The Beginning of Freedom is to Call Things by their Right Names

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Cill Rialaig, photograph by Bill Miles

When I was still too young to have learned words to express what was happening within my inner life, there were times I felt myself to be absolutely trapped in a sense of utter terror, seemingly without warning or understanding and without the ability to ask for help. It took until I was almost 20 years old to finally learn that there was a name for experiences like these: panic attacks. They were debilitating and confusing and scary. As a child, these experiences made me feel as if my whole world were off kilter and the ground might open up and swallow me whole. Most times there was no specific fear that triggered them. They would simply sneak up on me unexpectedly and felt scarier than any monster hiding under my bed because (a) I could not see them coming and (b) I could not escape them. I remember one of the things I would do to try to lessen the sense of impending doom was to draw near to my parents. I would search for them in the house and stay close. This was the only semi-remedy that I recall could sustain me until the terror passed.

In early adolescence, I slowly began to figure out a repeating pattern as to when I could most definitely expect panic to pay me an unsolicited visit. It seemed to always coincide with overnight visits or vacations. Being in a new environment where everything looked unfamiliar made me feel as if I had entered a sort of twilight zone. It was as if I was no longer on the same plane as everyone else, but rather in a space in between. Nothing felt normal, nothing looked right, I didn’t feel as if I was inhabiting my usual body and soul and again, I lacked the words to describe the experience to anyone around me. Panic would crash upon my shores like an unexpected tsunami. I can only imagine this made me an entirely unpleasant travel companion.

In high school, my frequent encounters with panic were joined by other unpleasant emotions, including depression. Between the frequent attacks of anxiety and the depression that would follow, it was getting increasingly hard to live life. Finally in a moment of desperation, I reached out and asked for help. My parents responded lovingly and within the week I was sitting in the office of a man who still, to this day, serves as my trusty psychologist when he is most needed. For years, not once did he give me a label as to what was this thing that imprisoned me. He listened and indirectly taught me how to better cope with my symptoms and slowly helped me to feel better and stronger. But there was this one day, when I decided to the look at the receipt he handed me after every session to pass on to my parents. On it I found a code for my diagnosis and I decided to look it up.

There is an old Chinese Proverb which reads, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names”, but in my case, I would like to apologize to the wise Chinese and put a wee little Irish spin on this proverb (simply because I’m most proudly of Irish descent) and rephrase it to read, “The beginning of freedom is to call things by their right names.”

309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. 

Finally; my disconcerting experience of life as I knew it had a name. 309.28: Adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood. Kinda like a title, a first name, a middle name and a last name. Having a name meant it could be known and maybe even understood. It meant it didn’t only exist in my head, but it was real. It meant it was so real that it was identified with a list of common symptoms in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Practitioners of Mental Health.

In an article entitled,  The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming, Rabbi Andrew Davids brings clarity to this experience when he writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, the biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.”

Humans may seek to bring order to our chaotic world…through the process of naming. Though throughout my life, I’ve met many people who would rather not “be labeled” by their specific diagnosis, the day I learned the name of my nemesis is the day it lost a whole lot of power and my journey of freedom began.

In the years that followed, I made it my life’s mission to rid myself from my role as the unsuspecting victim of an unknown maleficenceIn the pre-internet days I devoured every possible book I could get my hands on that would help me to learn the ins and outs of adjustment disorder and anxiety. In the early days of the internet I read of others’ experiences which sounded just like mine. Misery does love company because it teaches us there are others as miserable as us. We are not alone. We are not without understanding. Most importantly, it teaches us we are not without hope. Knowledge didn’t completely stop waves of panic from lapping upon the shores of my life. However, I learned to see it for what it was. I figured out some good ways to anchor myself in the sand, so that even though its cold and crashing waves might leave me worn out and tattered, they would not be able to carry me off into the sea where I could drown.

It has been nearly 30 years since my nemesis was named. Though I wouldn’t say we are on a first name basis, 309.28 and I have learned to co-exist, and on most days ours is a peaceful co-existence. The paradox is I know I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for its presence in my life. I will even go so far as to admit it prepared me well to be able to better respond to my own child who began experiencing her own panic attacks at an early age. By the time she was 10 years old she already knew its name and was well on her way on the path of liberation.

Definition of freedom (from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

1the quality or state of being free: such as 

athe absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action 

bliberation from restraint or from the power of another 

cthe quality or state of being released usually from something onerous”

When I consider the definition of freedom I must admit that although I am so much more liberated than I was before I learned the name of my nemesis, it still constrains me in two particular ways: (1) I have allowed it to hold be back from the desire to travel and experience new places, lands and cultures. (2) I have also allowed it to steal from me the experience of being comfortable being by myself, let alone traveling by myself, for fear that without loved ones near to save me, I might surely be swallowed into the earth or carried off into the sea–and that would be a terrible thing, especially while in a foreign country!

My admiration remains strong for my friends and family members who have collectively seen most of the world and are better and more interesting people for having done so. Some of them even ventured out on their own and they lived to tell about it! Traveling vicariously through their stories is as good as it gets for a girl who prefers to stay in one place for fear of re-entering the twilight zone. Yet I am happy to report that in recent years, a dream has been born in my heart to take back the reins and to face the greatest anxiety- provoking travel experiences of my childhood. The name of my dream is Cill Rialaig.

On the southwest coast of Ireland, the Cill Rialaig Project rescued and restored a small pre-famine village, thus creating an artists retreat that has attracted artists from all over the world. It is a retreat for professional visual artists, writers, poets and composers who apply for a residency to live for a short time at the Cill Rialaig Retreat and work on their craft. Ireland is calling to me and to Cill Rialiag I desire to go, by myself, to work for a week on writing. Remembering from my youthful experience that good things can begin to happen when we reach out and ask for help, I contacted my friend Carlos, an editor of a locally published magazine. Within a short period of time, he had published my writing and continues to do so in hopes that I might meet the requirements to apply for the residency. Even now he remains one of my fiercest co-freedom fighters.

Although freedom is most certainly a process, one that takes at least an entire lifetime to attain and for all I know, probably some of eternity too, what I am certain about is that mine began the day I was emboldened to call things by their right name. Thank you 309.28!

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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It was at a very young age when I first began to hate physical activity. If I had to pinpoint the year, it was probably in first grade, circa 1975, when I was introduced to the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. It was a yearly assessment that consisted of crunches, pull-ups,the V-Sit Reach, a couple of sprints and the event that most tortured my soul, year after year, the dreaded mile run. This annual test was created in the late 1950’s by a guy who was concerned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America”. During President Kennedy’s term in the White House, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness created a Physical Fitness Curriculum for schools. Kennedy himself wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated in support of the program. One was entitled, “The Soft American”.

Children with low muscle tone, soft Americans; the words paint a descriptive picture. I could have been the poster child for the “why” such a program was needed in the schools of America. Apparently when I was being knit in the womb and the Creator was dealing out the metabolism genes, I was dealt a bad hand (at least according to the standards of the culture into which I was born). Pictures of me at the beach in my early years reveal a round and happy girl. Best of all, she is blissfully unaware her chubbiness, considered cute and sweet at 2 years of age, will one day soon become the source of lifelong struggle.

At five it became glaringly apparent that I was considered a not-so-good kind of different in comparison to others. In the kindergarten classroom, I didn’t measure up favorably in regards to the physical attributes girls are taught to highly esteem. But it was the day each year I was forced to run that mandatory mile when I felt at my most vulnerable. There was no way to hide my inability to keep up with the others. Finishing dead last, even after trying my hardest, was utterly demoralizing. Running became the embodiment of everything I despised about the unmanageable parts of my life. I felt as if I was a helpless victim of its mockery.

Born forth from these early experiences of failure, shame & embarrassment was the dominating need to control my environment and the people in it. In her article, “8 Signs You’re a Control Freak”, Dr. Shelley Prevost identifies some of the exact beliefs and behaviors I developed to function in life. Over time they grew in power and succeeded in achieving total control over me.

  1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over. Check! [√]
  2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either. Check! [√]
  3. You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.Check! [√]
  4. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you. Check! [√]

To think I somehow navigated through life in this condition, my soul confined by these heavy shackles, all the while managing to graduate from college, meet and marry my husband and become a mother; it still shocks and surprises me. But truth be told, it came at a high price. My husband felt judged and shamed; my anxiety was completely out-of-control and avoiding it dictated my every move; I was exhausted at working tirelessly to please everyone in the hopes I might be accepted and loved. The toxic repercussions of living as a control freak had infiltrated my mental, emotional and spiritual life. And the culmination—I could no longer hide that I was also in the worst physical shape of my life. The report following the mandatory physical in the pursuit of life insurance was filled with ugly words such as “obese”, “high cholesterol”, “elevated blood sugar”. It confirmed my worst fears and made me again feel like a helpless victim of life’s circumstances.

In the midst of this mess, my old enemy had the gall to show up into my life without an invitation. I hadn’t encountered it since the last Physical Fitness Test was done Senior year of high school. Out of nowhere, my husband began running, day and night, for miles on end. He had decided to train for his very first marathon after a long hiatus from running and became unstoppable. In the process, without even making major alterations to his eating patterns, he dropped 60 lbs. and the transformation wasn’t only physical. There was a confidence that returned to him and an overall sense of well-being pervaded his days.

Two years and two marathons later, living with this invader in my home as a regular part of his daily routine served to slightly weaken my defensive stance towards it. I too was looking for a way to achieve health and transformation, but nothing I tried seemed to be working. It was the one last thing I had not embraced. Coincidentally while in the midst of an interior wrestling match, I was reminded of the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers, but one day while riding on his horse, he met a leper on the path. Rather than turn away as he was naturally inclined to do and had always done, he conquered his aversion, stopped, climbed off his horse and embraced the leper, giving him alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

Desperate to be freed from the shackles of perfectionism and control, longing for sweetness of soul and body, I conquered my aversion. Rather than turn away, as I was naturally inclined to do and had always done, I climbed off my horse and I embraced that which I most abhorred—running. I gave it alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Continued…

 

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

brown-leavesWe are in that time of year in the Midwest when referring to the month of March, it is said, “It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” This year has been no exception to that old saying. And let me tell you, there have been times during this month when we’ve glimpsed the lamb and then it is as if the lion comes in for the kill again, shredding the lamb to little chops for the eating. The extremes have been plenty. Yet one thing has remained the same, both on the days when the lion rules and the days when the lamb appears-most everything is brown. Last week as I went for a run alongside the river, I couldn’t help but notice how everything was a shade of brown. It was as if I opened up a new 96 count pack of crayons and found that the only ones inside were the brown ones. Name a shade and I saw it that day–mahogany, raw sienna, burnt sienna, sepia, tumbleweed, burnt umber, raw umber, chestnut, copper, almond and more. On a good day, I love the color brown, especially as found in chocolate and coffee, however, without any contrasting shades of lime green or robin’s egg blue to bring out its richness, it seemed pretty blah. Actually, I found it to be quite depressing. Even the water looked to be brown, as it reflected the dead leftovers of winter all around its edges. As I trudged along the path, step after step, contemplating the dark dullness that enclosed me, I wondered why it was that the Creator allowed such lifelessness to surround us at times, when the spectrum of color that exists is so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving. Why are we robbed of such beauty at this time of the year?

This week my faith tradition celebrates Holy Week. In the days ahead we will recall again the journey Jesus made from washing the feet of those He served to His betrayal by the ones He loved most, from His sentencing to death by His own people, to His crucifixion and bloody death upon a cross. We will retell the stories that reveal the backdrop of His last days; days full of darkness. The darkness of hatred and violence and fear, the darkness of feeling betrayed, alone, unloved and in despair, the darkness of the depths of human depravity that would whip and mock and torture and sentence an innocent man to death. The darkness of hanging on the cross, bleeding and dying and crying out to his own father, “Why have you abandoned me?” Why was he, at the moment of his greatest need, robbed of the intimacy and protection of this love so magnificent and inspiring and life-giving?

Yet the story doesn’t end there. As we complete its retelling, we hear of unbelievable events. We hear of how the friends of Jesus went to the tomb only to find that he was no longer there.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were puzzling over this, behold, two men in dazzling garments appeared to them. They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. They said to them, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”

It is in these moments that we are enabled to see that even in the darkest of life’s situations, even when the canvas of our lives is dismal, colorless and discouraging and it seems as if all is lost, the possibility for resurrection always remains. Rather than ending our lives, these moments have the ability to become the backdrop for a glorious unfolding of the most magnificent and beautiful and life-giving transformations that give us new life we could never know without that which precedes it.

A couple of weeks ago I was riveted by a letter that one of the victims of the Boston Bombing wrote to the perpetrator of this tragedy and posted online for the world to read. In her letter, Rebekah Gregory tells the story of her devastating loss of a limb, of horrifying memories of almost losing her son and of watching others die that she relives in her nightmares and of the paralyzing fear of evil which humans are capable of executing even on innocent people whom they don’t know. Yet Rebekah didn’t allow the power of evil to define her life or to hold her prisoner. She allowed the horrific event to be a new beginning, an awakening to a new life, one that has the potential to be even better than she could have experienced without this backdrop of devastation. She moved from being a victim to becoming a survivor to becoming someone who is now thriving. She describes the irony of the entire situation in her letter:

And I think that’s the ironic thing that happens when someone intends something for evil. Because somehow, some way, it always ends up good. But you are a coward. A little boy who wouldn’t even look me in the eyes to see that. Because you can’t handle the fact that what you tried to destroy, you only made stronger. And if your eyes would’ve met mine for just one second, you would’ve also seen that what you “blew up” really did BLOW UP. Because now you have given me (and the other survivors) a tremendous platform to help others, and essentially do our parts in changing the world for the better.

So yes…you did take a part of me. Congratulations you now have a leg up…literally. But in so many ways, you saved my life. Because now, I am so much more appreciative of every new day I am given. And now, I get to hug my son even tighter than before, blessed that he is THRIVING, despite everything that has happened.”

With an incredible candor, courage and eloquence Rebekah gives an unbelievable witness to how the moments of suffering and dying can become the very moments when our life is saved and we are given a new purpose, a resurrection of sorts. Upon the backdrop of devastation, of lifelessness caused by an evil act of terrorism, a new glorious unfolding is underway.

Recently, there has been a string of events happening all at once that have brought great suffering to members of my extended family and friends. They include heart wrenching experiences that leave all of us at a loss and lead me to cry out to God because I feel so utterly helpless to do anything to relieve their suffering. It has been an opportunity to reflect upon moments of hardship that I myself have encountered in life. When I recall them, over and over there is one conclusion that I am consistently led to realize. These moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness are the very moments that led to new life, rebirth, transformation. As horrible as they were to live through, eventually they led to the greatest defining moments of growth and resurrection. They led me to a better life, a life I couldn’t have imagined possible, especially while in the midst of them. They led me to an awareness of my mission, my place, the ways that I could be a part of making the world a better place. Experiencing severe anxiety and depression as a teen led me into a journey of self-discovery through counseling that changed me forever. Suffering after the birth of my daughter freed me from the bondage of perfectionism that chained me and the experience allowed me to invite divine mercy to encompass my life (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/2014/04/26). The terrifying experience of watching my dad, my life’s strong anchor and the net to catch me should I fall, brought down by a traumatic brain injury gave birth to the desire to process my life through writing. Thus this blog was created. Throughout my journey these moments of suffering have consistently served as the lifeless backdrop that provide the contrast to enjoy even more the glorious unfolding to come.

Each day as I entrust to God’s care those whom I love who are suffering greatly, it is my prayer that they too will eventually find that these moments will become the contrast for a greater glory yet to reveal itself. I desire that their current backdrop filled with the shades of brown that bring a sense of darkness and gloom and despair will one day serve to showcase the incredible spectrum of life that will pop with new birth and growth. When death gives way to new life, and glory unfolds to reveal some of the other shades found in the box of crayons, such as wild strawberry, vivid tangerine, sun glow, spring green, sky blue, denim and vivid violet, surely they will shine brighter and bring added richness to the brown canvas upon which they are colored.

As I finished my run on that very dismal day, I turned my back to the water and ascended the hill that leads into my neighborhood. There I passed the house of the tulips. Every year, cars take a detour to go down this street. Some slow down, some park, some get out to photograph the beauty. Out of the dreary brown of late winter springs forth a spectacular sea of tulips in a rainbow of colors. On this particular day there were no tulips, but only the tattered dead leaves leftover from winter, pasted to the ground from the wetness of the newly melted snow. From this very same spot, in just a couple of weeks, a new picture will emerge. At that very moment it occurred to me that sometimes the beauty has to be robbed from us for a time in order that we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew. If it was always there I would take it for granted and it would lose its power to transform me.

From this lifeless backdrop a glorious unfolding is about to reveal itself. As for me, I am going to keep my eyes wide open-I don’t want to miss it.

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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

Imperfect Imperfection & Divine Mercy

im·per·fec·tion

noun: 1. a fault, blemish, or undesirable feature.

Synonyms: defect, fault, flaw, deformity, discoloration, disfigurement; crack, scratch, chip, nick, pit, dent; blemish, stain, spot, mark, streak, flaw, fault, failing, deficiency, weakness, vice, weak point, fallibility, shortcoming, foible, inadequacy, frailty, limitation, chink in one’s armor.


My name is Lisa and I am imperfectly imperfect. The definition of imperfection and all of its synonyms describe me well, but imperfectly. In using the term “imperfectly imperfect”, I mean that sometimes there are these moments of glorious near perfection that happen through me, but I now realize that these neither start nor end with me, but rather happen despite me. And the thing is, as of this moment in time, I am incredibly grateful to embrace my imperfect imperfection. It has become an amazing gift; one that took me way too long to receive, let alone unwrap and enjoy.

I have spent most of my life being afraid of imperfection. On the worst of days, it was my most feared enemy, threatening to crush me into non-existence. On better days, I liken it to the one package left under the tree at Christmas that no one in the family wants to pick up. As Christmas unfolds, gifts are opened and celebrations wind down, there it sits, still wrapped up under the tree, near the back, untouched. It is akin to the beautifully packaged fruit cake that a certain relative sent year after year. It isn’t anything we wanted to eat, but rather something we just avoided. In it we perceived no worth other than the fact that someone remembered us this Christmas and wanted to show their care. To take a bite of it would just serve to make us sick, so we would end up eventually throwing it in the garbage, with its original packaging intact, as we took down the Christmas decorations at the end of the season.

I have always been aware of my imperfection, but was too afraid to face its presence ever lurking in the shadows, much too close for comfort. My way of coping with the fear of it was multifaceted. A few of my tactics looked like this: 1) I tried to pretend it wasn’t there; 2) When it seeped back into my consciousness, I worked extra hard to be perfect to prove I was better than it; 3) I focused on pleasing others, so that they would be distracted enough by my goodness so as to not see it in me.

For me, the worst part of imperfection was that I thought to embrace its presence within would make me unlovable. I was certain that the moment those I loved figured out the degree of my imperfection, they would abandon me. I even believed that my Creator demanded perfection from me in order for me to merit being loved. A life without love, the consequence of my imperfection, was what I feared the most.

Then one day, despite my best efforts and the tireless energy I expended to keep up the illusion of my perfection, I fell really hard. After nine months (plus a couple of extra weeks) of an incredibly joy-filled pregnancy, Jim and I welcomed into the world the baby we had planned and wanted more than anything in this life. Gazing upon Sadie Suzanne for the first time is a moment eternally engraved upon my soul. Never before had I seen anyone or anything more beautiful. She took my breath away and rendered me speechless. I praised God for using us to make her perfectly formed body for His eternal creation of a new person. Yet within hours of her arrival, my perfect world, now complete with the birth of my daughter, came crashing in upon me.

Anxiety attacks had been a part of my life since I was a child, but I had successfully been able to hide them from others. In the years before her birth they had mostly left and I had a peaceful respite from their cruelty. After Sadie’s birth however, they came back in full force. They came fast and furious, like the contractions of my labor which had been induced. There was no rest between the end of one attack and the beginning of the next. They blurred together into one ceaseless assault. All of my energy, which was needed to care for the new life entrusted to me, was instead spent trying to keep my head above the water enough so that I wouldn’t drown. Fighting the anxiety minute after minute rendered me unable to eat or sleep or even dress myself. After a few days, in the midst of uncontrollable chaos, I realized that if my daughter and I were going to survive my anxiety intact, I had to admit my imperfection to the world. I had to confess that I couldn’t do it anymore.

That day was the worst of my entire life. Just five days after the birth of my daughter, I picked up the phone and called those who loved me the most to tell them that I couldn’t do it-I couldn’t be a mom. The hardest part was telling my husband that he was going to have to pick between her or me, because I just did not have it in me to be her mother AND his wife. The masquerade of perfection was shattered. I was convinced that they would all leave me. Yet I was propelled to take the risk in order to protect my newborn daughter and give her a chance at a life better than I could provide.

This weekend my Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a day when we focus on God’s Mercy as the key element in the plan for salvation-to give His only Son for the redemption of all humanity. In my younger life of naive faith, I always thought about Divine Mercy as being mostly for other people. Since my identity was based upon a masquerade of perfection, I thought that I didn’t need this mercy as much as others did. I would pray the prayers, thinking of the lost souls of the world who needed mercy and forgiveness for their imperfection and its consequences. At the time when I was pregnant with my daughter, I prayed the Divine Mercy prayers every day as near to the 3:00 hour as possible-the hour when Jesus died and Divine Mercy first flooded the world. I am not certain as to why I did this, except that I felt led to do so. Little did I know then that I was also praying for myself and that the occasion of her entrance into the world, which happened at exactly 3:00 p.m. on the dot, became the very doorway I myself needed to walk through to enter into the arms of God’s mercy, even in the face of my utmost inadequacy.

They all gathered quickly after I hung up the phone. First my brother Kevin came, since he worked nearby. Then my parents who both left work early arrived. My husband sped to try to get home faster than the 90 minutes his commute normally took. Finally my sister-in-law Dana entered, with two very young children of her own, prepared to take care of our newborn daughter until we figured out what the future would look like. When I handed Sadie over, I wept uncontrollably. I wept for the fact that I didn’t think I would see her again-that the authorities would think it unsafe for me to ever parent a child. I wept for the way in which I had failed her, just at the time she needed me the most. I wept at how I had cracked and exposed my worst imperfections and now they all knew that I wasn’t what I had led them to believe. At the most crucial time in my life, I had failed miserably, my imperfection threatening to crush me into non-existence. My worst fears were being realized before my very eyes. I couldn’t fight it anymore.

At the moment of surrender, it came. Like a tsunami, rushing over me with a fierceness I had never known, it came. Divine Mercy, it came crashing in, surrounding me, lifting me up, keeping me afloat. Divine Mercy, in me and with me and through me. A Love completely encompassing even in the face of my greatest failing. Not manufactured by me, not earned by my goodness, not achieved by my sacrifices, but given freely because of my imperfection and my need. And with its arrival, those I loved joined together to become its vessels, day after day, week after week as I healed. No judgment, no anger, no betrayal was displayed. Only support and love and belief were shown.

It took me until I was 31 years old to pick up and accept the gift of imperfection that was sitting under the proverbial Christmas tree of my life. My girl, my Sadie, she was the one who gave me the courage to embrace it. My desire for her to live a good life, whether it was to be with me or without me, propelled me to unwrap it. Not too long after I handed her over, I received her back into my arms for good. With lots of mercy and love surrounding me in my frailty, we continued on the journey of imperfection which we remain on to this day. Her beautiful life has been the doorway for me to enter into the presence of Divine Mercy over and over. I cannot be the perfect mom I think she needs, but I can surrender to the mercy and love that frees me to be at peace with doing the best I can.

Imperfect imperfection. It has become an amazing gift. As I continue to unwrap it every day, I am led to the paradox that without it, I would not have a need for Divine Mercy. Exactly because of my imperfection, I am saved. O Happy Fault.