Saturday, December 31, 2011

Perhaps I already have enough to do all my work?

In the face of new year's resolutions, the cultural process of making plans to lose weight, exercise more, etc., I have decided to not set any new goals or resolutions.  For one, this blog and year of living intentionally is certainly a work in progress... and the progress has been waining of late (though I am happy to report I successfully put away all new Christmas clothes, organized my closets and even weeded out some clothes to donate- returning to goal # 19!!)  I am grateful for the sense of new beginning that comes with a 'new year', as an opportunity to re-focus my efforts and consider who I am becoming in the coming year.  In addition to already having some goals set, I think a different way of approaching the new year is to focus on embracing trust in myself and God, that I can achieve, become, learn and grow.  Instead of focusing on the end results or goals, I'd like to focus on the process, the journey and a way of being.
A New York Times writer just finished a great piece on the Jesuit retreat center in Wernersville, PA.  This retreat center provided me with two very significant retreat experiences in my college life, times when I was particularly struggling and felt a bit lost.  The retreat space, both physical and spiritual, provided time to listen, to stop filling the silence with music, conversation, tv, reading and all the other 'stuff' of my life, and really hear God's voice speaking to me in my thoughts, prayers, dreams and sometimes just in the comfortable silence.  One of the lines from the NYTimes article seemed to encapsulate it all, as her spiritual director suggested, what if you already have enough to do all of your work?  To really believe and to know... to have the confidence and trust that with God, you have all that you need to face whatever life brings you.  To thrive, to attain fulfillment, and to live our life in trust.  Worrying less and having confidence in one's self and God.... Yes, please.  I'd like that.
Father Jim Martin, SJ, a great spiritual writer of late, posted a list of 12 "Really stupid things I'd like to never do again".  His style of writing is accessible to me, as I can relate to what he describes and instead of feeling shame, he helps me to laugh at myself and my many human weaknesses.  The first item on his list is about comparing...  Something that facebook continues to invoke in me, so that after I spend thirty minutes reading my newsfeed and looking at peoples' pictures, I often log off feeling a little less jovial than I did when I logged on.  It doesn't happen every time I log off, but often enough that I realize I need to compare myself less... and maybe get back to that goal of spending less time on facebook.  Here's what Fr. Jim had to say about it: Compare. Ever heard the saying "Compare and despair"? Comparing yourself to someone else usually means that you imagine the other person is better off, more satisfied -- in a word, happier. But here's the problem: We end up comparing what we know about our life, which is a mixed bag of good and bad, with a fantasy of someone else's supposedly "perfect" life. Why do we do this? Because we know all about our own problems, but other people's problems are harder to see. As a result, our real life always loses out. That leads to despair. Besides, there's probably someone comparing his or her life to your supposedly perfect one -- which shows you how ridiculous it all is.
The rest of his article is here if you're willing to look in the mirror and reflect on some perhaps 'stupid' stuff you do, too.  Bring your sense of humor!





My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate.
Thornton Wilder


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Witness to passion and hope

In the days leading up to Christmas break from school, a former student came to visit and speak with my classes about her experiences studying and doing service in El Salvador.  Claire is a junior at Boston College, and participated in an alternative study-abroad program run through Santa Clara University in CA.  Santa Clara sponsors a program based in San Salvador, which enables students from Jesuit (and some non-Jesuit) schools throughout the US study at the University of Central America in addition to serving at various praxis sights throughout the country.  It is based upon the principles of liberation theology and solidarity, enabling students from North America to walk with the people of El Salvador and learn from them. 
Listening to Claire's stories and watching the passion and fire in her heart as she described who she met and all that she learned, I found myself deeply moved.  There is something about working alongside the poorest of the poor that puts things in perspective a bit, pointing out what really matters: relationship, love, compassion and laughter... and points out the insanity that we often get caught up in, particularly in the Christmas season: money, competition, power and status.  It is easy to lose sight of what 'really matters' living in a culture that often emphasizes 'stuff' over 'people'.  But there are moments of grace, insights into the beauty of love and relationship, that ground me back in the realization of what brings true, deep and long-lasting fulfillment. 
I was wasting some time yesterday on Facebook and saw a picture of another former student who goes to Saint Joe's, and she was participating in 'Unity Week', what used to be called 'Rainbow Week'... a week of events that emphasize understanding and acceptance of all people, focused primarily on sexual orientation.  It made me smile, excited to imagine what this young woman and so many others will do to help bring change and compassion to our world.  It just so happened that I spent the afternoon yesterday having coffee with Claire, and this other young woman happened to be at the same coffee house meeting with another former teacher from our high school...  Truly, what are the chances?  God's hand, providing inspiration and hope! 
It's easy to get disillusioned with the 'Church' or the world in general, to focus on what isn't or what should/could be.  But it is truly inspiring and gives me great hope to see these two young women, in a sea of thousands (or millions!) of passionate, inspired and motivated young people, ready to set the world on fire!
I received this poem from a friend this Christmas, and find its message to be truly profound and challenging.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas :)


"When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.  -- Howard Thurman

Monday, December 19, 2011

Annunciation

For some reason this advent season, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about and being with Mary.  It might have something to do with my rekindled obsession with Breath of Heaven, which many of my students sang at our Christmas concert last year.  If you missed that, check out this great video with scenes from The Nativity: Breath of Heaven
Much of my thought and prayer this Advent with Mary has been about trust and anticipation... awaiting the unknown and yet trusting that all will be well, even if we can't always see how that will unfold.  This speaks to me on many levels of my life and I imagine it always will.  The myth of certainty and guarantees has been fed to all of us in America.  If you do x, y will be the result.  And yet, there are many other variables that aren't included in that original equation.  I can't control what other people say, I can't control health and illness, I can't control accidents, I can't control the actions of others.... but I can only control my response... and like Mary, I can trust.
A beautiful prayer and poem on the Annunciation, that moment of radical trust and assurance in the face of uncertainty and fear:

By Denise Levertov

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
                   Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
                  The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
                                            God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

          ____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
                   Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
             More often
those moments
     when roads of light and storm
     open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
         ______________________________
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
                          only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                   Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Taking the time

Over the past few days, I had the opportunity to accompany 49 of my senior students on a 3 day overnight retreat. In the days that proceeded the retreat, I felt like I was burning the candle at both ends... I found myself with meetings scheduled before and after school everyday in addition to meetings scheduled during my lunch and prep periods. There was hardly time to breathe while I was in the school building, and yet I realized that I am often most productive when I am most busy. But, as retreat showed me, I also need to make the time to slow down, to listen, and to just 'be'. When I feel pulled in so many different directions, scheduling time for down time becomes another thing to do and I put myself in autopilot. Not exactly the way I planned to spend Advent.
Advent is a time of listening, of preparing and anticipating. What are some ways we can better do this? Retreat was a chance for me to plug back in to my spiritual desire to be aware of God's presence in my life, both in the big things and in the little moments. It is being more aware of the twinkle of the lights on my Christmas tree, driving around new neighborhoods to delight in their holiday cheer, or in the sipping of a cup of peppermint tea while snuggled under the covers on a particularly cold night. I guess that is why I started this whole blog in the first place, to be more aware and intentional. At the point of my half birthday and subsequent six month anniversary of my blog, it is a perfect time to check in and reconnect with my purpose and desire.
Peace and joy to all in this season of Advent!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How has a month passed??

I was just saying to a friend this morning, I feel like the last few weeks have passed by in a blur... I don't know what exactly made that happen, though I certainly think it is connected with the fact that I haven't blogged nor gathered with my faith sharing group (well, I did go once, but that was the night we were watching the moving Bridesmaids...)  It is essential to slow down every once in awhile, to listen, to contemplate and to just 'be'.  I hope in the coming days of travel to different states and visiting with friends and family that we can all remember that- the importance of pausing, giving thanks, and soaking it all in.  Otherwise, life does really fly by.
I was moved by a beautiful article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by one of my favorite columnists about how her year has been pretty difficult, but being able to meet people and tell their compelling stories gives her much to be thankful for- and also grounds her in the realization that although life is difficult at times, we all have much to be thankful for.  Get inspired here !
Looking ahead, Ryan and I are going to host some friends for Thanksgiving next weekend... but we also volunteered to do a portion of the cooking for my side of the family tomorrow... some tasty recipes are on the way, and here's a look at a couple I am just dying to eat tomorrow!
Cider glazed Turkey
Bourbon gravy
Onion rolls
Balsamic glazed Brussels Sprouts with BACON!
So in addition to the delicious food items listed above I'd like to do a grateful list for the coming month until Christmas.... each day, at least five things I am grateful for.  Here we go:
1) The yoga studio in my neighborhood.  Full of amazing women, challenging practices, and ways to learn about myself without judgement (I try at least) and grow in physical and spiritual ways.
2) My dog Annie who snuggles up in my lap if I am sitting on the floor, along my side if I am in bed and always greets me with the excitement and joy that instantly brightens any day.
3) Ryan, my husband, who appreciates and enjoys the little things in life and keeps my smiling and laughing... and always makes sure I see the moon in all its beauty when we are walking Annie.
4) Seeing a former teacher from work today who is serving in Nicaragua as a missionary- listening to her passionate faith, trust and compassion moves mountains in my heart.
5) Knowing that Christmas break is just 4 weeks away!  Woo hoo!

Happy Thanksgiving all!  Blessings and joy to you and yours :)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The gift of laughter

Yesterday I found myself in a state of delirious laughter throughout my day.  I was exhausted... the week had brought some late nights and early mornings due to relying on one car and other work-related and haircut-related events.  And although at times my fatigue can make me a cranky, difficult-to-be-around type of person, it seemed to turn me into a gurgling baby who laughs at the slightest gesture or silly face.  My students had me laughing hysterically when they told me my new haircut made me look 'young' and 'hip'... so my previous look was old and homely?!  Or as I waited for Ryan to pick me up after school, I had tears in my eyes as some of the fellow teachers and I reminisced about funny moments over the last few years including some pretty hilarious Halloween costumes and related awkward situations.  It made me appreciate that even when things seem stressful, exhausting or frustrating, laughter can be the best medicine.  I was just reading a great article from NCR entitled "We laugh because we know who we are" and one little story particularly struck a chord with me:
'We lose our tempers and our dignity and our way. We misspeak, misstep and mess up. If we live long enough, we end the way we began, wearing diapers and eating baby food, waiting for someone to change and feed us. Pretty funny, when you think about how much time we spend protecting our dignity, our appearance and our position.
I remember a night years ago when my father was as angry as he was drunk. He resolved to go up to the bedroom he shared with my mother and lock -- really lock -- the door. He would show us. To that end, he grabbed a hammer and a can of nails. He weaved his way up the stairs, yelling at us that we would no longer be able to make his life a living hell, or words to that effect.
My father slammed the door. Soon, we heard the sounds of nails being hammered into the doorframe, mingled with the sounds of the hammer missing the nails and hitting the wood.
Now my parents’ bedroom was a large single space above the two-car garage. I don’t think the builder planned it as a bedroom, since it had neither closets nor an adjoining bath. Its primary virtue as a bedroom was its distance from mine.
The evening had been long and loud. My mother and I were tired. We stood silently at the bottom of the stairs, listening to the sounds of wood splintering above us.
I was about to turn and go to bed when my mother gestured towards the stairs and drawled, “Un-huh. Just wait till he needs to pee.”
A beat, then I started to laugh. My mother started to laugh. We looked at one another and began to howl, full out eyes-watering, nose-running, snorting laughter.
I don’t remember how long we laughed that night, but I do remember how the gloom evaporated and the power of my father’s wrath was destroyed. I think it was the image of my father pulling out the nails, one by one, in a race against time (not to mention his bowels and bladder) that dispelled the sense of his power.
Free men and women laugh. They laugh because they know who they are, and who they are is not God, upper or lower case. Indeed, laughter may be the surest way to know and acknowledge one’s place in the cosmos, one’s place as creature and not creator.'

Though the story is obviously heart-breaking in some respects, it also celebrates the power of laughter and joy and its ability to overcome suffering and anger.  One of my favorite writers of late, Fr. Jim Martin, just published a book about the importance of laughter and joy, particularly in the spiritual life.  He makes the connection that humor shows hospitality, and we can make people feel welcome by laughing together.  What a simple, and yet insightful point to make.  Often when I am teaching about specific areas of sexuality, I have to pause and point out the fact that some of the words are just so awkward to say, and it helps to break the ice and sets me at ease (and hopefully my students!!).  Fr. Jim created a mini-video about an experience he had while traveling in Africa and how humor made him feel comfortable among strangers in a somewhat awkward situation.  Check it out here.
As life continues to unfold and I realize that much of life is out of my control (often to my dismay), I find myself better suited to laugh than to fight against it...  It might be laughing at the amazing dance that Ryan and I do in imitation of a Patriots player (it involves doing criss-cross motions with your hands over your knees while simultaneously kicking up your feet- one at a time- and staying on your heels-- just ask me to do it, preferably in a crowded public place) or watching someone really get down, singing and dancing to music while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, or just laughing at myself... my ridiculous attempts to be 'edgy' and 'hip' and act like I know any of the pop culture references my students make... or when I tried to do a difficult yoga move this morning and flew off my mat and fell on my face!  Amazing.  And, the teacher reminded me, you've got to fall a few times before you can fly.  So you might as well just have some fun while doing it!
I got to spend some time today with a good friend who is in the dredges of graduate school, internships and residential ministry.... in the midst of all the intensity, she attended a workshop on Friday about humor in the spiritual life.  I am totally jealous of her, but for now, I will just have to thrive off of the wisdom of Jim Martin... here's another little nugget for you!  Enjoy

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How do we react when our enemies fall?

Hearing the news that Moammar Gadhafi had been captured and murdered in crossfire between the government and loyalists after airstrikes, I felt mixed emotions...  I want to rejoice for the people of Libya in their quest for freedom and perhaps even some type of democratic society in the future, yet I feel a bit uneasy at the thought of celebrating someone's death.  I went to cnn.com and immediately a video started to play, showing a bloodied face, presumably Gadhafi, being moved in a convoy moments before his death.  Is this the "right" way to respond to the death of a person?  Why does our media provide the images of people, hated criminals most often, in the moments leading up to their death?  I'm reminded of the video that leaked after Saddam Hussein was hung, or the debate about whether the images of Osama bin Laden after his death would be released by the US Government.  Why do we want to see?  Does it bring some sense of gratification or perhaps satisfaction in revenge?  Or is it the sense of comfort we feel, knowing a person who is responsible for the death of hundreds, even thousands, and the downfall of entire societies can do more harm?  I remember several interesting articles in the days and weeks after Osama's death- reacting to the instantaneous 'joy' across the nation and across the world...  people tweeted, blogged and updated their statuses with shouts of victory over 'evil'.  What is our Christian response to this reality?  In a great piece in the Huffington Post, one priest remarks how he felt after Osama's death: "So is it possible to be happy and sad at the same time? I believe it is. The very human emotion I was feeling last night was joy that he was dead. The very Christian emotion I am feeling today in the light of day is one of sadness that a life is lost and a feeling of relief that the one who brought terror to so many has been brought to justice. The rest of what I am feeling will just have to work itself out."
I guess I just need to let it work itself out then? 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Finding Hope

If you turn the tv on or open the newspaper on any given day, the news is often full of doom and gloom: The economic collapse both locally and abroad, the continued spread of religious fundamentalism and violence, corruption in the public and private sectors, a local human trafficking ring prosecuted, and I won't even mention the demise of my beloved Boston Red Sox.  In the midst of this reality, how do we find hope?  Is it by turning off the television, ignoring the news and living in a bubble of ignorance?  There are days when I think this is the best option, and find myself opting for the 'ignorance is bliss' mentality.  But it can't be avoided.  My husband is one of those statistics that are thrown around on the news when talking about the economic collapse: underemployed... in debt... starting out in an economic climate that is less than appealing.  So, where is the hope?  I find it in the people who tell their stories of starting out in similar, or even worse conditions and have seen the downturns and eventual upturns.  This historical reality helps to put things in perspective, to know we are not the first young couple starting out, struggling to make ends meet... and to remind ourselves that it will get better, things will change eventually, and the key is to not lose that elusive hope or let the stress turn us against each other.  A couple of years ago, I responded to a blog post about 'recession romance' and recently re-read part of my response that was published on Busted Halo: "And remember Ryan and Katie, who were wondering how to pay off law school loans, and whether to postpone their autumn nuptials? Well, Ryan applied to hundreds of legal jobs, networked, all to no avail. So he branched out: “I am happy to report that he now has a job as a supermarket manager — a paycheck and health benefits!” writes Katie. “In the end, this brought us closer than I could imagine. We realized as a couple what is really important to us, what we can live with and without. We also realized at the end of the day, we can control very little about the world, but we can control how we take care of one another and that has made all the difference.” I wish them all the best in their upcoming marriage!"

Well, we just celebrated our two year anniversary with joy and gratitude, and a little bit of anticipation about what the future will hold.  Continuing to learn about ourselves and each other is a joy-filled journey and when coupled with patience and love it is working, even in the face of stress and uncertainty.  Oh, and Ryan is working in the legal field (hooray!) nowadays, clerking for a judge and preparing for the next step.

Whether its economic realities, our health and family members' health or our job stability, there are many elements we can not control in life.  It's accepting our lack of control that can begin to free us, to find hope and to see the bigger picture.  I think it is also helpful to hear stories of triumph, of people overcoming odds and coping with difficult situations.  "Good News!  No, Really!" is a hopeful look at the reality of life in areas that have seem extreme suffering, corruption and hopelessness through the years... but even in the darkness, there is a glimmer of hope. 

Focusing on hope and the power of the individual, one of the first people that comes to mind is Aron Ralston.  He is the inspiration for the film '127 hours', about his experience of being trapped in a canyon and eventually amputating his arm after facing death through dehydration.  Holding on to hope and not giving up certainly determined his outcome.  The movie is amazing and intense (I had to look away for the some of the most graphic amputation scenes...) but it captures the strength of the human spirit and the ability to survive (and even thrive) in some of the most bleak circumstances.  Ralston also learned to always let his family know where he was going when he takes off for a hike!

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."
-Martin Luther King, Jr. 



Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Appreciate

It has been a painfully long time since I have blogged and I have missed it, to say the least.  The freedom and opportunity to process in an open forum, make meaning out of my experiences and do some 'wandering' is a blessing of the blog-experience.  And people at work have started reminding me of my resolutions (to listen more and stop talking- thanks Ann!) and called me out on the lack of blogging.  It feels good to be called to accountability, and to remind me of something I committed myself to this summer...  So I thought I'd take a little time to reflect on the act of appreciation because I've found myself in the last few weeks losing sight of it, focusing at times on causes of stress and insecurity instead of appreciating the blessings and sources of life, love and joy. 
I brought myself to yoga tonight, excited about a (free!!) class focused on the theme of 'ignite'.  It had been awhile, and one of the quotes our instructor shared at the end of class was about appreciating- appreciating a full moon, or the little crescent when it starts again, a kiss, laughing at yourself, and the list goes on...  The many things that fled through my mind as we practiced 'corpse' pose... literally laying on the mat in darkness like a corpse for quite some time, what I appreciate: 
1) the laughter of my students when I describe myself as hip and edgy
2) the excitement in Ryan's eyes when he samples a fresh batch of beer for the first time (pumpkin was brewed this weekend!!  can't wait to drink that in a few weeks)
3) the supportive community at school who encouraged the development of a faith sharing group
4) the older sister who sat next to me for the first gathering of the faith sharing group and held my hand
5) how excited my doggie is when I walk through the door even if I am particularly late
6) spending the weekend with family and laughing so hard I cry, several times...
7) being told that someone believes in me.. and then believing in myself
8) listening to the radio on the way to work, and every song that comes on makes me sing along
9) hiking in the woods and watching a hawk swoop overhead
10) chocolate and peanut butter, together in glory!
Living with intention means taking the time to smell the roses, to appreciate and focus on the positive blessings in my life.  This has been a great reminder of what it's all about, and I will go to bed with a smile on my face when I think about these, among the many others, blessings I appreciate in my life.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Finding the balance

The last two weeks have flown by and I am sad that I didn't make the time to blog in the whirlwind of being back to school, visiting with family and friends, and just looking to find a balance in the midst of it all.  Getting adjusted to the school schedule and being 'on' in classes all day has taken a toll on me, but I've also been energized by some great conversations and enthusiasm in the new classes I am teaching this year.  One of the biggest mantras I am holding on to is to focus on the positive, to celebrate what is right, and to let go of frustrations, anxiety or uncertainty.  In the continual process of strategic planning at school, I participated in a summit gathering of various 'stakeholders' connected with our school last weekend.  As a starting point for our gathering, we watched the 'Celebrating What's Right with the World' video that I've been obsessed with for the last few weeks.  It was interesting to hear parents, alum and board members react to this approach and attitude.  It's contagious really, and seems to direct us towards happiness and fulfillment.  I am so grateful to be in a place where contemplation and honesty are valued.  My students have helped to create a board in my classroom, composed of various pictures and quotes, that celebrates what is right in their worlds.  Every opportunity I get to glance at the images, I am instantly transported to a place of gratitude and joy, and can't help but have a huge smile on my face.
At the event last weekend, I shared with some more people about my desire to develop a faith sharing gathering for faculty/staff/administration at school, and the idea was meet with enthusiasm, encouragement and excitement.  At least I was feeling excited.  So I bit the bullet and on Wednesday morning, I wrote an email (after several drafts adjusted and clarified by my bsb-best school bud) to everyone at school, explaining what I had in mind, and inviting people to come to a planning session this Tuesday (to share ideas, plan times/dates, etc.).  I am willing to plan/prep the first few gatherings but would hope it becomes more collaborative (not just because I don't want the added responsibility, but because I am curious how other people encounter the divine).  So I took a risk, and as soon as I clicked 'send', my heart raced.  I ran across the hall to tell my fellow theology teachers that the email had been sent.  Why was I suddenly so nervous?  I guess I felt vulnerable, and for some reason, worried that people might make fun of me or think I am strange.  Well, let's be honest, I know I am strange.  But I didn't realize I was so afraid of being mocked.  It was a very eye-opening moment for me.  And so I try to find the balance, to maintain focus on what I believe is really most important, despite my own fears or short-comings.  Maybe I need to spend some time with this whole 'fear'.  We'll see what that's all about...
A Sister of Saint Joseph passed away two weeks ago, and she was described by many as a spiritual base for the community.  She gave a retreat to our faculty a couple of years ago, and invited us to each take a heart at the end of the day, each inscribed with different words.  My heart says balance.  I still have it, and still need to focus on it (obviously).  Her life, her spiritual gifts, continue to be far-reaching.  Balance.  My heart doesn't just say balance, my heart yearns for it.  Balance.

Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony. -Thomas Merton

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Autumn in all its glory!

The end of the summer is a bittersweet moment for me as a teacher.  I dread the idea of waking up before the sun has come up, and the endless stacks of papers that will inevitably get backlogged and need to be graded... and yet I love the newness of the school year, a clean slate to try new things and meet new students.  This year especially brings new opportunities and experiences, as I am teaching some new classes, taking on the responsibility of department chair, and as a school we are undergoing a process of accreditation that I've been talking about a lot lately. 
But beyond the 'back to school' stuff of autumn, there are many other things I love about this time of year.  Today is the first NFL Sunday football day, and I look forward to the coming weeks of crockpot chili, apple cider and pumpkin pasta.  Ryan is getting ready to brew pumpkin beer for the first time in a couple of weeks, and I can't wait to taste it!  I just found a pumpkin cookie recipe that might require a ride to the store right now to get some pumpkin....  And I can't wait to make butternut squash and ginger soup!  Okay, so obviously the majority of things I love about this time of year involve food and beer... but that's no big surprise, really!
This time of year has taken on a special meaning for our country in the last ten years as we remember and commemorate all that 'September eleventh' means for us.  The media has covered a variety of stories over the last few weeks, articles about the children of those who died, recalling stories of where people were when they heard, and the touching memorials and concerts on television.  It is something all Americans share in common.  Yesterday we went to the local blues festival with our friends Liz and Chris.  In the middle of the concert, they paused for a minute of silence... at school on Friday we paused throughout the day for silence when the first plane, the second plane, the third plane, the fourth plane hit...  These moments, memories, and shared sorrow will always be a part of 9/11.  And yet, it is also a powerful, tangible way for us to be united, to share in common the pain and sorrow.  Sitting in the middle of a park with hundreds of people I've never met, knowing we all were sharing this moment together, sent chills up my spine.  It's not the ideal way to build community and unity, and yet it is so powerful nonetheless.  And I have to say, it is in those moments, when I am most proud to be an American.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Storms brewing...

Two weeks ago, as the east coast braced itself for the arrival of hurricane Irene, I headed to yoga.  As the skies darkened the night before the arrival of the storm, the heat radiated in the yoga studio (literally, she turned off the air conditioning and it was naaasty.)  In one of the positions, the instructor shared an insight that has stayed with me as a mantra every day:  No matter what storm is brewing, real or imagined, we have the ability to remain centered.  Now, this was perhaps a commentary on the hysteria of over-buying peanut butter, water and batteries that took hold over our area in preparation of the incoming storm.  But I think it had even greater insight into how we react to the world around us.  Oftentimes it is true that the anticipated storm in my life is really just a figment of my imagination, and I might (just maybe) blow things out of proportion once in awhile.  Then again, sometimes the storms are real, and have the ability to knock us off our feet and lose power.  But in the midst of both of these types of storms, and those that fall somewhere in between, we do have the ability, the power, and the choice to stay centered... to focus on what is really most important, and not be knocked into hysteria or panic.  As the school year begins, this mantra has been especially pertinent.  The newness of the school year and the crazed pace of getting everything started and set up can easily lead to unnecessary hysteria or panic.  But the ability to stay centered remains.
My mom passed along the news that a classmate from high school passed away after a courageous fight with breast cancer.  I knew she had been sick because we used to be connected via Facebook (but as part of my 'cutting back' this spring, I deleted the majority of my 'friends', and she fell victim to my scaling back), but it was my understanding that she was well, working and living her life.  As it turns out, the pictures on facebook and the postings about Phish concerts and 5K's didn't tell the full story of what was going on in her life...  it seems like she was somehow able to stay centered despite the storm raging in her body.  If you're looking to be inspired, and maybe a little weepy, check out her blog. 
Megan's Pink Blog
What an amazing woman....  Rest in peace, Megan!  You are such an inspiration! 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Focusing on what's right in the world

This week has brought a whirlwind of conversations around the future of the school where I teach.  An all-girls, Catholic, independent academy, the school has a rich tradition that spans back 153 years.  As we face a changing population of students, a challenging economic climate, global reality, etc. etc there are questions swelling about the future and how we can remain competitive and true to our mission.  Part of our principal's introduction to the school year focused around a short video put together by Dewitt Jones, a photographer for National Geographic, emphasizing our ability to celebrate what is right in the world instead of focusing on what isn't working.  Essentially, to choose to be positive and see the goodness in each 'frame' or experience in our midst.  At our school, we are adapting this approach in our accreditation process but ultimately we are taking this approach in our lives.  In the moments of starting a new school year, there is much to celebrate that is right in the world.  It is helpful to be reminded that we have the ability to choose what we focus on and celebrate, and I am trying to bring this perspective to my classroom throughout the year.  I made a little bulletin board yesterday with the tag line 'Celebrate what's right in the world', and I am going to have my seniors bring in a picture of something, somewhere, or someone that embodies what they see as right in the world- to help keep them grounded in what is right and beautiful in the world when the stress of the college process and uncertain futures weigh them down. 

In the midst of the hurricane this past weekend, there were many moments to celebrate.  I was moved to tears when a fellow teacher from school called me Saturday night to see if Ryan and I needed to evacuate, and welcomed us to stay at her home.  Our old neighborhood in Philadelphia is prone to flooding, and some of the people right on the river were encouraged to evacuate, but fortunately we weren't affected in our new neighborhood.  Her thoughtfulness and generosity really overwhelmed me... would I have done that?  As I start the new year and might feel a bit daunted by the new responsibilities and courses I am teaching, I certainly need to celebrate what is right at my work- the amazing people who have become my family, and who go out of their way to love and care for one another.
One final thought on what is right in my world... as the new year started and I found myself in the new position of department chair, we had our first departmental meeting this week.  I was feeling nervous and excited to tell my colleagues in the theology department about the idea of starting a faith sharing group for faculty.  When I tell you they were enthusiastic, I am understating their reaction...  Not only did they want to participate and help develop it, but they helped me to trust this is a need in our school and creating the space for authentic community to flourish will be valuable.  Even if three of us gather, they pointed out that it is worth it and will be blessed.  They emphasized we should do it twice a month, don't wait until the middle of the year to start, etc. etc... the passion was palpable and contagious.  What a gift to be surrounded by such supportive and amazing people! 
Celebrating what is right in this world....
Loving life in Newport, RI



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Smile, smile, smile....

Mother Teresa said a lot of beautiful things about smiles, and here are three of my favorites:
“Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love."

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”

"Peace begins with a smile."


Driving home from getting my back cracked on Monday, I found myself to be ultra-attentive to the people in the cars around me.  I don't really know why, as I pass hundreds, if not thousands of people on the roads everyday without a second thought (that sounds kind of sad to me for some reason).  But for some reason, I was feeling observant and connected to the people around me.  I sat at a red light and looked at the middle-aged man sitting in his truck next to me.  He look stressed or annoyed at something, but as I thought more about it (and creepily stared at him) it appeared his face might have just been in a permanent scowl/frown.  How does that happen?  Was he born frowning, or has his face  and its many muscles trained themselves over time, due to his general disposition, to rest in the frown position?  I started thinking about myself, trying to casually glance at myself in the rearview mirror to see what my 'resting face' looked like.  (This obviously did not work, as I just 'happened' to be smiling from ear to ear.)  I remember being in high school and thinking about this same phenomenon, that some people seem to always be smiling or grinning, and others seem to be caught in a perpetual frown.  An influential teacher and minister in my life when I was in high school had pronounced lines on the sides of her eyes.  I now know they are called 'crow's feet', but at the time, I thought of them as smile lines.  It was as though she was always taking in the wonder around her (I was usually with her in the context of prayer and retreat experiences) with an open heart and a sense of awe and gratitude. When I reached 'middle age', I wanted to have smile lines, too, and hoped to greet the world with awe, wonder and gratitude. 
I've been obsessing about this idea of smiling since the yoga teacher meditated and challenged me on it last week.  Like, when I am pushing myself on a run and feeling the burn in my lungs, to smile... and give a spot of thanks for the ability to run.  When the driver (I thought was letting my into his lane and gave him a wave out the window) gives me a 'thumbs down' sign (at least it wasn't another hand gesture...), I smile and hope to soften the tension between us.  Actually, I laughed out loud.  Ooops.  Or when I encounter someone who seems stuck in a perpetual scowl, to affirm them and try to give them reason to smile.  One of my colleagues shared this youtube video with our department last Christmas.  (the next time you have 15 minutes, you must watch this... and invite people to watch with you!  Seriously, it seems a little goofy in the beginning but it is AMAZING!)  It has become one of my favorite resources in the classroom, and even inspired a collaboration between my seniors and a freshman class to, together, wallpaper our lockers at school with notes of affirmation and beauty.  It makes me smile just thinking about it.  What if I made it a point to greet every morning with a smile?  It's easy in these summer months when my schedule and workload is a bit more flexible and low key.... but as the school year commences, I hope to celebrate with a smile.  But maybe the greatest challenge is to maintain that smile, or at least appreciation, as the day goes (or drags) on.  In the Happiness Project, one of the questions she considered focused on whether some people are just intrinsically happier than others or is it a conscious choice in how people react to situations in their life?  There are various arguments and viewpoints on either end, as well as many who think it is a combination of both.  What I've found true in my own life is that there are many things outside of my control, but one thing within my control is how I react to situations.  It's often a battle against my emotions, and it can be challenging, but being mindful, prayerful, reflective and intentional can allow us (or at least me) to choose how we react.  It takes time, to step back from situations, even if it just taking a deep breath after the guy gave me a thumbs down on the road, instead of reacting with frustration or annoyance, and laughing at the situation and his funny gesture.  Honestly, it makes me feel better to laugh or smile than to complain and fill myself with tension and frustration.  So, smile smile smile!  (you'll find that song sticks in your head after you watch the video... or maybe it's just after watching it a million times like I have)! 
Or, you could take W.C. Fields' approach:  Start every day with a smile and get it over with.  
I don't suggest it, though :)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Living locally

One of the overarching themes that are guiding my desire to live with intention is about building and sustaining community.  A lot of the various goals I set for myself fall under this larger theme, and I've found living in my new neighborhood to lend itself to focusing on community.  I started my weekend out with an evening of yoga and meditation (despite the thunder claps and torrential rain outside) at the neighborhood yoga studio.  Feeling connected with the women sitting next to me, even though I didn't speak to all of them, in our shared practice and focus on smiling refreshed and energized me.  It has been a wonderful opportunity to push and challenge myself- but within community instead of on my own.  Although I've loved running and training on my own (and hope to continue to up my distance in the coming weeks), there is something empowering and even humbling about stretching and pushing yourself physically alongside other people.
After picking up some rations at the market on Saturday, I spent a good portion of today cooking (while Ryan brewed a yummy Saison).  I made some (low fat) chewy granola bars, some oatmeal bread, rosemary flatbreads that I smeared with fresh goat cheese, pesto and sundried tomatoes, and then we had some fresh edamame.  I'd only ever had edamame from a frost-bitten bag before (and remember being troubled a couple of years ago when Trader Joe's took it off their shelves... when I asked why, I was told that they were getting it from China so they wanted to find an importer that had higher, um, standards of their exported products) and they were delightfully fresh after I got all the dirt and grime off of the pods and removed the stems.  Purchasing food from the people who actually lifted it out of the ground, or buying salmon from the couple who actually live in Alaska for 6 weeks a year (yes, I want their life) and then transport it to various markets and shops in PA, made the system of relationships that brings food to my table quite tangible.
As I prepare for the new school year and pick up some clothes, I feel compelled to consider these same themes as I buy clothing and shoes.  Whose hands will contribute to making my clothes, from the cotton growing in the fields to the driver of the truck to my local Kohl's?  And how much of my payment will go to repay them for their labor?  If only the farmer's market sold clothing, this might be a whole lot easier to expand my local lifestyle to my clothing.
What if I considered this every time I made a purchase?  As we face a global economic market that is just barely staying afloat, maybe there is something we can all learn from the chic phenomenon of buying local.  An Iowa-based nonprofit recently released a study about the huge (positive) economic impact that farmers' markets have on local economies.  Now I am no economist, but I imagine if the federal government focused some of its funding and subsidies on these farms instead of giving the majority to large-scale industrial farms who mostly export their products, the result might just boost our local economies.  Those are my wonderings on living locally, courtesy of little old me :)


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Duty to Delight

I just finished reading Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart (just in time for the start of school, since I did assign it for my summer reading group...) and found myself laughing, crying, and being moved as I turned each page.  This was one of those 'can't put down' books that was wrapped up within a 24 hour period- but it will continuously be picked up again.  Fr. Boyle is a Jesuit living in LA, known for his work with gangs that have plagued the community for decades through his organization 'Homeboy Industries'.  His ministry started out as a parish priest, working to keep the peace in the midst of two of the most dangerous rival gangs through dialogue, compassion, and aligning himself with the kids in the gangs.  He dove in head over heels, particularly early on in his time within the community, riding his bike through the neighborhoods at all hours of the night, nearly missing some drive-bys through the years.  As he listened to the 'homies', he heard a theme: they needed jobs.  And as he says, sometimes you can understand why they might not be getting jobs.  He describes a young boy, recently released from prison, who is frustrated that he can't get hired anywhere.  Fr. Boyle imagines him ringing up an order at McDonald's as mothers scurry their children out of the store sans hamburgers: the boy's forehead is tattooed 'F--- the world'.  So, in addition to creating job opportunities and training, Homeboy Industries provides tattoo removal.  Most of the homies have gang-affiliations tattooed all over their body, so this is an important step in their movement beyond the gang lifestyle.  The jobs span through various industries and Homeboy Industries themselves have a screen-printing business, cafe and bakery among others.  I could write for hours about Fr. Boyle, but I will let you read for yourself.  Pick up the book while you're at it!  Right here!
Amidst the heartbreaking stories of young men who turned their lives around and were still gunned down, or the kids who couldn't shake the gang and drug-filled lifestyle, there is endless humor and irony, as well as redemption and new life.  It is a very sacramental book and threads themes of birth and death throughout.  Fr. Boyle quotes Dorothy Day, who quoted Ruskin, that we all have a duty to delight... "an admonition, really, to be watchful for the hilarious and heartwarming, the silly and the sublime.  This way will not pass again, and so there is a duty to be mindful of that which delights and keeps joy at the center, distilled from all that happens to us in a day (Boyle, p.148)."  He tells two hilarious stories to illustrate this concept.  Fr. Boyle is being interviewed on air at a local radio station in LA.  A caller is brought on the line, and he recoginizes the name as one of the homies working for him.  As they take the call, the boy explains that he can't make it to work today.  He calls out from work... by calling into a radio talk show.  Um, okay.  Kind of hilarious.  But really, the best story... another young man called out (to the office) from work one day and told the woman who took the call that he was suffering from anal blindness.  What is that?  Oh, "I just can't see my ass coming to work today."  I will have to remember that the next time I need a mental health day!  Love it!
Even in the midst of a frustrating day, moments of despair or uncertainty, we have a duty to delight.  To laugh at ourselves or the hilarity of life...  Like as I was walking out of yoga last night feeling very zen-like as the rain drops fell, and I approached the crosswalk, clearly marked with signs to yield to pedestrians... and one, two, three, four cars fly by.  I wave my hand, like come on guys!  GRRR!  And then I laugh, at myself and the irony of being at peace and centered, and letting the littlest thing fire me up.  I relished and delighted in my humanity, my imperfections and my beauty.  The focus of the yoga practice for the evening had been to smile, and I had the biggest, most genuine smile on my face when I (finally) crossed the street.
How necessary it is to cultivate a spirit of joy. It is a psychological truth that the physical acts of reverence and devotion make one feel devout. The courteous gesture increases one's respect for others. To act lovingly is to begin to feel loving, and certainly to act joyfully brings joy to others which in turn makes one feel joyful. I believe we are called to the duty of delight.  -Dorothy Day

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Back to school!

Almost two months ago, I posted about my participation in the Jesuit Collaborative gathering in Philadelphia.  This experience challenged me to look at my perspective about faith and community at work.  I was overcome with jealousy when I heard about the different 'Ignatian Leadership Programs' at some Jesuit schools for faculty/staff, students, and even parents (all separate gatherings) and the faith sharing and prayer groups focused on the spiritual exercises.  And I pondered the question: Do I jump ship and find a job where these amazing programs are already in existence and thriving, or do I consider taking the risks involved in fostering that culture (which may already exist) and similar opportunities at my current school?  I made the commitment and choice to look into creating it at my school.  So, it's time to hold myself accountable.  Where have I gone with that?  Other than a few dreamy conversations with friends in the field of ministry, with Ryan, and even with a few former students, I haven't 'done' anything.  And, the clock is ticking as our first back to school meetings are in just two short weeks.  AHHH!!  I ended up with a surprise day off from babysitting today, and I will spend the day doing some back to school planning and conversing with colleagues.  Keeping myself grounded in a positive and open attitude is most important...  Imagine the possibilities and embrace the growth.  I am truly blessed to be in a school that is full of people who are vibrant, passionate about the school and the mission, and who have a lot of fun together, too!  I just get a little nervous whenever trying something new that puts me in a vulnerable position.  I guess that's human, but I am sick of it holding me back from taking the risk and letting the spirit do the rest.  There's not much time left to ponder, it's time to start taking some action steps!
"Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no more than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can only do as much as God makes us able to do; we are only as intelligent as God would have us be."  -Archbishop Oscar Romero
I end with this quote as one of my former students departs for El Salvador today, for a semester abroad.  I am inspired by her faith and commitment and courage! 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Focusing on the positive

One of the goals I set out at the beginning of my "last year as a twenty-something" challenged me to spend more time, energy and thought on the positive in all aspects of life (relationships, work, life, faith, community, etc.).  A beautiful and somewhat over-used phrase, 'focus on the positive' reminds me of my dad giving me advice about sports... when I felt frustrated that I didn't get to play long in a game, he encouraged me to focus on the positive of being a part of a team with such great friends and coaches.  When I turn this timeless wisdom over to my personal life, it is a little bit more difficult to practice.  It's like a phrase you'd see on a greeting card for 'encouragement' or under a generic picture in a gift shop.  But as I've been reflecting on this theme over the last few days, it has become much more real and life-giving in some of the relationships in my life.  Now if I asked the people involved in those relationships, they may not have noticed a difference in me and/or our relationship.  However, I have felt a difference, in my heart and in my affection towards other people (whether it is expressed through action or merely in how my heart feels when I think about them).
There are often moments when I am around certain family members that I just feel disconnected.  Perhaps I assume we have little in common, or that if I tell them what is really on my mind they won't understand or appreciate what I say.  Often it has to do with differences in communication.  I am talker, a thinker and now, a writer.  I try to be expressive about my feelings and emotions and find it sometimes difficult to relate to people who don't share this way of being.  I talk to my parents at least 3-4 times a week, and they tend to know what is going on in my daily life (like what I had for dinner, who I saw over the weekend, etc) in addition to knowing how I'm feeling emotionally and spiritually.  Ryan does not have that same relationship with his parents, although he and I do have that type of relationship with each other (thank goodness!) but what I have learned is that it does not mean they love Ryan (and I) any more or less than my parents.  Instead, they express their love and affection differently... but the feeling of love is not any less than what I have with my parents.  This was so obvious to me a couple of weeks ago when Ryan and I were moving.  As the move came up suddenly and it was a dreaded weekend in the summer in Philadelphia when most people who can run for the beach, we found ourselves struggling to find friends to help with the move.  Ryan phoned his parents, who had offered to help, and asked if they wouldn't mind coming.  Initially they would just meet us at the new place to unload the truck but as the move got closer we realized we'd probably need them to help load, too.  Thankfully a couple of friends were able to help as well (you rock!) but we would not have been able to do it with their help of carrying things, and Ryan's dad's expertise in loading a moving truck (going back to his high school days as a mover in the summers).  Not only that, but after we unloaded the last item from the truck, Ryan's mom unloaded rations from her car... still warm homemade fried chicken, an array of delicious sides and chips, even plates, napkins and utensils.  The thoughtfulness, generosity and kindness brings a tear to my eye as I write this.  When you're in the middle of transition (and will likely not be able to cook for a series of days- which, if you know Ryan and I, is pretty miserable) there is really nothing as great as a home-cooked meal.  That is love.  Expressed differently than I was used to perhaps, but it is love.  My parents, on the otherhand, chuckled when I asked them when they'd be in town to help move.... but their love was shown through several phone calls (sometimes in one day) to encourage, or let me vent about the massive amount of stuff that still needed to get done, etc. etc... and they will show their love by taking us out when they fly down to visit once we are all settled!  I should mention they don't leave MA in the summer- the time of the year when they truly love living in New England :)  Lucky them! 
Focusing on the positive, being open to and receiving something as it is instead of wishing it was something else, is a mantra that I hope to maintain in all of my relationships.  I was sharing this thought with my friend (previously mentioned, the amazing woman with her second set of twins keeping her busy... as well as the 2 year old boys) and she told a story that just hit it on the head for me.  Her sister-in-law was described as an 'ultra-conservative' who, as my friend described, sounded like someone who was not open-minded and would be difficult to have a conversation with unless you agreed with her viewpoints.  My friend does not agree with her, and said she would not necessarily choose to be friends with her.  But, her sister-in-law will randomly call her up, and just say something to the effect of: "You are amazing.  You are doing such a good job with your children, and I admire you for all that you are doing."  Though they might not kick back with a glass of wine and share the state of their hearts with one another, the essence of that phone call is love... true, unconditional love.  That is what we should hold on to.  Instead of doing what I sometimes do, wishing that a relationship could be different.  This might mean with a friend, wishing we saw each other more often, or wishing I kept better in touch with my friends who live far away, beating myself up for what I haven't done to maintain relationships.  Though there is merit in seeing ways we can improve our relationships and communication, sometimes it is most important just sit back and, focus on the positive.  It leaves me in a much better mood than when I focus on the negative, and that's got merit in my book. 
One last thought...  last night, Ryan and I got together with a friend and her two friends from work.  Ryan was the only guy present (and though he did do a double check on the way there to make sure he wasn't crashing a ladies' night) and it just made me sit back in gratitude for what an amazing man I've married.  I left the party for a moment to powder my nose, and I just thought to myself, I am so freaking lucky.  Ryan is hilarious, kind, open-minded and considerate.  He was the first to jump up to wash dishes, the first to laugh at himself when I started sharing embarrassing stories of our last fight, engaging in stories of pregnancy & fertility (one was pregnant, one is trying- not us on either count!), relationships and just being himself.  Though I definitely wouldn't say I focus on the negative in our relationship, I don't always celebrate the positive as much as I should... perhaps I take things for granted.  What a graced moment, to be a witness to what an amazing husband I have.  Okay, enough of the gushing.  But seriously, let's just focus on the positive!
I had to share a cheesy inspirational poster to round it all out:

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Give yourself permission

Last night I indulged myself in trying out the 'live music' yoga class in my new 'hood.  My father is a regular yoga practitioner, attending classes like clockwork three times a week for several years now.  I've taken a few classes with him when our schedules have allowed, but I have never caught the passion for yoga quite as he has.  I think part of my reason for that is that I think of yoga as an indulgence... it costs money to have a 'good' yoga teacher.  There was a time that our local gym had an awesome teacher, but since she moved to NYC a couple of years ago, I've been unable to find someone I like (and who teaches classes in the evenings).  I'd never considered a yoga studio before, though I listened to some of my friends talk about it and it sounded like a heavenly experience.  When I saw the sign for 'Friday night live music yoga' for just $6, I figured it would be spending less than if I went to happy hour so I might as well give it a try!
In the last few weeks, I've been internalizing a bit of frustration over some issues with my back.  Getting some x-rays this week (just to have, as the doctor said) and spending an excessive amount of time at the hospital where I got them done led me to enter what I may call panic mode.  I watched people go by with canes or in wheelchairs and I wondered if/when that would be me.  I felt pangs of guilt associated with these thoughts, as I told myself I should be grateful that I can even walk, see, talk, etc.  I wondered when I'd be able to run again (I have a 10K mud run coming up to celebrate our second anniversary of marriage- romantic, I know).  I thought about how sick I am of going to get treatments on my back 3-4 times a week, and that they seem to be set back by things out of my control (like having to give my dog a bath after she rolled in poop on our walk earlier this week... lifting a 45 lb dog into the tub- twice since she escaped the first time- is something I used to be able to do easily) and then I was berating myself again for being so selfish, feeling sorry for myself when really, my problems aren't all that bad in the end. 
As I sweated, stretched and deepened my mindfulness last night at yoga, the musicians played an acoustic rendering of Bob Marley's Three Little Birds.  The refrain, 'every little thing's gonna be alright' warmed my soul.  I literally felt an air of peace, acceptance and surrender come over my body, my mind and my heart.  The tension in my shoulders, my jaw, and my lower back loosened.  As the yoga practice wrapped up and I lay on my back, I considered how healing and challenging this past hour had been for me.  I realized that I needed to give myself permission to practice yoga or to find other things that helped my back and my spirit cope with whatever is going on in my body.  Most importantly, I need to stop dismissing my concerns or holding them up against the concerns or problems of others to somehow prove their worthiness or unworthiness. 
As Ryan pointed out to me last night, yoga will be a way for me to not only release the tension and challenge myself physically... it will also be a way to center myself and release the tension I hold related to stress, anxiety, and everything else.  Who knows, that just might be part of the problem with my back in the end.  Either way, I am giving myself permission to indulge and do something for me... no altruism here, just self-care.  And that's not a bad thing.   


Friday, August 12, 2011

"And a little child will lead them"

Over the last couple of weeks, the news has been overwhelmingly drab about the financial crisis, S & P ratings and stock market losses.  I'm trying not to pay too much attention or allow myself to worry more than I already do about money because I remember the wisdom of a billboard on the PA turnpike just as you are heading into NJ: Hysteria feeds recession.  Chill out.  I love it.  So I am trying to chill out and keep things in perspective... and then this little girl named Rachel has popped up on my radar, providing the leadership, perspective and 'reality check' that we all need.
Rachel was a young and spunky kid who, in lieu of her ninth birthday, asked friends to donate $9 to a project that provided clean water to kids who didn't otherwise have that access.  She couldn't believe that people didn't have clean water, and so she wanted to do something about it.  This spirit of philanthropy and compassion started years prior when she learned about Locks for Love at age 5, and insisted on cutting her long hair to donate for kids with cancer whose hair fell out due to chemotherapy.  She did it several times.  Until a couple of weeks ago, when Rachel was in a car with her family that was hit by a truck and she was critically injured.  Her story circulated, and according to an article in the NYTimes, contributions continue to pour in, having raised over $850,000 to date for clean water efforts.  The selflessness, courage and consideration of this young girl and the challenge that her short life provides to all of us worried about credit ratings and interest rates is multi-layered.  On one level, she acted- she didn't just think.  How often do I see a story or a foundation and think, I should donate or volunteer?  But really, how often do I actually do something?  On another level, Rachel's life is not about building up our level of security and comfort for ourselves.  Rather, she lived for others, making sacrifices and giving freely without seeking anything in return.  There is something pure, authentic and yet so challenging about her life.  I wish our political and economic leaders could read her story and have a little reality check.  I know it helped change my perspective a bit.  Thanks Rachel, you are a leader in the truest sense of the word.  Rest in Peace.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What motivates us to be kind to others?

This question has been bouncing around in my mind over the last few days.  What are the motivations for acting kindly and doing generous acts for others?  In the psychology of happiness theories, doing things for others has a direct correlation with a person's happiness... it makes us feel warm and fuzzy.  But for me, it also makes me feel connected with people.  I like the concept of being a part of a community, however local or global it may be.  Doing things for others often helps to build that community and foster relationships within it... whether it is by holding the door for someone at the post office or helping to build houses for people on the other side of the globe. 
Speaking of holding the door open for others, let me share a little story that took place in my new neighborhood.  I got home from work at 4:15 to find a note in my mailbox that a package was waiting at the post office.  After a quick check on the post office's website, I determined I had about 12 minutes to make it to the post office.  So I grabbed the dog and got in the car, fingers crossed that we'd make it in time despite the afternoon traffic.  I pulled up just at 4:26, happy that I'd be able to get the big package today.  When I showed the slip to the kindly postal worker, he explained the slip was filled out incorrectly, and the package won't be available for pick up until tomorrow.  For some reason, this annoyed me.  It's not as though I was awaiting anything important, but rather some medicine, treats and a new litter box for the animals.  Nonetheless, I was frustrated and unsure of when I'd be able to make it to the post office again this week during normal business hours.  As I harumphed my way out of the post office, a woman was walking up the stairs armed with a box of packages to be mailed.  I waited for her, holding the door so she could ease in just as the clock struck 4:30.  When she passed me and entered without saying 'thank you' for my kindly act, I found myself saying 'You're welcome' after her.  Harumph.  When I got down to the sidewalk, a man approached me explaining that the woman who'd just gone in the post office dropped this package out of her box.  And, he was walking his dog so he couldn't bring it in to her.  Would I mind?  Why, I'd love to, almost getting a smug sense of satisfaction of 'killing her with kindness'... she couldn't say thank you, and I will just go one step further and help her out some more.  I trotted into the post office, handed her the package, explaining she had dropped it outside, and she motioned what I recognized to be sign language 'Thank you'. 
Oh.  So it wasn't that she was ungrateful for my act of kindness by holding the door open to her.  What is wrong with me?  I saw her walking in again after I'd left the post office carrying some more packages, and so I went over to her car and helped her carry in the rest of her packages.  It was my penance, whether she even realized it or not, for my selfishness and false assumptions.  It got me thinking... why do I expect that people thank me for things I do like open the door, let a car into my lane or offer to help a friend move?  If I didn't receive this gratitude, would I stop giving?  And, most of all, who am I to assume that someone is ungrateful or rude if I don't hear the verbal thank you or receive a note in the mail? 
The wisdom of my high school english teacher rings true...  When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.  Whoops.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Perspective

These last two weeks have been a whirlwind of packing, sorting, unpacking and organizing...  and it looks like we are totally settled here in our new place.  The boxes have been emptied and broken down, and the guest bed even has sheets on it (just in case anyone wants to come visit, hint, hint!) but most importantly, it has started to feel like home. 
As I think about what I've learned these last two weeks both in the experiences I've had of moving and in the great book I've been reading (thanks to Liz for lending me 'The Happiness Project') one word stands out the most:  Perspective.  Often we take for granted the things that make us happy and comfortable because we've become accustomed to them, and forget that they aren't 'givens' or something we are entitled to because of our mere existence.  Embarking on this next journey of my life in a more 'suburban' existence and lots of modern conveniences, my eyes have been opened to appreciate many things that I might have otherwise taken for granted.  Ryan and I have been in awe of the fresh air, the clear(er) skies at night, the soothing rhythm of cicadas and crickets... the rustling of the leaves in the tree outside our window (yes, a tree!  hooray!) and the ability to bake in the summer, comfortably, thanks to central air.  Now that we are totally unpacked, I've been on a bake and cook-a-thon, making some rustic whole wheat bread, granola bars with cranberries, nuts and dark chocolate, corn muffins, bison-meat chili and a peach & blueberry crisp.  The joy of meeting the farmers who produced the majority of the items used in my recipes at the farmers' markets this weekend (even the cornmeal was produced at a local historic mill that I will obviously visiting in person soon to participate in their monthly tours and participatory sessions) makes the cooking and baking more holistic.  I already feel very connected to this community, and see the many things I have to be grateful for as a part of it.
I was able to chat with one of my aunts this week and filled her in on the new digs.  I was laughing, telling her about the many things I love about our new area that I never thought I'd want/appreciate... that I'd pegged myself to be an urban, 'hip' gal (where the idea that I hip came from, I don't know) and she laughed at me and said frankly, you're turning 30... you want different things.  I guess that's true.  I also appreciate different things, and hope I don't start taking those things for granted once the newness wears off.  Staying mindful of my blessings is really what living intentionally is all about at the end of the day.
Moving, not having internet, and being forced by the workhorse husband to finish unpacking forced a break in my blogging.  I've missed it, and I am glad to be back :)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Indifference

When I am not packing like a maniac (we are moving!), I have enjoyed finishing up James Martin's My Life with the Saints.  One of the most recent themes that has stayed on my mind is the idea of Ignatian indifference.  We aren't talking about being apathetic here, or lazy.  Instead, it is more a spirit of openness and trust, not being too attached to any one thing or option.  This practice of indifference sounds fluffy and floaty to me, and often far from reality.  That's because my intrinsic desire is to have control, and when I find something I want, I want it.  When I can't have whatever 'it' is, there is often a flurry of frustration, annoyance and and overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.  Sometimes I even think to myself (though I'd probably not say it to anyone for fear of sounding self-centered) that it just isn't 'fair'.  And I know, my dad told me life isn't always fair... but can't a girl dream?
I'd imagine those emotions and feelings are due to the fact that my motivations for wanting something are often rooted in my ego and self-centered desire...  As in, I am selfish and certainly not indifferent.  Ignatius of Loyola says in the principal and foundation of the spiritual exercises that indifference doesn't mean that we can't have preferences, but rather that we put those preferences and desires into God's hands.  Basically, we let go of control and develop the trust that we are being led where we are supposed to be led... even if that might mean it isn't where we'd necessarily choose to be.  I hope to continue to develop my spiritual indifference, as it can provide a lot more comfort and stability in a world that isn't really all that stable.
Over the last few weeks, Ryan and I decided we definitely wanted to move out of this old, drafty house in Manayunk and move to an area with more trees, parking, efficient heating and away from the city.  Traffic has become a menace, causing Ryan's commute home to be upwards of two hours on an average day (add that to the morning commute of at least an hour.... yikes).  Even the most zen person would be driven mad by this (I'd imagine) but somehow Ryan's held it together thus far.  But I don't want to play with fire, so I readily agreed to move a little further from my work to find a middle ground.  We identified the area we wanted to live, complete with a main street full of great restaurants and shops, an awesome farmer's market (at least 20 stands!!) that, coupled with our CSA, could be all the grocery shopping we need to do.  It's also along a part of the river with trails and water sports, and lots of other small-townie stuff.  We looked around at a bunch of houses and apartments and, let's just say, they left something to be desired.  The area has totally revitalized in the last 3-5 years, and as a result, the rents have gone up.  We were in a predicament, and forged ahead, figuring we could always just stay where we are at for now until something better came along (complete with the 3 hour total commute for Ryan).  Letting go of control and not freaking out were hard for me.  But, I did it.  I can honestly say there was not one night in the last month where I've had trouble sleeping (usually the first sign of my lack of indifference!)... and in the fourth quarter, we found an amazing condo that will be home by this weekend!  We saw it a week ago, signed the lease this weekend and have begun the process of moving that is all too familiar to us now.  It's within walking distance of the downtown area and the trails along the river, a few minutes from the highways, and has lots of modern conveniences we don't currently enjoy (central air, dishwasher, efficient heating, etc) as well as parking, a pool and lots and lots of trees and grass.  Though we don't have a yard for Annie, we do have a patio... and it's super dog-friendly so there is a dog run on the property and lots of poop bag dispensers (hooray) so it'll be a good fit I think!  Bubba will be sad to not have deep windowsills to lay in, but I imagine he'll love snuggling in the sun of the glass sliders...  Life is good.  It's amazing what happens when you just kind of let it happen.  It's also amazing how well-rested and centered I feel despite the total disarray of our house and life right now!  Speaking of, I should be packing right now.... after making some gazpacho with the rations from our CSA!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Don't just do something. Stand there!"

No, you didn't read the title wrong.  I read this quote, an old New Yorker's mantra, and thought about what it really meant.  It was written in a New York Times article that caught my eye about gardening in Philadelphia (for obvious reasons...) and describes a Mount Airy resident's philosophy on gardening, and life.  To let it grow, and be, challenging our cultural emphasis on 'doing' and being active.  The gardener's philosophy grew out of time she spent in India, where she was taught a different way to approach life.  As she points out, “How many times has somebody gotten married, and you just can’t go because of too much work or something?” she asked. “They don’t miss these things. The whole place stops. I feel like we just don’t stop enough.”
Practicing the art of stopping is difficult for us Americans to do.  I remember traveling to Italy as a college student (on one of the sweetest babysitting gigs of all times) and learning about their approach to work and life balance.  What is it about us Americans that we are so obsessed with doing, producing, earning, accumulating stuff?  Why can't we just stand here, just be present to the moments of our life, and maybe even watch the garden grow around us instead of dictating the exact shape of the garden, which species will be included, diligently watering and weeding as we go?  (this is reminding me I better go water my tomato and pepper plants in the midst of this heatwave... wait, just BE!)
All of this 'being' sounds great to me, but might not be the most practical at the moment.  Ryan and I are moving... again... in a week.  We just found out officially last night that we got this great condo in Phoenixville, PA.  It's a transplant of our current neighborhood in a little more suburban/green setting.  Meaning, we are still walking distance to a main street with shops, restaurants and bars, as well as a path along a canal for walking and running (hopefully the back will be up for that again soon).  But instead of being a city setting, there is actually parking (YAY) and lots of trees (breathe in the oxygen) and modern conveniences (central air, dishwasher, etc).  So, though I'd like to stand here, and not just do something...  I better get packing.  There is a house that needs some attention here.   

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Got Happiness?

In an interesting article on the pursuit of the warm and fuzzy feeling, the book the Happiness Project and the myriad of conversations that have ensued from this book have piqued my attention.  I haven't read the book, but have heard quite a bit of buzz about it.  In our economically stressed time, full of war and uncertainty, seeking long-lasting and authentic happiness has become a popular pursuit.  I think this a great thing, as it is challenges many of our cultural assumptions that money/possessions=happiness... When in fact, that happiness is often short-lived and difficult to maintain.  There is something about spirituality and faith that I think is intrinsically tied to this pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.  Without a sense of community and deeper purpose, I think we often feel fragmented and disconnected.  How do you find happiness?  That deep-seated sense of fulfillment that permeates your entire being? 
I think I might add this book to my reading list...  I need to figure out what all the buzz is about!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Let's get down to business!

Well, despite the insane heat and humidity right now, I have an itch to do some baking.  In my non air conditioned kitchen.  We'll see how this goes!  We've received oodles of zucchini both from our farm share and Ryan's sister over the last two weeks.  I have a delightful-sounding recipe from Whole Foods that I am going to give a try today.  I thought I could hit up two of my goals in this one- to do some healthy baking and be more neighborly.  I am hoping to make a few loaves and then share them around the block.  We just had a new neighbor move in downstairs with her daughter, and it is time to reach out.  Here are some of the giant zucchinis and a monster tomato from the farm share.  I wish we could get this stuff year round!  Maybe next year I will get in to canning, too!
Although it doesn't officially qualify as 'water sports' (goal # 4), I did enjoy getting soaked by water guns at the Bastille Day celebration this weekend at Eastern State.  My sister in-law came down for the event, and we took in the Parisian culture, and hoped to catch a tastykake or two when Marie threw them from the walls of the Penitentiary.  In an ironic twist of events, Ryan ended up getting smashed in the face with a tastykake...  And it wasn't by me!
The whole thing inspired quite a revolutionary spirit in me.  It was a funny and satirical presentation (and we didn't actually end up seeing a beheading, but rather Marie's punishment was to be Arnold Schwarzenegger's housekeeper...) but the overall message focused on the French people's revolution and independence.  The relationship between any leadership and 'the people' has historically been a tenuous one, at best, in nearly every nation and institution.  Here in Philadelphia, we are facing a changing of the guard in the Church's leadership, as it was announced officially today (after some 'leaks' and insider information) that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver will take over as Justin Rigali retires as Archbishop of Philadelphia.  There has certainly been a bit of sounding off on all fronts as Philadelphia prepares to welcome a new shepherd...  It seems that everyone already has an opinion before the man has even moved into the city.  Perhaps there are reasons why people are so quick to judge, given past hurt and a sense of betrayal.  Father Chaput will enter a community that is writhing in pain, frustration and yet is also grounded in a vibrant faith and devotion to God that is the cornerstone of the Church here in Philadelphia.   I just pray for open hearts and minds, from all people (myself included) and not just from the leadership.  Although it is easy to look at a person's history and make assumptions about what they will do/won't do, we are called to welcome all people to the table and accept them as they are (despite their pasts, etc).  Our Church needs reconciliation and healing and dare I say, a revolutionary spirit!  NCR has a very thorough interview with Chaput that I'd suggest as a way to learn a bit about our new leader.  Looking forward to seeing what the future and God has in store for us!  The greatest challenge I have felt in this month of being more intentional is in being patient and listening, rather than making assumptions or coming to conclusions without giving things a chance to play out.  But perhaps just being conscious of that is a hopeful sign.  Right?!
I wonder if Chaput will have storm troopers as part of his entourage?!  

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts. 
-Eleanor Roosevelt