Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Life is a process of editing

The author's depiction of her family, drawn at age 6 or 7.

My parents are downsizing. Which means I'm upsizing -- that is, re-inheriting all the mementos I thought fit to store over 24 years of living in their house. And for a sentimental person who also believes that a future biographer will want to review every artifact of her formative years, the process is excruciating.

How excruciating? On my most recent visit home, I spent four hours getting six memory boxes down to three, not including the rolling cabinet of extra photo prints or the box with my American Girl doll paraphernalia. I was covered with dust, peeling cardboard, and disintegrated rubber bands. I discovered items I'd never seen (my baptism candle), items I'd forgotten (all my high school handbooks), and items I knew were there but were unsure I wanted to see again (love -- and a couple hate -- letters from old flames).

Some people claim to feel lighter after purging. I experience pits in my stomach. What if I need that later?! I think. Or worse: What if I forget everything that once mattered?

But so what if I do? What mattered then doesn't always matter now. (See: handbooks. Also: old love letters.) What struck me most in looking at 2.5 decades' of memories was how many of the people writing me when I was 1, 10, 18, 20 are still in my life, still sending me notes, still loving me.

Also incredible: how what I wrote -- and what was written about me -- reflects my enduring fundamentals. Take the letters written by my third-grade classmates from Springfield Elementary, where I attended for six months before moving again. They said that I was nice to them on the playground, that I never got in trouble, that I told funny stories. (One said she liked how I "made the hamster talk," a clear indication that if nothing else, our senses of humor are established early.) I am who I am, for better or worse, and keeping boxes packed with greeting cards, textbooks, and old worksheets in my basement is not going to change that one way or another.

This is a process, of course. I know intellectually that I have plenty of items yet to cull, and one day I will summon the emotional courage to detach from and discard even more. What will make it easier is the dawning wisdom that only my ego, not my true self, wants these items. Where my ego requires validation of a good life well lived, my true self is focusing on living that good life well right now so that when I pass from this earth, context-less papers will not be my legacy, but rather, the love I experienced and expressed.

A full life, I've realized, requires editing. Not rewriting or recasting my story, but paring it down to its most powerful essentials. The more I edit and excise the past, the freer I am to write the present and enjoy the narrative as it unfolds.

I'm always going to keep my journals, though.


Prayer #318: Rightsized

If you shrunk my life to a room, what would I keep?

If you shrunk my life to a closet, what would I keep?

If you shrunk my life to a trunk, what would I keep?

If you shrunk my life to a shoebox, what would I keep?

I would keep gratitude for the container. Appreciation for what's discarded. Rejoicing for the items retained. And love -- love enough to fill a house, a state, a world -- love for the universe in which You've placed me, one object in a huge container, adored not for my size or my meaning, but for the sheer fact of my creation.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

I ask the waves

A post shared by Julia Rocchi (@jmrocchi) on


Island waves come from far and arrive with a vengeance, infuriated by the land mass crouching in their mighty path. Unlike staid Atlantic rolls, they boom and hiss, wild with spume. I watch them crash, crash, crash, and I tremble at the fact that while they beat ceaselessly in the regenerating present, I spend my days preoccupied by past and future.

Here at the foot of the waves, geologic time overwhelms me. These forces neither know nor heed my human timestamp. In their world change comes with microscopic precision on an epic scale, while in my world change feels epic but with ultimately microscopic significance. Our scales collide in this moment on the sand. I cannot comprehend the crashing, and the ocean cannot comprehend my caring.

I ask the waves: Am I insignificant? Or is your wondrous, fearful machination intended for witness? Is my standing here with sandy feet and salty curls the reason for my being -- to see, to absorb, to gape with awe? And if that is the case, how does my individual wonder heighten these elements that continue with or without me?

I tell the waves: While I've been resting on this minuscule island, two friends have lost loved ones -- one a father, the other a son. What do these men's short lives, ripe with joy, rife with pain, mean against the unstoppable tides? Where is our significance in the face of tumultuous eons?

The waves rumble, but not in response. They have all the time in the world, yet no time for me. I am a blink, a speck in their teeming currents. I will always remember their breathtaking rush toward my bare feet, and they will never know I was here. They don't know my scope; they only put it in perspective.

I repeat to myself: I am here. I am here. I am here. I am. I am. I am. And so it is, if only for a breath.


Prayer #317: Undulate

Undo me, rushing God. Invest me with a wave's own form: simple to sketch in abstract, impossible to capture in infinite variations across time and space. As I fall with You, so I will rise -- soaked in mystery.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Time for a brain cleanse

Na Pali, Kauai. paul bica/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Time for a brain cleanse. A wipe, a reboot. Time to put away Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and text. Time to discard the list of lists that has been building since the start of the year. Time to reject the rejection letters piling up against my confidence. Time to ignore the emails flagged for never-realized follow-ups; time to relish writing the out-of-office message instead. Time to delight in the anticipation (and fulfillment) of the seven new books checked out from the library. Time to sit with my new prayer journal ... in silence. Time to make overdue phone calls, not because they are to-do list items, but because my life is a little too quiet without certain voices swirling. Time to remember life is not a chore to be completed. Time to nap. Time to escape the self-doubt and variable confidence, the constant desire to never make a mistake. Time to snorkel to bend my perspective. Time to enjoy time with my spouse, just the two of us, no plans or obligations or calendar appointments. Time to soak in the thrill of discovery instead of the security of planning. Time to watch crappy movies on a plane. Time to reacquaint myself with the sea. Time to feel the black gel pen flow across college-ruled lines while my slow-as-death laptop sits 4,690 miles away. Time to prioritize a sunrise. Time to banish guilt over my deep desire to sit still. Time to turn my back on "regular" life so I can regain the spark that makes it anything but. Time to find a coconut. Time to learn how to cut it.


Prayer #316: Clean Slate

I once asked You make me a blackboard wiped clean, with sponge marks still drying, but my choice of image was shortsighted. Why stop at chalky rewrites? Wipe the board, yes, but then draw a handle and turn it to reveal the swirl of watercolors beyond, looping and dipping in a color-soaked landscape that would make Georgia O'Keefe drool. I will draw strange birds that swoop like dragons, huge fish that dart and gleam like Perseids, friendly trees that trundle behind me so I never want for shade. With each new invention I draw, You will be both chalk and hand, the spark behind the inspiration, the artist within the spirit. May I re-discover Your marvelous palette, its rioting symphony of hue, and with it paint a world not yet envisioned.

Amen.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

When do I get to quit the world?

Leave the rest behind. fdecomite/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
I'm tired this month. Soul-achingly tired. Worn to a nub by the insanity of this world, and my country in particular. Exhausted by hate, ignorance, destruction of lives. Overwhelmed by our society's deep, persistent darkness.

"Lord, when do I get to quit the world?" I first asked it, incredulous, when we appeared on the brink of a Twitter-fueled nuclear standoff. I asked it again, anguished, when I watched the events in Charlottesville unfold. As the tenor of discourse dips toward hysterical extremes and the shades of gray sort themselves into clearer black and white, I keep asking my question with each day's news cycle, each fresh slap across the many faces of God.

I keep asking because deep down I'm hoping for a different answer than the one I already know. But I do not get to quit the world. I do not get to curl up in a fetal position with a bag of Goldfish and my Netflix account on endless cycle. The still, small voice -- so quiet but so firm -- has demanded I engage, to the point of handing me a to-do list. It reads as follows:

  1. Educate myself.
  2. Learn with others.
  3. Confront tragedy.
  4. Name injustice.
  5. Examine the dark corners.
  6. Stretch my belief.
  7. Gulp my faith.
  8. Speak truth out loud.
  9. Live "I love you."
  10. Begin. Today.

So I begin. Again.


Prayer #315: Determine the Sequel

I have kept this library book too long. How can I tell? The dog ears are close to amputation, the pages have unglued. I have read and reread the text expecting a different ending, yet it does not change. The plot always moves me toward the same conclusion. There is no other way it can unfold, not when the characters are so relatable and their decisions so poor.

My only option now is to admit the immutability of the printed word, return the book, pay my fines, and instead get to work on writing the sequel. Part Two does not exist. Yet. It will, though, and it will have the ending I want. The ending You intended. The ending that all who love inhabit.

Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The lesson of the table



When Nature Boy first presented his farmhouse table vision to me, I was at best skeptical. Why build a table from scratch, I thought, when so many exist to be reused? And why undertake such a huge project, I frowned, when its execution might put our young marriage at risk?

You see, I like to be in control. (Did you know that about me? Perhaps you did.) I enjoy when projects follow my brand of efficiency and have clear benchmarks along the way. I also enjoy not having to go to Home Depot. As presented, the farmhouse table project would not fulfill any of my personal goal-setting tenets.

Tackling woodworking on such a grand scale, however, did not daunt my novice carpenter of a spouse; rather, it invigorated him. He was eager to explore and learn the process -- a trait I already love and admire about him. He was also ready to follow his own project management style to get there -- a trait that I respect as his adult right, even when it challenges me to be brutally honest about my frequent inability to cede ground.



And follow his own style he did, right up until two nights before our annual summer party, the deadline for the table to be finished. As dusk fell and humidity persisted, he and I stood in the driveway observing the half-nailed wooden pallet boards that comprised the tabletop, wondering how in the world we were going to eliminate the significant gap that had emerged in the middle.

True to form, I was panicking about the thing while also panicking about my panicking. Where did we go wrong?! How could we fix it at this late stage? Has it all been a waste of time? What if it's not done for the party? Why am I worried about a party? I should worry about my attitude! my Type A super-ego screeched.

Nature Boy seemed to have no such inner screech fest. He was thoughtful and patient as we rearranged the boards; in fact, he appeared to be enjoying this nerve-wracking affair. My super-ego busily seethed at the perceived imbalance of investment of feeling until my husband turned to me part way through a rearranged row and said, "This is fun! This is exactly what I pictured when I wanted to build the table -- that we'd work on it together."



Just like that, the truth of the situation dropped into place. Goal-setting, hands-on work, tangible output -- all good aims, no question. But the opportunity to spend time together, create something new, problem-solve in tandem? Nobler aims by far.

Here, my biggest takeaway from our first year of marriage crystallized in a hefty, wooden, substantial way: the joy is in the teamwork. I can fuss and schedule and manage all I want, but we are strongest when we work together. I'm saying this out loud to you because this lesson is not easy. I do not always heed it. I am often bad at it. But when we hit our stride ... man, are we unstoppable.

So with that in mind, I'd like to take this moment to say -- Happy 1st Anniversary, Nature Boy! Every time we sit and eat and laugh at the gorgeous table you built, may we remember it is held together by love.*

* And lots of nails.



Prayer #314: Rustically Made

Rough, plain, simple are we -- unfinished yet hardy in our make. Where once I stood alone, proud and upright, You have now bonded me to another, and our unique design emerges stronger, sturdier, for its conjunction.

Master Carpenter, who chiseled each of us by vibrant vision, help us eschew all formal plans and embrace our wild forms. For by Your grace alone, our spirits refine our raw material, proving that we do not need perfection to be loved.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When a Gryffindor becomes a Hufflepuff



"Hufflepuff? Hell no."

That was my first reaction during #HarryPotter20 when I took two Hogwarts House quizzes in quick succession to find that both returned ... the badger. Buzzfeed quizzes are easy to dismiss, but scientific personality quizzes? Much less so. Even when they're tied to a fictional wizarding school.

Since the minute I began the Harry Potter series in my teens, I have identified with Gryffindor. Students there were brave, they took action, they won the Hogwarts House cup practically every year -- they were the leaders and strivers I'd always pictured myself to be, the noble ruling class of a high school environment where bullying paled in comparison to the threats of the Dark Lord.

Hufflepuffs, on the other hand, struck me as bland background helpers, acquiescent hangers-on who trailed the more charismatic Gryffindors and helped fill plot holes where necessary. I never considered them the heroes, not even of their own stories.

You can imagine then how the quiz results sent me into a minor tailspin. First I was dismayed. Then I was dismayed I was dismayed. After all, what's not to like about the values of "hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play?" I believe in these qualities; I seek out others who espouse them. So when would identifying with these traits be a bad thing?

When you want to be something else. That's when.

The dirty truth is, I always want to be the hero. I want to display courage and exhibit bravery. I want to be the first responder in a battle, the one who inspires confidence and unity by stepping forward when everyone else is quaking. I want to be carried forth on shoulders and have songs written and sung about me. You know. A hero.

But what I want and who I am are two different things. I am not as courageous as I imagine myself to be. I often hang back and let others go first. I take cautious risks. Glory does not come easily or instantly (if it comes at all) and besides, true leadership is not about glory to begin with. Plus, when I do summon the nerve to step forward, I sometimes trample on others' toes.

This much I knew for sure: I needed a third quiz. So at long last I took the "official" Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz -- a vague interactive widget that's tough to game -- and it returned ... Gryffindor.

Vindication! was my first thought. Close on its heels, though, was Huh. After a mere thirty minutes of considering myself a Hufflepuff, here I was already mourning its loss. Was it really so awful to learn I have goodness in me -- and in almost the same breath also learn I could stand to practice more of that set's humility? Besides, the world desperately needs kindness right now, to the point where practicing warmth and inclusivity is becoming its own courageous, defiant act. So maybe that's the nexus where I am being Sorted -- to become a Gryffinpuff or Huffledor, someone who does not let one trait define her but rather embraces all she might offer.

As I review the Hogwarts Houses with the eyes of a thirty-something, I now recognize the nuance I blew past in my exuberant, know-it-all immaturity. Each House's positive qualities have an equal and opposite end of the spectrum where members land when they push their dominant characteristics too far. In this respect, the Houses (and the magical Sorting Hat that puts them there) becomes a cautionary tale: to know your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses, and never assume you have only one way.

The beauty of the Sorting Hat is that it takes both capabilities and intent into account. We are who we are, and we also have power to become who we want to be. What can be more full of promise, more packed with magic, than that?

Prayer #313: Of What Sort Are You?

I am the sort of Muggle who ignores you, God of sorting. I strain and pull to keep your brim from circling my brow, and even when you're firmly placed, I wiggle out of all you're guiding me to do and be.

But now my name has (yet again) been called, and I come up (yet again) before my peers -- friends and enemies alike -- to answer your consistent call. Stick me to the stool this time, God of purest magic. Bid me listen; bid me learn.

Amen.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The consequences of my faith

Finding the path. Photo by Eric Minbiole/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
"I have always said that a pious Christian can be essentially atheist in ultimate commitment. The decisive factor is whether I live the consequences of my faith. Is God my authority? Which God?"

-- "Martin Niemoeller: A Confessional Courage," Cloud of Witnesses, Joyce Hollyday and Jim Wallis

Jesus took 30 years to prepare for three years of public ministry. I'm beginning to see why.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I transcribed from my heart a desperate plea for compassion. What I did not share at the time was that much of my thinking was being shaped by a course I had recently begun at my church -- JustFaith, an intensive (and intense) small-group program that dives into Christian social justice teaching with prayer, study, dialogue, and immersion to connect participants spiritually, intellectually, and physically with the poorest among us.

Or, to put it more bluntly, it rips your heart out every week and leaves it bleeding on the table. Because that's what waking to the world does to you: it shatters your protective privilege, snatches your blinders, and shakes you so hard that your vision scrambles and refocuses the millisecond of existence we call our lives.on what truly matters.

Clearly, the experience moved me. But not quite as I predicted.

The bigger the issues we tackled, the thornier the realities we dissected, the more I moved toward a truth I often resist -- that professing a sincere belief in the redemptive, all-encompassing, unconditional love of God requires three things of me:

  1. Cultivate and nurture a relationship with God.
  2. Live out our relationship through my actions.
  3. Cede my illusory control over those actions' processes and outcomes.

In the face of the world's suffering, I am finally acknowledging how powerless I am because I can do nothing without God. The good news is, God is already with me -- always has been, in fact -- and practically tumbling in circles to love all over me. So maybe it's more that I am powerless but love is powerful, so let's tap into the stronger force.

"It is not enough to sow the seeds of wisdom; we are called to action if we are to reap a bountiful harvest." -- Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate

Remember, though, when I said I was starting to understand Jesus' three-decade preparation for his blink of public ministry? Building one's relationship with God is a life's work. It takes time, space, effort. Saying you'll live your faith and actually living it are leagues apart. I'm only now loosening my grip on my self-imposed mandate to save the world. I'm only now releasing myself from dictating outcomes. I'm only now recognizing that all of us already have the answer and the tools at hand. I merely need to do one thing -- show up -- and it. is scaring. the SHIT out of me.

Here's the deal: I, a lifelong practicing Catholic, am being called to a personal conversion to see God and the world as one. Now that I've heard the call, I can't unhear it ... despite my retinue of cotton balls, pillows, and ear muffs.

So the question becomes, how will heeding the call change me, my actions, my choices, my life? And can I follow this call to its inevitable conclusion -- the same one that put Jesus on a cross?

I don't know.

I don't need to know.

I want to know.

Most likely, I'll never know.

The only step I need to take right now is to show up at the edge of the dark forest. Then I'll pause and look around. See if I can spot the flickers of torches winding along the path ahead.

I'll follow one. Meet the torchbearer. Listen to her story. Share my trail mix. Walk with her.

And we'll see what happens next.


Prayer #312: At the Edge of the Forest

God of the unblazed trail, take me where I need to go. Your signals are clear: walk, pause, listen. Repeat as necessary.

I can feel your heavy breathing on my neck, your salivation over a salvation already achieved but not realized on earth. So I am giving in to giving in, acknowledging your unending wish for us to heed your friendly shoulder tap and follow your confident wave.

As we go, please surround me with new faces and different stories. Introduce me to fellow hikers on the path to conversion. Balance the night sky of my faith with the morning dew of works.

The world has unsettled me with its suffering, but I have not run here, to the edge of the woods, to escape. Rather, I come to be unsettled even more, to face the as-yet-invisible trail, to rejoice at finding your hand in the dark.

Amen.