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Archive for the ‘getting over myself’ Category

Beauty presses on, no matter what I do to thwart it.

I don’t mean to thwart it. In fact, I am always filled with desires and plans and ideas for bringing a little bit more beauty into the world. But somehow, it doesn’t often work out.

For example, one of my beautification programs concerns gardening. We have a tiny yard, too small for baseball games or other activities requiring a lot of space. I am always trying to think of ways to draw us, especially the children, into the outdoors, hence the chickens to tend, the swimming pool to play in, and, well, this gardening idea.

Every winter, I pore through gardening books and seed catalogs planning how to turn our tiny yard into a garden paradise. I am studying herbology, so winding paths passing through fragrant mounds of medicinal and culinary herbs appeal to me, along with blueberries and raspberries like those my mother tended at my childhood home in Branford, flowers for the butterflies, and maybe, perhaps next summer, a bee skep. Not an ordinary box-like beehive mind you, but one of those old fashioned spirally bee-skeps that Yeats must have envisioned when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree:”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This is perhaps my favorite poem. It encapsulates so many of my dreams as I “stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,” when my heart is away by the lapping water, the bee-loud glade, the evening full of linnet’s wings. In those winter hours spent perusing gardening books, I imagine turning our tiny yard into a haven of beauty, afresh with herbs and fruits and flowers, alive with lovely living things, where peace indeed comes dropping slow.

And when spring comes, I always make a start. I purchase some plants, turn over some soil, and manage to beautify one little corner, feeling hopeful and telling myself that soon I will do more. “Plant by plant” was the motto I adopted this year, the idea being that even if I could only manage a little at a time, by summer’s end my dream would be accomplished. Then, maybe this winter’s reading would be about the next step: beekeeping, in preparation for next spring…

But this year as every other, things stalled. The budget would not allow the purchase of more than a few plants. I saw some medicinal herbs I coveted– yarrow, mullein, comfrey– growing free for the taking by the roadway, but could not afford the composted manure to prepare a proper bed for them. The affordable Amish orchard from which I hoped to buy a few fruit trees had stopped selling for the season. The weeks-long drought made my little corner garden look weary and sad. Spring possibilities turned to midsummer dreams gone by.

I took a walk in the cool of one early morning, hoping to get in a little exercise before the heat set in. In a yard I pass often, a small pear tree had begun to bear fruit; tiny, burnished little pears had begun to develop on its boughs. Autumn is coming, I thought. Autumn will be here before I know it, home schooling will begin again, nature will fold its wings, and my garden dreams will die for another year. I had had grand plans, but I could not make them happen. I fought the discouraging voices that told me someone else could have managed it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful. In any case, I had failed to bring the beauty I dreamed of into the world. I had failed.

I looked at the pears, and for a moment, felt sad. Then I thought: Here I am, looking at these beautiful little burgeoning pears. Beauty presses on in spite of me. Life presses on. I smiled and thought of a verse from “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” a verse that described the Grinch’s failure to stem the irrepressible arrival of Christmas Day:

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming– IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And I thought: someone else COULD manage it, someone more knowledgeable, more energetic, more skillful: God. God has filled this beautiful world with life and loveliness. What I could not do without plants or manure, God accomplishes season after season, year after year, all around me. He just can’t help it. Seeing my sorrow over my garden, He wanted to say: I will give you beauty. Here it is, all around you.

So my garden dreams will keep for another year. But our Father, who never fails to give his children what they need, has strewn this world with beauty. I hadn’t stopped beauty from coming– it came. Somehow or other, it came just the same.

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I really want to be holy. I really do. Teresa of Avila, among many other saints, has given holiness a fairly simple definition: to always follow God’s will. But while in some areas I’m just too weak or selfish to do what I should do, in other areas I am sincerely willing but genuinely confused about just what God’s will is.

Many books have been written on this subject. Don’t let ’em fool ya; they won’t tell you how you can always know God’s will so you might as well save your money. Sure, we know there are at least a few clear-cut ways to discern God’s will: obeying the ten commandments and precepts of the Church; tending to the obvious duties of our state in life (caring for a sick child, being diligent at work, preparing food for the family); fulfilling vows we have made, whether to marriage, the priesthood, or religious life; following inspirations to perform acts of charity that do not impinge on our primary obligations; and so on. But there is still a lot of gray area, and as far as I can tell, no book is going to clear this up for me. Neither is “praying about it;” I am rarely never given any divine revelations on this score.

The torment continues when I consider an oft-stated fact that is meant to console but instead leaves me in a state of confusion: When we sincerely attempt to discern God’s will, and do what we think His will is to the best of our knowledge, He honors that choice, even if it does not perfectly fulfill what He would have chosen for us at that moment. In other words, we are rewarded exactly as if we had known and followed God’s ordaining will. Since this means a sincere person really can’t lose, why does it torment me? Because I’m not merely “uncertain” about God’s will; I often fail at taking even the wildest stab in the dark at what it is.

Let me give you an example. As a woman of a certain age with a husband and three kids, I am also home schooling, working on a number of projects, and part of several different church-related groups, each with its obligations. I often struggle with the question of how to budget my energy. If the kids want to go on an adventure in the morning, do I abandon myself to the spirit of the moment, pour out my energy, and trust that God will give me what I need to get through the afternoon chores, visit a friend recuperating from surgery, and shop for, cook, and serve the meal I promised for a local church’s Community Meals program? Or do I hold back in the morning to be sure I have enough energy to get through the evening? What if a friend with five kids asks me to babysit one morning, which means pushing homeschooling to the afternoon, putting off a grocery shopping trip till evening, and not getting my messy house cleaned yet another day? Do I say yes because she needs the help and technically I will be home, hoping God will supply the energy I lack, or do I decline, predicting it might leave me too exhausted for the homeschooling and other duties? Do I volunteer for a worthwhile church activity even though I feel overextended already, hoping God will bless the sacrifice; or do I humbly recognize my limits and politely decline?

Father Jacques Philippe writes about this dilemma. He makes the point that God is not always calling us to do the hardest thing. He tells how sometimes he knows he is being called to stay up and spend an extra hour in prayer at the chapel. Yet another time, with a problem weighing on his mind, he concludes that God is telling him that instead of struggling to stay awake and pray, he should rest, and let God solve the problem while he sleeps.

But how do we know which is is? I’ve tried it both ways: holding back and pouring out. There is no predictable outcome. Sometimes I pour out all my energy and find I am miraculously given more. But sometimes the opposite happens, and I am left exhausted and lifeless. On the other hand, sometimes when I hold back on something, I find I have more to give to something else. But other times it works the opposite way, and after holding back, I find I STILL don’t have enough energy for the rest of the day’s obligations. The results of years of tinkering with this delicate balance are inconclusive. And this is just one of dozens of areas of uncertainty.

“Of course, some people do go both ways…”

But I am able to conclude one thing. Once again, it is a call to abandonment. To not have a system. To not bargain with God or weigh everything in the balance. To stop trying to predict the outcome.  Because as my friend Kate has told me (see “it’s all for you”), we never really do anything;  it’s all God. When we accomplish incredible things, He is really the life-giving source. And when it seems we can’t manage anything, it’s He who carries us like weary children in His fatherly arms. Part of the lesson for me in all of this is: sometimes I have to accept not doing things well.  I have to accept carrying on despite exhaustion. I have to accept the sense of regret and failure when I have opted out of a sacrifice. I have to accept that I am not in control of my life. And I have to accept not knowing whether I have pleased God. But I think somehow, peacefully accepting not knowing may be what pleases Him most.

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Alas, there was no winner for my first Giveaway Quiz. Maybe I’ll try this again sometime, but for all of you who are dying to know, here are the answers to last Friday’s quiz:

1. The drawing room in the post “the wounds give life” was the drawing room in the old TV version of “Dark Shadows” which ran from the late 60s to the early 70s. I always felt right at home there!

2. My banner photo shows Flirtation Point in Pine Orchard, Branford, Connecticut.

3. The town in the first photo in “no lasting city” is Greenfield, Massachusetts. That’s Main Street, and the current name of the business on the right is Baker Office Supply.

4. The artist of the sketch in “failure” is Vincent Van Gogh.

5. Besides the New Testament, St. Therese always carried a copy of the Imitation of Christ by St. Thomas a Kempis.

6. Three books Branfordgirl likes: see my sidebar for a selection of books I like which are available on Amazon (and Branfordgirl will earn a few pennies if you navigate there from this site and make a purchase). I also listed a number of books in my post “it’s all for you.”

7. What’s so special about Branford, Connecticut? Well, here’s my answer: it’s Branfordgirl’s hometown!

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I have always had a conflicted relationship with the internet.

Yes, I use it. I shop, I email, I search, I sell stuff. But I am concerned that the internet takes us away from real life. There is truth in this; marriages have been broken because of connections made on the internet. People develop virtual social networks of people they will probably never meet (yes, I know I am writing a blog); time spent on the internet means time taken away from one’s real-life spouse, children, friends, job, obligations. It begs the question, what would I be spending this time on if there were no internet? The time has to come from somewhere.  It can be a form of escapism. It can be addictive. And nothing needs to be said about internet pornography.

Facebook has been a particular concern of mine. Some users frantically “friend” everyone they can, and people they barely know or may not know at all become Facebook “friends,” offering the illusion of true friendship when the stark reality is a solitary person sitting alone at their laptop instead of actually out being with people. When you are logged onto Facebook, you are NOT actually being with real friends, real family, in real life. Really “being” with someone means “in person”, or at least, a phone call, your own voice, in real time. Even a personal email is more “real” than a ”status update” on Facebook. Facebook is kind of  “friend substitute.” Or, it can be. Anecdotes are rampant of people whose Facebook personas are nothing like who they are in real life. It’s very tempting to give ourselves a personality makeover, to grab that chance to transform ourselves into who we wish we were in the eyes of the world. It’s sad, this perception that we need to be someone we’re not.

That’s all true. It can be like that. But something else can happen too.  And that something has to do not with creating false personas, but with abandoning the false impressions we held of people in our lives, and discovering that the newfound Facebook “persona” is, in fact,  gloriously real.

I recently opened a Facebook account. A few people from my past found and “friended” me; I sought out a few others and “friended” them. The connections began to grow. Names and faces long buried in my subconscious were unearthed and brought into the open air. I felt vulnerable because a number of things have changed in my life since grammar school, high school and college. I feared I would be judged and rejected.

Not only was that not true, but I was overwhelmed that some people had apparently been searching for me for years. And others were, to my surprise, thrilled to learn I had been searching for them. Here I was, letting the world know that I was no longer the artsy social renegade of my high school years, or the radical Buddhist hippie of my college years, but a fervent Catholic “revert” with a husband, three kids, five chickens, and a cat, and…they still wanted to be my friend. I still had an important place in their memories, in their lives. There was still something in me they cared about. It was very, very humbling. I had pegged them into a hole, but they hadn’t done that to me. I had assumed I had been forgotten, thinking this was humility, when in reality, I was selling THEM short. When I learned I had meant something to them, I felt deep gratitude.

But there is more. I discussed this phenomena with a couple of friends, this experience of uncovering people from our past and the assumptions that were turned upside-down as a result. Here is a sampling of our collective Facebook discoveries as we unearthed childhood and college friends:

The reputed bedwetter had become successful entrepreneur, was deeply in love with his wife who loved him passionately in return, and was happy in his life;
The kid who had to go to the local bar to ask his dad for spending money was happily married, had a respectable career, and played competitive tennis;
The frivolous girl who only cared about boys and clothes was a devoted mother, passionate about gardening, and enjoyed an enviable professional career;
The girl who had a reputation as a “crybaby” in second grade had endured serious health issues, yet sacrificed herself and put her life on hold to care for her aging parents;
The legendary high school “drunk” had become the tireless CEO of a major institution dedicated to the preservation of marine life;
The girl who stole one of our high school boyfriends revealed she had always had low self-esteem and was touched by the extension of friendship after all these years;
The college Don Juan who slept with every girl in sight had settled down, married, and adopted several orphans from third world countries.

Those are just a few examples. There was not one case where an old friend had fallen short of expectations. In each and every case, they had wildly exceeded them.

Another funny thing was, while some of us confessed how we’d grown older, gained weight, and turned gray, still, to each other, we looked exactly the same as we did 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. The thinning hairlines or expanded waistlines could not change that. We held on to what was best in each other, both the past and the present: our youthful faces and physiques, our youthful promise, along with our adult successes, maturity, accomplishments, wisdom, experience. We believed in each others’ best self. Dare I say, we saw each other as God sees us.

I have a different perspective about Facebook now. My heart goes out to those who use it to try to make themselves into something they are not, who can’t see that they are valuable and lovable as they are. I relate to that insecurity very deeply. Facebook is not the same as relating in person, and some caution still applies. But I am also grateful that Facebook has allowed me to tear away some false perceptions of people from my past, as well as to experience their mercy and acceptance.  It has been a little lesson in love: the enduring love of friends, and the love of a God who sees our best self, the person we were meant to be, and holds that image before us even when we can’t see it ourselves.

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I always have a series of books going at once and they usually fall within predictable categories: herbal medicine books, books I am reviewing for the Amazon Vine program, history books, classic novels, and spiritual reading. For some time, I have noticed that my spiritual reading leans more and more toward books in which I seek consolation for being a failure at all endeavors great and small, and especially, for just not being the woman, the person, I long to be, that I hoped I’d be, that I expected to be, that I ought to be, at this point in life. For continually being a spiritual beginner, falling every day from the first step on what St. Therese called “the rough stairway of perfection.”

The latest in this series is Descending Fire: The Journal of a Soul Aflame by Jean Petit, and on page 14 I was taken aback to read:

I am not successful in any undertaking; if I render a service, it is turned against me, and all effort ends clumsily in failure. Far from being discouraged by these things, I find my joy in them.If I were so unlucky as to succeed, I would have to ask whether God loved me less or whether He wished to punish me.

“All effort ends clumsily in failure.” How I resonate with those words! In my own life, whenever I seem to be achieving some success, circumstance calls the endeavor to a halt and pulls me to a lower place. Major efforts into which I pour time, money, and passion ultimately come to nothing. Even in small ways, I am always “off” somehow: I burn the pancakes. I see a woman in church who appears sad, I attempt to console her, and it turns out she is fine and I have caused offense by implying she looked upset. I read a book with my children in our home school, a book we all love and discuss together and look forward to each day for weeks, and when I pull it off the shelf a year later to revive the happy memory, they have forgotten it. I try to solve a problem for someone and am completely misunderstood. Major sacrifices are deemed to be nothing, useless, even selfish. Nothing on this list is intended as a criticism of others; on the contrary, they are confessions of my perennial inability to “get it right.”

But after the part about failure and clumsiness, what’s this about joy? Jean Petit answers:

This is because we cannot obtain the fullness of God without first recognizing our nothingness…For my part, I know that all fruit must fall heavily to the ground before reaching maturity. Nothing has succeeded for me in the past; nothing will succeed for me in the future. It will be an unhappy day for me when I feel satisfied by some result of success. …I must flow like water, vanish like the wind, melt like snow, be consumed like a candle, wither like a flower on the altar. It is my way; it is my path; it is my route. It is my whole past. It is my whole future.

“It is my route.” That is, annihilation is my private, chosen, royal road to God. To feel satisfied in some achievement would be to substitute that paltry success for the emptiness that leaves room for God in our soul. No wonder success (in a worldly or self-satisfied sense) would be experienced like a punishment, like a loss of God’s love! I feel an almost intoxicating feeling of freedom in those words. They call to mind other words by St. Therese:

If you are willing to bear with serenity the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.

When all your plans come to nothing, when you don’t have “what it takes,” when you think you have something to offer and it is rejected, when you are not chosen, when any task you take up crumbles in your hands and even your prayers come out in awkward, fumbling words, be at peace, dear heart. When you are nothing but emptiness, then and only then you are for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. Then, you will have everything.

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Many people own several Bibles.  Teachers, scholars, theologians, prayerful folk who want to compare translations and word meanings, commentaries and concordances, Greek and Latin, may own a few or even many different editions of the Bible for these or any number of perfectly legitimate reasons.

Then there’s me.  To be fair, each new Bible acquisition represents a renewed effort to grow closer to God, to comprehend His word, to understand his personal message to me in an ever deeper way. And yet, each new Bible also signals something of a spiritual identity crisis. Here are a few examples from the vault, and the phases they represent in my spiritual life:

The “Write down every word Scott Hahn says” phase:

(This was followed by an upgrade to “Write Down Every Word Scott Hahn Says in a Nicer Leather Bound Edition” phase).

The “Buy the New Jerusalem Bible because Mother Angelica uses it, and cover it with folksy needlepoint” phase:

The “Everyone says the Douay-Rheims is the only Bible to read, Made Easy with Handy Tab Indexing” phase:

The “I’m going to carry Around the New Testament just like St. Therese (but can’t decide which edition to use so I’ll get two) Phase:

The “color code every blessed word” (with big margins for all my deep insights) Phase:

The “my Bible is a portable shrine” Phase (including pasted-in flowers, holy cards, poems, and St. John of the Cross’ diagram of the Ascent to Mt. Carmel):

The “this time I’m really not going to write in my Bible” phase (includes Meditative Icons so God can speak to me wordlessly and directly):

I know, I know, it’s all a bit much.  But I like to think of all my jottings and decorations as my way of writing back to God after I read his love letters to me. Maybe I buy too many Bibles. Or maybe I’m just a crazy girl in love, searching for her Beloved wherever she might find him.

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Toward the end of the home school year, Sam, Evangeline and I started learning about birds. A couple of mornings a week, we would listen to bird songs on a CD, then take silent walks through the neighborhood, listening for the calls we had learned and trying to identify what kind of bird was singing them. The robin was easy enough, as was the bluejay. Evangeline had long been friends with the chickadee so we knew his song well, along with my favorite, the mourning dove. Sometimes we would get mixed up: was it the cardinal whose whistle ascended at the end while the tufted titmouse’s whistle descended, or the other way around? But it didn’t matter; it just made us listen the more closely, and we felt like we were getting to know a whole new sub-population of our neighborhood.

On one walk, as we passed under a tree, a small, stubby brown bird we didn’t recognize was becoming agitated. Directly across from his branch, poking her head out of a hole in the eaves of a house, was his wife, no doubt sitting on a nest, and the father bird was determined to protect his family from our menacing presence. At home, we did a little research and identified the bird as the House Wren.

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I learned an interesting fact about House Wrens.The male of the species will build a stick nest, usually in a cavity of some kind, to woo the female. He may even make several such nests in different spots until, finally satisfied, she selects one in which to lay her eggs. Even then, she has the final say on the house decor and might toss out and replace unwanted twigs. I resonated with this description of the rights of the female wren, especially since, my name being Jennifer, I sometimes sign my emails to my husband “Jenny Wren” after the bird in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle who needs her wine-stained tablecloth washed by the hedgehog washerwoman.

The Wren family reminded me of a book I read to the children when they were little, The Best Nest by P.D. Eastman. In that story, the bird wife is dissatisfied with their old home, and she and her mate set off house-hunting, searching for the nest that will meet all her expectations. They run into trouble along the way, and, thinking his wife has died in a storm, the despondent bird husband seeks refuge in the nearest shelter– their original home. Here he discovers Mrs. Bird who, with a newly laid egg, has decided that the old nest is the best nest for a brand new bird.

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I would sometimes like to claim the privilege of the female House Wren to choose and arrange her nest just so. And  sometimes, like Mrs. Bird, I’d love to pick up and move to someplace brand new, somewhere that would satisfy all my longings for the perfect little cottage, the perfect garden, all in perfect order.. But like Mrs. Bird, I have decided that the best nest is where my young birds have made their home. So, wherever these guys are is the place for me:Image

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