Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nothing is at hand

Photo by romanlily/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tonight I sliced not one, but two fingers with our new kitchen knife. Serves me right; I was using the wrong blade for the task at hand -- a long vegetable slicer to chop basil -- and the knife insisted on slipping gently to the left twice in a row, as if to call attention to my rookie error with a couple strikes.

As such, the cuts are not deep. They drew no blood, just nicked my nails and created two tiny, jagged edges that I did not have time to file before I left (already late) for Writing Club, so now when I rub my fingers absentmindedly at the keyboard, I am reminded of my missteps.

Such is my life these days, a brisk march -- or should I say aimless ramble? -- of inefficiency that finds my muscle memory out of date, my judgment delayed, and my mental to-do lists under constant threat of scattering. I no longer feel like the reliable and punctual person I have always prided myself on being, and to tell the truth, it's making me anxious.

I could cut myself some slack, I suppose. In the last six weeks, I moved my house, moved my desk, threw a wedding, began married life, and started preparing for my first shared international trip with my spouse. But I don't cut myself much slack. I'm Type A, a top producer. I can't let incidentals like Metro track work and stifling heat waves and fruit fly upticks stand in my way. I am a doer, dammit, and doers DO, in time and on time.

One layer of what's bothering me boils down to logistics. I've had to replan all my public transit routes, for example, which in turns affects my once-precise, now-unpredictable time estimates. My internal meal-planning calculator has not yet readjusted for another mouth who may or may not remember to bring his lunch. And morning wakeup calls and bedtime rituals have taken on a "come what may" quality, in that as long as they happen and we don't miss important meetings, we consider them a success.

Ah, there's that "we" -- the indicator of the deeper layer that's really at work in my current unsettled state. At the heart of it, I have been thrown off course by the simple fact of having another person in my daily life. Up until six weeks ago, he was a very pleasant and deftly managed visitor within my carefully calibrated routine; now he has become a still-pleasant but variable constant, one with different alarms and different hours and different habits and different, well, different everything. (Something I'm sure he is also thinking about me.)

What I professed to know intellectually about the transition to married life is now hitting me with full emotional honesty: I am on a learning curve. A steep one, too. It encompasses learning about myself, about my spouse, about the routines and habits that constitute not just my life, but also the perception of my life that I've held since going off to college. I am realizing, with abashed clarity, how truly convicted I am in the "rightness" of my ways. Surely no other technique can be as efficient or productive. Surely my methods do not require evolution. Surely if I keep hacking at the basil with the wrong knife, the knife will eventually see the wisdom of my approach and fall into line rather than into my fingers. Right? Isn't that how this works?

I have brought a vegetable slicer to a gun fight, and the gun is winning.

As well it should, though. My routines are important -- they make me healthy, calm, productive -- but so are the shared routines currently under development. What we create together will find a way to balance our individual needs with our unified ones. Besides, six weeks is nothing in the grand arc of our life together. We have time; now we will add patience.


Prayer #303: Misplaced Mise en Place

I'm left of where I was.

I see where I used to sit, reliably within reach for all who needed me, but my recent move down the countertop has shifted my existence. Where once I jumped into action, ready and sure, now I await rediscovery, shy and uncertain. Every meal feels ... off. Or maybe I am the only thing that's changed?

Domestic God of hearth and heart -- rearrange my shelves, scatter my habits, but please, when the dust settles (and I have remembered to wipe it up), reveal to me who I've become.

Amen.

Friday, July 22, 2016

On the eve of our wedding

To have and to hold, from this day forth. Photo by Kelly Prizel Photography

As if drawn by magnets, I have ended up behind, near, or next to the same couple at church every weekend for the past month. They are later-middle-aged. Both are overweight. The wife uses a cane for her pronounced limp. The husband is losing his hair. And always, always, they are touching each other.

His hand never leaves her -- her arm, her waist, her back. She leans her head on his shoulder. They hold hands during the homily. They caress each other in that deliberate way that bears the hallmark of conscious, intentional connection. In sickness and in health, in good times and bad, they hold each other -- not as a drowning person grips a preserver, but as a parent holds a newborn, with quiet, protective confidence.

Even when I'm three pews back, I feel their warmth. I absorb their comfort. They look at each other's aging, asymmetrical faces with the kind of joyful gaze that makes the object immortal and invincible. They are in love, loved, simply love.

Tonight, on the eve of our wedding, I pray that my husband-to-be and I become this couple. May we become this way to each other. May we become love.


Prayer #302: Beyond Words

This is serious, God. This is real. This is raw and daunting and profound. This moment evokes mortality alongside meaning, sacrifice alongside choice. Our vows are not lines to mumble; they are promises to solemnify.

Tonight I feel the gravity of that solemnity, the heft of the rest of our lives. We are not sentimental about this moment, God. Marriage will take us to our graves. It will wear us down, wring us dry, ask everything we have, and we are pretty much guaranteed to stumble because we are imperfect, imprecise humans.

But we will succeed where it matters most, God. We will keep the promise to practice love with each other, so that in loving and trying and failing and loving still, we will learn what it means to love you.

Amen.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The ministry of moving

Handle with care. Photo by NASA ICE/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the course of moving last week from my residence of 8.5 years, amid the heightened piles of my accumulated possessions and the growing weight of my Catholic guilt, I remembered how good I have it.

Ok, so the A/C crapped out for a night at the new place. Big deal. It was back the next day. So we didn't have Internet. Who cares. We talked instead. So the entire place smelled like thick wood varnish and the backyard resembled a jungle. THE POINT IS WE HAVE NOT ONLY FLOORS, BUT ALSO A YARD.

Here's the lesson in it all for me: No matter how much I donate or how often I volunteer, there are few educational substitutes for the direct experience of discomfort and uncertainty. Moreover, the discomfort and uncertainty my move created weren't even permanent; we were settled in by the end of the long weekend, and at no point in the process were we hungry, exhausted, or afraid.

So if you hear any short-sighted complaints from me in the weeks ahead, please feel free to ask me these questions:

  • Do you have clean water at hand? (Yes.)
  • Do you have healthy food at arm's reach? (Yes.)
  • Do you have a safe and comfortable place to sleep? (Yes.)
  • Do you have a secure, non-leaking roof? (Yes.)
  • Do you have clean clothes to wear? (Yes.)
  • Do you have warmth when you're cold and coolness when you're hot? (Yes.)
  • Are you able to afford the essentials, and can you pay for them without anxiety? (Yes.)

It took upending my well-worn routine to drive home how much I take for granted. Consider me grateful -- and chastened.

Prayer #301: Gratitude Unpacked

God of efficient moves and hardcore shifts --

When you remove the bubble wrap that cushions my reality, do not fear for my fragility. Knock me, bang me, shake my most delicate, pointy bits with verve. It's the only way to kick my complacency to the curb, where it will sit in the rain awaiting the garbage truck, and the only way to cart me to my new surroundings, when my perspective will become like the old, inherited couch I just hauled in -- a worn relic made fresh by new context.

Amen.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Mortgage Lifter

Heavy lifting. Photo by Rick Caldwell, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

"This variety," my friend with the green thumb said when he handed me the heirloom seedling, "is the Mortgage Lifter. It was so popular that the farmer who developed it was able to sell enough plants to pay off his mortgage."

I planted it one month ago, right before the constant rains, in a bright orange container with a saucer underneath, and already it is three feet high. The two varieties next to it seem to cower before its robust bushiness. Performance anxiety, perhaps? Everything about it shouts health and vitality. It is the tomato equivalent of beating one's chest before catching the next swinging vine.

In three weeks I will move this brawler to a new home with -- for the first time -- a yard. In six weeks I will tend it alongside my hot-off-the-presses husband. In nine weeks I will feed the early fruits to friends in our dining room. In twelve weeks I will boil and peel and squish together sauce for the winter ahead, to be retrieved from the basement only when the cold dark becomes too much and I need to swallow summer again.

I water it not knowing how much is enough. I turn it to the sun though the sun is on the move. I caress the vivid green leaves and will it to keep going. I refuse to pluck the suckers. The plant's unwieldy growth delights me. Despite my uninformed attention, it flourishes on its own terms, crowing with each fresh inch sprouted overnight, "You are not the caretaker -- you are the witness!"

Fretting over it will not yield a bumper crop. Trusting it will. And look, already, four tiny green tomatoes sprout. An immediate promise. An early gift.

Prayer #300: The Hope of the Harvest

Each tiny seed
an ancient creed
that bursts and bleeds
beyond the weeds
to ably feed
my hungry need

with God agreed
I too shall heed.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When competition defeats me

Bruised. Photo by Christa Loman, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

To be a writer is to invite defeat. Defeat in competitions, in publications, in the will and drive to continue. I know because in my quest to receive 100 rejections in 2016, I am already feeling black and blue at thirteen measly ones and wondering if I should invest in a more robust liquor cabinet to get through the year.

It's not just rejections of submissions, either. I feel the sting every time a fellow writer announces a publication or a fellowship, an article or an award. Doesn't matter if they're short story writers like I am or science-medical scribes appearing in peer-reviewed journals to which I have never aspired. The punch lands on my jaw all the same because they, at least on the face of it, have what I want: recognition that their art has merit.

In my deepest moments of self-pity, I regard myself as a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot of futility -- a blank figurine pinned within a ring I wonder why I asked to enter, caught unaware when the next slug connects and my head pops off my shoulders. But after my head drops back and I pause to observe my plastic fortress, I see it's not that intimidating. Only a flimsy rope keeps me from the wider, woolly world -- the very world I say I want, yet am scared to inhabit.

Because ultimately it's about fear, isn't it? Fear of being outpaced and outclassed. Fear of overestimating my potential. Fear of not leaving a faint smudge of immortality somewhere in the notebook of human civilization, all because I thought the ring real.

Look at how cheaply the rope is made, though, how artificial its construct. On closer examination, I start to see what sets me apart from the Red Rocker or Blue Bomber. Unlike them, I have agency. No one is pushing joysticks beneath me; I can stand there and jab at unfeeling air, or I can leave the ring to try punching above my weight.

Consider these words of wisdom from Colum McCann, which recently rocked and socked me in a different (and more productive) way:

If you’re writing to beat someone else then you’re writing with invisible ink. Watch it disappear. Instead keep counsel with dignity. [...] This does not mean that you don’t want to be better than another writer -- being better is part of the job. But be better in a better way. In a way that hurts. In a way that forces you into competition with yourself. If you’re going to throw a punch try your own jaw first.

So with 87 rejections ahead of me, I am not aiming to win faster. I am vowing to fight harder.


Prayer #299: Rope-a-Dope

Lay me flatter than my own low standards. Launch me higher than my timid goals. When I'm on the ropes, shove me through them, and when I hit the floor on the other side, expectorated into a new and limitless arena, raise my arm in jubilant victory, for I will have already vanquished the toughest opponent I will ever face.

Amen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dear Stephen Colbert: What makes a Catholic marriage work?

Dear Mr. Colbert:

Julia here from the DC area! Forgive the open letter format, but I figured it was the best way to satisfy my monthly blog quota reach you.

I'm writing today to ask your thoughts on marriage -- specifically, a Catholic marriage. This summer, I am thrilled to be marrying an actively practicing, deeply spiritual, liturgically musical, and politically liberal Catholic man who, like me, has been most happy during our engagement when geeking out over pre-Cana sessions. (#catholicnerdlove. I know.) So who better to ask about Catholic marriage than a professedly practicing, openly spiritual, generally musical, and apparently liberal Catholic celebrity?

Alternate titles for this letter included "What makes a good Catholic marriage?" (which implied a right or wrong way to be married) and "What makes a Catholic marriage good?" (which implied a spectrum of judgment). The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized what I really wanted to ask: how two people can commit to each other and to their partnership in a world designed to challenge and test those choices.

Don't worry, I'm about to get more specific. Here, in no particular order, are my top three lines of questioning about what makes a Catholic marriage work. I welcome any thoughts, opinions, lessons, experiences, videos, or pie charts you have handy.

On Children

How do we raise children with healthy attitudes toward spirituality and religion? I don't necessarily mean raising "believers." I mean raising thoughtful, compassionate humans who sense they are part of something greater than themselves, who discern deeply, who apply skepticism productively, who seek and question, and who persevere in that seeking and questioning even when the lights are out. The answer might be "Sesame Street." Still, I'm curious.

If we do succeed in raising children with healthy attitudes toward spirituality and religion, what if they ultimately choose a belief system my partner and/or I do not share? How do we continue to participate in our children's journey and remain open to what it might teach us as well? And, most importantly, does this absolve us from buying them Christmas presents?

What if we can't have children (biological or adopted), or choose not to? What does parenthood mean -- or rather, what can it mean -- in a faith culture that emphasizes making as many little Catholics as possible?

On Long Days and Short Years

How might I navigate personal crises of faith when my partner has come to expect (or rely on) my belief? Or, to sit down flip it and reverse it ... what if my partner has a crisis of faith? How can I be there for him, no matter the outcome?

Seeing as we are fairly mature and self-examining people, I expect that my partner and I will evolve and grow over the course of our hopefully long lives. This will inevitably manifest in changes of heart, mind, and viewpoints. How can we best support each other when these happen -- not simply with agreement, but with productive discussion and debate? (Again, maybe the answer is "Sesame Street.")

How can we make spiritual and religious practices a part of our everyday life? How do we prioritize these moments and rituals as other obligations mount? How might we pursue them as individuals and as a couple? Most importantly, does sex count? Please say yes.

On Being Catholic

How do we celebrate and uphold this part of our identity in a secular world? You have been open about your faith from a very public pulpit. How can we profess our beliefs in our own spheres? Should we be apologists or evangelists, on defense or offense? Do actions really speak louder than words, or do words make a difference?

Along that line ... how can we avoid what we see as a growing "cult of Catholicism" where "being" Catholic (following all the rules, knowing every word of doctrine, etc.) trumps being Catholic (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.)? Pope Francis seems all about the latter, and though it's a tough and radical way to live, we want to follow that path, too. How do we keep our eyes on that prize in our daily practices?

Speaking of doctrine ... what's up, doctrine?? What's your approach to the laws and teachings you don't fully understand or espouse? How can we make sense of it at every level -- from within the known universe, to our society at large, to our communities, to our parishes, to our household, and finally to our own selves -- in a way that ultimately makes us feel right with God?

That's right! God! I've been rambling on this whole letter and haven't talked about the Big Guy/Gal Upstairs. At the end of our time here, I will not be surprised if our earthly distinction of "Catholic" falls away and all that remains between us and the veil will be the depth of love we chose to create in the world. This is a HUGE mystery to live with and a HUGE goal to commit to. How can we as a married couple help each other with both? And have time for sex? Please don't forget the sex.


Mr. Colbert, I have thrown a great deal at you in this letter, and I understand that you probably don't have the time or energy to answer it all. But if even one question in here piqued your interest, I would love to hear your response. And above all, in case I do have your eye and ear at this moment, thank you for being honest and open about your faith and showing an increasingly polarized world that religion does not have to be a dirty word or an outmoded construct, but rather a powerful framework for a joyful, fruitful life.

Yours in knowing all the songs in "Breaking Bread,"

Julia


Prayer #298: The Autograph of God

To a God in need of more publicists,

I have written you fan mail and hate mail alike, but no matter what I write, I get the same thing back: a glamour shot of you (obviously Photoshopped, by the way) with the standard line, "Thanks for getting in touch. I love you! GOD."

I bet you write this to everyone.

I mean, come on. You can't possibly love every person who tries to contact you, every person who wants your ear, your time, your help. To adore and cherish every single correspondent, regardless of whether they're sending you fan mail or hate mail, requires infinite patience and infinite forgiveness. Who has that kind of energy anymore?

I can't help but feel, however, that you've written something between the lines. That if I hold the picture up to a mirror or a black light, or leave it in the sun for a few days, a message will appear in lemony ink meant only for me that provides many more details, instructions, and answers. Surely "I love you" is not, on its own, enough.

Right?

Write back soon and let me know.

Amen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wedding Planning vs. Marriage Prep: A Case Brief

Case: Wedding Planning vs. Marriage Prep, 2016.


Facts: Engaged couples everywhere fall victim (in varying degrees) to the stress and pressure of wedding planning, thereby hindering their ability to focus on the real work at hand: preparing for their lifelong, life-changing commitment to one another and their marriage.

Issue: Is breaking down in tears acceptable during the wedding planning process, and if so, what does this emotional reaction signify?

Holding: (Vote: 1,915,925,038 to 2) Yes, this behavior is acceptable, though explanations of significance will vary.

Majority Reasoning:

A. Rule: Both wedding planning and marriage preparation are emotional undertakings, each with myriad decision points and opportunities for self-examination. The court accepts the realities of both, but rejects society's emphasis on the former activity because:
  1. Weddings are ephemeral, whereas marriages are, with good faith and effort, intended to last a lifetime.
  2. Weddings are subject to ultimately superficial expectations, whereas marriages are subject to a couple's expectations of each other and their unique, mutual relationship -- expectations that require open dialogue and receptive hearts to set in the first place.
  3. The world of wedding planning lies within the galaxy of engagement, which lies within the universe of marriage preparation. The day or way couples say their vows is not intended to be a goal or an endpoint. Rather, it is an opportunity to practice the very communication and problem-solving that will power their marriage and fuel their growth as individuals and as partners.

B. Application: When individuals are moved to cry, yell, stomp, or undertake any other extreme display of emotion related to either wedding planning or marriage preparation, they are encouraged to take a step back and examine what provoked the reaction. The court advises the individual to share his/her feelings with his/her partner to seek opinions, counterpoints, and/or comfort, depending on the particulars of the incident at hand.

Concurrence 1:
That's what's so touching about weddings: Two people fall in love, and decide to see if their love might stand up over time, if there might be enough grace and forgiveness and memory lapses to help the whole shebang hang together. Yet there is also much discomfort, and expense, and your hope is that on the big day, energy will run through the lightest elements and the heaviest, the brightest and the dullest, the funniest and the most annoying, and that the whole range will converge in a ring of celebration.

-- Anne Lamott, "Flower Girl," Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Concurrence 2:
When people say that your wedding is the happiest day of your life, they have it a little wrong. If all goes well, your wedding may be the happiest day of your life so far. But the wedding marks the beginning of married life; it is the announcement of the start of something great.
-- Meg Keene, A Practical Wedding

Concurrence 3:
Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby -- awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.

-- Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

Dissent 1: Society:

A. "BECAUSE I SAY SO."

Dissent 2: Bridal magazines:

A. "La la la la all the pretty things!"

Dissent 3: The occasional heart and mind:

A. "..."

Conclusion: Stay strong. Stay focused. Stay loving. You'll be ok, and so will your marriage.


Prayer #297: Leap of Faith

Be with us as we leave the plane, pull the cord, and hurtle headlong into the rest of our lives. Make our descent productive and our landing soft, and when we have stopped bouncing, let us help each other to our feet and revel in the brave new world we get to build together.

Amen.