Labor Day Meditations on the Hard Work of Living

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Mary and I had been discussing a Labor Day post. She was thinking about transitions. I was thinking about how, as a career educator and perpetual student, that this, the beginning of the academic calendar, is my New Year’s Eve. I’m not really going to write about either of those things, now, though, because my dear friend Bob is in the hospital, and I find I am compelled to write about the hard work of living.

Bob and I have been friends for over thirty years. In this age of disposable relationships, that is remarkable enough. When you realize that Bob was born with large VSD back before today’s effective treatments were developed, and wasn’t expected to live past infancy, you recognize that being Bob’s friend at all is a miracle.

Bob is a testament to the power of a positive outlook and unshakeable faith. His brightly colored wardrobe, that cackle of a laugh, and his obvious delight in everyday living makes him memorable.  Meet him once and you will never forget him.  It is impossible to stay down when you are spending time with Bob. (Although you may be embarrassed to eat out with him, because his enjoyment of a meal borders on the obscene.)

My children love Bob like an eccentric uncle. So, it did not surprise me at all when my youngest son made sure he was invited for the tie dye party he was having with some of his friends this Saturday. As an aging hippie, making tie dyes is one of Bob’s favorite things to do. It was a fun, messy time, followed by homemade pizza. It was a great way to spend Saturday night. Until it wasn’t.

Very calmly, Bob asked me to call for an ambulance. I was frightened by the sudden decline in my friend—even more so when an EMT announced that his blood oxygen level had dropped to 64. For those of you who don’t know, as I did not until Saturday night, humans typically have 90-100% oxygen saturation of their blood. When it drops below 90% it is considered low, requiring some attention. At 64%, people are typically unconscious—or already dead. Bob, well, he was still walking—albeit slowly—and talking–mostly coherently–to the EMTs. He’s confounding, my dear friend, but he was dangerously ill. So off we go, first to the local community hospital, where he continued to confound medical professionals, and then into another ambulance to send him to his team of specialists at a World Renowned Hospital in Boston.

While I’ve been fretting and praying for my friend, I had the realization of how much hard work it takes Bob to keep going each day. To a great degree, I have been fooled by Bob’s amazing outlook and joie de vivre. I mean, I have always known that he is greatly challenged by his heart defect (and the complications that have arisen after over fifty five years of treating it). I just never realized how much of a challenge it really was for him to get through his days. Yes, even though we’ve talked about it, often. Dang, but his life is really, really hard work.

He’s told me many times,  though, that it’s not so bad, because he just enjoys his life so much. He does, too. I mean, sure, he complains about housework, and paying bills, and all the same things that we all complain about. At the same time, he understands how precious it is to even be around to be able to complain about these things. This guy knows how to appreciate his life. Every meal is delightful. Every band is great. Every truck or motorcycle he sees is awesome. Every person he meets tickles him. He doesn’t find living to be hard work, because he loves it so much.

This Labor Day weekend, as I reflect on work and play, productivity and rest, I find that I keep coming back to Bob and the lesson he teaches me over and over again. Perhaps this time I will finally master it:

Living is hard work, but it is all joy when you love it.

Whatever you labor at, I pray that you come to appreciate it, find the joy in it, and ultimately learn to love it.

 

Meeting the Challenge: Sit Down & Read

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From Mary:

A few weeks ago I accepted Kristen’s challenge to read this month. I confessed that it’s actually more difficult to find the time to read when the kids haven’t started school yet (and they still haven’t), and I mused that I would have to set an alarm and get up early to find quiet time to read.

HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Oh! Whew. Sometimes I slay myself. I love sleep. And while I did get up early some days, it was to get out and hike a bit while the world was quiet. It’s much more difficult to fall back asleep when I’m hiking than when I’m reading.

I did, however, carve out some time during the day—not every day, but most days. In many homes, mine included, there is no end to what could be done. There is always cleaning, organizing, meal prep—there is no point at which everything is finished and I look around bored, wondering what to do. (Perhaps this changes when all the kids are independent? I’ll let you know when I get there.) Thanks to Kristen, I forced myself to reevaluate what absolutely had to be done, and what could wait for 30 more minutes while I grabbed a book and took a break.

I’m so glad I did. I reconnected with some old friends, including tracking down a book that made its mark when I was young, but I had nothing more to go on than “I think it’s about the world ending or something…there’s a boy in it, unless it was maybe a girl…at one point he (or maybe she) sees a cow.” The internet really can be a useful tool.

I also made some new friends, including a lovely and horrifying little graphic novel that I thought would be for kids but definitely is not. I’m currently in the middle of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a book that’s been on my wish list for years and I’m finally making time to read. (Russell is the keynote speaker at the conference Kristen and I will be speaking at in November.) So far it is engrossing, and I find myself mulling over its mysteries at all times of the day—nothing makes my brain happier.

From Kristen: Yes! I love that feeling when a book really consumes me, even when I am not reading it.

As I was laying down this challenge, I knew I was doomed to fail. I returned to teaching in the first week of August, and I began two summer graduate courses. I did not have nearly as much free reading time as I had in July. That was partly why I wanted to take on this challenge.  I wanted to push myself to read. It was more of a struggle than I expected, though. Like Mary, I REALLY had to work at carving out any time for reading (that wasn’t for my coursework. I read hundreds of journal articles this past month!) Beyond that, though, I realize now that I also just frittered away good hours of reading time mindlessly scrolling through screens.

Still, I did have a summer romance with books. I made regular trips to my local library. It is such a beautiful space, staffed by delightful women–many of whom I know, because it is a small town–and it is a real treasure trove of resources. To preprare for this coming school year, I reread many of my favorite children’s books, and over all, they stand up to the test of time. I am especially smitten with Pippi Longstocking. I’ve been reading the book to my preschool class. Their obvious delight with the ridiculous adventures of the young Swedish orphan makes me love the book even more.

I had a quick little fling with an old flame, Stephen King. When my daughter was born, my long-time love affair with Stephen King soured. I simply didn’t get the same thrill from being scared anymore. Being a first-time parent was terrifying enough. About ten years ago, I started reading King’s writings about baseball, and on the craft of writing, and other non-scary subjects. Mary loves horror stories, and talking about that with her rekindled an old passion. Coincidentally, a friend gifted a group of us Library Book Sale copies of Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King) Thinner to read for our poorly organized (but the snacks cannot be beat!) “Book Club.” What a great romp that book was!

I have several other books started, but not yet finished. I have piles of books all over the house that I haven’t yet begun. The month is over, and I am disappointed in myself. I am disheartened by my time-and-brain-sucking screen habit. I want to do something about that.

On a bright note, though, I remembered how much I love talking about books with people. So, I want to keep reading, just so I can talk to Mary about what I’ve read.

 

 

Granite & Blueberry Beads

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     Growing up Catholic, I belonged to a parish that did not put a lot of emphasis on the Rosary. I was taught the prayers, of course, and I knew that some of the old women sat in the back of the church with their beads clicking. It was just not a ritual that was impressed upon me. When I left the Catholic church in my early twenties, I became a member of a non-denominational, Evangelical, Pentecostal congregation. Rote prayers and such rituals were actively discouraged, mocked, even.

Then I was taken in by the Church Ladies. This was a group of women that ran the food pantries in my city’s churches. With the exception of the three sisters from Georgia who were leaders in our community’s predominately black Baptist church, and the world-traveling retiree from the Episcopal church, the Church Ladies hailed from the city’s Catholic parishes. I came to know these women through my work in a local social service agency. Over the years, I have joined them (and their congregations) for special prayer services, holiday craft fairs, concerts, weddings, and funerals. Over countless cups of tea and slices of cake, through sharing our stories and rituals, they persisted in cutting through our professional boundaries to develop personal relationships with me.  They have made me a better woman.

The retired Catholic-school PE Teacher that ran one of the larger pantries in the city with the ferocity of a winning coach also organized her parish’s annual retreat. Every fall she invited me to come with her. Every fall I politely declined. Then there was the autumn that every adult member of my mama’s side of the family was hospitalized, one after another. That year, I accepted the invitation. It was in that peaceful chapel in a forest surrounding a tiny bay on Cape Cod, that I joined a group of women for the Sorrowful Mysteries with borrowed rosary beads. I struggled to remember some of the prayers, but was buoyed by the murmurings of the women around me, as the stars rose in the sky through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the altar.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

When it was over, the eight or ten of us said our goodnights and split up for our rooms. I didn’t feel like I had experienced anything, well, spiritually impactful, as I often felt when leaving a prayer service from my Pentecostal days or even from my childhood youth group days.  I remember that I was disappointed at that. I sorely wanted the experience to be powerful and transformative.

I did not pick up a rosary again until years later during my second trip to Rwanda, where two of my fellow travelers, devout Catholics, both, convinced our tour leader to make a “slight side trip” (read that as  several hours out of our way through difficult, though stunning,  mountainous terrain) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kibeho.   I have been a long-time skeptic of Marian visitations. Regardless of what I believe (or don’t), this is one of the few places of claimed Marian Visitations in the world that Vatican officials have deemed authentic.

In any event, I was profoundly moved by my day spent there. The stories of the visionaries’ experiences are chilling and compelling. The visitations (between 1981-1983) predicted the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with horrifying detail. Among the admonitions the “Mother of the Word” was said to give the visionaries was to pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows  .  In the primitive gift shop at the Shrine, I purchased a set of these special beads—beautifully  handcrafted out of jacaranda wood–for a nun who is a dear friend. On impulse, I picked up another set for myself, as a remembrance of my day spent in this place.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     It is now five years later. The set of rosary beads I got at that retreat center, and the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows I got in Kibeho sit together, unused, in a drawer in my bedside stand. Recently, though,  ongoing conversations with friends who do practice praying the Rosary regularly, have me in a place where I now find myself  thinking about a variety of meditation practices, about Mary, and about the Rosary.

I’ve caught myself collecting 10 small stones on my regular hikes along the river, tiny beads of granite that I finger in my pocket as I move through the familiar trail, thinking through the problems—the mysteries– of my day. I’ve taken to reciting under my breath decades of Hail Mary’s while rubbing a restless preschooler’s back to sleep during rest time. Then just last week, when my stress level peaked and worry threatened to drown me, I fled to my garden, where I hoped the ordinary, mindless task of pulling weeds and picking produce would calm me. Getting scratched by the prickly cucumbers was a tactile representation of what I was feeling in my mind.  Balancing the sheer volume of ripened tomatoes was too overwhelming for me to manage, and I left a trail of tomatoes from the yard to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I got into the blueberry bushes, with the steady “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!” of the berries, one at a time hitting my bucket, that I began get any relief. The feel of the little round berries in my fingers, the repetitious sound they made as they collected, was a prayer repeated again and again. And just like that, I found a bit of peace.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

We’re Going to Need a Minute

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I’m from Massachusetts. I grew up in the Diocese of Boston, and when the Boston Globe broke the Church Sex Abuse Scandal story in the 90s, it hit close to home. Almost thirty years later, this week’s news out of Pennsylvania is a gut punch.

Like anyone who writes about matters of faith–particularly folks like Mary and me writing from a Catholic lens angle–we will surely have some response.  Today is not the day, though.

Today we will weep and pray with and for the victims, known and unknown.

Let us catch our breath.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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How many times have we heard this story?

Peter, James, and John join Jesus on the mountain, when suddenly everything is glowing white and there is Moses and Elijah! The three men are terrified, but Peter, bless him, though terrified, can’t NOT say something, so he jumps in with, Let’s build three houses—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” A voice tells them that Jesus is his son. Then, as suddenly as it began, it is over. It was a terrifying, but brief encounter with the power of God.

Well, this week, as the liturgical calendar celebrated the Transfiguration, I was in the middle of something BAD. And for the first time in a long, long time, I found myself–like Peter, James, and John–terrified.

TERRIFIED.

I was sure that my husband, and possibly myself and my children, were in terrible danger, and it shook me to my core. When was the last time you were terrified? Not anxious, not uncomfortable—TERRIFIED.

Let me tell you, fear that is strong enough to terrify you is a game changer. Fear that is terrifying is TRANSFIGURING. So, this entire Gospel story takes on a whole new light to me. I forgot how powerful terror is.

In the story, it is noted that the change in Jesus—his transfiguration—was TERRIFYING. Think about that for a minute. This is not written as a happy little Sunday School story to be portrayed with puppets and a cute song. Something big happened on that mountain. Jesus transformed into “radiant glory”—HE TURNED INTO LIGHT, PEOPLE, WITH RAYS OF LIGHT SHOOTING OUT OF HIM–and was joined by not just one, but two of their long-dead, spiritual heroes. If that is not enough to undo a man, there is this huge voice without a body attached that starts admonishing Peter, James, and John. These three men–Jesus’s favorites, Jesus’ closest confidantes, the folks who knew HIM best–were rightfully terrified by the whole experience.

And then everything goes back to normal, and Jesus turns to his best mates and tells them to not tell anyone about any of what just happened. Only Peter, James, and John will never be normal again. The transfiguration transfigured them.  Perhaps that is the point. All of Christ’s teachings and miracles and advising to this point had not yet changed the men dramatically enough.  They were the closest people on the planet to the Creator of the Universe. Until the Transfiguration, though, they didn’t really get just how big and powerful the Creator of the Universe really is.

I get it now. I get how you can find yourself in an experience that terrifies you, and changes how you look at your life, your normal, your Creator.  I cannot yet articulate how I have changed, but I know that I have. This will be unfolding for a while longer, I am certain.

 

 

 

A Challenge for the Dog Days of August: Find Someplace Cool to Rest and Read a Good Book

The Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time–John 6:1-15

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Each month, we extend a challenge aimed at teaching us something about ourselves, our community, our faith, or maybe just to amuse us!

 Last month, Mary challenged us to sweat , and we did.   Gosh, did we ever sweat. It has been so ridiculously hot and steamy! This month, stay cool, and feed your mind, and maybe your soul.

I challenge you to step away from screens (AFTER YOU READ OUR BLOG!), pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea, get comfy in a beach chair at the edge of the water or maybe under some trees, and read a book or two or more!

I further challenge you to go to your local library to find that book or two or more. Libraries are the most magical places on earth! There are books about EVERYTHING, magazines about ANYTHING, and newspapers from EVERYWHERE. There are film dvds and music cds and audio books. There are art exhibits and special events. The library is where you can find ALL THE ANSWERS. If you haven’t been to one in a while, GO, and be astounded.

And for you super competitive types, I double dog dare you to spend the dog days of August RE-reading a book or two or more that you read when you were younger. Notice what is different for you this time around. Maybe you will discover new levels to the story. Maybe you will find that you have outgrown the tale. You won’t know until you pick up the book and read it again!

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Perhaps like us, you are Made for Ordinary Time? Welcome!

Do ordinary things with extraordinary love.–St. Theresa of Calcutta

35143559_10156401429343948_7542596642092875776_n1The Little Chapel, Talbot Valley, Guernsey

We are two women in the middle of our lives. We both thought that we would, well, have it all together by now.

We don’t.

We’ve been through a lot. We have weathered financial troubles, battled health problems, buried parents. We have made legion mistakes.

We have gotten a lot of things right, though.

We have been in happy marriages for a long time. We have gotten some of our kids launched into adulthood.  We have built some really strong, beautiful friendships.

We come at matters of faith from fairly different places, but we both agree on one thing, all the best things happen during Ordinary Time.

Grab a cup of coffee and join us as we keep trying to find the divinity in our everyday– from the days when we are standing on the peak of Mt. Whelm and get dizzy, to the perfect days where it all goes right, and we even find time to sit on the screen porch with a good book and a cool drink.

Marybeth Chuey Bishop lives in Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and children, two dogs, and some scruffy plants. She likes to read, walk, wear socks with kraken or Poe on them, and write. Her work has appeared in the Convivium Journal and on the Sick Pilgrim and Suspended in Her Jar blogs.

Kristen Allen teaches preschool and coaches college students at Brandeis University. She lives in central Massachusetts with her remarkable husband, two sons (because her daughter had the good sense to move out of town) and two incorrigible dogs.  She’s written about family life, education, community service, and her ongoing battle with the Almighty at The Prodigal Son’s Mother (http://prodigalsonsmom.blogspot.com/),  Sick Pilgrim, the Woonsocket Call newspaper, and other publications.

This is the duo’s second blogging project together.  They also blogged together at Crone Café (cronecafe.wordpress.com).