Soul Kisses

Soul kiss (n.): the interruption of a country run to snuggle with this cuddly neighbor

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still I run

3af59bb4a12e8387d17f083ca1c86760I am a runner. I’m tempted to qualify that with “I use that term loosely.” But I’m going to trust the words expressed here: 

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Several years ago, I cried my way through the Rock and Roll Half in San Diego. I overtrained because I freaked out at the end…lacking faith in all the hard work I had invested in the process for months. This is no doubt a metaphor in my life. But I finished, with a bum knee nonetheless, I finished.

Ever since then, my relationship with running has been a perpetual, tentative, awkward first date. I’ve managed to complete a couple of 10 milers, but I had to rock back and forth between running and walking–so I don’t count that.

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With the passing of my Mom, I have not been as faithful with a healthy eating or exercise routine; I’ve packed on a few “comfort pounds.” In an effort to feel good again, I signed up for some races as some motivation. I’ll do the Snowman Stampede 10 miler as my peak run in February, and then I’ll run the Moab half in March. I can only hope that it is a better experience than San Diego (hear that knees?!)

I run because running is symbolic of life. When I run, sometimes I feel great. Others, it sucks. Still I run.  At times when running, I feel surrounded by the company of elite and ordinary athletes alike. Other times, I run in isolation. Still I run. On some runs, I have moments of epiphany and insight that feed my soul. On others, the Spirit is quiet. Still I run. There have been runs where the scenery has left me humbled and breathless and worshipfully distracted. There have also been runs where I could not find the energy or inspiration to lift my eyes up from the tedious pavement. Still I run. On some runs, everything makes sense. On others, nothing does. Still I run. Sometimes I run in the company of a gracious God. Others, I run wondering where He is. Still I run.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians)

I run for a myriad of prizes.

I am a runner.

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Release

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“If we carry our storms like actors pretending to be brave,

each swallowed tear will fill our hearts like a bag of stones.”

(Alison Asher)

The House That Built Me

Today is November 20th, 2013.

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Today is the day my childhood home sold.

Tonight, tomorrow, this week, another family will be moving throughout the same halls in which I laughed, cried, stomped, fought, spun, broke through the plaster with my butt (that’s another post), lived and loved.

Another family will be cooking in the kitchen. In the kitchen where I silently watched my Dad ritually end his morning routine: shower, shave, a bowl of Totals at the table by himself, hat/coat, leave–all while reservedly listening to morning talk news on his portable radio. Will they smell the Old Spice lingering in the haunted halls of my memory?

Another family will be gathered around the kitchen table. The table where I perched, watching my Mom move throughout the kitchen like a Masterful Queen. Sweet potatoes. Peanut butter balls. Corn casserole. 7up cake. Dream bars. Dry, overcooked chicken. Fudge. Will they taste the sparkly sugar on their tongue which glistens in my heart?

Another family will use card tables, corner tables, folding chairs to try and seat all the loud love of a family bickering, laughing, questioning, navigating the terrain of complex living love. Will their family’s wounds neatly repair, or linger in painful bitterness?

Another family will gather in the front room, listening to the noise of another world projected on the TV. The front room where my Dad would sit, head tilted back, fully surrendered to Yanni, whistling in tune, or out of tune. The front room where I would play over and over and over “The Best is Yet to Come” by good ol’ Sinatra, while dancing with my Dad, spinning around lost in playful innocence, carried on his big strength in and out of his legs in a choreography of father-daughter connection. Will they hear my Dad’s whistle carry through the air as it still does faintly in my ears?

Another family will find comfort in the family room. The family room where my Mom spent many of the last years sleeping on the faded blue and white couch, tucked on her right side in her many blankets, TV on sleep timer. The family room where my Mom found her love of Internet games, jewelry-crafting, putting up and taking down an enormous Christmas tree decorated in sparkling ornaments of family memories. Will they open a drawer to find my Mom’s pajamas tucked and folded neatly? Will they see her art lining the walls it it does my life? Will they please send me a life on Facebook, like my Mom used to?

Another family will hang out on the porch. They will sit beside our memories on the swings, around the table, near the smoking grill. There they will eat and laugh and sit in silence under the glowing owl lights. Will the last coherent conversation I had with my Mom, days before she died, in the emotional darkness of the weeping night, echo in their ears as it does mine? Will they wonder whose voice is telling those stories so rambunctiously and deliciously and perfectly punctuated with laughing tears?

Another family will enjoy the shade and sun and soft green lawn of the backyard. The yard in which my Mom built a garden yielding equal amounts of frustration and joy. The yard where my Mom hung clothes to dance in the company of sunshine and Midwestern breeze. The yard where my Dad sat, expressing in his quiet way such repeated annoyance and anger at the planes overhead, rumbling in their journey of taking people to far off places like Hawaii. Will they look up and see my high school self on the garage roof under a night sky, praying to God for everything and nothing?

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Another family will find utility in the basement. But will they find comfort? Will someone love ironing and folding and washing and painting and stockpiling food in a freezer, just like my Mom did? Will they hear the tickle of the sewing machine?

Another family will park under and peer around and trim the branches of the tree that I planted when I was no more than a sapling myself–2nd grade. Will those cars, tucked under that living yard stick with pencil marks on a sky, be vans, packed for a road trip, loaded with snacks and maps and plans and dreams?

Today is the day my childhood home sold. But my memories will never be for sale. May God bless that new family with a measure of the blessing I received in my childhood home.

Retreat

In 2010, Dave and I spent a year committed to practicing the Sabbath. We are not Jewish, just seekers of God–and thus silence and stillness, where He is often found. And despite the struggle to just stop, we did meet Him in that sacred quiet. If you’re interested, we wrote about our soul journey here.

I am shamed to admit how that sacred space has been lost in the hustle and bustle of our lives. Though to say “lost” mitigates my guilt; I have failed to commit to honoring that consistent space to connect with God in my life. I feel this absence even more acutely as of late with the loss of my Mom. It has been really easy to be busy and push aside the mourning and grief that threatens to overwhelm me in a tide of tears. Though I recognize pushing that aside has dangerous implications: with my mind, my heart, my health.

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Tomorrow I am “retreating” once again to connect with God, to grieve, to question, to sit and be overwhelmed  with the loss…and the love. Not even two years ago, I did the same thing to mourn the passing of my Dad. It just feels so heartbreakingly raw to be repeating this process so soon–but I suppose that’s on the agenda to discuss on my retreat. I will go go to Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat House and sit on this swing and I will cry and journal and pray. And I will face the grief that has been building beneath my seeming-productivity.

“Your most profound and intimate experiences of worship will likely be in your darkest days—when your heart is broken, when you feel abandoned, when your out of options, when the pain is great—and you turn to God alone.”

— Rick Warren

Winning Scholarship Essay for Studying at the Globe

Urban.

At-risk.

Ghetto.

Low-income.

Unmotivated.

Minority.

Underserved.

Many adjectives—ranging from scholarly to colloquial—describe the student population with which I work. The irony is not lost on me—an English teacher, a lover of language, an inquisitive tour guide of qualifier words—that those I serve are oppressed by those very adjectives I teach. However, I favor different adjectives to describe them: inspiring, beloved, undeterred, curious, growing, resilient, influential. Whether I stand in front of them, sit among them, or learn alongside them, the haunting ubiquity of negative adjectives underlies my own personal mission of social justice: empowering my students through the tools of language and learning to challenge the system on their unique journey to success. For these reasons I humbly ask for an E-SU Scholarship to study at a British institution.

Since daily I strive to facilitate both the learning and subversion of adjectives used against my students, the glorious burden of education weighs heavily on my mind. It is my students’ understanding and application of language that will allow them the choice and ability to climb the ladders out of the bleak fate of their neighborhood. Social and economic mobility is—after all—why so many of their parents risked the many perils associated with immigration to America. I recognize that my instruction in the intricate and inspiring English language—from the letter to the law—authorizes my students to question their current status, as well as to eloquently envision a future that is earned by them, rather than predetermined by the defeating presence of decrepit corner stores and the stereotypical gaze of onlookers. The first step to advocacy is to define and articulate the end goal for which one advocates. This is why I teach high school English; I teach to empower, to nourish students with the language they long for to criticize their current situation and as well as delineate a different future. These opportunities for my students harkens to Hamlet’s meta-play: with the intention of revealing Cladius’ guilt, he writes a new outcome in the plot; this play within a play signifies how power lies in the ability to use language both playfully and powerfully. I teach to give my students both play and power.

In addition to the power of language, daily I strive to model for my students a passion for learning. Asking questions, admitting mistakes, writing alongside of them, authentically paying attention to their literary insights…all these intentional moves on my part ensure that my classroom is truly a learning community, not a hierarchy. Modeling a personal quest for knowledge as an adult learner is essential since I teach seniors. Their next step is the “real world,” a world full of opportunities if only they view their contexts as such. In my displays as a learner, I hope to instill in them a vigorous way of negotiating with the world around them—the good, the bad, the neutral.

In countless ways, the experience I am asking you to help me gain is a pivotal moment in my quest to give my students the power of language and learning. Spending three weeks of my summer “going to school” is exactly the kind of message I want to send to my students…that even though the school calendar year has found its end, my learning journey has not.

However, being a perpetual learner is not the only message I want to send to my students; I hope to grow in my content competence as well. By studying at a prestigious British university, discussing and performing canonical works with international colleagues of literature, I hope to dive deeply into how authors craft meaning through artistic play with words. Specifically, I am looking to extend my knowledge of Shakespeare, as a way to open up his rich world of allusions, morals, and jokes to my students. Just this past week, we took our students to see Romeo and Juliet. They left the theatre a buzz with questions, insights, and connections. Through your support toward an opportunity to study Shakespeare in such rigorous depth, I hope to foster an environment inside my own classroom like that my students experienced at the Denver Center for Performing Arts—an environment a buzz with questioning, learning, growing and laughing while grappling with rich and challenging texts…texts that enlighten them, inspire them, and ultimately empower them.

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Speech to IB Hijos y Hijas–May 2012

Good evening faculty, family, friends and distinguished graduates of 2012. It is truly my humble honor to be here this evening, and for this honor, I would like to extend my appreciation to Dr. Chandler and the Board of Education members, Ms. Robins and the administration of Adams City High School, as well as those staff members and students—whom despite my decision to leave and pursue teaching elsewhere—have never quite left my heart. Though our paths have diverged, our stories are still the same shared saga. In fact, in many ways, together we are writing one life, together we are living one story: a story of learning and teaching, laughing and crying, losing and finding, connecting and remembering.

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My presence on this privileged stage, during this treasured night, in front of this great group of graduates is a testament to this shared story. Though I turn the pages, though I write new words, though I begin new chapters, it is still this graduating class of 2012 whose words and sentences and exclamations and questions—whose lives I cannot erase. Teaching you, being taught by you, growing beside you, and watching you grow into young men and women has and will always be, one of those defining and glorious moments in my story. You are more than inky words on my transparent, crinkly pages…you are eternally written in deep within my heart. Treasured there are memories of: spilled milk, stunning Socratic seminars, cold water fights, many, many complaints about how you overanalyze everything now, shared sorrows and tearful hugs, very important “monthly meetings,” dancing the Caballo dorado and Cupid shuffle, and since “I’m sexy and I know it”: even the ever-famous wiggle, wiggle, wiggle dance.

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However, though you are treasured in my heart and special in my story, your role in the stories of so many others is just as significant. I would like to make a request of the adults here tonight. If you are an adult—teacher, parent, administrator, any adult—whose story and life have been encouraged, inspired, or influenced in some way by one or more of these graduating seniors, please stand. Si estas un adulto…Seniors, class of 2012, look around. These are the lives you touched and the hearts you have inspired. These are the stories in which you have written a part. From all of us standing, I would like to say thank you, seniors, for writing such beautiful additions to our stories. Thank you, please sit.

We are here tonight to recognize how in this time of your life, your story is beginning to change, to expand in ways you hoped, perhaps to turn a different page than you ever expected. You are off into the world: You will learn more than you ever envisioned. You will hurt more than you ever feared. You will love more than you ever dared. You will question more than you ever considered. And you will grow. Your paths lead you through college, where you will learn from and alongside some of the greatest minds. Your paths lead you to some kind of work, through which you will spend the rest of your life earning the means to enjoy your story. Your paths lead you to people and places and events that will forever change your mind, and then change it again, and then change it yet again. Embrace the changes life brings, for resistance to change is a refusal to pick up the pen and revise old memories or write new moments into your story.

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As your story continues, as your path leads to you to growth in your mind, I want you to carry with you the echo of EP Beachene’s words: “You are never a great man when you have more mind than heart.” In 40, or 60, or 80 years, when you look back and reread your story, what will matter most is the state of your heart. Your degrees and your bank accounts and your possessions and your accomplishments will be mere chapter headings in your story. But the matters of your heart: your relationships with others, your relationship with yourself, will be the sentences that fill those chapters and color those settings. I applaud your intended study in college, but remember to foster your heart’s deepest interests. I exalt your intended career choices, but remember to support your heart’s undiscovered talents. I honor your future accomplishments, but remember to give and forgive and take and make generously from your heart. According to John Eldridge: “Success or failure can be pretty well be predicted by the degree to which the heart is fully in it”. Today class of 2012, and every day for the rest of your much anticipated lives, may your heart be ever, fully, beautifully, gloriously in it—whatever your it may be.

Today—and every day—we celebrate you and your mind and your heart. Congratulations to the class of 2012. Thank you.

 

In Honor of Mom–September 2013

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I am not ready to share this eulogy. We talked with mom just one weekend ago about having a living funeral, where all those who loved her could gather to brag about her to her face…rather than to an urn or casket. She agreed. And yet here we are, in the overwhelming absence she left behind, saying these things.

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When I think of my mom, I think of place. I think of her home in West Virginia. My mom grew up very poor and very rural. She walked long distances to get water, got on in her knees to scrub porch floors, and looked for pennies on the ground to buy sweets. Despite her utter poverty, when she told stories of her childhood—which she did often—her face would light up as if she were the richest child of them all. And in many ways she was…rich in story-telling; rich in laughter; rich in elbow grease, tenacity; rich in creative play and innovation. The strength in my mother lied not in her ability to be defined the place she grew up in, but to define it herself.

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One way she defined the place she came from was to leave it for a better life. Leaving it led her through some Southeastern states to the Chicago land, where she eventually met and married my dad. Not even 2 years ago, we gathered to say good-bye to him in this very place. And just like her mother with her husband, my mom has not been the same since he passed. And now her place is with him, and I find peace in their reunion. As my mom passed, she smiled, so tenderly and purely, as if overjoyed. I can only imagine that smile was reflected in my dad’s soul.

When my mom made this place her new home, she made sure to have a lot of food. She remembered from growing up the emptiness of her cupboards and her belly, and she was incessant to not let that happen in her home. She loved to feed her family; she loved to feed anyone. Please raise your hand or stand if you have eaten at least once at my mother’s house or an account of my mother. Look around. Those are full belly memories because of my mom. She gave from a place of abundance.

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She gave of herself as well. I remember her telling a story of a friend who fell upon hard times. When the church she attended refused to organize a fund raiser to help that friend, my mom placed it upon herself to find another church, musicians, and volunteers to run a fund raiser that brought in a lot of money for her friend in need. More quietly and privately, my mom gave like this in the place of her home…wiping our tears, listening to us, holding us with those strong and sturdy hands of hers, ensuring we were without need and with love.

My mom’s place was with giants and champions. She is the hardest worker I have ever met. She was deeply connected to her productivity—at the factory, in the home, in her relationships. She is absolutely the strongest woman I know. In her life, she had surgeries, sicknesses, aches and pains, breach birth, pneumonia, a sick and unremembering husband, poverty, legal complications, strife, church scandals, ignorant bosses and nurses…the list goes on. Through them all, she fought. Through them all, she focused on of others, especially her children… Are we eating enough? Do we have enough money? Are we ok? How’s so and so? The beauty of my mom’s strength was its selflessness. Her place was beside others: cheering, supporting, loving.

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My mom was an epic traveler. Some of the places she traveled are around this place via postcards she has saved…and those are only the ones we found by today. She loved to road trip. We grew up in vans, and we would pack them from tip to top with all the gear necessary to visit places around the country. She loved to explore. She took small trips to Wisconsin and Indiana, trips back home to West Virginia, trips to casinos, and grand trips to places like Niagara Falls and Yellowstone National Park. I will always cherish her trips to see us in Colorado; we traveled on mountain roads through rock formations and atop 14,000 foot peaks, and found deer and elk and moose and joy. I will forever attribute my love of travel, nature and God to her, for anytime she saw something grand like a winding road through a rising red mountain canyon walls, she would say “how can someone not believe in God after seeing something like this?” I imagine she said that when she went into his place of glory as well.

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My mom was an artist. This place reflects her. The paintings, the jars, the post cards, the prayer card all represent how much she created…whether in crafts, in words, or in images. We see her and reflect her in the jewelry we were today. She brought beauty into the place of our lives. I think one of the reasons I am an English teacher is because she passed on to me her creativity, her love of words and images and stories.

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I am not ready to end this eulogy. Ending it brings a conclusive finality to my mom’s passing. I can only find small hope in her eternal place in my heart. That her story was the best of all, and I am still telling it…and always will.

In Honor of Dad–December 2011

Even as I prepare to say this, I realize the weakness of words when it comes to describing the heroic giant that John O’Dea was. My dad lived a large life. His laugh shook his whole body, lifting the spirits of anyone around. His heart was big enough to care for the whole world.

He was the man I looked up to all my life. After we went to the park, we would go to Baskin Robbins, 31 flavors. I would stand on my tip toes, look through the glass, amazed at all the sugary choices; then I would look up to the man next to me, and see the same childlike amazement mirrored in his big smile. On the tennis court, I would look up to my dad for his approval after a good shot. On our long walks through the neighborhood, I would look up to my dad, lingering in his quiet conversation. While sitting outside, I would look up to my dad as he called cardinals with a perfect whistle. At the movie theatres, I would look up to my dad to see if he wanted more popcorn. In the kitchen, I would look up to him as he made his famous tomato soup with peanut butter sandwiches.

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No matter the situation, it was my Dad I looked up to; no man could fill his very large shoes. One of the qualities I looked up to in my dad is his gentleness. Some men in our society feel the need to be loud, aggressive, overbearing, and superior in order to demonstrate their power. Not my dad. He had the art of showing strength through gentleness. And what an art it was. In his subtle yet sure ways, my dad was there for us: driving us to and from, listening and giving advice, spending quality time with us, snuggling, quietly demonstrating his love day to day instead of just talking about it.

However, just because my dad was gentle does not mean he was a push-over. Nowhere was this more shown than in his protective devotion to my mom. Anyone who knows my dad knows that he would not tolerate disrespect or ingratitude toward my mother. When I reflect on times I fought with my mother or hurt my mother, I can hear the echo of his very familiar voice: “now go and apologize to your mother.” I bet all of his children can remember him saying those words.

My dad loved my mom. Loved her from the depths of his soul. And in the end, when my dad didn’t remember his kids’ names or trips or events or past conversations or even his own identity, there was one thing he never forgot: the care of my mother. On every trip to the nursing home I have had for the last several years, this would be what my dad would talk about:

“Dad, what do you want for Christmas?”

“I want for your mom to be healthy”

“Dad, what are you thinking about? Where’s your mind?”

“I’m just worried about your mom?”

“Dad, what can I do for you? What do you need from us?”
“I need you to take care of mom.”

Ok dad, I promise. We all promise.

I hate to end a tribute like this, because I know I will never be able to say enough about the man who was the most loving father, the most devoted husband, and the most giant hero of all time. All I can rest in is knowing we will never forget him; we will remember him in his strength and his glory; we will think of him in the call of the cardinal, the green of a golf course, the classics of Christmas time, and in each bite of sweets; we will watch over his wife like he wanted, and we will live our lives in honor of the high expectations with which he lived every day.

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