Tag Archives: friends

vulnerability-trust-God

Taking risks

“To what end?” my friend Jim used to ask me—usually when I was considering something he thought pointless or even foolish. One incident I remember had to do with a guy I had known when I lived in Canada.

This was a guy I was thinking of marrying—until I found out he was seeing someone else. Ouch! He apologized and asked for forgiveness, and I forgave him. But I was back in the States by then, and I never got around to writing to tell him I forgave him.vulnerability-trust-GodSeveral years later, I happened to see him, and I was genuinely friendly; I had forgiven him. He was so happy—and relieved—I felt a bit bad that I had not written to him. Afterward, he wrote to thank me for forgiving him. His letter included an update on his life (I already knew from mutual friends that the other relationship had not worked out), and he said it would be good to hear from me.

Hmm. Would I write back? “To what end?” Jim asked.

I understood his question. What was I going to gain by reconnecting with someone who had hurt me? Why would I take that chance? What did I hope would happen?

In the end, the impulse to respond passed, and I never wrote back. But I had saved his letter, which I discovered the other day when I was going through some boxes of old letters.

Twenty-five years have passed since he broke my heart, and I have no ill will toward him; I have moved on (ok, perhaps not completely since I have never risked the possibility of marriage again).vulnerability-trust-GodWhile I was in Ireland recently, I visited with two women I also knew from when I lived in Canada. I had not seen either of them in many years and had reconnected with them through Facebook.

When one of them suggested a visit, I responded without hesitation, even though I could hear Jim’s voice in my head asking, “To what end?”

I had no answer except that I wanted to see them—no need to justify or have next steps planned out. I just wanted to reconnect.vulnerability-trust-GodProtecting ourselves from possible hurt is important, and I know that Jim’s question usually came out of his concern for me. He saw the pain I had gone through when my heart was broken, and he cared enough about me to want to shield me from further hurt.

I was always more of a risk-taker than Jim, which was one of the things he loved about me. With risk comes more potential for hurt.

I have been keeping my heart safely locked up for a long time now, not making myself vulnerable or risking pain. To what end? I ask myself. Am I happier living in a cocoon?

When Jim had cancer and was pondering life with intentionality, he often said, “Think big thoughts.” Acting on those big thoughts involves risk; I am ready.vulnerability-trust-God

retreat-meditation-mindfulness

Noticing what I notice

On the first day of my retreat last week, my director suggested that I spend some time noticing what I notice.

For much of that day I walked the grounds of the retreat center and practiced being present to what was in front of me. Little things caught my attention—the way a reed swayed in the gentle breeze; small shoots of green amid the dried-up, brown grasses; how ice formed along the edges of the creek; snow clinging to tree branches at odd angles; and the way three ducks huddled on the water with their heads tucked in for warmth (or maybe that is how they sleep?).

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The practice of noticing what I notice is a great way to slow down and focus. By the end of that first day, I had left my work and daily life behind me and had moved into a more meditative, prayerful space.

My friend Steve came to mind during one of my walks that first day. The previous week had marked the fourth anniversary of his death, and I welcomed this chance to spend time remembering what a blessing he was to me. Steve had been in a serious car/train crash when he was in college (he was in the car), and it was a miracle that he survived. He spent his life in deep appreciation that he was alive—and acute awareness that residual complications from the accident could claim his life at any time.

One gift of Steve’s accident was that he knew himself as totally dependent on God. His attitude toward life was open-handed—he was gentle with himself and others and did not take things too seriously.

I wondered which of my life experiences offers me that gift. What broken place within me reminds me of my total dependence on God? When had I been vulnerable and come out of the experience with a deeper appreciation for life?

One time I recall totally surrendering to God was after I left l’Arche. I had failed miserably as a l’Arche assistant, and my spirit was shattered. All my plans for spending the rest of my life in l’Arche were gone, and pride prevented me from returning to Philadelphia. My disappointment paralyzed me, and I could not see the way to rebuild my life.

In deep despair, I cried to my spiritual director, “I am falling apart!”

“No,” she said. “You are falling together.”

Her words jolted me. But I could see her point—I was already about as low as I could go; I had actually already fallen. My only hope was to give up the illusion that I was in control and surrender to God.

I recalled saying to God in resignation, “You hold all the cards!” It was both humbling and freeing.

As difficult as it was at the time, now it is a sweet memory that helped me connect with my friend Steve and God’s invitation to live more aware and open-handed, trusting in God.

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.

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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.

Gifts from Villanova

My retreat weekend coincided with the NCAA Final Four basketball game and presented a bit of a dilemma. My alma mater had made it to the Final Four. Would I skip out on the Saturday evening retreat session to join our alumni chapter at a nearby bar or would I stay and pray? Basketball or prayer?

I decided to stay for the evening session and pray for the team. Perhaps my prayers helped; Villanova won and moved on to the Championship game.VU logo

The retreat was called The Transforming Potential of Grief. The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) provided the scriptural context and John Schneider’s model for transforming grief was the structure we used to reflect on our journeys of loss and grief.

Sunday of the retreat marked four years since my friend Jim died; three other friends have died since, including Ted, who died in January.

As I reflected on these friendships, I realized that I knew both Jim and Ted from Villanova. Ted and I met in 1985 (the last time Villanova won the National Championship); he was in his third year of law school, and I worked at the law school during the day and attended graduate classes at night. A year later, I met Jim in one of my graduate classes.

Attending Villanova had a huge impact on my life.

After working at the FBI for eight and a half years in a variety of clerical roles, I had decided to get a degree and become an agent. Quitting full-time work and entering college as a full-time student was a bit daunting.

My situation was complicated when the grant I had been promised fell through. I was twenty-seven years old, had no job and not enough money to cover Villanova’s tuition.

Father Driscoll, then President of Villanova, remedied my dilemma by giving me a Presidential Scholarship—a full-ride. His generosity overwhelmed me; I think I became a loyal daughter of Villanova that day. During my years at Villanova (I earned a B.A and M.A), the generosity Father Driscoll showed me was replicated in a many other situations. Villanova became home and family; it was and still is holy ground for me.

It also provided most of my adult friendships.

Living close to the University until three years ago, I had many opportunities to take advantage of all the school offers to alums and the community. And, like many things we have at our fingertips, I think I took it for granted.

Now, living six hundred miles away, my Villanova connections are more precious and my gratitude is even deeper. One of the first things I did when I moved to Michigan was to connect with the alumni chapter, and I help with a golf outing to raise scholarship money for kids from our area who go to Villanova. It is the least I can do to give back.

Reflecting on my Villanova connections reminded me how I blessed I am; I’m glad I decided to stay and pray.

 

 

Sacred emptiness

I recently returned to Pennsylvania, to the place where I spent most of my adult life. Everything was wonderfully familiar—streets, stores, restaurants, and most importantly, people. This is the place where I have a strong support network, created over a thirty-seven year period, where I have friends who know me, accept me and love me.

My five-day trip included lots of visiting, and each friend asked how I am doing in my new home and new job. “I am fine,” I would say, and then go on to talk about my work and friends and being near my family. Although I miss my life in PA, I have no regrets about moving back home. I love the daily interactions with my family that are now possible, and I shared stories of everyday experiences with my mother, siblings, nieces, nephews and cousins. My hopes for being near my family have been fulfilled beyond my expectations.

And yet, with every friend in PA, I found myself talking about the emptiness I feel because I am not in close proximity to them. I became aware as I spoke that my hands formed a circle, as though I were holding a beach ball. This invisible circle sat securely in my lap as I talked about how different my life is without them. The circle formed by my hands is the image of the emptiness I carry with me.

“Move back,” a number of friends suggested, but that is not the right move for me.

Some people in Michigan have suggested I become more involved, that I find more activities to fill the emptiness. But that does not feel right to me either. This emptiness is not one that can be eliminated by activity. It cannot be filled up or covered over. It is an emptiness that begs to be honored, to be held sacred. It is an emptiness I need to live with and move through on its own timeline.

This emptiness reminds me of all I had in PA, and it makes me deeply grateful. I have had a rich, full life—too many blessings to count. That life of old friends and familiar places still exists, only it is two states away from where I am now. I don’t want to forget what was; I want to honor my past.

The empty circle also holds the promise, the hope of what can be, what will be—in time and with patience.

Little by little, I know the edges of my loss and sadness are being softened, the circle of emptiness becoming smaller as I am gradually meeting new people, discovering new places and creating a new life in my new home.

In a few weeks, my church will begin the season of Advent, a time of hope and promise. But this year, I think Advent has come early for me. My awareness of this circle of emptiness is the sign that I am already waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

Making friends with my shadow

One of my earliest memories is an incident that happened when I was four years old. I had found a dime in the yard and was running to show my mother when my older brother intercepted me. “That’s mine,” he said. I did not believe him, but I knew he would take it from me, so I swallowed it.

Twenty-five years later, soon after I started seeing a therapist, I shared this memory. “And you’ve been doing that ever since,” my therapist said. “What?” I asked obliviously. “Swallowing every threat and hurt,” he replied. That gave me something to think about.

Over the coming weeks and months, my therapist and I talked about all the hurts and rejections that had been too painful for me to deal with and how I had “swallowed” them—stuffing them down deep inside. I came to realize that I had a whole other person living within, a shadow side, made up of all the dark things I had not dealt with.

My therapist helped me to see how I was acting out of these buried feelings, and he encouraged me to look at these past hurts. He actually suggested I “befriend” those things buried deep within. Befriend them? I thought not. I could barely stand to look at them let alone think of them as friends.

But in time, I came to see more clearly how I was acting and reacting out of my past hurts and knew something needed to change.

My therapist help me understand that the things buried in my shadow side could not hurt me again—they were all in the past—and I was no longer a vulnerable child who could not defend herself. I was an adult who could make choices about how I reacted to events in my life. I had options.

I prayed for the grace to face the things buried in my shadow side and asked for Jesus’ gentle   touch to heal the memories and close these open wounds. Healing scriptures became personal invitations from God. Yes, I wanted to see. Yes, I wanted to walk. Yes, I wanted to be healed of my hemorrhaging.

Eventually, I became more comfortable staying with past pains when they surfaced, rather than stuffing them back down as soon as I started to feel any discomfort. I got to the point where I could look more objectively at my past, and rather than denying them, I began to incorporate my hurts into my story.  I could see how my past had shaped me and helped me be more accepting and compassionate. The wounds were transformed into gifts.

Lots of practice has helped me move more quickly from having my buttons pushed to figuring out what pain is being touched. Just the other day, a friend reminded me of an event from a few years ago. She did not know that the event had been painful for me, and I did not know I was still holding onto that pain. But at her reminder, I felt myself becoming defensive. Awareness is the first step. I pray for the grace to be healed of this hurt, knowing that befriending it will transform into a gift.