Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

Lessons in letting go

“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.

“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.

But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.

I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.

At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.

When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.

I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.caregiving-vulnerability-forgivenessWhen I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.

In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.

“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.

Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.

Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

 

 

 

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God-Advent-trust

Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

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gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

 

 

God-trust-vulnerability

The truth will set you free

The House of Mirrors at the Michigan State Fair fascinated me as a child. I loved how the slightest movement could cause great distortion. I could go from tall and skinny to short and fat with just one step.

In a way, these distortions reflected my everyday life, which could shift from peaceful to chaotic in a moment. Except, I was not the one creating the chaos; I just had to live in it and learn to keep silent about it.

So I lived on two planes—my interior life, where I knew the truth of my life, and my outer life where I pretended not to.

Of course, holding tight to secrets caused me a great deal of anxiety and shame. I worried that someone would realize I was a fraud—that the life I projected outwardly was nothing like the life I actually lived.

I felt trapped within walls of lies and deceptions.

I have had more than one conversation with Jesus about how knowing the truth would set me free (John 8:32), because that was not my experience. I knew the truth, and I was not free.

Only recently have I come to understand that I need one more step to be free—I need to speak my truth in order to be truly free.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have been experimenting with speaking my truth through this blog, continually revealing more and more of who I am and what I have experienced. It has been very freeing and has given me the confidence to continue to reveal my story.

My hope is to get to a place past shame, where childhood secrets have no hold on me, where I can see myself as God sees me and accept myself without judgment. Step by step, story by story.God-trust-vulnerabilityI have also realized that it is not only traumatic events that I have kept secret. Recently, I shared a story of a Good Samaritan who helped me after a car accident. When I get to the part of the story where this man paid for my car to be towed, I am overcome with emotion and tears fill my eyes.

Why would I cry in recalling an act of great kindness? And why have I not talked about this incident before?

I think my sense of unworthiness prevented me from telling it. I kept it secret because I felt unworthy to be so richly blessed, as if someone would challenge me—who are you to be treated so well? I knew I was not worthy and so I kept quiet.

But, in truth, my whole life has been filled with great blessings, with incidents of God’s abundant love being poured out on me.

I have only recently begun to share openly the good things God has done for me and the amazing way God has cared for me, and in doing so, am undoing my negative self-image.

I want to know my truth, to speak it and to be set free.

 

 

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Living in gratitude

A friend posted this message on social media.gratitude-God-ExamenWhat if?

The question gave me pause, and I realized my life would be poorer by far. It is not that I am ungrateful; I am grateful. But do I express my gratitude every day? Especially to God? How often do I spend time just thanking God for all the good in my life?

When Jim was sick, I created a litany of gratitude, and every day I added to it. Nothing was too small to be included in my litany—a smile from a stranger, sunshine, the funny antics of the dog.

There were bigger things on the list, too— our faith, Jim’s excellent health insurance, living near a hospital with a cancer center and the generosity of friends and family.

I read the list to Jim every day, too, to remind him of all our blessings.

In those first days and weeks, when it felt that fear and anxiety might overwhelm me, I consciously sought blessings—something, anything, for which I could be grateful.

Jim’s death was imminent and God’s generosity was abundant. Those two realities co-existed.

I would often tell Jim about the day he got sick, because it was the day I started my litany. He had no recollection of that day or any of the days he was in ICU, but I would regale him with tales of the wacky things people said and did, which had not seemed funny when they happened but took on a comedic hue in the re-telling. I was grateful I could laugh at what had caused me so much anguish.

I lived in gratitude even though I knew I was on the verge of losing something precious—or perhaps because I was on the verge of losing something precious. Remembering my blessings helped me focus on God and gave me hope.

How could I not trust God when so many blessings were being poured out on me?

My awareness of God’s generosity was probably more acute during Jim’s illness than at any other time in my life.gratitude-God-ExamenAnd then Jim died, and I grieved. I got out of the habit of adding to my litany of gratitude and out of the habit of reciting it.

My litany of gratitude came back to me last weekend when I facilitated a Day of Reflection for a volunteer group. They are at the beginning of their year of service, and I wanted to offer them some tools to help them navigate the ups and downs of service and community living.

I shared with them my own volunteer experience in l’Arche and what I learned about expectations and letting go—two subjects that continue to pop up in my life. I encouraged them to pray the Examen, an Ignatian prayer that helps keep us moving in the direction of God and gratitude.

God continues to pour abundant blessings on me, and I want to be more mindful of thanking God every day for my blessings
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Atonement

I am not particularly political, but my car radio lured me into listening to parts of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I heard Kavanaugh boast about coaching his daughters’ basketball teams and his Jesuit education. Ward Cleaver came to mind as I listened to his self-portrayal. Perhaps I even rolled my eyes once or twice. I understand presenting oneself in the best possible light, but no one is that good, I thought.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityOne day, I heard that the girls’ basketball team he coaches came to the hearings—in their Catholic school uniforms. Really? What is he trying to prove? I wondered.

And then came the allegation about a sexual assault incident from his high school days.

And I began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand. Was that perfect father portrayal really just a charm offensive?God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityLast year’s disclosures by women who had been sexually assaulted made me think of the men who had not yet been named, those men who knew their histories and were now squirming as they waited for the shoe to drop.

I have to admit that I took a great deal of delight in knowing that those men who once dominated were now vulnerable, having no idea if or when a voice from their troubled past would intrude into their idyllic present.

Is Brett Kavanaugh one of those men? Was all that blarney about being so good just a smoke screen in anticipation of someone stepping forward to reveal his past?

And here is where I run into a dilemma. I am not the same person I was when I was seventeen or even twenty-seven. I made mistakes, and I own that. I sought help to deal with the issues that plagued my young life and have learned from my mistakes. I have atoned for the sins of my youth through prayer and service, and I don’t want to be judged by mistakes I made out of my brokenness and ignorance.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI wonder if Judge Kavanaugh has taken responsibility for the mistakes of his youth.

And I wonder what he would do if one of the girls on the team he coaches or if one of his daughters was sexually assaulted.

Would Judge Kavanaugh take the view that “boys will be boys” and minimize the damage done to the girl?  Would he counsel the girl to shake it off, as if it were a basketball foul?

Would he advise the boy to deny all accusations? Or would he counsel the boy to take responsibility for his actions, knowing that dark deeds that are locked away can be uncovered at any time, and that a life built on secrets can easily implode.

The man who assaulted me apologized a few weeks later. Two little words—I’m sorry—and he walked away free and clear. I was left with damage that took years to heal, and only now can I see that for all the harm he caused me, at least he owned it.God-forgiveness-vulnerability

trust-God-vulnerability

Building trust

A recent Sunday sermon was accompanied by a power point presentation, which included this slide:trust-God-vulnerabilityThat’s me! I thought. Building trust is my construction project, and like many construction projects, this one has been going on for a long time.

As I reflected on this metaphor, I realized that I may have omitted an important first step of many construction projects—demolition. Often something needs to be torn down before new construction can begin.

I am one of those people who tends to favor restoration over demolition. I don’t believe that everything new is better than everything old. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer old homes and historic buildings to new construction.

When talk turns to tearing down buildings, I have difficulty imagining the space without what has always been there. Even though a building may be decrepit and no longer serve any purpose, letting go of it can challenge me.

But sometimes, restoration isn’t possible and the only way to make room for something new is to completely remove what had been before.trust-God-vulnerabilityLast year, the nonprofit organization where I work moved into an elementary school building that had been vacant for five years. Seven other nonprofits joined us, converting the building into a nonprofit hub. It is a wonderful repurposing of a building that had outlived its usefulness as a school.

But, there are issues. During the years when the building was closed, minor repair projects went unnoticed, and it seems every week we discover something that needs attention.

My trust-construction project is like that—neglected and ignored areas need attention.

In the same way that I prefer restoration and repurposing to demolishing buildings, I resist the deconstruction that needs to happen in order to make room for my trust-construction project to move ahead. I give energy to the negative thoughts that swirl in my head, allowing them to get in the way of my progress. I return, again and again, to what shattered trust in the first place, not wanting to accept the truth of my history and making excuses for those who betrayed me.trust-God-vulnerability

Every Sunday at Mass, though, I get a reminder of true trust in action. The words of the Eucharistic Prayer remind me that on the very night that Jesus was betrayed, he gave thanks. Jesus’ trust was intact, absolute and unwavering. What a gift! What an invitation!

I have experienced the kind of trust Jesus exemplifies, times when I have been able to forgive in the face of betrayal, when I have been able to let go and to trust again. However, those moments have not usually happened quite so quickly.

God invites me, again and again, to accept my past, to forgive and to move on to the future God envisions for me, a future built on trust.

And every time I am able to follow Jesus’ example of letting go of betrayal and trusting in God’s unconditional love, I move closer to the completion of my trust construction project.