The Goodbye Year

Two weeks ago my younger son started his last year of high school. It’s hard to believe that at this time next year he’ll likely be off to college and our house will be an empty nest. My husband and I have spent the last 20 years nurturing and caring for our kids and in the blink of an eye, they’ll be gone.

This will be a year of goodbyes and farewells to routines that have shaped our daily lives. We recently attended our final back-to-school night–ever. We toured our son’s classrooms and heard about how he’d be reading “Frankenstein” in English class, comparing Christianity, Buddhism and Islam in religion class, and preparing for the AP exam in Spanish class. I found myself getting excited about what TJ would be learning and wishing I could go back to high school too. But then I remembered the social pressures and dramas of being a teenager and I decided I preferred being an adult.

It seems like just last year TJ was 4, building forts out of blankets and cushions in the family room. And I was his accomplice, supplying a desk lamp to brighten up one “room” and little cut-up sandwiches for sustenance. Later we would watch one of his favorite movies, like “Dumbo,” or cycle through our five-disc set of vintage Pink Panther cartoons. Just one more episode, he’d cry, as I declared it was time for dinner. There is a certain symbiosis between a parent and a young child that can never be recaptured.

Back in those days, I saw the first signs of who my child would become. I noticed and was a bit perplexed by the fact that TJ didn’t like board games or traditional toys. Instead, he preferred to stand at the sink and make the biggest soap bubble he could possibly make. Or he collected snails from our yard and kept them in a shoebox for several weeks, feeding them lettuce and giving each one a name. He was fascinated by how much poop they generated.

Later TJ applied his scientific curiosity to the world of tech. He spent hours creating YouTube videos in third grade under the name “yoloswagwaffles.” At the time I wasn’t sure what YouTube was. Soon after that he attended a Minecraft conference in Las Vegas (with his grandparents) where he was a speaker on a panel designed to help people create videos. My parents came back raving that he was more knowledgeable than the 30-something techie on the panel with him.

The tech thing stuck. I’ve seen it through various iterations up to last month, when he spent all his savings on an industrial level server. We’re all a little unsure of why he needs this much computing power. It took two of us to carry the 50-pound server to our basement and a visit by the family electrician to make sure we weren’t overloading our circuits.

One of his friends came over in the midst of the setup and asked, “What’s a server?”

TJ explained that his server will allow him to host web sites and tinker with artificial intelligence.

“I can host your web site Mom, and I won’t charge you,” he joked.

Long before the virtual world of computers, my kids and I enjoyed other virtual worlds and I miss those. I maintained our nightly bedtime reading routine as long as I possibly could—well into TJ’s freshman year of high school. I would still be reading stories to him if he let me. The last book we read together, “The Circle,” by my favorite author, Dave Eggers, focuses on a young woman working in a Google-like company. We laughed about the pressure she felt to generate “likes” with her customers. And I blushed as I read the passages about her sexual encounters aloud to my teenage son.

“You can just skip those parts Mom,” he eventually said.

With kids years of the same routine, practiced day in and day out, can suddenly end overnight. When my older son finally got his license on his 18th birthday, decades of taking him to school ended abruptly. Gone forever were the early preschool years, when he insisted that he be the first one at school (transition anxiety his teacher called it). Gone were the 8 am walks to Catholic elementary school where I would stand with a group of parents and watch the kids recite morning prayer. Gone were the drives to high school when we exchanged a few precious words of conversation.

TJ is talking about getting his license too now that he’s turning 18 soon. Last spring, anticipating this change I wrote in my journal: “I took TJ to tennis practice today. I’m already sad that at this time next year TJ will have his license and we won’t have these trips in the car together. Where else can I get my son’s undivided attention?”

I’m a sucker for nostalgia but I would be dishonest not to remember the stress of raising children too. I have more of that to look forward to this year as well. When the electrician came to rewire some things for the new server, he made an error and our entire network slowed to a crawl for days. My husband had trouble connecting online with his office and was in a foul mood until we fixed it.

Then there are the not-so-fun grinding reminders to my son to empty the dishwasher, cover the ping-pong table when not in use, do his homework and take out the recycling. Aggravation and repetition have stretched my patience to new limits I didn’t think possible. It’s a good thing my boys—like puppies—are so cute. The cuteness element doesn’t go as far with Dad, who worries his boys will grow up undisciplined. I have hope though—most days enough for both of us.

What do I want as these fall days speed into high gear? I want to enjoy this last year with my son and be mindful of each goodbye. But I also don’t want to let it overly sadden me. Writer Maria Popova muses about maintaining this kind of healthy, open-handed type of love. She says: “When we are able to regard love in such a way…its inevitable loss would leave in us not paralyzing devastation but what Abraham Lincoln would later term ‘a sad sweet feeling in your heart.’ To retain the memory of love’s sweetness without letting the pain of parting and loss embitter it is perhaps the greatest challenge for the bereaved heart, and its greatest achievement.”

To be sure, my love for my son won’t diminish. Our relationship will change and hopefully even deepen. But this time, for–me as a mom–and for him–on the cusp of adulthood–will happen just this once and I am a witness alive to this moment.

Word by word with my writing coach

I didn’t think working with a writing coach would be all that challenging. I thought I’d get inside tips on where to submit, general writing advice and editing that would garner quick results—lots of published pieces. How hard can this be?, I thought. I’ve been writing a blog for several years and I feel ready to put my work out there to other publications.

Boy was I wrong. Several months into my coaching experience I realized the process was much more challenging than I had envisioned—in that amount of time I only had managed to work on two pieces with my coach and ended up publishing the first one on my blog. However, as they say, nothing worth doing in life is easy. I did eventually have success, but not in the way I expected.

I hadn’t really intended to work with a coach when I happened to see Victoria’s post about her coaching services on a writing web site I frequently visit. But the idea resonated with me. Maybe a coach really could help me break through to get published. We exchanged a few e-mails and a sample of my work and I signed up for my first session.

All I knew about Victoria was that she had been an editor for many magazines and has been published in places like “The Washington Post,” “The New York Times,” “Quartz,” and “Salon.” I figured that she knew what it took to get into prestigious places. Plus she lives on the East Coast and is part of a world I know little about. But she didn’t look too intimidating. The photo on her web site shows a middle-aged blond woman with a nice smile. She has a young daughter and frequently writes parenting pieces like I do. Maybe she’s not so different than me, I thought.

Our first meeting was in early August–a half-hour phone call to talk about my goals. Victoria had a slightly nasally New York accent and an authoritative grasp of what makes good writing. “It’s a beautifully crafted story, lots of dialogue, action, a universal takeaway,” she rattled off. I scribbled away notes as if hearing the cure for cancer. She wanted to know my writing habits—when and how long did I write? When I explained I was planning to set aside three full days a week for writing, she gasped. “You need to break it up. I get my best ideas when I’m talking to my husband or taking a walk,” she said.

Victoria wanted me to start by reworking an old piece I had already written, but I found that hard to do. That was my first realization that I’m not very good at editing my own work. Instead, I wrote a new piece about something right then on my heart–how my teenage sons had bonded over the summer in a surprising way. I incorporated lots of dialogue and action and I thought I had a universal takeaway about how downtime can be great for kids. I imagined other parents reading it and finding insight.

Victoria sent back the first draft full of questions and edits. I could see she felt this had a long way to go before it was ready for print. To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for this level of scrutiny and critique. I had become accustomed to hammering out a blog post, making a few edits and posting it on my web site. Sometimes the writing sang and other times it didn’t so much. But clearly I wasn’t prepared for the painstaking process of readying a piece for a national publication.

I also felt conflicted. I really liked this piece about my sons. If I pursued all of Victoria’s suggestions the piece would lose its timeliness. It was already mid-August and a story about the summer would soon feel like old news. Victoria had also informed me she wouldn’t be available for the next few weeks while she was on vacation. Frustrated, I decided to send the piece “as is” to a few parenting sites and take my chances. I promptly got rejection e-mails. Maybe Victoria had been right that it needed work. Oh well, I thought. Lesson learned. I published it on my own web site and went back to the drawing board.

For my next piece I again chose another topic close to my heart: “grandparenting.” I wrote about the evolution of my kids’ relationship with my parents, from the time they were toddlers to today. This time I felt I had a clearer narrative arc. The kids had loved spending time with their grandparents early on but things took a turn as they became pre-teens. Friends became cooler than grandma and grandpa. Suddenly, making the half-hour trek over to see Grammy and Grandpa on a Saturday night wasn’t so appealing. What would happen to their close relationship?

Not unlike my first article, Victoria returned my first draft to me chockfull of comments, edits and suggestions. It was mid-September. This time I knew I was in it for the long haul. I decided to absorb all I could from her suggestions and trust her experience.

One of Victoria’s most common suggestions was to ask me to add sensory details. For example, when I mentioned that my kids used to love watching movies with Grammy, she said, “Which movies?” (“Ice Age” was their favorite). Or when I said Grammy served them treats, she pushed me to describe them. “Homemade cinnamon bars hot out of the oven” sounds much more evocative than treats.

Victoria also pushed me to make the narrative arc stronger. A personal essay (which this was) needs a beginning, middle and end. Because of this I added several engaging scenes, such as the time my dad and son hit a low when they argued about restaurants on my birthday (causing me to break into tears) or the more recent time they hit a high when they enjoyed some time on our virtual reality gaming system.

But making an arc stronger can also involve cutting scenes that may not contribute to the flow. Victoria warned me that I needed to make peace with “killing my darlings,” the scenes I loved but that didn’t advance the story enough. I loved a scene where I described how my dad had gently exhorted my son to try out for the tennis team—and my son took his advice. But it took a long time to tell this story and it didn’t quite fit the overall theme of the story.

“Don’t worry,” Victoria encouraged me, “ you can use those scenes elsewhere in another piece.”

Working with Victoria also caused me to wrestle with some age-old writing issues. Years ago when talking about writing with a friend, he had suggested that if I didn’t remember some things, I could just make them up. I remembered being shocked. I went to journalism school and you never made things up in that world. But personal narrative and memoir is different. Who can really remember exactly what someone said ten years ago? A little creative license is OK in these situations.

Sometimes it took me a week or more to “get around” to opening up Victoria’s latest edits. Inevitably though, after reading through them a few times, I would see the value. When I didn’t, I said so, and she agreed to let them stand.

In the midst of my work with Victoria, my blog writing slowed to a trickle. I found myself hesitating to do the kind of “carefree” writing I was used to practicing. And I got stuck in the mire of questions writers love to obsess over. Why am I writing? Who really wants to read this? Am I good enough? Do I have enough to say about X topic? I started and aborted several posts.

Fortunately or not, the holidays were approaching and I leapt into other activities with a relish only a bottled up writer can summon. Creative work often involves a long gestation period and the results take time. Sometimes it’s best to let things simmer.

By the end of November, Victoria sent me an encouraging e-mail that she thought we needed just one “quick” edit and my grandparenting essay would be in good shape. I soared with lofty thoughts. Maybe I could get this published before Christmas! I changed a key line at the end of my piece to refer to Christmas, thinking an editor might like to see the tie-in with the holiday.

Not so fast, Victoria essentially told me the next time we talked. Even if this were accepted soon, she pointed out, most places have a several month lag time before publication.

“You can change the reference to Christmas,” she said. “There are other holidays and seasons. And, by the way, we are targeting the New York Times “Well” section, so I want this to be good. You need to work on the ending. It needs to tie in with the themes you’ve set and leave readers with a takeaway.”

Christmas came and went and I took some time off from the piece. I journaled. I wrote poems just for myself. I spent time in online groups reading about other writers’ experiences. One writer posted how she had done 32 major revisions of her piece before submitting it (successfully) to a national journal. She even linked all 32 versions in case anyone wanted to see the progression. I was amazed at her tenacity—and a bit sobered by the hard work involved in writing.

In the months after Christmas I finally wrapped up my piece. Victoria helped me craft an ending that wasn’t overly trite and neat yet that felt satisfying. Now was the time to submit. I knew it was a reach, but I sent it to the New York Times Well section as Victoria suggested.

Then I learned about waiting. It took nearly two months before the editor of the section got back to me with a rejection. I was disappointed, but also strangely encouraged that I had at least heard something and could move on. I submitted the piece to two other national publications and got the same results. Finally, I did some research of my own and learned of a publisher who was putting together a book anthology about being a grandparent. Nine months after starting the piece I decided to take my chances there. I’m still awaiting an answer.

Fortunately this isn’t the end of the story. In the midst of submitting my grandparenting article, I got back into blog writing and enjoyed the creative freedom I find in that format. I also worked on several additional pieces for smaller, nonpaying web sites and got published there. I discovered Medium and enjoyed reading about other writers and their creative process.

Then one day I dashed off a piece about how my son loves playing first-person shooter games. I discussed the anxiety I’d felt as a parent watching these games in an era of mass shootings and the things I had done to make sure my son had a “balanced” life. I sent the piece to Victoria and she thought it had potential. This time she suggested a few simple edits and a possible paying publication. I followed her advice and a parenting magazine accepted it a week later! The editor praised my piece and said she would love to see more of my work. I was thrilled, It wasn’t the New York Times, but it felt like success.

Now it’s been almost a year since I first met on the phone with Victoria. I’ve learned a lot about the craft of writing, things like narrative arc, attention to detail and “killing your darlings.” I may not have “fixed” all my issues in these areas but I’ve learned to identify possible pitfalls. I’ve also learned about the tenacity required to keep writing, keep submitting and keep waiting. In the end a combination of all these elements is essential, plus a little luck. As Ann Lammot says, it’s just a matter of “bird by bird.”

Hitting a deer and other close encounters with the wild

Maybe, just maybe we wouldn’t have hit the deer if I hadn’t showed my husband the cool old hotel where I sometimes stay in Santa Rosa. If not for that 2-minute detour on our way home we may not have collided with the buck a half-hour later at 70 mph on the freeway.

The deer came out of nowhere. We were talking one minute, in the quiet bubble of my husband’s sleek grey Subaru. Then suddenly we saw the deer’s head, topped by impressive antlers, off to one side of our windshield. Our eyes locked for a split second. What was he doing there in the fast lane of the freeway? He was probably thinking the same thing as us.

The impact was swift. A loud couple of thuds reverberated against the front and side of the car as the deer’s body smashed against us. My husband instinctively veered to the right and pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. Fortunately, no other cars were around us at 10 pm. that night.

The car was badly damaged. Later our insurance would pay $10,000 to repair it. The deer didn’t survive. A highway patrol officer who pulled over told us he was lying in the median. We were practically in tears. “If I hadn’t showed you the hotel…” I said. “Or if we hadn’t spent five minutes talking in the car before we left…” We had just killed a living, breathing being.

On the way home we asked the tow truck driver if he sees many accidents like this. Yes, he said. Deers are nocturnal. I felt like I had just woken up from a dream, sitting high up in the middle seat of the tow truck between my husband and the driver.

I asked the driver about himself, just to get my mind off the deer. “Where are you from?” He told me he was from Petaluma and had recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. “Thank you for your service,” my husband said. But the driver said nothing and kept talking. Living in the Bay Area was getting too expensive, he said. He planned to get a job as a guard at a correctional facility somewhere up north.

The driver didn’t have to, but he towed our car all the way home to Berkeley. “It’s a quiet night,” he said.

**

When I was a child, I had recurring dreams of entering the “deer cave” down the hill from our house. My brother and I had discovered that the deer had a sort of cave under a bunch of trees and bushes at the bottom of our property. The cave was always dark even when it was sunny and bright outside. You could tell the deer slept there by the matted circles of grass on the ground. I only looked in once and I was afraid to get near it again.

In my dream I would be playing in the yard and then get closer and closer to the cave. I would peer inside and all kinds of fearful things would be waiting for me. Not just deer, but other things I can’t now remember. I would wake up in a sweat. My fear wasn’t irrational. Once a deer had kicked my dog in the face and knocked two teeth out. I had a respect for these silent, mysterious creatures that roamed the hills.

**

Running into the deer south of Santa Rosa wasn’t the first time I’ve hit a deer. When I was 19 years old I was driving to my family’s house when a deer suddenly jumped out of the bushes on top of my car. He smashed the windshield, got stuck in the ski rack for a moment, twisting the metal, and then ran off into a neighbor’s yard. In a daze, I drove the next block home, tiny shards of glass speckling my face. When my mom came out to say hi, she gasped at the sight.

I had been returning from a pre-marital counseling session with my pastor and my soon-to-be husband. I have no recall of anything we talked about in that meeting or really any other meeting we had, but I’ll always remember the deer. I wondered if the deer had been OK. I was glad for the safety glass on my car. Every time I saw the twisted ski rack on top of the car I remembered the collision I had with something wild.

**

Some years ago a friend asked me if I had a spirit animal. I had never heard of this and didn’t even know what it meant, but I immediately responded: a deer. Maybe I am even a little like a deer. I tend to be quiet, an observer. I like to wander around hills. At night my brain is busy. I often remember my dreams and ruminate on them for days afterward.

Actually, my friend later explained, a spirit animal is more like a guide. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. In every encounter, deer—seemingly benign and gentle—have jolted me awake in some way. That time on the highway with my husband renewed our thankfulness for life, even as we grieved for the deer. When I ran into the deer when I was 19 it created a bonding moment with my mom. I could have walked down the aisle with a face full of scars but I didn’t.

Even my current battle with the urban deer in my neighborhood gives me some sense of adventure. In May I started spraying a concoction of garlic, cayenne pepper, eggs and water on the agapantha flowers in my front yard. These plants are supposed to be deer repellent, but the hungry deer around here eat them anyway. As soon as fat buds form at the end of each long stalk each spring, the deer nibble them off. I haven’t seen them bloom into big purple flowers for at least five years.

This year I decided to fight back and the spray worked. I felt slightly bad I ruined these plants for the deer but I also felt a little excited each morning when I found the buds still intact. Now all of the agapanthas are in full, bountiful bloom.

I haven’t seen any deer in my neighborhood for a while but two nights ago my son saw three coyotes in our yard. That both intrigued and worried me. They must be following the deer who come down from the hills. I won’t let my little dog out at night anymore.

We think we live in a controlled, tame environment, but nature—wild, fighting to survive, beautiful and fearsome—is just outside our door. How we react to these messengers from another world can teach us a lot about ourselves.

The day my sister entered my life

“Aloha, it’s so great to meet you,” Regina said as I stepped off the runway in sunny Kona. Hawaii.

We gave each other a hug.

“It’s nice to meet you too, after all this time,” I said.

I had been anticipating this moment for 20 years. That’s when I first found out that I had a half-sister. I had been adopted as a baby and had never known anything about my birthparents or siblings until I turned 30. At that time my birthparents, who had gone separate ways, each contacted me and we exchanged a few letters. My birthmother had never had any more children but my birthfather had gotten married and had a daughter and a son. More than 10 years passed until I finally decided to meet my birthparents, who are both in Chicago. Then another eight years passed until I had the opportunity to meet my sister, who lives in Hawaii.

The thing that surprised me most about Regina was her voice. We became friends on Facebook about eight years ago and I’ve seen plenty of pictures. I knew we looked a little bit alike and I knew she had lots of animals, including pet pigs. I also saw photos of her tattooed arms, which feature images of her animals surrounded by flowers. Her latest tattoo is quite attractive, stretching just below her neck from shoulder to shoulder like a necklace. You need to look carefully to see her pigs Baron and Boyd ensconced in a hearts and flowers.

Regina’s voice was lighter and higher than I expected. Somehow I thought this woman, who proudly announces her veganism and animal activism online, would have a lower voice and a brusque manner. Instead, she sounded kind, even when I ordered a sandwich with bacon at the lunch place she picked out.

“I hope I’m not offending you,” I said as I realized with horror what I had done.

“Oh, not all,” she said. “My husband eats everything.”

Still, I couldn’t eat the bacon when it came. I couldn’t eat much at all. I was so focused on our conversation. As I listened to Regina talk about her family and growing up in Chicago I felt drawn into another world, a world I may have lived if things had gone differently. My birthfather, Frank, had told me that his Italian Catholic family wanted him to keep me. They were family people. But he and my birthmother were only teenagers and they weren’t married. At that time unmarried pregnant girls were sent to homes where they would live until they gave birth.

When I met Frank for the first time, eight years ago, he drove me to the neighborhood just outside of Chicago where he grew up. He pointed out his high school and the tidy red brick home where his family lived. It was tight quarters, he said, with parents and five kids living in that little house.

I mentioned this to Regina and she said it had been tough for Frank. His parents worked hard and demanded a lot from the kids. If they left for the day they would give all the kids a long list of chores to do. For Regina, however, her grandparents’ house was filled with great memories of Italian Sunday dinners. She spent lots of time in the basement with her cousins around an old-fashioned jukebox. I couldn’t help but imagine myself in that setting. I grew up in California, far away from my cousins. Although we got along well, we saw each other once a year at best. And we didn’t have a strong tie to our countries of origin. Would I be a different person today with that kind of family dynamic?

For Regina, the tight family culture was somewhat constraining. She didn’t want to solely identify with one culture, one people. She dreamed of going to New Mexico. She attended college there, studied archeology and took a class on weaving for fun. She ended up getting a job as a weaver for six years. Later she moved to Idaho and New York. She became a vet tech. Then she moved to Hawaii. She never returned to Chicago, much to the dismay of her parents.

***

“Your voice, it sounds just like my aunt in Wisconsin,” said Sandy, my birthmother, on our first phone call eight years ago.

Perhaps it was comforting to my birthmother that I had something in common with her family. I did live in the Midwest until age 8 and then I returned there for four years for college. So perhaps I do sound something like a woman in Wisconsin.

Other than the familiar voice, however, Sandy and I had few obvious traits in common. When we eventually met later that year I realized she had a hard edge about her. She had grown up very poor, with an absent father. She had to live in a rented garage during high school, when she dated Frank. She was a hard worker and had always been independent, without a spouse. She was a successful businessperson. Now she had two homes. She sent me pictures of them. One in Arizona. The other in Chicago in a ritzy high-rise tower. She had platinum blond hair and called herself “Blondie.” I liked her spunk.

As I recounted some of this to Regina though, I felt sad. Sad that my birthmother had to grow up poor. Sad that her pregnancy was taboo. Sandy told me that as soon as I was born, I was whisked away. Her own mother never said a word about me for the rest of her life. It was hard to repeat these words—for the rest of her life.

“I could have kept you. It could have worked out,” Sandy had told me when we met for lunch that day eight years ago at the top of the Hancock building in Chicago.

I sensed defiance in her voice. I wondered if things really could have worked out. It would have been a different life for me, for sure.

***

Why do people seek out their long-lost family members? Frank was the one who initially decided to find me. He couldn’t remember the name of the adoption agency that handled my case so he called Sandy, whom he hadn’t seen in years. They reconnected and had the agency send me a letter asking if I would accept their letters. When I said yes, I quickly received a greeting card from Sandy that said, “One day I knew I’d find you” on the outside. I wondered how she had found such a perfect card.

I received a cassette tape from Frank with a small note that explained he wasn’t much of a writer so he recorded himself talking. His voice sounded calm and quiet. He spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing each word. He told me about his work as a truck mechanic and about his family. He said he had thought of me often through the years and wanted to make sure I was OK. I wrote letters back to each of them telling them about my life and my family.

The adoption agency told me it was rare for a birthfather to seek out his adopted child. I felt honored that I was one of the few to get this attention. I certainly wasn’t lacking in love from my adoptive parents. They are among the most loving people I know. I grew up with an abundance of care and support. I have a close relationship with my brother, who is also adopted. However, I was touched that my birthfather, and then my birthmother, would reach out to me with interest and care.

There’s a deeper story, however, which I only learned from Regina. At the time Frank began to look for me he was undergoing some soul-searching. Regina had moved far away for college and wasn’t returning. His adolescent son was causing waves. Frank wondered if he had done something wrong. He hoped finding me would show him that he had done something right.

“Finding you and seeing you were happy gave Dad a lot of peace,” Regina said.

I’ve still only seen Sandy once and Frank a few times on trips to Chicago. We exchange Christmas cards some years but we don’t talk on the phone. I see now that for both my birthparents the idea of connecting with me really was about alleviating their doubts and fears, not becoming close friends. Or perhaps they are giving me respectful distance.

After lunch, Regina took us to her house. It could have been any nice house in a quiet subdivision on the mainland. But hers had a mango tree outside, a banana tree in the back—and 11 dogs, 11 cats and two pet pigs. The dogs and pigs had their own rooms downstairs complete with a big-screen TV and as soon as we arrived, Regina let a few upstairs, who promptly greeted us with wet licks. Then she let them all out in the back to romp around. She’s known on the big island as the person to call if you find a lost animal. Most of her animals are rescues. She and her husband Mario would like to move out to the country where they could have more land and more animals.

Later, on our way out of the neighborhood, Regina stopped to greet some friends. “Hey,” she yelled out the car window. “I want you to meet someone. This is my sister.”

Her friends looked surprised. Maybe she had never told them about me. I was pleased she had introduced me as her sister.

Soon the sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean and my husband and I had to catch the little island hopper plane back to Maui, where we were staying. We had drinks with Regina and Mario at a seaside bar in Kona before our flight. Mario, who is originally from Mexico and has dreadlocks down to his waist, talked a lot about his time living in California and his bold move to Hawaii. He told us his dream to someday run an orphanage and senior center on the island.

“Well, you’re already running an orphanage in a way,” joked my husband, referring to their menagerie of pets.

We all laughed.

I felt I had fulfilled my own dream that day. I had never had a sister in my life until that moment.

Postscript: Shortly after we left Hawaii, Kilauea began erupting. Fortunately Regina lives on the other side of the island. However, she has been involved nonstop in rescuing the many animals lost or at risk because of the volcano. She’s taken in more animals and found homes for others. She’s an inspiration and I hope to see her on the mainland next time she’s here.

Embracing Ordinary time

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. I love the sun, the long days and the blooms in my garden. But perhaps the reason I like it most is that there are no big holidays to get ready for. In the church calendar, we are in “ordinary time” and this long stretch from Pentecost to Advent is a time when we can focus on our “ordinary” days. I can ask, how do I spend my time when I don’t have the extra obligations of the busier times of year? How can I live with more joy and a balanced rhythm of work and play?

One way to do this is by “savoring.” We all know what it means to savor our food. It means appreciating the smells, colors and textures, lingering at each bite, and enjoying the taste. It had never occurred to me we could “savor” other experiences. Perhaps ordinary time is a time to savor the ways God has met me in the first part of the year. In my times of prayer or meeting with my spiritual director I can recall and savor the special moments from the last six months, like the time a friend was baptized or my trip to visit my older son. I feel more joy when I remember the sights and sounds of these events.

I am also learning to value silence. Most days I try to take a long walk in my neighborhood. It’s easy to fill that walk with noise—music or a podcast. Those are not necessarily bad things. But I’d like to experiment a bit with silent walking. I notice more of my surroundings when I am unplugged. I make space for creative thinking and maybe even prayer.

There is still work to be done in ordinary time. Sometimes it feels quite, well, ordinary. There is shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, planning trips. We all have to do a lot of routine and often boring tasks. In my better moments, though, I remember the example of Brother Lawrence, the 17th century monk who found peace in washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. He was a believer that we can experience God not just in “spiritual” activities like church but in our everyday, menial tasks.

Many contemporary authors write about this idea of experiencing God in the ordinary. Tish Harrison Warren explores this concept in her lovely book “Liturgy of the Ordinary, Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.” She breaks down a typical day, from waking up and getting dressed to losing her keys and checking e-mail, and shows how each activity is not so different from the elements of a Sunday worship service. Waking up, for example, is like baptism and “learning to be beloved.” Losing keys is like confession (because she realizes how angry and frustrated she can get by such a small thing). I particularly like her “fighting with her husband.” She compares that to passing the peace and the “everyday work of shalom.”

All of the small, ordinary events of our lives can be sacramental, says Harrison Warren, meaning that God can meet us in the “earthy, material world where we dwell.” I hope to reread this book this summer and pay more attention to the rhythms of my daily life.

This summer, unlike most summers, my family has no big travel plans. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling like I can embrace this ordinary time even more fully. Perhaps this is the summer to appreciate where I live, where God has placed me. I’m eager to attend the outdoor theater production in a neighboring town and I look forward to exploring parts of the city I’ve never been to. I know there are projects at home too. We will be putting a new roof on our house sometime in the next few months, and I’m mindful it will require patience and a heart oriented to thankfulness. I also appreciate this summer as a pause before my son’s senior year of high school, a year that will be filled with a lot of busyness as he prepares college applications and graduation requirements.

As I write this it is almost the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where I live. It’s a great time to practice savoring. In particular I remember past summers when I was traveling in some beautiful places. I especially remember several trips to Northern Spain, where, because of its geography, the sun didn’t set until nearly 10 pm. I’ll never forget the lively nighttime streets, the delicious tapas and paella, and our rosy cheeks from a day at the beach. I’d like to be back there again, but the memories are almost just as good.

What can you savor during this ordinary time? How can you build more silence into your days? And how can you be aware of the sacramental in the ordinary, everyday tasks of life? A friend of mine recently recounted how she had been gone for three weeks and when she returned a sunflower in her yard had grown about five feet! This reminded me that in this season of light and ordinariness amazing things are happening all around. This season, void of big holidays, can be the perfect time to notice the holy in the everyday and find reasons to orient ourselves toward joy and peace. We just might need more joy and peace in the busier times of year.

Getting past writer’s block and other thoughts on writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s block. Since deciding to be more disciplined about writing, I’ve suffered my share of this. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, staring at a blank screen and waiting for the words to come. You know lots of people experience it, but at that moment, when you face it, you feel like the only person in the world who is stuck. You feel isolated. It’s a lonely feeling.

I used to only write when I felt inspired, when I already had an idea forming and I could just sit down and let the words flow. Now, though, I make myself write everyday, whether I feel inspired or not. Often I do have a kernel of an idea. But many times, I freeze up. I can’t develop the kernel. I don’t have enough to say. I switch topics or simply stare at what I’ve got and think for a long time.

Sometimes I avoid the discomfort of writer’s block by avoiding writing altogether. I’m pretty good at that. Today, for instance, I found all sorts of things to do instead of sit at my desk. I started a load of laundry. I picked up the house. I noticed my bowl of lemons and remembered the recipe my sister-in-law gave me to make preserved lemons. I hunted for the old recipe and made a shopping list. I finally sat down at my desk and answered some e-mails. Then I got hungry. I had to eat. How could I use up the asparagus and noodles in my refrigerator? I threw them together on the stove with some cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon and butter sauce. I was feeling like I had accomplished a lot—but I hadn’t written a word.

When I first decided to write more I cut back on my hours at work and pledged to dedicate that time to writing. Surely I would be churning out lots of great pieces! Instead I ran into a wall of writer’s block. I was trying to write was about my recent travels to Guatemala. It had been life changing and full of adventure but I discovered I couldn’t convey the experience the way I wanted and I was frustrated. After two weeks of tweaking, I had written an accurate summary of the trip but something was missing. I was so concerned in getting the big picture right that I forgot some of the rich details—the taste of the juicy mangos the village women gave us, the bump of the bus ride, and the odd juxtaposition of so many things, like the villagers’ cellphones hanging from their handmade woven belts. I would write the piece differently now—and maybe I will.

I’m realizing more and more that good writing takes time. All creative work involves patience and attention. Meanwhile, other kinds of work bring more instant rewards—and that’s alluring. I worked at a bookstore for almost three years. I enjoyed helping customers find the book they wanted so desperately they couldn’t even wait for Amazon to deliver it. Either that or they came specifically to support their local bookstore. Then I would ring up their sale. I loved working the cash register. I always felt like a kid who was playing store, as though I was handling fake money. I enjoyed shelving new books fresh out of the box. I even enjoyed gift wrapping books, from carefully measuring out the paper from our big roll to affixing ribbons and a gold sticker. At the end of my shift, I saw tangible results. With writing, I don’t always get to see a neatly wrapped package at the end of the day. I’m learning to be satisfied with that.

The most challenging thing about the kind of writing I’m doing is that nobody is the boss but me. I have to set my own goals. Only I know if I’ve wasted time surfing the internet or shopping online or reorganizing my closets. I’ve crossed paths with many creative types this past year and one thing I know for sure is that this work involves discipline. You have to show up and submit to the process, anticipating that writer’s block or lack of inertia is all part of it.

For me discipline involves a bit of hocus-pocus. I once knew a woman writing her dissertation who wore a special hat whenever she sat down to write. I don’t have a hat but instead I set up a schedule and an inviting space. I try to sit down to write at the same time everyday. I keep a notebook with two to-do lists: one with my writing goals and one with my other tasks. I tell myself I can’t work on those other tasks until after I write. Various rituals encourage this: hot coffee at my desk, a clean workspace and a pad of lined paper for jotting notes. I try my hardest to protect this time. Most days this works; other times it doesn’t.

I marvel at writers like Mark Twain who could write eight or ten hours a day with barely an interruption. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point—I’m not even sure I want that. What I have discovered though, is that writing leads to more writing. Many writers talk about how they feel a compulsion to write every day. They can’t live without it. The more I write, the more I understand that. Writer’s block aside, the writing process is an exciting experience of discovery. You discover new ideas you didn’t even know you had or had never formally stated. That can be intoxicating. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

I recently read writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” She proposes that ideas live in the universe independently of humans. An idea might decide to visit you at a certain juncture in your life and if you are ready for it, you can work with it. If you’re not ready, it will find another “home.” She illustrates this with a story about how she once tried to write a book about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert worked on the book for several years but got sidelined by personal issues and put the project aside. Then Gilbert met writer Ann Patchett. After getting to know each other, Gilbert eventually learned that Patchett was working on a new novel. And what is the novel about? It’s a novel about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert is astounded to learn that her idea had migrated to Patchett! Patchett’s book became the bestselling novel “State of Wonder.”

I’m not sure I fully believe Gilbert’s idea that ideas are independent. But I’d like to. It adds to the mystery of this whole process. It also reinforces the concept that we are all intertwined and connected in powerful ways that we can’t even see. Our experiences and interactions with others become like an elixir we can spill out on the page. Our words, in turn, then influence the next person that reads them and we never quite know the outcome.

Creative work demands not only discipline, but courage. I need to believe that I have something important to say. I have something original to add to the large body of material already out there. Writer’s block often creeps in when I’m feeling doubtful and shy. I need to look writer’s block in the face and say, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to write anyway. This may not be a masterpiece, but it’s good enough.”

How do you face creative blocks? I’m always eager to hear how other writers or creative types work and think. Where do you get inspiration? How do you stay disciplined? Do you talk to other writers? Do you talk to yourself? For me the process, in all its meandering mysterious ways, is almost as interesting as the product itself.

When I worked at the bookstore, I always enjoyed hearing famous writers come in and talk about their writing process. None of them said it was easy. I take heart, knowing even the best struggle and have their good days and bad days. I know that all of this is part of the larger process, a process I’m only beginning to understand.

Exploring the mind-body connection

Do you have a favorite time of day? Maybe it’s looking forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning. Maybe it’s listening to your favorite song or podcast on the way home from work.

I have a few favorite times. One time is at the end of my day, maybe around 11:30 pm. That’s when I’m usually in bed, journal or book in hand, my Schnauzer cuddled up next to me. It’s also when my younger son TJ joins me, ostensibly to cuddle with the dog for a few minutes, but also for a little mom time and a back rub.

Not so many years ago TJ was a little boy and I would tuck him in his bed among his stuffed animals after reading to him. As he approached adolescence I knew those days were numbered and I became wistful that he’d no longer want that nighttime ritual. A few years later I did stop reading to TJ and instead he and his older brother Miguel simply chatted with each other as they fell asleep. Then, Miguel left for college and TJ felt alone in his big room. That’s when he started coming to me to hang out for a while before bedtime.

Mostly, our conversations revolve around the dog. Where is Romeo’s favorite place to be scratched? Is he putting on some weight? What does he dream about? In between, I read a few pages of a book and TJ looks at Reddit on his laptop. Every so often I’ll glance over in amazement at TJ’s lanky six-foot frame stretched out next to me. How did my little boy grow into this big man? Eventually, if TJ stays a long time, my husband will come in and kick him out. But he’s reluctant to interrupt our time together.

I thought of all this recently as I learned in my spiritual direction program the importance of engaging mind and body in spiritual practices. The times of hanging out with TJ before bedtime, being close physically and mentally, are almost spiritual experiences. It feels like time stops for a while. I get a sense of the transcendent in everyday life.

At my spiritual direction group this week one of the facilitators started our meeting by reminding us that it was holy week, the most important week of the Christian year. She asked us to pray holding our palms open and facing up, as a physical symbol of letting go of those things that were weighing on us. I thought of the many worries on my mind and the things I wanted to resolve. Then I thought of Jesus’ life. He only lived 33 years and, from a human perspective, that seems short. Think of how many more miracles he could have performed or sermons he could have given had he lived longer! Yet he lived a perfect life. As I sat in prayer, with my hands open, I asked God to release my striving to complete and resolve so many things. Our meeting continued on for several more hours, but that moment, with my palms turned up, was the most transcendent.

Lent and Easter can be a good time to remember the mind-body-spirit connection. For Lent we often give up something physical, like a certain food, to focus on the holy. This year, instead of giving something up, I added something healthy. A friend challenged me to walk to church instead of driving. Since the walk is only about 10 minutes, this wasn’t difficult. I just had to remember to give myself an extra 10 minutes to get to church. The extra walking felt good. I didn’t exactly pray during the walks but I found myself in a state of gratitude as I admired the neighbors’ blooming daffodils and tulip trees. I always paused at a small creek where I could hear the spring rains running by, down to the bay. One morning I saw a family of deer cross the street. I arrived at church on Sundays in a more contented, relaxed state. This is one Lenten practice I’ll hope to keep.

Last night I participated in our Maundy Thursday service, which culminated in a powerful mind-body-spirit experience—washing each other’s feet. We did this to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet to show his love toward them. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to wash another person’s feet and get my feet washed in return. My partner and I let a family with two small children go ahead of us in line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the young children were eager to participate. They each had a turn in the chair, dangling their legs above the water bowl and eagerly leaning forward to get their feet washed. When that was done, they cried out, “I want to wash your feet Mommy! Can I do it, please!” It reminded me that kids aren’t self-conscious about their bodies. They can enter into an experience in a way adults often can’t—or can only through some effort. I wanted to be a bit more like those kids.

Today is Good Friday and I will once again go to church. It will be a somber service. The sanctuary will be dark except for a few candles that will be gradually snuffed out. At the end of the service we will take turns holding a heavy hammer and pounding nails into a large wooden cross. The sound of pounding will ring in my head for hours afterwards. I will remember Jesus’ short and perfect life. I will experience his suffering and death in a tiny way through the sights and sounds of the service. I would rather skip over this part of the story but I realize darkness and pain are part of our reality. I will attend this service, if not out of desire, then out of obedience to the truth of the whole story. And fortunately today isn’t the end of the story.

What will I remember of this Easter season? I may remember that this was a time when I saw more clearly the integration of mind, body and spirit. I will be thankful that I have many teachers of this lesson—my son, my spiritual direction group, friends and friends’ children. I will commit to living not just in one dimension, but in all my wholeness, slanting toward joy.

“I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” – Thomas Merton

Embracing Walden Pond

“Sometimes the truth depends on a walk around the lake” – Wallace Stevens

Several years ago I was staying with a friend in Boston and he suggested we visit Walden Pond. He had always wanted to go and, knowing I was a writer, thought I might enjoy seeing the place where Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous treatise on living a life of simplicity in the woods.

It was early April and the ground was slushy with snow when we visited Walden Pond. It took us at least an hour to slosh our way around the “pond,” which is really more like a small lake. We paused midway through to look in awe at the posts indicating the spot where Thoreau had built his 10-by-15-foot cabin (it no longer stands). Thoreau lived here for two years in 1845 and 1846 while he experimented with meditation, solitude and nature observation.

I had mostly forgotten about the trip to Walden Pond until I saw my friend recently. As it turns out, he enjoyed the excursion so much that he continues to visit the pond frequently. Something about the place has touched his spirit. For a few hours he can set aside his life as a busy doctor and soak in the beauty, quiet and stillness that Walden Pond offers.

I think of this today as I’m preparing to see several people in my new role as a spiritual director intern. For the next nine months I’ve been assigned to meet with four people and listen to their stories. I will help them identify their Walden Ponds, those places in their life that bring them solace or connect them to something greater than themselves. I’ll also listen to their wonderings, questions, and most likely, pain. As a spiritual director, I am not a counselor who will fix their problems. I am there to accompany them along whatever journey they are on, believing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our conversation. Most people will come wanting to deepen their relationship with God. Other people may be exploring God or their spiritual life for the first time.

I first experienced spiritual direction myself 20 years ago, when my pastor led a group of us through the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. I saw my pastor monthly for a year and we simply talked about life and how I was experiencing God. This was a revelation. Although I had been a Christian since childhood I had never talked with anyone about God in such a direct way. It’s one thing to believe that God spoke to people in the Bible or maybe that he hears my prayers. But it’s another thing to believe that he is speaking to me today in even small things like sunsets or synchronicities—and to give voice to that experience with another human being.

Spiritual direction is countercultural. Our culture thrives on information, entertainment and noise. In spiritual direction we light a candle, invite God’s presence and take an hour to slow down and just be. The spiritual director may ask a few questions, such as: “What was life like for you today?” or “Can you describe the time today you felt most free—or least free?” Mostly though, the spiritual director listens and helps the directee go deeper into their story. The director may notice that the directee has strong emotions around a certain topic and ask the directee to say more about that. Or the director may point out certain rich words the directee uses and highlight those as significant signposts, worthy of attention. Other times, the director may suggest a few minutes of silence in the conversation. This is the ultimate countercultural gesture and for those new to direction, it may be uncomfortable at first.

It surprises people to learn that a spiritual director is not highly directive. The title of director is a little misleading. As one of our books described, the director is more of a companion or midwife. The directee is the one birthing new ideas and thoughts and the director simply helps them attend to those. The Holy Spirit is the real director. To be sure, there are models of spiritual direction in which the director is more directive, for example in the model used by orthodox priests. The model I’ve been trained in, however, positions the director much more in the place of fellow traveler.

My journey in training to be a spiritual director has taken its own twists and turns. When I started my program a year ago I envisioned the training to be mostly a head exercise. I assumed I’d be learning facts and techniques. I was only partially right. We have learned some of these things, down to some “technical” concepts like transference, whereby a directee might transfer feelings they had toward some person in their past to the current director, because the Director reminds them of that person. Or there is counter-transference whereby the director transfers feelings they had for a past person toward the directee. It is good to be aware of these dynamics and other nuts and bolts issues. However, where I’ve really been impacted is during our “practice” sessions of spiritual direction itself.

Each time we meet for training we take up roles as either director or directee, with a trained facilitator observing us. These are real sessions when we bring our real anxieties, experiences and joys to light. In these sessions as a directee I’ve talked about everything from the desire I’m feeling to spend more time writing to the sadness I’m feeling over a strained relationship. Most of the time I’ve felt a great lightness after these times of sharing and I feel buoyed even days afterwards. Sometimes I’ve felt a great heaviness as I talk over a difficult topic and I realize I need to give that issue more attention. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual direction. The director usually has not directed me in any specific way; it is the Holy Spirit leading me. When I’ve taken on the role of director, I’ve sometimes been nervous. But I relax as I take in the directee’s honestness and vulnerability and I do my best to pay attention and listen well.

There are twelve of us in the spiritual direction training program and each person brings their own unique personality and strengths to their role as director. We are a diverse group of different ages, genders, interests and faith experiences and it gives me some relief to know we don’t have to fit a certain mold. In my case, I see a lot of overlap between writing/creative work and spiritual direction. A few months ago I took a class on how to interview people. The teacher told us to look for the “gold tape,” or that part of the interview that has the most energy, and “cut” for that. In spiritual direction we are also taught to “pan for gold,” to identify those places in the conversation that glimmer and go deeper in those areas. Those nuggets will often be things that the directee wants to savor—or they may be things for which the directee feels some resistance. Both of these experiences, savoring and resisting, are things we don’t generally take time to note in a “normal” conversation. We often rush through our everyday conversations in a great hurry without much contemplation.

When I visited Walden Pond I was surprised to learn that Thoreau wasn’t in complete isolation in his cabin for two years. He often entertained visitors and walked into town every day or two. If even Thoreau needed companions on his journey, then we all must need it! There is something powerful about verbalizing thought that gives it more weight. And then too, we often discover our true feelings only through sharing our thoughts with an attentive listener. In this way, spiritual direction is a gift I’ve been given and it’s a gift I want to give others. As Thoreau said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

When brothers become good friends

My son and I surveyed the stacks of clean clothes on his bed. Did he have everything he needed for his second year in college? And what about his guitar propped against the wall? Should he bring that along too? We bantered back and forth about packing details and I tried to imagine what it was going to be like for my son to move into his first apartment off campus this year.

Then Miguel suddenly turned to me with a bigger question. “When can TJ come visit me?,” he said, referring to his 16-year-old brother. “I don’t want to wait until his spring break or anything. That’s too far.”

This wasn’t a question I was fully expecting. But I was thrilled to know that Miguel wanted to spend time with TJ. It makes sense. This past summer my boys bonded in a way they never have before. It wasn’t something I planned or anticipated.

“I challenge you to a game to 21.” It’s one of the more frequent statements I heard this summer. Thus would start a long night of ping-pong games that would easily last until 2 or 3 am. I made sure to close my window before going to sleep so the tap tap of the balls of the balls didn’t wake me up. And this would be after a day of playing online games and perfecting various grilled cheese sandwich recipes for lunch.

It wasn’t always this way. Although my kids did a lot together when they were little, they developed different interests as they got older. Miguel likes cooking, exploring new places and golf. TJ is a gamer with a cohort of online friends across the country. By the time Miguel got to high school and TJ was in middle school, they rarely did activities together. It’s not that they didn’t get along; they just lived in separate worlds much of the time. I was sad they didn’t do more together.

All of that changed this summer. In June we took a family trip to Guatemala and the last hotel we stayed at had a ping-pong table. The boys enjoyed seeing the sights –ancient Mayan pyramids and beautiful jungles–but what they really liked was the ping-pong every night at the hotel. The day after we got back from our trip, they drove over to grandma and grandpa’s house, loaded up their old table in a friend’s van, and set it up on our patio.

“Isn’t it great we’re so evenly matched,” TJ said to me after a few weeks of playing.

“The only problem is that our friends can’t keep up,” Miguel said.

In hindsight, I now realize my boys’ relationship didn’t change overnight. It began to shift last year, when Miguel was away for his freshman year in New York. The boys spoke frequently on Facetime, mostly talking about the latest music and videos, which had always been Miguel’s domain. Then Miguel began to take an interest in TJ’s online gaming world and joined his chat forum, where he got to know TJ’s friends.

For spring break TJ and I visited New York and the boys appreciated each others’ special qualities.

“TJ is so funny. He made all my friends laugh,” Miguel reported after TJ had spent the night in his dorm room.

The next day we were walking down Fifth Avenue and I commented that it could be fun to take a double-decker tour bus around the city.

“We don’t need to do that,” TJ said. “Miguel is an expert New York City guide.”

Those moments made my heart swell. I relished the fact that my boys saw the positive sides of one another.

Ironically, if it had been up to me, I may have quashed my boys’ bonding this summer. Early on I was worried they both had too much unstructured time and several times I suggested they both do more “productive” activities. At one point I asked them if they had any goals.

“No, I don’t have any goals,” said Miguel. “I just want to spend time with friends and TJ. I’ll get an internship next summer.”

“I agree,” said TJ.

I didn’t give up so easily though. I schemed with my husband about how he could hire them to do some office work at his accounting firm. This kept them busy for a week or two but then they finished the projects and it was back to hanging out at home. (Miguel did have a catering job, but it was mostly on weekends.)

Fortunately I decided to back off and their relationship deepened even more. At midnight one night between ping-pong games, Miguel invited TJ on a road trip with a friend. The plan was to leave at 6 am the next morning and drive to a national park five hours away. Uncharacteristically, TJ readily agreed, leaving his computer behind for several days. They camped, tried mountain biking for the first time and floated in inner tubes down a river. After years of planning family vacations together, I was glad to see the boys could execute a wonderful vacation by themselves.

I’m not sure where my boys’ relationship will go next. They have so much to face still in life—college, relationships, careers. If they are like my brother and I, they will bond just as much or more over the low points than the high points. I’m just glad they have reached a solid point of friendship that has blossomed despite the distance and their differences. It gives me solace to know they are taking a genuine interest in one another and can support each other in the years ahead.

Looking to life beyond us

In the 2105 movie “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after a dust storm causes the rest of his crew to flee. Watney knows he must make contact with the crew in order to be rescued. He is completely alone in the barren landscape of Mars. Yet he manages to keep his faith that somehow, some way he will reconnect with his team and make it home. He puts his efforts into surviving.

Sometimes Earth itself can be a lonely place too. It can feel quite desolate. We often feel we have to use all our wits to just make it one day to the next. Yet many of us have faith that there’s another thing out there in the universe that is constantly rescuing us, leading us “home.” This thing is called God and he is interested in every detail of our life.

Recently I’ve been challenged to reaffirm my belief that God is a God who cares about the big and small details of our lives. I’ve embarked on a program to train to be a spiritual director. The core of being a spiritual director is listening to people’s lives and helping them see where God has been present. It is an ancient practice that is enjoying a resurgence of interest at a time when many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, are seeking to know more about spirituality and God.

In my program the last six months, we’ve explored various contemplative practices, such as journaling, the Prayer of the Examen, centering prayer, contemplative listening, and imaginative prayer. In addition, I’ve continued meeting with my own spiritual director. In each of these practices, I’ve trusted that God is present and sometimes I catch a word or image that feels like it’s just for me. My general experience as a result of all these practices is a feeling of nourishment and well-being.

This is not to say there have not been challenges, doubts and fears. In “The Martian,” Mark Watney initially has success growing his own food thanks to the fact he had potatoes he could plant and his own waste to use as fertilizer. Then, however, a storm destroys the greenhouse he has built and he is back to ground zero. In the same way, just when I feel I am understanding spiritual direction or God, a storm blows through, causing me to rethink things.

Early on in my spiritual direction journey, I became friends with a woman who is a staunch atheist but finds herself in a space that is causing her to explore the possibility that God might just exist. In our weekly discussions she asks me just how is it that a loving God can allow suffering. Or why God seems so selfish in demanding our complete obedience. I’ve had to admit that I don’t have adequate answers to these mysteries, yet I still affirm that God cares about us deeply. I’ve never been in a relationship in which another person has so persistently questioned God, and, to be fair to the questions, I’ve questioned him too.

It’s easy to see God in the good things but not so easy to understand him in the perceived absences. Not long after I started the spiritual direction training program, I learned I would have to change my own spiritual director, whom I had seen for several years. I was upset. I had grown to trust her guidance and rely on her support. To make matters worse, just as I had to change directors several difficult relationship issues came to a head. How could God pull away this support in a time of need? I eventually did find a new director but not without much fretting. In hindsight, I realize we are almost constantly in a state of need and the months I was without a director made me feel even more strongly that having a director is a good thing—though it’s not the only thing. I can and did receive “direction” from other people.

When Mark Watney was left behind on Mars, it didn’t take long for NASA to realize his predicament. Although communication lines were cut, they desperately tried to reach him. Is God the same way with us, using any and all means to communicate with us? My faith tradition and experience tells me the answer is yes. And the contemplative practices and spiritual direction help me to slow down and see the signs. They even help me examine my doubts.

One thing so far is sure. God doesn’t leave us as we are. Through the contemplative practices and spiritual direction, I can see the faint outlines of change. As my atheist friend points out, personal growth is what God seems to be after. It may be too early to see the big picture of all this. That can wait.