A Tribute to my favorite aunt

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She was always our favorite visitor. Full of fun and life, she made our family gatherings exciting. She loved adventure, traveling around the world in her 20’s by herself, going to China in her 40’s, doing yoga at Machu Pichu in her 50’s. She inspired us to try foods we’d never seen, and sports like surfing and rock climbing. Her life was full of friends and her house a gathering place for students and visitors.

Diagnosed recently with dementia, she continues to want to live the vibrant life that she has always known. But it is harder now. Her balance is still steady, but she walks more slowly, sometimes unsure of her purpose. She forgets to eat meals, although she continues to seek out new restaurants. Language is slowly slipping away from her. There are fewer visitors because she can’t remember events and invitations. 

She is preparing for one last trip abroad, much to the dismay of many, who would feel so much more comfortable if she agreed to sit in her beloved garden all day. But I applaud her spirit, and I am committed to helping her live out her days in the best ways that she can.  

Yesterday, the transition really hit me as I went into REI to pick up some gear for her upcoming trip. I was looking for something cool and helpful like a pill box that could collapse into your back pocket. Maybe with a solar light that might go off periodically to remind her to take her medication. But such things don’t exist. REI is for the person that my aunt used to be: young, tanned, in shape and ready to push to the edge of any challenging situation. Besides, she already has most of the equipment in the store, since she never throws anything away.

Blinking back tears, I remembered all that she taught us over a life time of climbing mountains and taking risks and then coming back home safely to tell about them. She is pushing to the edge now, but it is much harder for the world to see that. She is just as inspirational now as she was 30 years ago, even if the destination is a friend’s house overseas.

God Bless you, aunty, and may you remember enough of this adventure to sustain you on the journey. Your spirit lives on in all of those around you.

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“Be merciful as your Father is merciful”

Last night, my family and I were visiting friends in the city, As we were coming out of the restaurant, I noticed something on my car windshield. My first thought was that it was a parking ticket, since it can be really challenging to find parking anywhere in the Bay Area.  But what was on the windshield was actually worse than a parking ticket. It was a note that read, “ Hello, my name is so and so….and I just hit your car. Please call me.”

Do you know that of course, this car has no dents in it yet…well, not until last night. It’s got a pretty obvious one now.

Being merciful…has to do with bearing patiently with others. It has to do with forgiveness. And I honestly think we learn it best when we have experienced it ourselves.

Seeing the dent in the side of my car reminded me of another experience. Just a few years ago, I was parking my big minivan in front of a friend’s house, and I wasn’t able to see out of one of the sides very well. I did the very same thing that this person did to my car last night. I hit a parked SUV and scraped some paint off it’s side…and had to ring the doorbell and introduce myself the the owner of the car. In that case, the car was actually owned by a 16 year old kid who had just received it for his birthday. Can you imagine, no dents…and now he was looking at a new paint job. But this kid was so gracious. He just smiled and said, “That’s ok, it’s no big deal.” I was so grateful that he was gracious and merciful about it. Remembering that helped me to make the phone call that I needed to make this morning.

During Lent, we try to become more in tune with God. Receiving mercy and extending mercy are transformative for both parties involved. And mercy can lead to greater love, even salvation. In the Oscar winning movie, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is imprisoned and harshly punished for stealing bread to feed his family. When he released, he steals again, this time from Bishop Myriel of Digne who has given him shelter. But when the police drag Valjean in front of the Bishop with the stolen silver, the Bishop forgives him. Saying that Valjean has not stolen, but that the Bishop has given him the silver, he presses two more candlesticks upon him and gives Valjean the gift of freedom. Valjean ponders this tremendous act: 

Why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love

He treated me like any other

He gave me his trust, he called me brother.

My life he claims for God above….he told me that I have a soul

How does he know

What spirit comes to move my life

Is there another way to go?

The Bishop has done more for Valjean than give him money. He has restored his relationship to society. He tells Valjean that he must use the silver to become an honest man. The rest of the story is about how Valjean learns to love, by loving others. At the end, as Valjean is dying, he will sing, “To love another person is the see the face of God.”

Perhaps God encourages us to be merciful so that we too can see His face. Perhaps this is the true gift that is given to us when we learn to be more God like by practicing the works of mercy and the virtue of forgiveness.

 

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New directions

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In the last week or so, I have finally started to feel like I’m getting used to being home based again. I’ve learned to be comfortable when my to-do list still has just as many items left on it at the end of the day as it did in the beginning. I’ve started to loosen up about scheduling, allowing me to just go with the flow of these unstructured days. There have been plenty of books to read, events to attend and work to do. I’ve loved having more time to focus on my youngest’s sports events and to hear how school went, now that I am there to pick up at the end of the day.

Looking for another ministry has been the last thing on the list. And yet….it is funny how God works with us, even when we perhaps aren’t even aware of it.

The first phone call came about a week ago from an old friend. He had heard that I’d retired from my job. “Another door is open for you” he said. With great enthusiasm he described the ministry that he’d been devoted to for almost a decade now. Every week, he goes to a mental institution and brings Communion to those in the lock down ward. I could hear his love for the people in his voice. ” I’d love to share this with you” he concluded.

I was touched that he had thought of me, but when our conversation ended, I had already begun to make a list of reasons why I couldn’t go. I’ve never been in a mental institution before, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to visit one. I prayed about it, but I have to admit, rather half-heartedly. Soon, I’d put it completely out of my mind.

A few days after this conversation, I was in the inner city working with some homeless clients when God spoke again. A young man with an intense look about him came into the office. At first he did not want to interact with me, but gradually, we were able to have a brief conversation and make a connection. Going home that day, a thought went through my mind: “that young man has probably been in and out of institutions, but it doesn’t matter. You enjoyed talking with him–and you did it out here where you are probably more vulnerable than you would be if you were inside somewhere.”

The second phone call came today, from a dear old friend who is in charge of the ministry.  Over the years she has become like a grandma to me. She is sweet, caring, and amazing in her faith. And she’s been going quietly to the mental hospital for over 30 years now. When she called and left a message on my answering machine, I knew there was no arguing with God, or with her. I called her back and told her that I’d go along with them to see what it was all about.

Sitting here shaking my head, I continue to marvel at life. Going into a mental institution is something I never thought I would do. But having said yes to grandma, I can feel excitement about the thought of meeting the people, and sharing Scripture and Communion with them. 

I pray that I will have the grace to follow through. 

The Beauty of Repentance

For those of us who are Catholic, the season of Lent has begun. This has always been one of my favorite seasons because it challenges us to commit to spiritual disciplines for 40 days that will hopefully deepen our relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves. With any luck, we will become better people in the process. 

My kids have always had the opposite reaction to this time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “It’s depressing, Mom” “It’s hard!” Over the years, I have watched my kids strategize about just how much and what to give up, while enduring the season and looking forward to Easter. Some years, old habits give way to kinder words and broader vision. Other years, we give up before Easter and resolve to try again next year. 

I agree with my family–it is hard to give up old habits, diet coke, chocolate, gossip and Facebook. It is depressing when we are unable to keep our Lenten intentions and we have to come face to face with our weaknesses and failings. And yet, there is beauty in the struggle. In realizing how difficult change is, we become more aware of our dependance on Jesus, the one who transforms us. In becoming more aware of our own failings, we can become more compassionate towards others. In striving to make time for prayer, for the poor and for new ways of living, we may find ourselves taking baby steps toward new life, even if we do not fully realize it until later.

 

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So the challenge to all of us is to find the beauty that is hidden in the darkness. After all, that is what our loving God does.

Catholic Schools Week Pizza

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Brothers and sisters:

As a body is one though it has many parts,

and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,

so also Christ.

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,

whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,

and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

1 Cor 12 :12-14

 

I had the privilege of going to Mass at my daughter’s school today as we celebrated the beginning of what is known as “Catholic Schools Week”. It was an amazing feeling to be in Church with so many families from the school community and to see the kids who have grown from uncertain kindergarteners to competent middle schoolers who are now altar serving, reading, cantoring and giving tours of the classrooms to visiting families. The homily made me reflect especially on the above words from St. Paul which remind us that through Christ we become one community, each with dignity, each with his or her gifts to offer for the good of the whole.  Like our children, as we participate in the life of the school, we parents learn that we are not individuals but a community woven together through our shared experiences and our shared faith.

 

My favorite part of the Mass every year is the end when the students crowd into the sanctuary and sing the school song. I do not know the words to the song, even after all of these years but I am always so grateful that my daughter belongs to this school. I am especially glad that her classmates have supported her through good and bad times, and that her teachers have helped her to learn despite a significant learning difference. It is this care that we have experienced here that has helped us to feel the presence of God, and given us hope.

 

After Mass, my daughter and I decided to make pizza. We use a recipe that my husband and I discovered when we first got married. One of our favorite wedding gifts was a pizza stone, given to us by a dear friend who had gone through graduate school with me, sharing many pizzas as we struggled to stay on our student budgets. The pizza stone broke long ago, sadly, but the recipe has sustained our family through many a weekend. Kind of the way the school community does now. 

Basic Pizza Dough ( Adapted from Pizza by James McNair)

 

1 package yeast ( Rapid rise)

1 cup warm water

1 Tablespoon sugar or honey

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup oil

3 cups flour

 

In a measuring cup, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, stirring gently to mix. Let the mixture stand for about a minute, until a thin layer of foam covers the surface. If bubbles have not formed within 5 minutes, discard and start over.

 

Combine 3 cups of flour and a teaspoon salt in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour the oil and yeast mixture into it. Stir with wooden spoon to combine ( do not over mix) and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Work in approximately 1/4 cup flour. Kneed the dough until smooth and shiny. ( about 10 minutes). Shape into ball and place in well oiled bowl in warm place ( I use the warmer on my oven). Let the dough rise 45 mins to 1 hour, until it has doubled in size. 

 

Leaving the dough in the bowl, use your fist to punch down. Shape back into a ball, press out air and let rise again. 

 

Using your fingers, spread dough out in a well oiled pizza pan. Bake crust at 500 for 5 minutes. Add toppings of choice, return pizza to oven and bake until cheese is melted, about 5 more minutes.    

 

Carrot Soup at 8 am

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I’ve discovered some interesting things about myself since I’ve been home. First of all, my job was not really the reason that I don’t exercise as much as I used to. I manage to avoid the gym just fine from home all day. Second, I don’t really want to organize my closet or the garage. Those things are still on my list and probably will continue to be for quite a while. And actually, I don’t like to cook as much as I imagined that I did when I was working. Before, I told myself that I had no time for menu planning, no time for grocery shopping…now, I just procrastinate in the late afternoon until I find myself throwing together the same last minute pasta and stir fry that I made before.

 

But today, inspiration struck in an unexpected way. You see, everything is different in the morning. For whatever crazy reason, I love mornings. I love being up when the sun is just coming up on the horizon. I love reading my books, the newspaper or the internet. And I actually discovered this morning that I like cooking dinner at 8 a.m. Dinner at 8 a.m? Yes!!

 

As soon as breakfast was over, and the sink clean ( that is a prerequisite for me to be able to cook, don’t ask me why), I found myself chopping carrots as I watched Good Morning America. Chopping carrots in the morning was fun. I actually noticed and appreciated their bright orange hue. I liked the crunching sound that they made when I diced them. I didn’t mind spewing pieces of carrot skin all over my kitchen as I peeled them. Maybe it is because I have all day to clean them up. Maybe its because I’m just in a better mood in the mornings. 

 

I liked slicing the onions. I liked their tangy burst of water and fire on my cutting board. I savored their sizzle as I added them to my pot of ginger and curry. And the curry!! Can I tell you that the smell of curry in my kitchen, along with my good strong cup of tea temporarily transported me to India, a place that I have never actually been? I think I was inspired by scenes in the movie The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I saw a few days ago. Suddenly, I could imagine the heat, the smells, the buzzing marketplace, the colors…and Good Morning America was still showing me the snow and frost in New York.

 

This must be why people cook, I realized. The feast for the senses is incredible. So I learned today that one can have a pretty amazing start to the day if one is wiling to do things out of order so to speak, to move time around just a bit. 

 

What did I do with my pot of carrot ginger soup, which was all ready by 9:30 am? I left it on the stove, so that the smell would fill my kitchen all morning. I savored the thought that I didn’t have to figure out what to make for dinner. In fact, having the soup done gave me lots of new ideas for the raw chicken in the refrigerator. Wow what a difference the time of the day can make! 

 

Curried Carrot Soup from the Soup Bible

1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

1-2 teaspoons curry powder

1 onion finely chopped

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

1 pound carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

salt and freshly ground black pepper

yogurt to serve

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

 

Heat oil in saucepan and add curry powder, onion and ginger. Cook until onion is soft. Add carrots and cook, covered, for 20 minutes stirring from time to time. Pour in stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes or until carrots are tender. 

 

Blend soup until smooth. Return to the saucepan and gently reheat. Stir in lemon juice and season to taste. Ladle into bowls and garnish with a swirl of yogurt and the chopped parsley or cilantro.

Tea and Muffins

Today it was rainy–a great day to be inside with a cup of tea and homemade muffins. The Moosewood cookbook muffins are a family favorite. I love the way you can add whatever you would like to make them fun and interesting. Today, it was blueberries, tomorrow who knows?

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MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK MUFFIN MADNESS!

 — Basic Wet Ingredients —
2 large eggs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3/4 – 1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

  — Basic Dry Ingredients —
2 cup unbleached flour (I use whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Choose one of the following combos to add to basic ingredients 

Apple muffins: Add 2 cups of grated apple and 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel to wet ingredients and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to dry ingredients.
Banana muffins: Add 1 1/2 cups of mashed banana to wet ingredients and 1 cup chopped nuts and/or 1/2 cup of chocolate chips to batter.
Blueberry – lemon muffins: Add 1 1/2 cups of blueberries and 1 tablespoon of grated lemon peel to wet ingredients.
Zucchini muffins: Add 2 cups of grated zucchini to wet ingredients and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom to the dry ingredients. Fold in 1/2 cup of raisins or currants and 3/4 cup of chopped nuts to batter.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine wet ingredients, combine dry ingredients. Add two mixtures together and take care not to overmix. Spoon batter into oiled standard muffins tins and bake for 20-25 minutes.  

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In the silence

Last Friday, I joined 30 other spiritual directors-in-training at a retreat center for an intensive three days of learning, prayer, and continued discernment in the art and practice spiritual direction. Ranging in age from our 40’s to our 70’s, we came from all corners of the region, some from as far as 400 miles away. We have been engaged in this process of study and training for a year and a half. As we gathered, it felt significant that we had made it to the practicum portion of our program, the part in which we learn by meeting with real clients and hearing about their journeys, while engaging in supervision ourselves.

Anticipating the weekend, I’d met with several volunteer directees and the first direction sessions had been wonderful. I had been gifted with the joy of hearing of God’s movement in people’s lives, as well as the chaos, darkness and helplessness of choice and searching. “What does God want of me now? How can I better notice the sacred? Is a door opening or closing?” are all questions that have come up in the last few weeks. Those who are willing to volunteer as directees receive direction at no cost while we practice offering mindful presence. I feel deep gratitude to my directees for taking the time to share their stories and for trusting me to hear them.
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The weekend begins with a meal and then the instruction that we are to keep silence between teaching sessions. Not only are we to be physically silent, we are to keep “custody of the eyes”, an old monastic practice of averting our gaze whenever we meet others in the hallway. I will spend the first several encounters with my classmates forgetting to break eye contact, but as I settle into the silence, the sense of stillness will be wonderful and freeing. My food will taste better. The artwork that hangs on the walls at the center will leap out at me. I will hear sounds that I never noticed before: the sound of water pouring, the hiss of the heater, the rustling of the tree branches outside. I will find myself walking more deliberately, feeling each step while being pleasantly surprised by the simple beauty of the blue sky. Part of me wants to stay here permanently and never have the stress or traffic, deadlines, money, or illness. And part of me misses these earthly daily things that now seem worlds away. These new experiences will sink into my heart and deepen the sense of being in a sacred place, as well as a sense of finding deep pleasure in simple things.

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Despite the silence, I discover that I am not alone. At breakfast one morning, one of my classmates comes and sits silently next to me as we eat our cereal. We never exchange glances or even acknowledge one another but I can feel her presence. As we eat together, our spoons rising and falling like a melody, we breathe together. I feel rather than see her slip away quietly at the end of the meal like a fish gently returning to the depths of the sea. There is a feeling of solidarity and communion that arises from occupying the same space even if we can’t talk directly.

The most important teaching of the weekend is the importance of being willing to look at our own wounds, prejudices, shortcomings and weaknesses through a process of supervision with another director. We are taught how to reflect and surface movements that we might want to further explore, and we are drawn into a community of practitioners who try to remain on track through supervision. Unlike other helping professionals, spiritual directors never graduate. The obligation to remain in direction and supervision continues throughout the spiritual director’s career. The weight of this commitment settles gradually over the group gently, like the disappearing sun through the trees.

At the end of the weekend as the silence is lifted, there are hugs and stories, email exchanges and lots of homework. We emerge from the retreat house exhausted but happy. As I return home, I ponder whether it is possible to keep a sense of this counter cultural stillness as part of my life. But I am also happy to be able to talk again, and to see God in the eyes of my much missed family members!

In my Back Yard

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I’ve now been home based for two weeks and I am still struggling to describe to people what I do. The word “retired” does not seem acceptable since I am under 65.  The word “freelancer” is not helpful since my writing, while keeping me busy, is largely on my own computer or on the internet, almost invisible while feeling extremely visible to the world. And “mom”…well..that term has always been a little confusing for people. Does a mom stay home and organize the family all day? Does she work on the computer? Or maybe both?

The answer is all of the above. And so far, life seems to be working. At least after two weeks, but who’s counting?

This is what I was thinking this morning as I pulled into a local coffee shop to meet a friend. Not exactly, ” what am I doing” but something more like ” how am I going to explain or describe this transition in my life?” 

You know the wonderful thing about old friends? They know you so well that you don’t have to explain much. Kind of like God, who knows us before we are born.

Not only did my friend buy me a cup of coffee in this new hang out space that I hadn’t known about in my own neighborhood, she reminded me of who I was, and the connections that we share: as Catholic moms trying to bring our kids up in faith, as women, as parishioners, as creative types. In conversation we are reminded of our purpose, even our call. For some of us, that is God speaking. 

The time went so quickly, we both had to run home to do all the projects that awaited: Art, email, work, writing, phone calls, taking care of family members…retirement is more than busy.

And today, I am grateful for old friends!!!