Category Archives: Transition

Moving from Pennsylvania to Michigan

Happiness: a matter of balance and focus

This piece taps into my notion of doing more of what makes me happy.

James R. Neal

What would make an entire group of people — an entire state, even — collectively unhappy? Conversely, what could be done individually to reverse this trend, and to find contentment and peace in an environment characterized by discontent and angst? I set out to answer these trivial questions yesterday after reading a report that listed my adopted state as the second-least happy state in the nation.

Enid, Okla. — A study released Monday by the financial analysis firm WalletHub ranked Oklahoma as the second-least happy state in the nation.

The WalletHub study examined 28 metrics linked by various studies to happiness, grouped in emotional and physical well-being; work environment; and community and environment. The findings placed Oklahoma in 49th place in the nation for happiness measures, followed only by West Virginia.

The top five, or most happy, states in the nation were Minnesota, Utah, Hawaii, California and Nebraska, according to…

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faith-suffering-transformation

Embrace the cross

The veneration of the cross is part of our Good Friday service. At my parish, a large cross is carried in and placed in the center aisle in front of the altar. Our pastor asks that we remove our shoes before we approach the cross—we are standing on holy ground.

One by one, parishioners approach, bow and then kiss the cross. It is moving to watch this procession of hundreds of people as we commemorate the death of our Lord.faith-suffering-transformationA mother and her little girl caught my attention as they approached the cross.

At the Holy Thursday Mass the previous evening, they sat next to me, and the little girl—maybe three or four years old—was very friendly. She smiled and waved as they took their seats before Mass began, and she reached out to everyone around us during the gesture of peace.

At the Good Friday service, the little girl stayed a few steps behind as her mother approached the cross. The mother kissed the cross and moved aside. Then the little girl walked up to the cross, threw her arms around the wood and hugged the cross.faith-suffering-transformationEmbrace the cross, I thought.

I wonder if this little girl will remember the moment that she hugged the cross. Will she grow up to be someone who will embrace her sufferings? Right now, she seems so innocent and unscathed. But doesn’t everyone suffer something at some time? Something that leaves a scar? Some hurt that needs to be transformed?

Her spontaneous gesture reminded me of my own reactions to Good Friday when I was a child. I, too, embraced the cross.

I connected with Jesus’ suffering and recognized a kindred spirit in him. His innocence touched my own. His abandonment spoke to my own sense of betrayal. Jesus suffered along with me—or was it that I was suffering along with him? I’m not sure, but I know that his calling out to God showed me that I was not alone. Jesus was with me as I called to God for help.

But I got stuck on Good Friday, and for many years, I clung to the darkness of it; darkness seemed to be a perfect image for my life.

Then, at some point, I realized that Jesus had moved beyond that despair to resurrection, and that he invited me to move beyond my own misery into the light.faith-suffering-transformationAs I watched that little girl hugging the cross on Good Friday, I remembered an aha moment many years ago when I knew that I needed to hug my own hurt, that I had to welcome my past and embrace it if I wanted to be healed.

Good Friday is not the end; it is one part of the journey toward resurrection. Good Friday anticipates Easter Sunday and the promise of transforming my pain into gift and even blessing. Only by embracing my cross can I be healed and move on to live in Easter hope and joy. Alleluia.faith-suffering-transformation

gratitude-thanksgiving

Giving thanks

For seven years, I was the director of an adult literacy program in suburban Philadelphia. Immigrants from many countries filled our English as a Second Language classes, but most of the students in our family literacy program were from South Korea.

As part of this program, we hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner each year. It was a way to introduce immigrants to this cultural holiday and teach them some of our customs, including the foods we traditionally eat on Thanksgiving. Our staff prepared most of the food, but students were given recipes for side dishes and invited to contribute if they wanted.

Invariably, a few of the students would bring dishes from their culture, and we would include the kimchi and rice in our Thanksgiving meal.

Our guests at the literacy council Thanksgiving dinners would gingerly try bites of turkey and cranberry sauce, and I loved watching them register the different tastes and textures. Food is an important part of any culture, and this dinner was a wonderful opportunity for people to try something new.

I wished my parents had attended such a class.

Growing up, we never had turkey for Thanksgiving; apparently turkeys were not available in Poland. We had ham or kielbasa or stuffed cabbage and a duck soup that I fear most Americans would not even try. Mashed potatoes were probably the only thing our Thanksgiving dinners had in common with the rest of America.

gratitude-thanksgivinggratitude-thanksgiving

My mother did not care when I came home from school excited about traditional Thanksgiving dinners; she had never cooked a turkey and did not see the need for it.

Being thankful was what the holiday was about to her, and I could see her point. But I always felt a bit odd when kids talked about turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce—and I had nothing to contribute.

I have since come to understand that while we tend to think of one “traditional” American Thanksgiving dinner, the truth is that people in different regions of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds personalize Thanksgiving dinner. A simple Google search of “turkey stuffing” brings up hundreds of different recipes.

Merging cultures is part of the American tradition, and kimchi would have been as foreign to our Thanksgiving dinners growing up as the creamed onions I once had at a friend’s home in suburban Philadelphia or the Southern cornbread stuffing I was served in Virginia.

Recalling all those dinners this Thanksgiving made me think of the ways Americans can segregate ourselves into groups that reinforce our beliefs and allow us to stay in our comfort zones. We can tell ourselves that the Norman Rockwell portrait of a Thanksgiving dinner is the only true portrait, but that is just not true. Our country is made up of people from many different cultures and the blending of those cultures makes our country unique.

Honoring our heritage is important, but moving beyond our comfort zones makes life more interesting. Maybe it is time to try some kimchi.

vulnerability-courage

Moving from safe spaces to brave spaces

Last week, I facilitated a retreat session for eleven young adults who are spending a year of volunteer service in Detroit. They live in community and work at a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Their orientation in August introduced them to the concept of brave spaces as opposed to safe spaces.

I think most people commit to a year of service because they want to be a catalyst for change. They believe they can help people who are marginalized or change systems that have become corrupt.

It can be daunting to speak of our convictions on behalf of people who have no voice, especially when we are speaking to those who claim to have the same vision as we do. This often happens in large institutions where upholding rules and regulations can take precedence over individual needs, but it can happen anywhere.

People tend to habituate to their environment; a new person with a fresh perspective can shake things up—which can be seen as a threat to people who are comfortable in their certainty that they are already doing a good job.

Courage is needed to step into these situations, and these volunteers will be called upon to step out of their comfort zones to speak truth to power.

Unlike the nonprofits which are already established, however, living in community is different because they are creating it as they go. By its very nature, community living can be intense, and being able to state our own needs while being sensitive to the needs of others can be a challenge.

I invited the volunteers to recall one of those challenging moments in community as a starting place for their reflection.

Living in community offers many opportunities for self-reflection. Other community members are wonderful mirrors, offering insights we may not have seen before.

vulnerability-courage

When I lived in l’Arche, I would say that I met myself every day—and it was ugly. What I saw reflected back to me was my worst self. I saw my fears and insecurities, my need to control and my need to be right. I saw how petty and judgmental I could be.

And when I saw these things, I became defensive, because this safe space was all I knew.

But God was inviting me to let go of my false self and discover who I was meant to be.

I needed to step out of my safe space where I had convinced myself that I had control and could manage my life on my own, and into that brave space where I faced my fears and insecurities. It was painful to truly see myself and to accept that reality. I had to be open and vulnerable every day so God could heal me.

I invited these volunteers to look at their interior safe spaces to see where they need courage to step up and speak truth to themselves, because standing in that brave space is perhaps the change that will make the biggest difference in their lives.

vulnerability-courage

Deep waters

“I don’t have any place to put that,” I said to my friend Steve when he told me he had decided not to take treatment for bladder cancer. Even with treatment, he was only expected to live a few months; without it, he would die very soon.

This was just eight months after my friend Jim died. Steve had been meeting with me during those months, walking with me through my grief. And now he was telling me that he was going to die. Sadness overwhelmed me. I had no place for this news.

Steve died a week later. I was numb, walking around in a fog so dense I feared I would not find my way out.

fog

 

In the three years since Steve died, two more close friends have died from cancer.

I don’t have any place inside me to put more loss, more sadness. Cumulative grief threatens to cripple me.

“Put out into the deep water…” Jesus says (Luke 5:4). Deep water? If the water of my grief gets any deeper, I fear I will drown. I am already in over my head.

I remember a friend recounting the losses of a woman she knew—first her husband and then one by one, each of her children died from some hereditary condition. “I don’t know how she goes on,” my friend had said. At the time, I could not imagine it either. How did this woman keep getting out of bed every day after losing her husband and children within a few years? How could she keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Now I wonder if my friend recounts my losses with same sense of incredulity. Is she telling others of my litany of losses and saying of me, “I don’t know how she goes on”?

I re-read chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel and noticed that Jesus got into the boat and taught the people on the shore before instructing the fishermen to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Jesus was in the boat. That detail had escaped my attention before, and I re-imagined the scene—not the fisherman alone putting out into the deep water, but Jesus was with them.

I am not alone in my grief; Jesus is with me

Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.

What am I to catch? I ask Jesus.

Perhaps the catch of living in this deep place of loss and sadness and grief for the past six years is a greater capacity for understanding others’ grief, a profound empathy. Perhaps the catch is that each death, each loss, is deepening the space within me to accept my lack of control and my own vulnerability.

Perhaps the catch is that my capacity to live in gratitude for what has been and in hope for what is to come is getting deeper, that grief has shaped a space deep enough to hold it all.

hope-stone

 

Learning compassion

Nova Scotia was my summer vacation destination this year, and Peggy’s Cove was my first stop.

This small fishing village sits on a rugged coastline; its lighthouse is set upon huge boulders. Although the ocean was calm that day, I could imagine how treacherous a nor’easter or winter storm would be. “These are people who know how fragile life is,” I thought as I pondered rain, wind and waves lashing their homes.

peggys cove

Peggy’s Cove lighthouse

From Peggy’s Cove, we stopped at the nearby memorial for Swissair flight 111 which crashed into the ocean on September 2, 1998, killing all 229 passengers and crew. I remember this plane crash and how the people from Peggy’s Cove got into their fishing boats and searched for survivors. They were the first responders, and their empathy for those who had lost loved ones was apparent in the news coverage I watched. The memorial sits on a rather desolate piece of the rocky coastline, a somber site.

Swissair

Swissair flight 111 memorial

This memorial was the first stop on a “tragedy tour” that peppered my days in Nova Scotia.

The next stop was Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax where more than one hundred bodies recovered from the Titanic are buried. Some of the dead are named, but other tombstones bear only the numbers assigned to bodies as they were pulled from the ocean. Almost a hundred years before the crash of the Swissair flight, fishermen from Peggy’s Cove responded to this earlier crisis in the waters off their coast.

titanic 2

Five years after the Titanic sunk, the people in Halifax faced with a more personal tragedy—two ships collided in the Halifax harbor. One was filled with munitions on its way to the war in Europe. The resulting explosion killed more than 1500 people and injured 9000. More than 13,000 homes and businesses bordering the harbor were destroyed.

Another fishing villages we visited was Lunenburg, where we came upon a memorial to locals lost at sea. Some families have lost many members, and I again thought of how a people living so close to the northern sea know the fragility of life.

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Lunenburg Memorial

But Nova Scotia is more than its tragedies. Parts of the coastline are lined with beautiful beaches that are bordered by fields of wildflowers or dense forests. Inland, Nova Scotia is rolling hills dotted with farms and sheep and forests. We hiked through salt marshes, city parks and sandy beaches. The waterfront in Halifax is lined with restaurants and outdoor cafes, and a busker festival that weekend brought throngs of people out to enjoy the summer nights.

salt marh

Salt Marsh trail

There are also music festivals and gift shops filled with locally-made items—pewter, hand-knitting, crafty home goods and jewelry. I sensed a certain pride and independence, perhaps a resilience shaped by suffering.

The juxtaposition of the natural beauty, the spirit of the people and the many memorials touched me deeply. The people of Nova Scotia seem to have become compassionate through vulnerability and hopeful through sorrow—valuable life lessons. I hope to visit again.

The gift of my journal

Even though it has been more than two years since I moved to Michigan, I can sometimes still feel as though I am in transition and not completely settled in. It may be because the move piled grief on top of grief or because there has been transition within transition since the move—or both.

In my prayer, I have been asking what God has planned for me and I wonder if, for some reason, I am missing something—some new opportunity that will help me feel more settled. What I know for sure is that my life here does not look like my life did in Pennsylvania.

It occurs to me, though, that the primary reason for moving to Michigan was to be near my family, so it was inevitable that my new life would not look like my old one. I had no family in Pennsylvania.

Here, though, I have both planned get-togethers with my family (holidays, birthdays, weddings, etc.) and also those wonderful, unexpected encounters that can happen because I live nearby.

Last week, I was at the car dealership waiting for my car to get serviced when one of my nephews walked in. He, too, was having his car serviced there. It was a total surprise to see him, and the time we spent together in casual conversation was pure gift.

Last summer, another nephew was working on a road construction project near my home and I stopped to chat with him when I happened to pass by on my bike.

Another day last summer, when a friend was visiting from Pennsylvania, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Detroit and there sat one of my sisters and her husband. “That could never happen in Philadelphia,” my friend said. “No,” I agreed, “it could not.”

Yet here, the possibility for chance encounters exists, and each encounter delights me. Every one of these chance meetings affirms that moving here was right for me and reminds me how blessed I am to be here.

My New Year’s Eve tradition is to read my journal from the past year. This year, I was amazed at how many times my family appeared in my journal. Monthly sisters’ dinners, watching my niece figure skate, kayaking with my brother and sister-in-law, attending bridal and baby showers, another niece’s wedding, and many more family events fill the pages of my journal and filled my heart with gratitude as I reflected on them.

I don’t know why I could not see it before, but I am grateful for the lens that my journal offered me. Through it, I can see how my family connections and interactions have helped shape my new life and added a dimension that was unfamiliar to me. I can now see that I am actually quite settled and that I have the life I hoped for when I moved here.