Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Gifts of Simplicity and Time

The last two months have been busy: I vacationed for two weeks, which always means, for me, about four weeks—an initial week of packing and planning, two weeks away, and then a week of recuperating. So there went November with no postings and no blogging.
         Then came December and a posting in which I gave you a brief glimpse into my convent life in Seneca, Kansas. The following week, flu visited. After it’s departure, I tried to live the expectation of Advent, but found myself instead caught up in the frenzy of Christmas.
         I say frenzy because that’s what the last week has felt like: shopping for gifts and groceries, baking cookies and quick bread for gifts, wrapping and boxing all the gifts for sending to friends elsewhere.
         Then, decorating the house and the tree and writing messages on Christmas cards.

. . . by Marcel Rieder, 1898

         Next, shopping for the ingredients for the Christmas Eve meal at my home and for the pies and salad I’ll take to the Christmas Day family gathering at my brother and sister-in-law’s home.
         And finally, getting ready for a guest who’s coming to spend a few day with me and the cats.
         Each year, those of us who celebrate Advent and Christmas must decide how we will embrace these two seasons. This year, the planning, shopping, decorating, gifting, and visiting have ensnared me.
         I started off with good intentions, but I’ve gotten lost in the maze of trying to do too much in too short a time. And that “too much” is mostly unnecessary if a person—like myself—would like to live the simplicity of Advent and of the age-old story that prompts the celebration of Christmas.
         It is a story of the birth of a child. Like Nelson Mandela, this child grew up and found himself interacting with those imprisoned by illness and need, ignorance and hatred, fear and greed.
         His response, like Mandela’s, inspires all of us. Both dedicated their lives to helping others. Both gave us the gift of their wisdom. Their lives were great gifts from and to the Universe.

. . . "The Magi Journeying" by James Tissot

         The giving of gifts at Christmas comes from the ancient story of the Magi visiting that child born long ago in a far-flung Roman province. These wise men brought with them gifts for the child and so, we, too, bear gifts for others during this season. A tapestry depicting this event would be sewn with multicolored threads—the pink-tinged joy of dawn and the golden contentment of sunset.
         This year, I have lost both in the flurry of gift giving. So yesterday I wrote myself a letter to be opened on the first Sunday of Advent in 2014. In that letter, I advise myself to enter the season of simplicity with a heart centered on the truths underlying the Christmas stories of a birth in Bethlehem, a visit by awe-struck shepherds to a manger, and a journey by three gift-bearing magi. Within these stories is a humanity I want to embrace. And that demands a simplicity I lost this year.
         But the season is not over. And so last evening, I decided to give myself the gift of time. Time away from feeling that I must do this or that or something else that in the arc of my life is a merest grain of sand.
         By giving myself the gift of time, I hope to enter into a simplicity that will bring forth the gratitude and wide-eyed wonder that for me is essential to the celebration of Christmas.
         And when I return to posting on January 9, 2014, and to reading and commenting on your blogs on January 6—the feast of the Three Kings—I will be able to truly respond to them because I won’t feel the frantic need to get “this” done so that I can move on to get “that” done.
         In your blogs, you share your lives with all of us. I am choosing to read those blogs when time permits me to respond thoughtfully and fully to the life you share. I trust fully that you understand this.
         May the remainder of Advent and the entire Christmas season bring you whatever your deepest heartwish is. Peace.

The paintings are from Wikipedia.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Flu's Visiting

Hello All, on this crisp morning in December. I meant to post another story about my life in the Seneca, Kansas, mission during the 1961-62 school year. But the flu bug conquers all!

I did get the flu shot as I've done each year for nearly two decades, but that yearly shot hasn't kept me from having flu three or four times a winter. I'm lucky that each bout lasts only a couple of days.

This one began with a headache that lasted ten hours, despite my taking some prescription medication. Once the headache vamoosed, flu ached in the muscles and nausea greeted my stomach. So I'm going to simply drink lots of fluids, munch on soda crackers, and eat applesauce for the next couple of days.

And sleep!

And visit the site where I'm enjoying the Jacquie Lawson Advent calendar this season. Here's a winter scene from a Dutch artist. It reminds me of the Edwardian-mansion scene on the calendar. Very Downton Abbey.

Take care. Keep warm. And keep your head covered when you go outside in the chill. Peace.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Refusal to Accept Life as I Found It

In the ‘50s I listened as Nat King Cole sang “Smile.”
That song influenced my whole way of looking at life
when I was young and wanted to please everyone.

In the fall of this year, I posted a series of stories about my introductory teaching assignment after making first vows as a scholastic in January 1960. The memories of that Omaha classroom are unclouded in my mind. I’ve never forgotten those seventh graders who challenged both my mind and my heart.
         But the years after that—in Seneca, Kansas City, and Baileyville—are not as memorable because not as challenging. I have little memory of the students I taught from the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1966 because the truth really is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and almost all the students in my subsequent classes were eager to learn and to please. The seventh graders in Omaha had been “squeaky wheels.” As such, they were unforgettable.
         In the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission. My memories of the students and the classroom there are dim. What I do remember clearly, however, is my surprise at the discovery of just how human nuns could be and were. I remember that and also how hard I worked to shape my negative impressions into a positive image.

In the ‘40s I’d heard Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sing this song.
Its emphasis on the positive influenced my outlook on life
until I found myself falling apart when I was in my forties.

         At that time, the Mount convent housed more than six hundred nuns. I knew only a few of them from my college days and from my eighteen months in the novitiate. Still, I habitually refused to acknowledge any evidence that didn’t support the romantic, unrealistic, and erroneous view I had of the convent and of religious vocations. For Sister Innocence of the Order of Saint Benedict, nuns were called to be saints and so they were. They  had to be or my carefully constructed view of life would come tumbling down.
         The nuns in Omaha had not dissuaded me from that view. Sister Brendan, the superior there, was everything I thought a superior should be. But a handful of nuns and the superior in Seneca were an entirely different matter. I judged them, rather harshly.
         I judged rather than simply accept that any group of people is going to be mixed in every way. There will be healers, peacemakers, gossips, malingers. There will be the compassionate, joyous, generous, kind, helpful, brilliant, gleeful, curious, prayerful, gentle, shy, and unassuming. There will also be the vengeful, obsequious, gossipy, ashamed, guilt-ridden, embittered, nosy, domineering, self-serving, gregarious, judgmental, imperious, selfish, mean, self-centered,  self-absorbed, and depressed.
         There will be, that is, all the human traits that we meet everywhere, in every group. Those traits might be muted by the life of service the nuns have chosen, but the traits—whether admirable or not—are ingrained and do not disappear with the making of vows.  
         In the first weeks of my life in Seneca, I knew I was judging others. That wasn’t, I thought, the way a nun should act. And so in an attempt to mend and reverse the judgments in my mind, I found all sorts of reasons for why the superior and the nuns would act the way they did. Rather then accept their humanity, I twisted my thoughts into a skein of knots. I made my own reality.

In the ‘50s Nat King Cole encouraged all of us to “Pretend.”
 I learned to do that very well when I was young.

         Next Thursday I hope to share with you some of the very human traits I found on that mission. Traits I refused to accept. Instead I concentrated on my own judgmental attitude and found myself despicable.
         Thus I began to travel the path that led to my leaving on Christmas Eve of 1966. I left broken, not so much by the convent but by my own struggle to create nirvana in the midst of the gathering of humanity in which I found myself.
         It wasn’t so much that I found the nuns and the convent wanting. It was that I found myself so far short of perfection. And that, my friends, was my undoing—the belief that to be loved one must be perfect.