The Joy Found in Dying

Okay, I admit the title I chose for this post may be a bit too dramatic. In the interest of full disclosure, (although I am currently overdue for my bi-annual mammogram) to the best of my knowledge I am not at this exact moment physically dying and truly I cannot speak as to whether or not I will find joy when that process in my life is ongoing or imminent. The dying in which I find joy today is the death of perfectionism, the death of my best laid plans, the death of my high standards for others, the death of my fierce and stubborn ego. This process is ongoing, obviously, because on many days, I am still a perfectionist, think my plans are the best, have impossibly high standards that no one can meet and let my fierce and stubborn ego try to lead the way. But every so often come moments or hours or even days when I encounter a surrender within myself to the One who created all things. In those times a sense of deep joy rises up within me and a sense of refreshing relief washes over me like a rushing stream of fresh cool water on a hot and oppressive summer day.

One of the best gifts I ever gave my daughter is one that keeps on giving to her every day (bonus-it gives to both me and my husband too). Last October on her 18th birthday we signed up for the monthly subscription to Spotify and made it a family subscription, so our little trinity could enjoy our vastly different tastes in music and experience sweet family harmony. Randomly I will remember an artist or album I loved in my youth or young married days, (before the lost years when kid tunes suddenly dominated like 10 years worth of music time while driving in my car) and when I search for it, without fail I get my instant fix. The other day I was riding my bike along the river and just such a random artist popped into my head, Lauryn Hill. Remember her from Sister Act 2? Remember her singing Joyful, Joyful or the 30 second scene of her way-too-short rendition of His Eye is on the SparrowAnyway, I had a hankering to listen to her voice. I cued up the playlist Lauryn Hill-Miseducation and heard a song that days later, still will not leave me.

It amazes me how God makes His presence known to me most often in ordinary ways and through ordinary means-so ordinary that I probably miss Him a lot. But I decided to hop off the bike, sit on the edge of the river by the dam and listen to the words of a song I had never heard before. To Zion which is on her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a gospel inspired mom anthem (written about her firstborn son, Zion) featuring Carlos Santana on the guitar. It is powerful, filled with the naked and raw emotion of a mother’s experience of welcoming new life into her world.

Now the joy of my world is in Zion…

I’ve never been in love like this before…

And I thank you for choosing me

To come through unto life to be

A beautiful reflection of his grace

For I know that a gift so great

Is only one God could create

And I’m reminded every time I see your face

That the joy of my world is in Zion

Lauryn Hill

This song and its words have been haunting me for days because God knew I needed to be reminded of the gift so great that is mine in my daughter Sadie. She is my firstborn, my only and the greatest catalyst for God to put to death in me the things that keep me from being who He made me to be.

Almost from her beginning it was clear that she was not going to fit into any of the boxes prescribed by the orderly, polite society to which I aspired to be a most perfect citizen. And eighteen years later, unabashedly she continues to refuse to be boxed. While I still wrestle with the chains of being pleasing and apologetic to all in my world—friend, foe or stranger—she lives unapologetically, fearlessly living her truth, free from the need to please others at all costs to the self.

Her high school graduation was at the end of May, but she didn’t walk with her class. Despite weeks of me begging, bribing and cajoling for her to just pass the class she needed so we could be done with this school thing, true to form, she did things her way. No box for her. A couple of weeks earlier, in a moment of connectedness, she shared with me her sadness over the impending consequence of another round of summer school, but then reframed the situation by naming her truth out loud. “Mom, I am so proud of myself. I never thought I would actually graduate this year. I assumed I would have dropped out of high school by now or that I’d end up being a Super Senior (fifth year senior). But the reality is I will graduate this year, just a little bit late.” 

Sitting as the center of attention at her last IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting of her high school career, surrounded by her teachers, her case manager, the school psychologist and her parents, she listened as they pointed out all of the positives they see in her character—her creativity, her great personality, the ways she understands the material unlike other students, her educated and informed perspective shared freely in class, her high level of intelligence. Yet they also expressed that they were confounded by her grades, because she tests high, but her grades don’t reflect this because she doesn’t turn in much homework. In the midst of all of these adults encouraging her to change her ways so she can just graduate, once again she refused to be put into the box we all want to squeeze her into. Instead courageously she declared aloud “I will try my best, but the school system wasn’t made for people like me. It isn’t set up in a way that encourages people with brains like mine to succeed with ease. It’s made for people with brains that society deems “normal”. To be honest, society in general isn’t made for people like me.” NEVER would I have been so brave at 18. And thirty one years later, on the verge of 50, still I am not so sure I could be.

Our entire journey has kind of been like this—me trying to keep together a neat and clean and perfect life, struggling to stay in our lane and keeping up the status quo. Her life, as God so perfectly created her, challenges my efforts every step of the way. And THIS is exactly one of the reasons I have so much joy today. I wonder who would I be today without her beautiful life confronting the worst parts of myself? Who would I be if I didn’t have reason to find my voice to stand up for a child who wasn’t getting the support she needed to succeed in school? Who would I be if I hadn’t walked with her through the perils of an anxiety disorder and witness its ability to render her completely unable to function? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to be flexible when her overly sensitive sense of touch deemed it necessary to try on 10 different outfits before finding one she could tolerate for a day of school, making her late time and again? Who would I be if I didn’t learn to accept that the only way she could sit through an hour of church was to spend most of the time drawing intricate mehndi designs on her hands with a Sharpie? Who would I be if I didn’t aspire to unconditionally love the girl God created her to be–fearfully and wonderfully made–yet so different from me, so different from many? Insufferable, intolerant, unkind, judgmental–that is who I would mostly be if it weren’t for her.

Watching my child suffer all these years from the ever present effects of living in a square peg world as a person with inattentive type ADHD, an anxiety disorder and a sensory processing disorder has also changed me profoundly. It probably didn’t make it any easier for her that we live as a middle class family in a predominantly white and affluent suburban Chicago community and she attended a private elementary school focused on superb academic performance. And yet, somewhere deep in my heart, I do trust that God plants us where we are meant to be in order that we might grow into who we are created to be. Unfolding before me every year of her life are glimpses of the soul He created. These glimpses—they surprise me and catch me off guard; they are intertwined with the less inspiring angst and messiness of teenage development. Oh but when I take notice of them, they humble me and send me to my knees in thanks for what He is forming within her. They restore hope and remind me that I am not the one in control, but only a supportive companion on the way. The constant struggle to hold her head above the water has smoothed her hard edges and cracked open her big heart to the suffering of others. It has strengthened her character and made her a fierce advocate for the plight of the marginalized.

It seems that every year she has invited me deeper into an entirely different relationship with those living on the periphery of life—and I have to admit that I haven’t always been a willing participant. Without any hesitation, she invites into our little home the souls who others might consider misfits, but she calls them friends. The outcasts, the traumatized, the bullied, the mentally unhealthy, the cutters, the motherless, the homeless, the rejected, the abandoned. She has brought them all home to shelter them and allow them to be welcomed, loved, accepted, fed and more than a couple of times, she has given up her bed so they could sleep in it for the night. One by one, these children she has brought to my door have become priceless gifts of life to me. Most look a lot like her—uniquely beautiful, but easily cast aside for not fitting into the confines of polite society. One by one their souls have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. One by one they have smoothed out my hard edges and cracked open my heart. They have strengthened my character and made me a fierce co-advocate for the plight of the marginalized alongside my daughter. They have halted my march in the lane of the status quo where I sought to find a sense of security and control. Together, she and her friends have propelled me into unknown terrain where I have encountered Christ more intimately than ever before.

Graduation Day found me beside her, up in the nosebleed section of the bleachers in her school gym. She asked me to go with her to watch her classmates walk, so that she could support them. I think it was way more difficult for her to be there than she had anticipated, but she stayed. One after one, students were called up to give speeches because they had achieved exemplary academic success. Their future plans and scholarships were announced. In his introductions, the principal speculated what incredible lives these students will most certainly lead. Through some tears, she continued to snap photos and cheer loudly for her fellow students. Without thought for herself, she showed up. Such a glimpse into this magnificence found in her young soul makes me way more proud of her than if she had passed that damn English class and walked across the stage to receive her diploma with the rest of the Class of 2019.

As I sit here at the kitchen table typing this post, I continue to grapple with this slow and painful process of dying. She is running a bit behind in her morning routine and summer school starts in 30 minutes. She is on week three of three with only four more days left. If she passes the class, she will receive her diploma in the mail come August. Waging war within me is the rising anxiety that she will be late today and the strict rules about attendance flash into my conscience and fuel my repeated reminders that I excitedly shout in the direction of her room. “Sadieremember only one excused absence is allowed for the entire session and tardies add up to an absence. Come on! Hurry up!!” God knows I just want her to be done with this leg of the journey. I want the finish line to be behind us.

At this exact moment, the One who created her, He who is all patient and has a great sense of humor, He crashes through to get my attention. My computer dings to alert me to a new email—it is one to which I subscribe daily. The subject title briefly flashes in the corner of my screen “Conscious Parenting—Giving Ourselves”. Seriously God!? I click the link and read:

Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . .

Maybe, as our hearts overflow, we find that love can, naturally of its own accord, extend wider, until it encompasses caring for all things, and connection to everything—until our love becomes Love itself…”

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Today’s take away…surrender; let go; trust; love freely; allow Me to continue to stretch you into an incarnation of My love in this messy, chaotic world that is in need of being embraced as it is. For it is in dying that you will be born to eternal life.

Sadie, thank you for choosing me to come through unto life to be. You are a beautiful reflection of His grace. For I know that a gift so great is only one that God could create. And I’m reminded every time I see your face that the joy of my world is in you.

Photo credit: Sadie by Abby Hentz

A Little Bit of Light Pushes Away a Lot of Darkness

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Every so often we are offered a deliberate opportunity to stop and reflect upon the power of one person who uses their light to make a big ol’ positive difference in our lives. Just this week that opportunity was mine when I was asked to write a letter of support for my daughter’s IEP Case Manager and math teacher, Derek Sutor, who has been nominated for Educator of the Year in our school district. Since this world can be short on tales of loveliness, I want to turn the spotlight on one such story about this man who has changed our lives forever. He has spent four years rooting for our girl, so now it’s our turn to root for him.

For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.”

Dear Educator of the Year Selection Committee,

Recently it came to my attention that Derek Sutor has been nominated by his colleagues at Geneva High School for the 2019 Educator of the Year. Not only did this news bring me great joy, because I can think of no other educator more deserving than he, but I also was thrilled to be asked to write a letter in support of his nomination. We address you today from the perspective as a mom and dad to one Geneva High School senior whose life trajectory became brighter and better the first day of her freshman year when she stepped into Algebra IA. It was her first team taught class and half of that dynamic teaching duo was Derek Sutor. We will forever be grateful for that moment because it is when she met this incredible man whose belief and whose championing of her cause has, without a doubt, had the single most positive impact on her life as a high school student.

As a mom, my journey as a neuro-typical person raising a child diagnosed very early on with Sensory Processing Disorder, inattentive type ADHD and an Anxiety Disorder has perhaps been the greatest challenge of my life. In the throes of the worst of days, it feels like riding on a roller coaster buckled in next to your child, but the ride remains on constant repeat. It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t let you or your child get out of the car when you’ve both had enough. It can be thrilling and terrifying and dizzying and anxiety producing and sometimes even sickening. And so much of the time you feel alone—as if the responsibility to help your child survive and function on this crazy ride rests solely on you. Sadly on these days, you don’t even allow the hope of ever seeing your child thrive enter into your consciousness-you just want to get through the day or the next hour or maybe even just the next minute.

Being a neuro-typical person raising a neuro-atypical child means your primary vocation as parent suddenly involves investing lots of time and money to provide occupational therapy and psychotherapy and testing and psychiatric services. It means educating yourself so that you might understand how to best love and support and motivate a child who experiences the world differently than you. And then in turn it means having to respectfully share your education with those who are like you were at one time-ignorant of the struggles faced by a child like yours. Sometimes it causes you to have to be fierce, even though you may be shy and people-pleasing by nature. It stretches you beyond your boundaries of comfort, but you go there because you love this child more than life itself and would do anything to relieve the suffering they experience being square in a world built for circles.

It was a scary decision to move our daughter from the small, private school in DuPage County where she attended K-8 to the large environment of Geneva High School. Though her experiences in elementary school included many ups and downs, by 8th grade we had developed a mostly positive rapport with the faculty and they were granting her some accommodations after years of negotiation. Moving to the public school system with the task ahead of working to establish an IEP was a bit overwhelming and we knew no one. However, we believed that she would have quickly drowned in a private high school environment and knew GHS was the best option.

You can imagine it was much to our surprise when we received a letter after the first month of freshman year informing us the Math Department had chosen our daughter as Student of the Month. We were delighted. At the recognition ceremony before school one morning we gathered, met Mr. Sutor and his co-teacher Mr. Showalter for the first time, and listened as they recounted the great qualities and efforts they observed in our daughter. This was one of the moments in which we found ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude that someone other than us was able to see the heart of our child and find the good within and to name it for her to hear.

Freshman year was full of testing and evaluations in the effort to establish an IEP. At the forefront of our efforts we found consistent support from Derek Sutor who had quickly become our daughter’s favorite teacher. He had a way of building up her confidence while also challenging her when she wasn’t performing to the best of her ability. To this day she still refers to him as her “Coach in the Classroom”. At the end of the year when it was concluded she would benefit from an IEP, Derek didn’t hesitate to express interest in becoming her case manager. This came as a complete relief because with Derek championing her cause, it felt as if we were no longer alone. We felt assured she had an advocate at school who not only possessed a keen understanding of how our daughter functioned, but who also had developed an effective way of motivating her to rise up to her potential.

As we continued our relationship with Derek in consecutive years, it became abundantly clear that for him, educating students and advocating for them isn’t merely a job, but his life’s mission. He has gone the extra mile time after time to do all that can be done to help our daughter not only survive high school, but to even have times in which she thrives. Derek has proven over and over his ability to see instinctively what many of us may never notice. During some particularly rough patches, our daughter could be observed in class sticking in her ear buds, pulling her hood up and over her face and tuning out. Most of us might experience this type of behavior as disrespectful and unacceptable. Instead, what Derek seemed to observe was a kid who was waging a great battle inside to fight off an encroaching panic attack. Not only did he recognize the truth of the situation, but together with her input, they figured out alternative ways in which she could cope in these moments. Behind the scenes, he confidentially communicated these methods to her other teachers, so they could all work as a team to help her. Because of Derek’s efforts, our daughter’s community at GHS has become bigger and she has found many teachers who have been enabled to understand her better and advocate for her in ways they are able. The environment she now encounters each day is one that is supportive, understanding and encouraging.

One of the things we find most inspiring about Derek is his ability to use the challenges he has faced in his life to model for his students how to become a successful and positive influence in the world, even when they encounter others who don’t understand them and may even mock them. He is honest with the hardships he has endured and uses his life as a shining example of one who has overcome through his choices and his hard work. This is also exemplified in the way he lives his life outside the classroom, juggling his role as a baseball coach, his roles as husband and father and even training and finishing the Chicago Marathon last fall. He is an incredible witness to his students and shows them who they can become, even with the incredible challenges they face.

As I reflect back on nearly four years at GHS, I realize that somewhere along the way, the crazy roller coaster ride began to slow down and one day it was as if it came to a complete stop. Offering us a hand to step off the ride was one very influential advocate who joined us in our efforts to help our child survive and function and he built a community of others to assist us in fulfilling our goals. There is an old proverb that says, “A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness”. One thing we know for certain is Derek Sutor has been and continues to be a bright light in the life of our family. He has worked ceaselessly to create with our daughter many experiences of success and his belief in her has given her the freedom to dream of who she can become, despite her differences and obstacles. To us, her parents, he has given us the immeasurable gift to hope for a bright future for our girl.

For every family who feels alone in their journey to love and support a neuro-atypical child, for every parent who feels the burden to educate those who misunderstand, for every shy, people-pleaser who is forced to be fierce, for every kid who doubts they will ever overcome their challenges, we wish the gift of an encounter with an educator like Derek Sutor. He is someone who exemplifies the truth that a little bit of light can push away a lot of darkness and forever change the trajectory of a child’s life.

For these reasons and countless others, we wholeheartedly recommend Derek Sutor as 2019 Educator of the Year.

Gratefully,

Jim and Lisa Gilligan

Parents of Sadie, Class of 2019

Wrestling with Redemptive Darkness

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For months on end it seems as if so much of my time has been spent wrestling with darkness. The darkness to which I refer isn’t the blackness brought about by the drab, cloudy winter days whose number seem to outweigh those when the sun makes an appearance. Rather the shadows of gloom I battle are delivered daily, courtesy of my child’s inability to fulfill the demands of the cookie-cutter world in which we live. The events of this seemingly unending experience of night are like a constant hum of crackling static emitting from a radio not quite tuned into a station. Some days they rise to a blaring crescendo as if someone turned up the volume on the radio as far as it can go, ripped off the handle and walked away with it. The vexing noise is deafening and agitating and I cannot make it stop.

On this journey of life as the mom of a kid diagnosed with ADHD, an Anxiety Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder, I am beginning to see a pattern emerge. It seems that when I let my guard down momentarily, because things appear to be better for a time, the return of nightfall is all the more dramatic. I would liken it to the experience of that dreaded annual event in autumn called Daylight Savings, when an hour of light is forcibly severed from our day. It is unwelcome, harsh and causes everything to seem off-kilter for a time.

Freshman year seemed to be going swimmingly well. A new school in a new town with a new schedule to learn could seem daunting to even the most adaptable of souls. But she embraced it, as the trendy phrase describes, “like a boss”. With no more school uniform to constrain her sense of style, she excelled at assembling outfits worthy of their own pin on Pinterest each day. She bounded out to the bus stop looking ever the part of cute adolescent girl, complete with headphones in her ears attached to her new iPhone. After school, I delighted in any shreds of details from her day she would divulge. These quick minutes she allowed me to steal were filled with the names of new friends made, stories of teachers whose creativity raised learning to a whole new level of fun never experienced before and so many possibilities that made the future of high school seem exciting. Just when I didn’t think it could get any better, word came from the new school’s powers-that-be in the form of an official letter. It informed me that my kiddo was voted September “Student of the Month” by the Math Department and we were invited to a ceremony at the school to celebrate this monumental achievement. While I have always known that she is exceptional and amazing, she is a kid who has struggled mightily to show others this side of her, but without a whole lot of success, at least on the playing field of academia. This honor rendered me speechless. The way I felt reminded me of the buzz in the air on the last day of school when the bell rang and summer break was beginning-the future is bright and anything is possible.

Novelty is the friend of persons with ADHD. It is captivating and motivating and brings out their ability to hyperfocus and perform at their best level of effort, that is for as long as it stays novel. Somewhere around October, the novelty of high school wore off for my daughter. Packing a one-two punch was the news that her beloved Papa (grandfather) had fallen for a second time in less than two years. Although it wasn’t a near death experience like his previous traumatic brain injury, nonetheless it was a devastating fracture that was going to require hospitalization and rehab for months. The disruption to the new life she was creating hit her at an emotional level and at a practical level. She took time off school to be at the hospital for the surgery to repair his broken pelvis and she fought with levels of anxiety that threatened to paralyze her. As if our lives were mimicking the shortening October days, nightfall returned and the darkness filled the space that just weeks before had been gleaming and light-filled.

From the earliest of my days, I learned that darkness was bad and to be feared. My childhood home, 1013 E. Prairie Avenue, was a small tri-level with the family room located on the lowest level. It was there where my brothers and I would whittle away hours playing with toys, napping on hot summer days and of course, watching tv. Our “rec room” as we fondly called it circa the 1970’s, seemed as if it were miles away from the rest of the house. Yet when Mom called to say supper was ready, it was with superhuman speed we bolted up the five stairs to the main level. We sprinted two stairs at a time, not so that we might be first to bite into the hot, delicious meal on the table, but rather to avoid the job of the last one up–turning off the lights in the rec room. That place which felt like a safe haven for hours on end each day ceased to exist when it was void of all light. The horrible things that might just happen in the darkness were terrifying and taught me to become the fastest of all stair sprinters. But no one ever told me that when you grow up, sometimes there is nowhere to run from the dark, no matter how fast you are.

The events that unfolded in November and December were not foreign to us. We had encountered them many times before, but we thought things would be different at the new school. The new school isn’t a private one, like the one from which we came. It was supposed to be used to kids like mine, it was supposed to understand the brains of kids like mine, it was supposed to take good care of kids like mine. The problem is that it didn’t. Assignments turned it late were still docked by 50%. Some homework wasn’t even accepted late. After countless hours were spent trying to finish the night’s assignments, studying for a test or working on long-term projects was just an afterthought. She had nothing left to give at 11 p.m., having already put in 6+ hours of time outside the classroom after a full day’s work inside the classroom. Parent/Teacher conferences were filled with compliments and concerns. “She is so bright! Why can’t she turn in her homework on time?” “Your daughter is one of the smartest students I’ve ever had. I can’t understand why she is failing my class.” We formally appealed to the new school for help. They said “No”.

Christmas break was filled with tortuous hours of trying to catch up for the teachers who generously gave her a last chance to complete unfinished assignments. The days after break were filled with text messages sent to remind her to turn in all the homework she labored so intensely to finish. Sadly, they were also filled with her daily confessions of “I forgot to turn it in, Mom.” Then the emails began to arrive as the time for final exams neared. One, from her history teacher, asked us if we knew that failure on her part was a very real possibility in his class. “OF COURSE I KNOW! I LIVE THIS STRUGGLE WITH HER DAILY!” is what I wanted to write. Instead, I attempted to type out a respectful acknowledgement, a thank-you-for-letting-us-know and a pledge to try to help her pull up that grade so that she doesn’t have to spend her summer doing what she and many ADHD kids hate doing–more school. There were tears from her and cries of the injustice of the situation–“I thought they were going to help me, Mom! I wish I didn’t have ADHD! I just wish I was normal!” With nowhere to run from this all prevailing darkness, I was forced to fight it with all my might each day. It wore me out. It made me feel utterly helpless. It tempted me to simply lay down on the battlefield and surrender.

One day, something changed. While sitting in the physical darkness of my kitchen I pulled a stool up to the island and lit one candle on the Advent wreath whose greens were now yellowing and dried up. I had lit this wreath all during Advent, but this time, for some reason, I saw it with new eyes. At that moment it dawned on me that the darkness in the room actually served a good purpose. It provided a backdrop that allowed the light to appear brighter. It even served to point me towards the source of the light. The darkness was redemptive in quality. In a new way of thought, I saw that insomuch as the darkness reveals the light, it is capable of illuminating the brilliance of that one, single flame. No longer did I have to fight it with all my might. I could take its good with its bad. We could still wrestle one another, but now I was resigned to let it be a guide. My search for the light, for answers, for a new way for my girl was renewed with this realization.

Thankfully, she survived first semester of freshman year, hanging from a frayed thread, but intact. Kicking off second semester with a renewed hunger and thirst for the light, I began consulting educational materials, friends in the academic profession and mental health professionals. I set up new structures and collected data and became relentless in my pursuit to make a difference for her. A date had been set for another meeting with the new school. This time I was going to be better prepared. This time I would demonstrate my expertise on the subject of my daughter. This time I would not accept “no” for an answer.

The morning of the meeting arrived. In a strange way, the wrestling match had energized me to face this day. Although I was feeling a bit nervous, I also felt ready. To calm my nerves, I headed out for a quick run down to the river whose sight always soothes my soul. As I ran, from the depths of my being I appealed to the Light on her behalf. On my way back home, nearing the top of the hill, I resumed playing some music. A new song I hadn’t heard yet cued up. Its words summed up the journey that had led to this moment:

this being human is a guest house
every morning a new arrival
a joy, a depression, a meanness
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor

 

welcome and entertain them all

 

be grateful for whoever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide”

 

Kaleidoscope by Coldplay

Today I heard back from the new school. To my latest formal appeal for help, they answered “Yes”.

Thank you for visiting my guest house, darkness. You came at an unexpected time and I didn’t want to welcome you, but in the end, I know you were sent as a guide to lead me to the Light.

Death (& Rebirth) by Motherhood

545619_10151094877724372_687825903_nThe day I got married, October 20, 1995, began very much like today. It was an unseasonably warm, 75 degree, bright autumn day. As the sunshine poured through the trees, illuminating the gorgeous shades of gold, bronze and red that enliven the Midwestern landscape at this time of year, I was filled with feelings of joy, hope and excitement for the 5:00 p.m. date I had with my husband-to-be at the church. Flash forward to 3:30 p.m. on that same day. I am in the back of my parents’ car being driven to said date. It is now 45 degrees and the temperature continues to drop by the hour. A deluge of bone-chilling rain is making it difficult to see, even with the wipers on full speed. “It’s good luck to have rain on your wedding day”, I heard from the front seat of the car and then over and over again from my bridesmaids, once inside the Bride’s Room, safely tucked away from my groom. But to tell you the truth, the rain didn’t dampen my spirits. Inside my naive 26 year old mind, I was convinced that no matter what the world dished out, together we were going to change it for the better and I was ready to get started.

Fresh out of college by just five months, he and I met at a wedding in Fall of 1993. My graduation gift from my parents had been a trip to Ireland in May of that same year. At every church my mom and I visited in the homeland of our ancestors, I prayed that I would meet him. My specific request to God was for an Irishman with a deep faith life and of the Roman Catholic tradition. Many years dating someone with a deep faith life, but without the same background as I convinced me that married life would be easier with someone who shared my tradition. Remarkably, he also was looking for a person with a deep faith life of the Roman Catholic tradition. I met his criteria, but wait, there was even more I thought I brought to the table. As a recent graduate of a traditional Catholic university, with Theology degree in hand and a conviction that if we followed what I thought was God’s plan for our marriage and family, we would sanctify the world together, how could he refuse? Despite my overconfidence (a.k.a., my huge ego), he didn’t refuse the opportunity, but willingly entered into a covenant of marriage with me two years later. God bless him.

The month of October, in my faith tradition, is kicked off by the feast days of some really great saints. We start by celebrating St. Therese of Lisieux, followed by the Guardian Angels and then we get to St. Francis. He is the one often spotted as a statuary in many a beautiful garden, portrayed with a host of animals surrounding him. The Prayer of St. Francis is renowned all over the world and often times at church, we sing a song based on its words entitled, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.  Outward images might lead some to imagine Francis was a soft kind of guy, singing Kumbaya while walking through nature, communing with God’s creatures. But on further examination, he is quite the opposite. Not only is his life story entirely compelling, but merely the words of his prayer are deeply challenging and not for the soft or the weak.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.”

Back in those days of young, married love, I truly didn’t understand these words. And that last line about dying? In my mind it only pertained to the End Game, nothing more, nothing less. It was with a sense of certainty that when I heard the phrase, “And it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life”, I thought to myself, I’m good to go! Eternal life after death? Check! Hey, it was smooth sailing on the road to sanctity and along with me I was bringing my husband, my hopefully soon-to-be big brood of children, and heck, even some other random strangers, simply by sharing with them my plans for how I thought God wanted them to live. Yikes. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans”.  

Parenthood began for us just nine days before our fifth year wedding anniversary. Our “celebration” didn’t feel so celebratory. We went out to an Italian restaurant to mark the day, but I couldn’t even stay awake at the dinner table. Our daughter was in the full-time care of family because I was unfit to be a mother to her. Adjusting to new medication in the hopes of becoming well enough to get her back, deep down inside, I felt incapable of ever being her mom. This scenario was furthest from the plans I thought were meant for my life. How could I be on the road to sanctity when I had already failed as a parent with the first child of what I thought was going to be five or so more? It was only then that I began to understand that there was another kind of death apart from the end game. And so began the process I affectionately refer to now as “Death by Motherhood”. There was a death to my hopes and dreams of how life should look and death from how chaotic and unmanageable it really was. There was a death to the image I had of myself and death from the reality of who I actually was. Co-mingling with the grief was a new and big and profound love I had never quite known before that drove my fight to get healthy for her.

As our beautiful daughter grew, we discovered that she was magnificent and sweet, loving and kind. She was captivated by books and coloring and singing and puppies and her Grandmas and Papas, cousins and friends. We also learned that her will was as strong as steel. Getting her dressed in the morning was a gargantuan task, as she would rip her clothes off as soon as I could get them on her. Many mornings I left for work in tears. I was exhausted from the fight with her and the day had barely even started. I thought she was being defiant and would lose patience with her. Sometimes I would even punish her for being disobedient. It wasn’t until the ripe age of five when we realized we were approaching this behavior in entirely the wrong way. She was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder with Tactile Defensiveness. The clothes I was trying to put on her felt torturous to her hypersensitive skin. How could I have missed this? How could I have caused her additional suffering by insisting she was behaving so badly when in actuality, she was trying to communicate to me that she needed help, but she didn’t have the right vocabulary to do so? Those early days, post-diagnosis, I was once again in touch with the ending of life as I knew it. There was a death to the image I had of how my child was supposed to be and death from the discovery that she was suffering and I had only made it worse. There was a death to wanting to keep up appearances of being a perfect little family and death from the unpredictability and chaos that life with Sensory Processing Disorder brought to us each day. Our tenth anniversary found us taking a weekend away, to breathe deeply and regroup so that we could return to deal with the learning curve of life with SPD. It also had us realizing that perhaps, there would be no second or third or fourth or fifth child. God knew we were struggling to be enough for our one, whom we loved more than life itself.

In fifth grade, mortification came with the ten words that formed a simple question posed by her young, but acutely observant teacher. “Have you ever thought of having her tested for ADHD?” Just when we finally had gotten a handle on how to navigate her sensory issues and help her to understand them, it seemed almost too much to consider that there was something else to confront. Yet it was apparent that she was struggling to keep her head above the water with the academic challenges brought on by each successive year, as well as with the anxiety attacks that began to plague her when it all became too much. After weeks of evaluation with a psychiatrist, it came time to hear the results. With a sense of humor and of hopeful optimism, the doctor looked at my husband and announced, “Well it seems as if she inherited ADHD from you…” His friendly gaze turned to me as he continued, “…and as if she inherited an Anxiety Disorder from you.” I felt like I was dying right there and then. Yet another death; this one to the hope of passing on only our best of qualities to our child and death from realizing I had no control over it. There was a death to the desire to save my daughter from such hardship and death from watching her experience all sorts of wicked side effects as she went through the “guinea pig” phase of finding the right medication. On our fifteenth anniversary we exchanged cards and gave one another the kind that refers to experiencing the highs and lows of life together and gratitude for the other’s support in and through it all.

Even as I write this reflection, I continue to perish. I encounter the intermingling of death and rebirth almost every day. She is now a high school student and to observe her thrive in this large environment where her uniqueness is encouraged and celebrated is breath-taking. On good days or in the good moments of average days, there is a sense of freedom and peace and joy glimpsed in her presence. She is finding her own sense of style after being confined by a school uniform for the past nine years. There are blue streaks in her hair and she is wearing jeans almost every day, which was at one time made impossible by SPD. There are new friends and amazing academic accomplishments. Life is good. And yet the reality of adolescence is increasingly present with its angst and testing of boundaries and pushing back at parents, even when we are only making simple requests. It is being told we are embarrassing and we could never understand and we do things the wrong way and we say things that are stupid and don’t make sense. And so it goes, day after day. In the worst of moments, I feel driven to the Flight or Fight Response within my being. I have to talk myself off the ledge and realize that ultimately, in my role as mom, neither extreme reaction will lead to good. But the pain is so much deeper because my heart is open wide to her and her soul is forever intertwined with mine. There is a death to the realization that her love is not going to look exactly like it did in the past and death from the feelings of distant love, since right now hugging and snuggling with her mom aren’t on her top-ten-list of things-to-do. There is a death to the feeling of being needed and appreciated by her and a death from being treated as unneeded and unappreciated, even if it be unintentional on her part. The burden is momentarily lightened when I read, The Letter Your Teenager Can’t Write You and hold on to hope that what is says really is true –OR– when I catch a glimpse of the sweet girl who loves me deeply, such as tonight. When I left my writing for a few minutes, I came back to this note on my screen:

Dear Mom,

This is beautiful. I know you’re not finished because you haven’t gotten to your 20th yet but I truly love it. I have decided that in my free time, I will start reading your blog.

Love, Sadie”

On this occasion of our twentieth anniversary we reminisce about the past and where the present finds us and how it is we got here. Now a 46 year old woman, my life resembles very little of what I was convinced God wanted it to be as I stood on the altar that cold, rainy night in October 1995 and said “I do”. What has become clearer to me now is that this vocation was never meant to be about me changing the world and sanctifying the people around me according to the plans I thought we should live. Rather, I was the one who needed saving and it was my world that needed change, according to the perfect plan that God had all along. That plan kicked into high gear with her birth and her amazing life. As Richard Rohr so beautifully expresses it,

We come to God not by doing it right (which teaches you very little), but invariably by doing it wrong and responding to our failures and suffering with openness and awareness. Forevermore the very worst things have the power to become the very best things. Henceforth, nothing can be a permanent dead end; everything is capable of new shape and meaning.”

These little “deaths”, brought to me courtesy of motherhood, they have led me to rebirth. Without them, I couldn’t have learned to find truth in the midst of error, faith in the midst of doubt. I wouldn’t have had the need to find the light in the midst of the darkness or joy in the midst of sadness. If I had never experienced despair, I wouldn’t have known the relief of finding hope in the midst of it. As I face the depth of sacrifice that will be demanded of me as a mom in these days and weeks and years ahead, I know that there will be many more opportunities for death to come. And come, it must, because my needs aren’t meant to be fulfilled by her, but she was born with the innate need to encounter God’s unconditional love through me.

Master, grant that I may seek to sow love, even when I feel hated; seek to pardon even when I feel injured; seek to console even I want to be consoled; seek to understand even when I feel misunderstood and seek to love even when I feel unloved. For it is in giving that I will receive; it is in pardoning that I will be pardoned; and it is in dying that I will be reborn to eternal life. Amen.”

The Long, yet Swift Road to Here

Sadie KindergartenSadie GraduationIt happened. In what seems like just a blink of an eye, my kindergartner is now an eighth grade graduate. Sure the road to here was long and winding. It was sometimes difficult to navigate and there were big potholes to avoid. Certain days the views were tranquil and beautiful and awe inspiring; other days they were chaotic and messy and disordered. There were tears of happiness, pure joy and pride along the way. Tears of sadness, frustration and disappointment clouded many days too. But now looking back, it was really quite swift and the middle part is mostly just a blur.

Some days it seemed like we would never arrive at the end of the road. Nine years of travel on the same path sometimes seemed like being on the Ohio Turnpike I used to drive on my way to and from college–same scenery, same rest stops, same old same. Other days, I didn’t want this path to end. It was so familiar and comforting, like the smell I encountered each time I walked through the door of the house in which I grew up. Its shoulders were lined with the faces of friends and those who became like family. In the rough moments they cheered on she and I; in the good times they celebrated with us. Yet among those faces were also some who didn’t understand us, who judged us, who were frustrated with us. There were some who gave her a label and would never let her outgrow it, no matter how much she changed or thrived or succeeded. They were the ones who especially made this place feel too small now.

Just as a baby in the womb is unable to move about freely at the end of its mother’s pregnancy, this place started to feel confining and unable to contain the very life it had nurtured and fed and kept safe for so long. Towards the very end, it became overwhelmingly apparent that she needed to transition to a bigger space where her growth will be allowed to continue. Yet, as obvious as this was, the unknown ahead remained terrifying.

During the last days in this place, its toll on her was costly. With every milestone nearer to the finish line, it reminded her that some of her hopes and dreams for the journey would never be realized. It reminded her that time with the people with whom she had shared her life the past nine years, for better or for worse, was running out. It reminded her that the place she knew, the second home she visited each day after leaving the first, would no longer be a part of her daily experience. Most of all, it made her face the reality that the transition to the bigger space gets closer with every minute of every day.

The bigger space will have exponentially more than ten times as many faces as this place. It will be bustling with potential; potential friends, potential experiences, potential successes, potential growth. Yet it is unknown and she, with her anxiety disorder unextractably intertwined with each one of life’s moments, instead sees it in her darker moments as offering potential loneliness, potential disappointment, potential failure, potential decline.

I too feel this anxiety encroaching on my sense of relief at crossing the finish line and my pride in her accomplishment of never quitting with the challenges of ADHD making academic life a most arduous feat. There is a pure joy that accompanies the experience of seeing a child rise up against the struggles of life and choose not to quit, even in the face of overwhelming odds of academic structures stacked against her success. On my difficult days, I draw strength from her resolve and determination. It is amazing. Yet the bigger space with its new doorways and new faces and new structures seems so alien. As her mom, I am feeling afraid that I won’t be able to guide her. It feels as if I am taking her to a foreign country where even I, the adult, am unaware of where to go, how to speak the language and even what currency to use.

The first day I dropped her off for kindergarten felt somewhat the same, but this place wasn’t so big and frightening. The faces were fewer and I worked across the parking lot, ever near to my beloved child. I could run over from work if she got hurt or was feeling sick or forgot her lunch. I could spy her in the hallways when I had business that brought me to her building. I could sit near her class and pray with her each week at school Mass. I could protect and love and advocate for her in a heartbeat. And each day, as we traveled to this place, we were together. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we cried. Sometimes we sang along to the same song on the radio, sometimes we fought with ugly words. The bigger space where she will go each day will be far away from where I go each day and we will no longer travel there together.

There is a certain fearlessness that lies deep within my girl, despite her multiple diagnoses. As the night of graduation drew near and the finish line was within sight, she was asked to lead the music for the Mass which preceded the ceremony. Without hesitation she accepted the invitation. In front of all of her classmates, teachers, friends, family and strangers alike, on her own, in front of the microphone, she led the entire congregation in song, beautifully, with grace and poise. Though she did not receive any special academic awards or outstanding student awards or other accolades reserved for the chosen few whose talents and hard work earn them such rightful recognition, she was given the opportunity to offer what she could. She did so in a way that was unique and magnificent. It was her chance to shine and she did not shrink from it. She crossed the finish line of the long, yet swift road to here with her head held high.

As I have aged and have learned to cope pretty effectively with my own anxiety disorder, I often commiserate on the opportunities I missed earlier in life because of my fear. So many of my friends, in their twenties, traveled to foreign lands with a positive anticipation and desire to explore that goes hand in hand with a healthy sense of adventure found in youth. They were expanded and changed and made better by the journeys on which they embarked. I, on the other hand, stayed in place, dreading any change that would upset my sense of grounding and foundation. Yet more recently, after reading the novel, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, I felt the desire stronger than ever to go on a crazy adventure, unprepared, but open to what might be. I recognize within myself for the first time a dose of the fearlessness which my daughter has embraced at a young age.

Reflecting on the long, yet swift road to here I see that we are in the waiting room of summer before we will be ushered into the bigger space. It has dawned on me that perhaps, the journey of the next four years on which we are about to embark is just the crazy adventure for which I have been longing. Now I have a choice to make: A) I can choose to stay in place, dreading any change that will upset my sense of grounding and foundation. B) I can tap into the fearlessness within and choose to stay open with positive anticipation and a desire to explore. The road ahead may seem foreign and I may feel entirely unprepared to travel it myself, let alone be her guide along the way, but it may be exactly what is needed to be expanded and changed and made better.

I’m going with B. I guess we’re gonna have to figure it out along the way and write the next chapter of the guidebook, together.

Say “Yes” to the Mess

muddy-field-7About a six weeks ago, I was running along the river pondering how life had been relatively smooth, as of late, mirroring the state of the water that was my companion on that run. In fact, the river was so smooth, I could see in it a perfect reflection of the trees that hang so gracefully over its banks. It was a breathtaking sight which allowed me to glimpse the beauty of creation twice. Since summer had ended, our family transitioned back to school almost effortlessly. In fact, it was probably the first time I could remember since my daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD with anxiety, added to the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder, that we had experienced such a peaceful and calm fall. Usually these changes to life triggered the worst of anxieties, leading to behaviors which became disruptive to any sense of normalcy we touched during less challenging times. But this year was different; so different that it was strange. I kept waiting for something to set off the chain of chaos that had become our new normal, but that something never came. I don’t know if it was the fact that this was her ninth year in her current school or that we finally figured out the perfect combination of meds. I don’t know if it was her incredibly knowledgeable and sensitive home room teacher who “gets” my girl and works well with her or the regular dosage of exercise and sweat that came as part of the package when she signed up to play volleyball. WHATEVER it was that could be attributed to these sweet, smooth, serene months of calm and peace; it was a most beautiful gift.

As the old idiom goes, all good things must come to an end. Volleyball season ended. High school placement tests were administered. Talk of next year’s plans were initiated. Then came the final straw: Shadow Day at her dream high school arrived. At first, when I picked her up after school, she seemed very excited about the day. She said that she participated in class and knew lots of the answers to the teachers’ questions. She mentioned that the high school kids affectionately referred to her as “Shadow” all throughout the day. She happily chatted about friends from last year’s 8th grade class with whom she was able to reconnect in the hallways and cafeteria. But mere hours later, the telltale signs reappeared. At first it was the hypersensitivity to touch. My right arm brushed up against her left arm in the car when I opened up the compartment between the seats. An explosive emotional response followed immediately, along with the physical retraction from the touch. Next came the need to balance out the unexpected sensory input by brushing the arm that wasn’t assaulted against my arm which remained between us. Quickly thereafter, she was throttled by a flooding of all things sensory. She slammed the radio off to stop the sound. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her eyes to shut out the onslaught of visual images that threatened to cut the thin thread of sanity to which she was clinging. To watch her in these moments is to witness a response of both fight and flight. It breaks my heart to see her suffering.

The smooth, serene waters are no longer. They are choppy and treacherous and threaten to drown her once again.The future is uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable. The secure position of stability, found after so many years of therapy and learning how to cope, has collapsed all too soon. The aftertaste that remains of the peace now lost makes this new chaos all the more bitter. Day after day, unmet expectations or unwanted sensations or unplanned events trigger the strife once again. I grasp to recall how we successfully navigated these days in the past. It feels as if I am a combat soldier, though once strong in battle, now utterly unprepared for the daily warfare.

In the midst of all this comes Advent, a time when I am supposed to prepare for the birth of a Savior on Christmas. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is in these days. How in the world can I prepare to invite the newborn babe into this utter turmoil, this MESS? When we prepared to invite her into the world, everything was ready and waiting. We took classes to learn how to care for her. We read books and devoured articles about how to be good parents. We painted her room and decorated it tastefully. We assembled the crib and equipped it with the softest bedding we could find. Everything was perfect and I felt ready.

In a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an old Advent reflection book written by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent.  Sometime during the end of the first week of Advent, I finally got around to opening it up. I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for His birth like I did my house, for her birth. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read,

Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”

Ugh. this is exactly why I both love and hate reading Richard Rohr’s writings. His insights usually serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects and flaws. Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on. The question that followed that particular day’s reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. The realization is that deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the disrupted plans, the late arrivals, the overwhelming uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable with emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering. There, I admit it.

I left the time of prayer that day reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. Yeah, somehow I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel. Like when Mary was visited by an Angel and she was greatly troubled and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Oh and that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2014 years ago was kind of a big deal, like a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. And, guess what? I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house all ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope. They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does regularly, looking for a place to birth him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, disrupted plans, late arrivals, overwhelming, uncontrollable, messy life. I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it is and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, that He would provide an opportunity for us to serve someone in need this Christmas. From that day forward, my Advent mantras became, “Help me to find You in the mess” and as particularly stressful moments arise daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

We have a tradition of cutting down our tree each year at a local Christmas Tree Farm run by the Benedictine monks. This year when we arrived at the farm, it was already about 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and mucky fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in thick, deep mud. Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our family’s help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and the occasional evergreen branch abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement. Her inventive solution had worked! We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled our search for the 2014 Christmas Tree down to the last 2 finalists, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had taken. When they turned around, they had become entrenched a second time. The evening was growing darker and our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up. Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials and bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun, even though we had secured the bundles of grasses to give the tires a surface to grab. As we tried to push the minivan from behind, both my husband and I slid backwards and subsequently, I fell down into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath. At that moment, it became clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God had provided us an opportunity as a family to serve  someone in need. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry. I couldn’t even have imagined a more disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.

With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set, we could no longer see well enough to reclaim our last 2 finalists, we were all covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the big crashing wave of realization that plans were now changed, nothing was like it usually is and we weren’t going home with a tree this night. Unrest, disorder, chaos, discord and uncontrollable, messy life continued as we made our way out of the field, stopping to attempt to comfort her as she collapsed on to the muddy ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say “yes” to this mess.” Then deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess, it is to be with you in this mess that I come.”

Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, visit STAR Institute: About SPD

An Oblivious Amen

10481946_10152235969004372_3691425472651833846_nThis past week I was delighted to find out that a local Catholic church was hosting one of my new favorite recording artists, Matt Maher (http://www.mattmahermusic.com/), in concert at a venue close to my home. Even though I really wanted to go, with the looming deadline of a rather large quarterly tax payment due in just days, I couldn’t justify spending the cash. I tried to put it out of my mind and forget about it. But just hours before the concert, a nagging urge to go came to the forefront in my consciousness. I wrestled with an intense desire to be fiscally responsible, but the nagging urge became all consuming, so I went.

As I approached the box office, I slid a credit card through the entrance in the glass window and asked to purchase one ticket. The girl behind the window promptly slid my card back to me, along with a ticket and said, “A generous donor just donated a handful of tickets to give away to the next few people in line.” As I accepted the gift, I found myself both speechless and stunned. A sense of gratitude flooded my heart because somehow, it seemed clear to me that I had just been led to a divine appointment. I was convinced that I was supposed to be in this place, at this time, for this concert and that before the end of the night, I might leave with some understanding as to why. Before Matt Maher walked onto stage, a representative from the host church welcomed us and began the night with prayer. As we Catholics are typically not known for possessing stellar skills when it comes to spontaneous prayer, we were invited to join together in the “Our Father”. Excited about the concert, I rushed through the words rotely and ended the prayer with a thoughtless, but resounding, “AMEN!”

Matt did not disappoint. We listened as he introduced his songs with stories of his life and how he had found God’s presence over and over in the midst of his experiences. At times the music was loud and rocked the theatre; at other times, it was reflective and prayerful. Through it all, I found myself drawn, like a moth to light, to the text painted on the side of his piano. As an enthusiastic aficionado of all things typographic, I was drawn to its simple, rugged beauty. In an irregular, vintage letterpress-like text, it simply read AMEN. After the concert, I even made my way to the stage to snap a photo of it. While it was a very worthwhile, enjoyable evening, I arrived home without a definite understanding as to why I was meant to be there. However, as darkness consumed the day’s light, I climbed into bed and once I stilled myself, I began to see it over and over in my head; that word, AMEN. I drifted to sleep for a time, only to awaken later with visions of it playing on repeat in my mind. So be it. That is the definition I could remember of amen as I laid there in bed. My dad, a true wordsmith, always made us look up words in the dictionary when we asked him what they meant. Most of them I forgot, but not this one. Just three simple words, but with such powerful possibilities. So be it. I had spoken it earlier that night. I had thoughtlessly spoken it at the end of the “Our Father”. I had just said “so be it” without even thinking about that to which I was agreeing. I had obliviously said “so be it” after telling God straight from my lips, “Thy will be done.” Yikes, I thought to myself, what if God takes me seriously?

It could be said of me at this point on the journey that I am a sort of recovering control-freak/perfectionist (still very much a work-in-progress). However, at my core, I don’t like to say “so be it” until I’ve previewed the terms and conditions to which I am agreeing and definitely not until I’ve been told the details of Plans “B” and “C” if “A” doesn’t worked out as was explained to me. My mother’s mantra, which I recall hearing even in my earliest of days, was something to the effect of, “Sometimes plans change and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.” This was spoken most often following a total meltdown on my part, because something out of MY control changed and I hated when that happened. I did not possess the admirable skill of “going with the flow”. Even before I met my husband, I was quite certain about how God’s future plans for my life should play out. My days at a Catholic University, sheltered in a bubble full of virtuous people striving for sainthood, only served to cement this vision of my perfect life. I was to marry a devoted, Catholic man who adored me, we were to have five to seven children and we were to reside in a gloriously beautiful, clean, sizeable home decorated straight out of the pages of the Pottery Barn catalog. My life’s work would be inside my home, homeschooling our little darlings so they would not be stained by the imperfections of the world outside our piece of heaven on earth (insert gagging noise here, right?)Well, apparently, this Plan A was gonna change and neither Plan B or Plan C was explained to me in advance, because if they were I would have NEVER agreed to them either. Guess what? No one consulted me. But then, was it possible that I had already agreed to the change because I had said the same oblivious AMEN, as I did the other night, following hundreds of “Thy Will Be Done” my whole life and God actually took me at my word?

My Plan A pretty much started to fall apart the day my devoted Catholic husband and I welcomed our first child into the world. Our daughter’s birth was the event that God used to gently pull the loose string on the tightly wound ball of my ideas for the future. On that day, mental illness struck with a mighty blow, crushing my ideals and aspirations of perfect motherhood into tiny shards, and later I would discover, this was only just the beginning. (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/?s=imperfect+imperfection). Nearly five years later, my life, even on the best of days resembled nothing of my hopes and dreams. A series of events that followed her arrival had derailed us off of the fast track to perfection; the realization that our first child would most likely be our only; her diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, which rendered the simplest task of getting her dressed in the morning a monumental and herculean one, the harsh reality that financially we couldn’t thrive without me working outside of the home. By the time we enrolled her in kindergarten, after I finally surrendered to the notion that I wasn’t up to the task of homeschooling this girl, I felt my life was completely falling apart. Where was God to be found in all of this mess? I believed Him to be a God of order, of perfect function and of peace. My life was disorderly, dysfunctional and stressful. Certainly this chaos couldn’t be God’s plan for my life.

Lent of 2007 was about to begin and through a series of events, a book landed in my hands which I decided to use as spiritual reading for the next 40 days. It’s title:Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. It’s author: Rabbi Irwin Kula. (http://yearnings.irwinkula.com/thebook.htm) I distinctly remember my husband remarking how very interesting it was that a Catholic girl was reading a book written by a Rabbi for her Lenten spiritual reading. He’s right, I thought to myself, but I was captivated by two words in the title, Sacred Messiness. Could the mess that was the reality of my life actually be sacred? I devoured the book and when finished, had a second and third helping. I went back over certain phrases in an attempt to soak them into my stream of consciousness. Some of the most powerful ones for me read,

Inevitably, for everyone there comes a time (or times) when the way we divvy up our life no longer makes sense…our relationships, our work, our world back us into a corner and cause us pain. And then it’s time to dive, to widen, to make room for new truths to emerge.

The ability to live with seeming contradictions-and the ambivalence and tensions these contradictions create-is what gives rise to wisdom. The messes are the point.”

WHAT? The messes are the point?? This book turned my inner life upside down and opened my eyes to the exciting possibility that God was exactly in all of this mess and was actually leading me into it, so that I would find Him in a whole new way. This unplanned, chaotic Plan G (a.k.a. God’s plan) for my life is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened me up to receive anew the gifts of mercy and non-judgment; acceptance and trust. It has made me much more yielding to things beyond my control. And without doubt, it continues to bless and surprise me with new challenges. I laugh to think what an an unlikely headline this would have made in the Plan A of my life – “God Uses Jewish Rabbi to Save Catholic Girl from Her Lame Plans.” Hee.

At age 11, our daughter was diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD. Once again I was led to dive into deep waters whose currents I am woefully unable to control. In the days since then, as I’ve been learning to navigate the turbulence, there have been times when I thought I would surely drown. But here I am, two years in, with my head still above water. I’m a stronger swimmer and am capable of doing things I didn’t know I had in me to do. It was a surprise to figure out that this major people pleaser has the ability to do that which my daughter recently described as one of my greatest talents, when she said, “Mom you are really good at writing mean letters, but making them sound really nice.” (In reference to my attempts to advocate for her when things at school aren’t going so well.)

In retrospect, I am thankful for all of the AMENs I’ve ever spoken-the deliberate, intentional ones and the oblivious, unintentional ones. Most of all, I am grateful to God for taking me at my word. Even though to this day, I still find moments when I’m still clinging with all my might to Plan A, deep within I am convinced that Plan G is ultimately a far better way. It is difficult and challenging and not very comfortable a whole lot of the time. However, if God deems it possible to be present in this mess called my life and deems it possible to somehow use it for good, I resoundingly and intentionally say, SO BE IT!