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

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

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

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

»The Early Days

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

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

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

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

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

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

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

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

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

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

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

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

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

»By No Power of My Own

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

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

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

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

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

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

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

Continued…

 

Death (& Rebirth) by Motherhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mom,

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

Love, Sadie”

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

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

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

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