The Destination is the Purest of Love; the Vehicle is Togetherness

Recently, I had the privilege to witness my oldest nephew, Keegan, marry the love of his life, Emma. Theirs is a union of two outstanding, salt-of-the-earth persons whose lives as individuals have made a positive difference in this world and whose togetherness will most certainly transform it. I was humbled and honored to offer the following reflection at their Marriage Ceremony. (photos by the amazing, wildly-talented and highly recommended Sandra Armenteros)

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Despite what you might think, not all of the best love stories have a magical beginning. Keegan and Emma met when they were just 13 and 11.  Emma was “forced” to play on the home school basketball team, because there was a need for more kids. At that first basketball practice, in a sweaty gymnasium, filled with the unforgettable fragrance of adolescent stench is where their story began. Magical? Not so much. Quirky and memorable? Definitely!

As the story continued, it contained ingredients that could create the plot for a good teenage flick–the highs of the crush phase, the lows of the he/she only-likes-me-as-a-friend phase, the coming of age experience of attending one another’s high school dances, the experience of discovering their own identities at colleges far apart from one another, all building up to the crescendo of their first real date as adults in December of 2013. But the most surprising component of the story? Almost the entire time they’ve known each other, they have lived in separate states. Their story is one of an enduring, long-distance relationship.

Recently, I was captivated by a post Emma wrote on Facebook, after she had just dropped Keegan at the airport:

“After living in separate states and driving back and forth every weekend for years, and spending the last 12 months flying across the country from Chicago to Virginia to California, it’s hard to believe this may have been our last trip before we get married and finally commit to living in just one place!”

And that is where we find ourselves now.  This day whose details have consumed so much of the very little time you’ve had together in this last year has finally arrived. Right now, I invite you to pause, take a deep breath and be present to this very moment.

To prepare for today, I sent Keegan and Emma some questions to complete so that I could get a deeper insight into what is at the heart of their relationship. Emma, Keegan wrote of how he is inspired by your independence and strength. He considers you his best friend and he described how your love and patience has helped him to become a better person towards others. Keegan, Emma wrote of how she is inspired by your love for family, your ability to dream big dreams and your strong work ethic that leads you to set a goal and achieve it. She described how your adventurous spirit pushes her out of her comfort zone and allows her to experience life more fully.

When asked to reflect upon what you see as the greatest strength of your union, you both made reference to your shared desire to actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. This is what you identified as the guiding principle at the heart of the decisions you make as individuals and as a couple.

Yet it was something Emma wrote about the decision to get married I found most powerful. She said,

“We are choosing to become something beyond and greater than ourselves as individuals”.

Contained within these words is the wisdom that the experience of true love expands us. Togetherness is the vehicle you are choosing to take on this journey whose destination is love in its truest and purest form. It is in and with and through this togetherness that you will be expanded beyond who you think you are, into your fullest selves and all you are meant to become.

In this vehicle of togetherness, you will become greater than yourselves. This may happen exactly in some of the ways you hope and dream it will. It may happen as you cheer one another on to accomplish goals you have set for yourselves and check things off your life’s great bucket list. It may happen when your joint efforts to better the world have done just that and you are able to tangibly experience it. It may happen if you are blessed with children and you see your love, now living outside of you, dwelling in a new human soul you co-created with the Creator.

This may also happen in some of the most unexpected ways you might not be able to imagine. It may happen when you’re face to face with the absolute worst parts of yourself and you hear the words from the other, “I love you, even with your imperfections.” It may happen when some things you dreamed of don’t work out as you had planned and you say to the other, “Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. I am in this for the long haul with you.” It may happen when you’ve been deeply hurt by the other and you find the strength within to move past the pain to speak the words, “I forgive you.” 

Today as you set off on your journey in this vehicle of togetherness, packed inside, along with the two of you, is a legacy of love that has formed you up until this moment. Consider this a travel kit of sorts. The witness of others’ journeys towards this destination of love in its purest form can be of great value. You’ve been blessed to see it lived in all of its stages; most recently and most profoundly you have seen it in the love your grandparents have displayed for one other in the worst of times. You’ve also glimpsed it through the stories of your aunts, uncles, friends and parents. If you look closely, you will garner a treasure of wisdom in these stories and discover that they each contain elements of joy and sorrow; order and chaos; mercy and blame; fulfillment and disenchantment; success and failure. And it is exactly within the paradox of all of these seemingly contradictory elements that the miracle of love and growth and expansion occurs.

This toolkit will prove to be invaluable when you are at a crossroad, or when you run out of fuel or when you need help overcoming an obstacle in your way. There is a richness of experience in this room that has shown up today because we believe in you and your unique togetherness and we will support you when you most need it. And never forget the Love that created each of you and brought you together, the same Love towards which you travel will be nearer to you than you even are to one another. Lean on this Love to guide the way.

There will be extraordinary milestones when you experience the beautiful balance of life and you feel as if you’ve arrived at your destination. Enjoy these. Bask in the joy they offer. Allow them to empower your union and strengthen your commitment. But realize that it probably won’t be long before you will be faced with a new experience that will offset that glorious balance and remind you there’s still a whole lot of road ahead. Don’t be afraid of the rough roads. Buckle in, yield to them and allow them to bring about the growth in your union they are meant to accomplish. They too, are a necessary part of the journey. As author Elizabeth Lesser so succinctly captured it, “We will always be falling apart and coming together and falling apart, because we cannot control this unruly life.” However, when we say yes to one other and to all of it, we will find beauty and meaning everywhere. We will be transformed into an incarnation of the very Love towards which we travel.

On the verge of entering this vehicle of togetherness, remember you’ve already accomplished the hardest part-you have each found the person in this world who makes you want to take the journey and who without, you might not even attempt it. In your years spent apart, you created an incredible foundation on which to travel. Now that you will be together, you will actively contribute to the greater good by serving others. Together, you will explore and learn and become something beyond and greater than yourselves. Together you will be formed into the Love that is your very destination. Together you will create your own legacy that will endure. Now, as you speak vows from the depths of your hearts, the story of life spent apart will end and the adventure of a lifetime will begin, together. Let the journey commence!

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.