Sorting socks and getting aboard the spaceship

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION   Several of my friends commemorated the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster by posting what they were doing when they heard about the explosion. I remember it very well.

And not just because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that awful image of the Y-shape smoke on a small television set outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just talked about for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically. And the rewards — and risks — involved.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as any of us does — I realized that some things weren’t working for me. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a crazy situation were getting in the way of living.

As a child, I’d learned not to talk about the craziness going on around me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives are so perfect and they’ll think you’re so weird, which will make it all worse.

Instead, put up walls. Protect yourself from being disappointed by not expecting or hoping for much. Don’t get in situations where you could get hurt. Try to love from a safe distance. Just get through life.

And dream about the day when someone will ride in and save you from all of this. Everything will be great. God will wave a divine magic wand or someone in shining armor will ride in and save you.

Or, maybe not.

Jenny taught me that we all have stuff that we have to figure out and grow through, little by little. Each of us struggles with our own stuff in our own ways for our entire life. It‘s a never-ending deal.

Our human challenge.

It’s as though life gives each of us a basket of unmatched socks and assigns us to pair them up. And as soon as all of the socks are matched, we get another basket of socks to try to mate up.

The more we do it, the better we get at it. We start figuring things out a bit more.

And we become a little more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do the things we do sometimes. But we try not to let our decisions be guided quite so much by the selfish, insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love. Because we’re at our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more as we go along. It means doing what makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means working at putting all of ourselves into our relationships. It means making the effort and taking the risk of actually loving, which is always fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and awkward and challenging.

And this is where it gets risky.

To love is to risk. The deeper and more authentic the love, the bigger the risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places.

We do so knowing that things will sometimes blow up in our faces. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway.

Which brings us back to the Challenger.

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. She followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take the risk and accept the challenge to reconstitute our spaceship after things inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad — still hurting and healing — and head boldly and authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

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Finding the missing boob

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????   The nursing home was quiet, which is typical for a late Sunday afternoon. I walked to the end of the hall where Grace lives in a room decorated with clown figurines that make her smile.

I knocked at the doorway and announced myself. Grace was awake in bed, but upset about something.

“Oh, Joe! Come in! Can you do me a favor? I’ve lost something and could use your help finding it.”

Grace (not her actual name; I have to change it because of privacy laws) once had bright red hair that fit her personality. The red is gone now; her hair turned a pretty, cottony white after chemotherapy.

And today, something else was missing.

“I can’t find my left boob,” she said. “Would you be a dear and look around for it?”

Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question!

Grace developed breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She wears prosthetics when she goes out. Her daughter had taken her to a family luncheon. Back at the nursing home, Grace had misplaced one of her prosthetics.

I got on my knees and looked around. There it was, under the bed. It was much heavier than I imagined. When I handed it to her, she laughed and said it’s good to have all of your parts.

Isn’t that the truth?

Grace is one of several ladies whom I visit as a hospice volunteer. I know it’s cliché to say that I get more out of it than I give, but nothing is truer in this case.

I have the privilege of getting to know funny, caring, life-giving people who work in nursing homes. And I get to spend time once a week with people like Grace.

And Janet.

Janet (again, not her actual name) is in her 90s. She grew up in New England. Her tall-and-handsome Navy husband died many years ago. She has a photo of them together on her window sill.

When I ask how she’s doing, Janet will usually say in her Northeastern accent, “Oh, I’m OK. You try to make the best of what you’ve got. Though sometimes it’s hard.“

She enjoys talking, especially about the real stuff in life: Being a parent, getting older, having your body fall apart. We talk about God and New England winters and the Kennedys and whatever else is on her mind on any given day.

Janet is losing her eyesight and isn’t able to read, which was one of the loves in her life. So I read to her each week. I’ll bring some story or book that I think she’ll enjoy. Or she’ll ask for something on a specific topic.

When I left her last Sunday, Janet had a request for next week’s reading.

“Could you maybe find something about death? Or heaven?” she said. “I’ve been thinking about those lately.”

Well, OK. Death or heaven. I’ll see what I can do.

I looked on my bookshelves, but found nothing about death that might interest Janet. I don’t spend much time thinking about death or reading about it. Doesn’t really interest me, if you know what I mean.

I’m a lot more interested in hearing about people’s experience of life. Especially the times when they felt like they’d lost themselves — or parts of themselves — and somehow managed to find them again. Sometimes, with a little help.

Heaven? I imagine that’s what it’s like.

I prefer to think of heaven — or whatever you want to call whatever it is that comes next — as a place where God knocks on our door, enters with kind eyes and a sweet smile, and asks what we’re missing. And then kneels and looks around to find all of our missing parts.

The parts that have been there all along, just out of our sight or out of our reach. The ones that somehow got kicked under the bed at some point in our lives.

Lost, but now are found. All of us.

Completed by love.

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Max the cat and healing hands

Max1   Max the cat has made it through one more year. One bonus year, in a way. At this time last winter, he was down to his final day.

He’d gone outside to get a little fresh air one afternoon and didn’t show up again on the back porch. Instead, I found him yelping in pain by the side of the front porch. He was caked in snow, bloodied, unable to move.

Max was bleeding from the mouth. He had a concussion. His abdomen was torn up inside. Either a dog had attacked him or somebody had pelted him with snowballs. Blood and footprints marked the snow around him.

The vets stitched him back together. For most of a week, he couldn’t even lift his head. Finally, the vets suggested we give him one more day to come around. If there was no progress, then it was probably hopeless.

On the day of decision, Max stood up and took a few unsteady steps. He had turned the corner.

With the help of many loving hands, he had made it through.

A year later, Max is perfectly fine. He jumps, runs, plays chase games with the other cats. One noticeable change: He loves to curl up next to someone. Maybe it makes him feel secure. Or reminds him that he’s being cared for.

He’ll curl up, stretch out a paw to touch your leg, take a deep breath and purr before slipping gently into a contented sleep.

A furry, laptop reminder that life is so precious.

We’re all a little bit like Max. We all get beat up in some ways. We bleed a little bit every day, whether it’s from the annoying paper cuts that life inflicts regularly or the occasional infections in our spirits.

And there are other times when confusion and doubt and borderline despair fester in our souls, causing a pain that throbs and keeps us awake at night.

Thank God for healing hands.

Healing and being healed are the ointment-coated fabric of life. We’re always doing some of each. The two go hand-in-hand.

To channel St. Francis: It is in healing others that we are healed, too.

Each of us has a precious, few people who come into our lives, love us deeply and want to touch us, especially the parts of us that are hurting.

They massage life into our wounds with their gentle hands, their kind eyes and their understanding hearts. They encourage us to take another deep breath, knowing it will make us a little bit better.

They make their soft shoulders available to our aching heads, their kind words available to our troubled souls.

Their love works its way inside of us like spiritual liniment, warming our aching parts and easing our pain. Their love helps us become whole again.

They have the healing touch.

The trick is to open ourselves to their touch rather than keeping our wounds to ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in our pain and try to hold it inside, where it will infect and corrode us. It can suck the life out of us.

Healers understand that while pain and death are inevitabilities, they’re not finalities. Life transcends both. There’s always a possibility of healing in some ways, even on that last day, in that final breath.

Sometimes, healing begins with someone who loves us pointing out that we’ve got something hurtful in one of our many blind spots. In a sense, they pour germ-killer over the wound, which stings initially but gets the healing started.

They give us a kick-start on using our own healing powers. They remind us that even when it feels like we’re down to our final day, life isn’t finished.

It never is.

Healing is one of life’s greatest miracles. It insists that there will be more, damn it. That life always gets the final say over pain and death.

Sometimes, the final say is a contended purr.

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Bold strokes and bucket lists

Happy little tree   See that painting? It’s my first. What do you think? Not bad for a first try, eh?

Since I was a youngster, I’ve always wanted to paint something. I loved watching Bob Ross create happy little trees with a brush on Saturday afternoons. It looked like so much fun.

But I’ve never been very artistic. The idea of making my own painting was intimidating. I didn’t get up the nerve to try until two weeks ago, when friends invited me to join them for a painting class.

After the final brush stroke, I thought: This was SO MUCH FUN! I really want to do this again.

I’d just crossed something off my bucket list.

Until recently, I didn’t have a bucket list. Not one that was actually written down anywhere. Seeing the movie gave me the motivation.

In case you‘re unfamiliar with it, “The Bucket List” is about two men — Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson — who have inoperable diseases and only months to live. They think about what they each want to do before they kick the bucket, and set out to experience those things together.

My motivation didn’t come from a fatal disease. I don’t have one — not that I know of, anyway. But you know how that goes. You wake up feeling great, get in the shower, notice a lump somewhere, and everything changes.

Instead, my motivation came from realizing, as I watched the movie, that I’ve spent much of my life living by other people’s lists. I’m guessing we all do, to various degrees. And I thought it was time to start living by my own a little more.

First, I had to make one. And it wouldn’t be my first list.

When I was young, I had a To-Do List in my head: Start a career, get married, raise a family, become financially secure … and on and on.

That list eventually began sharing space with a Don’t-Do List: Don’t let things stress me out so much, don’t obsess quite so much over what I can’t control, don’t be so afraid to fail … and on and on. (There are times every day when I feel like I‘ve barely made a dent in that list.)

Only in the last few years has it started to sink in with me that each of us gets only so many days and maybe I should start paying closer attention or something. Maybe do a better job of putting myself into it.

Hence, my bucket list, which has a very important footnote.

If I knew I had only one year to live, I’d do a whole lot of things differently. Quit my job? You betcha. Let the bills pile up? Leave this sub-zero weather and go walk on a beach somewhere right now?

What time does the flight leave for Siesta Key?

Of course, we don’t really know how much time is left before our expiration date arrives. So we can‘t just walk out of work and get on a plane for someplace warmer. Instead, we hang up our coat and head off to another meeting.

Our lives can take on a feeling of everydayness. And that’s OK.

See, the bucket list isn’t about totally changing everything in our lives. It’s about gradually changing the attitudes with which we live our lives.

The point of a bucket list — for me, anyway — is about trying to get beyond the fear and the worry and the doubt and whatever else prevents me from doing what makes me feel more fully alive, more fully me.

It’s about living instead of just getting through life.

So, I’ve made my list. The 17 items include things I would have never imagined myself doing. Things I’ve really wanted to do but haven’t had the courage. Things I’ve always wanted to do with others.

When one of the items gets crossed off, I’m going to replace it with another. The list will be a work in progress. When I do finally kick the bucket, I want to leave behind a number of things undone.

After all, we’re never really done, are we?

What about you? What’s on your list?

It’s your life. What do you want it to be about? Who do you want to become? What do you want to do? Who do you want to love?

And what’s holding you back from doing any and all of it? Fear of what others will think? Fear of failure? Fear of the unknown? Fear of losing control? Fear of something else?

Our bucket lists challenge us to move past all of that — a little bit, anyway. To take some risks and follow our hearts. To be more adventurous. To laugh more often.

To love a little bit more deeply. To celebrate a little more giddily. To be a little more at peace today with who we are and how we choose to live, no matter what anyone else might think.

To throw open our arms and embrace life. And the giver of life, too.

And to do it not with cautious, narrow lines, but with bold, colorful strokes.

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Sex, love and the clearance table

Woo hoo It didn’t take long for the grocery store to empty the shelves and move all the pink stuff to the clearance table in the middle of the aisle.

All of the hearts are on sale. Already.

Maybe you’re still feeling an after-glow from a romantic weekend. Or maybe you feel more like the signs says: It’s over. Woo Hoo. Time to move on.

And maybe that would be a mistake.

It’s easy to live by our consumer-driven calendar. Splurge for the big day, move on to the next one tomorrow. It’s easy to forget that what’s behind the big day has no expiration date.

In this case, there’s a fundamental difference between celebrating a day and celebrating a relationship. Kind of like the difference between having sex and making love.

Let’s start with the sex part.

Sex is a wonderful thing. One of God’s most brilliant ideas. A sacrament, really. As Anne Lamott puts it, sex can be “as sacred as taking care of the poor.” Of course, it also gets manipulated and misused and twisted all around — just like religion, politics, and all things human.

But even in its great gloriousness, sex can only take us so far. It’s always temporary. A rest stop. By contrast, making love is nonstop. It goes on 24/7.

Making love involves the entire relationship of two very human, very messy people who tell each other every day, in their own voice and their own way:

— First and foremost, I am your friend. Always. I am here for you. No matter what the cost. No matter what anyone thinks. Take that as a given. A starting point.

— I’m available when you need me. Although if you need me in the morning, you may want to wait until after that second cup of coffee.

— When it comes to us, I’m all-in. And yes, there are times when I get scared and pull away temporarily, but I’m still all-in. You can tell by how I treat you not just some of the time, but all of the time.

— When you doubt yourself, tell me and I will remind you of the many ways you are remarkable. Believe me, I know how many that is. And I’m noticing more each day.

— I want you to show me how to be my  best self.

— I will try to make you laugh. Often. Especially on tough days. I’ll tell you a joke after you’ve taken a sip of something, just so that I can see it spray out of your nose when you get the punch line. I love that.

— When things get crazy, I am your safe haven.

— I will share my feelings, my passions, and my dreams with you — even though it’s scary because it leaves me vulnerable and truly naked. Plus, approximately 97 percent of the time, I’m not even sure of my feelings. They’re like rubber bands all wrapped together forming a ball. I want you to help me pull them apart and make sense of them.

— When I screw up (which is often), I will try to remember to say I’m sorry (and actually mean it) without having to be prodded (too much). And when you screw up (which is often), I will try to forgive you (and actually mean it).

— I love WHO you are. The person that you are. The whole package. I will resist the temptation to try to change you in some way. I won’t ask you to be anything other than you, or tell you to do things my way. And if I should lapse into doing that, please stop me immediately.

— You are worth all the risks and sacrifices.

— I will try to give you space when you need it, even though stepping back is oh-so-hard. I encourage you to grow. I want you to have many caterpillar moments when you enter a cocoon and emerge with new wings that I think are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

— I will not only remind you that I love you, but I will remind you of what it is about you that I love. Doing that will remind me, too.

— When we disagree, I’ll do it respectfully. Treating you with the respect and love that you deserve is more important than winning an argument.

— If you need a hug, my arms and my heart are yours. When you feel broken, you have my love to fill in the cracks.

— Challenge me and to call me out when I get caught up in my self-serving bullshit. And I’ll do the same for you. That’s how we grow.

— When you get all messy, I will celebrate your glorious messiness. And I invite you to do the same with messy me. (Oh what the heck, let’s go make a glorious mess of something together right now!)

— When I get frustrated because you‘re being selfish and petty, I’ll try to take a step back and remember how incredible you are, even when you’re being selfish and petty.

— And again, I will try to remind you often that I love you. Who you are. Just as you are. Right now.

Isn’t that making love?

It’s an ideal that none of us can live up to fully. But we try, even when we’re totally confused about love and life and relationships and what any of it means.

We try. We try. We try.

And as we try, we enter into something deeply sacramental. Something healing and holy, lovely and loving. Dripping with the divine.

Something sacred that has no place on the clearance table.

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Giving Valentines and eating jerky

Jerky   Seeing all of the Valentine stuff in the grocery store left me in a grumpy mood. The heart-shaped Peeps. The sprays of balloons. The cheesy greeting cards. The expensive flowers. I was sinking in a pit of pink quicksand.

Too much Cupid on sale.

So, I responded the way writers respond to such things. I went home and wrote a blog trashing all of it. How we commercialize something important and reduce love to heart-shaped boxes of beef jerky, like the one pictured above.

I felt better. For a moment.

I decided to share the rough draft of my blog with a very wise friend who pointed out that I was being really harsh and missing something really important. I’d gotten so caught up in the trappings of the day that I’d missed the message.

And the moments it creates for all of us to enjoy.

For instance, the excitement on the faces of people buying a gift that they think a special person in their life will really appreciate.

Or the way Valentine’s Day can push a person past their awkward feelings and find the courage to tell someone that they like them.

Or how what seems ridiculous to me — jerky as a Valentine gift — can be the most perfect gift for someone else. (Hopefully someone with good cholesterol levels.)

My friend also described how her parents married in February because it’s a romantic month. How her dad bought a box of candy for her mom every Valentine’s Day, and one for each of the kids as well.

OK. That’s really sweet.

It made me realize I’d turned into a Grinch. I’d become so caught up in the gaudy wrapping paper that I’d forgotten about what’s inside. What’s at the heart of the day.

And what’s that?

Maybe, it’s remembering we’re at our best when we’re together. At the heart of us, we’re about relationship. About me-and-you. About forming an us.

The giver of life made us that way.

Relationships bring us some of our greatest satisfaction. And some of our greatest frustration. There’s no candy-coating it: Relationships of every type are challenging.

They always involve people who are alike in many important ways, different in many others. Separate people trying to pull closer together while still holding onto individual identities.

Trying to love as best they can at the moment.

It’s a tricky dance. The real trick is to find someone who wants to dance with us. Who hears our music and is willing to sacrifice a lot just to hold us close and sway to our tune. And who invites us to sway to theirs, too.

Relationship is about the dance.

Just as no two dances are the same, no two relationships are, either. Some work out better than others. Some go on for a long time. Others come to an end and create an opening for a new one to begin.

And on any given Valentine’s Day, we’re all in different places with the different relationships in our lives, which makes talking about it a little tricky.

I’m guessing we’ve all had times when we looked forward to Feb. 14, and times when we couldn’t wait until the following day when all of the heart-shaped stuff has been moved to the clearance tables.

So is there something that all of us can take from this day, no matter where we are? Well, maybe. You decide.

Those who know a lot more than I do about relationships say that any truly loving one begins with first recognizing our own deep value and our exquisite worth. In a sense, we have to first give ourselves a Valentine.

Perhaps that’s a good thought for the day.

No matter where you are at this moment — in a good relationship, wishing you had one, leaving a bad one — celebrate yourself in some way. Give yourself a Valentine. (Just don’t eat all of the caramel-filled candy or beef jerky at once.)

And remember that somebody else is celebrating you right now, too. And not just today. Always.

The One who gave us the heart for relationships. The One who never tires of Valentines.

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Making tracks

Footprints  Jogging during the winter isn’t much fun. It’s easy for me to find excuses not to leave the house.

The nights are still nose-numbingly cold and unscented. And mostly quiet, except for the sound of traffic and the wind making an eerie noise as it blows through the bare tree limbs. Nobody can blame the crickets for choosing to sit this one out.

The best part of those nights? Getting finished and getting back inside.

Then, there are nights like last night. Snowy nights. Nights when the flakes are coming down so hard that you feel like you’re inside a giant snow globe that has been shaken side-to-side.

Nights when being outside is simply magical.

I love jogging in the snow. I did a lot of it when I was growing up in Cleveland, where the flurries seem to start in October and go 24/7 through May.

One of the coolest parts: Every step that you take is softened by the layer of white padding the ground. And every step makes a deep and pleasing CRUNCH! I love that sound.

Not only that, but every crunchy step leaves a footprint.

You get to leave your personal mark on the snowy world.

It’s always a good reminder for me about how each of us leaves a mark, whether it’s snowing or not. It’s so easy to get caught up in our heads and not even recognize what we’re doing each step of the way. We’re often unaware of how we touch so many people and so many places every day.

We’re always leaving some kind of imprint. That’s what life is about.

Every breath sends our personal carbon dioxide into the air, changing our environment a little bit. Every encounter with another person affects them in some way. We’re always leaving some kind of footprint — sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse.

One of the interesting things about jogging in the snow is that you see many other footprints as well. People who have taken the same path for a time. Maybe they were coming home from work, going to the store, visiting a neighbor, or just out for a walk.

Every set of footprints is a bit different. Different shoe size, different type of stride, different sole, different direction. Every imprint is unique, a reflection of the person who made it. Sometimes, you’ll see a scrape in the snow where someone slipped and fell, then got up and started walking again.

One other thing about footprints in the snow: You never see just one set. I’m always amazed that even in the worst weather, there are many others out there, too.

Even in the harshest storm, you’re never alone. Others are out there, too. Maybe they’re enjoying it, maybe they’re cursing it. Maybe they’re out there in the storm by choice, or maybe it’s because they had no other choice.

But either way, they’re there. With you.

It’s good to look down and get that reminder. Also, to look back and see the tracks we’ve left behind, foot-shaped reminders that we’re always having some type of impact.

And with each crunchy step, to recognize the one who brings us the beautiful snow. And who invites us to make a unique imprint in some joyful way.

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