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.

Though Stripped Bare by Life, She Clothes Herself with Strength and Dignity

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Mom with her firstborn son Todd, circa 1960

Sometime during my years of teenage angst, when daydreams of my future husband seemed to fill endless hours of my existence, I recall asking my dad to tell me about the first time he saw my mom. Immediately, an affectionate grin crossed his face, a sparkle entered his eye and without hesitation, he reminisced. As if he were watching a replay on the big screen, with keen clarity he willingly described the moment.

“She was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Libertyville, her head held high, with confidence and poise, holding the hand of her young son in hers.” The grin expanded into a smile as he continued, “…and she had those beautiful, long legs too.”

Never have I forgotten this encounter with my dad. While he did not hesitate to mention her physical beauty, it was not the first thing he noticed about her. Instead, it was her strength and dignity. For a teenage girl who was all consumed at the time with body image, this was a monumental revelation. As I have aged, my understanding of the significance of his words has expanded in accordance with my understanding of their cultural context.

It was the early 1960s. She was divorced, a single mom and a Roman Catholic; three words when added together, exposed a woman of her generation to a climate of rumors, gossip, shame. It was too early in anyone’s young life to be so misunderstood and defined by actions that were out of her control. Yet at just 22 years old, she seemed to be in a situation that appeared rather bleak, even by today’s standards.

The youngest of five children in an Irish/German Catholic family, she already carried with her the scars of living with an alcoholic father and the painful memories of her own mother as the target of his drunken rage. Following her graduation from high school, she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, seeking to do something wonderful with her life in service to others. Within a year, she knew she had a different calling and went home.

Quickly delving into post-convent life, she found a boy to whom she gave her heart and he became her husband. Returning from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the joyful news with her beloved, he left. Gone, never to be seen again. She, the daughter of an addicted father and an abused mother; abandoned, alone, pregnant and just 21.

Stripped bare by the circumstances of life, she did not give into despair, she did not succumb to the role of a victim, she did not become bitter and paralyzed. Instead she made a choice to clothe herself with strength and dignity. She moved back home and worked full-time. When her son was born, she loved him and nurtured him and embraced life as a single mom, with the help of her own mother. Most importantly, despite the stigma attached to her situation, she walked with her head held high.

With confidence and poise she faced incredible adversity. This is the essence of the woman whom my father fell in love with and she is the one I am forever blessed to call “Mom”. Today she celebrates her 80th birthday. In the weeks leading up to this occasion, she communicated clearly that she desired no fanfare, no parties, no special toasts. I am at a loss as to how to appropriately celebrate such a milestone when given these restrictions. Hence I turn to the written word to help me to shine light on her beautiful life I’ve been privy to witness my whole life. Strangely, at the same time I feel a sense of sadness for the time I’ve wasted. I feel myself grieve the years I didn’t open my eyes to the priceless gift lavishly given to me. Unfortunately, these add up to claim the majority of my life, that was until I became a mother myself.

Her amazing adventure with my dad began over 50 years ago on the day he saw her walking down the street with my brother. It is a story I increasingly cherish the older I get (click here for the juicy details). Against all odds, they took a chance on one another; she as a woman broken by abandonment; he as a man embracing a life with a stigmatized divorcee who already had a child whom he would have to learn to love as his own. Both were the product of conservative Catholic families staunchly against their union, because of the fact it could not be recognized by their Church due to her divorce. None of these factors stopped them from following their hearts.

Sue and Chuck circa 1962

Though now she journeyed in partnership with the love of her life, adversities did not cease. After elopement, their family’s silent treatment was deafening. Stripped bare of this support during their first year together, they strengthened their bond to one another. When their firstborn son was was delivered full-term without life or breath, their oneness became even more unwavering in their shared grief. And when my dad suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, one that rendered him helpless for many months, she again clothed herself with strength and dignity. She forged a new path and did whatever she could to nurse him back to health, all the while juggling motherhood and full-time employment outside of the home.

As her only daughter, I have grown up in the warmth of her unconditional love. In her quiet way she has spent herself completely to care for dad, my two brothers and myself, without complaint. Not once did she tell me the of the suffering she had endured before I entered her world. Nor did she ever speak of the suffering she endured because I had entered her world. (I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t always the easiest kid to parent.) Even now, when I phone her to apologize for my youthful and feisty stubbornness that I am privileged to encounter in my own offspring, it is with utter grace and mercy that she claims she doesn’t remember me ever being difficult.

Looking back, I honestly cannot recall a time when tribulation took a hiatus from her life. There were more losses of babies she wanted, people she cherished, some of whom were taken from us too soon. In the most recent of years, when retirement offers so many of her friends the opportunity to winter in sunny places, she has found herself stuck in the cold, harshness of Midwestern winter, driving back and forth to the hospital or the rehabilitation facility to faithfully be at my dad’s side when unwelcome health crises have crashed in. Yet somehow with each new crushing sadness, with every single harsh blow she allows herself to be made stronger and her dignity to be preserved.

One of my favorite Franciscan wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanityWe can see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.” And this, I think, sums her up.

If you happen to watch her on any given day, you will glimpse a woman who is free; a woman who is a conduit of grace in this world. You will glimpse it when she is surrounded by her 10 grandchildren overflowing into the spaces of her cozy town home. She loves and accepts them each wherever they are at in their journey and they know it beyond a doubt. You will glimpse it in the ways she cares for my dad. Time after time, she shows up from sunrise to sunset at his bedside in the Emergency Room, the hospital, the rehab center to support and advocate and love and suffer alongside him. You will glimpse it when she listens to her adult children with their adult problems. Without a first thought for her own needs, she sacrifices to make theirs more manageable. You will glimpse it when you see her feeding treats to all of the dogs who pass her home on their daily walks. They even recognize her when she is driving in her car and drag their owners towards her. You will glimpse it in the way you feel in her presence; special, loved, worthy, accepted just as you are, graced.

Mom, each time life strips you bare, you rise and clothe yourself with strength and dignity. This is the rich legacy you give the world and us, your children and grandchildren. You are a living example that no matter what waves crash in and threaten to drown earthly happiness, we can continue to walk this journey with confidence and poise and become the most amazing conduits of grace, just like you. Although words will never do justice in expressing my eternal gratitude to you, nor the depth of my love for you, be assured that I am forever blessed because of your life and the way you have chosen to live it, head held high, with confidence and poise, and yes, still with those beautiful, long legs.

Mom, Dad and I posing for our weekly Sunday Breakfast Club selfie

Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value.

Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income.

She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life.

She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.

She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come

She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her:

‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.’

Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.”

from PROVERBS 31-

Blessed Brokenness

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For some reason, even though Mother’s Day was a week ago, just this weekend in my Facebook feed was a video about mothers, produced by Pampers. It features very sweet mother-child moments, along with thank yous from moms to their kids for the ways in which they have taught them and made them better women. Towards the end the screen reads, “When you were born, I was born. And a love that transformed me forever was born.” It struck me as oddly paradoxical. You see I have spent the entire week wrestling with the experience of death to my ego, triggered by a heart-breaking experience with my girl.

After eighteen years of marriage, I’ve learned that if I want holidays to look anything like the way I dream them up in my head, I must communicate my wants. It took me a long time and lots of frustration to figure out that no one in my house was born with the magical power to read minds. Wow, so simple a lesson, but such a hard one for me to learn! So a couple of weeks ago, with Mother’s Day approaching, I proudly took an assertive stance and let my husband and daughter know that all I wanted for Mother’s Day was some help with the weeds overtaking our yard, yet again. It was decided that we would tackle this on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, since it would give us the longest stretch of time to kick some broadleaf-weed-butt without any of life’s other interruptions. Friday night found me at the local home improvement store stocking up on a myriad of weapons whose labels all promise to take the life of even the nastiest of lawn invaders. After reminding my spouse via a text and my daughter with a verbal reminder of the plan for the next day, I settled in for a good night’s sleep, dreaming of how together, our little family would become powerful conquerors of the evil found spreading, by the minute, merely steps away from our front door.

Saturday morning arrived with perfect weather and the promise of a major task being accomplished by late afternoon. As we prepared to go to battle, our darling daughter remained asleep and by the time we had just about finished the job, she woke up to begin her homework. My self-pity started creeping in, but I tried to flex. I told myself, “Self, she is a teenager after all and needs her sleep-cut her some slack”. So I adjusted my expectations, as I have worked hard to do in my adult life and offered her Plan B. “Since you didn’t make it outside today, all I want for Mother’s Day is to not have to nag you about finishing homework.” She responded, “I am not making any promises.” Instead she said, “I have to make you breakfast in bed. It is what I do for you every year!” Since my favored hour of waking is sometime around 4:30 a.m. and hers is averaging somewhere around 11:00 a.m., I mentioned that this old tradition doesn’t work so much anymore because by the time she wakes up, I’m just about ready for lunch. She seemed saddened by this, but accepting.

Flash forward to Sunday morning. I woke up feeling proud of myself for expressing my needs so assertively. I thought about how much I’ve grown since my first Mother’s Day when I had unfair expectations of how the day should play out, without ever having communicated any of it to my husband. I went about my normal morning routine, happy to be so evolved as a mom, patting myself on the back for being so awesome! When afternoon approached, my one and only child finally woke up and started to play on her favorite electronic device. About a half hour later I ventured into her room, frustrated that she hadn’t started on her homework yet. Without looking up from her game, she wished me a Happy Mother’s Day and kept on playing. That was it. There was no hug, no handmade card and not even the one thing I had asked for, the gift of doing her homework without me being involved. And then it hit me like a wicked, hard punch in the gut: self-pity. It took my breath away. It flooded every recess of my heart, soul and mind. I couldn’t shake it. I felt such a searing sense of pain, a sense of under appreciation, as if I was completely irrelevant. I prayed for the grace not to lash out in my pain.

Some logical part of me realized just how stupid I was being. Why was it that I was putting so much pressure on one single day to be a perfect representation of my daughter’s love for me? Why did I believe, on some sick level of my subconscious that if she didn’t get the expression perfectly right on this one day, it was an indication of how meaningless my efforts to be a good mom are? Was she only trying to respect my request for no breakfast in bed? Just days prior to Mother’s Day, we were driving home from school when she asked for my jacket that I was wearing. Since I wasn’t cold, I took it off and handed it over. She proceeded to take it into her hands, hold it up to her face, inhale deeply and exclaimed with such sweetness, “Mmm, Mama smell!” I must admit that at the time, this utterly melted me. In the mother-teen daughter dance, it was an extraordinarily tender moment, a glimpse of the many we had when she was younger. Oh, but the pity and the hurt wouldn’t let this loving moment be enough. Nor would it allow any of the 13 years of accrued moments-times when I knew beyond a doubt that she loved me, be enough. Sadly, this wrestling continued for days and wreaked havoc on me. I felt so completely broken; depleted of life and energy. This pain had way too much power, I hated it being so unresolved and so raw. But then I remembered something I had read from the Franciscan, Fr. Richard Rohr:

Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons. When you hold the pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. And then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.”

-Adapted from The Authority of Those Who Have Suffered (MP3 download)

This weekend, as my family gathered for Mass, I found myself captivated with the Breaking of the Bread unlike ever before. It was almost as if I was watching it in slow motion. In my faith tradition, at the celebration of Eucharist the priest holds up a large host of unleavened bread, which we believe has become the very Body of Christ. As he prays, he breaks this larger piece into many pieces and distributes them into the containers that hold the smaller hosts we are all to receive. As I watched the big host being broken, I saw how first, as one piece, it could only serve as food for one. But then it was broken and it became food for two. These pieces were again broken and now four could be fed. Over and over, it was broken; what was food for one had now become food and nourishment for sixteen.

At that moment, my eyes were opened wide and I recognized God anew, in this Breaking of the Bread. Through the searing pain I had been uncomfortably sitting with, a new light shined forth. It dawned on me that it is in this very state of brokenness where real transformation can happen and we can be used to nourish others. What if the more we experience brokenness and invite God to transform it, the more we too can become bread for those on the journey? What if this pain was truly a gift given to me to help me to grow into a better woman? This was the very moment I had longed for all week. A deep peace returned to me, replacing the self-pity and sadness that had flooded my being.

Riding home my girl just happened to mention to me that she wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day. WHAT!!?? You can imagine just how surprised I was. “It is about your Mama smell. I had to write it for an assignment for Reading. Do you want it when I get it back?” I told her yes, of course, I would love to read it! And I smiled, thinking about how that Pampers video, it is oddly paradoxical and true, after all.

When you were born I was born. And a love that transforms me forever was born. Thank you Sadie.