Heart explosion

Much of this weekend was spent in religious services, which also means that much of the weekend was spent with me tearing up from all the beauty.

On Saturday, I attended the bar mitzvah of the son of our friends. Let me start by saying that I love the Jewish faith. I happily immerse myself in the prayers, the songs, the cadence of the words. I adore the history, the rituals, the intellectual leanings and conversations. I admire that one practices certain holy days at home with family and others in community at the temple. At one point in my life, I studied, just a bit, toward conversion.

So in addition to the honor of being invited to share in this very special day with friends, I looked forward to the service itself.

Still, I arrived ten minutes late. Plus, my laryngitis turned into a chesty cough, so I slid, hopefully unobtrusively, into a seat in the last row on the side, away from everyone else.

From that position, I settled into watching the bar mitzvah boy lead the service. Clear and composed, he obviously prepared well for this day. The rabbi and cantor surrounded him with infectious joy, smiling throughout the service and, at times, almost lifting themselves off the floor. Their phrasing and tone was consistently positive and upbeat. Though I entered a bit grumpy and sat on the sidelines, I couldn’t help but be quickly drawn into their current of happiness.

The service itself focused on our interconnections, God’s loving kindness, gratitude for the simple things, making this world a better place, and all those other topics that slide right into my heart and make life feel warm and wonderful and full of possibilities and love.

Because the Hebrew words and the corresponding actions do not come automatically to me, I watched others for guidance throughout the service. What page are we on? Was it time to sit or stand, bow or close our eyes? Do we all sing or is it just the cantor for this part?

As I looked around for hints, I saw so much more. The husband and wife sitting in front of me, with their school-age son between them. Each of the three of them wore a yarmulke and prayer shawl, clearly reverent. They also clearly shared a strong bond of love. The family of the bar mitzvah, each one beaming so strongly I would not have been surprised to see light pour out of their faces. The woman across the aisle from me, heartily greeting everyone who came her way as if each were a long-lost friend. The husband near the front, who tenderly put his arm around his wife at various points in the service. The son who held his mother’s hand when she need to take a few steps, and her smiling response. The sisters who read from the bimah together, supporting each other with smiles and a few giggles, then, when they finished, putting their arms around each other. All these connections demonstrating deep love and joy brought tears to my eyes.

In the midst of this crazy love, I realized that I didn’t want this service to end, and suddenly worried that it might be coming to a close. Right then, the rabbi had us pause, take a deep breath, and hold onto the beauty, sacredness and awesomeness of the moment we just all experienced together. My heart expanded until it was about to explode and I could have screamed with joy (if my voice were back to normal).

I woke the next morning in some pain (unrelated to the bar mitzvah), but dragged myself and a thermos of tea to Sunday Mass. I am almost always touched by the Mass and, after Communion, often moved to tears.

Again, I was late. I was thrilled to see that this Mass would be led by a priest who also spreads kindness, joy and acceptance. As I eased into the Mass, his infectious and joyful demeanor helped to move my focus from myself to the service itself, and I felt my own pain  dissipate.

Midway through, I remembered yesterday’s advice of the rabbi. Inhaling deeply, I took in the awesomeness of the moment. Ahead of me and across the aisle to my left sat, side by side, three teeny grey-haired ladies wrapped in wool coats and hats and the comfort of a long friendship. Just then, an older man entered alone and sat a few rows ahead of me, shoulders slumped but relieved to be here. Directly in front of me, a mother and teenage daughter periodically leaned toward each other, touching shoulders as they gave the usual Mass responses. The toddler directly across the aisle sat so quietly and attentively on his father’s knee; I admired the peace between them. The pianist wore sunglasses that made me think of Ray Charles and I giggled inside. With each sight, my heart expanded. When my eyes fell upon families who have children the same ages as mine, I realized how much they have helped me to grow and to feel a part of this parish, and my heart expanded yet again.

Both days, it felt as if God’s love was running through all of these connections, then through me, eventually pouring out through the tears that landed on the lens of my eyeglasses.

It doesn’t stop there. I feel this connection with you, when you read this or write or pray for me or even do something kind for someone else. It expands my heart to exploding. I overflow with tears, and my smile could break out of my face. Thank you for all that you do to make my life, and this world, a better place to be.


Taking care of each other

Of all the worries that happen along this path, what might happen to my children tops the list.

This week, I read about a fifteen-year-old Florida boy, Davion Only. He was born to a mother who was in jail, then spent his life in the foster care system. He is currently living in a group home with 12 other boys, and understandably had anger issues and bad grades in school.

Recently, he decided to take control of his life. Though his circumstances remained the same, he worked on his anger issues and dramatically improved his grades. Still, he wanted a family, someone who would love him for the rest of his life. So he stood up in church, in a borrowed suit, and asked for what he wanted.

“I’ll take anyone,” Only said during his speech, his hands sweating. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don’t care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”

As someone who wholeheartedly feels that there is always room at the table for one more, this pushed all my buttons. My heart expanded as I thought of him making these big personal changes on his own, when it is hard enough for me to make personal changes even with support and someone who believes in me. I was pulled toward his initiative, his appreciation for what he may be given, and my belief that every person and certainly every child deserves someone who loves them. The systems are not set up for love and caring.

And it is there that I worry about my boys. I hope that, if there is ever a time that I cannot be here for them, the world will take care of them. I like to think that we take care of each other, but, as Davion’s story shows, that doesn’t happen easily.

He simply wants what so many of us have and take for granted: To be loved, and to have someone to love.

I think about how one of our sons, though internally driven to practice gymnastics, still sneaks a look here and there to confirm that I am watching him. I know that our other son is smart but does much better schoolwork if I simply sit next to him as he works. Knowing that we matter to another person helps us each to be our best self.

Taking care of each other seems like the biggest honor on earth right now. I so wish that we could provide Davion with a forever family, and hope that whoever is lucky enough to adopt him feels like it is an honor as well.

That feeling of honor often gets lost in our daily noise. But after we turn out the lights at night, I love listening to the boys talking together before they fall asleep.

“Do you think that Lance will be in gymnastics after his concussion?”

“It is dangerous to do gymnastics with a concussion.”

“He is pretty good. He might be able to do it.”*

It warms my heart beyond words to feel their connection with each other, and I am reminded that it is an honor and blessing that I get to be part of it all.

Each person I am able to help provides no less of an honor and blessing. I hope that you feel blessed for all the help you have given to me and my family, as I know that I feel blessed when I have the opportunity to help as well.

Love always,

*Lance didn’t actually have a concussion after all. Whew.

Woe to the complacent in Zion (Amos 6:1)

Thank you for all your prayers last week. As chemo weeks go, it was a good one. I was thrilled to be scheduled as the lector for the 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday, and I even felt well enough to get my body out of bed and to the church on time.

A theme of the readings on Sunday included helping those less fortunate. I reflected on my past 24 hours. Living in a city, we often see individuals at traffic lights, walking among the stopped cars asking for money. Though I am totally random when it comes to giving in that way, I had given money to someone the day before. And after Mass, I put money in a basket for women and children working to change their lives after sex trafficking. I probably have a ways to go, but I felt okay about my sharing, at least recently.

In my life, that kind of self-satisfied, or maybe complacent, feeling, no matter how mild, is like foreshadowing. I know that by now, but I can’t seem to stop it, so I basically think “uh oh” and go about my day.

When I left the church, my husband and kids met me with our dog. I scooped up the dog and drove straight to Fresh Pond to meet my friend, Mary, and her dog. The air was crisp and clean under a beautiful blue sky and the fall leaves stood out against the blue pond water. I felt good enough to walk, so, in the car, I happily changed from my skirt into yoga pants. I considered changing my shirt –who cares if someone sees my bra for a minute – but decided that it was too awkward to pull my blouse over my head in the car. (Turned out to be a good choice.) So I stayed in the same top, kicked off my dress shoes and got out of the car barefoot to retrieve my socks and sneakers from the back seat as the dog ran off to play with his doggie friends.

I opened the back door to the car and stood between that open door and the back seat to put on my socks and shoes. While doing this, I was happily chatting on my iPhone with my friend, Kathy.

Suddenly, a man appeared RIGHT NEXT TO ME. Not only did he invade my happiness circle, he was shoulder to shoulder with me.

I turned to face him. He held a cardboard takeout coffee cup holder with three cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee that appeared to be fresh. At first, I thought he was about to offer a cup of coffee to me.

Instead, he said something about my bare feet but it sounded confusing. I was suddenly aware that I had zero personal space and the car door behind me made it impossible to back up. I don’t generally mind talking with strangers but I do need my space. Plus, I wanted to finish my conversation with Kathy and find Mary, who was waiting for me.

From there, our conversation went something like this:

Me: “You are too close to me. Step back.”

Him: “I want to talk with you.”

“You need to leave.”

He got a little annoyed. Or maybe he was angry – I couldn’t tell – there was too much going on with my socks and shoes, my interrupted conversation with Kathy, the car door, and the funky vibes this guy was throwing off. I couldn’t process all of it, much less factor in how he felt.

“You need to leave. Right now.” I was surprised at how firm I was and how calm I felt.


“You are creeping me out. You need to leave.”

I was able to move so that I was no longer stuck between him and the car door. I still had my cellphone in my hand. Apparently I am unwilling to let that go, even in a crisis. I must be more addicted to it than I think. It also kept me connected to Kathy, an expert in getting her way with difficult people. Her connection on the phone provided inspiration.

“I just want to have a conversation,” he slurred.

“I DON’T. You need to leave.”

He turned around and walked away, muttering nasty things about me as he did. I watched him walk until he was on the other side of the parking lot, where he seemed to meet up with some other guy and they walked together to the street. I put on my socks and shoes and stayed on the phone with Kathy until I found Mary.

Recounting the incident with Mary, she told me that he had approached her, too. Their conversation also felt creepy but she managed to ask how he was. Clearly, Mary has a kind heart. He told her, “I’m stoned and f’ed up” (though he didn’t leave out the letters).

So much for helping those less fortunate. Always room for improvement.

I felt okay about how I handled it. I was strong and clear and direct. But maybe there was a better way that wasn’t all about me. He wasn’t looking for money. I didn’t feel fear, so I wasn’t working from that. Maybe he just wanted to connect. It was not yet 9:30 a.m. and I had interacted with my husband and kids, talked with people at Mass, laughed with Kathy on the phone and looked forward to meeting Mary for a walk. Clearly I had an abundance of connections and communications that I took for granted.

It’s a tricky business to communicate with someone in an altered state of mind. I don’t know that any kind of conversation would have made a difference, any more than I can know that giving money to a homeless person makes any real difference. Still, I try.

It did remind me, though, that I often have more than I am consciously aware of, and that there is plenty to share.

Thank you for sharing your life with me, your time, your blessings. Thank you for being connected to each other, as it builds our huge web of social support. Thank you for your prayers. Though it may seem like a little bit, it makes a real difference.


Summer of Love

Because of your prayers and positive thoughts and good wishes, summer has been amazing.

The weather is hot and humid – just the way I think that summer should be.

We had friends at our house this weekend, then travelled to Pittsburgh on Sunday and Monday to visit my family and take the kids to Kennywood, the awesome local amusement park. On Tuesday night, I got to help host a Mexican-themed community cookout at the boathouse. Tonight, our neighborhood held a pizza party, then everyone shifted to our house for an  impromptu after-party.

Family and friends all around. That is also the way that I think that summer should be.

I know that I am fortunate to get to enjoy all of this and actually be fully part of it. In the quiet moments between the activity, I give thanks for you.

Thank you for helping to make my summer all that I love. I hope that you are also able to craft the summer you love, that you deeply enjoy it and know that you are blessed.


Faith lived through family and community

I suggested to my six-year-old that Christmas is first about the birth of Jesus and second about the presents. His honest little soul responded, “Maybe for you, Mom.”

I knew how he felt as I wondered if Christmas, for me, was more about family than about the birth of Christ. Though I no longer anticipate Santa’s arrival, my anticipation for getting together with my cousins is just as strong.

My cousins and I grew up almost as siblings. Some of us went to the same grade school. We lived walking distance from one another in Pittsburgh. We got together for every event: Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, birthdays, school plays, athletic events, Sunday dinner.

Of the almost weekly gatherings, Christmas was the most special. Our traditions pre-date my birth. For over 40 years, my Sicilian grandmother presided over her four children, their spouses and her eleven grandchildren. We gathered in one home or another, with, of course, an abundance of food. While our parents had loud and lively discussions (much of it in Italian-accented English), my cousin Kathy led us younger children in creating a play or musical that we would perform for the adults later in the evening. Opening our gifts, one at a time, took forever, with Grandma getting the most (one from each of us!). We always concluded the evening by singing a lively refrain of “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”

Over time, the make-up of our group changed. We went to college and brought home friends who had nowhere else to go. Most of us got married and some of us had children. Some dear relatives passed away. For a few years, it wasn’t certain whether our Christmas gatherings would continue. Some had jobs that required them to work on Christmas day. Others felt the pull of spending Christmas with our in-laws. We tried different venues, one year holding the party in a function room to minimize the work, but afterwards we all agreed that it felt too impersonal.  We tried breaking up into our now-larger nuclear families to start new traditions, but we missed our time together.

Eventually, we settled into the tradition that I now anticipate each year. My cousin Cathy hosts the party at her home. (Yes, we have two cousin C/Kathy’s, plus two Tony’s and one Antonio.) This year, 29 of us gathered to eat our traditional sausage and peppers (which were the best ever this year), ham, chicken, lasagna, potatoes, salad, green beans and whatever vegetarian dishes Cyndi and I bring. Terry shares her amazing cookies alongside the other deserts. We reconnect through recounting stories of our lives and through building memories together as events unfold during the celebration.

Though the children no longer craft a performance for the adults, my children eagerly look forward to what they know in their soul is a special and fun time with their Pittsburgh cousins.  They play Wii and other video games, dance along to musical dance shows, and challenge each other to daring gymnastics feats.

Christmas day was perfect and wonderful though nowhere did we explicitly talk about God. We didn’t tell the story of Jesus’s birth. We didn’t even say grace out loud as we spread all over the house eating our dinner. As important as family is, did I lose the meaning of Christmas?

Then I read this article from the NYTimes (which has nothing to do with Christmas) and realized that two statements from that article linked my beliefs and my actions:

I really do believe that God enters the world through us.

God came to earth through the birth of Jesus, but he also appears through each of us, every moment of every day, as we show this in our actions and interactions.

Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community.

Gathering with those we love is faith lived.

I experience my faith and God in the richness of connections with my family and my community when…

  • my heart expands as I treasure the stories shared
  • I feel part of something larger than myself as I am woven into the memories I get to create with others.
  • I am honored to bear witness to everyday events – the laughter, frustrations, sorrow, puzzlement, growth, peace, joy – anything that someone is willing and brave enough to share with me.

It takes a leap of faith to open up in this way, just as I take a leap of faith when I open myself to share with you.

Like faith, our interpersonal connections defy logic and explicit description, and they are larger than anything we can create on our own. And this feels like God to me.

Thank you for allowing me to experience God and my faith through my connections with you, and thank you for sharing all that with me. And anytime that you are with even one other person (or more), I hope you are able to feel that as well.

Merry Christmas, love and blessings during this very holy season,