An Abundance of Life Shrouded by the Dormancy of Winter

Photo: Shaun C. Williams, Creative commons, some rights reserved https://www.flickr.com/photos/oceanstater/5479815772/in/photostream/

Although I may live in one of the tiniest houses in my suburban Chicago town, the best part about it is its location. What I didn’t realize or really even notice when my husband and I planted roots in our neighborhood sixteen years ago, just a mere two blocks away there exists an 19th century estate, surrounded by an old stone wall reminiscent of those found endlessly lining the lush green fields of Ireland. The best part of this property is that it is adjacent to a beautiful river and long ago was acquired by our county to become part of the forest preserve lands. It wasn’t until five years after moving in, when I took up running, that I first discovered the magical universe that resides on the other side of the stacks of crumbling limestone.

One spring afternoon, entering the preserve through an opening in the wall I had no idea the new world that was about to be opened up to me. The beauty was unbelievable and there was so much to discover—forests of enormous old trees, a plethora of enchanting wildlife, a perfectly manicured Japanese garden, interesting architectural structures and gates leading to paths along the river for miles and miles with bridges that connect to the other side. Crossing over to the Eastern shore, there are bubbling streams to be found which flow into and feed the river and an old windmill that sits high on a hill reminding all of days gone by.

Very quickly, it became apparent to me that this was my happy place and I couldn’t imagine how it was that I had lived without it for so many years of my life. On the days I was able to carve out time for a run, the very minute I crossed the street and entered the forest, it was as if the burdens of everyday life were lifted and I experienced a sense of freedom and deep connectivity. Here, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I felt able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here I felt able to connect deeply to the One who had, it seemed. created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. These encounters we had in this Cathedral of Creation returned me to myself and connected me to a sense of my purpose. Such extravagant displays of nature in spring, summer and autumn led me to embrace the belief in our collective belovedness before our Creator.

Though hibernation remained a daily temptation every winter, I sought to continue some semblance of an active running schedule throughout the cold days. My great sadness, however, was the forest paths became most difficult and treacherous to navigate. The fear of twisting an ankle or enduring another ice-related injury that could end my active life kept me playing it safe on the plowed and salted streets of town. These runs which led me past houses and cars and stores never provided the same sense of freedom and connectivity that my beloved forest and river always did. Running along the road adjacent to the forest preserve, I would peer lovingly at the trees inside the forest, longing to immerse myself in their shelter and glory. I dreamed of the first days of spring when I could once again breach the wall and find all to be well with my soul.

This past fall, as colder and shorter days were approaching, I knew I needed to figure out a way to continue to immerse myself in this Cathedral of Creation even throughout the winter. There were some new challenges I was facing on the daily and without the perspective so generously imparted by the immersion in nature, I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with them. After much thought, research and reflection, I made the decision to bring my running inside to the gym a few days a week and committed myself to walking outside a couple more. It is surprisingly easy to stay warm while running outside in the winter, but walking the 5 1/2 mile loop was an entirely different reality. It took a lot longer and seemed much colder. After some experimentation with layers, I finally figured out my standard configuration of warm gear and set out for a new adventure into a winter of walking in my happy place.

At first glance, the winter landscape seemed quite monochromatic and uninspiring to me. The shades of blah found in dead leaves and mud and faded wet grass were rather underwhelming. As a girl who has always been most captivated by the sea of colors liberally furnished by spring, summer and autumn, this was quite an adjustment. However, the more days I have spent walking the river path, my eyes have adjusted to see more clearly the subtle abundance of life shrouded in the dormancy of winter. And although there is a different energy found in nature at other times of the year, immersed in this winterscape, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly than when cooped up in my tiny house.

On one particularly difficult day in December, I found myself burdened with the weight of worry over my daughter’s current situation. Feeling quite helpless and unsure of what I could do to move her forward, I set out on one of my winter walks. A light layer of snow covered the trees and natural grasses that line the pathway. Coming into my focus was a tree with several buds springing forth from its many branches. Never before had I noticed this occurrence on trees in the winter, but I did on this particular day. It signaled to me that even though the worst of winter hadn’t yet come, and it would be many months before these buds would swell and flower, an abundance of life is promised to spring forth from this tree in due time. “So it is with your daughter” the still, small voice whispered deep within my heart. During subsequent bouts with fear and doubt, I have returned to those words time and again, believing that despite a time of dormancy, her time to blossom is coming. I need not try to cajole or force the growth, but instead, wait in joyful hope.

In January, after the wind had died down from a storm, I couldn’t wait to go outside into the freshly fallen snow. Much to my delight, as I entered into the forest, mine were the only human footprints to be seen. Yet all around were big footprints and little footprints and all the sizes in between. The wildlife who call this place home were quite busy, out and about, not allowing the storm to stop them. I felt privileged to join them and sensed a oneness as together we enjoyed the pure and clean covering which made everything seem new. Along the way I laughed at the goose footprints, triangular, clever and intelligently designed! For a while I followed the prints of what looked to belong to a raccoon. It had walked for over a mile down the very middle of the trail, out in the wide open, before veering off into the woods. I felt amused by the fearlessness of this creature in the absence of humanity, as if it was strutting down the runway at a forest fashion show. The elements of pure whimsy I observed in the aftermath of a winter’s snow filled me with deep and childlike joy. As I returned the way I had came and saw that mine still remained the only human footprints, I felt so blessed to experience such solitude in the midst of my busy life.

During a string of recent walks there remained a backdrop of gloomy and grey skies, without as much as a wink from the sun. In the absence of bright light or color, I began to notice the shapes and textures that surrounded me. There were the branches, unencumbered by leaves, showing off their naked and unique artistry. Some were wide and curvy. Others were narrow and straight. The river, it too was displaying its many different looks. In certain places along the journey it was frozen and placid. In others it was unfrozen and flowing with a gentle and soothing sound. At the end of my expedition, it could be seen showing off tall waves with peaks preserved in icy motion by the biting winds. Being awakened to all of these exhibitions of abundant life returned me to myself. It reminded me of the complexity of beauty there is to discover in each and every person, even those we would normally overlook, if we but pay close attention.

Stepping outside for my walk today, I was gleefully greeted by the bluest of skies and the warm glow of the sun. The slushy, melting snow yielded to each step I took and at times revealed the black asphalt of the path underneath. The faint taste of the earliest days of spring was in the air and I walked with a lightness in my stride. Basking in the warmth felt especially amazing and life-giving. After such incredible encounters this winter in the Cathedral of Creation, I felt pregnant with the expectation of what today’s experience would provide. Rounding my way through the boardwalks on the peninsula found at my halfway mark, I paused to gaze out at the river.

Hand in hand they entered the covered gazebo just behind me. A grandfather and his granddaughter who looked to be about 3 years old were joining me at the same lookout point. Peeking out from the top of his zip front jacket was her well-loved teddy bear, along for the adventure. Though I was close by, all he saw was her. He looked at her with incredibly deep love, as if she was the best thing that ever happened to him. “Look at them! Do you see them?” he said excitedly as he pointed at the river. “They’re Canadian Geese,” he explained with great joy. Then he picked her up and put her on his shoulder so she could get a better look. “There’s hundreds of them!” he exclaimed. “Can you hear them?” he asked. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, she responded with a resounding “Yes!”

In this moment it is all so clear to me the loving exchange I had just witnessed between this child and her grandfather is the same one I have been having all winter with my Creator. He looks at me with eyes who see a beloved child. He keeps lifting me up and giving me a higher vantage point with which to view more clearly all that has been made so intentionally. He keeps drawing my attention to the abundance of life to be found all around me, even though it might seem to be shrouded by the dormancy of winter. “Look! Do you see? he says excitedly. Can you hear? he asks. Here in this moment, surrounded by alluring sights and sounds, I am able to think and see and hear more clearly. Here in this moment, I feel able to connect deeply to the One who has, it seems, created it all to delight my body, mind and soul. And with a sense of wonder and awe and joy, I respond with a resounding “Yes!”

When What We Consume Consumes Us

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Aday or two before the dreaded time change back in the beginning of November, I threw out a few questions to my Facebook friends in regards to how to face the dreaded darkness that was about to descend upon us:  What are your most successful coping strategies for adjusting and thriving? Or even just surviving? Is it just me or does this just seem to get harder every year? I am happy to report, my FB Friends did not disappoint and I received nearly twenty responses full of empathy and helpful suggestions. I waded through them all to find the common denominators and made my mind up to incorporate a few into my daily and weekly routine: Up my intake of Vitamin D; check! Take walks outside in nature; check! Get to the gym on the regular; check! Eat more nutritionally dense foods; check! As the days shortened in November and December, I honestly felt as if my newly incorporated practices were making for a better season than I had anticipated. I was thriving and productive…at least until January rolled around.

The Dawn of a New Decade: 2020

Returning home after work in the permeating gray gloom on most days and the darkness on others, all I could bring myself to do after crossing the threshold of the front door was to greet my family of humans and felines, change into my most comfortable pair of sweats and plop myself down on the sofa. From that point in the evening, the struggle to keep myself awake became the all-consuming challenge for the few hours until 8 p.m. or so. At that time, I could somehow justify to myself that it was time for bed. (Before you judge me, you should probably know that one of my cats does make a pretty forceful attempt to wake me at 3:30 a.m. each day ; )

In my nightly pursuit of alertness, I quickly discovered that if I tried to crack open the cover of one of the fifteen or so books I have in the TO READ pile next to my sofa, within a couple of pages not even toothpicks propped in my open eyes could keep my eyelids from closing. The thought of getting up to cook or clean or God forbid, leave the house to go shopping, was WAY too overwhelming to even consider. On most nights, my ace-in-the-hole go-to solution to stay awake was to consume the high adrenaline producing news of the day. With a simple click of the remote, I could get ticked off enough by the reporting of national political shenanigans to get my 2-3 hour buzz of wakefulness to cross the finish line until my 8 p.m bedtime. In the absence of any other truly meaningful productivity in my life outside of work, subconsciously I had convinced myself that becoming an angry couch activist who was tempted to hate certain politicians with every new bombshell of a story, was a good and worthwhile undertaking.

February: A Light LITERALLY Shines in the Darkness

January 2020 will go down tied with January 1914 as the third gloomiest on record. The Chicago area was officially just four minutes shy of nine straight days without sun thanks to a brief break in the clouds Friday morning.”

CHICAGO (WLS)

After what felt like an eternal stretch of time without sunshine, about a week ago, the golden ball in the sky finally reappeared. Almost instantly, I felt reinvigorated. And with several days of light following the first one, shining into the darkest recesses of my psyche, the idea is beginning to occur to me that maybe, just possibly, the very thing I was consuming nightly during the past month has really been consuming me and not in any sort of positive way.

Why is it that I am so quick to give my power away to those who anger me for making the most vulnerable among us feel powerless and afraid? Why do I allow these individuals to make me into someone I don’t want to be? Why would I give anyone the power to make me hate them when a hateful and spiteful person is not who I want to become in this world?

In a recent interview I heard with Ruby Sales, an African-American social justice activist, she explained how the enslaved created spirituals to sing to remind them of the power they each had, even in the midst of slavery. I was especially captivated about what she had to say about hatred as addressed in one of the spirituals she was taught, “I Love Everybody in My Heart”:

“You can’t make me hate you. You can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now that’s very powerful,” she says, “because you have to understand that this spiritual was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives but it also contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver.” By insisting on the humanity even of the enslaver, black folk religion transcended the opposites of victims and victimizers.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

She went on to explain the difference between redemptive anger and non-redemptive anger:

Well, first of all, as you’ve just pointed out, love is not antithetical to being outraged. Let’s be very clear about that. And love is not antithetical to anger. There are two kinds of anger. There’s redemptive anger, and there’s non-redemptive anger. And so redemptive anger is the anger that says that — that moves you to transformation and human up-building.”

https://onbeing.org/programs/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/

With this dawning revelation, I entered the pew on Saturday night to worship and be inspired by the words of the Scriptures, instead of being agitated by non-redemptive angry words found in tweets and reactionary news stories and ugly back and forth discourse on social media. I longed to be reminded that I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. What I heard was life-giving and affirming. It caused me to recall the kind of person I want to become and the simple, yet challenging actions I can take which will lead me there.

Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry; shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own…then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your wound shall be quickly healed…If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Isaiah 58:7, 8a, 9b-10

What became crystal clear to me that night is that by devouring the national news of polarization and vitriol, I have been allowing forces beyond my control to paralyze me in a state of non-redemptive anger, effectively devouring my ability to become an active participant in creating a community in which the vulnerable are cared for, where the marginalized are lifted up and all are treated with dignity.

Moving Forward in a Year of Election

There is a common theme that runs through the teachings of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta that has always remained a difficult one for me to embrace. Many of her most quotable moments are summed up in this one:

It is easy to love the people far away.  It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

On a recent return trip home from my early morning coffee run, I spied them. Mother and teenage son, walking on our street, bundled up in heavy layers in the pre-dawn darkness of a snowy and cold winter’s day. As my car grew closer, the outline of the tool in their hands grew clearer. Each of them was walking in opposite directions from their house, carrying a shovel with which to clear the driveways and walkways of elderly neighbors on our block.

Such a simple view of how we can make a difference in our world each day is not exciting, it isn’t adrenaline producing, nor does it ignite a sense of righteousness and need to feel important. Instead, loving those close to me is hard. It is humbling. It is self-sacrificial. Many times it doesn’t lead to any sort of special acknowledgment. In my experience these acts of love in my home and neighborhood and workplace don’t energize me, but more often times deplete me. Yet as I am promised by my Creator and shown by the examples of people in my lifetime, these simple ways of channeling my redemptive anger will effectively build up and transform those in my family, in my local community and ultimately in my world. They will even change me.

Each vote in the upcoming election, though an action of great importance, a right earned for us through the sacrifices of many brave men and women throughout the ages, remains but a tiny ripple of influence in a world ripe for a revolution of civility, kindness and redemptive love. However, I realize that in these remaining months before the election, I can pray for the courage and strength to choose what remains mine to choose every single day, now and forever.

May I choose acts of transforming love over acts of non-redemptive anger and hatred. May I choose to share my bread with the hungry instead of sharing vitriolic articles on social media about my adversaries. May I choose to shelter the oppressed instead of oppressing those with whom I disagree. May I choose to clothe the naked with dignity, instead of stripping the humanity from those whom I don’t trust. May I choose to support my own family and friends, even when we don’t see eye to eye on how things should be. And may the love I choose to preserve be that which preserves me. For it is then, as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, “light shall rise for you in the darkness and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

Good Day, Sunshine!

Becoming More Than

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

After investing a whole lot of time listening to the testimonies in the Impeachment Hearings for many days last week, this past weekend I decided to immerse myself in what might just be the antithesis of all that is happening between political parties in our nation’s capitol and between citizens of goodwill all around our country. I finally watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, a poignant documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the long running children’s television show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Spending an hour and a half basking in the goodness of this man who was a kind of empathetic, imaginary friend in my early childhood, was nothing short of rejuvenating. Exposing myself to the light and love emanating from his soul was like coming home to a warm, cozy fire after being vulnerable to the elements on a raw and stinging cold winter’s day. Fred’s way in this world was the perfect antidote to counter the toxic affects of hatred, mistrust and disdain for truth.

Though Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he believed that it was far more important to live what you believe rather than just talk about it. I find this to be a refreshing stance in our world where the noise of words can sometimes become unbearable. In a sea of children’s programming, he stood out as counter cultural, at times even espousing the use of silence on his television program. For example, on one episode he set a timer for a minute and kept quiet so that he could teach children just how long this increment of time is. Though he filmed decades before our daily lives became inseparably intertwined with reliance upon advanced technology, the wisdom he shared is as needed now as it ever was. Silence, stillness, reflection, contemplation; these are all powerful tools in a well balanced life as we stand at the threshold of the new decade just ahead.

About fifteen minutes into the documentary, I hit pause and ran to grab my journal and favorite pen. Woven into the narrative were some nuggets of profound, yet simple truth I wanted to record for more thorough digestion at a later time. They were spoken by Fred in various clips of interviews throughout the years and collectively are a treasure trove of inspiration for such a time as this. The one that struck me most deeply was this:

I think that those who would try to make you feel less than who you are-I think that’s the greatest evil.”

Fred Rogers

The greatest evil? I’ve been kicking that around in my head all day, applying Fred’s assessment to various events in our world that trigger my fiery Irish temper. And yep, at the end of the day it most definitely resonates with me. It seems that at the core of every crime against humanity this type of attitude exists. When persons are treated as less than, when human beings are denied the sense of dignity and good endowed to them by their Creator, this indeed is evil. And sadly we are witnesses to it every day, even hearing it from what once might have been considered unlikely sources of such harmful and nefarious conduct. We see it executed through lies spoken, through accusations tweeted, through callous generalizations propagated on social media, all serving to dehumanize the “other”. Slowly but surely there seems to an erosion of civility happening. It is stripping the sense of sacred presence found in humanity and devaluing individuals and groups of persons through the use of one word descriptors such as “animals”, “enemies”, “invaders”, “lowlifes”, “dogs”.

In complete contrast, Fred Rogers lived his life lifting up the marginalized, reverencing those who were seen as less than, putting a spotlight on their inherent beauty and uniqueness. He took on the controversial issues of the times in which he lived and over and over raised up persons who were commonly misunderstood, discriminated against and treated unfairly. He opened our eyes to see that these incredible human beings are more than anyone ever let them be. Mister Rogers imparted to all people a sense of dignity and respect, even to those who would go on to create parodies of his show. Though he may not have appreciated their humor, he never disparaged them as persons.

This perhaps is the aspect of Fred Roger’s life that challenges me the most. He personified Jesus’ discourse in the Gospel of Matthew: But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” What Jesus inherently knew and was addressing with this discourse is that there exists a great temptation to imitate the very behaviors I detest in my enemy, under the auspices of being righteous. When I give into this temptation, I myself become less than who I am, not because of another’s treatment of me, but by the way I choose to stoop below the dignity of who I was created to become. When instead I successfully resist devaluing my enemies through the use of one word descriptors, and choose to act with intentional love towards them, the cycle of hatred can be reversed.

No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be Tikkun Olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and love to your neighbor and yourself.”

Fred Rogers

As time marches forward toward the Winter Solstice and shorter days grow darker, I invite you to join me as I attempt to take up a virtual residence in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. It is a place where our daily words and actions can become a source of rejuvenation for others. It is a neighborhood where the light and love emanating from our souls can serve to melt misunderstandings found in the space between us. It is an environment where all people can be recognized as inherently good and treated with a sense of dignity and respect, even when they are considered to be enemies. There in Mister Roger’s neighborhood we can collectively become more than; together we can become repairers of a broken world.

Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?

The Antonym of Me: Responding to Hate with Love

Photo by Thuong Do on Unsplash

The burden of helplessness is so very heavy. I feel it in my bones as I drag them around all week trying to accomplish even the basic tasks required by life. Everything demands extra effort and I am tired. Collapsing on the sofa after work, I find myself asleep hours before my normal bed time. Yet in the morning I awake feeling the same as the day before. Rest doesn’t seem to ease the load.

They are so far away from me, the ones who suffer; about 1500 miles according to the map. But at the same time they are so near. I hold them deep within my heart, which breaks and grieves for what has been done to them out of hatred, out of misunderstanding, out of fear, out of ignorance, out of dehumanization.

Jolts of anger rise up and crash through the sadness, shake me out of my stupor and focus my attention on all that is awful and wrong in this country. “Somebody needs to be blamed for the state of our nation in which this tragedy keeps repeating itself over and over!” my brain shouts loudly, pointing proverbial fingers at the characters I most love to abhor in my country.

Though my self-righteous fuming makes me feel better about myself for a moment, it is just temporary and it too fails to ease the load. The helplessness returns with a vengeance, threatening to paralyze my ability to function in any sort of productive way.

Feebly I attempt to avoid the news coverage as it only seems to exacerbate the exhaustion in my soul, yet I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It fuels more sadness and grief and anger. It chews me up and spits me back out, beaten and bruised. But I don’t stop myself.

Longing for healing and nourishment and peace I drag myself out to the car and drive to Saturday night Mass. Surrounded by hundreds, I feel utterly alone. The music, the spoken words, they fade to the background as I stare at the crucifix hanging in the front. My gaze falls upon the crucified One.

Little by little I recollect that just as my brothers and sisters who were murdered this past week in El Paso, He too was murdered out of misunderstanding, out of fear, out of ignorance, out of dehumanization. The same hatred that killed them is the same hatred that killed Jesus.

And as He hung there dying, all the while being taunted and mocked, He uttered these profound, game-changing words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” While being nailed to the cross by the most perverted and wicked measures of hatred, He responds with the purest expression of love.

The anger and hatred I try to disguise as a thirst for justice—what if it is no better than the hatred which has been used to perpetrate evil? And it occurs to me that those same words, perhaps He utters them about me also…“Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she does.” Truly I don’t know how many times I’ve allowed my misunderstanding, my ignorance, my fear to reap pain and suffering on others. And I really don’t want to know because if I own that truth, I am reminded that there is no them, there is only us.

At the core of us I recognize a collective woundedness, a collective brokenness, our collective tendency to depravity. I am not immune to it. It lies deep within me also, just as it does in a young man who went to a Walmart near the border so that he could kill those whom he most feared in his own thirst for justice. There is no them, there is only us.

As the priest raises the wide rimmed chalice of wine up to the heavens during the prayer of consecration, I imagine us all in the cup together; the murdered, those they left behind, the murderer, his parents, those freshly paralyzed with fear because of the color of their skin, the white supremacists, the first responders, the racists, the surgeons, the politicians, the lovers, the haters, everyone in between and me. I offer us all to God’s mercy and to His power to open our hearts and minds and to His ability to transform our darkness into light, our hatred into love.

The words Father sings with the cup raised high crash into my stream of consciousness. “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.”

With clarity, I see my self-perceived helplessness as a bold lie. Each and every day I have a helpful choice to make—will I allow my woundedness and brokenness to incur more bleeding and pain in this world, or will I beg of the One greater than I that through Him, with Him and in Him, it may be transformed into an expression of redemptive love, as He chose, even while bleeding and dying on the cross?

My longing for healing and nourishment and peace propels me forward in the line to receive communion and I consume the gift of the bread and wine, which my faith tells me has been transformed into His body and blood. It dawns on me that all whom I blame for that which is horrible, they too are children of God. All those I most love to abhor for the way in which they treat those with brown or black skin—they are loved the same by Him as I am. The murderer? Also loved by God. This week I’ve been dragging around the heavy burden of hatred and unforgiveness, all the while trying to justify it in the name of righteousness. But in God’s Kingdom, I don’t think there is room for these. It’s best they be left outside the door before entering. The Christ—truly, He is the antonym of me.

Moved to a place of surrender, I drop my sack overflowing with hate and self-righteousness and judgment and humbly utter the words, Father, forgive US ALL for we know not what we do.

Light Waiting to be Found in the Shade of the Forest

After a week of some seriously formidable heat which forced all attempts at exercise to be done inside the confines of an air conditioned sweat box called “the gym”, this morning’s 70 degree temps, coupled with low humidity was a much welcomed invitation to return to nature. These past days have also been filled with seriously formidable political angst, fueled by hurtful words and chants against those who are different than others. I found a great need within to escape it all and reconnect with that which is life-giving. I hopped on my bike and headed down to the path along the river for a ride.

I left the headphones at home so as to take in not only the sights, but the sounds as well. The birds seemed extra sing-songy. I imagined maybe they too were thrilled with the break in the heat and their song was one of unencumbered joy. I headed south for about 5 miles taking in the colors and shapes and scents and sounds. Then I crossed the bridge and turned back to the north when the most exhilarating breeze greeted me. It was one of those blissful moments when it feels as if nature and I are in tandem. Me, delighting in its beauty and Nature, showing its appreciation with the first burst of cool refreshment I can remember feeling in quite some time.

This got me thinking about God and all the ways in which He is seeking to get our attention to let us know how much we are loved. Lavish colors, sweet fragrances, the distinct noises of rushing water and blowing winds — it occurs to me that on one level, all of it has been created as an expression of love to woo me, to delight me, to communicate to me. This awareness of light arrives in the midst of the shade of the forest and I am filled with wonder and awe. Welling up in my heart is immense gratitude for the immeasurable gift of this love, of this extravagant expression found in the wild.

We are always in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”

Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M.

Forest bathing. Currently its all the rage in Japan. The city dwellers escape to the forests on the weekends in order to experience this therapeutic practice in the midst of their crazy busy lives. As it is defined at http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/, “Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest. Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.”

This term, it comes to mind when I reflect on the oneness I feel with the Creator at this moment surrounded by creation. It strikes me both how depressing and how comical it is that in our contemporary times, when many have schedules which permit the luxury of being in nature on a daily basis, it is “discovered” by scientists that there are real physical and mental benefits of being in nature. Our Creator knew this all along, creating what we need for when we need it; always waiting to welcome us with a bounty of alluring and healing experiences in the diversity of landscapes in which we find ourselves living.

Towards the end of my ride, before ascending the hill which leads to my neighborhood, I sat for a few last moments to bask in the experience. Within eyesight I noticed a plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and species of plants and animals. This creative gathering of diversity blends together to create something far more glorious than any of its individual parts. Within earshot I appreciated the symphony of sounds that accompanied my view. I listened to the cacophony of songs from insects and mammals; the rustling of the leaves in the breeze, the splashing of the water when a fish jumped. Though nature is all so wild and unpredictable, I was most certain in the moment it is also particularly designed and well-planned by the Creator. He makes no mistakes.

In the last leg of my journey out of the forest I am convinced this too must be the same with the creation of the human race in its plethora of shapes, colors, sizes and cultures. We are created in the image and likeness of God. To reject one color or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to reject Him. To refuse one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to refuse the gift of generous creativity given freely as an expression of love to delight us, to woo us, to communicate to us. To throw away one color, or one culture or one individual part of the whole is to throw away a bounty of alluring and healing experiences meant to benefit us. Though humanity is all so wild and unpredictable, I am most certain in this moment each and every one of us has been made with complete and loving intentionality. And it is precisely in this creative gathering of diversity the reflection of the fullness and glory of God is most perfect.

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.