Today is my birthday. I turn 36.
Not only have I now passed the halfway point of my thirties, but it’s a brand new year, I just had a brush with a medical condition that is often fatal, and my whole life has been turned upside down by my recovery. So, as you can see, I have no choice but to write a long and reflective blog post that opines about the meaning of life today.
It’s a lot of pressure, really. I was lying in bed yesterday, mentally writing my post about all the Important Things I’ve taken away from this situation, and was mildly disgusted with myself that the first thing that came to mind was a list of tips about how to sneak contraband into the hospital that you’re technically not supposed to have. (And the next thing I thought of was a recipe for this amazing-sounding martini I discovered while surfing the web in the ER that I cannot wait to try as soon as the baby’s born.)
But I do think that I have learned a lot from this situation, even if the real insights were buried under ah-hah moments about sneaking Bendaryl into the hospital so that you can actually sleep.
Interestingly, facing my mortality was not what jarred me out of my usual routine — we Catholics are always thinking and talking about death, and since my conversion I’ve lived with a fairly constant awareness that, truly, not one of us knows the hour or the day that our time on earth will end. Having the ER tech whisper to me that the last guy who came in with a pulmonary embolism was dead 15 minutes later wasn’t what shocked me into a new way of seeing life. Instead, what has been the real bucket of icewater over the head for me has been the shattering of all my plans. I’ve only now realized that I tend to live in this weird mental space where I am pretty aware that death could come at any time…yet not all that aware that something mildly less catastrophic could happen. If I found out that I was going to die tomorrow it would shock me less than, say, if I found out I was going to lose the use of my right arm. I guess you could sum up my outlook as, Today could be the day the Lord calls me home…but if he doesn’t, good thing I have all these carefully laid out plans and that nothing could possibly go wrong with them!
But now all my plans are toast, and as I face a third trimester of pregnancy with a compromised ability to breathe, wonders about whether there will be lasting lung damage, and tricky long-term health management questions, I have been smacked upside the head with the reality that all my delusions of control through planning were just that — delusions.
I’ve been sitting here thinking of all the things I thought I would be doing in 2013 that I will not actually be doing. The crazy-intense curricula that would forever ensconce me as Queen of All the Homeschoolers, the cool speaking gigs in interesting places, the challenging but exciting writing opportunities, and those elaborate home organization projects that would surely make our entire house look like something off of Pinterest, have all either had to be hugely modified or scrapped altogether. Heck, I’ll be excited if I can walk up the stairs without flopping on the bed to gasp for breath at any point before summer. And here’s the most surprising part of all of that:
I don’t really care that much.
Starting with the moment my OB came to my hospital room to explain my diagnosis, I kept waiting to feel a great wave of mourning for all my plans. I waited and waited. But it never came. And when I look back on what God was teaching me in 2012, I see why.
In 2012 there was a very clear, specific message that was presented to me over and over again, reinforced to me countless times in countless ways. It seemed kind of random, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would apply to daily life, but it was undeniable that it was something God wanted me to understand. The message was this:
It’s all about the human person.
Though I had felt the silent whispers of this concept in various forms as the months went on, it was Cardinal DiNardo whom I first heard articulate it, in a speech he gave at a benefit dinner in which he recounted something that John Paul II told him on his first ad limina visit to Rome. The great pontiff could have talked then-Bishop DiNardo’s ear off with hours and hours of advice about what it takes to be a good shepherd, but instead he left him with that one truth to ponder. On the bishop’s last day in Rome, John Paul II leaned in close to him and said, “Remember, Your Excellency, it’s all about the human person.” No matter how important or sweeping our plans may be, no matter how big or small the scope of our authority, everything we do must be ordered toward connection with individual human beings.
The message simmered within me all throughout the year, but it’s only now that it’s all gelled.
I’ve come to see the radically freeing truth that our plans only matter to the extent that they’re ordered toward deeper intimacy with individual people. What makes this truth so freeing is that, if your ultimate goal is to make the world a little brighter of a place by touching one person at a time, you can do that under any circumstances. You can live a life ordered toward human intimacy as a jet-setting movie star or as an invalid confined to a hospital bed; whether you find yourself surrounded by Hollywood directors or the nurses on night shift, you will always find yourself surrounded by people in need of love.
And so, to the extent that my plans for 2013 were rightly ordered in the first place, they actually haven’t changed all that much. I may have thought that on that one weekend in March I would be connecting with the people seated at my table after I gave my speech; instead, it looks like I’ll be connecting with my family, my neighbors, the people in my parish, or whoever else I can encounter without getting on a plane. The details may be different, but the goal is the same.
This is especially freeing in light of my birthday.
I’m not immune to the occasional pang of “I’m getting old!” thoughts that probably plague most citizens of our youth-obsessed society. MTV culture tries to paint aging — or illness, or disability, or any condition other than being young and healthy — as a great limiting of options. Alas, you can no longer [insert description of supposedly glamorous activity]. That’s for people who are [younger / healthier / prettier / wealthier] than you are. But the truth, which I understand with such great clarity after all I’ve been through in the past week, is that if your plans were not love-driven in the first place, then they were the kind of stupid, time-wasting plans that people shake their fists and rue through tears on their deathbeds; and if they were love-driven, then there are no worldly circumstances that could prevent you from executing them, even if the details change a bit.
And so I find it profoundly liberating here on my birthday, as I enter into the daunting territory of a year full of questions and unknowns, to know that as long as my life is ordered toward love, it is a life with limitless possibilities.
Two weeks ago, our good friend Joedaniel (JD) Horne was found dead in a hotel room. It wasn’t a suicide and no foul play is suspected; he had been in poor health for a while, and a combination of factors finally overwhelmed him.
Joe forwarded me an email that had the subject “JD Horne died.” I thought it was a crazy coincidence that this guy who passed away had the same name as our friend JD — who, obviously, was not going to die any time soon. I read and re-read the details that spoke of the same person we knew, that would seem to confirm that this was indeed our friend, but I could not get my brain to process it. JD had enough life in him for 10 people. He was more energetic and charismatic than anyone I knew. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I thought he’d live forever.
JD was the one who started clown night, and it was exactly the kind of thing he would do. The rest of us boring people might suggest going out for a drink; JD was the kind of person to whom it seemed obvious that if you’re going to go out for a drink, might as well bring 40 of your closest friends, dress up like clowns, and rent a yellow school bus for transportation. He and his friends liked to play golf, so he organized a yearly golf tournament which took place in various locations throughout the country and involved dozens of people.
It always made me nervous when he and my equally intense husband got together, since I never knew what they were going to come up with. A couple of months ago Joe contacted him to say that our son was interested in doing a canoing trip, and he wanted to know if JD and his kids were interested. JD said he needed to think about it, then immediately replied saying he was in, and had a plan in which they’d make it a massive, days-long event and raise tens of thousands of dollars for his favorite cancer charity in the process. Joe called and asked me if I could pick them up if they did a practice run in the spring. I asked where I would need to go, and he gave me directions to a place on the river that’s a six-hour drive from our house.
JD was also a brilliant lawyer, and was for a time a partner at the top law firm in Austin. He was also a loving dad to his three young children. In the week leading up to his funeral, I experienced a pang of confused sorrow every time I looked at my calendar. There, on Saturday, it said JD funeral. So many times over the past decade there had been Saturday items on our calendars that began with JD: JD clown crawl, JD golf tournament, JD party (must dress as pirate to enter). Some sort of event bursting with life and interest and activity always followed the appearance of his name on my calendar. I could not process the juxtaposition of JD and funeral.
Then, as many of you probably know, Barbara Curtis died yesterday.
If you had asked me at the beginning of this month to list the top 10 people I know who are intense, crazy-in-a-good-way, unforgettable personalities, both Barbara and JD would be on the list.
Barbara, like JD, was a friend I looked up to for her fearlessness and for the fact that she was so unapologetically herself. She didn’t compromise her values to conform to the status quo — not when she was a radical in San Francisco, not when she made the “crazy” decision to adopt three children with Down syndrome when she already had nine biological children, not when she converted to Catholicism amidst no shortage of public criticism. She never made herself out to be a saint, and was as brutally honest with herself as she was with others. Yet, as she demonstrates beautifully in her powerful letter to her oldest child, she had an unfailing sense of hope, and a great trust in the power of God to bring good even out of our biggest mistakes.
Though I never met her in person, I considered her a friend. We would email fairly often, and our correspondence often started with her sending me a kind word of encouragement — often at the exact moment that I most needed to hear it. She was a mentor and a role model for me; I always wished I could have even a fraction of her unique brand of joyful courage.
At JD’s funeral, they ended the service by playing a tender song called Terry’s Song that Bruce Springsteen wrote for a dear friend of his who died. It was a hidden track on one of his albums, as if meant to be private and personal, not meant for wide distribution. I bought a copy as soon as I got home that day, and have listened to it about a hundred times ever since. I’ve been going on long walks and listening to that song over and over again, soaking in that mournful refrain, When they built you, brother, they broke the mold. Sometimes I weep openly, tears streaming down my face as I plod down the sidewalk, trying to comprehend it all.
And now when I hear this song, I think of Barbara as well. We knew she wasn’t going to make it when it was announced on Monday that she had a massive stroke, and I’ve been trying to prepare myself that yet another friend is no longer here; yet another person who seemed so strong and so full of life has, incomprehensibly, been taken from this earth. I look forward to seeing JD and Barbara again in another life, and it gives me an odd kind of comfort to think that these two people have paved the way for the rest of us.
Until we meet again, I’ll pray for them, and I hope they’re praying for me. And every time I hear Terry’s Song I will hold their images in my mind as I sing loudly and totally off-key, When they built you, brother, they broke the mold.
If you feel moved, here is a link where you can offer a financial donation to help Barbara’s family during this difficult time.
The other day I was in great need of some inspiration, and I found it in the most unlikely of places: the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.
I know. When someone says “Johnny Cash” and “Nine Inch Nails” in the same sentence, combined with references to songs that talk about someone cutting himself and lamenting his “empire of dirt,” you don’t immediately think: INSPIRING!
But it was. And I spent all weekend wondering why.
This happens fairly regularly: A book or a video or a movie or a song leaves me bubbling with excitement, overflowing with inspiration, feeling like I’m ready to go out and be the best woman and mother and wife and Catholic that I can be. Yet when I consider its message I see that it’s not exactly straight out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It may even involve some profanity or depictions of people doing stupid and immoral things, which makes it all the more perplexing that it would inspire me to be a better Christian.
I watched the video of Cash’s Hurt a few more times, soaking in his soulful and weary voice as he sung a tale of disappointment and futility, and each time I asked myself why such a video would seem to be of God in some way. After about the fifth time I watched it, it finally clicked:
This video speaks the truth about what it means to be human.
Throughout the song, the visuals cut back and forth between grainy clips from Cash’s glamorous rockstar heyday, and recent shots of the abandoned and crumbling Johnny Cash Museum. We see the legendary Man in Black looking old and feeble, his hands visibly shaking in some of the scenes (he would die only seven months after the filming). In a series of images starting at 1:20, we see the young Johnny Cash up on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. We see the superstar in action, and understand on a visceral level how this good-looking, vital, talented young man could become such a powerhouse that he would have his own museum. Then, only seconds later, as current Cash draws out the line My empire of dirt, we cut to the museum today. It’s abandoned. Posters, autographed pictures, and other memorabilia bearing the young Cash’s image have been tossed in a heap in a corner. Glass shelves are empty and covered with dust. A framed collector’s item record sits behind shattered glass. A 1970s-style cash register sits silently on a countertop, a cruel reminder of the years when the world still adored Johnny Cash.
This video speaks the truth, and it speaks the truth in a particularly Christian way. This is not to say that the song’s lyrics would make good instructional material for catechism class; rather, it is its theme that does the truth-telling. It depicts an accurate spiritual landscape upon which the human life plays out.
You can achieve the height of worldly glory and fame, and it won’t last, Johnny Cash tells us through this video. It’s an empire of dirt. And that is true. It makes us feel more human, because it’s an articulation of spiritual realities that only humans know about.
Imagine a movie whose theme was, Sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs, or Smoking crack can make your life better. Even if such a film tried to be positive, it would ultimately have a dispiriting, dehumanizing effect, because it lies about the truths of the human experience. The closer we get to God, the more human we become; but we can’t get closer to God if we don’t understand the spiritual landscape in which our souls move and live.
I often fantasize about starting an arts patronage fund to help out artists who create work that brings people closer to God. (The fact that I have no money and have no idea what such an organization would look like does not deter me at all — hey, it’s fantasy!) I’ve given out millions of dollars in grants as well as multiple prestigious awards in my imagination, and the process has led me to ask over and over again: What constitutes God-glorifying art? Certainly the Sistine Chapel is a prime example, as is Fr. Robert Barron’s stunning Catholicism series. But can art that is not overtly religious be God-glorifying too?
I think I finally found my answer in Hurt. In the song and the accompanying video, Cash took a murky, invisible spiritual reality, and defined its edges and polished it up for us to behold. By taking such an honest look at the fleetingness of fame and worldly glory, he delved into the cauldron of the human experience and came out with a red-hot truth, even at great cost to his pride. And in the end he made for himself the most worthy legacy an artist could ever have: He created something that makes us more human.
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The video is below, but first watch this one-minute excerpt from one of Cash’s final interviews:
And do click the button on the bottom right to watch this one in full screen mode:
Back in July of 2006 I wrote a post marveling at a family friend who always managed to be cheerful and loving, even though she worked five times as hard as I did and had significant problems in her life. I didn’t have a take in the post; I just relayed the story, and promised at the end that I would write a Part 2 with further thoughts. I have never forgotten that I didn’t write that second post. By Grabthar’s Hammer, when I say that I will write a follow-up to a post, I SHALL DO IT!
…Sometimes it just takes me six years to get to it.
I was reminded of this subject last weekend when my husband and the four oldest kids took a weekend trip to visit his dad. The baby spent quite a bit of time visiting her grandmothers, and so I basically had the house to myself.
When they first pulled out of the driveway, I walked through the empty kitchen, the quiet living room, and took in the situation. This was the setup I had spent so much of my life yearning for: No commitments! No noise! No obligations! Just me in an empty house, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It was everything I dreamed it could be…for about two hours. And then it got kind of lame.
Back when I wrote that first post, this was still my ideal setup. I thought that a perfect life would mean having perfect autonomy. I loved my child and was glad to be a mother, of course, but I saw the work that came with it as a downside to be avoided as much as possible. As I said back then, I was acutely conscious of any effort I had to put forth, and the harder I had to work, the less happy I became. I fought and fought to resist any losses of freedom or control, making myself miserable in the process.
My husband calls that old ideal, the life of perfect ease and freedom, a “museum life.” It’s a good description. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I basically wanted to live in a museum: Everything in place, everything controlled, no noise, no chaos, nothing messy. Just a bunch of interesting stuff surrounding me that I could enjoy at my leisure.
But the thing about a museum is that everything in it is dead.
What I would eventually learn, that that friend of ours knew all along, is that a life lived to fullest will always involve service — and not just service like penciling in some volunteer work on your calendar, but melding your life with others on such an intimate level that you no longer have complete autonomy. Whom you serve may vary by your state in life (it may be family or your religious community or neighbors or a group of people in need), but whoever it is, if you’re doing it right, they will depend on you and you will depend on them to the extent that your life is no longer your own. When you think about it, it makes sense: Obviously there is no greater joy than unity with God, and we only need to look at a crucifix to see that the very essence of God is pouring out yourself for others.
On Sunday afternoon I heard the garage door open, and knew that my free time was over. An afternoon of toil was about to begin. Everyone would be tired and dirty and would need snacks and drinks and potty help and changes of clothes; the museum I’d had all weekend would be overrun by loud little people and transformed back into a crazy, chaotic home.
To be sure, it would be hard. I’d probably have to suppress the urge to scream “WHY CAN’T ANYTHING AROUND HERE EVER BE EASY?!?!?!” upon the second time I’d filled a drink only to have it spilled at the same time that someone knocked the tower of haphazardly stacked DVDs down behind the entertainment center. If my museum weekend meant experiencing pleasure on the surface but a dead hollowness underneath, this was the opposite: on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy. And as the kids came bursting through the door, tracking mud onto the carpet as they shouted, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”, I was overcome with gratitude that I no longer lived in a museum.