Tag Archives: hope

God-aging-wisdom

My wild and precious life

We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.

As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.

Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.

“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.

I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.

My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.

She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.

That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.

When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.

When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.

Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.

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Unconventional grief

In Chapter four of A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Mending Loss and Sorrow,” Jake Owensby introduced me to the term “unconventional grief.”

            “Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury of mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table. This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death…unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger” (Page 56).

I was familiar with the concept.

In 2002, my friend Jim did something completely out of character. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim?” I asked and then added, “You must have a brain tumor.” He blamed his action on being tired, but I was not convinced.

Jim was a man of routine. He was predictable, dependable.

So when he acted oddly on that day in 2002, I knew something was wrong.

And from then on, he began to act out of character more frequently—until he eventually became a new person whose life looked significantly different from his old life. His old routines were replaced by things that had once held no interest for him.

One day, I compiled a list with two columns—Old Jim and New Jim—to show him how he had changed. He looked at the sheet of paper and agreed he did not do things he had once done but could not seem to understand why it was an issue. It was as if his brain could not process the information.

And he refused to see a doctor.

By 2006, Old Jim was pretty much gone, and I was left with New Jim. And although the loss was real, I did not know how to grieve it.

Five years later, Jim was diagnosed with glioblastoma—brain cancer.

I described Old Jim and New Jim to the neurosurgeon and asked if this tumor could have caused the change. He explained that the glioblastoma had only been growing for three to four weeks. “But,” he added, “There is something in his right front lobe that is not glioblastoma and that could be a slow-growing tumor that has been there a long time.” He asked if there was a history of benign brain tumors in Jim’s family. In fact, Jim had an uncle who died from complications from benign brain tumor surgery.

I believe that every curse has a blessing. Glioblastoma was definitely a curse, but throughout Jim’s illness, we experienced many blessings. The greatest blessing, though, was that the treatments that were entirely ineffective on the glioblastoma somehow returned Jim’s brain to its pre-2002 condition. Old Jim came back!

I grieved Jim’s death, but have only recently begun to get in touch with those lost years, that time of unconventional grief.

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God-trauma-vulnerability

Shaking off shame

Last year, I connected with Jake Owensby’s blog, Looking for God in Messy Places. My own sense of where I find God resonates with his writing, and now I am reading his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life. In both his blog and his book, Jake writes about traumatic events from his childhood, and I am amazed at his openness.

In a memoir I recently read, the author declares that she wishes she could write openly about the trauma of her childhood, but she is not there. Me neither.

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I want to be there—that place where I can speak openly and honestly about traumatic things that happened to me, where I have moved past shame—but I am not.

Thirty years ago, I read John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, hoping it would lead me beyond shame. It gave me insight and understanding, but I was still bound by shame.

Then there was therapy for few years and a series of other therapeutic programs (retreats, family programs, al-anon, etc.). Each moved the needle a bit, but my shame is deep seated.

Shame is the yardstick by which I measure my freedom, because shame truly does keep me bound and unfree.

Looking back, though, I can see the distance I have come. There was a time when I did not even know what had happened to me. Like many children who experience trauma, I buried it deep inside and denied anything had happened.

All I knew for certain was that when I was eight years old, God saved me, that God had somehow picked me up and held me close. I had no understanding of the circumstances from which God was saving me. But I knew this one truth: God saved me.

In my twenties I realized that there was an impact from the damage that had been done to me as a child, because I could see how it was affecting the way I was living as an adult. Bad choices only begins to describe my twenties.

Chapter One in A Resurrection Shaped Life is called “Growing Beyond Our Past.”  Jake Owensby writes, “Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity” (Page 4). He notes, “We omit the messy parts of our lives” when building a resume, but that we have to “come to terms” with our past as part of a Christian spiritual practice.

I know my past helped me be more compassionate toward people who are vulnerable, especially children and people who have developmental disabilities. It also helped me know how blessed I am to have survived childhood trauma relatively intact.

Therapy, retreats, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, daily prayer and self-help books all helped me get to a place where I could make better choices and live with greater integrity.

I am still working with God in the messy places of my life, those places where I still hold onto shame—and trusting that God is continually healing me.

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Waiting for God

I know best how God is working in my life by looking back. In the present moment, God’s guidance and actions may not be as clear as when I pause and look back. So at the end of every year, I take some time to re-read my journals, and I take note of any themes or directions.

At the beginning of last year’s journal, I jotted down some quotes from Isaiah and 1 Corinthians and then I wrote, “What if I lived every moment as a God moment? As if I was waiting for God to come to my door?”

As I read those words, I was actually waiting for some friends to come to brunch, sitting in anticipation of their knock at the door.

What if, I thought, I really lived in that kind of anticipation of God’s intervening in my life?  If I knew with such certainty that God was about to show up? That God was about to knock on the door?

My word for this year is awareness and these questions seem to invite me to a deeper reflection on my relationship with God and my openness to God’s presence in my life.

  • How aware am I of God’s presence in my everyday life?
  • How attentive am I to God’s promptings?
  • How often do I offer up prayers of thanksgiving or petition throughout the day?

I want to start this new year with my focus more firmly fixed on God and the way God calls me to live. I know that will mean some changes, and I pray for the grace to be attentive and the courage to act.

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Leaning into vulnerability

I recently heard an interview with a published poet. When asked about a poetry slam she had attended, she suggested that aspiring poets would benefit from reading poetry—”good poetry,” she said. She went on to suggest the same for writers of any genre—fiction, playwrights, biographers, etc. To improve one’s writing, she asserted, one needs to read what others have written in that genre.

Interesting idea.

Most of my reading is fiction. Occasionally, I will read a biography or historical fiction, and sometimes poetry, but the vast majority of my reading is fiction.

And, as much as I love to read fiction, I write nonfiction.

So this playwright’s comments about reading the genre that I write highlighted a disconnect in me. Her comments stayed with me for the next few days and I felt invited to look more closely at my reading habits.

In my twenties, I read some non-fiction, mainly self-help books, and I found books about adult children of alcoholics to be very helpful. But other nonfiction did not hold my attention. I remember reading The Road Less Traveled, by Scott Peck, and thinking, “I could have written this.”  He was telling me things I already knew, so what was the point of reading his book?

When I visited the l’Arche community where I would eventually live, I was carrying my copy of Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. I was about a third of the way through when I arrived. One of the assistants remarked, “Don’t bother reading the rest. You will be able to write it after you’ve been here a month.”

“A woman after my own heart,” I thought, although I did eventually finish reading the book.

As I pondered this disconnect between what I read and what I write, I had an aha moment.

By nature, I am a rather strong person (I am an eight on the Enneagram), and I tend to avoid vulnerability. The basic premise of self-help books is that I need help—that I am vulnerable.

Similarly with books about spirituality—reading them implies that I need help with my spirituality, which I know I do. But, for some reason, I am resistant to reading the very books that might help me.

Each book about spiritual or emotional growth invites me to lean into my brokenness and vulnerability, to let go of the façade of strength that I wear as armor, and I resist.

For many years, I felt God was inviting me to write about my spiritual life and the ways God has blessed me. I was resistant. And then a friend asked me to ghost write spiritual reflections for him. It was the perfect way for me respond to God, and I loved sharing how God had blessed me. After eight years of ghost-writing, I had the courage to start this blog.

Now it seems that God has expanded the invitation to include not only writing about my blessings, but also reading how God has blessed others.

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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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.