#WhyIMarch

A week ago Saturday, I participated in the Women’s March L.A. with two dear friends  from college (one my former roommate) and another long-time local friend. A protest march with 750,000 other people is probably the last thing I’d ever see myself doing. So why did I march?

First, let me establish a few basic things about myself:

  • I have voted in every presidential election since I turned 18 (and for both Democratic and Republican candidates)
  • I don’t hate men (in fact, I’ve been happily married to one for almost 28 years and proudly parented one for almost 24)
  • I am a woman of faith (Christian)
  • I acknowledge and honor the President, and pray for him every day
  • I come from a military family (my son is active duty and my husband and father both retired)
  • I am not completely aligned with either major U.S. political party (I wish there were more moderates in government today)
  • I love my country deeply and I’m proud to be an American
  • Up until Saturday, I have never participated in a march, rally or protest of any kind

So, why did I march? For me, it came from a deeply spiritual place.

A book that has profoundly influenced me is “Faith and Feminism” by Helen LaKelly Hunt. See Alive and Well Women: Our First Grant! Hunt points out that early feminists were women whose faith propelled them to action in areas of human rights, such as the abolitionist movement. The second wave U.S. feminist movement became secularized in the 60s. Elsewhere in the world, however, feminism and faith continue to be more closely aligned.

Through the lives of some early faith-based feminists, Hunt illustrates the “journey to wholeness” which she proposes as a structure for both personal evolution as well as for bridging the religious-secular split in modern feminism as a whole. The five stages of the journey to wholeness are (1) pain, (2) shadow , (3) voice, (4) action, and (5) communion.

My official Women's March button

My official Women’s March button

My journey to the Women’s March started with a growing recognition of pain. I have challenged myself, particularly over the past 10-15 years, to cultivate relationships with a wide spectrum of people representing other religions, ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation. Through these relationships, I have become acutely aware that I largely won the birth lottery.  I was born into a white, Protestant, Republican, middle-class, educated family in the United States of America, and for most of my life I have been blissfully oblivious of this great privilege. Other than some bias I encountered in my professional life as a woman, I have not faced the severe discrimination, mistreatment or hardship, even hatred (some of it on a daily basis) that my diverse circle has forced me to recognize.

During the course of the most recent presidential election and transition, my pain only increased as I witnessed the escalating racist, misogynist, homophobic rhetoric, and saw the effect on people I’ve grown to cherish as friends.   I increasingly sensed this intense pain pushing me toward a doorway to action, demanding a deeper meaning and purpose to my life.   I thought and prayed daily about what Jesus would do, and discerned a growing conviction to use my voice to speak my truth. I wrote about this in Speak Up!.   Finding my voice means finding the courage to tell my story in an authentic way. It’s somewhat frightening writing this post, even having cordial conversations with close friends and family who do not share many of my political views. I worry about damaging or losing those relationships by speaking my mind. I’m learning to see these as opportunities to practice speaking my truth with love, and with respect for other viewpoints.

I have now come to the stage of action. Helen Hunt writes that once we have found our true voice, it’s time then to act and to bring our values into the world in a concrete form. For me, the Women’s March was the first step (no pun intended) in that process. I understand that big shifts are underway in our country as we move from more liberal philosophies and policies to more conservative. I have concerns, but I am not deeply disturbed. This, after all, is what democracy is all about. I pray that these macro shifts bring the intended economic benefits to our country. However, I do feel deep concern that, in the midst of these shifts, there may be severe displacement and hardship on the poor and powerless and our planet. Perhaps we are moving toward a country where the government no longer provides the same level of safety net, in which case I feel called as a Christian to step into the breach. Part of my responsibility as a Christian is to help care for, and defend, the “poor'” which includes a broad range of disadvantaged groups. My biggest fear, however, is that the treatment of certain classes will be worse than neglect; rather, that government-sanctioned or government-led persecution may result. I worry about the erosion of what I believe to be deeply valued democratic principles. My fear of this has only escalated in the week since the inauguration.

And so I marched. It was a day I’ll never forget – a glorious, crisp sunny day in Los Angeles, a brilliant miracle in the midst of several cold, gray days of heavy rain. My college friends came from out of town to join me and another close friend, and we met my niece and grandniece downtown. We wore Wonder Woman accessories. The mood was upbeat and positive, the signs hilarious, heartrending and clever, and a pervasive optimistic hopefulness settled on the huge crowd (and in which I never felt the slightest bit unsafe).

Wonder Women Marchers, along with our 750,000 new friends

Me and my sister Wonder Women Marchers, along with our 750,000 new friends

I didn’t agree with everyone and everything at the March. But my participation represented a show of support for those whose voices may not be heard and who may be in danger. It represented a celebration of my constitutional right to free speech and assembly. It represented expression of a deeply felt conviction that my faith compelled me to show up and speak up. It represented my steely resolve, along with my close-knit group of females beside me, that we will not cede ground that we and other women before us have fought so hard to achieve. I am sad, but not deterred, that some considered the march disrespectful, un-American, unpatriotic, or sacrilegious. For me, it was exactly the opposite. And by the grace of God, look out world, I’m only getting started!

 

 

Post-Retirement Work: Finding the Right Balance

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged (other than once about the election when I couldn’t help myself). The past few months have been extremely busy and, in hindsight, another period of adjustment. I haven’t felt much like writing, so I decided to simply take a break and not force myself.

After we returned from a busy summer of traveling, I went back to work (sort of) in October. I realized that we don’t have the money or inclination to travel constantly, and, when we’re home for long stretches, I often get bored. Last spring, I devoted substantial time to the non-profit organization that I co-founded, Alive and Well Women, helping to get our business infrastructure up and running. I appreciated being back in a work environment, using my skills, and even collecting a modest paycheck.

Besides an education in the non-profit world, my stint at Alive and Well Women was a good learning experience in other ways, as I discovered:

  1. The limits of how much and when I want to work (about 10-15 hours a week, and only in the afternoons so I can exercise in the morning); and
  2. My ideal arrangement is one where I can easily take off to travel and not be responsible for things while I’m gone (I don’t mind the occasional email or question, but I spent far too much time in my former career thinking about work and checking my old BlackBerry while on vacation); and
  3. If I provide services of more than a few hours a week to an organization, I want to be compensated fairly.

In other words, I want to be mindful about how I spend my time in retirement. I don’t NEED to work, so any part-time employment should be rewarding and enjoyable and not detract from the activities that I love. I certainly don’t want to find myself back on the proverbial work treadmill.

So, also last spring, I began discussions with a friend from church about potentially doing contract work for the organization she runs. Her company provides accounting and human resource support for non-profit organizations, and my background seemed like a good fit. After a couple of conversations, her proposal was ideal – I will simply let her know when I am home and available for work, and, if they have projects for me, I will be paid on an hourly basis. We agreed on compensation that was fair (more than Alive and Well Women could afford but less than I made pre-retirement – which is the price I pay for flexibility).  When I told her my first availability wouldn’t be until October, she didn’t bat an eye!

Fast forward to October, when I showed up for my first day of work. I was fighting an internal battle, part of me excited, part of me worried I might hate working again. Part of me wanted to be as accommodating as possible (since that’s how I was conditioned as a consultant for 25 years) and part of me wanted to set very strict boundaries so as not to disrupt my lifestyle. In the end, I decided to strike a balance. I emphatically announced on my very first day that I preferred working afternoons only, and that, for this initial trial period, I was available through the week before Thanksgiving, and then not again until after the holidays (i.e., January), and that I would not be accessible in the interim. I confess I held my breath for a moment, since being so unbendable in a professional setting is totally foreign to me. To my relief, without skipping a beat, they graciously agreed to my conditions.  In return, I made myself available every afternoon as needed, giving work projects priority over personal matters.workplace-clipart

For this first foray, I decided to set firm limits for several reasons. First, to give myself (and the organization) an easy out at the end of the initial period if it wasn’t working for either of us. Second, I wanted to clearly set expectations that I would not assume on-going responsibility for projects when I’m gone (see #2 in list above). The last thing I want is a full-time job in any shape or form, and I really need to turn off the switch and do other things in between work periods.

Given my unusual situation and extensive list of demands, I was curious how this grand experiment would work out. I was given two projects, one internal and one for a client. I was able to do much of the work from home, but I was project manager for the internal assignment, which required two or three in-person team meetings a week at the office (about a 15-minute drive from home).   This proved to be a nice balance, as my time in the office gave me the opportunity to get to know the staff and enjoy some office camaraderie, while working at home afforded me both flexibility and distraction-free efficiency.focusgroup20

All in all, from my standpoint, this first round was a big success. I learned a lot from work that was challenging and gratifying. Observing the strong, assertive, yet compassionate, leadership style of my friend has been an unexpected treat. The team is very competent, incredibly nice and motivated, and the clients being supported are non-profits and faith-based organizations doing great work in the world. And, of course, the extra money in my bank account has been icing on the cake.

When I left the office on the Friday before Thanksgiving, having handed off my projects before I left, my friend (and new boss) expressed enthusiastic satisfaction with the work I completed and optimism that we could continue to find opportunities to work together. In the two weeks since, they have respected my boundary and nobody has dared contact me (even though it was a running joke in the office that they had my cellphone and weren’t afraid to use it).

Now, the downside of working is that it leaves less time and energy for other things, such as lunch dates with my husband or friends, trip planning, blogging, or doing nothing. I suspect that it will be important, in the future, to schedule non-travel/non-work blocks to give myself down time at home.

I’ve learned that retirement, like the rest of life, is a journey of self-discovery. I am continually striving for the right balance of work and rest, service and enjoyment. I am grateful for partners along the way, from my Alive and Well Women co-founder, who has been ever patient and flexible and supportive as I navigate my way through an uncharted sea of ever-changing priorities, to my friend (and new employer) who has been so accommodating and encouraging.  Most of all, I’m learning, no matter how old I am, to never stop growing!

Speak Up!

Be_A_VoiceRecent events have caused me to think deeply on how I am called to be a woman of integrity in such a broken world. I find myself weeping over the hatred and violence in our daily news. What am I to say or do in the midst of such overwhelming pain? How can I make a difference? The political discourse has become so nasty that I often keep my thoughts to myself to avoid simply becoming another talking head, or worse, part of the problem. It occurs to me, however, that my voice is my power, and it may be more important than ever that I fearlessly use my authentic voice.

In her book “Faith and Feminism,” Helen LaKelly Hunt uses the story of Sojourner Truth to illustrate the search for voice, as one of the five stages of women’s ‘Journey Toward Wholeness.’ Sojourner Truth was a shy nineteenth century black female ex-slave who changed her name and courageously and effectively spoke out for the abolitionist and early feminist movements. Helen writes that Sojourner Truth’s life teaches us “when we are able to speak our truth we gain a new ‘name,’ a new voice – that is, a new empowered self-concept and identify.” “A search for voice is the search for self.”

Based on my own experience, and countless discussions with other women, I find that we too often experience a reluctance or inability to express ourselves boldly. We compromise to avoid hurting others feelings, or making waves, or appearing too aggressive. We find it easier to bypass the large or troublesome people in our lives rather than engage or confront them. We may have a trusted group of confidantes with whom we share our authentic selves, while putting forth a more guarded, or accommodating, public self with others. Although it is clearly not prudent to share everything with everyone, there are times when it is important to assertively express our true needs, beliefs and opinions.

This has been a lifelong growth area for me. Growing up the shy, youngest child with two older brothers, I had to work hard, in a military family that valued high intelligence and achievement, to be taken seriously. In school, I pushed myself relentlessly to overcome my own self-perception of insignificance, and vividly remember being pleasantly surprised to discover how talented and intelligent I was relative to my peers. I found that I had highly developed interpersonal skills, no doubt attributable to navigating my male-dominated family dynamics. On the other hand, I still carried that small internal voice which caused self-doubt and suppression of expression.

Over time, I grew very comfortable with the sharp verbal sparring favored in my male-dominated workplace and developed a thick skin. I could be a tough negotiator when it came to work-related issues and learned to stand up for my positions. But, to this day I know I often avoid expressing personal opinions contrary to others. I know I gravitate towards people with whom I share similar views, and avoid those who don’t. It’s just easier to share my beliefs with people who agree with me.

However, my inability or unwillingness to speak up only contributes to unbridged chasms (political, religious, etc.) in society, robs me of the opportunity to have healthy robust discussion, and diminishes my moderate, Christian, feminine point of view in society. I risk not being truly known by others, losing self-respect and not asking for what I need or want. I suspect there are countless other temperate voices who are silent for similar reasons.

Even within the church, if I am reluctant to question authority for fear of appearing sacrilegious or disrespectful, I may actually do a disservice to the church. As Helen LaKelly Hunt writes in Faith and Feminism, “if a religious institution does not support an issue that is based upon Christ’s teaching, it’s imperative to challenge the institution, not the teaching.” The early feminists understood this distinction and were instrumental in bringing change to church policies that suppressed, divided and excluded.

In short, my personal search for voice is a journey not only toward my own wholeness but the world’s. I was reminded of this recently when I stayed up until 1:30 AM (way past my bedtime) with two of my book club friends over a glass of wine. We were bemoaning the state of current politics, with two of us feeling it is rather pointless to publicly state our views on social media. My other friend passionately admonished us to speak up. She challenged us to think about chapters in world history where courageous voices made a difference, and conversely where silence allowed hatred, violence or intolerance to triumph.

“God’s wisdom is not a pathway of escape but a road of faithful engagement,” writes Mark Labberton in his book “Called.” “God’s wisdom breaks passivity and leads to action. If we don’t take action, our house is built on sand, even if we profess that it’s built on rock.”   Speaking up is action, with consequences, and we have responsibility to ourselves and to the world to speak our truth in love, respectfully, but with conviction. I may not change entrenched minds with my words, but I should strive to be a seeker and speaker of wisdom, and may then, through example, influence those looking for alternatives to the noisy mainstream talking heads.

Of courage, John O’Donahue writes in “To Bless the Space Between Us”:

“Close your eyes,

Gather all the kindling

About your heart

To create one spark

That is all you need

To nourish the flame

That will cleanse the dark

Of its weight of festered fear.”

Oh Lord, in this time of great strife, give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and give me wisdom and courage in thought, word and deed.

Forty days (and forty nights) without Facebook

Forty days without Facebook...one day at a time

Forty days without Facebook…one day at a time

I have toyed with taking an extended breather from Facebook in the past, and decided this Lenten season would be the perfect opportunity for a 40-day break. Not that I am addicted to, have any particular problem with, or objection to, social media, but I sensed it would be a good discipline in making space for other things.

In my last post, Lent: Making Space for Loneliness, I wrote extensively about my extraordinary spiritual journey launched by giving up Facebook (and other social media). I don’t think it was solely the absence of social media, but rather the symbolic act of choosing to very intentionally create space, that paved the way for my rich spiritual experience. Aside from the spiritual, my break from Facebook was also an interesting anthropological self-study. Some of my lessons learned about Facebook (and other social media):

It is addictive. Although I don’t consider myself an abuser, during my first few days of cold turkey, I clearly exhibited minor symptoms of withdrawal. On Ash Wednesday, I posted a status update proclaiming I would be giving up Facebook for Lent and immediately got out of Facebook. I then fought several urges to go back and edit my status update (I of course had ideas about how I could’ve said it better) and to see if I got any likes or comments. I didn’t actually get the shakes, but I finally had to hide my iPhone in a drawer to avoid temptation.

The next day, I awoke and noticed how I reflexively checked my phone. I saw  that I had 4 notifications on the Facebook icon. It was really hard not to open the app. What if I was missing something important? What if someone posted something about me? What did people think about me not being on Facebook? Did they miss me?! I could feel the anxiety level rise. As I saw the number of notifications escalate, it felt like mild torture. I got an email telling me a new friend had sent a Facebook friend request and I spent far too long internally debating whether I should call her and explain. (What would she think of me if I ignored her for 40 days?!)  I thought about deleting the app from my phone, but when I tried, I got a warning about losing data, so I hunkered down for the long haul.

But you know what? By the end of the first week, I was perfectly fine without Facebook. I began to feel less anxious being completely off social media. It was one less thing to keep up with. It was like a high-maintenance person had left the room and I could relax.

It can be an escape. I began to notice that I often turn to Facebook and Instagram, or sometimes Twitter (which I don’t use that often), when I am bored or lonely. It can also be an incredible time suck. I can spend hours going down rabbit holes (Oh, look!  A video on Michael Jackson first doing the Moon Walk! Oh, wow! An interesting article on the train system in Italy!) when I intended only to quickly check my notifications. Not having social media as an option forced me to be creative when I needed something to do. I found myself reading more books and magazines, and paying more attention to what was happening in the real world surrounding me (rather than focusing on the virtual world). I began to wonder where I ever found time to spend on Facebook.

It is its own superficial and distorted world. I found, during my break from social media, that I was taking far less photos. I realized that when I went somewhere that might qualify as “fun” or “interesting,” I was too often thinking about getting a photo, only so I could share what I was doing or where I was on Facebook.  There is a huge temptation to “brag” about how wonderful our lives are. The first weekend of my Facebook ban, we went wine-tasting in Paso Robles, and I was dying to post pictures.   By the time we went to Spring Training baseball in Scottsdale, AZ a few weeks later, I didn’t even think about posting. Without the pressure to be constantly reporting on my activities, I found I was more present in my real world experiences and able to more fully enjoy the moments. Likewise, I discovered that constantly looking at others’ “perfect” Facebook lives can be unhealthy;  particularly when it encourages unfavorable comparisons or jealousy. It is hard to get a realistic picture of people’s lives solely through their Facebook posts.

It can be divisive.  Particularly in an election year, especially this election year, I often find the political discussion upsetting. I am all for freedom of speech, but the tone of discourse can, and does, get nasty. I grew up with my mother’s admonition that sex, religion, and politics are not topics for polite company and that is my own self-policing rule on social media. Mostly, I find the lack of respect (and common sense) in the virtual world distressing, and from that standpoint alone, the break was welcome.

There are positive aspects. I came to the conclusion that about 75% (maybe more) of the time I spend on social media is fairly useless and unrewarding – for example, scrolling through updates on people or things that are not that important or relevant to me. However, the other 25% is what I love about it. During my absence, I missed my core group of Facebook friends (scattered near and far geographically) with whom I treasure contact. I wondered how they were doing, and I missed seeing their updates and comments. I also found that, in some of my social groups (like my Book Club), we use Facebook very effectively as a form of communication and organization. At times, I felt out of the loop and had to more proactively reach out via other avenues to get information (which is not a completely terrible thing).

My new outlook. As the end of Lent approached, my husband joked that I would need to reserve the entire afternoon of Easter to catch up on Facebook. However, I felt surprisingly ambivalent about getting back to social media. Sure, I missed aspects of it, but I’d also become accustomed to the extra space without it.

On Easter Sunday, we came home from brunch, and I opened Facebook.   After an extended absence of 40 days, it took me about 20 minutes to catch up. Whereas before my break I might have gone through each of the 100+ notifications more carefully, now I simply skimmed for the things that looked important. I’ve since found that Facebook re-entry has been a tad overwhelming. After becoming accustomed to the relative calm of no social media,  I now pretty quickly reach sensory overload.  It feels like that high maintenance person has re-entered the room.

In the future, I intend to enjoy the positive aspects of social media that bring me joy, but I will strive to avoid or minimize the unhealthy parts. I also see the benefits of periodically taking breaks. I thought of Noah, who spent 40 days and 40 nights on the ark when God wanted to cleanse the world, and then waited another 40 days to open a window after it rained. The last 40 days have been a good cleansing for me; an opportunity to reassess the role social media has in my life. And now, its time to carefully re-open the window and enjoy the photos of my dear Facebook friends’ vacations and grandchildren!

 

 

Lent: Making Space for Loneliness

At a church service for Ash Wednesday (almost 40 days ago), responding to a spoken invitation to forego something that would “open space in my life,” I rather impulsively (and inexplicably) decided to give up Facebook for Lent. I then extended the ban to all social media, other than my blog, since I felt otherwise would be cheating. That decision inadvertently kicked off a rather miraculous process, during which over the course of the Lenten season, through contemplative practices, complete with a few wrestling matches with God, I gained some powerful insight.

Prior to Lent, and starting after the holidays, I found myself in an extended funk. I just couldn’t seem to shake the bad mood. In hindsight, I see that I was adjusting to yet another new stage of life, with our son now post-college and truly independent, and mourning the end of our family’s active USNA experience.   I was also facing the prospect of several months at home before our next trip. My husband and I really enjoy traveling together, but I find being home for long stretches challenging.

But even more, I was feeling an unmistakable and aching loneliness. I found myself irritated, feeling stuck in a boring house with a taciturn husband (my take, at the time, on the situation). The downside of Empty Nest and Early Retirement seemed to suddenly loom large. I began to look for external targets to blame, the most convenient being my husband.  It was his fault, after all, that I was feeling lonely, since he wasn’t being a better companion.

My solution was, as it has always been, to stay busy, and to schedule more time out of the house. None of this activity was necessarily bad; however, the problem was that it was coming from a place of resentfulness and blame.

During the early days of the Lenten season, however, I felt God grab hold of me, smack me upside the head and speak to me, in truly unexpected ways. Mainly because I had made space to hear. Through daily readings from my yoga teacher, to random conversations and emails with friends, to the sermon series at church and my weekly women’s Bible study (we have been studying Exodus), I was hearing a consistent encouragement to walk into the desert, to move toward, and actually embrace, that which I was afraid of. I felt a small but discernible shift beginning inside me.

One Saturday night, early in Lent, my husband and I were home alone together, but engaged in separate activities in different rooms. I suddenly felt an almost overpowering loneliness wash over me. Without access to Facebook or other social media as my go-to tonic, my initial, almost automatic, reaction was to become angry, to look for someone or something to blame for my loneliness, and my poor husband (being the closest in proximity) seemed the most logical choice. I actually became quite uncomfortable. But, rather than continuing to look for ways to avoid my emotions, or pass them off in the form of blame, I thought about the inspiration I’d received, and halted the hot potato blame game and allowed myself to feel whatever I felt.

For the first time, I connected to a wound deep within me. Although frightening, rather than avoid it, I sat with it and simply prayed for healing. This might all sound far-fetched, but I truly felt a definite, and intense, sense of restoration begin inside me.

I recognized that my loneliness is coming from within me, that it is nobody’s fault, that it is part of whom I am, and it will be a process to embrace. I became aware that, although I am not a generally lonesome person, I have struggled at times with loneliness for years, even as a child. But, in claiming this lonesomeness as my own, in engaging it, I felt a sense of freedom – it suddenly didn’t loom so big or scary.

In a sense, in this stage of life, I have found myself in a foreign land, living with more space. I no longer have the hectic job and business travel, parenting responsibilities, care of aging parents, and other activities crowding my world and absorbing my energy. The absence of those distractions creates more opportunity to confront parts of myself that I have feared and avoided for years.

While on a Silent Retreat recently, I reflected and read extensively on the topics of solitude and loneliness, and their role in our life – the American poet Mary Oliver, the Irish author John O’Donahue, and this from April Yamaskaki in her book “Sacred Pauses”:

“Loneliness is such a common human experience that most people…will have felt lonely at one time or another. It’s such a personal experience that you can feel lonely even when you’re with other people. Even while apparently surrounded by others, the psalmist still felt alone: “Look on my right hand and see – there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.” Psalm 142:4.

Even if we do all the “right” things – use the right toothpaste, develop a hobby, join a club or church, form good friendships, marry, and have children and grandchildren – we’ll still be lonely at times.

But in spiritual terms,…we might also say blessed are the lonely – not because it’s good, but loneliness functions as a spur toward God. Blessed are the lonely who are able to look beyond their loneliness. Blessed are the lonely who realize their own need and turn to God. Blessed are the lonely who develop a capacity for solitude.”

During the course of this Lenten season, I have felt a profound change within me. I now understand that the road to engagement and befriending of my loneliness requires acceptance and self-love. This means a gracious tolerance of myself, of my friends, of my circumstances, of my husband and of our differences. Finding companionship both with and without my husband is healthy if coming from a place of respect and genuine loving acceptance. I feel new freedom and delight in my life and marriage emerging from this authenticity. My current balance of activities, which now stems from healthier motivations, feels more joyful and genuine.

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

With the absence of career, and the addition of more quiet and space, retirement can trigger loneliness

Befriending my loneliness means being comfortable with solitude. It means welcoming this space for God and my own spirituality. It means accepting loneliness as a natural part of life, not to be feared. On this Maundy Thursday, I think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the loneliness he felt as his disciples slept. It also means recognizing that loneliness may be signaling a legitimate need – that it may be necessary to take care of myself in that moment. I believe that self-love, and connecting that to God’s love, is also key to healing my internal wound. As my yoga teacher Lucy said recently, learning to be open to our difficult qualities and accept them as a part of us is the process of loving and accepting ourselves.

Much has been written lately about the high incidence of “gray divorce” and difficulties adjusting emotionally after retirement, and I see how post-retirement can be a vulnerable period.  John O’Donahue writes, “As you age, you will have more space to become acquainted with yourself. This solitude can take the form of loneliness, and as you age you can become very lonely.”  It can also be frightening to confront those wounds and those parts of ourselves that we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. It is often easier to blame others, especially our spouses, for our discomfort. But, with some intention and contemplation, it can also be a time to make peace with ourselves. For me, this process has spurred a spiritual reawakening that is both exciting and deeply reassuring.

I left the Silent Retreat with a beautiful blessing by John O’Donohue, from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”:

When the old ghosts come back

To feed on everywhere you felt sure,

Do not strengthen their hunger

By choosing to fear;

Rather, decide to call on your heart

That it may grow clear and free

To welcome home your emptiness

That it may cleanse you

Like the clearest air

You could ever breathe.

Allow your loneliness time

To dissolve the shell of dross

That had closed around you;

Choose in this severe silence

To hear the one true voice

Your rushed life fears;

Cradle yourself like a child

Learning to trust what emerges,

So that gradually

You may come to know

That deep in that black hole

You will find the blue flower

That holds the mystical light

Which will illuminate in you

The glimmer of springtime.

I am grateful I accepted the invitation to make space during Lent. Through my amazing, contemplative journey through the space and darkness, I am blessed to be now seeing the glorious glimmer of springtime.

My Second Silent Retreat

Two years ago I posted about my My Weekend with the Monks at my first Silent Retreat. Still recovering from pneumonia, I missed last year’s retreat, and looked forward to returning this year. (Especially after being in Sin City earlier in the week.) I again enlisted my quiet buddy Louise as roommate, and last Friday we were off.

Although the retreat is always brief, there is no agenda, I expect very little and very little is expected of me, I find it astounding how much I am affected. I took my laptop, my Kindle, and several magazines, just in case, but barely touched any of them. Instead, God met me in unexpected, and completely surprising, ways.

My first shock was to find among my fellow participants at the retreat six young military veterans, three men and three women. Our church supports the Veterans Resource Center at Pasadena City College, and these six were given scholarships to attend the retreat. I found their presence puzzling, as they were about the same age as my son, and I could not imagine him attending a silent retreat.  (I didn’t get the courage or feel the need until I was well over 50.) One of the young men told me that one of the other vets attended the silent retreat last year and enjoyed it so much that he talked the rest of them into attending with him this year.

The first night, before we went into our silence, we each offered a word to express our hope for the retreat. My word was “space,” in that my personal work during the Lenten season has been to embrace the new space in my life, including loneliness and solitude.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t considered this when I signed up for the retreat, but Friday was the 14th anniversary of my stepson’s death, and I arrived with a heavy heart. In feeling pangs of sadness for my stepson, I also found myself missing my younger son who is currently out of state busy with his military training.

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

The beauty and solitude of the High Desert. Looking down on the Monastery from the Cemetery

On Saturday morning, I decided to take a hike up to the cemetery and spend some time in quiet reflection. After making it up the hill, I arrived to find the young vets huddled together on a bench, solemnly looking out over the rows of cross markers. As I found a spot, nearby but a respectful distance away, to sit and contemplate, I increasingly felt a sense of comfort in being with these young people. I wondered about the buddies they no doubt lost during their deployments. Despite their youth, who else would understand what it felt like to suddenly and traumatically lose someone close to them, someone too young? In that respect, I felt I was with kindred spirits, even though not a word was exchanged between us.

A poignant scene at the monk's cemetery - one of the young military veterans resting on the "altar" contemplating the landscape in solitude

A poignant scene at the monk’s cemetery – one of the young military veterans resting on the “altar” contemplating the landscape in solitude

One of the activities for the weekend was the opportunity to paint a wooden birdhouse (they were tied to a theme for the retreat). On Friday, I picked out the one I wanted, and after lunch on Saturday, I headed over to the main room to work on it. When I arrived, I found the three young male vets sitting around the table painting their birdhouses! I briefly thought about setting up at a smaller table so as not to disturb them, but decided to join them. They graciously made a space for me, and I spent the next 90 minutes wordlessly but blissfully painting birdhouses with three strapping young men. I realized that God had lent me three “sons” for the day to soothe my yearning.

Because of the gracious provision of balm for my grief and aching, I was free to more fully explore my interior space during the weekend. I walked and napped and read, and found myself curiously drawn to books I found on Celtic wisdom and Irish poetry. The silence this time around felt like an old friend, welcome and comfortable.

My final love “wink” from God came on Sunday morning, when I headed back up to cemetery. I had previously noticed a grave marker for a monk whose birthday (month and day) was the same as my son’s. When I looked again, I noticed that the date of death (month and day) was the same as my stepson’s.

It was incredible how quickly time sped by over the course of the weekend. I didn’t experience any dramatic burning bush or road to Damascus encounters, but felt powerfully and deeply cared for and restored as I headed home. Once we could talk again, I tried to express my gratitude to the young veterans. I hugged them all and awkwardly explained to one (a former Army tank driver) how he and his friends had been such a comfort, to which he replied, “Thank you, Ma’am. Glad we could help.”

 

Fifty-Seven and a Half

This week I turned fifty-seven and a half. When I was growing up, our family celebrated half-birthdays. The half-birthday honoree was allowed to pick his or her dinner of choice, and I always chose hot dogs and chocolate milk.

My half-birthday dinner of choice. A plain hot dog.

My half-birthday dinner of choice.
A plain hot dog.

The half-birthday celebration was particularly important to me, since my birthday is in early August, a terrible time for a kid in a Navy family.   We were almost always either in the process of moving to, or had just arrived, someplace new. In either case, my hopes for a fancy birthday party with friends, which is all I ever wanted (that, and a new Barbie), were constantly thwarted.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure my mother concocted the half-birthday tradition just for me, mainly to mitigate her guilt over my lack of fancy birthday parties with friends, knowing how gypped I felt. My brothers didn’t seem quite as taken with the half-birthday idea as I was. And the whole family made, in hindsight, a suspiciously over-enthusiastic celebration out of my half-birthday. I suspect they were all in cahoots with my mother, forced to be cheery under severe threat of retribution.

In any event, I enjoyed my half-birthday hot dogs, and to this day, I still keep half-birthdays on my calendar – my husband’s, my son’s, and mine. Not that we do anything special, but I still smile when I see a half-birthday on the calendar.

My half-birthday drink of choice. Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

My half-birthday drink of choice.
Milk with Bosco chocolate syrup.

Until this year. I looked at my calendar this week, and saw that I am now fifty-seven and a half. Holy you-know-what!   I am not only halfway between fifty-seven and fifty-eight, but I am halfway between fifty-five and SIXTY!

In my mind, fifty-five was cool. It meant I was eligible for early retirement, and still sounded relatively young. And what could be more hip than a financially independent, relatively young woman? I couldn’t wait to turn fifty-five! But now the years are flying by and I am swiftly approaching SIXTY. Try as I might, I doubt I’ll feel as snug about SIXTY as I did about fifty-five.

Coincidently, this week I read a post entitled The Old Woman I Want to Be on NotQuiteOld, a blog I enjoy following. Nancy Roman, the blogger, recently celebrated her sixty-fifth birthday, and reflects on the significance of this milestone and how she wants to live her remaining years. A sentiment in her post that particularly resonates with me is her fear of wasting time. She writes, “I want to make the most of whatever time I have left – and to enjoy that time. Maybe that still means television and shopping. But maybe not.”

I’ve increasingly noticed in myself that urgency to use my time wisely. This week, during an Ash Wednesday service, I unexpectedly decided to give up Facebook for Lent (and I’m not even Catholic), partly because I often find myself wasting time on it almost reflexively, and I want to make space for more intentional pursuits. (I’ll see if I can link this post to Facebook automatically so I don’t blow my vow on Day Two and enter the forbidden land!)

When I was young, time seemed to be an infinite commodity. I had endless new adventures and new stages of life to look forward to. Not so the older I get.   Today I have the health, resources and time to do almost anything I want. I worked hard all my life to get to this point and I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day. I am acutely aware that this stage is finite and I want to take full advantage of it while it lasts. This outlook may partly stem from my fairly recent experience as the child in charge of care for both of my parents at the end of their lives. I saw how quickly their lives changed when their health declined.

The flip side of this urgency to live as if I were on leave from death row is that, taken to its extreme, it can be crazy making. Not every day or moment can, or should be, filled with ultra-significant moments or experiences. Left to my own devices, I can easily fill our calendar with terrific events every day of the week, in the process wearing myself out and driving my husband mad. As Nancy quotes John Lennon in her post, sometimes “time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”   It all comes down to finding that right balance.

With that, I think that I will go waste some time and make myself a hot dog and some chocolate milk. Happy half-birthday to me!