can I spread God’s message of love and forgiveness?

God whispers to me.

Think big thoughts.

Speak up.

Make yourself seen and heard.

Up north

This past weekend, my sisters and I went “up north” (as we say in Michigan, although there seems to be some debate as to where “north” begins). A friend generously let us use her cottage on a small lake in northwestern Michigan.

Michigan is said to have 11,000 inland lakes, in addition to the the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie) that outline the state (Lake Ontario is east of Michigan).

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Lake Michigan and Lake Huron give Michigan its mitten shape. Lake Superior is north of the Upper Peninsula; Lake Erie touches southeastern Michigan and borders Ohio; Lake Ontario borders New York. Only Lake Michigan does not share a border with Ontario, Canada.

The inland lakes vary in size from Houghton Lake, which covers more than 20,000 acres to small lakes like the one we visited (which I once kayaked around in 45 minutes).

The weekend was very peaceful and relaxing, and I am grateful for my friend’s generosity and my sisters company.

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My sisters returning home.
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Sunset over the lake
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Give us joy

Give us joy to balance our affliction, for the years when we knew misfortune. Psalm 90:15

A few months ago, I was talking with a man who had lived a charmed life. He had grown up in a loving home with parents who cared deeply for him and desired the best for him. He had a wonderful education and excelled in his career. He had good friends, got married, had children, travelled and basically did all the things he wanted to do. Everything was going so well—until he was diagnosed with an illness that ended his career and eventually his marriage. As the disease progressed, he became more physically incapacitated and had to hire aides to help him at home.

He told me about one of his aides, a woman whose life had the opposite trajectory from his. Her early life was full of affliction and misfortune. She had grown up in a home without love where she was abused in every way imaginable. She lacked education and family support. Eventually, she ended up in prison. After leaving prison, she entered a treatment program that enabled her to turn her life around and move in a different direction. Now she supports herself by taking care of vulnerable people. She has found love and is engaged to be married.

This man, with his Job-like challenges, has a wonderful attitude and outlook on life. When his career ended, he went back to school so he could begin a second career, one that was not dependent on his physical abilities. His body is failing, but his mind is still thriving.

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As he and I talked, I thought about how some of us know affliction and misfortune early in life, while others face them later.

This man told me he and his aide talk about how their lives have intersected because of his illness, how they would never have gotten to know one another in the way they do if he had not become sick. He believes that her story is the more amazing because she has overcome so much; he is in awe of her.

I stand in awe of both of them. He, for his positive attitude in the face of a debilitating disease; she, for her determination to overcome her past and create a new life for herself.

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Not anywhere as extreme as his aide’s, but my early life was marked by chaos and trauma. I was a shy child and very anxious. School was a nightmare to me socially, although I loved learning, and being in school felt safe. My unresolved childhood trauma made me vulnerable to abuse as a young adult.

Like his aide, I finally feel I have come into my own. I am confident in what I learned from my career, pursuing things that interest me, comfortable in my own skin and living in joy.

How about you? Did you know misfortune early in life or later? Do you know joy now which balances out past afflictions?

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My mother’s secret revealed

I got married when I was eighteen and moved to Virginia because my husband had two years left in the Navy. He was at sea more than he was home, so it was a mystery why I could not live with my family. But he wanted me in Virginia, so I obeyed.

Another Navy wife befriended me and helped me acclimate. I joined a church and got a job.

My father had been against my getting married and had predicted troubles; his predictions came true.

After two years, I saw clearly what my life would be if I stayed married, and I told my husband I wanted a divorce.

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He was shocked because I never stood up for myself. I had been timid, fearful and compliant.

After he left, I started thinking about moving home.

Then my father called and told me I was not welcome at home. He was angry with me.

Now it was my turn to be shocked because I did not understand his anger. I could not argue with him, though, because what he said was true—I had only been married two years, and I was the one who asked for the divorce.

My dad, with his dry sense of humor, claimed he had bought a billboard on I-94 that said, “I am still paying for the god damn wedding, and she is already divorced.” He told me I had made my bed, so….

There I was, stuck in Virginia with no family support. I felt I was being punished for breaking the rules.

I didn’t go home that Thanksgiving or Christmas, and by the new year, I was in a deep depression.

In February, my older brother cleared the way for me to come home for a weekend, and I jumped at the chance.

Frosty is how I described my dad toward me. He allowed me to enter his house, but he was unhappy about it. I was mystified by his anger. I knew he was disappointed about my not staying married, but this seemed so extreme.

When I got on the plane to fly back to Virginia, I was even deeper in despair. I remember thinking, “I hope my seatmate does not ask me who I am because I don’t even know my name anymore.” Then I started to cry.

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Fifty years later and just days before my mother died, she told me that after he left Virginia, my ex-husband had come to talk to my dad. She did not know what was said, but I could imagine because I knew that my ex-husband had dished dirt about me to our friends.

Suddenly, my dad’s anger from fifty years ago made sense. He had believed whatever lies my ex had told him; he had thought the worst about me.

I was furious because I knew that my ex had not told him the whole story, he had blamed me and not admitted his part in the breakdown of our marriage.

I realized I had been keeping a secret, too—the secret of what my husband had done to me.

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Shh, it’s a secret

Just days before my mother died last year, she revealed a secret to me, a secret she had kept for almost fifty years, a secret that flipped a light switch in my brain. Suddenly, I could look at events from fifty years ago and see them in a different light.

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The clarity was almost blinding, and I wanted to explore the implications of what I had learned, but my mother was dying, and I needed to pay attention to what was happening right in front of me instead of examining events from the past. So, I tucked her secret away.

And then one day last fall, her secret came rushing back to me like a tidal wave.

I was overwhelmed with a truth I had never even considered, a truth that explained my father’s attitude toward me after I got divorced. I realized that my life could have gone in an entirely different direction had I known then what my mother had revealed before her death.

I was hurt and angry.

Moreover, my mother’s secret dislodged a secret that I had been keeping for more than fifty years, a secret I was not consciously aware I was keeping.

Suddenly, disparate pieces of my early twenties fell into place like cogs on a gear. I had great clarity about my early life and things that had happened to me that had shaped the rest of my life.

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At family gatherings, my younger brother liked to point to my mother and then to me and say, “Tree, apple.”

My mother was great at denial and at keeping secrets. She denied anything bad that happened to her and would not risk disclosing an unattractive (or downright ugly) truth about someone, in case it might be embarrassing (or possibly illegal). She protected people who were not worthy of protection, and she taught me to do the same.

Like my mother, I am a great secret keeper, a steel trap for people’s confidences, and I have held sacred the secrets people have shared with me over the years.

What I know about secrets, though, is that the shame attached to them can turn something innocent into something sinister, and I know how shame can paralyze.  

A few years ago, when I finally said the name of the man who raped me, I realized I had been protecting him by not saying his name; I was keeping it secret.

Saying his name—revealing the secret—broke the power of shame over me.

Back to the tree…apple scenario.

I have spent my adult life trying to unlearn my mother’s lessons, trying to be more honest and forthcoming. I have gone to ACOA meetings and worked the steps. I know that we are only as sick as our secrets, and I have tried to live transparently, without secrets.

And yet now I am faced with two new secrets from my past.

But those events are no longer buried, and I have begun talking about what happened to me.

Some pics from my garden

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbekia) were a friend’s favorite and I imagine he would love this early-blooming variety.

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Early-blooming black-eyes Susans (Rudbekia)

My enclosed sunporch had to come down, which required moving one of my perenniel beds. The daisies got spread out along a side fence and seem quite content.

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Daisies along the side fence

The purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) that got moved are late in blooming, but this one took up residence among the black-eyed Susans a few years ago (and I forgot to move it–next year).

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Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) among the black-eyes Susans

This phlox had been dwarfed by the daisies when it was next to the sunporch. I hope it will thrive in this new spot with room to grow.

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Swamp milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) is one of the butterfly attractors in my yard.

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Swamp milkweed

What I want

Last week Rachel Mankowitz wrote about hearing and trusting her internal voices speaking of what she does and does not want to do. I resonated.

I learned early on (probably before I was five) that what I wanted or did not want mattered little. I did what I was told—whether I wanted to or not—and rarely got anything I wanted, so I learned to stop wanting.

The depth of the disconnect was made clear to me when I was twelve years old and had my tonsils removed. On the way home from the hospital, my mother stopped at the grocery store and said I could pick one thing I wanted. I had no idea what I wanted and was overwhelmed by having to pick something. I remember standing in the store paralyzed by indecision. What did I want? No idea.

So, I picked something practical, something I thought my mother would like—dill pickles.  

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I have spent a lot of my life doing things other people wanted me to do—out of guilt or not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings or some other version of making other people happy—while ignoring my own desires.

Therapy in my early thirties started a process of discovery, and by my late thirties, I began to identify some things I wanted.

I took my first real vacation, a windjammer cruise, when I was thirty-seven. It was thrilling to realize that I knew what I wanted and that I could make it happen.

At the end of a retreat in my early forties, I read Coming Down the Mountain by Thomas Hart, and I have kept a “cheat sheet” of questions from that book that I refer to regularly.

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These questions have helped me gain clarity, and after years of asking them, I am much better at knowing what I want.

But I can still fall into the old patterns.

When I turned fifty, I made a “travel wish list” of places I wanted to visit over the next decade. Other than the Holy Land, my destinations were in the U.S. or Europe. Included at the end of that list was a thirty-day retreat, something my friend Jim had done, and he thought it would be good for me to do. I put it on the list more as a reminder because I could not foresee a time in my fifties when I would have the money and time to do it.

My sixties’ travel list included the retreat, along with the Holy Land and some of the European counties I had not managed to visit, but my sixties were full of upheaval, and I did not do much traveling. So my seventies’ list closely resembles the sixties’ list, including the retreat.

Now, I am in a place where I can do the thirty-day retreat, and so I signed up. I told my spiritual director, expecting her to be thrilled, but instead, she asked why I wanted to do a thirty-day. “Because Jim thought I should,” was my first response, and even I could hear how lame that sounded.

She suggested I pray about the retreat and ask God for clarity. So, I prayed, and I got clarity.

I realized that I feel passionate about European travel. I am energized by my volunteer work (especially supporting survivors of sexual assault) and the consulting work I am doing. I am excited about the Internship in Ignatian Spirituality and have clarity around how I want to use what I have learned (mainly in helping people process the experience of pilgrimage or mission trips). I am also drawn to officiating at weddings and funerals.

Where is the retreat in all that? I am indifferent.

Discernment is a big part of Ignatian Spirituality and following the process has helped me gain clarity about where God is calling me, and what I want to do.

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