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can’t fly without wings

We are all called to be saints. This is a common message shared at All Saints’ Day, which is a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church. This means I’ve been going to mass for years, drawing inspiration from the saints.

One year, a Jesuit at our school, Fr. Bruce, challenged us to look at the lives of the saints (those who are officially canonized and the people in our lives we look to as saintly) and then look at our own lives and contemplate how we can live this in our own way.

I have a very easy time identifying those in my life who are inspirations to me, saintly people in my daily life. I also believe in angels, spirits that accompany us on our journey. Not to conflate the two, but I often find saintly people to have an aura about them, almost as if the presence of their guardian angel can be felt.

In Theology studies at Loyola University we were challenged to engage in the study of “higher things” as we make our way as creatures here on earth. Focusing on higher things, while being rooted in earthly things, is a way of describing the path to sainthood. When I was younger I believed that in order to do this, I literally needed to look up, because that’s where heaven is. I also believed that in order to get there, I needed wings.

For most of my adult life, I laughed at this way of thinking. It was naïve and overly simplistic. It turns out that I don’t think I was too far off.

Recently a friend gave me a copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. My heart leapt when I read this passage, “With two wings a man is lifted up above earthly things: that is, with simplicity and purity.” He goes on to explain how living with this duel focus will free us from what binds us, all that holds us back from being who we were created to be.

So I do need wings.

It is a tall order, and one I found to be inspirational and haunting in it’s accuracy. Rising above the daily hinderances which inhibit freedom requires personal focus and communal support. As I was reminded earlier this year by a guest speaker, Carlos Aedo, who said “no one is saved alone.” As I’ve grown in understanding, I now know that heaven is much closer than I think. Focusing on higher things involves looking up but also looking around, being inspired by the people in my life and as St. Ignatius of Loyola would say, “see God in all things.” Thankfully, I can now believe this and also let my imagination run free with the childlike notion of having wings that help me soar free from all that holds me back.

“I can’t get to heaven without wings.” Maybe that wasn’t such a silly thought after all.

with passion

“Alright, time to read!”

“Nope. Time for soccer.”

(Ball flies across the room and hits drawings off wall)

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple hours with third graders for what was supposed to be drop everything and read time. For the first twenty minutes after picking out their favorite books, soccer seemed to dominate their attention. I had a realization after the third failed attempt to get them to focus –

they were b o r e d.

Last week I saw a former student and had this conversation. “Wow, I remember you sitting in the back row of the classroom. I used to feel so bad because for so long I thought you weren’t paying attention out of disrespect, but then after grading your tests I figured out it was just out of boredom.” We laughed and he told me about his plans to finish his senior year in college. Leaving the store, all I could think about was how I wish I came to this realization earlier – how many students did I think were being rude, but at the core were just uninterested?

I briefly won the battle against soccer.

I started using voices, acting out the dropping of dishes, waving flags, and speaking slower when a pivotal moment in the story presented itself. Sure enough, almost thirty minutes later, I looked around to see sets of eyes focused with anticipation.

Soccer followed our reading time and I don’t think any major breakthroughs occurred, but we read. All it took was a shift, despite the perceived interest not being there, regardless of how powerful the soccer lobby was, bringing new energy and even being silly was what made it happen.

This isn’t just about the third graders or my former brilliant back row scholar, this is a reminder of the potential daily situations where my body language falsely communicates passivity.

Proceed with passion, that’s what I learned in class.

what my soul helps me see

When the Soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it. 
― Meister Eckhart

A few minutes from my door, there is a place that has many of these images waiting for me. It’s home of bold exhibitions, complex expressions of joy, pain, injustice and beauty – the Baltimore Museum of Art.

I treasure the hours I’ve spent there with my fiancée, like this date where we were invited to leave hearts on the pieces of art we loved the most.

Each curated selection evokes different emotions, but there are some to which we keep coming back. For me, one of these is Artist in Greenland by Rockwell Kent. Maybe it’s the color scheme and lighting, maybe it’s the simplicity. Maybe it’s how it seems to greet me like an old friend, with a mixture of familiarity and surprise.

Last time it made me laugh.

Even though the painters face is hidden, all I could see is a proud smile as to say, “Look at how beautiful this is! I painted it so I can be reminded of it every day.”

The glacier pictured is probably long gone, but the joyful scenario has survived – someone sledding to their favorite wonder, taking the time to capture it, then covering and tying the canvas creation to their sled before heading home.

Maybe I’m so drawn to this piece because I too try to hold on to scenes, to moments.

Being that Anita lives in D.C., often I find myself dreading dropping her off at the train station because that means our time has come to an end. However, it’s this same train station that I drive past that brings me great joy. Just as I cope with her leaving, my soul throws out images of her walking towards me when I go to pick her up, and it challenges me to see things differently.

an unknown know nothing

I heard a political commentator mention that the candidate who will be the most successful in the 2020 election, will be the one who is able to steal the spotlight long enough to get their point across.

Speech and debate was way outside my comfort zone in high school, but as an adult I was able to attend a high school tournament and support some students. While sitting in the back of the classroom, I observed a Lincoln-Douglas debate and at times shifted nervously in my seat. After a few exchanges, it became clear that one student was far superior. They knew their facts, had a dominant presence and dispensed zingers at just the right time. I began to feel bad for the other student as they scrambled to save face.

by Cédric Lothby

On the main street in a part of Montreal populated by many schools and museums, sat this statue.

I stopped my run to spend some time with it, and then the rest of my way home I wondered why it moved me so much. Then it hit me, it was the struggling student from the Lincoln-Douglas debate.

A mixture of stress, fear and worry, the face of both this statue and that student has also stayed with me because it looks all too familiar – I see it in my mirror.

Over the years I’ve realized that as I become less worried about saying the wrong thing or not having my statistics exactly correct, I become less familiar with this face. Recently, at times, I notice it has been replaced by a different one – the other student in the classroom – the confident debate winner with the zingers. Just yesterday in a conversation I caught myself one-upping and saying things like, another thing to remember, rather than listening and processing what was shared with me.

So what’s the lesson here? I’m not running for president and there are no judges declaring a winner or loser. Being that school is about to start up again, I’m so grateful for this reminder. In every interaction I can certainly try to be more like the intellectual, witty, well-known know-it-all, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with being closer to the second-guessing, nervous, unknown know nothing who realizes there’s still a lot more work to be done. Thomas Merton said it best,

Pride makes us artificial; humility makes us real.

The downhill optimist

The road rises to challenge me, not to meet me.

My pace slows, my lungs burn, and I’m taught yet another lesson.

As I’ve said before, for the longest time I have been in awe of runners who choose to run trails instead of roads – hills instead of flats. Running is tough enough as it is, no?

Recently, in an attempt to become a better runner, I’ve embraced running more elevation.

These hills have humbled me in the most cutting way and have made me realize the trap of the downhill optimist.

Oregon Ridge Park, MD

When preparing for the Boston marathon, I told my friend Conrad that I was not a good hill runner. I remember how he said (in the nicest of ways) that my statement wasn’t even really viable. Basically if you’re in shape – meaning you’ve trained on hills and put in the time – you’ll be able to run the hills. Until I gave legitimate hill training a shot, how would I know if I was a good hill runner? It reminded me of the scene in Man on Fire where Denzel Washington teaches Dakota Fanning,

There’s no such thing as tough just – trained or untrained

He also spoke to me about the importance of mindset and that I can change how I speak to myself and begin affirming and viewing myself as a strong hill runner.

Yesterday on the hills in Patapsco, I was nearly brought to my knees on what is far from an impossible hill. A few minutes later, on the downhill, I was loving life.

The same story forty minutes later at the end of the run going up a hill familiar to many runners (again, not the most difficult hill in MD, but a major challenge) – Gun rd.

As I jogged the final meters, thinking back over my run, I wasn’t ashamed of how slow I ran up the hills and how fast I ran down them. I was really disappointed with my mentality.

Up the hills all I was doing was surviving, down the hills all the sudden I was a competitor again.

Truth is, so much of my experience in life can be reflected in this way of proceeding. It’s too easy to go negative, too easy to relent and to start shuffling when times are tough. At times I’ve piled on myself – doubting, shaming – all just because things weren’t going my way.

I know the downhill will be waiting for me and it’ll be time to fly, and it’s easy on the bright side but the true test is what happens in the midst of the pain, in the dark.

The next time I race will be purposely on the hills and in the heat at the Annapolis ten miler. I won’t be going for a fast time, but I do have a new focus for the race and for life in general – when the prayer says “may the road rise to meet you” I don’t think it’s so life will just be easy. I think it’s so that we can learn about ourselves on this road, the ups and the downs. So now I’m telling myself, don’t be a downhill optimist.

in plain sight

Idling at a familiar intersection, my unwelcome glance was met with a foreign gesture – two raised hands.

I think we’ve all been there, someone is talking and a few minutes in, eyes start to wander and whether it’s the game being on over someone’s shoulder, or the cell phone buzzing, the message it sends isn’t positive. Often times I have chalked it up to being easily distracted, but that’s a cop-out.

When playing my favorite video game my eyes don’t leave the screen, sometimes for ten minutes at a time, so I’m fully capable of paying attention. The difference I have come to realize is that I pay attention completely to what I find important.

Last week I saw Lady Bird for the first time and was struck by this exchange:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

Paying attention is not simply making eye contact, but that’s certainly part of it. It’s about spending time, listening – intentional engagement. Now, you might be reading this thinking, yeah okay, knew that, and? Well, this post is not only about the power of focusing on what’s important, but also the dangers of wandering eyes.

street art in Rome

When passing a musician performing in New York, Penn Station, I was struck by how many people had stopped to listen. It turned out that this particular performer was Lee England Jr., who was called the Michael Jordan of the violin, by Michael Jordan. Someone in the crowd, after walking up to put a couple dollars in his violin case, turned to me and said – “If you’re going to stand here and watch, you should probably give him something.” Luckily I had a few dollars in my pocket and was able to contribute. Now, it turns out that Lee England Jr. wasn’t playing for the money, but for the community and the love of music. Regardless, his melodies and the words of my fellow listener resonated with me on the train ride home.

If you’re going to stand here and watch, you should probably give him something.

Unpacking that statement with the most positive interpretation led me to a helpful insight – if I’m going to benefit from someone sharing their gifts, I should attempt to communicate my appreciation.

Unpacking this statement with a cautionary interpretation also led me to a helpful insight – if I’m going to stop and stare, just in curiosity, and not communicate appreciation, it might simply just be rude and maybe I should just move on and stay focused on what I’m doing.

The two raised hands belonged to a man eating a sandwich outside of Burger King. I should have just kept my eyes on the road, except I didn’t and my eyes lingered long enough to make him gesture his disapproval.

Chalk it up to being easily distracted is the easy thing to do, the more difficult option is to be cognizant of where and if I’m paying my attention, and if it’s welcomed.

Just because someone is in public, doesn’t mean they’re on display.

navel-gazing < stargazing

Wait, what? (pulls out phone)

When reading the New York Times, this is common practice for me.

It happened tonight when reading an opinion piece. The term navel-gazing stopped me in my tracks. I’m ashamed to say, despite hours of flashcards prepping for the SAT’s, english classes and a robust humanities curriculum in college, I have never seen that word before. Maybe Netflix and Instagram have rotted my brain, but I am pretty sure I was today years old when I learned the meaning of navel-gazing.

Context clues revealed it to have a negative connotation and when googled, navel-gazinguseless or excessive self-contemplation

This new information challenged me.

Is my reflection and writing a form of navel-gazing, or does it have real meaning and value? This led me down a rabbit hole of self-investigation.

My preference for gazing is that of the stars.

Stargazing humbles me.

It inspires wonder and leaves me in awe.

As a child, I thought heaven was somewhere in the Milky Way, so when I looked up, I was a witness to the divine.

As an adult, I’ve realized I can witness heaven in the eyes of a loved one, the random act of kindness, or even the thoughtful critique.

In a digital world that tempts us to look into our devices, the last thing we need is navel-gazing.

Sometimes ideas hold us down; they become heavy anchors that hold the bark of identity fixated in shallow, dead water.

John O’Donohue

Excessive self-contemplation can be harmful because it can cement damaging ideas, and more importantly, it distracts us from focusing on what’s really important. It reminds me of when the angel appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James in Matthew 28.

…suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 

There they were, two faithful disciples faithfully searching, and an angel invites them to raise their eyes to their savior, reminding them there is more to life than what we can see and more life in what we do see.

Sometimes the answers aren’t on the inside, they’re lost and found in the night, and if we have hope, even in broad daylight.