Seismic Shift

The word perspective derives from the Latin: per, meaning “through” and spectus, which translates to “look at.” So with a bit of word origin sleuthing, perspective means to look at something or someone through a particular vantage, viewpoint or lens. Simple enough. But not really.

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One summer morning, when I was roughly twelve years old, I was lazily sleeping away the day, when my mother uncharacteristically barged through my bedroom door, interrupting my peaceful slumber. She was crying. Hard. I was disoriented and deeply moved. She didn’t cry often. In the split second it took her to explain what was amiss, my brain instantly raced to the only possible conclusion. My dad was dead. My dad was a good 15 years my mother’s senior. Aging and death were subjects he never shied away from. In fact, in some ways he strangely celebrated them. He was the only person I ever knew who gleefully looked forward to turning 60, which meant a “Golden Buckeye” card that offered a discount at many Ohio stores. He regularly lamented how tired he was, allowing him a pass on many physical games or activities with my brothers and me. I was also very aware that he was the oldest dad among my friends’ fathers. Much to my horror, someone had once mistakenly called him my grandfather. My father, however, found it delightfully amusing. Looking back, a narrative took shape in my brain that my dad would go first. It was the natural order of things. No one ever spoke it, but the idea that my mom would outlive my aging father was sort of a morbid understanding.

In the brief moment or two that it took me to gather my bearings that strange summer morning, my heart cried out at the sudden shock. I was devastated and stunned. My dad was dead. Then my mom spoke between sobs.

“Smokey…He died.”

“Huh?”

“The cat, poor little smokey has (sob) DIED! I just found him…”

It’s hard to explain the euphoric relief that washed over me at that moment. I was bowled over and instantly elated. My old beyond his years father was still living. He was ALIVE. Yes, the cat was gone, but it was hardly the blow I had experienced an excruciatingly long second ago.

My mom had rushed into my room, her heart burdened in knowing how much I adored my good ol’ playmate, Smokey. Part of her sadness undoubtedly was having to witness and experience my pain vicariously. Moms do that. Unknowingly though, she had miraculously cured me of any grief, melodramatic or otherwise. I absorbed the news. My insides shouted out, “IS THAT ALL?! Phew!” I heard her tell me that she would bury him near our rose bush in the backyard so I could see it from my bedroom window. “That’s nice,” I managed. Not a tear shed though. My mom searched my eyes a little strangely as if I were not processing this brush with death. She insisted I come see his lifeless little body. I declined. She left rather confused and probably misunderstood my nonchalance to be a bizarre coping mechanism. I don’t ever think I spoke what transpired in my thoughts. It was too dark and scary.

I remember laying my head back down on the pillow and ruminating for a while that I was so blissfully grateful that my dear father was still taking breath. What a gift! I had never thought that before.

I’d like to say that experience helped to frame future situations. That it offered me great wisdom and understanding in years to come. That when I struggle with something minor, I can see the bigger picture and have a point of reference to guide my pain or suffering. I should think, “it’s bad, but it’s certainly not THAT bad.” Maybe I do that occasionally. But achieving that perspective shift still does not come easily. And by grace, I have figured out that I need God’s help in achieving that enlightened perspective.

Several months ago, I read a book recommended by a pro-life speaker I admire. You may recognize her as the dynamo who shared her succinct worldview at Google headquarters. During her talk, Stephanie Gray said she hands out Viktor Frankl’s book, “Mans’s Search For Meaning” as a gift. It has been a great blessing in my life. In case you don’t get around to reading it, which you should, I will offer some of my favorite takeaways. Frankl wrote the book in 1946, after having survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The rest of his family along with his pregnant wife were killed. The book is part memoir and part spiritual guide. Frankl was a highly educated psychiatrist, which didn’t prevent him from being treated like a criminal and thrown in the death camps. At some point, he decided he would study the psychology of the victims and captors. He treated it like a mission to offer some purpose in his unimaginable circumstance. He set out to learn what made some victims handle their hardship so heroically and with beautiful selfless virtue, while others seemed to crumble and turn on their fellow victims. The difference, he concluded, was a simple perspective shift. Simple, yet seismic. Those who found meaning and purpose in their pain managed to thrive in their humanity despite such brutish, incomprehensible treatment. While the prisoners who couldn’t assign meaning to their trials seemed to unhinge and take on the same characteristics as their inhumane captors. His mission to study and write a book was what motivated him to survive during his imprisonment. He also describes various patients later after his release, which help to solidify this understanding. One anecdote that stuck with me was of an elderly man whose wife died. The man was devastated and inconsolable. He did not want to go on living without his wife. Frankl offered him a fresh view of his tragedy. He asked the man what would have happened if he had died first, leaving the wife a widow. The man said it would have caused the woman he loved great grief and suffering. Frankl explained that by surviving his wife, the man had spared her that suffering and in turn had taken it on for her. Here’s what Frankl noted, “He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Lately, I have experienced a shift in the way I see things, especially my Christian faith. In my prayer, I used to repeatedly ask God to eradicate my problems, wounds, shortcomings, and insecurities. To unburden me. “Take them, Lord,” I would plead with Him. As if the Creator himself produced a defective model. I was telling Him, “But I got a lemon!” He must chuckle at my ignorant impertinence. Yes, I have defects. But, slowly I am beginning to realize these perceived defects are meant for me. I don’t need to trade them in for new ones. This is the model I am working with for good reason. His purpose. I now pray for a better understanding as to why I have the particular wounds and pain I carry. I ask for God’s help in figuring out my mission. I ask that He help enlighten me so I can put my weaknesses to use, that they might have greater meaning, according to His plan. Smokey’s death served to make me appreciate my dad in a way I hadn’t before. Simple perspective change, yet a seismic shift in impact. R.I.P. Smokey.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

Boasts & Pot Roasts

I’ve been blogging long enough now (nearly a year!) to officially have a recurring post. I will patiently pause for the mandatory mini fireworks display in your brain…

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This marks the second installment of my wildly successful “Boasts & Pot Roasts” franchise piece. And by ‘wildly successful,’ I mean my husband has read it—at least that’s what he swore to me when I relentlessly interrogated him on an unusually hot June day.  For those of you who are just catching on to this cultural phenomenon, allow me to direct you to the first post in which I described my “Boasts” as the things I’m proud to say I read, saw, experienced or heard. Sometimes they are newly released, but they can also be classic hidden gems worth a second look. My “Pot Roasts,” on the other hand, are books, TV, movies, music etc. that have received a whole lot of hype but to my estimation fall flat. Think Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty’s “Ishtar.” For those of you under the age of 40, how about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in “Gigli”? You get the drift. Now on to my list.

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Aiming to Please Him

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I experienced a mini victory recently. No one else would ever perceive it as such, but God knows. For the better part of my life, I have tried my darndest to not disappoint or displease those I encounter. Please note the word, “tried.” Those of you close to me will have something to say about whether or not I achieved those goals. With the gift of hindsight, I’ve come to realize that trying to please others or going out of my way to not let people down is actually a fruitless goal in of itself and undoubtedly destined for failure. Often, the complete opposite of my intention is accomplished. But that realization didn’t dawn on me with such clarity until recently.

I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start with the mini virtue victory.

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Dear Mary

My sons were confirmed this May. So, newly sealed and ignited by the Holy Spirit they followed in the apostles’ perilous footsteps by taking on the arduous task of… er, sending out handwritten thank you notes. What an exasperating mission for two perfectly capable, literate, bright students, ages nine and eleven, respectively. And if you think it was tough on their end—

“What?! We have to address the envelope TOO?! My hand is killing me!”— you should know it was no picnic for me either.

“Did you like the gift that Aunt “so-n-so” gave you? Well, your sketch of a smiling… slug?… is AMAZING, but does NOT qualify as a thank you note. You must incorporate actual WORDS. This is not a suggestion. DO. IT. NOW!”

“FINE. But anyone can tell it’s a DOVE!” Harrumph!

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As they stamped their last few envelopes, my letter-writing challenged boys wondered why anyone would ever go to all the trouble of sending boring old mail. They remarked that e-mail and texting were downright hassle-free in comparison. And while I agree with my sons, who were born AFTER the advent of the iPhone, sending snail-mail isn’t without its own challenges—heck, I can barely manage a few sentences without loads of mistakes in chicken scratch masquerading as penmanship—I also realize that so-called effortless electronic communication: tweets, FB posts, texts, email and the like, present their own set of pitfalls. In fact, I would argue that these newer forms of communication are way more tricky, to get right anyway. Continue reading “Dear Mary”

Holy Homerun

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Recently, a friend candidly shared with me her worries about the amount of faith her son was getting in our Catholic school. It concerned her that every single subject was neatly tied to Catholicism. She expressed frustration that it all funnels back to the faith.

“Religion in Phys. Ed.?! I mean, are they just peddling the Catholic kool-aid?”

This was my chance. Very rarely in life do you get lobbed the absolute perfect pitch, just standing at the ready, anticipating the moment you are about to connect with the sweet spot. While I didn’t share this mom’s concern AT ALL,  I understood it completely. More than understood it, I had lived it. Growing up, I picked up on the mistaken and misguided message that our Catholic faith was something that we trotted out for religion class and at Sunday mass, but once you entered the parking lot, AKA real life, all bets were off. You hopefully lived life as a decent human being—read: good enough, but not aiming all too high, making sure not to murder or maim, intentionally anyway. Under this pervasive philosophy of Catholic-lite Christianity, the faith never truly informs the ins and outs of day-to-day-life. People whose lives were always guided by faith, we called priests, nuns or just plain cuh-razy.

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Put On Your Big Girl Pants!

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“Mom? Does this match?”

“You can NOT do white socks with black dress shoes.”

“Harumph.”

“Mommmmy! I can’t find my hairbrush!”

“Can we PLEEEZ get doughnuts after church?! Pleeeeeeeease? It’s been weeks!”

“We had them last Sunday.”

“Yeah, but they obviously weren’t that good… because I don’t even remember them. Pleeease?!”

“It’s 8:17! We need to be in the car 5 minutes ago…”

“Did you brush your teeth?! Get in there and brush your teeth!”

“Why are you crying?!”

“He kicked my purse. It’s ruined!”

WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

“GET IN THE CAR!

In the mad scramble before leaving for 8:45 mass, I grabbed a pair of black dress pants to put on. When I went into the closet I had thought, “It’s Mother’s Day. I should wear something festive. Perhaps a dress…” Instead, I grabbed a nice, but a very plain pair of old black pants. You might say they picked me since they’re certainly not what I had in mind as “festive,” but I didn’t have time to dawdle so I just went with it. Before kids, I used to spend gobs of time painstakingly considering each color coordinated, name brand garment before I went anywhere. Now I grab and dash! 5 minutes and I’m ready to meet the Queen. Take that Meghan Markle! Can I get an AMEN from all you lovely moms out there?

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Fantasy Mom

Today is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, a singular event that undoubtedly forever changed me. While the sting has lessened over time, I still struggle with the profound loss almost on a daily basis. It informs my thoughts and dreams, which may explain why I wrote this essay.

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Don’t tell anyone, but for quite a long time I’ve had a Fantasy Mom. Just as four-year-olds will gleefully gush about their imaginary friends, I’d like to brag about my Fantasy Mom. She’s the most loyal, loving, funny, kind and of course, wise mother who ever did NOT exist. Fantasy Mom is an intricate combination of my real mom, and every warm,  maternal character I’ve admired over the years.

Fantasy Mom firstly derives from the foremost matriarch, the very real Blessed Mother who quietly, yet staunchly remained at her son’s side during His greatest suffering. Despite doubtless unimaginable dread and fear, she never wavered. I’m confident she journeys alongside me too, especially as I navigate life’s more dodgy roller coasters. Her presence offers such peace and calm. She’s certainly my gold standard for all mothers. So how do you improve on sinless perfection? I mentioned this was a fantasy, right? 

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