Monday, May 10, 2021

I Wish I'd Said It More


At this time of year and especially around Mother’s Day I find myself reflecting on that most difficult of roles - motherhood. I wonder if my mother had times when she felt like a failure or had doubts about herself and her ability to do the right thing when it came to my brothers and me. I know I can see my own flaws all too well, so she probably did have those same fears and doubts now and then. We screw up, all of us. There’s no denying it. I wish I could tell her now how much I appreciate who she was to me and how much I love and miss her. I should have told her more often when I had the chance. She’s been gone 18 years now so that chance has passed me by.

When my Mom became a mother, she must have been the least prepared woman on the planet. She didn’t have a happy or secure childhood to fall back on or any kind of example to follow. She was born in 1929 in what was once called Yugoslavia. Her mother was only around 16 years old at the time, a young wife in an arranged marriage. Shortly after my mother’s birth, my grandfather decided to emigrate to Canada where he planned to earn enough money to send for his wife and new daughter. Unfortunately, that was just about when the Great Depression was starting, and it would be at least 10 years before he could make good on his promise.

My mother and her mother spent those 10 years shunted from relative to relative with my grandmother having to work at menial jobs to keep them going while my mother was left to the care of others. When the money for their passage finally arrived they made the journey to a new country to rejoin a man who was virtually a stranger. Two years later my grandmother died at the age of 28, leaving my mother alone with the father she barely knew.

When my mother married my father it was on her 17th birthday and at that time she didn’t even know exacty how babies were made. It was left to the local priest to explain it to her. She was 18 when my oldest brother was born. The picture I’ve shared was part of a larger photo of her holding him when he was a just a couple of months old. It’s how I picture her in heaven. She looks the happiest and proudest I’ve ever seen her, at least in that moment. But what was it really like for her? I’m sure she got plenty of advice on baby care from her numerous sisters-in-law. My Dad was from a large family. Still, I wonder how confident she felt on the inside. She had to learn as she went and was literally winging it from day one. Some people think that being a mother just comes naturally, instinctively, but not every woman is a natural. Some need to work hard at it and often find themselves at a loss to know what to do. Even though these days there are so many resources available for new moms compared to what my Mom had, we are all just winging it when you boil it down to where we’re being honest.

The hurts from my mother’s past affected the way she parented. That was inevitable. I think she tried hard to give us the things she had missed out on, and she tried to experience through us, some of the childhood that she never had a chance to enjoy in her own early years. She loved to play games with us and gave us plenty of affection. There was a lot of laughter in our house. At the same time, there was a needy quality to her love that we could never quite satisfy no matter how hard we tried. I must admit that raised it’s own set of issues over the years that we’ve had to work through. You might say the odds were against her doing well as a Mom considering where she’d come from. Did she do a perfect job? Certainly not. She made mistakes just as we all do. In the end, it didn’t make any difference though. She loved us in the best way that she knew how, and we never doubted it. We know for sure that she gave the job her all, she held nothing back, and that’s the most any mother can do.

If she were here today, I’d wrap my arms around her and tell her that I loved my childhood and wouldn't trade it for anything. I’d tell her that I know she did her absolute best for us and I couldn’t have asked for more. I’d tell her that I think she was an amazing and courageous woman, a good mother, and that I am thankful every day for the life that she and my Dad made for us. I’m thankful for the laughter we shared, for the example she set as an overcomer, and for the light she brought into the world despite all she’d been through. I’d tell her I still miss her today and I wouldn’t be the woman I am if it weren’t for her. I’d tell her that she will never be forgotten, and I will always love her. Happy Mother’s Day Mom.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Fellowship of Suffering

There is a rare and special sort of camaraderie that grows out of shared suffering. The place where I’ve experienced that deep connection most dramatically was on an eight-day pilgrimage from Guelph to the Martyr’s Shrine in Midland that a friend and I signed up for back in 2009. She was doing it to honour the memory of a dear friend who had died in an accident. I was doing it to prove to myself that I could. There were as many motivations as there were participants.

It was a diverse group, from teenagers all the way up to senior citizens from varying backgrounds and walks of life. We didn’t know each other when we set out that first morning from the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph. My friend and I were two of a number of non-Catholics who were participating, and I have to say we were certainly made to feel welcome right from the start. Everyone was excited and eager to begin. I was also a bit nervous as I had never walked the kind of distances that we would be covering day after day. The most I’d ever managed was 20 km and we would be covering an average of 28 km or so with some days even going so far as 32km. The first day was one of the easier ones, being only 26 km.

The plan was that our support truck would meet us at pre-designated rest stops with water and snacks as well as setting up to serve lunch when the time came. After the last break they would go ahead to the place where we would be camping for the night. When we ‘walkers’ finally arrived at that spot we would need to set up our tents before collapsing into a lawn chair for a good foot soak in a basin of cold water. Supper would be served by volunteers, a different group each night, and we would help with the cleaning up afterward. There would be a time of reflection and sharing before we crawled into our tents to rest. The next morning we would be up at the crack of dawn to take down our tents and pack everything up to reload the truck and start all over again, beginning with worship and a morning mass.

By the time we trudged into the churchyard where we would be camping on the first night, I was sweaty, exhausted, very footsore, and triumphant. I walked the entire distance! I managed to get my tent set up in a respectable time and joined the others in the soaking ritual that was to become my favourite part of the day. Cold water never felt so good. It was hot so most of us left our tent flaps wide open to catch any breeze there might be. The volunteers were setting up a couple of tables under a canopy to serve out supper which we would eat sitting in our lawn chairs. While they were doing that most of us went into the church where we would be doing the Stations of the Cross together. For my friend and I this was a new experience and we were keen to participate despite our fatigue.

Unbeknownst to those of us inside the church, things were not going so well outside. In a matter of minutes billowing storm clouds rolled in and the skies opened to pour out a veritable Niagara of rain. Those who had remained outside ran around frantically zipping up tent flaps and throwing lawn chairs into the back of the truck. Supper that night turned out to be a dismal affair with all of us crowded under two small canopies where we had to eat standing up. It was chili so we could manage it with only a spoon and a bowl to contend with.

By the time I got into my tent I was thoroughly drenched. There was a good-sized puddle just inside where the rain had got in before the flap was closed, but my air mattress and sleeping bag were still dry. Everything in my duffle was bagged in plastic so I had no worries there. I struggled into dry clothes and tried to settle in for the night. My tent has an excellent fly with coverage all the way to the ground so I was reasonably sure that apart from the puddle on the floor, I would be safe from the storm. Rain sounds so much louder from the inside of a tent. At first I thought I’d never get to sleep but I soon got accustomed to the noise and began to find it soothing. The sky was just beginning to grow light when I was startled awake by the clanging of pots and calls to “Rise and Shine” the next morning. It was still pouring rain.

We had no choice but to pack up our tents soaking wet. I shuddered to think what it would be like to set it up again in that state. We ate our breakfast standing up in the same way we’d eaten supper the night before, crowded and chilled under the two canopies. It was not an auspicious start to the day, and it didn’t look like it was going to change any time soon. We filled our water bottles and geared up, making one last trip to the outhouses provided before lining up to begin our soggy march.  None of us were looking forward to having to squat in the bushes in the pouring rain.

When the line started to move I wondered if anyone else was questioning their sanity in having signed up for this. Then one of the ladies at the front of the line started singing. It was that old chorus “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” It wasn’t long before other voices joined in from all up and down the line. I realized that by singing those words I was making a choice about my attitude. I wasn’t the only one. Our backs straightened, our steps quickened, and our voices rose louder than the rain. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves smiling as we marched. We were a fellowship of sufferers, and it felt good. In a mere 24 hours we had gone from a collection of strangers to a cohesive unit all connected in some mysterious way on a level much deeper than we would have imagined possible. That feeling was one that continued to grow throughout the course of the remaining seven days and it was the best part of the experience for me. I learned that hardship knits hearts together like nothing else can, and that every new day is a gift no matter what wrapping it comes in. That’s something to remember in these times we are living in.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Question of Joy


The joy of the Lord is my strength. (Nehemiah 8:10) But what does that even mean? The question of joy has fascinated me ever since I was a teenager. What exactly is it and how is it different than happiness? There’s no question that there is a difference. Happiness is that giddy feeling that makes you smile from ear to ear and maybe dance a jig and laugh out loud when everything seems right in your world. Is that what joy is, or is there more? The Bible says we are to rejoice in ALL things, yet heartbreak and struggle are a normal part of every life. Grief and sadness don’t seem compatible with smiles and laughter. I am convinced that the joy Nehemiah was talking about is something that goes far deeper than mere happiness. Joy must be possible even in those times when happiness is not. What exactly would that look like?

The picture that came to my mind when I asked that question was of two hands clasped as the world and all of life rolled by in the background, my hand clasped firmly in the strong hand of my Heavenly Father. The picture had a feeling of ‘rightness’ about it. I recently heard someone define joy as it is spoken of in the Bible as “the deep satisfaction and sense of fulfillment that comes out of relationship with God”. We were created with a need for intimacy that finds its fullest expression in the presence of God whose love for us is beyond anything we could imagine. Joy is rooted in relationship. The joy of the Lord is rooted in my relationship with Him.

I have come to believe that joy is knowing that I am not alone, and that no matter what storm I find myself engulfed in, I am utterly secure in His love. It makes peace possible in the chaos. It is comfort in my times of sadness. It gives me strength to take the next step when my own strength isn’t enough. It feels like hope. There may be times when it makes me want to sing and laugh and dance for sheer happiness, but mostly it’s a quiet thing that lies just below the surface.

It is in His presence, in my relationship with Him, that I will find the fullness of joy. I suspect I haven’t even begun to plumb its depths. It’s in the crucible of this crazy, unpredictable life that I begin to see the true worth of having my hand held securely in His. I’ll hold that picture of joy in my heart forever. It truly is all the strength I need.   


Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Picking up the Pieces

Have you ever felt like a ghostly, transparent version of yourself? How does one pick up the pieces after a six-month absence from everything that was once a normal part of your life? I know I am not the only one wrestling with that question. There are no easy answers.
Everyone is experiencing this pandemic is different ways. For me, the Covid-19 lockdown was added as icing on the cake to a cancer diagnosis back at the end of January. I don’t believe in luck or I would be saying I was one of the lucky ones. Instead, I see it as a gift from God that things moved very quickly, and I was able to have both my surgeries before the hospitals started their strict protocols and the shutting down of all elective surgeries. I still find it hard to understand how cancer surgery could be considered elective yet many of them, if not all, ended up being postponed. I am thankful that my case was not put on hold and I was able to go on and receive all the treatments I needed. I’m happy to report that it was a success.
A friend who just passed her 5th anniversary of being cancer-free had some important insights to share from her own story. She told me that the months following the end of treatment can be just as challenging as the treatments themselves. Often when you are in the middle of the process, all you can do is focus on getting through the “next thing”. It isn’t until you pass the finish line that you are able to let down and begin to process the experience. Just when you think you ought to be able to coast on into your old life, you realize it just isn’t that simple. Add in the changes to daily life that we are all experiencing right now, and the difficulty multiplies.
Even being forewarned, I still somehow thought it would be easier. I have found myself struggling to know how to move forward from here. There doesn’t seem to be a playbook to follow. I still get tired easily. I am more emotional (even more than usual, I mean), and I wind up feeling overwhelmed by things that I would normally have taken in my stride. Low-level depression on most days makes it difficult to get up and start anything. I have not been able to get back to my writing in any meaningful way and that bothers me.
All of this could, of course, be a bi-product of the ongoing hormone blockers I will be taking for the next seven years or so. It also sounds like what many are going through as a result of the physical distancing and isolation the pandemic has necessitated. For one reason or another, I laid down all the pieces of my life back in early February, and now that it is time to start picking them up I am not even sure if I want to. Which of those pieces should I let go of, and where should I focus my still-somewhat-limited energies? How do I begin?
Firstly, I am told I need to cut myself some slack in all this. Unrealistic expectations only lead to frustration and guilt. I’ve asked God to help me discern what it is that I CAN do rather than what I only WISH I could do. There are some pieces of my life that will continue to be set aside, at least for now.
Secondly, I need to recognize that where I’m at today is not my “new normal” for the foreseeable future despite what the literature says about side effects of hormone blockers. There are things I can do to improve my energy levels and my mood. Once again, I am reminded that I have the power to choose when it comes to exercise and diet. When I’ve had a bad day and failed miserably, instead of giving up I can start again. If I do my part, I know I can trust God for the rest.   
I walk for exercise. To date, I have managed to increase my distance to 2.5 km. That may not seem like much, but I remind myself that I am carrying a little extra weight these days, a 40-pound pack to be exact. It makes a difference. I managed to lose 4 of those pounds which also may not seem like much, but I’ve decided to celebrate these baby steps. At least they are movement in the right direction.
As to my writing, it’s never been so difficult. Yesterday, I went to a park to sit under a tree and do some cursive free-flow, jotting down random thoughts as they popped into my head. It is said that those sorts of exercises help unlock the creative side of your brain. Today’s post is the result. It’s a small beginning and even the smallest beginnings deserve to be celebrated. It leaves me feeling hopeful and that’s a good place to start.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

When Life Hands You an Unexpected Detour

My husband Bev and I love doing road trips. We pick a destination, plot our route, and hit the highway to see what we can see. Of course, we do like to have a fair idea of where we are at any time and which direction we are heading. That’s why we never go anywhere without a good map. I never realized how important good road signs are to the whole process until we travelled in Ireland a few years ago. Perhaps in a small country, the assumption is that everyone knows where they’re going so road signs aren’t necessary. Whatever the case, there were many places where we saw no signs at all. It’s hard to figure out where to go when you have no idea where you are. It rendered the maps all but useless and forced us to stop and ask for help any number of times – not such a bad thing as we met some great people that way. However, I discovered that I don’t much like not knowing where I’m going.

Here in Canada we rarely feel so lost, except perhaps when we run into an unexpected detour. At times like that, what we think will be a straightforward trip from point A to point B can end up taking us in a completely different direction. That might not matter so much if we are just meandering, but when we have a specific goal in mind, especially one involving a timeline, hitting a roadblock can be stressful. It’s like we are at it’s mercy and forced to head into uncharted territory right when we thought we had it all figured out and knew exactly what to expect. That’s when we have a choice to make. We can get all bent out of shape, or we can stop worrying about the destination and the plan and decide to enjoy the journey.

This year we were heading into the year 2020 with high hopes and a sense of optimism. We had some very definite plans in mind and were already marking things on our calendar in anticipation. We thought we knew exactly where the road ahead would be taking us. That’s when we hit one of life’s unexpected detours. At the end of January I was diagnosed with breast cancer and we now find that we are heading into uncharted territory. It’s a completely different direction than we were planning on, so we find ourselves with a choice to make. We can get all bent out of shape, or we can decide to embrace the journey and see what we can see along the way.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Living on Purpose

A friend once asked me how I was doing, and I answered by telling him I’d decided to live. His brows shot up and I hurried to clarify. What I meant was, I’d decided to really embrace life, to live on purpose, to grab hold of it with both hands and make the most of it. To be honest, some days I do better at that than others. I find it helps if I have something to reach for, something to look forward to.

For the last 35 years or so, my husband and I have made a point of setting goals in January for the coming year. We started the practice because of the post-holiday blues that can sometimes set in when all the hustle and bustle of Christmas is past. When so much energy goes into preparing for the holidays, the quiet days that follow can leave us (me) drifting aimlessly or crashing altogether. We wanted something that would energize us, give us a target to aim at, and create a little excitement and momentum in the drab winter months. We figured a date night that included a dinner out followed by a bit of brainstorming would net us a few plans for going forward into the new year.

That first year, we sat down and made a list of categories. It included things like financial goals, personal development, home improvements, ministry goals, vacation, and a few others like hobbies, that could conceivably fall into one of the categories already mentioned. It might sound dry, but it actually wasn’t. It got us talking and dreaming a bit as we jotted down our ideas. Once the list was made it got tucked away in a folder and we didn’t look at it again until the following year. We didn’t really need to. Most of the things we wrote down got fixed in our thinking just by talking them through. We were keen to get started and January came to feel like a fresh beginning.

Of course, we recognized right away that we would need to hold those plans loosely. After all, God is the one who is steering the boat. Proverbs 16:9 says that the heart of a man plans his way, but God directs his steps. Stuff happens and being flexible is a good thing. There was nothing hard and fast about those goals. There was no pressure and no guilt involved. Some years we were able to check off nearly everything on the list. Then again, there were some years when life took an unexpected turn, and a whole new set of goals got made on the fly. We still considered it a win even when we didn’t actually achieve much of anything that we’d originally planned on. Each new year, we’d pull that folder out and take a look at the road behind us before we started dreaming for the year ahead. It’s become an annual thing. The folder is getting full now and all those sheets of paper make an interesting record of the things we’ve done or thought to do from one year to the next.

This year, we’ve put off our planning date and may not get to it till the month is almost over. It seems like life may be taking one of those unexpected turns before we even get the year started. One or two unanswered questions could make a big difference in how the year unfolds so it’s probably worth while to wait a bit before we sit down to talk about goals.

Whatever 2020 might bring, we want to tackle it full on rather than as passive bystanders. You can’t steer a boat that isn’t moving. The specific goals we set aren’t really so important. What is important is that we live on purpose. No one knows for certain what a given year will hold but we know we’ll be able to handle the twists and turns that come our way because we trust the One who is at the rudder. It pays to remember that He loves us, and we belong to Him.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Peeling Back the Layers

I was riding in a friend’s car once and noticed a little square of black electrical tape stuck on the face of the dashboard. Curious, I asked what it was there for.

“Oh, it’s nothing, just that annoying little check engine light. I can’t get it to turn off, so I covered it up. The car is running okay anyway.”

Foolish? Perhaps. Those ‘trouble’ lights are there for a reason and when we ignore them, a small problem can sometimes turn into a much bigger issue.

Lately, I’m realizing that I have ‘trouble’ lights of my own that I don’t always pay attention to, and I’m not talking about my car. There are any number of small indicators in how I respond to the issues of life that hint at some underlying problem. It’s often easier to ignore the signs than to dig a little deeper to see what lies beneath.

For instance, when I get annoyed or impatient at how slowly something that is outside of my control is happening, I often treat the symptoms with several deep breaths and a treat or a distraction of some kind. My coping mechanisms are like putting a band-aid on my check engine light. Getting to the bottom of things takes time and hard work. It can be painful to discover that my annoyance might be due to my own issues.

When I’ve taken the time to examine the ‘why’ behind my emotions, I’ve occasionally been forced to recognize a need to be in control just below the surface. If I peel back that layer, I discover fear tucked away underneath it. Fear that the result I am hoping for will not happen if I don’t make it happen, fear of failure. Where does that come from? One layer deeper, and I realize that I’m actually afraid of being judged or measured by my performance. And hidden beneath that is the lie that my worth is based on how people see me. I’m not even going to touch on how pride figures into all of that.

Once I’ve peeled back enough layers to discover the lie that is so often at the root of my lack of peace, I can do something about it. Repentance is a good place to start. Follow that with the choice to actively trust in God and what He says is true. He says that my worth is incalculable, and it doesn’t change. I am precious in His eyes. It is not dependent on my performance or what people think of me.

Now, when I find myself shaking a fist at a driver who insists on moving 20 km/hour below the speed limit, I automatically catch myself. I don’t have to start from scratch this time. I remember what was under the surface when I peeled back the layers the last time and give myself a little shake. The annoyance drains away as I am reminded of who I am and who God is, and that He is in control. It’s quicker and more effective than chocolate… and easier on my waistline.