Thursday, March 26, 2020

My season of anger

Angry bird. hms831/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

When I learned our local farmers' market was "closing indefinitely" -- the latest community COVID-19 casualty, following in-person work, social gatherings, and church services -- I took to bed. At 9:30 am. On a Sunday.

The market closure was not surprising, and I agreed with the action, but the news capped off one of the most anxious, overwhelming weeks of my life as the coronavirus pandemic took root in the United States. This latest blow to "daily life as I know it" switched my beleageured body to "off," effective immediately. I went upstairs, laid down, and passed two hours in a fitful, unhappy sleep. And when I woke up, what I felt most keenly was ... anger.

Anger that our federal government's response is insufficient, inept, and ignorant.

Anger that humans of all ages and backgrounds will die as a result of this incompetence.

Anger that the groups most harmed by this crisis will be those who already live on the razor's edge.

Anger that our country's most pervasive and critical underlying systems -- healthcare, politics, economics, education -- have been built on sand rather than rock.

Anger that many caregivers are forced to handle what is essentially two full-time jobs at a time of great mental, physical, and financial stress -- or worse, forced to choose between caring for their loved ones or remaining employed.

Anger that some people think this global event is a conspiracy or, worse, a lark.

Anger that many people (myself included) keep forgetting to keep six feet of distance at the grocery store or the park.

Anger that I didn't take the threat seriously enough to stock up on more frozen vegetables.

Anger that I can't see my extended family or my friends.

Anger that I feel I can no longer unplug from my devices.

Anger that my toddler won't nap on the precise day I desperately need personal downtime to recharge.

From the national to the personal, the philosophical to the mundane, the anger roils through me in fresh waves at unpredictable moments. (Well, not totally unpredictable; reading the news is a known trigger.) I am not a fundamentally angry person, so steeping in this emotion for three days going on who knows how many is neither comfortable nor comforting. I find value in self-reflection and seek to solve problems. But right now, because all I see before me is a wash of glaring red, I cannot carve out the brain- or heart-space to cultivate hope.

What's more, this unprecedented crisis is occurring smack dab in the middle of Lent, a season explicitly designated for spiritual reflection and preparation. As my mother said a couple weeks ago before ish really hit the fan, "Maybe this [referring to the extreme nature of our present moment] is Lent." Yet I can't help but feel I'm also falling short there. Not only am I an inadequate employee, spouse, parent, and global citizen, I'm a poor Catholic whose intended Lenten practice -- to eat less meat out of concern for the environment -- has come about mainly because all we can consistently find at the grocery store are non-perishable lentils.

In these strange times, however, reassurance surfaces in surprising places. I felt some measure of comfort when I read this Harvard Business Review article, a Q&A with grief expert David Kessler, about the non-linear cycles of grief and the value of naming your emotion for what it is (emphasis mine):
When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

Maybe my mother was onto something. Maybe my work right now -- the work of the pandemic, the work of Lent -- is to allow denial/anger/bargaining/sadness/acceptance/joy/relief/hope to unfold, circulate, germinate, and bloom whenever, however they choose. For feeling takes effort, not just in the noticing and naming, but in the experiencing. Feeling can make us sympathetic and empathetic; it draws us closer to our fellow humans, and thus closer to God -- the express purpose of Lent.

Before this pandemic ends, I would love to achieve the space and peace to contemplate: What might be different when this has passed? What will I do to ensure that the world is different in the most right, just, and humane ways? Then again, that might not happen. All I might learn is how much I can hold. Perhaps I'll discover that what I already hold is enough.

Prayer #355: Rage Against the Machine(s)

Outbursting God,

Direct my anger at the things that deserve it.

Aim it at systems (broken, insidious); institutions (peculiar, too big to fail); and attitudes (isolationist, selfish) that perpetuate harm.

And when the white-hot rage flames out, leaving behind a despondent and sputtering ash, mold my despair into true empathy, a moral golem that protects the downtrodden and fights for the oppressed.

May I wait with the imprisoned. Dine with the hungry. Huddle with the refugee. Shelter the homeless. Welcome the lonely. Heed the prophets.

In this way anger becomes action, and action bears Your love.


Wednesday, February 26, 2020

On death, in fragments

James Marvin Phelps/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Corvid, corvid hop
Corvid, corvid flap
Corvid, corvid, feeling morbid
Snap, snap, snap!

― a dark ditty Nature Boy and I composed during a stroll with our child, set to the rhythm of Llama Llama Hoppity-Hop

“The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m.”

― Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life.

 ―Hebrews 2:14-15

The loss, from brain cancer, of a joy-filled, gratitude-pouring, life-affirming improv comedian and poet. She was one year younger than me. I question what makes us, us. Neurons? Pulses? Art?

"'Risorgimento,' as I understand it, refers to the massive unification effort for Italy in the 19th century. In many inelegant ways, it brought together a number of diverse and potentially conflicting mindsets in order to create a singular identity. Rome, in its messiness of parking hell and zillions of people like me, serve as a modern-day example of risorgimento. But also, within this definition of holistic complexity, we also must accept the unifying experience that is living and dying."

Il Risorgimento, Megan Hallinan

The random memory that Rachel Held Evans' final blog post before her sudden death last year was titled "Lent for the Lamenting," and that she had this to say:

It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or your doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Then suddenly, on a misty, chilly late-winter walk, the shock of early pink blossoms against the gray, and I am reminded that all is never lost.

Prayer #344: Fragment

not whole

what remains

ashes to ashes

love, shattering

pieces at peace in You


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How to reflect on your marriage (and still stay married)

The first "I do." July 23, 2016. Photo by Kelly Prizel Photography

Julia: I was never a firm believer in the folk wisdom that “opposites attract.” But then I married M, and then we sat down to prepare this talk.

M: When we saw our notes for this presentation, we thought, “Are we really so night and day?” Our differences suddenly seemed more drastic than they feel on a day-to-day basis.

Julia: Which then made us wonder … After three years of marriage, are we growing in different directions? Are we doubling down on our natural tendencies? And how on earth are we making it through our daily lives intact?

Being married has been one of the greatest joys and greatest lessons of my life. At times I feel I live on the learning curve with nary a plateau in sight. But once in a while, an opportunity arises to hit "pause" on learning and press "play" on reflection -- which Nature Boy and I get to do as part of the team for our church's marriage preparation program.

In its unabashedly loving and welcoming way, my parish does Pre-Cana (the Catholic Church's colloquial term for its marriage prep programs) a little differently. Besides our pastor's brief opening remarks at the start of the day-and-a-half event, the program is led entirely by married couples of different ages, stages, and backgrounds. The intent is to give the participating engaged couples an opportunity to focus on what they want out of their new, shared life; quiet time and space to reflect on big questions away from wedding planning stress; and insight into discoveries and approaches that have helped other married couples fully live out their sacramental vows. It's inspiring, thought-provoking, encouraging, sobering, and emotional -- much like marriage itself.

For the most recent session, Nature Boy and I were called upon to present our first talk. The topic: "Daily Living." Just as you're not advised to perform surgery on yourself, sitting down as a couple to dissect your day-to-day rhythms did not immediately seem wise. My husband was tense. I was overbearing. We were writing in a shared Google doc, and it took every ounce of my willpower and knowledge of the creative process to let him put down a rough first draft in the faith that we'd revise later.

Basically, our process to create this talk mirrored the point of the talk, which was how our personalities and habits permeate and shape our domestic life. We ended up covering such topics as energy (introvert/extrovert), environment (natural/urban), diurnal rhythms (night owl/early bird), levels of tidiness (eh/yes please), approaches to conflict (we both avoid it), desire for control (pretty much all me), and so on. We ended on a story that regular IMS readers might recognize (an adapted version of "The lesson of the table") and closed with an alternating recitation building off the phrase, "This is the person who...".

That's when I lost it.

I was doing SO WELL during our actual talk, hitting laugh lines, patting Nature Boy's back affectionately, pausing after important takeaways. But then I got to the last line I'd drafted, and when I said it out loud in front of a roomful of relative strangers, every moment of joy, every shared sorrow, every disagreement, every wordless hug, every act of service, every discovery welled up within me. Here was the enormity of lifelong commitment. Here was our vow, which we choose to affirm each day. Here was our marriage's raison d'ĂȘtre:

"This is the person who always reminds me that though the world can be harsh, it is also beautiful, and we get to experience it together."

It's not a flashy sentence or even a particularly eloquent one. But it is heartfelt and  -- more importantly --true. Which is why my voice cracked and my tears leaked. Because partnership is not for the faint of heart; it is for the whole-hearted.

Prayer #343: How to Do "I Do"

Set "I do" on endless loop, because it's the soundtrack of a marriage.

You'll say "I do" to mistakes and misunderstandings. You'll say "I do" to celebrations and silence. You'll say "I do" to being wrong, being right, and being somewhere in the middle that neither of you finds comfortable but does admit is necessary.

Most of all, you'll say "I do" each night to an entirely new person who has been transformed by the catastrophes, triumphs, and lessons of their day. And this person will say "I do" to the new you too, each night, until the nights run out.

God who gifted us free will, help us say these words with hope (if not always with conviction). We may voice them with a whoop, a mutter, or a sigh, but we are voicing them nonetheless. Be with us in this commitment -- a practice built on loving choice.


Monday, December 30, 2019

"One day your life won't be like this" (A revelation revisited)

SpaceShoe/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Close to seven years ago, when I was in the thick of my late-20s lifestyle -- full social calendar, regular cultural activities, a respectable level of "adulting" -- I paused in my hither-and-titherness with a blunt thought:

One day my life won't be like this.

At the time, my reflection featured the (assumed) differences between living life as a single, childless woman versus as a married parent. But now I am a married parent, and as my first full year of motherhood draws to a close, the blunt thought has resurfaced, bubbling just beneath my consciousness as I strive to make it to midnight on December 31 with all three members of my family unit healthy, happy, and more or less intact.

One day my life won't be like this.

When I mull over this phrase today in the post-holiday quiet of my house, with my husband at work and my child at daycare, with my brain and body under my sole discretion for eight blissful hours, I appreciate anew its lack of judgment. The revelation didn't say my life would become better or worse, stronger or weaker, richer or fainter. It simply pointed out that my life was destined to change -- that where one lever would push up, another switch might flip, and all manner of proverbial doors and windows would disregard their latches and flap indiscriminately in the shifting breezes of time and circumstance.

One day my life won't be like this.

In one respect, my revelation has become a mantra. I whispered it under my breath during midnight nursing sessions and long hours of maternity leave. I shouted it from rooftops when a particularly hard period resolved. I have cried over it each time I recognize that habits or traditions I held dear are quietly evolving. I sigh it whenever, for the 8 millionth time, I wash a small plastic object festooned with my child's drool.

One day my life won't be like this.

But in another respect, my revelation has become a reminder. The words call me to remain present and aware, to participate in my life as it's currently shaped rather than reach for a shadow existence that may or may not gain form. And rather than repeat the sentence, I pray it, rolling each word through my heart like a bead -- smooth, warm, pliant -- to impart those same qualities to myself.

One day, my life won't be like this. Or this. Or this. It will simply be life, and it will be mine, to make of it what I will.

Prayer #342: Going, Going, Back Again

God of constant re-discovery,

I think I've learned something, only to lose the lesson amid life's daily push and pull, and then when I learn it again, I renew my delight and awe with the slobbery joy of an infant discovering her hand is attached to her.

As I absorb anew a revelation long known to me, I call on Your profound patience to ask once more: Ground me in my current dreams and frustrations, as well as in the wisdom that every personal epoch has benefits and drawbacks. And douse me not only in the grace of perspective, but also of presence -- the breath between words, the rests within music, the sight before waking.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The thirst to rejoice

Leaping for joy. Art-Hax/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"... Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

—Philippians 4:8-9, NAB

I've been grouchy for a fair bit of 2019. Not deeply, not irrevocably, but more frequently than I have been in other years, almost certainly due to learning how to be a parent and enduring sleep deprivation and questioning my career path and inching toward my writing goals and feeling less than awesome in whatever I pursue and wondering if my hair is finally turning gray and did I mention sleep deprivation.

Oh, and the world continues to be on fire. That too.

So when I attended my church's annual Minkisi Ministry retreat earlier this month, I did not walk in immediately connected to its buoyant theme "In Total Praise." That is, until the gospel music began, and the congregation engaged in call and response, and I tuned into the fact that I haven't attended any retreat in god knows how long. And the combination of those things illuminated that the next eight hours were holding space for me to be with God, so I let my body release its omnipresent tension, loosening me enough to sing, to breathe, to weep.

Celebrant Fr. Robert Boxie said in his homily that day, "The sure sign that God is alive in you is joy." Until he said it aloud, I didn't realize how thirsty I was to rejoice. For all the emotions roiling through me in this past year of constant change, I have rarely wallowed in joy, even though -- or perhaps because -- it has often been the most intense experience.

But as Fr. Boxie went on to explain, joy is not "reasonable," nor does it mean "to cheer up or be positive." At many points this year, joy has felt akin to pain for me -- a bone-deep, heart-twisting, breath-stealing sensation, one I'm afraid to repeat for fear it will break me. So to hear that joy does not mean happy was to relieve myself of a limited human concept and embrace a mystical one -- the promise that we can access, in the words of Paul's letter to the Philippians (aka, "the letter of joy"), "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding."

The onslaught of joy left me wrung out by day's end, like I'd run a spiritual marathon without proper interval training. But I also experienced the physical peace that comes from honest exertion, which signals to me that the effort was well placed. As retreat leader Therese Wilson-Favors said, "Praise tunes us into God's sufficiency." In a year when I have often felt incapable or inadequate, how glorious to remember that I am enough. That God is enough. That our union is joy itself.

So with all this in mind, allow me to flip my usual script of gratitude during Thanksgiving season and emphasize joy instead -- the ultimate prayer of thanks.

Prayer #341: Exult

To exult once meant to spring or leap up, to leap for joy. Yet somewhere in English's shifting sands we lost this visceral meaning and now use the word to signify rejoicing, elation, triumph.

Powerful words to be sure, but part of me grieves the original definition. Its active focus would help me remember -- simply by speaking it -- that my very body is built for praise. I am meant to leave the ground, to suspend myself mid-air, to stretch toward the firmament, when I remember how I'm loved.

God who leaps and bounds toward me, put this word on my lips and its energy in my limbs. May I reach for You with my whole being. May I embody worship.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On one year of photographing my child

Moving toward the future, September 2019.

For me, the toughest part of parenting is the photography. Am I taking enough pictures? Am I taking them at the right moments? Am I capturing the times I'll care most about? Did I develop a cute enough theme for the monthly photos? Did I remember to take the monthly photo on the actual date? Do I have enough storage left on my phone? Where have I saved past photos? What are their filenames? Have I shared recent pictures with family and friends in the way each individual most prefers -- email, text, shared link, private third-party aggregator? Can I put just one on social media, or should I continue to abstain in the name of privacy?

Enter the creeping "shoulds." I should get in the habit of reviewing and culling photos monthly; that way it won't be such a huge endeavor later. I should mark my favorites as I go; that way I have a short list for special photo gifts. I should make an album every year on his birthday; that way I never forget. I should print photo gifts for the parents and godparents; that way they'll be reminded of his special bond with them. I should stick some on the fridge, take more to work, keep them all updated in as real time as possible as he metamorphoses second by second into an entirely new person, one I know on a molecular level yet one I re-meet every morning when I walk into his room and see him standing ever taller in the crib that once dwarfed his swaddled body. That way I won't miss a moment. Not one. Not a single blessed second.

Then anger bubbles up. For on top of being a parent -- no, on top of becoming a parent -- I am expected to simultaneously experience and document the transformation of the little human who made me one. I must be present, yet objective. Open, yet prepared. He must look cherubic and/or funny and/or advanced in every photo. If he does not, I have failed him. Apparently, no middle ground is permitted.

You see why I'm exhausted.

As this inexhaustible topic loops through my consciousness, I think back to a photo of me taken a year ago when I was 8 months pregnant and floating in a kayak during our babymoon weekend getaway. When I reflected on this photo one month into parenthood, I wrote:

... when I look again at this shot, I recognize what will be invisible to those who weren't there, such as the dried tear streaks on my face and the burgeoning blisters on my thumbs. But I also see what was invisible to me at the time -- chiefly, the sun rays defying the clouds and searching for reflection on the water below. They illuminate how this photo captures more than a moment in time; it captures a transition to a new state of being.
(Side note: Only someone who was still getting a consistent eight hours of sleep could have written those words. Right now, the sole state of being I want to transition to is napping.)

What do photos of my 1-year-old reveal? They show a chubby Gerber face, inexplicable blonde curls, delicious thigh rolls, little hands constantly pointing. Many pictures catch him pre-smile, which will mislead future generations about how often he grins and laughs. Quite a few are blurry because he rarely stops moving. There's usually a brightly colored object sticking out of his mouth. Sometimes he's clothed.

Invisible to the neutral observer will be his near-constant giggling, reliably invoked by actions as goofy as snapping cloth napkins or playing peek-a-boo around the nearest corner. The pictures don't replay his little voice, which sounds more like a kid's every day. They don't convey the full extent of his mesmerized curiosity, his tenacious exploration, his burgeoning sense of self, his deepening will. A photo couldn't capture his sly "aha!" expression last night when he realized that holding food over his head evoked a strong reaction from his parents and that he could file away this practical information for future and entertaining use.

I know these backstories and qualities because I live with him. But no photo or video can communicate his essence. Hell, I grew and birthed this little being, and even I am shocked by how individual, how distinct he is. I have created a human who is of me but not me. That fact blows my mind every day. So I snap, post, and stare hungrily at blurry pictures to anchor us in life's whooshing current and to ground my quixotic grab at immortality.

A more useful exercise going forward, I think, would be to consider "what was invisible to me at the time." In the moment a particular photo was snapped, where was my brain? My heart? What was I sensing or feeling? What else was happening in my life? What did I just, or what was I about to, discover? Did I take the picture because I thought I "should," or because I couldn't help myself? Did I manage to make the moment indelible not because I fixed a detail in pixels, but because I captured a transformation in progress?

Though the 1-year milestone is bittersweet, I'm pleased I can stop the monthly progress shots and take one thing off my to-do list. Overall, I'm getting better at predicting the baby's movements and timing my shots. Plus, now that I'm used to sleep deprivation and farther along the steep learning curve of new parenting, I'm developing a photo storing system that I hope will make projects easier going forward.

For beneath my low-humming stress is a sincere desire to create a meaningful record of my child's life -- of our life, together. I want him to marvel at his growth, learn his personal history, and be rooted in the continuums of family and time. And as with every aspect of parenting, I want to give this gift freely, without self-judgment or criticism, and with compassionate love for who I truly am as a mother and person.

It will take more than a year to get there. In the meantime, I'll keep snapping photos to remember the process.

Prayer #340: Darkroom

What did humans obsess over before photography became accessible and ubiquitous? What method of recording beckoned them? Were they more comfortable with their mortality, less curatorial about their legacies? Or were they too busy surviving to want to document the slog?

God of profligate light, concentrate Your beams through the negatives burned in my memory to reveal the positive image within. My Technicolor life makes me sensitive to the full visible spectrum, so deploy darkness judiciously to develop an illuminated print. For we self-absorbed subjects are far from black and white. With us there can be no safelight -- only a blind and tentative hope, followed by brilliant understanding.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The curious case of imposter syndrome

Spot the imposter. Andrew Gustar/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Before the Meeting

My writing group has in hand my manuscript, my precious baby, the one 10+ years in the birthing. What an arduous birth it's been, a creative labor beset by fits and starts, motivation and stagnation, eager confidence and crippling doubt, all leading to this. This. A meager, nondescript word for a momentous occasion.

As any writer will tell you, to arrive at a functional "first" draft (first only in the sense that this version is the first one fit for consumption outside your desk drawer) is to free-dive into murky depths with blind faith that pearls await you. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that finishing a manuscript is like choosing to live as if the afterlife exists -- as if, eventually, your effort, attention, and sacrifice will reap untold dividends.

My own first draft, or at least my conception of it, has been kicking around for more than a decade. After setting many well-intentioned and then-ignored annual writing goals to turn this blog into a book, I finally reached the end of my rope in the aftermath of becoming a mother. Now time was scarce. Now I had to maximize stolen moments. Now I had to shove aside the exhaustion and overwhelm and reclaim the flickering pilot light of my essential creativity before a gas leak exploded the house. (Confession: I need more sleep to craft stronger metaphors.)

So for the first time in many years, I set a writing schedule and ... I stuck to it. The night before we left for vacation, after a marathon day of final edits, I shipped my 300-page tome to the four members of my writing group. For a brief and glorious moment, I experienced the singular euphoria of reaching a milestone, achieving a goal, and realizing a vision all in one act. Then I considered that these same four members were tasked with evaluating my labor of love for both its artistic and possible commercial merits. My euphoria evaporated, and with it any ounce of confidence I had in my original vision.

In terms of first drafts and the allure of potential, I have been down this wavering road before. To pursue a dream is to name it, clothe it, make it visible -- and thus vulnerable -- to the world. Once my art escapes the safe confines of my mind, it becomes subject to criticism and rejection. And yes, while the chance exists that the work will engender connection, appreciation, maybe even celebration, is the chance significant enough to counteract the fear of irretrievable failure?

We meet this weekend to discuss my book. I will report back.

Imposter syndrome is a psychological term that refers to a pattern of behavior wherein people (even those with adequate external evidence of success) doubt their abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.

-- Samyukta Mullangi, MD, MBA; Reshma Jagsi, MD, DPhil, JAMA,Vol. 332, No. 5

After the Meeting

Sometimes your dream catches up with you, and when it taps your shoulder, you faint from shock.

Such was my reaction at the meeting when my writing group handed my heart back to me wrapped in warm blankets, affirming for me that laying it on the line with honesty and vulnerability was worth the risk. When my writing has made thoughtful people laugh, cry, and contemplate, then I have to think I am on the right path. That my vision is not a fever dream in disguise. That the still, small voice is right yet again.

None of this means I have skirted failure for good. But for now I have banished my fear, and instead filled the hole it left with audacious hope. Onward.

Prayer #339: Imposter Syndrome

Is my art to be endured? Submitted to? Inflicted upon? Or is it meant to be placed with confident authority on its own inch of infinite bookshelf, sandwiched between other heartfelt works, part of an unceasing cascade of human expression that arcs toward the divine in a desire to illuminate it?

Stand beside me when I retract my hand from the spine, for at first I will hesitate to leave my soul so exposed. But the longer we stand there, bearing witness to the courage required for and of creation, the more I will grasp that You are not an editor, not a critic, but rather a patron ready to endow my work with inspiration.