Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

hope-grief-cancer

Giving voice to grief

Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:

Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.

But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:

Oh I swear to you

I’ll be there for you

This is not a drive by

(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)

A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.

Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.hope-grief-cancerEvery time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.

In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:

 Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.

Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….

(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)

and

What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes
….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….

(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)hope-grief-cancerDavid’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.

Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.hope-grief-cancer

 

 

 

 

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God-spirituality-vulnerability

Does it bring you joy?

Does it bring you joy? Someone suggested asking this question when paring down my possessions.

After some pondering, I realized that when considering holding onto or getting rid of some possession, I am more apt to ask myself, would letting it go make me feel guilty?

I have been incredibly blessed by generous people throughout my life, and my house has lots of objects I received as gifts. I imagine if I had bought all of those things, it would be easier to let go of them, but so much of what I own has a story and a memory connected to it.

Is it possible to hold onto the memory and the story—and let go of the object?God-spirituality-joyMany years ago, I read a book about holding onto the gifts of retreat.

Retreats can be sacred moments in life, creating space to step out of daily routines, clear my mind of everyday worries, and focus on God and God’s will for me. Retreats offer the opportunity to get some distance and perspective, to look at how I am living and to consider any needed course corrections.

While on retreat, I often talk with God about what in my life needs to go—usually old fears, insecurities, anxieties and hurts.God-spirituality-joyHolding onto those insights from retreat once I am back in my daily routine can be a challenge. Daily prayer helps. Regular meetings with a spiritual director also help. This book suggested asking these questions about everyday situations:

  • Is this what I really want?
  • Will this matter tomorrow? In ten years? At the end of my life?
  • What do I think? feel? need? want?

The second set of questions has been the easiest for me to answer because I can see how insignificant many everyday occurrences really are. These questions have helped me let go of a great deal of hurt and anger. How much energy am I going to give to something that really has very little long-term significance?

The other questions, though, continue to challenge me. Like the question about what brings me joy, asking what I want or need seems somewhat foreign to me. It must be the way I was raised—spend very little time or thought on my own needs; focus more on the needs of others.  This is also the message I take from the Bible.

Of course, I know that I do have wants and needs, and over the course of my life, I have come to see how much healthier I am when I get in touch with them.

So, what is it that brings me joy? The objects in my home? Or the memories attached to them?

It is definitely the memories that remind me how blessed I have been.

Last year, I committed to writing a “love” letter every day in February—a note to someone who had blessed my life and brought me joy. I called it twenty-eight days of love. I thank I will do that again.God-spirituality-joy

 

God-friends-cancer

I love you more than…

I love you more than you will ever know.

Those were among the final words my friend Ted spoke to me when we were together just before he died from esophageal cancer two years ago.

I told him that I knew how much he loved me, and I believed I had a pretty good idea; we had been good friends for more than thirty years. During his illness, we spoke every day, sometimes two or three times. I knew he loved me.God-friends-cancerMy friend Lisa recently told me of the death of one of her guy friends. She was devastated by this loss and inconsolable in her grief.

Good guy friends are great gifts. They are also not all that common—which makes them even more precious.

My friend Jim used to tell me that he believed I had good friendships with men because I grew up with brothers (one older and one younger). He believed that growing up with brothers taught me to accept both the gangster and the vulnerable sides of a guy.God-friends-cancerI would agree and add, “My brothers taught me to have realistic expectations of men.”

One of the relationships I kept up after I left the FBI was with an agent named Bob Hickey—formally known as Robert J. Hickey, Jr. For ten years after I left the Bureau, Bob and I got together regularly, even though he lived in Washington, D.C., and I was in Philadelphia. Our friendship was important to both of us, and we dedicated time and energy to keeping it alive.

Bob encouraged me in my running, and we often ran the Mall in D.C.  I remember a run on one of his visits to Philadelphia; I wanted to quit, and he kept urging me to go on. The run ended at a bridge over a railroad track, and running up that hill seemed impossible. “It’ll build character,” Bob prodded, which was just the dare I needed to dig deep for the last burst of energy. It is also a line that has inspired me when I have faced other challenges.God-friends-cancerThen I moved to Canada, and Bob married a woman who seemed a tad bit jealous of our friendship. I tried to reassure her that while I loved Bob dearly, I did not want to marry him, and that I was happy for them. But, things were different after he got married.

Bob loved all things Irish—music, dance, literature—and he loved to visit his relatives in Ireland. The last time we spoke, I was planning my trip to Ireland in August. He was happy for me.

Bob died last summer. Since learning of his death, I have been recalling wonderful memories of our friendship, and I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude. Just thinking of him makes me smile. Like Ted, Jim and the other men who have blessed my life, his friendship brought me great joy.

I love you more than you will ever know.God-friends-cancer

 

God-vulnerability-hope

Becoming

During my twenties, I worked as a stenographer for the FBI, the first five years in the Norfolk office and then I transferred to Philadelphia. I left in 1979 to get a college degree, and I planned to go back as an FBI agent.

But things did not work out quite the way I had planned. After college, I didn’t return to the Bureau, and I let go of most of those relationships.

I have no regrets—except for a brief moment when I turned fifty and it occurred to me that if I had gone back to the Bureau, I could retire with a great pension and excellent health insurance. But…God-vulnerability-hopeSeven years ago, a woman I knew in Norfolk “friended” me on Facebook, and two years ago, another women from Norfolk “found” me through a Google search. A few months ago, a third woman from the Norfolk FBI Office connected with me through Facebook.

The wonders of technology.

I hadn’t been avoiding them, but I also had not thought of reaching back to that period of my life. To what end?

This third woman sent me her phone number, and I called her the other day.

Let me give you a little background. My twenties were no picnic. I made one bad decision after another, stuck in a dark place I did not know how to escape.

With very little effort, I can still conjure up the shame and guilt from those years.God-vulnerability-hopeI steeled myself before calling Debbie Sue because I had a pretty good idea of how she would remember me.

Debbie Sue was the daughter of a Baptist Pastor; she introduced me to Christian revivals and altar calls. As a northern Catholic in southern Virginia, I was a distinct minority, and Debbie Sue was the person I went to when I experienced discrimination because of my religion or my northern accent. When it came to religion and Yankees, she was unambiguous, and her certainty helped clarify many things for me.

So, how did she remember me? Well, I was one of the first women she had ever heard use the “F” word. Yeah, that was me—crass and confrontational. I was called “Mad.”

But then our conversation moved on to what we each had become. We shared our life stories and marveled at how good God has been to us.

“When did you become a Christian?” she asked.

“You are not going to believe this,” I said, “but it was March 7, 1973,” which was in the midst of that dark time. I then shared my St. Paul-like conversion experience and how I started going to daily Mass to atone for my sins.

“Oh, I believe you,” Debbie Sue affirmed. God forgives; we keep moving forward. Debbie Sue suggested that, like St. Paul, we should take new names. I told her I am now called Madeline.

People in the Norfolk FBI Office saw me through a dark time, and I am grateful for my history with them. Talking with Debbie Sue reminded me that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26) and that I am not defined by my past.God-vulnerability-hope

kindness-compassion-faith

Seeing a kinder world

A recent social media post about a random act of kindness was met with a variety of responses, most of which were some version of “too bad more people don’t do that” or “that used to be the norm.”

I wanted to comment that many people still do that, and that kindness is everywhere—if we are open to see it.kindness-compassion-faithDuring a recent visit with a woman I knew as a teen, she lamented the bad things that were happening in the old neighborhood. “Every day,” she said, “someone gets shot there.”

“Really?” I asked. “Have you been back to the old neighborhood?”

“Of course not,” she said, seeming shocked that I would even suggest it. “I watch the news.”

Aha.

Many people seem to believe that the news is a comprehensive and honest portrayal of daily life. They have forgotten the maxim coined by news outlets: If it bleeds it leads.

I acknowledge that the proliferation of guns has made our country a more dangerous place to live, but crime is not new. The overexposure to violence on the twenty-four hour news cycle is what is new, and it creates the impression that only bad things are happening in our world. The truth is that bad things have always happened—alongside good things.

But if we are convinced that only bad things are happening, we will miss the good things that are happening all around us.kindness-compassion-faithRandom acts of kindness are not sensational so they don’t get much press, but I see acts of kindness every day. Mostly, they are small things that do not rise to the level of television newsworthiness. They do, though, contribute to the creation of a caring community.kindness-compassion-faithAt work the other day, someone suggested taking up a collection for a man who has been extra helpful this year (his random acts of kindness would fill a whole book), and someone else asked what we can do for a volunteer who is having surgery. A representative from a local company called to say they had collected gifts cards for us. Later, two people suggested sending cards to people in particularly difficult situations.

Kindness abounds, but we can easily miss it if fear colors our outlook and keeps us locked in our homes. We cannot see goodness when we are only looking for evil.kindness-compassion-faithBeing more aware of kindness helps to counteract the negativity of the news.

Performing random acts of kindness also helps because it predisposes us to seeing the good by being the good.

My New Year’s resolution:

  • To perform at least one random act of kindness every day;
  • To acknowledge the kindnesses I witness by saying, “You are so kind” or “that was so kind;” and
  • To accept acts of kindness with heartfelt gratitude.

kindness-compassion-faithI invite you to join me in focusing on acts of kindness—performing them, acknowledging them and accepting them. Perhaps then social media will explode with stories of kindness, and we will see kindness as the norm. kindness-compassion-faith

advent-God-vulnerability

Open to the unexpected

advent-God-vulnerability

My father could be quite the bigot. He thought that anyone who was not Polish was somehow less than. My grandparents all came from Poland, and in my dad’s eyes, Poles were a superior race. He could go on and on about the inferiority of other races—Italians, Irish, etc.

But his two closest friends were Irish and Italian. How did he reconcile that?

When he was disparaging people from Ireland and Italy and I would ask about his friends, he would say, “That’s different.”

He felt similarly about people of African descent. But, when he was much friendlier with our new African-American neighbor than he had ever been with our old Polish neighbor, I asked how that made sense to him.

“That’s different,” he said.

My father could differentiate good people from bad—despite race or ethnic heritage. Our old neighbor, the Polish guy, was not a very nice man. He was the kind of person who yelled at kids playing in the field next to his house, the kind of man our mother told us to avoid.

Our new neighbor, the African-American guy, was the opposite.

Skin color and ethnic heritage had nothing to do with it. The same was true for my dad’s close friends. Because he saw them as individuals, their ancestry did not get in the way of their friendships.

Jesus healing the ten lepers and the one foreigner who came back to give thanks reminds me of my dad’s biases.

I can imagine this scenario today with a Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister, Rabbi, Imam or any other religious leader, healing ten people—nine of whom are from their religious tradition and one is a foreigner—an outsider, someone who is seen as other than, perhaps from some demonized group. And only that foreigner, that one who is thought of as less than, comes back to say thanks.

We can get caught up in believing we know how people will act and react based on some preconceived notions. We can rationalize our prejudices and excuse ourselves when we condemn whole groups of people.

During Advent, we reflect on Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist—Biblical characters who could easily be looked down upon and judged as less than because of their life circumstances or ethnic background.

Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen. John the Baptist lived in the desert and proclaimed a radical message. Mary and Joseph were relegated to sleeping among the animals.

Yet, we celebrate John the Baptist for speaking truth to power. But today, people who do the same are likely to be castigated. Pregnant teens, homeless people and refugees are more often thought of as problems to be solved than people we can learn from. We can use the word foreigner as an slur.

Jesus challenges our preconceived notions and invites us to be open to and surprised by the unexpected.

And as my dad’s experiences taught me, moving past biases opens the door to unexpected relationships that make life richer. advent-God-vulnerability

God-hope-cancer

Small miracles

I am a fan of the less is more philosophy.

I prefer chamber music to the full symphony, off-Broadway to Broadway and dinner with friends to a huge party.

Oh, I was wowed by Cats when I saw it on Broadway and Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, but I am much more inclined not to seek out the spectacular. Opulence and pageantry just don’t interest me that much. I generally prefer less to more and simpler to more complicated.

My preference for smaller also extends to miracles.I work in a cancer support center where I regularly talk with people who are hoping and praying for BIG miracles—say, a miraculous cure of stage four metastatic cancer.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in miracles.God-hope-cancerYears ago, at a healing service, the healer invited everyone to come up—even if we personally did not need healing. “Think of someone you know who needs healing,” he suggested. As I stood in the line inching toward this man who would lay his healing hands on my head, a woman I hadn’t seen for a few years popped into my mind. As I approached the healer, I pictured her and remembered times I had spent with her.

A few months later, this woman’s mother told me her daughter had been hospitalized and almost died a few months earlier. I remembered the healing service I had attended and prodded her for dates. You guessed it: her daughter started to get better at exactly the time I was at the healing service.

So, yes, I do believe in BIG miracles.

But I wonder if focusing too much on big miracles—perhaps to the exclusion of considering the possibility that the big miracle may not happen—might mean missing many of the little miracles that are happening all around us every day.God-hope-cancerRecently, I have been thinking about a family that came to our cancer support center last spring. The mother had lung cancer, and she and her two adult children were grappling with end-of-life questions. The three came together to talk. Then, over the next few months, they came separately, each needing to have someone to listen to their concerns, fears and hopes.

Shortly before the mother died, she came in with her daughter. The mother talked about wrapping her head around the fact that she was going to die soon and wondering how best to live until she died. The daughter talked about knowing that her mother was going to lose her life and that she was going to lose her mother. That level of awareness was amazing and their courage in asking difficult questions inspired me.

It may be a small thing—this one family dealing with sickness, death and grief—but their acknowledgement of their situation and the way they dealt with their mother’s illness and death was extraordinary.

Accepting the reality of their situation seemed to free them to live life fully—and that seems like a miracle to me.God-hope-cancer