Tag Archives: family

resilience-God-ACEs

Wonder

“You are a wonder,” Julia Roberts declares to her son in the movie Wonder. I gasped when I heard those words, because those same words were spoken to me just a month earlier.

Part of the group work for the Mind Body Skills sessions at the Cancer Caregivers workshop was a genogram exercise. I shared my family history, including the abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and suicides.resilience-God-ACEs

“How did you survive?” someone asked.

“The grace of God,” I replied.

“You are a wonder,” our group leader declared.

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way and that God protected me.

Perhaps I was not physically safe, but my person—my essence, my spirit and soul, the parts of me that mattered most—were safe. God snatched me up and held me.

As a child, I felt as if I lived two lives—one inside my body and the other outside of it—and I felt both visible and invisible. I seemed to go unnoticed and my needs unattended to (invisible) but trauma happened to me (visible). I could not solve the mystery of this paradox; my only hope was in God.

I had good reason to trust God, because I knew what God had done for Jesus. I related to Jesus as an innocent victim and rejoiced in God’s intervention.

It took a lot of time (and some intense therapy) to get over the confusing messages of my childhood. At some point I realized I was always going to be broken and in need of healing; I would always be healing but never healed.

The introduction of a twelve-step program for adult children of alcoholics was a game-changer for me. Here were my people, others who had similar childhoods, who understood the paradoxes, who asked similar questions. We spoke the same language and shared knowing looks. I had come home.

One thing I did not share, though, was my having been called by God when I was eight. Like other paradoxes, this one made no sense. Why would God choose me? I was clearly damaged. I was not going to become a saint—or any kind of holy person. I was always going to be in need of healing, always seeking wholeness.

I recently read The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Toward the end of the book, Dr. Harris concludes that not all people who experienced childhood trauma are suffering. “In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” (Page 218)

I am one of those whose early misfortune was transformed into gift. I can see the blessing in the curse and know that everything is possible with God, even bringing wholeness to a family tree with snapped branches.

It is a wonder.resilience-God-ACEs

 

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belong-God-faith

Where I belong

My mother grew up on a farm in northern Michigan. I still have one aunt and several cousins who live near the farm, and last weekend my mom and I went up north to visit my Aunt Mary.belong-God-faithDuring my childhood, we regularly traveled to the farm to help out. Even as a young child, I was assigned chores; gathering eggs was my favorite.

There is no work to do on the farm now—no animals to tend and the fields are rented out for farming.

During this trip, a cousin and his wife stopped by one evening, and one day we visited the cemetery where my dad and many relatives are buried. Mostly, though, my mom, my aunt and I spent the time catching up.

My aunt asked if I was happy that I had moved home. I said yes! No hesitation. I told her I have no regrets about moving back and that I love regular get-togethers with my siblings, being here for every family occasion and my random encounters with my cousins. The transition was difficult, I told her, but so worth it.belong-God-faithA few days after that trip, a friend and I were talking about belonging. He is in transition and pondering where he wants to live—a place where he has a sense of belonging is important to him.

I shared how grateful I am to be home and how living here has made me more aware that this is where I belong.

“Did you feel a sense of not belonging during the years you lived away?” he asked.

I did not. When I lived away from family, I felt a strong connection with friends who share my beliefs and values.

My sense of belonging to my family, though, is by birth, and since I cannot be un-born, I always feel connected to my family.

In the same way that my birth made me a part my family, being baptized into my church secured my belonging there.

Birth and baptism created irrevocable bonds, and I have never questioned those bonds. In the sense that I can’t be unborn or unbaptized, I have always had a “they can’t kick me out” attitude.

The deepest of all connections for me, though, is my God connection. Even before birth and baptism, I belonged to God, and belonging to God has sustained me through many difficulties.belong-God-faithAs I reflected on where I belong, I realized that those who share my beliefs and values get me in a way my family sometimes doesn’t; and that because of our shared culture and history, my family gets me in a way my friends sometimes don’t.

I am blessed to come from a God who sustains me, belong to a family that loves and accepts me and have friends who support and encourage me.

Driving up north and turning off the highway and onto the dirt road to my grandparents’ farm was a reminder of how fortunate I am to know where I belong.

 

 

God-mindfulness-faith

Potential for growth

My mother has a large vegetable garden, and I usually come over at the beginning of May to get a jump on the weeds that tend to take over the raspberries. This year, I was away at the beginning of May, and the raspberries dropped off my radar.

Needless to say, the weeds are now overtaking the raspberry plants.

Talking to my spiritual director, I used the weedy raspberries as an example of just one more thing in my life that needs attention.

“Let’s stay with the image of the weeds and the raspberries,” she suggested. “Can the raspberries be saved or is it too late?” she asked. Good question. I knew she had moved on from the actual raspberry/weed problem and was talking about the “weeds” in my life that may be choking out my growth.

We started talking about what was working and what wasn’t in my life. I happened to mention that I had been eating a lot of comfort food recently. “Why do you need comfort food?” she asked. Another good question.

Then I told her about someone who had emailed me that morning asking for career advice. I suggested that this person “act and not react.” As I wrote those words, I knew I was also talking to myself.God-mindfulness-faithMy spiritual director suggested I start with a clean sheet of paper and imagine my life—how I want it to look, what I want to do, etc. She encouraged me to look at both my work life and my personal life. She also advised I not try to put new wine into old wine skins—she is big on looking to the future instead of the past.

I can get stuck in the past, even though I know that what once was will never be again and that what once worked might not work any longer.God-mindfulness-faith“Start where you already have clarity,” she recommended.

I have clarity around my personal life—being near my family, my house and garden, hobbies, interests, etc.

I also have clarity about working at the cancer support center. I am well suited to work with people who are facing cancer and even facing death; I can be with people in painful situations without running away or trying to minimize their experiences. The work can be difficult, though, and I am finding some parts of the job very challenging. Some parts just don’t get done and can feel like weeds choking me.

“Can you see everything as a blessing?” my spiritual director asked. She was full of good questions that day!

As I pondered her questions and prayed for insight, I realized just how much energy I give to what once was, to what I used to do and to past hurts and injustices.

What would be more helpful is to let go of the past, live in the present and visualize the future I want. Then I will be more like a well-weeded garden with lots of potential for growth.

God-mindfulness-faith

 

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

 

 

vulnerability-God-compassion

What I am learning from my tears

The other morning at prayer, these words from Ezekiel 47 caught my attention:

I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple….Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow, their leaves shall not fade nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.vulnerability-God-compassion

Lately, I have I have been very emotional, and I am unable to stop my tears from flowing.

I grew up in one of those families where crying was discouraged; tears usually elicited a response of, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Then, in my twenties, I worked for the FBI where agents used to tell me to “toughen up.” This was usually in response to a mood-shift after my oh-so-easily-hurt feelings had been hurt. I would sulk and feel sorry for myself, but I would try not to cry.

My years at the FBI did toughen me up. I tried to keep inside any emotion that might make me look weak or vulnerable. Being tough (or at least looking tough) was my goal, so I swallowed my emotions.

At some point in my life, though, I realized the pendulum had swung too far and that I had developed an impenetrable shell to protect myself from criticism that I was weak. That shell helped me feel invincible and kept me from feeling vulnerable. It also kept others away.vulnerability-God-compassionOne of the good things about getting old is that I can look back on so many opportunities God has given me to move against my resistance to being vulnerable. God invites me not to toughen up but to soften up.vulnerability-God-compassionAs I read the words of Ezekiel, I wondered if my tears are the river that gives me life.vulnerability-God-compassionRecently, as I watched a high school volleyball game, tears started rolling down my face. The same thing happened a few weeks earlier at the Motown Museum while watching the movie about the early days of Barry Gordy and the high school students who would become his stars.

Reading a novel about Puritans in Connecticut, tears welled up and spilled over. Watching television, seeing a rainbow, spotting a butterfly—I have no idea what will set off a tearful episode.

I try to let the tears flow freely. I want the emotions to be set free—rather than tamped down or stifled.

My recent tears tell me that my protective shell has a crack in it, and I want to widen that crack. I want to acknowledge my fears and insecurities. I want to be softer. But it is not easy.

My early training sets me up to be afraid of showing my vulnerability, and fear can be a powerful paralyzer.

But, God keeps prompting me—with the words of scripture, my memories and my tears. I know I that I can sit with the discomfort of feeling vulnerable and not be overwhelmed.

Let the tears flow.vulnerability-God-compassion

 

 

 

 

 

resiliency-faith-cancer

Fashioned by family

Last weekend, I drove my 91-year old mother to northern Michigan to visit her younger sister. I hadn’t been up north for two years, and my aunt wasn’t doing very well then. Now, though, she is doing remarkably well; it is amazing what a few medication tweaks and some lifestyle changes can do.

They caught up on news of family and friends, and we played cards in the evening. My cousin visited and brought pumpkins from his garden and apples from his tree.

Conversations with my mother and aunt gave me family details. I learned which uncle was my grandmother’s favorite and which uncle was lazy. I learned that my Aunt Betty’s real name was Scholastica and that we were never close to my grandmother’s side of the family, but they did not know why.

My mother and I visited the cemetery after Sunday Mass, but it was drizzling and windy so she stayed in the car while I collected the flower-covered crosses my cousin had put at our relatives’ graves last spring. Most of my relatives are buried there, including my grandparents and my dad. It is the place my mother wants to be buried.

These days went the way so many others have during past visits up north.

While we were there, I kept thinking about how much of our lives are shaped by our families—and where God’s grace enters the picture to enable us to become more than our pasts. Like most women, I have watched myself become my mother and sometimes I rejoice in that, and other times I rebel.

My mother is one of those tenacious, feisty, determined elders. She does her own grocery shopping, tends her garden and cooks; she is strong and fiercely independent (and, yes, she still drives).

She taught me to be resilient and persistent.

A friend in college said to me, “I wish my mother had taught me to be as persistent as your mother taught you,” when I refused to quit looking for something she had lost.

Never give up could be my mother’s motto.resiliency-faith-cancerMy father used to tell us, “If you come home and think I am dead, go out for another hour to make sure.” He never wanted to go to a hospital, and when he had a major stroke, my mother had the inner strength not to call 911. She gave him the kind of death he wanted—at home with family.

My father died ten years before Jim’s death, and I know that her example gave me the strength to give Jim the kind of death he wanted.

For example, when his oncologist insisted Jim be hospitalized for a blood clot, I said “No,” because Jim was done with hospitals by then. I was terrified, and I remember thinking about my mother in that moment and how terrified she must have felt when my dad had that stroke.

I am grateful that I can see the blessings in how my family shaped me.resiliency-faith-cancer

 

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

Expand your color palette

 

vulnerability-God-spirituality
“Purple and green,” my five-year-old niece responded when I asked, “What is your favorite color?” I was planning to sew her a dress.

Purple and green? Two colors I would not have put together.

But to please her (and because I had asked) I set out to find fabric with those two colors. It turned out my niece knew more about colors than I did; I found lots of fabric in combinations of purple and green. How had I never noticed this color combination before?

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

I doubt that my niece meant anything deeper than encouraging me to diversify the colors in my closet (I mainly wrote black clothes accessorized with colorful scarves), but simple words often hold deeper meanings.

Both her “favorite” color combination and her color palette comment have come back to me on numerous occasions—sometimes when I am considering a clothing purchase, but also when I find myself looking at something as I always have and am resistant to change the way I see, those times when I hold tight to what I believe, when I know what I know.

What if I could see things differently? What if I expanded my palette to see situations from different perspectives?

“Look for golf balls in the trees,” our Alaskan tour guide instructed us. “Each one is the head of an Eagle.” Where before I could not find even one Eagle, all of a sudden I saw many; trees were full of them. They were right before my eyes; I only needed to know what I was looking for.

This kind of looking and seeing requires an awareness and an openness. I need to be able to admit that I have narrow vision and preconceived ideas in order to consider seeing in a different way. And I need to be open to reality from a different perspective.

Difficult for me to do, especially because I like my views—and my friends tend to agree with me—so I must be right—right? What if God does not care about my need to be right?

After the U.S. presidential election last fall, a friend got an interesting assignment in her inter-faith dialogue group. The group leader invited them to interview someone who had voted for the “other” candidate. The caveat was that they were just to listen to the response—not to challenge the person’s decision or to defend their own votes, but just to listen.vulnerability-God-spiritualitySo often, I think I know why people do what they do—without even asking.

What if God is inviting me to ask questions and listen for answers that might not support my view? What if God is asking me to use my eyes to see and my ears to hear? To truly expand my palette?