What’s left of 2011…

I accidentally picked up a Spanish version of the complimentary 2012 calendar my church is giving out this year. I don’t speak a word of Spanish, but I guess I can figure out the important things. (Example: Enero is, presumably, January.) Learning Spanish has been on my bucket list for years anyway.

My entire office is now decked out in 2012 calendars and schedules, and all the projects on my plate are books that will print and launch in 2012. My youth group schedule, Bible study, planned adventures, even new goals for writing and for this blog…all are 2012. 2011 quickly fades out. Now I’m not much of a one for new year’s resolutions and I don’t set much store by throwing the past behind me so I can jump into the future with both feet. I simply do not believe that tomorrow will be better than today unless you set about making today the best it can possibly be. Since I will still be I tomorrow, and the world will probably still be the same old world, the only chance I have at getting/doing/being what and who I want is to set about getting/doing/being that person right now. Right?

Still, there’s a real sense of optimism in setting out on a new adventure in a new year. There were lots of really great things in 2011: this blog, new writing projects, several new friends, a new house, a couple dates, a couple adventures to far-off places, a couple weddings, a couple births… But I failed in my one Big Resolution: to get something (anything!) published. (I have one story out to a small journal, but no word back yet. With a sigh I admit: I’m not too hopeful.) So I’m looking forward to making that  a reality in 2012. It’ll take a lot of work, but I’m excited by the challenge of the whole thing.

But enough of this looking forward, let’s get back to the facts at hand. What’s left for 2011? Two work days, some laundry, some prayer, and a two-day trip to New York City with some of my dear friends. Details–and hopefully pictures–to follow, never you fear.

I hope you’re able to make the remainder of  your 2011 everything you ever dreamed of. And maybe even more.

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“If you only knew the gift of God…”

I became an avid letter writer during my teenage years–so much so that I had as many as 60 pen pals at one point in 10th grade. Excessive? Er, yes. (And clearly I haven’t recovered. In the past three years I have written a grand total of three letters. Count them: three. That’s one per year.) Every year after Christmas my various pen pals and I would write one another long letters including ridiculously detailed lists of the gifts we’d received. I still groan with boredom remembering the reading–and worse, the writing–of those letters: “I got the C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy, some hair clips, a baking set, a DVD…”

But it occurred to me last night during the midnight Mass that it’s time to write another list of gifts. Not what I found under the tree this morning, but the many unexpected gifts I’ve been given this year. You see, my attitude this December has done a complete 180 on last year around this time. I opened 2011 telling myself, “This is the year I end up truly–finally–abandoned.” I had nothing to look forward to except the people I loved most leaving me: my sister’s wedding, a best friend moving away from the area for good and several other friends possibly leaving as well, and my two favorite co-workers taking off after new opportunities. I slumped into a miserable, months-long pity party.

It seems no matter how long I live, I will never fully wrap my mind around this truth: when the Lord takes away, He also gives in abundance. I tend to fall in love with things–hard–so that the idea of losing them breaks my heart, and I forget that all things must come in their season…and then go again. And that it is good for it to be that way.

But here are my top 10 favorite gifts from 2011, just a sampling of the things I’ve been carrying to God in really thankful prayer:

1) A wonderful new roommate (and friend)

2) A roomy house right near my parish church…and my own bedroom, for the first time since I was 18 years old

3) Many opportunities to gather friends old and new together for dinners, parties, or fireside chats

4) Many more opportunities to make new friends

5) A new co-worker who happens to be also a) an old acquaintance and b) a new friend–and the best daily Mass buddy there is!

6) A nephew on the way!!

7) Continued development at work, in ways that have surprised me since they were subtle, unexpected, and certainly not part of “the plan”

8) The development and growth of this blog, as well as other writing projects

9) Deepening several old friendships and learning to delight ever more in their company

10) A new spiritual director

I know already that 2012 may very well see the loss of certain of these goods. Their season will pass on, and others will take their place. I already know that some of these passings will cause me quite a bit of pain, and I accept that. Because perhaps the greatest gift of this year has been the realization–and the acceptance of the realization–that all these things are and must remain outside. That at bottom, always, the greatest gift, the only gift, is God himself, and all other gifts simply point us back to him.

The child in the manger at Bethlehem blinks out on the world, a visible sign of God’s constant pleading with each one of us: Let me be your joy.

I wish all my readers abundant blessings and overflowing joy in this season. May you know the gift of God.

*Images from here and  here

Martha, Martha

We continue our mad race to Christmas; my heart rate is up, as are my coffee and sugar consumption, and sleep is way, way down. So is prayer–at least real prayer, the kind that involves stillness and silence. As I rush from one thing to the next (work, shopping, wrapping, cooking, more work, sleep, laundry, travel plans, youth group logistics, work, a little more sleep, house cleaning, more shopping…and there’s still more laundry, more wrapping, and more cooking to be done), these words keep playing in the back of my mind, and I wanted to share them here.

“You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”

Granted, the “anxieties” of this season are all joyful ones: Christmas shopping (even if I am a little low on funds at the moment), tree decorating, house cleaning, all in preparation for the Feast. Still, I get butterflies in my stomach and catch myself fidgeting on long car rides and groaning when I get stuck at a red light. There’s so much to do! Then I lose sight of the reason for all the details and the details become everything, and then Christmas loses its focus. Thank goodness for my good angel, who whispers those words in my ear when I most need to hear them. Stop, breathe, refocus.

After all, under all the details, Christmas is all about only one thing.

Weekend moments

God made fire for gathering friends together on cold winter evenings. I’m sure of it. I enjoyed conversation around not one, not two, but three fires this weekend, and I’m pretty sure I could go for it every night if such a thing were possible. Let’s have lots more this winter, shall we?

I finally got my high schoolers to help write a Christmas pageant, but getting them to narrate it to a room full of people turned out to be quite a different story. The DRE looked at me with some concern on Sunday morning and said, “We’ll definitely need microphones for the performance.” Oh well, one small step at a time.

A very small boy took a fancy to my red walking shoes on Sunday afternoon. In so many gestures he ordered me to remove them from my own feet so he could put them on his and drag himself around the room in them. Since my shoes were almost as big as he is, it made for quite the feat. I am kicking myself for not taking pictures, but I didn’t want to spoil the moment by jumping up to grab my phone. I feel like we spend so much time inserting cameras between ourselves and actual moments that we miss out on full experiences. Still, it makes it difficult to share memories with those who weren’t there, when the adorable visuals are stuck only in my own head.

Just a few verbal snapshots of a lovely, whirlwind Advent weekend. I’m looking forward to the possibility of some stillness later this week…the final pause before the Feast. May you also find some stillness in which to look toward Him with eagerness—and peace.

 

Looking Silly

This creature of habit is still reeling from the shock of a day full of out-of-the-ordinary-cycle-of-things events. Absolutely nothing earth-shattering (or even all that interesting) occurred today, but it was the little things that got me all discombobulated.

Things like leaving the house at 7:00 this morning, and not 7:45 or 8:00 like I usually do. And driving my car, not taking the bus. Stopping in Crystal City to get cash for parking from the ATM and to deposit a check, then realizing I had no pen to endorse said check, and asking the mild-faced guy in front of me in line for the ATM whether he might possibly have one (to which he replied, removing one iPod headphone from his ear and looking somewhat sheepish, “I’m afraid I don’t think I do,” which even at 7:15 a.m. struck me as being an odd way of phrasing it, but at least he was pleasant), so my entire detour into Crystal City became an exercise in futility. I could’ve gotten cash from 7/11…

Then the parking lot I planned on using for the day because it costs $6.00 if you’re in by 7:50 (I thought) ACTUALLY cost $7.00 because you have to be in by 7:00 to pay $6.00.

I went to Mass at 8 because I had a hair appointment at lunchtime. Which was great (I made it to Mass!) but also unusual since I almost always go at noon. And then afterward, when I stayed for a brief visit, I couldn’t focus on my prayers at all because my silence was peppered by the constant noise of some man up at the front of the church who decided his prayers needed to be said out loud. And by that I mean…loud. I am clearly not very good at praying, since his noise distracted me. A lot. I’m still distracted by it, clearly.

At lunchtime I decided not to take the address OR the phone number of the hair salon with me when I left the office with only 12 minutes to spare. (It takes 15 minutes to get there by metro.) Of course I realized when I got out of the metro station that I had NO idea where the place was. Or how to reach them. And I was already 5 minutes late, and wearing my work shoes (high heels) because I’m vain and didn’t like to wear my too-long pants with flats, especially when going to a hair salon where everybody will judge you for what you’ve got on your body. Yes, I am admitting this out loud. So I limped my way from G Street to F Street, then back up toward H Street, then back to G Street until at last I found it, 20 minutes late for my appointment and muttering all sorts of dour things to myself like a crazy lady. The receptionist with the painful-looking lip piercing completely ignored me, so I stood there feeling silly and shunned and LATE, and my feet hurt, but fortunately the stylist was very forgiving, and it all turned out all right in the end.

Back at the office I realized I had nothing for lunch, because I’d actually eaten what was supposed to be lunch for breakfast. Because I’m trying to save money (or really, I’m finally having to acknowledge that I simply don’t have any), I opted out of buying lunch. So I was forced to resort to a cup of ramen noodles, and all I could think the whole time I ate it was: “Does MSG kill a person within one week or two?” I’ll keep you all posted.

Because my lunch break ended up being quite a bit longer than expected, and because I had somewhere to be in DC later anyway, I stayed at work long past working hours. It’s always spooky to be one of the last out of the office. I emerged on the world thinking it was a lot later than it was. Then I hit up the Barnes and Noble at Union Station in search of the book that was to be the topic of discussion of the meeting I was attending this evening. Of course I’ve never read the book and won’t be prepared to participate. And of course it’s my first time and these people won’t know me from Eve and will consider me the biggest flake. And of course the book store doesn’t actually have the book. (The little man with the falsetto voice and the large ear piercing practically sang at me, “I seem to be out of that one, ma’am, but I’d be happy to order it for you.”)

I was going to be quite early for my event, so stopped and grabbed dinner. From Quiznos. A tip: never go to Quiznos before attending an event where you don’t know anyone. Quiznos has nothing on the menu that isn’t chock full of onions. I have nothing more to say except that my hands and my car both reek.

And I got a stain on one of my pant legs.

After I parked, I panicked before going in to the event because I thought I’d lost my car key. Mercifully, a false alarm, but in my excitement I turned on the car light to search for it. Having found the key, I closed and locked the car and went into the event. At the end of the discussion (nearly an hour later), one girl who’d come in a little late raised her hand and said, “Oh, by the way, there’s a car outside with the interior lights on…” and I felt my stomach drop. When she said, “It’s a bright blue Honda…” I wanted to sink through the floor. Instead I sheepishly raised my hand and said, “Oops, that’s mine…”

The event took place in a Dominican convent with wooden floors. I was still wearing those gosh-darn heels, and I click-clacked from room to room, painfully aware of my own noise level in the otherwise quiet house. Everyone else must’ve gotten the memo about soft-soled shoes. And then at the end the brothers tried to usher us out quietly (because it was after Compline and they’re supposed to be in silence), and I like a total goof am trying to ask one of them a question…

Just one goofy little thing after another. And while part of me wanted to shake my fist at the heavens, the other part just has to laugh. It’s good to be a little “off” sometimes, I guess. Keeps me humble. Reminds me that I’m not above looking foolish, that I’m not in control of everything, that I don’t have it all figured out and lined up in perfect order even though I like to think I do. It’s all okay. Ha ha ha ha ha.

But seriously, tomorrow…I’m coming home after work and watching a movie.

The end.

Negative Nancy

So I got off the bus last night and trudged my way home in the darkness, full up to my eyebrows of negative thoughts and feelings. The words in the little black thought cloud over my head went something like this:

“Hungry. Got off the stupid bus a stop too soon. Cold hands, pockets not big enough, need gloves, can’t afford gloves. Can’t afford anything. Stupid money. What am I going to get people for Christmas? I can’t afford Christmas. Stupid Christmas. If I got paid more I wouldn’t have this problem. Stupid job. I’m stagnating there anyway. But that’s it, I’m stuck there. Why am I checking my phone again? No one ever calls. Why am I looking? I just checked three minutes ago. I’m pathetic. No messages. I have no friends. Obviously I have no friends, if I did they’d call or text. Something. Even my family ignores me. Why hasn’t JM returned my text messages? Come to think of it, she didn’t reply to my message yesterday. I was inviting her over. She’s probably mad at me, I don’t know what for. Dammit, my hands are still cold. This hill is so steep. I don’t have time to make dinner. Can’t afford to buy it. I hope I get through the rest of the evening. I have to go see people. I don’t want to see anyone. Maybe I can tell them I’m sick. I am feeling a little sick. And cold.”

Blah, blah, blah.

I got to the top of the hill and turned the corner, heading toward my house. And I started to laugh. It’s always back to the same old worries, the same old questions, the same old answers. Where are you resting your heart? I take my eye off the ball for a moment, and look where it gets me. I turn into a sour-faced whining negative Nancy. What do any of those things matter anyway? To all who may have had to deal with me in my bout of negativity, I do sincerely apologize.

What are you most afraid of?

I remember reaching a point of panic when I was nineteen or twenty years old, thinking I was almost to that place where life settled itself into a solid, unbreakable pattern and ceased to be exciting. Nothing more to learn, nothing more to strive after, no more deep thoughts to enter into and explore, just getting from one day to the next. Mediocrity was just around the corner.

Mediocrity: the curse of adulthood. Children see magic and excitement in all things. Teenagers look to the distant horizon of “the future” and dream big dreams. Even many college students pour themselves into the joy of learning and knowledge and believe in the greatness of ideas, the adventure of life and love. But adults wake up every morning, pour the coffee, and steel themselves to get through the day. The horizon is no longer distant, it’s just the next step, and they lose the vastness of it. I will be frank, as I am rarely frank: this is my greatest fear.

For most of my young adult life (using “young adult” in the loose sense of “since I was about fifteen”), I have struggled with this. I always put off the next big step as long as possible, because I think I ultimately see it as a loss: one more box checked off on the list of life ambitions, one less thing to look forward to. I remember being somewhat horrified (at the time I couldn’t explain why) when one of my dearest friends in college started a “countdown” to graduation at the beginning of our last semester. She put the number on her bedroom door, and every day I walked by and thought, not, “46 days to graduation” but “46 days closer to mediocrity.” I attend the weddings of friends and try not think, “They’re almost there.” I’m ashamed of myself for wanting to marry and settle down and raise a family because it seems like longing for the very constriction I dread.

As I get older and the patterns of my life ossify daily, I encounter that fear more and more often…a fear bordering on terror. I’m twenty-five now. But thirty is coming…and then forty…fifty…and so on, and surely–surely I will eventually hit that wall all adults seem to hit, and I’ll stop moving forward. I’ll settle into my awful suburban clapboard house, raise a family, keep pets, sign the kids up for swimming and dance and music lessons, maybe even join the local civic league and the parish choir just to keep things interesting, gradually put on weight, and try my best as the years progress not to notice that my soul has shriveled, that I never actually did anything.

I had a conversation with one of my aunts recently. She said, “Well, I’ve done everything that was on my list of things to do before I die. I have nothing more to live for. Ha. Ha.” My aunt isn’t fifty yet. Now she has had an exciting and eventful life: she’s lived abroad, learned a foreign language, worked a good job and climbed the ranks, raised a family…but to be not yet fifty and to say, “I’ve done it all”?

And I look around at the older adults I know and wonder, does anyone escape? Does it go without saying that we all reach a point at which we say, “Okay, this’ll do,” and sit down and settle in and wait? (For what? For the inevitable end, I suppose.) Or do the clapboard house, the swimming lessons, and the parish choir practices expand and fill all the space in you, the space that right now seems so vast and able to be filled with such … greatness?

I wrote a paper in my junior year of college on the virtue of magnanimity. “Great souledness” as my good professor loosely translated it. A “stretching forth of the mind to great things,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. It surprised and relieved me to discover that this largeness of soul was not just pride…that the longing for great things (not in terms of wealth or power or fame, but that which is truly great) could–should–actually be a virtue. This virtue takes up all things and applies them to the purpose of greatness. That’s the secret of the Little Way of St. Therese, isn’t it? To take up the tiny, the seemingly insignificant, and apply it to that purpose. If one truly lives this virtue, one can never hit the dreaded wall, because the wall is nothing more than the repudiation of magnanimity. Magnanimity takes even the clapboard house, the swimming lessons, and the civic league and turns them outward and upward. One hits the wall when she inverts these things and makes them the destination.

I think ultimately this should be our perception regarding this single phase in our lives. We’ve been given this time to enter deeply in to the ultimate purpose of our lives—not falling in love with Mr. Wonderful, not having kids and raising a family, though these things are very, very good—but living with God. We can’t set that aside as a pleasant cliché, a good thing to remember on Sundays or in those rare bouts of sanctity, or something we’ll focus on “later, when it’s closer to the time.” There is only this moment standing between me and eternity. Do I really have my heart set on God as my ultimate goal, or am I placing intermediary wants up front and center and living for those instead?

If the ultimate end remains firmly locked in our minds as The Goal, then there’s no danger of falling into mediocrity. Mediocrity is the very antithesis of sanctity. So the answer is: be not afraid. Only fix your eyes on the horizon and keep walking forward.

 

 

 

I won’t be doing that again

As a sort of joke, in one of those yawning 4 o’clock-hour moments, this afternoon I googled, “What is the meaning of life?” I figure if the iPhone can answer that question, so can the Google.

About 50 million results.

I made it through the first page–none of them were kidding. Except Fox News, which was only reporting that the iPhone is programmed to answer the question.

I read an entire article from the UK Guardian by some philosopher I’d never heard of who spewed 1,000 words that began, “I know!” and ended so inconclusively that I’m beginning to wonder if my existence has any meaning at all. (Remember, this started out as a joke.)

Ask any well-formed 7-year-old in circles like the one I grew up in, and she’ll just laugh at you and say, “To know, love, and serve God and be happy with him in the end.” Granted, she doesn’t really know what any of that means, except in a general way that she’d better obey her parents, not be mean to her brothers and sisters, and eat all her vegetables.

But it leads to a rather interesting question: Is it possible to acknowledge a real meaning of life if you have no religious faith? You can make up a few reasons to keep going, or decide not to think about it, but can you say definitively “There is a purpose to my existence” if you don’t believe in a creator who infused it with that purpose?

Gosh.

Next time I’ll just Google “cute yellow shoes” instead.

 

Looking East…

“Christmas is not about getting. It’s about giving!”

With this platitude our hapless parents strove to re-Christianize an almost pagan holiday, trying to inject some sense of charity in us selfish kids, but their voices were drowned out by the tinny Christmas music that started playing the day after Halloween, the festive lights, the “happy holidays!” advertisements, the cheesy movies. In the end all we really heard was the sound of silver bells. And presents. And maybe more bells.

Still, I got into the spirit of it as a teenager and a college student. Giving. Yeah! I’d plot and plan and save for months, then purchase really special things for each family member and close friend–things I just knew they’d love. And there was real joy in that, definitely. But I began to suspect, somewhere around my junior year of college, that even the “it’s all about giving” mantra wasn’t enough to define Christmas. Once the loved one had opened the gift and said “Thank you!” (even when they said it with real conviction–and yes, once, even tears), that was kind of…that.

Okay, I thought, so maybe it was all about family and “being together,” like all the Hallmark movies say. I loved leaving school for a month and heading home to be with my family, definitely, but I always missed my friends. Then I got a job and moved away from home, and I had to spend most of the Christmas season away from family, and that was even worse. So in my first couple years as a young adult I began to dread Christmas–I mean really dread it. Halls decked with boughs of holly…repetitive music (it’s like there are only twenty-five acceptable Christmas carols, and all famous singers must create their own rendition, and each rendition gets slower)…eggnog…Facebook invitations to parties thrown by people you’ve never met…lights…shopping…and through it all this constant dull ache of loneliness and missing home, missing loving and being loved.

Granted, even at the worst of my Christmas blues, I looked forward to certain things–the colder weather, parties thrown by friends, spending a few days with my family, time off from work–but I dreaded the impermanence of it all. We build and build and build up to what should be a resounding crescendo on Christmas day, and then it’s over.

As a kid I remember just longing for Christmas to last. But somehow it never did. Even though we held fast to the 12-day tradition, on day 13 the tree came down, the lights returned to their boxes, and we slumped back into ordinary time. Now as an adult professional, on day 3 or 4 it’s back to the office, where you can reminisce with co-workers about how great your holiday was, but it’s still over.

Unless…

It’s about something even more than generosity, or time spent with loved ones.

And it is. The joy of the season comes only with that realization, that Christmas is not about something, it’s about someone.

I know we’ve heard it a thousand times, that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but so often the real meaning gets shot to death by cliches. And overrun by busy schedules, bad music, and (of course) presents. We say, “Happy birthday, Jesus,” but we’re not really sure where he is and we’re kinda busy with the whole celebrating thing.

I know for a fact that it was not until he got me alone…really, truly, painfully, awfully alone…at Christmas back in 2008 that I really knew what it all meant. It was December 23, and I had to work on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t even see my family until right before the midnight Mass, and then I’d have to come right back up to D.C. for work the Monday after. My roommate had headed home a week and a half before. Most of my friends were either out of town with family or in town with family, and in either case they were MIA. The phone was silent. The email inbox, the Facebook page were both empty. And by some grace I knew that it was okay. That I would be spending the bulk of my Christmas with the birthday boy that year, and that was the way he wanted it. No distractions, no noise, no pulls on my attention or my time, just me and Mary waiting together for Christmas night. And in the days after my time with my family, just me and the Holy Family kneeling in awe around the manger.

Now, as the schedule gets daily more full, the music continues to clamor in the background, and I run from here to there checking off items in my head (gifts for family members, cookies for coworkers, cards, mass requests, Christmas caroling with high school students, Christmas tree, Christmas parties), I take comfort in that first alone Christmas. I take comfort in knowing that after the lights come down and the tree gets thrown to the curb, the baby is still here.

Christmas has nothing to do with anything outside. Nothing at all. It’s all about the Christ Child, who wants nothing more than to gurgle up at you from the manger, or even to be rocked to sleep in your arms.

I hope you’re having a very blessed Advent thus far. May your hearts be open to receive him when he comes.

So Selfish

So it never fails. A family member comes to visit (usually a sibling), and I’m inevitably brought nose to nose with the reality that I’ve become a Very Selfish Human Being. I’m no longer used to consulting with other people about my schedule. I’m not used to revamping my plans to accommodate someone else. I dislike feeling tethered to another person’s expectations about where we’re going, what we’re doing, or what’s for dinner.

Granted, the joy of having a family member visiting more than makes up for the little frustrations. But being slapped in the face by faults I thought I’d licked years ago is never pleasant. Humbling, yes. But not pleasant.