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I’m starting to think I’m just not being heard. I send emails that get no replies. I ask questions that get no answers. I listen…and listen…and listen to what others have to say, but when I speak up, nobody has time. Or patience. Hello? Is anybody out there? Is this mic on?

We spend our lives — from newborn shrieks to deathbed confessions — trying to be heard. Why? What makes us so important? Nothing…and everything. We are, to ourselves anyway, infinitely important. But out there in the world? You’ve got millions of voices, all competing to be the loudest, the most heeded. What are the odds of an introvert winning that competition?

Once, long ago, a friend at work convinced me to join her in a primal scream. It was very satisfying…except to the company’s security guard who had no idea we were just trying to vent our frustrations. Oops.

If you want to be heard — really heard — you have to turn to prayer. Or poetry.

Even before I open my mouth
my confession is out there. Phrases thudding,
homely, unscrubbed as orphans. Pathetic, crude words
with sharp edges and blunt, dumb sounds.
Big, lumpy, dirt-encrusted words. They fall from me
like a curse, like the girl in the fairy tale
fated to speak in snakes and other slippery critters.
Who hears such ugly offerings?
Only one. The one we turn deaf ears to,
despite the shouts of sunsets, the “Hear this!”
of the scent of night jasmine. The one who calls us
to listen. For in listening, we will be heard. At last.

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Why did Jesus have to be born during the holidays?

That’s a joke, of course. But it hints at a concern that becomes more and more clear to me with each passing year: At a time when we should be contemplating the great mysteries of our faith, we become too busy with holiday planning to do anything of the sort.

Well, the holidays are over now. Things have settled down for the most part. And I am left wondering: What happened to the Christ in Christmas?

Oh, he was there on Christmas Eve, during Mass. I remember feeling the physical presence of him keenly on our shared birthday. And then I got busy. And who got shoved aside in favor of planning and baking and socializing? You guessed it.

This is entirely my fault. I am certain there are people who are able to mix the social with the personal, who can see God clearly in everything they do, in the people they are with and the festivities set before them. I’m not one of them.

I require contemplation, quiet and serenity to access my spiritual side. The holidays aren’t exactly conducive to those requirements, at least not for me. So God gets set aside.

I’ve decided that my theme for the coming year will be “assent.” Assenting to God’s plans for me no matter what they are or how frightening the prospect. Fully letting go of my own plans for my life and placing myself entirely into God’s hands. Like Mary’s own fiat: I want to say “thy will be done” and mean it.

But that means letting God in at all times, not just selectively, when the time is right. (Okay, it involves more than that, but one problem at a time.) How is an introvert like me going to deal with living in the world while also removing myself from it? I can’t, after all, have it both ways.

How do you keep God present in your life, even when things are at their busiest? How do you live in a state of tension between being present to living and present to God?

I really want to know, readers. Clearly, if I’m going to give God the “yes” I want to give, I’ve got to have a plan. So tell me — how does one live a spiritual life and a temporal life simultaneously?

Because becoming a hermit is looking really good to me right now.

This one’s gonna be different. Don’t we tell ourselves that every year? Don’t we start out with enthusiasm, with actual, resolute resolutions that by gum we are going to follow through on? Aren’t we certain that we can cast off the shadow of the previous 365 days simply because the date on the calendar now has a new number attached to it?

Well, don’t we?

I submit that the new year is a fraud, a sham, a flim-flam, a bamboozlement. A year can’t change things. Only we can. And it’s harder to do than a simple resolution might convey. To change one’s self fundamentally requires radical thinking and aggressive discarding of old thoughts, habits, and relationships. Most of us won’t ever do it. We’re too comfortable as we are. Only the most terrible and unexpected events — natural disaster, death, fatal illness — are enough to shock us out of complacency. And then, perhaps, only temporarily.

So…what to do with 2018 and its bright, shiny promises of change and renewal? Start small. Change one way of thinking. Give yourself a mantra — “first impressions are always wrong” for instance — to nip a habit of snap judgment in the bud. Or start each morning by doing one new thing: making your bed, trying a new stretch or simply saying, “I will be open to new possibilities today.” Repeated actions have a tendency to work their ways into our lives in ways we cannot foresee.

Or take up reading a new blog regularly. Work your way one chapter at a time through the bible. Smile at people you don’t know and won’t see again. Anything that might trigger a new, green sprout of thinking, a tiny revelation, an awkward step in a new direction.

And if it all falls apart, don’t berate yourself. January first isn’t the only day for changes. You can do that on February third, April 17th, or November 30th. You can do it anytime. Let yourself be open to nudges and signs and questions. Sometimes that’s the most essential part of change.

If we each turn ourselves one degree, together we can make a revolution — literally and figuratively.

The woman looked like she was seeing a ghost. “Joan?” she asked. She shook her head. “No, you can’t be. You must be her daughter.”

We were meeting up with my mother’s best friend outside a local theme park. The two hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, so my mother sent me over to see whether the woman in question really was Rita. That’s when she confirmed, as so many others had and have (before and since) my “remarkable” resemblance to my mother.

Only I have never seen it. I don’t have my mother’s large, deep-set eyes, with brow bones to die for. I don’t have her chiseled cheekbones. I’m a full eight inches taller than she is. She has auburn hair and eyes like polished cherry wood; I have dark brown hair and plain brown eyes. And yet those who have known my mother have always commented on our alikeness.

On our last visit to California, Mom showed me an old photo album: pictures of her mother, her uncles who served in World War One, and finally, her own graduation photo. And there it was. Bam! I saw myself in her at last.

In the last year, there have been a number of people I’ve not wanted to see myself in. I imagine this is true for everyone. It is especially true in recent weeks, with all the press about Roy Moore’s run for Senate. How could anyone support such a person? What was wrong with them? They seemed to me some new species of life form, so divorced from humanity as to be something that ought to be studied under a microscope.

And yet. I’m willing to bet that if I spoke to one of these people — maybe for minutes, maybe for days or weeks or years — I would find our point of commonality. I would see myself in them. Because, at some level, we are all the same. We are human.

I want you to think of a person or group of persons that you feel no kinship with. (Don’t kid yourself; we all have one. Or more.) Think about someone whose values, ideas and life has no intersection with your own, whose thoughts and feelings are as foreign to you as a place on a map so remote, you’ve never heard of it. Ho-Ho-Kus. Penetanguishene. Zwolfaxing.

Now think about this: You are more like this person or persons than you are unlike them. How can we bear ill will toward — essentially — ourselves? How can we refuse to see the similarities between ourselves and others? And, having seen them, how can we reject anyone, anywhere, anywhen?

I think that’s what makes hatred: fear. Fear of seeing ourselves as we look into the eyes of others. Fear of seeing that God made all of us, and we are one. Fear that we’re really not that different.

When my mother first saw me after my birth, she said it was “like looking into a mirror.” This Advent season, let’s challenge ourselves to turn the mirrors in the most unlikeliest of directions. Let’s try to see the junctures, the coinciding points, the commonalities. And if we still don’t like what we see, let’s ask the hard question — what is it in me that I don’t want to see?

Advent is a season of anticipation. We await the coming of Christ, pure God and pure human, in the person of a newborn babe. But we know that, don’t we? We’ve heard the Christmas story a hundred times — probably more. Maybe it’s time to try something new.

In her Advent booklet, “Daybreaks,” author Paula D’Arcy challenges us to approach God in a startlingly innovative way: Without demands, without preconceptions, without an agenda. All we need do is walk forward. Or simply wait in silence. Sound easy? Ay, but there’s the rub.

I can’t remember a time when I came to God without a laundry list of desires, hopes, fears, plans and petitions. I expect things from God. I expect a response. I expect that I know what I want and need, both for myself and those I love.

But do I? As a good friend of mine likes to say, “How’s that working for you?” To which I can only reply, “So-so.” To come before God prepared with an agenda provides a false sense of control over my life. It helps me feel organized, prepared, on track. I’ve never been comfortable traveling my life’s journey without a map or even a compass, but now I see that the moments where I’ve allowed myself to jump off a proverbial cliff without a parachute have been the most satisfying and spiritually rewarding times in my life. That’s a big pill for a control freak to swallow.

What if we approach Advent, which is after all, the start of a new canonical year in the Catholic Church and directly prefaces our calendar New Year, without a list? What if, instead of knowing what we’re waiting for, we forget all that and see what happens instead? What if we abolish resolutions and admit that we just don’t know?

And, most importantly, what if we commit to walking toward Jesus without our usual burden of expectations? Maybe we’ll find him in the manger, just as we thought. Or maybe we’ll find him in the last place we think to look: in the face of a stranger, in the words of those we disagree with.

It takes strength to take a journey without knowing its end. But if the magi can do it, why can’t we?

So there I was, watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” yet again — as I have nearly every Christmas season except for that of its premiere (I wasn’t born yet), when it occurred to me (as it always does) that there are some serious flaws in the storytelling…most glaringly, with the subplot about the Island of Misfit Toys. (Whew! That was a long sentence. Take a breather, readers.)

The “misfits” on this island range from the slightly offbeat — a train with square wheels, by no means unfixable — to the ludicrous — a polka-dotted stuffed elephant (so what? I had a purple plaid stuffed dog). But what always got me, doll-lover that I was as a child, was the little ragdoll. Seriously, what was so wrong about her? She was adorable! She could say, “How do you do?” Why in the heck was she stuck on this island?

Okay, I realize I’m taking a children’s animated show a bit too much to heart. But isn’t that what children do? On the plus side, maybe it was repeat showings of this Rankin/Bass classic that caused me to side with the underdogs, the folks on the outside margins, to begin with. I still do, perhaps because it’s where I see myself.

Only here’s the thing: God doesn’t make misfits. In God’s great plan, there is a “fit” for everyone. It may take awhile to find it, of course. But it’s out there. I doubt my first grade classmates knew what to do with a girl who was already reading at a fourth grade level (at least — the test only went up that high), who made up rhymes instead of playing tag, who had (I kid you not) an invisible “thinking cap” that she mimed putting on before spelling bees.

It took a long while to find “my people.” But find them I did. Some of us are odd ducks (or geese or elephants), while some of us are simply extraordinary. I know some pretty terrific folks — SueBe and Ruthie, for two. My friend Susan is the most thoughtful person on earth. My friend Maria lives a life of quiet but radical spirituality. Caroline — who I have known since first grade — combines brash good humor with erudition…and has never, ever treated me like a misfit.

So for all you “misfits” out there, take heart. There is a slot out there for your distinctly shaped peg. And there are other people, too, who will embrace your particular brand of different. Because, like the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys, you are not wrong…only wonderful, in a way all your own.

My friend Alice doesn’t. I do, but…it’s complicated. Case in point: Charles Manson, who shuffled off this mortal coil this week. I was only four when the Manson murders were perpetrated, but old enough by the time of the trials to be afraid of him and his followers. And not just because they were hippies. (My parents, born at the tail end of The Greatest Generation, frequently opined on the dangers of hippies and their “pot parties,” which, in my childish naiveté, I thought involved actual pots and pans — to what end, I had no idea.)

Let’s face it, Charlie Manson was a thoroughly awful human being. Yes, he had a bad childhood, but not every person who has a bad childhood grows up to direct some of the most brutal murders ever committed. But he was no genius, either. The murders were messy, uncoordinated, bungled. The intended targets (Dennis Melcher, for one) were never killed — in both cases, the killers got the addresses wrong. They couldn’t even spell “Helter Skelter” correctly.

But that’s beside the point. The point is: Could Charles Manson be saved? Could he go to heaven? If you believe in an all-loving, all-forgiving God, this seems like a real possibility. Except for one thing: I don’t think he would choose heaven. Time after time, throughout his life, Charlie chose prison. He was admittedly more comfortable there. Could our eternal salvation depend on whether or not we choose redemption? I think it could.

It sounds like a no-brainer: Choose an eternity of happiness or an eternity of torture. But when it comes to the human equation, I don’t think it’s that easy. I think a person has to love him or herself enough to allow for the possibility of happiness, whether in this life or the next one. I’m not sure everyone is capable of that.

You could argue that Mr. Manson had no shortage of self-love, what with surrounding himself with adoring acolytes and even claiming to be the Son of God. Still, he also chose for himself repeated incarceration, when he could have had a normal life on the outside. He chose to murder his detractors. Someone with healthy self-esteem doesn’t do that. He chose to wallow in his bad beginnings. He’s just the type to spit in God’s eye when offered divine mercy.

So what does this all boil down to? Yes, I believe in hell. But I also believe in human participation in one’s own damnation. In the end, you get the eternity you ask for. That’s free will, folks. It is also an object lesson: Choose love. Always choose love. Your “forever” might just depend on it.

They say there are two primal reactions to any situation: fight or flight. Let me suggest a third: holding for a moment, letting God make the decision for you. As fearful as you are, as stressful as the situation might be, God will hold you up. It is a moment I often forget to take, as used as I am to thinking I am in total control of my life (a laughable concept). But a necessary one. As usual, I illustrate in poetry:

Plunge in.
The water’s cold,
so cold it stops your heart
for a moment. And then
you come back into yourself,
all at once, water — wet, breath — held,
eyes — open, to clear blue impossibilities.
You will panic or be at peace;
it doesn’t matter which,
except in terms of long-term survival.
You will swim, after a fashion, or not.
It will be easier if you let your body go,
but that requires a yes you may not be ready for.
Try to say it anyway. The tide will lift you,
even if the yes is a lie.

Turns out the Texas shooter abused his wife, his child and various animals. Then there’s the guy who snapped a woman’s neck and gouged out her eyes for daring to reject his marriage proposal. And the ongoing accusations of exploitation and rape by Hollywood power brokers against women and children. Seems like hurting someone smaller and weaker than yourself is so endemic, it’s become part and parcel of ordinary life.

It probably always was, of course. Landowners abused serfs. Queens abused ladies-in-waiting. Children attack smaller children. It’s a jungle out there, folks, in the truest sense of the metaphor: Unless you’re an apex predator, watch out.

If you want to know where God is in all of this, look down, to the smallest and weakest of us. God always stands with the abused, the poor, the people on the fringes. That’s where God lives. Don’t believe me? Read the Sermon on the Mount again. Count the number of times and ways Jesus says that the last will be first, and the first, last. Picture poor Lazarus in paradise while Mr. Dives smolders away for all of eternity. And (at least from what we know), Dives never actively abused Lazarus; he just ignored him. How much greater will the punishment be for those who do mete out abuse?

So what can be done? Must we patiently wait for the next life for justice? Me, I’m going to pray The Litany of Nonviolence, written by the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, IN. Feel free to add your voice.

Provident God,
aware of our own brokenness,
we ask the gift of courage
to identify how and where we are in need of conversion
in order to live in solidarity with Earth and all creation.

Deliver us from the violence of superiority and disdain.
Grant us the desire, and the humility,
to listen with special care to those
whose experiences and attitudes are different from our own.

Deliver us from the violence of greed and privilege.
Grant us the desire, and the will, to live simply
so others may have their just share of Earth’s resources.

Deliver us from the silence
that gives consent to abuse, war and evil.
Grant us the desire, and the courage,
to risk speaking and acting for the common good.

Deliver us from the violence
of irreverence, exploitation and control.
Grant us the desire, and the strength,
to act responsibly within the cycle of creation.

God of love, mercy and justice,
acknowledging our complicity
in those attitudes, action and words which perpetuate violence,
we beg the grace of a non-violent heart.
Amen.

In the eighth grade, my best friend had a crush on the class’s most unavailable boy — unavailable in that he was dating one of the more popular girls in our class. I remember my mother telling my friend that she was so much prettier than the girl in question, but my friend didn’t see it. Probably because children (teens included) lack far-sightedness: While the “girlfriend” had almost certainly done her “blooming” already, my friend had barely begun to nudge at the edges of her life-long flowering. At 52, she is still in her prime, and as any reader of Muriel Sparks knows, “Prime is best.”

It takes time to wake up to the possibilities of ourselves and to allow the negative grip that others have on us to diminish. I think that’s why so many young people feel depression and act out on it — they can’t see the way ahead. Time is the one gift we cannot bestow on another, and it’s just the gift so many need.

In my own life, I had nightmares for years about a bully from high school. I went to an all-girls’ school, and while we did not have to contend with toxic masculinity, I am here to tell you that toxicity is just as lethal in the female of the species. In our school it took shape in passive-aggressive cattiness, sudden shifts in friendship and verbal abuse. I let this person take roost in my subconscious for years because I was afraid of her. And then a funny thing happened: Time passed.

Specifically, social media happened. And it was here that I learned the truth: She was just another struggling human being. She had no power over me or anyone else. Her life was no picnic. No one’s is. And with that knowledge, she lost her hold on my psyche. I don’t dream about her anymore. I feel, if not empathy, sympathy for her. And all it took was the passage of years.

I have a young friend who is currently contending with nightmares about a person who deeply hurt her. I long to hug her and tell her that it will take time, but healing is not only possible but probable. God has given us such a gift in time. It is not a gift we can instantaneously take advantage of, however. But maybe that’s the beauty of it. In the dark days of struggle, we learn about ourselves. And we are forced to turn outwards toward God if we are to survive at all.

I hope my young friend will keep reaching outwards and allow time to show her that those who loom large today can evaporate into nothingness tomorrow. All we need do is wake up to the power and possibility we each possess. All it takes is time. And God has that well in hand.

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