Idiosyncratic Connections

Featured Image: “Rise and shine,” © Tjarko Busink (own work), Jun 2014. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

One afternoon, about a year ago, my division chief at the time popped into my office for a spontaneous chat. Michael was an unusual character and the only person to ever directly ask me what it was like to experience life with an eating disorder. Such baldness was fairly typical of his manner, and our little dialogues often diverged down rather unconventional paths. On this particular day, he was specifically interested in discerning my degree of spontaneity. Why? Your guess would be as good as mine, but apparently, it was a personality facet that was of explicit interest to him.

“Hi!” Michael announced in that stark and sudden way that always caught me slightly off guard. He seemed to appear in my office from an empty void of hallway outside. I smiled, assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything important, and waited to discover what exactly it was that he wanted. “If I asked you to go camping this weekend, would you say yes?” he asked, without prelude.

“Ummmm… Nooo,” I replied, drawing out the vowels of my response with an inflection that was intended to convey just how entirely inappropriate I considered his question. “What the hell?” I thought.

“Why not?” he persisted, taking a seat across from my desk.

Staring at him with incredulity, I blinked, wondering which of the 3,000 reasons coming unbidden to my mind would be best to verbalize first. “Well, to begin, I hate camping,” I started. Why Michael continued in the mistaken belief that I was some sort of hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, campfire cooking, outdoorsy, person, I could not understand. Multiple attempts to impress upon him my strong attachment to electricity, hot water, flush toilets, and soft bedding repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “In any case,” I continued, “you’re my boss.” Working under Michael’s supervision was one matter. Though some of his leadership decisions were a bit questionable, and his personality was a bit eccentric, he was an engaged and responsible chief. However, he was difficult to read, and he was not someone I would ever want to encounter outside of the workplace in a social atmosphere.

By his direct but indirect way of approaching a topic, he had yet to hint that the ulterior motive behind his wildly irregular query was one of determining just how adventurous I might be. “Well, you like to travel. What if I asked you to take a trip with me?” he asked. “What if I told you that the trip was all planned, tickets purchased, hotel reserved… would you go to, say Atlanta, with me this weekend?”

“No!” I exclaimed, quite scandalized. At that moment, I desired nothing more strongly than for him to depart my office immediately.

What did my face look like as I spat out my response? He seemed to finally catch onto my consternation, and he finally explained himself. “Ok,” I thought. “Weird, but ok. I’ll play along.” He rephrased his question, inquiring whether I would jet off with a friend under the same circumstances. “If it was someone I knew well,” I mused, “someone that I trusted, maybe someone I traveled with before, then yes, I think I might. It would need to be a very good friend though – someone who knew all my idiosyncrasies and whose idiosyncrasies were known to me. Then, I would truly trust her if she told me that all the details were already worked out.”

Even from Michael, I didn’t expect what came next. “Idiosyncrasies?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

A real friend doesn't judge when they find you sitting in the sink..
Cool Spot,” © wabisabi2015 (own work), Jul 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A real friend doesn’t judge you when she finds you sitting in the sink.

My puzzlement and amazement deepened. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” I countered redundantly. “My idiosyncrasies. You know, like my little personality quirks.” His expression was one of bewildered bemusement. “You know, like…” I racked my brain… “I prefer to shower at night, and I prefer to wake up early and go to sleep early. I don’t drink alcohol or soda, and I don’t like babies, or Mexican food, or most dogs. I really can’t stand cigarette smoke, and I go to church every Sunday, even when I’m traveling.” When put on the spot, it was difficult to quickly summon a list of idiosyncrasies that were appropriate for sharing with one’s boss. I certainly was not prepared to divulge any stories that might exemplify my more hard-to-tolerate eccentricities. My trustworthy travel companions were the people with whom I forged those tales. They understood me enough to never speak of eyeballs in my presence, they didn’t care what I looked like without makeup, and they didn’t mind if my feet smelled or if I snored when I was extra-congested. For my part, I didn’t particularly care what they looked like without makeup, either, or if their feet smelled, if they snored, or if they stole all the blankets when we bunked together in a room with only one queen. I didn’t mind if they wore socks with their Sperry’s, or if they washed their clothes in the bathroom sink of the hotel, or if they always burned the microwave popcorn.

Michael scrutinized me briefly before responding. “Oh. I suppose I never thought about that sort of thing,” he intoned. He tipped his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I would have to say that I don’t have any idiosyncrasies.” I nodded and smiled politely. I was pretty sure that I could help him identify one or two. He slapped his hands on his knees jovially and pushed off of the chair. “Well, have a great afternoon!” he bade me, vanishing from my doorway as cryptically as he appeared.

Blinking, I watched him disappear. As perplexed as I was by the exchange that just concluded, our conversation was directing my thoughts along a different tangent. Recalling numberless road trips, beach trips, Euro trips, and couch surfing expeditions spanning decades, I found myself swimming in delightful memories. I wasn’t recollecting perfect experiences, however. I cringed at reminiscences of my own foibles, and I smiled warmly at the patient tolerance of my friends. I grinned at their own unique peculiarities, and I laughed as I reflected on all the crazy, weird ways that the stress of the unexpected could manifest when our coping skills inevitably slipped. How blessed was I to be able to treasure those moments? How much did my life overflow with abundance to be loved and accepted by these trusted few and to be able to love and accept them in return?

“See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.”

~ Saint Pope John XXIII

When my plane lifts off for Paris on May 19th, there will be no one waiting to meet me on the other side of the ocean. I frequently travel by myself for work purposes, sometimes living out of hotels for up to a month at a time, but my upcoming trip to France will be my first solo vacation. To claim that I don’t worry a bit about being lonely is a lie. What will it be like to stay in a foreign country par moi-même for seven whole days? I’m not sure. My nearest comparison was a two-day side-trip to München during a two-week sojourn in Germany, and I was very glad to return to Helene’s apartment in Stuttgart at the end of those 48 hours. Despite living on my own for over a decade, an underlying predisposition in my personality toward loneliness, isolation, self-pity, and melancholy tends to assert itself if I allow that to sprout and take root. If. The thing is, I am never alone. Wherever I go, I am known, and I am loved. With me, I carry all of the people I treasure in my heart. Inside of me, I contain every occasion we shared, great or small, exceptional or mundane. Deep down, in my center, there is a little nugget of God. Even when my vision is blurred by the sticky mire of loneliness, all it takes is a twinkle of grace to penetrate the muck of my soul, give my heart a bit of a polish, and remind me, once more, of all my beautiful connectedness and of the all-loving God who is holding me in his hand.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”

~ Timothy J. Keller

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Le Soufflé – Mon Nouvel Ami?

Featured Image:  “Goat Cheese Souffle 3,” © Shaw Girl (own work), Apr 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After a string of rather somber reflections, I thought it was time for a bit of levity on my little blog. I give you:  the soufflé. What could be lighter than this fluffy, puffy, eggy creation? It is infused with air, yet not insubstantial. Soufflé and I are in the process of defining our relationship. Our first encounter was a chance meeting at a French restaurant on the edge of Georgetown after an exhausting day of window-shopping, walking, and reacquainting with old friends and older haunts. Though this neighborhood was my home for four years, and the restaurant in question was, apparently, a longstanding icon on the landscape, its Michelin-rated presence somehow escaped my attention until that July evening.

Even then, wistful dreams of a someday trip to Paris were floating through my mind as I sampled a delicious dinner of duck… or should I say, magret de canard. I was exquisitely observant of my fullness, carefully preserving some room for dessert. How could I not, in such a place, with its delicacies described in such romantic language on its menu de desserts? Mousse au chocolat, gâteaux au chocolat, tarte au pommes à la mode. I knew my own tastes well enough to predict the disappointment I would feel with crème brûlée (I just don’t get the appeal) or a tartelette aux fruits (why eat fruit when there’s cake?) But soufflé? I raised a dubious eyebrow. Could it possibly be as delicious as flourless chocolate cake or a gooey, delicious mess of melted ice cream mingling with hot apple pastry? My friend was the first to order. She was the only one of the pair of us with any actual experience dining on French food in France, and she ordered, you guessed it, le soufflé. I queried the waitress, expressing my doubts, only to receive a raving recommendation in favor of the incredible, edible, whipped, baked, and dessertified egg. I ordered the chocolate variation, bien entendu.

It took some time for the chef to prepare our wiggling, jiggling, towering soufflés. Yet, after patient waiting, we watched them process out triumphantly from the kitchen, steaming and plump in their cute, little ramekins. With the dishes set before us, we each prodded at our respective puffs inquisitively, before scooping up that first, curious bite. Soft, a bit goopy, and still radiating heat, it met my mouth with a surprising solidity for something of such inherent fluff. I was charmed and delighted, and I ate every, last bite.

As far as I was concerned, this experiment with soufflé was no more than a fanciful fling. That was July, though, before credit-card-secured travel arrangements catapulted Paris from the wouldn’t-it-be-nice category of whimsy into the date-is-approaching category of the proximate. With the arrival of winter came tangible planning and Kelly’s progressive dining challenges. I previously mentioned my attachment to breakfast. That meal was precisely where she most pressed me, and while le soufflé might not be a typical sight at le buffet du petit déjeuner authentique, my wandering eye fixed upon it among the breakfast offerings at my neighborhood Panera. There, I discovered the delectable delights of the ham and cheese soufflé. It was not quite as fluffy or airy as the dessert I enjoyed in Georgetown, but I expected as much of a pastry served off of a warming plate at a chain casual food restaurant in middle America. Despite its conventional origins, it was every bit as delicious. Perhaps even more so! The melted cheesiness of the egg mixture and the flaky crispiness of the pastry met perfectly in a harmony of flavor and texture. I couldn’t wait for my next breakfast out so that I might try another!

In the final analysis, chocolate cake is still my favorite dessert, and the apple tart à la mode would win any taste test against after-dinner eggs (even chocolatey ones). I still treasure my morning bowl of oatmeal and that protected, meditative, quiet time that happens when I linger over the day’s first cup of tea. However, when it comes to a savory meal, le soufflé doesn’t lay down on the job. We have some more getting acquainted to do, Soufflé and I. And I’m looking forward to doing it in the city of light… and bistros, and boulangeries, and cafes, and pâtisseries…

Mmmmm… Pâtisseries…

I think I will need some more practice!

souffle all gone
Soufflé all gone,” © Nikki Tysoe (own work), CC BY 2.0. (license)

Misericordia

Featured Image: “Just a little yawn,” © Rob Hurson (own work), Jun 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Part of the human condition is that we all contain within us something abhorrent. (At least, that is what I’m telling myself.) At our deepest core is nestled a beautiful soul, God-given and graced, and we are capable of great goodness. Yet, none of us ever live up to all of our values all of the time. There is always a conflict under the surface. When everything is going well, when all the potential stressors in my life are minimized, I neglect this grimy underside of my human reality.

There are many monsters in my closet, and, though I may put on a good show of vulnerability and openness, I do not enjoy inviting them out for tea or cake. I prefer it when those monsters lie silently in the dark. When they are quiet and cooperative, they allow me to narrate a promising story of self-improvement and growth that is colorful and filled with light. When my world becomes more chaotic, it is increasingly impossible to maintain this illusion. As the veneer of my carefully constructed, idealized self displays its true fragility, those demons emerge to help me cope. They bare their teeth and unsheathe their claws, gnashing their jaws against the suggestion that my life is not rhythmic, predictable, balanced, and fair. When other people, the world, and extraneous circumstances exert their force on me, I fight back. My monsters include Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger. They serve me well. They are quick to leap to the defense of Order, Control, Obedience, Rules, Self-Sufficiency, and Safety.

wild-things
where the wild things are,” by Jonahliza Eliger, Nov 2008. CC BY 2.0. (license)

One week last October, I fell back into a self-protective, self-defensive mode of reacting as the burden and pace of work demands mushroomed. I was confronted with a sharp incongruence between conflicting priorities. In my recovering perfectionism, I was still striving to understand my identity apart from my professional life. I was messily attempting to establish boundaries with myself and with others in order to create the space and silence that I needed to explore and preserve my authenticity, and I recoiled against any unanticipated demand on my time or attention. My constant inner monologue was a noisy place of overlapping ultimatums and thinly veiled threats. One word was dominant as I attempted to respond simultaneously to all of the mixed messages I was sending myself:  Should. Sometimes, it was expressed as “must,” or “need to” in the intensity of my strict expectations. “I should be able to run these tests myself. I need to finish these reports by the end of the day. I should NOT stay late. I must go to the gym on Tuesday, and I should still go to church after work. I should swim on Wednesday. There should not be so much to do. I should not be so angry. These reviews should not take so long.”

With little flexibility for myself, I afforded even less consideration to the experiences of others. I was wrapped-up in a rather narcissistic, self-tortured vortex that I created of my own volition simply from the refusal to concede that my standards were impossible. I started to lash out at the very people who cared about me the most, my closest friends at work. My mutually exclusive expectations were colliding with the incontrovertible physics of reality, and in my over-functioning state, the more overwhelmed I felt, the more I piled onto my unending “to-do” list. My fangs were bared. My claws were out. Obviously, I was bearing an unequitable share of the burden. Just as always. Plainly, I was being unfairly treated. When others “failed” me, when I failed myself, Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger were there to pick up my shattered ego and carry me onward.

Recognizing that I was not behaving in a manner congruent with who I wanted to be, I only stumbled deeper into anger. Hating myself in my blindness, I knew that I was being unreasonable and irrational, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was blinded by the acrid smoke of my own emotions. This cycle continued for four tiresome days. It was tiresome for me, and tiresome for all those around me who endured my moodiness, irritability, and cartwheeling temper. Finally, my friend Steve had enough. I just finished saying something particularly biting and acerbic to him, who was my closest confidant at work, and turned on my heel to storm off. “Now hang on!” he called after me. “Come back here, and close the door!” I knew that I was in for it, and I deserved it, but rather than a severe reprimand, which really wasn’t his style, he met me with a patience that I didn’t deserve. “You’ve been pushing back a bit hard lately, don’t you think?” I hung my head in shame and embarrassment. He acknowledged the pressure that I was under but also observed of my behavior, “It’s a bit much, don’t you think? We’re your friends. We’re on your side!” Sulkily, I offered a shallow apology and slinked back to my office. Instead of barring my fangs, I was licking my wounds.

It was another 24 hours before I apologized in a more meaningful way. It was late on Friday, and I was headed off to yet another out of state conference the next morning. I didn’t want to get on a plane with the sour taste of my own bitterness still in my mouth, but when I went to find Steve before I left for the day, he was caught up in meetings with the administration across the hall. As I packed, I was still sucking on the acidic aftertaste that lingers with the knowledge that I inflicted pain on others in order to diffuse my own discomfort. Finally, I phoned Steve under the auspices of discussing some final bit of work business before I departed for a week. At last, after chatting for two minutes about that mundane subject, I meekly voiced an admission of my truly inexcusable conduct of the preceding days.

In the end, I was filled with gratitude and was left amazed and bewildered by the extremity of the grace I experienced. I did not deserve forgiveness. In recent memory, I could not recall carrying on so wretchedly for such a prolonged period of time, with such disdain for others. I treated them as means to my ends, stripping them of their inherent dignity and worth from my self-righteous, self-defensive perspective. My friend possessed the empathy to hold me accountable for my behavior without responding to me in kind. When I offered my somewhat useless apology, expressing that there were no justifications or explanations that could make what I did “all right,” he replied only with understanding and compassion. As I hung up the phone, I wracked my brain to recall a time I was ever treated so charitably. There was no further admonition, no lecture, no conveyance of a lesson, only pardon and peace. I started to cry. “Oh God,” I prayed, “Is this what it feels like when you forgive us?”

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;

he who finds one finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price,

no sum can balance his worth.

A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy;

such as he who fears God finds.

For he who fears God behaves accordingly,

and his friend will be like himself.”

~ Sirach 6:14-17

sulky-wild-thing
Sulky wild thing,” © louiscrusoe (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Rediscovering Repentance

Featured Image: “Hope,” ©Luca Bovolenta (own work), May 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.

In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.

Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.

With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.

Desert Morning
Desert Morning,” © MarkCranstonPhoto.com (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?

My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.

desert rainbow
Desert Rainbow,” © William Hanlon (own work), Apr 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)