Looking at the stars

We are all in the gutter.  But some of us are looking at the stars.  — Oscar Wilde

As a child, crying was usually an indicator of something negative happening in my life.  From falling and skinning my knee, to forgetting my homework and being reprimanded by a teacher, to getting in a fight with one of my siblings, the situations that sparked tears were ones of struggle.  I cried when I was sad, angry, hurt or confused. 

Somewhere along the line — maybe when I was in high school, when I began to see that words are usually as effective for expressing emotions as tears — this changed.  I still occasionally cry from grief or frustration, but more often now, my tears accompany feelings of nostalgia, hope, appreciation, love and awe.  I tear up when I read a story that demonstrates the goodness of humanity; my eyes get misty when a particularly sweet memory of my father, mother, sister or brothers comes to mind; my throat gets tight when I hear a beautiful piece of music of poetry. 

To be sure, the instances of struggle that used to cause me tears still exist.  In the world in which we live, sadness, anger, hurt and confusion are in many ways the status quo.  Maybe, along with learning that words as well as tears can express emotion, part of becoming an adult is realizing the pervasiveness of trauma, pain and suffering and implicitly acknowledging that if we let these things cause us tears, we’d be crying all the time. 

Looking around myself — reading the news, seeing a homeless man sitting on a cold stoop, talking with a grieving acquaintance — make me see that we’re in a gutter, all of us.  We are surrounded by pain — emotional, mental, physical, spiritual — and not a single one of us will get through life without suffering.  But my tears, now, remind me of the bursts of grace, the glimpses of light; the breaths of hope and the moments of joy.  My tears highlight the things that keep me going and get me through and remind me that there is meaning in life — in the good and the hard of it.  They remind me that I can be in the gutter and look at the stars. 

 

Photo by Mattias Milos on Unsplash

People I used to be

“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” – Joan Didion

I have an aunt who loves beautiful things — paintings and music and furniture and even well-plated food — in an exceptional kind of way.  Like my dad and their other eleven siblings, she has both an eye for art and an artistic streak herself, and this is evident in everything from the way she speaks to the flair with which she dresses to how she sips a glass of wine.  Time with my aunt is colorful, vivid, passion-filled and abounding with ideas and inspiration.  She seeks beauty whole-heartedly, and when she finds it, she reaches for it — to hold it, to relish it, and if at all possible, to take it home with her. 

In her love of beauty, my aunt has filled her home to overflowing with paintings and tiles and clothing and dishes and sculpture and art books.  And as her shelves, closets, counter tops and cupboards have runneth over, the elegance of each individual item has been lost to clutter and distraction. 

With her deep appreciation for exquisite design, color and texture, it is easy to understand my aunt’s longing to hold on to item after item.  But too much of a good thing is precisely that: too much.  This is true when regarding objects, and it’s true in other areas of life as well.

Personally, I have a hard time letting go of vocational aspirations.  I find working in Faith Formation at a church meaningful, enjoyable and life-giving, but I could also see myself returning to hospital chaplaincy at some point, or maybe Campus Ministry.  I hope to be a stay-at-home mom for some period, at least, and I envision a life as freelance writer.  Simultaneously, I have a pipe-dream of returning to school one day to become a therapist, and there’s a part of me that hasn’t let go of my once-held aspiration to become a social worker.  I also always wonder about my childhood ambitions of teaching at a middle or high school level, within a classroom instead of a church hall. 

There was a time when I might have pursued any of these paths, and there is a place for staying open to the twists and turns of life.  I truly believe that each of our lives hold possibilities that we can’t yet fathom.  But there is also a time and place for letting go, for losing touch with the people I used to be — including their dreams — in order to fully become the person I am now. 

Unlike the Spanish-tile coasters, buried, or the grey silk blouse, stuffed away, I don’t want my potential to positively impact the world and my ability to enjoy the present moment to be lost — overcrowded and, ultimately, trapped by too many other good things.  There’s a time for relinquishing the antique Delft bowl, and resisting the Moroccan silk curtains.  Alluring as they are, there’s no room for them, and they’ll take away from the beauty of what already is. 

Quotes for the Year

For my sixteenth birthday, one of my best high school friends got me this little pink polka-dotted journal, and since then, I’ve written my favorite poems and quotations in it.  When I read something in a book or magazine that speaks to me, I copy it down.  When a friend or family member says something that I want to remember, I record it.  When I see a quotation inscribed on a memorial, or floating around on the internet, or in a church program, I snap a picture to then later transcribe into my book. 

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I filled up my pink journal a decade after receiving it, and around the same time I found an old journal of my moms that had been used for the same purpose, with only a few pages filled.  I started a new “quote book” in it.  I return to these books time and again when I am in need of motivation, inspiration, comfort or hope. 

Over my holiday vacation, I spent several hours reading through the entire collection, and I picked out a generous handful of quotes to guide my year.  (Can you tell that I’m into New Years?  I’ve got words, I’ve got goals, I’ve got quotes!  It’s very orienting for me. And interestingly, though I didn’t intend this, I realize that they can roughly be categorized within my words for the year…plus one more category: perseverance). 

To use a quotation itself to explain my inclination towards quotations at guides: “One is pat to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.”  I agree with Richard Winn Livingstone’s sentiment, and for me, quotes serve as an ideal — a model, an example — to work towards.   

Perspective

“For there is only trying.  The rest is not our business.” —T. S. Eliot

Life is hard but love wins.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

“And now the you don’t have to be perfect you can just be good” – John Steinbeck

“Be joyful thought you have considered all the facts” – Wendell Berry

“Energy creates energy.  It is by spending myself that I became rich.” – Sarah Bernhardt

“At the best moments a great humility fused with a great ambition: to be only what I was, but to the utmost of what I was” – Stephen Spender

Prayerfulness

“Prayer uncovers the truth that sets us free (John 8:32)” – Henri Nouwen

“Grace is the assistance God gives us to do hat is good, true, noble and right.” — Matthew Kelly

“All moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” – Frederich Buechner

“To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings” – Mary Baker Edy

“A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.  For all serious daring starts from within.” – Eudora Welty

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable” – Mary Oliver

Poise

“Be soft.  Do not let the world make you hard.  Do not let pain make you hate.  Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“The most congenial social occasions are those ruled by cheerful deference for all” – Goethe

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance” — Brene Brown

Perseverance

“I am not afraid.  I was born to do this.” – Joan of Arc

“Everything is hard before it gets easy.” -Goethe

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act.  The rest is really tenacity” — Amelia Earhart

Portions of Every Day

light.jpegI don’t think that I have had a single book recommended to me more often, and by a wider variety of people, than Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.  A work ten years in the making, Doerr’s novel spans the years of World War II and weaves together the stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig, a blind French girl residing with her eccentric, agoraphobic great-uncle and a German orphan forced into military school and then enlistment. 

As Marie-Laure and Werner witness and experience the tragic destruction — physical, mental, relational, and emotional — wreaked by the war, readers — if not the characters themselves — catch glimmers of light in the interactions and inner lives of the intertwining stories.  No doubt the novel is in many ways a dark one, and Doer certainly doesn’t romanticize or gloss over the suffering endured by his characters, but as his title suggests, he demonstrates that, whether or not a person can see the light in their present circumstances, there is light. 
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Putting Myself Out There

Busy StreetI’ve been on a Brene Brown kick recently, and I’m finding that her key themes of vulnerability, shame, wholehearted living, and surviving failure are really resonating with me.  Brown is my kind of author, and I am always going to love a book that integrates self-help, research, spirituality, storytelling and list-making, but during this year of moving, making friends, and new jobs, her work feels especially helpful.

“People who live wholeheartedly are people who are facing their lives and living their lives, putting themselves out there and in consequence knowing that they will get hurt.  They are living with gusto and intention and not taking a backseat in their life.”

This has been a year of putting myself out there, and, if I am being completely honest, I didn’t love it.  With each new class that I’ve taught, service trip that I have led and event that I have planned, I have had to wonder: how will this go?  Will the students respond well?  What if I get lost on my way to the site/event location?  I’ve had to meet a lot of new people, which is tiring for an introvert, and I’ve felt overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, and frustration at numerous points.  Read more

“Death is the engine that keeps us running”

51mpnt7lw4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_I just finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty — author, mortician, and public advocate of the good death.  The woman who recommended the book to me described it as “a good read, if you don’t mind morbid,” and so I braced myself slightly as I began Doughty’s reflections on death, corpses and working in the funeral industry. 

The fact that I didn’t find the book morbid (sure, there was plenty of talk about the smells and sounds and sights of death, but nothing that I wouldn’t read while eating) tells me that I must not mind morbid.  This might have something to do with the fact that one of my numerous part-time jobs is in hospital chaplaincy.  Though nothing in comparison to Doughty, I do spend a decent amount of time with dead people.  This has normalized death — the sounds, smells and sights of it, but also the inevitability of it — for me, making it seem less morbid and more like an ordinary fact of life.  Read more

For All That Is To Come

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Those days of feeling glum are inevitable. 

For me, glum days take on a few different shapes.  I won’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning.  I’ll be easily distracted, unable to focus on a particular task and instead floating from one thing to another, with long periods of just sitting and thinking in between them.  I won’t accomplish half of the things on my daily to-do list, if I even get around to making the to-do list in the first place.  Read more

Channeling Atticus Finch

Somewhat recently, I entered a social situation that I knew leading up to it would be challenging for me.  I was about to spend the weekend with an individual whose personality —more than anyone else with whom I have had an ongoing relationship — consistently clashes with mine.  This individual’s worldview, words and actions make it really hard for me to like him, and I’m ashamed to admit that my dislike has manifested itself in subtle but slithering ways: a skeptical facial expression here, a stony silence there, and at worse, a curt verbal response or a refusal to engage in conversation. 

In the past, I have spent a lot of time trying to trick, cajole and force myself into liking this person.
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Slowing Down

red doorI have neither read nor had the particular desire to read anything by Marcel Proust, and yet, when Gretchen Rubin (one of my favorite contemporary authors) recommended Alain du Button’s How Proust Can Change Your Life in her monthly book club blog post, I was drawn to the title.  I am glad that I was.  Offering historical information, humor, and bites of wisdom, this easy-to-read blend of literary biography and self-help was a gem.  I gained a tremendous appreciation for Proust without having to slog through his seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which I also tremendously appreciated.   

Ironically, avoiding a slow process (reading In Search of Lost Time) is very anti-Proustian.  A central theme of the book is that much can be gained from taking things slowly.  Du Button tells the story of Proust meeting Henri Nicolson, a young French diplomat, and asking him to recount his experience at a peace conference after the Great War.  When the diplomat began “we generally met at 10:00” Proust stopped him, wanting to hear all the details.  The diplomat went on, and Proust was enraptured.Cover Image How Proust Can Change Your Life

“An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.  For Nicolson, an early morning that had been summed by the terse statement “Well, we generally meet at 10.00” had been expanded to reveal handshakes and maps, rustling papers and macaroons – the macaroon acting as a useful symbol, in its seductive sweetness , of what gets noticed when we don’t go trop vite” (46).

Proust’s attitude called me to think about my reading process.  I read quickly, which I usually consider an advantage, and especially when I dislike the book I am reading.  Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and despite my desire to like it (I feel sloppy admitting that I don’t like Virginia Woolf), and my attempt to like it (I hoped that reading it for leisure rather than for school might change my outlook) I found it dull, and so I rushed through it…only to turn the last page with a disappointing aversion.  When I spoke to Caleb about my distaste, he asked what I thought about a particular scene that had captured him.  Though I had just finished the novel, I had no recollection of the scene.  I rushed through a novel that I considered boring, but perhaps if I had moved more slowly, like Proust suggests, I wouldn’t have missed the very details that make the novel compelling to so many people. 

The next time I find myself desiring to rush through a book, a meal, or a process, I’m going to channel Proust and slow down. 

Places to play in…

Teresa Camping

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”    —John Muir

When we lived in Boston and had access to the most fabulous public transportation system (if my loyalties to the MBTA went unswayed in the midst of horrible delays and cancellations during last year’s treacherous winter, I think it is fair to count myself as one of this transit system’s greatest enthusiasts), C and I didn’t have a car.  I loved everything about not having a car — the financial savings, the absence of stress about traffic and parking, not having to worry about having a designated driver when we went out — and it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I realized we would need to buy a vehicle when we moved to Rhode Island.  Read more