Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Chapter 1

I don't know what I was waiting for. Perhaps I believed a huge flood of inspiration, a fully formed, perfectly grammatical book was going to spring out of my computer. I waited. I waited some more. I've had some cryptic notes, some unconnected snippets (100 pages of it!) that have been languishing in MS Word for a long time. So a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start chipping away. I'm still not sure how the organization is going to work out or, truthfully, or where it's going in general. Just some flimsy ideas, 100 pages of gunk, and a first chapter. It's fiction in the voice of my alter ego. Here's the first chapter:


by Donna Xander

Chapter 1: The Girl and her mama

            “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

That was the voice of my mother. It was in the spring, 1959, I was 12 years old, and I had just been hit by a bread truck. I was innocently riding my bike home from my hula lesson, singing “I’m a little brown girl in a little grass skirt in a little grass hut,” when a Strosneider’s bread truck came barreling around the corner, hit my bike, and sent me flying about 10 feet through the air, clear over the prickle bush hedge, and onto the lawn. The guy driving the bread truck didn’t even stop. My bike was a mangled pretzel by the side of the road. Stunned, scraped, and bruised, I managed to get up, counted my body parts, and checked for missing teeth. Mama just stood there by the front door, holding two bags of groceries from the A&P, shaking her head, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Ralphie. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

            I suppose that little story could give you the wrong impression about a couple of things. First of all, my mama was never a mean person—she just believed in self-reliance. I never would have expected her to drop those groceries and come running to see if the bread truck had killed me. She had faith in my powers of resilience; she just knew that I’d bounce back, that I was stronger than any bread truck.

            The second wrong impression you might get from the story of my collision with the bread truck is that my name is Ralph. Not so. My name is Marie Antoinette Zimmerman, but my mama rarely called me by my given name. I often wondered whether it was a bad omen to have been named after a woman who was beheaded. Perhaps, because when my mama called me Marie Antoinette I knew it meant trouble. Actually she never called me by any girl’s name and she rarely called me the same name twice. But somehow I always knew she was talking to me when she called me Wilbur, or Thurgood, or Gus, or any of the thousands of boy names she used. There was just something in the tone of her voice that I knew she meant me. Everyone in Breezy knew she meant me too, though usually when she referred to me outside of our little family, she just called me “the girl.”

            Breezy is the town where I grew up. Actually, you won’t find it on any map listed as Breezy. Its official name is Breezy Point. It’s in Calvert County, Maryland, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The houses in Breezy don’t have much in common except they are all rather squished into the town, some on the shore, others high up on the hill, or back in the pine trees. Most of them were built by the people who live in them. And some of the builders were more skilled than others. Every house had some version of a screened porch as a defense against flocks of mosquitos in summer. Every house had a propane tank or two. The pretty houses were freshly painted and had hydrangea bushes in the yard and black-eyed Susans—the official Maryland flower. The not-so-pretty houses had rusty, inoperable cars, trucks, lawn mowers, and swing sets in the yards and their paint was peeling.

My mother was named Mary Magdalena Zimmerman, but everyone called her Maggie. She was more than a little eccentric—in some ways like a rabid butterfly, flitting around, changing to suit her whims, but in other ways she was as immutable as the Rock of Gibraltar.

One of her most obvious whims was her hair obsession. On alternate weeks, she changed her hair color. It could be magenta, burnt umber, platinum, or a combination or any of the above. These were never hair colors never seen in nature. She had an entire collection of falls and wiglets and little chignons that she attached to her hair with no regard for trying to match the color of the fake hair to her hair color du jour. Once she cut tresses out of one of her hairpieces and glued them to her scalp with industrial strength glue. She thought it looked great for the first day and she believed she was on to something, that she had discovered a great new beauty tip and she began brewing a plan to market her discovery. Then the glued-in pieces started falling out along with large chunks of her natural hair. She didn’t miss a beat though and she didn’t fret about the big bald spots on her skull. It gave her an opportunity to get some new hair pieces until her hair grew back. And it gave her a chance to be philosophical, to impart a little of her wisdom to me, saying, “What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, Grover. What the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”

Mama liked to quote Scripture. She always repeated it for emphasis.

Glamour was Mama’s passion and she figured out how to support us by making glamour her business. She sold Avon for 35 years and eventually worked her way up to regional manager. People in Breezy used to say, “Ding dong” almost any time they saw her. She loved Avon and her customers loved her.

Then there was Mama’s redecorating obsession, limited only to the living room. The dining room never changed; it was wallpapered with lords and ladies dancing the minuet and cluttered with stacks of boxes of Avon products, a gallery of paint-by-number oil paintings, portraits of saints, and Mama’s extensive collection of Queen Elizabeth coronation china. Other than the coming and going of Avon products, nothing in the dining room ever got moved.

We ate our meals on TV trays in Mama’s bedroom, sitting on the pink chenille bedspread while watching whatever grainy show was on the television, one show nearly indistinguishable from the next. In the corner of her bedroom was a statue that Aunt Eloise had shipped from Mexico. I think it was supposed to be the Blessed Mother but the Blessed Mother was dressed in a tacky satin wedding dress and bridal veil and she was wearing a wild black wig. The weirdest thing about the Blessed Mother Bride was her size—she was not the standard-size statue that could be put on a mantle or dresser. She wasn’t life-size either. She was the size of a young child, dressed in a satin wedding dress. Why couldn’t we have had a nice smiling blue-eyed blonde Blessed Mother statue like Mary Margaret McCarthy had? No, we had to have the pygmy bride of Frankenstein version of the BVM. She creeped me out. Whenever I was sick, burning with fever, Mama would say, “Come and sleep in my bed, Richard, so I can keep an eye on you.” No way! I’d always lie and tell her I was fine, but to tell the truth, I feared having delirious nightmares featuring the fiend in the corner more than I feared any illness.

While the décor in most of the house never changed, the living room got painted once a month, whether it needed it or not. Mama bought the paint at yard sales, liberated it from the neighbors’ trash, or borrowed it from her sister Eloise. I don’t know how she intended to return the borrowed paint once it had been applied to the walls. She often mixed paint to create her own “special blend” of colors. On more than one occasion she mixed in hair color in an attempt to make the living room match her. Mercifully, these colors could not be replicated. Mama’s plan was to make the living room her little oasis of elegance. Accessories included cherub lamps and American eagles and ashtrays with swan wings. There were framed photographs in the living room but she bought the picture frames with photos already in them, never photos of anyone we knew. Mama called me Marie Antoinette once when she overheard me telling Barbie Grant that the handsome young man in one of the framed photos was my cousin Pierre from France and that he was going to send me a French poodle and a box of chocolate-covered cherries for my birthday. Although Mama’s own interpretation of truth could be a little wobbly at times, she held me to a higher standard.

Although the dining room furniture was threadbare and held together with duct tape and twine, Mama regularly redid the living room furniture in an endless variety of themes. We went through several versions of Polynesia, although she once corrected me to clarify that it was Bora Bora and not Polynesia. We had 1880s New Orleans for a while. One summer she did a “North to Alaska” theme because she thought it would be cooling in the absence of air conditioning. But she reliably returned to some version of Gay Paree. She sewed window swags and pillows and reupholstered chairs with fabric she got dirt-cheap from her best friend Darla who was the manager of Jo-Ann’s Fabrics. (Darla also was into competitive ballroom dancing so she always wore high heels because she said she had to keep her feet in training. Darla was married to Vince, a telephone repairman. Vince was a competitive body builder, he shaved his chest, and used Mantan because he wanted to look like a bronze god. Once Vince was doing some telephone repair work in a house when no one was home. Seems it was a hot day and Vince decided to take a shower. Imagine the surprise when the lady of the house came home and found the telephone man in her shower. Vince got fired and began selling World Book encyclopedias. He couldn’t read that well himself but the ladies liked him.) But I digress.

And there was like a revolving door of pets coming into and out of our house. Mama’s friend Blanche was the pusher, keeping Mama supplied like some sort of dope fiend who was a sucker for a furry or feathered face. Blanche worked at the county animal shelter and Mama was always willing to take in another cat, dog, bird, or a pet in the “other” category. But the animals usually didn’t stay for more than a week or two. When the new pet seemed to be AWOL and I asked her where it was she always said, “Guess it must have run away. You know that God created all the wild animals according to their kinds, Louie, and He saw that it was good. Yes, He saw that it was good.”

Seems most of them ran away because they objected to being house-broken. One time Blanche sent from the shelter a lovely yellow and green parakeet. I named it Chiffon, but pronounced it “Chee-fawhn” with a heavy French accent that seemed appropriate for our décor. I didn’t know any French but I thought it might be the French translation of the word chiffon. I might be right—I never looked it up. The bird stayed for about a month but it got mites and gave them to me. Soon after the mites appeared, Chiffon just up and disappeared too. When I asked Mama where the bird was, she said, “Guess it must have run away.”

“If it left, it probably flew away,” I muttered. “And when it flew away it took its cage with it.” The sarcasm was lost on her.

Just before Easter one year, Mama came home from the feed store with a baby duck. I named it Elmer. Elmer had the run of the house, waddling free, quacking and pooping. Apparently it’s difficult to house train a duck. I tried but I could find little guidance on duck training, even at the country library. I tried to shampoo him too, but he would have none of it. As if the duck poop wasn’t enough of an issue, Elmer developed a serious limp. Mama decided that the limp was a sign that the duck was terminally ill and the humane thing to do would be to put him out of his misery. So she turned the gas on in the oven without lighting it and put Elmer in the oven. As we were getting asphyxiated on the gas fumes, Mama kept checking the oven, expecting to see the poor little duckling’s limp body. Every time she opened the oven door, he just quacked and looked at her. Fearing we all would die in a house-leveling explosion, she finally turned off the gas and took him out of the oven. Elmer was fine. Actually, he was cured—he stopped limping and eventually he went to live with the other ducks in the pond at Gate of Heaven cemetery. For all I know, he’s still there, quacking and pooping.

So there were the things in our household that were always changing, like Mama’s hair, and our home décor, and passing parade of animal shelter refugees. Then there were the things about Mama that were immutable.

For example, she had these little food obsessions. Every day, without variation she ate exactly the same thing for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was two of the big shredded wheat biscuits, warm milk, one teaspoon of sugar with a cup of black Sanka. Lunch was a sliced hard-boiled egg with mustard on Wonder Bread. There were slight variations for dinner because I made dinner—pancakes on Sunday, spaghetti on Monday, tuna noodle casserole on Tuesday, hamburger surprise on Wednesday, scrambled eggs on Thursday, and fish sticks on Friday. On Saturday we went out to Lula’s for hamburgers. On the first Sunday of every month we had cream chipped beef on toast and peas—it was our way to celebrate.

Mama was obsessed with bugs, especially flying bugs. She was convinced that mosquitoes were responsible for all manner of illness including chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, leprosy, acne, and diarrhea. She sprayed me with insect repellant every time I left the house. She’d check the outside thermometer—if the temperature was above 20 degrees F, I’d get sprayed. To this day, the smell of insect repellant and wet paint reminds me of home. I wonder how many of my brain cells were destroyed by the insect repellant.

Mama never wavered from Catholicism either. She had memorized both the Baltimore Catechism #1 and the Baltimore Catechism #2 and could point out the fine points of all the differences between the two. She did novenas and First Fridays and knew the patron saints of everything, even obscure things—like St. Lucy the patron saint of electrical contractors. (She said special prayers to St. Lucy every time Bert Wojcik came to fix the fuse box—she didn’t quite trust Bert on his own merits.) And she went to confession every Saturday afternoon at Immaculate Conception Church, whether she needed it or not. She didn’t have many sinful habits. She didn’t exceed the speed limit, or curse, or drink alcohol. (Once Doc Betz, the druggist, told her to try a little glass of wine to help her sleep. So she poured herself a shot glass of wine, climbed into bed, drank the wine, and immediately lay down.) I think she went to confession in lieu of going to therapy. Father Mahoney could have set his watch every Saturday when Maggie Zimmerman appeared on the other side of the confessional screen. The only thing she probably had to confess was that she lied so frequently about the disappearance of the pets.

But here’s the ultimate proof that Mama’s tenacity never stopped at the border. When I was 12, Mama had been married to Daddy for 20 years. But it had been 10 years since Daddy walked out of the house to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned. No word from him, no explanation, simply gone. Mama still considered herself married. Occasionally I’d get up the nerve to ask her about him. She’d say something like, “Well, I’m not sure where he is, but I do believe he’ll be home by Thanksgiving. He just loves a good turkey.”

She baked him a birthday cake every year on his birthday. (On one of Daddy’s no-show birthdays we had a new dog. It was a big, black dog who drooled and smelled bad. The dog ate most of Daddy’s birthday cake. The following day the dog “ran away.” Mama said the dog favored Daddy and just wanted to be with him.) And every year she bought my missing father an anniversary card, signed it “with all my love, Maggie” and put it on the living room mantle. The cards were always those really mushy cards with poems about how their love had grown over the years.

And my father the disciplinarian, though absent in fact, was ever-present in her mind. When I misbehaved, she would say, “When your father gets home, you’ll have your day of reckoning, Homer, you’ll have your day of reckoning.” Wherever he was, perhaps he was more powerful in his absence than if he had been there.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Feeling it

For weeks I have confined myself to the house, shades drawn, to escape the heat and humidity. Occasionally daring to leave the house, I hurry to the car and crank up the air conditioning. Now that it’s almost September, I realized that I have barely been outside all summer. So with incredible courage (drama queen!) tonight I turned out the lights and sat outside in the dark, simply breathing and looking at the night sky.

I had nearly forgotten what a summer night feels like. I grew up without air conditioning. How could I have forgotten the feel of summer? Tonight I let my bare arms and legs be sacrificial lambs to the over-abundant mosquito population, without moving or swatting them away. The planet in the western sky (Jupiter? Venus?) was the only light in the muggy sky. Street lights were encased in a soft mist. Crickets sang. I wish I had seen the bats that I usually see at sunset but they were hidden in the darkness.

I just breathed and soaked in what a night in late August feels like. Like this. And I looked at the sky and silently said, “Lord, help me to accept what is. Give me the strength to be present. When I need comfort and support, when I need to trust you in the hard times, please be there. When I rejoice in the good times, let me remember to be grateful. No matter what, let me walk through life with my eyes—and my heart—wide open.”

If tomorrow morning I am covered in mosquito bites, I may consider myself a fool. But for now, I am glad I had the opportunity to feel a summer night.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Vidalia onion doughnuts

I’m losing my mind. It’s a combination of heat stroke, cabin fever, and carbohydrate craving all rolled into one ugly ball. There is no food in my house. By food, I mean doughnuts. Barbeque potato chips sometimes work as a substitute, but in this heat the only thing I want is a doughnut. At about 4 in the afternoon—the carb crazy witching hour—I started prowling through my pantry. There was nothing there worth eating. Then I began looking in the drawers in the living room where I sometimes hide pieces of chocolate or Strawberry Twizzlers so I won’t find them. If there was anything hidden, I didn’t find it. Well done, Miss Hider.
For nearly two weeks the outside temperature has hovered around 100 degrees. I say this with clenched teeth, trying not to curse about the appalling heat index that the meteorologists use just to further annoy me. It would be ridiculous to leave my air-conditioned house and get into my car that is so hot the seats would render lard into liquid fat. For even longer than two weeks, I have had a migraine nearly every day. I don’t usually get migraines. Except I am in a bad phase. Don’t blame me, it’s organic brain disease.

So. In my addled condition, I start thinking there must be some way I could garner all my culinary creativity and make doughnuts with the few ingredients I have on hand. Here are my choices: canned tomatoes, frozen veggie burgers, panko, one egg, some Parmesan cheese rinds, a vanilla protein drink, and a package of exotic lasagna noodles. There also is a jar of hatch chile salsa in my pantry, but that just seems wrong. I've got a lovely basket of organic Vidalia onions that shouldn't go to waste. Is that just too weird? I want a simple cake doughnut with crunchy sugar on top. I'd have to use the old brick-hard dregs of a package of brown sugar for the topping. Stevia won't do. But the dough? Can I put the exotic lasagna noodles in the food processor with the panko? It might look like flour if I grind it enough. My lovely stainless steel Kitchen-Aid stand mixer is supposed to perform miracles. I can add the egg, pray that I have some baking powder or soda, and throw in some of the protein drink to get the dough consistency right. Do you think it will work?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

In awe

If only I could bring you here, let you inhabit my body and mind, for just a few minutes, you would have absolutely no doubt about the existence of God. I so wish that you could experience what I experienced just this morning. God is so real, He hears my pleas, and when He answers instantly, with startling directness, I am in awe of His presence.

I sat down to pray, saying something like this: “Lord, please help me. I feel myself slipping into depression and I fear the oncoming darkness. I am so grateful for your presence. This life of contemplative prayer, of relative silence and solitude is so fulfilling. Yet, sometimes—like now—I feel that it is just one step away from isolation and depression. Please, Lord, help me. As I sit here, hoping for some direction from you, I pray that you guide me in your wisdom and show me how to grow in relationship with you and not sink into darkness.”

So I opened my little daily devotional for today and read the following, written by Jennifer Benson Schuldt:

He Understands

Some young children have trouble falling asleep at night. While there may be many reasons for this, my daughter explained one of them as I turned to leave her bedroom one evening. “I’m afraid of the dark,” she said. I tried to relieve her fear, but I left a nightlight on so she could be sure that her room was monster-free.

I didn’t think much more about my daughter’s fear until a few weeks later when my husband went on an overnight business trip. After I settled into bed, the dark seemed to press in around me. I heard a tiny noise and jumped up to investigate. It turned out to be nothing, but I finally understood my daughter’s fear when I experienced it myself.

Jesus understands our fears and problems because He lived on the earth as a human and endured the same types of trouble we face. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3). When we describe our struggles to Him, He doesn’t brush us aside, minimize our feelings, or tell us to snap out of it—He relates to our distress. Somehow, knowing that He understands can dispel the loneliness that often accompanies suffering. In our darkest times, He is our light and our salvation.

Dear Jesus, I believe that You hear my prayers and that You understand my situation. You are the One who lights my darkness. 

 This was followed by today’s Bible reading: Psalm 27:1-8

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
    to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
    it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
    all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
    and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
    above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
    sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
    be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
    “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When everything is going wrong

I'm sharing this list of eight things to remember when everything goes wrong, written by Marc and Angel (at, the authors of 1000 Little Things Happy Successful People Do Differently. I have highlighted portions that shouted truth to me. And, you know me--I'd add "with the help of the Lord" to every one of these.
“Today, I’m sitting in my hospital bed waiting to have both my breasts removed. But in a strange way I feel like the lucky one. Up until now I have had no health problems. I’m a 69-year-old woman in the last room at the end of the hall before the pediatric division of the hospital begins. Over the past few hours I have watched dozens of cancer patients being wheeled by in wheelchairs and rolling beds. None of these patients could be a day older than 17.”
That’s an entry from my grandmother’s journal, dated 9/16/1977. I photocopied it and pinned it to my bulletin board about a decade ago. It’s still there today, and it continues to remind me that there is always, always, always something to be thankful for. And that no matter how good or bad I have it, I must wake up each day thankful for my life, because someone somewhere else is desperately fighting for theirs.
Truth be told, happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them. Imagine all the wondrous things your mind might embrace if it weren’t wrapped so tightly around your struggles. Always look at what you have, instead of what you have lost. Because it’s not what the world takes away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.
Here are a few reminders to help motivate you when you need it most:
#1. Pain is part of growing. Sometimes life closes doors because it’s time to move forward. And that’s a good thing because we often won’t move unless circumstances force us to. When times are tough, remind yourself that no pain comes without a purpose. Move on from what hurt you, but never forget what it taught you. Just because you’re struggling doesn’t mean you’re failing. Every great success requires some type of worthy struggle to get there. Good things take time. Stay patient and stay positive. Everything is going to come together; maybe not immediately, but eventually.
Remember that there are two kinds of pain: pain that hurts and pain that changes you. When you roll with life, instead of resisting it, both kinds help you grow.
#2. Everything in life is temporary. Every time it rains, it stops raining. Every time you get hurt, you heal. After darkness there is always light – you are reminded of this every morning, but still you often forget, and instead choose to believe that the night will last forever. It won’t. Nothing lasts forever.

So if things are good right now, enjoy it. It won’t last forever. If things are bad, don’t worry because it won’t last forever either. Just because life isn’t easy at the moment, doesn’t mean you can’t laugh. Just because something is bothering you, doesn’t mean you can’t smile. Every moment gives you a new beginning and a new ending. You get a second chance, every second. You just have to take it and make the best of it. (Read The Last Lecture.)
#3. Worrying and complaining changes nothing. Those who complain the most, accomplish the least. It’s always better to attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed. It’s not over if you’ve lost; it’s over when you do nothing but complain about it. If you believe in something, keep trying. Don’t let the shadows of the past darken the doorstep of your future. Spending today complaining about yesterday won’t make tomorrow any brighter. Take action instead. Let what you’ve learned improve how you live. Make a change and never look back.
And regardless of what happens in the long run, remember that true happiness begins to arrive only when you stop complaining about your problems and you start being grateful for all the problems you don’t have.
#4. Your scars are symbols of your strength. Don’t ever be ashamed of the scars life has left you with. A scar means the hurt is over and the wound is closed. It means you conquered the pain, learned a lesson, grew stronger, and moved forward. A scar is the tattoo of a triumph to be proud of. Don’t allow your scars to hold you hostage. Don’t allow them to make you live your life in fear. You can’t make the scars in your life disappear, but you can change the way you see them. You can start seeing your scars as a sign of strength and not pain.
Rumi once said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most powerful characters in this great world are seared with scars. See your scars as a sign of “YES! I MADE IT! I survived and I have my scars to prove it! And now I have a chance to grow even stronger.”
#5. Every little struggle is a step forward. In life, patience is not about waiting; it’s the ability to keep a good attitude while working hard on your dreams, knowing that the work is worth it. So if you’re going to try, put in the time and go all the way. Otherwise, there’s no point in starting. This could mean losing stability and comfort for a while, and maybe even your mind on occasion. It could mean not eating what, or sleeping where, you’re used to, for weeks on end. It could mean stretching your comfort zone so thin it gives you a nonstop case of the chills. It could mean sacrificing relationships and all that’s familiar. It could mean accepting ridicule from your peers. It could mean lots of time alone in solitude. Solitude, though, is the gift that makes great things possible. It gives you the space you need. Everything else is a test of your determination, of how much you really want it.
And if you want it, you’ll do it, despite failure and rejection and the odds. And every step will feel better than anything else you can imagine. You will realize that the struggle is not found on the path, it is the path. And it’s worth it. So if you’re going to try, go all the way. There’s no better feeling in the world… there’s no better feeling than knowing what it means to be alive.
#6. Other people’s negativity is not your problem. Be positive when negativity surrounds you. Smile when others try to bring you down. It’s an easy way to maintain your enthusiasm and focus. When other people treat you poorly, keep being you. Don’t ever let someone else’s bitterness change the person you are. You can’t take things too personally, even if it seems personal. Rarely do people do things because of you. They do things because of them.
Above all, don’t ever change just to impress someone who says you’re not good enough. Change because it makes you a better person and leads you to a brighter future. People are going to talk regardless of what you do or how well you do it. So worry about yourself before you worry about what others think. If you believe strongly in something, don’t be afraid to fight for it. Great strength comes from overcoming what others think is impossible.
All jokes aside, your life only comes around once. This is IT. So do what makes you happy and be with whoever makes you smile, often.
#7. What’s meant to be will eventually, BE. True strength comes when you have so much to cry and complain about, but you prefer to smile and appreciate your life instead. There are blessings hidden in every struggle you face, but you have to be willing to open your heart and mind to see them. You can’t force things to happen. You can only drive yourself crazy trying. At some point you have to let go and let what’s meant to be, BE.
In the end, loving your life is about trusting your intuition, taking chances, losing and finding happiness, cherishing the memories, and learning through experience. It’s a long-term journey. You have to stop worrying, wondering, and doubting every step of the way. Laugh at the confusion, live consciously in the moment, and enjoy your life as it unfolds. You might not end up exactly where you intended to go, but you will eventually arrive precisely where you need to be. (Read A New Earth.)
#8. The best thing you can do is to keep going. Don’t be afraid to get back up – to try again, to love again, to live again, and to dream again. Don’t let a hard lesson harden your heart. Life’s best lessons are often learned at the worst times and from the worst mistakes. There will be times when it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong. And you might feel like you will be stuck in this rut forever, but you won’t. When you feel like quitting, remember that sometimes things have to go very wrong before they can be right. Sometimes you have to go through the worst, to arrive at your best.
Yes, life is tough, but you are tougher. Find the strength to laugh every day. Find the courage to feel different, yet beautiful. Find it in your heart to make others smile too. Don’t stress over things you can’t change. Live simply. Love generously. Speak truthfully. Work diligently. And even if you fall short, keep going. Keep growing.
My very favorite part of this is the quote from Rumi, worth repeating: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

God is the cause of loving God

Reading notes on a book I read over a year ago, I am once again astounded by the truth of this. It refers to the work of Bernard of Clairvaux, a French Cisterian Abbott in the 12th century.

Even though our heart longs for God, it seems almost audacious to think that God wants us just as much, or even more, than we yearn for him. God is the initiator, always, of our longing. But more, Bernard tells us that

God is the cause of loving God . . . He himself creates the longing. He himself fulfills the desire. He himself causes himself to be such that he should be loved. He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love him in vain. His love both prepares and rewards ours. Kindly, he leads the way. He repays us justly. He is our sweet hope. He is riches to all who call upon him. There is nothing better than himself. He gives himself.
That has been a great wonder for all lovers of God. They have consistently asserted its truth. Because of God’s compassion—of what God is (see John 4:8)—he comes to us. He comes to us faster than we ever wish to come to him. It is said that for every single step we take toward God, he takes a dozen toward us. It’s a fact that never stops astounding us.

Quoted from “You Can Know God: Christian Spirituality for Daily Living,” by Marilyn Gustin. Her book contains the passage from “Bernard of Clairvaux,” translated by G.R. Evans.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Creating space for the Father to work

The search continues, the lessons keep coming, my advanced age notwithstanding. A gnarly issue has been coming on for a while, but it has come to a head. The specific issue and person involved are not important to the story—what is important is that I learn new ways of dealing with common frustrations.

In a nutshell: I came home last night from an event and I was steaming angry. There was a person at the event (hereafter referred to as “the person”) who has been a thorn in my side for a variety of reasons. I could enumerate the specifics, but that would only be my attempt for validation, to gain allies. I don’t need allies; I need God to sort it out for me. So I came home and prayed. But I was still too angry to make real progress.

So this morning, I got up, skipped church, and spent the morning sitting in my garden reading Scripture, praying, and sitting in silence listening for God to show me the way.

It’s Father’s Day. I deeply miss my earthly father, but I’m keeping my heavenly Father busy, relying on Him for fatherly advice. I am still amazed that the same God who created the universe and raised Jesus from the dead is my Father. It's personal. He is in me and I am in Him. He guides me with more wisdom than the wisest person I could ever imagine. So when I get churned up with these petty earthly “people” issues, I only need to look to Him, cling tightly to Him, and push the pettiness away to focus on Him. The distractions are just Satan’s attempts to distract me. “Don’t go down that road,” I tell myself over and over again. Don’t go down that road paved with self-centered pride. Don’t get caught up in envy, don’t make comparisons, don’t get churned up about the things of this world that aren’t important. Focus on what is good, look to Him, not to appear more spiritual or more holy in the eyes of others, but to do what is good and true between the Lord and me.

My knee-jerk reaction is to tell someone about the person’s behavior, to get allies, to do something in retribution. This is the way I have usually behaved. But after so many years, I’m beginning to realize it is not a productive reaction. I’m not making a big drama out of it as I usually would. But what I am doing is bringing it to Him, my Father. I’m putting it at the foot of the cross and leaving it for Him to fix the situation or to fix me. In this process I skip over the middle man/woman and take it straight to the top.

So on this beautiful morning I read Scripture (the Song of Solomon for some strange reason) and spent a lot of time just sitting on my patio, sipping coffee, and listening for fatherly advice. The phrase came to me: “Move this person to the side. Come to me.” I knew that I needed to keep my focus on communion with the Lord and not let anything or anyone come between us, not steal one second of my time with Him. I move the junk out of the way and make room in my life for a much deeper, much more meaningful relationship with the Lord. And when there is room, when the jar is empty of rancor and pettiness, then there is space for God to work miracles.

Thank you, Lord, thank you. You are so incredibly real to me, so present. My prayer has been answered, not on a specific “solve this problem” level, but on a much deeper level that reminds me where to focus. That is a priceless lesson and it brings me such peace.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Nose to the sunrise

The tally says I have played 12,567 games of FreeCell, give or take a few. I’m not bragging—this brings me nothing but shame. Yet still I play, mindlessly staring at the computer screen, numbing my brain. It’s a really stupid game, even though I’ve become rather good at it. Wouldn’t you if you had played 12,567 games, give or take a few?
I’m writing about this because of the hope that confession is good for the soul. It’s not the computer game that I’m confessing—that is just a symptom. It’s depression. There, I said it. I hate the word, I hate discussing it, I hate being caught in its talons. Trouble is when I’m there, I can’t muster the energy to do much else. I sleep as much as I can, I eat whatever is within reach, and I curse the darkness. All the things I do only pull me deeper into the darkness, but I can’t seem to stop the whirlpool that sucks me down. I feel powerless.
Yes, I have taken antidepressants. I think they work. But I thought I could power through without them, gradually tapered off, and here I am. I know—I’ve already started taking them again. But, damn, it makes me feel like such a failure to need them.
And, yes, I have prayed and continue to pray. I trust the Lord will bring me through this once again and I will find joy after the darkness subsides. It doesn’t change my view of God; it only intensifies my total reliance on Him. Although I feel I'm a failure, I know He doesn't see me that way.
Today I read a quote from one of the books in The Chronicles of Narnia series. Reepicheep, the tenacious little mouse, is trying to reach the lion Aslan (symbol of Jesus) in the utter East. Reepicheep says:
"While I may, I sail East in Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I row East in my coracle. When that sinks, I shall paddle East with my four paws. Then, when I can swim no longer, if I have not yet reached Aslan’s Country, there shall I sink with my nose to the sunrise.”
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
And so, like the tough little mouse, I may sink, but still I seek Him, my nose to the sunrise.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Cook me a fish

Photo credit:
In worship service yesterday, at the end of the sermon, our pastor lead an amazing guided meditation on a passage in Scripture. He recounted the story told in John 21. It is during the period of time after Jesus's death and resurrection. Some of the disciples were fishing when, from the boat, they saw and had a conversation with a man on the shore. It was pre-dawn and the man on the beach was tending a fire, preparing to cook breakfast. The disciples soon realized the man was Jesus. The pastor invited us to enter the scene, to look into Jesus’s face and to hear our conversation.

And today I repeated the exercise at home. I read the passage in John 21 and sat in silence, my eyes closed, waiting to go deeper, to encounter Him.
His face was radiant, glowing in the firelight as the sun began to peek over the horizon. And He was glowing because it had all come to pass and He had conquered death, just as He promised. There was a tender, gentle glow of satisfaction, of knowing that God’s word had been fulfilled, His work was done. Everything, even the suffering and death, was worth it. I just looked at Him and He looked at and into me, knowing everything. And He said to me: “I will be with you until the end of the ages.”
So I just sat with Him, not wanting to leave, afraid that if I opened my eyes He would be gone. And I said to Him, “Lord, would you cook me a fish?”
It was such a profound, deep experience that I hesitate to try to describe it, that it will somehow sully the experience or reduce it to something unexceptional. But I want to share the reality that—whether it’s this passage for you or something else—it is possible to enter a very deep communion with God. I am not doing anything extraordinary, just opening the door and asking Him to be with me. And maybe cook me a fish.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Psalm 151

Me: Lord, send me somewhere in Scripture. What do I need to hear?

God: Psalm 151

Me: Okay. I can’t remember anything about Psalm 151 but I trust that it has a message for me. (At which point, I pick up my Bible, page through to the back of the Book of Psalms and find that the last psalm is Psalm 150.)

Me: Umm . . . Lord, there is no Psalm 151.

God:  . . . . (the sound of crickets. . . )

A psalm of Donna, an aging woman, in the pre-apocalyptic era

Psalm 151

Lord, tell me what to say to you that would please you. My words are not sufficient. But I can only trust that the imperfection of my words—written in deep love and yearning for you—will be sufficient, for you know that I am a flawed human being yet you love me.

Lord, my God, I love you and praise you. My heart overflows with gratitude.

You, my father, hold me in your arms, comforting me and protecting me.

Although my feet stand on broken glass, my heart and soul are bound to you, reaching for heaven.

Lord, I can never have enough of you. The more I know you, the more I move into your presence, the more I want of you. I pray that the mustard seed of your presence in me will grow until I disappear and all that remains is you.

Teach me, Lord. Illuminate the ways that please you and extinguish my many faults. Mold me into the image of your son.

Bring me to a higher plain, into closer communion with you until that glorious day when I slip out of this mortal coil and am forever with you.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

In my senior year of high school, I took a religion class, taught by a man who studied to be a priest. We were required to turn in weekly papers that summarized an article from a Catholic theological journal. My friend Kathy Murphy and I shared papers. She would turn in her paper, then a couple of weeks later I would copy hers and turn it in as my assignment. And she did the same with mine. We never got caught. I’m presuming the instructor didn’t read the papers. Cheating in religion class must be some special category of sin. I remember almost nothing from the class except the irony of being taught about being chaste and saving ourselves for marriage when there were girls in the class whose pregnancies were busting the buttons on our Catholic school girl uniforms. I vaguely remember being taught about Vatican II, and I remember the words aggiornamento, eschatological, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

I knew nothing about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin except that he wrote about Catholic theology and he had a very sexy French name. But recently I came across a quote credited to him and wished that I had paid more attention in Religion IV in high school. Now I know one iota more than I knew in 1965. Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and philosopher who died in 1955. He wrote about the struggle to be patient while waiting for God to work. He used the term “the slow work of God,” a phrase that resonates with me.
Enough of my words—here is a poem/prayer he wrote about trusting in the slow work of God:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown, something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
-- that is to say, grace --
and circumstances
-- acting on your own good will --
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Woman, planet Earth, and the Other, shining like the sun

How I now see things:

     Myself—woman, human being, plant Earth

     God—the Other, incomprehensible, in everything, everywhere

As I child I saw God as an old man with a long, white beard, stern, condemning, impossible to please, voice like thunder, distant.

Over time, as my relationship with God has deepened and evolved, my understanding of Him* has evolved, become far less concrete, yet far more present. I will never understand what God is on this side of eternity. I don’t stay awake nights pondering the nature of the Divine. What’s the point?—it is not to be comprehended; it is beyond the grasp of human intelligence. As I gradually cede the need to understand and visualize Him, it has become easier to sink into feeling God’s presence. God in all the spaces between molecules, in the air I breathe, inside of me and the primary essence of my soul and the soul of every living creature.

It is that presence that we share that Thomas Merton saw in 1958 on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. He wrote this description in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
You are shining like the sun, I am shining like the sun, we all are shining like the sun because God is present in us all.

*Please don’t be snarled up in my use of the word Him to refer to God. I use the masculine pronouns just for simplicity sake. I don’t see Him as an old white guy—that’s just the Children’s Bible version of God.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Porcupines in love

This morning in prayer I had a conversation with God.

          Me: Thank you, Lord, for all your blessings. I love you.

          God: I love you more.

          Me: I know that’s true. Thank you for loving even little old me.

It has been over 4 years since my dear Mike died. Weeks before he died, while in hospice care, he came to faith and asked to be baptized. My friend and former pastor videotaped Mike’s testimony at his baptism. Mike said that reading Romans 6:23 had been the turning point for him, that he realized God’s gift of salvation is available for everyone, in Mike’s words, “including little old me.”

Mike’s use of the phrase “little old me” speaks volumes about the man. He was a big, strong man. He trained horses and climbed mountains. His sentimentality was entwined with gristle. I loved him but he could be so doggone uncommunicative, impenetrable sometimes that I became frustrated trying to maintain a relationship with him. He was a porcupine, quills positioned to protect his tender heart from hurt.

And I was a porcupine too. The deep hurt from my failed marriage kept me in protective mode, so afraid I would get crushed again.

In the final year of his life, we both let down our prickly defenses and just loved one another like there was no tomorrow. Because, for one of us, there was no tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Quit trying so hard


James Finley is a former Trappist monk who, when he was a young monk, studied under Thomas Merton. In his book, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, Finley recalls Merton telling him not to try so hard to pray:

He said, "How does an apple ripen?  It just sits in the sun. A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes, and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts.  Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God's time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in God's hidden action within us.” 

Okay, I'm not trying so hard. I'm just sitting in stillness, in His presence. There is nothing I can say to Him that He doesn't already know. I'm learning that the most powerful prayer of all is listening.