“Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify Him, speak of your neighbor only with respect – do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill.”
~ St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Did you know that the origin of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth? As in dirt. Ground. Humilis… humilitas… to be close to the ground. To know one’s place. To be firmly rooted in a reality of self. In preparation for a blog post that I was intending to write, I stumbled upon the above quote by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patroness of my childhood parish. After reading her words, I abandoned my mental outlines. Do I know the truth about my weaknesses and appreciate the source and limitations of my strengths? Do I possess a healthy understanding of my nothingness? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It would seem that those questions are better meditated upon in private. Thus, instead of my typical soul-searching post, I leave you to reflect on her advice for yourself. Before I go, so that we all might have a little something to smile about today, here is one final pearl of wisdom.
“Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”
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 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.”
Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.
A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins: Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.
“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.
“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing: clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?
“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”
~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy
Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?
The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?
“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”
Everything now is preparation for something else. Nothing is as it seems. I cannot help but wonder how it will all fit together in the end. Where am I going? Where will I be in a year? What will amount from the events of these disparate days? It is all building to something more, something else, something that I cannot grasp. To paraphrase St. Paul, I see only in shadows and mists, in fragments of the whole. I see splotches of color and flashes of light, but I have no concept of a sunrise or of the full brilliance of day. I am reminded of a great Monet waterlily painting that once captivated me in the gallery at MoMA. It was so expansive that it could only be best appreciated from a second-floor landing on the opposite side of the vast room in which it hung. It is as if I am staring at it with my nose pressed to the thick globs of paint and my feet cemented to the floor. I have no scope of the complete masterpiece, its majesty, or the transcendence of its beauty. It isn’t even within my power to step back, that I might survey the wholeness of the work. To do so would require an omnipotence and omniscience that I can’t even pretend to possess. If I clenched my fists, shook and heaved, screamed, shouted, and wailed, I would only exhaust and frustrate myself in futility. If I pummeled and clawed at the canvas, pulled at my hair, or cried, I would only hurt myself and further obfuscate the image. The only logical conclusion is to… relax. Let be what will be, though I am flooded with curiosity and intrigue.
Plunged into the simplicity of the void of the unknown and the complexity that my imagination creates there, I try to surrender. I cannot help but remain intrigued, perplexed, captivated… There is an eagerness inside me that isn’t quite the same as impatience. It is more like a sublime excitement. The status quo is blissful. I soothe myself with the expected, which allows me the delusion that I am masterfully in control of my little sliver of the universe. Excitement is about as unwelcome an emotion as anxiety. The energy and intensity that surges from novelty and anticipation upsets my equilibrium in a way that once provoked binges and furious activity – anything that would allow me to numb and avoid the discomfort of my thoughts and feelings. Now, I exercise tolerance of that empty hollow contained in my chest that resembles breathlessness. With practiced patience, I watch the energetic tides of enthusiasm, bewilderment, and fretfulness roll in and gently recede.
On Tuesday, I woke early and set about my morning routine, with a few notable exceptions. By the front door, my well-traveled suitcase was packed and my new backpack stood ready. It was not just any travel day. With my tickets for Paris purchased and the hotel booked, every trip now offered targeted opportunities to train myself for that next adventure. As a frequent flyer and someone who both values efficiency and cherishes the coziness of the familiar, my traveling was steeped in rather exact habits and routines. With every trip, I discovered some new pearl of an insight that allowed me to tweak my preparations for my next journey. Unfortunately, my methods evolved to suit domestic jaunts. An international expedition was going to require some radical departures from my comfort zone.
Mentally, I ticked off all the differences I would face as I crossed national borders and that great expanse of the Atlantic. No rental car, only a theoretical understanding of the ground transportation system at my destination, a language barrier, no local contacts or support network, no fresh fruits or vegetables allowed through French customs… even cell service and a mobile internet connection weren’t guaranteed. I would need to be ready to navigate a foreign train system and metro with all of my luggage. This trip would involve more walking than ever before!
In December, I decided that I would ditch the duffle-like, Samsonite carry-on that served me so reliably on almost every excursion since I was sixteen. My Christmas treat to myself was a new, black, backpack from my favorite German outfitter, which could also double as a large daypack during my weeklong vacation. Last week’s trip was my first flight after the holidays. The time was come to break in my pack with an inaugural adventure! It didn’t fit nearly the volume of my Samsonite, but it was made for long-distance trekking in a way that the Samsonite was not. I faced a tricky decision. What was non-essential? I was under the impression that I whittled down my packing list to the absolute necessities long ago, but when I re-examined all the gear I was consistently lugging around with me, I confronted an unsettling realization. I was capable of greater adaptability than I allowed myself to believe. A word coalesced in the back of my mind, a word that creeped into my thought once or twice in the preceding months but which was not yet one I was ready to invite into my organized consciousness. Recovered.
Items that were once essential to ensure I could maintain my coping skills in any eventuality were no longer required. My flexibility with food and my trust in my ability to “make it work” in any situation meant I could pack fewer snacks and exchanges. As I pared the contents of my bag down to my new basic necessities, a knot twisted in my gut. No reassurance from the rational part of my brain could alleviate the gnawing pain that gripped my stomach. Just as so many times in the past, I needed to prove myself to myself. My destination was Denver, and my purpose was personal as well as professional. I was headed to yet another conference, but the focus of the three-day intensive was related more to the career I hoped to find myself in someday than it was to my current work. Before I left, I ordered new business cards and printed several copies of my résumé. From the forgotten corner of a bookshelf in my study, I rooted out my black, leather portfolio with the gold embossed seal of my alma mater. The last time I used it was when I applied to graduate school 10 years ago. Then, I checked my expectations, reminding myself that my experience would be imperfect, I would invariably say or do something I would regret, and I would not be surprised if I was plagued by self-doubt and self-criticism. “This is hard,” I reminded myself gently. “It’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok to doubt.” I said a little prayer, and I put my trust in God.
During the conference, I met some wonderful people, gained a wealth of new information, exchanged ideas and business cards, and exercised an unprecedented flexibility around food. With so many networking luncheons and dinners, I ate more prepared meals in a shorter period of time than ever before in all of my recovery. Each morning, I descended the eight floors from my room to the street below, turned the corner, and picked up a coffee and croissant at the café halfway down the block. When I wasn’t dining with the other conference attendees, I stopped at the grocery on the corner for the fresh fixings of a lone supper. “What good practice for Paris!” I merrily applauded myself.
Will anything emerge from all of the goings on of these last days? Will any of the connections that I made develop into something more? Will I ever grow beyond Vanillasville and the little, under-fulfilling job I occupy here? It is good, but I cannot help wondering what better possibilities I am not yet imagining. Where will I go? And when? Is what I think I want really what’s best for me? All I can see are flashes of color and wet, sticky globs of paint. Reflecting, I can recall countless stages of my life when I stood ankle-deep in these waters of uncertainty. I remember all of the interviews that I went on during my application to college, then graduate school, and later my first job, always imagining “What if?” and wondering, “Is this the one? Is this the place? Will I be back here again? Or will I never return?” It’s unpleasant, it’s disconcerting, and it’s confusing… yet, I feel so alive! Oh, how grateful I am for this vast, uncomfortable, blind void. The greater sorrow is to sit in my small, windowless office, content but under-stimulated all the rest of my working days. I don’t know what is coming next, or whether anything is coming at all, but there is something breathtaking in the bewilderment.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
On January 9th, a rather unremarkable Monday, the Catholic Church in the United States commemorated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with it came the official conclusion of the Christmas season. Though my local Barnes and Noble began selling pink and red heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on December 26th, I was still lighting pine-scented candles and singing “Joy to the World” all through the first week of the new year. However, after enjoying the full twelve days of Christmas (plus a few), I felt ready to let go of the carols and the holiday films on TV. The tips of the evergreen boughs twisted into a wreath on my front door were starting to turn a bit ochre. It was time to move on.
In past years, the post-holiday transition would trigger a period of depressed mood with fair reliability. Yet, as I swapped out the playlists that streamed in the background while my tea kettle came to a boil on January 10th, I didn’t feel a hint of melancholy. Was my readiness for change related to my more modest and restrained decorating? Without a tree or lights, the thought of putting away the detritus of Christmas past was not nearly so overwhelming. Did my willing mood reflect more realistic and less idealistic expectations for Christmas 2016? Whatever the reason, I felt acceptance and peace with the onward flow of time. I was ready for a fresh start to a new, less ornate season.
In the liturgical calendar, we are entering Ordinary Time. The feasts are over, the celebrations complete. It is the beginning of the longest season of the year. These days may not be illustrious or renowned, but they are arguably the most important. This is where we labor at life. It is when the gifts are packed away and the magi go home that the real work begins. Every day, we face innumerable choices, and how we respond to the circumstances of these ordinary times defines who we are and the world we live in. It is during the course of these ordinary days that our love and compassion matures… or it doesn’t. Our values are practiced… or they aren’t. It is in this ordinary time that we become what we repeatedly do. This is where we cultivate the simple joys of the everyday. It is where we learn to appreciate the beauty of the sublime. We either stop to notice… or we don’t. We train ourselves to count our daily gratitudes and graces… or not. It is imperfect. It is hard. It is complicated. It is delightful. It is boring. It is awe-inspiring. It is exhausting. It is perplexing. It is so many things, but one thing is certain. This is the time of growing.
Those of you familiar with my blog and my recovery journey may recall me writing about my passion for travel. When I was much younger, I would pour over my mother’s old photo albums for hours as she entertained me with tales from her years of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica. I wanted to know the world the way she did. There she was, standing atop Machu Pichu, relaxing on the beaches of the Caribbean, wandering the streets of Columbia, gazing at the ocean from the deck of a boat crossing the Atlantic, straddling the Greenwich meridian, and standing at the gates of Auschwitz. In the basement of our single-story ranch in Connecticut, there were boxes of artifacts from her travels – fabrics from Hawaii, reed instruments from Peru, all sorts of strange shells and sea sponges from far away beaches, delicately embroidered handicrafts from a tiny village in South America… Her stories and the wonderful trappings of her journeys ignited my imagination.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I convinced my parents to allow me to fly unaccompanied to Alabama for a week at Space Camp. It was my first airplane flight! I worked hard to raise the money for the trip, and my mom and dad gave me my very first suitcase for my 16th birthday that May. I felt so independent and grown-up as I navigated the complex underground network of the Atlanta airport to make my connecting flight. And so, it began. My first international trip was also a solo journey. I jetted from Boston to Shannon, Ireland when I was 21 to connect with one of my roommates who was studying abroad in Galway. Together, we undertook a 5-day whirlwind tour of the southern part of the country, and I learned two important travel lessons.
Sleep is essential. No sleep? No memories of a marvelous trip!
I will never stay in a hostel again! (Although it’s difficult to recall why…)
Over the ensuing years, I lost track of the number of tickets purchased and miles logged. When my health began to fail and my eating disorder started to emerge, those exciting explorations of new places and cultures took on a more sinister character. During my last trip to Germany in 2014, I was seriously ill, but I was too stubborn to cancel my plans. Weak and exhausted, depressed and barely coping, I spent two miserable weeks during a bleak, cold January immersed in guilt, shame, and my own distorted thinking. I returned home with terrible plantar fasciitis, my depression, self-blame, and hopelessness worsened, and I gave up on the idea of ever venturing abroad again.
Over the next year, I waged a bloody, bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred, fight for my life. By January 2015, I was discharging from a partial hospitalization program and battling my way into an existence I never knew was possible for me. (Reflecting on that time, I am amazed at how intensely courage and terror could coincide.) As I explored and redefined my concepts of health, eating, my personal values, my friendships, my beliefs about my body, my faith, my beliefs about myself, my family connections, my professional goals… virtually every aspect of my reality… I also forged a new relationship with travel. It emerged out of necessity and I would ever venture internationally again. My passport expired, and the renewal application sat collecting dust in a basket on my desk.
Then, something unpredictable and rather remarkable happened. I grew a little bit. And then, something even more unpredictable and remarkable happened. I grew a little bit more. I started to imagine what it might be like to see Paris some day. Every food challenge brought me a teensy bit closer to that ultimate goal. As my plantar fasciitis healed and my rigidity around food lessened, the city of lights began to seem less and less fantastical and more and more realistic. “Well, this is practice for Paris,” I caught myself thinking whenever I encountered an obstacle or when my flexibility was stretched to new limits. “Soon.” The word hung in the air. I would be seeing Paris soon. With every successful navigation of a potential “disaster,” I was that much better prepared for the challenges I would face in France. Soon, I would be ready.
Aware of my aim, my therapist and dietician set small milestones for me. In September, after a bit of planning and strategizing, I ate my first baguette with butter. There was no planning or strategizing required when I discovered the avocados my mom picked up at the grocery store weren’t ripe during my visit home just before Christmas. Without a second’s hesitation (or the use of any measuring spoons), I added butter to my side of bread to meet my fat exchange for dinner. “It’s great preparation for Paris!” I exclaimed to my somewhat stunned mother.
In 2017, there is a new time sensitivity to my need to poise myself for this next leap of faith in my recovery. I will be seeing Paris soon. I will be seeing Paris in 131 days and 23 hours, to be exact. That’s right. The plane tickets are purchased. The hotel is reserved. The guidebook is now adorned with sticky notes and penciled stars. Creased, folded sheets of hand-written notations are stuck in between the pages, waiting to be copied into my Moleskine travel journal. In nearly every daily event, I am hunting for an opportunity to practice for Paris. “What is this situation offering me for the future?” I ask myself whenever a mix of distressing emotions bubbles up inside me.
There are many questions and uncertainties ahead. The year 2017 is going to be one of growth and transition. And transitions, even good ones, have a tendency to, well, sort of suck. For me, the trick is to acknowledge and validate the misery I experience while simultaneously engaging with my positive experiences, including curiosity, excitement, and even pride. After all, c’est la vie!
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
“At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
~ 1 Corinthians 13:12-13
In the still, gray quiet of predawn on this January 1st, I turned off the background music which usually entertains me as I eat my breakfast, and I sat in silence. Gradually, my senses began to perceive the subtlety surrounding me. A candle flickered and crackled in a jar on the table, releasing just a hint of evergreen fragrance into the air. Across the living room, the blinds were drawn back from the heavy, glass doors, revealing the shiny, irregular surface of the frozen pond and the clear, mirrored reflection of the dark, leafless trees standing on the far bank. The wan light cast the world in muted, leaden tones, and dark clouds billowed on the horizon, but there was not even the hint of a breeze. The brass wind chimes hung motionless below the porch roof. Sitting there, at the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents, the same table around which three generations of my family welcomed decades of new years, I leaned over a steaming cup of tea and a piping bowl of oatmeal, and I was filled with gratitude and hope.
This January 1st is my second in this townhouse apartment in Vanillasville. Rather, it is the second January 1st of this life in this apartment. It is my third January 1st, A.W. – After Walden. That is how I mark time now – Before Walden and After Walden. On my first January 1st, A.W., I was still residing in Boston. In another week, I would make that perilous transition back to life in Vanillasville, with my recovery hanging in the balance. I was still shattered into a billion jagged fragments, a fractured and broken person, but for the first time in my life, they were healthy fragments, and I was in the process of piecing them together. If I could tell that person one thing, it would be this, “Even though the future is terrifying, and you can’t see the way forward, and even though the risks are overwhelming, you are going to get through this, and it is going to be ok.” Maybe that person I was on January 1st, 2015 would tell the me of now the same thing. Though I am still in the process of becoming, I am not where I was on that day two years ago. Neither am I where I was on January 1st, 2016. It is sobering to recognize the truth of this reality.
The year of 2014 was filled with death. I was gravely ill with a serious gastrointestinal illness that defied every treatment my doctors threw at it. I was mentally ill with depression, and I sank deeper and deeper into despair. When my medical symptoms made it difficult to tolerate food, the disordered eating that percolated in the background of my life for many years suddenly seized control of my entire being as a full-blown eating disorder. I survived on the last feeble tatters of what were always slightly distorted, cynical, and disillusioned faith and hope. Yet, at the end of 2014, my life changed. In May, I underwent a new and still somewhat investigational intervention for my GI disease, which worked where all the other treatments failed. Finally, in November, I entered Walden to address my mental illness and my eating disorder. Through the intensive, multidisciplinary care I received, I finally began to rewire the twisted and misfiring circuitry in my brain. The big breakthrough came one day, in the midst of a group session, when the full impact of the following realization finally broke my steely, wounded heart: God LOVES me. God loves all of us, because He IS Love. God knows everything about me. He knows all of my sins, all of my failures, all of my faults, and all of my dysfunction. He knows how messed up I am, and he still loves me, with all of that stuff going on. Even though he wants better for me, he forgives me, and he loves me just as I am. I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to be sorry. He still loves me. AND, if God loves and forgives me just as I am, who am I to deny myself that same love and forgiveness? Do I know better than God?
That moment was not a cure-all for my mental illness, but it was a major turning point in my recovery. In the past two years, my life grew in ways I never imagined possible.
Now, here I am, on the threshold of 2017. I don’t know what the future holds, and I wonder at God’s plan for my life. What I don’t doubt is that there IS a plan. God saved me for a reason. As Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons…I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling. Therefore I will trust him.” This year, I would like to increase in practicing an INTENTIONAL way of life. I would like to be MINDFUL and purposeful in what I think, say, and do. Thus, I would like to continue to grow in FAITH, seeking to do God’s will rather than my own and TRUSTING that all will be well, knowing that even when I struggle, face setbacks, or suffer, I am never alone, and an even greater good is being brought about by our Creator, who ultimately wants nothing for us but what is best.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”
~ Jeremiah 29:11
In this vein, my additional intentions for the year are…
to grow in true HUMILITY. A humble person knows her strengths and weaknesses, and is honest about both. May I not be afraid to say “yes,” to take risks, and to move beyond my comfort zone, bolstered by a realistic understanding of my gifts and my shortcomings. May I have the courage to ask for help when I need it, and the strength to offer help when I can give it. May I not be afraid to admit my faults with integrity, accepting myself as I am, with a willingness to confront the often-challenging process of making personal changes. May I recognize and own my mistakes with a healthy sense of guilt but without shame, seeking forgiveness and making amends when necessary.
to grow in COMPASSION for myself when I fail to live up to these lofty ideals, understanding that nobody is perfect, and this process is the work of a lifetime. May I also grow in compassion for others, recognizing that we all struggle, though our struggles may take different forms. May I seek to look past those differences that I am so quick to use to separate myself from people out of fear. Instead, may I foster the courage and willingness to acknowledge our shared human connection and begin to see others not as separate or opposed to me, but as an extension of myself. May I remember that we are all made by the same Creator, we are all broken, and God’s love is given freely to redeem us all.
to GIVE THANKS in all circumstances. Even if it seems the whole world is falling apart around me or my life is unraveling at the seams, there are always blessings to be found. Sometimes, they are hidden and obscure, and often, they may seem to be barely any consolation, but every situation is an opportunity for grace and for growth.
“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
~ 1 Thessalonians 5:18
In our outcome-oriented, results-focused society, we are frequently reminded that effective goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. (Bonus points for you if you can craft your goal into an acronym.) My areas of focus for 2017 are more elusive, metaphysical, and infinite. Therefore, I am making them intentions rather than resolutions. I am not expecting to achieve success in 2017. I’m not attempting to accomplish anything specific. Rather, I would like to continue growing through this year and beyond. At the same time, I know that concrete practices are the way to foster this progression. I think it is healthy for me to begin with a few explicit objectives. As with all balanced habits, they will invariably shift with the changing demands of my life over these coming weeks and months, but they are a start.
Cultivate stillness and silence daily. Practice sitting still, breathing deeply, and accessing my five senses for 10 minutes after coming home at the end of the day.
Reduce the amount of time I spend mindlessly watching television or thumbing through my mobile phone. Replace this time with mindful activities, such as reading, writing, art, or meditation.
Give my undivided attention to whoever is with me. Listen attentively rather than planning my next response. Show my face, without turning away or engaging in distractions, such as checking my phone (or turning back to my computer screen when I am at work – a tendency of mine that I would like to work on).
Cultivate balance in mind, body, and spirit, by making time every week for activities that engage each level of my being. Read a few pages of a book at least once or twice a week. Exercise in a moderate, healthy way (I have a specific exercise plan worked out with my therapist and dietician). I may not make time for every activity every day, but I can maintain a flexible and consistent rhythm through the week.
At the conclusion of every evening, before falling asleep, spend 5 or 10 minutes reflecting on the challenges, the successes, the personal encounters, and even the mundane events of the day. Use these nightly examens to assess who I am in relation to who I aim to be and reorient myself for the morning to come.
Finally, I am reminding myself once more that the outcomes that I care about the most are not those that can be assessed by any measuring stick or scale. May we all grow in compassion for ourselves and others in 2017, and may there be an increase in peace in our world through our little, daily acts.
“Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.”
It would seem that I am at a crossroads of my life, and it is difficult to write about, mainly because it is hard to describe and confusing to experience.
When I first relocated to Vanillasville from Washington, DC, I never intended to stay. I welcomed the reprieve from the traffic, the expense, and the intensity of the city, but it was supposed to be a temporary respite. My family, my friends, and the cultural identity were all on the East Coast. I meant to work for three years, gaining experience and knowledge in my field, and then my company would relocate me somewhere else in the country. I was 26 at the time. I still believed that my life was something that I planned and controlled.
Those three years passed, and indeed I was offered an opportunity to relocate to the West Coast. By then, I was disillusioned by the sacrifices I was making for my career. I was working 80 hours a week, and there was no existence beyond my job. I dreaded moving west only to continue the same self-destructive pattern. It was the wrong move both geographically and existentially. At the same time that I was facing this transition, another position opened within my organization that would allow me to remain in Vanillasville but would effectively remove me from my competitive professional ascent. With 40-hour work-weeks, it would both give me a life and suspend my career. Neither option was perfect, but I chose my mental, physical, and spiritual health. I stayed in Vanillasville.
It would still take another year or two, a brush with my own mortality, and boatloads of therapy for me to begin to understand what Lucy’s father told her in one of my favorite movies, While You Were Sleeping. “Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan.” I would never wish the severe, debilitating, life-altering colitis that affected throughout that next year on myself or anyone else, but the devastation of that disease led me to mental health for the first time and started me on a path to mental, emotional, and spiritual healing – the most meaningful and important journey of my life.
When I stepped away from my power-career trajectory, I took a position below my potential. It was what was necessary at the time, and it provided space for me to grow in ways I never imagined were possible. And yet… the job itself was never exactly satisfying or fulfilling. I always imagined there was something more out there that I could be doing. “One day,” I would tell myself. “When I am better recovered. After I am able to build some better professional connections and broaden my experience. When I’m strong enough. When I’m ready.”
When is that day? How will I know when I’m ready? I will never be strong enough, or prepared enough, or recovered enough, or experienced enough. The truth is that my recovery is going well. After more than two years, I continue to remain in remission from binge eating disorder. I never thought I would be able to be so flexible, adaptable, and relaxed around food. From time to time, I even find myself experimenting with the word “recovered.”
Two weeks ago, I emailed out my resume. Two days ago, I was given a telephone interview with the director of a program that would be a “perfect” fit for me, from all outward signs. Perfectly imperfect – it is still located in the Midwest. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know what I want to happen. What I do know is that there is no going back. My job is a good one, providing a stable salary, excellent benefits, and allowing me to dedicate my energy and free time to what I value the most, but I recognize now that I can’t stay in one place forever. It is said that part of the temperament shared by many people with eating disorders is an aversion to risk, and I believe it. To leave behind this familiar world, where I am confident in my abilities, secure in my surroundings, and supported by a nurturing network of wonderful people, is both exhilarating and devastating at the same time. Yet, I can’t unlearn what I am coming to know about myself, and I can’t grow backward.
As Christmas Day nears, I am considering how far I am from where I was at this time last year. I can’t help wondering where I will be when next Christmas arrives.
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for the great.”
“What is the reason that you don’t want to attend this wedding?” Kelly queried from across her desk during my nutrition appointment several weeks ago. “Are you avoiding a social situation because you don’t want to face the food aspect of it?”
The idea that she thought it likely that, after two years of recovery, I remained so dreadfully afraid of eating in situations beyond my control that I would avoid them entirely caught me by surprise. My shocked reply was genuine. “No!” I exclaimed. “Not at all! I don’t want to go because the trip itself is going to suck, and I’m going to come back exhausted and feeling like shit.” As I spoke, I recognized the alarming nature of these predictions, and for an instant, I wondered if they were the result of my catastrophic, all-or-nothing thinking. It didn’t take long for me to conclude based on past experience and knowledge of my itinerary that there was sufficient evidence to support the prognostication. Departing Friday at noon, I would fly west to catch a connecting flight to the east coast, spend one night at my parents’ house, then drive an hour north. On Saturday, I would attend a wedding that was not scheduled to begin until 6 pm, and then I would awake at the crack of dawn the next morning so that I could drive another hour back to the airport to rush onto the only plane departing westward on a route that would return me to Vanillasville before midnight. After logging 10,892 airline miles already this year alone, I was practiced enough to know that I would be utterly drained, and familiar with myself enough to appreciate how much of a toll that physical and emotional depletion would truly exact from me. I was utterly dreading the trip. Yet, the tickets were purchased, the rental car booked, the hotel room reserved, and my RSVP was in the mail.
It seemed that there were certain events in life that demanded a choice. What type of person was I? Who did I want to be? This wedding was one of those occasions, and I was going to show up and be present. Period. No matter what. End of story.
Alexandra, Greg, and I were in college together. For four years, we studied together, endured together, celebrated together, and grew to approximate adults just a bit more closely together. Finally, we graduated together, and from that day, we continued to show up for each other at those major life events, despite being scattered to different corners of the globe. When Alexandra married George, we were both there, though it required Greg crossing multiple continents to be at their wedding. When I completed a grueling second degree, they were both there, though Alexandra and George were in the middle of moving halfway across the country. During those first, sleepless weeks after Alexandra’s daughter was born, I was there to keep her company and offer what little emotional support I could, though by that time, I was struggling desperately to cope with my own eating disorder. When I fell seriously ill with colitis, Greg was actually living in Vanillasville and working on his master’s. Though we didn’t see much of each other or speak very often, he was the one who brought me to my colonoscopy and drove me home when there was nobody else for me to call.
There was no doubt that I was less than enthusiastic about sitting on four planes, traipsing through six airports, and transiting more than 2,000 miles in order to spend a few hours at a wedding where I would know precisely three people, including the groom. Neither Alexandra, George, nor I ever met Greg’s fiancé prior to the reception, nor did we know his family, nor were any of our other college friends going to be in attendance. Yet, I was going, and so were they. Though the last time Greg and I spoke was probably a year before, I could not imagine an excuse worthy of keeping me from being present for my friend at his wedding.
As the day of my departure neared, I prepared myself with stoic resolve. I was genuinely excited to see Alexandra for the first time since spring, but I was steeling myself with realistic expectations. There would be joy in spending time with my friends, and the wedding would be a jubilant occasion, but I knew full well that it would be a trying weekend, and it was not because of the food. A single “off-nominal” meal did not give me palpitations. Considering where I started two years ago, the ease that I felt about the dinner was alone worthy of celebration. However, the greater victory for me was my resigned acceptance of reality. I dreaded how depleted I would feel as I dragged myself out of bed on Sunday morning, and I recalled how crummy it was to endure a full day of traveling with barely any physical, mental, or emotional reserve. Yet, I would survive. The sole reason that I was able to forecast these predictions was because it would not be the first time I stretched myself so thin, and it would not be the last. Been there. Done that. The travel would not be fun, but the world would keep turning, and I would be fine.
Without building up fanciful dreams of what would be and without overly dramatizing the challenges I would face, I set off. “It is what it is,” I told myself when my connecting flight was delayed. “I was ready for this,” I told myself when I walked through the doors of the only motel in the tiny town and discovered the place decorated with mystery stains and reeking of tobacco. After a few rounds of deep breathing, I decided that I really would not be able to sleep if I remained there, and I settled on my plan B – driving the hour back to my parents’ house after the reception ended and leaving from there for the airport in the morning. When dinner wasn’t served until 9 pm, I wasn’t fazed, though my heart did skip a few beats when the waiter brought us each a tiny plate of ravioli before serving the salads. “Where are the vegetables?” I bemoaned to Alexandra and George while reminding myself that it was just one meal, and telling myself that three raviolis would not harm me. The night was not about me, and I wasn’t there in search of fun and enjoyment. I was there to be present and to support a friend. So, when the music began and nobody rose from their tables, Alexandra and I didn’t hesitate to awkwardly and conspicuously dance alone through the excruciating length of an entire song, until two, then two more, then gradually many others joined us on the floor.
In the end, it was a lovely time. The night was imperfect, and that was ok. It was a delight to see Greg so happy, and Alexandra, George, and I relished each other’s company for the evening. I accepted all the elements that were beyond my control without resistance or anxiety, I adapted to every hiccup and snafu, including nearly missing my return flight on Sunday morning. I was thankful for every moment of grace and for every small consolation. It took me an entire week to rebound, and I wound up leaving work sick on Tuesday, but ultimately I managed to recover my sleep and my sense of wellbeing. Through it all, I proved to myself that I was capable, not of physical endurance, but of mental flexibility and emotional regulation. I demonstrated to myself that I could be loyal and place others first, while maintaining a healthy sense of boundaries and remaining aware of my own needs. Finally, I found myself humbled with gratitude for the strength of the connections that united us all. Relationships worth undertaking such a journey were the greatest gifts of all.
“[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.”
“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”
~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4
“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’: yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”
~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat
I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.
Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.
Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.