Made for a Purpose

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Photo from Eugenia Z

I was made for this; I live for this.
God has a reason, reason for my life
I’m gonna shout it out
without a doubt.
I was born for this
Built for  purpose.

Every year our parish hosts Vacation Bible School, which we say is “our biggest evangelizing tool” for our children. 245 preschool and elementary aged children participate in a week of music, Bible stories, games and other activities centered around  the love of Christ. On top of those 245 kids, we also have 40 adult helpers, 60 high school helpers and 60 middle school helpers.

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Photo from Eugenia Z

I get the privilege to lead those 60 middle school helpers, and this year they evangelized me. When we first began to organize VBS way back in February, I hit a bit of a snag. Each year we have four middle schoolers on stage to lead the music and motions, act out skits and perform experiments and activities on stage. The stage performers I had for the past few years had moved on to high school, and I was faced with the task of selecting new ones. Knowing that those kiddos set the tone for the week, I had to make a wise decision, and I didn’t want to rush it or make it in haste. It was only about a month before the big week when I finally came to a conclusion and picked four incoming 6th graders to be on stage.

I admit I was taking a chance. Since they were incoming middle schoolers, I hadn’t had a chance to get to know them very well, but they came with high recommendations from people I trust. When they started practicing, I knew I had the right kids on stage. And when our adult stage leader came down with a nasty bug midweek, I was proud of the way they took over and led VBS. Can you imagine four 12 year olds leading an audience of 300? I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Actually, I could.

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Photo from Eugenia Z

I have always known middle school is special. Sure, it’s a time when the kids are just learning the miracle of deodorant and experiencing “crisis after crisis.” But it’s also a time when they are building confidence, when they’re open to new friendships and opportunities and when they are starting to make their own decisions but also still seek the advice of trusted adults.

I think each day I told someone about how proud I am of them, how lucky I am to work with them and how much I love them. But on Friday, the last day of Vacation Bible School, they taught ME something. Our fantastic four stage performers were leading music on stage, and the lyrics stuck with me:

And I’ll never have to wonder if somebody cares for me.
I love the Maker, and the Maker loves me.

I had a rough experience earlier in the week that left me feeling discouraged, unappreciated and inadequate. Those words were words I needed to hear. And hearing them come from the mouths of kids who I love and respect meant the world to me. They didn’t even know it. They effortlessly served as God’s instruments, and that’s what they always do. Because that’s what they’re made for: to love God and make others aware of His love.

When I’m feeling down or discouraged, these kiddos are the ones God places in front of me to remind me Hey, I’m still here even when you’re feeling down. I’m still here when feeling discouraged or when you’re feeling alone or sad. I have a plan for you. I made YOU for a purpose.

Last night I had someone I love and respect tell me I have never seen anyone love middle schoolers the way that you do.

I’ve been thinking about that. I do love these kids, even when they all gather right in front of me with a barrage of questions when all I want is 3 minutes of alone time. I love them when they’re fighting over who gets the last bag of popcorn. I love them when they’re asking me the same question that I said no to 15 minutes earlier in hope of a different answer. I love them when they love me without even knowing it. It is in those moments that i realize the Maker’s purpose for me isn’t so different from the purpose He has for them:

to love God and make others aware of His love.

I’m grateful for these kids, and I want to remind them of what they remind me:

And I’ll never have to wonder if somebody cares for me.
I love the Maker, and the Maker loves me.

I was born for this…Built for a purpose.

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3 Things I Learned at The Dance Class

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Photo from Beth B

This weekend The Dance Class held its end of the year recital, which also concluded my second year of returning to dance after a 30 year hiatus. Last year was incredible, so coming back this year was a no-brainer. Here are three things I learned from these lovely ladies and investing an hour in my self once a week.

1.) Leave it on the Dance Floor. – This slogan is painted on the wall in one of the rooms at the studio. Whenever we practiced in that room or whenever I saw it as I parked my car, it would make me think about all the things I was carrying on my shoulders that week. I say it was truly a blessing that this class is on Thursday evenings at 7PM, when stress from work, relationships and life in general was at its height. There were several times, especially at 4PM on Thursday afternoons when I would start to feel emotional, overwhelmed and pushed to the limit. I’d go home, slam my bag down and think, “I just wanna dance.” 6:40 would roll around, I’d pack up my tap shoes and drive to the studio. With every tap of my foot and rotation of my ankles, I would feel just a little bit better. With every step, stop, flap and shuffle, I could feel that stress leaving my body, and remembering that slogan, I would be able to leave it there. If those floors could talk, they’d speak of the frustration, disappointment and wishes for “do overs” that had built up over the week and bled through the soles of my feet. But they don’t. The floor isn’t just a place where I learn routines. The floor offers me therapy when I’m struggling to make it to the weekend. And I am grateful for that.

2.) When you make a mistake, don’t cringe. Smile. – Although I did take tap when I was in preschool, I consider myself a complete newbie when it comes to tapping. That means I make mistakes. I forget steps to routines. I don’t always nail all the steps that I do remember. As we were reviewing the steps to our recital dance, I framed my face with my fingers and said, “And if all else fails, just smile big! If people see a big smile on your face, they won’t even notice what’s going on with your feet. This is the money shot!” That was so out of character for me. I’m someone who usually obsesses over her mistakes, and while I always want to do my best in the routines, I’ve come to realize it’s not the end of the world if I miss a step somewhere. And besides, the women I tap with are forgiving when I make mistakes. I can’t help but smile at their kindness and encouragement.

3.) Be confident in yourself – This one is not easy for me to admit. People who know me well know that I have been struggling with some image and self esteem issues. I have unnecessarily been dwelling on my mistakes and things I cannot control, and I’ve been feeling more pressure than usual to be perfect. It’s been weighing on me, and I’ve been believing the lie that says I’m not good enough and that I’m a disappointment. But if anything, the one hour I spend at the Dance Class every week is one of the times when I feel like I can shine. I feel my worth. I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile even when I’m not doing it perfectly. I realize that I’m not the best dancer in the world or even on that auditorium stage, but I know that I’m good enough. I can give myself credit for what I’ve done. I’ve worked hard at this all year long, and I’ve come out of it with something I can be proud of. I’m proud to say “I’m a star!”

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Photo from Beth B

Bonus lesson: Life is better with friends. No matter what you’re doing, you’ll need people to help you out along the way. I’m so blessed to dance with this great group of women. I can’t wait to join you all again! I’m hopeful that more people will join us next year. It’s worth a try…Seriously, our instructors, Molly and Meaghan, can teach anyone to dance!

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Special thank you to Rose Ellen for taking the chance and trying this class with me this year.

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One Question

why didn't you ever pick for yourself-

Every year right before their graduation, I have the privilege of hosting a day retreat for our 8th grade students at the school. For the past several years it has been a tradition for me to divide the group by gender and then ask them to discuss what they expect from the opposite gender. I’ve gotten everything from the girls saying boys need to have good hygiene and wear deodorant to boys saying the girls should make them quesadillas. This year I decided to put a twist on the activity and I asked the separated genders what they expect from each other. Here is the list of what the boys came up with:

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It was a well thought out, practical list. But I was even more impressed by what the girls came up with (maybe I’m a little biased).

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Maybe I tie it in to something that happened later towards the end of the day. I had just gotten done giving a talk about making transitions in life. I talked about how my decision on which high school to go to was heavily influenced by my friends; how my decision on what major to have was heavily based on my parents and how what job I should pursue was heavily based on what society told me would make me happy and successful. But through all of those decisions only God remained constant. I didn’t keep a lot of my old high school friends. I didn’t major in medicine like my parents would have liked. I didn’t get a high paying job out of college. But through all that tumult God was there. He was consistent.

Not long after the talk and right as I was dismissing the kids, one of the girls came up to me and said, “Excuse me. I have a question.”

Not being one to ignore a youth’s question, I let her ask.

“Why didn’t you ever choose for yourself? I mean, you said you had a lot of people influencing you. Did you ever consider what you wanted?”

Her question shocked me. I really wanted to run and hide. I thought she would have a simple logistics question. But she didn’t.

I wasn’t sure how to answer her, but the first thing that came out of my mouth was: “I have a lot of insecurity issues.”

Now I wonder what that would have sounded like to a 14-year old from someone more than twice her age. I went on, saying I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted so badly to please my parents and my friends. I believed that people liked me because of what I did, not who I was. I was searching frantically for approval from a world that was constantly changing as it offered me forbidden fruit every time I turned around.

Her question was also a wake up call for me. I eventually told her that ultimately what I want is to align my desires with what God wants for me. But I also started to think about the thing that plagues me the most: my unhealthy desire to gain the world’s approval. Sure, I can look in the mirror and like what I see, but I also look at my life, compare it to the world’s expectations and say that I am not good enough and never will be.

I stood face to face with this 14-year old with her lovely wide eyes and I started to realize something. She’s watching me. She’s paying attention to the things I do and say. Every time I say something mean or discouraging or negative about myself, she wonders why I’m doing that.

This brings me back to the exercise I did earlier. The list was impressive: Maturity, acknowledgement, NO DRAMA, a shoulder to cry on, support. I wish I could turn back time and add one more thing. As good as the list was, here’s what I would want from my peers: Know that you are good enough, not because of your parents, your friends or the world says so but because God made you in His image and nothing can ever take that away from you, no matter where you go.

I still think about that question and the sweet girl who asked it. I may not see her around as much next year, but I know she asked that question for a reason. And it was brave of her to do so. My prayer for her is that she never undergo the pressure I have been under and that she know God loves her more than she can ever imagine.

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Feed Me Grapes and Throw Me a Party

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I recently went to a friend’s baby shower. I must say I love baby showers. Everything from the pink and blue balloons to the dainty appetizers; from pampering the mom to be to gift bags containing tiny baby clothes. I’m even a sucker for baby shower games. (I can Baby Bingo and name the baby names of various animals like a BOSS!)

What I love most is seeing glow on the mom to be’s face and the the excitement in her voice as she rubs her growing belly. I love showering her with attention, love and support. Having a baby : I think sometimes we downplay how special it is and what a miracle it is. But it’s a big deal! Pregnant women are special and powerful. After all, they are literally growing a tiny human!

I think these sentiments are one of the reasons why I love the Feast of the Visitation, which the Catholic Church celebrates today. Let’s face it, the majority of baby showers are attended by women, and in a world where women often compete against each other, it’s refreshing to see women rallying together to support a gal pal as she prepares for the arrival of a new baby. This is essentially what I see in the Visitation when Mary “makes haste” to visit her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth. Instead of drawing attention to herself, she showers attention on her relative. She makes her feel special. Mother Mary was the example of humility and charity that all women can aspire to today. How often do you put your own comfort aside and think about your fellow sister instead of yourself?

You see, if I knew I were carrying the Son of God in my pregnant belly, I would not be making haste to anywhere except the ice cream shop. In fact, when I envision it, I see myself asking St. Joseph to massage my feet and feed me grapes (being the dutiful husband he was, he probably would have done it) and asking my friends when they would be hosting the best baby shower of all time. (And this – among many other reasons – is why I was not chosen to be the Mother of God) Mother Mary does none of that. Instead, she goes to visit Elizabeth. To me, this alone is remarkable. Making haste across the desert – who does that? Elizabeth tells Mary she is blessed. And what does Mary do? She doesn’t flip her hair and say “I know.” She gives us this beautiful prayer:

And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.”

She praises and points back to God.

It’s what I want to do as a woman. It’s what I believe mothers should do. No matter how strong I am or how well I use the gifts I have, I want to remember where I came from and why I have those gifts in the first place. I want to remember that no matter how great my role is in salvation history, God’s is so much bigger and it’s because of him that I have any kind of meaning in the first place.

My question is: Can we do this as women? Can we support and love one another? Can we point others back to God when they praise us? My firm belief is that with Mother Mary’s intercession and God the Father always by our side, we can.

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Writers Block

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I read an article recently about how every writer has a book in her. It compared that literary work to a sickness, which I had never thought about before. But it resonates with me now:

“If you’re lucky, the book will remain stationary — the real danger is in the book migrating into the chest cavity or the extremities. This is why we do not recommend making any sudden movements. If the book were to reach your heart —”

from The Toast, by Mallory Ortberg

It’s like anything, really, when anything hits your heart, that’s when you are most vulnerable. That’s when you feel the most, and it’s also when you can hurt the most. At the same time, once something hits your heart, there is no going back.

Like all writers, I face that nasty obstacle that plagues us in the middle of the night and in the late afternoon when we are poised in front of the computer screen or with pen in hand: Writers Block. It happens when the story is inside but just doesn’t want to come out. Today I tried a different treatment. Instead of writing something new, I decided to edit material I’ve already written, and I came across a passage I wanted to share.

This is from a project I’ve been working on, and it came about while I was trying to develop my characters. I’ve been told that when I want to develop my characters, I need to “take them to a coffee shop and interview them.” This piece is a result of trying to discern what they would do in the middle of a crisis.

“Viv…I have some bad news.”

Vivian stopped chewing and anticipated the worst.

“Remember Jack’s surgery yesterday?”

Vivian’s heart skipped a beat. Of course she remembered. Jack was only seven years old, battling cancer. He had been through several surgeries, and Curtis was at all of them. She dropped her fork, afraid of what was to come.

“He didn’t make it, Viv. He died this afternoon.”

All of a sudden, none of the food looked good anymore. It was like the pungent curries, crisp samosas and warm naan weren’t even there. The thought of that sweet little boy lifeless in a hospital bed made her sick to her stomach. No parent should ever have to bury a child.

“I’m really sorry, Curtis. What do you need me to do for you?”

“The funeral is on Thursday. I know we made plans, but I really think I should go.”

“I’ll come with you.”

The words came out easily. There were no questions asked. She didn’t even have to think about it. She knew it was the right thing to do.

Curtis didn’t say anything. He just nodded his head, and that’s when Vivian noticed it. He was crying. She moved to his side of the table, crawled into his lap and put her arms around his neck. She kissed him on the cheek and nestled her face into his shoulder. She didn’t say it would be okay or that Jack wasn’t suffering anymore or that he was in a better place because she knew they were the last things Curtis wanted to hear. So she just sat quietly with him. In that moment as he cried quietly, as he leaned in to her, she would have given up anything to make him happy again. He had always been so strong, a rock for families who had lost loved ones, a rock for her when she was having a bad day. She wanted to be strong for him.

“Hey Curtis,” she whispered in his ear, “I love you.”

It was the first time she said it to anyone in a long time. The words never came easily because she knew that once they came out she couldn’t take them back. Of all the words that came from her mouth, these were the ones she used most sparingly.

The way he whispered, “I love you, too,” told her he knew she meant it.

I have been reading these words (and the ones that come before and after them) over and over again. I guess I’m not so different from Vivian. I feel like every word matters; every word carries weight. I think it’s something writers do because every word is valuable. That’s why we say morose instead of very sad. (Thank you, Professor Keating.)

It’s a habit that bleeds into our daily lives, too. We become selective with our words. We say only what is necessary. Sometimes we don’t say what’s necessary, often to our own detriment because as that book grows bigger and bigger within us, it becomes more and more difficult to extract it from the corners of our heart that we are afraid to explore.  We second guess ourselves. We become protective of our words. All the while, someone is sitting right in front of us waiting with open hands to receive the pages that we have so carefully crafted. We hold every chapter close to our chests wondering, “Can I trust you with my story?” And once we hand the novel over, we hold our breath and hope that it doesn’t end up on the floor stabilizing an old table or on a bookshelf collecting dust. A bookshelf is no place for a heart.

My hope is that the words will eventually come out right, that the novel will come together. My hope is that someday I’ll be able to write this story out and that it will be something worthy of being read.

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La La Land

La La Land

Photo from IMBD

I know it’s been six months since La La Land came out, but given the fact that I just watched it last month, it’s fair to share a review now. Call me late to the party. That’s fine.

When was the last time you saw a feel good movie that didn’t have a political agenda but that you could watch just to enjoy? For me, it was last month. La La Land was that feel good movie. The singing, the dancing, the “love” story. Without giving away too many spoilers, I have to say I loved the return of the musical with a not so classic boy meets girl plot.

But there was so much more than that. Throughout the movie, (which I watched on a plane on the way to Los Angeles) I caught myself humming along to the songs (thank heavens the woman next to me was asleep…or at least pretended to be) and detecting a number of underlying themes:

1.) Creative vs. Practical-I have a few coworkers who are great at math. I am not. I am therefore, fond of saying “They’re numbers. I’m letters.” While I certainly don’t downplay the need for what I collectively and fondly refer to as “letters,” I think there is often an emphasis on selecting “practical” careers. Just look at the funding going into STEM education and training. A major theme in La La Land is the pursuit of “non-practical careers.” The lyrics of the opening number alone highlight the desire to shine under the neon lights even in the face of great disappointment.IMG_20170514_173141

Climb these hills
I’m reaching for the heights
And chasing all the lights that shine
And when they let you down
You’ll get up off the ground
‘Cause morning rolls around
And it’s another day of sun

And of course, who can forget Mia’s Audition where she elicits a tear-jerking reaction with the words

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays
And here’s to the fools who dream
Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

*Sigh* I get emotional every time.

2.) Old vs. New-Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, dreams of opening his own jazz bar. (I honestly don’t think Chicken on a Stick would have been so bad…Poultry seems to survive in pop culture, I mean just look at that ridiculous Chicken Dance that is inevitable at Every. Single. Wedding. Reception.) He debates everything, from the name of the venue to the logo. But most prominently, he struggles with the style of music. Does he stick with traditional jazz or does he add synthesizers for what John Legend refers to as “jazz being about the future?”

IMG_20170514_173412 (2)3.) Love vs. Love-Love is love is love is love is love. But how are you supposed to choose between someONE you love and someTHING you love? I think a lot of people will say it’s clear that you have to choose the someONE. I would say the same. But I also can’tblame Mia and Sebastian for choosing someTHING because that someTHING is what they were meant to love. Without getting particularly theological, I have to say they both made the right choices – and it eventually leads to the right someONE’s. But at the same time, they both say to each other “I’m always gonna love you.” In that instant, they show us that the classic boy meets girl story doesn’t have to be romantic to be about love.

There’s so much more I could say about this movie, but I think I’ll leave it at that. Yes, it was a fun night at the theater movie, but it was first and foremost a love story about dreams and goals and art. For those of you who have seen the movie and either loved or hated the ending, I have to ask….”what happens when you stay in LA LA Land?” I have to answer: Sometimes you just can’t stay in La La Land. Sometimes you have to move for the sake of love.

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Four Seasons in Rome: Writing about Writing

december 3, 2019

As a writer I experience lots of ups and downs with the projects I have swirling around my head. I meet characters in my mind, fall in love with them and make coffee dates with them just to see them walk out of my lives two weeks later because I haven’t made enough time for them. Such is the life of a writer: Our best stories come to us at 4 in the morning when we’re too tired to write and they disappear in the morning when we’ve had a fresh pot of coffee and enough energy to run a marathon.

Processed with VSCO with  presetMy love for putting pen to paper came when I was little, primarily because I loved to read and I was often convinced that I could tell a story better than the great American authors (still true by the way–except for JK Rowling…I don’t think I can spin a tale like JK Rowling). I’ve been reading this great book, Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I initially picked it up as part of the Modern Day Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. I had heard of Doerr’s novels and I admit the reference to “The biggest funeral in the history of the world” attracted my eye as it was in reference to the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II. Having spent three days in Rome (in the summertime), I was interested to see a writer’s take on the Eternal City. What I found was that the book was less about Rome as a location and more about the city as the main character in a great book. The architecture was more than just buildings; the architecture was Rome’s physical characteristics just as much as the lightning bolt belongs to Harry Potter. The pasta and chocolate weren’t just Roman culinary delights; the food was what welcomed the Doerr family with Mrs. Weasley’s warm embrace.

As I grew more and more (re)acquainted with the great city of Rome, I realized that Anthony Doerr wasn’t just recording his day to day life in journals. He was introducing the reader to a great character in the story of his life. He put it best with this passage:

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I journal all the time, almost daily. And I do it for me. But I think about the characters I’ve created and what I hope they will do for my readers.  And this is it – I want them to help the reader “refine, perceive and process the world.” I want them to pull the reader into a dream that wouldn’t have existed of those characters didn’t exist.

I feel like doing that requires that I not be afraid of my characters, that I be the one who empowers them rather than feeling like they’ll disappear when I leave them on their own. I want to be the one who manufactures a dream. I want to remember that I’m the boss of the stories I write. In short, I want to claim my AUTHORity.

It’s not something you have to earn. It’s something you have as soon as you pick up an pen and say, “I am a writer.”

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