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.

The Accolade of Hardship

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No sooner than one day after my recent wrestling match had ended, (you may read about it here: https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/blessed-brokenness/), I was the lucky recipient of another seriously challenging morning with my daughter. Due to an additional infraction involving the use of her very favorite iDevice, she was informed that it was to be gone from her life for many days. Reception of such earth-shattering news in the life of this teen didn’t go so well. As I have now learned in the classroom of my life, the brain wiring of persons with ADHD may process emotion differently. Sometimes, one strong emotion may flood their brains so much so that it crowds out any other information which might allow the person to modulate emotion and the behavioral response to it. On Tuesday, this meant that there was severely intense anger leading to some severely intense and negative behaviors. In the moment, knowing that it is harder for my girl to process emotion didn’t actually help things. By the time I made it to the car to start the drive to school and work, I felt as if all of my emotional energy had been spent for the day, and it wasn’t even 7:15 a.m.

Days like this often times find me heading to morning Mass, a place where I experience quiet, time to reflect and listen, time to regroup and be fed. Right now it is the Easter Season in my Church. It began on Easter Sunday and lasts for 50 days. Our daily readings regale us with so many interesting stories of what life was like for the followers of Jesus after His death and resurrection. Most of these are found in the Book of Acts. So this past Tuesday, we were all listening to one such story of the disciple Paul and how he was stoned by the crowds, dragged out of the city and was left for dead. As a person who is quite overly dramatic, at least in my own head, I could kind of relate to Paul. I too was feeling beat up. And like me on this particular morning, he wasn’t beat up to the point of being actually dead. His friends gathered around him, got him up and took him into the city to continue doing the very thing that just brought him to death’s door. I could relate to this too, because at 2:15 p.m. every day it is pickup time. In approximately six hours, I was going to have to re-engage with my kid, with the uncertainty as to what more might unfold.

The very next words in the story about Paul seemed to me as if they were almost shouted from the pulpit, which they weren’t. But they jumped out at me and resonated more loudly than the rest.

“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships
to enter the Kingdom of God.”

After hearing this, I think I almost laughed out loud, which is entirely not cool at this part of the Mass and is akin to one’s cell phone ringing loudly during the priest’s homily. These words, they were strangely comforting. I mean, I hate hardship as much as anyone else, but on this very hard morning, which I had survived without losing my cool, I thought to myself, “Awesome! At least I am headed in the right direction!” The rest of that day, and every day since, I keep hearing those words repeat over and over in my head and in my heart.  

Friday night found my daughter and I attending the eighth grade graduation at her school. She wanted to say goodbye to these kids in the grade above hers, who she has shared daily life with for the past eight years. This was an incredible class of twenty kids. They were leaders, in the classroom and on the playground. Their reputation as good, solid, smart kids was well earned by their behavior, their demeanor, their respect of their elders and the way in which they treated the younger students. It was good to gather together to celebrate their commencement. When it came time for the part of the ceremony where special accolades are awarded, I had no idea what strong feelings of protectiveness were about to flood my being.

Over and over, the same four to seven kids were called up to receive award after award testifying to their academic superiority, and justifiably so. They are brilliant. They tested in the 99th percentile in our state; four earned the highest overall scores of hundreds who took the entrance exam for a local Catholic high school and these four received a full year scholarship to go there. This one earned the best score in a math competition held for the entire group of eighth graders enrolled in public and private schools in this town. These other ones received a composite score of 85% overall in national standardized testing. All of these students worked hard and achieved excellence. They earned these accolades. But I couldn’t help thinking, what about the rest? What are they feeling right now?

What about the boy whose smile and positive spirit could light up even the darkest corners of a place without joy? What about the girl who volunteered to be outside school every single day, in the heat, in the cold, in the sunshine, in the rain or in the snow. She memorized the names of every single student in the school, from kindergarten up, and as she opened their car door when they arrived at school, she greeted them by name, as well as the parent who was dropping off their child. What about the girl who is the oldest of six, who helps with her younger siblings at home, while maintaining an “A” average, but isn’t recognized in a class with many who maintain an A+ average? What about the ones who struggle academically, the ones who are challenged to overcome obstacles of hardship every day and never quit? What about them? These children, they too are extraordinary in their own right. Each and every child deserves accolades.

I woke up Saturday morning, unable to stop pondering my experience of the night before. Why did all of this bother me so much? Over the past 13 years, as I’ve grown into my role as a mom, I’ve come to recognize that many things in this world which seem to incite passion within me, lead me back to the raw desire to protect and advocate for my child. And upon further reflection, this is exactly where the passionate response led me-to what I affectionately refer to as my “Mother Bear Response”.

Most days of parenting offer us all a glimpse of our children, in all of their glory and in all of their imperfection. And on most of those days, with a love that God has placed in my heart for her, just as she is, I stand in wonder and awe of her soul. I think about the miracle it is to me that someone who is faced with such hardship in accomplishing things which come so simply to me, perseveres day after day and never throws in the towel. I think of someone whose academic performance, which seems average in a class of super smart kids, is brilliant to me, because it comes at so high of a cost. I think of someone who if judged merely by scores on an entrance exam, standardized testing or math competition would seem so ordinary. This reminds me that I need to begin to prepare her now for next year, for that day when she is gathered with her classmates on Graduation Day. I need to teach her that just because she doesn’t hear her name called and just because she isn’t asked to step forward to receive an award, doesn’t mean that she isn’t extraordinary in her own right. I need to remind her that because of the hardships that come with being her, and the way in which she navigates them, she is and continues to become someone who is actually quite extraordinary and empathetic.

In the year ahead, I need to retell to her the stories of the things she does that humble me and find me thanking God for the gift of witnessing her life each day. Like the night when at the school Christmas Program, in her quiet, fearless way, she sought to be next to the girl who had just found out the day before that her dad had been killed in a tragic accident. Not being one to avoid such sadness, the concert found my daughter holding this girl’s hand, trying to comfort her as they sang Christmas Carols together. Like the Palm Sunday afternoon when she wove a palm into a cross to give to her Papa Ed in the nursing home. Even though he couldn’t speak, when she walked into the room, his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. She showed him the cross, told him she made it just for him and pinned it on his bulletin board. Little did we know, it would be her last gift to him as he died a short time later.Or like the day at school when she unknowingly hurt the feelings of a kindergartner, by winning the prize stuffed fat cat in the Magazine Drive. When she eventually found out this girl was crying because she was disappointed that she didn’t win it, my girl searched for a duplicate fat cat on the internet, bought it with her own money and gifted it to the young girl.

As Graduation Day for the Class of 2015 grows closer, I must remember to tell her that no matter what she witnesses that night, it does not define who she is or who she isn’t. No matter how much the ceremony shines light on the goodness of some, goodness that is rightfully celebrated, it doesn’t mean that her goodness doesn’t exist. While she will never fully understand in this life why it is that by some of the standards of the world she may just seem ordinary, I must remind her that she is extraordinary. Though the road to extraordinariness is one that requires frequent navigation of obstacles and difficulties, I must remember to tell her that God has deemed her worthy to travel on this way. He has called her by name to come forth and receive the accolade of hardship; a gift to be used to travel to her ultimate destination at the end of her life, the Kingdom of God. Like it says in the Book of Acts, its entrance exam requires undergoing many hardships, but the good news is that I have no doubt this is one entrance examine she will most certainly ace.