Looking out my kitchen window this morning made me drop the dish I was washing and gasp. My raspberry plant had suddenly grown— or I suppose it was just being seen for the first time in months— and the tiniest of white buds were making an appearance. Running outside to verify what I was seeing confirmed the marvel.
This is the ‘botany of hope.’
This is literally post-traumatic growth.
My raspberry is older than I am, see. As children, my siblings and I adored the raspberry patch my parents cultivated for decades. That spot of the yard was both a hide-and-seek place and a fort-building place and a peaceful place of poking at bugs and stealing mom’s berries, leaving evidence rather obvious on our lips and hands. Some years back, against my protests, my dad decided to cut down the tall evergreens and mom pulled out the raspberries to make the front of their house more… I don’t know… appealing or contemporary or open… or something I can’t really understand. In 2017, my sister-in-law (much more of a wizard with plants than me) gave me a tiny, 5 inch baby remnant of the raspberries she’d kept aside in a cheap, disposable plant container. I was grateful but dubious, assuming I’d kill it.
That plant sat outside in my driveway for nearly two years, sitting on top of a plastic grocery bag in its generic plastic holder. It endured rain and hail. Windstorms. 14” of snow. Reduced to just a bare stick or two for a long time, I ignored the plant as life did not cease its punishment during this period…
Then my aunt came over last year and asked me to please love it. I simply had to put in the dirt and sunshine… it would be fine.
I didn’t believe her. The plant was dead to me. While it symbolized “roots,” I had already gone through my mourning and moved on.
But, there was a still moment in early 2019 when I bought a couple planters and attempted, through my feelings of intimidation, to grow some produce. The bell pepper failed. The cherry tomatoes briefly performed but died early. The lettuce was underwhelming. The carrots were stunted and deformed. And the radishes were eaten all through by ants. My 40 year old raspberry plant grew a shoot or two of green but nothing. Returned to sticks over the winter. It was confirmed: I’m a gardening failure. Or at least… I have a lot to learn still.
But here’s this! My raspberry of glory! It’s almost two feet tall, healthy, beautiful and has a history infused with deep meaning for me.
I am hoping to return to my roots this summer… and it will be such a joy to return this raspberry to its native land with me.
This plant makes me profoundly happy. And I genuflect at the mystery of it all.
This is many, many pages into my story. Someday perhaps, all will be laid clear. But today: Chapter 11 is what my heart is telling me to write.
I finished my Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling today. I took my last, final exam, turned in my 63 page portfolio, finished some case notes on the last clients I saw, then shut my computer and walked to the church to say hello to Jesus. There will be no presidential fanfare, hats tossed into the air, big parties or any of the typical pomp and circumstance. No flight to Kentucky because the ceremony is cancelled. Nothing at all really. Rather, it’s a quiet and surreal feeling. My children are gone for the weekend so I will celebrate with some leftover tacos and feel elegant because I happen to have a fresh avocado on hand. There’s a bottle of prosecco in my fridge too… not sure how long that’s been there, but hey, it feels appropriate. I think I’ll watch something utterly stupid tonight on my computer just because I can’t remember what a Saturday night is supposed to feel like with no schoolwork weighing on my mind. But it is a very, very strange feeling overall. It doesn’t feel like a celebration or great achievement. And honestly, the images moving in and through me are mildly grim: something like steam smoldering over a battlefield of dead orcs and one bleeding carcass of a woman, clutching her Miraculous Medal and uttering benedictions of gratitude that she is still breathing. “… for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is His name.” How appropriate that it is the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday…
Perhaps this sounds piously melodramatic to read. That’s okay; I encourage you to validate your skepticism and put it to the test. My aim is simply to “write hard and clear about what hurts.”
I have shared before a wee bit about how I came into this program two years ago. My husband was done with the marriage and we were embroiled in trial and I needed a plan. My lawyer at the time was not impressed with my suggestion about becoming a professional philosopher. Apparently, this wouldn’t provide a steady income. Bother. So, I stumbled over to the cousin of philosophy: Counseling, and have found something of a vocation here. More sane people would do this program over the course of three years. But… the clock is ticking on my spousal support and I’ve got debts coming out my ears, so I crushed through it at a blistering pace, maximizing my credit load every semester and taking no breaks, in order to finish it in two years.
As anyone can imagine, completing graduate school as a mother is challenging. I finished my bachelors degree when I was pregnant with my third child and it was tough then. But now, as a mother of seven… “difficult” took on new meaning. And beyond that, there is the fact that grad-school as a solo-parent mother of seven— without the support of a spouse— is excruciating. And finally, if you can imagine: trying to do this as a solo-parent, mother of seven, with the antagonistic and hostile presence of an ex-spouse… while representing yourself in legal battles… now there is something beyond words. Truly. I feel like all the superlatives I know are feeble here.
So here I am, resheathing my sword and wiping my brow and noting the new letters behind my name with a peculiar sort of detachment. It wasn’t some act of heroism or inspiring grit that got me here. God knows I cried and resisted and fumbled my way through the whole thing. But it was just the next, right thing to do. Some questions answered:
Was the schoolwork hard? No. It was time consuming to a large degree, given the demands on my life. But I’ve always had more of an aptitude for academics than I have for real-world skills. Finding time and focus was the challenge.
Do you like being a counselor? “Like” is not the right word at all. I would “like” to get paid to read books and tell other people what books to read. I would “like” to listen to cello music and run in the rain and ride horses for a living. But “like” being a counselor? It’s not the right question to ask. I needed a way to provide for seven children. Period. That I am able to monetize something for which I have an aptitude and in which I can use my gifts is wonderful. I find doing therapy to be very meaningful. And right. After the first couple months were spent resolving my imposter syndrome, I found the clinical portion of what I was learning to be intuitive and fulfilling. The feedback received from my clients was extremely affirming. I know that there remains much to learn that will only come with more time and experience in the field, but I also know that I brought with me a wealth of real-world experience into this role. The challenges I have faced are all across the spectrum and it’s been a marvelous thing to allow that to shape me as a counselor and inform some of the work I do. What has been unexpected is the tremendous emotional toll that comes with being a therapist. The physical and mental exhaustion I feel at the end of a day of sessions dwarves any level of exertion I’ve ever previously known. In counseling, I offer the gift of my whole mind, heart and experience to others in a completely one-way relationship. And even if this is meaningful and fulfilling, it does have a real cost.
What has been the most difficult thing about these grad school years? There are many things.
- Peeling the arms of a toddler boy and a toddler girl from around my neck as they cry and scream for me not to leave them with a babysitter. Feeling awful and angry and guilty all at once.
- Crying on my way to work and trying to decide if explaining that my trainwreck of a face was due to “allergies” would be an acceptable lie to tell.
- Cancelling a full day of clients to sit in a courthouse trying to get my ex-husband to help pay for childcare costs.
- Cancelling on clients because my childcare fell through.
- Cancelling on clients because a child of mine was sick.
- Having to defend myself against false allegations of child abuse as a shameful attempt is being made to try and take my children away from me.
- Being fairly out of touch on the schoolwork struggles my children are experiencing because of the lack of time to invest in their work.
- Having to miss children’s extracurricular events because I had class.
- Having to spend my family’s rare moments of downtime with my nose in my computer or in a textbook.
- Having to find energy to be a present mother to seven children, after a full day of listening to the trauma and drama of many other people all day long.
One of the interesting things that’s come from all this is the unlearning I’ve had to do—untangling all the maladaptive thinking patterns I’ve had and reengaging difficult situations I experienced with newer, more complete understandings. Listening more and better, with my ears, eyes and heart. Now, as one who has gone through many forms of abuse, grief, and trauma, both publicly and privately, I feel like I’m finally becoming fully human. Here, at age 38, and it feels like I’m just now beginning in many ways. When you add in the formal training on science and psychology… now there is something pretty staggering! How I view others has changed. How I view myself has changed. How I engage my children, my loved ones and my spirituality has changed. I feel a remarkable amount of freedom in having a pretty sober sense of awareness. I feel both self-possessed and confident in the very acknowledgement of being a work in progress!
What is the most important thing you’ve learned? That I am the author of my own story. That feelings won’t last forever. That it takes courage to be self-aware. That being humble is liberating. And that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Viktor Frankl).
What’s next for you? I am unsure. I am trying to move to be closer to my family of origin but there may be some difficult situations (COVID-19) and people (singular) that complicate this matter. As soon as I get my transcript, I’ll send in my application to the Department of Health to begin practicing with an Associate’s license. I’ve been applying for jobs and I have an offer and other leads… but for now, I have a few weeks of “not-knowingness” where I’m going to surrender all things to my good and loving Father, curl up with some fiction and tea, and play some board games with my children.
I have mastered survival mode. Now it is time to live…
One of my favorite take-aways from the many months I spent in the throes of real trauma was experiencing a forceful reorientation of my senses. When it’s pitch black outside and you’re scratching at rock bottom, your eyes become sensitized to any glimmer of light. This takes the form of having a new appreciation for things as basic as… hot water. A warm bed. An exquisite slice of cheese. The kind of belly laugh with a friend that brings you to tears. Etc. For those of us who are “slow of heart,” it takes a full stripping down in order to recognize the goodness in our lives.
I’m reminded of this with the “stay at home” order in the face of a universal pandemic. I’ve grown sloppy in my appreciation and neglected the journal I keep specifically for recording notes of gratitude. Well, in order to not go insane and to keep any pent-up anxiety at bay, I’ve been forcing myself to reframe— to take things down a notch: “Ellie: You don’t need a whole weekend of solitude in order to feel restored. Savor the 5-10 minutes alone on your front porch. You don’t need fresh meat served at every dinner; you know your way around lentils if needs be. (Thank God you have a tiny extra fridge/freezer!) Oh, and Ellie? You don’t need to run away to Ruby Beach to feel free and alive. You can walk around the block and note the robins plucking at worms and the trees starting to bud their spring blossoms. Reorient, woman. Get back to the basics.” We are still free and still healthy. The golden foundation! I have an abundance of tea and coffee in my pantry. Precious stones! A chance to organize a cupboard. Fine linen! And there are moments of connection and bonding (intermingled with typical squabbling and restlessness, of course) between my children and me that wouldn’t have otherwise happened if we were all running to and fro, per usual. Pearls of great price! This time right now… ?! This staying at home is not a cross I want to squander. Truly it’s one I kiss and bless— its lessons are many and the perspective offered, invaluable.
I never want to be someone who has a high baseline for happiness. I want to maintain joy at a very low, attainable threshold, like a toddler who is enraptured by ants scurrying on the sidewalk. I can’t remember the last time I was bored (thank God my curiosity and appetite for learning has kept me from feeling idle); but I do recognize that I have a tendency to develop very particular preferences that are tempting to call “needs.” And I reject this. Not too long ago, I would’ve paid good money to be able to have an hour alone each week; I was starved for time to be restored in the busy mothering life. Now, I yawn that I “need” a full 3 days of silence?! Nonsense. That’s a luxury that I’ve grown accustomed to. (I mean… a wonderful luxury, don’t get me wrong, but not a true need in order to feel whole.) I can make do on less. And this sort of paring down can happen in nearly every domain of my life; I don’t need my beloved forest of moss-covered, grandfather trees to be “happy”: I can pay attention to the succulent above my sink. And so on…
To live the fullest life one can, it’s important to be able to delight in simple things. And a season of social and practical deprivation offers an extraordinary opportunity to reset our thresholds.
So many writers seem to publish articles when they have a tidy moral lesson to share. Or perhaps they have a new spiritual insight born from the foibles of everyday living. Then there are those who have to contrive together passionate words or feigned offenses in order to meet a contracted deadline. And that’s fine for some I suppose. But the former groups are ones that leave me dry if the purpose of writing is supposed to have as its end, something uplifting or at least satisfying to impart to readers.
I reject this as my end. There are hundreds of bits of writing advice out there— one helping to form the title of this blog in “Writing is simple; you just sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (Attributed to many). And that’s always guided me. Further, there is this little gem from a man with whom I profoundly disagree but find myself selectively quoting time and again: “Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms does not want to be read but to be learned by heart.” —Nietzsche
And isn’t that yummy?! Yet it’s still incomplete. I don’t write for the goal of being understood by others as my end either. There is something nearly impersonal about opening your veins. The one who donates blood knows that his gift will be utilized by someone somewhere. He is not concerned about being understood as a person. While I don’t approach writing in quite so sterile a manner, I do recognize that even as I “write hard and clear about what hurts” (Hemingway), it doesn’t really feel to be much about me. It simply feels as something I must do. Sometimes it’s public, more is private, but rarely am I left with hard conclusions that I would like to be understood about me or about life. I usually have more questions than anything else.
Maybe someday, I’ll write my whole story; it’s interesting if nothing else. And maybe someday I’ll manage to write something profound and brilliant, offering new insights into this human journey. Today, I only offer these anemic statements:
- My life is really challenging right now.
- The stress can be crippling.
- I keep a brave face for the most part, and say “Fine” when asked how I’m doing. (Folks tire of reality.)
- But I do cry readily and often to a select few.
- I beg God to take this cross from me.
- I steel my nerves for battles that I have to face on many domains right now.
- I am very disorganized because my executive functioning skills (normally my strength!) are suffering from me simply putting out fires day in and day out in the frenetic pace of life I live right now. This has been extraordinarily trying; I miss order… survival gets old.
- I make inappropriate jokes about stabbing and death in a light, cavalier way that sometimes gets me concerned looks from others. Don’t be alarmed, it’s just me.
- Representing yourself in court is exhausting.
- Lawyers can be rogues.
- Grad school is exhausting.
- Busy work assignments are infuriating.
- Seven children is exhausting.
- And I wish I could love them better and be more present now. But I am getting a life together to better love them and be more present to them in the long term. My absence and inattention and constant childcare crises are for them.
- I have a number of other unstated issues fighting for mental real estate in my brain. [Insert something here about the art of balancing authenticity with discretion.]
- My social life looks like this: ignoring or forgetting about a lot of texts, making some plans with people but cancelling more often than not… and just hoping there’ll be a few understanding friends left over at the end of this season.
- I love and find meaning in what I do as a counselor.
- I see a therapist. All therapists should see a therapist.
- But I miss my kids. I miss being a homeschooling mom. I miss being consumed by picture books. I miss the slower pace of life.
- Still,I kiss the floor each morning and whisper Serviam.
And see! Right here I feel a strange obligation to try and wrap this up with some positive or at least satisfying phrases. Can I let just a string of difficult bullet points sit there without feeling the need to boost my reader’s spirits?
Well, yes. I can. Sure, “God is good all the time.” And “This too shall pass.” Blah, blah, blah. Make no mistake— I know all about silver linings. I even know about silver floodings! They’re wonderful.
But today… today, that’s not what I’m writing about. Today, I don’t have answers, lessons, moralizing or insight to offer at this juncture.
Just a wee bit of hemoglobin on your screen.
Instinct. Now here’s the thing! “Trust your instinct!” “Listen to your gut!” (And please don’t confuse this with the “Follow your heart” slogan because that is dangerous and misleading…) Seems like a really big deal these days to talk about trusting our instinct. And this is true on a lot of levels. The intestines of our 6th sense are really, really intelligent! Most intuitive people have certain, unnameable and unexplainable alarm bells that ring at certain times, in certain places, or with certain people. Instinct matters. Pay attention.
But don’t crown it king.
I listen to my instinct. I trust it. I pay attention. I believe it has saved me from dangerous situations/people. I have also suffered the consequences that come when I choose to ignore or dismiss my instinct, tightly blindfolding it and shoving it in a dark closet… following my heart instead or listening exclusively to my head that—if left to its own devices— is quite skilled at rationalizing away the reality that is right in front of me. And that’s all kinds of bad news. Indeed, coming off the repercussions of ignoring my instinct has left me somewhat skittish now. I’m easily alarmed when I get the first hints of Instinct trying to chime in on my life now. And I don’t want to be a person who is easily spooked; I want to be measured and thoughtful and deliberate in action. So, this has taken me some time to reorder, take Instinct out of the closet, help it get adjusted to the light of day, and figure out where it should live. This is a work in progress.
But I do think I’ve started to come to a really excellent understanding of its proper place in my life now. Today, Instinct acts its part in an organization that is not unlike the triumvirate of authority in my spiritual life—Tradition. Bible. Papacy. Or if you are among the three secular readers here who prefer more sterile analogies, we can use the branches of government: Executive. Legislative. Judicial. By this I mean that Instinct doesn’t get to wear a crown and dictate actions the way it seems a lot of new-age pop psychology articles want it to. It’s part of the team that includes the Head and the Heart. As with my faith authority… it’s part of—but not conflicting with— the personal guide that makes up the truth of who I am. As with the government, it serves as a power check to both the Head and the Heart but can not effectively exist independent of either of them.
No; Instinct is what contributes to making one a healthy Skeptic. I’m not talking about a cynic, mind you. No one loves the company of a cynic. His wry commentary on the banalities of life are enough to bore anyone who takes seriously the mandate to live. But I’m also not talking about the kind of skeptic that enjoys the popularity of a sort of agnostic skepticism that is demonstrated so often in today’s postchristian culture. It’s convenient and interesting and ‘cool’ to walk along the fence and doubt this and question that. Raise your eyebrows here and look askance there… “trusting your gut” so that one never moves decisively. But walking along a fence in perpetuity is no life worth living.
There is a way to do Skepticism rightly. Rightly done, skepticism should have a reasonable half-life… never maturing to old age. It must be poked and prodded and wrestled with— and then be put to rest. This doesn’t mean we get to have all the answers in life. Often we are left with more mysteries! But it does mean that we aren’t content to crown ourselves rational kings and queens, too important to come down off of the fence, one way or the other. Putting instinct in its proper place, skepticism in its proper place, requires conviction and humility. To live fully and authentically, you are required to do the hard work of finding the answers. Of playing your instincts out… seeing how they fit with your head and heart. Test the evidence of your thinking. Test the veracity of your heart. And then run everything through a ‘gut check’ and act with conviction, not necessarily with expediency or comfortability.
This was an extremely productive year of reading. Somehow, even with a full load of classes and working, I was able to read more than I ever have before. This is for three reasons: 1) Giving in to the Audible way of life. I had to do a lot of commuting with my internship and this bought a lot of ‘reading’ time! 2) The silver lining of a messy divorce and convoluted parenting plan is that I have time to nurture my introverted self that I’ve never had before. I used to read while nursing babies or late at night and not too much in between. Now, I can sometimes manage to whittle away an entire Sunday afternoon in books if I want to! And 3) I am a reader. That means something. Reading is something you commit to if you love and value it. It means to sometimes choose books when you’d rather tune out to Netflix. It means making sure you own a purse large enough to stash a book inside (yes, this is a factor I consider when shopping) so that you pull your book out in waiting rooms or coffee shops rather than scrolling through your phone. It’s a lifestyle you choose to live if its important to you. And since my life has been made immeasurably better in nearly every way through reading, I doubled down on my commitment to that lifestyle this year.
In 2018, I began my commitment to reading three “hard books” a year. I’m adding in a 4th commitment to myself now and that is to RE-read a book each year. Revisited books are like old friends and new treasures can be mined from these old haunts just by virtue of the evolving perspective that time and age buys you. While I managed to read over 30 titles (!), I want to highlight here just 12 that were especially meaningful for me to read.
The Lord of the Rings. It had been nearly 20 years since I last read these books. And this is the perfect example of old books offering brand new meaning upon revisit. This will not be the last time I read all about my favorite characters. LoTR being my favorite work of fiction is probably the most cliché and nerdy thing about me. I’ll wear that crown. 🙂
12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. I resisted this man until I could no longer. He was getting too famous. Everyone was talking about him. My natural (and unreasonable) aversion to popular things/people didn’t WANT to love him. But now, I’m a total groupie. In a world where people can not seem to talk straight about what matters, Peterson is a breath of fresh air. He speaks my language in an interdisciplinary way— weaving together science, mythology, psychology, spirituality etc. I love his videos, his books, his quotes, all of it. I might get a tattoo of his face on my bicep. I mean… heavy emphasis on the “might”, but it’s at least fun to have my pride take a hit as I join the fan club. 🙂
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell. I have loved every word that has spilled from this man’s hands ever since I began following his syndicated column in the local newspaper as a teenager. He is extraordinarily dispassionate and sensible about hot-topics! This book was a mental game changer for me as I finally began to understand something about markets and regulations and economic principles. I’m convinced that if every politician read this book, and cared, our world would be a much better place. Highly recommended.
The Inner Search by Dom Hubert Van Zeller. So… one of my favorite things about being Catholic is the total heterogeneity of our people and of our expressions of faith that exist under the same theological umbrella. There is a saint that resonates with some people and not others, same with spiritual writers. Van Zeller is one of my people. I don’t think he’s for everyone. But he is for me. And I’ve eaten up every little morsel I’ve gotten from him. In the process of cleaning up and purging our parish library, I was able to gather a number of old Van Zeller books that have enriched my spirituality so much.
Silence by Shusaku Endo. One of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. It was one of the best because it left me so thoughtful! I still can’t wrap my mind around it. This book challenged so many things that I had taken for granted regarding faith and life and martyrdom and shame and redemption, etc. There is some controversy about the “message” this supposedly gives… but ultimately I think it’s a powerful book that ought to leave all of us breathless at the mystery of our finite understanding of life. In a similar vein, incidentally, the book The Power and the Glory was another one I read this year that not only was delicious writing, but made me extremely thoughtful…
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brené Brown. I’m a big fan of this author as the type of work she’s spent her career researching tends to resonate deeply with me: these are the concepts of shame and self-worth. This book was very useful for me both personally and professionally to really identify what matters and who matters and how to show up when needed. I also read and enjoyed her title Rising Strong this year as well!
Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. I can’t remember what brought this book onto my radar; it wasn’t a planned read (I generally have an intentional reading list but allow spaces for serendipitous books) and I’m not particularly in a place of negotiation in any domain of my life at present. But I found the book to be a fascinating study of human behavior, empathy, and power. Really interesting!
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry. This was an extraordinary book. Sure, it’s ideal for people in the mental health professions to read, but there were so many profound takeaways I learned about attachment theories, love, grief, and pathologies. This book has impacted me greatly both as a mother and an upcoming clinician. Trauma is something most people bring into adulthood in one form or another and understanding it could do wonders for improving the quality of life for everyone.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I used to want to be a bioethicist. Then I realized that those jobs aren’t particularly easy to find on Craigslist or with the background and dollars I brought to my education. Suffice it to say, I find ethics riveting. And end of life issues intriguing. This book was beautifully written and extremely thought provoking. It left me, like Silence, marveling at the mysteries of life and bowing in humility with the realization that there are more questions than answers.
Farewell to Arms. I didn’t get to as much fiction as I would’ve liked to this year (Again. True to form.) but I’ve spent so much time swooning over Hemingway quotes about life, love and WRITING that I thought it about time to actually read one of his novels. What makes this one breach the Top 12 was the unique style of Hemingway’s writing for one thing, and the personal meaning I found in spending my time getting to know another writer that I’ve long respected while reading this novel.
The Private Life: Our Everyday Self in an Age of Intrusion by Josh Cohen. Full disclosure, I’m not finished with this one yet but it has all the makings of things that fascinate me: human behavior, grappling with social media and connection/vulnerability, self awareness, perceptions, etc. “The ego is not master in its own house…” sort of stuff. So anyway, I’m just assuming that whether I end up liking it or not, this book will add to my storehouse of meaning on topics that matter to me a lot.
The Day is Now Far Spent by Cardinal Sarah. Another one of ‘my people’… I’m taking my time with this book as part of my spiritual reading. This is the kind of book where I keep a pencil nearby so parts can be underlined and rewritten in my commonplace book to become engraved upon my memory forever. I fell in love with Sarah in his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (one of the best spiritual books I’ve ever read in my life) and this one is the third in the series… I’ve yet to read the first one but you can be sure I will…
I don’t have 2020 all mapped out yet but I do know that I will be rereading a beloved book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I’m determined to start in on The Gulag Archipelago since I bought some gorgeous early editions this year on eBay. This might take me the entire year or more to read through all three volumes but I know it will be worth it…
15 years ago, I waddled with a heavily pregnant body around the corner of my little rental house, past a ditch with a small, crawdad-filled stream, past the scent of tamales and Suavitel laundry soap hanging in the air, and past trees with initials carved into them from starry-eyed teenagers. I was bringing my first-born toddler son, faithfully each week to the story hour at the little library closest to us. It’s there that we discovered the likes of Eric Carle, Jan Brett… finger rhymes and overdue fines. We might’ve packed a lunch and walked a little further to the sunny Californian seashore to enjoy sandy, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and saltwater soaked shoes, before returning home for naptime. He was my world. We did stories, park days, mommy groups, daily Mass… and we did Joy.
Life orbiting around one young child at the epicenter is a marvelously unique and precious time in a woman’s mothering career.
I am here again in the very same and entirely different way. Six of the seven children are all in a place that They call school, where an education is promised even if Real Life must be sacrificed. There are some things I can not control. And my youngest 3-year-old boy will also begin pre-school tomorrow. Just twice a week for what amounts to only 8 out of 168 hours in a week. He may as well have been conscripted into a foreign army by the way my heart is hemorrhaging for this separation. I never wanted this. I am a mother ripe with jealousy for those given the privilege of educating my own children now. But I digress…
All mothers taste a piece of this on some level. And all homeschooling mothers who resort to brick-and-mortar solutions know the pain more than most. We’ve known Real Life and have steeped our children in the riches of a homegrown education. But circumstances change things, slightly for some and drastically for others. And by loosening the fists that protects our ideals, we open our palms to a surrender that we never wanted, and may even adamantly object to. But such is life. Such is Calvary.
For now, there will be some days when it is just him and me. Today, we ran errands. We folded laundry. We read stories. He played with blocks and cars while Mama answered emails, paid some bills, wrote to professors, read some textbooks, scheduled appointments, and scratched her temples the way she does when she’s overwhelmed. We ate leftover tacos for lunch and giggled at the sudden rain that came through the sunroof of the car. He told me he loves me “bigger than the world”. And it was such a very different beginning to a one-on-one relationship with this child. My very last, first time. He was not exactly the epicenter of my life that has astounding demands and pressures now. But, like my firstborn… we still did Joy.
What gives the most extraordinary peace is knowing that the most beautiful thing in the world once came from a place called Calvary if I’m not mistaken. And though on an infinitely smaller level, I am not the first Woman who has ever had to give up her own flesh and blood…
* Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Soul Gardening Journal*
Some years ago, a friend told me that she had given up her opinion for Lent. That’s it: her opinion. I laughed at the simple absurdity of it at the time, but it didn’t take but a few minutes for it to really hit me how profoundly difficult that must’ve been. To refrain from offering one’s thoughts on Facebook articles. To not chime in with one’s two cents at dinner parties. To defer to another’s preference on whether to get take-out Chinese or Mexican food. And on. I don’t know about all of you, but opinions buzz around in my mind like fruit flies on a spotty banana. I used to think that not offering my opinion (solicited or not) would make me a terribly boring person.
But life has a way of broadening my perspective and enough stupid things have come out of my mouth by now that I realize more and more how much wisdom and solace there is in simply remaining silent. Secondly, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve also realized that I don’t need to jump into every conversation that I know a fair bit about. Unless directly asked, I no longer go on and on to people about which baby carrier is The Best one or which homeschooling curriculum I liked the most. Or even about liturgical discussions or faith debates I see happening. Do I have things to say? Sure. Ought I say them? Usually…? No.
However, just as I begin to appreciate the value of keeping quiet on things more often than not, humbling myself enough to recognize that I don’t have all the answers for all the people at all the time (Sheesh, what a burden that would be!), I spent a lot of time with someone who simply had no opinion. And that changed me.
I know this sounds strange, because I was suspicious at first too. “What do you mean you don’t care if people come over or not? If we grill chicken or have soup for dinner? Whether you go to this party or not?” As someone whose natural temperament has strong opinions on nearly everything, I didn’t understand. Was this her pious way of deferring to others just to be agreeable? Of being a martyr by dying to her own preferences? I tried to fish around a lot, asking if she was SURE, if she really meant that she didn’t have an opinion. And more often than not, she was. It wasn’t just a holy gimmick! This was unreal to me. After reflecting for some time on this and when I pressed to understand, she explained that she has trained herself to deliberately not have an opinion on things deemed to be smaller matters in her mind. The goal wasn’t to be a floppy, thin doormat. The goal was to save up her emotional energy for the things that were really important to her: “It’s just too much work to care about everything.”
Living an authentic Christian life requires fighting a lot of battles. It requires men and women to stand their ground in forming strong convictions on deciding what kind of spiritual, educational, medical and social lives they want for their children. In general, what kind of lifestyle they want in their family. By not investing her thoughts and energy into trivial things, my friend’s moral compass was made of cast iron. She’s as easy going and accommodating as can be on what’s for lunch or where to go on vacation. But she turns into a mother bear you don’t want to meet if you cross her on something important. Adding wonder to all this, my friend also happens to have a heart for ministering to others that is practically unparalleled.
From her and my friend of Lenten silence (even if not giving an opinion comes with a wry, Cheshire cat smile), I’ve learned something about economizing emotions. One of the beautiful side effects of this came unexpected to me. Not only does being selective about where to put your energy and attention have extraordinary mental health benefits, but it offers something essential to others in our lives as well. By virtue of our baptism, we are mandated to respond to the call to evangelize others. Evangelization is not optional. For most of us, this is accomplished by simply living an authentic lifestyle rich in the works of mercy, rather than serving foreign missions. And do you know what the primary thing is that people in today’s post-Christian world are starving for, after genuine love?! Peace. We are a culture drowning in anxiety and chaos and arguments and noise. God can not be heard, seen or encountered in this climate. So few people anymore have the requisite calm, collected mental state that is necessary to minister to the emotional needs of others. Increasingly, so many of us are busy investing our emotional energy in everything else under the sun. By practicing a healthy economy of emotion… by surrendering large parts of our opinion, we free up space in our minds for others. If we are so busy putting our energy into little things, trivial things, we have no room at the inn of our hearts for others. We don’t have to care about everything. We can fulfill our essential duties of evangelization by caring primarily for others, and freeing up some space in our hearts to make a resting place for them. Then, in that still, small space, Jesus Christ can be found.
In a voice that carried all the way across the vestibule after Mass, the woman confronted me: “Did you go back to your husband yet?” And I had a brief storm of shame-filled fight, flight or freeze where my vision threatened to go black and my heart rate went up. But I found myself just smiling and saying with what I hope was enough grace to mask the interior tempest: “That’s not a choice for me to make.” This invited the upbeat suggestion to “Keep on praying!” (Me politely: “Yes, I won’t stop doing that.”)
Then I bolted.
My mind raced with anger and indignation for another 90 seconds while I got in my car. She has no idea … I rehearsed at least 3 other responses in my head that I wished I could go back and say: Things like “You know, unsolicited solutions are really unhelpful when you’ve never bothered to understand the problem.” And well… ahem, other responses.
But at the end of it, I see this encounter as a blessing. It’s a reminder of the freedom I have. See, because my marriage fallout was so… public, there is much that I can’t control, including others’ perceptions. So, people are left to form their own conclusions. Despite claiming frequently that “It’s none of my business what other people think of me…” my heart isn’t always as quick as my reason. My pride took some painful blows in its early quest for exoneration. I wanted people to just know The Truth,™ and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstood and that everyone knew I fought as hard as I possibly could to keep my marriage together and never aimed for its end. But when the fire alarms of life are going off left and right and everything around you is crumbling, there’s simply not enough time or energy to set up a full-blown PR campaign for justice.
I have to surrender my image; thankfully, I do so willingly now. I have had to surrender many things along with my children, homeschooling, my home, my financial security and my social place. Interestingly, while some of these are griefs beyond words, the combined sum of these losses results in a positive. Flannery O’Connor said in a letter to a friend once: “We are all rather blessed in our deprivations if we let ourselves be, I suppose.”
One gift that has been given to me in this box of darkness is the freedom I have in knowing who I am and what I’m about. And when so much of your life gets stripped away, it’s like extracting a diamond from rocks: nothing is more precious and life-giving than knowing the origin of your dignity. It’s not from strangers making insensitive comments. It’s not from those who might say that you’re an irresponsible, cruel or unstable woman. Nor is it from those who might think you’re just a pious, veiled saint who can do no wrong. I reject all these. My dignity is from God alone, who knows every square inch of this blessed and flawed body and soul and loves me profoundly anyway. When you let go of allowing other people to define you (whether you’ve been forced to or can master yourself enough to), you are free to be little and to love your foolishness and to smile at the well-meaning but audacious voice that embarrassed you for a brief minute. Public scandals can be powerful teachers. And I am grateful to be an eager, imperfect, B- student.