Exactly Where You Need To Be: Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

I remember awaiting 2015 with curious and open anticipation, and a healthy helping of trepidation on the side.  I had about 50 percent of the year mapped out, between completing senior year of college, summer plans to travel throughout Europe, and (I dreamed) attending the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver.  Though the specifics of getting a job were fuzzy after that, I figured — or rather, hoped — that it would sort of just take care of itself.  

As it turns out, there’s a LOT more effort involved in creating an adult life for yourself after college than I supposed twelve months ago.  It’s easy to see why this surprised me: though student life had always held its own set of challenges, never before had I needed to actively seek out friendships in such a way as I do now, or wondered what was expected of me.  Campus life made others readily accessible for a cup of coffee or tea, dinner during the week, or a movie night on weekends.  And course syllabi spelled out each assignment and test, so there was never any doubt as to what I should have been doing.   

Life after college can feel lonely sometimes, especially when you’ve abandoned the familiar for a life somewhere new.  Even though I’m lucky enough to have my sister, my best friend, as a constant companion, I do still yearn for the comfort of that ubiquitous college community of friends.  

Not to mention post-college life does not come with a set of guidelines.  Not really, anyway.  There are the general bits of practical knowledge that young adults are expected to learn: how to file your taxes, keep a relatively clean home, maintain your car, etc., but when it comes to finding your bliss, your “thing,” your career-to-be, the advice is less helpful.  

“Follow your heart!” they’ll say.  But if it were that easy, it wouldn’t be a struggle.  You wouldn’t have to contend with job availability and network-building and all of the other logistics of scoring that perfect job.  Most of the job “search,” I’ve learned, doesn’t really involve searching at all, but rather, waiting and dreaming and hoping and praying… and then, after you’ve waited some more, maybe something pops up.  And maybe it doesn’t, and you keep waiting.

The process of “adulting,” (slang verb for “being an adult,” if you’re not familiar with the term) in these ways and more, is an exceedingly slow process.  It takes a looooooooong time to find your groove, I’m learning.  And all of that waiting can make you wonder if you’re even in the right place, doing what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.  You might convince yourself that, had you moved somewhere else or accepted a different job, your life might be a little bit easier right now, or it might look more like those of your dozens of social media “friends” whom you only hear from when life is sparkly and great.    

But consider that just because things are happening slowly, doesn’t mean nothing is happening.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, and as I think ahead to 2016, I realize that I actually have zero idea of where this one’s going to go, where last year I at least had some inkling.  And I’m giving myself permission to be scared and uncertain and doubtful, because even with the best of intentions, so much of life is unscripted, and I’m also a generally indecisive person who will probably always wonder if I’m making the right choices.

But here’s a crazy thought to try on, with the new year fast approaching:

What if, in 2016, instead of wasting precious energy doubting, and wondering, and worrying about these things, instead of asking ourselves and God if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing… what if you and I instead just decided that we’re in the right place at the right time?  What if we believed this as if we knew it unequivocally to be true, understood it as fact, took it for granted?  What kind of happiness might open up for us then?  

I’m going to share a secret with you, so listen carefully:

You are exactly where you need to be.  

It’s pretty important, so I’ll say it again, but read it slowly this time, so it can really sink in (I’ve added periods to help you out, and I’ve capitalized every word, because capitalized words are pretty darn Important):

You.  Are Exactly.  Where You Need.  To Be.

God doesn’t make mistakes.  And there’s a method to His madness, though I may not recognize what that is right now.  But I believe that He does have “plans… for [my] welfare and not for woe, so as to give [me] a future full of hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NAB) and that if I were truly supposed to be somewhere else, then that’s where I would be.  

But I’m not.  I’m here.

Realizing this doesn’t mean you stop working toward your dreams.  It doesn’t mean you become complacent.  It just means that you put a stop to the agony born of constantly second guessing yourself.  Consider that, by being where you are right now, by being where you, in fact, need to be, you are doing work that no one else can do.  The world needs you here, right now, because this part of the planet is hungry for something only you can offer.  Consider that, as you read this, God is working His magic on your gifts with subtle and slow sureness, to bring you the future you seek in His own perfect timing. 

I have no idea what 2016 will hold for me.  But I know it will be whatever it needs to be for me.  And I pray you know that, too.  Happy New Year, everyone.  


   

Life Lessons I Learned on SEARCH

Thursday, November 12, 2015

This weekend will mark the second anniversary of my SEARCH retreat experience, a weekend that stands out in my heart and mind as one of the best from my years at the University of San Diego.  I am feeling especially nostalgic this year because this is the first time I am not in San Diego to send the retreatants off, or to welcome them home at Mass on Sunday night.  In some ways, I feel I am so far away from this community, even though, according to Google Maps, the distance to USD from where I am writing this in Loveland, Colorado, is only 1120 miles (or 16 hours and 29 minutes by car, if you care to know).

In other ways, I wear this community and the memory of SEARCH as close to my heart as the cross necklace I received that weekend.  The retreat itself may have lasted only 48 hours, but the lessons I took away from it continue to impact and inspire me, and to shape my life in countless ways.  Without spoiling any of its wonderful surprises for those who may choose to make this retreat in the future, I share below some life lessons I credit to SEARCH, as a tribute to this transformative experience.


Be present.

Retreats make it especially easy to do this, because when we take the time to devote ourselves to a weekend of spiritual exploration free from the constraints of homework and technology and busy schedules, we understand that we aren't obligated to do anything else except be exactly where we are.  So we welcome the unique value of each moment, and want to immerse ourselves in the experience.

But it's not so easy to do this when we are hounded by stresses and distractions.  When our worries stretch out their legs and make themselves comfortable in our minds, so there doesn't seem to be room for anything else.  And sometimes we hear "be present" and believe we have to make time for meditation, which, in spite of its intentions to relax us, becomes just one more thing to add to our to do lists.

But being present doesn't mean we have to do anything; on the contrary, when we're asked to be present, we're asked to just be.  To accept.  To listen attentively to a friend rather than planning what we're going to say next.  To savor the brownie that's warm from the oven by taking small bites and letting each one linger a moment on the tongue.  To notice the sights and scents and sounds around us on a daily walk -- the sound of giggling child hanging upside down from the monkey bars, the trees donning their brilliant orange and red fall wardrobe, the smell of a barbecue two houses down.  To feel, without thinking of something else, the burst of joy that comes with petting a puppy or laughing at some silly YouTube video, or singing along to the car radio.

There are enriching opportunities to be present in whatever we do, and SEARCH taught me to actively look for them.  SEARCH taught me to listen, to savor, and to look for signs of God's presence in everything we did -- from witness reflections to small group discussions to the meals we shared and the hike we took to the top of a small mountain.  And it taught me that God speaks to us in all of these things.  All we have to do is listen.


Always expect good things to happen.

Before I went on SEARCH, I heard a lot of talk about how it was "amazing," but no one really offered any specifics on how, exactly, it was amazing, or what the amazing thing was.  It was all very secretive.

This meant that I approached the weekend with an intense wondering of what the amazing thing was.  Was this the amazing thing?  Was that?  The icebreaker games we played?  Amazing.  And it was pretty beautiful when we reached the top of that mountain -- was the hike the amazing thing?  How about the French toast we had for breakfast that one morning?  It was pretty fancy and delicious for a retreat -- was that the amazing thing?

In case you're wondering, yes, I found pretty much everything about that weekend amazing, although the reason everyone gushes about SEARCH eventually became clear to me in its own time.

There's something to be learned from this attitude, which is that if we expect amazing and wonderful things to happen, we will find them.  In abundance.

So SEARCH cultivated a new kind of optimism in me, a desire to look for the good things that are or soon will be happening.  To treat the ordinary as extraordinary, because this life is a gift, and the mere fact that we're living it is pretty amazing in itself.

...And now I feel like I've used the word "amazing" more times than a Bachelor contestant... so I'll stop.  But you get the idea.  Expect good, receive good.


Vulnerability is sacred.

Okay, folks.  This is it.  The big kahuna.  You know it's really important because I saved it for last.

One of life's greatest mysteries, in my opinion, revolves around something common to the retreat experience: how is it that people can find the courage to share deeply personal stories and struggles with others they've only just met?  And yet, retreat leaders bravely tell of trials and confusion and anger and heartbreak and acceptance in their witness talks, and retreatants welcome the opportunity to share stories that relate to their own questions about their relationships with God, with community, and with themselves.

In other words, they are vulnerable.  And it is maybe the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

BrenĂ© Brown, Ph.D., defines vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure," and I think this is as apt a definition as any for what I describe here.  Retreatants and leaders who bravely submit themselves to emotional exposure by opening their hearts with sincerity are uncertain of how their stories will be received, and they risk potential rejection.  It's scary to bare our souls.

But I believe the honesty that accompanies vulnerability is both a prayer and an invitation.  When we own our stories, when we stand in the face of all we've done and seen and are, regardless of how we might still tremble and fear, we're saying, "This is who I am.  I am living the story that God has written for me, and I am completely and beautifully the fragile, imperfect creature that He has designed, that he 'formed' and 'knit in my mother's womb' (Psalm 139, NAB) with intentionality."  To be vulnerable is to say a prayer of thanksgiving for the life God has created for us, rather than hide behind the shame of something we aren't, but wish we were.

And it's only when we don't shy away from the truth of ourselves that we can invite others to love us authentically, for everything we both are and aren't.  It's true that we risk something when we let ourselves be seen, but the rewards are so much greater than our fear.

With all that said, vulnerability is still something I struggle with, especially in a new city where I'm trying to make friends.  I'm someone who's really comfortable spending time by myself, and it's often easier to spend a night at home alone with a good book or some shows on the DVR than to put myself out there and join a Meetup group, or invite a coworker to lunch.  Potential rejection hovers dark and scary above my head and heart; I don't want to get hurt or feel awkward or embarrassed or anything else that comes with trying something new.

But my SEARCH experience reminds me that I have to try.  That I should keep taking baby steps, and risk vulnerability daily.  Making the decision to go on that retreat two years ago was, in itself, a vulnerable risk of sorts, but the crazy thing is that I never for a moment feared rejection or hurt or loss of any sort in going.  I just knew that it would offer me an opportunity to explore and deepen my relationship with God, with community, and with myself, and that excited me.

And you know what I've realized since?  That every other situation I've feared that presents a possibility of vulnerability similarly offers those chances: to grow in a sense of community with others, to grow in relationship with God, and to more fully become the person I am supposed to be.  And SEARCH is still teaching me, slowly, to welcome those opportunities as I did two years ago, rather than run from them.  Because the best is yet to come.

Pretty mind-blowing, right?

It pays to be vulnerable.  To love and to let yourself be loved.  To SEARCH, always.

So much love and prayers to this semester's retreatants, to those who have gone in the past, and to those who will go in the future.  Thinking of you always!  

Two Things To Remember When You Make a Mistake

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


"Do not fear mistakes; there are none."

-- Miles Davis

My creative writing professor began our syllabus for Advanced Fiction Writing last spring with that quote, probably to encourage us to let our creative juices run rampant.  If you want to write a story but only ever tweak the first paragraph until it's perfect, you won't get any farther along than that.  At some point you have to plunge forward, realizing that it's better policy to revise once you have the bones of what you want to say already sketched out, and recognizing that you will never have a "perfect" product, because there are always things you can alter, and art, especially, is subjective. 

On a creative level, I'm slowly coming to terms with this.  Though my inner perfectionist would still like to know I'm doing it perfectly. 

Of course, there are several other arenas in which mistakes come to do battle against your fragile ego, and these places don't feel so forgiving because the standards for right and wrong are more clearly defined.  I'm not talking about moral questions of right and wrong -- that would open up a philosophical can of worms the scope of this post is definitely not equipped to handle.  I'm talking about your first day on a new job, for example, or embarking on a new hobby, or if you're a student, a new class you're writing for when you haven't yet figured out what the teacher is looking for.  I'm talking about any situation, new (or maybe even old, something you've been at for a while, since you don't ever really grow immune to making mistakes) where you're bound to mess up before or even as you succeed, and someone is very likely to point that out to you.

The default advice here is typically, "Don't take it personally.  Use it as a chance to improve, an opportunity for growth."

Okay... but then why do we fear mistakes and failure so much?  There's nothing scary about a learning opportunity, if that's all it is.  So by that token, we shouldn't let mistakes bother us.

But here's the thing:

We don't fear mistakes.  We fear guilt and shame.  We fear feeling small and insignificant and inadequate.  And these are the all too common byproducts of mistakes.  Because while our culture lauds mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, rarely do I see them actually handled as such.  Instead, I see grimaces and eye rolls.  I hear sighs, and ripples of testiness beneath hasty choruses of "It's okay, it's okay!"  We shoulder these reactions and our backs nearly break under the assumption that we're no good because of some unintentional act we committed when we didn't know any better.

So let's get a couple of things straight right now:

1.  You are not your mistakes.

You are human, a fact which guarantees you intrinsic worth -- worth that is not dependent on a handful of mistakes, worth that is the very essence of who you are.  A favorite quote of mine concerning this point comes from Fr. Gregory Boyle, whose memoir Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion, is one I would highly recommend.  In referencing the oft-quoted Bible passage in which Jesus says that we are "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14),  Fr. Boyle writes:

"I like even more what Jesus doesn't say.  He does not say, 'One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you'll be light.'  He doesn't say 'If you play by the rules, cross your T's and dot your I's, then maybe you'll become light.'  No.  He says, straight out, 'You are light.'  It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it."

So remember that you are light, that your mistakes do not define you, and that your soul is beautiful.

2.  It is actually impossible to know what someone else is thinking.

Unless they tell you.  But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about those times when we're having a conversation with someone we've only just met, for example, and we're watching their facial expressions closely, and something in the way they're maybe ever-so-slightly turning their mouth down at the corners, or the shortness we sense in their words when they address us, or the way they raise their eyebrows out of what we assume is skepticism... something in all of this makes us think they don't like us.  That we've inadvertently said or done something to offend.

Or a supervisor at work rubs their fingers over their frazzled brow when you haven't yet learned company protocol and do something incorrectly on your first day... or when you make an accidental blunder on your sixth month in.  You assume that means they're mad at you, or frustrated with you.

We are only ever given access to our own internal monologues, and the business of guessing what other people are thinking can cause an unnecessary amount of stress.  Of course, it's so much easier to say we shouldn't concern ourselves with what other people think, and that we're wasting our time because we'll never know for sure, than it is to actually apply this bit of wisdom to our lives.  But I think about this and I can't help but wonder... why?  Why would we make things more difficult and miserable for ourselves by imagining how negatively another might perceive us, when it would be so much easier to train our own minds to think positively, or to try empathizing with others instead?  To imagine that perhaps the reason for a person's shortness of temper has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with a family member's illness, or car troubles, or any number of other things that can stress someone out?  Or to remind yourself of point 1 above, that mistakes happen but you'll move on because you are a spectacularly radiant human being. 

Let's try to be a little kinder to ourselves, okay?  Mistakes are mistakes.  They're not you.  :)

  

Two Ways To Be Happier Without Really Trying

Monday, October 12, 2015

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
— Guillaume Apollinaire

I often find myself grappling with this piece of well-intended advice.

It might have something to do with my innate perfectionism, and the driving desire to do things correctly.  I am a list-er, an instruction follower, a cross-er off-er.  Just be happy?  How exactly am I supposed to do that?  I want actionable steps, things I can tick off one by one as proof that I’m reaching that elusive goal: happiness.

There are certainly a good number of books written by positive psychologists that would satiate my hunger for happiness if foolproof methods were the only things I needed to attain it.  More likely, I think the reason I still often find myself coming up short on this quest is that I, like so many others, have an idea of how my life is supposed to look, and it is one that has been informed by both my own hopes and dreams for my life, and by carefully curated Facebook posts and illusory Instagram photos of things that make others happy.  

I look to social media and see what others are so wildly happy to be doing, and I think I must be missing something because I’m not doing those things.  So sometimes striving to reach their standards of happiness, or variants of them, becomes my pursuit of happiness.  

And sometimes the pursuit of happiness takes the form of believing that I can’t be happy until I live in this place or have that job or can travel to London anytime I want.  But as Joshua Glenn Clark has been quoted as saying, “We waste so many days waiting for the weekend.  So many nights wanting morning.  Our lust for future comfort is the biggest thief of life.”  

We tend to think of the pursuit of happiness, in whatever form it comes, as a good thing, and complacency as negative.  There’s some truth to this.  Stagnation is hardly the means of a fruitful life’s journey of growth and discovery.  But if we depend too much on what the future might offer us, or on what we currently don’t have, we’re robbing ourselves of the beauty and joy that’s already present exactly where we are.  

Sometimes it’s infinitely better to stay put and just be.    

So, because I’m a list-er, and also because maybe you, too, might be confused on where to start with this whole “being happy right now” thing, here are two ways you can stop in the pursuit of happiness wherever you are at this moment and just allow yourself to be happy instead.

Find at least one thing where you are right now to be happy about.

Stop.  Breathe.  Look around.  What can you be happy about right now?

This might feel impossible ("I'm so angry/upset/anxious/annoyed right now -- what is there to be happy about?") or even frivolous ("Why should I allow myself to feel happy about trivial things, like the tree across the street with red-orange leaves, or the cappuccino I'm sipping, or the baby giggling in his stroller?  This moment will pass too quickly, and all of those things will soon vanish."). 

Fair enough... but just as surely as these happy moments will pass, the future happiness you seek might never arrive, either.  I don't say that to be cynical, I just say it because it's true.  Really, this moment is all we have.  Don't let it escape unnoticed or unappreciated.  And there is always, always, always something to be happy about.   

As I write this, I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch in the basement studio apartment my sister and I are currently sharing, and I am happy we will be moving into a much bigger place in about two and a half weeks, with our own bedrooms and bathrooms.

I am happy because I can’t think of a better writing/blogging partner than the hot cup of Earl Grey tea I was holding just seconds ago in a cheery Winnie the Pooh mug.  

And I am happy because I can hear my sister’s toy poodle puppy, Winnie, snoring softly where she’s curled up at the other end of the couch.  In a human I would find this annoying, but for an adorable dog, it’s nothing short of precious.

Simple things?  Sure.  But happiness begins with the little things.

Practice gratitude.

This is very closely linked to the above exercise, and it involves choosing just three things to be grateful for right now, too.  This is definitely not a groundbreaking idea, and most positive psychologists who study ways to fill our lives with more joy can agree that this is the best place to start, because it helps us to realize we already have so much to be happy about.

The three things you pick can be the ones you just noticed, or they can be different.  They can be things surrounding you right now, experiences you had, tangible or intangible possessions, or relationships.  Your family, your friends, your health.  Good food, a cozy bed (especially as the nights get colder), clean water.  A toothbrush, a good book, a television.  The sky’s the limit here.  

Once you have your three things in mind, just take a minute to let gratitude fill you up.  Feel it in your heart.  If you’re religious like me, maybe take this time to say a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings you picked.  Whatever you do, let this be a time to cherish what you already have, rather than anxiously look toward the future, or focus on what you might someday achieve or obtain.      

***


So there you go.  Two things you can do right now, wherever you are, with hardly any effort, to “pause in the pursuit of happiness of just be happy.”  To not be a bystander to, or worse, completely unaware of, the beautiful moments that flicker past while you’re chasing down ambition.

Some Thoughts On Turning 23

Monday, October 5, 2015

So I'm turning 23 on Wednesday.

And I'm actually pretty excited about it, despite the societal belief that birthdays stop being exciting after you turn 21, and articles like this that don't mince words when telling you that 23 is going to be the worst year of your life.

Birthdays are awesome.  You get to eat cake and open presents!  And in my case, I'll also be drinking wine and eating cheese.  I rest my case.

But being 23, I hear, is like being in the infancy of adulthood.  No longer college students, it's like 23-year-olds are wearing adult "costumes," trying hard to understand and pretend we know what being a grown-up is all about while not quite having arrived there yet, either.  We're in-betweeners, imposters of sorts.

But when in my life have I ever completely felt like I knew what I was doing, all the time?  I don't think that's a 23 thing, I think that's an always thing.  I'm learning that part of stumbling through life is having a healthy uncertainty that you're ever going in the right direction or doing the right thing.  Sometimes you just have to pick the best choice you're given and make the most out of what you have.  So all this fear mongering about year 23 is decidedly not going to affect me.

Now let's consider the other bit of birthday-related propaganda that the world seems to feed on: this idea that there's nothing exciting about getting older after you reach a certain age.  While it's true that there don't seem to be as many milestones associated with aging past 21, that's certainly no reason not  to be excited about it.

Getting older is an honor and a privilege that a heartbreaking number of people are not afforded.  Instead of shrugging and "oh well"ing another year, or bemoaning the fact that we're not as young as we used to be, and have more responsibility or wrinkles or whatever, try celebrating it instead!  As in, fist pumping, jumping up and down, laughing out loud celebrating.  A birthday says you've lived and learned and loved your way through another year, and it is a day to remember the gift and the blessing that you are to this world.

There's a reason people wish you a "happy" birthday, after all.  :)    

Why You Should Forgive Yourself More Often

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It's a commonly accepted principle of life that we are each our own worst critics.  That we have a knack for remembering and dwelling on our own mistakes far more than we take notice of others', and that we may even sometimes find it easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves.  Our guilt and shame cripples us long after everyone else has forgotten our wrongs or forgiven us for them.  We often find ourselves turning less-than-ideal situations over and over in our brains, thinking about what we could have done differently, and wishing we had, the assurance that we'll do better at some abstract future moment providing thin comfort.

If you can identify with any or all of those statements, I have something to tell you that might help you see things differently, or at least inspire you to finally go a little easier on yourself.

I subscribe to the daily newsletter from Happify.com because it ensures I start each day with a little dose of joy.  Yesterday morning, the lead story was this video about why the question "Who am I?" is so difficult to answer.  Turns out it's because of this fancy philosophical principle called the "persistence of identity."

...Wait.  What?

The persistence of identity.  Basically, it's the idea that we, as people, are constantly changing, and our identities are composed of so many different aspects of ourselves -- past, present, future; thoughts, feelings, actions, bodies -- that identifying who we are is much more difficult that pointing to an oak tree and calling it such, for example.  We are not definite.  We are not objective.  We are the result of so many different lived experiences, all woven into the fabric of our identities, which persist in spite of all of these changes because, underneath it all, we're still fundamentally the same people.

Or are we?

The video tells how the Greek historian Plutarch used a ship to explain this phenomenon.  When Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, sailed home after his victory against the Minotaur at Crete, the Athenians preserved his ship in the harbor for a thousand years to honor his success, replacing each piece as it decayed with a new, identical piece.  By the time those thousand years had passed, no part of Theseus' original ship remained... so was it the same one he sailed all those years ago?

In a similar way, we humans are constantly changing.  This  New York Times article explains that on a physical level, our bodies are in a constant state of renewal, and that the oldest parts of us are still only about 10 years old.  We are like billions of little Theseus ships, repaired and replaced over time to keep ourselves in tiptop shape.  Which means that, life lessons aside, on a purely biological level, we are not the same people that we were years ago, or yesterday, or even seconds ago.  Because of this, it's unfair and mean for us to berate our past selves for mistakes we made at earlier times.  If we had known better then, we would have chosen differently.  And we have to trust that now that we do know better, we really are different, with no parts of our then selves (like Theseus' original ship), the people who didn't know enough to make a different decision, remaining.

We haven't assumed a different identity, of course; our memories and relationships and other enduring aspects ensure we're still our old selves.  But we're new, too.  Every day.  Always.  So don't hang on too hard to the past.  Let it create you anew today, and then let it go.

 



You Are Doing A Great Job

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

This little nugget of wisdom came to me today after helping out at the children’s theatre class my mom teaches after school on Wednesdays (I’m home in Las Vegas with this week, which means I get to participate in that — it’s something that doesn’t happen very often).  And, admittedly, my mom sort of brought it to me.  We were standing on the curb afterward waiting for the parents to come pick up their kids, and my mom pointed to one of the little girls standing alone on the edge of the sidewalk.  “Go tell her she did a good job today.”

Honestly, I felt ashamed for not noticing this girl on my own.  Usually, I pride myself on my ability to identify what my choir director at USD used to call the “lost little lambs” and make them feel  like they belong.  But today, for whatever reason, maybe because I was preoccupied making sure none of the kids wandered off on their own, or because I was enjoying a conversation with one my favorite former theatre teachers who now works with my mom, or because I was too consumed by the endless parade of thoughts in my own head, I hadn’t really seen her standing there, shyly rocking on her heels and wheeling her little rolling backpack around in tiny circles on the cement.  

I walked over to her and said, “Hey!”  I smiled warmly and deftly avoided the use of her name because I embarrassingly couldn’t remember it.  “You did a really great job today, I just wanted to let you know.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah.  I could see you really knew what you were doing up there.”  Whether I could or couldn’t seemed irrelevant at this point — there were somewhere between thirty and forty kids to pay attention to in that class, so I may have forgotten exactly how this particular girl performed.  But she smiled anyway, and I felt happy to have cheered her.  When I walked away, she’d stopped moving her backpack.  I might have been imagining it, but she seemed to be standing a little straighter.

“I try to connect with all of them,” my mom was telling me in the car on the way home.  “There’s just so many, you know?  I try to make eye contact, or compliment them, or something to show them I care.  It’s a hard age.  And she’s new this year… You know she probably got in the car this afternoon and said, ‘Mom, they told me I did really great today!’”

It was that last sentence that made me want to cry, that made me think I’d somehow stumbled upon a Truth of human nature:

All any of us ever really wants or needs is for someone to tell us we’re doing a good job.

Life can be rough sometimes.  And lonely and scary and uncertain and sad.  I think of where I am in my job search right now, how every rejection stings and all I want to hear is that I’ll be a good fit for something, that I’m good enough to do something, that in the meantime, I’m doing just fine for myself right now and that everything will be okay.  And then my heart hurts just as much to think of the millions of people who have jobs and slave away at them, day in and day out, without so much as a pat on the back, or the mother who spends all day cooking for her family and her husband doesn’t even mutter a simple, “Thank you.”  Or the talented actress/baseball player/singer/artist/writer who still suffers from paralyzing self-consciousness and feelings of inferiority.  

We all need to know that we’re doing a good job.  That our best really is good enough, that there is, in fact, no such thing as “good enough.”  There’s just “good,” which you are because you are alive and you are trying, every minute of the day, to be the best you can be.  We need to know that a bad day does not equal a bad life, and that at any given moment, there is so much more right with you than wrong with you, because you are alive and you are breathing and you matter and you are loved by your family and your friends and somewhere, right now, there’s a little kid who probably thinks you’re awesome, who looks up to you and admires you more than you could possibly know.  You need to know that you are doing the best job, in fact, of just being you, because you’re the only one of you out there in this world.  

Life is messy and the future is uncertain.  But it’s somehow so much easier to deal with when we reach out to others, and accept the hands offered to us.  

This week, tell someone — or, better yet, more than one someone — they’re doing a great job.  Tell your mom, your sister, your best friend, your teacher, your students, your Starbucks barista, your waiter, the sales associate who just got yelled at by that frazzled customer.  

And remember that you are, too.


You are doing a great job.  Keep it up.  :) 

Oceans: On Worry and Fear... And Trust.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"Your grace abounds in deepest waters; Your sovereign hand will be my guide.  
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, You've never failed, and You won't start now.

So I will call upon Your name, and keep my eyes above the waves.
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace, for I am Yours, and You are mine."

-- Hillsong United, "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)"


I'm pretty good at worrying.  In fact, if Worrying had been the name of a class back in college, I'm sure I'd have aced it no problem.  We wouldn't have had to take any tests or write any papers in Worrying.  We'd just have to worry about them: how would we have found the time to read everything or research pertinent information for essays?  Would the amount or kind of material we studied in preparation for the test actually be enough?  Would we be able to remember it all?  I can picture a lecture hall full of students like me furrowing their brows with immense, concentrated concern, and gripping their pencils tightly at the mere thought of it all, worrying, worrying, worrying.

Now that sounds at least a little bit ridiculous, doesn't it?  All that worrying, instead of just doing whatever the dreaded thing happens to be?

We worry because it makes us feel like we have some degree of control over the things that really aren't up to us; it has a weird way of making us feel like we're doing something productive, even when the only thing the feeling is producing for us is a nervous tangle of emotional wires in our bodies, capable of sparking or fraying at even the tiniest assumed confirmation of our fears.  We worry because it makes us think we're planning for the worst, which we believe is a good thing.  You wouldn't refuse to partake in an earthquake drill if you lived near the San Andreas Fault, would you?  It's good to have a plan.

But too often we don't stop at the guardrail we call a "plan."  Too often we blast through it and careen around the corners of Worst-Case Cliffs, screaming so frenziedly that we lose control of our little cars of mental sanity and eventually just plummet into Worry Abyss.  Now, this is a surefire way of crashing your little mental sanity car, and you'll also find that once you fall into the abyss... well, good luck getting out again.

So that's the last time I'll use abyss imagery.  I like the one Hillsong uses -- of oceans -- much better.

As a born and raised Catholic, and a product of 16 years of Catholic education, I would say I'm a pretty religious person.  My faith is what helps me make sense of the world when human reason alone won't suffice, and it's what has inspired me to try my best to always look at the world from a place of profound love and abiding hope.  It's true for me that the process of trusting and overcoming worry and fear starts with letting go and letting God.

But what does that mean, exactly?  Well, first of all, I call it a process because I have by no means mastered this.  I'm a worrier, remember?  Trusting is a daily decision to do what I can and to try not to worry while I let God take over where I can't.  It's baby steps.

Years of studying Catholic theology have taught me that God doesn't want to see any of His children brokenhearted or in pain.  I know this seems contradictory to those who would retaliate with the question of why there is so much suffering in this world, and I don't have an answer for that.  Even priests who have dedicated their lives to the study of scripture can only seem to offer free will and human sin as explanations, but that's a topic for another post.  My point is that if I know God is compassionate and loving, and that He has a plan for my life, why wouldn't I want Him to help me out more often?

That's what's so beautiful about "Oceans" by Hillsong.  I know it's been at the top of the Christian charts for years now, but I first heard it only about a year ago, when we sang it in choir during the first Mass of the school year at USD.  Nine months later, at my penultimate Mass as a USD student, we sang it again and for the first time, I finally thought I understood what it meant -- all those words about going out "upon the waters, the great unknown, where feet may fail."  The relevance of this for me as a soon-to-be graduate, making my way independently in the world for the first time, hit me hard.

But not as hard as it did two weeks ago, on a Sunday night just before the end of my publishing program at the University of Denver, when I was attending Mass at a little church just down the street and praying hard about which direction I should take my life in.  Where should I live?  What jobs should I be applying for, and more to the point, Will anyone respond to the dozens of resumes and cover letters I've been sending out?  Will I get a job I actually enjoy, or a drudgery that just pays the bills?  There are so many options, but I don't know which way to go!  Which way do I go??  I was growing a little weary of God's "mysterious ways" at this point, and I prayed for some kind of definitive sign, a substantial prod in the direction I needed to move.  And I was scared.

Then at Communion, the cantor started to sing "Oceans."  The homesickness I was feeling for my choir and chapel community back at USD, combined with the uncertainty I'd been encountering about the next steps in my life, walloped my heart and left me very close to tears in the pew where I knelt (and by "very close to tears," I mean I tried, valiantly and unsuccessfully, to stifle the sniffs I was pretty sure didn't go unnoticed by everyone around me.  At least they were all polite enough not to say anything to me about my little breakdown).

What God was saying to me in that moment, in the song I'd heard and sang and loved so fondly, was this:

"Trust." 

I think one of the biggest misconceptions recent graduates carry with them into their adult lives is that they have to have everything figured out as soon as they move the tassel to the other side of their graduation caps.  I don't know where this myth started, but it's time we put an end to it, because it puts an undue amount of stress on students these days.  My aunt once told me, "Really, the whole rest of your life after college, day after day, is just 'figuring it out,' deciding where you want to go next."

My point is that you and I, we don't need to have anything "all figured out."  That's for God.  Our task is just to take the first step.  Walk boldly into the unknown, into the fear.  Do what we can.  Then let God take our hands and guide us the rest of the way, to lead us where we need to go, because He knows what's in our hearts and what we need our lives to be to maximize our growth and the gifts we give to others, much more so than we do.  That's not to say we don't have any personal freedom, or shouldn't assume individual responsibility for what we do with our lives, or that we're passive participants.  I just mean that there's only so much that we as humans can do at any given moment, with our skills and the experiences we've had, to keep moving forward.  And we should absolutely do those things.  When we've done that, we've left room for God to jump in... and that's where the magic happens.

Last week, for example, I was nervous about a networking event because I'm an introvert who can't think of many things that freak me out more than a room full of strangers I'm supposed to converse with and wow with my intelligence and wit.  Knowing this about myself, however, I decided before I left that if I had one or two quality conversations during the time I was there, then it would have been worthwhile.  But that didn't stop me from calling my mom anyway and saying that I felt weird and uncertain and nervous about how the whole thing would pan out.  She told me to go anyway.

So I did.  And you know what?  Not only did I meet two very nice people that night, but I even got the chance to trade business cards with someone!  Now, I know it's unlikely I'll get my dream job with that company, or even a job, as it was very small and the skeptic in me is convinced my card has already got lost and forgotten on this person's desk.  But as silly as it sounds, this networking event was just one tiny example of the "great unknown, where feet may fail."  Of something of which I was uncertain and scared.

And it worked out okay!  More than okay!  I talked to people!  I got a business card!

I stepped out on faith, and God met me there.  He didn't let me drown.

Life is full of the unknown.  All we have to do is have faith... and keep walking.


Sage Sisterly Advice: Wear Those Fancy Clothes!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with packing for long vacations.  On the one hand, I enjoy thinking about my itinerary, and deciding which outfits will correspond to each activity I have planned.  There's joy in the waiting, in the anticipation of something exciting, of limitless daydreamings and wonderings and fantasies unspoiled by the one course of action you end up taking once you get there.  Travel means adventure... and you should make sure you're dressed for it.  ;)

But I'm one of those people for whom packing is difficult for several reasons.

One: even when I try not to, I always seem to have a way of bringing way too much.  I have a "What to Pack" notepad that has "Bring Half of What You Think You Need" written at the top, and even when I dutifully check off each box, I'll probably still end up with twice what I need.  Last year, when I was preparing to study abroad in London over the summer, I even bought an app called Stylebook to help ensure that I wouldn't pack more than 50 lbs. worth of versatile clothes in my one suitcase.  I didn't, but when I returned, I realized there were things I packed that I never wore.  Go figure.

Then there's the "being prepared for all contingencies" thing.  I'm the kind of person who, should I happen to be ski vacationing in Alaska in February, would bring a bathing suit on the off-chance that there's an indoor pool at the lodge.  And I always, always, always bring a raincoat.  And an umbrella.  Because you just never know.

And then there's the strategy involved in picking tops that go with more than one set of bottoms, and vice versa.  And selecting items that pack easily with little to no wrinkles.  And even though there are laundry facilities at nearly every hotel, for some reason I feel better if I bring darker clothes, or clothes I've worn more often, or maybe that I'm not as afraid of spilling stuff on as I am others.  Maybe it's because I don't want to waste precious vacation time washing clothes, or maybe it's because, if I were not able to wash them for whatever reason, I'd then be saddled with a stained piece of clothing for the rest of the trip, which adds weight to my suitcase, but no style to my wardrobe.  Useless.  At which point, I'd probably start kicking myself and wondering why I brought it in the first place, this shirt or skirt or whatever, which was an integral part of several outfits, and now leaves my travel wardrobe several outfits short.  I'd start to think that I should have brought something more stain-repellent, which usually means something not white, because for some reason, it's an unwritten law of the universe that stains are actually more attracted to white clothes than they are to colored ones.

But I have some really cute, new white clothes that I want to take with me on my upcoming trip to Paris, because they're versatile, and versatility in packing is important in order to maximize available space for shopping and souvenirs once I've arrived at my destination. ;)

So.  To pack or not to pack.  Dilemmas.

I voiced this concern to my sister on the phone tonight.  "I live in fear of spilling things on my nice clothes," I told her (which, I realize, is a statement that sounds way more dramatic than the situation warrants).

At which point she responded with these sage words: "Sarah!  That is no way to live your life!  Clothes are replaceable.  And washable.  So wear what you want."

I laughed, because she was laughing, and because the silliness of my worries was finally exposed to me.  But I was also laughing because I saw something else in her joking chastisement.

It is silly to live in fear of spilling stuff on your best clothes.  Of taking chances that scare you if you see some possible benefit for you in the results.  Wear your favorite things because they bring you joy.  Don't save them for a special occasion.  Don't wait for the circumstances to be perfect before jumping in and trying something you think you might like.  That's how things end up getting shoved into a forgotten corner of your closet, or being stared at longingly for years without actually being put to the use for which they're made.  Wear them now.  And live your life for right now.  Don't let your dreams gather dust.  Go all out!  Take risks.  Because if you make a mistake, if you spill something on the nice white clothing that is your life, you can always go back and wash it out.  But you were made for great things, not to hang around in the darkest part of your closet, saving all of your brilliant potential for some day when you'll be more "ready."

So make today a day to wear your fancy dress, or your sparkly shoes, or your white t-shirt.  Wear the things you're afraid of spilling on (whatever that might mean to you).  Take chances that extend beyond clothing.  Do things that look like fun, even if you think you might look silly doing them, or you worry that you might make a lot of mistakes in the learning process.  Just live for now.  Don't wait.

And... maybe also don't stress so much about what to pack on vacation in the first place?  You'll remember the memories more, anyway.  :)

EXPECTO PATRONUM!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

That title caught your eye, didn't it?

I can't help it.  This is what happens to you when you've been watching Harry Potter movies for basically the last full day.  Thanks, ABC Family.  But there's also actually a method to that madness, so... just bear with me.  We'll get to it, promise.

For now, I'll just say hello!  It's been a while since I've last posted.  Thirteen whole days, if you want to get specific about it.  And something kind of big and important-ish happened during that amount of time...

I graduated from college!!!  YAY!!!  I now have (or soon will have, more accurately, since USD hasn't mailed them out yet) a bachelor's degree in English, which is wonderfully exciting.  It was lovely to have the entire family celebrating with me last weekend (and not just because we went to dinner at Morton's Steakhouse on Saturday night... though that was sublime ;) ).  This accomplishment has been a long time coming, and it's so surreal to think I'm done with school now until I decide to get a master's degree!

Our commencement speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences, Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion (a phenomenal book), encouraged us frequently in his talk not to think of USD as the place we came to, but rather, as the place we were going from.  I appreciated this distinction, as well as the choice of the word "going" instead of "leaving."  Going implies purpose; it suggests that we have somewhere else we need to get to.  If you just leave, you might remove yourself from the immediate situation, but wander around aimlessly.  Or maybe you know where it is you're going next, but you end up there mechanically, automatically, without even thinking about it.  That's leaving, and it's focused more on what remains behind in someone's wake than on what lies ahead.  And maybe it also has the slightest aftertaste of escape or passivity.

Going, on the other hand, is a mission.  It's active.  It's a choice.  And it's focused on the future.  The mission that Fr. Boyle charged us with last Sunday is that of going forth to stand with the poor and the outcasts, those who are marginalized members of society for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways.  To be in solidarity with them.  Our mission is simply to love, and it is the most worthwhile mission I can possibly think of to dedicate myself to for the rest of my life.

But there is also the issue of making a living for ourselves, now that we're grown and have those magical pieces of paper called degrees.  It's also part of our calling as humans to make life easier for other humans in whatever our profession turns out to be.  And this, I think -- getting a job, I mean -- is a particular way of loving, because it involves giving some of our gifts and talents to others.  And though Fr. Boyle didn't delve into this as much in his talk, I know that USD has prepared me to go boldly into the world, with all of the skills and tools I need to succeed in my future.

It's common for college graduates to say something like this: "I feel like I'm in the middle of the ocean now, and not sure where to go.  There are infinite possibilities on every side of me; how do I know where to go?  How can I be sure I won't be paralyzed here for so long that I'll drown?"  I've definitely been guilty of this mindset from time to time myself.

But we're forgetting something so important when we get lost in this train of thought:

We already know how to swim.

My fellow Class of 2015 graduates and I wrote thesis papers and spent years taking massive tests that required a certain kind of mental aerobics.  We began as timid freshmen who wove our way through awkward orientation weekend events and developed lifelong friendships with people who began as strangers to us.  We've learned how to live independently and to take care of ourselves.  We're doing just fine, and we already have the foundation we need to continue.  We've taken the swimming lessons.  All we need to do now is pick a direction -- any direction! -- and swim until we reach the shore.  We can do it.

So here's where the Harry Potter reference comes back in, since you've been waiting so patiently for it and all.

You know at the end of the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, when Harry is convinced that his dad is the one who will step out of the shadows and cast the Patronus so the Dementors will vanish, and, you know, not suck out his or Sirius' souls?  And you know how he and Hermione are waiting, and Hermione is saying, "Your dad's not coming"?  And Harry is like, "No, he's definitely coming, just wait for it"?  And then Harry suddenly realizes it was he, Harry, all along, who conjured the Patronus?  So he leaps out of the trees all dramatically and shouts with totally unnecessary intensity, "EXPECTO (noticeable pause) PATRONUUUUUM"?  And then this luminous, heavenly white sphere bursts from the tip of his wand and chases the Dementors away, while some would-be operatic "aaaaaahs" fill the background while Harry just continues to breathe really heavily?

Yeah.  Obviously this scene should resonate with college graduates for a few reasons, the first being that now we can't count on our parents for absolutely everything anymore.  We can still depend on them for lots of things, but there are going to start being more and more of those times when we can't just wait for the adult to come save us anymore.  We will have to step in and be the adults ourselves, and conjure those Patronuses with all of Harry's fervor.  Yes.  We will.  And when we do so, we will face our own Dementor-ish fears that haunt our young adult lives, and blast them out of the way with our own beautiful white lights.

But I like this scene more for what follows immediately after.  When Harry and Hermione are flying Buckbeak to the tower where Sirius is imprisoned, Harry says, "I knew I could do it (conjure the Patronus) then because, well, I'd already done it!"

That is the mindset I'm carrying with me into the future.  I may not have paid taxes before, or had a full-time job, or moved to a new city on my own to make friends and a life for myself.  Those things are my grown-up Dementors, my worries and fears.  But I am confident that everything I have done up to this point has prepared me for each of those things.  And I am confident that all of the times I succeeded in the face of prior challenges are proof that I can and will do it all again, many times over.  I know I can do it now because, well, I've already done it.  :)

I encourage you to remember all of the things you might have thought were impossible at some point in your life, and to recall how you surmounted them.  And now, think about all of the things you might be worried about overcoming now, and just know that you can do those things, too.  Because you've already done so much.  You are awesome!  :)

Here's to you.  Here's to us.  Expecto Patronum!  :)

Sarah



A Post-Grad Perspective on "Under the Sea"

Sunday, May 17, 2015

I spent the day at Disneyland yesterday, in blatant repudiation of the papers I still have to finish in order to graduate.  And if you ask me, frolicking around the magical land of Disney with some of my best friends, careening through space, sailing with salty old pirates, escaping from the forbidden temple with Indiana Jones, and meeting princesses is definitely preferable to spending all day on homework.

Of course, our trip wasn't complete without a viewing of "World of Color," a nighttime water spectacular in California Adventure, which none of my friends had ever seen before.  I think I've seen it every time I've been to Disneyland since it premiered, and yet I still find myself in awe when faced with those vibrant projections flawlessly dusting curtains of water as they rise above Paradise Pier, and a voice reminding me that, though I may sometimes feel trapped in mundane routine... "the world is a carousel of color," and beauty, and magic.

Last night, I found myself inspired for another reason, which I think has largely to do with the advanced college-level analytical and critical thinking skills I've spent the last four years honing.  The Little Mermaid's Sebastian was singing "Under the Sea," a song that I have heard and jammed out to hundreds of times in my life, but have never thought anything terribly extraordinary of.  If anything, I've always thought that Sebastian is kind of being a party pooper in that song... and now that I think about it, I'm wondering how a song of that nature has turned out to be, perhaps a smidge ironically, one of the most upbeat, fun-filled Disney jams of the past 25-ish years...?  Hmm.

Anyway, there I was last night, really listening to Sebastian sing: "The seaweed is always greener, in somebody else's lake.  You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake."

And it hit me.  BOOM.  Real-world resonance of a Disney song.

Allow me to explain...

Sebastian's cautioning that "the seaweed is always greener, in somebody else's lake," is, first of all, a reminder not to compare your circumstances to anyone else's.  We know this, as the lyric is a variation on the following familiar adage: "the grass is always greener on the other side."  But what if, in telling Ariel that it's a "big mistake" to dream of the life she might have on land, Sebastian is doing more than trying to convince Ariel to appease her father, or to stay in the ocean with her friend?  What if he's actually pleading with her to recognize the value of where she is, right now, in the ocean?  He does continue to name the benefits of staying in ocean, and the sea creatures join him in a pretty rocking party (and I have to say that if dance parties like that were a staple of my life... I probably wouldn't want to go anywhere).

But Ariel is Ariel, of course.  And we all know how the story goes: she gives up her voice to a sea-witch so she can go win the heart of a man she's only seen a handful of times (usually from afar), and hasn't even had a conversation with yet.  And things actually end up working out pretty well for her, despite the questionable choices she makes.  I mean, she does get married to the handsome prince, and the villainess Ursula is defeated.  It's hard to imagine a happier ending than that.

So what's my point, you ask?

My family has been talking about my upcoming graduation maybe more in the last year than even I have.  Actually, since the very first semester of my freshman year of college ended, my grandpa has been counting down (7/8 of college left!), and my family has teased me for saying that I'd rather just focus on right now.  It's because they're excited for me, I know.  And I am, too.  Mostly.  On the days when I'm not wondering how to pay taxes or bemoaning the fact that my cooking expertise pretty much starts and ends with grilled cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But in all honestly, I really am looking forward to that day, in just a week from now, when I will get to move my tassel to the other side of my graduation cap, accept my diploma holder, and never have to write another paper again (at least until graduate school).  It's a huge accomplishment, and one that says there are so many more amazing things to look forward to in the future.  It's for this reason that I'm really much more excited than I am sad about graduating -- think of all the adventures that await!

But from what I hear, becoming a successful, full-fledged adult is something that takes a little bit of time.  And then there are those people who say, not entirely reassuringly, that even at thirty and forty and fifty years of age, they're still figuring stuff out.  When I was younger, I'm pretty sure I used to think I'd have my life "all figured out" by this point (which is a phrase I hear a lot of people using, although I'm not even really sure what it means).  But now that I'm basically on the eve of my college graduation, I know it'll be another couple of years before everything is "figured out."  Before I get the dream job (preferably one that lets me travel to Europe a lot), a master's degree (or even a Ph.D.?), a husband, a family, and a life.  And even though those are all things that I hope will happen to me someday, and they're wonderful things at that (just like Ariel's hopes for her own future were), I don't want to overlook the joy of THIS moment, right now, in eagerly anticipating everything that's to come.  I have faith that the future is full of joy.  But this moment is, too.  And I'd rather savor every moment as it happens than let some pass me by because I'm too focused on the happiness I'm convinced will happen for me at some other time.  It's fine to hope for the future.  But hope for right now, too.  For this day.  For the gift of life richly woven into every sweet scent, every vivid color, every laugh, every smile, every song.

That's why I'm hoping, after graduation, to stay "under the sea" while I can.  To enjoy the now.  I'm certain that one day, I'll find my way up to land, to success, without even noticing it, or trying.

When Words Fail, Music Speaks

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tonight, in the span of about three hours, graduation started to feel real for me.

The first round of goodbyes came with the last of our standard Wednesday practices in Founders Chapel Choir (FCC).  Once finals are over, we'll still meet several times to practice for the Baccalaureate Mass on May 23rd, but tonight brought the last of what has been my favorite part of every week at USD: my sanctuary in the middle of stress and midterms and finals, my safe haven on one of those notorious bad days on which it feels like the whole universe is against me.  Music truly has uplifting and healing powers, and says so much more than mere words ever could.  But it's the people you're singing with who really make the song.  

I wrote a special farewell to FCC, which I read (and may have cried a little bit) aloud tonight at the little dinner party/open mic night we fondly call "Sing For Your Supper."  I'm sharing it below for the members of the choir who couldn't make it this evening, for the alumni who shaped my experience (and that of countless others) before they graduated, and for future members who might never read it, but would know, if they did, of the amazing community they will find in this purehearted, generous, loving group of people.

And those who have absolutely no affiliation with Founders Chapel Choir at USD are still welcome to read this, if you'd like to know about the people who've filled my heart to the brim over the past four years.

***

"When words fail, music speaks."  I’m struck by the truth of this statement now, as I struggle to find words that could possibly represent the community we’ve built in song during my time at USD.  At the risk of sounding like my mother, who can’t believe that it’s already time for me to graduate from college in two and a half weeks, I will say that it really does feel like it was just yesterday that I got a letter from one Annette Welsh, just before I was getting ready to come here, imploring me to join Founders Chapel Choir.  I remember that it mentioned the informational meetings after the first Masses of the school year, and it closed with a line that sounded something like this: 'The most important things to bring are a favorite piece of music, and your instrument!  Just kidding!  The most important thing to bring is yourself!'  

I think that request is at the very heart of what makes FCC… well, FCC.  I came to that first info meeting, sat on the (pre-remodel) couch in Annette’s office with Polly and Heleen, joined then-senior Tracy's Von Trapp inspired number at my first Sing For Your Supper, auditioned for cantor in my first semester, and came to rehearsals, Masses, and socials, diligently.  It could, and maybe should, have been overwhelming for a freshman to throw herself so wholeheartedly into a campus organization that quickly.  But it wasn’t.  It wasn’t because, in all of those things, I never had to bring, or be, anything other than myself. 

That’s what’s so beautiful about FCC.  This group sees the very best of what you have to offer, and not only appreciates, but needs, the gifts that only you can give.  We are better and stronger because of what each of you alone can provide to build our little family.  If any one of us were missing, FCC would be on what Annette likes to call “the right street,” but we would not be at the right house.  And ours is a house where all are welcome.

Can I find words to express how my heart lifted when I was welcomed so vigorously by a group of upperclassmen during my freshman year?  Can words possibly explain what it’s like to watch patients at the psychiatric hospital, who’ve forgotten how to smile, join us, uninhibited and joyful, in the singing of their favorite Christmas carols?  Are there words that can respond to the young man, not much older than any of us, at the Wounded Warrior luncheon we sang at my freshman year who said, “Thank you for the beautiful music.  You remind me of my choir back home.”?  Or words that can translate what happens in my heart when I hear our voices reverberating off the walls in Founders to wrap each of us securely in mellifluous, prayerful, peaceful song?  When we know, truly, we’re not alone?  Or words for those moments when we’re lost in laughter and perfect, indescribable happiness (which often happens during the ordinary moments we’re supposed to be turning to a new song at practice)?

There aren’t, really.  Except maybe just one word:  Love.  This is a group that loves each and every one of its members for exactly who they are, for exactly who you are, and in spite of everything you aren’t, or might wish that you could be.  This is a group that continues to teach me what love looks like, in all of the ways I mentioned just now, and in so many others I can’t even begin to name.  And for that, I thank you.

As my senior year draws to a close, and I reminisce sentimentally on my time here at USD, I’m realizing that the majority of my most treasured memories have happened with the group of people seated in this room before me now.  I know a lot of seniors who have created “bucket lists” for their final weeks here, of hikes they want to take, or brunch spots they’d like to try, or San Diego landmarks they feel they absolutely have to visit before they graduate.  I think this comes from a small place of panic, and the conviction that making a quantifiable list of items to be crossed off will make them feel that they’ve made the most of every moment here.  I get this, and I’ve got a couple of things I’d still like to do, too.  

But as graduation approaches, I’m more content than anxious.  I’m content because I know I’ve filled my days with the most important and valued thing of all, and that’s love.  I have loved each and every one of you, and been loved unconditionally in return.  It is that love that I will cradle in my heart and carry with me always, like a beloved photo album I’ll place on a special shelf of memories, to be taken down, flipped through, and smiled at often.  And I know that years from now, when people ask me what I cherished the most about my undergrad experience, the first thing I will tell them about is FCC.

Thank you for making my years at USD so wonderful, Founders Chapel Choir.  You make my heart so unbelievably happy.
With so much love,
Sarah

 

Thoughts for a Sunday Evening

Sunday, May 3, 2015

I realize that what I'm about to say places me firmly in the minority...

But I love Mondays.  Maybe not as much as I love chocolate, or rolling down the windows and jamming shamelessly to Usher's "Yeah" whenever it comes on the radio while I'm driving (which, by the way, makes any day 1000x more amazing, in case you were wondering.  Try it sometime.).

But, you know, they're up there.  Mondays.  And I feel kind of sorry for them, because they tend to get a bad rap.  Since they're the first day after the weekend and all that.  I often hear people wishing loudly that every weekend could be three days instead of just two, but if that third day were Monday, then the brunt of the blame would just fall on poor Tuesday instead.  It's like hoping when you're in school that someone else will volunteer to give their presentation first, because otherwise, it might be you.

I love Mondays because they're the first days of the new work/school week.  There's something so beautiful about all of the untouched possibilities that a fresh start signifies.  And the fact that a new one rolls around every seven days reminds us that it's never too late to decide that you want to begin again.  Heck, you don't even have to wait for Monday if you don't want to!  Every hour, every minute, every second offers a chance for us to be our best selves, to start from wherever we are, right now, and make this moment matter.  Mondays are just a handy way of reminding us of that.

In Michael Buble's "Feeling Good," he croons, "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, for me... And I'm feeling good."  Every dawn is a new day, and a new life.

That includes Mondays.

So here's to the new week that begins tomorrow.  Here's to a fresh start that will become whatever we mold it to be.  What will you do with yours?

Sarah

Welcome!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Hello, world!  I have officially entered the blogosphere!

And I am so excited to be here.

It occurred to me the other day, as I was telling someone that I'm a writer, that merely announcing that fact does not make it true... at least, no more so than saying I'm an Olympic athlete makes that true, for example.  My muscles are less than impressive and I have the stamina of a goldfish (I'm not really sure what that last bit means but it seems to work there, so we'll just roll with it, shall we?).

But you know what?  I bet that if I'd decided I wanted to take my life in the direction of the Olympics, and I trained a little (or a lot), I could dive or swim or smack that tennis ball or even wrestle (!) with the best of 'em.

My point being that it's not enough just to say that I want something.  Turns out I actually have to practice.  Like, all the time.

The most common piece of advice given to writers who are trying to hone their craft (which is probably every writer, now that I think about it) is to write a little bit every day.  I definitely don't do that.  I mean, I write e-mails every day, I journal when I think about it, and I write for my creative writing classes at school.  But I don't make a conscious effort to set aside a chunk of time every day to do this thing that makes my heart happy, to write with abandon and just see what happens.  For a while now, I've thought that setting aside some time to blog each day would be a good way to counteract this, but I won't even do that.  Sometimes it's because I'm too lazy or tired after a long day to think about sitting at my computer for a couple more minutes when I'd really rather just be in bed.  Sometimes it's because I claim that I can't think of anything to write about, which people will challenge by saying that I should just write about absolutely anything that comes to mind.  It doesn't have to make sense, they'll say.  Just do it.

But most often, I think it's because I'm too afraid of what others will think.  Will they like it?  Will I be good enough for them?  Will they criticize or laugh at me?  Will they blow up my comments section with an observation of how I accidentally said "your" instead of "you're"?  Will they think that I'm witty enough, or observing enough?  What if my writing is just all wrong, or really bad?

But here's what I'm starting to realize:

Yes, I want to write to inspire others.  But I think that will follow if I first write for myself.  We've talked in my writing classes about how you should focus on that if you want to be a writer -- just write for yourself, and don't worry about the reception.  If you love to write, you do it because it fulfills you, not because it will necessarily fulfill someone else.  Publication is not the point.

It might sound selfish to think about it that way, but I don't think it is.  It's only in the act of truly embracing your own self, of letting your own light shine so fully and completely, that you can even begin to move to a place where you'll be able to pour that light on others.  

So I'm writing, and blogging, because I want to.  Because I feel, deep in the core of my heart, that I have truths to tell, and I want to shout them as clearly and loudly as I can.  I want to write, first and foremost, for myself.  Because it's something that fills my heart.  I think that's real bravery -- doing what you want because you want to do it, and being honest with yourself.  You won't please everyone.  That's a fact.  But you should first just make sure that you're pleasing yourself.  And I wholeheartedly believe that if I'm doing that, at least one other person will be inspired by the words I have to say.  And if I can change the way that just one person sees the world, then I'll have succeeded.

The other thing I've noticed?  It's that if something comes from the deepest, most honest part of my heart, then it won't -- it can't -- be "wrong."  "Wrong" is a word that implies there are only two ways to look at something.  But there are infinite ways to create, and not one of them is wrong, because the only thing necessary for a good creation is the honest, sincere, effort to shape and make something that wasn't there before.  When you do this, you're sharing some of yourself with the world, in whatever special, completely unique way that only you can.  And the world needs those gifts that only you can give.  So give them!  That's my command to you, and my command to myself.  As a perfectionist, I'm often hindered by concerns that what I'm writing won't be eloquent enough, or evocative enough... and perhaps those are things to work on.  But my writing won't be "wrong" if it comes from my heart.  

And it does.  I write because I have something to say.  I write because I want to inspire others.  I write because there's so much beauty and joy and love and light to be found in the world, and I want to tell people about it.  That's why I'm calling this blog "SARAHndipity."  It's not just because my name is Sarah, and any day I can make a pun out of my name is a good day.  It's also because "serendipity" is defined (at least by dictionary.com) as "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident."  I believe that there are so many "desirable discoveries" to be made just by living, if you keep your eyes open to all of the magic around you, and if you live your life with arms wide open. 

Thank you so much for reading!  I can't wait to see where this goes.  


Sarah